Copyright Amy L. Montz
She was ignored in homeroom. Even the teacher’s eyes glazed over as she nodded at Mags when she answered “here” to her name.
She was ignored in AP Bio II. A student turned to hand back the syllabus, but did not smile or speak to her in any other way. The rest of the period was taken up with explanations that yes, they would be dissecting fetal pigs, but no, none of them could ask about the incident from 2005, to which everyone chuckled, except Mags, who had no idea what the joke was that everyone was so clearly in on. And honestly, Mags thought as she left the classroom, which genius administrator thought having students dissect first thing in the morning was a good idea?
She was ignored in P.E. She received her uniform—a black shirt like Sean’s advertising the school’s athletic department, black shorts with the school’s name on the right leg, and a bonus pair of black sweatpants and black hoodie for the colder months—and then listened as the female P.E. teacher explained to them that yes, they would be expected to exercise, and yes, they have to dress out for gym, and even though they were going to learn archery, no, they could not pretend they were in The Hunger Games.
She was ignored in AP Calculus, which was okay with her since she had no idea what was going on anyhow. She had taken Pre-Calculus junior year, but now felt like the world was speeding by her. She scrambled to keep up, but a quick glance around the room at least assured her she wasn’t the only student struggling to keep her head above water.
By the time she got to English, she was so relieved to see Bess smiling and waving at her, that she almost ran to the desk next to hers. “See?” Bess said when Mags sat down. “I told you Nupur did you right.”
She had. When Bess brought her to the front office, she made Mags wait until her friend Nupur could come to help. She had taken one look at Mags’s schedule and declared it “unacceptable.” Then, Nupur worked her student-worker magic, switching her afternoon English AP for the morning—“with me and Bess now,” Nupur said—her regular Calc for AP Calc—“you would be bored to tears,” Bess said—and enrolling her in Journalism with the smooth and practiced air of a person getting away with, if not murder, then at least manslaughter.
“Nupur’s the best,” Bess said. “I don’t even think Mrs. Castheil understands how to arrange schedules. Nupur’s been doing it since sophomore year. She’s hardcore.”
“She’s a genius,” Mags said. “Except for the whole AP Calculus thing.”
“It’s first day insanity. She calms down and reviews for the next two weeks.” At Mags’s look, Bess shrugged. “I took it last year. I tested out of a bunch of stuff.”
Mags glanced down at the schedule now taped to the inside of her school-issued planner. “So you and I also have Journalism together, but not history or French?”
“Hablo Espanol,” Bess said. “And I hablo Chem II, which is in the afternoons. Don’t worry, my white sister. You won’t be alone in Euro or French.”
“I’ve got AP French with you.” Nupur slid into the seat next to Mags just as the warning bell rang. “I made sure to place us together.”
“My fellow brown sister will not steer you wrong.” Bess extended her hand and she and Nupur fist-bumped. “Most importantly, we are now ladies who lunch first lunch.”
“And I put Sean Thornton in AP Euro history after his mother whined, and Bess said you’re friends with him now.” Nupur reached out a fist to Mags, too. “Nice on that, by the way. Most new kids don’t reach all the way to the top in their first five hours.”
“Of course, our last ‘new kid’ was two years ago, so you’re a bit of an anomaly.” Bess patted Mags’s hand. “Don’t worry. We don’t bite much.” She lifted Mags’s arm and pretended to chomp.
Mags laughed and pulled her arm away. “I don’t think Sean and I qualify as ‘friends,” she said. “Trust me. He’s doing this for my dad. Sean barely tolerates my presence. I mean, he calls me Gown.”
“If the shoe fits,” Nupur said.
“You are kind of a Gown,” Bess said. “I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course.”
“Of course,” Mags said, only slightly unsure if they were joking or not. “I would never think otherwise.”
“Did you mess with Sean in any way?” Nupur asked. “Because Lily Thornton will cut your throat if you mess with her brother. That family is tight.”
