These Houses Chapter Eleven

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER ELEVEN

She woke late on Saturday morning, almost at lunch time, to her phone ringing.  She answered it just before it went into voicemail.  “Hello?”

“I’m a goddamn cripple,” Bess said on the other line.  “You think I’ve got big plans for the weekend?”

Mags sat up in bed and rubbed the sleep from her eyes.  “What?”

“Tonight,” Bess said.  “Ghost Adventures marathon.  I don’t know what it is about those boys but I think they are crazy.  Mom said she’d make lasagna.  Do you like lasagna?”

“Who doesn’t like lasagna?”  Mags tried to focus in on the important part of the conversation.  “Are you asking me to come hang out?”

“Of course that’s what I’m asking.  Sleep over tonight.  I am officially done with testosterone after an entire football game.  Go ask your mom.”

“I don’t need to,” Mags said.  “What time?  Where do you live?”

Her grandmother dropped her off at the Higgins’ house for seven, and she bounded up the stairs to the front door.  “Hi,” she said when Principal Higgins answered.  “I’m Mags.”

“I know.”  Principal Higgins smiled.  “Come on in.”

  “Colin’s not here,” Bess called from the table when Mags came in.  “He’s got a hot date with his flavor of the week.”

“Bess.”  Her mother’s voice was warning.

“Sorry, with Strawberry Sally.”  Bess’s smile was wide and innocent.  “What?  He’s doubling with Sean and Queen B.  He only does that when he’s got a new female love interest.”

“Oh.”  Mags looked down at the bag in her hands.  “I thought Sean and Bronwyn aren’t dating.”  Her fist twisted around the handle.

“They’re not,” Bess said.  “But they do go on dates.”  She stared at Mags with keen eyes.  “Why do you care?”

“I don’t,” Mags said.  “I’m just curious, is all.”

“Well go put your bag down,” Bess said.  “I’m Starvin’ Marvin here.”

They nestled on the couch watching the marathon of Ghost Adventures on cable until just before midnight, Bess on one side of the “U” and Mags in the middle, a bag of potato chips between them. 

“Henry still hasn’t called?” Bess asked somewhere during episode three.

“No.”  Mags shifted to stare at her friend.  “Not once.  And Edie hasn’t texted in two weeks.”

“That’s just shitty,” Bess said.  “I mean, I can kind of get why he hasn’t called.  Boy’s in love with you, and you up and left.  But her?  She’s your best friend and your cousin.”

“I know,” Mags said.  She sucked in a deep breath.  “But I haven’t called her either.”

“Yeah.  It’s just getting worse, isn’t it?  The longer you wait, the bigger the deal it is.”  Bess reached for the bag of potato chips between them.  “What was it like?” she asked, her voice soft.

“What was what like?”

“A boy telling you he loved you.”  The crunch of chips was loud in her mouth, louder than the TV, louder than the hum of the crickets outside the open window.

Mags hugged the blanket to herself, the cold night air seeping in.  In August.  She still couldn’t believe it.  In the sixties, in August.  “We always told each other we loved each other,” she said after a long moment.  “All the time.  Me, Noah, Edie, Henry.  It was our thing.  We had been friends since forever, and so we just did.  But that night…”

“It was different,” Bess said.

“Yeah.”  Mags looked over at her to find her eyes wide and dark in the flickering blue light of the screen.  “It was scary.”

“Could you have loved him?” Bess asked.

“I don’t know,” Mags said.  “I mean, I did love him.  Do love him.  He’s Henry.  We’ve known each other since forever.”  She hugged her knees to her chest and rested her chin on top.  “But I don’t think he’ll ever forgive me.  He thinks I was selfish.”

“No,” Bess said.  “He was selfish.  When you needed to be.  When you needed someone to take care of you, he expected you to take care of him.”  When Mags blinked at her in surprise—she hadn’t thought those things, not since that night—Bess gave her a wry smile.  “No one understands the need for selfishness more than a cripple, Mags.  Sometimes, I need my mom and brother to take care of me.  And sometimes, they need me to remind them that it’s okay to take care of them.  That this?”  She gestured at her body.  “Is ultimately my gig.  And I’m the one who has to deal with all the consequences.  That it’s okay for them to be quarterbacks or do yoga.”

“Do you resent it?” Mags asked.

“Of course I do.  How could I not?”  Bess shrugged.  “But I don’t resent them.  My brother…” she stopped for a moment, and when she spoke again, her voice was thick.  “Colin would give me every ounce of strength he had, if he could.  But he can’t, so I made him promise, long ago, that I wouldn’t hold him back.”  Her smile was sudden and bright.  “Goddamn, I love seeing that dumbass boy run.”

