Natalie always wanted a little sister. Kat didn’t know she was allowed to want anything – or anyone.
Kat, a shy farmgirl, arrives at her freshman dorm with a backpack, a suitcase, and her mother’s wish for Kat to attend college “at least until you get married”. Her roommate Natalie, a confident and fun-loving social butterfly, decides sight unseen that Kat will become her best friend for life. Natalie teaches Kat about college life, academics, and friendship by taking Kat under her wing…and over her knee.
Then their lives fall apart one fateful night on campus, and for the rest of the decade Kat and Natalie struggle to find their way back to each other. Their way home.
Prelude: Losing Natalie
(Kat’s apartment, present-day)
I groan at the sunlight bombarding my face, and I cover my eyes with the back of my right arm. I forgot to close the industrial-ish white blinds last night, and Mr. Sunshine has woken me bright and early. I throw back my covers, pad into the bathroom, and splash some water on my face. Might as well get up for real, I think. I was annoyed at being reduced to three-quarter time when the budget cuts rolled around four months ago, especially since I was one of the most senior salesclerks. Or sales associates. The management thinks a fancy title will camouflage our tiny paychecks. But even though the smaller pay forced me to downsize when finally getting an apartment of my own again, on days like this I appreciate the leisurely start to the day. Or what would be a leisurely start if I could remember to shut out the sun.
I trudge to the kitchen, open the fridge, and blearily search for the peanut butter before remembering that Natalie is no longer around to hide my favorite morning toast spread. Try as I might, I never could break her of the habit of refrigerating perfectly good peanut butter.
“It won’t spread when it’s cold!” I insisted.
“It melts onto your hot toast, anyway. Besides, do you want food poisoning?”
Natalie has this phobia about food poisoning. She is absolutely certain that every food must be refrigerated or else it will grow lethal germs. I tried to explain that my Jif contained approximately as many preservatives as a Botox injection, and that a germ would have to be bio-genetically engineered in order to survive in all of the chemicals found in the modern wonder known as Jif Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter. Every morning, I would complain to Natalie about my cold peanut butter and she would tell me to get over it. Does she even eat peanut butter? No. She just feels very, very strongly about food safety.
As I open a cupboard to take out my soft, easy-to-spread, room-temperature Jif, I unscrew the cap and dip my index finger in for a taste. I absent-mindedly lick the peanut butter from my finger as I pop an English muffin into the toaster, take out a plate, and find a knife to spread the peanut butter.
Waiting for the toast to pop up, I nearly drop my knife as my phone rings. I did not expect someone this early. I cross the room, knife still in hand, and pick up the receiver.
“Kat. I need the house key I gave you.” Natalie’s voice is strained. Terse.
One part of my brain notices that the toaster has finished toasting and has begun scorching. I broke my good toaster the first week after I moved in, and budget constraints forced me to find a replacement at Goodwill. This one does the job, but the pop up button almost never works. I have to manually eject the bread to finish the cycle.
“What’s wrong? Where are you?”
“At the hospital. Room 568.”
“At the hospital? But? but? why are you at?”
I stare at the receiver in my hand in complete bewilderment. Is she visiting someone? Why the urgency? I thought she was going to nag me about my appointment with Dr. Mitchell. But what is this about her house key?
I hurriedly flip the toaster switch so that the now-charred bread pops up, but I leave everything else as it is. I throw on yesterday’s clothes but skip the socks, stepping into clogs as I grab for my purse.
The drive to the hospital usually takes fewer than ten minutes, but today the roads are filled with spectators for a huge conference. I nearly scream in frustration as I inch forward only to wait at a standstill for several minutes at a time.
“Natalie? What is?” My voice ends in a small croak as I realize, too late, that I have walked in on a nurse helping Natalie use a bedpan.
“I’m sorry, I?”
The nurse turns and tries to shoo me out the door. “Ma’am, you’ll need to wait until?”
“Just put the key on the counter and go.”
My jaw drops open. “What?”
Natalie does not respond. The nurse bustles around the bed, and I reach out to put a hand on the counter. I lick my lips and allow the nurse to nicely, but bossily usher me out of the room. I stand in the hallway, reeling. Have I ever heard that tone of voice from her before? Why is she in the hospital, anyway? I thought she was visiting someone! She should have called? oh. Wait. I remember her cryptic text message from last night. I thought she was just being her usual, over-controlling self. No probation officer checked on any former prisoner as zealously as Natalie checked on me. But why had she sent a text instead of calling? Why only one? What the heck happened?