“Hey, remember when he liked Wendy Kolecki sophomore year? And she dumped him and told all the girls that he was a bad kisser?” Bess shook her head. “She had to transfer schools. It was like old-school Amish shunning around here, and Lily was just a freshman at the time.” Bess shuddered. “Unpleasant girl she is, but hey, I’m not about to mock a bitch for defending her family. Bitches gotta defend their families.”
“Believe me,” Mags said. “I’ve done nothing to Sean Thornton to either warrant an Amish shunning or to be called Gown.”
Bess rested her head on her arms and grinned at Mags. “Sean Thornton has called me ‘cripple’ since we were kids.”
“And ‘Legs,’” Nupur said.
“And ‘Legs,’” Bess agreed. “He’s many things in this world, but the boy’s not an asshole. You get me?”
“So… it’s a good thing?” Mags asked. “He doesn’t actually think I’m a Gown?”
“No, you’re kind of a Gown. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s not your fault, of course. You’re new. You’re not from here. Your dad went to Helstone. But if Sean thought you were total Gown? He’d call you Margaret.”
“Or ‘Miss Hale,’” Nupur said. “But if he’s calling you Gown, it’s like… it’s like…”
“It’s like he’s daring anyone else to try and call you that to your face,” Bess said, her voice and expression suddenly serious. “No one dared make fun of me after Sean first called me ‘cripple.’ You get me?”
“People made fun of you?” Mags asked, her voice quiet. “I really hate people.”
“Yeah.” Bess smiled, quick and bright. “Yeah, I’m not so much of a fan, either.” She reached over and squeezed Mags’s hand. Mags squeezed back.
“Besides, didn’t he drive you to school?” Nupur asked. “In the GTO, right?”
“I’ve never ridden in that death trap of his car.” Bess leaned around Mags to look at Nupur. “How long have I known Sean?”
“Your entire life.”
“My entire life,” Bess said. She turned back to Mags. “Never once in the GTO.”
“Colin would never let you ride in the GTO,” Nupur said. “It’s not safe for poor little crippled girls.”
“Now, Nupur, you know it’s because that car’s an extension of his penis.” Bess fanned herself. “My God, new girl. You rode around in Sean Thornton’s penis.”
Mags turned twelve shades of pink to which both girls laughed until the class bell rang.
“Good morning,” the teacher said when he walked in. “I’m Mr. Weinbacher. This is AP English. And we’ve got thirteen novels to read before we even get to the practice tests, so let’s get started, hmm?”
When she walked out of English, talking over her shoulder to Bess, Mags ran straight into another student.
“Careful, Gown.” Sean Thornton reached out a hand to steady her, holding onto her elbow until she found her footing again.
“Sorry,” she said as a blush burned bright on her cheeks. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I can see that,” he said. “Where’s Bess?”
“She’s right here.” Mags pulled away from the doorframe and squeezed herself into a little corner formed by the door and the lockers so Bess could have room and everyone would stop paying attention to her. A moment later, Bess struggled through the door.
She didn’t know why she hadn’t noticed before, but Bess was struggling. Her face beaded sweat and when she settled in the doorway, Mags noticed that her arms trembled. Nupur came behind her and eased around. “I’ll see you in the café,” Nupur said. “I need to check in at work really quickly.”
“Run, my brown sister,” Bess said, but even the teasing was hollow.
Nupur didn’t notice, just waved over her shoulder as she darted down the hallway.
“Where are your books?” Sean asked in a low voice Mags could just hear.
“Mags has them,” Bess said. “Right?”
Mags smiled and wiggled her fingers at Bess.
“Colin wants you to switch to your chair,” Sean said.
“Colin can go straight to hell,” Bess said. “Where is his ass anyhow? Isn’t he supposed to take over this brotherly devotion?”
“He’s getting your chair. Don’t be so defensive. You’re tiring yourself out, and it’s only lunch.”
Mags saw Bess’s face crumple. “It’s the first day, Sean,” she said, in a voice so different Mags almost didn’t recognize it. “I don’t want to be in the chair on the first day.”
“The cafeteria might as well be miles from here the way you’re looking right now. It’s the chair or I carry you. You pick.”
