These Houses Chapter Eight

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER EIGHT

            “Margaret?”

            Mags blinked as Mrs. Scotch waved in her face to get her attention.  “Ma’am?”

            The class tittered, but it wasn’t unfriendly.  Mags felt a blush spread over her face anyhow.

            Mrs. Scotch smiled at her.  “Mr. Weinbacher asked that you leave class early to photograph the buses leaving.”  She lifted a slip of paper in her hand.  “He just wrote for you to be released.  Did you finish your practice essay?”

            “Oh.  Yes, ma’am.”  Mags had finished it ten minutes before but found herself doodling along the edges as she had been lost in thought.  She handed the sheaf of paper to Mrs. Scotch and gathered her bag.  “Thank you.”  She slung her messenger bag on her shoulder and ducked out of the room.  But when she reached into her bag for her cell phone to check for Bess’s location, she couldn’t find it.  When she tried to dig deeper in her bag, her binder slipped out of her hand and landed on the floor, scattering papers.

            “Goddammit,” she said to herself.  She knelt on the ground and began gathering her things.  Someone walked by and gave her an odd look, a freshman, it seemed, but she waved away her offer of help.

            After three minutes of searching, she still couldn’t find her cell.  Mags stood up with a sigh and headed toward the Paper office.  She may have left it in there after lunch.  They often popped by after they finished eating to “check on my baby,” as Bess put it. 

            Mags half-sprinted down the hallway, her Converse silent on the tile beneath her.  The sounds of school—of questions and answers, of clearing throats and scratching pencils, of keyboard typing and whispered conversations—faded as she entered the less used hallway that housed Journalism and French.  But the sound of voices grew louder the closer she got to the door, and when she heard her father’s name, she stopped a few feet from the Paper office to listen.

            “…hired Fred only because the Boosters demanded it.  Hell, they’re paying his salary, pathetic as it is.  I feel for the man, what with his wife so ill.”

            “What did you expect after Helstone hired Jonathan away from us?  Football at least gets revenue.  They’re going to cut your paper, Aaron.  Just wait and see.”

            “We’ll go online.  I’m not worried about that.  And at least I also teach English.  It’s you I’m worried about.  Art will be first.  Then music.  Then girls’ soccer and boys’ lacrosse.”

            Mags recognized the male voice, Mr. Weinbacher, but did not recognize the female voice.  She was about to clear her throat and walk in when his next words stopped her in her tracks.

            “Just wait.  They’re going to fire twenty percent of the school district, starting with the non-essentials.  Then they will cut salary and benefits, and after they’ve squeezed the school dry and the parents are screaming about the declining quality of education, they’ll start pushing the cost onto the kids.”

            “They already pay for their textbooks, and I hear Northern made the kids pay this ‘rental’ fee for the computer labs.  $200 per student!  There are hundreds of families out there who can’t afford that.”

            “Superintendent Thornton will strip this school system raw and leave the kids out to dry.  She’s a company man.  I’ve said it since day one.”

            Mags started at the familiar name.  And all this time she had just assumed Sean Thornton was working-class like his uncle.  But now she saw it, the quality of his clothes and shoes, his sister’s fancy car.  Why hadn’t she seen it before?

            “… good principal, but she has no power.  Do you think she can go up against Rose Thornton and the entire school board?  Right.”

            “What’s the option, then?  Unionize?  They’d dissolve it immediately.  We have no bargaining rights.  None.”

            “Well, what’s the other option, have a so-called ‘private’ blog like Jerry?  He’s going to get caught one of these days and they will find any excuse to fire him.”

            Mags tuned back into the conversation and realized the bell would ring in just a minute.  She tiptoed back and then half-ran forward, making her shoes as loud as possible on the tile.  “Mr. W.?” she called before she even reached the door.

            “Who’s that?”

            She burst into the room, breathless and smiling.  She saw Mr. Weinbacher sitting at his desk and an unknown female teacher—Art Department, she now realized—sitting in a chair next to him.  Both teachers smiled back at her.  “Hi,” she said.  “Sorry to interrupt, but I’m on a Bess-imposed deadline.  Did you find my cell phone in here?”

            Mr. Weinbacher shook his head.  “Sorry, Mags.  When did you lose it?”

