These Houses Chapter Two

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER TWO

            After fifteen minutes, Mags began prowling the waiting room like a child on Christmas eve, looking for all the toys hidden by conniving parents.  By minute twenty, she found sixteen magazines, only three of which were more than a year old, fifty-two cents in change down the back of the yellow plaid couch, a crumpled quiz for a sixth-grade reading class—the student, one Jerrica Howland, had scored 100% and a smiley face—a giraffe and elephant from a Noah’s Ark play set, and an unused moist towelette.

            She glanced out the window at the shop beyond.  There was no sign of any nephew, but the Land Rover was at least up on the lift, two mechanics and Mr. Mueller examining it.

            After lining up her found treasures on the table housing the ancient but serviceable coffee pot, Mags grabbed her bag and stepped through the internal door to the shop.  The music, which had been a subtle bass line inside the waiting room, burst into a suddenness of sound, a wailing denial of the singer’s renegade status.  She smiled to herself.  She couldn’t help it.  Whoever had chosen the music clearly had a thing for classic rock.

            Mr. Mueller looked away from her SUV.  “Everything okay, Margaret?  Can I get you something more to drink?”

            “I’m okay,” she said.  “Just a bit stir crazy is all, after the drive.”  The room had begun to drive her nuts, its wood paneling becoming oppressive the more she stared at it.  She pointed to the shaded patio off the side of the shop.  “Do you mind if I hang out over there?”

            “Of course not,” he said.  “As long as you’re not under the cars, you can go wherever you want.”

            She thanked him again—what was it, her twentieth time, between the ride and the coke and the donuts and chips?—and wandered outside.  The patio wasn’t actually such, just a slab of concrete with a few plastic chairs and tables in cozy arrangements of four, but someone had made an effort to make it more hospitable.  There were a few hardy plants along a low-slung brick wall separating the chairs from the parking lot, giving some semblance of privacy.  With the air-conditioning oozing out from the shop and the faint press of music, it was rather homey and inviting. 

Mags slung her bag on the table to the right and pulled out her camera.  Click.  She snapped a shot of the brick wall, crumbling at the edges.  Click.  Another shot of the concrete slab, with the initials SCT and LFT etched sometime when it was first poured.  Click.  The solar lights, strung along the plants, as the sun began to sink lower in the sky.

She looked up and saw that the sun wasn’t setting, not yet, but there was a bite in the air as if the oppressive heat was going to break into rain at any moment.  Dark clouds roiled in the distance, ominous, but beautiful.

            The music had changed at some point, from classic rock to Muse, of all things, and she realized that for a brief solitary moment for the first time in months, perhaps years, she wasn’t accountable to anyone.  No one knew where she was.  No one was asking anything of her, not her parents—too twisted up in their own drama to bother much with her anyhow, and hadn’t she always been the child no one need worry about?—not Edie and Noah—hundreds of miles away—and not Henry—even further withdrawn emotionally, after last night.

            She was free to be herself without judgmental, demanding eyes.

            Camera in hand, she zoomed up, snapping shot after shot of the sky.  Adjusting the light levels, she knelt on the ground and stared hard at the initials in the concrete.  Children must have drawn them, the hand shaky but deep, and she snapped three shots of the SCT initials.  Something bright under the brick caught her eye and she stretched out on her stomach, right there on the ground, zooming in further and further.  Her feet kicked up behind her in time to the music, and she found herself singing along with the song, declaring she would not be forced or degraded or controlled.

            When she saw it, finally, the setting sun catching it just right, she almost laughed out loud.  It was a child’s treasure of marbles, bright blues and greens and reds and shiny blacks.  A cache to hold onto forever, immortalized in concrete just under the brick wall.  She snapped several shots of them, her feet changing rhythm as the music switched from Muse to Nine Inch Nails smoothly, as if they belonged naturally together.

            She eased out from her awkward position and stood, brushing off the front of her shorts and shirt as she did.  When she turned, she let out a chirp of a surprise at finding the boy there.

            They stared at each other for an awkward moment, his face all astonishment, hers all mortification.  But she pulled herself together, put her camera in her bag, and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.  “Mr. Mueller said I could sit out here.”

