Take A Chance

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Even on Thanksgiving, work was work. On Black Friday, it was busy and filled with diners, but still, there was nothing all that different about it. I don’t know whether I was relieved or not as I bustled around so much that there was no time for conversations or breaks. It kept my mind busy, but in the moments where I was making beds or sweeping floors, my thoughts got away from me.

What Nikki had said stayed with me. She said it was okay to be who I was. She was so accepting and kind and I had never met anyone like her before. I couldn’t shake the thought that she knew I was gay, yet she didn’t seem to care all that much.

My face reddened as I wiped mud off the ground from some messy guests coming in the front door. I hadn’t told anyone I was a lesbian yet, but now, I was thinking about telling Nikki. Even if she already knew somehow, I wanted her to hear it from me. I wanted to be the one who told her, who finally said, “I’m gay,” out loud. I was ready… or I thought I was anyway.

To be truthful, I had no idea if I was ready. All I knew was that I wanted to be myself around someone, and even if Nikki wasn’t gay herself, she wouldn’t hate me. She’d only known me for about a month too. Unlike my whole family, she wouldn’t have an image in her head of me that would change all that much… hopefully.

I sighed, wiping up the last of the mud and getting up. My heart was beating too quickly with the thought of telling Nikki even though she wasn’t even here. I really should have learned some techniques for managing my anxiety; it couldn’t have been healthy to have my heart rate increase so quickly so often.

I got nervous every time I thought about telling Nikki in the next week, which was a lot since I thought about it almost every time we texted. I thought about sending her a quick message telling her I was gay or letting her know more slyly that I was interested in girls rather than guys. I thought about blurting it out and hanging up the phone.

But I didn’t do any of that. I couldn’t. I wasn’t brave enough to say anything yet.

Plus, I got distracted with finals, papers, and the end of our group project. To be truthful, it was the group project that got under my skin the most, largely because of Jason.

Mary had done all her work in good time, with help from me, and Nate had surprisingly finished up his sections quite quickly. I was even more surprised that Ashley put in some legitimate effort, showing up for our meetings after we got back from Thanksgiving break. She still didn’t do much, but even with us meeting every few days to prepare for the presentation and get in some practice, Ashley showed up to each one.

Her eyes narrowed every time Jason started being weird around me. She would interrupt him consistently if he got too close, even if those were the only words that she said to us all day. I wasn’t sure what she was doing, or if she knew how helpful she was being, but I was grateful anyway.

The only problem was that Ashley couldn’t always be around to save me, not when Jason seemed to make it a point to catch me off guard. I was unpacking my things in our library study room when he snuck up behind me, putting his hands on me more fully as he wrapped his arms around my waist. It was an intimate gesture that most women would love, if it was coming from someone they actually wanted to be close to them.

I stiffened, my heart immediately jumping into my throat. Cold fear snaked down my back as I tried not to move, worried that struggling would make him hold onto me tighter.

“Hey Corey,” he said in a low voice that even I could tell was meant to be seductive. I almost gagged at the feeling of his hot breath at the back of my neck. It made me feel like jumping out of my skin, like I was dirty and couldn’t be cleaned.

My brain kicked in a second later and I pushed him away, immediately putting a few feet of space between us. I was looking at him in fear, my back pressed against the wall. He didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest, looking at me with some kind of sick smirk. It was like he thought this was some kind of game and I was the best kind of target.

Anything I might have said was interrupted by Mary and Nate as they entered the room quietly. Clearly, they’d seen what Jason did through the glass wall but weren’t saying anything. They didn’t even look at me.

I felt something like shame well up within me for no reason at all. Logically, I knew there was no reason for me to feel ashamed of something Jason had done to me, but guilt for not pushing him off faster threatened to suffocate me. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack again, but then Ashley walked in. She narrowed her eyes at me and came to stand at my side, putting herself between Jason and myself without a word. When Mary and Nate did nothing, Ashley stood in front of me. I would have to thank her later.

