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Nothing Like Them

Nothing Like Them

Bird girl in a yellow Selkie dress, standing in front of a darkened sorority house at night

Brooke first hears about the virus from her father.

She’s in a chapter meeting when her phone buzzes in her lap. There’s a virus from China that can kill people, reads his text. Very contagious. Two cases have been found in the USA so far, one in Seattle and one in LA. Wash your hands pls and remember to be careful. Attached is a Fox News article: Deadly flu-like virus spreads from China to the United States.

She doesn’t bother with a reply. He’s always sending her spam from his WeChat gossip circles — pieces from sensationalist websites with titles such as Groundbreaking New Study Proves Smoking Marijauna Causes Blindness or Invisibility Potion Found in San Francisco. At least this one isn’t about some woman claiming that her face was stolen in her sleep.

“Winter Formal is only a month away,” Rebecca announces from the front of the room. In tan booties and a pale cashmere dress, she’s the definition of understated elegance. No wonder she was unanimously voted sorority president. “Remember, the theme is ‘Whiteout.’ That means white dresses and neutral shoes. Send your outfit pictures to Standards by February twenty-sixth at the latest.”

A few girls roll their eyes. It is kind of weird that all formal dresses have to be approved by the Alpha Nu Standards Committee ahead of time, but Brooke doesn’t really mind. It’s nice that there are people who care enough about her to have an opinion on what she should wear to events. She thinks of her own dress, a flouncy confection with voluminous puffed sleeves and a layered organza skirt. It was from one of those trendy LA labels, had cost way too much — but once she’d caught sight of it, she simply couldn’t wear anything else.

Her roommate Delaney nudges her on the shoulder. “Do you have a date to Formal yet?” she asks in a low voice.

Brooke shakes her head no. She’s probably going to go stag this time around — plus-ones of any sort, she’s come to find out, are often more trouble than they’re worth. Not that she wouldn’t take the right person, of course. Now, if that cute guy from her Classics of Western Philosophy class would just turn around and talk to her …

There’s a sudden flurry of movement as everyone around her rises up off the floor, dusting off their legs and hosting heavy backpacks over their shoulders. Brooke blinks slowly, looking around the room in a daze. Has the meeting ended already?

“Daydreaming about that guy again?” Delaney teases, extending an arm to help her up. “My goodness, Brooke! Enough pining from afar. You should just ask him out already.”

Brooke smiles but doesn’t say a word, letting Delaney pester her with question after question. By the time they get back to their dorm room, she’s forgotten all about the deadly new virus from China.

“You’ve got such pretty hair,” Delaney says the following night, watching enviously as Brooke brushes out her long dark locks in front of their shared vanity mirror. “Mine is so … ugh. Thin and boring.”

“It’s the Asian genes,” Brooke says with a wink. She’s used to her sorority sisters’ unsolicited awe over her shiny hair, which seems to grow three inches a month, to the way eyeshadow disappears into her eyelids, to how she never has to shave her legs or put on deodorant, no matter how sweaty she gets. Being the only non-white member of Alpha Nu is kind of cool. The attention makes her feel warm and glowy, like she’s different in a good way. Special.

“I wish that I were Japanese,” Delaney sighs. “What I wouldn’t give to be able to be a size zero like you.”

Brooke is actually Chinese, but she doesn’t bother to say anything. “Speaking of Asians …” She scrolls through her phone inbox until she finds the still-unanswered text before handing the device to her friend. “My dad sent me this yesterday. Pretty stupid, huh?”

“Deadly flu-like virus spreads from China to the United States,” Delaney reads aloud, tapping through to the article. She lets out a scoff as she scans the words on the screen. “This says that the virus originated in a Chinese food market that sold exotic animals, like dogs and bats and kangaroos.”

Brooke makes a face. “Do you think that people were buying them to eat?”

“I mean, that is an Asian thing, right?”

“I guess.”

“Have you ever —”

“No!” Brooke uses her thumb and index finger to stretch her eyelids as wide as they can go. “I’m American. My dad moved here, like, twenty years before I was born. I’ve never even been out of the States.”

“Chill, it was just a question. I know that you’re white on the inside.”

