“So,” she said instead of “hello.” “Welcome to Fiction-Writing. I recognize a few of you—” She smiled around the room at people who weren’t Cath.
Cath was clearly the only freshman in the room. She was just starting to figure out what marked the freshmen.… The too-new backpacks. Makeup on the girls. Jokey Hot Topic T-shirts on the boys.
Everything on Cath, from her new red Vans to the dark purple eyeglasses she’d picked out at Target. All the upperclassmen wore heavy black Ray-Ban frames. All the professors, too. If Cath got a pair of black Ray-Bans, she could probably order a gin and tonic around here without getting carded.
“Well,” Professor Piper said. “I’m glad you’re all here.” Her voice was warm and breathy—you could say “she purred” without reaching too far—and she talked just softly enough that everyone had to sit really still to hear her.
“We have a lot to do this semester,” she said, “so let’s not waste another minute of it. Let’s dive right in.” She leaned forward on the desk, holding on to the lip. “Are you ready? Will you dive with me?”
Most people nodded. Cath looked down at her notebook.
“Okay. Let’s start with a question that doesn’t really have an answer.… Why do we write fiction?”
One of the older students, a guy, decided he was game. “To express ourselves,” he offered.
“Sure,” Professor Piper said. “Is that why you write?”
The guy nodded.
“Okay … why else?”
“Because we like the sound of our own voices,” a girl said. She had hair like Wren’s, but maybe even cooler. She looked like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (wearing a pair of Ray-Bans).
“Yes,” Professor Piper laughed. It was a fairy laugh, Cath thought. “That’s why I write, definitely. That’s why I teach.” They all laughed with her. “Why else?”
Why do I write? Cath tried to come up with a profound answer—knowing she wouldn’t speak up, even if she did.
“To explore new worlds,” someone said.
“To explore old ones,” someone else said. Professor Piper was nodding.
To be somewhere else, Cath thought.
“So…,” Professor Piper purred. “Maybe to make sense of ourselves?”
“To set ourselves free,” a girl said.
To get free of ourselves.
“To show people what it’s like inside our heads,” said a boy in tight red jeans.
“Assuming they want to know,” Professor Piper added. Everyone laughed.
“To make people laugh.”
“To get attention.”
“Because it’s all we know how to do.”
“Speak for yourself,” the professor said. “I play the piano. But keep going—I love this. I love it.”
“To stop hearing the voices in our head,” said the boy in front of Cath. He had short dark hair that came to a dusky point at the back of his neck.
To stop, Cath thought.
To stop being anything or anywhere at all.
“To leave our mark,” Mia Farrow said. “To create something that will outlive us.”
The boy in front of Cath spoke up again: “Asexual reproduction.”
Cath imagined herself at her laptop. She tried to put into words how it felt, what happened when it was good, when it was working, when the words were coming out of her before she knew what they were, bubbling up from her chest, like rhyming, like rapping, like jump-roping, she thought, jumping just before the rope hits your ankles.
“To share something true,” another girl said. Another pair of Ray-Bans.
Cath shook her head.
“Why do we write fiction?” Professor Piper asked.
Cath looked down at her notebook.
He was so focused—and frustrated—he didn’t even see the girl with the red hair sit down at his table. She had pigtails and old-fashioned pointy spectacles, the kind you’d wear to a fancy dress party if you were going as a witch.
“You’re going to tire yourself out,” the girl said.
“I’m just trying to do this right,” Simon grunted, tapping the two-pence coin again with his wand and furrowing his brow painfully. Nothing happened.
“Here,” she said, crisply waving her hand over the coin.
She didn’t have a wand, but she wore a large purple ring. There was yarn wound round it to keep it on her finger. “Fly away home.”
With a shiver, the coin grew six legs and a thorax and started to scuttle away. The girl swept it gently off the desk into a jar.
“How did you do that?” Simon asked. She was a first year, too, just like him; he could tell by the green shield on the front of her sweater.
