Maggie Arnet has never been afraid of monsters. She’s known them all her life. In many respects, they are her closest friends, the constant companions she can always count on. She has never considered life without them until she moved in with Carmen Peterson, a beautiful and gregarious co-ed who sees no obstacle too challenging. With little more than her beloved viola, Maggie finds a way into the hearts of her classmates. And with Carmen’s help, she’ll face the greatest test she’s ever known. Will she finally confront the demons that surround her or will she remain forever locked inside her prison walls?
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A sliver of light peeked through the breach in the curtains, landing squarely in Carmen’s eye and awakening the demon drumming in her head. It had been a great night, the perfect end to the last week of freedom before the semester began. Unfortunately, it was a night that involved far too little sleep. Her final year of college was a time of great celebration.
It was also a week she was desperately trying to forget.
She turned her head to avoid any further onslaught of morning illumination and glanced at the digital clock on her nightstand. Just after nine. She’d actually slept for almost five hours. Longer than she slept after many a wild night although she had hoped to get to bed much earlier. Five hours would do today. Her schedule was clear except for making sure her new roommate got settled in. Nothing major there. Carmen had already shown her where everything was and where she could store her stuff. It was simply a matter of answering any questions the girl might have and then the day would be free and clear for laundry, rest, and recovery.
What was her name again? Mindy? Maddy? Oh God, Carmen’s head pounded louder the harder she thought.
“Maggie. That was it,” she mumbled to the empty room. She massaged her scalp to try and relieve some of the pressure from her exertion.
Slowly her new roommate’s face came clearer into focus. A curtain of dark hair hung limply down past Maggie’s shoulders hiding much of her face and any distinguishable features. The girl wore thick framed glasses, the kind that hipsters were bringing back in vogue. On Maggie they completed a wall between a frightened child and the rough and tumble world outside. Carmen had been stunned when she happened to glance into a pair of dazzling emerald eyes hidden beneath the veil of eyewear and hair. It was a momentary pass into a world otherwise hidden from view.
Carmen slapped the alarm to silence the annoying buzz, knocking it to the floor in the process. Nine thirty. Her designated time to be out of bed. Well, maybe five more minutes wouldn’t hurt.
Of course, if everything had gone according to plan, she wouldn’t have needed to find a new roommate under such urgent circumstances. What should have been a phenomenal beginning to her senior year of college almost ended with crisis and panic. Sandra, her best friend since grade school, was supposed to move in and split the cost of the off campus apartment. The two planned everything down to the last detail over the summer. Things were set in stone until Thursday when Sandra called in a state of hysteria. Her parents were separating after twenty-two years of marriage. Her father had moved out to live with his mistress. Her mother was beside herself with despair. On top of everything, there was great concern about the financial stability of her father’s company. His partners believed the books were considerably shorter than they should be. The word embezzlement hadn’t actually been used but it had been hinted at. Heavily. There was simply no money for her to continue her education so far away from home even if it was an excellent school like Hamilton University. She was transferring to a local college to help her mom sort through the chaos.
They had dreamed of going to Hamilton since their junior year of high school when a rather handsome coed stood outside the cafeteria handing out fliers to the little out of the way school. The pictures were stunning. Nestled in the mountains just north of Hiawassee, Georgia, it was a world away from the cotton fields of Perry. They could picture themselves sitting along the banks of Chatuge Lake like the girls smiling from the brochures. When they realized that Hamilton had both an outstanding journalism program for Sandra and top notch prelaw curriculum for Carmen, the pair was hooked on the idea of heading north to further their education. Now those plans were torn asunder. Their final year of collegiate study would be spent apart.
Carmen was at a complete loss. Sandra’s parents had always seemed so loving and perfect for one another. She desperately wanted to be there for her friend and second mom. She couldn’t begin to imagine what they must be going through. Then, as she hung up the phone, she realized their crisis led directly to a crisis for her. She’d only budgeted half of the room and board for this apartment. That, in itself, had been a struggle. She had nothing extra to pay the other half. Her financial resources were already strained beyond the limit.
The following morning, she hung hastily made flyers on every campus bulletin board she could find. Calls started coming in by noon. The first three calls she rejected outright. She simply wasn’t interested in underclassmen looking for a place to party every night or shack up with their beaus. Those callers reeked of drama.
The fourth caller introduced herself as Maggie Arnet, a junior studying information technology. Maggie was a sharp contrast to the previous applicants. When asked about boyfriends, she stammered, “No. I’m not seeing anyone. I’m single.”
“Where are you living now?”
“I’m in the dorms.” Maggie replied.
Carmen had experienced those less than satisfactory living conditions. “Yeah, the dorms suck, don’t they?”
