A boy with slick, black hair and cold, grey eyes. He was spinning around, holding a cat high in the air while a girl jumped and clutched at it. “Give it back,” the girl said. “You’ll hurt him.”
The boy laughed and held the cat higher—then noticed Simon standing in the doorway and stopped, his face sharpening.
“Hullo,” the dark-haired boy said, letting the cat drop to the floor. It landed on all four feet and ran from the room. The girl ran after it.
The boy ignored them, tugging his school jacket neatly into place and smiling with the left side of his mouth. “I know you. You’re Simon Snow … the Mage’s Heir.” He held out his hand smugly. “I’m Tyrannus Basilton Pitch. But you can call me Baz—we’re going to be roommates.”
Simon scowled and ignored the boy’s pale hand. “What did you think you were doing with her cat?”
In books, when people wake up in a strange place, they always have that disoriented moment when they don’t know where they are.
That had never happened to Cath; she always remembered falling asleep.
But it still felt weird to hear her same-old alarm going off in this brand-new place. The light in the room was strange, too yellow for morning, and the dorm air had a detergenty twang she wasn’t sure she’d get used to. Cath picked up her phone and turned off the alarm, remembering that she still hadn’t texted Abel. She hadn’t even checked her e-mail or her FanFixx account before she went to bed.
“first day,” she texted Abel now. “more later. x, o, etc.”
The bed on the other side of the room was still empty.
Cath could get used to this. Maybe Reagan would spend all her time in her boyfriend’s room. Or at his apartment. Her boyfriend looked older—he probably lived off campus with twenty other guys, in some ramshackle house with a couch in the front yard.
Even with the room to herself, Cath didn’t feel safe changing in here. Reagan could walk in at any minute, Reagan’s boyfriend could walk in at any minute … And either one of them could be a cell phone–camera pervert.
Cath took her clothes to the bathroom and changed in a stall. There was a girl at the sinks, desperately trying to make friendly eye contact. Cath pretended not to notice.
She finished getting ready with plenty of time to eat breakfast but didn’t feel up to braving the dining hall; she still didn’t know where it was, or how it worked.…
In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can’t google.) Like, where does the line start? What food can you take? Where are you supposed to stand, then where are you supposed to sit? Where do you go when you’re done, why is everyone watching you?… Bah.
Cath broke open a box of protein bars. She had four more boxes and three giant jars of peanut butter shoved under her bed. If she paced herself, she might not have to face the dining hall until October.
She flipped open her laptop while she chewed on a carob-oat bar and clicked through to her FanFixx account. There were a bunch of new comments on her page, all people wringing their hands because Cath hadn’t posted a new chapter of Carry On yesterday.
Hey, guys, she typed. Sorry about yesterday. First day of school, family stuff, etc. Today might not happen either. But I promise you I’ll be back in black on Tuesday, and that I have something especially wicked planned. Peace out, Magicath.
* * *
Walking to class, Cath couldn’t shake the feeling that she was pretending to be a college student in a coming-of-age movie. The setting was perfect—rolling green lawns, brick buildings, kids everywhere with backpacks. Cath shifted her bag uncomfortably on her back. Look at me—I’m a stock photo of a college student.
She made it to American History ten minutes early, which still wasn’t early enough to get a desk at the back of the class. Everybody in the room looked awkward and nervous, like they’d spent way too much time deciding what to wear.
(Start as you mean to go on, Cath had thought when she laid out her clothes last night. Jeans. Simon T-shirt. Green cardigan.)
The boy sitting in the desk next to her was wearing earbuds and self-consciously bobbing his head. The girl on Cath’s other side kept flipping her hair from one shoulder to the other.
Cath closed her eyes. She could feel their desks creaking. She could smell their deodorant. Just knowing they were there made her feel tight and cornered.
If Cath had slightly less pride, she could have taken this class with her sister—she and Wren both needed the history credits. Maybe she should be taking classes with Wren while they still had a few in common; they weren’t interested in any of the same subjects. Wren wanted to study marketing—and maybe get a job in advertising like their dad.
Cath couldn’t imagine having any sort of job or career. She’d majored in English, hoping that meant she could spend the next four years reading and writing. And maybe the next four years after that.
Anyway, she’d already tested out of Freshman Comp, and when she met with her adviser in the spring, Cath convinced him she could handle Intro to Fiction-Writing, a junior-level course. It was the only class—maybe the only thing about college—Cath was looking forward to. The professor who taught it was an actual novelist. Cath had read all three of her books (about decline and desolation in rural America) over the summer.
“Why are you reading that?” Wren had asked when she noticed.
“Something without a dragon or an elf on the cover.”
“I’m branching out.”
“Shh,” Wren said, covering the ears on the movie poster above her bed. “Baz will hear you.”
“Baz is secure in our relationship,” Cath had said, smiling despite herself.
Thinking about Wren now made Cath reach for her phone.
Wren had probably gone out last night.
It had sounded like the whole campus was up partying. Cath felt under siege in her empty dorm room. Shouting. Laughing. Music. All of it coming from every direction. Wren wouldn’t have been able to resist the noise.
Cath dug her phone out of her backpack.
“you up?” Send.
A few seconds later, her phone chimed. “isn’t that my line?”
“too tired to write last night,” Cath typed, “went to bed at 10.”
Chime. “neglecting your fans already…”
Cath smiled. “always so jealous of my fans…”
“have a good day”
“yeah - you too”
A middle-aged Indian man in a reassuring tweed jacket walked into the lecture hall. Cath turned down her phone and slid it into her bag.
* * *
When she got back to her dorm, she was starving. At this rate, her protein bars wouldn’t last a week.…
There was a boy sitting outside her room. The same one. Reagan’s boyfriend? Reagan’s cigarette buddy?