“I have a suggestion.”
Two sets of eyes swiveled to look at Mags and she attempted not to cringe under their regard, the steadiness of their gaze. “Ride the chair until just outside the cafeteria. Then, swap out for your crutches, have your triumph, and then, once you’ve eaten, come back, I’ll have your chair waiting for you, and Bob’s your uncle.”
“Bob is my uncle. How’d you know?” But Bess smiled at Mags. “Yeah, that might work.” She turned her face up to Sean. “Will that plot stand, my man?”
“It will stand.” Sean leveled his eyes at Mags. “Give me her bag. I’m going to hit her locker and swap out her books for the afternoon. Do you have more classes with her?”
“We’ve got Journalism, but that’s not until sixth period. I’ve got French at fifth.”
“The Paper’s next door to French, practically.” Sean reached out a hand. “I’ll bring these back to you in the café. Is that okay with you?”
“Of course it’s okay,” Mags said. “But I’ll happily do it.”
“No,” Sean said. “I’ve been chastised once today for failing my gentlemanly duties. I don’t feel like suffering the wrath of angry young women any more than necessary.”
There. Miniscule but there. The ghost smile.
Mags smiled back, wider than usual, and handed over the bag. “Well, I am from the south. I know all about how a gentleman should act. Please, let me know if I can offer you any pointers.”
Sean took Bess’s bag with a mock bow, the ghost smile growing a bit wider. “Why thank you for your ladylike concern. However did we manage without you, Gown?”
Bess leaned against the wall with a heavy sigh before she smacked him in the leg with her crutch. “All right. That’s enough. I declare the rest of the day Mags-teasing-free zone. She’s new, and she’s had more than her share of crap from you, Colin, and me. Okay?”
Sean glanced at Mags out of the corner of his eyes, the smile faded from his face. “Yes, of course. Sorry, Margaret.”
It hurt. She hadn’t expected it would hurt, the purposeful use of her name, the clear reminder that she wasn’t one of them, that she didn’t fit in with their teasing and laughter and jokes. That no matter how much they believed calling her “Gown” would make her one of them, she wasn’t. Not really.
But she had done this for two years now. She knew the appropriate smiles, the right words. She knew how to pretend that everything was fine, no, just fine, to stop the questions, to quell the glances, to transmit nothing but sunshine, sunshine, sunshine. “How does it feel to know your brother went to war because of you, Margaret?” “Jail or enlist? Those were his only two options? And why, exactly, was he arrested again, Margaret?” Or, just the worst one of all, “Really? You just had to tell him, didn’t you, Margaret?”
No, she had heard it all. And she now knew that no matter what she had thought, what she had believed, Marlborough was no different from New Orleans. And she missed home. So very much.
She got her smile on her face, only a touch too late. By the time she had nodded and smiled, Colin had come with Bess’s chair. She followed behind, carrying Bess’s crutches, and swapping out with her a few classrooms down from the cafeteria.
“That’s the Paper office,” Bess said, gesturing at the door next to them. “You can leave it in there. No one will bother it there.”
“Perfect,” Mags said.
Before Bess walked in to lunch, she turned and smiled at Mags. “We’re by the drink machines,” she said. “After you park it, come and find us, okay?”
Another bright smile. “Of course,” she said. “Okay.”
She parked Bess’s chair in the Paper office, but when she turned, her untied shoelace was caught under the wheel. She tripped and landed face-first into the edge of the table. She had to bite her fist to muffle her scream of pain and frustration. Instead, she just sat down in a chair and cradled her hurt jaw in her hand.
She didn’t want to go to lunch. She didn’t want to navigate these strange waters anymore, not alone. Not without Edie. Not without the safe comfort of her camera. She just wanted to run back to her grandmother’s and then maybe beyond, just keep running, running so far and long that she ended back up in New Orleans. And maybe she would keep running then, too, straight into the Mississippi and let herself float downriver to the Gulf, then out into the warm, salty sea. Maybe then she could stop hating herself for what she had brought upon them all with just one word.
Was it them?
