Beautiful Disaster Chapter One
EVERYTHING IN THE ROOM SCREAMED that I didn’t belong. The stairs were crumbling, the rowdy patrons were shoulder to shoulder, and the air was a medley of sweat, blood, and mold. Voices blurred as they yelled numbers and names back and forth, and arms flailed about, exchanging money and gestures to communicate over the noise. I squeezed through the crowd, following close behind my best friend.
“Keep your cash in your wallet, Abby!” America called to me. Her broad smile gleamed even in the dim light.
“Stay close! It’ll get worse once it starts!” Shepley yelled over the noise. America grabbed his hand and then mine as Shepley led us through the sea of people.
The sharp bleating of a bullhorn cut through the smoky air. The noise startled me, and I jumped in reaction, looking for the source of the blast. A man stood on a wooden chair, holding a wad of cash in one hand, the horn in the other. He held the plastic to his lips.
“Welcome to the bloodbath! If you are looking for Economics 101 . . . you are in the wrong fucking place, my friend! If you seek the Circle, this is Mecca! My name is Adam. I make the rules and I call the fight. Betting ends once the opponents are on the floor. No touching the fighters, no assistance, no bet switching, and no encroachment of the ring. If you break these rules, you will get the piss beat out of you and you will be thrown out on your ass without your money! That includes you, ladies! So don’t use your hos to scam the system, boys!”
Shepley shook his head. “Jesus, Adam!” he yelled to the emcee over the noise, clearly disapproving of his friend’s choice of words.
My heart pounded in my chest. With a pink cashmere cardigan and pearl earrings, I felt like a schoolmarm on the beaches of Normandy. I promised America that I could handle whatever we happened upon, but at ground zero I felt the urge to grip her toothpick of an arm with both hands. She wouldn’t put me in any danger, but being in a basement with fifty or so drunken college boys intent on bloodshed and capital, I wasn’t exactly confident of our chances to leave unscathed.
After America met Shepley at freshman orientation, she frequently accompanied him to the secret fights held in different basements of Eastern University. Each event was hosted in a different spot, and kept secret until just an hour before the fight.
Because I ran in somewhat tamer circles, I was surprised to learn of an underground world at Eastern; but Shepley knew about it before he had ever enrolled. Travis, Shepley’s roommate and cousin, entered his first fight seven months before. As a freshman, he was rumored to be the most lethal competitor Adam had seen in the three years since creating the Circle. Beginning his sophomore year, Travis was unbeatable. Together, Travis and Shepley easily paid their rent and bills with the winnings.
Adam brought the bullhorn to his mouth once again, and the yelling and movement escalated to a feverish pace.
“Tonight we have a new challenger! Eastern’s star varsity wrestler, Marek Young!”
Cheering ensued, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea when Marek entered the room. A circular space cleared, and the mob whistled, booed, and taunted the contender. He bounced up and down and rocked his neck back and forth, his face severe and focused. The crowd quieted to a dull roar, and my hands shot to my ears when music blared through the large speakers on the other side of the room.
“Our next fighter doesn’t need an introduction, but because he scares the shit outta me, I’ll give him one, anyway! Shake in your boots, boys, and drop your panties, ladies! I give you: Travis ‘Mad Dog’ Maddox!”
The volume exploded when Travis appeared in a doorway across the room. He made his entrance, shirtless, relaxed, and unaffected. He strolled into the center of the circle as if he were showing up to another day at work. Lean muscles stretched under his tattooed skin as he popped his fists against Marek’s knuckles. Travis leaned in and whispered something in Marek’s ear, and the wrestler struggled to keep his stern expression. Marek stood toe-to-toe with Travis, and they looked directly into each other’s eyes. Marek’s expression was murderous; Travis looked mildly amused.
The men took a few steps back, and Adam sounded the horn. Marek took a defensive stance, and Travis attacked. I stood on my tiptoes when I lost my line of sight, leaning from side to side to get a better view. I inched up, sliding through the screaming crowd. Elbows jabbed into my sides, and shoulders rammed into me, bouncing me back and forth like a pinball. The tops of the fighters’ heads became visible, so I continued to push my way forward.
When I finally reached the front, Marek grabbed Travis with his thick arms and tried to throw him to the ground. When Marek leaned down with the motion, Travis rammed his knee into Marek’s face. Before Marek could shake off the blow, Travis lit into him, his fists making contact with Marek’s bloodied face over and over.
Five fingers sank into my arm and I jerked back.
“What the hell are you doing, Abby?” Shepley said.
“I can’t see from back there!” I called to him.
