Copyright Amy L. Montz
It took Mags a full three weeks before she fell into a routine at school.
Bess tried to explain it to her, the complicated esoteric schedule that involved rotating classes and a reading hour and homeroom. But she had remained unconvinced until Tuesday morning when, after attending P.E. instead of Calc, she found herself writing her schedule on the back of her hand with thick black ink and consulting it, every time the bell rang.
Now, at the end of week three, she didn’t have to write it on her hand anymore. Why should she? She shuffled like a zombie from one class to the next, so burnt out from a morning of Bio and Calc, that by the time she arrived at lunch that Friday, she fell into a seat next to Bess and rested her head on her arms.
“There, there,” Bess said, patting her on the back. “Tomorrow’s the weekend, at least, and Labor Day to boot. A full five days before you have to do Bio and Calc back to back.”
“They’re monsters,” Mags said. “Evil, cruel, horrible monsters.”
“Blame Nupur,” Bess said. “She’s the one who rearranged your schedule.”
“Sitting right here,” Nupur said. “Like, really. Right here.”
Mags smiled at Nupur. “No, it’s just… my brain hurts. I think it’s melting. Is it oozing out of my ears?”
“That would still make you gorgeous.”
She peeked up to see Colin smiling over her. “Okay, now that’s officially the worst pick up line in the world.”
“Wounded,” he said, clutching his heart. He sank down in the empty seat next to Bess’s wheelchair. “Got any money?”
“Seriously, don’t we have a mother who works here?” She turned to Mags. “The answer to that is, of course, yes. He just likes to steal my lunch money.” Mags had found out very early on that the twins’ mother was none other than the principal of the school.
“Bully,” Mags said. “Leave her alone. I will fight for her honor.” She grabbed a straw and flicked it toward him without sitting up. “Fight fight fight.”
Colin laughed, surprised, and threw the straw back at her. “I thought you were all quiet and shy, new girl.”
“That’s because you don’t know her,” Bess said. “At night, she does a one-woman slam poetry show down at Cauldron Coffee. She calls it ‘Hey, Man. Stop Calling Me Gown, Right?’”
“I play the bongos,” Mags said. “It is a very crucial part of my artistic expression.”
“She hosts her own pirate cable show,” Nupur said. “‘Mags and the World of Tomorrow through the Technology of Today Playing the Music of Yesterday.’”
“1930s polka.” Mags shook her shoulders, still, without sitting up. “Shake a tail feather, baby.”
Colin gave the three of them a bemused grin. “Heaven help us all. You’ve been assimilated. There’s no hope for you now.”
“Oh, go get us some lunch.” Bess handed him a ten-dollar bill. “And bring us both some fruit!” she called after him as he bounded away. “Real fruit!” She shook her head. “He eats like a teenage boy.”
“He is a teenage boy,” Mags said. She sat up and reached for her lunch bag.
“That doesn’t mean he has to eat like one.” Bess eyed Mags’s food and pretended to wipe drool from the corner of her mouth. “When is your grandmother going to feed me?”
“Any day you want.” Mags unwrapped her roast beef and white cheddar on homemade olive bread and smiled down at it with contentment. “She’s fed Sean Thornton what, seven mornings now?”
“Seriously, what’s it like?” Nupur leaned closer.
“The sandwich? Delicious.” Mags held it out. “Want a bite?”
Nupur wrinkled her nose. “I’m Hindu,” she said.
Mags pinked and lowered her food. “I am so sorry. I forgot.”
Nupur waved her hand in dismissal. “No. Riding with Sean Thornton in his sexy rusted GTO.”
“It’s like riding with a boy that loathes the very sight of you, all while in a rusting heap of a traffic accident waiting to happen. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that the passenger door doesn’t open, so all movement in and out of the car occurs on the driver’s side.” Mags took a big bite of her sandwich so she didn’t have to say anything else for a while. Not that she needed to. After Colin delivered Bess’s chicken fingers and banana, the girls sat debating the relative benefits of dating people with crappy cars versus no cars at all.
