Splatters of blood painted the hallway; a drop here, a smear there. Being only fifteen and dangerously curious, Natalie Morrison followed the trail leading to the back bedroom. The door was cracked, almost as if it had been left that way to provoke her curious nature.
“Mom?” she called, but there was no answer. Trying again yielded the same response. Natalie pushed the door open, peeking around the flimsy wood to see the havoc inside.
Broken shards of a mirror coated the floor. The curtains were yanked from the windows and a lamp was turned over, its shade dented in. The room smelled of iron. In the corner by the closet, Julie Morrison laid crumpled on her side. Blood ran down her face and arms, and for a moment, Natalie believed her to be dead.
Julie’s lips quivered, her eyes shifted sluggishly behind her lids.
Running into the room, Natalie fell at her mother’s side, tears already burning in her eyes at the horror she beheld. “Mom, I’m here. I’m going to get you help,” she promised. “I’m going to get you help.” Upon leaving the room, she ran into a tall, broad figure blocking her path.
“Hey there, honey.” Her dad had his arms crossed, reeking of alcohol and cigarettes. In his hand was a baseball bat. Despite the slurring of his words, his tone remained casual. He grinned, and turned down the hall.
Realization sunk in like news she didn’t want to accept.
“What did you do? What did you do to her you monster?” she yelled, her hands balled into little fists. She ran at him, his back still turned to her, and threw punches into his spine.
Rick Morrison turned, raised his hand, and sent her flying back. He yelled every coarse word he knew, cursing her and her mom both, even blaming them for Matt leaving.
On the floor, Natalie rubbed her head. A throbbing pain emanated from the right side of her face and a trickle of blood ran down over her brow bone into her eye. Looking up at the six-foot-two mass of muscle and anger, she cringed when he reached for her. Kicking, she landed her foot alongside his nose. She heard the crack of the bone and was on her feet, running back to the bedroom and locking the door behind her.
A lock alone wouldn’t keep him out. She knew that. Seeing the bloodlust in his eyes was confirmation he would stop at nothing to get to them.
The oak dresser by the door was her only option. Wiping the blood from her face, she moved against the wall and used her full weight to inch it into place, blocking the door. It wouldn’t hold him for long, but it was all that she had.
Moments later, a pounding came from the other side of the door followed by a fist busting through the wood.
Six years later
Natalie shot up in bed.
Her breathing was heavy, her hair and forehead damp with sweat. Her latest nightmare had left her shaking.
A chill ran throughout the apartment, raising the fine hairs on her arms and speckling her skin with gooseflesh.
Brushing her fingers across her forehead, she sighed seeing no blood covered them. “It was only a dream,” she whispered to herself.
Rubbing her eyes, she pushed the memories of the night before and her nightmare from her mind. In a town as large as Bloomington, and with as many bars as there were, running into the occasional drunk man was inevitable. But having been followed by two in one night was too much for Natalie to handle.
Finn, her blonde-haired cat, slept peacefully at her feet, but meowed and yawned when she pulled him close. “Hey there, handsome.” He leaned into her palm as she stroked his head.
Walking with him into the bathroom, Natalie turned on the shower and closed the door. Steam quickly clouded the mirror and warmed the small room.
Finn fell back to sleep atop her towel.
After a hot shower, she left the house to catch a bus destined for the Indiana University campus.
Students already crowded the sidewalks and huddled closely in all the bus stops. The cold weather of early November had a way of pushing personal space boundaries that Natalie wasn’t too fond of, and the lack of a goodnight’s sleep didn’t help.
When the bus pulled up to the curb on campus, people rushed out the doors to their destinations without stopping long to socialize.
Natalie walked with her eyes downcast, carefully watching the sidewalk leading to the university’s art museum. Icy air and exhaust burnt her nose.
“Natalie!” A small voice called from the doorway of the building up ahead. Abigail Winslow waved at her friend as if it would hurry her up. “Come on! My nose is going to fall off!” The red knit scarf she wore complimented her dark skin and blue hair.
