These Houses Chapter Five

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER FIVE

            Mags had never seen a school so big, so imposing, and so ugly in all her life.

            Milton took up an entire city block with just the building itself.  The parking lots were on a separate block, connected with an interior street, and the football, baseball, and soccer fields expanded beyond that.  The school had eaten up a large chunk of the neighborhood it sat in, and the houses around it, across the street from it, seemed so tiny and miniscule in comparison.

            She craned her neck upward as Sean eased into the parking lot and she saw the smoke stacks, useless now, of course, but still there from its nineteenth-century factory days.  The windows, too, were high and skinny, and she imagined that despite its ugliness, its sootiness, it received a wealth of natural light.

            Sean pulled into the parking lot and she saw a group of protestors on the street corner, just outside of the school grounds.  “What’s that about?” she asked.

            “Oh, that?”  Sean pulled into a parking spot, she noticed the sign in front of it said “SENIOR CLASS PRESIDENT.”  Of course he was, she thought.  She couldn’t have imagined anyone would win against this serious, earnest boy.  He was high school royalty, clearly.  With his good looks and athleticism, how could he not be?  “They’re protesting the budget cuts.”  He shrugged one shoulder and didn’t look at her.  “Some teachers and staff lost their jobs over the summer, across the school district.  Since this is the flagship school, they’re protesting here, I guess.”

            Mags squinted across the way.  “Are they the same people who gave you the flyer?”

            “What flyer?”

            “The flyer from the other night, at the pizza place.  You…” she was quiet for a moment, embarrassed to have been caught, once again, staring at him, watching him, this strange boy and his strange ways.  “At the pizza place,” she said again.

            He shut off the car and the engine died with a whirr and a shudder.  Until the parking lot, they had sat in silence the entire three miles, with no music (the car had no radio), no talking (there was nothing but awkward silence after their shared love of bacon), nothing but the GTO’s engine and its roar to keep them company.  Sean turned to her.  “Do you need help getting out?”

            She blinked at him.  Clearly, he was changing the subject, but again, she didn’t know why.  “Help getting out of the car?”  When he nodded, she shook her head.  “Why would I?”

            He glanced down at her skirt and then turned away, uncomfortable.  “I mean, you have to climb over the shift, so I didn’t know if…”

            She looked down at herself and couldn’t help her embarrassed smile.  “Code of the Catholic School Girl Rule Number Six: always wear shorts under your skirt.  Some things are engrained in the mind, even for Gowns.”

            She expected his embarrassment.  Earlier, he had seemed to regret calling her Gown, after all, so she was surprised—once again, so surprised by this strange boy—when his ghost smile grew.  “Spoken like a true Gown.  Always trying to instruct us poor, dumb Townies.”

            The words were harsh but the tone was teasing and she saw the glint of humor in his eyes.  Not so earnest, then, this boy.  Sarcastic.  Funny.  She wondered if his hesitance and reserve were at all connected to the hairline-crack scar on his jaw, the crisscross on his knuckles, the faded, ancient red burns—the exact size of cigarettes, she realized—on his arms.  “Thanks for the ride,” she said, awkward now, unsure of how to respond to this dichotomy in boy form.

            The smile faded from his face and was replaced by his usual stoicism.  “Sure,” he said, and climbed out of the car.

            By the time she had navigated herself, her bag, and her skirt around the stick shift, across the seat, and through the open driver’s door, Sean was leaning into the open window of a mini-van just pulled up next to them, in a spot marked both “HANDICAPPED PARKING ONLY” and “STUDENT COUNCIL PRESIDENT.”  Someone even higher up the food chain, Mags thought, and tried not to peer around Sean to see through the windows.  She closed the door to the GTO and just leaned against it.

            She needn’t have bothered with her politeness.  A small hand reached out to push Sean aside and a girl’s face peeked through the window.  “You Coach Hale’s daughter?”

