These Houses Chapter Four

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER FOUR

            When she woke up Monday morning, Mags felt it again, that odd sense of freedom, of not being answerable to anyone or anything, not at this moment.  Perhaps it had something to do with the weather.  The heat had broken with the rain and she was shocked to find the weather cool and breezy, somewhere in the mid-seventies.  When she had asked her father about it, he told her that was pretty much normal for August in this part of the state.  She didn’t remember what the winters were like from their few visits over Christmas, but she was looking forward to four full seasons of weather.

Or perhaps it was the fact that she suspended all of her social networking accounts Sunday after breakfast.  When she logged on to one of them, she had seen Henry’s posts first, pictures from his date with Jenn the night before.  Like the slow crawl of traffic by a horrible accident, Mags looked, and looked.  He had taken her everywhere sacred to them: Café du Monde, Jackson Square, the river, and in one picture, they were making out so heavily, she couldn’t tell where one mouth began and the other ended.

            Normally, she wouldn’t even think much of it, but after the phone call, and reading the caption declaring “THIS is how you celebrate in the French Quarter,” and seeing none of their pictures, she had enough.  In the end, it took approximately two seconds per site.  She deleted all of her accounts, one after another.  Each one asked her if she was sure.  Yes, she thought.  Yes, I am positive.  And just like that, she shed her old life.

            Of course, she didn’t expect it to last forever.  She had some people she wanted to stay in contact with.  But the freedom of it, of not knowing what other people were doing, of not living up to the expectations everyone had—gone only two days and already there were questions about the move, her new town, her new school—made her almost light-headed.

            Then, she remembered that today was the first day of school, and all former freedom washed away to anxiety, and fear, and discomfort.  She had spent an hour the night before picking through her closet because she had never, not once in her entire life, worn whatever she wanted to school.

            She had been surprised when her grandmother came into her room, under pretense, it seemed, of getting linens from the dresser, but when she sat down and examined the outfits Mags laid out, she suspected her grandmother wanted to help.

            “This?” Mags asked, holding up an A-line paisley print cotton dress.

            Her grandmother wrinkled her nose.  “Not for the first day.  This is public school, not a dance.  You don’t want to seem too Gown, Margaret.” 

            Mags started at that word again.  “What does that mean?”

            “Hmm?”  Her grandmother picked through the clothes laid out on Mags’s bed.  “Gown?”

            “Yes.  I heard that yesterday.”

            Her grandmother gave her a sharp look.  “Did Caleb Mueller call you that?”

            “What?  No, of course not.”  She paused for a second.  “His nephew did.”

            “Hmm,” her grandmother said again.  “There’s quite the rivalry between Milton and Helstone.”

            “Helstone’s the private school, right?  Dad’s alma mater?”

            “And Milton’s public.  But more than that.  Helstone is where the professors at the university send their kids.”

            It clicked for Mags.  “And Milton’s where the townies go.”

            “On the East side, anyway.  Town.”  Her grandmother lifted one hand.  “And Gown.”  She lifted the other.  “Doesn’t matter where you grew up.  If you end up at Helstone for high school, you become Gown, just like that.  Happened to your dad.  Caleb grew up just around the corner.  His mom still lives there.  But once your dad started at Helstone, they weren’t really friends anymore.”

            “Did they hate each other?”

            “No, no,” her grandmother said.  “Nothing so complicated as that.  They just… drifted apart.”

            “But I’m not going to Helstone,” Mags said.  “So why did he call me Gown?”

            Her grandmother patted her on the hand.  “You’re not local.  You look and dress differently than the other girls here.  You talk differently than everyone else.  It makes you stand out at Milton.”

            “He thinks I’m a snob.”  Mags looked down at the clothes on her bed and suddenly, they felt like costumes, too much like a Catholic school girl trying to play nice at the big bad public school.  She shoved aside a few dresses and a pair of cigarette pants, but other than jeans, she really didn’t have that much in the way of casual clothes.  She had worn a uniform five days a week for nine months out of the year, and her parents hadn’t had any extra money, the time, or the inclination to buy Mags new clothes for Milton.  Other things had to be bought, of course.  Her mom had needed a new humidifier, not to mention new prescriptions for her nerves, what with the cross-country drive looming.  Her dad had needed new shirts for coaching.  Freddie had needed more care packages, a Kevlar vest.  Not to mention the gas for driving thirteen hours.  Mags hadn’t needed new clothes.  Why would she?  She had perfectly good clothes right here.

            Her fingers trembled as she sorted through and through the pile of clothing.  Nothing seemed right.  Everything was marked by “Gown.”

            “Plus, your father was recruited by Helstone, and he turned them down.”

            This was news to Mags.  She just assumed he had taken the only job he had received an offer for.  “Why did he turn them down?” she finally asked.

