"Sweetie, it's time to wake up." Tara perched on the edge of her brother's bed, one hand resting lightly on the boy's shoulder, shaking him. A part of her recognized that Donny, now thirteen and already as tall as she was, might be too old for such terms of endearment. She knew that eventually he would bring it up and ask her stop, but her heart hoped that day was a long way off. Underneath her hand, she felt Donny's body twitch violently as he shed a layer of sleep.
"Momma?" the word bubbled to Donny's lips seconds before his eyes opened, and he blinked several times to adjust to the light, which was by this hour streaming in through the Venetian blinds. Tara watched her brother rub the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes and groan when he realized it was already morning.
"Were you dreaming of her?" Tara asked. "In the hospital again?"
Donny shoved his pillows behind him so that he could prop himself up against the headboard. "No, it wasn't at Hospice." His lips made a tight slant as he thought. "It was back at the old house, I think."
"In Snow Hill?"
"Uh uh. Before that: the one in Laurel."
"You remember the Laurel house?" Tara asked, amazed.
"Not really; not the house. I think I might have made the inside parts up. But I remember the yard in back, with the shed and that tall fence on one side."
Tara thought back, still impressed that her brother could remember anything at all; she hadn't yet begun middle school when her family had lived in Delaware, so Donny couldn't have been more than five or six. "I remember the yard, too," she admitted. "There was a sandbox, I'm pretty sure."
"Yeah. There were flowers on the side opposite the fence, too," Donny continued, "I remember because Gram hid maple sugar candies in there when I broke my arm."
A memory of Donny in a clunky, off-white cast percolated up to the surface of Tara's thoughts. He'd fallen from a tree while trying to imitate a stunt he'd seen in a cartoon, and he'd come to her for help when he wanted to draw, because he couldn't hold anything with his dominant hand due to the cast. She remembered how distressed he'd been when it had come time for the doctor to remove the cast with a special saw, and then again when he'd realized that he couldn't yet move his arm once the cast had come off.
"I remember that, too," she said. Tara smiled, both at the memory, and at the fact that Donny was sharing it. He'd become so closed off since their mother's death that Tara now cherished rare moments like these, when Donny willingly engaged her in conversation. Every word seemed precious, so it was with great reluctance that she continued, "but you've got to get up, now. Hop in the shower, and I'll go get some breakfast heated up, okay?" She patted his shoulder twice, then stood so he could get out of bed.
Tara plodded out to the common room, stooping to gather up the afghan she'd used as a blanket, folding it neatly into quarters, and draping it over the back of the sofa. When she heard Donny start the shower, she went to the kitchen and spun the dial on the oven to reheat the bacon and sausage left over from the earlier meal, then grabbed the frying pan from the dish rack. While waiting for a pad of butter to melt, she opened the fridge to take out a carton of orange juice, and smiled at Willow's note, which was stuck to the door with a magnet. There was something about the goofy smiley face that filled Tara with a comforting warmth whenever she saw it, so she'd decided to hang it up where she would see it every time she entered the room.
Not for the first time, Tara thought about the pretty redhead she'd singled out from the group, the previous day. Willow. It was a strange name, yet somehow fitting. Before she could censor the thought, an image of the girl there in the kitchen with her flickered across Tara's mind. Willow would stand right behind her, peeking around her shoulder while Tara flipped pancakes in the pan. With her hands resting on Tara's hips, she would nuzzle up against the soft hairs on the back of her neck; Tara could almost feel the movement of the girl's lips, teasing her about the funny shapes of the deformed pancakes, which Tara could never get to come out circular. Frowning down at the misshapen cakes, Tara sighed. At least one part of the image was accurate.
It was a different Donny who entered the kitchen minutes later. The tips of his hair still glistening from his shower, the boy wore a pair of black jeans and a black tee shirt with what Tara thought might be the name of a band emblazoned across the front. He'd thrown on a dark red overshirt, the one concession he was willing to make for colors to enter his wardrobe. His clothing hung loosely on his frame; Tara thought he'd lost a fair bit of weight over the last several years, due in part to decreased appetite, but also because he'd taken to jogging the trails that had run through the woods behind the house in Snow Hill. Donny was no longer the chubby, smiling child Tara recalled from all those years ago.