While it was true that Sean had given her a ride to school seven out of the fifteen days they had been in school, any advancement in their friendship had died out that first day. When she had come to the breakfast table that first Wednesday morning to find her father gone but Sean there, eating her grandmother’s homemade cinnamon rolls, she had smiled and sat in the seat next to him. He had grunted some one- or two-word answers to her questions and then concentrated on consuming four—yes, four—giant rolls, while her grandmother watched, beaming at his appetite.
But she slid into his car that morning and noticed the spring on the passenger seat had been taped down with duct tape. “Thanks for this, by the way.”
She blinked at his tone but felt it important enough to point it out again. “Thanks,” she said, and gestured at the seat. “For the spring.”
He shrugged but the tip of his ears pinked. “It was dangerous,” he said. “Rusted.” And then he said nothing else the rest of the ride.
Then, as if on some archaic internal calendar, he had come that Tuesday, last Friday, once again on Monday, then Thursday, and again that morning. Each time, he ate her grandmother’s food, smiled and talked with her grandmother and, when she was feeling up to it, her mother. And then they would go to school in complete silence once more.
“Most girls would choose riding in the GTO in silence over not riding in the GTO at all.” Nupur gestured a carrot stick at Mags. “Clearly, you’re doing something wrong. Fix it.”
Mags laughed. “I’ll get on that right away. Promise.”
“So, what do you think of our first issue?” Bess asked. “We did good, right?”
“We did great,” she said honestly. “The unionizing story is terrific.”
Bess preened with delight. “It was amazing, right??”
“And scary,” Nupur said. “I mean, how little are our teachers making that the entire county is thinking about unionizing?”
“Not at lot,” Mags said. “It’s crappy pay for long hours.” They were lucky her father had found any job at all, she knew, and thanks to her grandmother, they didn’t have to pay rent. But it felt different, financially. Her mother’s illness for one. Their decreased mobility, for second.
“And I have to admit, I love your sports photos, Mags.” Nupur twirled a carrot stick in ranch. “I never knew cheerleading and football practice could be so exciting.”
Mags eyed her for a second, trying to determine if she was making fun of her, but when Nupur ate the carrot stick without any further commentary or glances, she realized she was telling the truth. “Thanks,” Mags said. She had stayed after school every day, waiting for her father to be finished with football practice so she could get a ride home.
That first Monday night, she took photos out of boredom, but when she loaded them into her computer, she realized they could have an entire series if they wanted. Behind the scenes of what everyone hoped would be their biggest football season yet. Last year, they had gotten one game away from going to State. This year, with the addition of her father—only assistant coach, but with years of college coaching experience under his belt—everyone was fully optimistic.
So, Mags thought, what did cheerleading and football look like before the big game? It looked like hard work: sweat pouring down Colin Higgins’ face as he threw ball after ball after ball. It looked like laughter: the cheerleaders encouraging each other as they stumbled and tripped and giggled their way through routines. It looked like earnestness: the cheerleading and football coaches consulting playbooks and notes, reviewing tapes and watching drills.
“THE PATH TO STATE,” she called it when she texted her idea to Bess who texted back, almost immediately, in all caps, “ZOMG THAT IS AMAZING RUN RUN RUN WITH IT!!!!”
For the rest of the week, Mags took full advantage of the hours spent after school waiting for her father. She photographed different pictures on different days, first from the bleachers, then, one of the cheerleaders—not Bronwyn, but another girl, tall and lanky with gorgeous blonde hair—came over to her and asked in a frank voice, “What the hell are you doing?”
They chatted for a long minute. The girl, who introduced herself as Sally, asked if Mags would take close-ups, different parts of the routine, and then share the images so they could review it. After that, she was on the field constantly, moving between cheerleading and football and then the marching band, capturing distance shots, shots up close, those in the early afternoon and then those when twilight hit. She took hundreds of pictures these first three weeks of school as they all got ready for the first away game that night, and when she tired of it, she would either sit in the stands or in the senior lounge, finishing her homework until her dad was ready to go home.
“And now,” Bess said, snapping her fingers in Mags’s face, “first big game tonight.”
“Away game,” Nupur said. “I don’t see why you have to go.”
“Because my brother’s the quarterback and my mom’s the principal.” Bess rolled her eyes before she turned to Mags. “Mom and I are driving to Jasper. You sure you don’t want to come with us?”
Her father hadn’t asked her to come. He used to always ask her to come, before. But not now. Football was too sacred to him to let her taint it now.
