For the fifth time in as many minutes, Willow hung up the phone before she could finish dialing. She glowered at the sheet of paper she held, releasing an irritated sigh over her inability to make a simple phone call. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and visualized her fingers punching the sequence of buttons, then steeled herself for attempt number six. The crackling hum of the dial tone taunted her when she lifted the handset. 3-0-1-6-5-4-9-6-clang! Willow slammed the phone back into its cradle, groaning in frustration.
"Darn it, Rosenberg, just call her already!" she ordered herself. "I'm sure, um-" she quickly scanned the page again for the name of her soon-to-be college roommate, "-Cordelia Chase is a perfectly nice girl, she will like you just fine, and you'll get along splendidly as roomies." Although her brain seemed loyal to this belief, Willow's stomach twisted uneasily. What if Cordelia didn't like her? What if she thought she dressed poorly? What if she found her too nerdy? What if it was another four years of teasing, like school had always been?
"Well, you don't have anyone to blame for that but yourself," she chastised herself bitterly. It was true; she'd delayed her college decision so long that she'd missed her chance to request a room with her best friend, Buffy. Instead, her name had gone into a pool, and the school's computer-supposedly based on some intricate matching algorithm, but Willow knew better-had paired her with one Cordelia Chase, non-smoker, from, coincidentally, Chevy Chase.
When she'd heard Willow had missed the rooming request cut-off date, Buffy had been shocked. Her reaction was understandable; she'd known the studious redhead since their sophomore year of high school, and Willow had never missed a deadline. She didn't know the extent to which the college decision had been eating at her friend. Willow was an exemplary student; she had carried a three point nine five grade point average over her high school career-although she would never admit it, Buffy was certain Willow had gotten a B in a senior year elective to avoid giving the Valedictorian speech during the graduation ceremony-and she'd received early acceptance letters and academic scholarships from dozens of prestigious institutions. The intellectual side of Willow desperately wanted to attend an MIT or a Berkeley; she knew she'd earned the right to a top-notch education, and wanted to make the most of her college years and merit a degree from a prominent university. In the end, however, she chose to matriculate with the University of Maryland class of 2003.
Her parents had been furious at first, but they'd since eased back to hardly-contained disappointment. They had, not surprisingly, high expectations for their brilliant daughter, and assumed that her delay was to pick between several of the very best colleges. Her decision to enroll at the state University had come out of left field and nearly floored them both. They'd argued for hours, begged and pleaded, but Willow would not be swayed from her choice, and in the end they had reluctantly agreed that it would at least be nice to have their only child just an hour away. Still, they thought she was making a foolish decision, and, as usual whenever Willow made a choice with which they disagreed, they blamed Oz.
Daniel Osbourne had been Willow's boyfriend since her junior year of high school, and he too was attending UMCP. Oz was a musician and, although Willow loved him dearly, he could do no right in the eyes of her parents. They found his laconic, introspective nature off-putting, and couldn't get over his chameleon-like, spiky hair and often-disheveled appearance. To Sheila and Ira Rosenberg, Oz was a young man with no future, and they despaired over the notion of their daughter choosing him over her education.
The truth was that Willow was terrified of leaving her friends behind and being on her own at college. She was terrible at making friends; whenever she tried, her nerves would get the better of her. She'd blurt out something inappropriate, or make some social faux pas that would invariably invoke embarrassed or angry reactions. In fact, the only reason she had any friends at all in high school is because of Xander Harris.
Willow and Xander had been friends for over a decade. The Harrises lived two houses down from Willow, and Xander had always spent as much time outside of his house as possible. It was impossible for her to miss him; he was always playing in the yard, or riding his bicycle on the street. Willow's parents, recognizing that the young boy was being left unmonitored for many hours during the day, began to invite him over to play with Willow, and the two had been close ever since. Xander, while socially awkward himself, at least had an outgoing, if somewhat goofy, personality, and it was he that introduced Willow to the handful of people whose friendship she maintained throughout high school. Without Xander, there would have been no Buffy, no Jesse, and no Oz.