Brooke and Delaney exchange a smile. The tension dissipates into the air, already half-forgotten.

“Do you think that the virus is, like, a thing, or is my dad just being paranoid?” Brooke asks.

“The story is still developing, isn’t it? That page said that there haven’t been any deaths in America. I don’t think we should be worried yet.” Her roommate shrugs. “Enough of that. Wanna see what I’m wearing to the formal?”

Brooke nods. Delaney opens her side of the closet and pulls out a tiny garment that winks and shimmers, even in the room’s dim yellow light. It looks like something a figure skater might wear, with a high neck and a super-short circle skirt.

“I ordered this pair of nude stilettos that should be here tomorrow or Tuesday.” Delaney lays the dress over the front of her body and strikes a pose. “Laura already approved the outfit.”

Brooke imagines her spinning around on the dance floor, golden hair glowing in those blacklights that Rebecca ordered specifically for the dance. “It’s a beautiful dress, Delaney. You’re going to look great.”

Her roommate beams. “What about you, babe? Have you picked your dress yet?”

She nods.

“Can I see it?”

Brooke’s throat tightens. She’s not sure why; when she tried the dress on in the store, she’d swish-swished in front of every mirror she could find, soaking up the admiration as every shop associate oohed and ahhed. “Sure,” she says after a pause. Maybe she’s just tired — chapter elections are coming up, and she spent the previous night carefully looking over the rules. Fluffy layers rustle as she carefully takes the dress out of its garment bag. It’s even more beautiful than she remembers, with the fabric taking on an iridescent sheen that she hadn’t noticed before.

“Wow,” Delaney breathes as Brooke holds it up in front of her.

Brooke smiles, chiding herself for her earlier reluctance. “I got it at the boutique down the street. It was three hundred dollars, but I think it’s worth.”

“It’s totally worth. I’m obsessed. You’ll look like a ballerina princess, or Glinda the Good Witch. I’ll bet you money that every single girl in the house has wanted a dress like this at some point in her life. Only —” Delaney stands further back and rests her chin in her hand, squinting at the frock. “This may be really nitpicky, but don’t you think that it’s, like, a little too yellowish?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, this is kind of … cream-colored, isn’t it? Rebecca was pretty adamant that all dresses had to be white. Did Laura give it the green light?”

“Not yet.” The constricting feeling is back. Now that Delaney has mentioned it, the floaty organza does look off-white. The more Brooke looks at it, the more off the white becomes. “I think it’ll be fine,” she says with forced nonchalance.

“Hey, I like it, and the whole Standards thing is bullshit anyway. I’m just saying, you know? That deadline is coming up. It would be a real shame if you spent all that money, only to have to get a new dress. I’d check with Laura as soon as possible.”

“You’re right.” Brooke fits the garment bag over the poofy skirt and gently tucks it into the back of her closet. The dress, for all its beauty, seems to have lost its radiance.

“Xin nian quai le!”

Brooke’s father beams through the FaceTime screen, decked out in a maroon sweater in honor of the holiday. Lined up neatly behind him are rows of batteries and tobacco products. He holds the angle at the classic dad angle: both hands at a distance below his face, which instantly gives him three extra chins.

“Happy Chinese New Year, Dad.” Brooke’s velvet party dress, the only red clothing item she has with her, is a little too tight at the top. She carefully rations her breath so that her father won’t notice her discomfort. “How’s the store doing?”

“Very well, very well.” Her father is the Wong behind Wong’s Convenience, a popular neighborhood gathering spot. Older people like him because he’s never too busy to have a good conversation, younger people like him because he pretends their IDs are real, and everybody loves his made-to-order subs. “Mrs. Thatcher asked about your grades yesterday — she’s moved down to the neighborhood by the train line. She was so proud when I told her that you made the Dean’s List last quarter. She says that you’ve come such a long way since you were that daydreamy little fifth grader in her class. We’re all very proud of you, honey.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’ve been working really hard. I think I’m going to run for an officer position in Alpha Nu next quarter, actually.”

Jiayou! That’s my girl.” His smile widens. “You know, I was worried that you would be distracted from your studies when you told me that you wanted to join this social group, but it seems like it’s made you even more diligent. Good job.”

