These Houses Chapter Three

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER THREE

“All right.  All right.  All right.”

            Then, heavy bass and vibration.  Mags blinked awake and stared at the wavering blue numbers on her clock.  

            “All right.  All right.  All right.”

            The blue numbers hovered 3:07.  Again, the heavy bass line.  And once more,

            “All right.  All right.  All right.”

            Phone.  Ringing.  3:07, no, 3:08 a.m.  Heavy bass line.  The Decemberists.  “Henry,” she said, and scrambled in her sheets for her phone.  It was Henry’s favorite song, from his favorite album, and he had bought that ring tone for her, but only if she promised it remained his and his alone.         

            She found her phone near the foot of the bed without any idea of how it ended up down there.  She scrambled for the phone on the fifth repetition, right before it slipped into voicemail.  “Three a.m.,” she said into her cell.  “You okay?”

            “I am fucking grand.”  He had to scream to be heard over the music in the background.  “I am more than grand.  I am epic.

            Mags sat back on her bed.  Henry drinking wasn’t a new phenomenon.  Henry so drunk he moved into the realm of violently happy was a rare thing indeed.  “Where are you?  Is Noah there?  Put him on.”

            “I am not my brother’s keeper,” he said.  “And my keeper is not my brother.”  The music in the background faded until it changed to street sounds: honks, voices, laughter, none of it Henry’s.  The scratch and click of a match, the loud exhale, and the slight wavering of breath was all too familiar, too intimate.  Dozens of nights hanging with Henry in the French Quarter, stepping outside with him while he smoked.  While they talked and laughed and just were.

            “Henry?” she asked in a soft voice, still caught in that memory of then.

            “I didn’t think I’d care this much, you know?”  He exhaled again in a loud whoosh of breath.  She could see the cloud of smoke circling his head, as it had dozens of times before.  “Fuck, I thought, ‘to hell with her.  Let her rot in Indiana for all I care.’  But that was just bravado.”

            She leaned against the cool of her headboard, her cheek pressed against the painted metal.  “Henry, please.”

            “I’m even out with a girl,” he continued as if he didn’t hear her.  “I kissed her.  We made out for two hours, and it didn’t mean anything.”

            She felt the sting, but she didn’t know if it was his purposeful cruelty or jealousy.  Again, because she was an awful person, she was sure it was his purposeful cruelty.  “I want you to be happy,” she said in a soft voice.

            “But see, that’s the fucking thing, you know?  Apparently?  I can’t be happy without you, and you can’t be happy with me.  Fucking catch 22.  A conundrum.  An enigma wrapped up in a riddle.  You had to run a thousand miles away just to not be with me.”

            She wiped at her eyes.  “You know that’s not true.  Henry, don’t do this.”

            He was quiet for a long moment.  “You kissed me back,” he said when she finally spoke.  “Do you know what that did to me?”  His voice grew louder.  “Do you have any idea the kind of mindfuck you performed on me with that, Mags?”

            “Henry,” she began again but he interrupted before she could finish.

            “I told you I love you,” he said.  “You kissed me back.  Then you said you didn’t care and you moved to fucking Indiana.”  There was a loud clattering noise and she knew he had dropped the phone.

            “Henry?” she asked.

            There were more indistinguishable noises and then she heard the voice: Jennifer Beltman, the girl who had hated Mags since the seventh grade for unknown, ridiculous reasons that now Mags suspected had everything to do with Henry and nothing at all to do with Mags.  But there she was anyway, on the phone, ready to spout venom.

“Margaret, honey?  It’s Jenn.  You know, Jenn Beltman?  From school?  I mean, from your former school?”

            Mags bit her bottom lip so hard she could taste blood.  “Hi, Jenn.  Can you put Henry on?”

            “No, I’m sorry I can’t.  He’s getting a cab.”  And she laughed at something Henry said.  “He’s so hilarious!  Did you hear him?”