And so, faced with the prospect of having to build a new social circle in a new environment without the confidence gained by having extroverted friends, Willow couldn't make any other choice. She could probably manage a good education anywhere, but there was only one place where she wouldn't have to struggle with her social anxiety.
"Well, okay, maybe still a little," she admitted, hanging up the phone for the eighth time. The last two attempts she'd actually made it as far as the first ring before chickening out. Willing to admit defeat for the time being, Willow neatly folded the paper with Cordelia's phone number, and lifted the phone to tuck the slip carefully underneath. She jumped back when the phone rang in her hand, a high-pitched squeak escaping her lips. Her heart still thumping rapidly, she lifted the receiver.
"Hello? Rosenberg residence."
"Yeah, hi," an impatient voice replied, "I got two phone calls from this number within the last couple minutes, so could you either stay on the line or stop calling me?"
"Huh? Oh! Is this, um, Cordelia Chase?"
"Yeah. Who's asking?"
"Oh, this is Willow. Willow Rosenberg. I'm your roommate! I mean, your future roommate at College Park. I got your name and number in the mail, which probably means you got mine, too, except that it probably doesn't say Willow exactly, but trust me, nobody actually calls me by my full name, not even my parents. And yet, here I am calling you Cordelia just because the paper said so, but I didn't mean to be so rude. I mean you could easily be a Cordy, or a Delia, or maybe a Dee Dee! And, okay, talking too much. Sorry about the multiple calls."
There was a momentary pause. "Right, okay," Cordelia began, picking her words carefully so as not to launch the other woman into another rambling monologue. "I got your info, too. We should discuss what stuff we can both bring for the room, and maybe come up with some basic ground rules for living together, but I can't talk right now. My date is getting here in like five minutes, my hair isn't done, and I still need to find my shoes."
"Okay," Willow agreed, "I'll put together a list of everything I can bring. Maybe you can call me tomorrow, whenever you're free?" She was already sliding open the side drawer of her desk to retrieve a ruler and pens with three different colors of ink.
"Sure. Calling you at this number is OK?"
Willow divided a sheet of paper into three equally sized columns, writing her name atop the first, then switching colors to write ‘Cordelia' above the second. While she worked, she cradled the phone against her ear with her shoulder. "Yup!" she chirped in reply. "Oh, but don't call after nine PM; my parents don't like anyone calling the house at night. Would you like my email address?"
"No, thanks. I'll call you. I've got to run, though!"
"Okay. Bye!" Willow heard the line disconnect, so she gently set the handset back into its base and returned to her list. Each time she thought of an item she could bring, she'd jot it down, but her gaze kept falling on Cordelia's name in the middle column. The girl had sounded nice enough, so why did she have this dreadful feeling? Not for the first time, Willow wished she'd made up her mind before the housing deadline.
Tara hurried to the counter to retrieve the food for table eleven, deftly depositing her full tray onto the station nearby in exchange for an empty one in a well-practiced maneuver. She reached up to slip a paper containing her scribbled shorthand for another order into a clip at the counter, but it was snatched from her hand en route.
"This place is hoppin', tonight!" Faith noted as she read over the new order. The small diner was only two blocks from campus, and the college crowd made up the bulk of their business. With the new semester just a week away, students were filtering back onto the campus, back from their vacations, their visits home, their summers abroad. As many of them hadn't yet stocked their dorm rooms or apartments with food, they were hitting the streets in droves with grumbling stomachs. As a result of the rush, the diner was filled nearly to capacity, so Tara wasted no time on conversation, instead giving Faith a brief nod before loading up the mouthwatering dishes and, with the tray delicately balanced between her hand and shoulder, snaking back out between the tables.
