The dorm room looked the same. The students looked the same for the most part. The school itself looked the same. But somehow Dakota Ferrin felt different. She felt stronger, faster, and happier than even before. Whatever it was, it felt good to be back at school. Felt good to be back in the comfort of the huge cafeteria hall, comfy, squishy beds and presence of good friends. It felt good to be home.
Home. That was one word she never thought she would use to describe Highland University, or even the small town it was named for. She once thought it was cold, unfeeling and dull. But that was only because she had moved to the tiny town because of her father's military career, and forced to leave behind her friends and memories from Houston, Texas. Now, she felt its warmth envelop her, draw her in till she never wanted to leave again.
The pain of hunger suddenly struck her stomach. Dakota stood up from her bed and moved tiredly toward the door. It felt good to be back, for sure, but partying in Minneapolis with her cousin had left her craving a good night's sleep. As she stepped into the hallway, she heard the voices of the girls and guys in the other dorms in her wing and smiled to herself. Everything was normal.
Things had been anything but normal at home. She had spent the day before coming home at home with her parents, listening to their constant bickering. Half the time, they forgot their qualms with each other and teamed up to lecture Dakota about school. She was never good enough for them. Her father was a high-ranking officer in the Air Force, and her mother had been in the Army when she was younger. They both put so much pressure on Dakota to do well, and to make things worse, they weren't the most supportive about her musical aspirations. Her future goal was to sing somewhere; she didn't care where, and she didn't care what she was singing, just as long as she was singing and she wasn't in Highland, Minnesota. Both of her parents were also stars athletes in their high schools, and they wished that she would participate in sports more. Just to please them, she had joined the soccer team at Highland, but she hated every minute of it. But her parents were fighting more and more lately, and Dakota was afraid that it was going to end in their divorce.
She stopped thinking about things that would depress her, remembering that she was supposed to be happy. She was home, and soon she would see her friends' smiling faces. On the stairs up to the second floor, a few of her friends stopped Dakota to ask politely about her winter break. She didn't really mind, but sometimes these girls could be so vapid that she needed someone to have intelligent conversation.
When Dakota had first come to Highland in sixth grade, she had felt so out of place when everyone else knew each other already. She had been the only new student that year, including the elementary school, the middle school and the high school which were combined, and the university. But as time went by, she got more and more friends, and now she was one of those girls on campus whose name everyone knows. Dakota and her best friend, Ryan Ryder, had tried to get a dorm for this year together, but the system had switched from sign-up assignments to random computer picking. So the girls had gotten rooms in two different residence halls. Dakota's new roommate for the year was Claire Duncan, whom Dakota loathed. Claire was the second-in-command to the most popular girl in their age group in Highland. Claire was a music performance major, just like Dakota, but unlike Dakota, Claire was a slacker and never wanted to do anything. Dakota was a music major because she loved it, but Claire liked to sing and couldn't think of anything else to major in. Dakota was a soprano in the school's concert choir and an alto in a women's trio that she had put together. She was also in the jazz choir as an extra-curricular.
Dakota walked to the end of the hallway to the skywalk. Skywalks connected almost every building on campus, including all of the residence halls, the library and the cafeteria. She emerged in the campus life building and took the stairs downstairs to the cafeteria. She grabbed a tray and fell into line to receive food. The cafeteria food wasn't the best, but top of the line gourmet wasn't to be expected in a place that fed about eight hundred people at each meal. Today, however, was a special day. The day before classes officially started again was always a celebration for friends being back together again. For that reason, and that reason only, the school had spared some of their money for a Chinese feast in the cafeteria. So Dakota picked up the sweet and sour chicken and placed it on her black plastic tray. She continued sliding it down the metal ledge, piling her tray with an order of white rice, three containers of sweet and sour sauce, a Diet Coke with lime, two crab rangoons and chopsticks. And just to be at least a little healthy, she grabbed an apple before finally checking out, charging her account several bucks.
Dakota had to maintain at least some balance in her diet. Everyone made a big deal about her appearance, so she didn't want to become the butt of everyone's mean-spirited jokes. She kept her chestnut cropped and layered to her collarbone, and her gray eyes were the feature of her face. Of course, she wasn't vain, so she resented her supposed beauty, because some people thought she wasn't smart or talented just because she was pretty.
She looked around the huge dining hall. Several tables looked up hopefully, wanting her to join them. She finally spotted Emma, one of her newest friends. Emma wasn't really a perfect friend, but she was one of Dakota's best friend's girlfriend, and no matter what, she needed to keep that relationship stable.
"Hey Emma!" Dakota called from beyond the crowd. "I'm coming over there, save me a seat!"