Her grandmother looked over at her with eyes so like her own: dark and inky, brown almost black.  “Because he wasn’t about to put any of you through another situation like you had just left.”

“Grandma, I—”

“Margaret, you’re not the only one in this family.”

She felt herself turning red.  “I’m sorry, I—”

“No,” her grandmother interrupted.  “I don’t mean that.  I mean, you’re not the only one who had to deal with what Freddie did.”

What Freddie did, she had said.  Mags stared at her.  She had said what Freddie did, not what you did.  “What does that have to do with Helstone?”

“For your father, Helstone seemed like it was going to be a lot of the same.  Does that make sense?”  Her grandmother shrugged.  “And he thought maybe it was good for all of you to do something different for once.” 

Mags was quiet for a long moment.  “I never knew,” she said.  “I just assumed.”

“Don’t assume too much, Margaret.  There is a lot the grownups do behind the scenes.”  Mags was shocked when her grandmother gave her a solemn wink.  She started giggling, and her grandmother smiled.

Then, all business.  Her grandmother looked at the clothes Mags had laid out and, with a slight oomph of movement, stood to walk over to the wardrobe.  “Cute but not too nice,” she said, and plucked out a black kilt.  After a brief examination of the hanging clothes, she moved to the dresser and grabbed the first colored shirt she saw, a maroon baby-doll emblazoned “SUNNYDALE HIGH SCHOOL” on the front.  “This,” she said.  “It’s you, and it’s casual enough for the first day.”

            Mags should have been surprised but she wasn’t.  Her grandmother had worked retail, at a high-end boutique in downtown Marlborough, for years.  She was retired now, but she still dressed impeccably.  But more importantly, she knew this town, and knew what was expected of the coach’s new “Gown” daughter, and how to combat that assumption.  “Thanks,” Mags said, and smiled.

            Her grandmother smiled back.  “I have some old clothes,” she had said, and stood up.  “Classic pieces.  Maybe tomorrow night, we can go through them, see if there’s anything you like.”

            Now, Monday morning before her first day, Mags stretched her arms high above her head before she collapsed in a groan and grabbed her towel.  It was already 6:00, and if she wanted to catch a ride with her father, she would have to hurry.  He was leaving at 6:15.  She showered in record time and threw on yoga pants and a t-shirt for her trek back across the house.  While she was grateful—it was true, she was—for her grandmother’s generosity in opening her house to her wayward son and his family, she did miss, beyond all recognition, having her own bathroom.

            Hearing voices in the dining room, Mags moved toward the door.  When she heard her mother’s voice, she broke into a wide smile and walked into the room.  “Mom!  What are you doing out of…” her voice trailed off when she saw exactly why her mother was out of bed for breakfast, for the first time in over a year.

            There they all sat, her family: dad at the head of the table in front of an empty plate and full travel mug of coffee, mom at his left, chatting with their guest who was, at this moment, getting another huge helping of bacon and eggs from her grandmother.

Grandmother Hale looked up at Mags and eyed her clothes.  “You’re not dressed yet?”

            Mags felt herself pink, from her cheeks down her throat, as Sean stared at her once again wearing the most ridiculous outfit one could imagine, but this time, bonus, without a bra.  “I just got out of the shower.”  The towel on her head slipped down and she made a grab for it, too late.  Her wet hair fell down her back and moistened her shirt.  She took the opportunity to drape the towel over her shoulders to try to cover her chest.

            Sean, of course, was dressed like a human being, wearing a black shirt proclaiming “Milton Strikers Football” in bold red letters, hair dry and brushed, but still tousled, unruly in the way that only children and teenage boys could get away with.  He gave her another look with those damnable eyes and she backed up two steps.  “I’ll get dressed,” she said.  “Be right back.”

            Mags dressed even faster than she had showered.  Hair up in a sloppy bun, clothes proper enough to see a stranger before she had even had coffee, and her black low-rise Converse with the skull shoestrings Freddie had given her completed the ensemble.

            “Sit down,” her grandmother said when she came back.  “I’ll go make you a plate.”  She disappeared back into the kitchen.

            “Thornton’s agreed to give you a ride,” her dad said as he got out of his chair.  He pressed an absent kiss to her forehead before he handed his paper to her mother.  “I have an all-day meeting with the other coaches two towns over, something about the schedule, and I can’t bring you to school.”

            It took her a moment to realize that Thornton was Sean.  She had thought his last name was Mueller, like his uncle.  “Oh,” she said.  She turned to him.  “It’s okay.  I can walk to school.”

            “It’s three miles,” Sean said, once again all astonishment.

            Mags turned to her father, desperate.  “I don’t want to be a bother.”

