Sophomore, Undecided

There’s a new kid moving into the dorm room next to mine. I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to him, but considering it’s a few weeks into the semester already I’d say he had an issue with his past roommate, or maybe his room was damaged. Either way, he was somehow able to convince someone to give him a new room. Normally, I wouldn’t care, but I had just started to get to know the girl who used to live there. I’d talk to her regularly, being her neighbor and all, so now I’d have to reschedule everything to fill in those gaps.

I have a month of scheduled “meetings” with Brooke on my calendar still, in red. It’s written in sharpie. We never really had meetings, but she’d always want to talk at six on Mondays and Wednesdays, so I got used to scheduling it in along with my classes, special events, and so forth. I should probably go to the store and buy white-out. I’ve been meaning to go to the store anyway; I’m out of tissues.

Brooke was a sophomore, undecided. She would play earth sounds or Disney soundtracks when she was in her room, which was most of the time. My first interaction with her was at the water fountain. She was drinking, and as I waited my turn to fill up my water bottle, I noticed a paw print pendant dangling from her neck. I thought about complimenting her on it, then noticed it was a squirrel’s print and thought better of it.

She made quick eye contact with me as she walked back to her room.

I realized her room was next to mine the day I was rushing to get to a sorority meeting. I’d grabbed my laptop (just in case) and dropped off my backpack, but realized after I’d closed the door that I forgot to grab a snack too. I groaned and threw open the door, snatching a granola bar from the container on my desk and stuffing it in my pocket as I ran out of the room and into Brooke.

“Hey,” she said awkwardly.

“Huh,” I grunted back and skirted around her, the same necklace catching my eye. I quickly placed her as the water fountain girl, but in my rush wasn’t keen on getting to know her any better.

“I like your hair!” I think she said as I leapt down a stairwell. I had just dyed it black, so that’s probably what she said. I forgot about the brief encounter until I realized in the middle of the meeting I was drawing a squirrel on a stray envelope.

On Mondays, Brooke went to the arboretum. She took me with her once, sometime in the middle of winter. I was doing anthropology homework with my dorm room door open, which is always a mistake, but I always forget because the room feels so stuffy with it closed. Because of the “come bug me I’m totally free” vibe my open door was giving, Brooke swung by and tapped on the wood lightly. I never get unsolicited company so I glanced up expecting to see someone at some other person’s door; I jerked a little when I locked eyes with Brooke.

“What do you want?” I spat before I could change from “studying in solitude” mode to “being a decent human being” mode.

“Are you busy?” Brooke bit her lip and glanced at my pile of papers and open textbook. Her pendant swung as she leaned against my doorframe.

“Uh…doing some homework. Why?” I shuffled a couple of papers around and debated continuing to work on it to make her take a hint and go away, or put them in the textbook and listen to what she wanted. I ended up just holding the papers awkwardly in my hands.

Brooke took a step into my room. “Would you like to go to the arboretum with me? I usually go with my friend Nellie but she’s busy today.”

I looked out the window at the dark sky and did some quick logic statements in my head. Brooke might go even if I said I couldn’t go with her, and the thought of a girl wandering through the woods at night on her own sounded risky.

“For how long?” I asked, setting down the papers.

“Oh, just a half hour or so.” Brooke smiled. “I just love the fresh air, ya know?”

“Ugh. Fine.” I slammed my textbook closed and threw on the coat that was slung across the back of my chair. “Let’s go.”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“Nah, I need a break from studying anyway.” I patted her on the shoulder with one hand and pulled on my hood with the other. She followed me down the stairs, her footsteps either silent or being drowned out by my own. A couple of times I glanced back to make sure she was following me.

My boots skidded instantly when I stepped onto the icy sidewalk. I tensed my leg muscles to lower my center of gravity and walked on like nothing had happened. “So,” I said, sticking my naked hands in my pockets and glancing at Brooke. “None of your other friends could come with you, or what?”

She shrugged. “I have a couple of friends back home, but Nellie is my only real friend here.”

“Where is home for you?” I asked automatically, and she ducked her head.

“Well, I guess I’d really call Ann Arbor home.” She somehow got the end of the tie string of her jacket into her mouth, and she was chewing it slowly and methodically like a cow. “We moved around a lot. My mom and little brother live in Grosse Point now.”

