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Authors: Christine Riccio

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BOOK: Again, but Better
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2. Make a Change

I didn’t find sleep, but I did find the taxi line outside the airport, so here’s to that. Now, London hurtles by my window as we barrel down the wrong side of the road en route to my new home, the Karlston.

According to the
So You’re Going to Study Abroad
pamphlet I reread five hundred times: Once off the plane, I was to collect my bag from baggage claim, find a buddy from
my flight who’s also headed to the Karlston, and share a taxi with them. Unfortunately, I’m allergic to
finding a buddy.
I’ve failed this task on countless occasions. At the baggage carousel, I determinedly positioned myself close to a college-age girl in a blue peacoat—and then stood there for five minutes trying to stifle the current of self-doubt cycling through me as I mentally rehearsed what
I would say. Some variation of:
Hi! Are you headed to the Karlston? Hi! I’m headed to the Karlston. Hi! Me, you, Karlston?
Before I worked up the nerve to open my mouth, her suitcase came out onto the conveyor belt. I watched as she tracked it around the carousel with her eyes. And I watched in silence as she pulled it off and wandered away.

So, I’m alone in this taxi with no one to split the
fifty-pound fee. I’m going to count that as my outgoing dress rehearsal. Once I get to the Karlston, I’m talking to new people. I’m starting conversations.

Outside the window, we’re passing store after store that I’ve never heard of. Different. Already everything’s so different, and I can’t help but feel the distance. I’m 3,450 miles away from everyone I know.

Yesterday, my parents watched with
solemn expressions as I walked away from them toward airport security. It made me feel like I was going away to war or something.

Out of habit, I reach into my bag and grab my cell to check for messages. It’s dead. I let it fall back in. It was doomed to become a useless brick while in England anyway. My LG Voyager isn’t new enough to support international calling. According to
So You’re Going
to Study Abroad,
I’m to buy a cheap plastic one like the fugitives do on TV.

The taxi rolls to a stop on a street lined on both sides with pretty, white, sophisticated-looking buildings with columns. Fancy. I drag my bags up four steps and into the one labeled

Inside is a quaint lobby with burgundy carpeting. To the left is a typical curved lobby-style desk, and to the right is
a little table with two people sitting behind it: a pale blond woman in her thirties and a balding black man in his fifties. They introduce themselves as the London program heads, Agatha and William. Agatha gives me my apartment keys. I’m in Flat Three, Room C. William directs me to a door on the left, past the desk, so that’s what I waddle toward with my luggage.

I pull open said door to find
stairs. I’m at the top of a carpeted stairway leading into the basement. Am I going to live in the basement? I heave in a breath.

This is fine. You’re doing it. College, take two. Don’t blow it

I have three bags: a book bag, a carry-on, and a giant black suitcase. I secure the book bag high on my shoulder, grasp the carry-on in my front hand, and prepare to drag the giant suitcase behind me.

I take a single step down before something snags behind me. I fly forward.

“Shit!” I sacrifice the carry-on and lunge for the handrail, holding on for dear life as my bag continues on without me. It comes to a thundering stop at the bottom of the twenty or so steps. After a moment, I push against the wooden beam, back into an upright position.

I turn to see my puffy winter jacket snagged on
rail at the top of the
staircase. Way to almost die before you’ve even made it to the room. Leo’s voice echoes in my head:
Can you do anything without causing a scene?

With a huff, I pry myself free and slowly thump the rest of the way down with my remaining luggage. I sidestep the fallen carry-on and assess the area at the foot of the stairs. There’s a hallway to my right, to my left, and behind
me, parallel to the staircase.

“Are you okay?” a voice calls from above. I spin to find a curvy girl with dark skin and bright hazel-brown eyes standing in a bold green peacoat at the top of the landing.

Why does everyone have fashionable coats? Are peacoats a thing? She’s wearing a white beret over her shoulder-length dark hair that flips out at the ends like a girl from the sixties. She looks
so put together and sophisticated, and not at all like she just got off a plane.

I feel the sleep deprivation as I struggle for a moment to answer her. “Um, yeah, I’m fine.”

Beret Girl starts down the staircase with her giant red piece of luggage.

