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Alex grips the flyer advertising the free STD testing in her purse and opens the door to the Wellness Center, where several other students are sitting in uncomfortable chairs with their heads hung low. She wonders if they’re all there for the free testing like she is. There's a deep rooted shame about the situation that won't leave her.

She signs in, is told her student ID will be called soon, and goes to sit down only to realize the only open chair is next to a well-dressed boy with an eye patch and a ponytail. She’s more off put by the fact that a college student is wearing a button down shirt and dress shoes than she is the eye patch. She’s seen weirder and she’s only been here for a year and a half.

She sits next to him anyways. Not like she has much of a choice.

The boy doesn’t say anything, but he looks at her chest. She ignores it. She’s too tired to tell him off. Besides, she probably deserves it, considering what she used to do, why she's here…

“So what are you here for?” the boy asks. “I lost my eye.”

She stares at him, her eyes wide. “I hope they would have seen you by now.”

“Don’t worry, it’s a joke,” the boy says lightly, with a bit of a laugh. “I lost it a long time ago. The eye patch isn’t just for show. It makes Halloween costumes hard—can’t do much besides a pirate.”

“You can just be an eye-patched-version of anything.”

“Eye patch Dracula. Oh, I know, eye patch cowboy!”

“Hmm. On second thought, stick to pirate.”

The boy laughs. His voice is deep and smooth and makes her melt like honey in warm tea. It makes her smile despite the situation, despite where they are, despite why she's there. 

“I’m Worick Arcangelo, senior.”

“I’m Alex Benedetto, sophomore.”

“I figured you were an underclassmen. I haven’t seen your pretty face around before.” Alex's smile becomes more forced. Worick must notice because he says, “It’s rude for me to hit on you when I’m waiting to get tested for STDs, isn’t it?”

“No, um…”

“I’m a fault. I apologize.”

She smiles politely at him instead of responding. She doesn’t know what to say. She can’t tell if he’s sincere or not, if he’s just playing this character to get into her pants. It wouldn’t be the first time. Barry had been sweet at first too.

The lady behind the counter calls out an ID.

Worick lifts his head and says, “Ah, that would be me.”

He puts a hand on her thigh to help himself stand, perhaps a little higher than a stranger should put their hand on a girl's leg. Her skirt slips up just a bit from the touch. Too close, she thinks.

She jerks away. Worick nearly tumbles to the ground as an effect, but he stays on his feet.

She exhales shakily, not meeting his eyes.

Worick frowns, says nothing, and goes into the back room.

 


 

Alex gets a clean bill of health a week later (she cries when she hears the news) and forgets about Worick, the senior with the eye patch, until he calls out her name in the most popular coffee shop on campus.

“Alex, remember me?” Worick asks with a smile as he walks up to her. “We met last week at the Wellness Center.”

“I remember,” Alex says. She’s waiting to the side while her order is being made.

“What are you getting? I’m getting a salted mocha latte. My roommate says it’s a girl’s drink, but a man has to have his vices.”

“I’m just getting hot chocolate.”

“Extra marshmallows?” She nods. Worick smiles. “Ah, good choice, Alex!”

“Going out to get a drink is an excuse to get away from my roommate,” Alex says. “The extra marshmallows are a bonus.”

“Your roommate giving you trouble? I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Trouble is the polite way to explain how bad it is.”

Worick laughs.

“I feel so uncomfortable there,” Alex says honestly, not really thinking about what she’s saying. It’s where Barry had been so many times, where other men had been so many times, and her roommate calls her a slut for it. The room brings back as many bad memories and feelings as her own roommate. 

“I know!” Worick says with a bright smile. “You can come crash and my place. Ah, that probably sounded like I was coming onto you again, didn't it? While you are beautiful, I mean this in a purely platonic way."

“Um, I don’t know.”

“C’mon, Alex, it’d be fun! You get away from your roommate and I get someone to talk to.”

“Don’t you have a roommate?”

“Not really. I have a single, but I live in an apartment so I have a suite mate. He’s quiet and doesn’t make much noise. Not really the type of guy you can have a lengthy conversation with.”

Worick’s named is called by the cute girl behind the counter. Alex watches him flirt with her as he picks up his order, watches the girl blush and smile under Worick's attention. Worick comes back, waving the sharpie the barista uses to mark names.

On the cheap paper coaster that slides off the cup, Worick writes down his number next to his name. He slides off the coaster, gives it to her, and says, “Just in case. I gotta run to class. See you later, Alex!”

He leaves with another brilliant, flirty smile. 

She doesn't immediately throw away his number. She takes her hot chocolate with extra marshmallows, taking her time on the way back to her room to think about Worick's offer. 

 


 

Alex decides to take Worick up on his offer. How could it be any worse than Barry?

She texts Worick, asking what times are most convenient to him, because the last thing she wants is to be a bother. Instead of responding with a text, Worick calls her back and starts talking about his classes and what time works best for you, Alex?

It surprises her. She’s used to people making demands of her, not asking what she can and cannot do.

They make plans and then talk for another twenty minutes about nothing in particular (Worick does most of the talking). At the end of the week, she meets him at the coffee shop so he can take her across campus to his apartment. She shows up ten minutes early; he shows up exactly on time. 

Worick extends his arm to hug her, or toss it around her shoulders, to do something, but he stops halfway and retracts the limb to his side.

“No touching, right?” Worick asks, sounding hesitant. It’s an awkward topic, but she’s glad he asked and surprised he noticed.

“I had a bad relationship,” Alex says vaguely. “Touching is…” She tries again, “If I know you and you don’t surprise me, it doesn’t matter, but…”

“All the more reason to get to know each other!” Worick says.

Worick’s apartment is on the sixth floor of the largest building on campus. They take the elevator up and Worick opens the door with a key. He holds the door open, gesturing for her to enter, and she smiles at the small act of chivalry.

The first room is a small living room with an old sofa, a chair, and a television without a stand. It’s open and connected to a kitchen from several decades ago. A hallway branches off from the main room, most likely leading to the two bedrooms and the bathroom.

The apartment smells like smoke, burnt food, and stale pizza. Men’s clothes in different sizes are hung over the back of the sofa. For how Worick is dressed, like a young but edgy businessman, the apartment being in disarray surprises her.

“Make yourself at home,” Worick says. “I apologize for the mess. I’m a bit busy this year and my roommate is an inhuman slob that can’t be bothered to do the dishes.”

“Senior year must be busy,” Alex says, deciding to sit on the plush arm chair near the sofa.

Worick sits across from her on the sofa, his legs legs crossed and his arms on the back of the sofa, looking completely comfortable and relaxed. He sighs.

“It really is. Between being an RA, my classes, and paperwork for graduation, I hardly have time for beautiful girls like you, Alex. It’s a shame.”

Alex smiles, a little uncomfortable, but the physical distance between them makes up for the statement.

Worick smiles at her. His eyes shift away and she feels like she can breathe again. He digs the remote out from between the sofa cushions and turns on the television.

“So, Alex, what channel do you want to watch?”

He does not touch her for the entire time she’s there, and she does not see his roommate. He asks if she wants to stay for dinner, but warns that his roommate does not know the difference between salt and sugar, and that he’s not the best cook either. Alex leaves, but thanks him for the offer.

When he says she can come back any time, she says she’ll be back.

 


 

Worick’s roommate is named Nicolas Brown. He’s a senior and supposedly lives in the apartment with Worick, but after visiting four times in two weeks, Alex has yet to meet him. She wonders if Nicolas is a figment of Worick’s imagination.

On her fifth visit to Worick’s apartment, she finally meets Nicolas.

She’s doing homework at the dining room table next to Worick, who is texting some girl from his class, probably flirting, knowing him. Worick smiles at his phone and eagerly responds to each message.

After sending off another text, Worick stretches his arms above his head and lets out a heavy sigh.

“I need a smoke,” he says. “You’ll be alright for a minute, won’t you, Alex?”

“Of course.”

Worick smiles at her then shuffles out of the apartment, taking his keys and a box of cheap cigarettes with him.

Alex begins to hum to herself as she continues on with her homework. It’s nothing hard, just tedious, and it requires most of her attention. She’s halfway through a question when she hears a door open down the hallway. She looks up and sees someone exit a door she had never seen open before.

The Asian boy is short, with clunky combat boots that make a lot of noise. He walks slouched into the kitchen, only giving Alex a quick glance. He opens the fridge, digging around, his back to her.

So that’s Nicolas, she thinks. Worick calls him Nic.

“I’m Alex,” she says. “Worick’s friend.”

Nicolas doesn’t respond.

“Um—“

Nicolas turns, slamming the fridge door shut, making several bottles rattle inside. He walks back the way he came, not sparing her a second, and closes the door behind him.

Worick comes back a few minutes later. She must still look dazed and confused because he asks, “What’s wrong?”

He walks over to her, sitting down next to her at the table, leaning closer. He smells like fresh tobacco smoke. Alex inhales deeper than before. The scent has come to relax her, for some reason.

“Your roommate came out of his room,” Alex says. “I didn’t even know he was in there this whole time.”

“I told you, he’s a quiet guy.”

“I introduced myself but he just ignored me.”