            The boy blinked eyes once, twice.  He was tall, taller than most of the boys she knew, and even taller than Freddie, who had been 6’1 when he went All-American.  Freddie had been lean, quarterback-lean, but this boy was broader, his muscles ropy but evident, every stereotype of a corn-fed Midwestern boy there in front of her.  “Are you Margaret?” he asked.  His black shirt proclaimed in bold red letters “MILTON STRIKERS ATHLETIC DEPT,” a deep contrast to his faded and ripped jeans.

            She clasped her hands in front of her to keep them from shaking.  She didn’t know why they were shaking.  She could only imagine it was the shock of being found in such an intimate position.  “Mags,” she said.  When his brow furrowed, she rushed to explain.  “Everyone calls me Mags.”

            He slung a hand through his hair—darker than Mr. Mueller’s but still with that hint of auburn.  She saw, then, the family resemblance: the bright blue eyes, the reddish-black hair.  “Are you Sean?” she asked.

            He nodded.  “Uncle Caleb said you needed a ride home?”  Like his uncle, he ended his statements up, the hesitation marked with the question at the end.

            “Is there any news on my car?” she asked.

            He shook his head.  “Not good news,” he said.  “Uncle Caleb can fill you in.”  He gestured his thumb over his shoulder.  “Do you want to…?”

            “Yes.”  She grabbed her bag and slung it over her shoulder.  “Thanks.”

            He waited until she caught up with him before he began walking, but he glanced at her before they entered the shop and she felt a flush spread across her cheeks, bright and painful.  She hadn’t expected to see anyone, and had dressed accordingly.  Drop off the U-Haul then to Target for a few supplies, then pizza for dinner.  That hadn’t necessitated fancy clothes.  That didn’t suggest she would meet anyone from her new school, not anyone who would know her as such.  Her earlier flush of freedom faded from her and she couldn’t remember, not at all, what that rush had felt like.

She clenched her hand on the edge of her shirt and saw the dirt stains from her foray on the ground.

            “You like Nine Inch Nails, too?” Sean asked as they stepped into the cool dimness of the shop.

            “What?”  She looked down at her deconstructed shirt when he gestured.  “Oh.  My brother did.  I mean, they were his shirts.  This part.”  She gestured at the NIN at the top of her chest.  “And this.”  She gestured at the words “Pretty Hate Machine” across her belly.  “But yes, of course.  I love Trent Reznor.”

            “You made the shirt?” he asked.

            For some reason, she blushed again.  It had been an experiment late one night with Edie, and they both had attacked her mother’s sewing machine with a vengeance.  The shirts they had deconstructed were too small for her now, and she tugged the hem of the shirt down over the waist of her cargo shorts.  Her fingers brushed the airline belt buckle—that, too, had been Freddie’s—and she wanted to hide back behind her camera, the discovery of the marbles still bright and fresh in her mind.  “My mom used to be a seamstress,” she said, and tugged on the hem of her shirt again.

            “Margaret!”  Mr. Mueller walked over before they had to say anything else to each other.  He wiped at his hands with a rag, and she wondered if the oil stains ever came out, or if they were now engrained in his skin.  “I see Sean found you.”

            “Yes, sir,” she said, to which Sean gave her a sharp look.  She glanced up at him and squinted her eyes, her unspoken “What?” clear to anyone with half an understanding of body language.

            “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,” Mr. Mueller said.  “I already spoke with your dad, so he’s on board with this, but we’re going to have to get a part from Indy.  One of my guys was already going to head up there tomorrow, so we should get it then, no problem.”

            “How long?” she asked.

            “Tuesday morning at the latest.”

            It was Saturday now.  Her dad couldn’t miss any more practice, having taken two days off to get her and her mom to Indiana.  But they couldn’t afford a rental car, and she was sure no one had even bothered to think about those things.  “No sooner?” she asked.  Did her grandmother even have a car?  Her Maw-Maw in New Orleans hadn’t, not ever.  She had preferred to walk everywhere, even the grocery store.

            “That’s the earliest,” Sean said.

            She looked over at him again.  He stared down at her, expression almost blank, but there was something in his eyes and her fingers itched to pull out her camera, to snap three quick shots of him so she could figure out what it was.  No seventeen year old boy had that much hidden behind his eyes.  Not a one she had ever met.

            “Okay,” she said, and turned back to Mr. Mueller.  “Thank you again.”

