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.

Drive-In

Why does every overgrown field by the side of a rural freeway have a swing set? They’re always either metal or some god-awful pastel color with chipping paint surrounded by little rusting metal objects that look vaguely like farming tools. Not that I’ve ever worked on a farm, but you know. Rusting metal things in an overgrown field out in the country? Probably farming related.

In the little town where a few friends and I spent a couple of days last summer, the drive-in movie theatre has not only a swing set but one of those merry-go-round spinning things that you always see in movies slowly turning with a metallic squeal as a low wind blows through an abandoned playground. I think it’s supposed to signify loss of innocence, or maybe change. As in, the playground used to be full of laughing happy children and now they’re grown or moved away or dead or whatever the genre of the movie calls for. It’s been used so much that at this point if I see an abandoned playground in a movie I groan and tune out for a minute until the scene changes.

I usually watch horror movies or those new Marvel films, but Meggie wanted to go to the drive-in and it was only playing Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. I hadn’t known Meggie long enough to feel comfortable to suggest we go somewhere else instead. Plus, she was the one with the car. It was a double feature, Meggie was insistent that we see at least the second one, and I hate going to things in the middle of it, so we decided to go to the whole thing.

Nick had stayed behind, so it was just me, Meggie, and Katherine. I wondered who would be the third wheel. With the four of us, Meggie is the odd one out because neither Nick nor I know her well, but the entire reason she came on the trip with us was her friendship with Katherine. The third wheel would have to be me or Meggie.

I sat shotgun and let Katherine sit in the back.

The most words I’ve ever said to Meggie to date were in the car that day. We talked about school mostly, since we all go to the same university. I don’t remember specifics. I remember wondering when we’d see each other again, hoping maybe I’d pick the activity and Nick and I could get to know Meggie better. I saw her a couple of weeks ago walking down South University. I think I waved.

At the drive-in, Katherine leaned on the divider to watch the movies. We shared popcorn and Meggie gave commentary on the movies the whole time. To be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention to the movies as much as I was enthralled by the way Meggie talks. She’d get excited about a line in the movie and she’d throw her head back and squeal, her curly black hair bouncing as she tapped my arm. “SO CUTE!” she’d say, or something along those lines. When an important part was coming, she’d grab my arm and look me straight in the eyes. “So this scene is integral in establishing” whatever it was that scene was establishing at that part. Most of her words flew over my head because they whizzed by so fast, so I mainly just looked into her green eyes or watched the curl of hair that kept falling in front of her face over her lips before she brushed it away.

In between movies I tried to remember the main plot points of Sleepless in Seattle in case Meggie wanted to talk about it more. I remembered Tom Hanks and whatsherface on top of the Empire State Building, and a backpack. I think they found each other over the radio or something. I still don’t really know.

Instead of talking about the movie, Meggie decided to ask me about my love life. Katherine immediately cracked up. “What? What did I say?” Meggie asked, smiling at the joke she wasn’t in on.

“I have no love life at the moment, that’s why she’s laughing.” I rolled my eyes back at Katherine, and she scrunched her nose at me.

“Oh. Well, is there anyone you’re interested in?” Meggie raised her eyebrows and bit her lip like she was waiting for me to come out with some gushy story about a crush of mine.

Before I could say anything, however, Katherine stuck her face between ours and whispered “She has a type!”

“A type?” Meggie laughed. “Yeah, me too. All my boyfriends have had hazel eyes. My current boyfriend’s eyes have a bit of blue in them but it’s basically the same thing.”

Katherine rested her head on her clasped hands. “Margaret’s into dark hair, light eyes. I think it’s the ‘opposites attract’ thing with the hair.”

“Everyone likes light eyes,” I said quickly.

“Not me.” Katherine leaned back in the seat and put her hands behind her head. “I’m into those really dark eyes, you know, the ones that look almost black?” She sighed. “Now those are some pretty sweet eyes.”

“Dark hair, light eyes, you said?” Meggie echoed. Her head tilted slightly in thought. “I think I know a couple of great guys that fit that description. I could hook you up!”

I smiled uneasily and shrugged. “I’m not really looking for someone at the moment…”

“But you obviously want someone!” Katherine stared at me with the look she gives me when she’s sharing a secret (which she does a lot). “Someone with black hair? And light, maybe, I don’t know, green eyes?”

Meggie laughed. “That could describe me!”

