Heartbreak Kings comes out on January 26, 2021. Here is an advance look at the first chapter.
CHAPTER 1 – SABINE
A throng of irate college boys congregated outside the dormitory as Mom drove our battered truck past on the way to the parking lot. There were fewer of them than I had expected, maybe a dozen huffy, scowling faces, half a dozen signs, and a bunch of yelling. Mom’s eyes widened as she watched them.
“Wow, those boys are crazy! Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. You say the word, and I’ll bring you back home.” Her delicate features strained with worry as she watched some boys turn to glare at our car. One of them threw something that bounced off the truck bed—maybe a rock, maybe something else.
“Mama, I can’t. You know that.” There was too much riding on my coming to this place. Markinswell University, a not-quite Ivy League school on Long Island. I enrolled here with the only full-ride scholarship I had been offered. My only chance for college now that Dad died and Mom was struggling upstate. They included everything—books, housing, transportation allowance, even a small amount of discretionary funds. There was just one little catch…
“Those boys don’t want you here, Sabine. You’re the only woman on campus except for some staff. You know how boys are in groups. You’ll be the only girl.” I could hear the fear in her voice, and I knew where it came from.
“Mama, please. This isn’t Hell’s Kitchen or Port-au-Prince. There’s a lot more security—” I started, but she cut me off.
“It doesn’t have to be as bad as either to still be bad. Even with the security men and the cameras, young men are young men. They’re nice to look at, but they’re not nice.” She waved a hand dismissively as she rounded the corner toward the parking lot.
“I can handle myself,” I insisted gently, pleadingly, hiding my simmering annoyance that she thought I couldn’t.
She nodded slowly, frowning as she drove. “You’re a smart girl, Sabine, and tough, but there are so many of them. You know what men will do when they are angry, and there are a lot of them. You have seen.” Her voice trembled just a little with emotion.
I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes. “Yeah, Mama. I know.” I did. Hell’s Kitchen, back when Dad was alive, when I was ten. Rioting in the streets after the Cartwright assassination. How Mom and Dad had piled furniture against the door and stuck me in the bathtub with a mattress on top of me. Hearing the gunshots, the glass breaking, the men outside screaming. Smelling the smoke.
Mama had a lot of reasons to fear a repeat performance. The Cartwright riots had been only one example of the things she had seen. Compared to what she’d been through, they sheltered me. But I was still determined to win here and prove to her I could fight if I had to.
Heck, I planned to do a lot more than win educationally in this place, if any of my fellow students turned out to be worth dating. With this welcome, they looked like a gang of internet trolls—not worth my time. But I couldn’t let a loud minority shape my view of the school too much.
We drove around the packed parking lot, searching for a space, while Mom perched at the wheel with her hands white-knuckled around it. “If you tell me you will be all right, I will try to trust you. But I do not trust the men who think they own every inch of this place. It was the school’s decision. The men should accept it, but they do not.”
“No, they don’t,” I sighed as we drove down the next aisle of cars. “Some of them are being big babies about it.”
Being the first female student on a traditionally all-male campus would not be easy. I was tough, but with all the anger online, the alums queuing up to talk about what a shame it was to let a woman into the university and treating me like a marauding invader, the hateful emails I had received, the dirt-digging journalists I had dealt with…none of it felt good.
No matter what the stupid boys crowding the front entrance thought, no matter what they accused, I wasn’t doing this to make some kind of feminist statement.
I wasn’t doing it for publicity, to carve out space for women, to spite men, or to violate a sexist tradition.
I was here because of the scholarship, the quality of the school, and what I wanted to do with my life.
This school’s journalism program was one of the best in the country, and the scholarship was the only way I could get into anything resembling its caliber. So, I had gone for it—and succeeded. Any other details or motivations took a distant second to that.
“Babies can’t hurt you.” Mom touched her earlobe unconsciously, toying with a small scar. “Unless they grab your earrings,” she teased, trying to break the tense mood. I rolled my eyes, and she smiled briefly.
With a tired wariness, I wondered whether the boys would remember there was a second entrance to the dorms and come running around bothering us while we were unpacking the car. I wouldn’t put it past them. After all those hysterical rants about how men were being “robbed” of their private spaces, there was very little they wouldn’t do.
But Mom was forgetting a few things—like my ability to defend myself, how hard it was to intimidate me after growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, and how little I cared about some spoiled boys’ assessment of me. I wasn’t here to rob them of anything. I had earned my place there with a full scholarship, outdoing every single male applicant with no extra help. If they really had wanted to keep me out, they should have studied harder. I was a little worried about the destructive tantrums of dyed-in-the-wool sexists and neurotic “activists” mobilizing in defense of male privilege, but not impressed by the guys involved to fear them long term.