Brooke instinctively glances around to make sure that she’s still alone. She only talks with her father when her roommate isn’t around — her dad can be so enthusiastic out of nowhere. Delaney, who has never once called home, would doubtlessly parrot her dad’s accent over and over again. Deestracted from ya staa-dies.

“You’ve been washing your hands, right?” he says now in Mandarin. “Did you read that article I sent you? It’s terrible out there. You have to be careful.”

“Oh, yeah. That,” Brooke answers in English, extra grateful now that Delaney isn’t here to ask about the dogs and bats and kangaroos.

“Everyone around you can be contagious, bao. I’m supposed to get a shipment of face masks for the store tomorrow. I’ll send you a box in the mail. Officials say that the virus spreads through coughing, sneezing, or touching.”

“But nobody’s died yet, right?”

He makes a tsk-ing noise. “That’s not important! People are dying, Brooke. It’s only a matter of time before this thing comes to us. We have to stay alert.”

Brooke doesn’t bother arguing. She and her father are both stubborn, and if she starts something now, they’ll be debating it long into the night. “I’ll be careful, I promise.”

Her father leans forward so that his face takes up the entire screen. “Your uncle was going to visit your grandmother for Chinese New Year, but he cancelled the trip. They’re starting to shut down travel and quarantine people in China. More than fifty people have died. It’s no longer a trivial matter.”

“The government’s involved now?” 

He nods once.

The implication makes Brooke go silent. Then a notification pops up — Delaney and a few others are going out for boba, would she like to join? — and she snaps out of it. Virus or virus, she has a life to live.

“I gotta go, Dad,” she says quickly. “I love you. Happy Lunar New Year.”

“Happy New Year, Brookie,” he replies, but he doesn’t look happy at all. The crow’s feet in the corners of his almond-shaped eyes trend downward, and all three chins drop below the screen. Brooke tries not to think about it too much as she ends the call.

Suddenly, the virus is no laughing matter: someone in the county tests positive. Awareness of the deadly new disease spreads through campus overnight. The administration advises students to cover their faces when going to events with over thirty people. A few professors start holding classes online.

Please recognize that any of the following can be normal reactions to the spread of the virus, reads an email from her university’s wellness center. The sterile font goes on to state that students may struggle with periods of anxiety, social withdrawal, panic, helplessness, worry, difficulty concentrating, and anger in the foreseeable future. In the immediate paragraph below: You may also experience xenophobia, or fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia, as well as guilt regarding those feelings.

The last bit makes the national news. Elite university declares xenophobia a ‘normal reaction’ to the spread of the virus, declares one headline. Xenophobia normalized in email warning by top school, proclaims another. Twitter is on fire. Brooke scrolls through tweet-storm after tweet-storm on the bus, stomach sinking further with each incendiary screed. Trending is the hashtag #IAmNotAVirus, accompanied by images of Asian people crying or standing solemnly, as if announcing the death of an important figure.

“Horrifying stuff, isn’t it?” asks the boy sitting next to her, his voice muffled somewhat by his white surgical mask. “My aunt and uncle live in Wuhan. My little cousin, too — she just turned five. They had to explain to her why none of her classmates could come to her birthday party.”

Brooke feels a pang of pity for the boy. She has no relatives in the province.

“They say that everyone there is scared to death. There aren’t enough hospitals, or even face masks, to go around.” His eyebrows twist together in concern. “I haven’t seen my cousin since she was a baby. What if I never see her again?”

I’m sure you will, she wants to say, but she’s never been a very good liar.

“Anyway … yeah.” The boy sniffs behind the mask. “Sorry for being intrusive. It’s just hard not to freak out.”

Brooke shrugs, offering him a small smile. “We’re all freaking out.”

The bus lurches forward as the boy lowers his mask to take a sip of water. He chokes, immediately erupting into a loud coughing fit. People turn to stare; a woman with bright red hair catches Brooke’s eye and raises a thinly plucked brow.

Brooke gets up. Without another look at the boy, she finds a seat at the front of the bus, as far away from him as she can get. His coughs seem to go on and on and on. She stares out the window the rest of the way home with her heartbeat thumping in her ears.

