These Houses Chapter Nine

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER NINE

            When Mags finally admitted to herself that she was lost, at least a mile and a half into her walk, she knew then why movies ended with the girl kissing the guy and walking away, or with the snappy repartee, the comeuppance for the snotty cheerleader or overly judgmental football player.  Because once the nerd walked away in triumph, she would have to do something mundane, like realize she had no ride home since her father was currently on a bus headed to a town two hours away, her cell phone was MIA so she couldn’t call her grandmother, and the one person who had ever been willing to give her a ride anywhere—well, “willing” being a very kind read of the entire Sean Thornton situation—not only was on the same bus as said father, he was also the object of said comeuppance.

It was three point two miles, door to door, between school and her grandmother’s house.  She had thought she was going the right way, but whenever Sean drove, he took an esoteric back way that involved complicated neighborhood streets and some innate Marlborough knowledge that came with birth.  Whenever her father drove, she was reading for class, or texting Bess, so ultimately, not paying attention.  It always seemed like he took a shorter way, though, and she wished she had paid closer attention.

Now, too far from school to turn back, she began to look for a pay phone.

The neighborhoods changed with the drastic shift that she had only seen thus far in New Orleans.  One block was manicured and pruned, perfect sets of Craftsman bungalows lining the street while the next block showed abandoned and foreclosed homes, weeds grown over what had once been beautiful gardens, dreams of home ownership.  The next block would then be even richer, more elaborate, larger homes now.  Not as old as the bungalows, certainly, but still gorgeous and charming in their quaintness. 

When she entered a more urban stretch, she knew she had gone in the completely wrong direction, away from school.  She saw stores she didn’t recognize advertising products that were clearly local.  Brands of soda she had never heard of, fish frys for churches she had never seen.  But there, scattered among the flyers for meat sales and fence repair, calls for protest.  Calls for strikes.

Mags moved closer to see them and was surprised that some of the flyers seemed to be over twenty years old.  Laminated posters calling for strikes against budget cuts for companies that no longer existed.  Preserved signs that recalled the heritage of an area she was just now beginning to realize was worlds different than her own.

New signs, too, revealing grumblings about education cuts, teacher furloughs, school closures.  Her father had jumped from the frying pan into the proverbial fire with his new job, and Mags knew it had been bad back home, but she never realized it had been bad enough to consider coming to this.

She took several pictures of the signs hanging on the light poles as she made her way down the street.  No luck on the pay phone route—were there even pay phones anymore?—and none of the businesses on the street seemed to be public in any way.  A few blocks down, she saw a sign for DONUT HOLDUP, and changed her course.  It would be open, she thought.  It would be public, friendly.  If they didn’t have a public pay phone, then surely they would let her use their house phone.

When she walked through the door, she was surprised and charmed by the décor.  Retro 1950s diner, but even shinier, even more space-aged.  She took a few quick shots as she waited in the unexpected long line: of a grid of donuts dropped into hot oil, bubbling over, of the girl behind the counter hand-dipping the glazed into chocolate, of sprinkles pouring over the tops of the now chocolate glazed.

“May I help you?”

Mags lowered her camera and smiled at the woman behind the counter.  “I’m lost,” she said.  “And I don’t have my cell phone.  I need to call my grandmother to get her to come pick me up.  Is there any way I can use your phone?”

“I can’t,” the woman said.  “It’s policy.”

“I promise it’s a local call,” Mags said.  “I will literally take two seconds.”

The woman looked sympathetic, but didn’t budge.  “I can’t.  I’m really sorry.  Store policy.”

“You can use mine.”

Mags turned to find the source of the voice was a blonde teenage boy a few down in line. Who was wiggling a smart phone at her.  “Are you sure?”  She ducked out of line and went to stand next to him.  “I can pay you.”

The boy laughed.  “What, and rob me of the chance to rescue a damsel in distress?  My masculinity would never survive such a blow.”  Green eyes gazed at her between strands of blonde hair before he flipped his head to get them out of his eyes.

It was a gesture so like Henry’s that she trusted him almost on instinct.  That, and his uniform: unfamiliar yet familiar, prep school uniforms the same the world around.  Tall, lean, blonde, smiling, his wealth written in his casual stance, his cultured accent, the quality of his shoes.  Prep school for sure.

“Thanks.”  She took the phone from him and dialed her grandmother’s number.  She answered on the third ring.  “Grandma?”

“Margaret?”

“Hi.  I…” she felt the blush spread over her cheeks as the boy watched her, an easy smile spread on his face.  “I got lost on the way home from school.  Is there any way you can pick me up?”

“Lost?  Did you walk?  Margaret, it’s three miles!  And what number are you calling from?”

Mags tried to remember the order of the questions.  “I did walk.  I think I only got a mile and a half.  I lost my cell phone.  I’m borrowing a phone from a boy at Donut Holdup.”

