There was a boy in her room.
Cath looked up at the number painted on the door, then down at the room assignment in her hand.
Pound Hall, 913.
This was definitely room 913, but maybe it wasn’t Pound Hall—all these dormitories looked alike, like public housing towers for the elderly. Maybe Cath should try to catch her dad before he brought up the rest of her boxes.
“You must be Cather,” the boy said, grinning and holding out his hand.
“Cath,” she said, feeling a panicky jump in her stomach. She ignored his hand. (She was holding a box anyway, what did he expect from her?)
This was a mistake—this had to be a mistake. She knew that Pound was a co-ed dorm.… Is there such a thing as co-ed rooms?
The boy took the box out of her hands and set it on an empty bed. The bed on the other side of the room was already covered with clothes and boxes.
“Do you have more stuff downstairs?” he asked. “We just finished. I think we’re going to get a burger now; do you want to get a burger? Have you been to Pear’s yet? Burgers the size of your fist.” He picked up her arm. She swallowed. “Make a fist,” he said.
“Bigger than your fist,” the boy said, dropping her hand and picking up the backpack she’d left outside the door. “Do you have more boxes? You’ve got to have more boxes. Are you hungry?”
He was tall and thin and tan, and he looked like he’d just taken off a stocking cap, dark blond hair flopping in every direction. Cath looked down at her room assignment again. Was this Reagan?
“Reagan!” the boy said happily. “Look, your roommate’s here.”
A girl stepped around Cath in the doorway and glanced back coolly. She had smooth, auburn hair and an unlit cigarette in her mouth. The boy grabbed it and put it in his own mouth. “Reagan, Cather. Cather, Reagan,” he said.
“Cath,” Cath said.
Reagan nodded and fished in her purse for another cigarette. “I took this side,” she said, nodding to the pile of boxes on the right side of the room. “But it doesn’t matter. If you’ve got feng shui issues, feel free to move my shit.” She turned to the boy. “Ready?”
He turned to Cath. “Coming?”
Cath shook her head.
When the door shut behind them, she sat on the bare mattress that was apparently hers—feng shui was the least of her issues—and laid her head against the cinder block wall.
She just needed to settle her nerves.
To take the anxiety she felt like black static behind her eyes and an extra heart in her throat, and shove it all back down to her stomach where it belonged—where she could at least tie it into a nice knot and work around it.
Her dad and Wren would be up any minute, and Cath didn’t want them to know she was about to melt down. If Cath melted down, her dad would melt down. And if either of them melted down, Wren would act like they were doing it on purpose, just to ruin her perfect first day on campus. Her beautiful new adventure.
You’re going to thank me for this, Wren kept saying.
The first time she’d said it was back in June.
Cath had already sent in her university housing forms, and of course she’d put Wren down as her roommate—she hadn’t thought twice about it. The two of them had shared a room for eighteen years, why stop now?
“We’ve shared a room for eighteen years,” Wren argued. She was sitting at the head of Cath’s bed, wearing her infuriating I’m the Mature One face.
“And it’s worked out great,” Cath said, waving her arm around their bedroom—at the stacks of books and the Simon Snow posters, at the closet where they shoved all their clothes, not even worrying most of the time what belonged to whom.
Cath was sitting at the foot of the bed, trying not to look like the Pathetic One Who Always Cries.
“This is college,” Wren persisted. “The whole point of college is meeting new people.”
“The whole point of having a twin sister,” Cath said, “is not having to worry about this sort of thing. Freaky strangers who steal your tampons and smell like salad dressing and take cell phone photos of you while you sleep…”
Wren sighed. “What are you even talking about? Why would anybody smell like salad dressing?”
“Like vinegar,” Cath said. “Remember when we went on the freshman tour, and that one girl’s room smelled like Italian dressing?”
“Well, it was gross.”
“It’s college,” Wren said, exasperated, covering her face with her hands. “It’s supposed to be an adventure.”
“It’s already an adventure.” Cath crawled up next to her sister and pulled Wren’s hands away from her face. “The whole prospect is already terrifying.”
“We’re supposed to meet new people,” Wren repeated.
“I don’t need new people.”
“That just shows how much you need new people.…” Wren squeezed Cath’s hands. “Cath, think about it. If we do this together, people will treat us like we’re the same person. It’ll be four years before anyone can even tell us apart.”
“All they have to do is pay attention.” Cath touched the scar on Wren’s chin, just below her lip. (Sledding accident. They were nine, and Wren was on the front of the sled when it hit the tree. Cath had fallen off the back into the snow.)
“You know I’m right,” Wren said.
Cath shook her head. “I don’t.”
“Please don’t make me do this alone.”
“You’re never alone,” Wren said, sighing again. “That’s the whole fucking point of having a twin sister.”
* * *
“This is really nice,” their dad said, looking around Pound 913 and setting a laundry basket full of shoes and books on Cath’s mattress.
“It’s not nice, Dad,” Cath said, standing stiffly by the door. “It’s like a hospital room, but smaller. And without a TV.”
“You’ve got a great view of campus,” he said.
Wren wandered over to the window. “My room faces a parking lot.”
“How do you know?” Cath asked.
Wren couldn’t wait for all this college stuff to start. She and her roommate—Courtney—had been talking for weeks. Courtney was from Omaha, too. The two of them had already met and gone shopping for dorm-room stuff together. Cath had tagged along and tried not to pout while they picked out posters and matching desk lamps.
Cath’s dad came back from the window and put an arm around her shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay,” he said.
She nodded. “I know.”
“Okay,” he said, clapping. “Next stop, Schramm Hall. Second stop, pizza buffet. Third stop, my sad and empty nest.”