When she gets back to the house, she stomps up the steps, breezing by several of her friends. Why did that boy have to talk so loudly about having family in Wuhan? He hadn’t even covered his mouth when he’d coughed. No wonder that woman looked at her like they were together — as if she were dirty, contaminated.

Brooke shoves her door open with such force that it swings into the wall with a bang. Delaney is out again, thank God. She collapses on her bed face-first, unable to stop the constricting feeling around her entire body or the unwanted memories that bubble up, up, up to the surface.

She recalls Rush Week the previous year, walking through the stately doors of one sorority in her pink-and-orange striped dress, feet a little unsteady in new sandals. How sophisticated everyone had looked, how blonde — other than her, there hadn’t been a single dark-haired girl present. How condescendingly sweet they’d been, speaking to her as though she only half-understood English, “complimenting” her on her accent …

Brooke kicks her legs into the soft cover of her duvet. More memories now, more images. Her Korean beauty products, glittering amongst the banana peels and takeout containers in the freshmen-cafeteria trash bin. Her beloved pastel sweatshirts and pleated skirts bagged up, tossed into a pile at Goodwill. Her manga collection, banished to the darkest depths of her suitcase. That same week, she’d gotten a bid from Alpha Nu; over the next twelve months, she’d frequented the tanning salon, filled her wardrobe with Greek shirts and yoga pants. 

She sits up in bed and inspects her reflection in the vanity mirror. Her cheeks are red and her eyes are glittering, but she’s still visibly an Alpha Nu girl, virtually indistinguishable from Delaney or Rebecca or the rest. Good. These are the people she belongs with, not the boy on the bus with his ugly mask. 

Brooke breathes out, heartbeat calming at last. She must keep as much distance as she can between herself and people like him, especially in public. They’re probably not contagious, but they are ignorant to the customs and ways of America, and she can’t be seen as one of them.

After all, she is nothing, nothing like them.

A text from her father wakes her up the next day: 362 people have died now. Wear the face mask whenever going outside.

The box of protective masks that he sent her sits in her nightstand drawer. Ok, she texts back, knowing full well that she won’t. The only people who cover their faces like that are Chinese international students, and she’s not about to start accessorizing like them.

Instead of going back to sleep, Brooke opens Instagram to check how many notifications she’s received overnight. She smiles when she sees that her last picture, a selfie with the caption Be your own Valentine, has broken three hundred likes. Before she’d joined Alpha Nu, she’d barely cracked fifty on each post.

She lazily scans the comments, tapping the little red heart next to each one … and stops short. Nestled between a fire emoji and a declaration of how iconic her look is, lies a missive from a handle she doesn’t recognize.

Shouldn’t u be in quarantine lol go back to china and stop infecting us

Brooke can feel her throat restricting, her breaths becoming short and uneven. Heartbeat roaring in her ears, she takes a screenshot of the comment before tapping on the unknown user’s icon. It’s obviously the throwaway account of some random person — their username is a jumble of numbers and letters, and they have no posts or followers. They are following a few people, though: all of them Asian, all of them in Greek life at Brooke’s school.

Who can it be? Is it someone on campus? Someone she knows?

Why are you reporting this account? Instagram asks. 

Brooke selects It’s inappropriate.

Within ten minutes both the comment and the account have disappeared, but the fear and shame that they brought stay with Brooke for the rest of the week.

Virus update, reads the subject of the wellness center’s email.

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

A student at a neighboring university tested positive for the virus early this morning. They contracted it after traveling to an affected area over winter break, and they were in classes and around campus for a few days before they displayed any symptoms.

All campus-wide activities are cancelled for the next two weeks. Classes for undergraduates will be moved online. We advise that all members of the community prepare for a potential epidemic by storing a two-week supply of water and food. We also urge you to make sure that you have all needed prescription medications filled for that period.

According to the most recent updates from the World Health Organization, “the risk of catching the virus from someone with no symptoms at all is very low.” While we are not imposing a quarantine on campus, we encourage you to stay indoors as much as you can.

