How can she just fall asleep like that with a stranger in the room? Cath wondered. Cath left the earbuds in when she finally crawled into her own bed and pulled the comforter up high over her head.
* * *
“You still haven’t talked to her?” Wren asked at lunch the next week.
“We talk,” Cath said. “She says, ‘Would you mind closing the window?’ And I say, ‘That’s fine.’ Also, ‘Hey.’ We exchange ‘heys’ daily. Sometimes twice daily.”
“It’s getting weird,” Wren said.
Cath poked at her mashed potatoes. “I’m getting used to it.”
“It’s still weird.”
“Really?” Cath asked. “You’re really going to start talking about how I got stuck with a weird roommate?”
Wren sighed. “What about her boyfriend?”
“Haven’t seen him for a few days.”
“What are you doing this weekend?”
“Homework, I guess. Writing Simon.”
“Courtney and I are going to a party tonight.”
“The Triangle House!” Courtney said. She said it the same way you’d say “the Playboy Mansion!” if you were a total D-bag.
“What’s a Triangle House?” Cath asked.
“It’s an engineering fraternity,” Wren said.
“So they, like, get drunk and build bridges?”
“They get drunk and design bridges. Want to come?”
“Nah.” Cath took a bite of roast beef and potatoes; it was always Sunday-night dinner in the Selleck dining room. “Drunk nerds. Not my thing.”
“You like nerds.”
“Not nerds who join fraternities,” Cath said. “That’s a whole subclass of nerds that I’m not interested in.”
“Did you make Abel sign a sobriety pledge before he left for Missouri?”
“Is Abel your boyfriend?” Courtney asked. “Is he cute?”
Cath ignored her. “Abel isn’t going to turn into a drunk. He can’t even tolerate caffeine.”
“That right there is some faulty logic.”
“You know I don’t like parties, Wren.”
“And you know what Dad says—you have to try something before you can say you don’t like it.”
“Seriously? You’re using Dad to get me to a frat party? I have tried parties. There was that one at Jesse’s, with the tequila—”
“Did you try the tequila?”
“No, but you did, and I helped clean it up when you puked.”
Wren smiled wistfully and smoothed her long bangs across her forehead. “Drinking tequila is more about the journey than the destination.…”
“You’ll call me,” Cath said, “right?”
“If I puke?”
“If you need help.”
“I won’t need help.”
“But you’ll call me?”
“God, Cath. Yes. Relax, okay?”
“But, sir,” Simon pushed, “do I have to be his roommate every year, every year until we leave Watford?”
The Mage smiled indulgently and ruffled Simon’s caramel brown hair. “Being matched with your roommate is a sacred tradition at Watford.” His voice was gentle but firm. “The Crucible cast you together. You’re to watch out for each other, to know each other as well as brothers.”
“Yeah, but, sir…” Simon shuffled in his chair. “The Crucible must have made a mistake. My roommate’s a complete git. He might even be evil. Last week, someone spelled my laptop closed, and I know it was him. He practically cackled.”
The Mage gave his beard a few solemn strokes. It was short and pointed and just covered his chin.
“The Crucible cast you together, Simon. You’re meant to watch out for him.”
The squirrels on campus were beyond domestic; they were practically domestically abusive. If you were eating anything at all, they’d come right up to you and chit-chit-chit in your space.
“Take it,” Cath said, tossing a chunk of strawberry-soy bar to the fat red squirrel at her feet. She took a photo of it with her phone and sent it to Abel. “bully squirrel,” she typed.
Abel had sent her photos of his room—his suite—at MoTech, and of him standing with all five of his nerdy Big Bang Theory roommates. Cath tried to imagine asking Reagan to pose for a photo and laughed a little out loud. The squirrel froze but didn’t run away.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, Cath had forty-five minutes between Biology and Fiction-Writing, and lately she’d been killing it right here, sitting in a shadowy patch of grass on the slow side of the English building. Nobody to deal with here. Nobody but the squirrels.
She checked her text messages, even though her phone hadn’t chimed.
She and Abel hadn’t actually talked since Cath left for school three weeks ago, but he did text her. And he e-mailed every once in a while. He said he was fine and that the competition at Missouri was already intense. “Everybody here was the smartest kid in their graduating class.”
Cath had resisted the urge to reply, “Except for you, right?”
Just because Abel got a perfect score on the math section of the SATs didn’t mean he was the smartest kid in their class. He was crap in American History, and he’d limped through Spanish. Through Spanish, for Christ’s sake.
He’d already told Cath that he wasn’t coming back to Omaha until Thanksgiving, and she hadn’t tried to convince him to come home any sooner.
She didn’t really miss him yet.
Wren would say that was because Abel wasn’t really Cath’s boyfriend. It was one of their recurring conversations:
“He’s a perfectly good boyfriend,” Cath would say.
“He’s an end table,” Wren would answer.
“He’s always there for me.”
“… to set magazines on.”
“Would you rather I dated someone like Jesse? So we can both stay up crying every weekend?”
“I would rather you dated someone you’d actually like to kiss.”
“I’ve kissed Abel.”
“Oh, Cath, stop. You’re making my brain throw up.”
“We’ve been dating for three years. He’s my boyfriend.”
“You have stronger feelings for Baz and Simon.”
“Duh, they’re Baz and Simon, like that’s even fair—I like Abel. He’s steady.”
“You just keep describing an end table.…”
Wren had started going out with boys in the eighth grade (two years before Cath was even thinking about it). And until Jesse Sandoz, Wren hadn’t stayed with the same guy for more than a few months. She kept Jesse around so long because she was never really sure that he liked her—at least that was Cath’s theory.