“Well, hell, what senior girl doesn’t?”  Mags laughed when she got a throw pillow in her face for her comment.

“Hey,” Bess said, suddenly serious again.  “When they do call?  And they will.  They’ll call.  You let them apologize, okay?  Don’t you do your apology thing, or be too grateful.  They did you wrong, and you get the right to be mad about it.  You get me?”

Mags shifted so that her head bumped against Bess’s.  “I get you.”

“Yeah.”  Bess pressed her head against Mags for a moment before she pulled away.  “Yeah, you better.”

They heard the scratching at the front door, and Bess shook her head.  “See what a goody two-shoes he is?”  Her voice was soft in the darkened room.  “Mom’s been asleep for hours, and still, he makes curfew.”

Mags smiled and curled the blanket around her.  “I think it’s sweet that he’s so respectful.”

“Hm,” Bess said.  “He’s probably trying to trick her into giving him something.  Longer curfew for Homecoming, no doubt.”  But her face lit up when Colin came in, holding a white paper bag up like a trophy.  “You didn’t.”

“Course we did,” he said, grinning at both of them.  “What kind of assholes would we be if we didn’t bring you ice cream, too?”  And he moved into the house, followed closely by Sean.

Mags looked at Sean in surprise.  Neither boy looked like they just came back from a date.  Both wore worn jeans and t-shirts, the room too dark to discern color or writing.  She wondered then how formal this date had been.  Then she wondered why she even cared.

“Oh, right.”  Bess turned to Mags.  “I forgot to tell you.  Colin is having someone over, too.” 

Mags wished she had remembered.  She would have worn something different, other than her ratty yoga pants and her “Team Neville” t-shirt.  “Hey,” Mags said, running her fingers through her hair in an attempt to untangle all the knots.  “Congrats on the game, you two.”

“I thought you didn’t come,” Colin asked.

“I didn’t,” Mags said.  “My grandmother and I watched it on TV.”

You watched the game?”  They were the first words Sean had spoken directly to her in over a week.

Mags’s brow wrinkled.  “My dad’s the coach.

Sean exchanged a look with Colin.  “I just thought you wouldn’t,” he said, his voice softer, a bit chagrined.

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t listen to horrible, terrible, rotten, nasty rumors,” Mags said.

Sean stared at her in complete and utter silence for a moment until… there.  The ghost smile.  “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be such a football snob and come to a game now and then.”

“Oh please.  You’ve had one game.  One.  Besides, I think you’re both forgetting my girl here is the one been taking all those pictures of you guys on the field?  Every night, practically, for three weeks?”

Colin smiled and threw himself on the couch between Bess and Mags.  “That’s why I brought ice cream,” he said.  “Stands were at capacity last night.  At an away game.  I think it’s because of your column.  So on behalf of my teammates,” he paused to rustle through the bag, “the Milton Strikers thank you.”  With a flourish, he presented Mags with a little white carton, “Choc3” scribbled in black sharpie on top.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Triple chocolate,” Colin said.  “We took a bet on you being a girl on the edge, underneath that calm, collected exterior.”  Colin handed a pint to Bess and a moment later, a plastic spoon to both of them.  “Butter pecan for my beautiful sister.  Well, come on, Thornton.  This ice cream won’t eat itself.”

After another moment’s hesitation, Sean sat on the couch next to Mags.  He took the pint—labeled “Cookie dough”—and spoon from Colin, reaching across Mags to do so.

She eased back to stay out of his way but still, she felt his hand brush her arm as it came back across her.  She folded in on herself more, trying to take up as little space as possible, overwhelmed as she was by the two giant boys on either side of her. 

“Thanks for the ice cream,” Mags said.  She took a bite and groaned.  “Holy crap, what is this?  This is real?

Colin and Bess laughed, and even Sean chuckled.  “That, my white sister, is Jake Malloy’s ice cream.”  Bess took a bite and closed her eyes in bliss.  “Local place, stays open late on weekends.  Homemade ice cream, and best burgers and chili in town.”

“It’s freaking amazing.”  Mags took another bite.  “I can actually taste three totally different types of chocolate in here.”

“You’re absolutely welcome.  Remember my generosity next time you accuse me of shamelessly flirting with you.”  Colin settled into the nook created by the left flank of the U-shaped couch and took some of his sister’s blanket.  “So what are we watching?”

They watched the show in comfortable silence for a good ten minutes before Colin swapped ice creams with Bess.  Then Bess reached out for Sean’s, who handed it over without comment. 