Face masks will be available for pickup at the wellness center, and in all student lounges, between 9 AM and 5 PM on Mondays through Saturdays. We will continue to take all necessary precautionary measures following the advice of public health officials, as we prioritize everyone’s health and safety.

Alpha Nu wastes no time taking precautionary measures. Laura sends a list of potential symptoms — and emergency numbers to call — to the sorority’s mailing list. Rebecca calls an emergency meeting, where she distributes face masks to every girl present.

“The formal has been postponed until further notice,” she announces, nodding sympathetically at the inevitable booing that follows. “Trust me, I know. We’ve all been really excited for formal, but as president, I need to keep everyone’s health and safety in mind.”

Though she makes sure to groan with everyone else, Brooke is secretly thrilled by this news. Amidst all of the panic, showing her dress to Standards had completely slipped her mind.

That night, Delaney tries to get Brooke to accompany her to a frat party. “Come on,” she coaxes. “We don’t even have Formal to look forward to anymore. It could be the last time we’re allowed to go out before we’re quarantined for God knows how long.”

Brooke’s phone has steadily gone off with texts from her father, who wants her to drop everything and fly home. They are probably going to put you guys in lockdown, he’d said. Better come stay with me

He certainly wouldn’t approve of her trekking across campus without a face mask, just to stand in such close proximity to strangers, many of whom could have come in contact with the contaminated student … which is precisely why she chooses to go. Delaney is right. Their days of freedom are probably limited. She will allow herself one last night of fun. She deserves it, after the week she’s had.

Not a single mask is present at the party. Crowds of people stand around the four kegs of beer, jostling one another for refills. Brooke cuts through them and fills a red cup to the top of the twelve-ounce line. A pleasant haze of inebriation washes over her in no time. The tension she’s felt since that first chapter meeting melts away and she’s carefree once again, nodding along to the music booming out from the glowing speakers.

God, how she’s missed this. She has one more drink, then another. The conversations around her blend together, and then she’s somehow dancing with the cute guy from Western Philosophy, her arms around his shoulders, his hand on her waist, the two of them half-swaying in the middle of the floor. His cologne is sharp and woodsy. She wishes that she could slow down, appreciate this more. She wishes that the formal were still happening so that he could be her date. She wishes …

He leans in and kisses her, and all thoughts vanish from her mind in an instant. She takes his hand and leads him onto the stone balcony, and then he’s lifted her onto the top rail, and her legs are wrapped around his waist, his lips at her ear — 

He’s trying to say something, but she’s giggling too hard to hear him. Finally, he steps backwards, looks her in the eye, and asks again.

“What?” she asks, still full of sparkling energy, that crackling anticipation she’s felt since their bodies had first made contact. The light from the half moon spills across his smooth face, making him look like a noir film star. She leans forward so that their faces are barely an inch apart.

He clears his throat. “I don’t want to, like, ruin the moment or anything, but I don’t have to worry about getting infected if we hook up, right?”

Her insides turn to ice. Not skipping a beat, she shoves him away, slides off the railing, and leans over the edge, vomiting until there is nothing left in her stomach, until she’s just violently dry-heaving and hyperventilating, snot blending in with tears and bile until as all three fluids slowly drip-drip-drip their way down past her chin. She stays like that for what seems like an eternity. Even after she stops puking, there’s a nauseating sensation in her chest. She’s had more drinks than usual tonight, but it’s not the alcohol. There’s something else she’s trying to get out, something that will not come, no matter how hard she wills it to.

The other guests are unsure what to do. She hears snatches of their conversations as she continues to cough and spit and sob.

“— shit, are you okay? Is she okay?”

“— maybe we should take her to the wellness center —”

“— for all we know, she’s got the … you know —”

“— don’t know if she’s been around that infected student. It’s probably best not to touch her, just in case —”

“ — if she’s been near an infected person, why the fuck would she come —”

“— you never know with these people —”

“— don’t touch her — better get away while we still can —”

“Contagious bitch,” someone slurs in her ear. She wants to see who it is, but the alcohol on their breath triggers another wave of nausea, and she slumps back over, dribbling thin, white liquid onto the gray marble below.