I turned just in time to see Marek land a solid punch. Travis turned, and for a moment I thought he had dodged another blow, but he made a complete circle, crashing his elbow straight into the center of Marek’s nose. Blood sprayed my face, and splattered down the front of my cardigan. Marek fell to the concrete floor with a thud, and for a brief moment the room was completely silent.
Adam threw a scarlet square of fabric onto Marek’s limp body, and the mob detonated. Cash changed hands once again, and the expressions divided into the smug and the frustrated.
I was pushed around with the movement of those coming and going. America called my name from somewhere in the back, but I was mesmerized by the trail of red from my chest to my waist.
A pair of heavy black boots stepped in front of me, diverting my attention to the floor. My eyes traveled upward; jeans spattered with blood, a set of finely chiseled abs, a bare, tattooed chest drenched in sweat, and finally a pair of warm, brown eyes. I was shoved from behind, and Travis caught me by the arm before I fell forward.
“Hey! Back up off her!” Travis frowned, shoving anyone who came near me. His stern expression melted into a smile at the sight of my shirt, and then he dabbed my face with a towel. “Sorry about that, Pigeon.”
Adam patted the back of Travis’s head. “C’mon, Mad Dog! You have some dough waitin’ on ya!”
Travis’s eyes didn’t stray from mine. “It’s a damn shame about the sweater. It looks good on you.” In the next moment he was engulfed by fans, disappearing the way he came.
“What were you thinking, you idiot?” America yelled, yanking my arm.
“I came here to see a fight, didn’t I?” I said, smiling.
“You aren’t even supposed to be here, Abby,” Shepley scolded.
“Neither is America,” I said.
“She doesn’t try to jump in the circle!” He frowned. “Let’s go.”
America smiled at me and wiped my face. “You are such a pain in the ass, Abby. God, I love you!” She hooked her arm around my neck, and we made our way up the stairs and into the night.
America followed me into my dorm room and then sneered at my roommate, Kara. I immediately peeled off the bloody cardigan, throwing it into the hamper.
“Gross. Where have you been?” Kara asked from her bed.
I looked to America, who shrugged. “Nosebleed. You haven’t seen one of Abby’s famous nosebleeds?”
Kara pushed up her glasses and shook her head.
“Oh, you will.” She winked at me and then shut the door behind her. Less than a minute later, my cell phone chimed. Per her usual, America texted me seconds after we had said goodbye.
staying w shep c u 2morrow ring queen
I peeked at Kara, who watched me as if my nose would gush at any moment.
“She was kidding,” I said.
Kara nodded with indifference and then looked down to the mess of books on her bedspread.
“I guess I’ll get a shower,” I said, grabbing a towel and my shower bag.
“I’ll alert the media,” Kara deadpanned, keeping her head down.
THE NEXT DAY, SHEPLEY AND America joined me for lunch. I had intended to sit alone, but as students filtered into the cafeteria, the chairs around me were filled by either Shepley’s frat brothers or members of the football team. Some of them had been at the fight, but no one mentioned my ringside experience.
“Shep,” a passing voice called.
Shepley nodded, and America and I both turned to see Travis take a seat at the end of the table. He was followed by two voluptuous bottle blondes wearing Sigma Kappa Ts. One of them sat on Travis’s lap; the other sat beside him, pawing at his shirt.
“I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth,” America muttered.
The blonde on Travis’s lap turned to America. “I heard that, skank.”
America grabbed her roll and threw it down the table, narrowly missing the girl’s face. Before the girl could say another word, Travis let his knees give way, sending her tumbling to the floor.
“Ouch!” she squealed, looking up at Travis.
“America’s a friend of mine. You need to find another lap, Lex.”
“Travis!” she whined, scrambling to her feet.
Travis turned his attention to his plate, ignoring her. She looked at her sister and huffed, and they left hand in hand.
Travis winked at America, and, as if nothing had happened, shoveled another bite into his mouth. It was then that I noticed a small cut on his eyebrow. He traded glances with Shepley and then began a conversation with one of the football guys across from him.
Although the crowd at the lunch table had thinned, America, Shepley, and I lingered to discuss our weekend plans. Travis stood up to leave but stopped at our end of the table.
“What?” Shepley asked loudly, holding his hand to his ear.
I tried to ignore him for as long as possible, but when I looked up, Travis was staring at me.
“You know her, Trav. America’s best friend? She was with us the other night,” Shepley said.
Travis smiled at me in what I assumed was his most charming expression. He oozed sex and rebelliousness with his buzzed brown hair and tattooed forearms, and I rolled my eyes at his attempt to lure me in.
