Move-in weekend is the worst, even for those of us who know the routine. We cart in our luggage, boisterous as we complain, making it a community experience. Allison was quiet when she came, and she didn’t take the elevator like the rest of us. She hefted her bags up the stairs, alone, so quiet we didn’t pay much attention to her.
We always know when someone is changing the layout of their room, because everything they own is out in the hall. The first week before classes start is like that, only with twenty people’s stuff. We have to balance and vault over all the crap in boxes and bags. But eventually most of it is unpacked and placed strategically around the rooms, so we know exactly who you are, or at least who you want to be seen as. Allison put curtains over her window and quotes on the wall. She wanted to be seen as homey, dedicated, smart-but-not-too-smart. We accepted that, because we didn’t know what else might be left packed and hidden in the car, in the closet, under the bed.
We continue to unpack as the semester drags on — books we need to read, notebooks we need to dirty, batteries we need to replace. Sometimes we set more things up around our rooms, take things down, change up the persona on the walls. Allison was always the same, the curtains and the quotes. All the rest of her baggage stayed tucked away from the eyes of visitors.
We dread the weekly room checks, when a Cleaning Authority comes by to make sure our lives are neat and tidy, that we haven’t left our baggage out for the world to see. No one wants to see that, we say, but most of us have had at least one time where we lived too boldly and forgot to clean up afterward. We get a fine. The Cleaning Authority warns us to keep our things in their places. Allison never got a fine; her room was always precisely arranged, no matter how busy she got. We envied her at first, but eventually we moved on. Full trash cans, unmade beds, and stacks of homework are fine, we say. At least we’re having fun.
Once, we heard, Allison’s next-door neighbor Tati asked to borrow a cardigan. Tati said Allison wouldn’t let her look through the closet; she had to stand in the doorway while Allison cracked the closet door open and looked herself. Tati said she saw boxes through the crack in the door — boxes just piled in there, helter-skelter — shoved in together. Some had belts or rubber bands wrapped around them to make sure they didn’t open. Tati never got a cardigan.
Allison seemed stressed, we decided. She hardly ever smiled, and her clothes were always too smoothly ironed. Once, we asked her if she wanted to go to dinner with us. I don’t have time, she said, dark circles under her eyes, and she closed her door. We didn’t ask again.
We didn’t see Allison at all during exam week. We assumed she was studying. The hall started to smell a little funny, like it always does during exams.
We like move-out weekend better than move-in weekend because we get to repack all our baggage (though it always seems to have expanded and never fits quite the same as it did when we moved in), go home, and unpack it all again. We didn’t see Allison then either, but some of us went around the rooms to say good-bye. When we got to Allison’s room, the door was closed but unlocked. We opened it, and the room was a disaster. Boxes everywhere, especially around the closet. We couldn’t believe it. And something smelled awful.
When we came back for the new semester, we heard they found Allison under the mess. We heard she hit her head and never woke up. They took the opportunity to warn us about dangerous baggage. Keep your things put away, they said. When you leave your baggage lying around, you can hurt yourself.
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