Gingerbread Man

Chapter 1

Rain pelted the windows, the first weather change since college started, and Teagan Lake saw a huge bolt of lightning stretch across the emerald sky. The lights in her dorm room flickered, and a sizzling electric shock zapped her fingers through the keyboard.
“Ow!” She rubbed her fingertips. Not that it hurt so much. It just surprised her. Nothing like that had ever happened before. A quick look around the room confirmed that the lights and electricity continued to function normally. Teagan tentatively lowered her fingers to the keyboard and let out a short breath. She examined her laptop and both the hardware and software programs seemed to be fine. She shook it off as a random freak event.
It was a slow night in the chat forums (presumably because everyone was out socializing in real life) and not many people were signed on. Teagan randomly picked a person: averagegeek99. She considered herself an art geek and just a geek in general, so she felt a measure of confidence that averagegeek99 and she could be friends.
@art4ever to @averagegeek99: Hi
Teagan waited, but averagegeek99 didn’t respond. Maybe he or she was shy? Or away from their desk? Or just forgot to log off. It was entirely possible that she was the only student at Detroit University who remained in her dorm room on a Friday night.
She almost shut her laptop when she heard the beep indicating a response to her salutation.
@averagegeek99: Hi, @art4ever.

Now what? Teagan didn’t even know if this was a guy or girl, and it was hard to tell by their poorly chosen blurry profile picture. Best just to ask.
@art4ever: I hope you aren’t offended by my next question, but might you be MR. averagegeek99 or MS averagegeek99?
@averagegeek99: Most definitely Mr. I assume you are a student, Ms. art4ever. Your profile pic makes your gender clear. Note to self: must change my profile pic pronto!
@art4ever: I am. In the arts program. Freshman. You?
Oh, this was fun! And worry free. If the conversation got weird she’d just say goodbye and log out. No awkward conversational dead spaces where you didn’t know where to look exactly, or inner debates on whether it was socially acceptable to excuse oneself after fifteen minutes at a party (or worse, a date—not that she’d know) and how to go about a successful extraction.

@averagegeek99: I’m in the science program, so not likely to share any classes. Unfortunately.
Frankly, Teagan was glad about that. For what it was, she liked to keep her online social life separate from her real-life social life. It was neater that way.
@averagegeek99: Also Freshman. Do you hail from Detroit?
@art4ever: No. I’m an import from Illinois.
@averagegeek99: A worthy state.
@art4ever: I think so. Detroit is lovely though.
@averagegeek99: lol
Teagan was a little confused as to why he thought that was funny. She chalked it up to the lack of emotional signals that one gets through vocal expression, certain nuances that can be missed when typing a conversation.
@art4ever: I take it you are also spending this fine Friday evening in your dorm room?
@art4ever: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
@art4ever: Obviously. As I am also, clearly, not out.
Oh, God. She was wrong about not being a social misfit online. She sounded like a loser.
@averagegeek99: Friday nights out on the town are hugely overrated.
@averagegeek99: In my humble opinion
She liked this guy!

@art4ever: I couldn’t agree more. Besides chatting with perfect strangers not IRL, what else do you like to do? Do you like music?
Mr. averagegeek99 proceeded to fill her feed with a long list of his favorite bands. Teagan was happy to see they were a mix of mostly indie and many she hadn’t heard of. She was rewarded with a couple links and took a listen.
@art4ever: You have good taste in music. I like it very much.
Before she knew it, midnight had come and gone. She’d spent three hours talking to a perfect stranger whose face she couldn’t imagine.
@art4ever: Would you like to chat again tomorrow?
It was a brazen post and Teagan immediately regretted it. What was she thinking? How pathetic must he think she was now?
Worse, he didn’t respond right away, and when he did Teagan’s cheeks blushed with embarrassment. She was so thankful he couldn’t see her.
@averagegeek99: I’m sorry. I have something on tomorrow night.
She typed quickly.
@art4ever: Of course. Actually, I do too. Completely forgot. I can be such a dunce sometimes.
There. He was off the hook. This was just a one-time thing. No biggie. Whatever.
@averagegeek99: How about the day after next?
Oh. He did want to meet her again. She felt her lips purse into a smile.