The nurse emerges, closing the door behind her. I make a move toward it, but she shakes her head at me.
“No visitors,” she warns. I disregard her, just waiting long enough for her to move out of sight before darting back into the room. I must have heard wrong.
“Natalie, what happened? Are you okay?”
She turns her back to me and does not look up.
“Natalie?” My voice no longer seems to be working properly. Are you okay? I want to ask. What’s wrong? Why didn’t you call me again?
“I said put the key on the counter,” she says in the same harsh, clipped voice. “Then go.”
I have to steady myself again by grabbing onto the counter. I hear a roaring in my ears, and my vision darkens around the edges. Not even at her most angry have I ever heard Natalie speak to me that way.
“Jason will be here tomorrow, and he needs the key. Now go.”
Jason is her brother who lives across the country and last spoke to Natalie three years ago.
“Please? do you need anything from the house? Can I bring you clean clothes? Or do you need me to water your plants?”
Blinded by the stunned rush of tears, I fumble in my pocket for my key ring. I take off Natalie’s key? my key? and set it on the counter next to her water pitcher and styrofoam cup. I stumble out the door, attracting dirty looks from a passing nurse who glances pointedly at the “no visitors” sign posted on Natalie’s door. By the time I arrive at my car, I have convinced myself that Natalie has stage four brain cancer, AIDS, leprosy, Lyme disease, and paralysis from a stroke. Jason is coming to help her with funeral arrangements, and she needs some space to deal with things. She is trying to protect me, and she is not ready yet.
Before I know it, I have pulled into the parking lot of Target. I may be barred from getting her things from home, but I will not give up. I grab a plastic red cart and make my way through the aisles. Lotion? Natalie has dry skin, and the severe air conditioning of the hospital will cause chapping. Air conditioning? she will be cold. I pick out a pashmina-style scarf to throw around her shoulders and wool socks for her feet. Then I change my mind, put the wool socks back, and find soft, fuzzy slipper-socks with non-skid rubber hearts on the bottom. They can double as slippers, at least if she is able to get up.
I head down nearly every single aisle and toss in whatever might be useful. The latest naughty novel that skyrocketed to bestseller lists and which Natalie and I have ridiculed ever since it was published. Neither of us has read it because the writing quality is reputed to be beyond bad, but perhaps it will make Natalie laugh. Even if only because she has to hide it or explain it to the nurses and her visitors. A back-up charging cord for her phone, since she must not have very much battery life left by now. Breathmints and floss because hospitals never supply those. Her favorite fudge-covered mint Oreo cookies. I tried once to forbid her from eating her crappy packaged cookies when I could make her homemade ones any time, but she swore that they were not in the same league.
“You can like apples and bananas,” she said solemnly. Still, she started hiding them from me. I would find half a package stashed beside the couch or on the top shelf of the linen closet, and each time I would give the fake cookies an offended shake before carrying them directly to the dumpster. Not even the trash can, but the Dumpster of No Return.
I hesitate for a moment, and then I add another package of Oreos to my cart.
A pre-paid phone card in case the phone charger is the wrong kind, so she can call her family without racking up the exorbitant hospital calling rates. A pocket-sized hairbrush. I struggle to think what else she might need or want.
I toss in a ballpoint pen. Panties. A travel-size bottle of Tide in case Natalie is well enough to want to wash her clothes for going home. When she is going home, not if. A full-size toothbrush, carrying case, and toothpaste. She is probably using the disposable hospital issue, and they suck.
A small word search, crossword, maze, and activity book. An oversized nylon tote bag to hold everything. And, finally, a plush little white bear with a red ribbon around its neck. Natalie never cared for stuffed animals, but sometimes lying awake alone at night in those crinkly, plasticy hospital beds is enough to make anyone want something soft to cuddle.
At the check-out counter, the total on the register screen makes me gasp. I had no idea it would cost that much, but at this point I am too impatient to care. I swipe my credit card, pull my cart of merchandise over to the food court area, and start efficiently ripping off all the price tags and stickers. I arrange everything neatly in the tote bag, return the shopping cart to its corral, and head to the car. Back to the hospital again.
?“Can I leave this for Natalie Mestecom?” I ask breathlessly as I tug at the shoulder strap of the tote. “She’s in room? um? 580. Or 508. Or five? something.”
“All of the rooms are five something. This is the fifth floor,” the charge nurse says, without looking at me.
“Can you check, please? It’s really important.”
