A Study in Friendship
by Bryana Fern
“So, I guess I’m your roommate.”
I dropped my suitcase in the doorway of the room and planted my hands on my hips. The tall girl inside gave a half turn from where she stood in front of a high bookshelf. Her hands balanced a couple of books, as though she had been arranging them on the shelves. She looked me up and down, her azure eyes fixing on mine for a moment from under her straight dark hair before she gave a small smile.
“Yes, welcome,” she said.
Her voice was deeper than I had imagined from her thin frame; its timber matched the dark waves of her hair, extending over her shoulders. The tone of her words came across as short and distracted, but not unkind. It matched the smile she had given—one of personal effort unrelated to me. She had already returned to her books before I could try and engage her further in conversation.
I lumbered inside the small room, dragging my suitcase and backpack, admiring how her side of the room already appeared so meticulous and organized. A navy blue throw lay spread across the bed, smoothed of every crease and rumple, holding a Union Jack pillow at its head. The bookshelf held volumes of all size and thickness, though most looked like textbooks and binders. Folders, sheet music, album records, and even small boxes also filled the shelves in perfect arrangement. A music stand by the window in the middle of the dorm room accompanied what looked to be a viola beside it, near her nightstand. I glanced to my empty side of the room and heaved my suitcase up onto the bed. The mattress gave a loud groan and my roommate glanced over at me with only her eyes until she caught me looking at her. I paused, trying to take my opportunity again.
“I’m Jane,” I said. “Jane Wilson.”
“Nice to meet you.”
The girl glanced over again, this time with her whole head, hesitant as if she did not know how to respond. She simply nodded instead and returned to her organization.
“So,” I said. “You’re a chemistry major, too?”
“Yes.” Samantha rolled up the sleeves of her white dress shirt and set the books aside
when a quiet bubbling sound came from inside her closet. She opened her nightstand and removed three porcelain white tea cups and saucers, before walking over and throwing open the doors to the closet. Inside on an empty shelf next to a pile of scarves sat an electric water kettle, which I noticed for the first time ran by cord to an outlet right outside the closet. She unplugged the kettle and brought it over to the cups.
“I hope you like tea.”
“That’s sort of irrelevant, considering you can’t have that in here.”
“Really?” I laughed and pushed my hair behind my ear. “The RA will write us up.”
“Oh, that’s doubtful.” She waved a hand and continued, unconcerned. “Here you are.”
She brought a cup over to me and I hesitated, but then took it with a shrug. She raised her cup and sipped it slowly, a look of complete contentment washing over her face.
I shrugged again and set my cup aside, continuing to unpack my suitcase. I didn’t have much with me, but I had taken it all, leaving hardly anything at my stepfather’s house. My mom would notice in a few days that the folded flag from my dad’s funeral was among those items. Maybe a few weeks. I tucked it gently in the top drawer of my nightstand and smoothed it over like Samantha’s bedspread. My clothes found a home easily enough and it wasn’t long before I had everything set up the way I wanted. About that time, a knuckled rap sounded on the door frame. I looked up in surprise, my eyes immediately darting to the closed closet doors. Samantha remained where she was, reclined across her bed, her back straight against the head board and the long legs of her dark jeans crossed casually at the ankles.
“Hell, I couldn’t believe it when they told me which floor I would be covering this semester. If it isn’t Samantha Howe.”
Another girl leaned in the doorway, curly brown hair tied into a loose knot over the sage crew neck sweater she wore. I looked to her name tag pin, seeing her title as Bakerson Building RA. Her smirk seemed pleasant on her face, if not mockingly directed at Samantha.
“Why don’t you come in, McKay?” Samantha asked. She had turned back to the book in
front of her and spoke with light sarcasm as she sipped her tea. A stream of the late morning sun fell through the blinds of the window across the floor.
The girl at the door crossed her arms across her chest and smiled, pleased with herself as she wandered in the room. She looked around and nodded, then sniffed. I groaned internally as she rolled her eyes and looked directly to Samantha, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, have some tea.” Samantha reached out to the nightstand and presented the third tea cup without looking up from her book.
“Where did you get that?” McKay accepted the cup and sat down on the bed next to Samantha. “No, don’t answer. I don’t want to know.” She sighed and smiled up at me. “I’m McKay Lewis. You must be Jane.”
"Yeah, yeah, I am.” I sat down slowly on my bed when I realized Samantha and I weren’t
about to be busted after all. McKay held the teacup in her lap and looked around the room as if she was searching for some form of distraction. Samantha kept reading on in her book.
