Quinn turned and stared. A girl with black hair wearing all black clothing stood in the doorway. The other students, having unloaded Quinn’s things, made excuses and left, the sound of the cart’s wheels on the carpet echoing through the hall. No piercings marked the newcomer’s face, but she scowled just as well as any goth kid Quinn had known in high school.
“Um, excuse me?” Quinn said. “I don’t see anything there.”
The newcomer strode through the room and plucked a Post-it note from the headboard. “See? This has my name on it. ‘Reserved for Zoleen. Getting my things. Be right back.'” She continued holding the note out.
“Are you serious?” Quinn said. “That is not how it works—“
“It’s all about first come, first served,” the girl said. “I had to wait for my parents, and now I have to wait for people to put my things into a cart, so I came up here and claimed my space.” She sat down on the bed. As she moved, Quinn noticed that the label from the back of her jeans had been taken off.
She sucked in her cheeks. “I’ll take the bottom bunk, then.”
“And I get top!” Tara said, her fist pumping the air.
Quinn’s new roommate smirked. “Juleyka said she wanted the bottom. You get the top,” she said, pointing.
Quinn tried to remember the names on the door. “So you’re Zoleen,” she said.
“Yes?” Zoleen stood and began rearranging the furniture. She moved one of the desks closer to her bed, straightening it until its edges were flush with the wall.
“I’m Quinn.” She held out her hand, but Zoleen ignored it.
“Honey, I’m home!” another voice rang out. A Puerto Rican girl with curly dark hair stood in the doorway, striking a pose. “Res life, here we are!”
Behind her in the hallway, two guys waited with two separate carts.
“You may bring my things in now,” Zoleen told one of the guys.
Quinn stood in the middle of the room as the guys carried everything in. Her little sister sat down at one of the desks, seemingly unfazed. When the guys left, she tried again. “Hi,” she said to Juleyka. “I’m Quinn.”
“Can you fucking believe it?” Juleyka said, shaking her hand. “Here we are!” She grinned and twirled through the room. “This is going to be awesome. We’re here!”
“Yes,” Quinn said slowly. “Here we are.” She gestured toward Zoleen. “Roommates, for the whole year.”
Zoleen sniffed and retrieved a roll of duct tape from one of her plastic bins. She began taping lines on the floor.
“What are you doing?” Quinn asked.
“This,” Zoleen said, “is my space. I’d prefer it if you didn’t come into it.”
“Okay,” Quinn said, “but you’re taping off the whole second closet, too.”
Juleyka put her hands on her hips. “Nuh-uh. No way. I need all the closet space I can get. If anyone gets a whole closet to herself, it’s me.” She pointed to her suitcase, which was twice the size of Quinn’s.
Quinn opened her mouth, but Tara tapped on her arm. “Yeah?” she asked, wincing at the sharpness of her tone.
“I’m hungry,” Tara said.
“Okay. Let me just get unpacked and we’ll—“
“I have to pee, too.”
Quinn felt the other girls’ eyes on her. She swallowed hard. If she left the room, she would lose. If she sent Tara on her own, her little sister might get lost. “Can you wait a couple minutes?” she whispered.
Zoleen snorted. “Is she your kid?” she asked.
Quinn gaped at her. “Dude, she’s eleven. I would have had to be, like, seven years old. Gross.” Her nose crinkled, and her forehead creased.
Zoleen shrugged. “Just saying.”
“Hold up. Let’s get back to this closet sitch.” Juleyka bent and began peeling up the tape.
“Stop!” Zoleen shrieked.
Quinn gaped in horror as the girl with the black hair covered her eyes and folded to the floor, rocking back and forth.
“There,” Juleyka said, balling up the strips of tape. She tossed them into Quinn’s laundry basket. Without another word, she unzipped her suitcase and began hanging her things in the closet.
“You know what,” Quinn said, taking Tara’s hand. “I’m hungry, too.”
* * *
“This sucks,” Quinn said as she stared down at her salad.
“It’s just a salad,” Tara said, dipping a chicken strip into some barbecue sauce.
Quinn rested her chin in her hands and sighed. “No, I mean my roommates. They’re nuts.”
“They’re girls,” Tara said, shrugging.
Quinn nodded. “True, but they’re exactly the kind of roommates I hoped I wouldn’t be getting.” She nibbled on a piece of grilled chicken. Her stomach churned and she put her fork down.
“I’m sure Mom’s roommates are even worse,” her little sister said.
She was about to tell Tara that she was sure their mother didn’t have roommates when she remembered movies she’d seen about mental institutions. She rubbed her temples, the nausea rising. “Yeah,” she choked. She thought of the way Zoleen had acted, and wondered whether her roommates needed psychological help. “That Juleyka chick has some kind of narcissistic personality disorder,” she said, “and I bet Zoleen is obsessive compulsive or something.”
“What?” Tara wrinkled her brow.
“Never mind.” Quinn crumpled her napkin. “Let’s go sign you in for the night.”