There was rustling on the other end of the line.  “Your phone’s here,” her grandmother said.  “On the charger.  Which Donut Holdup are you at?”

Mags looked up at the boy.  “Um, where am I?”

He gestured for the phone.  After a second, she turned it over to him.  “Hello, ma’am?”  Pause.  “Well, my name is Adam Bell, ma’am.  With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”  A pause.  “How lovely to meet you, Mrs. Hale.”  Pause.  “No, ma’am, I go to Helstone.”  A pause then a smile.  “Well of course I know of Fred Hale.  He took Helstone to State in the 80s.”  Another pause and his eyes flicked to Mags.  He smiled.  “She’s fine.  We’re at the one on Main and Chestnut.”  Pause.  “That’s the one.”  Pause.  “Yes, ma’am.  I’ll get her to sit tight until you arrive.”  Pause.  “You as well.  Bye.”  He hung up the phone before Mags could speak to her grandmother again.  “She’s on her way.  She said not to let you wander around because you don’t know your way around town.”

Blushing again, she nodded.  “Thanks.”  Mags cocked her head at the counter.  “I owe you one.  Coffee and donut?”

He gave her a bright smile.  “Absolutely.”  But when they ordered, he managed to give the woman money before Mags had even finished pulling her wallet out of her bag.

“Seriously,” she said.  “I wanted to thank you.”

“Eat with me,” he said.  “I’m waiting for my friends and you’re waiting for your grandmother.  We’ll call it even.”

Once they got their orders—coffee and a maple bar for Adam, and coffee and chocolate sprinkled for Mags—they sat at a table by the window.  Mags watched as Adam added sugar but no cream to his coffee.  She put lots of both in hers.  She had grown up on coffee milk, that overly sweet, overly milky coffee most Cajun grandmothers made for their grandchildren when they begged, begged to drink coffee like the grownups.  She was a full-fledged coffee drinker now—what teenager in this Starbucks world wasn’t?—but she still liked her coffee light and sweet.

“So, Milton, huh?”

She looked down at herself and noticed she was still wearing her lanyard and ID badge.  “Educated guess.  Let me try.  You go to… Helstone?”

He laughed.  “That’s cheating.  I told your grandmother.”

“I would have figured it out with my powers of deduction.” 

Adam was wearing gray pants, a navy blazer with a silver and blue crest on the breast, a crisp white shirt, a silver and blue tie—loosened, of course, because it was after hours—and although she didn’t know for certain, she would swear that his shoes were non-regulation.  She knew this boy without knowing him, had gone K-7 with boys just like this, hung out with them throughout high school.  He was Noah.  He was Henry.  He was every boy she had ever known, before August.

He ate half of his maple bar before he spoke again.  “I know who you are.”

She blinked.  “Right.  I told you.”

“Actually, no, you didn’t.”  He gestured at her lanyard.  “That did.  But it’s a small town.  I knew who you were when I offered you my cell.”

She lowered the coffee in her hand and set the mug on the table.  “Who am I?”

“You’re the daughter of Fred Hale, class of 1985.  Best quarterback we’ve seen before or since.”

“That’s not who I am,” she said.  “That’s who my dad is.”

He smiled.  “Okay, then,” he said.  “You’re Margaret.  Although you prefer Mags.  You went to prep school before this, all-girls’ Catholic in New Orleans.  Milton’s your first public school.  Like, ever.”  At her look, he shrugged.  “It’s a small town, Mags, and an even smaller school.  It’s big news when alums turn down jobs at Helstone to go work at Milton.”

That made her start.  “What?”

His brows furrowed.  “Your dad,” he said.  “He got the offer to work at Helstone but turned it down to work at Milton.”  He paused for a moment as he watched her.  “You didn’t know that?”

Mags’s finger tapped against her mug.  “Employees get free tuition for their students, don’t they?”

“Of course they do.  Do you think the teachers at Helstone get paid enough to be able to afford to send their kids there?”  He shook his head before he polished off the rest of his donut.  “Anyway, I was part of the student review committee.  I mean, just because someone works there doesn’t mean their kid can actually get into Helstone, right?”

“Of course,” Mags said.

Adam didn’t seem to read the sarcasm in her voice.  “You, however, are clearly Helstone material.  National Merit, award-winning photographer, all AP classes, and that early ACT score?  Of course we wanted you.  But your dad chose Milton, and those teachers really can’t afford to send their kids to Helstone.”  He paused.  “So, what’s the skinny?  Why’d the Helstone Devils get the cold, cold shoulder?”

Mags had no idea her father had even applied to Helstone, much less been offered the job, even less turned down the job and her chance to go to the best private school in the tri-state area.  It was his alma mater.  He loved Helstone.  Before their recent financial difficulties, she knew he had given alumni dues to the school, every year, had flown home for his ten, then his twenty-year reunions.