“I wanted to stop by and check in on this one.” McKay jerked her head toward Sam, who
raised her eyebrows, but did not look up. “I hope she doesn’t give you too much trouble. Feel free to put her in line or come get me if you don’t want to do it yourself.”
“I…” I glanced between the girls and shrugged. “I don’t see why there would be any trouble.” I swung my legs back and forth off the edge of my bed.
“Tell you what,” McKay said. “Hold onto that thought. I’m going to come in next week and ask you again.” She laughed as Samantha sighed and closed her book with a snap.
“McKay assumes there will be a problem because you are not my first roommate,” she explained. “She’s even taken bets on how long you will stay before asking her to be moved.”
“I have not!” Samantha peered at her from under a dark eyebrow and McKay rolled her eyes. “Okay, maybe I did.”
She sighed as Samantha looked back to her book. “You can’t hide anything from this one. Take it from me. Just don’t even bother.”
“Why not?” I asked. “How does she know?”
“I know everything.” Samantha was studying the back cover of her book, sniffing it.
“She does. It’s scary, but brilliant.”
I nodded, beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Maybe I could catch McKay later in the evening on my way to dinner and ask her what I would have to do if I ended up wanting another roommate after all. “How do you two know each other?” I asked.
Both girls answered at the same time and I raised my eyebrows as they looked at each other, McKay shaking her head with a disgusted expression.
“High school,” she said. “We met years ago in high school. We’ve had a few classes together since then. I’m a criminal studies major, so I have to do things like forensics and chemistry.”
“Yes, yes,” Sam said from her book once more. “As you try to sound impressive, please
note that I’ve posted my schedule by the door for you. During my free hours I can be found here, in the library, or in the chemistry lab. Please plan your consultation appointments accordingly.”
“Oh, right. Thanks. She helps me with some of my assignments and what not,” McKay said at my confused look.
“If by some, you mean all, then yes.”
McKay laughed nervously and gave a sheepish grin. She shrugged as if she had been embarrassed by this fact at one time, but no longer cared to deny it. “I run one of the student chemistry organizations and I usually find Sam’s help…insightful.”
“Well, if it’s too much trouble, why not get Samantha to help you run it?” I asked. Both girls looked at each other before bursting into laughter. The look of genuine amusement on Sam’s face did more for my nerves than anything so far since entering the room. I laughed with them, though still not sure what they found so amusing about my remark. I had wondered if the girl really smiled at all, the long, sharp features of her face seeming like they were carved from marble. The laugh lines of her face swelled up over her raised cheeks, meeting the light that flashed in her eyes.
“Hell, the students would hold a mutiny against her,” McKay said. Sam nodded, the light still dancing in her amused eyes.
“I’m not exactly a people person,” she said.
“No, it’s not her division. Not really mine either, now that I think about it.” McKay sipped the last of her tea and placed it back on Sam’s nightstand. She plucked a string on the girl’s viola and looked around the room again. She scoffed at Sam’s huff of annoyance before turning to me.
“So, have fun with that, then.”
I found the first few weeks to be interesting indeed, if not fun. I quickly learned that my roommate had the manners of a five year old, but yet would show the greatest insight of clarity in matters I found utterly confusing. I discovered that I learned more about chemistry and the science of deduction from her than from any of my professors. We shared a few classes and sat together off to the side near the back of the room. A good vantage point, she had said. I gave up trying to take notes after the first week when Sam eagerly showed me all the ways in which the textbook was inadequate in its explanations.
“Shhh! He’s talking!”
“He’s an idiot.” Samantha waved a hand and several students near us turned to stare. I
smiled at them as Sam continued rambling. When I ignored her, she began writing on a scrap paper. I snickered when she passed me the note that corrected the past five comments the professor had said and ended with an sufficiently supported theory on how he was having an affair with our TA sitting a few seats away from us.
Sometimes Samantha was silent for days and I never bothered her; other times she practically begged me to come to the chemistry lab so she could show me a breakthrough she had made. I always presumed to be annoyed, but I was secretly touched that she considered my opinion valid when she obviously didn’t need it, and I got the impression that she was just as secretly pleased that someone actually cared to spend time with her and show interest in what she was doing.
McKay would come over at times just to pop in and say hello, or to invite us to go grab a bite of dinner somewhere on a Friday night. These evenings usually ended after a few margaritas and Sam driving us back to the dorms. One time I woke up to music and found myself on the floor, tucked up in the blanket from my bed. McKay was sprawled out on her back a few feet away, her mouth hanging open. I blinked and realized Sam was standing over us playing her viola, dancing slightly with closed eyes and a light smile on her face. McKay had groaned and lobbed a pillow at her, cursing at how late she’d let them slept in.