With a sigh of irritation, the nurse scans through her computer list. “Room five six eight. Just down your hall, to the left, and around the corner.”
“Oh no, I don’t want to disturb her, just could I leave it here for her? Please?”
“We don’t usually?”
“Look, it’s open. You can check it if you want, and you’ll see it’s nothing bad.”
“My staff has enough to do without playing delivery service?”
At my tone of desperation, the nurse looks at me for the first time. I allow my eyes to fill with tears, not too proud to use every trick in the book. It never worked with Natalie, but it works now.
“Look,” the nurse says resignedly. “I can’t take a bag. What you should do is go downstairs to the in-house post office and mail it as a package. Here,” she writes on a slip of paper, “this is how you can address it to your friend’s room. Okay?”
I thank her and promise to take her advice. I hesitate by the nurses’ station for a moment more to collect myself before making a hasty exit. I duck into the ladies’ room because the tears-for-show have now made an honest woman out of me. I try to make myself laugh by picturing the stern-faced nurse poking through the package from the post office and coming across the naughty romance novel, but instead I lean against the bathroom stall door shuddering with sobs.
I do not know why Natalie has chosen to exclude me from her life, but I cannot change her mind. I cannot even know whether she will accept the gift-by-proxy.
I only know, should she choose to accept it, that I am here for her. Will always be here. If only she knew that.
Chapter One: The Roommate Agreement
(Outside Kat and Natalie’s dorm, ten years ago)
I pull on my backpack and start to heft a suitcase in each hand before Maureen reaches over to squeeze my shoulder. The twins are squabbling in the back seat whether the license plate on the car in front of us actually counts for the last “Z” in their alphabet-finding game.
“Josh wanted to be here,” she says. “It’s just that your dad?”
I nod uncomfortably. “Thanks for the ride,” I answer.
“I wish I could go in and help you get settled, but the boys have to?”
“It’s okay,” I cut her off as nicely as I can. It is a long drive back, and it was good of her to drive me here when the airport was too far away from their house to make flying worthwhile. Not that we could afford airfare, anyway. “Thank you for coming.”
?Maureen moves forward as if to give me a hug, and I flinch. She is nice as sister-in-laws go, but I have never been a hugger. She embraces me, anyway.
“We love you, Katie Beth,” she says, and she slams the trunk closed as she calls into the car, “Zach, I said STOP putting your filthy shoes on the back of the seat!” She instructs the twins to wave good-bye before she also waves and pulls out of the loading zone.
I watch her leave, hating the tears that come unbidden to my eyes. Katie Beth was what my mom called me. Sometimes my dad and more rarely my brother, but mostly it was my mom.
Around me, parents are parking full-size pick-up trucks groaning with crates, boxes, and multiple suitcases. Next to me, an entire family is loaded down with boxes as they follow a tall girl into the building. I look up at the sign over the door to make sure it is the right one. Yep, Stonesbridge. Somewhere on the second floor is room 246, my new home for the next year. All of the first-years are put into the same dorm to promote bonding or something like that.
I bend down to pick up each suitcase again and stagger into the dorm. My bags seemed enormous until I saw what everyone else was bringing. I wonder whether their parents bought out the local stores? There is actually someone bringing an entire couch! How in the world are they going to fit that into our teeny-tiny rooms?
A perky girl in a fluorescent green tee-shirt springs to my side to take one of my suitcases, ignoring my protests. “Which room?” she asks.
When I tell her that it is 246 but I can find it myself, she does not hear me over her chatter about the dining hall, library, orientation week buddies, and how very important it is to always go to the RAs with any problems. I am completely lost for an answer, but luckily in the elevator she spots a girl who looks even more lost than I am ? and who has been less successful in restraining her tears. I make my exit, taking back my suitcase, and struggle down the hallway.
Room 246 is easy to find. I go toward it thankfully, only to fall back in surprise at the doorway. A dark-haired girl is sitting on one of the beds, surrounded by matching floral suitcases and a rainbow of crates set up on one side of the room. Around the window, she has put up a fake curtain made from contact paper. On her desk sits a vase filled with poppies and encircled with a red ribbon around the neck.
I clear my throat and croak, “Are you Natalie?”
The girl drops the books she is sorting, and she springs to a standing position. Her eyes take in my suitcases before she asks, “Oh? oh! Yes. So, are you Katherine?”
“It’s Kat,” I say, trying not to blush. It is time that I lost my baby name. Katie sounds cute and perky, two things I am not.
