This was Gail. I didn’t need to reply.
She was already onto the next question. “How waas your drive? I hoped you took it easy. That’s a long way to drive by yourself. Your father left to have coffee with the men in town. You know how it is. He loves that coffee time. And how are y’all feahling today? Excited? Your classes start todaaay. Have you gotten in touch with Stone yet? He’s a big deal down there. I’m sure he’d be happy to show you the ropes, show y’all some places, maybe the best places to eat. You know.”
One, Stone was a big deal everywhere in this state.
Two, he wouldn’t be happy to show me the ropes. He loathed me more than I hated him, and that said a lot.
And three, I had a fealing my dad was sitting right next to her. He loathed going to get coffee with the men in town as much as Stone and I despised each other.
But, there was an upside to my relationship with Gail. I barely had to speak. It was mostly a one-sided dynamic, and to prove this, Gail kept right on chatting. She would exhaust herself, do both parts of our conversation so it went how she wanted it to go, and once she was happy she’d end the call.
Which is what she was doing right now.
“Stone is such a sweet boy.”
He was an arrogant prick.
“And you know, that family. They fell on hard times, too.”
His family was rich, and because he could, his dad fired mine shortly after turning their grocery store into a franchise.
“And Barb, she just looks so amazing. Her skin was glowing. She looks like she has trimmed down, too.”
Barb was haggard looking.
Stone’s mom was skinny because she smoked and drank champagne every day. Once every couple days, she’d throw in a piece of chicken, maybe a salad with that. And I knew this because we’d been their neighbors until we were forced to sell the house, and once upon a time, Stone and I had been great friends. I’d been at their house a lot growing up. All that changed once we hit puberty, of course, but Barb just kept getting skinnier and more gaunt-looking.
And people talked.
I mean, not Gail (in this circumstance.) She was almost the anti-gossiper here. She was literally spewing the opposite of what was true, but if she wanted to believe all of this, who was I to correct her? This was what she was choosing to think. So be it.
And by the end, after she was losing speed, I only murmured, “Sounds good, Gail. I should get going.”
“Oh. Okay. Have a great day, suh-weedie! Your father and I are thinking about you today. Call tonight. Let us know how Stone is when you see him.”
I wouldn’t do any of that, and she knew that. My dad knew it. And she would call tomorrow, repeating all the same until she would’ve convinced herself that I had reached out to Stone, that he and I were friends again, and she would go on thinking how amazing I was doing in Texas.
“You need a bigger meal plan.”
The lady behind the desk wasn’t getting it. Red-rimmed glasses. Just as red-rimmed lips, pursed together in a slight scowl, I could tell she’d already had her fill of new students, and it was only nine in the morning.
I pushed the paper back. “That’s all I can afford.”
Her eyes snapped back to mine, but there was no flicker of emotion. She pushed the paper right back. “You’re a junior and you have off-campus housing. That’s all fine, but since it’s your first semester, you still have to abide by incoming freshman guidelines. You need to do either the meal plan above what you picked or the next one up. You cannot pick the option where you get one meal on campus a month.”
“I live off-campus.”
“I’m aware. It’s in your file. You also were accepted late, and because of that, you’ve been put in the incoming freshman program. A daily meal plan is your only option.”
She. Did. Not. Get. It.
I leaned forward, abundantly aware of how many students behind me who were either annoyed because I was taking longer than the average two minutes allotted, or they were eavesdropping and enjoying my further humiliation. Either way, I wasn’t taking the meal plan because I couldn’t afford it.
I lowered my voice, my hands gripping my backpack straps that circled around my shoulders. “I can’t afford to go higher.”
She leaned forward, lowering her voice, too. “It’s just a semester. You can have no meal plan next semester.”
I closed my eyes, images of hitting my forehead on the counter flashing in my mind.
“I can’t afford it,” I said this through gritted teeth, my mind already flashing through my options and a whole new feeling of helplessness erupted inside of me because I knew what I’d have to do was going to hurt. A lot. More than a lot.