It had been tempting to go with Bess and Principal Higgins, but in the end, Mags shook her head. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve got a ton of homework to do. I’ll get everything at next week’s game. Promise.”
“You better,” Bess said. “It’s the epic battle between Milton and Helstone. Not part of the regular season, of course, but it’s a huge deal. The whole town comes out.”
“There’s a bonfire after,” Nupur said. “It’s actually somewhat cool.”
“It’s completely cool, Nupur. Stop playing like you don’t care. You so care.” Bess turned to Mags. “So, you have to come.”
“I know,” Mags said, and smiled. “I already told you. We’ve got this covered.”
“It’ll be epic. I can feel it in my sad little crippled bones.” Bess backed her chair away from the table. “Well come on, my brown and white sisters,” she said. “That was first bell. And don’t forget, Mags. You need to be at the sendoff right after school.” Bess mimed snapping an invisible camera. “Duty calls. I’ll text with locations.”
“Right.” Mags stood up and gathered her trash. “I will be there swiftly and promptly, and will take no photographic prisoners.”
Bess grinned. “That’s my bloodthirsty little girl. Honestly, I am so proud.”
Mags had Euro last period on Block A, but it was only half full. The cheerleaders and the football players were preparing their trip to Jasper for the game, and the marching band members were gathering equipment and having last-minute practices on the field before they left for their first public performance. As Mags had seen them practice for the last three weeks, she knew they needed as much time as possible. They weren’t bad, not exactly. They just weren’t very… rhythmic.
The class seemed quieter without Bronwyn and her cheerleading cohort, and smaller without Sean. They had not sat next to each other since that first class day, and certainly had not worked together. Bronwyn had seen to that, but Mags suspected Sean had gone along willingly, especially after what she had found out about herself.
She had heard the rumors just three days ago at lunch, when she sat alone at the table, waiting for Bess and Nupur to show up. About five minutes after the bell, Bess had come zipping toward her in her chair. “Where’s Nupur?” Mags had asked.
“She had to cover for someone at work.” Bess had shook her head. “That’s not important. People are saying things about you.” Bess’s eyes had flashed with anger. “I set them straight. Don’t you worry. Only we get the right to call you a snobby Gown.”
Mags hadn’t known whether to laugh or cry. Laugh, because Bess was so indignant on her behalf. Cry, because it was happening again, the rumor mill. The assumptions about her and her life.
In the end, she laughed, because what else could she do? She was too tired, too exhausted after the entire ordeal back home, and honestly, if the kids at Milton thought she’d get upset about them calling her a snobby Gown, they really needed to take lessons from the entirety of the parochial system in Louisiana. “Oh yeah?” she had asked. “What else are they saying?”
“Well, of course it’s Bronwyn,” Bess had said. “She is so stupidly jealous that Sean gives you rides to school that she’s telling everyone that you think you’re better than us. That you keep saying you wish you had gone to Helstone. That this school isn’t hard enough for you.”
“Has she even seen me after Bio and Calc?”
“I know, right? Your hair sticks straight up.” Bess had peered up at her. “She says that you think everyone, even the teachers, are stupid hillbillies.”
“I’m from the south. Like, deep south. There is nothing past where I am from but water.” Mags shook her head. “Aren’t they supposed to be making fun of me? Stupid accent? Redneck family? Etcetera etcetera?”
“I think your accent’s adorable,” Bess said. She paused for a moment and seemed to suck in a deep breath. “There are other things, too.”
Mags stilled. “Anything about Louisiana?”
“What?” Bess’s forehead wrinkled. “What about Louisiana?”
“Are they saying anything about me from Louisiana?”
“No. Why the hell would they say anything about you and Louisiana?”
Mags shrugged but she felt the blush spread, across her cheeks and down her chest. “Then let me guess. It’s any combination of the following: I hate football and stupid, ignorant, small football towns. I hate Marlborough and its stupid, ignorant small-town mindset. And corn. Can’t forget I hate corn.”
“No one has mentioned corn yet,” Bess said. “But that’s probably coming. You know how much of our local economy is agricultural now that the factories closed, right?”
“Again, I am from the overwhelmingly agricultural south. And my father is a football coach.”