Wren usually lost interest in a guy as soon as she’d won him over. The conversion was her favorite part. “That moment,” she told Cath, “when you realize that a guy’s looking at you differently—that you’re taking up more space in his field of vision. That moment when you know he can’t see past you anymore.”
Cath had liked that last line so much, she gave it to Baz a few weeks later. Wren was annoyed when she read it.
Anyway, Jesse never really converted. He never had eyes only for Wren, not even after they had sex last fall. It threw off Wren’s game.
Cath was relieved when Jesse got a football scholarship to Iowa State. He didn’t have the attention span for a long-distance relationship, and there were at least ten thousand fresh guys at the University of Nebraska for Wren to convert.
Cath tossed another hunk of protein bar to the squirrel, but someone in a pair of periwinkle wingtips took a step too close to them, and the squirrel startled and lumbered away. Fat campus squirrels, Cath thought. They lumber.
The wingtips took another step toward her, then stopped. Cath looked up. There was a guy standing in front of her. From where she was sitting—and where he was standing, with the sun behind his head—he seemed eight feet tall. She squinted up but didn’t recognize him.
“Cath,” he said, “right?”
She recognized his voice; it was the boy with the dark hair who sat in front of her in Fiction-Writing—Nick.
“Right,” she said.
“Did you finish your writing exercise?”
Professor Piper had asked them to write a hundred words from the perspective of an inanimate object. Cath nodded, still squinting up at him.
“Oh, sorry,” Nick said, stepping out of the sun and sitting on the grass next to her. He dropped his bag between his knees. “So what’d you write about?”
“A lock,” she said. “You?”
“Ballpoint pen.” He grimaced. “I’m worried that everyone is going to do a pen.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “A pen is a terrible idea.”
Nick laughed, and Cath looked down at the grass.
“So,” he asked, “do you think she’ll make us read them out loud?”
Cath’s head snapped up. “No. Why would she do that?”
“They always do that,” he said, like it was something Cath should already know. She wasn’t used to seeing Nick from the front; he had a boyish face with hooded blue eyes and blocky, black eyebrows that almost met in the middle. He looked like someone with a steerage ticket on the Titanic. Somebody who’d be standing in line at Ellis Island. Undiluted and old-blooded. Also, cute.
“But there wouldn’t be time in class for all of us to read,” she said.
“We’ll probably break up into groups first,” he said, again like she should know this.
“Oh … I’m kind of new around here.”
“Are you a freshman?”
She nodded and rolled her eyes.
“How did a freshman get into Professor Piper’s three-hundred-level class?”
Nick raised his furry eyebrows and pushed out his bottom lip, impressed. “Do you really think a pen is a terrible idea?”
“I’m not sure what you want me to say now,” Cath answered.
* * *
“Do you have an eating disorder?” Reagan asked.
Cath was sitting on her bed, studying.
Reagan was holding on to her closet door, hopping, trying to pull on a black heeled boot. She was probably on her way to work—Reagan was always on her way somewhere. She treated their room like a way station, a place she stopped between class and the library, between her job at the Student Union and her job at the Olive Garden. A place to change clothes, dump books, and pick up Levi.
Sometimes there were other guys, too. Already in the last month, there’d been a Nathan and a Kyle. But none of them seemed to be a permanent part of Reagan’s solar system like Levi was.
Which made Levi part of Cath’s solar system, too. He’d seen her on campus today and walked with her all the way to Oldfather Hall, talking about some mittens he’d bought outside the Student Union. “Hand-knit. In Ecuador. Have you ever seen an alpaca, Cather? They’re like the world’s most adorable llamas. Like, imagine the cutest llama that you can, and then just keep going. And their wool—it’s not really wool, it’s fiber, and it’s hypoallergenic.…”
Reagan was staring at Cath now, frowning. She was wearing tight black jeans and a black top. Maybe she was going out, not to work.
“Your trash can is full of energy bar wrappers,” Reagan said.
“You were looking through my trash?” Cath felt a rush of anger.
“Levi was looking for a place to spit out his gum.… So? Do you have an eating disorder?”
“No,” Cath said, pretty sure it was exactly what she’d say if she did have an eating disorder.
“Then why don’t you eat real food?”
“I do.” Cath clenched her fists. Her skin felt drawn and tight. “Just. Not here.”
“Are you one of those freaky eaters?”
“No. I—” Cath looked up at the ceiling, deciding that this was one of those times when the truth would be simpler than a lie. “—I don’t know where the dining hall is.”
“You’ve been living here more than a month.”
“And you haven’t found the dining hall?”
“I haven’t actually looked.”
“Why haven’t you asked someone? You could have asked me.”
Cath rolled her eyes and looked at Reagan. “Do you really want me asking you stupid questions?”
“If they’re about food, water, air, or shelter—yes. Jesus, Cath, I’m your roommate.”
“Okay,” Cath said, turning back to her book, “so noted.”
“So, do you want me to show you where the dining hall is?”
“No, that’s okay.”
“You can’t keep living off diet bars. You’re running out.”
“I’m not running out.…”
Reagan sighed. “Levi might have eaten a few.”
“You’re letting your boyfriend steal my protein bars?” Cath leaned over her bed to check on her stash—all the boxes were open.
“He said he was doing you a favor,” Reagan said. “Forcing the issue. And he’s not my boyfriend. Exactly.”
“This is a violation,” Cath said angrily, forgetting for a moment that Reagan was probably the most intimidating person she’d ever met.
“Get your shoes,” Reagan said. “I’m showing you where the dining hall is.”
“No.” Cath could already feel the anxiety starting to tear her stomach into nervous little pieces. “It’s not just that.… I don’t like new places. New situations. There’ll be all those people, and I won’t know where to sit—I don’t want to go.”