“You didn’t sleep in. You passed out.”
One time we had even watched Pride and Prejudice, forcing Sam to stay by putting her on popcorn and wine duty. She enjoyed the prospect of calculating our alcohol intake and we convinced her that it would be more interesting if she added herself into the mix. We may have gotten halfway through the movie—I don’t even remember. McKay, unbeknownst to me, refrained from the wine and captured everything on her phone. Laughing us, she showed us the video the next day in which Sam sat huddled on the bed, crying at Darcy’s proposal and asking me why Elizabeth was so cruel. I said something to the effect that Sam was a lot like Elizabeth. She pulled a face and started to say something, but then slumped over on the bed and fell asleep. I giggled and spilled my wine as I asked McKay if she had seen it. Then I looked into the camera and started coming toward it. The video wobbled and quickly ended. We never did get through all of Pride and Prejudice together.
I woke up late one morning, having decided to sleep in since my biochemistry class had been cancelled, and pretended to keep sleeping when I heard Sam on the phone. I had never eavesdropped before, curious as I had always been for ways to get inside Sam’s head and try and see things the way she did, from that outside perspective she always seemed to give.
“Come on, Mary,” Sam said. She sounded like she was pacing in the room and I heard a
whirring in the air—she was twirling her viola bow. She played with the bow sometimes when she was aggravated. I remembered one night how furious she was when administration changed the pass-code to the security on the chemistry lab and she could no longer get in past regular hours. The bow had turned into a fencing sword, slashing at the air.
“Don’t lecture me,” she said now. “Don’t you lay this on me again. You are just as guilty as I am.”
I listened closer, trying to figure out who she could be talking to. A friend? A sibling? She had never mentioned her family before. The pacing stopped and she let out a long sigh.
“You remember what our childhood was like. For God’s sake, Mary, I’m still ostracized! I no longer care what others think of me and I would have stopped caring a lot sooner if you
hadn’t pretended to be friends with everyone we met… No, don’t try and deny it. Mom and Dad always favored you more. They thought you could be the normal one.”
The bed creaked and I heard her sit down. I tried to breathe slowly, counting the pauses to try and seem like I was still asleep. Every second Sam stayed silent was another second I thought she would discover me.
“I know she worries,” Sam said. “What? When’s the last time—I don’t know. I think I called her last month. Yes, I talked to them both… Because, Mary, my roommate is sleeping and I don—if I wanted to go outside, I would— …Yeah. Yeah, I know. Maybe, maybe we could all do Christmas this year. Could you get off work?”
More silence followed and I listened, but found myself trying to go back to sleep. The thought of Sam’s parents and the home life I had never known filled my mind. I tried to imagine her as a child. What was she like then? Throughout the semester, I had never experienced her in such a vulnerable way, and my guilt increased as I knew she wouldn’t want me to know. She had been quiet for the past few days, but I thought maybe she was just in one of her brooding moods, thinking over something. As I drifted off to sleep again, I made a mental note to pay more attention to her.
“I love them too,” she said. “You know how hard that is for me to say.”
Sam never showed much change after that morning, but I noticed she continued to act more quietly than normal. She spoke less often and stayed late at the chemistry lab until they kicked her out. The viola also took up more practice and I saw her scribbling up a composition every now and then.
“She gets like this,” McKay told me. “Just keep an eye on her and let her be.”
One time I woke up and she was in her bed with her laptop, in the same position I had last seen her six hours ago. I sighed and climbed out of bed, lumbering across the room to her.
She didn’t look up and I reached out slowly, closing the laptop. She didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t say anything. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or feel concerned, and I was reminded of our initial meeting when I sensed the same tug. I put the laptop over on her nightstand and pushed gently on her shoulders. Her eyes drifted closed and I was able to lay her back down into bed, pulling the blanket up over her.
“Mary, where’s the dog?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Sam,” I said.
“You never do. You never play with me anymore…” She smacked her lips and rolled over, snoring. I waited a moment to make sure she was asleep. Then I moved over to the closet to brew a cup of tea.