            The girl was lovely.  No, beyond lovely.  With bright dark eyes, clear skin, high cheekbones, and hair poofed out in big loose ringlets around her face, she was devastating.  But she looked so delicate in that seat, so small and diminutive that Mags wondered if she were ill. 

            “Hey.  Earth to new girl.”  The girl turned to Sean.  “Did you scare her off already?  Goddammit, Thornton.  Stop scaring off the new girls.”

Mags blinked, realized she had been staring again, and finally nodded.  “I am.  New, I mean.  I mean, Coach Hale’s daughter.”

            The girl grinned and waved her hand.  “I’m Bess.  My mom’s Principal Higgins.  We’ve been waiting forever for you to come.”  And then she turned to say something to the person in the driver’s seat.

            When the driver’s door opened and a boy climbed out, Mags had to check her gasp.  He was, perhaps, the most gorgeous boy she had ever seen this side of a movie screen.  Body tall and lean, skin smooth and dark, smile wide and easy, he grinned at her and became, impossibly, even more gorgeous.  Mags actually felt her knees go a little weak at that grin.  The boy jutted out his chin in acknowledgment.  “Hey,” he said.  “I’m Colin.  You must be Margaret.”

            Mags blushed, honest to God blushed, from her hairline to her chest.  “Mags,” she said, her voice soft, and she wondered who this suddenly shy girl was taking over her body.

            Sean, of course, watched all of this with his damnable, unreadable eyes.

            “Mags?”  Colin looked at Sean.  “Mags.”

            Sean shrugged, nonchalant, but broke eye contact with Mags.  “That’s what she said.”  His ears pinked, just a little and Mags realized there was some secret conversation happening to which she didn’t have the code.

            “Mags,” Colin said again, still looking at Sean.  Then a lazy smile spread over his face.  “I like it,” he said.  “Welcome to Milton, Mags.”

            “Stop flirting,” the girl said from her now open door.  “Christ already.  The girl just got here.  Let her get her schedule before you try your small-town Casanova bullshit on her.  FYI,” she said, this time to Mags.  “I hate to tell you that you’re not special, I mean, since we just met and all, but when it comes to Colin, you’re really not.  You’ve got tits and hair and a face, so that’s good enough for him.”

Mags couldn’t help it.  The girl sounded so much like Edie that she laughed almost on instinct. 

“I’m wounded to the core by your disbelieving laughter.  I mean, you’ve got really nice…” Colin paused and his grin grew wider.  “Hair and face.”

            “Hair and face,” Mags said, and pointed at them.  “Up here, Romeo.”

Sean shot her an unreadable look, Colin’s grin widened, and the girl lit up.  “Oh, I like her,” she said.  “Someone who isn’t intimidated by my gorgeous asshole of a brother.  I’m Bess.”

            “Mags,” she said.  “Hi.”

            She watched as Colin pulled out two bright pink forearm crutches from the trunk and walked over to his sister’s side of the car.  “I’ve got muscular dystrophy,” Bess called out.  “Basically, Colin was like the world’s biggest womb bully, took all my strength and was all, ‘hey, bitch, that’s mine,’ and so he’s quarterback and I’m a cripple.”

            “You’re not that crippled,” Sean said, and gave Bess his half-smile that dimpled his cheek and lightened his eyes.  Mags watched, fascinated, at the change in his expression, the loosening of his shoulders.  “Just a little bit.  Don’t be so melodramatic.”

            “A lot of bit,” Bess said.  “Stop flirting with me, Sean.  My weak little crippled heart can’t handle it.” 

“Stop using that word,” Colin said.  “Not around the new girl.  She doesn’t know you.”

            “You’re twins,” Mags said.  She saw it then, when the two of them were together.  What was delicate and refined in Bess was broader and masculine on Colin, but they had the same eyes, the same lazy smile, the same clear skin and high cheekbones.  “God, how gorgeous are your parents?” she asked without thinking.

            Colin and Bess stared at her for a long moment, twin expressions of surprise on their faces.  Sean was the one who broke the silence.  “She’s a photographer,” he said to the twins.  “She likes pretty things.”