He accepted the plate Tara offered with a muttered, "Thanks," and dug in, his body language conveying what words did not: Donny was not interested in continuing their earlier conversation. Tara no longer questioned the reasons behind his sudden mood shifts; she just wished she could do something to see him happy more often.
"I'm working until three, today, then stopping by the grocery store," she mentioned. "Papa's going to be late tonight, so we're on our own for supper. Is there anything you'd like to do, this evening?"
Donny hardly looked up from his plate. "Nah, not really," he answered.
"I'm kind of itching to get out of the apartment," Tara admitted. "We could go to the movies? Or walk around campus?"
Her brother shrugged, noncommittally. "Yeah, maybe."
"Want me to walk you to the bus stop?"
"Uh, no thanks. I'm fine."
Seeing that the conversation wasn't getting off the ground, Tara figured it was best to stop pushing. "I'm going to go get ready for work, then. Have a good day at school, and I'll see you this evening," she said, stepping out of the kitchen, and leaving Donny to finish his breakfast in the silence he desired.
Alone in the bathroom, Tara examined herself in the mirror. She didn't look as bad as she felt; a little tired, perhaps, but not quite the walking dead she had imagined. Her hair was mildly frazzled from the constant tossing and turning, so she worked a brush through the tangles while she waited for the water to heat up. It didn't take but a few seconds; a minute later she was undressed and standing motionless beneath the spray, luxuriating in the recuperating feelings of the hot water washing the restless night from her aching body. Maybe she'd go swimming, she thought, if Donny didn't want to do anything in the evening; the apartment complex had a pool, she was fairly sure they were open until Labor Day, which was a couple days away, and the evenings were still very warm.
Donny had left by the time Tara was done in the bathroom, and a quick check of the clock indicated she had twenty minutes before she needed to leave for the short walk to the diner. She took her time dressing, and even bothered to put on a little makeup; this was something she normally wouldn't have bothered with, but she was worried she might look more tired than she realized. And besides, today was different. Today, Tara decided, she was going to do her best to make a friend.
"Okay, so you understand I have absolutely no idea what this means," Buffy said, cell phone in hand, as the two girls walked down the paved path that cut across a large expanse of grass to meet up with the sidewalk of the main strip. She slowed to a halt, and turned to show Willow the phone.
Willow, who had long since stopped following Buffy's idle chatter about the infuriating quirkiness of her new roommate, and had instead been determining the best route between the diner and the two remaining bookstores the girls needed to visit, walked directly into her friend's outstretched hand, jarring the phone loose. It clattered to the pavement.
"Oh! Sorry," she gushed, kneeling to pick up and phone and examining it for any signs of permanent damage, "kind of spaced out there for a minute."
"Willow Rosenberg!" Buffy exclaimed in mock amazement, her attention focused on something off to the side of the path. "Were you gawking at hot college boys?!"
Buffy gasped, spinning on her friend. "You were! You were checking out the hotties! Go, Will!"
Willow finally spotted what had set Buffy off: a trio of tanned and shirtless young men were tossing a Frisbee around on the grass, displaying their athletic prowess to the entirety of the Route One traffic.
"N-no. It was gawkless!" she sputtered. "Entirely gawk-free, here. Ew. This was a no gawking zone."
"Ew? You did not just 'ew' that." Buffy whistled appreciatively at the chiseled bodies of the students who, realizing they had a captive audience, began attempting increasingly spectacular catches-around the back, no-look, between the legs-although Willow noticed these failed more often than not.
"Uh, here," Willow offered the phone back to Buffy, and the blonde tore her gaze away from the boys. "I think it's fine."
"Oh, right. So what is this all about? Some kind of secret code?" Buffy asked, pulling up a text message on the display. Willow squinted at the screen, and held her hand above the phone to block out the light. It read: 'spill frog reed oboe.'