            “No,” Mags said, but she had heard him, in the background, scream that he was going to let her take advantage of him back at her dad’s condo.

            “You know, I’m surprised you didn’t accuse him of something before you left.  I mean, that’s your M.O., right?  So, have fun in Indiana.  Oh, and public school, right?”  Jennifer tsked under her breath.  “Really.  That’s just… that’s just sad, Maggie girl.  I mean, I know this sounds like I’m being a bitch, but I’m not.  It really is kind of sad.”  And without another word, she hung up.

            Mags couldn’t help it.  She started crying, sitting there, staring at her cell phone and Henry’s picture blinking up at her before it faded back to normal.  Henry had spoken the truth, of course, and like all truths, it stung with the telling.

She had kissed him back.  Sometime in the middle of their escapade through the French Quarter Friday night, Edie and Noah went off to find a bathroom, or alcohol.  Mags couldn’t even remember.  But she recognized it now as the machination it was, remembered Edie’s knowing smile, Noah’s brotherly pat on Henry’s back.  The two of them disappeared and left Mags and Henry sitting on someone’s front steps, the darkened side street quiet, for the Quarter. 

Henry flung an arm over her shoulders, as he had a thousand times before, and she leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder, as she had a thousand times before.  And when he pressed a kiss to her head, she still hadn’t seen it, hadn’t recognized all of this as new, as dangerous, as unfamiliar territory because this was her last night in New Orleans, and she was spending it with her three best friends.  What could possibly change now that was greater than her leaving?

“You don’t have to go,” he said, for what felt to be the thirtieth time that night.  His breath was warm against her hair.  “Your Aunt Barbie has a room ready for you.  Edie would be thrilled.  I… I would be thrilled.  You know I love you.”

            She smiled up at him.  “I love you, too.  You’re my best—”  And her words were cut off when his lips touched hers, soft, hesitant.

She had let him kiss her.  She hadn’t stopped him because it was nice.  Even then, even with his lips against hers, she hadn’t seen it.  Not really.  This was Henry.  They went to dances together to avoid having to ask other people out on dates.  When Noah and Edie eventually married—and everyone knew they would—he would be her cousin by marriage.

Also, someone liked her enough to kiss her, to want her to stay in New Orleans.  To want to be with her.  Just, she hadn’t expected it to be Henry.  She never expected it to be Henry.

But then, the kiss deepened, and his mouth opened and when hers didn’t, not right away, he pressed against her, his thumb on her chin, easing it down.  And with the first brush of his tongue against hers, she had returned the kiss, hesitant, unsure.  Her arm, caught between them, flattened against his chest and felt his heart flutter.  His arm tightened and his mouth opened wider and she tasted whisky, and cigarettes, and mint gum.  Some part of her wondered what she tasted like.  Coffee, maybe, and powdered sugar.  Vanilla from the vodka. 

The kiss was nice, and warm, and lovely.  She felt nice, and warm in his embrace. 

And that was all.

No fire.  No desire to say “to hell with it all” and stay in New Orleans.  And when she pulled away from the kiss—and she had pulled away first—she knew he saw it in her eyes. 

He didn’t let go of her, and she didn’t let go of him, caught as she was, their bodies awkward now, cooling.  She didn’t know how to break away without damaging something very fragile.  Everything had changed in the space of a few minutes, and she couldn’t handle any more destruction.  Not this week.

Henry was quiet for a long time, watching her.  “You knew… you knew how I feel about you, right?” he said, so soft it was almost a whisper.

            Mags chewed on her top lip before she eased out of his embrace.  “I didn’t,” she said.  “I really didn’t.”  Lies, of course, she realized now, because some part of her had to have known, had to have remembered the day she told him she was leaving.  Henry’s anger, the tantrum he threw, the sullen resentment, the refusal to say goodbye to her parents all clued her in to a secret that must have been years in the hiding.  No, she hadn’t known, not really.  Not until now.

