On the seventh floor of Ellicott Hall, three boys tiptoed quietly past the elevators. Easing open the door separating the girls' half from the rest of the floor, they collectively winced at the protesting groan of the barrier. After a whispered discussion, one of them, a shaggy, bespectacled youth, who bristled with excitement like a child on Christmas morning, remained at the entrance, propping the door open with his foot. The other two boys crept gingerly past a series of doors: Jessica, the RA's room; the southern stairwell; the bathroom. As they neared the window at the end of the corridor, their target grew closer with each step: a stuffed version of the school's mascot, Testudo, the diamondback terrapin, which had been duct taped to the window's safety bar. The last two doors in the hallway had been left open purposefully, the light sleepers contained within being the last line of defense in the ongoing game of Turtle Theft. The scene before them dredged up images in one boy's head of The Neverending Story; he imagined that one wrong step in the stuffed animal's direction would result in laser beams firing from the doorways, bringing a swift end to his short but glorious life. When a quick glance into both rooms confirmed that the girls were indeed sleeping, or at least pretending to sleep convincingly enough, the boys approached the prize warily. A short length of fishing wire had been tied snugly around the figure's neck, the other end of which looped through a series of bells, which had been stripped from cats' collars. The entire alarm system was balanced precariously on the curved surface of the bar.
One boy nervously drew a Swiss army knife from his pocket and folded out the scissors. Examining the wire for the best point of attack, he eased one of the blades underneath, and, with a simple snip, freed the terrapin from captivity. The boy's heart thudded erratically when he saw the bells shift a smidgen, then lazily slide off of the far side of the bar. He lunged out his free hand, but the string of bells merely jangled off of his knuckles and tumbled to the hallway floor in a cacophonous crescendo. The boys stood frozen, cringing at the racket, then turned slowly to see four young, pajama-clad women in the hallway with them, grins plastered across their faces, and expertly-wielded Super Soaker water cannons in their hands.
Nestled in the warm cocoon of her blanket, Willow slumbered, oblivious to the shrieks, heavy footsteps, and splattering sounds filtering under her door from the hallway. Her porcelain skin was illuminated by a faint red glow from the display of a digital alarm clock shaped like a cartoon cow's head, which rested on the floor nearby. The bovine stared impassively straight ahead as the readout flicked to 4:27. A quiet whimper escaped the girl's lips, and thin worry lines creased her forehead as her brow bunched up; moments later, her eyes snapped open.
"But it's broken!"
For a second after her outburst, Willow didn't move, but just gazed up at the ceiling at the diagonal orange strips of light, which had slipped through the blinds. She knew she'd woken from a troubling dream, but already its details were blurring. Willow had always been fascinated by the mechanics of dreaming; she was certain that they were processed and stored differently than other memories, and she wished she could somehow record the quickly fading thoughts, without any conscious motion. Maybe a pen that she could dictate to, like that one in the purple lunchbox-no! She caught herself sliding into another dream and clawed her way back through the haze. Before the last remnants of the previous dream unraveled completely, Willow's hand glided out from beneath the blanket to unclip her cell phone from its charger, then pulled the device into bed. Her thumbs flew over the buttons and punched 'Send.' Confident that a record of her dream would survive, Willow surrendered again to sleep.
"What on Earth is wrong with you?" Tara asked herself, as she watched the clock under the television set change to four thirty. She'd tried everything-deep breathing, counting backwards, lavender oil on her pillow, a glass of warm milk, and, finally, changing locations altogether-but sleep remained elusive. Now, splayed out across a beige, reupholstered sofa, which crowded the other furniture in the common room, Tara yawned, over-tired yet wide awake. She recognized the severity of the situation: a long day lay ahead, and she needed to be well rested. In just under an hour, her father would wake up, and she would make breakfast for three, setting aside a portion for Donny, while he showered. After her father left for work, she had an hour to herself. Back home in Snow Hill, this was her favorite time of the day; with her father out of the house and her little brother still sleeping peacefully, Tara would use the rare moments to pamper herself. Sometimes she'd find herself in the garden, breathing in the sweet scents of the jasmine, and the honeysuckle shrubs that surrounded the plot on three sides. Sometimes she'd pour a warm bath with her favorite raspberry and vanilla bubbles, then sink down under the soothing heat until just her nose and toes poked above the frothy surface, and she'd listen to the water as it rushed against her ears. Often, however, Tara would spend the hour painting.