“Was he facing you when you talked to him?”

That’s a weird question, but she answers, “I don’t think so. He was getting something from the fridge.”

“Ah,” Worick says, nodding in understanding, but Alex is still lost. “Nic is deaf. He can only respond if he can read your lips. Even then, you need to know sign language to understand him.”

Alex blushes red, feeling very stupid. She hadn’t seen a hearing aid or anything.

“I should have told you,” Worick says, “but now you know.”

Know she knew.

Part of her wants to know more.

 


 

Alex and Worick meet for coffee at least three times a week. Alex is eager to accept any invitation that takes her out of her bedroom or the dreariness of the library. Worick uses their meetings as a break from the chaos of senior year—events, classes, senior seminars, and the dreaded gray cloud looming on the horizon known as The Future.

After they finish their coffee, they walk over to Worick’s apartment to continue their talks. The first time Worick puts an arm around her shoulders as they walk, he leans down and whispers in her ear, “Is this okay?”

His breath is warm and his voice sends shivers down her spine, but she still hesitates. Worick’s arm is warm against the back of her neck, as warm as the hot chocolate in her stomach. The hair of his arms tickles and his fingers are drifting awfully close to the top of her large breasts. The top of her lacey bra pokes up over her shirt and his fingers pinch at the fabric, but do nothing more.

She nods, says, “It’s okay,” and means it.

Worick smiles and straightens up, whistling as he walks.

 


 

The first time Alex properly meets Nicolas, she also meets Nina.

Worick is in the shower, singing loudly and badly, while Alex watches television from the sofa. Then there’s a soft knock at the door. Alex thinks she’s imagined it until she hears it again when the shower stops running. 

She gets up and opens the front door.

There’s a small girl in a tan vintage sundress. She stares up at Alex with large, startled eyes. Alex is clearly not who she was expecting to answer the door. Alex hadn’t exactly expected to see a child in a college apartment building either.

“Um, who are you?” Alex asks nicely, looking down at the girl. “Are you lost?”

At that moment, Worick pads across the apartment, his wet footsteps heavy. When he appears in the doorway, the young girl shrieks and runs away. Alex sees her run straight by the elevator and for the stairs at the end of the hall.

Alex looks at Worick, who is dripping wet and only in his boxers. He’s in better shape than she expected. Alex only gets to look for a second before Worick takes off after the girl.

“NINA!” Worick calls, frowning as he hurries down the stairs after her. “It’s like that. I’m innocent, I swear!”

“No, you’re not!” the little girl shouts.

“I am in this situation!”

Alex hears a bit more yelling, and she wonders if she should go after them too, but then she sees Worick coming up the stairs with the little girl, who is pouting and giving Worick a lecture on safe sex.

“I’m telling you,” Worick says as he reaches the top of the stairs, looking absolutely exhausted, “Alex is just a friend. We haven’t done anything like that. I promise.”

The girl walks straight into the apartment, giving Alex a long look, like she’s trying to tell if Worick is lying. Alex smiles and waves. The girl goes straight over to the sofa and sits comfortably like she comes her a lot.

Worick leans against the wall next to Alex and sighs. After taking a moment to himself, Worick perks up and walks inside, offering the girl a drink.

Alex sits in the chair while Worick sits next to the girl on the sofa, handing her a soda.

“Um, hello. I’m Alex.”

“I heard. I’m Nina.”

“Nina is a prodigy,” Worick explains. “She’s the youngest student the university has ever had. She’s pre-med.”

“You want to be a doctor?” Alex asks, astonished. That’s a big goal for someone so young, especially a young woman. Alex instantly respects her for it.

“Actually, I want to be a surgeon,” Nina says.

Alex smiles. She respects Nina even more.

“How do you know Worick?” Alex asks curiously. Hesitantly, she tacks on, “And Nicolas?”

“I met them at my freshman orientation two years ago. I got lost and Nic showed me around, but then he got us more lost and Worick found us two miles off campus.”

“Two years ago? So you’re a junior?”

Nina nods. “Yup!” She looks at Worick. “I’m here to see Nic. It’s time for my lessons and he promised to show me that stray cat that lives near the business building.”

“Lessons?” Alex says.

“Nic teaches her sign language,” Worick says. “Well, it’s really just an excuse for her to come and play.”

“It’s not an excuse!” Nina says. “I’m very serious about learning.”

Worick smiles. “Isn’t she cute?”

The door to the apartment opens as Nicolas enters, dropping his bag onto the ground and hanging up his keys. He walks over, tugging on Nina’s nose as he passes, and gets a drink from the fridge.

He sits on Nina’s other side and looks at Alex for the first time since entering the apartment. Nicolas’ face is hard like stone, and his eyes seem distanced. He looks a lot like a cat meeting a new person for the first time. A very mean, very intimidating cat. 

Nicolas signs something to Worick. At one point, he points at Alex, who has no idea what is going on or what is being said.

“Nic wants to know if you’re the cute girl Worick won’t shut up about,” Nina explains.

Alex shifts awkwardly.

“Alex, this is Nicolas—you’ve seen him before, I think,” Worick says, sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Nicolas, Alex.”

“Nice to meet you,” Alex says.

Nicolas blinks, slow, but doesn’t respond with words or signs.

Nina taps Nicolas’ shoulder and signs something. He nods.

“Have him back by eight, young lady,” Worick says with a teasing smile.

Nicolas flips him off. Nina just smiles and pushes Nicolas towards the door.

And just like that, Nicolas Brown is once again gone.

 


 

The second Alex steps foot out of the classroom, her phone rings.

“Aleeeex,” Worick says when Alex answers the phone. “You just got out of class, right? You should come and comfort me.”

“What happened?” Alex asks, concerned. Is he hurt? Is he in danger? Why does she care?

“I’ll explain when you get here.”

“Okay... I’ll text you when I’m outside the apartment building.”

“Thank you, Alex!”

Worick meets her at the door with his usual smile and flirtatious remarks. On the elevator, Alex realizes something is up with Worick. When she is up in Worick and Nicolas’ apartment, she realizes that Worick is drunk.

He’s stumbling over his feet and hanging all over her (more than usual, at least). His breath smells like hard alcohol and cheap beer, and his clothes are heavy with the scent of smoke, like he had a few too many cigarettes.

Worick lies down on the sofa, a few empty bottles near his head and another half-full that he picks up. He manages to take a sip while lying down, which is impressive, but not as important as him being drunk in the first place. Worick didn’t strike her as the type of guy to get drunk for fun.

Alex sits on the chair a few feet away and asks, “What happened, Worick?”

“I got dumped,” Worick says with an easy smile, like he isn’t bothered by it. “She says I talked to much about another girl and she didn’t want to be second to her. We were just fuck buddies, why does it matter if I’m talking about another girl?”

“So you decided to get drunk?” Alex asks, slightly amused. She’s never seen Worick drunk.

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“At four in the afternoon?”

“Well,” he says, his voice ironically sober, “you and Nic were both in class so it’s not like I could talk to anyone, you know? I couldn’t talk to Nina about the delicacies of the fairer sex. It’s bad enough that Nic is teaching her all those crude words during their lessons.”

The idea of Nicolas teaching Nina curse words in sign language makes her smile.

“You have a great smile,” Worick says. “But sometimes you look so sad when you smile. Why is that? Ah, you don’t have to answer. Ignore the drunk old man.”

“You’re only two years older than me.”

Worick sits up suddenly, spilling his beer in the process. He swears and pulls at his shirt before stripping. Her eyes widen in surprise but she cannot look away. She’s staring, isn’t she?

“Ah, damn,” he says as he runs a large hand over his wet abdomen.

“Oh, I have something in my bag!” Alex says. Searching her bag makes her feel like less of a pervert for wanting to look at Worick.

She opens her bag and digs to the bottom, past her pencils and crumbled receipts, and pulls out a handkerchief folded into a neat, although wrinkled, square. She gets up and hands it to him.

Worick stares at the handkerchief.

“This handkerchief isn’t it yours, is it?” he asks.

Alex pauses and looks at the square of fabric. How could Worick know that?

“No, it isn’t. I don’t know who it belongs to.”

“Oh, are you a klepto, Alex? Stealing from people you don’t even know?”

“No,” Alex laughs. “It was given to me. I never got the chance to return it.”

She chooses not to mention that a stranger gave it to her after her boyfriend punched her, giving her a bloody nose. She still remembers the stranger and their deep, rough voice asking, “Are you okay?” but she can’t put a face to the voice.

She’s not sure how Worick would react to that story, especially the part about Barry hitting her, and doesn’t want to risk scaring him off. She likes Worick—she isn’t sure to what extent, but she does—and she doesn’t want to mess that up by mentioning her past. She doesn’t want to be a bother.

“Hold onto it. I think it’s lucky,” Worick says mysteriously. She doesn’t know what he means by that. Maybe it’s the liquor talking. “Besides, maybe you’ll get a chance to return it in the future.”

He runs the handkerchief over his stomach until it’s dry.

“I think this is a sign to call it quits,” Worick says. He hand her back the handkerchief before lying back down.

“Probably,” Alex agrees, smiling.

“Want to watch bad soap operas until it’s an acceptable time to eat dinner?”