When she finally lifts her head up, everyone on the balcony, including the guy she was with, has gone back in. She is the only one left outside.

To Brooke’s dismay, Delaney doesn’t think what happened at the party is a big deal. “He was probably just joking,” she insists. “You know, like how people call us basic bitches when we’re wearing our letters and getting lattes at Starbucks. Frat boys can be total assholes, especially when they’re drunk.”

“This is different,” Brooke protests. “He assumed that I’d infect him, just because I’m Asian. And those people afterward! Someone literally called me a ‘contagious bitch’ to my face.”

“How are you so sure that it’s because of race? You could technically give him the virus. The term ‘contagious bitch’ can apply to anyone right now.”

“I just … know, okay?” Brooke thinks of the red-haired woman on the bus, the comment she’d reported to Instagram, the way those older girls had treated her during Rush Week. “I can’t explain it, but I can just tell. They were definitely saying those things because I was Asian.”

“Maybe they’ll stop if you dye your hair blonde?” Her roommate’s glossy lips twitch at the corners.

“What the actual fuck, Delaney?” Brooke’s voice wavers, sending a wave of disgust through her system. She is not going to cry in front of her roommate, not after keeping a straight face all the way home from the party.

“I’m kidding, obviously. God. You’ve become so sensitive lately. Weren’t you the one who always made fresh-off-the-boat jokes about yourself when you first got here?”

Brooke only did that to fit in, to prove that she wasn’t a fresh Chinese transplant like everyone apparently thought she was, but she’s not going to explain this to Delaney, not when fresh tears continue to enter her eyes uninvited. She has to get out of here, now.

“Never mind,” she says, forcing her voice to stay calm and even as she makes a beeline for the door. “It’s fine.”

I don’t have to worry about getting infected if we hook up, right?

You never know with these people.

The water from the showerhead rinses the foamy white suds out of Brooke’s hair, leaving behind an aqueous black mass. The sight reminds her of the ink from her grandfather’s calligraphy pot, thick and dark as the night.

Don’t touch her. Better get away while you still can.

All this time, Brooke had thought herself another girl who liked to get drunk on Friday nights and sleep in on the weekends. She liked being on committees with Rebecca and talking about clothes with Delaney. She’d assumed that the only differences between herself and her sorority sisters were those of personality.

But now …

Contagious bitch.

Shouldn’t u be in quarantine lol go back to china and stop infecting us

Now she knows that there are some things that Rebecca, Delaney, and every other Alpha Nu girl will never understand. Delaney didn’t care enough to listen when she spoke about it — that is, if she even believed Brooke in the first place.

Brooke lathers vanilla-scented body wash over her arms and scrubs harder than she means to, ignited by a strange new intensity. It’s as though she’s been violently jolted awake after sleeping through her whole life. She could run ten miles, she thinks, or snap the necks of every person who has made her feel like nothing more than a walking disease.

She waits for the feeling to pass. Instead, it churns around, rising and rising until she can no longer stand still. Before she fully registers what’s happening, she balls her right hand into a fist, pulls back her arm, and punches the shower wall as hard as she can. The smooth pink tile is tougher than it looks, but she likes the way the pain explodes through her knuckles, interrupting her swirling thoughts.

CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!

Over and over she hits the wall, thinking of the guy, of the people on the balcony, of Delaney’s impassively amused face as she says He was probably joking.

How are you so sure that it’s because of race?

Maybe they’ll stop if you dye your hair blonde. 

“Who’s laughing now, Delaney?” It’s her blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American roommate’s face that Brooke imagines as she gives the wall her hardest blow, throwing all of her weight behind her knuckles.

Her hand is a mess by the time she’s done. Rusty streaks of blood hang on the wall, growing damp with steam — less blood than she’d expected, but satisfying just the same. She turns the showerhead onto it and watches the red begin to wash away, mixing with the bubbles at the bottom of the drain.

She stands under the water until the last of the soap has washed off her body, until the blood has gone from her hand, the torn mass of white, puckered skin visible underneath. Then she turns off the water and wraps a towel around herself, feeling as calm as the glassy surface of a placid lake.

She knows what she has to do.

“You’re leaving the sorority?! Why?” Rebecca is so shocked that her green eyes are almost black. 