They collected their trash and left the food court. The walk back to the residence complex was more than Quinn was used to. Hunger pushed her forward to the student center before, but she dreaded returning to her room. She took Tara’s hand, and wondered how long it would be before her little sister objected to holding hands in public.
Bicyclists blew by them, and throngs of students and their families walked in clusters, probably also looking for something to eat. Quinn was glad she and Tara beat the food court rush. Maybe her roommates would be out when she returned.
“Are you ready for school, Monkey?” she asked as they stopped at a crosswalk.
“Wait,” the electronic box said, and beeped.
“Mom was going to take me shopping for clothes,” Tara said.
“I can do that,” Quinn said. She gently nudged the little girl. “Besides, I have better taste.” She winked.
Tara smiled back, but the corners of her eyes turned down.
Quinn wondered if she shouldn’t have told the police what happened. Nancy might have calmed down on her own. They might even be all walking together now, laughing about her horrible new roommates.
“Walk,” the crosswalk box said, and began beeping. A digital display in the box counted down the seconds. She grabbed Tara’s hand and led her across the street.
When they returned to West and her room, only Zoleen remained. The girl sat at her desk, arranging and rearranging her supplies and laptop.
Quinn tugged at her lower lip as she watched her.
“Is this your desk?” Tara pointed to the third, and only bare, desk in the room.
“I guess so,” Quinn said.
Tara opened the box containing Quinn’s school supplies. “Can I put your stuff away?”
“Knock yourself out, Monkey.” She turned to her suitcase and unzipped it. In the closet, Zoleen had duct-taped a line dividing it directly in half. “How did you do that without measuring tape?” she asked.
Zoleen did not glance up, but replied in a crisp, even tone. “The duct tape is 1.88 inches wide, offering perspective to the space it divides.”
Quinn blinked. “What are you majoring in?”
“Math,” Zoleen answered immediately. She did not ask about Quinn’s major.
“I’m journalism,” Quinn offered. “I want to write for Elle and the other big fashion magazines. I guess we’re total opposites, huh?” She smiled and hung up a shirt. “I think we got off on the wrong foot. We have to live together for at least these next two semesters, so we should make the best of it.” She smiled at Zoleen.
“Is she staying here tonight?” her roommate asked.
Quinn did not have to ask who she meant. “Yes,” she said slowly. “Just for the night, though. I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
“Well, it is,” Zoleen said.
Quinn pressed her lips together and took a deep breath through her nose before replying. “Okay,” she said, exhaling. “Why?”
“Why is she staying here? She’s not a student.”
A dull pain began thudding in the center of Quinn’s forehead. She took another deep breath. “Our parents are away,” she said. Her heart twisted at the plural word, and she glanced at Tara out of the corner of her eye. Her little sister seemed completely preoccupied with setting up her study area.
Zoleen said nothing. She opened another plastic bin and began pulling out plastic toys. Quinn leaned forward, her forehead creasing. She recognized some of the characters. There were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, some cult classic horror movie figures, and others she did not recognize. Zoleen lined them up along the back of her desk, leaning them against the wall.
“Cool,” Tara said, coming over to stand next to the girl. She reached out to touch the Rafael figure, but Zoleen snatched it away.
“No,” she said, setting it back in exactly the same spot it had been.
Quinn frowned. “She’s just a kid,” she said.
“She has no business being in a dorm room.”
Quinn bit her lip. Tara deserved to be at home, in her own room, with her own toys. If she brought Tara home, though, she would have to give up her dorm room, and the whole college residence experience. She would just be another commuter, and probably wouldn’t make any friends. Even if her roommates were weird, and potentially OCD, they were still familiar faces. She hadn’t had many friends in high school. Living on campus might be her only shot at a normal social life.
She turned away from Zoleen, and continued putting her clothes away, but she felt the other girl’s eyes on her back.
* * *
“Your little sister is what?!” Juleyka asked. She stood with her hands on her hips.
Zoleen sat demurely at her desk, her hands folded. “Their parents are out of town.”
Quinn ran a hand through her hair. Tara sat on the top bunk amid the new comforter and throw pillows, her eyes glued to her Nintendo DS. With her headphones on, she probably couldn’t hear a thing—or so Quinn hoped. “I’ve already signed her in for the night,” she said, crossing her arms.
“Without consulting us?” Juleyka waved her hands. “Oh, no, no, no. That ain’t gonna fly. I’m calling res life and complaining.”
“Wait,” Quinn said. “What’s the big deal? It’s not like I brought a guy.”
Juleyka’s eyes glinted and she smiled. “Fine. If you get to have your little sister stay the night, then I get to have Nick.”
“Who’s Nick?” Quinn asked, but her roommate was already on her phone.
Juleyka spoke quickly, but it wasn’t English or even Spanish. Quinn heard her say “ciao” and a few other Italian words she recognized.
She turned to Zoleen. “Are you comfortable with some strange guy staying the night?”
Zoleen remained very still. “I don’t want anyone staying the night, but my parents said I have to broaden my horizons and get used to sharing space.”
At that, Juleyka snorted.