“They seem to keep forgetting that,” Bess said. “I think they actually like your dad.”
Of course they did, Mags thought. Everyone liked her dad. “What else? Let’s see. Well, if they like my dad, then I must be plotting my return to New Orleans. I am trying to convince my dad to quit so he can bring me home. I am trying to convince my dad to sabotage the games so he’ll get fired so we can go home.” She got caught up in her narrative now and snapped her fingers. “Oh! And the piece de resistance, I have stolen my dad’s playbook in the night and am selling it to Helstone in a last-ditch effort to try to get enrolled there.” At Bess’s look, she couldn’t help it. She started laughing. “Really?”
“It is the most bullshit rumor I’ve ever heard, but… people are saying it, Mags.”
Mags laughed harder. “That was a joke. Are you serious? People actually believe that?”
“Not really,” Bess said. “Not anyone important.” A little wry smile crossed her face. “Just Bronwyn and a few other members of the Bright & Shinies.”
“Jesus, what does this girl think Sean and I do when he drives me to school?” Mags shook her head. “She would be so gravely disappointed in my awkward silence and his monosyllabic grunts. Hell, there isn’t even music because he doesn’t have a radio in his car. Or a working passenger side door. Or, for one brief moment last week, a passenger side floorboard. I had to ride the entire three point two miles to school with my legs tucked under me so I didn’t get any wayward pebbles thrown against my legs and get cut.” She shook her head. “Not that he said as much, mind you. He sort of grunted and gestured, and I had to figure it out myself.”
“Sean doesn’t drive Bronwyn in the GTO,” Bess said. “If they go out, he takes his mom’s car. So she sees you as this interloper who’s gotten into the sacred realm.”
Mags didn’t think there was any evidence more apparent than that that Sean Thornton found her a nuisance. He had to go out of his way to pick her up, to give her a ride. And he had to let her ride in the car he thought wasn’t good enough for his girlfriend. “A sacred realm with no floorboard.” Mags threw up her hands and slumped in her chair. “I am not interested in Sean. He is not my type.”
“He’s everybody’s type,” Bess said. “He’s a good-looking, popular football player. There isn’t a girl in this school who wouldn’t break off a piece of that hunky boy goodness.” She thought for a second. “Except me and Lily. We are his sisters.” She was quiet for another moment. “And I guess not the ladies who like the ladies, but even then, some exceptions might be made. He is awfully cute. I think it’s those blue eyes.”
“Hey, I’m the last person to deny that Sean Thornton and his blue eyes are attractive.”
Bess grinned. “So you do think he’s cute. I knew it.”
Mags rolled her eyes. “I’m a straight teenage girl, Elizabeth Higgins. Of course I think he’s cute. I also think Colin’s cute, but I’m not interested in him, either.”
“As well you shouldn’t be. My brother’s a mess, romantically.” Bess leaned over the table to look at Mags. “So you are just as vulnerable as the rest of us to the wiles and charms of teenage boys.”
For Mags, as a photographer, she found Sean’s attractiveness to be in his intensity. She wanted to find out what was behind those blue eyes. As a photographer, she reminded herself. She wanted to find out what was behind those eyes as a photographer. “Bess, he called me Gown about five minutes after we met. He stares at me as if I have insects crawling across my face. It’s kind of hard to like a boy who stares at you as if he expects you to go vampire bumpy face at any moment.”
Bess made a face. “That’s not his fault. I mean, you are a Gown. What’s a brother to do?”
“Not insult a girl he just met? Besides,” she said, shrugging her shoulders, “we have nothing, and I mean nothing in common except my father and a shared interest in one musical group. He is doing exactly what all of my dad’s other football players have done over the years. He’s being nice to me, in hopes that my dad will give him more field time. That’s it. And honestly, he’s not even being that nice.”
“He drives you to school. In the GTO.”
“In complete and utter silence.” Mags paused for a second. “Look, I don’t date football players. I’ve never been attracted to football players. I don’t like football players.”
“That’s probably the Gowniest thing you’ve ever said.”
“Twin brothers excluded, of course.”
“Of course,” Bess said. “Who could possibly hate Colin?”
“No one does,” Mags agreed.
“It would be like hating puppies.”
“America.” Mags shook her head. “It’s all bullshit, Bess.”