            “I just… I thought… I thought we had forever.”  His arm fell off of her, dead weight.  “And this week, it never… it just never felt right, but now, when it’s too late…”  He untangled himself from her to pull his cigarettes out of his pocket.  “I just thought you knew,” he said around his Camel Light.

            She watched the flame dance on the edge of his match—Henry never used lighters because he claimed cigarettes tasted better with matches—spark the end of his cigarette and the swell of life as he breathed air into the tiny fire.  When he exhaled, the smoke extinguished the flame on the edge of the match.

            “I’ve loved you forever,” he said, his voice so soft she almost didn’t hear him.  “It feels like forever, and now you’re leaving.”

            Mags didn’t know what to say.  How could one ever respond to such a declaration with kindness and refusal?  There was no way to respond to such a grand gesture, not without damaging everything between them, some ten years in the making.

            He must have seen it, on her face, because something in him crumpled and he put his arm around her, buried his face against her neck.  And because it was Henry, she put her arms around him and held him as he cried.  She felt his tears against her, hot and sticky, the mugginess of the night making it all that much more uncomfortable.  But neither of them let go.  No matter what would change after tonight, he was her Henry.  They had been best friends for ten years, and nothing could change that, not for her.

Henry took her hand and lifted his lips to her ear.  “Just stay,” he had whispered.  “For fuck’s sake, Mags, just stay.”

Those unspoken words.  “For me.”  She hated him in that moment.  Hated what he was asking of her, what he expected from her, what everyone expected from her and she wanted to scream, scream as long and as loud as she could with her frustration.  No one, no single person on this godforsaken earth gave a damn about what she wanted.  About what she needed.  And she felt their selfishness keenly, felt the world closing in on her and she started crying, thinking about the one time anyone did anything for her—about Freddie—it had ruined his life forever.

            Because he was selfish with drink and circumstance, Henry misinterpreted her tears.  “I’ll wait for you,” he said against her, alcohol and emotion slurring his speech.  “I promise.  I love you so much, it hurts.”

            She pushed him away from her and stood, trying to get some air, to get away from the press of his body and the cigarette smoke that surrounded him like an aura.  “Don’t,” she said again.  “Don’t you dare.  Henry….”

            He stumbled to his feet and shook his head.  “I will.”  And he lowered his lips to kiss her again.

            She turned so that he brushed her cheek.  “Don’t do this to me,” she whispered.  “Please don’t put this on me, too.”

            He pulled away of a sudden, his frustration rolling off of him in palpable waves.  “Nobody put anything on you.  You’re the one leaving.  You’re the one who decided to go.  You didn’t have to.  You could stay here with us.  But you have to be the martyr.  Always, God, you always have to be the martyr.”

            She felt her hands trembling and she wished that she smoked, at least for something to do with her hands.  To keep them still.  Lies.  All lies.  She was a selfish liar and he would never forgive her, if he knew.  If he knew she was tucking tail and running, as far as she could.  “I have to make this work,” she finally said.  “You know that.  Edie knows that.”

            Henry brooded into another cigarette for a long moment.  She almost turned and left when he spoke again.  “Because of Freddie?” Henry asked.  “That’s what Edie thinks.”

            “Yes,” she said in a soft voice.  “Because of Freddie.”  In that, at least, she was not lying.  Everything for the past two years had been because of what Freddie had done for her.  The tightened finances.  The whispered recriminations.  The ostracizing.  The fear of leaving her parents childless for an entire year.  Her mother’s fragile nerves.  Even when they let her father “go”—no one would call it “fired,” not publicly, anyhow—she knew it was because of Freddie, which was, of course, because of her.  She couldn’t abandon them now.  Not after Hurricane Katrina.  Not after Freddie.

            He dragged smoke into his lungs with a shaky breath.  “You don’t always have to be the perfect child,” he said as he exhaled.  “You can think about yourself for once in your life.”