“I just … I tripped, and my carry-on fell…” I mumble.
Don’t mumble.

“I thought maybe you had fallen. The noises were epic!”

My cheeks get hot.
I clear my throat. “Cool … um, I’m fine, though. No worries!” I pick the carry-on up off the floor and start down the hallway parallel to the staircase.

“Where are you headed?” the girl asks, now dismounting from the last step. I turn around again.

“I’m in Flat Three, Room C. I’m taking a wild guess that it’s this way, maybe?”

“Oh my goodness, no way, me too!” She shoots me a giant grin. I
feel my own smile perk up.

At the end of the hall, we find ourselves between two light wooden doors: 3B is to our left and 3C is to our right.

I twist my key in the 3C lock. With a bit of pressure, it swings open, thumping lightly against the wall. My eyes dart around, surveying the space. We’re on the long wall of a rectangular room with gray carpeting. There are three windowless walls, two
of which have bunk beds pushed up
against them. There’s a bunk bed directly across from where I’m standing and another to the left of the doorway. Four portable, light brown, cupboard-like closets have been smooshed against the walls wherever space allows. The third wall is outfitted with a full-length mirror and a door to the bathroom. The fourth wall is a window. Well, it’s not a full-on glass
wall. It’s about 40 percent wall and 60 percent giant window. The blinds are currently closed and a kitchen-sized table sits in front of it. We drag our things in and let the door click shut behind us.

“I love it,” Beret Girl exclaims, forgetting her bags by the door and moving past me toward the lower bunk. “My name’s on this one!” She holds up a blue folder she swiped off the bed.

I move my
bags against the wall and walk over to look at the folder on the other bottom bunk. Not me. I hop up on the ladder to look at the folder on the top bunk. No name up here. I must be the bed above Beret Girl.
Exchange names, Shane

I turn from my perch on the ladder of the second bunk. “Hey, I’m Shane, by the way!”

The girl looks up from the floor where she’s already unloading clothes into one
of the two giant drawers under the first bunk. “I’m Babe!”

“Babe like the pig in that movie with the talking farm animals?”

Babe looks up, still smiling. “I love that pig.”

I jump off the second bunk and climb to the top of the first. This blue folder has a little name tag that reads:
. The bed’s already made up with sheets and a plain black comforter. Enticing. Too bad it’s
only 11:00 a.m.

I hop off the ladder. I guess I should unpack. I grab my book bag from the floor and fish out my laptop, setting it up on the table near the window.

“Babe?” I ask hesitantly. My MacBook emits a
as it powers up.

“Yeah?” She glances up from her suitcase.

“Do you mind if I put some music on in the background while we unpack, the Beatles or something?”

“Oh my goodness,
I love the Beatles. Yes, please!” she gushes, slapping her hands against her lap for emphasis.

“Awesome.” I turn back to my computer, pulling up iTunes. “A Hard Day’s Night” seeps from my computer speakers. I close my eyes for a second.
I’m in England!
I do a little chassé-spin dance step toward my suitcase.

I’m working on the last bits of my closet. Roommate #3 has arrived, and she’s intimidatingly
tall. We’re thinking there is no Roommate #4 because that bed’s lacking a blue folder. The empty bunk’s about to become a storage area for our many pieces of luggage. Babe’s finished unpacking. She’s lounging with her laptop. The wall near her bed is now decorated with various Mickey Mouse–related snippets and pictures, including a magazine cut out of the phrase
in the flouncy Disney font.

Roommate #3, Sahra—pronounced Say-ruh—is still unpacking. She has these big dark eyes and tanned skin. Every time she looks over at Babe and me, her straight, shoulder-length, dark brown locks swish out around her face like she’s in a hair commercial. I’m already kind of jealous of her effortlessly cool style. She’s currently sporting fashion-y heeled booties with
gray skinny jeans and a stylish, oversize cream sweater.

Sahra is prelaw, and hoping to Skype her boyfriend before bed later. There’s already a picture of the two of them tacked up on her wall. After initial introductions and a brief conversation, the three of us fell into a comfortable silence as we emptied our belongings into the provided cupboards.

