“Hello?” Cath said.
“Do we want a couch?” someone asked.
“Who is this?”
“It’s Reagan. Who else would it be? Who else would need to get your permission before they brought home a couch?”
“How’d you get this number?”
“It’s on our housing paperwork. I don’t know why I don’t have your cell, I guess I usually don’t have to look very far to find you.”
“I think you’re the first person to call our house phone in years. I didn’t even remember where it was.”
“That’s fascinating, Cath. Do we want a couch?”
“Why would we want a couch?”
“I don’t know. Because my mom is insisting that we need one.”
“Who would sit on it?”
“Exactly. It might have been useful last semester to keep Levi from shedding all over our beds, but that’s not even an issue anymore. And if we have a couch, we’ll literally have to climb over it to get to the door. She’s saying no, Mom.”
“Why isn’t Levi an issue anymore?”
“Because. It’s your room. It’s stupid for you to be hiding in the library all the time. And he and I only have one class together next semester anyway.”
“It doesn’t matter—,” Cath said.
Reagan cut her off: “Don’t be stupid. It does matter. I feel really shitty about what happened. I mean, it’s not my fault you kissed him and that he kissed that idiot blonde, but I shouldn’t have encouraged you. It won’t happen again, ever, with anyone. I’m f**king done with encouragement.”
“It’s okay,” Cath said.
“I know that it’s okay. I’m just saying, that’s the way it’s gonna be. So no to the couch, right? My mom is standing right here, and I don’t think she’ll leave me alone until she hears you say no.”
“No,” Cath said. Then raised her voice: “No to the couch.”
“Fuck, Cath, my eardrum … Mom, you’re pushing me to swear with this stupid furniture.… All right, I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll probably have an ugly lamp with me and maybe a rug. She’s pathological.”
Cath’s dad was standing in the kitchen watching her. Her dad, who actually was pathological.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“She sounds like Kathleen Turner.”
“Yeah. She’s something.” Cath pulled her shirt down and turned away.
“Taco truck?” he asked. “For dinner?”
“Why don’t you change—you can ride with me.”
SPRING SEMESTER, 2012
Fried tomatoes at breakfast. Every lump in his bed. Being able to do magic without worrying whether anyone was watching. Agatha, of course. And Penelope. Getting to see the Mage—not often, but still. Simon’s uniform. His school tie. The football pitch, even when it was muddy. Fencing. Raisin scones every Sunday with real clotted cream …
What didn’t Simon miss about Watford?
“There are already four light fixtures in here,” Reagan said. “What are we supposed to do with a lamp?”
The lamp was black and shaped like the Eiffel Tower.
“Just leave it in the hall,” Cath said. “Maybe somebody’ll take it.”
“She’ll just ask where it is the next time she’s here.… She’s insane.” Reagan shoved the lamp into the back of her closet and kicked it. “What brand of crazy is your mom?”
Cath’s gut pitched reliably. “I don’t know. She left when I was eight.”
“Fuck,” Reagan said, “that is crazy. Are you hungry?”
“Yeah,” Cath said.
“They’re doing a back-to-school luau downstairs. They roast a pig on a spit. It’s disgusting.”
Cath grabbed her ID and followed Reagan to the dining hall.
* * *
In the end, Cath hadn’t decided to come back.
She’d just decided to pack up her laptop.
And then she’d decided to ride along with Wren and her dad to Lincoln.
And then, after they dropped Wren off outside Schramm Hall, her dad asked if Cath wanted to go to her own dorm, and Cath decided that she did. If nothing else, she could get her stuff.
And then they just sat there in the fire lane, and Cath felt wave after wave of anxiety pound against her. If she stayed, she’d see Levi again. She’d have to deal with the Psych final she’d missed. She’d have to register for classes, and who even knew what would still be available. And she’d see Levi again. And everything about that that would feel good—his smiling face, his long lines—would also feel like getting shot in the stomach.
Cath didn’t really decide to get out of the car.
She just looked over at her dad in the driver’s seat, tapping his two middle fingers on the steering wheel; and as scared as she was to leave him, Cath couldn’t bear to think about letting him down.
“One more semester,” she said. She was crying; that’s how bad it felt to say this.
His chin jerked up. “Yeah?”
“Me, too,” he said.
“Yeah. Cath, yeah. I promise.… Do you want me to come up with you?”
“No. That’ll just make it worse.”
“Nothing. I just flashed back to your first day of kindergarten. You cried. And your mom cried. It felt like we were never gonna see you guys again.”
“Where was Wren?”
“God, I don’t know, probably anointing her first boyfriend.”
Her dad looked sad again and smiled ruefully. “Yeah…”
“I really hate her,” Cath said, shaking her head, trying to imagine what kind of mother cried on the first day of kindergarten, then walked out in the middle of third grade.
Her dad nodded. “Yeah…”
“Answer your phone,” Cath said.
* * *
“Somebody else got Ugg boots for Christmas,” Reagan said, watching the dinner line empty into the dining room. “If we had whiskey, this is when we’d take a shot.”
“I find Ugg boots really comforting,” Cath said.
“Why? Because they’re warm?”
“No. Because they remind me that we live in a place where you can still get away with, even get excited about, Ugg boots. In fashionable places, you have to pretend that you’re over them, or that you’ve always hated them. But in Nebraska, you can still be happy about new Ugg boots. That’s nice. There’s no end of the innocence.”
“You’re such a weirdo…,” Reagan said. “I kinda missed you.”
“I just don’t want to,” Simon said.