“No pizza,” Wren said. “Sorry, Dad. Courtney and I are going to the freshman barbecue tonight.” She shot her eyes at Cath. “Cath should go, too.”
“Yes pizza,” Cath said defiantly.
Her dad smiled. “Your sister’s right, Cath. You should go. Meet new people.”
“All I’m going to do for the next nine months is meet new people. Today I choose pizza buffet.”
Wren rolled her eyes.
“All right,” their dad said, patting Cath on the shoulder. “Next stop, Schramm Hall. Ladies?” He opened the door.
Cath didn’t move. “You can come back for me after you drop her off,” she said, watching her sister. “I want to start unpacking.”
Wren didn’t argue, just stepped out into the hall. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” she said, not quite turning to look at Cath.
“Sure,” Cath said.
* * *
It did feel good, unpacking. Putting sheets on the bed and setting her new, ridiculously expensive textbooks out on the shelves over her new desk.
When her dad came back, they walked together to Valentino’s. Everyone they saw along the way was about Cath’s age. It was creepy.
“Why is everybody blond?” Cath asked. “And why are they all white?”
Her dad laughed. “You’re just used to living in the least-white neighborhood in Nebraska.”
Their house in South Omaha was in a Mexican neighborhood. Cath’s was the only white family on the block.
“Oh, God,” she said, “do you think this town has a taco truck?”
“I think I saw a Chipotle—”
“Come on,” he said, “you like Chipotle.”
“Not the point.”
When they got to Valentino’s, it was packed with students. A few, like Cath, had come with their parents, but not many. “It’s like a science fiction story,” she said, “No little kids … Nobody over thirty … Where are all the old people?”
Her dad held up his slice of pizza. “Soylent Green.”
“I’m not old, you know.” He was tapping the table with the two middle fingers of his left hand. “Forty-one. The other guys my age at work are just starting to have kids.”
“That was good thinking,” Cath said, “getting us out of the way early. You can start bringing home chicks now—the coast is clear.”
“All my chicks…,” he said, looking down at his plate. “You guys are the only chicks I’m worried about.”
“Ugh. Dad. Weird.”
“You know what I mean. What’s up with you and your sister? You’ve never fought like this before.…”
“We’re not fighting now,” Cath said, taking a bite of bacon-cheeseburger pizza. “Oh, geez.” She spit it out.
“What’s wrong, did you get an eyelid?”
“No. Pickle. It’s okay. I just wasn’t expecting it.”
“You seem like you’re fighting,” he said.
Cath shrugged. She and Wren weren’t even talking much, let alone fighting. “Wren just wants more … independence.”
“Sounds reasonable,” he said.
Of course it does, Cath thought, that’s Wren’s specialty. But she let it drop. She didn’t want her dad to worry about this right now. She could tell by the way he kept tapping the table that he was already wearing thin. Way too many normal-dad hours in a row.
“Tired?” she asked.
He smiled at her, apologetically, and put his hand in his lap. “Big day. Big, hard day—I mean, I knew it would be.” He raised an eyebrow. “Both of you, same day. Whoosh. I still can’t believe you’re not coming home with me.…”
“Don’t get too comfortable. I’m not sure I can stick this out a whole semester.” She was only slightly kidding, and he knew it.
“You’ll be fine, Cath.” He put his hand, his less twitchy hand, over hers and squeezed. “And so will I. You know?”
Cath let herself look in his eyes for a moment. He looked tired—and, yes, twitchy—but he was holding it together.
“I still wish you’d get a dog,” she said.
“I’d never remember to feed it.”
“Maybe we could train it to feed you.”
* * *
When Cath got back to her room, her roommate—Reagan—was still gone. Or maybe she was gone again; her boxes looked untouched. Cath finished putting her own clothes away, then opened the box of personal things she’d brought from home.
She took out a photo of herself and Wren, and pinned it to the corkboard behind her desk. It was from graduation. Both of them were wearing red robes and smiling. It was before Wren cut her hair.…
Wren hadn’t even told Cath she was going to do that. Just came home from work at the end of the summer with a pixie cut. It looked awesome—which probably meant it would look awesome on Cath, too. But Cath could never get that haircut now, even if she could work up the courage to cut off fifteen inches. She couldn’t single-white-female her own twin sister.
Next Cath took out a framed photo of their dad, the one that had always sat on their dresser back home. It was an especially handsome photo, taken on his wedding day. He was young and smiling, and wearing a little sunflower on his lapel. Cath set it on the shelf above her desk.
Then she set out a picture from prom, of her and Abel. Cath was wearing a shimmering green dress, and Abel had a matching cummerbund. It was a good picture of Cath, even though her face looked naked and flat without her glasses. And it was a good picture of Abel, even though he looked bored.
He always looked kind of bored.
Cath probably should have texted Abel by now, just to tell him that she’d made it—but she wanted to wait until she felt more breezy and nonchalant. You can’t take back texts. If you come off all moody and melancholy in a text, it just sits there in your phone, reminding you of what a drag you are.
At the bottom of the box were Cath’s Simon and Baz posters. She laid these out on her bed carefully—a few were originals, drawn or painted just for Cath. She’d have to choose her favorites; there wasn’t room for them all on the corkboard, and Cath had already decided not to hang any on the walls, out where God and everybody would notice them.
She picked out three.…
Simon raising the Sword of Mages. Baz lounging on a fanged black throne. The two of them walking together through whirling gold leaves, scarves whipping in the wind.
There were a few more things left in the box—a dried corsage, a ribbon Wren had given her that said CLEAN PLATE CLUB, commemorative busts of Simon and Baz that she’d ordered from the Noble Collection.…
Cath found a place for everything, then sat in the beat-up wooden desk chair. If she sat right here, with her back to Reagan’s bare walls and boxes, it almost felt like home.