            Mags suddenly blushed and looked down.  “Sorry,” she said, but didn’t even know why she was apologizing.

            “Sorry for what?” Bess asked.  “Calling us gorgeous?  Shit, I think you’re the first person besides Sean to even notice we look alike.  Most are too distracted by the sadness of my March of Dimes life.”

            “No one wants to pity you,” Sean said.  “Stop trying to pull that ‘woe is me I’m a sad little cripple’ crap.  We know you’re milking this.”

            “Wounded to the core,” Bess said, and laughed.

            Colin rolled his eyes at Mags.

Bess slipped her arms into her crutches and stood.  She was at least a foot shorter than her brother, and her body seemed so small and frail, Mags wondered how she would get around at all.  Then Bess walked over to her and she saw the arm muscles stretching with the effort.  “My God, you’re buff,” Mags said without thinking.

            Bess burst into laughter.  “Now I really like you.”  She grinned at Colin as he slung her backpack over his shoulder. 

            Mags saw it then, the ease and familiarity of the group.  This was a scene that had happened hundreds of times, thousands.  Sean’s teasing, Bess’s outrageous comments, Colin’s brotherly concern.  She felt out of sorts, an intruder, a mere acquaintance trespassing on a familial, intimate scene.

            And then Bess smiled at her brother.  He smiled down at her.  The very same moment, the sun broke through the clouds to burn Sean’s hair red and his eyes turquoise.  They were all so perfectly framed that she couldn’t help it.  She pulled out her camera and snapped three quick shots before anyone even noticed.

Once they did, Colin grinned and hammed for the camera, Sean went unreadable, and Bess went thoughtful.  She took one more shot, obliging, before she lowered her camera.

“Photographer, huh?” Bess asked.

            “It’s nothing,” Mags said before she crammed her camera back in her bag.  “Sorry.  I should have asked.”

            Bess walked over to look up at her, the effort noticeable, as if she wanted Mags to know that it was important they stood close.  “No one ever bothers to take pictures with me in them,” she said in a quiet voice that the boys couldn’t hear.  “Not ever.  Not when Colin’s there.”

            “The sun broke through,” Mags said, still hesitant and embarrassed that she had acted on impulse.  “And you three were framed perfectly.”

            “Perfectly,” Bess said, her eyes still thoughtful.  “Perfectly.”

            Mags didn’t know if she was making fun of her, but some instinct told her no, she wasn’t.  There was something deeper going on, something she didn’t quite comprehend.  “I’m sorry,” she said to Bess, and then to the boys, “I should have asked.”

            “Just join the newspaper,” Colin said.  “Then you don’t ever have to ask.  You can take pictures of whatever you want and people won’t even think twice about it.”  He gave her that gorgeous grin of his.  “No apologies necessary.”

            “I don’t know if you’ll get in good with the editor, though.”  Sean lifted an eyebrow at Bess.  “She’s kind of a bitch.”

            “She sure is,” Bess said, suddenly cheerful again.  “But she says hired.”

            Mags couldn’t help the slow smile spreading on her face.  “You’re the editor.”

            “Of course I’m editor.  What else is there to do?”  Bess lifted one crutch in an odd shrug.  “I mean, I don’t even need to ask if you’re any good.  Anyone who all guerilla shoots has to be good.”

            “Or just rude,” Mags said, smiling wider.

            Bess laughed.  “I really like her,” she said to Sean.  “Carry her books, Thornton.  Be a gentleman.”

            Sean started but held out a hand for Mags’s bag.  She shook her head.  “It’s got my camera in it.”

            His brow wrinkled.  “I won’t drop it.”

            “No.”  Mags shook her head, awkward again.  “I just… I just don’t like to let it out of my sight, that’s all.”  How to explain to him that it was like asking him to carry her bodily across the lawn?  It was too much an extension of her.  She was naked without it.  Exposed.  Even now, her hands felt empty and her face too… revealed.  Behind the camera, no one saw her.  They just saw the lens.  Everyone loved lenses.

