Chapter 4

“How many other female C.S.O.s are there?” Kei Flanagan asked Julie while eying her dinner options through the plate of Plexiglas at the cafeteria counter. Evening rush hour at the dining hall, the line they were standing in stretched out the door.

“Officer Sparks told me I’m the only one,” Julie replied, placing her tray on the metal service counter.

Her dorm mate laughed. “Ho boy, welcome to my world.” A biology major, the men-to-women ratio in her classes was generally 4:1.

A literature major, Julie’s situation was nearly the reverse. “I have two older brothers. How different can it be?”

Kei looked at her with a dead stare. “Tell me you’re joking, ”

Julie swallowed hard. “Maybe?”

Kei sensed her friend’s honest agitation and squeezed her forearm reassuringly. “Listen. It’s going to be fine. Seriously. You can handle it.”

Julie blew out a pent up breath. It felt good to be in Kei’s convivial company. Cheryl, Tina and Mackenzie – her partners in crime – seemed intent on avoiding her ever since the afternoon joyride went awry, either out of fear they might suffer her wrath for letting her take the fall, or in the event she would turn them in. She’d considered skipping dinner in the cafeteria altogether to avoid facing the limelight after her now infamous arrest, thanks to Daphne’s talent for spreading gossip, until Kei had come knocking at her door with an invitation to join her. Julie was glad she had accepted. The nightly, routine trip to the caf re-established an air of normalcy after an otherwise surreal day, and Julie was grateful for Kei’s particular brand of companionship. She didn’t pry or try to blow things out of proportion; she simply let her talk, which Julie needed to do. Despite putting on airs that her brush with the law hadn’t ruffled her, she was in the throws of post-traumatic stress, particularly over what was to come from her agreeing to assist the police department.

“Officer Sparks warned me to expect some resistance,” Julie said, as they placed their trays on the metal service counter. “Turns out she’s the only female patrol officer.”

“There you go. You already have a support figure!” Kei pointed out encouragingly.

“Yeah, step out of line and I’m in the lock-up. I’ll be safe in there.”

“I’ll take a piece of Salisbury Steak, roasted potatoes and some string beans, please,” Kei addressed the server behind the counter. “Oh, and can I have a tiny wedge of the vegetable lasagna, too?”

Julie observed the heaping plate as it passed over the divider, and then shifted her attention to Kei’s compact figure. “Where do you put all that? I’m on my way to becoming a victim of the Freshman Fifteen,” she groaned. Still rebounding from her close encounter with the emaciated Daphne, Julie skipped the warm entrees in favor of a salad.

Kei put her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle, one of her sweet, Old School mannerisms Julie appreciated. “Chock it up to good genes, I guess.” Born and raised in Maui, Hawaii, Kei was the product of a Japanese-Hawaiian mother and an Irish-American father. The result was decidedly Asian, but with a twist. She had characteristic black pearl eyes, yet they were round; jet-black hair, which was wavy rather than straight; and porcelain skin dotted with tiny dark freckles on either side of her nose.

“Moving on to a more pleasant topic. Tell me about the guy who was scoping you out. The other C.S.O.?” Kei asked Julie when they stopped at the salad bar.

“Okay,” Julie conceded, arranging an assortment of lettuce leaves on her plate. “He’s tall. Six-three? In good shape, from what I could tell. Brown hair. Kind of long, over the ears. Green eyes.” Julie reminisced fondly over the first time he had set his sights on her. “And he has a really, really nice smile.” Kei was right: Julie was beginning to feel better.

“What’s his name?” Kei asked, sprinkling a heap of croutons over her salad.

“Eric Brenner.”

“Stay away,” an unfamiliar voice behind them warned immediately.

Julie and Kei looked over at the petite blonde spooning out salad dressing who had interjected in their private conversation.