“Sure.”

 


 

Whenever Nina is over, Nicolas and her sign to each other. Alex is fascinated by the way their hands move with such precision, with such emotion. She is amazed by the fact that Nicolas can communicate without words.

She wishes she could talk to Nicolas like Nina and Worick do. She’s over at their apartment more with each passing week and she seems to stay longer each visit. Nicolas occasionally crosses her path at dinner, or in the hall, or in the living room when she’s watching television with Worick, but they do not talk. They cannot talk.

Nicolas is obviously important to Worick. She wants to be able to talk to him, to get to know why Worick thinks so highly of his friend.

So when Worick steps out to take a smoke, and the sign language book is sitting right there on the dinning table, she takes it. She puts the book into her bag before anyone notices.

 


 

Alex begins to spend more and more time at Worick and Nicolas’ apartment until it feels more like home than her dorm. It has a sofa if she wants to spend the night, a shower cleaner than the communal bathroom in her dorm, and it’s far enough away from her judgmental roommate to give her peace of mind. She helps cook dinners, significantly reducing the amount of takeout and pizza boxes in the trash. Nicolas says her cooking skills are so-so, which just makes her more determined to be better at it. 

She learns Worick’s schedule quickly enough and knows when she can stop by, or catch him in the academic buildings and follow him back to his place. People whisper when they see the two of them together, his arm over her shoulder and mouth close to her ear, and she hates herself for caring, but Worick seems unbothered.

One afternoon, while they both procrastinate on their homework (Nicolas is diligently working in his room, or so Worick says), they sit on the sofa and watch a B movie on some obscure channel Alex didn’t know existed.

Worick lies back with a heavy, overdramatic sigh, resting his head on her plump thighs with his head tilted towards the television. She touches his long hair and finds that it’s surprisingly soft. She likes how it feels between her fingers.

She likes this.

“You know, this view isn’t so bad,” Worick says. She looks down at him and sees him staring back up at her. Rather, she sees him staring up at the roundness of her breasts.

She yanks at his hair hard for saying it. He grimaces, but smiles a second later, and looks back at the television.

 


 

Alex spends the morning curled over the sign language book she stole from Nicolas. With each passing day, she can understand more of the silent conversations between Nicolas and Worick, though she says nothing about it. She wants to wait until she can respond fully, until she can talk to Nicolas in his own language.

She has a few brief interactions with Nicolas. He gets her a bottle of water when he sees her looking for a glass in the cabinet. The next day, he nods at her when he passes by instead of just ignoring her. It's not much, but it's more than what she had before, and even Worick says that Nicolas is warming up to her. 

The first time Nicolas tries to communicate with her directly, she is startled but also inexplicably happily.

Alex is taking an afternoon siesta on Worick’s couch. She’s startled out of her nightmares—Barry’s fake smile, his horrible voice calling out to her, his hands grabbing her, holding her down, keeping her from fighting back

“Wake up,” a voice says. It’s not Worick’s. This voice is rough and ragged. It’s so deep that if they were chest to chest, she could probably feel it vibrating through her. The idea makes her heart race and her blood hot.

Alex opens her eyes and sees Nicolas staring down at her.

He repeats, “Wake up,” with an annoyed expression.

Alex has never heard him speak. She didn’t even know that he could.

She sits up, still groggy and mildly shocked, and Nicolas is suddenly in her personal space. His face is inches from hers, but his eyes are focused on something else. He reaches behind her into the space between the cushions, his upper arm brushing against her as he digs for something. After a few seconds, he pulls back and Alex sees a set of keys in his hand.

Without giving her a second look, Nicolas turns and leaves the apartment. The door doesn’t slam close, but it feels like it may have.

“No more naps on the couch,” she says, but she knows that she’ll end up back in the same spot a few days later.

(It takes two days.)

 


 

Alex is on the floor on Worick and Nicolas’ apartment, working on a puzzle with Nina, who is much better at this than Alex. The younger girl can look a piece and instantly know where it belongs, while Alex is struggling to see what colors match, let alone the shapes.

Nina came over for Nicolas, who is at his night class until nine, leaving Alex, Nina, and Worick in the apartment. Worick is working on an assignment at the kitchen counter, where he has ahis laptop, a bottle of beer, and a few pieces of cold pizza.

“And the perimeter is done!” Nina says happily. “Now we’re at the hard part.”

“We are?” Alex asks, smiling and laughing softly. She had enough problems with the first part. She can’t imagine it becoming any harder. “You did ninety percent of that.”

“You still helped! And I’m having more fun with you than I do with Worick or Nic.”

“Are they bad at puzzles?”

Nina tilts her head and hums as she thinks. “Well, Worick gets drunk and ruins the pieces, and Nic doesn’t like doing the edge first, which really bugs me.”

“Are you talking badly about me?” Worick calls from the kitchen.

“No!” the girls reply in unison. They share a glance and laugh.

“Oh, yeah, Alex, I forgot to ask,” Worick says, looking at them over his laptop screen. “Nic and I are having a party this weekend. You're invited, of course. I would love to see you wear something nice and dance!” 

She spent all of last year at parties with Barry’s, but she never made it back to her own room those nights. She ended up with strangers, waking up with horrible headaches and a dirtiness she could never clean off.

Those times had ended, but the idea of being surrounded by all the alcohol, the noise, the people still terrifies her. She tries not to let it show.

“Next time,” Alex says with a passing smile, hoping that next time, the idea won’t make her want to hide away until the world disappears.

If she can’t put her life together, at least she can put together this puzzle with Nina.

 


 

The idea of a party, the memory those nights she tries so hard to forget, looms over her head every night. She dreams of those old terrors, of faces she can’t recall and liquor breath too close to her skin, of Barry telling her she’s good and perfect and he loves her. It's a lie, she knows, but in her dreams, logic never wins.

She wakes up in a cold sweat, breath stuck in her throat, her heart thudding so hard she can feel it in her bones. Her roommate tells her to shut up, that she makes too much noise in her sleep, and Alex desperately wishes to return to Worick and Nicolas’ apartment. So the day after their party, she texts Worick asking if she can come over. She doesn’t get a response.

It would be selfish to go over, to just show up—what if Worick had a girl spend the night and she interrupted?—but she can’t stay in her room any longer, and the library is not as comfortable as Worick and Nicolas’ sofa. So she goes. 

She waits outside the apartment building until someone comes out and she can sneak inside. She heads up to the sixth floor to Worick and Nicolas’ apartment. She knocks, gets no response, and tries the door. It’s open.

“Hello?” she calls as she enters. There’s no sign of Worick, Nicolas, or a female guest, but the signs of the party are everywhere—beer cans, a broken lamp, red solo cups, and few stray jackets forgotten in a drunken stupor.

She sets her things on the dining room table, planning on clearing off the empty pizza boxes and getting some work done, and then turns to check Worick’s room. She wants to let him know she's here.

Five steps towards his bedroom door, she steps on a stray glass bottle and slips, falling face forward. She doesn’t have time to catch herself. Her face slams into the ground and pain blossoms from her nose, radiating out across her cheeks, until she can feel it deep behind her skull.

“Ow,” she moans. “I cannot believe I just did that.”

She sits up. When she reaches up to check her nose, she feels blood. She sighs, accepting to her fate and her bloody nose, and presses the back of her hand to it to stop the bleeding as much as she can. 

The last time she had a bloody nose was when Barry hit her. She wasn’t drunk enough for him to do what he liked with her—rather, she wasn’t drunk enough to give to his buddies for a quick fuck. She got called a bitch and earned a punch to the face. Someone at the party had given her a handkerchief.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have it with her, or did she?

She stumbles towards the sofa where she dropped her bag. She searches through it and finds the white handkerchief rolled up into a ball at the bottom. She had leant it to Worick to use, but he had given it back.

“Hold onto it,” Worick had said. “I think it’s lucky.”

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Handkerchief, Alex thinks, smiling as she presses the wadded up handkerchief to her nose. Its soaked with blood within a minute, but her nose shows no signs of stopping. 

Nicolas comes out of his room and spots her on the floor with a bloody handkerchief. He doesn’t ask why she’s there, or how she got inside without a key. 

“Are you hurt?” Nicolas asks. He frowns, probably realizing how stupidly obvious the answer was. He tries again: “Are you okay?”

Something clicks inside her head when she hears the gravelly words.

She remembers who gave her the handkerchief at the party last year, after Barry had hit her. Nicolas.

He had been the one who approached her in the corner, who had offered the handkerchief and asked in that gravelly voice, “Are you okay?” She had been a stranger but he had helped her.

She wonders if he remembers her. She certainly remembers him.

She drops the handkerchief, ignoring her bloody nose for a moment, and signs: Thank you. 

She then says, “For this time, and the last.”

Nicolas leaves.

Alex wonders if he understood her sloppy sign language.

A drop of blood hits her chin and she scrambles for the handkerchief. She’d have to wash it again and return it with a proper thank you.

 


 

A day after she returns the handkerchief to Nicolas, she gets a call from Worick.

“You know,” she says, “most people prefer texting to calling.”

“If I texted you, I wouldn’t get to hear your beautiful voice, Alex.”