Katherine joined in, slapping me on the arm. “Yeah, it could, couldn’t it?” Sudden heat ran up my neck and into my cheeks. I giggled weakly.

“Guess I’d be perfect, wouldn’t I?” Meggie grinned at me.

“Yeah!” Katherine grabbed Meggie’s arm and she exploded into more, higher-pitched laughter.

I stuck a grin on my face. “Haha, yeah, guess so. Hey, I’m going to go get some air, okay? It’s a bit stuffy in here.” I fumbled for the car door handle for a few seconds before throwing it open and stumbling out. I shook my head at the two of them, pointing at Katherine. “Stop trying to hook me up with your friend,” I said with a smile. Meggie laughed even more.

Outside the car, I took a deep breath to clear my sudden dizziness. Looking around, I spotted the small playground with the spinning contraption and the swings behind the parked cars. I walked over to them and sunk down into one of the swings. The grass tickled my ankles, and I dug my toes into the dirt. The swing rocked slightly.

“Hey,” Katherine called, jogging up to me. She hadn’t even given me a moment to sit and think in silence. She sat in the other swing and leaned her head on the chain. “God, I love swings. Remember that time in like, first grade when we argued over what we would name our tiger if we ever got a tiger as a pet and I got so mad that I just left and swung on the swings for the rest of recess?”

“I’m not mad at you,” I snorted, rolling my eyes.

“Mmhmm…” Katherine grabbed the chain and stared at me over her arm with wide, expectant eyes.

I sighed. “Why are you trying to hook me up with Meggie?”

Katherine swung closer to me. “Because you two would be so cute together because you’re both so adorable!”

“Did you miss the part where she is in a relationship already?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, well…” Katherine looked down at the overgrown grass. “I don’t like her boyfriend.”

“Apparently she does,” I retorted.

The swing flipped as Katherine stood up. “But you do like her, don’t you?”

I shrugged. “Yeah of course I like her, so what? What do you want me to do? Tell her to leave her boyfriend so she can date someone she basically just met a few days ago?” Katherine stood with her mouth open for a second, then seemed to think better of what she was going to say and instead steadied the swing.

“Yeah, guess that was weird of me, huh?” She smiled. “Sorry about that. Next movie’s about to start, wanna come back to the car?”

“I’ll be there in a minute.”

I let the swing rock back and forth a little. The chains clinked, and I stared up at the rust-covered metal. These kind of swings always looked like they’d break in a second. I looked over at the spinning contraption. It was faring no better.

“She is really attractive, isn’t she?” I said to it. It squeaked in response.

I sighed. I wasn’t looking for a date. I’m not looking for a date. All my friends are in relationships, but I’ve been focusing on my studies. How do they find time to devote to their significant other? I’ll have time to date later in life, after college, or maybe senior year when I’ll have less credits. I’ll be fine.

And yet I can’t stop thinking about sitting on that swing and watching Meggie lean out of the car and wave to me as the next romance started.

Errands

After my long chemistry lecture and lab, I decided to make my Tuesday even longer by going grocery shopping. I think I figured I would just get the bulk of my work done in one day so I could stay in my dorm room and watch Netflix the rest of the week.

I stepped onto the bus bound for Meijer, quickly swiped my card and rushed to grab a seat in an empty row. I dropped my backpack in the seat by the window and sat in the other one. After only a few seconds, the bus doors wheezed shut and we were off. I dug through the front pocket of my backpack and pulled out a few extraneous mechanical pencils before finding my iPod, then stuck the earbuds into my ears and put the songs on shuffle. The opening riff from “Thunderstruck” began, and I leaned back and closed my eyes.

Even with the lyrics blasting into my ears, I still saw equations for chemical reactions scroll on the back of my eyelids. The worst part is that they weren’t even in my handwriting; they were notes that my chem buddy wrote in my notebook. He kept getting frustrated that I was taking too long to write something down and stopping mid-equation to stare out the window. I’d been out late Monday night getting my Halloween costume, so I had a great excuse to be a bit spacey.

The eradication of chemistry from my brain was almost complete by the middle of “Immortals”. I tapped my knee on every other beat and let my head roll back and forth. I swayed forward as the bus came to a stop, but kept my eyes closed and pressed the earbuds further in. When I felt a tap on my shoulder I first pretended like I hadn’t noticed, but after the second one I stuck a smile on my face and looked up. “Uh huh?”

