.:VirtualSalt

The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 2, 2008

Chapter 2

It was a quiet night on the campus of the university, though not so quiet that the crickets could be heard easily. The distant sounds of pounding rhythm from suffering boomboxes and component stereos blended with an occasional laugh or playful scream. The trees in the courtyard of Pelletier hall wondered whether they would make it through another year of climbing, hanging lights, stapled signs, toilet papering, and miscellaneous twig theft. Already on this first Friday night of the new school year, someone had attempted to hang a swing from a too-slender branch with predictable, agonizing results. That sickening, cracking sound, the pain, the oozing of fluids. It was awful. The perpetrator was not hurt at all. He simply took his swing to another tree and left the injured one to bleed until it could be treated by the landscapers.

The night grew later and later, until the numbers on the clock stopped getting larger and started over again. The background rumble gradually diminished, but somewhere there was the determination to enjoy a night of total abandonment with music and dance and eating and drinking all night long to celebrate the completion of a week of classes. Had the partiers been listening, at some point they might have noticed that the occasional shout from a room on the second floor had became frequent enough to define an altercation, punctuated by the sound of a slamming door.

A few minutes later, a young woman could be seen walking around the landing, carrying a set of bed sheets and a blanket. She looked tired and exasperated (torqued, she would have said), and her eye makeup made it appear that she had been punched in both eyes. Her hair had once been long and dark brown and hung toward the ground, but now it was short and largely blonde, with tips of purple and orange, and largely pointed toward the sky. Her ears, eyebrow, lip, and navel all bore silver studs, matched with a leather collar and wristband containing stainless steel. On her cheek and tummy were tattoos. She wore a fairy-tale orange shirt (that is, Once upon a time it had been orange), and her jeans were ripped open at the knees. On her usually bare feet were house slippers, a concession to the cool of the very early morning.

The young woman stopped outside of Room 204 and knocked with one of her ring-covered hands. When the door did not open as quickly as she wished, the young woman grew impatient and used her fist to knock more enthusiastically. The thought crossed her mind just to use her master key to let herself in.
“Amy! Markayla! It’s Melanie. Open up, please.” Melanie was beginning to feel cold.

The hardware clicked as the deadbolt slid back and then the door opened, revealing a very sleepy girl, still holding the doorknob in one hand. Her hair had been put up before bedtime, but by now several strands had escaped their bondage and hung down miscellaneously.

“What’s going on?” Amy asked, squinting from the outside light shining through the doorway.

“Can I come in?” said Melanie, who then walked inside.

“Sure,” said Amy. She put her arms around herself from the cold and padded back toward her bed to grab her nightgown. Her usual sleepwear was just an extra-large T-shirt, which on her frame was long enough to be a very short dress. Tonight she had been sleeping in a freebie from a conference her father had attended. There was a logo and the words “Digital Imaging” written in large letters on the front. Amy covered the logo as she wrapped the nightgown around her and then returned to where Melanie stood near the door.

Melanie closed the door, robbing the room of the light that had allowed her to see, so she flipped on the lights. They were much brighter than the light from the doorway.

“Oooo! You are blinding me,” said a voice from a nearby bed, in a distinctly British accent. “What is happening here? What time is it?”

“It’s Melanie, the RA,” Amy said. “And it’s 2:34.”

Markayla wondered what the resident assistant would want with them at that hour.

“Is the building on fire?” she asked abruptly, suddenly thinking of what she considered a likely reason. Markayla swung her feet out of bed and was about to stand up. Unlike Amy, she believed in formal sleepwear, and was wearing deep purple satin pajamas.

“No, no, everything’s fine,” said Melanie, in a calming tone. But I have a problem and you can help.

Markayla was putting on her silver-rimmed glasses, but still keeping her eyes mostly closed as they gradually adjusted to the light. “A problem?” she asked skeptically. “What kind of problem gets brought into our room at 2:30 in the morning?”

“We have a personality conflict, and I was hoping you two would be willing to take another roommate, at least temporarily, to solve the problem,” Melanie said, looking over at the third bed and desk in the room and then glancing meaningfully at the sheets and blanket in her hands. With the growing preference for single rooms on many campuses, the older dorms with rooms built for two or three were less popular. As a result, the campus housing authorities made an effort to limit the rooms in Pelletier to two persons each, even though most of them had been built for three. Some rooms were tripled by choice of the residents, and a few by necessity because of an unexpected housing crunch. But many triples still had only two residents, and this was the case for Amy and Markayla.