Are you sure it was them?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
“Do you need any help finding the cafeteria?”
She swiped her wrist over her eyes, quick as she could, before she stood to face Sean. “No, I’m good,” she said, her smile bright and insincere. “Thanks, though.”
He walked forward, eyes squinting, brow furrowed. “Are you okay?”
“What? I’m fine.” She shifted her bag on her shoulder.
“You’re hurt.” His hand reached out, hesitant, to gesture at her chin, but did not touch her. When his hand lowered, she saw a change in him. He stood in front of her and she saw the him beneath it all, the shadow off to the distance in his eyes, the tension in his shoulders. She knew, then, on some instinctual level, the cause for the scars on his arms, his chin, the reason for his sister’s fierce devotion. This was a boy angry not at the world, but at one particular person in it. She was sure it had been his father. She wondered how often he put himself between his father and his sister, or even his mother. There was a reason for the cigarette burns on his arms, after all.
But she said nothing of the sort. It wasn’t her place, and she knew what it was to keep secrets. She knew what it was to carry them in her bones, close to her heart, in the balled curve of her fist and the strange set of her jaw. She had done the right thing. She had told, because she had been young, and scared, and bruised and bleeding and her brother, her fierce, protective older brother had asked,
Was it them?
Yes, she had whispered through her tears. Yes. Yes. Yes.
“Mags?” Sean asked. “You’re hurt.” He took another step closer to her and she saw it, the balled curve of his fist, the strange set of his jaw. “Who hurt you?”
She bit her bottom lip to keep her near hysterical laughter from bubbling to the surface. She understood him, without her camera. She saw him, and not through her lens. This strange and solemn and teasing boy, she knew him, without her camera, and she didn’t know what that meant. “I fell,” she said. And then she did laugh, but it was warmer than she expected. “See? I can’t be a Gown. Gowns are all poised and put together. I’ve got all the grace and poise of a land seal.” She gestured at her shoe. “My lace got caught on her wheel when I rolled it in here, and then I tripped. Luckily, my face and that table broke my fall.”
There, that ghost smile again. “A land seal?” he asked. “Really, Gown? That’s where you go?”
And then she really started laughing, and his smile grew wider. “Have you ever actually seen a land seal try to move? It’s more of a flopping on several tons of blubber and belly rather than a moving thing.” She tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “That’s about right for me. Land seal.”
“I really wouldn’t spread that around,” Sean said. “People might want evidence of the photographic kind. Do you want to get some ice for your jaw?”
She shrugged. “I’d rather eat. Breakfast seems eons ago.”
“That’s what you get for letting me steal your bacon.”
“Next time I will stab you in the hand with my fork.” She walked toward him. “So, how bad is the food at Milton?”
“Actually, not that bad,” Sean said. “As long as you avoid anything with the word ‘gravy’ in it.” He paused for a second. “Or ‘surprise.’ Or ‘special.’ Okay, stick with chicken fingers, salads, French fries, hamburgers, grilled cheese, and meatloaf, which is surprisingly good. We think there might be actual meat in it.”
“So remember to bring PB&J tomorrow. Got it.”
He turned to the door but waited for her. “So Bess made me come find you,” he said. “I really don’t like to disappoint her. She is bound to insult me using words I don’t even understand, so she makes me feel stupid and like an asshole.”
“I’m coming,” Mags said. “I just need to tie my shoe.” And she bent down to do so.
Before she stood up, she flicked her eyes up at him and thought she saw him watching her out of the corner of his eye. But when she stood, his eyes were riveted at the wall, reading the framed paper headlines. “Anything good?” she asked when she walked over.
“Well, there’s the one about the fetal pig incident from 2005,” Sean said.
“Really? They were talking about that this morning but no one would conveniently discuss the incident in full so I could eavesdrop.” She nudged him out of the way and stood on tiptoes to read the headline which proclaimed, “STUDENTS PROTEST FOR FETAL PIG RIGHTS IN BIO,” but the column itself wasn’t in the frame. She wavered on her feet and then his hand was on her elbow, giving her leverage and balance before she fell, once again. She turned to give him a grateful smile. “Thanks, Sean.”