“Kat,” the girl says agreeably. “Then I can be Nat, I guess. We can be Kat and Nat.” She steps on the braided throw rug next to her bed and adds glibly, “Kat and Nat sat on a mat and hoped there were no rats.”
I laugh, in spite of myself. I edge a bit further into the room, bumping into the door frame with one of my suitcases.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Natalie/Nat exclaims. She takes a suitcase ? what is it with people in this place and taking my suitcases? ? and pulls it into the room before setting it on my bed. The plain white mattress and box spring look institutional next to her cheerful geometric-print bedspread and throw pillows. I sort of feel as if I have intruded on someone else’s home.
Natalie seems to read my mind and looks suddenly concerned. “Do you mind that I decorated the window? I know I should have waited so we could decide together, but it looked like such a prison cell in here that I wanted to brighten things up. I can take it down, though, and?”
“No, no,” I shake my head as I struggle to put my second suitcase on my new bed and set my hiking-size backpack on what appears to be my desk. “It’s pretty.”
Natalie looks relieved, starts to open a suitcase, and then backs away. “Sorry, that’s yours,” she apologizes. “But can I help?”
I shake my head, overwhelmed. I have never met anyone as friendly as this girl, and as nice as she seems, I find myself completely at a loss as to how to respond. I wish myself safely back at Josh and Maureen’s, but Natalie has already pulled up a chair and taken out some forms.
“So Allison, that’s our RA, says we have to write up this roommate agreement and turn it in by tomorrow,” she begins to say, but she is interrupted by a man and a woman walking into the room.
“Now, Natalie, no need to boss your new roommate. Let the poor girl get settled in first,” the woman says. She reaches up to adjust a gold cross necklace, and her wrist sparkles with the kind of watch Maureen showed me in a jewelry advertisement once.
“Gold and diamond for a watch,” Maureen had marveled, shaking her head. “If I had one of those, I’d sell it and make payments on the combine.”
“Mom! I just?” Natalie protests, but she jumps up to hug both of the newcomers. “This is Kat,” she says, turning to me. “This is my mom and dad.”
“We have names, you know,” her dad says solemnly. “I’m Curtis, and this is my wife, Jane. We’re so pleased to meet you. Please excuse our daughter’s enthusiasm. Don’t let her run all over you.” He offers his hand toward me.
It’s the first time a grown-up has done that, and I blush as I shake his hand. I stammer out a “Nice to meet you” before the woman ? Natalie’s mom ? dispenses with ceremony and squashes me into a hug. I squeak a little, and I blush even more as she lets me go.
“Mo-om!” Natalie protests. “Dad! Stop embarrassing me!”
“You let us know if there’s anything you need, all right, Kat?”
Dazed, I say something that sounds like “yes” to? what do I call her? Mrs. Natalie’s mom? And why is she being so nice to me?
“All right, Natalie,” her dad says. “We’ll stop embarrassing you. Now, it’s your roommate’s turn to be embarrassed by her parents, I’m sure. Are they parking to bring the rest of your bags?” he asks me.
My face grows even hotter. I am unsure what to say, either about my bags or my parents. There is an eternal uncomfortable pause before Natalie’s mom breaks in.
“Curtis, let’s show Natalie the bike rack I found, and you can show her all the blue emergency light stations nearby. We can give Kat a little peace to get settled in. Is that okay with you, honey?” she asks me.
I nod gratefully, and she ushers her little family out the door. “We’ll be back in a bit,” Natalie calls over her shoulder.
I sit on my new bed, at a loss for words. I find myself crying for reasons I am unable to understand.
As I finish putting my jeans and tee-shirts in my dresser drawers, I hear a knock at the door. I open it and find Natalie standing in the hallway holding a vase of pink carnations with a pink ribbon around it. She holds it out to me, saying, “This is from my mom and dad. Well, it was my mom’s idea, but it is from both of them. And me, sorta. I picked out the flowers. I hope you like them.”
I am too stunned to say anything or reach for the proffered vase, and Natalie’s smile wavers the tiniest bit.
“Don’t you like them? I didn’t know what color you liked, but your shirt is pink, so I thought maybe?”
Involuntarily, I look down at my shirt to realize, in surprise, that it is indeed a cotton-candy pink. I give a little smile. “No, I like them, but are you sure they’re for me? Aren’t they for you?”
Natalie gives up on me taking the vase and instead sets it on my painfully neat and empty desk. “Here you go,” she says cheerfully. “Of course they aren’t for me, silly. I already have my own.” Before I can blush at being the recipient of her parents’ pity, she adds, “Dad says it’s to thank you for putting up with me.”