            “I have no idea, but Bess was supposed to text me where she wanted me to stand.”  She mimed a camera in front of her face.  “For the big away game send-off.”

            “Try going out by the south entrance,” he said.  “They’ve got the wheelchair ramp leading to the buses, so Bess likes to head out that way.  She’s probably out there.  If I find your cell phone, do you want me to drop it at the front desk?”

            “That would be great, Mr. W.  Thanks so much.”  She waggled her fingers at them in a wave and headed back out of the classroom.

            So Bess’s breaking news story was much more concerning than they ever thought.  She wondered if her dad knew how much of a financial crisis they were all in, or if he was insulated because of the Boosters.  Was Coach Keegan’s salary controlled by the Boosters, too?

            Mags almost tripped over her own shoes about ten feet from the south exit.  Jerry Keegan, she realized.  He was the one they were talking about, with a private blog.  She knew how dangerous the internet could be, how very public one’s “private” thoughts actually were.

            She stood in the hallway, debating whether or not to run to the computer lab to try to find his blog, to see what he was saying, when the bell rang.  Class doors were flung open and rivers of students poured out of them. 

Mags jogged to the exit door and burst through, blinking against the bright sunshine.

            “There you are!”

            She turned to see Bess waving at her from the bottom of the wheelchair ramp.  “Sorry.”  She let gravity propel her faster down the ramp and skidded to a halt next to Bess.  “I lost my cell phone.  I stopped by the Paper to see if I left it in there.”  The wind was picking up and she could feel it pulling on her gypsy blouse, billowing it away from her body.  At least she had worn pants that day.  It was cold, entirely too cold for August.  She just did not understand Midwestern weather.

            “That explains why you didn’t respond to my 14000 texts.”  But Bess smiled as she said it.  “Come on.  Let’s get this show on the road.  You got Bruce with you?”

            “I’ve always got Bruce with me,” Mags said, and pulled “Bruce” out of her bag.

            “Bruce” was what Bess had named her camera, because it was “like Batman,” she had said.  “All mild-mannered playboy one minute, then Bam!  Batarang and Dark Knight bullshit!”  Mags had argued for Peter Parker, himself a photographer, but Bess had waved it away.  “Who wants their secret weapon to be named after the nerdiest of superheroes?”  Even though Mags had argued that in fact, The Atom was the nerdiest of superheroes, Bess gave her that “you will never get a date for prom if you keep going on about comic books” look, so she let it go.

“Okay, so here’s what I’m thinking.”  Bess propelled her chair forward and navigated through the throngs of students with ease.  “They’re about ready.  All packed up, someplace to go.  But I don’t want platitudes.  I want candids.  Laughter.  Smiling.  Lifting equipment.  That sort of thing.”

Mags only half-listened to Bess’s instructions because she was already framing shots.  Click, the cheerleaders squeezed into a group hug, ten girls thick.  Click, Colin and another boy—Hugh, maybe—giving each other a nonchalant high-five as they passed.  No planning.  No looking.  Just a random slap of the hands as they passed.

Click.  Hunter hanging out the window of the bus, laughing at two freshmen boys struggling with equipment.  Click.  The look of intense concentration on the bus drivers’ faces as they stared at a map.  Click.  Her father, nodding and listening to whatever Coach Keegan was telling him.  Click.  Members of the Booster Club, handing out sports drinks and granola bars to the brass section of the marching band.

She weaved in and out of the crowds, taking pictures before anyone noticed her there with her camera.  As soon as they did, they began to ham, or preen, or look serious, but never behaving normally, as they were not three seconds before, when they had no idea a camera had captured something real.  Something worthwhile.  She never understood why people wanted to smile for the camera when they could be shot smiling at someone they loved.

She found those shots—two flautists lifting their instruments over their heads in triumph, two goth kids standing in the shade against the wall, smiling despite themselves, the running back lifting the hand of his girlfriend to his lips—to be beautiful.  Important.

“Come on.”  Bess bumped into her from behind with a gentle nudge of her chair.  “You’re going to miss it.”