“Enough with the flattery. You don’t need to do that anymore to get my attention.”

“But I do! You deserve all the flattery and kindness the world has to offer.”

She smiles and sinks into her chair. She wants to believe he means it. She hopes he does.

“What’s up, Worick?”

“Nic said you gave him back his handkerchief.”

“I left it outside his room. I would have put it inside his room, but the door was locked…”

“He never mentioned meeting you before I introduced you two.”

“Well, we didn’t really meet,” Alex says. She tip-toes around the subject. “It was at some party. I—I got hurt because I was stupid.”

“Were you drunk, Alex? I bet you’re a happy drunk that sings to every lucky man and woman in the room. I would love to hear you sing for me one day."

“I wasn’t drunk.” She curls her knees into her chest, wishing she was on her bed so she could wrap herself in her blanket, or at Worick and Nicolas’. “My ex got mad at me.”

“But you said you were stupid…” Worick pauses and puts it together. “Alex,” he says, sounding heartbroken but serious, “I don’t know what happened, but I know it was not your fault. You’re too kind to do something to deserve something like that.”

“Worick, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

I shouldn’t have even mentioned it in the first place.

“Okay,” Worick says. “I’m surprised Nic mentioned that you returned the handkerchief. If it had been anyone else, I don’t think he would have brought it up.”

“Even if it was Nina?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You recognized it but didn’t say anything.”

“Nic doesn’t like to be recognized for doing nice things. He’s okay with everyone thinking he’s a horrible, mean person, but—“

“But he’s not.”

Worick laughs. “You’re right, Alex. He’s not. And neither are you.”

“You don’t know everything about me. I could be a horrible person that’s done horrible things.”

“I don’t need to know everything about you to know that you’re not a horrible person. Besides, I’ve done some horrible things myself.”

 


 

Worick knows. He doesn’t know everything, but he knows some and that is more than enough to scare Alex. He knows how messed up Alex is, that her ex hit her. Fucked up people scare normal people like Worick. Baggage isn’t attractive. Panic attacks and nightmares and aversions to touch are not attractive. 

It’s probably more than enough to scare Worick, and she’s sure that Worick has told Nicolas already. But they haven’t said anything to her about it, and that makes her uneasy.

One afternoon, when the three of them are together in the apartment, Nicolas doing homework and Worick watching television, she brings it up.

“Are you two okay with me staying here?” she asks.

Worick grabs a pillow off the sofa and tosses it at Nicolas, who glares at Worick and flips him off.

“Sorry, Alex, could you repeat that?” Worick says. “It was for both of us, right?”

Nicolas’ eyes turn to her, to her lips.

“Um, I asked if it was okay for me to stay here?” Alex clenches her fists over her knees. “It is kind of weird for me to just be here all the time. If you need an excuse to kick me out, you don’t need to, you can just do it.”

“You’re mumbling,” Nicolas says irritably. “Can’t understand.”

Worick signs something to Nicolas, who begins to frown. Alex stops watching Nicolas’ facial expressions and instead stares at the ground.

“Alex,” Worick says slowly, carefully, “you know you can leave whenever you want, but is that really what you want?”

“I don’t want to bother you,” Alex says.

“Don’t think about us,” Worick says. “What do you want?”

She knows what she wants.

She wants to stay. She wants to trust them. She wants a place to call home. She wants to show Nicolas her sign language. She wants to tell them everything in time, in hopes that maybe they’ll accept her as she is and she can stop pretending that everything is okay when it clearly is not. She wants to talk about her nightmares instead of hiding them.

She wants so much from them, to be so much with them.

“I want… Can I stay a little longer?” Alex asks. “Please?”

“Alex,” Worick says, “you can stay as long as you want, until the very end if you want—up until we graduate. We don’t mind.”

Alex looks at Nicolas, who is unreadable, then looks at Worick.

“Really?” she asks. “I can stay?”

“We want you to,” Worick says with a smile. He glares at Nicolas. “Both of us do, despite what he may tell you.”

“I don’t give a shit,” Nicolas says.

Worick sighs in exasperation and gestures to Nicolas as if saying, see what I mean? He stands, goes over to the door where they hang their keys, and takes the spare off the wall. He dangles the metal in front of her face.

“You’re welcome any time,” Worick says. He kneels down onto the ground in front of where she's sitting, opens her hand, and puts the keys into her palm. Smiling, he curls her fingers around the cool metal, keeping his hand on top of hers. “Drop by whenever you want, okay?”

With tears in her eyes, Alex nods. Nicolas crosses the room and hands her the handkerchief, complaining about how he hates it when girls cry; it’s Worick that kisses her cheek and hugs her. 

 


 

The first time Alex uses the key to the apartment, she walks in on Worick screaming at Nicolas, who is leaning back in a chair with a bored expression. She wonders if they're fighting, if she came at a bad time, and instantly regrets not texting Worick to warn him that she was coming over.

Then she notices that there are poker chips and a deck of cheap cards on the dinging room table between the two men. The poker chips are more scarce on Worick’s side of the table than Nicolas’.

“You have to be cheating!” Worick shouts, sounding very much like a child. 

Nicolas signs something. Alex can’t make out the whole meaning, but she thinks he says, You’ve said that for ten years.

“It’s impossible for you to win every damn time!”

Sore loser.

Worick tosses his cards at Nicolas’ face.

Alex laughs. When Worick turns to look at her, Nicolas does too.

“Alex!” Worick says, smiling brightly. “Welcome back! I hope you had a good day. Do you know how to play? Maybe you can figure out how Nicolas is always cheating.”

“I don’t cheat,” Nicolas says. “You’re just bad.”

“I’ve never played,” Alex says. She walks inside and sets her things down. She sits between them at the table, looking at the stacks of cards and chips. “If it’s too much trouble to teach me—“

“I’ll teach you,” Nicolas says. “Worick sucks like a whore.”

“I do not!”

“Do too.”

Alex laughs at how childish they are. Nicolas stares at her before giving her a few of his chips. Worick slumps in his seat, arms crossed, and watches closely as Nicolas begins to deal the cards. 

It takes her awhile for her to process what Worick had said—welcome back—like she actually belongs there. She smiles behind her cards, and Worick and Nicolas instantly fold. 

 


 

Alex steps into the apartment and smells something burning so she goes into the kitchen to investigate. On the counter, she finds several used coffee filters and multiple dirty mugs. She vaguely remembers Worick mentioning a big test and the idea of pulling all nighters to study. Had that been this week?

She cleans out the coffee pot, tosses away the used filters, and scrubs the coffee stains from the mugs. With that done, she decides to check on Worick to see if he’s eaten. Maybe she’ll ask how the test went.

She knocks on his door softly and hears a grunt. She frowns, unsure of whether or not that means she can enter, then she hears it again. It’s deep, rough, bothered, the kind of noise people make when they’re having bad dreams.

She checks the door to see if it’s locked. It’s not.

Worick is lying on top of his bed, surrounded by textbooks and notes, still in his clothes and eye patch. He must have fallen asleep while studying.

Suddenly, he tosses violently to the side, nearly hitting the wall. Alex hurries over and sits on the edge of the bed near his waist, trying to reach out but not wanting to startle him. Sometimes being woken from a nightmare can be worse than the nightmare itself. She knows that too well.

“Father—“ Worick mumbles.

Suddenly, Worick bolts upward, straight into Alex’s chest, her arms encircling him. His body is heavy, hard, and strong, completely different from hers. He pants heavily against her, his chest moving violently fast as he struggles to catch his breath. He reaches up and touches his eye patch.

“Nic?” he says.

“It’s Alex.”

Alex.”

He lowers his hand to her back, rubbing up and down. She wonders if Nicolas is usually the one Worick wakes up to when he has nightmares. She wonders if he holds Nicolas close like this, rubs up and down his back, buries his face into Nicolas’ neck.

“It sounded like you were having a bad dream so I let myself in,” Alex says. “Are you okay now?”

“I’m okay. Thanks.”

She doesn’t believe him, not even when he puts his hands on her shoulders and tugs her away, smiling at her like he's okay. He rubs at his eye patch again, his other eye cast downward.

She stays like that for a while—sitting, quiet—while he breathes heavily and does not look at her.

After a few minutes, when Worick’s breath is even and he lifts his eye to look at her, she says, “I should go."

Worick nods.

She leaves the room, makes sure to shut the door behind her, and wishes she could do more to help.

When Worick finally leaves his room, he doesn’t mention the nightmare.

 


 

Alex begins to slowly keep more and more of her things at the boys’ apartment. Soon there are tampons and pads under the bathroom sink, her favorite tea in the kitchen, a toothbrush right between Worick and Nicolas’, and a bag of clothes in Worick’s room.

She begins to call the apartment home, and neither Worick nor Nicolas corrects her.

After a long day of back-to-back classes, she heads to the apartment. Once inside, she orders some Chinese take out, ordering for Nicolas and Worick as well, and decides to take a quick shower before the delivery arrives. She strips out of her clothes in the bathroom and steps under the hot spray of water.

It isn’t until after she’s finished that she realizes she forgot to bring a towel with her. Her clothes are hardly suitable to dry her off—jeans and a lacy tank top would be rather annoying against soaking wet skin. She checks the cabinets for sprays, finds nothing but toilet paper, tampons, and a box of condoms. She curses.