Only briefly glancing at Abby, Natalie shook her head. Looking back to the ground, she walked on. “I’m hurrying,” she replied only loud enough for herself to hear, but her words transformed into a yell as a large body slammed into hers and knocked her feet off the pavement.
Laughter and gasps of shock followed. Few stopped to ask if the pair were all right, and others stood by to watch.
“Ah, I’m sorry. I wasn’t looking where I was going. Are you all right?” The deep voice came from behind her.
Staring at the gray sky, she waited for a pain that never came. Testing her toes and fingers to ensure all was working normally confirmed they were, and no pain followed after she sat upright.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she replied, looking at the boy who had plowed her over. His presence seemed to take up the entire space between them, leaving little room to breathe.
Worried gray-green eyes leveled with hers. A navy beanie lay on the ground next to them along with an array of books and Natalie’s backpack.
He tilted his head to the side, brown hair grazing over a cut above his eye. “You sure your all right?”
This time Natalie caught his accent, a detail she wasn’t sure how she missed at first.
With a nod, she began to untangle her legs from his and brushed the dirt off her knees. “I’m fine. Thanks.”
“Let me help you up.”
Before she could object, the man was on his feet pulling her up. By now the gathering of curious eyes had dispersed, disappointed in the nature of the situation, and only Abby stood near.
“Thanks,” Natalie replied, shying away from his touch. Standing upright after collecting her things, she looked at him with pursed lips.
He seemed smug by the way he carried himself, standing tall and confidently.
“Sure,” he replied with a dimpled grin, “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“I’m glad you’re okay, too, Natalie, but can we go in now? I can’t feel my fingers.” Abby chipped in a few feet away, burying her hands in her coat pockets.
The man glanced at the petite girl and then back to Natalie. “Natalie,” he mused softly. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’m Cameron O’Connor.”
“Nice to meet you,” she hesitated. “Thanks for helping me up.” She walked toward Abby, but glanced back when he spoke again.
“Not a problem. Perhaps we’ll run into each other again.”
“I hope not literally,” she said too quickly.
He laughed, a cloud forming in front of his face. “No, I hope not either. Though I can honestly say I wouldn’t mind it.”
Her eyes shifted to Abby, and then back again. “Well it was nice meeting you.”
“And you as well, Natalie.” He smiled again. “Stay warm—the pair of you,” and then he turned to walk away, glancing over his shoulder as they turned toward the building.
Once inside the library located inside the museum, the girls found a table near the back, laying out their notebooks and textbooks before retreating to the tall book shelves.
“Who was he?” Abby didn’t try to conceal the curiosity in her tone.
“I don’t know. I never met him before.” Natalie raked the shelves for a book on Van Gogh her instructor suggested they read for their essays. On the top shelf one copy was left, but it was too far out of her reach. “Where’s that step stool?” she said mostly to herself, looking for the step stool shared between several aisles.
Abby rolled her eyes. “Who cares?” She was searching the bottom shelves for books of her own. “I want to know more about this Cameron guy. He was cute.”
Ignoring her friend, Natalie left the aisle in search of the step stool. “I don’t know anything about him. I can’t help you,” she finally answered, realizing Abby had followed.
A library staff member was restocking books in the art history section, looking all but enthralled to be assigned the task, and for a moment, Natalie considered not bothering her. “Excuse me.”
The red-haired woman looked over her glasses, stopping mid-air with a book about Renaissance art. “Yes?”
“Where is the step stool at? There isn’t one over here.”
The woman pursed her lips. “I’ll be right back.” Without another word, she hurried off, carrying herself in such a way that made her waddle.
“He’s a transfer student.”
Natalie turned. Abby had her phone in hand, staring at the screen intently. “What?”
“It says on his Facebook that he was attending Trinity College in Dublin the last three years, but now he’s here. He’s majoring in English.”