Today, she decided, she would use it to take a nap, provided her overactive mind would allow her the opportunity. It was a whirlwind of thought at the moment; in fact, it had been ever since she left the diner, a full twelve hours earlier. She idly thumbed a scrap of paper while she replayed the day's scenes in her head: Richard allowing her to hang her paintings at the diner, and their subsequent conversation; Andrew's accident with a water glass at table four; the late lunch rush; her bus ride to Buck Lodge Middle School, where her brother was waiting; and their evening trip to the University's ice cream shop, about which she made Donny promise not to tell their father. Tara realized that she was still fiddling with a slip of paper, and brought it close to her eyes in the dim light. Although the words were barely readable, she could easily make out the large smiling face. She'd discovered the note in her pocket while searching for change for the bus fare, that afternoon, and must have held onto it for the remainder of the day. "Well," she remarked to the note, "it's good to know we had at least one satisfied customer, today."
Tara couldn't help but smile as she recalled the redhead's ghastly choices of apparel, the way her wide eyes made her appear both eager and vulnerable, and how, at times, she got really excited and waved her hands about while talking with the others. The group seemed to have a strong rapport, an outward friendliness, and an innate silliness, all of which appealed deeply to Tara, perhaps the last most of all. When, she wondered, was the last time she had laughed?
When sleep finally came, its tendrils only gave her the lightest of touches. She awoke to the gurgling of water in the pipes, and sat bolt upright when she realized her father was already in the shower; she had completely missed the blaring of his alarm clock! She stood too quickly, and had to lean over and brace herself on the arm of the sofa while her vision swirled. Her sleep deprivation made the bones in her wrists and fingers feel hollow. With ginger steps, Tara ambled into the kitchen and narrowed her eyes so she could flip on the light. She rummaged through the refrigerator and selected a few sausage links, eggs, mushrooms, and half of a green onion, then set a pan on the stovetop and reached for a cutting board.
Her father entered the kitchen just as the first omelet came out of the pan. He appeared worn out, as well, unshaved and with dark circles hanging under his eyes; Tara realized that she must look a fright, herself, after her nearly sleepless night. Wordlessly, she skewered two sausages onto his plate and poured a glass of orange juice for him, then another for herself. Her father grunted his thanks and began eating, and for a few minutes the only sounds in the room were the eggs sizzling in the pan, and the scraping of his fork on the plate.
"Working today?" he finally asked between bites, although his gaze never lifted from his meal.
"Yes, Papa. Everyday this week and weekend, while Mr. Wilkins finds more help."
Tara's father nodded, and he reached for his juice. "And Donny's school? Everything is okay?"
"He says it's going well," Tara replied. She didn't need to bother her father with the details: Donny had said that the classes weren't too difficult, but he hadn't yet made any new friends in his first four days at Buck Lodge. The news had worried Tara; she didn't want her brother to become the social pariah that she had been at his young age. Donny had been a clever, imaginative child, who was always eager to talk the ears off of anyone he met, so Tara was certain he'd have no trouble finding a circle of friends when he entered school. After their mother's death, however, he'd become taciturn, and would spend hours alone in his room. Once, when Tara was fifteen, she'd walked past his slightly open door, and seen him sitting motionless on the edge of his bed in his pajamas, simply staring out the window. Tara had watched him for twenty minutes, and he'd hardly shifted at all, but he had snapped out of it when she rapped lightly upon the door.
Mr. Maclay was looking at her expectantly. His plate was empty, and he dabbed his napkin at the corner of his mouth.
"I-I'm sorry, Papa. What did you say?" Tara asked, chagrinned. She reached across the counter for the plate and fork, and ran them under the tap, all the while watching her father over her shoulder.
"The bus fare," he repeated in an even tone. "Do you have enough money for the bus?"
"Oh. Yes, I should have e-" Tara covered her mouth with the back of her hand as an uninvited yawn surprised her. "-enough," she finished, meekly.
Her father opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to reconsider. After the briefest pause, he declared, "Well, then, off to work." He patted his pockets, and, finding his wallet and keys, spun around once to make sure he wasn't forgetting anything else. "Make sure you stop by the grocery store and pick up Donny's prescription?"
"I will, Papa," Tara assured him.
Satisfied, Mr. Maclay padded out of the room in stockinged feet, but he reappeared a moment later, carrying a pair of heavy workman's boots. "I'll be home late," he uttered as he stooped to shove his feet inside, and tied up the laces. "Bill and I are going out for a few hours after work." Bill was one of her father's coworkers, and if the last several days were any indication, Tara expected their outing would result in her father stumbling off a bus shortly after midnight, staggering into the apartment, and collapsing, still fully clothed, into bed. She made a mental note not to wait on him for dinner. Seeing her father drinking to forget his unhappiness scared her, but Tara had learned many years ago that voicing her worries would only make the situation worse. The best she could do was to divert as many stressors away from her father as possible, while providing at least one instance of a caring, responsible adult in Donny's life.