@art4ever: Okay. Sure. Same time?
@averagegeek99: Same time. See you then!
Teagan didn’t know why this made her happy. She had no idea who averagegeek99 was or even what he looked like. But he had a very nice online personality. A little warning flag niggled at the back of her brain about the dangers of online dating, but it wasn’t like their meeting online Sunday night was a date. He was a friend. Not even a friend. Faceless and nameless.
Nothing to worry about.

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Chapter 2

I sat propped against soft pillows on my narrow bed, my laptop comfortably resting on my legs, and adjusted the lenses on my face. I had a collection of nonprescription glasses and today I wore the purple plastic frames. Lots of people wore them as a fashion accessory, which had become the trend since prescription lenses became a thing of the past, but I liked to wear them because they detracted from my nose. It had a notable bridge, and I was always self-conscious about it. Teagan said it made me look refined and sophisticated, but that was easy to say when you had a cute little ski-slope for a nose.

My eyes zeroed in on the campus website’s front page. “Did you see these special bulletins warning girls not to walk alone after dark?” I said to Teagan. “There’s even a free self-defense class offered.

Teagan glanced up from her tablet and frowned. “This campus is safe, right? Those announcements are just the administration doing its due diligence. Right?” She stroked the blue streak in her hair. “There hasn’t been a serious crime committed against a student at Detroit University in over fifteen years.

“I’m sure it’s perfectly safe,” I responded, fully aware of her OCD process when it came to sending out college applications. “But it’s always good to be on alert, no?”

Teagan nodded, her shoulders relaxing, and her attention returned to her tablet. She twisted the blue streak in her hair around her fingers. The splash of color was a new addition, a move of passive rebellion against her controlling mother. Teagan and I became best friends the day I moved into the house next door to hers, back in fifth grade. She ran over to say hi, a bubbly wide smile on her round babyface. Her mother followed quickly wearing a body-fitting dress and high heels. I remembered, even at that young age, that she didn’t look like any mom I’d ever known, and certainly not like my mother who wore loose jeans and an oversized sweater with sneakers on her feet most days.

Mrs. Lake introduced herself politely, but I didn’t miss her look of disapproval. She apologized for interrupting us since we were obviously very busy moving, and then pulled Teagan away by her skinny arms. I thought that would be the last I’d see of Teagan, but we had to ride the bus together and ended up in the same class. Mrs. Lake couldn’t stop us from being friends and eventually she just accepted that I was going to be a part of her life like an annoying stray dog. After a few years she began to soften toward me and now I believed she actually liked me a little bit.

“Did you know Van Gogh went crazy?” Teagan said. “Died before he saw any success. Makes me wonder once again about the wisdom of going for an arts degree.”
“Because you’re a fantastic artist,” I said. Only a few weeks into the first semester and Teagan had already decorated our room with her art projects. They made the small space feel warm and cozy.
She flashed me an appreciative grin. “And I’m crazy.”
“You’re not crazy. I couldn’t imagine you doing anything else.”
“Ah, thanks besty.”
I laughed at her. “You know it’s true.”

“I checked the time and took a deep breath. If Teagan had her way, we’d stay in every night, just the two of us, watching streaming TV or listening to music while doing homework. I needed more. I needed different. I also didn’t want to hurt Teagan’s feelings by leaving her out, so I extended another offer. “A few of us are meeting for drinks soon. You should come this time.”
Teagan let her tablet fall to her lap. “Again? What the hay? You’re not even old enough to drink.”
“They serve pop, ya know. It’s just a social thing. It’s not about getting drunk. Teagan, come with me! You’re acting like an old lady staying home all weekend alone. All you need are a couple cats.”
Teagan’s face fell and I steeled myself for another rejection, a repeat of her mini lecture on how she preferred small social groups of two, three tops, but she surprised me by saying, “Fine. I’ll go.”
“Great!” I bounced a little on my bed, but restrained myself from showing too much enthusiasm. I didn’t want to scare her off. “It’ll be fun, you’ll see.” I winked. “Maybe you’ll meet your ‘cute, well-rounded, thoughtful guy.’”
She threw a pillow at me. “I so regret telling you that!”