No one said anything as we all sat down, so I started going over our current progress while awkwardly helping Mary put her part together. Nate seemed about done with his part. Jason made a point to keep trying to get as close to me as possible, but Ashley kept her eyes on him. Even though I was stuck working on her part of our paper and presentation, I kind of thought it was worth it if she was going to be my defense against Jason.

Ashley hadn’t participated at all during our conversation that day, texting on her phone, but when we were packing up, she stood up with me. She lingered, like she was waiting. The only reason she left my side was because Jason left first and she said she needed to say something to him.

I frowned. I had no idea what Ashley would have to say, but I didn’t push it. I packed up my stuff, Mary and Nate still in the room with me. As I was sticking my computer back in my bag, Mary said to me, “So you and Jason?”

My hand almost slipped, but luckily my laptop was spared. “What?” I asked nervously. My hand felt slick with sweat. My throat felt dry.

Mary frowned at me. “Oh, sorry. I thought you were a little uncomfortable about him hitting on you, but you seemed to enjoy it when we walked in. Are you guys together?” She gave me a smile like I should be happy, but my heart froze. My mind couldn’t process her words. That’s what she thought? That I liked having that sleazy guy’s arms around me?

I felt like throwing up. The horror must have shown on my face as Mary’s expression shifted, but I didn’t stick around to hear what she had to say. I had to get out of there. I tore out of the study room in a rush, keeping my head down and clutching my laptop bag to my side. I got a glimpse of Ashley squaring off against Jason, her shoulders stiff and her eyes full of hatred. We caught each other’s gaze, but I kept walking. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I would have to thank Ashley for what she was doing to help me later.

My footsteps carried through the courtyard. It was dark out now, the streetlights lighting my path as I walked along the cobblestone path of my school. I took a few deep breaths in the cold night air, watching my breath form a cloud in front of me. Silence descended upon me like a warm blanket, clearing my thoughts.

I was okay now. I’d gotten away safely. Then I felt a hand grab my arm and pull me back. I wrenched myself away, clutching my arm to my chest and turning around.

“Jason…” I said quietly, glad that I was standing near the UC. There were enough people here that I should be safe. I checked all my belongings subtly, making sure everything was secured this time. Vaguely, I hoped Ashley was alright even if I knew she couldn’t protect me constantly.

He looked down at me with heavy eyes and a piercing gaze. “Look, Corey, I know we’ve been dancing around each other for a while, but I figured I should be forward with you. Let’s go out. I’ll take you to dinner.”

He flashed me a smile. I might have been a nice person, but I had no trouble saying, “No. I’m not interested. I’m sorry.” I didn’t feel bad about it.

Jason’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t have to be shy. I’m willing to pay for everything if you’re willing to do something for me.” His voice lowered as he stepped closer to me, forcing me to take a few steps back.

“No,” I repeated more firmly. “I’m… interested in someone else.” I said it without thinking, but I wasn’t lying. Nikki’s face popped into my mind. I resisted the urge to call her on the phone, needing to hear her voice.

“Really? I haven’t seen you with any other guys. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind spending more time with me anyway,” he implored, but I was firm.

I took a few more steps backwards now. “Leave me alone. I don’t want a relationship with you.”

“Who said anything about a relationship?” Jason said back, walking forward. “I know all the best ways to make you scream.”

This time, Ashley wasn’t the one who saved me. A familiar set of arms pulled me backwards gently as Ray positioned himself in front of me. He was in his uniform, his status as a police officer making Jason take a few steps away from me.

“You weren’t bothering this young lady, were you, sir?” Ray asked in a professional voice.

“No, sir,” Jason said with a waning smile. “Just offering to walk her back to her home.”

Ray’s fist clenched at his side, but all he said was, “I would be glad to escort her to be sure she stays safe. You have a nice evening, sir.” He led me away with a warm hand on the small of my back, protecting me even as Jason’s eyes bore into me. I hunched in on myself as if Ray’s much larger form could obscure me from view.

When we were far enough away, Ray said quietly, “Are you okay, Corey?”

“Yes,” I breathed out in relief. My hands were clenching at my bag nervously. They were shaking. I didn’t know what to say, so the only words that came out were: “Why are you here?”

