"Give it a rest already, Dad. It's not like I'm moving out to Alaska, or anything. I'll be fine."
Erica set aside the suitcase she had been about to haul into the back of the minivan, and took the padded envelope her father held out to her. Bob Liebkind stopped down to reach for the handle of the suitcase, but she blocked him with her body while she opened the flap of the envelope.
"Don't try and lift that with one hand, Dad. I'll get it."
"Paralyzed arm or not, I'm still twice as strong as you are with what's left working, kiddo." Bob nudged his daughter aside and then hauled the suitcase up into the cargo space behind the rear seats.
"There, all done. You sure you got everything?"
"You sound like mom, you know? Yes, I have everything." Erica glanced into the open envelope and rolled her eyes.
"More money? I already have enough in the checking account to leverage the federal deficit."
"Yeah, but you'll need some cash on hand for the trip and the first few days. And there's an emergency credit card, too, just in case. Some places don't take debit cards, you know."
"Dad, everyone takes debit cards," Erica said with a smile, and kissed her father on the cheek. "You worry too much."
"It's my job to worry. My only child is going off to college in the frozen wastes of the north, instead of staying close to home and going to UT like her father."
Erica knew that her dad's disappointment was mostly an act—he did recognize the added value of a degree from an Ivy League school—but she also knew that he was genuinely apprehensive about her leaving the nest in earnest for the first time. As if he had read her thoughts, Bob pulled his daughter close and hugged her firmly with his good arm.
"You've not been more than a hundred miles away from me since you were born. Dartmouth is a thousand miles away. I'll need some time to get used to that."
She smiled and returned his hug, and they remained locked in their embrace for a few moments.
"Me too, Daddy," she said.
They had lunch at a Ruby Tuesday on the way to the airport. It was that blissful Sunday period between the after-church lunch rush and the early dinner crowd, and they had the dining room mostly to themselves. It was nominally early fall, but the temperature in the valley was still in the eighties during the days, and Erica was the only person in the dining room who wasn't wearing shorts.
"You'll get sick of the snow before you hit your junior year," her dad predicted as they picked at the sampler platter in front of them.
"I love snow," Erica replied. "It'll be nice to have a real winter. Besides, I'll be in a dorm for the first year at least. It's not like I'm going to have to shovel the stuff."
"I hope they won't stick you with the kind of roommate I had at Chapel Hill," her mom said, and did a little shudder for emphasis. "I think I only ever heard her take a shower twice in our entire freshman year."
"I'm sure it'll be okay, Mom. Geez, you guys sound like you're trying to get me to change my mind about college. I've been hearing nothing but dreadful anecdotes all day."
Her mom opened her mouth to protest, but her dad merely shook his head and laughed.
"It's all new to us, too, kiddo. We've been a trio since you were born, you know?" Bob stirred his iced tea with a straw and then shrugged.
"Maybe it's the idea that you're an adult now. It just sort of reminds me that I'm getting older, and it makes me want to turn back the clock a bit, that's all."
"Technically, I won't be an adult until May. But I get your point." Erica reached out and patted her father's hand.
"We're still a trio, Dad. And don't run off and get a Corvette to recapture your youth, okay?"
"Oh, that one's already ordered," Bob said, ignoring the questioning look his wife shot him. "Candy apple red, with slate gray leather interior. And your den over the garage is going to be the new Man Cave, so you'll have to crash in the guest bedroom when you come home for the holidays."
Christa's cell phone buzzed, and she fished it out of her purse after a few moments of digging. She looked at the display and smiled when she saw the name on the caller ID.
"It's Uncle Will," she announced to them in explanation before answering the call.
"Hello, Will. How are things up in Maine?"
Erica and Bob watched as Christa listened to her brother-in-law. Her mom always had the volume on the cell phone turned up to the maximum, so Erica could almost hear Will's side of the conversation as well.
"Oh, yeah? Well, let's hear it," Christa said. Then Will said something in reply, and Christa let out a very uncharacteristic, girl-like squeal that made heads turn in the dining room. She looked at her daughter and husband with sudden wild excitement in her eyes.
"Oh, that's wonderful, Will! I'm so glad for you two. Hang on, I gotta tell Bob and Erica. We're seeing her off to college right now, actually."