“You don’t do magic,” she said, trying to smile modestly and mostly succeeding. “You are magic.”
Simon stared at the 2p ladybird.
“I’m Penelope Bunce,” the girl said, holding out her hand.
“I’m Simon Snow,” he said, taking it.
“I know,” Penelope said, and smiled.
It was impossible to write like this.
First of all, their dorm room was way too small. A tiny little rectangle, just wide enough on each side of the door for their beds—when the door opened, it actually hit the end of Cath’s mattress—and just deep enough to squeeze in a desk on each side between the beds and the windows. If either of them had brought a couch, it would take up all the available space in the middle of the room.
Neither of them had brought a couch. Or a TV. Or any cute Target lamps.
Reagan didn’t seem to have brought anything personal, besides her clothes and a completely illegal toaster—and besides Levi, who was lying on her bed with his eyes closed, listening to music while Reagan banged at her computer. (A crappy PC, just like Cath’s.)
Cath was used to sharing a room; she’d always shared a room with Wren. But their room at home was almost three times as big as this one. And Wren didn’t take up nearly as much space as Reagan did. Figurative space. Head space. Wren didn’t feel like company.
Cath still wasn’t sure what to make of Reagan.…
On the one hand, Reagan didn’t seem interested in staying up all night, braiding each other’s hair, and becoming best friends forever. That was a relief.
On the other hand, Reagan didn’t seem interested in Cath at all.
Actually, that was a bit of a relief, too—Reagan was scary.
She did everything so forcefully. She swung their door open; she slammed it shut. She was bigger than Cath, a little taller and a lot more buxom (seriously, buxom). She just seemed bigger. On the inside, too.
When Reagan was in the room, Cath tried to stay out of her way; she tried not to make eye contact. Reagan pretended Cath wasn’t there, so Cath pretended that, too. Normally this seemed to work out for both of them.
But right at the moment, pretending not to exist was making it really hard for Cath to write.
She was working on a tricky scene—Simon and Baz arguing about whether vampires could ever truly be considered good and also whether the two of them should go to the graduation ball together. It was all supposed to be very funny and romantic and thoughtful, which were usually Cath’s specialties. (She was pretty good with treachery, too. And talking dragons.)
But she couldn’t get past, “Simon swept his honey brown hair out of his eyes and sighed.” She couldn’t even get Baz to move. She couldn’t stop thinking about Reagan and Levi sitting behind her. Her brain was stuck on INTRUDER ALERT!
Plus she was starving. As soon as Reagan and Levi left the room for dinner, Cath was going to eat an entire jar of peanut butter. If they ever left for dinner—Reagan kept banging on like she was going to type right through the desk, and Levi kept not leaving, and Cath’s stomach was starting to growl.
She grabbed a protein bar and walked out of the room, thinking she’d just take a quick walk down the hall to clear her head.
But the hallway was practically a meet-and-greet. Every door was propped open but theirs. Girls were milling around, talking and laughing. The whole floor smelled like burnt microwave popcorn. Cath slipped into the bathroom and sat in one of the stalls, unwrapping her protein bar and letting nervous tears dribble down her cheeks.
God, she thought. God. Okay. This isn’t that bad. There’s actually nothing wrong, actually. What’s wrong, Cath? Nothing.
She felt tight everywhere. Snapping. And her stomach was on fire.
She took out her phone and wondered what Wren was doing. Probably choreographing dance sequences to Lady Gaga songs. Probably trying on her roommate’s sweaters. Probably not sitting on a toilet, eating an almond-flaxseed bar.
Cath could call Abel … but she knew he was leaving for Missouri Tech tomorrow morning. His family was throwing him a huge party tonight with homemade tamales and his grandmother’s coconut yoyos—which were so special, they didn’t even sell them in the family bakery. Abel worked in the panadería, and his family lived above it. His hair always smelled like cinnamon and yeast.… Jesus, Cath was hungry.
She pushed her protein-bar wrapper into the feminine-hygiene box and rinsed off her face before she went back to her room.