“Would you mind if I sat next to you?” is what I’m pretty sure she said. Fall Out Boy made her words kind of garbled, but the woman had her hand on the back of my seat in an obvious gesture. I leaned back and stared at the three empty seats just across the aisle, then narrowed my eyes at her.

“Sure…” I scooched over and rolled my fat backpack onto my lap. Resting my head on top of it, I watched the lady sit down and place her leather purse on the seat. I’m guessing she was either my age or a couple of years older. She was dressed like she was going to an upscale party, or maybe she just enjoys wearing fancy dresses. I watched her pale beige high heels tapping on the floor of the bus as she crossed her legs. The maroon fabric of her dress shifted across her knees, catching flashes of daylight in its folds.

After a few seconds it became painfully apparent that she was looking at me. I lifted my head up and looked at her nose for a heartbeat before taking one earbud out. “Yeah?”

“U of M student?” she asked, smiling at my Go Blue! shirt. Her long black hair swooped down her face as she tilted her head.

I nodded. “Yup.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Cool.”

I put my chin back onto my backpack. The bus took a right turn. The song ended and there were a few seconds of only the rumbling of the vehicle.

“So where are you headed?”

I groaned. “Meijer.”

“I’m going to Joann Fabrics, so that’s the stop I’ll be taking!” The lady squinted at me and smirked. “Do you want me to stop talking?”

I’d planned on listening to my iPod for the full forty minutes, but after only one more song I found myself skipping all the rest because none of them felt right at the moment. Finally, I turned the iPod off and stuffed it back into my backpack. I turned to stare at the lady. She was fiddling with her phone.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

She smiled and put the phone down. “Elaine. You?”

“Margaret.” I studied her more closely. “You’re not in one of my chem classes, are you?”

“Chemistry? No.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a small notebook. She held it up in front of her face, the cover of the notebook displaying the words “Diff EQ” in curly purple writing. “I’m an engineering major, so if you’re in any of those classes I might be there.”

“I haven’t taken differential equations yet,” I admitted.

Elaine set the notebook down on top of her purse and nodded at the bus driver. “What do you think he’s been talking about?” she asked. After I adjusted myself to the random change in subject, I glanced up at the driver. He was having a conversation using his radio, but from the seat in the back all I could here was a garbled mess of static.

“Sometimes they get calls about some person who doesn’t know what bus they need to take,” I suggested. “Maybe it’s one of those.”

After about ten minutes, we discovered the actual topic of conversation. My stomach lurched as the bus suddenly took a turn it wasn’t supposed to take. The road we were on now was unfamiliar to me, and as I stared out the window I suddenly got the feeling that the bus had shrunk to half its normal size. A loud buzzing started in my ears, so I couldn’t hear what the bus driver had started saying to the passengers. It felt like my chest was too thin and my heart would just pop right out of my body so I pressed the backpack closer to me, but the feeling persisted. To my horror a stream of tears decided to pour out from my eyes, so I stayed facing the window without actually registering what was going on outside.

“Are you okay, Margaret?” Elaine put a hand on my knee and I flinched.

“Yeah yeah, I’m good,” I gasped, the words coming out more strained than I’d hoped. “Just…just casually having a panic attack, no big deal.”

“Panic attack?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw her fishing for something in her purse. “Here, want some water?”

The part of me that was freaking out told me that I should just sit there and suffer, but my rational part won after a few seconds and grabbed the water bottle that Elaine was holding. I took two sips and sank low into my backpack.

A minute later and I was completely fine. “Well that was embarrassing,” I mumbled, handing back the water. “That hasn’t happened in a while.”

“No, it’s all right,” Elaine consoled me. “I know a couple of people who get panic attacks about things. Oh, I think this is our stop.”

“What? It is? I didn’t hear anything the bus driver said.”

“Oh. The section of the road that Meijer is on is blocked off because of some kind of accident. We have to get off on this road and walk. I wonder if the road’s blocked off for pedestrians as well.”

“Guess we’ll find out when we get there.” I shifted my backpack around and put the straps on as the bus came to a halt. Elaine and I thanked the bus driver and stepped out onto the sidewalk, looking around to take stock of our current location. We were on the same north-south road as Meijer, and my always reliable inner compass located the direction in which we needed to walk.