She looked at Erica and grinned.
"Looks like you're going to be Cousin Erica in the spring. Claire's three months pregnant. She's due in March."
"Awesome," Erica exclaimed, returning her mother's grin. She leaned forward to bring her mouth closer to her mom's cell phone.
"Congratulations, Uncle Will! Grandma is going to flip!"
Will said something to Christa in response, and she laughed.
"Of course you did." She looked at her daughter and husband. "He already called her."
"Hell, I would, too," Bob said. "No way I'd bring down mom's wrath on me for not letting her know first about her new grandchild."
Christa finished the conversation, and they all said their good-byes to Will before looking at each other with grins on their faces.
"I won't be the only grandchild anymore," Erica said. "I wonder what they're going to have?"
"Will says they'll know for sure next week, when the doctors do their round of genetic testing."
"Amazing," Bob said, shaking his head. "Will's going to be a Dad. If you had told me this just two years ago, I would have said you're out of your mind."
"Things have changed, haven't they?" Christa mused.
"No joke. Two years ago, I was able to type with two hands, or ride a motorcycle, for one. And two years ago, my brother was a bit of a prick. But I'll tell you this—if you took me back in time and gave me the choice to give up the use of that left side in exchange for the new Will, I'd not change a thing."
"You're not really going to turn my room into a den, are you?" Erica asked her dad when they were seeing her off at the security check at McGhee-Tyson an hour later.
"I don't think so," Bob answered, and ruffled her hair. "I think I'll leave it the way it is for a little while."
"Good." She hugged him and placed a kiss on his cheek. "That way I'll feel like I still have a place, you know?"
Bob returned her hug with a laugh, winking at his wife as he did.
"I see. Not ready to cut those strings all the way just yet, are you?"
Christa joined the hug, and they all stood together for a moment, arms around each other.
"Be careful, you hear?" her mother said. "And remember, Uncle Will and Aunt Claire are only three hours away if you need help with anything."
"I know, Mom. I won't bug them unless it's really important, you know that."
"Have fun, don't freak out if it all seems a bit much the first few days, and try not to overload your schedule the first semester. You don't have to finish ahead of time."
"We'll see you for the holidays," her Dad said. "I'll book the flight in October sometime, and then I'll email you the ticket details."
"Okay, Dad. I'll be alright. It's just like high school, only with dorms, right?"
"Yeah," he chuckled. "Just like high school."
Erica waved to her parents and then watched as they went back to the airport entrance, walking arm in arm down the sloped skyway with its rock garden and its soothing little waterfalls. For just a moment, she felt like running after them. Then the feeling passed, and she turned around to go through the security gates.
There was a bookstore in the secure area of the airport, and Erica took some time to browse around. They had mostly paperbacks, but there were a few tables with hardcover novels, and she smiled when she saw the familiar dust jacket of her father's book. She walked over to the table and picked it up to look at the picture of her dad on the back flap.
That Distant Shore, by Robert Liebkind. A golden foil sticker on the front cover announced that this novel was a "Pulitzer Prize Winner", and she remembered how her dad had rolled his eyes when they had made a big deal out of printing a hundred thousand of those little foil stickers to slap onto the already-finished second print run after he had won the Pulitzer.
There was another book on the hardcover display with the name "Liebkind" on it, and it was a new edition of Uncle Will's The Crow's Lament. She picked it up, and laid the opened books beside each other to compare the author pictures.
How weird, she thought. My dad and my uncle, side by side, sold at every bookstore in the country. What the hell am I doing declaring my major as English and Creative Writing? Like there's any space on those shelves for another Liebkind.
She placed the books back in their spots on the display, and walked over to the register to buy some bottled water and chewing gum.