“Sorry,” the other girl apologized. She had a tiny bun perched on the top of her head and wore a powder pink sweat suit over a white leotard. For an interloper, she had a sweet demeanor, which was disarming. “I couldn’t help overhearing, and feel I ought to warn you. Eric Brenner suffers from serious A.C.A.”

Puzzled by the acronym, Julie and Kei silently consulted one another.

“Acute Commitment Anxiety,” the girl clarified. “He pulled a Double D (blank looks from Julie and Kei again), a ‘Date & Dump,’ on two of my friends in the last month. Eric Brenner is a heartbreaker with a capital ‘H.’”

“Thanks,” uttered Julie, stupefied by the flash 411.

The informer closed the lid on her plastic to-go container of salad and smiled genuinely. “No problem. We newbies have to look out for one another. I’m Courtney, by the way. Courtney Kennedy.” Julie and Kei introduced themselves. “Maybe you can return the favor one day. Sorry, I have to dash back to rehearsal. Bye!”

“Bye,” Julie responded less vivaciously.

“Bye,” Kei echoed fainter. When they were alone she said, “Okay, that was either the nicest person on the planet or Satan in disguise.”

“’The Devil Wears Puma,’” Julie quipped, watching the doll-like figure in pink prance away lightly on the balls of her feet like a dancer, which she probably was, judging by her ensemble. “No, I think she was sincere,” she decided. “C’mon, let’s grab a seat.”

Wishing to avoid unwelcome scrutiny, Julie led Kei around the periphery to the far side of the room. Passing the rows of long, Formica-covered tables, she tried to ignore the occasional stares and whispers from her fellow classmates who were in-the-know, telling herself the hoopla surrounding her arrest would blow over in a few days once a new scandal rocked the dormitories. It helped that she was partially preoccupied by the dancer’s revelation that Eric Brenner seemed to be suffering from an apparently dangerous affliction. She wondered whether it was true. Maybe he just hadn’t met the right girl.

“Chloe sighting,” Kei announced excitedly in a hushed tone the moment they sat down at a vacant table.

Julie made a quick search of the cafeteria. “Where?”

“The beverage stand,” replied Kei, with a nod of her head in the direction.

Julie looked across the room and saw a stout figure dressed in baggy jeans and a black logo T-shirt, sporting cropped black hair that appeared to have been whipped up by an eggbeater. She was standing unusually close to a boy filling his glass with soda, an invasion of personal space intending to intimidate, and her body language suggested severe impatience. Arms folded under her full chest, she tapped the toe of her high-top leather sneaker against the floor in rapid succession and glared at him, incredulous, as if he were to blame for the slow speed in which the machine dispensed liquid. When he was through, she threw out her arms in a show, tossed him a disgusted look, and then stepped up to take her turn.

“Well, if I had-nah seen it, I would-nah believed it,” Julie drawled.

“Hand it over.”

Julie removed a dollar bill from her wallet and slapped it into Kei’s outstretched hand.

“Thank you,” Kei chirped, crumpling up the money and shoving it into her pants pocket. For the last month, the two had been playing a game, the object of which was to spot Julie’s elusive roommate. The winner received a dollar from the other.

Another of Julie’s expectations about college was that she’d get a roommate who would become a friend for life. She had wound up with Chloe Verdirame instead. Polar opposites, thrown together by wicked chance, they had failed, thus far, to find anything in common and had given up trying. Julie didn’t know much more about her other than she hailed from Los Angeles and was an art major with a predilection for the color black – and possessed a mood to match.

“Seeing anymore of her lately?” Kei inquired.

“It seems we’ve come to an unspoken agreement,” replied Julie. “I avoid her and she avoids me.”

“That sounds like a friendly arrangement,” Kei observed with a grin. “Is it difficult?”

“Not really. I get up most mornings at seven and go to bed before midnight. Chloe stumbles in sometime after two and sleeps until noon.”

“Where do you think she goes at night?”

“No idea. That’s the other part of the bargain: We both mind our own business. I’ve often wondered,” Julie admitted, “but something tells me it might be scary to find out.”

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