We started off in silence, which I broke after a minute by blurting out “See this is why I don’t take the buses.”

“You mean, the panic attack?” Elaine shifted her purse strap on her shoulder.

“Yeah.” I grimaced. “I hate buses and I hate unexpected changes. You combine the two and yippee, you get the exact right condition for a Margaret-style claustrophobic spectacle!”

“Are you okay now? Do you want me to carry your backpack for you?”

I laughed. “You can carry my backpack if you want, but besides the feeling like there’s a weight sitting on top of my chest I’m fine.” I stretched my shoulders and pointed to the spot right in the middle under my clavicle. “This right here. But that’ll be better in a little while anyway so it’s all cool.”

Elaine nodded. “If you don’t want to take the bus back, I’ll walk with you to campus.”

“I said it’ll be better,” I protested. “And you’re wearing high heels!”

She grinned and shook her head. “I’ve got friends who get panic attacks, remember? I’d be fine with walking. Besides, I wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time with you.”

I stuck my hands in my pockets and blushed. “Yeah, alright. You seem okay. Like, not the murderous type or anything.”

She chuckled, and I looked into her cool green eyes. I could feel the pressure lifting off of my chest already.

“Oh, one condition though,” I added.

Her eyes sparkled as she raised her eyebrows. “And what would that be?”

“You get to carry my backpack on the way back.”

Drained

The kid had a nightlight on top of his cabinet, so the first room tonight wasn’t as dark as I’d hoped it would be. I think it was supposed to be Noah’s Ark. It glowed with a sickening orange light, and there was a ceramic giraffe on it that had one big glowing eye that shined right on the boy’s throat.

I slithered under the bed, curled my fingers around the electrical cord and tried to force it out of the socket. I figured that since I’d been able to do that easily when I was alive, I’d be able to figure it out. Guess my reasoning skills leave something to be desired.

With the light still shining, I crawled up the side of the bed and across the pillow in the half that was still in shadow. Thankfully, the kid’s head was untouched by the luminous giraffe, and I was able to press my fingers on his temple. I lowered my head and inhaled.

The smell of chocolate cake and burnt candles filled my mind. The boy was dreaming about a birthday. I sighed and sunk deeper. Wisps of his dream drifted across my vision. As they brushed against me, I drank in their warmth and brightness. When I’d had enough of the little bursts of happiness, I let myself drop fully into the dream.

For a moment I ignored the boy and stretched my limbs, relishing the feeling of depth in my fingers and toes. Eyes closed, head raised, I breathed in the bubbly emotions. I slid my eyelids open and smirked.

The birthday boy stiffened at the sudden appearance of a ghastly shadow figure in his dream. Before he could taint it with too much fear, I leapt forward and ripped the fresh dream from his body. Within seconds I’d consumed it and fled the boy’s mind.

I receded into the shadows, and he sat up in bed and screamed.

The remnants of his dream within me trickled out to my stretching fingers, but I still felt empty. This house was spent, so I drifted through the wall and out into the moonless night. I passed the next few houses, shying away from the light pouring out of their bedroom windows. Finally I reached one that was completely dark.

In the first bedroom on the second floor lay a little girl, no more than five years old. The covers bunched around her body appeared simply as splotches of navy blue and gray under the pale starlight peeking in through the window, but as I slid down the window ledge it I saw it was covered in superheroes, leaping and crouching in every available space on the fabric. Just below the girl’s chin, spider-man was slinging his web in my direction, clinging to a cartoon wall in a ridiculous and humanly-impossible position. I chuckled, then perched on top of the girl and considered the superhero for a moment longer before resting my palms against the child’s forehead.

As soon as I entered her mind I knew I’d be getting nothing good from her. The fragments of a nightmare hissed around me. I brushed the nightmare aside with one hand and prepared to slide away, out of the house, in search of better dreams.

In an instant, the girl’s eyes flew open and her hand snatched my outstretched arm.

We were too shocked to do anything but stare at each other for a silent second. I suppose I’d forgotten how much there is to see inside a person’s eyes, especially when they’re wide with terror. When I regained control of my thoughts, I decided to simply fly up through the ceiling as fast as I could; the girl’s grasp was making me lightheaded, which is a crazy sensation for someone without a physical head. I bunched up my energy and pushed myself off the child, but intense pain, the first pain I’d felt since my death, burst in my chest and sent me tumbling back.