What are Nicolas and Woricks’ schedules on Tuesdays? Worick has class for about another hour, but what about Nicolas? She can’t remember.

She has to leave the bathroom at some point and the food is on its way. She needs to get dressed so she can meet the delivery guy downstairs.

She decides to risk it. She steps out into the hall, knowing it’s only a short walk to Worick’s bedroom where her bag of clothes is. She turns, takes two steps, and runs straight into Nicolas—literally.

She shouts in panic, covering her breasts before her groin, and apologizes as she steps back.

“Sorry, Nicolas,” she says. “I forgot my towel and I thought you were at class, and—“

She sees him staring at her, hard, the way Worick does sometimes when she wears her short pajama shorts or crop tops. Nicolas’ eyes flick from her face to her breasts to her hips.

Alex shifts uncomfortably before shouting another apology. She runs back to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her, breathing heavily. She buries her face in her hands and groans.

She’s mortified.

A minute later, there’s a knock at the door and she hears Nicolas’ voice muffled voice the door, “Sorry.”

She waits until she hears the click of Nicolas’ bedroom door to open the bathroom door again. There’s a neatly folded, fluffy, red towel sitting in the hallway. She grabs it, quickly wraps it around her, and all but runs into Worick’s room for a change of clothes. It isn’t until after she has on clothing that she takes a good look at the towel.

Obviously Nicolas left it, but just to be sure, she presses it to her face. It smells like him.

 


 

Alex is half asleep in her dorm room when she gets a text from an unknown number.

>> worick is making me ask you if you want to get food with us

It must be Nicolas—she has Nina’s number and who else could it be? She frowns and types back:

>> He’s making you?

>> he wouldn’t leave alone until I agreed
>> fucker followed me into the bathroom

>> It’s midnight…

>> worick is craving denny’s
>> we’re driving by your dorm
>> are you coming or not?

>> I’m coming. Give me five minutes

 


 

Alex has an awkward hour break between two of her classes. It’s not enough time to go back to the apartment, she’s already had lunch, and working on assignments in the library seems unappealing with two more classes on the horizon. So she wanders the halls of the academic buildings and the campus grounds, waiting for the hour to pass.

One day, she comes across Nicolas behind the science building. He’s on the bench with a stray cat at his feet, curled up and asleep. She walks so her feet come into his line of sight and he looks up at her. The cat runs away and she doesn't blame it. 

“I’ve never seen you here before,” Alex says.

You can understand? Nicolas signs. It takes her a brief second to realize that he’s asking if she can read his sign language.

She recognizes the signs from the book, which she reads between classes or when she isn’t doing her assignments at the apartment. It’s become a small obsession of hers. She practices signs in the shower and wonders how should would sign the words that come out of her mouth.

She nods.

Nina showed me, Nicolas signs. No one comes here.

“It does seem quiet back here…”

You can understand me like this. You took my book.

She inhales sharply. How long as he known? Did he know from the start?

“Be careful with my book,” Nicolas says slowly. His rough voice makes her breath still in her throat, which feels oddly tight. When had that started?

“Oh, I will!” Alex says quickly, wishing Nicolas could hear her honesty. “I would have asked, but I didn’t think you would give it to me. I had the feeling you didn’t like me much…”

Nicolas blinks at her and she wonders what’s going through his mind. He’s a hard person to read, and not just because she can only understand a few words of sign language. His face his hard and he does not show much emotion on his face, unless he is around Nina or Worick.

“Can I sit?” Alex asks. “I have a break right now.”

Nicolas shrugs—it’s more of an answer than she was expecting.

Hesitantly, Alex sets down her things next to Nicolas. She sits several feet away, at the other end of the bench.

She’s surprised by how comfortable she is around him, how comfortable she is in his overwhelming silence.

 


 

Sometimes, Alex sings without thinking about it. She had stopped when Barry was around and has only just recently begun to sing again. She catches herself humming at the stove in the apartment, or singing in the shower, using Worick’s body wash and Nicolas’ soap because those are the few things she has yet to bring into the apartment. 

She puts her clothes and towel on the counter (she always double checks to make sure she has a towel after the incident with Nicolas, thinking how much worse it could have been if it were Worick instead), and steps into the warm spray of water.

Halfway through her shower, she begins to sing. Not anything in particular, just whatever pops into her mind.

She dries off, puts on her clothes, and leaves the bathroom with her hair wrapped up in a towel.

Sitting outside in the hallway with his back to the wall is Worick. He stares at her with an expression she hasn’t seen before. It’s not flirty, or friendly.

“You have a nice voice, Alex.”

“Is that a perverted remark or a nice one?”

“Both,” he laughs. “I can’t believe I never noticed it before. A beautiful voice for a beautiful woman.”

Alex flushes with embarrassment. “Oh. I used to sing in chorus in high school. I stopped when I came here.”

“Why didn’t you join the choir here?”

Alex looks at the ground. “My ex convinced me not to.”

Worick nods slowly.

Just then, Nicolas’ bedroom door opens and he walks by. He glances at her, eyes looking her up and down.

You have clothes this time, Nicolas signs as he passes.

Worick’s head whips from Nicolas to Alex. “This time? Alex, why are you walking around Nicolas naked but not me? I deserve it much more than him!”

Alex rolls her eyes. She follows Nicolas into the kitchen, Worick right behind them.

 


 

Alex is on her way to the apartment when she runs into Nina, who is carrying four heavy-looking grovery bags. Alex jogs over and offers her assistance, taking two of the bags from the young girl to lighten her load.

“What’s in the bags?” Alex asks. “Making dinner?”

“Kinda,” Nina says. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Sure.”

“Nic’s birthday is coming up. I wanted to surprise him with a cake this year. I wanted to last year, but I didn’t have a kitchen to make one in.”

“So these are cake supplies? When’s his birthday?”

“Today.”

Alex blinks. Oh. She hadn’t known that. She hadn’t expected Nicolas to mention something like that, but Worick hadn’t said anything about it either.

“I know!” Nina says suddenly, very excited. “We can work together. Worick said you make dinner sometimes. I’ve never made a cake before so I could use the help!”

Alex agrees. She could never say no to Nina and her large, innocent eyes and overwhelming enthusiasm.

Half an hour later, they’re elbow deep in flour, eggs, and frosting. Nina even bought aprons at the store—she came prepared. Alex has flour in her black hair, frosting on her lips from a few too many taste tests, and food coloring dyed to the skin of her fingertips.

They make a circular semi-sweet cake with dark chocolate icing, with ice-cream in the freezer to go with it. 

There’s still two hours until Nicolas gets out of class when they put the cake in the oven, leaving them more than enough time to bake out the cake and decorate.

Alex and Nina, exhausted by their efforts, take a break at the dining table. Nina talks about some seminar she went to where a surgeon she admires spoke, and Alex has no idea what half the words the girl is saying mean but Alex hopes she looks interested.

The cake comes out perfect. Icing the cake is harder than they both expected, but they manage and the cake does not look as horrible as it could, though the icing is very uneven. Alex hopes it tastes okay.

Worick texts Nina saying he’s coming back with Nic and they’re minutes away. Alex pulls out the ice-cream to soften it up, while Nina finds a knife and some plates. There’s no streams or party hats or anything like that—Nicolas would probably just turn around and leave without entering the apartment if he saw that—but it’s nice.

They hear someone fumbling with their keys outside of the door and stand near the cake, smiling. The door opens, Nicolas and Worick entering.

“Happy birthday!” Nina shouts.

Nicolas takes one look at the cake and turns.

Worick grabs Nicolas’ wrist. “Ah, ah, ah. No running.”

Nicolas really digs his feet into the ground, taking large steps, and manages to drag Worick behind him like the man weighs nothing.

“Bastard, why are you so damn strong?” Worick grumbles. “Ladies, I may need some help or the birthday boy will run away.”

“Nic!” Nina says. She runs over, moving around Worick to grab at Nicolas’ other wrist. “Please? I know you don’t like your birthday but we worked really hard.”

Nicolas looks at her with a very mixed expression then over at Alex, who is standing awkwardly by the cake. Nicolas sighs, jerks his hand away from Worick, and enters the apartment.

Nina claps her hands together in excitement as Worick calls a corner piece.

The cake is a circle, Nicolas signs. There are no corners, idiot.

Alex cuts the cake and hands out the pieces while Worick scoops the ice-cream. Nina smiles when she takes the first bite her piece, meaning the cake is not horrible like Alex had feared.  

Alex lingers to the side while Worick, Nicolas, and Nina talk about Nicolas’ birthday from last year. She feels out of the loop, having no idea what they’re talking about, and chooses to eat her cake away while listening intently.

She likes hearing stories about them that she hasn’t heard yet. With each story, she understands them more and more.  

Nicolas breaks away from Worick and Nina, walking towards her.

Thank you, he signs, then switches to speaking, “The cake was not sweet.”

Alex smiles. “It was Nina’s idea. She’s the one that knew you don’t like sweets. She looked at dozens of recipes to find something you would like.”

“But you helped.”