“Well, I’ve only been here for a week. I just transferred from Armstrong. I was living at home there.”
“Didn’t take you long to decide.” Carmen chuckled.
Maggie was hesitant. “It’s just that everybody is so loud here. Maybe it’ll be better once the term begins but I’m really used to a calmer environment.”
That was a good sign in a potential roomy. Once the term began, Carmen had to focus strictly on her studies. It was the only way to ensure her acceptance into law school. They met later that evening to discuss rent and utilities. Papers were signed. The deposit was given. Maggie would move in the next day.
“What about all those housing fees for the dorms?” Carmen wanted to make sure this new girl could hold up the financial obligation she was signing on for.
“The housing office told me that as long as I move out of the dorm before the start of term, I could get a refund. All I’ve got to do is turn the form back in tomorrow and I’ll get the refund in a couple of weeks.” Maggie explained.
It was almost too good to be true yet Carmen wasn’t going to question her luck. Snatching prosperity from the jaws of certain defeat provided the perfect reason to join her fellow seniors for one last pre-term celebration. Now her body rebelled against the simple task of moving from the bed to the bathroom. She glanced at the clock once again. 9:52. She shouldn’t delay any longer. She rubbed her head and grunted loudly as she sat up on the edge of her bed. It was a tricky maneuver. For a brief moment, she feared she might lose the meal she’d eaten the night before. A meal she couldn’t completely remember but one she was in no hurry to revisit.
She showered until the water turned from scalding to tepid, allowing the steam and spray to relax her aching muscles. By the time she toweled off, she felt almost human albeit far from one hundred percent. She sipped a glass of water while the coffee brewed and lightly toasted some bread. Somehow she didn’t think she could tolerate the overly sugared cereal she commonly kept atop the refrigerator.
By the time Maggie arrived an hour later, Carmen had already started a load of laundry and was nursing her third cup of coffee.
“Good morning,” Maggie greeted.
“Morning,” Carmen returned, grimacing as the late morning sun burst through the open doorway.
“Are you okay?”
“Just have a headache.” She moved out of the direct line of sunlight to a darker corner of the room.
Maggie nodded but said nothing else as she began to unpack her car, heaving the first of several large boxes through the living room. Carmen had hoped their next door neighbor, Tom, would see Maggie and come to the rescue, thereby relieving her of any guilt for not assisting. That way she wouldn’t be forced to brave the sunlight. Apparently, this wasn’t going to happen.
“How many more trips do you have to make?” Carmen asked, against the advice of her still aching body.
“Five or six maybe.”
She couldn’t let the poor girl struggle alone. “Let me get my shoes on and I’ll help you.”
Maggie almost dropped the box she was carrying.
“You okay?” Carmen grabbed her arm to steady her from the fall.
“Yeah. Just lost my footing. Thanks.”
“Well, whatever you do, don’t fall and break your leg. I don’t want to carry all your stuff up those stairs.” Carmen laughed at her own joke as she slipped on her sneakers.
“Yeah, that wouldn’t be good, would it?” Maggie mumbled scurrying to her new bedroom to deposit her things. When she returned, Carmen had donned a ball cap to hide her less than fashionable hairstyle. Her hair pulled through the back in a loose ponytail.
“Come on. Let’s go get your stuff.” She said motioning Maggie forward.
They were debating the best way to carry a rather awkward and bulky box when Tom arrived with a friend. Carmen’s face split into a wide smile as they exited his Honda Civic.
“Perfect timing as ever!” She greeted.
“Not sure I like the sound of that.” He smiled.
Maggie felt her end of the box being lifted easily out of her hands and looked up to see the friend smiling down at her.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she stammered back.
“Okay, sweetness. Where does this thing go?” Tom asked now holding Carmen’s end of the box as the guys began to trek up the stairs.
“The bedroom beside mine.” She replied and dove into the car for more boxes. She emerged balancing several items on a mini ironing board.
“Looks like we just cut those six trips down considerably.” Her smile was infectious.
“Yeah.” Maggie watched her roommate climb the stairs before grabbing her most prized possession and following suit.
“You play the violin?” Tom asked, surveying the case and the sheets of music that protruded from the top of the box she carried.
“It’s a viola actually.” She clambered to her room to put the box down.
Carmen was stacking the boxes on top of each other by size so Maggie had room to maneuver in the confined area.
“You can go ahead and start unpacking if you want. The guys said they’d get the last couple of things.”
“Really?” The question slipped out before Maggie realized it.
“Yep. Do you need any help?”
“Um . . . no. I’ve got it, thanks.” Maggie spluttered.
“No problem. How long have you played?” Carmen asked pointing to the viola case.