I reluctantly looked back down at the child. Somehow she had a tight grip on a spot where I was pretty sure my heart would be if I were alive. If I weren’t so rattled I’d have appreciated the role reversal. I sighed as the warm, happy dreams inside me dripped down the girl’s arm; an entire week’s work was bleeding out of my body. When I felt I couldn’t give any more, I collapsed into a quivering shadow on her sheets.

The girl’s shadow passed through me as she sat up. I jerked my head up and saw her face peering down at me, and the bright twinkle in her eyes made me cringe. I frantically tried to figure out what that look meant. Was she relieved? Or maybe upset, enough to hurt me more? Was she some kind of angel, living on earth to protect children from lost souls like me?

Slowly, she reached out to place her hands on me, and I shut my eyes.

Guilt trickled into my body. I flinched as it spread to my head and made way for the fear and wariness that quickly followed. Faster and faster, melancholy mingled with glee and confusion with curiosity. With a screech, I pushed free of the girl and dove off the bed. I fell to the floor with a thud and rushed to the open window. Instead of taking off into the air, I crashed to the ground and lay in the bushes, hugging myself against the chaos that was swirling inside me.

I could feel dozens of emotions. They competed for my attention, pushing their way to my mind. I trembled as each new emotion surfaced. I felt anguish, pleasure, longing. I felt terrified. I felt a thousand points inside of me tugging and tearing me in a thousand directions.

But I didn’t feel empty.

Memorial

It’s raining. The sidewalks are full of people scurrying off to drier places. Cooper has to squeeze his mother’s hand and run to keep up or else he’ll be lost in the crowd. Cooper tries to see past all the bumping legs and handbags around him. He wishes they had stayed in the nice warm restaurant a little longer, but his mom said they had to make it to the memorial before it closed. He asked what a “memrial” was, and she said it was like the word “memory” and that it was made for people to remember the bad things that had happened and the good people they happened to.

Cooper and his mom finally leave the busy sidewalk and head towards a building that looks like a shiny piece of pie. Once Cooper walks inside, he wipes his face with his sleeve and points at a man in uniform. “Is that a policeman?” he asks.

“He’s kind-of like a policeman,” his mother answers, taking his jacket. “He’s here to make sure everyone is safe.”

“What are those?” Cooper points to the row of gray gates separating them from the rest of the building.

She places both their jackets in a similarly gray bin. “We walk through them and it goes beep if there’s any metal.”

Cooper tightens his grip on his mom’s hand and together they step through the gate. When it doesn’t beep, Cooper gives his mom a thumbs up. He takes his coat back, even though it’s dripping wet, and looks around.  People are talking to one another, but it’s a quiet kind of talk that Cooper doesn’t understand. No one whispers, everyone talks, yet everyone is quiet. He wants to ask his mom what this means, but they are already walking across the hall and down some stairs.

On the next floor, the first thing Cooper sees is a pair of tall metal pillars. They look old because they’re rusted and broken off into separate pieces near the top. “Can I touch it?” Cooper asks. His mother shakes her head.

They both examine the room to figure out where to go next. There’s a help desk on the other side that looks so neat and clean like the floor and the walls and the lights and the stairs. Cooper looks back at the pillars just to make sure they’re still there. “They don’t hold anything up,” he realizes.

“They used to,” his mother answers.

After watching other people walk down the stairs and go left, Cooper and his mother go left as well and finds themselves walking on a bridge alongside a cement wall with strange shapes poking out of it. Cooper thinks they look like Legos and wonders if anything used to be connected to them.

Around a corner, Cooper’s mother spots something and brings him over to the side of the bridge. She points to something the wall. “Do you know what those are?” she asks. Cooper follows her gaze and sees projections of people’s faces surrounded by some large words in bold. Most of them say “MISSING” in black or red ink above the picture. Every second, one of the projections is replaces by another. Different person, same word.

“We made one of those for Murphy when he ran away,” Cooper says. “They make them for people too? Did they run away?”

“No, they didn’t run away,” his mother replies, “but the people who cared about them didn’t know where they were so they made these posters to try to find them.”

“Did they find them like how we found Murphy?”

His mother shakes her head.