He pulled his hand away from her elbow and she bounced to her feet again. “Bess tells it best,” he said as he walked to the door. “Come on. She can enlighten you.” He walked out without waiting for her.
Mags stared after him for a second, wondering, once again, what she had done to insult Sean Thornton, before she followed him through the doors to blink against the bright summer sunlight pouring through the tall hall windows of Milton High.
Monday, at least, ended on a high note: AP French with Nupur, Journalism with Bess and the other members of the paper staff who welcomed her and her camera with if not open arms then at least clear relief. Apparently, their photographer had graduated last year and none of them wanted to be behind the camera at anything, especially football games.
“Ugh,” Nupur said when the subject of sports came up in class. “Seriously? Could this school be any more up its own ass about football?”
“Nupur,” Mr. Weinbacher said. “Language.”
Nupur waved her hand. “Sorry, Mr. W. But for reals, right?”
“I don’t mind,” Mags said. “I’ll do it.”
“You don’t actually like football, do you?” Alex, the assistant editor, peered at Mags over his glasses. “I mean, I know your dad’s the new coach and everything, but still. Football?”
Henry had called it “Neanderball” back home, and she had laughed, because it was clever, but still, football was important to her family. It represented so much of what was good and bright about her memories of Freddie, of her dad and mom before all of this mess began so she resented, just a bit, the vehemence in his tone. “I actually do like football, yes,” Mags said to Alex. Her tone was harsher than she intended.
Actually, she loved football. Loved the press of the crowd, the smell of autumn, Freddie’s smile when he scored a touchdown and looked for her and her mom in the stands. She loved the popcorn and the hot dogs, the cheers and groans of the crowd. She loved moving in and out of the groups, snapping picture after picture with no one paying the slightest bit of attention to her.
She loved how happy her father was after his team won a game. She loved how her mother used to go to every one of Freddie’s high school games, back in the day. Run Boosters. Organize raffles. The trips they took when her father’s university played nearby.
She loved football. She just didn’t so much love football players.
“Really?” Alex sat back in his chair and observed her. “I would have never thought a girl like you would fall for all of that bullshit.”
“What is this, Candid Camera? Seriously, enough with the language.” Mr. Weinbacher leaned over the table. “Next inappropriate word gets the privilege of receiving my first detention of the new year. I’ve got a new booklet and everything. It’s very fancy. I am itching to try it out.”
“Sorry, Mr. W.,” Alex said as he slumped in his seat. “Sorry, Margaret.”
“Her name is Mags,” Bess said. “Not Margaret.” She turned to Mags. “Only take it on if you want to. You get your choice here. You’re our only trained photographer, you know.”
Mags just shrugged, embarrassed at all of the attention leveled at her. “I don’t mind doing it,” she said again. “It’s no big deal.”
“Good,” Bess said. “Mags is our new photographer and sports columnist.”
“No, I don’t want to write,” Mags said. “Can’t I just take pictures?” She shuddered at the thought of a byline, of people reading the words she had written.
Bess eyed her for a moment. “Okay, you and I will write together. Does that work?” She turned to the table. “I have to go to all the games anyhow. Sisterly devotion, you understand.”
Mags nodded and sank back in her chair. “Thanks,” she said, and listened as the rest of them quarreled for almost an hour about who would take credit for what. She just scrolled through the pictures on her camera and, after asking Mr. Weinbacher for permission to use her computer, uploaded them to her MacBook. She tinkered with the images of the cafeteria, half-listening as they debated their opening story. Budget cuts or the newly canceled proposed iPad program? Teachers’ salaries and the call for unionizing, or the burden of textbook costs moving to the student body? And of course, the protests. After a while, all anyone could talk about were the protests.
“It makes sense,” Alex said. “Teachers are paid for sh… nothing, after all. And then all the talk of furloughs? What do you think, Mr. Weinbacher?”