For now, I wanted to get my crap upstairs and into my single dorm room, so Mom could drive away from this uncomfortable situation and I could get a damn nap. Driving from Hellbender, New York, down to the tip of Long Island had taken it out of me. I just hoped Mom could make her way back all right. At least it was still early.
I had two suitcases, one achingly heavy from my books, and an additional box full of groceries and drinks that Mom had pressed on me and refused to take back. She didn’t trust the cafeteria system, believing they served nothing but junk. Good thing I had sprung for a dorm fridge and that there was a kitchen on each floor.
“Don’t let those boys take your food either,” Mom warned me as she reached behind her seat and pulled out one of my suitcases. “I paid good money for it.”
“I won’t.” I was sure I could probably get a halfway decent meal at the cafeteria, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want other options. Hopefully, all these angry “advocates” wouldn’t throw a fit over my using the dorm kitchen. “Mama, are you going to be all right up on that mountain by yourself?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve got the dogs, and Mrs. Avery and I will eat supper together.” She squinted slightly with affection. “Don’t you worry about me. You worry about yourself. Keep up your studies. Call me.” She finished unloading everything, and I grabbed the box and the other suitcase, turning to face the tall stucco building while she locked up.
They had set me up in a corner single suite on the fourth floor, with a private bathroom. It was a setup used for disabled kids who needed accessibility, but my special need was having a shower to myself. Mom had made sure, by raising hell about the administration wanting me to use communal bathrooms or showers, and she had threatened to leak their proposal to the press. I was glad she did. The last thing I needed was to deal with showering where some guy had left behind a hidden camera.
“I’m going to call regularly,” I promised gently as I shouldered the box and dragged the suitcase along. I took after Dad more, taller, athletic, less timid. I had taken over jar-opening and grocery-carrying duty since his death and now balanced the heavy box on my shoulder with practiced grace.
She moved ahead and pushed the lobby door open for us—only to stop short, confronted by some sign-waving men who had piled into the space and were blocking the elevators. “Oh,” she said and muttered something in Kreyol that I didn’t catch. I could hear the fear in her voice. I wasn’t having it. You don’t get to scare my mom. I moved ahead of her, studying the knot of men.
Most of them were young—incoming freshmen or close to it, with sloppy T-shirts, snapbacks, hoodies, early fall versions of skater clothes. Still high school boys, really, complete with obvious cool-guy loathing of any girl they couldn’t get their dicks in.
They smirked at me with bully delight, while a red-faced guy with at least ten years on them pushed to the front of the group.
“You thought you could go around us,” he sneered as I took him in coldly. I could hear Mom hesitating behind me, worried about the potential confrontation. Meanwhile, I was assessing him and them.
The main aggressor, Mr. Perpetual Student, was a big, messy slouch of a man with an unkempt russet beard and the pasty skin of someone who lived his whole life indoors. A stale smell of junk food and cigarettes rolled off his black overcoat.
“Well, think again!” He started up his pretentious speech again while I stared at him. Some guys around us shifted restlessly, as if starting to realize their banner-bearer was off his damn rocker over nothing. Two of them started snickering at him. He seemed oblivious, puffing himself up and folding his arms. “I won’t allow you to defile this campus with your—”
“With what, my cooties?” I challenged him. “Grow up.”
More nervous laughter from the crowd—mixed with a deep-voiced chuckle that briefly distracted me into investigating its source. Then I stared back at Mr. Perpetual Student, watching him huff while his face turned purple. “You have no right to be here!” he yelled.
“That’s not your call. Get the fuck out of the way,” I said tiredly.
He blinked in shock at my unladylike language as a few guys chuckled and moved back, but the rest folded their arms, still smirking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure in a black leather jacket just leaning against the wall, watching the fun.
“Make me!” His voice quavered childishly.
I stared at him for a second, then shrugged, set down the suitcase, and pulled out my phone.
His eyes widened, and he took a half step backward. “What—who are you calling?” he demanded suspiciously.
I shrugged my free shoulder. “Campus security. They find out you’re blocking students from entering the dorm, you’ll probably spend a chunk of time in a cell.”
He swallowed, the red draining from his face. “You wouldn’t.”
“You bet your ass, I would,” I declared, glaring at him hard as I took a half step forward. “See, I don’t give a shit about your hurt ego or your problems with women or your need to throw all that weight around. That’s not my concern. You, your anger, all this bullshit, these teenage boys you’ve rallied to your little hateful cause…” I swept my arm around to take in the remaining guys. “None of that fucking shit matters to me.”
“This is men’s space—” he started, but I just shook my head.
“This is the school where I have a full-ride scholarship. The administration decided that this is no longer ‘men’s space,’ not me. They offered me the ride. I took it. There is nothing more to it than that.” I continued staring hard at him, my eyes aching and my heart pounding from the social discomfort but determined to make my point. “If you have a problem with that, take it up with the administration or go whine about it in your hate groups online. Because I don’t care.”