I chuckled. Teagan had made it through high school without a boyfriend. She claimed to be too busy with her art projects and working on getting the best grades she could. Dating took up too much time. She claimed she was waiting for a cute, well-rounded, thoughtful guy.

I often accused her of being too picky. She said she wanted a romantic, mature guy who didn’t think burping the alphabet while drunk on beer was the epitome of modern culture.

She had a point. I’d dated enough immature guys to know.

Plus there was her mother. I didn’t blame Teagan for not wanting to bring guys home with her there. For many reasons.

I pushed my laptop aside and began to dress. I searched for my cleanest jeans and a long-sleeved blouse. Almost time to make a trip to the laundry again.

Teagan stared at the pile of clothes that cascaded out over her open dresser drawers. “What should I wear?” she asked. “Is this a cute-little-dress function or a jeans-and-pretty-blouse affair?”

“Jeans,” I said. “Do you have heels with you? That’ll dress them up.”

Teagan didn’t often wear heels because she was already quite tall and I knew she hated feeling like she was towering over everyone. She tended to slouch to compensate.

She sifted through an assortment of scarves lifting a red one with white polka dots in one hand and a purple and yellow paisley print in the other. “Which one?”

“Purple. It brings out the green flecks in your eyes.” She folded the scarf until it was a narrow band, wrapped it over her head and made a knot at the base of her neck.

Now that Teagan had agreed to come, she was taking her time getting ready, a typical stall tactic. I’d already dressed, applied makeup, and did my hair while she was still messing around. I grabbed the handle of our door with one hand and tapped my foot. “Almost done?”

I hated to be late to anything, even when it was just meeting up casually with friends. Teagan was almost always late. She rushed around under my scrutiny, grabbed her jacket and threw her phone into her purse.

She flashed a careful smile. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

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Chapter 3

A wry smile tugged up one side of his face as he counted all the pretty blond heads at the campus bar. He felt like a lion at a gazelle convention. He’d developed a taste for feisty blonds at fifteen when he cornered unsuspecting little Lola Fenster at a party.

That party happened on a Saturday night, forty-five minutes after his old man had used him as a punching bag. His mother, with her perfectly coifed blond hair winced as her son took each blow, but did nothing to stop it. Nothing. He hated her.

Lola and Doug Fenster’s parents had left for the weekend, giving Doug a long-awaited opportunity to throw the biggest party of the year. Doug was supposed to be watching his twelve-year-old sister, but he’d gotten so stupidly drunk that night he had trouble locating the bathroom, much less paying attention to her.

Smug little Lola reminded him of his mother, the way she twisted her blond hair around her finger and ignored him with a cocky superiority.

He was still tense and riled up, adrenaline rushing from the pain his father had inflicted to his torso. The bastard never struck his face where he might leave evidence of his brutality; his bruising ran from the neck down. He needed a way to find a release. Something

That was when Lola strutted past him dressed like she was an eighteen-year-old hooker without even a nod of acknowledgment, as if he were yesterday’s trash. He knew the layout of Doug’s house, having been invited over once before. He knew about the guest room.

He sprinted up the stairs and reached Lola just as she walked past the bedroom door. He grabbed her by the arm, pushed her into the darkened room and slapped a hand over her mouth, stifling her screams. The way she fought back just excited him more. The loud music from the floor below drowned out her muffled cries. He took what he wanted and threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone about it.

He zipped his pants and headed out through the party like he was just stepping outside for a smoke. No one looked at him like they could tell what he’d just done. He kept walking until he was alone on the street. He felt powerful, awash with a sense of euphoria.

There had been a couple other girls since, but they’d been passed out from the date rape drug he’d put in their drinks, and those ones hadn’t been very satisfying. He liked it better when they fought back. Screamed a little. Their eyes glassy with fear and awash with pain, dulling finally with resignation.

He hated when they cried but there was nothing he could do about that. Unless he shut them up for good.

He ordered a beer. “Welcome to Detroit University,” the server said after ascertaining that he was new to the city. “Have a good time.”

 “Thanks,” he returned with a warm smile. “I think it’s going to be a great year.”

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Gingerbread Man