Mariana signalled a stop at the overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway and swung off her bike. Emily caught the move in her peripheral vision only because she was looking at the same thing. She did a U-turn and joined the group.
“I don’t care what our training goals are for today’s ride,” said their team captain. “This is a mandatory stop.” Six cell phones came out and snapped panoramas of the view. Then the women sat on the guardrail and admired the variations of colour that stretched out of sight all around them. The sun was still lighting up the mountainsides, even as dark clouds gathered to the south and began creeping up the valley.
“Ok. Let’s not cool off.” They went back to their bikes. “Stay together in peloton until we get past Wintergreen. The tourists are not looking at the road right now.”
They sped along the Parkway, passing the cars as often as they were overtaken. About 20 km later, they turned left onto Route 664 and spread out as they plummeted to the valley floor below. Emily took the lead on the flat stretch but slowed after making the turn towards Nellysford, so they could catch up. They reformed the peloton and streaked back to Charlottesville. Three hours later, they were locking their bicycles inside the converted garage on Grounds where the team kept their racing machines. Emily rode her faithful Bianchi back to Lefevre House, carrying it inside and up the stairs. She pushed open the door to her room just as the rain started.
“You’re the lucky one,” said Cindy, getting up to close the window as the rain tried to blow in.
“Yeah, we rode like crazies to get here before that broke.” Emily laid her bike alongside Cindy’s new Specialized Diverge. Bikes were officially not allowed in the rooms, but after the string of bike thefts outside the halls last month, the RA’s had been looking the other way, as long as the students kept the bikes out of sight and did not track dangerous levels of mud into the buildings. Emily did her stretches, while Cindy went back to whatever she was studying. When Emily got back from the shower, she pulled the orange juice from the micro-fridge and started downing the half-gallon in quick glassfuls.
“You want some?” she asked Cindy.
“Sure. Thanks.” Cindy rubbed her eyes and stood up. Emily handed her a glass of orange juice and poured another for herself. “You still going to the frat party tonight?”
Emily looked at the storm outside. “If this blows over in time – and if you’re going, too.”
“Absolutely. Preston invited me.”
“It’s an open house. You don’t need an invitation.”
Cindy sighed, as if Emily were clueless. “But he’s a member and lives in the house. That’s different.” Emily wasn’t sure why, but she did not pursue it. Cindy’s easy infatuation with upperclassmen sometimes grated on her, but her roommate had the good sense not to bring anyone to the room. In fact, she seemed to have a natural ability to find men who lived off-grounds, either in the fraternity houses or their own apartments. Emily did not envy her, because so far, none of the “boys” at the University had caught her interest. Spending a summer with the likes of Jack, Frank, Pierre, Jerry, Jean-Paul, Jacques and Jean-Pierre had definitely skewed her taste in male companionship.
“Can we go together? I don’t know anyone on Rugby Road, and I don’t want to show up by myself.”
“Sure. Preston has to help with the preparations and hosting. But don’t expect me to stay with you all night.”
“Of course not. But you know more frat boys than I do; you could introduce me.”
After supper at the Observatory Hill dining hall, they went back to their room to change. Emily might have skipped this party, because it started so late, but Taniqua had been accepted into the Junior Development Program in September and had her own training schedule with the team. Emily could truly recover and even nap on Fridays.
“Don’t you have another dress?” asked Cindy, as Emily slipped into her all-purpose black dress. “I know it’s an original Michael Kors, but still.”
“Yes, but this one was a gift from my friends in Canada, and it goes everywhere.”
“But don’t you want to wear something different?”
“Not particularly. I don’t dress up often, and then it’s always with a different group of people, so no one knows that I only wear this dress.”
“You’re not on tour now, Em.”
“I know. I keep meaning to bring some things from the house, but then I forget.” She put on a little mascara, and some of the clear sun-blocking lip balm that she used instead of lipstick. She had her mother’s lips, which were naturally pink without help. While Cindy finished her make-up, Emily checked her email and Facebook pages.
“Oh, that’s great!”
“Sam Wallenborn found a full sponsorship for Tani! Bicycle, uniforms, travel expenses and everything.” Sam was the coach of the CRC Team.
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“It’s fantastic! Mrs. Jackson couldn’t buy her anything, and the team was trying hard to line up a sponsor, because it’s not cheap. Most riders at least have their own bikes and clothes at the junior level.”
“Who is it?”
“Anonymous. Can you believe that? Someone just called Sam and made the offer.”
“I’ll bet they come out of the closet when she starts winning races like you.”
“I’m not winning anything yet, just trying to get it back.”
“You will. I’m sure.” Cindy took another look in the mirror.
The storm had blown over, leaving the air cool and fresh. Emily was grateful for the jacket that came with the dress. They walked down McCormick Road to Rugby Road, where most of the fraternity houses were located. It wasn’t a “Greek Row”, but a city neighbourhood, in which there happened to be a prevalence of houses owned or leased by fraternities and sororities.
