Mae closed her laptop with an expressionless shove and dragged her feet to her bed. She stared down at the plastic mattress, only partly covered by the sheets. She stared until the concept of a bed had no meaning to her anymore— caused no stirring in the heart, evoked no sense of home– then collapsed into it. Her roommate’s absence added to the vacancy, the only plane of comfort left for Mae. She glanced at the clock, then folded further into herself. Two hours.
She waited this out without falling asleep. No, she needed the pain of wait, the aimless treadmill. Her eyes blinked between her blankets, empty still, and she refused to let any thoughts nudge their way in to entertain her. Mae had a way of fighting time. She was no warrior, but she trudged through it slowly as if nothing could hurt her, as if her dull breath could blunt every blade hurled at her.
Then an alarm, and a sudden spark in her eyes. She raised herself to a sitting position and pulled out her phone. Her fingers dialed a familiar number, committed to muscle memory after years of repetition.
“Mae?” replied her father, gruff voice concealing familial affection.
“Yeah, Dad, hi.” Mae’s eyes softened for the first time that day.
“How are you?”
“Not worse. Not better.”
“Mae, what did I tell you about specific answers?” She sat up a bit straighter.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ve been in my room all day. I got my homework done two hours ago.”
“And what have you been doing since then?”
“Nothing. I stayed here.”
“Your roommate didn’t drag you out anywhere?”
“No stupid parties.”
“None of that school spirit crap.”
“Good. Your roommate—what’s her name—”
“Anna’s not bringing any guys into your room?”
“No, Dad, don’t worry. I know what—”
“You know what I tell you all the time—”
“—I shouldn’t be dating anyone anyways. Who am I to date anyone. Who am I to try to have fun in college. That’s not who I am.”
“Yeah.” Agreement bled through silence.
“Listen, Mae, I wanted to talk to you about something. It’s good to see you finally obey me after all those years arguing over stupid ideas, but I’m still worried about you. I want you to give up on your degree and come back home where I can watch over you. I’ll find you good work.”
“You want me to… quit school?” The conviction in Mae’s eyes shook for the first time.
“Yes. Email them today.”
A foreign silence dampened the conversation.
“Yeah. Yeah, Dad, I’ll do that.”
“Copy me on the email.”
“Okay. Good. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Just as the call cut off, the door banged open and Anna entered in a slim blue dress, her impeccable hair loosened with music and alcohol.
“Hey! You should have come. You really missed out.”
“No thanks.” Mae twisted back into her bed.
“I’m just saying, you wouldn’t know until you actually started leaving the room again, Mae…” Anna sighed, eyes probing who had once been a joyful friend. Her gaze fell on a bright phone screen.
“Did you call your… Dad again?”
“I’m quitting school.”
“Dad wants me to come back home. I mean, what’s more important than family?”
“Why? You have a semester to go.” Mae wouldn’t answer, and Anna shifted her weight onto one hip, grasping at words, some different route to cut into Mae’s impossibility. They had once shared shameless secrets and stolen scandals over midnight landline calls, discussed annoyances and infatuations over milkshake. The kind of friendship one would almost mistake for romance. And now this roadblock, the air of their love condensed solid. Frozen. Ever since—
“Your, uh, dad, why does he want you home?”
“He’s going to keep an eye on me. Make sure I don’t do anything stupid.”
“You’re twenty-two and about the most careful person I know. It’s not logical that he’s worried you’d do something stupid.”
“No, he’s right.” Mae stared down into her lap, voice growing quiet.
“Look at yourself! You can’t just disappear like this, Mae—”
“You can’t just die—”
“If you’re calling him tomorrow, tell him you’re finishing your degree. Then you can go back home and deal with whatever mess you find left over.”
“Shut up. You don’t know anything. My daddy’s right, he’s always been,” Mae’s voice came out choked-up, and she raised her eyes to the window, as if to escape.
Anna, at a loss of words, struggled to find a way to talk sense into Mae, then gave up. She had attempted to do so every night for the past two weeks, but to no avail, and perhaps some part of Anna understood: the restrictive growl of Mae’s deceased father was all Mae had ever known of family.