I hang my last sweater in my now-crowded
closet and close the door. We’re expected to be upstairs for orientation at 12:30, which is in approximately thirty minutes. I change into a cute white shirt and black jeans, walk through a perfume mist, brush my teeth, revitalize my curly, wave-ridden blond hair, and spruce up the makeup I did yesterday morning, East Coast time. I’m too tired to calculate how many hours ago that was. I pull the
thick rubber bracelet I got for Christmas from my toiletry bag and tug it onto my wrist. I’ve worn it everywhere since, and I felt a little naked without it on the plane. It’s black with neon-green numbers (
4 8 15 16 23 42
) etched into it. It’s a
is the best TV show of all time. Carry
ing a physical piece of it on my wrist gives me a weird thrill. I want people in the world to
ask me about it, so I can spread the
love to all the unknowing noobs. I took it off for the flight because it felt taboo to wear it up in the air, since the whole show revolves around a plane crash.

I step in front of the full-length mirror one last time to inspect my appearance. My sometimes-blue eyes flash ice gray today, and my hair hangs in a poofy blob to my mid-back. I was a vampire
shade of gray while unpacking, but a light dusting of bronzer has brought me back to a living human skin tone.

My laptop (he goes by Sawyer) is still on the table, playing music. The blinds are shut tight across the giant window. I stride across the room and turn to look at Sahra as my fingers close around the skinny, plastic blind-opener stick. She’s cramming what appears to be her five hundredth
black dress into her closet.
Talk to them like you’re already friends.

I speak a little louder than necessary to ensure that both girls hear. “Guys, I wonder what our view is like in the basement. What even is this window?”

Babe leans out of the bunk to smile at me. “Right? Probably to give the illusion that we don’t live in a dungeon.”

Sahra shoves her closet closed and drops onto her bed.
“Open it,” she demands with a conservative smile.

“Okay.” I twist the plastic thingy. The blinds open to reveal a courtyard. Well, courtyard is a generous word. A laugh bubbles out of me.

“Ha.” Sahra grins for a moment before opening her laptop.

Outside the window is about ten feet of concrete sidewalk and then there’s another wall with a giant window. The second window provides an incredibly
clear view into a kitchen. Maybe that’s our kitchen. This apartment—flat, British people call apartments
—is supposed to have a shared kitchen. It would appear the kitchen has a window that peers right into our bedroom.

We have these blinds here for privacy, though, so I guess this is pretty cool. It’s kind of like we have a spy window into the kitchen. What a weird architectural decision.
Who puts a giant window wall in a basement flat that looks into the shared kitchen—

A boy.

There’s a boy in the kitchen. A boy right up at the window facing me. How did I not see him immediately? He’s washing dishes with a big, fluffy, yellow sponge. The sink must be right there up against the window.

He’s a cute boy. A cute boy doing dishes. Is there anything more attractive than a boy doing
dishes? I’m totally staring, and after a few moments, he looks up. We make eye contact through the kitchen window across the ten feet of concrete and back through my window, and he smiles at me. I explode.

Not literally. But you know that feeling like light being circulated through your veins when you see someone cute, and all of a sudden you explode all over with the thrill of said cute person
noticing and acknowledging your existence as a human with whom they could potentially fall into a relationship?

I can’t help it. My brain jumps right to:

GOAL 3) Kiss a boy you like.

I smile back at him and then look away so as not to appear to be a weird statue that stares at him. How do I meet this boy? Instinct says to retreat to my computer and hope I run into him later today.

I steal
another glance his way. There’s a dark-haired boy I can’t see very well in there with him, sitting on a black leather couch on the other side of the room.

Maybe I can play it like I’m going to check out the kitchen? But I don’t want to go over there alone. I might forget words and need someone to fill the empty air. I think my heart is palpitating. I turn back to Sahra and Babe, and sag a bit
in an attempt to look chill.

“Hey, guys, anyone want to go check out the kitchen?” I ask quickly.

The last time I actively put
the moves
on a cute boy was in eighth grade. It’s what first opened the rift between the cousins and me. Before that we were pals, especially Leo and me—we’re so close in age and his family lives right
down the street. He used to come over and hide in my room whenever
he did something to upset Uncle Dan (which was a lot).

BOOK: Again, but Better
10.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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