He shrugged. “I got called about a dispute between a couple of drunks. I was walking back to my car when I heard your voice.” I knew he was looking at me, but I kept my head down. “Corey, I know that wasn’t your fault.”

I breathed out. “I… I should have run or something.” I paused unsurely. “Thank you for helping me,” I added quietly.

Ray’s eyes were on me. “You don’t need to thank me for helping out, but Corey, you were scared. It’s not your fault that you weren’t able to do anything.” We walked for a little while longer in silence, the night air swirling around us. “I don’t trust that guy.”

“Neither do I,” I said somberly. “But he won’t leave me alone.”

I was aware that Ray was looking at me as we walked. Finally, he said, “Are you safe, Corey?”

I wondered how many times he’d asked that question in his life. How many times he’d had to see people get hurt. How many times he’d been too late. But no matter how many times he’d asked that question before, he was still here to save me. He was still giving so much of himself to everyone else when they needed him.

Admiration bloomed in my chest for Ray. He was goofy and loud, but he had a good soul. “I’m safe,” I affirmed. I didn’t know if I was lying or not, but I felt safer with Ray next to me. I didn’t think I was lying.

Ray’s footsteps sounded loud next to mine as we crossed the footbridge that would lead to my apartment. He let out a heavy sigh and handed me his phone. I blinked in confusion. “Um…?”

“Would you be okay putting your number into my phone? I’ll text you so you have mine. I want you to be able to call me if you ever feel unsafe, okay?” I could hear the sincerity in his voice as he went on, “I know Nikki will always come if you call her, but if she doesn’t answer or something, I want you to have my number.”

I looked up at Ray before opening his phone and putting myself in his contacts. When I handed him his phone back, he texted me right away so I’d have his number too. Ray nodded to me, looking up at my building in front of us.

“Here’s your stop?” he asked kindly. When I nodded, Ray squeezed my shoulder. “Text Nikki and tell her you’re okay? She cares about you.”

I smiled at him, my chest feeling full. It felt nice to know he cared about me too as I nodded to him. “I’ll text her. I’ll… I’ll be strong enough to ask for help next time I need it too.”

His smile seemed to reflect off of the lamps outside. “Good to hear,” he said with a friendly wave, trotting back the way we came. I listened to the jingling noise his gear made as he ran to get back to his car. Hopefully he wouldn’t get in trouble for helping me.

I pulled out my phone and added Ray to my contacts as I used my keycard to get into my building. I opened Nikki’s last message. Okay though, but your brother can’t be nearly as bad as my sister. She’s one of those superior types. Always criticizing me. I think she learned from my mom.

I smiled sorrowfully in understanding. My dad’s like that: “Why don’t you get a makeover? Why don’t you dress nicer? Why don’t you try harder?” At least my brothers aren’t like that. I’m sorry about your mom though. I almost added something about my dad bugging me to get a boyfriend, but I decided not to. Instead, I added, By the way, before you hear it from Ray: I’m okay.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that she texted back so fast. I plan on commenting about your dad, but for now: did you have to call the police? What happened?

I’m okay- really. Ray just happened to be nearby. He got me away from this creepy guy.

I felt my phone vibrate again as I entered my apartment, but I didn’t have time to check it as I noticed Shawna and Jordan cooking something near the stove. They didn’t even acknowledge me as I stepped to the fridge to grab a bottle of water. I didn’t acknowledge them either, although I knew I’d have to duck around them to get dinner.

Leaving the door open to my room, I set my bag down, jumping only a little when my phone vibrated again. Can we call? Nikki had asked me.

Instead of answering, I called her, putting in my headphones and slipping my phone in my pocket. She knew I wasn’t a phone call person, or the type of person to respond back right away, but she was worried and it warmed my heart.

“Corey?”

“What’s up, Nikki?”

I could hear her sigh in relief on the other line. “You definitely can’t tell me you met with Ray while’s he’s on duty and not explain.”

I felt a mixture between happiness and guilt bubble up in my chest at her concern, making me smile tiredly as I made my way into the kitchen. I completely ignored Shawna’s stink eye and Jordan’s non-acknowledgement as I slipped between them to get a plate and some leftover pasta.