The guy went pale as another whooped. I heard the door open as some of his backup left. He turned to watch them go, then turned back and gave me a panicked stare.
“Make yourself scarce,” I advised, hovering my thumb over my phone’s touchscreen. “Or you can get kicked out for causing trouble and relive your youth at another goddamn campus.”
His lips trembled as he glanced from me to Mom to his dwindling support, until finally, he eyed me and stumbled for the far door. Two guys laughed at him as he passed.
I scooped my suitcase up again and glanced back at Mom, who was staring at me wide-eyed. “Oh my God, child,” she said and then laughed and shook her head. “What have I raised?”
“A fighter, Mama.” I walked up to the elevator doors and pressed the button to summon it.
“That was a little dangerous. I don’t think he had his head on properly.” Mom dragged my suitcase through the elevator door when it came, scowling with worry.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Mama, but I had to do something. He was going to keep talking and making a fuss until I did.” I carted the rest of my stuff in and then leaned against the wall beside her, facing outward. “Guys like that don’t stop until you push back.”
There were still a few guys in the lobby, including the one in the black leather jacket, one arm folded over his broad chest as he talked on the phone. He examined me. Our eyes met just as the door closed, giving me a glimpse of pale irises the color of silver coins. Then the doors slammed shut.
“Just be careful, child. Too many of these women-hating men are shooting up places these days.” My poor mom. I could still see the fear in her dark eyes at the thought of my being here alone.
“I will be,” I promised, but mostly, I was just pissed off. I didn’t really care if a bunch of assholes wanted to throw their little tantrums and make my life less convenient. They would soon learn that I was just another student and didn’t give a damn about the political uproar, or they would get security called on them and get tossed out of school.
There was nobody in the hallway when we got upstairs. We made our way to the small door at the end of the hall. I snatched the folded note taped to the door off it before Mom caught up, and I tried my key.
The room within was small and plain, with dark gray office carpet, a long, narrow bed, a desk, and a single large window. Unadorned white walls. Thin horizontal blinds. The bathroom beyond its open door was barely larger than the closet. I crossed to the window and peered out, watching the guys who had been bothering us walk away across the quad in front of the dormitory. One of them tossed his sign in the trash as he went.
“This looks all right.” Mom set down the suitcase of books with a sigh, and I placed the box of food on the desk. “At least they did not make you have roommates.”
“No way I would put up with that,” I sighed, poking through the small chest of drawers tucked inside the closet. “Not really any room for over one suitcase.”
“I’ll take back the other one for now.” Mom put her fists on her hips and scanned around the room, then stared back up at me with soft-eyed worry. “I don’t want to leave you here alone.”
“I know.” I gave her a firm hug, smelling her vetiver perfume, and sighed into her close-cropped hair. “I’ll call every day if it makes you feel better.”
She lingered a little while as I unpacked my books from the suitcase and piled them on my bed and desk. I had gotten my books early via mail order to get a jump on reading them. The journalists’ biographies tempted me to open them and resume reading instead of putting them away. But she needed to get back home before dark, so I resisted and laid them aside with the others.
Finally, we said our goodbyes, and she walked back out to the truck and left. I returned to my dorm room, sat down on my bed, and sighed. I made it. I’m here. They didn’t stop me.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the crumpled note. I unfolded it and studied the single word scrawled on it in Sharpie. The men of Markinswell had decided how they would represent themselves to me, Mom, the administration, and the public. It seemed some of them would have to face consequences before they would back down. Maybe a little public humiliation was in order.
I got my dorm room cleaned up first. Clothes hung up, the bureau stuffed full of books, my suitcase tucked under my bed. Food arranged on top of the bureau if it didn’t go in the fridge. Chair against the door with its back tucked under the knob. Then I took a long shower. Back home, fuel oil was precious. Showers were down to four minutes, twice that if I needed to wash my hair. Here, someone else was footing the bill, so I took my time scrubbing and washing my thick mahogany-brown curls. It took me a while to dry and style my hair while standing in the warm, steamy room. But I definitely wanted to get my appearance right before I went on camera.
I glanced at the note again as I was getting dressed in one of my few nice, corporate-looking outfits. The silvery tweed popped against my dark skin. The careful bun made me appear older, more respectable. Makeup and jewelry, nice but not too flashy. I looked professional and grown-up.
In short, I looked way better than the guys trying to block my entrance or leaving obscenities on my door. And I was about to make sure that many people saw that.
With enough negative reinforcement, they would likely stop. And if not, well, I would have plenty of documentation to bring to the administration. Whatever happened, whatever they tried, I wasn’t letting the bastards on campus impede my education.