"I had this crazy dream, last night," Willow explained. "It started out at the diner. Oz and I were eating breakfast, and it was raining really hard outside." The girls continued walking as Willow tried to fill in the gaps between the pieces of her dream represented in the message. "I think maybe there was flooding. I accidentally knocked over my glass, just like that waiter did; it poured all over Oz's lap, and I could tell he was really angry, but he wouldn't say anything about it when I apologized. So then that waitress came over, you know, Tara?"
Buffy shook her head. "Who?"
"There was a waitress who came over to help clean up the spill. Not in the dream. Well, in the dream, too, but I meant for real. Her nametag said Tara. She was really nice. You don't remember?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess not. Sorry, I mostly just remember wanting to strangle Dawn."
"So, anyway, in the dream, she came over with a towel, but not one of those little white ones, it was more like a big ol' fluffy blue one. She was very apologetic, which seems weird now, since I was the one who knocked over the water, but it made sense in the dream, somehow. Then she started toweling off my hair, and Oz was saying something, but I couldn't hear it exactly through the towel, but I think maybe he was ordering food, or asking about the menu, because when the towel was pulled away, Tara said something about frogs' legs being available only in the diners in northwest Greece."
"Okaaaayy," Buffy chuckled, when Willow paused to take another breath. "How does the oboe fit into all of this?"
"Well, see, the rain outside had reached the windows. Um, because I guess it couldn't just come in the door. It was spilling in through a couple open ones, and suddenly the pressure burst them all, and the room started filling up with water really fast. Oz grabbed my hand and started swimming, but he's not such a great swimmer. Really, but in the dream too. I tried to tell him that we had to bring Tara, because she had the towel, and knew where to go in Greece, which of course is silly since the diner's not in Greece. But anyway, the whole talking underwater thing didn't really work. Oz started sinking, and was pulling me deeper with him, and I couldn't swim well with my shoes on, but I couldn't unlace them with just the one hand. I tried to kick up toward the surface, but couldn't with the extra weight."
"Yuck. Water dreams can be really freaky," Buffy commented. The girls had reached the road, but neither moved toward the crosswalk. Buffy rolled back on her heels, waiting for Willow to continue her story.
"Oz's hand started to slip. I remember being so scared, and thinking that I was going to drown, too, if I didn't get air soon. I could see under the water, but it was kind of slimy and green, and got much darker below. I tried to wrench my hand free, and when his grip weakened he plunged down into the darker water, then there were these air bubbles from where he'd disappeared, and then there were lots of tadpoles."
"Tadpoles?" Buffy echoed, her expression shifting from concern to confusion.
"Thousands of them, all swimming up from underneath in this underwater cyclone. I guess I must have swum to the surface, because I remember pulling myself out of the water with these reeds, which looked kind of like bamboo. The tadpoles had become frogs, and they were all over the surface, like one solid sheet of frog. I started to panic-"
"Because of Oz?"
"-because of the frogs. I started to panic, and dragged myself out of the water, but my feet wouldn't work too well, so I sort of crawled away from the marsh a ways. I was watching this line of reeds, expecting the frogs to start pouring out any second, but they didn't come. A breeze picked up and started whistling through the reeds."
"Like an oboe?" Buffy nudged, still curious about the last word of the message.
"I guess so," Willow concluded. "Next thing I knew, I was in a woodwind ensemble, and the director was singling me out for a solo, but the reed in my oboe was split, and it sounded horrible. Luckily, that's when Cordelia decided to show up."
Totally baffled by this point, Buffy hazarded a guess. "She was in the audience?"
"Oh, no, I mean she actually showed up at the dorm room. Maybe for a second in the dream, because she seemed really tall, but it's just because I was on the floor, and she had a towel, too, which was sort of eerie. And look, there she is, now." Willow pointed out her roommate, who stood among a small group of bikini-clad girls in the parking lot off to the side of the Book Exchange. Cordelia was holding up a sign that read 'Car Wash! $10' underneath a drawing of what looked like a croissant with three triangles printed upon it. She spotted Willow across the street and waved her over. The girls waited for a break in traffic, then darted across the road.