How to tell him?  How to say to someone in so much pain that it was worth it?  Worth his pain to escape her own?  The constant reminders of her failures.  The recriminating eyes blaming her for Freddie’s departure.  The fear of losing Henry’s friendship now that she knew his love.  “I can’t do that to mom and dad.  You saw what Freddie leaving did to them.”

            He sighed.  “I know.  We all knew that.  I just… I just hoped you’d turn into a real girl at some point, but you never will.  Not Margaret Hale.  No, she has to be that much fucking better than the rest of us, just so we can all feel bad.” 

            “That’s not fair,” she said.  “Don’t do this tonight, Henry.  Please.  You know I love you.”  And she reached out a hand to his arm.

            He wrenched his arm away from her grasp and looked at her with something not unlike repulsion and even in this moment, even in this awful, terrible moment, she wanted her camera, wanted to record this face, so full of anger and rage and hurt, so that she could remember how Henry had looked at her, just when she needed him the most.  “No,” he said, and stumbled a bit as he moved away.  “No, you don’t get to say ‘love’ anymore.  Not to me.”

            He turned and saw Edie and Noah coming around the corner.  “Come on,” he said.  “It’s almost one.  We need to get you home.”  Then he walked away without another word the rest of the night.  Not even goodbye when she got out the car.  Not even a hug.  Not even to comfort Edie, who was crying so hard she began hiccupping.  No, Mags didn’t get any of those moments, not anymore.  Not from Henry.

#

            She stopped crying with a sudden, violent shake and got out of her bed.  It was after 3:30 but she was wide awake.  She flicked on a lamp and saw the room her grandmother had allotted to her.  It wasn’t much, not nearly big enough to house any of her old furniture, but since they had sold it all anyhow—“you won’t need it in Indiana,” her dad had said—it really didn’t matter.  But now she noticed that while she had been at the mechanic’s, her grandmother had made her bed with her sheets from home, the bold paisley sheets she had fallen in love with in that shop on Magazine.  Several of the doilies were gone and in their place, Mags’s smaller boxes with her knickknacks and framed photos.

            Mags didn’t know what had caused this peace offering, why her grandmother whom had seemed so distant, so unapproachable, had made this small concession to Mags’s comfort.  It wasn’t much, but it was an effort.  It was an olive branch, and Mags, with so few olive branches stretched her way, took it.

            When she began unpacking, it was with a silent frenzy.  Her grandmother’s and parents’ room was across the house, her room here at the back, a former parlor turned hasty bedroom for a granddaughter, but still, she did not want to wake them.  She wasn’t selfish, not like Henry claimed, and knew, despite her own pain, that this entire move was equally as difficult on her parents, and her grandmother.  So she put in her earbuds, blasted Freddie’s favorite NIN album, Pretty Hate Machine, and unpacked her entire room in less than an hour.

            She had started With Teeth by the time she was finished, and stepped back to look at her progress.  Her clothes hung in neat rows in the two-tiered wardrobe—there was no closet in this room—with everything else shoved into the three empty drawers in the dresser.  The bottom, she saw, was filled with extra sheets and blankets and linens, but she didn’t begrudge her grandmother this concession.  It was her house, after all, and the more she prowled, the more she realized that this had been her grandmother’s sitting room.  Of course it had.  While it wasn’t the largest, it by far got the best light.

            Mags arranged her framed photographs, of Edie and Noah and even those of Henry, of the four of them, of the family, before Freddie went away, all of them smiling at the camera as Freddie waved his high school diploma above his head.  In those moments, her mother was smiling: at the camera, at Freddie, even, sometimes, at Mags.  But those smiles stopped altogether when Freddie went away.  When she blamed Mags for Freddie going away.

Mags shook her head.  No.  She didn’t have time for this.  She had to finish unpacking.  It was a frenzied operation for her, the determination that she would be here, not heading back to New Orleans on the first train.  This was her new life, and she would make the most of it.