Shaking her head, Natalie frowned. “Stalker.”
This time, Abby looked up with a mischievous smile on her face. “I like the title ‘Investigator.’”
“Oh, sure. Investigator. Maybe you should change your major to Criminal Justice then.”
The woman came back with a step stool before Abby had a chance to reply. With a brief thank you, the girls went back to the book shelves a few aisles down. They found the books they needed and let the conversation about Cameron O’Connor drop as they started their essay research, searching for bits of information about artists’ style, inspiration, and personal history.
Stretching, Abby dropped her highlighter on the table and yawned after a half hour of silence. “I can’t wait for Thanksgiving break.”
Natalie stared at the page before flipping to a different chapter. She brushed her fingers through her hair, tucking the dark brown strands behind her ears.
“You doing anything this year?”
“Same as last year.”
Abby rolled her eyes. “You never do anything. I, on the other hand, am heading back home to see Nan and Pops. They’re flying in from Louisiana!” She smiled brightly, obviously happy about the occasion.
Instead of responding, Natalie began biting her nails.
Glaring at the book as if willing the words to make sense only seemed to make them run together more. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, small flakes of mascara coming off on her fingers.
Having been pursued and verbally assaulted by two extremely intoxicated strangers after leaving work Monday night induced her latest nightmare, and it was common for her to be out of sorts for days following one. Try as she might, there was never any solution to it. No amount of sleep or caffeine helped, and she had tried almost everything from herbal remedies to over-the-counter medicine to help her stay focused. Nothing worked.
“Are you okay?”
Natalie didn’t answer.
Her nightmares seemed to be worsening and growing more frequent, and it was beginning to take a toll on her, mentally and physically. But admitting they were worse than she let on was the last thing she wanted to do.
“What?” Natalie made eye contact, hearing Abby for the first time, but she blinked a few times as if just waking.
“I asked if you were okay. You’re acting like…” Abby stopped, chewing on her lip.
“Like what?” An edge of defense rose in her tone.
Abby shook her head. “You’re just not acting like yourself. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Natalie nodded. “I’m fine.”
“If you say so.” Abby went back to writing in her notebook.
Not long after, Natalie started tapping her pen against the book, making a tap, tap, tap that echoed throughout the small space around them. After a minute of the obnoxious noise, Abby stopped reading.
“Nattie! Knock it off, I’m trying to focus here,” she hissed, glaring across the table.
“Sorry,” Natalie whispered, immediately putting the pen down. A few minutes later, she picked it back up again, resuming the absent-minded tapping.
Abby sighed and closed her book, marking her page with a highlighter. “What are you doing?”
Dropping the pen, she blew out a breath. “I can’t focus.”
“Why not?” Abby had propped her arms up on the table and leaned forward, keeping her voice low as not to disturb the other patrons of the library. It wasn’t uncommon for Natalie to be easily distracted, but there was always a reason behind it and Abby knew enough not to brush it off.
She looked at Abby, and then down to her book on Van Gogh. It took her a minute to reply and it came in a hushed, almost timid voice, barely above a whisper. “I had another nightmare last night.”
Her eyes looked as if she was in a far-off place, not really seeing anything around her, but rather reliving the memories of days gone by.
Without another word, Abby came around to the other side of the table, draping her arm over her shoulders as she sat.
Even through the unspoken areas of their friendship, no one knew the depth of Natalie’s suffering like Abby, and for that she was grateful.
“If you need anything, I’m here for you. You know that.” Abby said it every time; those exact words that Natalie had learned to memorize two years ago.
“I know,” she replied as reality started to sink back in.
Since they met at freshman orientation, the girls had become fast friends. Abby was a Fine Arts major like Natalie, but she wanted to become an art director and own a gallery. Natalie, on the other hand, just wanted to paint.