            “Seriously, Margaret, you have to stop thanking me.”  He smiled at her and she smiled back.

            “Mags.”

            They both turned to look at Sean, but he was looking at his uncle.  “She said she prefers to be called ‘Mags.’”

            The name felt childish in his mouth, and she hated hearing it from him.  A word that had been so evocative of friendship, of closeness was now, in his hands, something a baby would be called.

            “Mags,” Mr. Mueller said.  “Sean, can you take Mags home?”

            “Sure.”  He turned to her.  “You ready?”

She nodded.  “Yes, thank you.”

“Don’t forget, Sean.  Mr. Hale asked if you could stop by Mark’s on the way back so Margaret… Mags could grab the pizza he ordered.”

“No, that’s okay,” she said.  “I don’t want to be any bother.”

Sean looked down at her.  “It’s fine,” he said.  “Mark’s is on the way.”

She glanced over her shoulder at Mr. Mueller and he gave her an encouraging smile.  “We’ll get you guys mobile as soon as we can.  I promise.”

“Thanks,” she said, and smiled again before she followed Sean outside.

The heat hit her like a blast.  The patio, with its shaded overhang and trickling A/C from the shop, had tricked her into thinking it had cooled off.  She looked around for Sean’s car—she assumed that, like most football players she knew back home, he drove something sleek and modern, or a huge truck—but only saw a rusted red car with one black door.

But of course he walked toward it, keys dangling from his fingers, and she hurried to follow him.  When he opened the driver’s door, he looked over at her as she walked to the passenger side.  “You’ve got to get in this way,” he said, and when she looked at him, she saw the tips of his ears had gone pink.  “That door doesn’t work yet.”

She glanced at the door and then nodded.  “I’m sorry,” she said, and scurried around the front of the car.  She climbed in the driver’s seat and eased around the stick shift.  “What kind of car is this?”

“A ’68 Pontiac GTO.”  He slid into the seat and looked down at her leg.  “Be careful,” he said.  “That seat has a spring that likes to pinch.  On the right side.”

She lifted her right thigh and saw the spring a few inches away, closer to the door.  She scooted toward the middle and her hand brushed against Sean’s.  She pulled back and placed both hands in her lap, folded together.  “Why this car?”

“What?”  He slammed the car door shut and rolled down his window.  “No A/C,” he said, and gestured.

She just stared at him.

He sighed and reached across her to roll down her window.  She eased back so that no part of her touched his arm.  He sighed again, louder, and pulled away.  “Relax, Gown, I don’t bite.”

“Gown?” she asked, but he had started the engine and its roar drowned out anything she said.

He put the car in drive and eased down the gravel road.  She felt every bump and every jostle more keenly in this car than she had in the tow truck.  When she glanced over at him, she saw his knuckles gone white with their grip on the steering wheel, the slight squint of concentration in his eyes.  When he eased off the gas and steered around a particularly menacing pothole, she realized he was driving with care, trying to protect the car from any further damage.

Then Sean glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and she pulled her eyes away, awkward and flushing once again.  She wished she could explain it to him, how she just wanted to photograph him, try to see if she could get to the root of those bottomless blue eyes, that grim expectancy, far too old for a boy so young.  When she saw the faded criss-cross of white on his knuckles, and, further up, older, dime-sized red burns on his arms, a signal clicked on in her head and her fingers itched—actually itched—for her camera.

Once they were on the main road, Sean finally answered her question.  “It was my grandfather’s car,” he said. 

“What?”  It took Mags a second to remember her question.  “Oh.”  She leaned forward and placed a hand on the dashboard.  “I see.”  Under her hand, she felt the difference, the supple texture of the dashboard, well-oiled and well-loved.  A quick glance around the car showed that it was being revived, bit by bit, piece by piece.

“He left it to me.  He just… didn’t take very good care of it, so Uncle Caleb’s helping me rebuild it when I can afford the parts.”  His glance at her was shy, and she saw the clench of his hand on the steering wheel twist a bit tighter.

“Oh,” she said again, and wondered if he was embarrassed by the sentimentality, or embarrassed by the fact that he couldn’t afford to fix the car.  She pulled her hand away from the dash and placed it on her lap once more.