That startles a laugh out of me. “I don’t mind,” I begin, but she interrupts me.
“Mom says that she didn’t want to crowd you in your own room, so she and Dad left. She says that she’d love to have you come for Thanksgiving, if that’s okay with you. They’ll be coming to pick me up anyway, and it’s just as easy to pick up both of us as just me.”
Silenced again, I close the door. What do I say to that kind of offer? How do you respond when an entire family instantly welcomes you into their ranks? How did her mom know that Josh and Maureen could not afford extra trips and that I would be spending Thanksgiving in the dorms? How on earth had it crossed her mind in August, three months before it even came up? Why would they want a complete stranger around for a family holiday?
All these thoughts are going around in my head as Natalie pulls up a chair, takes out a pen, and picks up the papers she set down earlier.
“So, we have to discuss things about being roommates and how we’ll handle stuff? Let’s do it now and get it finished, okay?”
I nod and sit down on my newly-made bed.
“Overnight visitors,” she says, looking at the sheet. “Are you going to have any?”
I manage not to choke or laugh as I shake my head.
“Me, either,” she says briskly. “No negotiation there, then. Alcohol or drugs?”
I shake my head again. This agreement business seems kind of silly.
“Me, either,” she says again as she checks off that line. “This will be easy. No candles or smoking in our room or the dorm.”
“What about borrowing each other’s stuff? Do you think we’ll want to?”
I look at my plain side of the room almost empty of decoration, and I look at Natalie’s cheerful, brightly-colored side. I cannot imagine what I would use of hers or what I would offer in exchange.
Natalie makes a mark on the sheet. “You can use whatever of mine you want, if you want,” she says. “Just let me know so I don’t go looking for it.”
I nod politely even though I know I will never touch her property. What would I do if I broke something?
“Noise and lights out. When do you go to bed? And when do you get up?”
It had never been my decision. At Josh and Maureen’s I shared a room with the twins, and before that, well? no one had ever asked what time I wanted the lights out.
“I don’t know,” I say cautiously. “When do you go to bed?”
“Ten or eleven on school nights and later on weekends,” Natalie answers. “I don’t mind music during the daytime, but I don’t like it on after I’ve gone to bed.”
That seems more than fair. “Okay,” I say.
Natalie looks at me. “Are you sure? You’re just saying okay to everything.”
I shrug, a bit embarrassed. “I don’t have a radio or stereo,” I admit.
Natalie blushes. “I’m sorry,” she says, but I interrupt her.
“It’s okay. I don’t mind if you play music.” Natalie relaxes, and I manage a real smile. “I’ve always shared a room, so I’m used to it. And my brother never gave me flowers.”
Natalie giggles. “You had to share with your brother? That must have been awkward when you had to change clothes and stuff.”
I frown, trying to remember. That was several years ago, after all. “I think it was okay. But what else is on the list?”
I groan. The worst part about being the only girl in a family of boys is being expected to clean everything. “Do we have to?”
Natalie looks surprised at my first non-agreement. “Do you like things messy?”
“Well, not exactly, but I hate cleaning.”
Natalie looks around my side of the room, nearly bare. “It can’t be that hard, though, if everything is as neat as it is now? right? And not cleaning means you can get sick and stuff, especially when it’s hot and things get moldy.”
She sounds so sure of herself that I find myself saying, “Maybe I like mold.”
Natalie starts to answer back before she catches herself, looks at me again in surprise, and starts to laugh. “How much?”
“How much??” I give her a puzzled look.
She writes on the sheet and shows it to me. In the space next to “Cleaning” she has written, “Room will be cleaned thoroughly once a week by both of us.”
“Hey, wait,” I protest. “I didn’t agree to that.”
“It’s non-negotiable,” she says.
“I thought we were both deciding!” I exclaim. There will be no more cleaning for the rest of my life, at least if I can help it.
“I’ll be doing it, too,” Natalie says with infuriating calm. “Or you can pay the penalty.”
“The penalty?” I ask in disbelief. Mentally, I tell myself to stop repeating whatever she says, but with no success.
A little smile creeps into the corners of Natalie’s mouth, and she gazes at me directly as she says, “A spanking.”
The words hang in the air for a moment as I struggle for a response. I wait for her to laugh, or crack a smile, or to tell me that she is joking. Instead, I feebly repeat her words yet again.
“A? a? spanking?”
A firm nod.
You’ve got to be kidding, I think. I stare at her, flabbergasted.