            “That’s why I’ve asked Thornton,” her father said.  “Because I can’t go halfway in one direction and then go back across town to the highway.” 

            “Margaret never means to be a bother,” her mother told Sean.  “She tries very hard not to be, but…” she let her voice trail off as she lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug.

            Mags felt the heat rise to her cheeks as she scrambled.  “I can take a bus.”  She stood from her chair.  “I am sure there’s a bus stop nearby.”

“No, no.”  Her father gave his wife a kiss before he patted Sean on the shoulder.  “Caleb said my car should be done tomorrow, so we don’t need to worry about Thornton going out of his way for you any more than this.”

            “It’s not out of my way.”  Sean’s tone was a bit sharper than necessary, and everyone turned to look at him, even Mags’s father.  The tips of his ears turned pink again and he gave Mags’s mother a smile.  She gave him a tremulous one back, but he had already turned back to Mags.  “I’m usually dropping something off at my grandmother’s on the way to school anyhow.  My mom always has something to give her.  So anytime, really.  It’s no big deal.”

            “She lives five houses down,” Grandmother Hale reminded Mags as she returned to hand her a plate.  “Just around the corner.”

            “See?  All settled.”  Her father gave everyone a distant wave before he walked outside.

            Mags slumped in a seat.  “Thanks, Sean.  I appreciate it.”

            “You’re welcome.”  He glanced over at her out of the corner of his eye, even brighter now in the morning sun. 

Mags felt her own eyes so muddy in comparison, the dull brown not even copper, or rusty.  Freddie had gotten their father’s lighter eyes, while Mags took after her mother and her Acadian French heritage.  The closer she looked, the more she noticed that the blue of Sean’s eyes was almost turquoise in the early morning light, and her right index finger tapped against the table, just once, as if it were depressing a camera shutter.  There was that thing about his eyes again.  Not the color, not exactly.  Not even the expression.  Just a shadow, off in the distance.  No seventeen-year-old boy had eyes that old.

“Are you going to eat that?”

            She blinked and realized she had been staring, at Sean Thornton’s eyes, for minutes, days, it seemed, as she tried to figure out what speed would best catch the sun haloing his hair, making the brown burn red.  What angle would best allow the camera to get both the turquoise eyes and the tiny hairline scar tracing the length of his jaw.  What shot could help her figure out this incredibly unreadable boy.  If she could just have a picture, then she could pick it apart later, in private, so she didn’t have to stare at him so goddamn much.  The ones from the car were too dark to be of much use, not for this much deciphering.  “I’m sorry?”

“Eat,” he said.  “This?”

She looked down to see his fork poised over her admirable pile of bacon.  “What?  The bacon?  Of course I’m going to eat it.  It’s bacon.”

            He lifted one shoulder in a shrug, but there was that half-smile again, ghosting his lips, lightening his somber expression, his bottomless eyes.  “I didn’t think you were on a diet like all the other girls at Milton, but since you weren’t eating it, I just wanted to check.  You can’t have good bacon go to waste.”

            There was a long moment of silence as the three women at the table comprehended the first part of his statement.  Sean cut at the three pancakes on his plate with a blithe spirit only boys—idiot teenage boys, Mags amended—possessed.

            There.  Just as the silence grew more awkward, he hesitated, fork cutting into his fourth bite slower than the first three.  The slip of the fork from the finger and she felt rather than saw him wince.  Her finger depressed her invisible shutter again.  Click.

            The silence was broken, finally broken, by a little female titter.  Not terribly loud, no.  And nothing crass or cruel.  Just the tiniest little giggle.  Mags felt something inside of her break, just a bit, at her mother’s laugh.  It hurt, more than anything, more than the misguided comment, and more than Sean’s own growing mortification, not because it wasn’t familiar, but because it was.

            When Grandmother Hale cleared her throat, Sean’s eyes widened as he began to scramble.  “I didn’t mean it that way.”

            Mags just shook her head.  “Don’t worry about it.”  She felt stupid in her clothes, then, her shirt too small, her skirt emphasizing her too-large hips and she wondered if she would ever stop feeling so uncomfortable in her own skin again.

            “No,” Sean said.  “I really didn’t mean it like that.”

            Her finger itched again for her camera, to record the utter earnestness on his face.  “It’s okay,” she said, and it was.  She wasn’t upset about his comment, after all.

            “No, it’s not.”  He leaned forward, just a little.  “I just meant that you didn’t look like the girls at Milton.”  Something must have passed on her face because he winced again, visibly this time.  “And you’re not total Gown, not wearing that.”  And his eyes grew wide because he knew that brought the whole thing to another level.  “I mean—”

            “Young man,” Grandmother Hale interrupted.  “You really need to learn when to let something go.”