They walk down another flight of stairs. Cooper looks up and wonders how much of the building is above him. It feels like there is less air down here, or maybe it’s just warmer. Either way, Cooper feels a little dizzy as they reach the ground. He hears noises coming from a room ahead of him, and listening closer, he realizes it’s a recording of people saying names. It sounds official, like roll call at the beginning of class, because they say the entire name and they say it slowly.

“Do you know what this used to be, Cooper?” Cooper looks up at his mother. Her face is wet. Cooper shrugs. “This is the North Tower,” she tells him. “Do you remember the North Tower?”

“Is that where Daddy worked?” He asks. His mother nods.

Cooper thinks the recording is too loud. He doesn’t like how it keeps saying people’s names over and over. “Can we leave?” he asks. His mother nods.

As they walk back up the stairs, Cooper says, “I don’t like mem’rials. Mem’rials have all bad memories and no good memories. I don’t like remembering that Daddy’s gone.”

“Memorials aren’t just about remembering the bad thing that happened,” his mother explains. “They’re about remembering what happened before too, and what can happen in the future.”

“So good memories can happen in the future?”

His mother stops and kneels in front of him. She puts her hands on his shoulders and smiles. “Sweetheart, we can make the future as good as we want. But we need memorials to remind us that we can get through the bad times too. Do you understand?” she asks.

Cooper nods.

The Bridge

Because of the consistently low temperatures I haven’t been able to do this in a while, but I have an obsession with taking long walks along the streets of Ann Arbor. You really can’t get to know a place by studying a piece of paper, so I ditched my map of the city months ago and opted instead to get myself lost by wandering among the many university buildings and businesses. You have to get out there and make a few wrong turns and end up in places you wouldn’t have explored otherwise.

On my first Saturday morning at the University of Michigan last fall, after two hours of walking I succeeded in finding the cluster of buildings situated on what students refer to as “the Hill.” I heard that one of the buildings had a dining hall in which you could find the best cookies on campus, so finding this building took top priority.

The dining hall wasn’t open when I got there and wouldn’t be open for another couple hours, so I wandered about the Hill for a few minutes before discovering a narrow bridge high above Washtenaw Avenue. I walked along it until I reached what I thought was dead center, then leaned over the edge and stared down at cars rushing by. Rubbing the small collection of coins in my pocket, I contemplated the consequences of dropping one over the edge. I think I saw something on TV once about how it’s bad to drop objects off of bridges because of the potential damage to the cars. I thought for about two more seconds and then took a penny out. To heck with caution. This penny was going overboard.

I dangled the coin over the edge with my thumb and middle finger apart just enough to feel the miniscule weight of the penny pulling down towards the pavement below. Just as the last car in a long line of vehicles disappeared underneath the bridge, I let go. For a short moment, it felt like I was moving away from the coin, maybe flying upwards into the clouds, but before I could really understand the feeling, the penny and the moment were gone.

As the semester went on, I began to take my walks earlier and earlier. I’m a morning person, much to the misery of my roommate Jan. Once my alarms started going off before the sun had even begun to shine through our window, Jan threatened me with bodily harm unless I promised to wake up later on weekends. I compromised by waking myself up at my usual time without using an alarm. I think I should put that on resumes: “can wake up without use of alarm clock”.

Every Saturday I’d leave the dorm around seven and walk the fifteen minutes to the bridge. It became something of an anchor for me; no matter where I went, I started at the bridge and ended at the bridge.

The second Saturday, I went exploring through the Arboretum. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to be there that early in the morning, but I’ve always lived by the philosophy that if you don’t know if something is permitted, do it until someone tells you to stop. And then sometimes keep doing it anyway.

The third Saturday, I discovered the residential areas north of Central Campus. I began taking random turns and quickly lost track of the roads I’d walked down already. Luckily, my sense of direction is reliable, and I was able to find my way back to campus and the bridge without getting in too much of a panic.

The fourth Sunday was the day the man first showed up. I didn’t even know he was a man at first, just that someone was on my bridge. The sun had been up for less than fifteen minutes, so I didn’t see his dark gray silhouette until I had already taken a step or two onto the bridge. When I did notice him, I guess my brain and my feet went out of whack because I tripped over my own toes. Arms splayed to regain balance, I frantically ran through my options. I couldn’t go forward with my usual routine; he even had the nerve to stand almost exactly where I liked to stand, leaning over the side in the spot I usually leaned over. I thought about alternate routes I could take, but immediately my stubbornness stalled that idea. Instead, I went to the end of the bridge and sat down cross-legged, glaring at the man the whole time. We stayed like that for ten minutes, him in my spot and me on the ground. Finally, he raised his head, stretched, and walked in the other direction.