“Oh, since I was a kid.” She looked down at her hands instinctively.
“Wow. You must be pretty good. Are you in the orchestra on campus?”
Maggie gave a nervous laugh and shook her head. “Oh no. I’m nowhere near that good.”
“I bet you’re great, but if you decide to play in the apartment just remember we have to keep things down after eleven p.m.”
“Here’s the rest of the stuff.” Tom announced, walking through the door and plopping a handful of miscellaneous items on the bed. His friend was right behind him carrying his own load of treasures.
“We didn’t see anything else.”
“Is that everything?” Carmen turned to Maggie to inquire.
“That’s it. Thanks.” Maggie managed to string the words together in an almost coherent sentence.
Carmen finally took the opportunity to introduce Tom to her new roommate.
“This is my best friend, Jeff.” Tom introduced the fourth member of the party.
“Are you in the pre-law program? I think we had a class together last semester.” Jeff asked Carmen.
“McMurray’s Poli-Sci class?”
“Yeah.” Jeff nodded.
“I thought you looked familiar.” Carmen smiled.
Maggie noticed his eyes lingered on Carmen’s sun kissed smile. She had seen that look all too often and suddenly felt like the self-conscious third wheel. She desperately searched for a way to exit the situation but as this was her room, she was unsure which way to go.
Carmen came to the rescue. “Come on, guys. We better let Maggie get settled in. Let me know if you need any help.”
Maggie stood there alone in her bedroom looking around. It had certainly been a huge help to have Carmen and her friends carry most of the things up. She hadn’t expected that. When she unpacked at the dorms, the other girls barely looked up from their movie to acknowledge her existence. They didn’t even notice she’d walked into the room. It was the same when she left. She honestly doubted if they knew her name.
Since moving in here this morning, she’d already said more than she had during her entire stay at the dorms. That wasn’t overly surprising. She wasn’t known as a talker. Still, this newfound camaraderie was unsettling. She wanted to cradle her viola and calm her nerves with a beloved sonata. Yet she couldn’t. Carmen and the guys were loudly joking in the living room. She couldn’t bring herself to play while they were so close by. She didn’t want to hear their jeers. She would have to wait until they left.
There was little doubt that both of those guys would want to take Carmen out for lunch. She was, after all, a classic beauty. Brown locks that cascaded past her shoulders. Bright brown eyes highlighted with tiny golden flecks. A body that could grace the cover of any magazine. By any conservative definition, Carmen was stunning.
Maggie decided she would find her calm when they left to find lunch and whatever the afternoon held. In the meantime, she set about unpacking her belongings into the room that would be her home for the next year. Her wardrobe, limited as it was, quickly found a place in the closet and chest-of-drawers. Carmen had explained that this was one of the last furnished apartments in town and the furnishings had been sparse indeed.
“I can’t believe they don’t even have a full length mirror in the bedrooms.” Carmen had vented when Maggie signed the lease.
“It shouldn’t be a problem.” Maggie couldn’t explain how relieved that piece of information made her. Not to someone like Carmen who was obviously used to preening in front of a mirror.
Maggie pushed the thought from her mind and continued unpacking. After making her bed and putting the remaining linens on the shelf in her closet, she unfolded her laptop and placed it on the desk opposite her bed. It really needed to charge. She crawled around on the floor before realizing the plug was on the base of the lamp for easier access. A few moments later, the legal pads and pens she used to jot notes were neatly arranged beside her Hewlett Packard. Most of the other miscellaneous items fit neatly in the closet. The oversized stuffed rabbit sat in a place of honor beside her pillow. That left the viola, music stand, and sheet music. She thought once again about playing; but, she could still hear their laughter echoing through the apartment. Best to wait until they left. It shouldn’t be long now.
She decided instead to fire up her computer and surf the web. Finally after more than an hour of mindless browsing, she heard a knock at the door. That was strange. She expected them to just leave.
“Come in.” She didn’t realize that Carmen had already swung the door open and was halfway through the entrance.
“Hey, what do you like on your pizza?”
“What?” Maggie was confused.
“We’re ordering pizza. What do you like?” Carmen clarified.
“Um. . . pepperoni is fine. I guess.” She couldn’t believe they were staying in.
“You guess? Do you like pepperoni or not?” Carmen pressed.
“It’s okay. It’s fine.”
Carmen was unconvinced. “What kind of pizza do you like?”
“Cheese.” Maggie cowered slightly under the weight of Carmen’s stare.
“Then why did you say pepperoni?”
Maggie didn’t know how to respond. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had asked her what type of pizza she wanted. Sure, she’d ordered things for herself, but when groups of people were involved, she usually fell in line with the majority opinion. There was no use in ordering something special just for her.