“You can’t tell me you wouldn’t be happier back home,” Bess said. Mags was surprised to see her expression grow grim, stoic. “You can’t tell me you wouldn’t go home in a New York second if you could. You would up and leave us tomorrow if there was a car back to New Orleans.”
Would she? Mags missed New Orleans so much it hurt sometimes, but there had been so much pain there the last two years, so many bad memories and dreams that she had been if not happier here then at least… still. Calm. And it felt better than the pain and uncertainty of New Orleans.
“You’re my friend,” Mags said. Bess nodded and opened her mouth to say something, but Mags held up her hand. “You’re my friend. I absolutely trust you. But…” she sucked in a breath. “There are things I don’t like talking about. Things…”
“You’re an introvert,” Bess said. “I get it, Mags. I do. We figured that out day one. Mags likes to be behind the camera, not in front of it.”
Mags shook her head. “It’s more than that. Things happened back home.” And it started exactly like this, she thought, but did not say aloud. Started with jealousies and rumors. With accusations and teasings. With pranks gone too far. Was it them? Freddie had asked. And she had said, Yes. “Things I don’t want to talk about with anyone,” she said instead. “Not because I don’t trust them, but because I…”
And she saw it. The light dawning in Bess’s eyes. “You don’t want to go back home,” she said, her voice somewhat awed.
Mags gave her a wry smile. “I kind of like being a nobody,” she said.
“Mags, what happened?”
Mags stared down at her unopened lunch bag. “Not here,” she said in a soft voice. “Not today. But… someday. Okay?” She looked up at Bess. “I trust you. I just…”
And because she was Bess, she reached over to the table and took Mags’s hand. “You tell me whenever, or never. It doesn’t matter.” And then she smiled, bright and wide. “I’m just happy you don’t have one foot in the door. I thought you did, you know. This whole time. I thought, ‘girl is gonna leave me and where the hell am I gonna find anyone who’s going to carry my books?’”
Mags burst into laughter. Bess squeezed her hand before she pulled it away. “It’s actually kind of nice that no one gives a damn about me. Well, before Bronwyn’s gossip mongering, anyhow.”
“Oh, that bitch will regret her mongering. I promise that.” Bess paused for a second. “You sure you’re good? I could talk to Colin, make him take care of it. He’d be happy to. He likes you. Well, not likes you, likes you. No offense.”
Mags had shrugged. “None taken. Besides, Colin likes anything with tits, hair, and face.”
“True,” Bess had agreed. “But he likes your personality most of all. Want me to talk to him?”
“I really don’t care what she says. Do you?”
Bess had grinned at her. “Hell no do I care what some bitchy white girl has to say. We know better. Colin knows better. And honestly? I think most of the cheerleaders know better, especially after your spread in the paper. They’re just too scared to cross Bronwyn.”
Mags had wondered if Sean Thornton knew better. She knew Bronwyn had his ear, after all, and like Iago—Othello was their current AP English text and she found it remarkably instructional for high school students—was filling it with poisonous whispers, treasonous half-truths. It would explain his barely tolerant attitude toward her, the way he looked at her when he didn’t think she noticed. “Well, she’s convinced her boyfriend, at least.”
“Who, Sean?” Bess snorted through her nose. “They’re not going out. I’ve told you this before. Besides, I think you’re completely misreading my white brother. Sean knows better than to listen to bullshit cheerleader gossip.”
Mags appreciated Bess’s optimism, but she knew from first-hand experience that it didn’t matter if people liked you, or were your friends. Not if the crowd swayed against you. Not if the rumors spread fast and thick, through the halls, after school, at the coffeehouse and the dances until it burst out, like static, on the internet. Fragments of your intimate, personal life exposed for everyone to see. Your brother, given a choice between jail and enlisting. Your friends, dropping away from you, not because they didn’t believe you, but because the tide had turned against you. Because public opinion swayed them to even suspect you may be lying.
Was it them? Freddie had asked. The clench of his fist had tightened. His jaw had set into a firm line. His eyes had narrowed to slits.
Hands and knees bruised, lip cracked and bleeding, eyes red with tears, she had nodded. Yes, she had said, sealing their fates with one three-letter word. Yes, yes, yes.