Mags didn’t know what she meant until she turned back to the buses and saw all the football players holding up their helmets.  Colin and Sean, as team captains, began the chant of “Strike!  Strike!  Strike!” to which every member of the team joined in.  Soon, there was no way to tell where one voice ended and the other began.  It grew louder, stronger, a harmony of male voices calling forth with a word chilling in its social and local history.  These were the Milton Strikers, Mags finally realized.  Named so for the factory that housed their school, but before that, even, for what they stood for.  Working-class triumph.  The underdog overcoming Big Business.

The American dream. 

She shot picture after picture, Colin, Hunter, her father, even Sean Thornton, and when the football team’s voices began to die down, the student body responded. 

“Strike!  Strike!  Strike!”

Mags felt a chill run down her spine when the teachers and Booster Club joined in as well, adult voices added to the overwhelming sound.

“Strike!  Strike!  Strike!”

She took pictures of Principal Higgins, her fist lifted high, her smile directed entirely at her son.  Then pictures of Mr. Weinbacher, of Mrs. Scotch, of all of her teachers joined in with the Milton High chant.

“Strike!  Strike!  Strike!” 

Then everyone started in, and the cacophony was so overwhelming that Mags felt it, in her bones, vibrating up her shoulders.  Her hands trembled as she held her camera and she snapped picture after picture after picture, not even framing now, just a wide sweep of the crowd.  A constant stream of students and faculty and parents, chanting as one.

Then, on some unknown command, there was a roar, and everyone whooped and hollered.  Her voice was sore now and she couldn’t even fathom why until she realized that she, too, had been chanting, had been screaming with them.  And when she turned around to look for Bess through her lens, she found her camera instead fixated on Sean Thornton.

It was her chance, finally, her chance to photograph this odd boy without him knowing.  Without fear of reprisal or repercussion.  She took dozens of pictures of him in just a few short minutes as she watched him chant and scream with his teammates.  Gone was the intensity, the dark brooding eyes, and in their place was brightness, laughter with Colin at his side, always at his side.  Joy at the utter energy of the scene before them all.

But then he turned and squinted in her direction and while she knew he couldn’t know—how could he possibly know?—that she was photographing him, specifically, she still felt herself blush as they seemingly locked eyes.  The smile faded from his face but did not fall.  The sunlight brushed against his eyes so that he squinted and lifted his hand to his brow to shield them.  She held the camera in his direction for one more breath.  Click.  And then she turned away.

“Crazy, right?”

She lowered the camera to see Bess behind her.  “That was amazing.  I wish I had decent video on this camera.  I would have gotten it.”

“Alex got video.  Don’t even worry about that.  He has this whole ‘vlog’ thing.”  Bess made a face and Mags laughed.  “Come on.  Time to say goodbye.”

It was true.  The crowd was dispersing.  Mags realized that the cry for “Strike!” was the sendoff, and not actually waving as the buses went.  She agreed with Milton’s methods.  It was a far superior pep rally than any she had ever seen.

“We have to find Colin,” Bess said.  “Kisses for luck.”

“What’s that?”  Mags leaned down to Bess’s chair to hear her better.

Bess just smiled up at her.  “Kisses for luck,” she said again.

Mags saw that the team was receiving kisses—most on the cheek but some more… amorous than others—from several of the observers.  She lifted her camera and took more pictures: of Colin and Sally, of Hunter and Lily.  Of Sean and Bronwyn.

She had to admit: they made a beautiful couple.  Bronwyn’s hair was the color of caramel cream and her skin only two shades lighter, its tan-bed gleam smooth and buttery.  She wasn’t tall, a little shorter than Mags herself, but she had long legs that looked lovely under her black and red cheerleading skirt.  Sean’s skin and hair, in contrast, were bronzed by a summer spent outside, not in tan beds.  In the full sun, his dark hair revealed even more red and brown highlights than she had noticed before.

Click.  Bronwyn pressed against him, hand on chest, smiling up.

Click.  Bronwyn leaning forward on tiptoes, her lips searching for his.

Click.  Sean turning his face at the last second—distracted by something—and Bronwyn’s lips grazing his cheek.

When she heard a chuckle next to her, she knew Bess had observed the proceedings as well.  “Serves Queen B right,” Bess said.  “Hanging all over my white brother like that.  It’s unbecoming a lady.  They’re not even dating.  She should have some self-respect.”