"Hey, Cordelia," Willow greeted the brunette, before formally introducing the two. "This is my best friend, Buffy Summers. Buffy, Cordelia Chase, my roommate."
"Nice to meet you," Buffy smiled, extending her hand, which Cordelia shook briefly.
Cordelia passed the sign off to one of the other sisters, so that she could step aside with her visitors. "How's the book shopping?" she asked, leaning down to wipe some suds off of her sandaled feet.
"Oh, it's great!" Willow replied a bit too excitedly. "We went to the Book Center first, and got some of the obscure ones out of the way. I got this book on graph theory-"
"-which she's not even taking," Buffy commented.
"But it looks so neat!" Willow fished the book out of a yellow plastic bag eagerly, and flipped through the pages. "We're going to the Exchange now, then trying Bookholders for anything we can't find here. And we're stopping by Plato's for lunch, afterward, if you'd like to join us. Uh, but you'd probably need, um," Willow took in Cordelia's skimpy yellow two-piece, "uh, shoes. I don't think they allow flip-flops."
"Thanks, I'm going to stay here, though; the car wash is going really well, and I want to make a good impression on the sisters. I don't even know when I'm going to get my book shopping done; I still haven't brought my stuff from home for the dorm room," Cordelia explained for Buffy's sake, "there's just so much going on. I didn't realize college would be so busy before the classes even started."
"I know!" Willow piped in. "Isn't it exciting? Back in High School, it being interested and informed about things was like this black mark on your reputation. But here, it's inescapable. Look, I've got twelve different fliers, already!" She spread the papers out in front of her, forming a colorful fan. "Huh. 'Female Mud Wrestling?' How'd that get in there?" She shifted one of the fliers to the bottom of the stack.
"You know," Buffy offered, "if you're worried about book shopping, maybe Will and I could pick some of your books up for you? I mean, we're already bookward."
"Wow, really? That would actually be really nice-oh, shoot, no. I don't have my purse down here."
"That's okay," Willow said hastily, "we can cover it, and you can just pay us back when we get back to the room. Just, uh, here," she handed Cordelia the mud wrestling flier and produced a mechanical pencil from one of the bags. "If you write down your classes, we can look up the textbooks at the store."
"This is really cool of you guys. Thanks so much." Cordelia jotted down a few class codes on the page. "I'm not sure what the code is for this Education class, but it's something like the development of social institutions."
"Oh, EDHD230: Human Development and Societal Institutions," Willow nodded. Both of the girls stared at her, dumbfounded.
"Will," Buffy said slowly, "tell me you didn't memorize the course catalog."
Willow rolled her eyes. "Buffy, that's one of your classes." She jabbed a finger at the class schedule Buffy had printed out. "See? Tuesdays and Thursdays, eleven to twelve fifteen."
"I think that's my section, too," Cordelia said. "Boy, that'll be nice, actually knowing somebody in one of my classes. I went to this tiny little high school where everyone knew everyone; it seems way too easy to get lost in the crowd, here. And, well, lost on the campus, too."
"Tell me about it," Buffy agreed. "If Willow wasn't leading me around, being her planned and organized self, I'd probably still be standing in the wrong line at the Book Center."
"That line was for the coffee bar, and I don't believe you were there by accident," Willow grumbled at the memory.
"Well, you seemed to have everything under control," Buffy defended herself. "But you have been a total life saver?" She withered under Willow's dissatisfied glower. "Um, I'll carry your books?"
"Deal!" Willow brightened, handing off her bags. The two girls bade farewell to Cordelia and headed across the lot to the Book Exchange, and Cordelia returned to the Tri Delta sisters, who were snickering at the departing redhead.
"Cordy, is your friend colorblind? Her outfit is a disaster," teased Harmony.
Cordelia glanced back at Willow's horribly clashing attire. "Yeah," she admitted, then shrugged and turned to look the girl square in the eye. "But she's really nice. So what's it matter?"