“Since when do you have a best friend, Mare?” Travis asked.
“Since junior year,” she answered, pressing her lips together as she smiled in my direction. “Don’t you remember, Travis? You ruined her sweater.”
Travis smiled. “I ruin a lot of sweaters.”
“Gross,” I muttered.
Travis spun the empty chair beside me and sat, resting his arms in front of him. “So you’re the Pigeon, huh?”
“No,” I snapped. “I have a name.”
He seemed amused at the way I regarded him, which only served to make me angrier.
“Well? What is it?” he asked.
I took a bite of the last apple spear on my plate, ignoring him.
“Pigeon it is, then,” he said, shrugging.
I glanced up at America and then turned to Travis. “I’m trying to eat here.”
Travis settled in for the challenge I presented. “My name’s Travis. Travis Maddox.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know who you are.”
“You do, huh?” Travis said, raising his wounded eyebrow.
“Don’t flatter yourself. It’s hard not to notice when fifty drunks are chanting your name.”
Travis sat up a bit taller. “I get that a lot.” I rolled my eyes again, and Travis chuckled. “Do you have a twitch?”
“A twitch. Your eyes keep wiggling around.” He laughed again when I glared at him. “Those are some amazing eyes, though,” he said, leaning just inches from my face. “What color is that, anyway? Gray?”
I looked down to my plate, letting the long strands of my caramel hair create a curtain between us. I didn’t like the way it made me feel when he was so close. I didn’t want to be like the scores of other girls at Eastern that blushed in his presence. I didn’t want him to affect me in that way at all.
“Don’t even think about it, Travis. She’s like my sister,” America warned.
“Baby,” Shepley said, “you just told him no. He’s never gonna stop, now.”
“You’re not her type,” she hedged.
Travis feigned offense. “I’m everyone’s type!”
I peeked over at him and smiled.
“Ah! A smile. I’m not a rotten bastard after all,” he winked. “It was nice to meet you, Pidge.” He walked around the table and leaned into America’s ear.
Shepley threw a french fry at his cousin. “Get your lips outta my girl’s ear, Trav!”
“Networking! I’m networking!” Travis walked backward with his hands up in an innocent gesture.
A few more girls followed behind him, giggling and running their fingers through their hair to get his attention. He opened the door for them, and they nearly squealed in delight.
America laughed. “Oh, no. You’re in trouble, Abby.”
“What did he say?” I asked, wary.
“He wants you to bring her to the apartment, doesn’t he?” Shepley said. America nodded, and he shook his head. “You’re a smart girl, Abby. I’m telling you now, if you fall for his shit and then end up getting mad at him, you can’t take it out on me and America, all right?”
I smiled. “I won’t fall for it, Shep. Do I look like one of the Barbie twins to you?”
“She won’t fall for it,” America assured him, touching his arm.
“This isn’t my first rodeo, Mare. Do you know how many times he’s screwed things up for me because he one-nights the best friend? All of a sudden it’s a conflict of interest to date me because it’s fraternizing with the enemy! I’m tellin’ ya, Abby,” he looked at me, “don’t tell Mare she can’t come over or date me because you fall for Trav’s line of BS. Consider yourself warned.”
“Unnecessary, but appreciated,” I said. I tried to reassure Shepley with a smile, but his pessimism was driven by years of being burned by Travis’s endeavors.
America waved, leaving with Shepley as I walked to my afternoon class. I squinted in the bright sun, gripping my backpack straps. Eastern was exactly what I hoped it would be, from the smaller classrooms to the unfamiliar faces. It was a new start for me; I could finally walk somewhere without the whispers of those who knew—or thought they knew—anything about my past. I was as indistinguishable as any other wide-eyed, overachieving freshman on her way to class; no staring, no rumors, no pity or judgment. Only the illusion of what I wanted them to see: cashmered, no-nonsense Abby Abernathy.
I sat my backpack on the floor and collapsed into the chair, bending down to fish my laptop from my bag. When I popped up to set it on my desk, Travis slid into the next desk.
“Good. You can take notes for me,” he said. He chewed on the pen in his mouth and smiled, undoubtedly at his most charming.
I shot a disgusted look at him. “You’re not even in this class.”
“The hell if I’m not. I usually sit up there,” he said, nodding to the top row. A small group of girls was staring at me, and I noticed an empty chair in the center.
“I’m not taking notes for you,” I said, booting up my computer.
Travis leaned so close that I could feel his breath on my cheek. “I’m sorry . . . did...