Mags turned back to her boxes.  For the larger photographs, she leaned them against the wall, not wanting to hammer holes in the wall without her grandmother’s permission, and certainly not at 4:30 in the morning.  Her laptop and printer she set out on the small table in the corner, and once she unpacked all of her books, triple-stacking on the small bookshelf—her Jane Austens and Lauren Olivers, her Shirley Jacksons and the entirety of The Mortal Instruments and Harry Potter—she felt as if she could breathe.

            The final piece to mark the room as hers was her Katrina triptych, the one she won an award for last year.  On the left, a picture of their house before the hurricane ravaged it that she had taken in July 2005, just a baby then, only ten, but fresh and excited with a new camera.  On the right, a picture years after Katrina, in 2010, right before they tore down the house, with the cryptic spray-painted codes on the front of the house marking no bodies and the weeds overgrowing everything in sight.  The middle was what they had found in 2010, a stained glass window that had exploded inward from the force of the wind, shattered on the floor.  Someone—maybe the National Guard, maybe some homeless squatters—had arranged the shards of glass on the floor into a close facsimile of the stained glass window it had been. 

She had submitted the pictures to a national contest, titled them “Five-Year Anniversary, a Katrina Triptych,” and had been shocked and pleased when she won best entry for the Under 18 category.  The entire family had gone to D.C. to see her receive her award, and she remembered how proud they had all looked: one child named All-American, another winning national photography awards.  Her mother, in particular, had beamed at anyone and everyone who came around, proclaiming, “My daughter,” with a proud smile whenever she introduced Mags.  They had spent a few days in D.C. catching the sights, eating at fancy restaurants.  It was, she realized, the last good moment they had as a family, because that September, she had visited Freddie at school, and the Incident happened, and their lives went to hell afterwards.

Mags suddenly hated the Triptych, wanted to destroy it, but knew it was a futile gesture.  There was one hanging in the small gallery in D.C. that had hosted the award show, one housed on the New Orleans shutters retrieved from the house after Katrina, not to mention the digital copies she had on her laptop.  No use in destroying something impermanent.

So instead, she sank down on the bed—her bed, now—and watched the dark sky through the window until she heard sounds in the kitchen, and the smell of coffee.  When her grandmother tapped on her door and asked if she was hungry, Mags, starved, called out the affirmative and joined her at the small, red Formica table.  And when her grandmother—nearly a stranger to her because despite cards at birthdays and Christmases, despite one visit a year to New Orleans until Katrina, she knew nearly nothing about her—put down a plate of eggs and bacon in front of her, next to the plate already burdened with homemade biscuits, Mags realized that it was the first time, in years, that she hadn’t had to make her own breakfast.

“Thank you,” she said, the gratitude again spilling from her lips because she didn’t know what else to say.

Grandmother Hale looked up at her, sharp eyes keen and assessing, and Mags wondered what it was about her tone that made everyone think she was insincere.  “For breakfast?” she asked.

Mags nodded, then shook her head.  “For breakfast, sure,” she said.  She took a long swallow of orange juice.  “And… for the room.  For all of this.”  She gestured a hand around the kitchen, pointing at her new bedroom beyond.  “I know it’s an inconvenience, but—”

“Margaret, it’s not your fault,” her grandmother said.  And to Mags’s surprise, her grandmother reached over and put a wrinkled hand over hers.  “None of this is your fault.  You understand that, don’t you?”

And she hadn’t, because no one had told her that, not once.  Not even Freddie.  So when she started crying, perhaps for the fourteenth time in three days, her grandmother said nothing.  Just wrapped arms around her and held her, silent but warm, as Mags emptied herself out.  By the time her father came to get her mother’s tray—she hadn’t had breakfast with the family in a year, at least—Mags and her grandmother were drinking coffee and exchanging the newspaper in comfortable silence, the tears dried from her cheeks, her grandmother’s expression once more solemn and unreadable.

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