They were quiet for several minutes, the sound of the engine and the whistle of the breeze keeping the silence between them from overwhelming.  Sean took back roads, cut through neighborhoods, went around everything except down the main highway.  It was actually a beautiful drive, despite of—or perhaps because of—the shimmering heat reflecting off of everything, and she saw farm land, an oddity in New Orleans and its surrounding areas.  Marsh land, yes.  Sugar cane and rice, yes.  But not honest to God farm land.  Her fingers itched again for her camera but they were going too fast to get anything of substance. 

The sun was setting now and the clouds that had threatened before now loomed ominous and real.  When the first drops splattered against her face, Mags hastened to roll up the window.  The wipers, at least, were new.

Sean snaked around a neighborhood, and they arrived with blinding suddenness in a parking lot with the neon sign proclaiming Mark’s to be “THE BEST PIZZA IN INDIANA!”  He settled the GTO in a parking spot and the car gave only the slightest shudder.  He left the engine on and they watched as the rain beat against the windshield and the wipers flicked like mad to dispel it.  “It’ll blow over in a minute,” Sean said.  “I’ll run in and get the pizza when it does.”

“No, I’ll get it,” she said.  “There’s no reason for both of us to get wet.”  And then she blushed again, remembering how she’d have to get out of the car.

Sean looked over at her with those damnable unreadable eyes, even now, in the darkening twilight, shadowed and infinite.  “It’s fine.  Really.  If you don’t mind waiting.”

“No, I don’t mind.”  She paused.  “Thank you.  Sean.”  She added his name as an afterthought before she handed him the twenty from her purse and he stuck it in his front pocket.

The rain brushed everything silver in the twilight, and as she stared out at it, she realized it was the first time she was looking at Marlborough as her new town and not as her grandmother’s, or her dad’s.  This was where she would be for the next year at least, like it or not.  That realization, that moment of clarity needed posterity.  Of course it did.

Without thinking, she pulled her camera out of her purse and shot three pictures through the windshield.

“What are you doing?”

She turned, camera in hand, and on reflex, took two quick shots of Sean.  When his eyes widened, she lowered the camera, blushing again.  “It’s just… it’s very pretty, right now.”

He turned to look out the window.  “The rain?” he asked.

“No.”  She pointed.  “Look.”

He was quiet for a moment before she heard it, the quick inhalation of breath, that recognition of beauty, of seeing something beyond what was normally seen.  “Christ,” he said, his voice soft.  “That doesn’t even look real.

The ground steamed, literally steamed, as the rain beat into the baked concrete.  A low mist rose a few inches from the ground, and as the rain beat harder, the neon lights shimmered against it, turning the mist into a fairy land of greens and pinks and purples.  Mags didn’t know if the pictures would even come out, but they were worth taking, if only to get someone else to see an inkling of what she had seen.  And now, to share that vision with another person at the exact moment it caught her eye?  It was almost too intimate, with this boy she had just met.

But it had happened, and she felt she had to explain, somehow, why her camera was permanently attached to her hand.  “Rain’s my favorite to photograph,” she said.  “Then snow.  I don’t care much for summer, usually.  Except, of course, when it rains.”  She smiled, somewhat shyly, when he turned to look at her. 

He smiled back, also hesitant and shy, just like his uncle, and it completely transformed his face.  Before, what had been austere and starkly handsome was now warm, and sweet, even boyish.  The sweat-stuck locks of hair swirled on his forehead with an artistic flair.  The smile revealed teeth, white and even, and a dimple in his right cheek.  But those eyes, those infinite eyes had lightened and she felt herself reflected in them, as if she had, for one moment, found their source.

“What’s ‘Gown’ mean?”

And then his face smoothed out, but it had been there, that smile, and it meant something, sharing this moment with a stranger.  “It’s letting up,” he said.  “I’ll go get the pizza.”  And he stepped out of the car without even waiting for her response. 

She watched him walk toward the front door and stop as three people came through.  One of them handed him a flyer while the other two stapled a flyer to the bulletin board outside the front door.  Without really thinking, Mags shot several frames of Sean, accepting the flyer, of the people, stapling the flyer, of the people leaving.  Then, when she saw Sean ball up the flyer and throw it on the ground, she took a zoomed in shot, trying to read the paper on the board.  “STRIKE!” was the only word she could make out, in huge letters, across the middle of the page.

Sean ripped the flyer from the board, crumpled that one up, as well, and walked inside to get her pizza.

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