Painting brought her a peace that was incomparable to anything else. When she painted, the world disappeared and she got lost in the mix of colors and brush strokes where her demons couldn’t dare to exist. Natalie often thought that she would lose every last ounce of sanity if it were not for the solace painting brought her.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” She didn’t move or look away from the books laid out on the table in front of them. Her eyes never shifted and her body remained rigid.
Abby sighed as a frown formed on her face and she moved away a few inches. “I think you should move in with me. My apartment has two bedrooms and one of them is collecting cobwebs.”
“I don’t need to be looked after,” Natalie said in defense.
“I wouldn’t be looking after you. I just want to make sure you’re okay.” She offered up a smile. “I don’t want anything happening to my best friend.”
“Nothing will happen to me,” she replied, picking up her pen. “Besides, my lease isn’t up until June.”
“You could still stay a few nights with me every week.” Abby bit her lip, looking hopeful.
Natalie turned to her then. “I’ll think about it.”
At a quarter passed ten, Abby interrupted Natalie with a, “Psst! Nattie—look at the time. We better get to class if we don’t want to be late.”
The girls gathered up their books and left the library. Halfway down the sidewalk, Abby grabbed Natalie’s arm and stopped her. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I’m going to say it anyways. I think you should talk to someone, Nattie. It’s not normal for a perfectly healthy twenty-one-year-old to be having episodes like a retired war vet.”
Her words pierced a sensitive spot. “Episodes?”
Abby frowned, dropping her hand to her side. “You know what I mean. You can hardly focus and I don’t think I’ve seen you eat a full meal in months.”
“I don’t have an eating problem, Abby,” Natalie snapped, diverting from the real issue at hand.
She shook her head, backing off a little bit. Natalie was easily angered and Abby knew when to stop. “I didn’t say you have an eating problem.” She sighed again, shaking her head. “I’m just worried, okay? That’s all. Take it for what it is.”
Natalie crossed her arms, staring at the shorter girl. “I’m fine. You don’t have anything to worry about.”
Abby let out a heavy sigh. “I’ll see you later.” She turned and walked off, leaving her friend standing in the cold.
From there, Natalie hurried off to the science building for her first class. She knew Abby only had her best interest at heart, but it hurt having her friend say she needed help. Natalie wanted so badly to fight this on her own. Maybe it was pride or her mistrust of others, but it had her second guessing herself with everything.
Entering the building, warm air enveloped her, sending a comforting chill down her spine. The Psych 101 room was nearly empty even though there were five minutes left before class began.
In the middle row, center of the room, Natalie sat down. Pulling her textbook and notebook out, she turned to the last page she had taken notes on, refreshing herself on last week’s lecture. Psychology hadn’t been her first choice, but she needed a Social and Historical Science class to get her degree.
When ten-thirty came, Professor Hill was nowhere to be seen and there were still too many empty seats.
“If he’s not here in fifteen, I’m out,” someone in the back of the class said.
“Fifteen-minute rule, dofus. If he’s a no-show, it’s on him. Not us,” another voice answered.
Natalie glanced behind her.
James Brian and Marshal Winters were two seniors that had won their popularity in Bloomington by being some of the best basketball players to ever attend IU. They went back and forth, talking amongst themselves and to whoever walked into the classroom they knew, but Marshal kept glancing her way.
At ten-forty, some of the other students had already left; ignoring the fact there were five minutes left before class was officially canceled.
Natalie remained in her seat, reading Pride and Prejudice for the third time since the start of the semester.
“Good morning, class.” Professor Hill walked in with his briefcase followed by a student in a navy beanie who stood up near the front.
Natalie put the book down, and leaned forward. Most of the other female students in the class did the same, but not for the reason as she.
“As you all know I also teach Psych 101 online, and this is one of my online students who is transitioning to on-campus classes. I’d like to introduce our new student, Mr. Cameron O’Connor. Everyone, please help him feel welcome. You may be seated now, Mr. O’Connor,” Professor Hill said, turning to the blackboard. “Today, we will be focusing on review.”