            “Seriously, Gown, I’m not going to do anything to it.”  Sean reached out for her bag again.

            Bess smacked him in the leg with her crutch.  “You don’t understand anything, you big ox.  She’s a photographer.

            Mags shuffled in place, embarrassed now at all of the attention directed to her, Colin’s, Bess’s, and Sean’s eyes all focused on her face.

            “That’s like letting someone carry your helmet for you during the game,” Bess said.  “And, you know, you just need to ask them nicely to give it to you when you need it.”

            Mags’s hand went to her bag on instinct, curling around it and clutching it on the bottom.  “It’s okay,” she said.  “Really.  If you want—”

            “No,” Sean said, his eyes unreadable.  “Whatever you want.  I was just being polite.”  He turned and began to walk toward the building, Colin at his side.

            Once again, she destroyed whatever tenuous amiability they had established between them, and she didn’t even know how.

            Bess rolled her eyes at Mags.  “Boys,” she mouthed, before she turned to the building.  “Come on.  Let’s get to the front office before the hyenas descend.”

            But they weren’t even halfway up the sidewalk before a group of students crowded around.  “Hyenas,” Bess whispered to Mags, but she needn’t have bothered.  They had fallen behind.  The boys, with their longer legs and loping stride, were a good ten to fifteen feet in front of them.  Mags had stayed back with Bess, who had shot her a grateful look.

            “Who are the hyenas?” Mags asked.

            Bess stopped walking and caught her breath before she spoke.  “Hunter Wilson,” she said, at the squat, muscular boy with the squinty eyes and mean grin.  “He hates me.  I don’t know why.  Lily Thornton.  Sean’s sister.”  She pointed at the girl with the strawberry blonde hair and Sean’s eyes.  “She’s indifferent to me.  The feeling’s mutual.  And Bronwyn Barker.”  Bess eyed Mags for a moment.  “I predict she’s going to hate you.

            “Why would she hate me?” Mags asked.

            Bess stared up at Mags, a little smile on her face.  “I have no idea,” she said.  “Just a prediction.”

Mags watched as the crowd fell into step around Sean and Colin.  Hunter stood next to Lily but spoke to the boys, while Bronwyn fell in next to Sean and leaned into him, smiling.  He looked down at her and gave her a wide smile as she chattered away at him.  The change in him was almost shocking.  He became a different person, talkative, friendly, his smiles easy and free.  Well, everything but the shoulders.  Those still held the tension, the distance, and his eyes were still dark and unreadable.

“Are they dating?”  She glanced at Bess.  “Do you think she’d be mad because he gave me a ride?”  To Mags, that sounded a level of ridiculous even her years of experience at a girls’ school couldn’t comprehend.

“No, they’re not dating,” Bess said.  “Much to Queen B’s dismay.  She’s been trying to hook that fish for years now.”  But when Bronwyn tugged Sean down to whisper in his ear, Bess shrugged.  “Well, I mean, they’ve gone on dates.  But they’re not dating.”  She started to walk forward.  “Come on.  I suppose we have to introduce you, although I fear if I do, the corruption will settle in.”

            When they reached the group, Colin turned to smile at them.  “Hey, you guys, this is Mags.  She’s Coach Hale’s daughter.”

            “Hey.”  Hunter eyed her for a moment and seemed to dismiss her out of hand.

            Lily nodded, her eyes cool and unattached.  “Hello,” she said, and then turned back to Hunter.

            But Bronwyn made a very big deal of hooking her arm with Sean’s.  “Oh, hi.”  She smiled, wide and fake, at Mags.  “So you’re the new girl.”

            “That’s me,” Mags said, and shifted her bag on her shoulder.

            “Was that your high school?”  Bronwyn pointed to Mags’s shirt.