“Like I said, it was Nina’s idea. I just made the cake. I didn’t even know it was your birthday until this afternoon.”

Nicolas does not respond. He turns to walk away, but she grabs his arm, stopping him, and he turns to stare at her with large, surprised eyes.

“Um, happy birthday,” she says.

He smiles. Alex lets him go when he walks away, heading towards Nina and Worick.

 


 

Worick mentions something about needing to practice his presentation for his Senior Seminar. Alex agrees to listen if it will help Worick.

Nicolas agrees a little less willingly. Worick harasses the deaf man the entire week, leaving notes for him in the oddest of places—Alex even found one in the freezer. After a week of having Worick hanging over his shoulder, both literally and figuratively, Nicolas caves and agrees to listen to Worick’s presentation.

I can’t hear. Don’t know why it will help.

Worick just smiles as Nicolas joins Alex on the couch. “It’s practice for talking in front of an audience. It doesn’t matter if you can hear or not.”

Nicolas taps Alex on the shoulder and signs: Drink? This will take a while. He is bad at speaking.

Alex is mildly surprised by that. Worick always seemed sociable and never had any problems talking to people. She then wonders if that’s just Nicolas picking on Worick or if Worick does have some problems speaking in public. He’s probably just picking on Worick.

“Alcoholic?” she asks, unsure what Nicolas means by “drink.”

“Duh,” Nicolas says, grinning.

“I’ll take water.”

“Boring.”

“Hey!” Worick shouts. “The audience should be quiet and respectful during the presentation.”

Nicolas stands up. He signs: Pop-corn?

Sure, Alex signs back.

“Guuuys,” Worick draws out. Nicolas ignores him and puts a bag of pop-corn in the microwave. Worick goes over, saying, “At least make kettle corn. Alex likes that more.”

No, you like kettle corn, Nicolas signs.

Alex leans back, getting comfortable. Nicolas is right, she thinks with a fond smile, this is going to take a while.

 


 

Alex is sitting at the apartment's dining room table doing homework when a hand comes into view. A short, calloused finger points at one of her problems. She startles, jumping in her seat, and turns to look up at Nicolas, who had managed to sneak up behind her.

“It’s wrong,” Nicolas says in his broken voice. 

“Um, how?” Alex asks. “I did it like they did in the textbook…”

Nicolas blinks slowly. He takes the pencil from her hand and writes something in the column of her paper. When he’s done, he holds the pencil, waiting for her to take it.

She waits to take her pencil, knowing he’ll leave when she does. Instead she reads what he wrote. Nicolas sighs, irritated.

“You make it seem to simple,” Alex says as she takes the pencil.

Nicolas shrugs. He takes a drink out of the fridge and sits at the table with her, pretending to be busy with his phone, while pointing out her mistakes.

 


 

The next time Worick and Nicolas hold a party at the apartment, Alex feels strong enough to attend. Worick promises it will be fun, and with a wicked grin Nicolas says that he has a few handles of liquor he’s been meaning to get rid of.

Alex dresses in the bathroom in their apartment, taking time to do her hair and makeup. She puts on a little black dress that fits her just right and shows more than enough. She leaves the bathroom and finds Worick and Nicolas setting up in the kitchen, moving the furniture and putting away the glassware.

“Um, anything I can do to help?” she asks.

They look at her. Worick stares at her, shocked into silence, until Nicolas signs: You’re too obvious. Don’t be a rude and a pervert.

Worick glares at Nicolas then looks at Alex again, like she’s a work of art. “You look great, Alex!”

She smiles and puts a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “So is there anything I can do to help?”

In a few hours, the apartment is booming. The music vibrates loudly through the walls and the alcohol is spread out. Nearly four dozen people are packed into the small apartment with their hands in the air or on someone else. There’s pizza and snacks and there’ll certainly be a massive mess tomorrow, but it seems worth it.

Worick and Nicolas know how to throw a party.

While Worick flirts and works the crowd, handing out drinks and hooking people up, Nicolas and Alex linger in the corner with their drinks.

“It’s loud,” Alex says.

Nicolas gives her a look. How would I know?

She panics, embarrassed, until she sees his grin.

“You’re messing with me,” she says slowly, relieved, and his grin grows.

“It’s fun.” Nicolas takes a long sip from his drink and rests his head against the wall. “It is loud. I can feel it vibrating.”

“The music?”

Nicolas signs, Yes, and closes his eyes.

Worick suddenly appears, kicking Nicolas in the shin. “Don’t leave go off into your own world when our lovely Alex is right next to you!”

Our Alex.

She smiles.

Worick kisses Alex’s hand and asks, “Care for a dance?”

Don’t, Nicolas signs. He’ll step on your feet.

“Don’t listen to Nic! He’s the one that will step on your feet.”

“I’d love to dance,” Alex says. 

Nicolas takes her drink and Worick takes her hand, leading her to the crowd. He puts one hand on her hip and the other just above her ass on the low of her back. His palm is warm against her, and his fingers spread out making his hand feel so much larger than it is.

“If you touch my ass, you’re getting slapped,” she warns.

“Fair enough. Though another part of you is already touching me.”

He presses his chest forward and she can feel the pressure against her chest increase. Her breasts are pressed close to him, but she doesn’t care for some reason. Her body is beginning to move to the music and his touch is calming, warm, not uncomfortable like it once was, and she has had enough to drink to not care about what other people think of her.

It’s the most fun she’s had in awhile.

That is, until she’s in the kitchen, taking a break from dancing and just listening to the booming music. Worick is talking to someone from one of his classes while Nicolas is still in the corner, listening to the vibrations of the music.

Then, suddenly, two boys walk up to her. She feels trapped with her back to the counter.

“Hey, you’re Alex, right?” one asks. “Barry’s girl?”

“My friend tells me you’re into some… interesting things.”

Ah, there it is, that familiar feeling of panic and shame. She looks over their shoulders but does not see Worick or Nicolas.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Alex says weakly, her voice betraying her. “Please move.”

One of them grabs her wrist, keeping her from moving, and she can’t seem to breathe.

No, no. Not here. She’s safe here. This is the only place that’s safe.

“I heard you sleep with guys for money. How much for a night?"

Alex’s world crashes down around her. She’s frozen in place, unable to move, unable to say anything. Why did they have to show up? She had been having fun, dancing with Worick and chatting with Nicolas.

Nicolas, who is suddenly right there in front of her, directly behind the two strangers.

“Hey,” Nicolas says.

The boys turn around, glaring at him. Nicolas gives them a flat, blank look as they talk: 

“What do you want?”

“Aren’t you the deaf dwarf that lives here with Worick?”

Nicolas points to the side. By the time the jerks have turned to the side to look, one of them has Worick’s fist against their jaw.

Alex gasps as the guy tumbles to the floor, cursing and swearing.

“This will take juuuuust a second, Alex,” Worick says. “Why don’t you turn around for a bit? A lady like you shouldn’t have to see this.”

Alex doesn’t just want to turn, she wants to run, run fast and hard. So she runs.

She rushes to the fridge, leaving the guys and Worick behind her.

What if they figured out everything about her past? Worick already knows so much about Barry, about how he treated her. If they found out that she used to be whored out to whoever could pay, she would never have a place.

No, she thinks. Worick and Nicolas aren’t like that. They would accept her. Wouldn’t they?

She doesn’t want to risk it. She can’t risk it.

Alex grabs a bottle of water from the fridge. Her hands shake as she tries to uncap the bottle of water. She can’t grasp it, can’t twist it, god she’s so damn pathetic

Two arms wrap around her and she tenses.

Nicolas’ hands cover hers easily as he unscrews the cap.

“Nicolas—“

Nicolas moves away before she can think of what to say. She slowly raises the water to her lips, taking small sips. The sound of her heart pounding anxiously in her chest deafens the sound of those bastards hitting the floor as Worick decks them.

Nicolas is standing off to the side by the time Worick is finished with those two. Worick shakes his hands as he walks over to Alex, who is trying very, very hard to keep it together when all she wants to do is fall apart.

“Phew that hurt! That last guy had a jaw of steel, I swear.” Worick stops just next to Alex. “You okay?” 

Alex manages to put the cap back on her water. She nods.

“Why was that guy saying that stuff to you?” Worick asks.

She doesn’t want to talk about it, nor does she want them to know about it. The things she did, what Barry had her do…

Even Worick and Nicolas have limits to what they can tolerate. If they have to deal with her baggage, then it’s all over. No one wants sloppy seconds. No one wants to pick up the pieces.

Alex shakes her head instead of answering. She squeezes her eyes shut, head shaking faster and faster, until she hears Worick say, “Okay, okay,” in a calm voice. “It’s okay. You don’t have to answer.”

“I don’t want to stay here,” Alex says, soft. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“I’d take you across campus, but Nic isn’t the best at keeping parties under control. He could walk you, though.”

“You can go to my room,” Nicolas says.

She stills. Looks up at Worick. More hesitantly, she looks at Nicolas.

“I can lock the door,” Nicolas adds.

Worick looks just as surprised as Alex feels.

“That’s a good idea,” Worick says, giving Nicolas a pensive look.

Alex considers it. She nods.