I sat with a cup on top of my chemistry textbook, and studied the flashcards Sam had written for me. Every now and then I came across some that held deduction notes on different students who sat around us. I shook my head, finding ones that had been written early in the semester, ones that had ended up coming true. Sam let out a loud snore in her sleep and I glanced up. She seemed so like a child at times, so innocent and unaware, so independent in her own intelligence, yet so trusting in the friendship I offered. I realized I had not even been truly upset with her yet during the semester. Annoyed, yes. I had more than once snapped at her for playing her viola at three in the morning, quiet though she kept it; for standing on her bed and pounding on the ceiling at the disruptive students above us; for going into my mini fridge because she was too lazy or too unaware to keep her own stocked. A few weeks ago, she had even walked in on me and my boyfriend at the time, Michael.
She had said she would be in the library all night if the chemistry lab was locked again. So, I had invited Michael over. He sat a few rows ahead of us in chemistry—he was one of the ones Sam had studied. I asked her what she knew about him, but she never told me.
Michael and I had just about fallen asleep when the door opened and the light flicked on. The rest of it sort of blurred together. Sam came in the room and made a comment, and Michael retorted with an insult. I remember hearing the word psycho. I think I surprised all three of us when I shouted at Michael and threw him out of the room, screaming at him never to call her that again. Sam handed me his clothes and I chucked them into the hall after him. One of his brown shoes hit him in the head and he groaned out a curse before I slammed the door. Then, wrapped in my bed sheet, I sat on my bed and put my head in my hands. Sam stood where she was.
“Library was locked, too. Scheduled cleaning.”
“I know,” I said. “They posted that notice last week.”
“Oh.” Sam sat down on her bed, too and stared at her hands. “I didn’t see that.”
“Um… sorry about that.”
A few weeks later, I learned that Michael had been seeing another girl, the same TA from our chemistry class. I asked Sam if she had known and she became quiet. She asked if she should have told me and I just remember smiling, pulling her into a hug that she awkwardly returned.
“Thanks for that night,” she said. “When he…and then you…well, that was nice of you.”
I peered up at her, not sure if I should let my surprise show or not. “Of course,” I said. “You’re my best friend.”
“I’m your best…friend.” “Yeah,” I said. “Of course, you are.”
Finals week came and passed, and I climbed the stairs to our floor one evening, prepared to find McKay and ask her how much she had originally bet on my living arrangements with Sam. Selling back my textbooks hadn’t brought in as much money as I’d hoped. Most of the rooms were empty now for the break. Sam and I were some of the last few to leave and I wondered if she was planning to go home like I had heard her tell her sister.
Then I entered our room and found Sam sitting on the floor against her bed, McKay across from her against mine. Sam was twiddling her bow in her fingers while McKay leaned her head back, throwing a tennis ball up in the air. I closed the door and dropped my backpack, walking to the closet to start a pot of tea. I glanced at McKay and she shook her head. I lowered myself on the floor with a sigh.
“What’s this about, then? Sam, you didn’t eat anything for lunch. I’m assuming that means no dinner, either.”
I watched Sam, but she didn’t look at me. She simply stared. I knew she heard me, though, because her head had tilted slightly when I’d entered the room. I leaned forward over my crossed legs and folded my hands together.
“Sam,” I said. My voice was softer than I expected, and I spoke to Sam as though I was right next to her and she and I were the only ones in the room. “Sam, talk to me. Come on, I’m here. Don’t shut me out.”
Sam closed her bloodshot eyes and opened them slowly before turning to me, her hair falling over her face. “It’s my mom,” she said. Her deep voice was also so quiet that I almost did not hear her. She swallowed and repeated her words. “She’s in the hospital.”
“And?” I asked. “How is she? What’s wrong?” I spoke practically, hiding the emotion I was feeling for her, the emotion I knew she was trying not to feel herself. “Sam, look at me.” I
noticed McKay had risen from the floor and walked over to the closet, where she was pouring our tea. She returned and handed two cups down to me. I placed one in front of Sam, positioning it so the handle was right in the grasp of her limp fingers. Her light eyes lifted to mine.
“I find this sort of thing difficult,” she said. “I don’t know how to…my sister and I always struggled with it and…my parents are great. They’re normal. They love us. But they don’t notice things like my sister and I, so they never understood. And Mary doesn’t really bother anymore with m…”
Her tone and the lack of the answer itself told me the severity of the situation. She had not even said that Mary was her sister, even though I would have no reason to know. Was she aware I had listened to her on the phone?
“I don’t know what to do, Jane.” She laughed and she brought a hand to her mouth, though I knew it was not the laugh she was trying to stifle. “I’ve never said that before. I’ve
always known what to do. Everything always made such sense. I look at a situation, at a person, and I see everything. Yet, I look at this and I see nothing…absolutely nothing.”
