Well, here it is. The first chapter to the sequel to THE BOOK OF LUKE.
Read on, enjoy, and let me know what you think. Fasten your seatbelts… Luke and Emily are in for a bumpy ride.
My roommate was a mermaid in her previous life.
I learned this nifty little fact as I slipped the elastic corners of my brand new cushioned mattress pad onto the barren twin bed set against the wall. The fresh bedding still smelled like fabric softener. My mother believed that everything was better with fabric softener, as if the scent of cotton meadow was a magic elixir against the unpleasantness of everyday life. Her next book was going to contain an entire chapter on scent etiquette – What Your Nose Knows.
The only thing my nose knew right then was that, if the musty, stagnant aroma of my new dorm room was any indication, the college facilities manager could benefit from the olfactory etiquette tips in the next installment of my mother’s bestselling series of books.
The girl who I would share the next nine months waking up to had already unpacked and was in the process of decorating her side of the room. Her mother obviously subscribed to the motto fend for yourself, because while I stretched my freshly laundered, meadow-scented linens across my bed she pounded nails into the wall with an improvised hammer – the heel of a faded black combat boot.
My mom could have suggested a less destructive hanging method, as well as the correct tools and ergonomic technique. But my parents were already on the highway heading home, and in an hour and forty minutes they’d walk into our house and probably find TJ had already turned my old bedroom into a game room for his friends.
“Why don’t you try something in here?” I offered, and handed her a small box of various supplies my mom had packed and slipped into one of my three duffle bags. “I think there are tacks or hooks or something that might be easier.”
She took the box and started rummaging through the various sheets of Sticky Tack and plastic hooks with easy to remove adhesive backing.
“What do you think you were?” my new roommate asked me after selecting a few plastic coated push pins.
“When?” I asked her, focused more on making my bed than the voice coming from across the room, which, thankfully, was no longer punctuated by the sound of crumbling plaster.
“In your previous life,” she explained. “My boyfriend, Mark, was a dolphin.”
My mermaid roommate was dating a dolphin. How perfectly nautical.
“I’m not sure I ever thought about reincarnation before,” I told Kaitlin, although I was sure that I had started to think, in this life, my roommate might be a whack job. Kaitlin had seemed normal enough when we talked on the phone over the summer. And she looked normal enough, no fish scales or tail hidden in her jeans far as I could tell. With her long dark hair and smoky almond-shaped eyes she was almost exotic looking, nothing like the pale red-head I’d always come to think of as the quintessential mermaid thanks to Disney.
When I found out my roommate would be Kaitlin Fleur from New Jersey there was no mention of her previous aquatic existence or that of her marine mammal boyfriend. Still, Kaitlin seemed nice enough, which was more than I could say for Josie’s roommate at Skidmore, a militant vegan who wore Lobsters Have Feelings Too and Cows Love Vegans t-shirts and attempted to vegucate Josie on the finer points of slaughter house injustices. I gave their living situation no more than a month before they each found a new roommate.
The push pins must have worked because when I turned around Kaitlin’s entire wall was covered with a purple, turquoise and gold jewel-toned tapestries that looked like they belonged in a subtitled movie with belly dancers and snake charmers coaxing pythons out of wicker baskets, not a dorm room in Western Massachusetts. Kaitlin stood back and admired her handiwork before turning to me.
“Want to see him?” She reached for a silver filigreed picture frame that had been propped on her night table. “This is Mark.”
She came over to my side of the room and held out the photograph of Kaitlin and Mark sitting on a beach, her head resting on his shoulder.
I stared longer than I should have.
“He’s a year younger, so he’s a senior this year.”
“He’s really cute,” I offered, because he was and because I figured if I kept the conversation on Mark she wouldn’t ask why my voice suddenly sounded funny.
“Yeah, he is.” Kaitlin tipped her head to the side and smiled at her dolphin. “We were on the Jersey Shore, in Stone Harbor, ever been there?” she asked.
I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak. I’d had my own photograph a few weeks ago. My own sandy beach with orange and pink sunset. Only instead of resting my head on the shoulder beside me I had been wrapped inside arms that were pulling me close.