Nicolas begins to walk. Alex figures she’s supposed to follow. She takes her bottle of water and sticks close to Nicolas as they navigate the crowd to his room, so close she could press her face into his back without taking a single step. Nicolas is shorter than Worick, but has the same hard build to his body that she finds safety in. 

Nicolas pulls a key from his pocket and unlocks the door to his room, entering the room after her.

Worick puts a hand on her shoulder and she jumps. Calm down, calm down, calm down, she tells herself.

“Sorry,” Worick says, sounding honest. “I was going to say that I’ll have my phone on me if you need anything. Nic will lock the door behind him.”

Nicolas nods.

“Where should I…?” she asks, looking around the room. Its walls are mostly bare, minus a few scandalous posters of women. There’s something pink and fluffy on the desk that has to be Nina’s, some books and barbells, and a few pictures of Nicolas and Worick at various ages.

“The bed,” Nicolas says.

The bed is small with a thick plaid comforter and more pillows than she was expecting.

She nods, awkward, and waits for them to leave. Nicolas is the first to go, followed shortly by Worick, who gives her a sad smile over his shoulder before Nicolas closes and locks the door.

She closes her eyes, collapsing onto the bed. She’s surrounded by Nicolas’ scent—spice, his aftershave, and something vaguely sweaty but not entirely unpleasant. The sheets smell faintly of smoke and she wonders if Worick comes inside and lounges on the bed from time to time. She’s never seen him do it, but she recognizes his cigarette smoke.

She takes off her heels and rests her head on the pillow, knees curled towards her chest, and tries not to think. But she thinks too much.

Exhaustion hits like a train. Sleep is her only reprieve.

 


 

Alex wakes up on the top of Nicolas’ bed with a blanket on top of her and a few pillows behind her head. She has little recollection of the previous night, only that she somehow fell asleep halfway through the party despite the music and noise. She doesn't want to think too hard about it. She has the feeling she doesn't want to know. 

She sits up and looks around. 

Nicolas is on the bed to her left, just far enough away that their bodies do not touch underneath the blanket. But the freshly made indent on the pillow directly next to Nicolas’ head reveals they had shared a pillow.

Worick is on her right, arm draped across her lap, drooling onto his pillow with hardly any blanket covering him. Alex vaguely remembers Nicolas and Worick fighting over it, and Nicolas winning. They had been drunk, or close enough, and their insults during their fight made Alex cry with laughter.

She puts her head back on the pillow, facing Nicolas, their faces so close but bodies not touching, while Worick presses his chest against her back and holds on tighter. 

She’s confused by how much she enjoys being close to them, in whatever capacity the situation allows, but she’s too tired to think about it. Nicolas’ breath is heavy against her face, and Worick is warm against her back. She closes her eyes and goes back to sleep.

 


 

Are they friends? Are they more? And where does Nic fit in? She’s been thinking about it for days and she can’t figure out how she feels about these two men.

The boys did not mention the party to her, or what happened to her, but they obviously know. Worick is smart and Nicolas can read lips from across the room. If they hadn't heard the rumors before, they knew now. 

A few days after the party, Alex finds Worick stretched out on the sofa. The television is playing a cheesy Spanish soap with subtitles. Alex doesn’t know why that makes her smile, but it does.

“Alex! You got out of class early!”

Alex nods and walks over, sitting on the edge of the sofa. “I had a test. I finished early.”

“Lie down with me,” Worick says with a flirty, convincing smile and his arms wide open. “Loreto is about to discover her twin sister!”

She smiles and lies next to him, trying not to think about what this means, if it means anything at all. She squeezes next to him on the sofa, her hand and head on his chest. His arm drapes across her stomach, drifting closer to her ass as the shower progresses, but she is too comfy to make either of them move.

They stay like that for some time, maybe even hours, watching terrible television, not talking about the elephant in the room, and then the apartment door opens. Alex spins around, nearly falling off the sofa—Worick laughs and catches her—and sees Nicolas, who is looking between Alex and Worick.

Alex has never seen Nicolas look so awkward.

Nicolas signs: I can go.

Worick runs a hand through his hair. “I told you,” he sighs, “it’s not like that, Nic.”

Nicolas closes the door, signing as he enters the room. You want it to be.  

Alex shifts awkwardly in Worick's grasp. “Um. I know what you’re saying. I just don’t know what you mean…” She trails off.

She lifts herself up off of Worick’s chest so she’s sitting and looks between the two. 

Something happened the night of the party, besides them discovering her darkest secret, and they all knew it. Or maybe it happened earlier, she isn't quite sure. But between laughing and eating cold pizza, and taking late night trips to restaurants, and waking up in the same bed in a tangle of limbs and hot breath, they crossed the line. Something has changed. 

She needs to know what they are, if they're anything more than what they used to be. 

It’s obvious, Nicolas signs. You’re stupid if you don’t see it.

“Nic, women are far more sophisticated than us. I’m sure she’s thought of many other plausible explanations.” Worick sits up, face very close to hers. He slides a hand along her waist to keep her close. “Though I do hope the right one has crossed her mind.”

Alex stares at Worick. “Could you please just tell me instead?”

“I don’t know about talking, but I can show you. If this is not what you were expecting, please don’t hit me, Alex…” He smiles at her, like he does girls at parties, flirty and teasing, but his voice is oddly open and raw.

Worick brings his other hand to her jaw, guiding her head towards his, and kisses her gently on the lips. Alex’s heart bounds in her chest as she closes her eyes and sinks into the kiss.

She wants it. Him. This.

When they break apart, Alex looks at Nicolas, who has not left the room. She wants him too.

“You too?” she asks, voice soft, but he can read her lips clearly.

Nicolas shrugs.

And that’s her answer.

 


 

When Worick kisses her, he tastes like cheap cigarettes. Alex is in the kitchen cooking dinner while Nicolas showers and Worick watches over her shoulder. As she hums a tune she can’t quite place, Worick slips his hands around her waist to her hips. When she turns her head, he kisses her slowly. She nearly pulls away, but she smells his cigarettes and the scent calms her.

Nicolas never kisses her, but she kisses him. Nicolas is not as physical as Worick, whose hands wander and lips are eager. Nicolas’ lips are dry and unmoving most of the time, but she finds that his lips twist into a small smile when she kisses his cheek.

Worick and Nicolas never kiss unless it is spur of the moment (meaning Worick is in the mood and kisses Nicolas, but never the other way around). The first time she sees it is in the bathroom. Alex sits between them in the bathtub, with Worick to her front and Nicolas to her back, their legs a tangled mess under the bubbles and steaming water. She steps out to dry off and when she looks over her shoulder, she sees Worick’s hand on the back of Nicolas’ head as he kisses the deaf man gently. She wonders if they did that before she came along, but realizes it does not matter now.

It’s not one or the other. She isn’t greedy. Neither are they. She doesn’t quite know what they are, but she knows that they are something. That’s enough.

 


 

She can’t remember when she started sleeping in Nicolas’ bed on a regular basis, or when she bought a spare pillow just for those nights. But at some point, Alex wakes up in Nicolas’ bed, gasping and dripping in cold sweat.

Barry.

She should be done with him by now. She’s happy with Nicolas and Worick, with what they have, so why is she still dreaming about him? Her Intro to Psychology course and something about PTSD helps her understand, but it doesn’t make her feel better.

She hears a clink and looks to the side, where Nicolas is sitting in his chair with a book. His arm is extended and in his hand is a cup of steaming tea. He’s staring at her, waiting for her to take the tea, which, eventually, she does.

“I’m messed up,” she says in a quiet voice, staring at the mug of tea, made just the way she likes it. “I still don’t know why you guys would want me around.”

Nicolas frowns. He snaps his fingers and she looks up at him as he signs: We’re messed up too.

Alex smiles sadly. She sets the mug down to sign: Not like I am.

Just like you are.

Nicolas looks back at his book, meaning their conversation is over. There is no room to argue. She wants to ask, but figures he’ll share if he wants to. She still hasn’t told them everything either so she can’t be mad at his silence.

She sinks into his bed and pillows, his blanket across her lap, and drinks the tea he made for her.

 


 

Graduation looms around the corner for Nicolas and Worick. Their graduation caps and gowns come in while Alex is in the apartment. Nicolas smiles as he puts on his cap while Worick waltzes around the apartment in his gown, saying how he won’t wear underwear underneath and no one but them will know.

“Our little secret, Alex,” he whispers into her ear, knowing that Nicolas is reading his lips.

She smiles and pushes him away. Worick laughs and goes over to Nicolas, draping an arm around his shoulders. Nicolas grins at his best friend.

“Almost there,” Worick says.

Nicolas signs: Almost.

Her smile turns sad. It’s almost over. She finally accepts that she can stay with these two people that mean so much to her, and it’s almost over.

It’s Nicolas that comes and sits next to her. She silently rests her head on his shoulder, breathing in his scent, coffee and spicy body wash. She wants to thank him for a silence, but knows it will just bother him so she keeps her hands in her lap. 

Worick claps his hands together. “Let’s order pizza tonight!” He comes over and leans next to Alex’s ear, out of sight of Nicolas’ eyes, and whispers, “And afterwards, we can spend some time together in the bath.”