Straightening, Mr. Maclay approached his daughter, stopping mere inches away. Tara unconsciously moved backward, realizing it only when her backside connected with the kitchen counter. Her father hesitated a moment, before reaching out and wrapping his arms around the girl. Tara's eyes shot wide open, and she froze, moving only to steady herself against the counter. Her unvoiced protest caught in her throat when he pressed a light kiss into the hair atop her head. Without a word, her father backed away, turned and left the kitchen. Minutes after the slamming of the front door indicated his departure, Tara still stood motionless in the kitchen, her breathing coming in shallow, erratic gulps, and her knuckles white as she gripped the counter behind her.
"Hello? Um, hello?"
"Hnuh?" Willow blinked, and her sleep began fading into the background as she lay on her back, staring up at the tallest girl she had ever seen. She was wearing a snug yellow bikini top and flip-flops, and had a beach towel wrapped around her waist. Sunglasses, pushed high upon her head and resting in her dark, perfectly styled hair, completed the look. She was pretty, Willow thought, for a giant.
"Yeah, hi. What are you doing down there?" the giant asked.
Willow's mind reeled, trying to filter dreams from reality. The pieces fell into place when a nearby cow caught her eye, and when she rolled onto her stomach, the last of the haze vanished. The girl in the bikini was human sized, but Willow was several feet lower than she'd realized. She was also, Willow observed, peering down at her with a look that easily conveyed her doubt concerning her roommate's sanity.
"Hi! Good morning!" Willow exclaimed, a bit louder than necessary. "Uh, I'm Willow, which you might have already guessed, but it's probably good to reassure you that I'm not a random vagrant who broke into the room, especially with the whole mattress on the floor bit-"
"Right," Cordelia interrupted. "You're not one of those crazy people, who can only sleep when they're somewhere uncomfortable, are you? Because the middle of the floor thing is kind of not going to work for me."
"No, no craziness, here," Willow guaranteed. "At least, not of the clinical variety. I thought, you know, since we hadn't actually met yet, and discussed the whole bunking situation, that it would be rude to just go and pick which bed was mine like I owned the place." She craned her neck to the side and rubbed at a sore spot. "But, we should probably decide that, 'cause the floor? Kinda disorienting."
"Huh. That was actually kind of thoughtful, I guess," Cordelia conceded, "in an entirely unnecessary kind of way." She looked over at the unmade bunk beds, frowning. "I guess I'd rather have the lower one. I thought maybe we could separate them, but with the space in here-"
"Oh! No, wait!" Willow threw off her covers, and, clad in a set of purple pajamas with teddy bear appliqués, grabbed a stack of papers from one of the desks. "See, here I've made diagrams of the most likely furniture arrangements, maximizing both floor space and privacy," she explained, "and here's a few with two beds, 'cause I though maybe you'd want to do that, too."
Cordelia looked over the colorful floor plans incredulously. "You made these?"
"Well, I guess the computer made, them, really," Willow clarified. "It wasn't a very difficult program. I just copied them onto paper. Oh, and that reminds me: I need to get ink for the printer. Anyway, I also wasn't sure what other stuff you might be bringing, so those ones-" she pointed at three other piles on the desk, each one fastened with a paper clip "-allow for different shaped additions. But we can put the furniture, anywhere. I mean, it doesn't have to be like one of those, if you had something else in mind."
Her roommate leafed through the pages, shaking her head slowly. "How long did all of this take you?" she finally asked.
"A couple hours, I guess. My friend Buffy and I thought we'd celebrate our first night of freedom by taking a trip to this coffee shop on Route One, and drinking ourselves sick on mochas. I had six of them, so I wasn't exactly going to sleep anytime soon, and it seemed as good a way to pass the time as any other."
"Is that why you slept 'til after ten?"
"Yeah, I kinda crashed after the-wait, it's after ten?!"
"Well, just about. Five more minutes," said Cordelia, raising an inquisitive eyebrow.
When Willow's alarm clock verified the time, she bolted into action, rushing to her bureau and grabbing whatever happened to be on top of each drawer. "Buffy's going to be here any minute!" she exclaimed, trying to find a partner for her sock. "We made plans to go book shopping, and lunch, and-oh, you could come, if you wanted to. I sort of assumed you were, uh, going to the beach?" She paused, considering her question. "Wait, is there even a beach around here, anywhere?"
Cordelia shook her head. "The sisters at Delta are doing a fundraiser car wash, today, and asked some of the pledges to help out. You guys could stop by, if you wanted to, or better yet, drive by! It's in that parking lot next to the bookstore."
Willow finally found her other sock, and grabbed her basket of toiletries. "Thanks! Maybe we'll do that. Uh, gotta run!" She flew out the door, but reappeared seconds later. "Oh, and it was very nice to meet you!" And with that, she was dashing down the hallway.
Cordelia looked between the bundle of furniture diagrams she still held, the mattress on the floor, and the open doorway. "This is going to be an interesting semester," she said to nobody in particular.