Chapter One: Twenty-Three Steps
When I walked into the long narrow art gallery behind my roommate, Joanna, it felt as if I were being funneled toward him. Preston Stevensen. Perfect hair and a smirk for a smile, he appeared to be the man of the hour. Even gazing at me over the head of a ponytailed patron in a slick, yellow shirt, he somehow made me feel like the center of attention.
His eyes were on me the whole way.
My name is Marlena Matthews. Joanna calls me Marlena “Miss Priss” Matthews. She thinks I’ve led a sheltered small-town life and she’s right. That’s why I felt so fortunate to be accidentally paired with her my freshman year. We were both serious students.
Joanna’s friend, Antonio, is the one who invited us to the Visual Arts Gallery. He had several pieces of his beautiful high-glaze pottery on display.
But nothing compared to Preston’s art. It took up the entire back wall. Every piece featured some sort of wide-slashed mouth or other wide-open gash. Some of the mouths were created from melted red lipstick and some were splash-painted on canvas; a couple were fashioned of metal, then shellacked onto blank mannequin faces made of charred or broken plastic. I overheard a girl walking ahead of us refer to the mouths as Freudian. “Yeah,” her companion snickered. “All about sex. Weird sex." They both laughed behind their hands.
Twenty-three steps. Each one carried me closer and closer to the guy who would change my entire life. In hindsight it seems obvious that Preston’s art should have been a big red flag. But Joanna didn’t call me Miss Priss, The Sheltered One, for nothing.