“While that sounds nice,” Alex says. “Nicolas and I are going to see the movie being shown in the cinema room.”

Worick stands up straight. “Huh? Since when do you like movies, Nic?”

It’s a silent movie, Nicolas signs.

“He said it’d be fair for everyone,” Alex says, smiling even wider. 

Worick sighs. “I guess I’ll order pizza and take a bubble bath by myself, then. I’ll have fun without you.”

Don’t use all the lube by yourself, Nicolas signs.

Worick shoves at Nicolas, laughing.

 


 

On a lazy Sunday, it rains in cold sheets that sting Alex's skin. The apartment is covered in empty cans and boxes with cold pizza, and Alex and Worick are sitting together on the sofa with a pile of blankets and pillows while they watch bad movies. Worick's hands are warm and gentle against her stomach and his lips tickle her neck. It's a the best kind of lazy day. 

Suddenly, Worick reaches up to palm at his covered eye.

“Does it hurt?” Alex asks.

“Sometimes,” Worick says, voice tight. “When it’s going to rain and stuff.”

“I thought that was what bone injuries did.”

Worick grimaces. He takes off his eye patch and she sees it for the first time. The scar is ugly, and deep, and it’s strange to finally see what’s hidden behind the eye patch. He presses his palm more roughly against it, obviously in pain. 

“The eye wasn’t properly removed. Parts of my eye socket was chipped off.” Worick lowers his hand and smiles at her. “I’m so glad you are worried about me, Alex! You could kiss it better…”

Alex lightly trails her fingers over Worick’s closed eye down to his cheek before pulling her hand away. She can feel his one eye on her, waiting for her to ask the question that’s been on her mind since she first met. He’s not changing the subject; he’s giving her the permission to ask.

So she asks.

“How’d you lose it?”

Worick smiles bitterly. “Let’s just say my old man had a bad habit of not using ashtrays when he was mad.”

“Oh, Worick,” she says, feeling his well-masked pain. “That’s…”

“While we’re on the topic of scars,” Worick says cheerfully, “I have far more interesting scars than that.”

They sit up together, their mountain of blankets falling down. 

He lifts shirt out of his pants, showing off his stomach, where she sees another scar across his hip. It's tiny, something she hasn't noticed before.

“My appendix burst in the middle of sex when I was sixteen. My partner thought I was just having a really intense orgasm. They were pretty bummed when I told them they were good, but not that good.”

Alex laughs loudly, not bothering to be polite and stifle it with her hand. She doesn’t have to be polite around Worick. He hasn’t judged her yet.

“Nic and I were dueling with swords—“

“Swords?” she cuts in. “Actual swords?”

“They were his father’s. We stole them and pretended to be soldiers. The bastard actually stabbed me.” Worick lifts his shirt higher to show a clean, thin scar along his ribs. She wonders how she missed his scars, how she could have missed this part of him, never heard these stories. “But my nurse was sooo cute and I even got a kiss out of her.”

“How old were you?”

“Ten. It was on the cheek, but it was still a kiss from the most beautiful nurse in the world.”

Alex smiles and leans towards Worick, not to kiss him, or make a move, just to be closer. Her head is on his shoulder, his body radiating heat even with his shirt on. Boys are always so much warmer.

“Any other scars?” she asks, wanting to hear more.

“Do you have a fetish, Alex?” he asks, teasing. He puts an arm around her and plays with the end of her hair. “I must say that I’m surprised.”

“I just like people with stories.”

“Hmm. Well, unfortunately, I don’t have any more to show you. Do you have any scars? I would love to hear your story.”

“None that are physical,” she says. She lifts her head from his shoulder, despite having just put it there. She needs distance to admit this. She needs to be able to run if he judges her.

He won’t judge her, right?

Worick is silent, not pushing, but Alex can still tell he’s curious.

“My ex—“

She stops.

“The one who hit you?” Worick asks.

Alex nods and takes a deep breath. “I’m sloppy seconds.”

“Why would you say that?”

Alex drops her head, unable to look at him, afraid of what he may say, afraid that this may all be for naught.

But she can’t continue this relationship with Worick or with Nicolas unless they know. 

“You heard what those guys said at the party... My ex would get me drunk and sell me to his frat buddies for the night.” Alex runs a hand through her hair. Deep breaths, she tells herself. She can't look him in the eyes. “No one wants someone like that.”

Worick’s expression changes, becomes dark. “What he did is horrible,” he says. “What you’ve been through isn’t a turn off. I don’t care about that and neither will Nic. It’s not your fault. I’ve been with plenty of people too.”

Alex remains silent.

“Who’s your ex?” Worick asks.

“He was expelled for selling cocaine last year.”

“Sounds like a bad guy.”

“He really was.”

“How’d you get involved with someone like that?”

He’s not judging, just asking, like a friend would, like a lover would. She returns her head to his shoulder, finding comfort in his warmth and touch. Talking about Barry isn’t easy, but being around Worick is. If only Nicolas were there with them, she would feel no hesitation talking about this.  

“I’d known him since high school. I followed him here. We dated for three years. When something or someone is all you know, it’s hard to break away. I got lucky that his RA heard a tip and searched… his room…”

She frowns. Barry had mentioned his RA, one of a pair in the dorm. He said they were both strange—an Asian that liked to ignore him and a guy with an eye patch.

“Were you and Nicolas RAs last year?” she asks.

“We were. Nic isn’t anymore, but I still am. You are looking one of the RAs of this fine apartment building.”

“You busted him, my ex. His name was Barry.”

That guy was your ex? I was just doing my job, listening to a tip. If I had known he was such a scumbag—“

“Thank you.” She inhales sharply, overcome with a mix of emotions. Anxiety. Relief. Gratitude. She repeats, “Thank you, Worick, even if it was just a job.”

Worick tilts his head, resting it on top of hers. “No problem, Alex.”

She wonders if he’s smiling. She likes to think that he is.

 


 

That night, Alex sleeps with Worick. Not in a sexual way, but in the most innocent meaning of the phrase. She sleeps in his bed next to him, completely dressed. 

Alex puts on a clean pair of Worick’s boxers and an oversized t-shirt he stole from Nicolas.

“You look good in my shirt,” Worick teases as she crawls under the covers next to him. He kisses her neck, her jaw, her lips, but each kiss only lasts a brief second.

“You said it was Nicolas’ shirt.”

“I stole it from him so long ago that it’s practically mine.”

Worick sleeps with an arm across her stomach, his breath hot on her neck. He makes tiny noises in his sleep that aren’t quite snores but are pretty close.

It’s the best night of sleep she’s had in ages.

She wakes up before him, wandering into the kitchen, where she sees Nicolas making coffee. He stares at her, blinking slowly, but says nothing. She suddenly feels awkward.

Nicolas pours his coffee. He signs with one hand. That’s my shirt.

Alex blushes. “Sorry! Worick gave it to me and—“

Keep it. It looks better on you than him.

Her blush grows, spreading down to her chest.

Nicolas pours her a cup of coffee and hands her the milk from the fridge. By the time Worick wakes up and joins them, she’s laughing and Nicolas is smiling into his coffee mug.

 


 

Alex cries for them both when they walk across the stage at graduation. Afterwards, in Worick and Nicolas’ bare apartment, with everything but their sofa moved out, where Alex sits and waits for them to return.

Worick had said that she could stay until the end, until they graduated, and the end has come. They haven’t talked about it—about them—and now is their last chance.

When Worick comes through the door, smiling like he has conquered the world, she smiles too. Nicolas walks over, drops his cap on her head, and sits next to her on the sofa. Alex is so startled by his casualness she stares.

Nicolas frowns are her. What? he signs.

Alex shakes her head, signs: Nothing.

She looks at Worick and then back at Nic. She’s been practicing the signs over and over every night, just for this very moment.

Now what? she asks. Her lips tremble as she threatens to cry again. She doesn’t want to hear her answer, but she’s dying to know.

Will they leave her, or will they stay?

Worick sits on the sofa on Alex’s other side, his legs draped over Nicolas and Alex’s laps. Nicolas grumbles about Worick’s feet but does not shove them off his lap.

“I think Nic should answer that,” Worick says, looking at his best friend, who is now grinning broadly at both of them.

Nicolas signs: Does it matter?

“You’re horrible with words,” Worick sighs. “Nic means that whatever comes, we’ll be there. It’ll be the three of us together, the way it should be.”

You sound like a chick flick.

“I speak from the heart!”

Your heart is a chick flick.

Alex laughs with amusement and relief. They want her. Finally, someone wants her, and not just for her body. They want her for her scars, the visible and the invisible, and she wants them for theirs.

She falls to the side, her head hitting Nicolas’ shoulder. The deaf boy does not flinch away from her. Worick leans forward, wrapping his arms around her waist, and kisses a spot on her exposed neck where she’s ticklish. She laughs harder than ever.

 


 

Fuck a five second rule;
That's a plan I never understood.
It's September in my kitchen in a Christmas sweater
Sipping cold coffee on the phone with damaged goods.

And there is not a single place that I would rather be.
I'm fucked up just like you are, and you're fucked up just like me.

- “Sloppy Seconds” by Watsky