Preston’s fraternity owned a big house facing the street. The trees in the front yard hid the Greek letters on the porch. A dozen students of both sexes were drinking from red plastic cups out front and almost all were smoking. Emily marvelled at the girls who wore stiletto heels to these affairs, when their shoes were going to sink into the red Virginia mud under the wet grass. She was glad that Cindy stayed on the concrete and led them straight to the door.
Preston was waiting at the door. He took possession of Emily’s roommate with a hug and a kiss on the lips, then waved at Emily.
“Make yourself at home. There’s punch on the table there – it’s not supposed to be spiked. The stronger stuff is in the kitchen.”
“Thanks,” said Emily. Preston steered Cindy toward the punch bowl. Emily paused as usual. She counted fifteen boys, a dozen girls and a man in his mid-twenties leaning on the bannister of the stairs to the next floor. After a quick glance at Emily, everyone turned back to their conversations except the man at the stairs, who smiled and raised his glass. Emily chose to walk around the other side of the room, heading for the punch table.
“Emily!” A male voice called out from behind the front door. She recognized Peter Hawthorne from the UVA Cycling Club. Not one of the faster riders, probably because he missed so many training rides. He looked perfectly at home in a fraternity blazer, blue and orange bow tie, and boat shoes with no socks.
“Hi, Pete. I didn’t know you pledged here.”
“Not a secret. I haven’t seen you at all except on the training rides.”
“Between those and classes, I don’t get out much. Cindy talked me into coming.”
“Preston’s Cindy?” Emily bristled at the suggestion but looking at the two of them by the door to the back room, she could hardly blame Pete.
“Yeah. She’s my roommate.”
“Cool. Let me show you around.”
Pete led her through the large rooms of the main floor, introducing her to his brothers and a few of their friends. The noise level increased as the evening wore on. The appetizer table was well-stocked, but the punch bowls in each room and the traffic coming out of the kitchen with red plastic cups made it clear that food was not the feature of the evening.
“I thought alcohol was not allowed on Rugby Road.”
“What can they really do about it? It’s a private residence. To enforce anything, someone has to file a complaint, or they have to catch you on the street itself.” He nodded across the room. “Preston and Julius over there are the designated dry-guys, which satisfies the rule for sober supervision. Want some punch?” Pete handed her a plastic cup that he had just filled. It tasted sticky and sweet, like a soda fountain drink with too much syrup.
“You think they have some soda in there?” Emily said, nodding to the kitchen. “I’d like to water this down.”
“Sure.” They went to the kitchen, where Pete pulled out a two-litre bottle of soda water from the refrigerator. He topped off her cup.
“Much better. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Oh-oh. No one’s manning the door. Would you excuse me?”
Emily raised her cup affirmatively and walked to the large room in the back of the house. The music that was causing everyone to shout was coming from there. She scanned the crowd and noticed a half-dozen boys and girls not dancing.
“Want to dance?” the speaker on her right stood about her height. Black, wavy hair, very pale skin and eyes that seemed a watery blue. He smiled earnestly – hopefully even.
“Sure.” Emily put her drink on the sideboard, and they moved into the crowd.
After two numbers, Emily danced with another boy, this one taller, with sandy hair, olive skin and brown eyes. When the DJ started to spin a new song, she excused herself to go get her drink. As she approached the sideboard, the man who had been at the stairs was standing there. He picked up the red plastic cup and said, “Is this yours?”
“It should be. Thanks.” She tasted it carefully. It seemed almost the same. How many drinks were thinned down with soda like that? The difference might be the melted ice. She took a deep drink and smiled uneasily at him.
“Nice party,” she said, sipping her drink to avoid saying more.
“It is, but it’s stuffy in here. Would you like to step out back? The air is fresher, because the smokers are all out front.”
They made their way around the dance floor, Emily carefully looking around her. She felt a little strange, but it might be the air, like the man said. He held the door for her, and she stepped out on the porch. It was a large, screened verandah, wide but not deep. Directly in front of them were stairs to the lawn out back. Emily noticed two couples making out on the sofas to either side of the door. Then –
She woke up in a dark place. Branches were scratching her face, and her back was wet from the ground beneath her. She felt dizzy, so for a while she lay there, breathing deliberately and trying to grasp her surroundings. It was deathly quiet. No party. No passers-by. No normal street noise.
The frat house. The back yard. There were bushes. She tried to shake her head and get up, but that gave her a headache and she almost threw up. She felt a pain on her quads, so she lay there again for a while.
Finally, she managed to roll over and get up on all fours, slowly. She crawled out from the bushes and found herself behind the frat house. It was dark, and the doors were closed. She took some deep breaths and used a rain gutter pipe to help herself up. She still felt dizzy, but she knew that she had to move to get her blood going. She felt cold. She looked down, slowly, and pulled her dress up to see why her quads hurt. It was dark, but she thought there were bruises – big bruises – on her thighs.