Reagan and Levi were walking out, thank God. And finally.
“See ya,” Reagan said.
“Rock on.” Levi smiled.
Cath felt like collapsing when the door closed behind them.
She grabbed another protein bar, flopped onto the old wooden captain’s chair—she was starting to like this chair—and opened a drawer to prop up her foot.
Simon swept his honey brown hair out of his eyes and sighed. “Just because I can’t think of any heroic vampires doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
Baz stopped trying to levitate his steamer trunk and gave Simon a flash of gleaming fang. “Good guys wear white,” Baz said. “Have you ever tried to get blood out of a white cape?”
* * *
Selleck Hall was a dormitory right in the middle of campus. You could eat there even if you didn’t live there. Cath usually waited in the lobby for Wren and Courtney, so she wouldn’t have to walk into the cafeteria alone.
“So what’s your roommate like?” Courtney asked as they moved through the salad bar line. She asked it like she and Cath were old friends—like Cath had any idea what Courtney was like, outside of her taste for cottage cheese with peaches.
The salad bar at Selleck was completely wack. Cottage cheese with peaches, canned pears with shredded cheddar. “What is up with this?” Cath asked, lifting a scoop of cold kidney and green bean salad.
“Maybe it’s another Western Nebraska thing,” Wren said. “There are guys in our dorm who wear cowboy hats, like, all the time, even when they’re just walking down the hall.”
“I’m gonna get a table,” Courtney said.
“Hey”—Cath watched Wren pile vegetables on her plate—“did we ever write any fic with Simon and Baz dancing?”
“I don’t remember,” Wren said. “Why? Are you writing a dance scene?”
“Waltzing. Up on the ramparts.”
“Romantic.” Wren looked around the room for Courtney.
“I’m worried that I’m making Simon too fluffy.”
“Simon is fluffy.”
“I wish you were reading it,” Cath said, following her to the table.
“Isn’t every ninth-grader in North America already reading it?” Wren sat down next to Courtney.
“And Japan,” Cath said, sitting. “I’m weirdly huge in Japan.”
Courtney leaned toward Cath, swooping in, like she was in on some big secret. “Cath, Wren told me that you write Simon Snow stories. That’s so cool. I’m a huge Simon Snow fan. I read all the books when I was a kid.”
Cath unwrapped her sandwich skeptically. “They’re not over,” she said.
Courtney took a bite of her cottage cheese, not catching the correction.
“I mean,” Cath said, “the books aren’t over. Book eight doesn’t come out until next year.…”
“Tell us about your roommate,” Wren said, smiling flatly at Cath.
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“Then make something up.”
Wren was irritated. Which irritated Cath. But then Cath thought about how glad she was to be eating food that required silverware and talking to someone who wasn’t a stranger—and decided to make an effort with Wren’s shiny new roommate.
“Her name is Reagan. And she has reddish brown hair.… And she smokes.”
Courtney wrinkled her nose. “In your room?”
“She hasn’t really been in the room much.”
Wren looked suspicious. “You haven’t talked?”
“We’ve said hello,” Cath said. “I’ve talked to her boyfriend a little.”
“What’s her boyfriend like?” Wren asked.
“I don’t know. Tall?”
“Well, it’s only been a few days. I’m sure you’ll get to know her.” Then Wren changed the subject to something that happened at some party she and Courtney had gone to. They’d only been living together two weeks, and already they had a slew of inside jokes that went right over Cath’s head.
Cath ate her turkey sandwich and two servings of french fries, and shoved a second sandwich into her bag when Wren wasn’t paying attention.
* * *
Reagan finally stayed in their room that night. (Levi did not, thank God.) She went to bed while Cath was still typing.
“Is the light bothering you?” Cath asked, pointing at the lamp built into her desk. “I could turn it off.”
“It’s fine,” Reagan said.
Cath put in earbuds so that she wouldn’t hear Reagan’s falling-asleep noises. Breathing. Sheets brushing. Bed creaking.