“I guess we could take her,” said Amy, still not very awake.

“Tell me first,” said Markayla, in a much more alert and commanding tone, “whether your solution is to give this ‘problem’ to us, and whether there are other available beds in the dormitory, and why you have chosen us.” Markayla’s ambition was to become a lawyer, and Amy thought she already acted like one. No, Amy thought Markayla already acted like a judge. It fit Markayla’s calm, circumspect personality. Maybe the culture shock of coming to the United States had made her cautious.

“Well,” said Melanie, “the girl is a little weird, but she’s okay.”

Amy was now awake enough for this statement to cause an automobile accident of logic in her head. In Amy’s personal mental dictionary, there was a photograph of Melanie next to the entry for weird. If, therefore, Melanie called the girl in question “a little weird,” what could that mean?

Markayla’s thought, on the other hand, had taken the train and avoided that nasty accident. She reasoned that Melanie thought Markayla and Amy were among the weirdest people on the planet, so that Melanie’s description of someone as “a little weird” was non-information. The truth was that, while Melanie thought the two roommates were a bit too tightly wound, she actually admired them to some extent and occasionally wondered what it would be like to resemble them. The wheels of her life were already rather deep into the ruts of her chosen street, so she did not foresee a personal change, but she was still curious about the choices these girls had made.

“You guys are nice,” Melanie said, appealing to the girls’ feelings. “You talk about compassion and stuff, and I thought you would be the best for her.” Both girls realized that it is sometimes impossible at the outset to distinguish between a sincere compliment and a con. They hoped Melanie was serious.
“Is there something wrong with her?” Amy asked. Amy was beginning to wonder if taking the girl in would be a mistake.

“Well, she’s just kind of different,” said Melanie, not looking at either of the roommates, but putting the sheets and blanket down on Amy’s desk.

“Different in what way?” asked Markayla.

“You’ll see. She’s actually quiet and nice. I think you might even like her and can help her somehow. She’s not dangerous and doesn’t do drugs or guys.”

“What’s her name?” asked Amy, chewing over Melanie’s comments about the girl not being dangerous.

One of those odd quirks of human nature is that when we are uncertain about making a decision involving someone we do not know, we always ask the person’s name, as if that will help us make a decision.

“This guy is a hard worker, but he keeps burning down the office buildings he works in. Do you want to hire him?”

“I don’t know. What’s his name?”

“I just met a girl whose eleven previous husbands died under mysterious circumstances. Think I should marry her?”

“I don’t know. What’s her name?”

It is as if we can discern something about people by their names. It is no wonder so many actors adopt improvements over their given names. Percy Skimpleblatt leaves home and becomes Biff Winners in Hollywood. Henrietta Pflugg stars in her first film as Lacey DeLovely. Perhaps the reason is that we have been upgrading the names of locations all along, realizing that many people confuse the name and the thing. Coyote Wash is renamed Timid Creek so that a housing development next to a gravel drainage ditch can be called Creekside.

“Her name’s Tina. Tina Davidson.”

Amy thought of the ballerina on her desk, whom she had also named Tina, and to whom she often talked during times of reflection. Some people talk to their teddy bears or dolls; Amy talked to the figurine.

Amy and Markayla, not having the luxury of a private conversation while Melanie was standing there, searched each other’s faces for signs of preference in the decision. Both seemed to be somewhat uncertain. Amy was wondering if they were inviting trouble—by which she meant interference with her studying—by allowing the girl in. This would be a heavy semester, and it would require extended quiet time to concentrate. Markayla was less worried about noise because she had a better ability to concentrate in a busy room. But she was generally more cautious about sudden, new arrangements, especially those proposed in the middle of the night.

However, not seeing any definitive signs of refusal in each other’s faces, the two roommates soon nodded to each other slightly, both feeling mostly agreeable to taking the girl in. It was worth some risk where there was a possibility of helping someone who might need them.

“Well,” said Markayla, at last, “let us see this girl, then. We will take her in for a time.”

+++

Tina appeared in a T-shirt, faded jeans-shorts, and experienced athletic shoes with no socks. In one hand she had her cosmetics bag. Cradled against herself in the other arm were some clothes for a change in the morning and a silver lockbox. Her short blonde hair was a little ruffled, and her eyes had a somewhat watery look, but overall she looked normal enough. Amy would have said that Tina was tall, since the girl had an inch or two on Amy, while Markayla would have said she was short, at a few inches less than Markayla. Amy thought their new roommate was irritatingly slender, while Markayla thought her of average build. And this, dear reader, is only one example of the confusion caused by using ourselves as a standard of reference for the rest of the world.