It’s a new look for the ordinarily composed sorority president, and Brooke coughs, trying not to laugh. She’s here on serious business, after all. She explains the incidents with the Instagram comment and the frat party: the guys assumptions, the comments of the people on the balcony, Delaney’s reaction afterwards.

“I just don’t feel like I belong here anymore,” she finishes. Maybe she never did.

Concern registers on Rebecca’s face, but it is the concern of someone who has a mess to clean up, a reputation to protect. “I’ll talk to Delaney,” she says. “And I’m so sorry about the other stuff. Unfortunately, my hands are tied when it comes to people outside of Alpha Nu, but I can bring this up with the execs of that frat.”

“I don’t think it matters. I have no idea if those people were even members.” Brooke shrugs. “I was just telling you because you wanted to know why I’m leaving. There’s a deadly virus going around; you should probably worry about keeping everyone safe first.”

Rebecca nods once. “You know, that’s what I admire most about you, Brooke. You never let your own issues get in the way of what’s best for everyone.” She gives Brooke a hopeful look. “You could be a great president next year. I’d endorse you personally.”

“Except I’m leaving.”

“Except you’re leaving,” Rebecca sighs. “Do you know what you’re giving up? This is a network, Brooke. It’s more than just the three years you spend in this house. Alpha Nu is one of the most respected sororities in America, and your grades are among the highest of all the members here. We gave you a bid because you were obviously a perfect fit, even though we’ve never had a —”

“Never had a what?” The knuckles of Brooke’s right hand pulse in their cast. She came to Rebecca’s office directly from the wellness center. She was lucky, the nurse had told her, that she hadn’t broken any bones.

“Don’t worry about it.” Rebecca’s eyes glitter. “Is there anything I can do to make you reconsider?”

Driven by that same force that came over her in the shower, Brooke leans forward until she is right in Rebecca’s face. She can see the other girl’s miniscule pores up close now, and she recognizes the smooth texture with a start. Is that her favorite brand of foundation, the one that she tossed after that awful day last year? Does Rebecca use Korean beauty products herself?

“Consider unlearning some things before recruiting other ‘people you’ve never had before,’” Brooke says softly, making Rebecca flinch. “Don’t let your own issues get in the way of what’s best for everyone.”

Then she turns and floats out of the office without waiting for a reply, feeling lighter than air.

The organza dress looks gorgeous, even under fluorescent light.

Delaney was right: it is a little too cream-colored to be considered white. Laura would have probably rejected it on sight. But it matches Brooke’s skin tone perfectly — pure white washes her out — and she can’t wait to find an occasion where she can wear it for real. In the meantime, it’ll be on display in her room so that she can admire it as much as she wants.

Brooke gives the dress one last loving glance before gently tucking the garment bag under the seat in front of her. She’s careful not to disturb the thick gauze covering her right hand, which has swollen to nearly twice its size. Oh, well. Some things need to get worse before they get better.

Her father will pick her up in a few hours, and then she’ll confine herself to the convenience store and the little apartment above it — home. She will stay there, doing assignments remotely and helping out, until in-person classes start back up. When she returns, she will move out of the Alpha Nu house for good.

She turns to look at the grey, low-hanging sky outside, grateful that she got the window seat. Out on the tarmac, two Asian guys in fluorescent safety vests are doing a final checkup. Brooke wonders if they’ve ever been called contagious, if they have family that they’re worried about. Her cheeks heat up as she thinks of the boy on the bus, of her reaction towards him. There’s nothing different between the two of them, really. She vows to get rid of that awful urge to prove herself normal enough, American enough. Leaving Alpha Nu was only the first step.

“Excuse me,” the old man next to her says to the flight attendant, bringing Brooke back to the present. “Do you think I could be switched to a different seat?”

“I’m sorry, but the flight is fully booked. Is there a reason you need to move?”

The man’s eyeballs dart between Brooke and the person on his other side. “I … er … never mind.”

The petite Asian woman in the aisle seat wears a face mask that conceals everything but her dark eyes. She and Brooke exchange a knowing glance as the plane begins its takeoff. ✦⁣

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