“Cather!” he said with a smile. He started to stand up as soon as he saw her—which was more of a production than it should have been; his legs and arms were too long for his body.
“It’s Cath,” she said.
“Are you sure?” He ran a hand through his hair. Like he was confirming that it was still messy. “Because I really like Cather.”
“I’m sure,” she said flatly. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.”
He stood there, waiting for her to open the door.
“Is Reagan here?” Cath asked.
“If Reagan were here”—he smiled—“I’d already be inside.”
Cath pinched her key but didn’t open the door. She wasn’t up for this. She was already overdosing on new and other today. Right now she just wanted to curl up on her strange, squeaky bed and inhale three protein bars. She looked over the boy’s shoulder. “When is she getting here?”
Cath’s stomach clenched. “Well, I can’t just let you in,” she blurted.
“I don’t even know you.”
“Are you kidding?” He laughed. “We met yesterday. I was in the room when you met me.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know you. I don’t even know Reagan.”
“Are you going to make her wait outside, too?”
“Look…” Cath said. “I can’t just let strange guys into my room. I don’t even know your name. This whole situation is too rapey.”
“You understand,” she said, “right?”
He dropped an eyebrow and shook his head, still smiling. “Not really. But now I don’t want to come in with you. The word ‘rapey’ makes me uncomfortable.”
“Me, too,” she said gratefully.
He leaned against the wall and slid back onto the floor, looking up at her. Then he held up his hand. “I’m Levi, by the way.”
Cath frowned and took his hand lightly, still holding her keys. “Okay,” she said, then opened the door and closed it as quickly as possible behind her.
She grabbed her laptop and her protein bars, and crawled into the corner of her bed.
* * *
Cath was trying to pace her side of the room, but there wasn’t enough floor. It already felt like a prison in here, especially now that Reagan’s boyfriend, Levi, was standing guard—or sitting guard, whatever—out in the hall. Cath would feel better if she could just talk to somebody. She wondered if it was too soon to call Wren.…
She called her dad instead. And left a voice mail.
She texted Abel. “hey. one down. what up?”
She opened her sociology book. Then opened her laptop. Then got up to open a window. It was warm out. People were chasing each other with Nerf guns outside a fraternity house across the street. Pi-Kappa-Weird-Looking O.
Cath pulled out her phone and dialed.
“Hey,” Wren answered, “how was your first day?”
“Fine. How was yours?”
“Good,” Wren said. Wren always managed to sound breezy and nonchalant. “I mean, nerve-racking, I guess. I went to the wrong building for Statistics.”
The door opened, and Reagan and Levi walked in. Reagan gave Cath an odd look, but Levi just smiled.
“Yeah,” Wren said. “It only made me a few minutes late, but I still felt so stupid—Hey, Courtney and I are on our way to dinner, can I call you back? Or do you just want to meet us for lunch tomorrow? I think we’re going to start meeting at Selleck Hall at noon. Do you know where that is?”
“I’ll find it,” Cath said.
“Okay, cool. See you then.”
“Cool,” Cath said, pressing End and putting her phone in her pocket.
Levi had already unfurled himself across Reagan’s bed.
“Make yourself useful,” Reagan said, throwing a crumpled-up sheet at him. “Hey,” she said to Cath.
“Hey,” Cath said. She stood there for a minute, waiting for some sort of conversation to happen, but Reagan didn’t seem interested. She was going through all her boxes, like she was looking for something.
“How was your first day?” Levi asked.
It took a second for Cath to realize he was talking to her. “Fine,” she said.
“You’re a freshman, right?” He was making Reagan’s bed. Cath wondered if he was planning to stay the night—that would not be on. At all.
He was still looking at her, smiling at her, so she nodded.
“Did you find all your classes?”
“Are you meeting people?”
Yeah, she thought, you people.
“Not intentionally,” she said.
She heard Reagan snort.
“Where are your pillowcases?” Levi asked the closet.
“Boxes,” Reagan said.
He started emptying a box, setting things on Reagan’s desk as if he knew where they went. His head hung forward like it was only loosely connected to his neck and shoulders. Like he was one of those action figures that’s held together inside by worn-out rubber bands. Levi looked a little wild. He and Reagan both did. People tend to pair off that way, Cath thought, in matched sets.
“So, what are you studying?” he asked Cath.
“English,” she said, then waited too long to say, “What are you studying?”
He seemed delighted to be asked the question. Or any question. “Range management.”
Cath didn’t know what that meant, but she didn’t want to ask.
“Please don’t start talking about range management,” Reagan groaned. “Let’s just make that a rule, for the rest of the year. No talking about range management in my room.”
“It’s Cather’s room, too,” Levi said.
“Cath,” Reagan corrected him.
“What about when you’re not here?” he asked Reagan. “Can we talk about range management when you’re not actually in the room?”
“When I’m not actually in the room…,” she said, “I think you’re going to be waiting out in the hall.”
Cath smiled at the back of Reagan’s head. Then she saw Levi watching her and stopped.
* * *
Everyone in the classroom looked like this was what they’d been waiting for all week. It was like they were all waiting for a concert to start. Or a midnight movie premiere.
When Professor Piper walked in, a few minutes late, the first thing Cath noticed was that she was smaller than she looked in the photos on her book jackets.
Maybe that was stupid. They were just head shots, after all. But Professor Piper really filled them up—with her high cheekbones; her wide, watered-down blue eyes; and a spectacular head of long brown hair.
In person, the professor’s hair was just as spectacular, but streaked with gray and a little bushier than in the pictures. She was so small, she had to do a little hop to sit on top of her desk.