Chapter 1 – Indi
Even though the first day of fall semester here at Burlington University wasn’t until tomorrow, I was in serious study mode. I wanted to become a doctor and planned to take the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT, in January. The MCAT is one of the hardest standardized tests known to man and I was supposed to spend between three and four hundred hours preparing for it, in addition to all my regular college coursework.
Unfortunately, I’d been so engrossed in my studies tonight I hadn’t realized the time. It was almost eight o’clock, my stomach was painfully empty and I had nothing in my Carter Hall apartment but a pack of sugarless gum.
There was one campus cafeteria still open—The Marketplace—but I’d already taken off all of my makeup.
For most people, this would not be a big deal, but I was born with a large, irregular reddish-purple birthmark, called a port-wine stain. It covered the upper left quadrant of my face and made it look like I lost a no-holds-barred game of paintball. My white parents adopted me from the Chinese orphanage where I’d been abandoned, presumably because of this birthmark. My mom assures me there was a time when I didn’t care what people thought about my face, but I don’t remember it. I only remember being teased and stared at and eventually deemed too different to include in the group.
Until I started wearing makeup.
These days, my normal beauty routine took a half hour. Tonight, I didn’t have that kind of time. The Marketplace was going to close soon.
I put on an oversized Mickey Mouse hoodie and wrapped a scarf over my nose and mouth. When I added sunglasses, virtually none of my face was visible. Hopefully, I’d be able to go in, grab something—anything—check out and leave without anyone noticing me.
I was good to go all the way to the dining hall, keeping to the shadows like a thief. But once I got to the brightly lit building, it was a different story. I checked my reflection in the glass double doors before entering and almost didn’t recognize myself. Dressed as I was with my arms wrapped around myself and a slightly hunched posture, I looked timid and afraid, like I was the victim of a bad home situation. This wasn’t me. Not anymore. I hadn’t looked like this since I was thirteen, about to face another day of teasing and bullying.
Appalled, I immediately straightened my posture, lifted my chin and entered the building with my normal amount of confidence.
In an effort to make a healthy choice, I perused the array of salads. There was one chicken Caesar and one Greek. They both looked a little wilted, so I headed over to the pizza by the slice area. My family owned a successful pizzeria, Slice of Heaven, back home, so I was a bit of a pizza snob, but given the choice between wilted salad and pizza made with substandard dough in a less than ideal oven, I’ll pick pizza every time.
The pepperoni looked like a safe bet. Even though they were generous slices, I got two—one for tonight and one to save in the fridge for tomorrow. Thinking I was home free, I was turning toward the cashier when I collided with someone.
A tall, very solid male someone.
The bowl on his tray upended as it hit the floor, detonating with a spectacular splash of hot chili. A large helping of cornbread bit the dust, too, as his spoon and my pizza slices skittered several feet away. Worst of all, he had a large drink that slid into his chest with quite a bit of force, enough to cause the contents of the cup to geyser up into his face.
People turned and gasped. I stood there, horrified, speechless.
As our eyes met briefly, my heart rate tripled and my mouth went dry.
Shit. I knew this guy.
He was Hudson Forte, darling of the hockey team. Tall, with blue-eyes and sun-kissed blond hair, he looked like he’d been plucked off the beach at Malibu. Freshman year, I caught him and my ex-roommate, Blair, just finishing a nooner in the dorm room she and I shared at the time.
He was just as ripped now as he was then.
His root-beer-drenched shirt clung to every muscle on his rock-hard torso. A pool of soda swirled around on the tray he was still holding. People were gaping at the spectacle. His friend had his phone out and took a picture of him as he set the tray of root beer aside.
“I’m so sorry,” I exclaimed, my voice muffled by my scarf. “I didn’t see you.”
“Hey, accidents happen,” he said, giving me a concerned smile. “No harm done. You’re all right, aren’t you?”
“Me? I’m fine. Just embarrassed.”
As he peered more closely at my face. I realized my scarf had slid down a little and I jerked it back into place, hoping he hadn’t noticed my birthmark.
Unfortunately, what he said next confirmed he had.
“You’re absolutely sure you’re okay?” he asked in a low voice. “Because if you need, um, support or protection or anything, there’s a confidential victim’s advocacy program on campus. I could get the number for you, if you need it.”
This used to happen all the time. People would see my purple, moon-surface birthmark and think I was being abused by one or both of my parents. Even people in the medical field were sometimes unaware that port-wine stains existed. My dad always tried to joke around and say, “You should see the other guy,” and my mother would usually try to explain that it was a vascular birthmark, but I used to get angry and defensive. Thanks to them, I’d grown up in a loving home with parents who barely even raised their voices to me, let alone their hands, and I wasn’t about to tolerate anyone suggesting otherwise.
And yet, I had to forgive this guy. Now that I was an adult, I was more able to see things from a stranger’s point of view. He was coming from a place of concern, not accusation.
I gave him a reassuring smile. “I’m not being abused.”
“I didn’t say you were.” But he didn’t look convinced. I couldn’t blame him. On TV and in the movies, the victims always denied it, saying they fell down the stairs or ran into a door.
“But you’re thinking it. I can tell,” I said. “I swear to you I’m not being abused. I know the number for Campus Advocacy. It’s on a poster in my dorm and I promise, if I ever need it, I will call. Honest.”
One of the cafeteria workers came with a mop and started cleaning up the mess.
“If you’re sure…” he said, still frowning.
“I’m one hundred percent sure. Do you want me to pay for your clothes to be cleaned? Or buy you a new shirt? Because I’d be happy to…”
He shook his head. “No. This probably the oldest T-shirt I own. Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay, cool. See you around,” I said and left.
But I felt his eyes on me all the way to the exit.
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