I nodded. Probably because I couldn’t relate at all. Two parents, stable living conditions, loved my life and home and all that. I considered saying “that sucks” like you’re supposed to do when someone is venting to you, but Brooke wasn’t venting so I thought she might take offense to my false empathy instead. So I just nodded.

I was relieved when we made it to the arboretum entrance without any close calls with cars. It’s a common occurrence for me to almost get run over, especially with the icy conditions, especially at dusk, and especially when I’m with another person and I don’t know their street-crossing habits. I have an intricate system when it comes to streets without traffic lights; I slow but don’t stop, lock eyes with the driver of the first car that reaches the intersection, make sure they let me in, start crossing the street, then check the other side of the road to make sure I’m not run over. Brooke decided to just scamper across every street so I held my breath and ran after her.

A few cars were in the parking lot but I couldn’t see anyone on the trails of the arboretum. The long shadows of trees hid the rocky path, so I paused at the edge of the forest, nervous I’d trip over something. Brooke ran ahead, skipping lightly.

“Don’t you have homework to do too?” I asked as I caught up to her.

“A little.” She pointed at the sky. “Full moon tonight, though, didn’t want to miss that.”

I looked up at the moon. I’ve always preferred the new moon, when you can see the stars more clearly and even the Milky Way if you’re in the right place.

Brooke led me down the path that led straight to the river. At first it cut straight through a field of dormant peony beds, but past the garden it dipped down into the thick forest. With the cover of trees, I had to walk slowly so that the barely-lit stairs didn’t trip me. Usually the arboretum is beautifully serene, but in the dark quiet of dark it was somehow more intense, putting me on edge, like there was something lurking behind every tree. I swear I’m not afraid of the dark, but this dark was different. Less static, I guess.

When we reached the foot of the stairs, Brooke dashed to the river. I almost ran after her to prevent her from doing something stupid like diving into the freezing water, but she went for the tree next to it instead. She swung herself onto the leaning trunk and shimmied up the tree into the branches.

I strolled up to the base of the tree and looked up at her, crossing my arms. “Do you do this every time?”

She crouched in the branches and started down at me. “Usually, yeah.” Shifting her gaze upwards, presumably towards the other trees around her, Brooke let out a loud chatter. It took me a few seconds to realize she was mimicking a squirrel’s call.

“What are you trying to do, raise a squirrel army?” I called up to her. I heard my voice echo softly among the trees, so I quickly glanced around to make sure we were alone.

Brooke went silent and tilted her head. “No. I just feel more like myself when I’m here.”

“Here as in…” I tapped the tree trunk. “In a tree, making noises?” I almost laughed, but caught myself. “You’re nuts. No pun intended.”

But Brooke wasn’t listening to me anymore. She sat in the tree completely still, listening to something. I bit my tongue and listened too. There was the constant sound of my breath first and foremost, and past that I could hear the rustling of branches in the wind and the soft gurgling of the non-frozen portions of the river next to me. It was creepy.

After I’d heard everything I could and my fingers were completely numb, Brooke decided she was done doing whatever it was she was doing and climbed down the tree.

“Okay. I’m ready to go back,” she said, and that was that.

I never asked her about her necklace. Where she got it, how long she’d had it. I’m guessing one of her friends or maybe a family member knew about her obsession with squirrels and got her the necklace for her birthday.

***

Since she moved out of her room, some people are moving Brooke’s refrigerator out. It’s the last thing remaining that suggested anyone lived there last semester. She must have ordered it through the University; I’ve gotten those rental offers via email but never bothered to check the rates. As I sit in my room, I can hear the banging of the equipment through the wall. Definitely one of the drawbacks to living in a dorm: thin walls. Whenever Brooke played her music I could hear it, so I got used to either studying elsewhere or wearing headphones.

Night is the worst. When I’m trying to go to sleep and someone in the next room (usually not Brooke—she’s not the type) is having a late-night party or just talking and laughing obnoxiously loud, I just want to smash my head through the wall and yell at them to shut the hell up.

I’m usually a sound sleeper, but I’ve been woken up twice by noises (besides my alarm, of course). The first when the fire alarm went off at four in the morning. The second when Brooke was screaming in her sleep.