When she walked through the doorway past Amy, Tina paused and looked into Amy’s face. “Hello,” she said simply. There was neither warmth nor coldness in her voice.

“Hi. I’m Amy,” Amy said, wondering if she should offer to shake her hand. “And this is Markayla.”

“I am glad to meet you, Tina,” Markayla said.

“Is this okay?” Tina asked.

There was a slight pause while the two roommates wondered what the object of this was. But instead of asking, “Is what okay?” Amy and Markayla said almost in unison, “Yes.”

“Welcome,” said Markayla. “Here is your bed and desk. You must need some sleep. I know I do. Let me first help you make your bed.”

Melanie had been standing just inside the door to see how things went. As Tina walked over with Markayla to look at her bed, Melanie whispered to Amy, “I’ll bring her things over tomorrow. Night night. Oh, and don’t let her burn candles. It’s against the rules, you know.” She closed the door as she left. As she walked back to her own room, she crossed her fingers on both hands.

+++

Under normal circumstances, the introduction of a new female roommate into the room of two other females would require the pronunciation of thousands of words, perhaps tens of thousands. Life histories, personal tastes, future dreams, every kind of subject imaginable, from food to nail polish, from music to romance, would be covered. In this situation, however, the late hour and the odd circumstances conspired to prevent such exchanges. Tina announced that she was tired and threw herself on top of the bed. Amy went over to see what Tina might need.

“You can have one of my T-shirts to sleep in if you want,” she offered.

Tina looked at her, again with an expression of doubt on her face. “Is it a four?” she asked.

“It’s an extra large,” Amy said.

“Never mind,” Tina said. She lay back and closed her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said to the ceiling.

+++

None of the girls slept much the rest of the night. When the light was turned out, Tina stayed quiet for about ten minutes and then sat up in bed. The room was dark again except for the dim light from a nightlight in the bathroom (whose door was partly closed), so Amy could not see anything other than Tina’s figure sitting up. In a few more minutes, Tina got out of bed and walked to the door.

“Are you okay, Tina?” Amy asked quietly, in case Markayla was asleep.

“Yes, yes,” Tina said.

“What is it?”

“Nothing. I thought I heard something.”

Tina was soon back in bed. A few minutes later, she was up again, this time standing near the window on the other side of the room.

“Tina?” Amy said again.

“Do you hear a baby crying?” Tina asked.

Amy listened intently for a few moments. The night was now quiet. Even the holdout music had ceased, allowing a few crickets to be heard. The sound of a car could be heard in the distance, but that was about all. “No,” she said. “I don’t hear any baby crying.”

“There is no baby crying that I can hear,” Markayla said, to Amy’s surprise.

“Oh, okay, never mind,” Tina said. She got back into bed.

As worried about this behavior as the roommates were, they must have dozed off eventually, because when their alarm went off seemingly a few minutes later, they both awoke. Tina was asleep on top of the bed, still dressed.

“Should we wake her?” Amy asked Markayla. “Or let her have a Saturday morning sleep?”

“Let us see if the noise of the morning wakes her,” Markayla answered.

The whooshing rush of shower water, the whiney whirr of hair dryers, and the screechy skrunk of coat hangers sliding along the rod all apparently failed to awaken Tina, who lay on her back, legs spread out and arms over her head. She looked either like an extremely relaxed person in the world’s most comfortable bed or like a prisoner stretched out on a torture rack, ready to be pulled apart.

Amy finished pulling on her jeans and looked over at Tina. “We don’t want her to miss breakfast.” A girl that skinny could scarcely afford to miss a meal, Amy thought.

Markayla walked over to where Tina lay, and said softly, “Tina?”

Tina opened her eyes but nothing else moved. Her roommates were both surprised to see her awake. A moment later she retracted her limbs like a pill bug rolling up.

“What time is it?” she asked, facing the wall.

“Quarter to eight,” Amy said from across the room.

“Okay, thanks,” Tina said. She lay motionless a few moments longer. Then she got up off the bed and went into the bathroom. Amy wondered whether to make some conversation. “Did you sleep okay?” or “Want to go to breakfast with us?” were two possibilities. But she thought better of it and said nothing. Tina seemed to be something of a loner, or at least she was not in a talking mood. Amy remembered going to summer camp with a girl who in the morning would sit on the edge of her bunk and stare silently for twenty minutes before she could utter a single word. Her body awoke long before her brain did, so she waited patiently until the mental and verbal functions booted up. Once awake, she was as normal as a doughnut. “I’ve got to stop using food metaphors,” Amy thought.