So why, she thought, did he decide to take the job at Milton?  “It was a rather abrupt move,” she said instead.  She began pulling off all the white sprinkles from her donut and placing them on the napkin for something, anything to do.

“I can imagine.”  Adam leaned closer and she saw his eyes had flecks of gold and brown in them.  He smiled of a sudden.  “God, what’s it like?  Going from prep school to public school?”

She was quiet for a minute before she sighed.  “It’s different,” she said.  “I was actually surprised at how different it was.”

“And Milton at that?  That school’s full of thugs.”

She leaned back in her chair.  “Really.”

He mimicked her posture unconsciously.  “Come on, that football team has to be ’roided up.  They’re huge.

“Corn-fed Midwestern boys,” she said.  “I’ve seen them eat.  Hand to God,” she said at his disbelieving look.  She didn’t tell him that most of the football team would never be able to afford designer drugs.  It felt… disloyal to them.  There was no better word for it.  And after the pep rally today, after seeing the student body, the teachers and staff, even the parents and alums chanting “Strike!  Strike!  Strike!” in unison, she felt kinship with them all.  She had chanted along with them, found her voice grown hoarse before she even realized she had joined in.

“Well, half of them have been in and out of juvie.  Take Sean Thornton.  I know his mom’s superintendent and got all kinds of shit covered up, but he was in and out of trouble when he was younger.”  Adam shook his head and lifted his coffee cup.  “I mean, I know there was some shit with his dad,” he said when he lowered his drink, “but still.”

Mags couldn’t help it.  She let out a disbelieving laugh.  “You’re kidding, right?  Sean Thornton.  Juvenile delinquent.  Christ, don’t you guys have anything better to do than gossip about the Townies?”

Adam blinked at her.  “No, that stuff’s true.  Everyone knows it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Mags said.  “Even if it is the gospel freaking truth, it doesn’t matter.  I don’t gossip.  I certainly don’t gossip with people I don’t know, regardless of how nice they are to me.  Okay?”

She was surprised when he smiled at her.  She would have thought that would have made him walk away.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Okay.  How about classes?  Can we talk about classes?”

She nodded, suddenly tired.  “Sure,” she said.  “What do you want to know?”

“What are the classes like?  Are you bored to tears?”

This is what Sean thought she was, she finally realized.  And Bronwyn, and Alex, and even Nupur and Bess and Colin.  Everyone at Milton assumed she thought like this.  When they called her Gown, they meant this boy, and these assumptions.  And hadn’t she been just as bad when she first started, assuming her classes could never be as hard as they had been back home?

And it wasn’t meanness.  He wasn’t being an asshole.  He was just arrogant and ignorant and full of himself.  As she had been.  “Considering everything I’m taking is AP and college prep, actually, I’m pretty fucking exhausted every night.”  She stood and wrapped her donut in a napkin.  “My grandmother just pulled up.  Thanks again for letting me use your phone.”  She put her donut in her bag and pulled out her wallet.  “For the coffee and donut,” she said, and dropped three bucks on the table.

At that gesture, he half-stood from his seat.  “I’ve offended you.”

She met his eyes.  “Yes,” she said.  “You really have.”

His look was rueful, his smile wry.  “I didn’t mean to.  I really didn’t.”

“That’s usually when people offend the most.”

“Hey.”  He grabbed her hand, gentle, as she turned to leave, and pressed the three dollars into her palm.  “Please don’t leave like this.”

“Why?” she asked.

He blinked.  “Why what?”

“Why don’t you want me to leave like this?”

He let go of her arm and sat down in his chair.  “Well… I mean…”  And then he shrugged and didn’t meet her eyes.  “Can I call you sometime?”

Mags couldn’t help it.  She burst into laughter.  She had just insulted him, accused him of insulting her, and still, he wanted to call her?  She would never, ever understand boys.  Ever.  “You’ve got my grandmother’s number in your phone,” she said finally.  “What you do with it is your business.”  She turned and walked away from this boy who reminded her so much—so very much—of Henry. 

As she went through the doors to the parking lot, she realized that twice in one day, she had an amazing exit away from a boy who made her furious.  And when she slid into her grandmother’s car, she couldn’t help her self-satisfied smile.  “Hi, Grandma.”

“What’s that smile for?” her grandmother asked.

How to explain her odd little day to another person?  To explain two instances of standing up for herself, after two years of being kicked in the teeth?  To make another person realize that she understood something, finally, after all this time, understood something about herself?  “Ever have one of those days where everything just falls into place?” Mags asked instead.

“Not for a long time,” her grandmother said.  “But I know the kind of day you mean.”

“Well, that’s been this day,” Mags said.  “All in all, a pretty fine day.”

“Liking Milton better, are you?” her grandmother asked as she put the car in reverse.

Mags squinted and saw Adam staring at her through the window.  He lifted his hand in a little wave.  She didn’t wave back.  “You know,” she said, “I really am.”

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