“Don’t want to what?” Baz asked. He was sitting on his desk, eating an apple. He left the apple in his teeth and started tying his green and purple school tie. Simon still had to use a mirror for that. Even after seven years.
“Anything,” Simon said, pressing his head back into his pillow. “I don’t want to do anything. I don’t even want to start this day because then I’ll just be expected to finish it.”
Baz finished his half-Windsor and took a bite out of the apple. “Now, now, Snow, that doesn’t sound like ‘the most powerful magician in a hundred ages’ talking.”
“That’s such crap,” Simon said. “Who even started calling me that?”
“Probably the Mage. He won’t shut up about you. ‘The one who was prophesied,’ ‘the hero we’ve been waiting for,’ et cetera.”
“I don’t want to be a hero.”
“Liar.” Baz’s eyes were cool grey and serious.
“Today,” Simon said, chastened. “I don’t want to be a hero today.”
Baz looked at his apple core, then tossed it onto Simon’s desk. “Are you trying to talk me into skipping Politickal Science?”
“Done,” Baz said. “Now, get up.”
Simon grinned and leapt out of bed.
“What does ‘inc’ mean?” Cath asked.
Reagan looked up from her bed. She was making flash cards (Reagan liked flash cards), and there was a cigarette hanging from her mouth, unlit. She was trying to quit smoking. “Ask that question again so it makes sense.”
“I-n-c,” Cath said. “I got my grades back, but instead of an A or a B, it says, ‘inc.’”
“Incomplete,” Reagan said. “It means they’re holding your grade.”
“I don’t know, your professor.”
“I don’t know. It’s usually, like, a special thing, like when you get extra time to make something up.”
Cath stared at her grade report. She’d made up her Psychology final the first week back, so she was expecting to see the A there. (Her grade was so high in Psychology, she practically didn’t need to take the final.) But Fiction-Writing was a different story. Without turning in a final project, the best that Cath had expected was a C—and a D was far more likely.
Cath was okay with that, she’d made peace with that D. It was the price she’d decided to pay for last semester. For Nick. And Levi. For plagiarism. It was the price for learning that she didn’t want to write books about decline and desolation in rural America, or about anything else.
Cath was ready to take her D and move on.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked Reagan.
“Fuck, Cath. I don’t know. Talk to your professor. You’re giving me lung cancer.”
* * *
This was Cath’s third time back in Andrews Hall since she got her grades back.
The first two times, she’d walked in one end of the building and walked straight through to the door on the other side.
This time was already better. This time, she’d stopped to use the bathroom.
She’d walked into the building just as four o’clock classes were getting out, a flash flood of girls with cool hair and boys who looked like Nick. Cath ducked into the bathroom, and now she was sitting in a wooden stall, waiting for the coast to clear. Somebody had taken the time to carve most of “Stairway to Heaven” into the stall door; it was a serious amount of carving. English majors.
Cath didn’t have any English classes this semester, and she was thinking about changing her major. Or maybe she’d just change her concentration from Creative Writing to Renaissance Lit; that would be useful in the real world, a head full of sonnets and Christ imagery. If you study something that nobody cares about, does that mean everyone will leave you alone?
She opened the stall door slowly, flushing the toilet for appearances, then ran water in one of the sinks (hot in one faucet, cold in the other) and rinsed her face. She could do this. She just had to find the department office, then ask where Professor Piper’s personal office was. Professor Piper probably wouldn’t even be there.
The hallway was nearly empty now. Cath found the stairs and followed the signs pointing to the main office. Down the hall, around the corner. Maybe if she just walked by the main office, that would be enough progress for the day. She walked slowly, touching each wooden door.
Even though it was a woman’s voice, Cath’s first panicky thought was Nick.
She turned toward the voice—and saw Professor Piper in the office across the hall, standing up behind her desk. The professor motioned for Cath to come forward. Cath did.
“I’ve been wondering about you,” Professor Piper said, smiling warmly. “You just disappeared. Come in, come talk to me.”
She motioned for Cath to sit down, so Cath did. (Apparently, Professor Piper could control Cath with simple hand gestures. Like the Dog Whisperer.)
The professor came around to the front of her desk and hopped onto it. Her signature move. “What happened to you? Where did you go?”
“I … didn’t go anywhere,” Cath said. She was thinking about going right now. This was too much progress; she hadn’t planned for this eventuality—for actually accomplishing what she came here to do.
“But you never turned in your story,” Professor Piper said. “Did something happen?”
Cath took a deepish breath and tried to sound steady. “Sort of. My dad was in the hospital. But that’s not really why—I’d already decided not to write it.”
The professor looked surprised. She held on to the lip of her desk and leaned forward. “But, Cath, why? I was so eager to see what you’d do.”
“I just…,” Cath started again: “I realized that I’m not cut out for fiction-writing.”
Professor Piper blinked and pulled her head back. “What are you talking about? You’re exactly cut out for it. You’re a Butterick pattern, Cath—this is what you were meant to do.”
It was Cath’s turn to blink. “No. I … I kept trying. To start the story. I … look, I know how you feel about fanfiction, but that’s what I want to write. That’s where my passion is. And I’m really good at it.”
“I’m sure you are,” Professor Piper said. “You’re a natural storyteller. But that doesn’t explain why you didn’t finish your final project.”
“Once I realized that it wasn’t right for me, I couldn’t bring myself to do it anymore. I just wanted to move on.”
Professor Piper regarded Cath thoughtfully, tapping the edge of the desk. This is what it looks like when a sane person taps her fingers.