As she struggled to push her way through the crowd milling about, she glanced down to make sure she didn't trip and she felt her tray start to tilt as she ran into someone. She glanced up sharply, struggling to maintain balance with her tray so nothing would fall off, when she saw the person she'd run into.
"Watch where you're going, princess," the girl stated flatly, eyes piercing straight through Dakota.
"I'm so sorry, I'm just trying to get to my friend's table—"
The girl's ice blue eyes flashed. "Tell it to someone who cares. Because that's not me."
And with that, the girl with long raven black hair continued on her way without so much as a glance. Dakota stared after her in utter confusion, wondering what she had ever done to deserve that. It was rare to run into someone whose name she didn't run into, but it wasn't impossible since it had just happened.
As she continued to Emma's table, Emma glanced up and gave her a quick smile. "What took you so long?"
Dakota motioned over her shoulder as she sat her tray on the table. "That girl with the long, black hair? I accidentally ran into her and she started bitching me out for no reason."
Emma's gaze followed Dakota's hand. "That bitch. That's Kaitlyn Harris. You're not alone; she hates me, too, and I hate her right back."
Dakota stared down at her food. "You know what? I suddenly lost my appetite. I'll catch you later, okay?" She stormed away, dumping her uneaten meal into the gleaming silver trash can on her way out.
After coming out of the cafeteria, Dakota stomped around a little, finally settling into the library. The Highland library was a huge, two-story room that contained the school's collection of books, ranging from the classics like The Call of the Wild to mainstream kids' novels like the Harry Potter series. A balcony ran along all four walls overlooking the rest of the room. In the middle was a grand hearth that burned twenty-four/seven.
Dakota glanced around. Many kids were catching up with their friends after coming back from a long winter break. Not seeing any of her friends, she climbed one of the metal spiral staircases up to the balcony and plopped into one of the comfortable armchairs placed in groups around the library. The other noises seemed to disappear as she closed her eyes and relaxed.
"Hello, Dakota," a voice called.
Dakota lifted her head and opened her eyes slowly. Victoria Green, the queen bee of the college crowd in Highland, stood in front of her, tapping her foot impatiently. Standing up, Dakota fluffed out her hair and straightened her shirt before looking Victoria straight in the eye, challenging Victoria to mess with her.
"Good evening, Victoria," she replied. "How was your winter break?"
Victoria rolled her eyes. "Cut the crap, Ferrin. Just get out of my way." With that, she brushed by Dakota and sank delicately into the chair that Dakota had been occupying just moment before. "You can go now," she added with a sneer.
Dakota gazed at Victoria, her tiny hands balling up into fists. Cool it, Dakota, she told herself. Don't lower yourself to her level. She drew in a deep breath, counted to ten, and let it out before striding away and out of the library. All the way back to her dorm building through the skywalks, Dakota breathed hot air into her hands, avoiding the stares of others.
Back in her dorm room, she let out a frustrated growl. This was so not how she planned for her first night back to go. She pulled her light blue terrycloth robe out of the top drawer of her dresser in the dusky light that streamed through the window and went into the bathroom, locking the door behind her so Claire wouldn't walk in on her.
She sat on the toilet next to the tub and leaned over to plug the drain before running the steamy hot bath water. While the tub filled, she took off her traveling clothes, tossing them into a pile next to the door. Stopping the water, she retrieved the bottle of bubble bath tablets and dropped a few tablets into the tub before gently easing herself in, sliding all the way down until her face was the only thing visible above the bubbles. Lowering her ears into the water, she immediately relaxed; being able to hear her own thoughts did that to her. She loved to just lie underwater, completely blocked off from the rest of the world.
After bathing and washing her hair, she unplugged the drain, letting the dirty water swirl around her toes on the way out. Sighing, she quickly grabbed one of the fluffy towels on the shelf and toweled off before slipping into her camisole and pajama pants. As usual, she took the time to blow her hair out straight before she went to bed; it wouldn't look as bad in the morning because of it.
Sitting in the computer chair, she quickly logged on to check her messages. Seeing that she had none, she turned the computer back off and yawned. It had been a long day: saying goodbye to her parents while they were bickering and having run-ins with both Kaitlyn and Victoria. Forgetting that Claire still wasn't back, she padded to the door and locked it before going to her bed with every intention of going to sleep. But as she sat down, she spotted a small white envelope on her nightstand, so she picked it up and ripped it open. Taking the paper out and unfolding it, she gasped as she read the message aloud.
MEET ME IN THE CAFÉ
No signature, no stamp…nothing. Growling, Dakota walked to her closet and flicked through it to find something warm to wear on her trek to the café. "This had better be good," she muttered to herself.