There was a soothing familiarity to Logan Airport. This was where they changed planes every year to fly up to Maine for Christmas at her Grandma's place, and Erica had walked across the dingy carpets of the terminals at Boston many times. She browsed some of the stores in the terminal, and then ate an early dinner at a Pizza Hut before wandering over to the gate for her connecting flight to Lebanon, New Hampshire. Dartmouth was located in the town of Hanover, just north of Lebanon. When she had made her decision on which college to attend, her mom and dad had accompanied her on a whirlwind tour of the Northeast. In the span of a week, they had combined an October vacation with tours of four different universities. She had quickly narrowed down her choices to Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth, and in the end, the smaller school had won out because she much preferred the sedate and laid-back setting of Hanover to the bustle and energy of Providence or Boston. Her father had made fun of her for picking a small-town campus over an exciting and busy metropolitan one, and her mom had been a little disappointed at the fact that Erica would give up the extra cachet of a Harvard degree, but in the end, they had respected her decision.
The plane to Lebanon was a small twin-engine turboprop commuter with two rows of seats on each side of the narrow center aisle. Erica guessed that it was a slow week; the plane only had some thirty seats, and half of them were empty. Nobody claimed the seat beside her when the door was closed and the "fasten seatbelt" sign came on, so she folded up the armrest between the seats and stretched out a little.
The flight was a short one. It seemed that the plane was at cruising altitude just long enough for her to drink her soda and eat the little bag of airline pretzels before they already started to descend into Lebanon. Erica watched through the window as the plane descended lower and lower over the brightly-colored tapestry of New Hampshire's fall forests, banking as it turned into its final approach.
There was no Dartmouth welcoming committee at the airport. The place didn't even really deserve the title—Lebanon Regional was a one-terminal affair, and that terminal was the size of a fast food restaurant. Five minutes after the plane touched down, she had her suitcase, and ten minutes later, she was in a cab on the way to Hanover.
She had come up here for the orientation, of course, and the college had sent her a letter with all the details she needed to know for her first two days. The letter had included the name of her roommate and her contact information, and Erica had called her some weeks prior to introduce herself and discuss who would bring what. The college provided the rooms, beds, desks, and a wireless network connection. Erica had her own laptop to make use of the network, and she hadn't bothered to pack much in the way of clothing or personal items. Her closet back in Knoxville contained very few winter clothes, and she owned nothing that couldn't be bought new in Hanover or Lebanon for less money than it would have cost to ship her old stuff a thousand miles north.
Her assigned dorm was called Campbell Hall. The cabbie seemed to know his way around the expansive Dartmouth campus, and he dropped her off right in front of a building that looked as if it had been finished barely in time for the fall freshmen. The dorm looked a lot like the residential halls she had seen at Harvard, a five-floor structure with tall windows, red brick walls, and a gray-shingled roof. There were bushes planted all along the front edge of the building, and the freshly plowed earth around them told Erica they had been recently transplanted into their current location.
Her room was on the third floor, and when she walked in, she was surprised to find that it was a single suite, with just one bed and desk. There was a bathroom, and the door was open. She looked inside and saw that there was another door on the other side of it, which was open as well. There was a second lock on both doors that looked like it only worked from the inside, which made the setup obvious to Erica. These were shared bathrooms, one to every two rooms, and each resident could assure privacy by locking out the other one when needed.
There was some noise coming from the dorm room on the other side of the bathroom, the sound of someone rummaging through boxes, and Erica stepped over to the other door.
She peeked around the corner and saw a room that was a mirror image of her own, with the same brand new generic furniture. There was a girl kneeling on the floor and sorting through a box of belongings, and she turned around when she heard Erica's voice.
"Oh, hi there."
The girl got up and brushed her hands on the legs of her jeans as she straightened out.
"You sound like Erica," she said matter-of-factly, and extended a hand.
"That's me," she confirmed, and shook the other girl's hand. "Lily, right?"
"The very one," the girl said, and they smiled at each other. Lily was tall, beating even Erica's above-average five nine by a fair margin. She had long brown hair which she kept partially braided, and there was a motley collection of armbands and pendants jingling from her wrist. Lily had a narrow face with high cheekbones and very clear gray eyes. Erica thought she was rather pretty. Her voice was low and a bit husky, just like she remembered from their phone conversation.
"Lovely digs, huh?" Lily gestured around the room, and her jewelry jingled softly with the movement of her arm. "I had no idea we'd have private rooms. My advisor said that getting into this place is like winning the lottery, or something. They just finished it last month."
"I had no idea, either. I think I can live with it, though."
"Hell, yeah," Lily said. "Don't worry about the whole bathroom thing. I'm not super high maintenance. I'll just be in and out."