I’d gone to bed early (and by early I mean midnight). When I jerked awake a few hours later, I had a feeling some noise had woken me, but I was still in the process of waking up so I was certain it was the hallway fire alarm again, and I silently cursed the idiot who set it off. I sat up and looked around, waiting for the much louder room alarms to begin. Only the familiar darkness of my room stared back at me. Then, a second shriek jerked me fully awake, and I realized it must be Brooke. I kicked the covers off of me and stumbled out of bed, tripping over a pile of something as I went to the light switch. Temporarily blinded by the sudden light, I kicked around the room until I found my pants. I pulled them on and headed out the room amidst more screams.

The guy in the room on the other side of Brooke’s was peeking his head out the door. “Go back to sleep I got this,” I mumbled, and he must have understood me because he quickly slammed his door shut. I crossed my fingers, made a wish that Brooke was just having a bad nightmare, and rapped on her door.

The screaming stopped, but I stood in front of her door in silence. I knocked on her door again and stared at her door decal. The second “O” in her name was falling off. Probably needed more tape. I made a mental note to tell her to fix it.

“Hey Brooke!” I put my ear to the door. “Everything okay in there?” I waited a few seconds before adding, “You’ve kinda woken up the whole hallway with your screaming.” Finally, I heard some rustling and a thump. I jumped back as the door opened slowly.

“Margaret?” Brooke’s face appeared in the small crack of the door. It looked like she’d been crying, but Brooke kind of had one of those faces anyway, so I ignored it and vaguely gestured towards her room.

“You were screaming. It woke us up.”

“Was I?” She didn’t seem to look surprised, or maybe she was just so tired that no emotions were showing on her face. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I…” I scrunched my nose and narrowed my eyes at her. “Are you going to be all right?”

Brooke nodded her head quickly. “Yeah, ‘course.”

She started to close her door, so I grabbed it and blurted out, “If you’re having nightmares, you can talk to me about it. I used to get them all the time.” Go back to sleep! my mind quickly shouted, though whether it was directed at me or at Brooke, or both, I don’t know.

“No, I’ll be fine.” Brooke lowered her eyes. “Good night,” she said, and slammed the door.

I sighed. Okay, fine.

Now it was just past four in the morning and I wasn’t tired at all. It would probably take me an hour to get back to sleep, and who knew if Brooke would start screaming again.

I spent a good twenty minutes staring up at my ceiling before getting back up and grabbing my dreamcatcher from its place at the head of my bed. I went back outside with a roll of scotch tape and pasted it onto Brooke’s door. After a moment of thought, I took another piece of tape and fixed the “O”.

***

She left at the end of the semester. I came back from vacation to find her name stripped from the door. I didn’t notice until I went to ask her how her break had been. I realized too late that I never got her phone number.

Sometime the next day I ran into Nellie on my way out of the dorm. She recognized me and flagged me down at the stairs.

“Hey! Margaret, right?” She flashed me a grin, and I frantically tried to place her. Luckily, she took pity on me (she probably could see the panic in my eyes) and pointed to herself. “Nellie, Brooke’s friend? We met once at a play?”

“Oh, right.” I nodded like I remembered. “Hey, what happened to her anyway? It’s like she died or something.” Heat flared in my face as I realized I had no idea what happened to her and I was about to be seriously embarrassed and judged as insensitive if she really was dead.

Nellie nodded. “Yeah, it was kinda sudden. She dropped out and moved back in with her dad, she didn’t tell you?”

I shrugged. “We weren’t really that close.” I tried to go down the remained steps and head off to my class, but Nellie grabbed my arm.

“Do you want her phone number? I’ve got it right here.” She waved her iPhone in front of my face. I don’t know why it surprised me that the case was a bright pink.

I pushed her away. “Uh, no, I don’t really think that’s necessary.” I cringed at the disappointment in Nellie’s face, but I was going to be late for my class if I didn’t get a move on, so I ducked my head, flipped my hood up, and pushed through the flowing stream of students on the sidewalk.

I nearly tripped on a squirrel while crossing the diag. It was so fat and fluffy and kickable and I probably would have screamed at it if I wasn’t in a public space. Instead, I pulled my bare hands out of my pockets and breathed on them, wondering who was going to replace Brooke, and regretting not stopping for a minute and getting her number from Nellie. In my flustered state, I wondered also if I’d brought the right books to the right class Guess I’d find out when I got there.