"Hot behind," warned Richard, the head chef, as he squeezed past Faith while toting a pot of bubbling sauce. The girl smirked at the double-entendre, leaning forward to give her boss extra room. Spotting a confusing scribble on an order, she held it up to Richard.
"Hey, you think she means chicken, here? She used the shorthand for cheese."
Richard furrowed his brow as he found the item Faith indicated. "I'm sure you're right; the other's not on the menu." He looked out over the diner's floor where Tara was dashing from table to table, pouring drinks, then turned back to Faith. "How's Tara been working out? It's been so busy I haven't had a moment to check in with her."
"She's five by five, chef." At her boss' look of total confusion, she clarified, "She's keeping up, which is more than I can say for Andrew." Faith nodded her head toward a young blond man who was stammering an apology to a table full of impatient faces. "Impressive for somebody who's only been here three days. I hate to admit it, but you were right, she was a good hire."
The older man smiled triumphantly. "In that case, I do seem to remember-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Faith muttered, fishing through her pocket to pull out a crumpled wad of singles. She pulled one away and smoothed it out as best as she could on the edge of the counter, then pressed it into Richard's outstretched hand.
At last, the evening rush died down, and an exhausted Tara was finally able to take a break. She exited through the diner's back door to the parking lot, happy to be breathing in air that didn't smell of grease and beer. Tipping her head back, she gazed up at the sky. It was darkening, but she knew the lights from the campus and the city never let it get truly black. It saddened her to see no stars but for a handful of faint pinpoints of light. Instead, the vault of the sky was washed in a hazy red cloud, broken only by the high-rises across the street and the towering crane that marked the construction site on the edge of the campus.
It was the construction project that brought her to College Park. Her family had made the three-hour move from the Eastern Shore when the college had contracted her father's company to build a new parking garage to handle the increasing student population. They'd offered up off-campus housing to the construction workers for the duration of the project, so Tara found herself, along with her father, Donald, and young Donny, Jr., crammed into a tiny two-bedroom apartment that felt nothing like home. She'd been gone only a week, and already she missed their small house in Snow Hill with its garden and trees-real trees that hadn't been planted according to a diagram and sidewalk plans.
She couldn't voice her indignation to her father, but it upset her that he would make the decision to move on such short notice, without discussing it with his children. Her garden would wither and die while she was away, since she hadn't had time to ask anyone to tend it during her absence. Tara frowned. She had to admit to herself that even if she'd had more time, there wasn't anyone she could have asked. Shouldering more responsibility than most people her age, she'd only managed to make one friend in high school, Hannah. They had drifted apart over the summer, and Hannah had decided to attend college in Ohio.
University was never an option for Tara. Since her mother's death six years earlier, she had been expected to help run the family while her father worked: looking after Donny, keeping the house clean, doing laundry, preparing two meals each day during the week, and three on weekends. Tara had struggled academically, not because she didn't have the brains for it, but because she didn't have the time. Too many unfinished assignments left her graduating with sub-par grades, and with no extracurricular activities to brag about, the colleges weren't knocking on her door. She'd briefly considered applying to the Eastern Shore branch of the university, but realized that even if she was accepted, she had too many responsibilities to cast them aside for a degree.
With a huge college so close to her new home, however, the temptation was too great. Secretly, Tara had visited the campus several times in the last week, walking among the student body as though she was one of them. She'd already located the art building and spent hours perusing the students' exhibits. Tara would have loved to take an art class at the University; she'd always loved painting, and had decorated her home on the Shore with her own works.
"Tara?" Her thoughts were interrupted when Faith queried, half leaning out the diner's door, an apologetic grimace on her face. "Hey, T. You ready for the next wave?" She held the door open for Tara as the blonde ducked under her arm and grabbed an apron off of a peg on the wall.
While Tara returned to the front of the diner, Faith took one last opportunity to enjoy the warm breeze that wafted through the lot, then she too swiveled on her feet to go back to work, letting the door close behind her.