“I …um…just didn’t want you to go to any trouble.”
“What trouble? We’re ordering pizza not making a five course meal.”
“I guess I thought you had already ordered.” Maggie tried to smooth the air.
“Why in the world would we do that without asking you first, silly?” Carmen countered.
Maggie could feel the air escaping the room at a rapid rate. The temperature rose palpably. She wanted nothing more than to shut the world away and hear the haunting notes of a concerto. She hastily struggled for words to answer Carmen’s accusations.
Carmen watched her for a moment more.
“Whatever.” She shrugged her shoulder still baffled at Maggie’s response.
“Anyway, I’m glad you’re finished unpacking. We need a fourth for our trivial pursuit game. The guys are talking smack about how much smarter they are, so we need to kick their butts good.”
Maggie sat opened mouthed.
“Come on.” Carmen reached for her hand and pulled her to her feet. “I know you’re shy and all, but I’m not taking no for an answer. I’m not letting them get the best of me.”
Maggie stumbled slightly as she followed, or was rather dragged, into the living room where the guys were setting up the board game.
“Okay, Maggie wants a cheese pizza.” Carmen draped her arm loosely over the girl’s shoulder.
“And she said we’re going to destroy you guys!” She added for good measure.
Maggie turned paler than a snowman in winter. She looked around the room until her knees began to give way and she quickly sat down hoping to vanish from view.
Tom laughed. “The key to intimidation, Maggie, is not to pass out before the game begins.”
“It’s okay, Maggie. We’ll take it easy on you gals.” Jeff added.
That fired Carmen up again. “You will not!”
“It’s obvious you two are outmatched.” Tom plucked at the exposed nerve.
“Shut up and order the pizza. Then prepare to get spanked.”
“Well, if you insist.” Jeff grinned broadly.
Carmen glared at him furiously but she had to admit she was at a distinct disadvantage. Maggie appeared to be near hyperventilation. God help them if she actually had to answer a question. The poor thing might melt into a puddle of mush right in the middle of the floor.
Soon the game was afoot. Carmen easily answered her sports question. How many events are there in a decathlon? Ten, of course. Tom was less fortunate with his sports question. How many squares are on a chess board?
“Fifty? I don’t know.” He shrugged.
“Sixty-four.” Maggie whispered.
The others fell silent in shock that the mouse had spoken.
“That’s right. How’d you know that?” Carmen was genuinely interested.
“I play on the computer.” Maggie fidgeted with her hands.
“Hah!” Carmen waved her arms at the two gents. “BAM! We’re gonna win!”
The game quickly evened up with a series of easy questions. Who was the housekeeper for the Brady household? Who lost the 1980 Presidential election? Name the March sisters. Both teams were only one piece away when the girls were asked what Joseph Priestley discovered in 1774?
“1774? Who the heck is Joseph Priestley? I thought that was the guy from 90210.” Carmen huffed.
“Hah! One piece left. Can you answer if or not?” Tom could smell the victory in the air.
Carmen looked around frantically.
“Oxygen.” Maggie stammered.
Jeff flipped the card over quickly. “That’s right.”
“HAH!” Carmen jumped up and began an impromptu victory dance of no real form. Then she hugged Maggie roughly around the shoulders. Maggie couldn’t help but laugh as Carmen began dancing again to the chant of “We won! We won! Ha ha! We won!”
The fellows were less excited.
“That was a lucky guess.” Jeff insisted.
“I think you two cheated somehow.” Tom avowed.
“Face it, boys! We kicked your butts. BAM!” Carmen wouldn’t let it go.
“I demand a rematch!” Tom was equal to the challenge.
“Set up the board.” Carmen countered.
Jeff came to the rescue. “Aren’t you supposed to be meeting Lisa in a little while?”
“What?” Tom looked at the clock on his phone. “Oh, yeah.”
He turned his attention back to Carmen. “This isn’t over.”
“Anytime, baby.” She retorted. “Anytime.”
They glared at each other in competitive fury. Tom blinked first, knowing he was on the verge of tardiness for his date with his fiancée. It brought a fresh smile from Carmen.
Jeff grabbed him by the elbow. “Let’s go before you two start arm wrestling.”
Tom picked up his keys from the entertainment center. “No mercy for the rematch.”
“You’re still going to lose.”
“Come on, tough guy.” Jeff pulled his friend along. “Carmen, see you in class Monday.”
“Bright and early.”
“Maggie, nice to meet you.” Jeff remarked. “By the way, you have a beautiful smile. You should wear it more often.”
They were gone.
Maggie felt her face ignite. She hadn’t even realized she’d been smiling.