“Finally!”  Colin jogged toward them.  Mags snapped a picture of him before she lowered her camera.  “My sister.  I can’t leave without my good-luck charm.”

From out of nowhere, Alex showed up, video camera in hand.  “This is going to be fantastic.  Bess, give your brother your blessing for the ritualistic pigskin tossing and the shaming of the neighboring local small town.”

When Colin leaned down, Bess grabbed his face and pressed a kiss square in the middle of his forehead.  With his face held in her hands, she stared hard into his eyes.  “Win, brother.  Win this battle for your people.”  She shook his face, just a little.  “Free us from the oppression of high school with your warrior ways.  This, I charge thee, Amen.”

“Amen,” Mags echoed.  When Bess glanced over, Mags winked at her.

“Or, you know, score some touchdowns.”  Colin pulled away and turned bright eyes to Mags.  “Come on, new girl.  Assimilate fully.  Be brought into the fold.”

“I think you’re just tricking me into kissing you.”

“Well, yeah.  That’s sort of the idea of the big sendoff.  You hover near the girls you want to kiss you, and then you look all puppy-dog and sweet.”  Colin pouted his lip and batted his eyes.

Mags laughed, but when Alex swung the camera around to her, she felt herself burn bright.  “Can’t I just wish you luck and call it done?”

“It’s tradition,” Bess said.  “You should see it when the girls’ soccer team leaves.  Christ, you would think Milton were a brothel, so many brothers giving so many kisses.”

“Come on, Margaret.”  Even now, even three weeks into school, Alex refused to call her Mags.  “One kiss for posterity.”

“That’s okay.”  She shook her head and backed up a step.  “But I am so rooting for you.  Go Strikers!”

“My brown sister.”  Sean appeared from nowhere to lean over Bess’s chair and Alex swung the camera on them. 

Mags sucked in the breath she had forgotten she needed to live and felt her hands tremble.  She gripped the camera in her hands to steady herself and lifted it to her eye.  Click.

Bess performed the same ritual on Sean as she had on Colin.  He gave her his half smile before he pulled back.  “You ready, Colin?”  His eyes caught on Mags and he stared at her as he waited for Colin to answer.

Colin slung an arm over Sean’s shoulder and joined him in staring at Mags.  “I am missing one essential good-luck charm and I refuse to leave before I get it.”

Alex turned once again to Mags, the small camera functioning as his eye, his ear.  “Do you have a problem with our traditions, Margaret?”  He moved closer to her, the camera hovering close, entirely too close. 

Mags felt her hands shaking as she lowered her camera.  “No, of course not.  I just…”  She blinked at the video camera in her face and shrugged away from it.  “I just…”

“I mean, you don’t want everyone to believe all those rumors about you, do you?”

It was cruel.  It was purposefully cruel, and she tried to see herself through Alex’s eyes: the interloper.  The student who didn’t belong coming in to become the new paper star with the first spread.  She knew he wasn’t crazy about her, but she hadn’t realized, until now, that he didn’t like her.  And here she had thought only the Bright & Shinies weren’t her biggest fans.  “Alex, just get the camera out of my face.  Please.”  She shook her head and backed up further, something solid at her back.  Her fingers brushed against metal.  She was against one of the buses now.

Her eyes darted around and she saw Sean looking at her, his eyes unreadable, his jaw set, all traces of his smile fled from his face.  Then, he turned to Alex.  “You really want to do this?”  His voice was quiet, serious, and it took Mags a moment to realize he was standing up for her.  Him.  Sean Thornton.  And she remembered what Bess had said, that first day, about why Sean called her Gown, like he called Bess “Crip,” or “Legs.”

She was beginning to hyperventilate and she knew she had to get away from the camera before she shoved it straight into Alex’s mouth.

“Ow!”

And then the world came back together and she saw all eyes turned to Alex, and away from her, and she slipped into breath again.

“I am so sorry.”  Bess backed up her chair and lifted her hands in apology.  “Omigod, are you okay?

“God, Bess, that really hurt!”  Alex jumped up on one leg, gripping his other knee.  “What the hell?”