“You can’t be a student here if you don’t follow the rules. You can probably get through one week of classes, but the list is updated and faculty meetings happen. You’ll be called out in every single class and told to come right back here to fulfill your meal plan program. Check this box.” She did it for me and held out her hand. “And give me a form of payment, then you can be on your merry way.”
This was going to hurt. So bad.
Swallowing over a lump the size of a boulder in my throat, I reached into my purse and pulled out my wallet. I had a credit card. It was only there for emergency reasons, and I hated using credit cards. Hated it with a passion. So many bad years of debt were running through my memories, but suppressing a chill, I pulled it out and handed it over.
She took it, eyeing me. “This will go through?”
I couldn’t speak, but I dipped my head down in a nod.
“Okay.” Her lips pressed together, and she ran the card.
It went through. I heard the beep, and I closed my eyes again to dam up the tears. They couldn’t come, not again. I wouldn’t allow them to spill. And fuck. I was screwed. I’d have to get a second job just to pay off this bill, and now job hunting was being added to my list of things to do today.
“Okay.” She handed my card back, then pulled out my updated I.D. I’d already taken the picture and gave a bright and so-forced smile. “Welcome to Texas C&B.”
I snatched both, glared at her, and waited until I was at least outside the office before muttering, “Bitch,” under my breath.
“What’d you say?”
I looked up.
It was the Mean Gazelle, and seeing it was me, her eyes cooled, but the fight faded. “Never mind.” There were others with her and her boyfriend, but I didn’t recognize any of the girls. Not that I would. I only met Savannah and Lisa. You know those moments in life, the ones where you’re walking, going about your life, and suddenly a whole herd of beautiful people walk past you? They’re staring at you like you’re the zoo animal on display, or the circus freak who’s in their own unique tent. Well, that just happened, and Mean Gazelle was one of their leaders. If I had to guess, I was sure some of them had been at the house last night. One of the guys trailed behind and turned around, watching me, his mouth pursed in an odd smirk as if he were enjoying himself, as he continued walking backwards with his group.
“You survived a confrontation with Mia Catanna.”
Turning, I saw a random girl had watched the whole thing, and she came over now, adjusting her own backpack. It was slung over one of her shoulders. Blonde hair. Glasses. She was petite, and like me, she wasn’t wearing any makeup, but while some used it to highlight their beauty, this girl could’ve used it to not look like she was twelve.
“Her last name is Catanna?” For real? I grunted. “We had a Catanna Nursing Home back where I lived.”
Her lips twitched. “I’m Siobhan.”
Siobhan. Jesus. I waved. “My name doesn’t make me think of an Irish model. I’m Dusty.”
“Dusty?” Another lip twitch.
“Yep. Dusty Phillips, to be exact.”
“Gotcha. If it makes you feel better, my sisters are all named Silver, Sinead, and Shavonia.”
She laughed now. “Yeah. My mom liked cocaine during her child-birthing days. Not when she was pregnant. That was the only times she was sober, but don’t worry. No pity needed. She kicked all the habits when I was twelve, moved us to a sober/hippy camp, and I spent the rest of my formidable years eating mostly plant-based food.”
Yes. That was all I could manage at that time.
She nodded, shifting to stand closer as a group of students swarmed around us. “Need a fire started using only a paper clip and a match, and I’m the girl for you.”
“That’s good to know. Next time I go camping, I’m looking you up.”
She laughed. “You go camping a lot?”
“Yeah.” She waved that off. “That’s good because I was lying about everything.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You really don’t have a sister named Shavonia?”
“I do, actually. The names are the only thing I wasn’t lying about. My name really is Siobhan, and you’re going into the marine biology program?”
I tilted my head to the side. “You got that from me standing here?”
“No. I got that because I was three people behind you when you were in the administration building. Then I saw you leave the food office and figured I should introduce myself. I’m in the same program.” She held her hand out, and we did the formal introductions once more.