On the fifth Sunday, the man was in my spot again. I took my place at the end of the bridge on the ground, willing him to leave. You always read about people looking daggers at other people, but in my experience those moments tend to happen when the other person isn’t looking and so the moment passes without any kind of metaphorical wounding. As it happens, the one time I wasn’t looking at the jerk was the moment he chose to turn his head around and call out, “You know, we could just share the bridge….?”

I was staring down at my scuffed shoes at the moment, but when I heard his voice my head shot up and I blurted out, “You mean my bridge?”

I had been hoping that would discourage him from conversing with me, but evidently something about the way I said it was funny enough to elicit laughter from him. He looked out at the road again and shifted his weight to one leg in an annoying “I’m comfortable where I am right now” sort of way. I sighed and stood up. Hands in my pockets, I walked over and stopped next to him, copying his pose.

We were there for another minute before either of us said a word. Finally, he asked, “So, come here often?”

I snorted. “Really? That’s the line you choose?”

He shrugged. “Seemed appropriate. Do you come here every Saturday morning?”

I turned towards him, leaning on the bridge with one elbow. “As a matter of fact, I do. I come here and then I take a walk and then I come back here. Got a problem with that?” That made him laugh again.

The two of us did a bit more bantering that transitioned into small talk. I learned that his favorite band was Styx, that his family owned two cats (a black cat and a tabby), and that he was a junior at U of M studying computer science. I told him about my brothers and I vented about the obnoxious students in my organic chemistry class.

We parted ways with a short “bye”.

The next few weeks went the same way. By the time I got to the bridge, he was already there. I hadn’t bothered to ask his name, but in my mind I referred to him as “Greg” because I thought the name was funny and didn’t fit him at all. I would greet “Greg” with a new insult, usually about the state of his hair (which didn’t seem subject to gravity). We’d then stand next to one another, gazing out at the road and talking about little things.

One Saturday, I brought my iPod so I could play the music from RENT. The week before we discussed musicals and he had mentioned he’d never seen it, which I deemed unacceptable. And the second-best thing to seeing it was listening to the original cast recording.

We stood on that bridge for almost two hours singing along to the whole soundtrack. During Tango: Maureen, “Greg” and I clasped hands and tangoed across the bridge with imaginary roses in our mouths. I had to play the song three times just so we could get through it without cracking up. During the slower songs, though, “Greg” sat and listened to me sing. While my friends usually avoid eye contact with me at all costs while I sing, he looked straight at me and nodded whenever I sang some particularly difficult part well.

Afterwards, we sat next to each other and talked about what the songs were really saying. I said I wasn’t sure exactly because they seemed to simultaneously glorify and condemn existentialism. However, “Greg” shook his head.

“I think it’s just about the balance, you know? You have to know the consequences of your actions, but you also have to live in the now because tomorrow, it’s gone.”

The few times I saw him after that, our discussions were a lot heavier. We talked about things like racism and poverty and politics. The shooting in Ferguson was still a hot topic in the news, so we talked about the existence of “white privilege” and systematic racism. We also talked about life in general. It felt like, whenever I went up to that bridge, I stepped out of the real world to a much simpler one for just a moment, a world where I could talk about everything without having to resolve anything.

On the second Saturday in December, I went to the bridge a little before seven in the morning. “Greg” wasn’t there. I walked up and down the bridge for a few minutes. He didn’t come. I stood by the side of the bridge, looking down at the traffic, wondering if my glasses would fall off and land on a car. I thought about dropping something but decided not to.

I haven’t seen him since. I’m not sure I remember what he looks like. Sometimes when I’m walking to my classes, I’ll look for him in the crowds of students. I went to the bridge a few more times, but I stopped after a few weeks. It’s too cold for that anymore.

Pros and Cons

In about an hour, I am going to call some friends to go out to dinner at Cottage Inn. In my hand is a messily scrawled chart: names of friends down the side, two columns across the top listed “pros” and “cons.” I don’t want to look at the darn list any more lest I get a headache, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who can objectively figure out who I should invite. I’m obviously not perfect (if I was, I would have this figured out by now), but I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who didn’t go completely haywire last week.