"We'll work it out, I'm sure," Erica said.
Lily's room was already mostly decorated, with personal items adorning the walls and the corners of the built-in bookshelves. There was a half-empty box of books on the floor, and Erica saw that Lily had already filled up most of the available shelf space with the contents of it.
"You're going to run out of space soon," Erica commented, and Lily looked back at the bookshelf.
"Yeah, bummer, that. I brought too much junk with me, but I couldn't leave all my favorites behind, you know?"
Erica peered into the box at their feet, and glanced at the spines of the remaining books. They were mostly New Age kind of stuff, astrology and numerology and a whole bunch of other -ologies, the kinds her dad called "substitute religions for people who don't do religion".
"Yeah," she said in response. "I had to force myself to only bring as much as I could fit into a suitcase, otherwise I would have had to come up here with a fifteen-foot moving truck."
"Mom and dad dropped me off in the Benz," Lily said with a smirk. "Dad stopped just long enough for me to get my crap out of the trunk. I think they're going to have a week-long fuckfest now that I'm out of the house."
Erica laughed in surprise at the off-handed vulgarity.
"So you're from Tennessee, huh?" Lily asked.
"Yeah. Land of college football and crummy public education. Our main university in Knoxville is an athletic department with an academic appendage. I've been looking forward to New England ever since they sent me the acceptance letter. I hear they actually have public libraries here."
Lily let out a low chuckle.
"A jock hater with a thing for books. I think we'll have a good time together."
The dorm itself was much nicer than Erica had anticipated. The rooms were all arranged in the same pattern, two single suites with a bathroom between them. Six of those combinations made up a residence cluster, sharing a communal lounge and a large kitchen. There was a stainless steel refrigerator the size of a grocery store cooler, and Erica opened it out of curiosity to find that it contained a dozen separate drawers, each big enough for a week's supply of groceries. Half of them already bore little tape labels with the names of their owners. There was a roll of tape and a permanent marker next to the fridge, so Erica plucked off a length of tape, stuck it to one of the unclaimed drawers, and then wrote her name onto the label.
"Well, I won't be needing that," Lily said as she stepped next to Erica and peered into the fridge. "Ramen noodles don't need to be refrigerated."
"You gotta eat something else every once in a while," Erica smiled. "What about drinks?"
"Hey, the faucet in the bathroom works just fine," Lily said. "I need to find an evening job before I can upgrade my meal plan. Daddy's paying for the tuition and books, but he thinks I should find a way to cover the other stuff. Like, you know, food."
Erica flushed a little at Lily's comment--there was enough money in her bank account to pay for groceries for the whole residence cluster from freshman year until graduation day, and her father had made clear to her that he didn't want her to have to work evenings and nights after studying all day.
"Are we late, or something?" she asked. "Half the dorm's moved in already."
"No, we're good," Lily said. "You just picked Nerd City, that's all. I got here yesterday, and I've seen two other people in here, including you. The rest of them are already locked in their rooms, and getting a head start on the semester."
"Well, I think the books can wait for a little while," Erica smiled. "You want to go see what kind of stores we have around here, or are you still busy unpacking?"
"Nah, that can wait, too. Let's go. There's a neat grocery store right down the road that you need to check out."
The store in question was just down the road from their dorm, right outside the campus. It was a cooperative grocery store, stocked with lots of local produce, and their selection of ethnic and organic foods was far beyond anything Erica had ever seen at the alternative food stores in Knoxville.
"My brother makes fun of me for buying organic," Lily said as they were pushing a cart through the narrow aisles of the Co-Op. "He's always like, 'Ooh, organic food. Not like the kind made from rocks!'"
"How many siblings do you have?"
"Just the one. He's two years older than me. You?"
"Only child," Erica said with a shrug. "Guess my parents figured they had enough on their hands with one."
"Sometimes I wish I was, too," Lily smirked. "But not really. He's annoying sometimes, but he's fun to be around." She lowered her voice conspiratorially.
"And let me just tell you--having an older brother with a ton of good-looking guys for friends is not altogether a bad thing."