“You always find a way,” McKay said. “Hell, half of what I’ve been able to do is only because you’ve been there to help me. You always find a way. You’ll figure this out, too."
“This isn’t some case, Lewis!” She slammed her fist on her knee, and I was taken aback by the dangerous light in her eyes, the snarl on her lips. She had never called McKay by her surname and in my peripheral vision I saw McKay lift her chin.
Unsure if what I was about to do would help, I placed a hand over Sam’s free one, which was shaking slightly on her knee. “I uh, I’ve never really told anyone this,” I said, “but my dad died overseas.”
McKay glanced at me in the corner of my eye, but I continued. “He wrote to me, called
me, tried to stay in touch. But I was mad at him. I…I don’t even remember why. I can’t even remember the last words I said to him. But I know they were horrible. And that’s how I felt for years. Horrible.” I gripped Sam’s fingers without realizing it and she returned the gesture. I felt her eyes on me, but I didn’t look up or I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish.
“My mom was too caught up in her own grief to notice me, and she remarried just over a year later. I never forgave her for that. And I never forgave myself. And I…” I swallowed. “Sam, you have to go. I’ll go with you if you want, but you have to do this or you’ll regret it forever. Trust me.”
McKay stood up. “Hell, I need to put on some more tea.”
That night I had the first nightmare since the day I learned the news that my dad had been killed in a roadside bomb. I knew it would happen when I told Sam the story. I had even stared at his flag before going to sleep, the way it had always helped before. Not this time. This time, Sam was there first in the dream. She was there with that long face, those blue eyes, so sad and burdened in a light I had never seen before. She was there pleading for me to help her, asking why I didn’t help her, asking why I didn’t help my dad. I looked at her, puzzled at how she knew, and I told her my daddy was dead. Then I saw him, lying there in the sand, only a face and the top half of his torso, his remaining arm reaching for me. I reached back, but then the sands blew over and I couldn’t see. I didn’t know where I was going.
Then, hands grabbed my shoulders. I shook them off; they were keeping me from my dad. But the hand pulled me still, and I realized the sands were calming. I hadn’t noticed it before. But I thrashed, still. No one was supposed to know. It was my burden, my shame. A part of me had killed him. A hand pulled harder on my shoulder.
My eyes flashed open and I saw the hand still there. It led up to a face. I lashed out with a scream and heard a groan, saw a curtain of dark hair fly. I sat up and then Samantha’s hands were on me again, grabbing my arms to hold me up. A bright spot of scarlet stood out in the corner of her mouth.
“Jane,” she said. She shook me gently and I pretended to be half asleep again, too embarrassed to let her know. I pretended to cry, but that came easier than I wanted it to.
“Jane, wake up. It’s just a dream. It’s okay, it’s okay. You’re okay.”
I shook my head and leaned forward into her sweater. She froze and held me awkwardly for a moment until she relaxed slightly and wrapped her arms around me, letting me cry against her. She patted me on the back, the motion slow and unsteady as though she was trying it out for the first time.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. What do you need? Do you need water?”
I shook my head against her shoulder.
“Tea? I know, I’ll make tea.”
I shook my head again.
“Do you need McKay? I’ll get her. She’ll make tea.”
“I don’t want tea, Sam.”
“Well, tell me what to do. I don’t know what to do.”
I sniffed and sat up, pushing my hair behind my ears and trying to recollect my breath. Her wide eyes peered out of the darkness, the dim lighting of the street light through the window blinds falling across her face.
“You know what you need to do,” I said. Her eyes shifted as she realized I was no longer talking about myself. “You've known all along you need to go. I’m here. I’ll go with you.”
Sam nodded slowly, a light flashing in her eyes so much like the one I had seen in my dream, a light of confusion and sorrow. A light of hope, buried beneath reason and the mask of practiced indifference. She bit her lip, wincing as her teeth hit the sore spot.
“We can pack in the morning,” she said. “Be on the road before ten. We might run into traffic. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Which direction are we going?”
“My hometown is about six hours east of here. Why?”
“I want to make a stop first.”
She glanced at my nightstand, where she knew I kept my father’s flag. She nodded and held my hand. I nodded back and crawled back down into bed, smiling as Sam pulled the covers up over me. She walked quietly back to her own bed and lay down. I felt her eyes on me, waiting to make sure I went back to sleep. The streetlight cast the shadow of her viola across the floor. I stared at it, letting the image permeate my mind and lull me to sleep with its melodies.