Markayla sat down at her desk for her next morning ritual. After getting dressed, her first requirement was a pot of good coffee and a few minutes reading. Some people, when they find a situation less than to their liking, spend as much effort as possible complaining about it. Markayla was not one of these. Not by nature a negative or critical person, she instead believed in taking charge of a situation and applying whatever remedy was possible. While in the United States, she had developed a definite taste for really good coffee. The coffee in the dining commons she found virtually undrinkable. But instead of criticizing it every day with every sip, she had almost given up drinking it at all, and instead had obtained the necessary items for making her own coffee in the room before going to breakfast. She had fresh beans, a grinder, a drip coffee pot, coffee filters, and on special occasions, bottled water to use in the brewing. A tiny refrigerator housed the half and half. On special occasions, when the tension between taste and healthy eating yielded in the direction of taste, the fridge might even feature whipping cream.
When her parents had questioned all this paraphernalia as she packed it up to bring with her, she said, “Just because we are going away to the university, we do not have to be uncivilized.”

Her almost daily habit was to make a small pot of “real” coffee and sit down with it to read. She always began with some chapters in the Bible. Then, without the smallest feeling of self-irony, Markayla closed the Book and opened the Wall Street Journal. This was not a turning from God to Mammon, but a practical shift from the Big Picture to the Small. Markayla was majoring in international business, even though she planned to work as an American lawyer, so she thought that the business newspaper offered her the practical knowledge she needed to accompany the more general knowledge her classes provided. She believed that, if she laid a solid foundation in righteousness, she could build a worthy and level structure of any kind in business or law, even, in spite of their tendencies for corruption.

+++

Markayla and Amy had met when Markayla’s first year in the U. S. placed her as a high school freshman in classes with Amy. The girls soon became friends. Amy invited Markayla church and they soon became inseparable, eventually deciding to go to the same university. Having each other as longtime friends and then roommates (beginning last year as freshmen) did a lot to remedy the separation anxiety the sociologists are always talking about when young people leave home for the first time. And their friendship provided the moral support essential for facing the grind of the university.

When Tina emerged from the bathroom, she had on a clean T-shirt, and the same cut-off jeans and worn shoes as the night before.

The three went to breakfast, where Amy and Markayla talked about the expectations of the day. Tina said very little. The two girls’ Saturday was not planned for recreation or socializing (though Amy hoped to see Matt at some point) but for work, to get ahead of the game by reading upcoming chapters and thinking about paper topics. “More work, more reading, gotta do some research on the Web, write out some notes.” Their assignments were still very light, but both girls made notes about their day’s projected activities to help them get into the habit once again. Amy’s notes were mental, while Markayla’s were written.

As Amy watched Markayla write out a lengthy to-do list, she remembered a night near the beginning of last year. Amy and Markayla were sitting at their desks, deep into the books. Both were taking notes. Amy remembered feeling tired and glancing at the clock, to learn that it was 11:20, almost time to quit for the night. Suddenly Markayla had tossed her pen onto her desk.

“American television has deceived me,” Markayla had said, with a straight and serious face.

Amy had asked her what she was reading, wondering what subject had provoked that conclusion. But Markayla was referring to her own experience.
“When students are shown on television and in films,” she had said, “none of them ever do this much work. Everyone is always at play.”

“And you believed television?”

“I think television is not real,” Markayla had said, thus comprehending one of the most fundamental truths of modern life. “I have seen through these false appearances.”

Now, in their sophomore year, neither harbored any illusions about the work load at the university. Some institutions have diluted their curricula and lessened workloads to cater to a new, lazier, less able student population, but this university was not one of them. The word on campus was that describing a class as impossible meant that it was relatively easy. The truly challenging classes were called preposterous, insane, or suicidal. Amy and Markayla talked about the syllabi in their classes and argued whether Critical Thinking was going to be insane or merely impossible.

During the work-planning conversation, Tina paid attention mostly to her food, but she occasionally looked around the room, and once stared in one direction. Amy noticed this lengthy look and looked to see what interested Tina, but could find nothing out of the ordinary.

After breakfast, Amy and Markayla decided to head to the library to work in the silent, nearly abandoned building, surrounded by the wisdom and folly of the ages. They invited Tina, but she said she would study in the dorm.

.

Go on to Chapter 3
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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com