            His ears flushed pink and he nodded.  “Sorry,” he said, and turned back to his plate.

That word had come up again.  Gown.  Mags had tried to strip it away from her but there it was, proving once again that she didn’t belong.  But if not Marlborough, then where?  Not New Orleans.  Not anymore.  There was nothing left for her there.  Everyone and everything had made that painfully apparent.

            “I need to go lie down now,” her mother said, the novelty of a boy at breakfast worn off, Mags once again put in her place.  Mags burned at the thought and hated herself, just a little, for thinking it.  More than anything, she hated the fact that she was right.

            “Yes, of course you do, mom,” she said, simply and without malice.  There was nothing else to say.  When the battle lines had been drawn, they could only emotionally support one of their children.  Freddie’s concerns were more immediate, and threatening.  Mags didn’t blame her parents.  She couldn’t.  She herself placed Freddie’s concerns over her own.  How could she not, after what he had sacrificed for her?

Her mother stretched across the table, trembling a bit as she reached a hand to Sean.  He met her more than halfway, his long arms taking up the space so she didn’t have to.  He gave her trembling hand a gentle shake.  “It was very nice to meet you.  This is a rare treat for me, to eat breakfast at the table.  I don’t know if Mags told you, but I am very ill.”

Mags thought impossibly of Jane Austen, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, her nerves that had been his constant bedfellows.  Her mother’s illness was the same.  Taken to bed when the mess with Freddie started, and never right again, the rest of the family scrambling, always scrambling, to help defray her ever-constant nerves.

            “Nice to meet you as well, ma’am,” Sean said.  “I hope you feel better.”

            “Yes,” she said.  “That is always my wish.”  Her mother stood and Mags stood with her, to help her leave.  But Grandmother Hale was there before she was, and she waved Mags back down.  Helpless, Mags sank back into her chair.

            Once they left the room, the silence, earlier so awkward, was even worse.  Mags poked at the eggs with her fork, appetite gone.  She wasn’t surprised that Sean was the one who broke the silence, but his words, at least, were unexpected.

            “My sister hasn’t touched bacon in five years.”

            She glanced over at him, curious where his train of thought would eventually derail.  “How old is she?”

            “Sixteen,” he said.  “She started dieting at eleven.  She’s not unhealthy thin.  She’s not stupid or anything.  But she’s so obsessed with maintaining her weight that sometimes, it’s all she talks about, and it’s all her friends talk about, and all most of the girls at school talk about, so….”  He shrugged and gave her that shy boyish half-look again.  “It was just refreshing, you know?  To see bacon on your plate?”  He ended his sentences up again, a nervous habit, Mags realized.  One he must have picked up from his uncle. 

            Mags glanced down at the bacon on her plate.  “I just… I just never cared that much.”  The words fell from her mouth.  He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and she rushed forward to fill the silence, unable to stop now that she had started.  “I mean, as long as my love of food doesn’t keep me from my love of cute clothes, I don’t really care if I’m twenty pounds outside of normal.”

“That’s a very healthy attitude,” Sean said.  He reached for another pancake.  “‘Normal’ is twenty pounds underweight anyways.”

Mags stared at him for a second, wondering if he had just complimented her or just committed boy-speak, that indecipherable language Edie swore teenage boys learned with the first onslaught of puberty.  Who knew their mysterious ways? she would intone, her voice deep and sonorous, her fingers twinkling like The Twilight Zone.  Who could speak to the dark and ancient horrors of… The Teenage Boy!

She felt the pain, the absence where Edie had been, her entire life.  An emptiness, there, in her heart.  Edie wasn’t avoiding her after Henry’s confession, no, but she had only texted seven times since Mags left Saturday.  That was approximately a hundred times less than a normal weekend.

When Sean kept eating his pancakes, she decided it was just boy-speak after all.

Then a pause, and when he spoke again, it was in a rush of breath, as if he didn’t want to lose this sudden burst of courage.  “Besides, as all diets are inherently anti-bacon, and as the country is heavily dependent on the pork industry, what with the current economic recession, I’ve pretty much declared all diets radically and dangerously un-American.”

It was the most she had heard him say in one go.  It was probably the most she had heard him say at all, since they met.  She got it, then, the teasing, the lightening of the situation.  Whoever Sean Thornton was, whoever he imagined her to be, he understood the mortification her parents had made her suffer because of his slip-up.  He saw through her desperation.  He was changing the subject.  And she was grateful.  “Communist even,” she said, and watched as his nascent smile grew wider, birthing into something even more unreadable, but at least friendlier.

“And we are loyal patriots.”  He lifted a piece of bacon off of her plate and saluted her with it.  “God bless these United States of Bacon.”  When he crunched the slice, she could see his teeth flash, even and white.

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