            “What?”  Mags looked down, forgetting for a moment what she even put on that morning.  Right.  The Sunnydale High shirt.  “Oh, no, it’s not.”

            “Why would you wear a shirt for a school you didn’t even go to?” Bronwyn asked.  She looked up at Sean, a little smile on her face.  “Is that weird?  I don’t know.  I just think it’s weird.”

            “It’s from Buffy,” he said, without another glance at Mags.

            Mags was surprised, honest to God surprised both that he had even noticed and that he got the reference.  Of all the TV shows she expected Sean Thornton, Milton senior class president, to watch, it certainly wasn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  “Go Razorbacks,” she said.

            That got her a glance, and Sean’s ghost smile widened to his dimpled little half smile, and she pinked in response because some part of her, the cognizant reader of people realized that this was his true smile, the half-smile, not the wide and easy—fake, she now realized, completely fake—smile she had seen earlier.  She smiled back before she realized she had just made an enemy for life.

            Bronwyn’s eyes narrowed, but she plastered on a fake smile of her own.  “Oh, right.  Buffy.  I remember now.  Sean, you used to make me watch that all the time.  Remember?  When Lily and I would have our sleepovers at your house and we’d stay up all night?”  She smiled up at him, but her eyes flitted back to Mags.  “All the time,” she said again.

            “Bess, you need to get inside before you get too tired,” Colin said.  “Are you good taking Mags to the front office?  I’ll bring your books to first period.”

            “Of course I am,” Bess said.  “You ready, new girl?”

            “Right.”  Mags nodded at the group.  “It was nice meeting you.”

            “Wonderful to meet you,” Bronwyn said.  “Welcome to Milton High!”  And then she tugged Sean away before he could say anything else.  Hunter and Lily followed a moment afterwards.

            “Do you need anything else?” Colin asked his sister.

            “Arsenic for Queen B?” she asked.

            Colin chuckled.  “I meant your wheelchair.”

            “Not on the first day,” she said.  “I’m good.”

            He leaned over to kiss his sister on the forehead.  “See you at first period.”  Then, smiling, he leaned in to Mags.  “First day kiss?” he asked.

            She smacked him on the arm.  “You are incorrigible.”

            “Hey!” he said.  “That’s an SAT word.”  He winked at Mags and then broke into a run to catch up with his friends.  He was even a beautiful runner, his strides even and well-placed.

            “Stop drooling over my brother,” Bess said.  “It’s unseemly.”

            “How is there so much pretty in one family?” Mags asked.  “It seems unfair to the rest of the gene pool.”

            “Well, look at it this way.  I got the pretty, you got the tits.  Ultimately, it’s a reasonable tradeoff.”  She smiled up at Mags.  “So, normally, at this point in meeting a new female student who has also had the misfortune of meeting my brother, I’d tell you to go ahead and run along since I am pretty sure you’re only being nice to me to get Colin to like you.”

            Mags smiled back.  “I’m not only being nice to you to get at your brother.”  She paused for a second, wondering if Bess would understand her humor.  She took a deep breath and decided to take the plunge.  “Besides, I think I’ve got that in the bag if I want it.”

            Bess let out a bark of laughter.  “Remember what I said?  Tits, hair, and face.  In that order.”

            Mags liked her.  She had made a friend, a friend so much like Edie that she almost shook from the pain of missing her.  But she squared her shoulders and adjusted her bag once more.  “Hair before face, huh?”

            “Hey, the boy has some standards.”  Bess blew a lock of hair out of her face.  “Okay, so one standard.  But still.  He’s blood.  I’ve got to stick up for him against all you horribly lustful sluts.”

            “I do live in a constant state of sluttiness,” Mags agreed.  “But I will try my best to restrain myself in the name of friendship.”

            “Awesome.”  Bess began walking.  “Now that we’re friends, I can start telling you all about my dream to be a female MC, circa 1985.”

            Mags burst into laughter and fell into step next to her.  “Born too late, huh?”

            “You have no idea, new girl.  You have no idea.”

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