I’ve got the names down in the order in which we were sitting: Devon, Angela, Katherine, Eric, and Sally, though Angela and Katherine might have been switched. Everything I can remember about the last time we hung out is written out with circles or arrows in my attempt to make chronological sense of it all.

Devon has the least notes, pros or cons, of anyone on the list. He ordered a Caesar salad and didn’t say much the whole night. He was wearing a faded jean jacket, which Eric made fun of, and an Atlanta Braves baseball cap, which I made fun of. I think he took it off when the real fighting started, but when Sally chucked a breadstick at Katherine’s head, he said he wanted nothing to do with any of us ever again. I’ll probably end up calling him just in case.

It was hard to keep track of all the things Angela said and did, so I have a lot of abbreviated sentences and question marks by her name. She shared a large cheese and artichoke pizza with Eric, Katherine and me. She wanted pepperoni but we outvoted her, which put her in a glum mood right away, no doubt. After Sally hit Katherine with the breadstick and Devon left, Angela took her diet sprite and splashed it all over Sally’s new outfit. Katherine is Angela’s sister and they’re really close, super close, like those identical twins you hear about on TV except that they’re a year apart. Anyway, there I was, soaking wet because I had the misfortune of sitting next to Sally, when Sally leapt to her feet and screamed at Angela and Angela screamed back at her to screw herself. We were in a booth and I had the aisle seat, so Sally pushed past me and stormed off to the restroom to get paper towels.

I’ve got “short fuse” listed under “cons” for Angela because she was technically the person who started the entire fiasco. Like I said, she was already upset about the pizza, and when Eric made fun of the way she was eating it (“like a mouse,” I think he said), she decided it was a fantastic idea to say “well maybe if you ate the way I do, you wouldn’t be so fat, huh?” Now it just so happens that Sally is Eric’s girlfriend, so as you can imagine she was furious.

Katherine’s got about the same pros and cons as Angela. When Sally and Angela started arguing, Katherine tried to change the subject to the breadsticks on the table and who wanted the last one. I said I’d take it, but Sally drowned me out. She told Katherine to stay out of it because “Eric is my boyfriend, and boyfriend trumps sister any day, honey.” I could see that Sally’s sharp tongue had accidentally ignited a spark in Katherine, and I glanced over the pizza at Devon to make sure I wasn’t the only one who knew things were about to get a whole lot hotter. We both winced as Katherine started a “how dare you say that anything trumps my sister” rampage, one that we’d heard time and time again, but never in a public place like Cottage Inn and never with friends. I felt the eyes of basically everyone in the restaurant on us as their voices climbed, so frantically I grabbed the breadbasket and quavered, “Someone needs to take the breadstick before I eat it, I’ve had too many.” Sally grabbed the bread and obviously felt it belonged on Katherine’s head.

If I call Angela, I have to call Katherine, but if I invite the two of them I doubt Sally will want to come, and she’s the one who got me to go out to these dinners in the first place. I’m still on the fence about them.

I’ve been friends with Sally for a couple of years, but Katherine’s gotten to know her well because they’re roommates. I found out a lot about their sleeping habits, courtesy of their Cottage Inn rant. Evidently Katherine has a habit of saying gibberish in her sleep, while Sally stays out until “freaking three in the morning” hanging out at Eric’s dorm, going to parties, and “probably getting completely wasted, and don’t expect me to be able to come to your rescue when you pass out in some frat boy’s yard in sub-zero temperature”.

I’m don’t remember what Sally ordered for dinner.

Eric has a bunch of notes in the “con” column, simply because of the whole “boyfriend trumps sister” thing. I’m not a fan of Sally-and-Eric, though I enjoy their company when they’re not together. No, that’s a lie. I don’t even like Eric by himself. I guess there’s just nothing we have in common. Plus, anyone who makes fun of my friends needs to reevaluate their life choices. My friends are fantastic human beings. When they’re not fighting with breadsticks and diet sprite, that is.

If I don’t invite Eric, Sally will probably spend the evening with him instead, so it would be better for me to invite Katherine and Angela. Then again, I’m really not in the mood to listen to them venting about Sally, which they’re sure to do.

We all left Cottage Inn with ruined appetites, so I’ve got a bunch of leftover pizza in my refrigerator. If worse comes to worst, I can always heat up a slice and eat by myself.

Actually, that’s probably the best idea I’ve had in weeks.