Although I had promised my friend Mama Sue that I wouldn't visit Ashes until at least four weeks away from home, I kind of had no choice on Thursday night. Her laptop had arrived the day before, and Theo and I had worked to make sure it was fully functioning, then added her favorite writing sites. I even took out a membership to Netflix and added that to the laptop, and Theo set as a backdrop her favorite emu photo.
Then, armed with lots of beef jerky, Corb and I made the hike from Eldredge to Salem. It takes about an hour and a half on a good day, and this was a Thursday night, so it was pretty smooth sailing through Boston.
We met her at her dorm room with her new best friend, Michaela, who is in the theater department. Corb and I signed in and then set to work setting up the laptop.
The first thing I noticed when I got to her room was how messy her side of it was. Her room mates had their beds all made and everything put away. Ashes bed was unmade, and the posters on her wall had all fallen down. Her hair products were all over the floor, as well as dirty laundry.
While Corb set about setting up the computer, I worked on her posters. Then, I cleaned up her hair products. Then I picked up her dirty clothes. Then, I made her bed.
We chatted amiably with Michaela. I tried to impress her with my theater ties, like the summer I spent living with Viola Davis. She seemed pleasant enough.
"Oh, dammit." Corb looked over at me. "I deleted her Word program by accident." We spent about an hour trying to restore it, but there was a problem with the laptop, and finally decided it was best for her to go to the IT department the next day.
I think that's what set up what happened next. She asked Michaela to wait in the room while she escorted us out. And then, by the laundry room on the first floor, she totally lost it.
She just started crying uncontrollably. "I hate this place I don't have any friends Everyone is looking at me strangely They think I'm a freak I just want to go home Why did I do this I can't do this I need to go home."
I hugged her as best as I could, but suddenly a boy entered the laundry room and she tried to act all cool. Corb and I left her and went to get her a care package of Mountain Dew and Doritos, enough to last a week. Oh, and some extra money, too. I threw everything I had from my wallet into her shopping bag.
She came out to get the Care package and started bawling again. We walked to the empty parking lot so no one could see us. She wouldn't let me hold her, for fear that the other kids would see her.
"It's just so hard," she said. "And I can't cry, because my other room mates are always in the room, so I don't want anyone to see me, and..."
"But you've got good friends, Ashes."
"I have two good friends. But no boy friends. No one wants to look at me."
Ah. No boy friends. I wondered if that was part of the problem. I wondered if this was just a release.
After a while, we led her back to her dorm. She played it cool. With a serious look that said "I'm not crying that's ridiculous, how could you ever think I was crying," she left us. Only the smeared mascara around her eyes could possibly give anything away.
It was only my twentieth panic attack on the long ride home. Corb turned to me patiently and said, "Ted, she's going to be all right."
"It's just a good thing you came," I said. "It's just a good thing I hadn't parked my car near the dorm! If she had gotten near that car, she never would have gotten out. If you weren't here, she would have left with me."
"That would be the worst thing you could do."
"But she just looked so sad!"
"She will be fine, Ted."
"But how about if she can't handle this? How about if this is too much for her? How about if--"
"Ted," said Corb firmly. "She will be fine. But all this...well...driving down with the laptop. Setting up her favorite sites. Cleaning up her dorm room."
I smiled. "Buying snacks?"
"Well, that's okay. But you even logged on to her email account and printed out all of her syllabi and emails from teachers, and handed them to her in a folder! You're not giving her any space to stand on her own two feet, Ted."
I stared glumly at the highway in front of me. "I know."
"You can't keep texting and calling her, Ted. She's not going to grow that way. It's going to keep reminding her how easy it is at home, and she's not going to want to stay."
He was right. I knew that. I let him drift off to sleep as I listened to Obama's acceptance speech. We arrived home at midnight, and he crawled right back in to bed and was asleep before I could have another panic attack.
So instead, I called Josie. She had fallen asleep at eight, but had woken up at ten, as if there was something going on. It was the exact time Ashes had broken down. She just KNEW.
"She just seems so happy when I talk to her, most of the time. I can't believe she broke down like that," she said, still groggy from sleep.
"I know, it really took me aback. And I wonder if she'll even go to the IT place to get Word added on...she's so scared. Maybe if Corb hadn't deleted the program..." I started to wind down. I was tired of talking about it. "This will work itself out."
The next day, I received a text from Ashes during my annual physical. "I went to the IT place. Word's all set."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "And how were your classes today?"
"Good. I actually raised my hand in English. And when I said stuff, the teacher didn't crap all over me, like he did in the first class."
That kid does have a way with words. "That's what teacher's do, kiddo."
"So what's my NetFlix password? Carrie and I want to watch a movie."
Didn't hear from her until this morning. Corb kept a strict eye on me the night before, making sure I didn't phone or text her. This morning, though, I did text Josie, and she told me she sounded happy. And that they had captured an injured bird and brought it into her dorm room.
THAT warranted a call. "An injured bird, Ashes?"
"It just flew into my hair last night, when we were walking around, and it was really sick. Michaela slept over and our friend Eric was there, too. We brought it back to the door and made it a nest out of pads and the hair from my hairbrush."
"Okay, that's completely disgusting."
She yawned. "Now it's fine and flying around and driving me crazy. It won't stop chirping and I just want to sleep."
"Well, talk to an RA and play dumb and--"
"Oh, Michaela's texting. Gotta go!"
I hung up the phone and grinned. My little bird. Maybe she's going to be fly after all.