“My chair slipped.”  Bess lifted innocent eyes to Colin.  “My chair slipped.”

“We’ll get the brakes tested.”  Colin slapped a friendly hand on Alex’s back.  “Great job, my man.  Hey, can you go get some footage of the girls?”  He grinned at him.  “You know, getting on the bus?”

Alex nodded, smiling, before he took off.

Mags closed her eyes and let the coldness of the school bus’s metal side and the shadowed space calm her.

“Hey, I’m sorry.  I wasn’t trying to make you do something you didn’t want to do.”

She opened her eyes to see Colin standing before her, eyes worried.  “It’s not you,” she said in a soft voice.  “I just don’t like cameras.”

He lifted an eyebrow at her.  “Right.”  He looked pointedly at the one in her hand.

She gave him an embarrassed smile.  “Video cameras, I mean,” she said.  “Other people’s cameras.  I just… I don’t like being on film.”

“No shit, Sherlock.”  Bess bumped Colin with her chair, far more gently than she had bumped Alex.  “Christ, she looked like a trapped rabbit.  Next time, take a hint and help my white sister out.  My white brother got it.  How come you didn’t?”

Mags wanted the earth to open up beneath her and swallow her whole.  It was far worse when she looked up to find Sean, returned to his further position now, observing these proceedings with his damnable unreadable eyes.  “It’s just the camera,” she said, and let loose an involuntary shudder.  “I hate video cameras.  That’s it.  I swear.”

“Oh.”  Then Colin smiled, quick and bright.  “Then in that case, you owe us kisses, new girl.  It is a Milton tradition.”  He took her hand and tugged her forward, back into the bright sunlight.

Laughing, she pressed a kiss to his cheek.  “Good luck, Mr. Quarterback.  Although I know you don’t need it.”  When he turned his lips toward hers, she gave his face a playful smack.  “Don’t press your luck, pretty boy.”

“Wounded to the core,” he said, and clutched his heart.  “But now, I’ve got all the good-luck kisses I need.  How about you, Thornton?”  He tugged on Mags’s hand and pulled her closer to Sean.  “I’ve now got physical proof that she is not against kissing football players.”

“We’ve really got to go,” Sean said, no longer sparing Mags another glance.  “You ready?”

Mags felt the blush burn again, but at least this was expected.  Alex felt more like a betrayal.  This felt like everyday life here in good ole Marlborough, Indiana. 

Sunshine, Mags thought.  Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine.

She plastered a bright smile on her face and stood next to Bess. 

“Goodbye, my warriors,” Bess said as she saluted the boys.  “I will see you and text you many times between now and the field of battle, but really, let’s pretend like I won’t because it makes this that much more dramatic.  And you.”  She turned to Mags.  “If you change your mind and want to come to the game, we are leaving in about ten minutes.  I’ll see you when I see you.”

“I’ll see you when I see you,” Mags said.

With a thumb-and-pinky waggle near her ear, Bess’s universal symbol for “call you later,” Bess left to find her mother.

Mags, left standing, alone, awkward, switched her camera to one hand and waggled the fingers of her other at Colin and Sean.  “Good luck, you guys.  Remember: ‘Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.’”

That, at least, got her a blue-eyed thousand-yard stare.  “Come on, Gown,” Sean said.  “You really can’t expect us to believe that you, of all people, like Friday Night Lights.

Her smile was overly sweet, almost saccharine, and without even realizing what she was doing—the fallout from it, the repercussions that were sure to follow—she walked over, stood on her tiptoes, and pressed a kiss to Sean’s cheek.  The slight press of stubble under her lips—not even visible, just starting to come forth—was rough but not unpleasant.  When she pulled away, she realized three things.  One, Sean Thornton smelled like sunshine, like vanilla and rain.  Like boy.  Two, he had at some point put his hand on her elbow to keep her from falling.  To balance her, as she kissed him on the cheek. 

And three, he had leaned down, and met her halfway.

She bounced down to her feet but kept her eyes on his face, on those eyes that radiated astonishment and something else.  Something she couldn’t quite read.

“You don’t know me at all, Town,” she said, and then, in full knowledge that this may be the only moment in her life in which she did something almost movie-worthy, almost cool, she walked away without a backwards glance.

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