Breathing carefully, she made her way to the side and then the front of the house. The yard was littered with bottles and red plastic cups. She felt very dizzy, very cold and very sleepy, but she forced herself to walk to the street. Holding on to the stone wall that ran by the sidewalk, she made her way downhill, toward the Beta Bridge. There was light there, and an Ambassador SUV parked at right angles to the street. The Ambassadors – a private security service hired by the University to help students on the Corner – were sitting in the car. As she wobbled down the street, the driver got out of the car and walked toward her. He was saying something and looking concerned, but she could not hear him. She thought the street lights dimmed.
She woke up again. Bright lights. Intense blue eyes. High cheekbones.
Broad smile. “Me again, Emily.”
“What happened? Is this the ER?”
“Afraid so, but I’m not your nurse this time. Suzie Bennett was on duty and she called me when you were brought in.” Suzie came around Hilda, who stepped aside.
“It appears that you were given a dose of Ambien.”
“That’s a tranquilizer. Why?”
“We’re running tests now. It’s also used as a date rape drug. You have some bruising on your legs and your dress was torn. How do you feel now?”
“Not as dizzy as when I woke up before.”
“Do you think you could talk to the detectives? We think you may have been assaulted while unconscious.”
“Like date rape?”
Suzie nodded. Suddenly, Emily felt a surge of anger like she had never experienced in her life. She clenched her fists and struggled not to reach out and hit someone.
“I haven’t even had a date yet and I get raped?!” The monitor by her bed started beeping. Suzie moved to the bed, but Hilda took Emily’s hand on one hand and held her face close with the other hand.
“Easy, Em, the rape kit was negative,” said Hilda. “It’s already serious enough; let’s not make this any worse. Can you talk to the police?”
Emily nodded. She took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. She noticed that her head was not hurting when she moved it.
“Can I see Mom and Dad first?”
“Let me see,” said Suzie. She went outside. She came back with Katherine and Mark, and a man in a tweed jacket and a turtleneck, who stood back. Emily gave her mother’s hand a squeeze and looked at Mark.
“Hi, Dad.” She asked Suzie, “How long have I been here?”
“About six hours. We checked you in at 6:30.”
“Not the way I meant to sleep in on my recovery day.” Hilda chuckled. Katherine smiled, but her eyes were still wet from crying. Emily squeezed Katherine’s hand again. “I’ll be OK, Mom. Hilda’s here.” She lifted her head. “Is that the detective?”
He stepped up. “Lieutenant Hillsdale, Emily. May I ask you a few questions?”
“Yes. Let’s do this.”
Suzie gently led Katherine and Mark out. Hilda started to leave, but Emily called out, “Hilda, you’re the expert on handling policemen.” She winked. “Could you stay? And can we pull up some chairs? I have questions, too.”
Forty-five minutes later, they knew that someone had put Ambien in Emily’s drink. She might have not passed out so completely if she had not ridden so hard on training. The police lab found the drug in several other cups, but not in any of the punch bowls. A neighbour had called the police when the crowd out front started a loud drinking game.
The police broke up the party. By then, Emily must have been in the bushes, because no one noticed her. When the police arrived, there was no one matching Emily’s description of the man who escorted her out back. Her would-be rapist had fled — or been apprehended in the confusion if he was not the man Emily described.
Emily was discharged the next day. The news was full of the story of the bust, and the fraternity was suspended pending a University and police investigation. There was no mention of Emily or the attempted rape in the media, for which Emily was very grateful.
Katherine wanted her to stay home, but Emily asked to return to her room at least at first. She hoped that focussing on mid-term exams the following week would help her get back to normal.
Cindy was on her bed with her computer when Emily pushed through the door.
“Hi, I bet you had a good time, staying out the whole next day,” she said. “Did you hear what happened after you left?”
Emily paused, confused at first, then slowly shook her head.
“The party got busted by the cops. It’s in all the papers and on TV. There’s even a picture of Preston being escorted by the police. I spent hours in the police station with the others, and only got back here at three in the morning.”
“I’m sorry, Cindy. Are you OK?”
“No, I’m not OK!” Her eyes started welling. “Preston was an animal. He tore my dress before we could even get cozy in his room. Then he ran when the police showed up. I thought he was in charge. I hadn’t even gotten dressed completely when policemen came into the room! I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life!”
Emily stared at her roommate in amazement. Cindy had no idea of what had happened to her or where Emily had been. Cindy noticed her silence.
“So, did you meet someone after all? Where’s your black dress?”
After a pause, Emily said, “Yes, I did, but I got in an accident and the dress was ruined. These are some things from home.”
“Omigod! What happened?”
“I fell off a motorbike and bruised my legs. I’ll be OK. I can ask for a new dress for Christmas. What are you working on?”
“Chemistry. I should have saved that for second semester. It’s hard.”
“Well, I’m worried about all my subjects. I don’t feel like the A student I was.”
“I’ve heard that a lot around here. Most of us were top of our class, weren’t we?”
Emily nodded. “And now we’re just a bunch of stupid First-years.”
She put the small bag she brought from home into her closet and booted up her computer. There would be time to tell Cindy the truth after Mid-term exams.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,