I looked away. “A dolphin, huh?”
“Yeah, what about you? Do you have a boyfriend?”
I slipped my pillow into the crisp case my mom had neatly folded around a lavender-scented sachet, a little aromatherapy to help me relax and sleep well in my new bed.
I shook my head. “My fish got away.”
Kaitlin looked truly crestfallen. “That’s okay, there’s someone out there for everyone.”
“There’s more fish in the sea?” My attempt to make her laugh only seemed to escalate her concern for my lackluster love life.
“Look, Emily. I’m interested in anyone new, but we’re in college now. There are a billion guys out there for you to meet.” She emphasized the B in billions, as if I’d be disappointed by mere millions.
“It’s not a big deal, really,” I assured her. “A guy is the last thing I need right now.”
Kaitlin nodded her agreement and then changed the subject, moving on to a topic that was safer and as far from this summer as we could get. “You know what classes you’re going to take?”
I figured someone who believed she spent her previous life with a finned tail instead of legs would be the studio art or philosophy type of student, maybe even dance (she had to be almost six feet tall and was definitely thin enough to be mistaken for a ballerina, although after our brief conversation I could already tell she was more likely an improvised, tribal dance kind of girl).
Turns out my mermaid roommate was an engineering major. And she had already planned out her entire course load for the year – computer science and math classes with East Asian Languages and Literature thrown in for good measure.
“I’m going to head over to the campus center, want to come?” Kaitlin offered after we’d finished swapping our knowledge of the course catalog, of which hers was way more thorough than mine.
Her side of the room looked like she’d already been there for days, but my side was still pretty barren and I still had to unpack my clothes. “I’m going to finish unpacking.”
Katilin grabbed a ten dollar bill out of her night table drawer and stuffed it into her jean pocket before heading out the door and leaving me alone in my new room. Just me, a tired and scuffed hardwood floor that had already impaled a splinter into my big toe (lesson learned, socks from now on), a blank wall pleading with me to do something as cool as Kaitlin’s tapestry, and stale dorm air that was starting to make me feel claustrophobic.
I went over to Kaitlin’s side of the room to open the window but stopped when I passed the silver frame on her night table. Mark was really cute. I could see why she didn’t care if he was still in high school. But she had to know the odds of the mermaid and the dolphin living happily ever after. Zero. Zilch. I gave them three months tops. Everything would change now that Kaitlin was away at college. High school was a lifetime ago. Even August felt long gone.
August. August 13. A Saturday. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head as I erased the mental image of a calendar and that day. That night. The image of Luke.
The picture of us on the beach was still in my duffle bag, I knew that. It was face down in the bottom, beneath my socks and sweatpants and all the new underwear my mom insisted on buying me, because who starts college with the same underwear they wore in high school? Not the daughter of an etiquette guru, apparently.
My breath caught in my throat, and as much as I wanted to believe that the lack of a well-oxygenated environment was to blame, I knew that wasn’t true. That photograph in my bag, I don’t know why I even brought it with me to school. I should have left it at home with everything else I’d decided to leave behind. That was my plan. My mom had been downstairs with my dad, both of them yelling to me that it was time to go, college awaited! But, after glancing around my bedroom one last time to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything important, I spotted the blue glossy triangle of color poking out from beneath my desk lamp. A corner of the ocean. I couldn’t see us, the rest of the photograph was hidden under the lamp base, but I knew we were there. I grabbed the photo from under my desk lamp and stuffed it into the bottom of my bag before flipping off the light switch on the wall and going downstairs to say goodbye to TJ one last time.
I did know why I brought the picture of us with me. And the reason made my eyes sting and my chest constrict, like my heart was breaking open inside me and every muscle, every bone was trying to keep it from shattering into a million pieces.
Breath, I reminded myself, just keep breathing.
I reached over and cracked open the window to let in some air. September had barely begun but already the breeze was different, more unsympathetic. Summer was definitely over.
And so were me and Luke.