Lily had an infectious sort of confidence about her. She was laid-back, like Erica, but assertive, a trait that Erica knew she lacked when it came to dealing with other people. They gathered a cart full of what Lily termed "essentials"--snacks, soda, and components for sandwiches. At the checkout, the woman in front of them was arguing with the cashier about the total amount of her order, and Lily merely exchanged pained smiles with the cashier, but when the woman actually started to compare each item to its corresponding entry on the receipt, Lily's goodwill was expended.
"Can you perhaps do that at the customer counter, ma'am? We don't have the time to wait around until you've made sure they rang up all your coupons. Have a little consideration."
The woman looked up from her receipt, and gave Lily a surprised glance. To Erica, her expression looked like that of someone who had just realized that the dog had crapped onto the living room rug. Lily met her nonplussed gaze with an unconcerned and decidedly humorless smile. Erica thought she heard a suppressed chuckle from the cashier when the woman stuffed her receipt into a wallet the size of a hardcover novel, gathered the bags offered to her, and then walked off briskly.
"I'm way too non-confrontational to say something like that," Erica said when they walked back out into the parking lot with their groceries.
"Well, you know, I used to be like that, but one day I just snapped and actually spoke my mind. And you know what? People back down when you call them on their shit, nine out of ten times."
"What do you do when you come across the tenth?"
"You run like hell," Lily shrugged, and they both laughed.
They walked back to the dorm, where they split up their groceries and put the perishable stuff into their drawers in the communal fridge. When they were finished, Lily got out a loaf of bread and two of the jars she had bought, and started to assemble a sandwich.
"Good thing I like the taste of PB&Js," she said as she slathered some jelly onto a slice of bread. "Think about how far three dollars worth of peanut butter and jelly will stretch. You're looking at a week's worth of lunches right there."
Someone else walked into the kitchen, and the girls looked up from the counter. It was a scrawny-looking boy who looked like he wasn't a day past his fifteenth birthday. His blond hair was almost hanging into his eyes, and Erica guessed that she had three inches and twenty-five pounds on him. He walked to the fridge without making eye contact with them, and Lily cleared her throat.
"Hi there," she said.
The boy looked up, startled, and Erica got the impression that he hadn't even noticed them until Lily had spoken. He uttered a barely audible "hi", gave them a curt little smile, and then turned his attention towards the fridge again. Lily looked at Erica and raised an eyebrow. As they watched, the boy undid the padlock on his fridge compartment, took out a milk carton and a wrapped sandwich, and then walked back out of the room without acknowledging them further.
"Home-schooled, wanna bet?" Lily said in a low voice, and Erica chuckled.
"That's Nelson," someone else said, and they looked up again to see another boy walking into the kitchen.
"Pardon?" Lily said, and the boy pointed over his shoulder with a thumb.
"That guy. His name is Nelson. He's my suite mate. We talked when his parents dropped him off." The new boy walked over to the fridge, took out a can of soda--Erica noticed that he didn't keep his drawer locked--and then sat down at the kitchen table.
"If you can call it 'talk', that is. His parents grilled me about whether I drink or do drugs, and all that stuff, but he didn't say more than ten words. His parents say he went to a private school."
Lily had apparently decided that she liked the new arrival. She finished slapping together her sandwich, put it onto a napkin, and sat down across the table from him.
"I'm Lily," she announced, and held out her hand. THe pendants on her bracelet jingled softly as she did. The boy took her hand and shook it briefly.
"Scott," he said. "Youngstown, Ohio."
"New York City," Lily said, and nodded towards Erica. "That's Erica right there."
"Knoxville, Tennessee," Erica said, and sat down next to Lily.
Scott smiled at her, and they shook hands as well. He was fairly good-looking, nice blue eyes underneath a dark mop of hair that had been skillfully mussed up into a not-quite-genuine bed head. He wore a loose-fitting hoodie with the Dartmouth seal on it.
"Didn't waste any time hitting the bookstore, did you?" Lily said, nodding at Scott's Dartmouth garb.
"Ah, hell," Scott laughed. "Mom and Dad got me that one. I told them it was a waste of cash, but they got one for me, and one for each of them. They got stickers for their cars, too."
"They want something tangible for those tuition checks," Erica offered, and Scott laughed again.
"That's probably it. I still had to take out a shitload of student loans, though. I'll have to make payments on that degree until I collect Social Security."