“Ray was handling a call with a few drunks,” I said while I poured pasta into my dish. “He happened to be nearby. Do you remember when I called you the first time?” I didn’t want to say the time I had a panic attack in front of my two roommates, but Nikki gave me a noise of affirmation. “It was the same creep bothering me. Ray walked me home.”

I turned to Shawna, who was standing in front of the microwave. Covering my phone, I said, “Excuse me.”

The other woman kept standing there, her arms crossed. She stared at me for a tense moment before she moved like it was a lot of work. I visibly rolled my eyes, putting my pasta in the microwave as Nikki said, “Do you need me to kick some ass? I’ll do it. Or you can stay here if you want.”

“You’ll get tired of me,” I joked. “And have to drive me to school.”

“Unlikely, but fine, we’ll start with a sleepover.”

“I don’t know, Nikki,” I said unsurely. My faults as a roommate immediately sprang to mind. Before I could stop myself, I went on, “I spend a long time in the bathroom. Anxious stomach. It annoys my brothers to no end.” The microwave beeped behind me. I turned to remove my food, going to another drawer to get a fork.

Nikki chuckled on the other line. “Hey, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. Ray, Dom, and Mikey get it. They accidentally mixed laxatives instead of vitamins into their drinks one time. I only avoided it because I actually read the label.”

I snorted unattractively at the image of those poor boys, listening to Nikki’s snickers in the background. “Intelligence gets you a long way.” I kicked my door closed with my foot, lowering my voice. “Um, but if you’re serious about me sleeping over, maybe after school’s over? Before I go home for a week?”

There was a palpable pause. I worried I messed up, but for some reason, my worries didn’t feel as potent as usual. I could practically hear Nikki’s smile on the other line. “I’m seriously serious. Ah, that phrasing was awkward; forget I said it that way. But sure, that would be great. Everyone will be here before the holidays, but then Ray will be with his dad, Mikey’s going to his sister’s, and Dom’s seeing his parents.”

“And you’ll be with your family too, right?” I confirmed.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said lowly. “But you’ll be here until after Christmas. You’re sure you don’t want me to hang with you?”

I set my laptop on the bed, hauling myself up beside it. My pasta sat on the plate next to me. “Don’t think you can use me to get out of seeing your family. But when I’m not working, I’ll be around. Um, text me the day I can come over?”

“Will do. I believe I heard the microwave by you, so you eat your food. I’ll be here. You’re okay though, right? You said it was the same creepy guy who bothered you before?”

I let out a heavy sigh I was sure she could hear. “Yeah, it was him. We’re in the same group for a project, but it should end in two weeks. Then I won’t need to see him anymore.”

There was a pause before Nikki said, “I’m glad. It’s not that you’re not strong enough, but people like that can be really terrifying. As a… shorter woman,” she said like it was hard to admit, “plenty of larger guys have been intimidating to me. And a few taller girls.”

I smiled at her concern. “I understand. Lots of people scare me, but this guy… something about him makes my skin crawl.” I probably should have told her about how Jason wrapped his arms around me, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it. Mary’s words about me “enjoying it” still bounced around in my skull.

“I’ve met the type,” Nikki said with enough sympathy that I knew she was being truthful. “Get through these two weeks and then you can relax with me. And with your boss, I guess, since you’ll have to work.”

I laughed, imagining Kurosawa in a Santa hat. I wondered what we’d have to do to get him to actually wear one. “We’ll be best friends by the end of it,” I joked referring to Kurosawa. “Okay, I’ll talk to you later, Nikki.”

“I’ll text you,” she said instead of a goodbye, hanging up after our short conversation.

I used the rest of my evening to relax, feeling much better than I had earlier. Nikki had a way about her that simply made me feel safe and calm, and maybe she knew that too; maybe that was why she wanted to call. Whatever her reason was, I was glad we’d talked. Talking to her even for a few minutes confirmed something for me: I wanted to tell Nikki that I was gay. I just had to get up the courage to do it.

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