Quinn rubbed at her temples. “Look, I know Tara is a kid, but she’s not a baby. She won’t get in the way. I’ll have her sleep up on the top bunk with me. It’ll be like she’s not even here.” She locked eyes with Juleyka. “But no guys are staying in this room, ever.”
“Unless they have friends,” Zoleen added.
Quinn glared at her. “Whose side are you on?”
Zoleen shrugged. “I’m still a virgin. I’d like to change that this semester.” She spoke as though she were talking about improving her GPA.
Quinn gaped at her.
Juleyka lowered the phone from her ear. “Who says we can’t have co-ed sleepovers? There’s no rule for it. We just can’t have alcohol unless we’re twenty-one—“
“I’ll be twenty-one next June,” Zoleen said.
Juleyka grinned. “Nice! Maybe we can be roommates next year, too.”
Quinn tightened her fingers into fists and pulled in a deep breath through her nose. “What can I do,” she said through gritted teeth, “so that Tara can stay over?”
Juleyka raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you just go home for the night?” She still held the phone, her wrist bent. The sunlight glinted off her French manicure.
“That’s an excellent observation,” Zoleen said.
Quinn glanced up at Tara, who still had her headphones on. “Listen,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She thought it would be fun to stay the night. Don’t you have siblings?” she added.
Zoleen shook her head.
Julekya said, “I’m the youngest of six. Puh-lease. No special treatment around here.”
Quinn wanted to ask her why she got the second closet all to herself. “It’s only one night,” she said instead.
Juleyka cocked her head, a sly smile spreading across her lips. “If she stays tonight, you both owe me a free night without either of you sleeping here, so that Nick can stay over.”
Zoleen said nothing.
Quinn shrugged. “Sure, whatever,” she said. “I’ll be home over the weekend, anyway. Is that a deal?” She held out her hand.
“Deal,” Juleyka said, grinning. She shook hands and pressed the phone to her ear again, lapsing back into Italian.
Quinn closed her eyes. Tara could stay for the night, but she had no idea what she would do for the next fourteen days.
* * *
Soft snores floated around her. The time on the microwave read quarter past one in the morning. Every time Quinn tried to lay down next to Tara on the top bunk, her heart started pounding and her mind raced with her worries. She wondered how she could keep Tara in the dorms without anyone noticing. She desperately wanted to know how her mother was doing.
She thought about calling the hospital to at least ask the staff about Nancy, but her mother might know she called without talking to her. The thought twisted her stomach into knots.
She sat in the bean bag chair Juleyka brought. It reeked of fruity perfume that at first gave her a headache, but Quinn had long stopped noticing. Her laptop sat open in her lap. Nothing was happening on Facebook or Twitter, and her email inbox was empty for the first time in months. She tapped her fingers on the mouse track pad, and then typed in “bipolar disorder” in the search engine bar.
She had never really researched it before. She knew her mother was bipolar. Nancy talked about how that was one of the few things she and Quinn’s father, Stan, had in common. Her father’s mental illness had taken him away from her. She shook her head. She did not want to think about him. She needed to focus on her mother.
She read through the list of symptoms with little attention. She already knew them from firsthand experience. She wondered, suddenly, what caused the disorder. She clicked through the website. Her eyes scanned the links. An article about psychiatric genetics jumped out at her. Before she could think about it, she clicked on it.
She did not understand the first paragraph or so. As she scrolled through, though, a new pit of dread began to attach itself to her stomach like a parasite. She went back to the search bar and typed in “is bipolar disorder hereditary?” As the search engine results loaded, her stomach seized with cramps and her hands shook. One article said that the disorder was eighty-percent hereditary.
She licked her lips and closed the laptop, her heart pounding in her chest. She needed some air, but she couldn’t just leave Tara. She got up and pulled a bottle of water from the mini fridge instead. She doubted Zoleen would notice, but if she did, Quinn would replace it.
She drank half the bottle in one shot. For a few minutes, her world shrank to just the simple act of relieving her thirst. When she could swallow no more of the cold water, she capped the bottle and returned to her laptop. She typed in “both parents bipolar,” and those search results were even worse. She closed the browser and shut down the laptop.
Research, she decided, was not helping.
Instead, she leaned back in the bean bag chair and tried to figure out where she would keep Tara the next night. She could just drive them both back home, but then she would have to drive back Monday morning for class. There wasn’t much gas left in her mother’s car, and if she was going to drive Tara to and from school, she would need to conserve it. She could always use her mother’s credit card, she decided. Her shoulders tensed at the thought, though. Maybe she should save it for emergencies.
For the first time ever, she wished she had grandparents that were still alive. They would know what to do. They would let Tara stay with them. Maybe, with their guidance, her mother wouldn’t even be sick. Her father might still be alive, too.
Quinn blinked away tears. She glanced at the clock again. It was almost two in the morning. She needed to get to sleep soon. Maybe, in the morning, things would look different. Maybe her roommates would forget their suspicions and invite Tara to stay another night.
She snorted. Maybe pigs would fly.
She climbed the ladder and settled into bed next to her little sister.
She did not sleep that night.
Bad things always happen to Quinn in threes.
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