"What's your major?" Erica asked.
"PoliSci and English. Yours?"
"Yay," Lily said. "I have two English majors in my cluster. I'll be able to run papers by you guys."
"What about you?" Scott asked, and Lily shrugged.
"Haven't declared one yet. I think I'll take some general classes first, to see what fits me. It won't be English, though."
"You're both suite mates?" Scott asked, and Erica nodded.
"I didn't know they were going to put us into single rooms," she said. "I was fully prepared to have someone else in the room with me for a year. This is much nicer than I thought it would be."
"My brother's here, too," Scott said. "He's a senior this year. When I told him which dorm they put me in, he almost smacked me in the head. Apparently, they just built it, and everybody wants to get into it, because of the room arrangement."
"Well, I'm not complaining," Lily said, and took a big bite of her sandwich before continuing with a full mouth. "That means I won't have to tie a pillow around my head at night if Erica here turns out to be a party animal."
They talked for a little while, and Erica excused herself when it became clear that Lily and Scott were clearly flirting. She didn't mind--Scott was kind of interesting, but he wasn't really her type, and she didn't want to be the third wheel on that particular cart.
Back in her room, she finished unpacking her stuff, and then started a list of things she would need to buy. It was a short list--the room was surprisingly full-featured, with a bed, desk, dresser, and a decently-sized closet. There was a sort of drawer under the bed for linens, and the chair in front of the desk was an adjustable model with an ergonomic backrest, a far cry from the basic and worn-out dorm furniture she had expected.
When she had finished putting away the few things she had brought in her suitcase, saving the computer and her picture frame for last, she sat down at the desk and looked at her little suite, still anonymous and generic-looking despite her few scattered personal items. Still, it looked more like a room at the Holiday Inn than the typical dorm room she had pictured in her head on the flight up, and that wasn't all that bad. It still felt a little weird to think of this room as her home for the next year, but at least it hadn't been used by anyone before, and she would be free to give it a lived-in flavor without having to undo someone else's idea of coziness first.
I'll have to get some stuff for decoration, she thought as she studied the freshly-painted blank walls. Some prints, maybe, and a big cork-board.
Later, when she had brushed her teeth and changed into her pajamas, she sat down in front of the computer, got out her cell phone, and dialed her old home number.
That phone ringing in the hallway is a thousand miles away now, she thought, and a brief wave of homesickness washed over her.
"Hi, mom. It's me," she said.
"Oh, hi, honey! Everything going okay up there?"
"Yeah, everything's fine. I just wanted to check in and let you know that the plane didn't crash."
"I'm sure we would have heard about that on the news," her mother chuckled. She slurred her words ever so slightly; Erica suspected they had celebrated their first childless evening in seventeen years in style.
"Did you throw a party? You sound like you've had a few."
"Just a few glasses of wine, love. We went out for a steak dinner at the new tavern place on Parkside, and your Dad was nice enough to play designated driver. Want to talk to him?"
"No, that's all right," Erica said. "Just let him know everything's fine here. The dorm is really nice, brand new. I have a room of my own, with a shared bathroom."
"Very nice. Are you making friends yet?"
"Yeah, sort of. My suite mate is pretty cool, and we're co-ed, so there's boys, too."
"Outstanding," Christa said. "Just make sure you don't let it get in the way of studying, you hear?"
"I thought you said wanton debauchery was part of the college experience, Mom."
"That was for me, not for you. For you, it's all about graduating Summa Cum Laude and getting an eighty thousand dollar job right after graduation."
"I'll keep it in mind," Erica laughed. "Tell Daddy I said hi."
"I will, honey. Have fun, and call any time you want."
She had been sleeping in a room of her own since the day her parents brought her home from the hospital, but it still felt strange when she crawled into her bed and turned off the light. Lily was rummaging around in the room next door, and it was comforting to know at least a few people here by name already, but on the whole, Erica felt a little strange. For a moment, she wished she had decided to remain home and attend UT. Then she thought about how little would have changed--a different classroom and teacher, but many familiar faces from her high school--and the feeling passed.
Better for it to be this way, she thought before drifting off to sleep. Better to start a new thing without any old baggage.