“I think I’m happy the cursing has gone down greatly in this class. I don’t know where you guys are coming from with all of this.” Mr. Weinbacher looked around his group. “iPad program is the opening story. It’s edgy, it’s fun, and it’s not controversial. Let’s try not to piss anyone off the first week, shall we?”
Mags noticed that he said nothing about whether or not he agreed with the protests. His silence seemed more telling than any words he could have said.
She, however, said nothing at all until the bell rang for Euro.
“Hey, did you get anything good at lunch?” Bess asked as they left the Paper office. “I forgot to ask.” She was using her crutches again, so Mags was walking her to Chem II before she dashed over to her last class of the day.
“I did,” Mags said. “I’ll play with them and show the whole staff tomorrow.”
“We don’t have Journalism tomorrow,” Bess said. “It’s Block A. Show them to me at lunch.”
“What’s Block A?”
For the rest of their walk to Bess’s class, she tried to explain to Mags the intricate and esoteric school schedule. Mags had assumed that all of her classes would meet every day, but no, Bess informed her that the first day was special, to meet all of her teachers. After that, the school would move to the block schedule rotation. There were more complications, involving an intense, dedicated reading hour, different levels of homeroom, not to mention special schedules for exams and assemblies.
“I don’t get it,” Mags said when she deposited Bess and her books at the Chem lab.
“We’ll sort it out.” Bess made a shooing motion with her hand. “You’ve got a minute until second bell. Mrs. Scotch is down the hall.”
Mags managed to slide into the door just as the second bell rang.
“You must be Margaret,” the teacher said, and smiled. “Glad you found us. We’ve got one open spot left. Take a seat.”
Mags turned to see the empty seat in the far back corner of the room, at the junction of the U-shape the desks formed. Next to, of course, here was no surprise, Sean Thornton.
She tromped across the room, aware that every eye was on her as she made her way to the empty desk. Bonus, the teacher waited until she was seated before she began her lecture that yes, this was AP Euro History and yes, they would be expected to read hundreds of pages a week, and yes, they would have multiple sample tests before they could even begin to think about taking the real test.
Mags wasn’t surprised by the amount of work required in her classes. Her schedule was intense, almost all of her classes Advanced Placement or college prep in some way. But perhaps some snobbish part of her had expected that the classes would be easier than her private Catholic school back home. There, almost 99% of the graduating classes went on to four-year universities, with many of those on merit scholarships of some kind. Several of her former classmates were National Merit semi-finalists. She had been one herself.
“Hmm?” She turned to see Sean staring at her, a bemused expression on his face.
“Practice questions,” he said. “Group work.” His eyes squinted. “Weren’t you listening?”
She shook her head, not at all surprised to see the ghost smile appear. “Come on, then,” he said. “I’ll fill you in.”
“Thanks.” She scooted her chair closer to his desk so they could share the questions. As she did, she noticed Bronwyn Barker’s eyes from across the room, shooting daggers directly at her. “Um, you don’t need to work with me.” She looked up at Sean. “If you want to go work with your friends.”
His brow furrowed again. “Mrs. Scotch assigned us to partner together. You really weren’t listening.”
She blushed, bright and deep. “It’s been a long day. I just… I was just…” But she didn’t know what she was “just.”
“Well, after we’re done, I’ll tell you about the ten-page paper she assigned for Wednesday.” Sean shook his head. “I guess you missed that, too.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed, until his ghost smile grew. “I’m just kidding, Gown.”
She smacked him on the arm before she could even think about it. “Jesus, Thornton. Don’t scare me like that.”
And then there it was, the full dimpled half-smile, and she found herself smiling back. Their awkwardness from lunch gone, at least for now. Maybe she was wrong after all. Maybe she and Sean were friends, despite what she said to Nupur. “Come on,” he said. “Question one is about the Renaissance.”
“Right,” Mags said. “When we all sculpt and paint and stuff.”
“You’re going to do great on the AP exam,” he said. “I’m positive that all the questions can be answered with quotes from Buffy.”
“Hey,” she said. “Since you’re so knowledgeable, can you tell me what ‘Block A’ is?”