Sean didn’t look at Mags.  She realized that he didn’t expect her to play along with what was so clearly a familiar routine between them.  Too Gown, perhaps?  Or just too “new girl”?  Regardless, she passed him her pint, with her spoon stabbed in the middle.  When he took it from her, he didn’t say anything, but she saw the faintest glimpse of his ghost smile.  He took a big bite with her spoon.  “Christ,” he said, still not looking at her.  “Three entirely different chocolates.”

“I know, right?” she said.

Then someone’s ice cream and spoon ended up in her hand, and the ritual repeated, again and again, until all the ice cream was gone.  Every last bite of it.  She nestled herself further into her spot and wrapped the blanket tight around her, to her chin.  Colin went off to get everyone pillows, and then they all settled on the couch, watching TV in comfortable silence.  It was so much like an average Saturday night back home, watching TV with Edie and Henry and Noah that as Mags drifted off to sleep, she realized she felt warm, and safe, for the first time since she moved to Marlborough.

#

She woke from a dream of spotlights and cameras, of shaky handheld feed, of laughter, mean and raucous, to someone shaking her shoulder.  “What?”  She sat straight up and glanced around the unfamiliar room with wild eyes.  “Is mom okay?  Is it Freddie?”  Then she remembered where she was, and with whom.  When her eyes settled on Sean’s face, she relaxed.  “Sorry,” she said.  “Is something wrong?”

Sean shook his head.  “You were whimpering,” he whispered.  “I thought you were having a nightmare.”  He was stretched out on the other arm of the U-shaped couch, but his pillow brushed against Mags’s.

She sucked in a deep breath and sank back into the couch.  “I always have nightmares,” she said before she could think about it.  Mags turned to see Colin asleep, mouth open, full snoring, with Bess curled up next to him, like a doll.  She blushed when she realized that she and Sean had fallen asleep next to each other, too, head to head, on the couch.  The TV had switched to infomercials, and this one advertised that there had to be a better way to peel eggs.

“Who’s Freddie?” Sean asked.

She blinked at him for a second.  “Why are you asking me about Freddie?”

“Because you asked, ‘Is it Freddie?’”  He slung a hand through his hair.  “Is he your boyfriend back home?”

“What?”  She shook her head.  “No, of course not.  He’s my brother.”

She realized she had never surprised Sean Thornton before, not really, because his eyes grew wider than she had seen to date.  “Your dad never said he had a son.”

“Yeah.”  She found that she had twisted the blanket over and over again in her hand.  “Freddie’s in Afghanistan.  It’s… it’s hard for my dad to talk about.”

“Oh.”  Sean gave her a surprisingly gentle look.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she said.  It was, but it wasn’t, but she couldn’t tell Sean that.

“Did he play football?”

She nodded, shy of a sudden, so loathe to discuss Freddie with a stranger.  But there were good things about Freddie, so many good things, and it was far enough away from New Orleans that perhaps Sean wouldn’t find out about the Incident after all.  “He was All-American,” she said.  “He was amazing.  He had the best arm I’ve seen this side of Drew Brees.”

“Really?”  Sean’s lips tugged upward at one corner, but it wasn’t the ghost smile.  Not yet.  “I’m surprised to hear you know who he is.”

“Okay, one?  Drew Brees led New Orleans to the Superbowl, so I think he’s in line to be canonized at St. Louis Cathedral.  I’m also pretty sure every Louisiana textbook has rewritten history so that he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.  Two?  And this is important.”  She tucked her feet under her and hugged the pillow to her chest before she stared at him with wide, solemn eyes.  “I am not trying to sell the playbook, regardless of what anyone says.”

Sean actually laughed, but soft, as to not wake the twins.  “I never listen to rumors or gossip,” he said.  “It’s almost always entirely bullshit.  If I want to know something about someone, I just ask them.”

“So ask me,” she said.

He glanced over at her, his eyes bright, even in the dim room.  “Do you hate football?”

She smiled.  “Of course I don’t.  You can’t grow up in my family and hate football.”

“Okay, then.  Do you hate Milton football?”  He tapped a fist to his chest.  “Tread carefully here.  You hold my entire heart.”

She shook her head.  “I don’t hate any kind of football, Milton or otherwise.  Besides the fact that once again—”

“Your dad’s the coach,” he said.

“The boy listens.”  She nodded.  “Besides that piece of oft-quoted fact, I kind of loved the pep rally.”  She grew quiet as she stared at the TV for a moment.  “It was powerful.”

“Yeah,” Sean said.  “It’s… it’s almost…”

“Primal,” she said, and caught his eye.

He lifted an eyebrow.  “That too.”  They were quiet for a long moment before he resettled himself on the couch.  “So a Gown who likes Milton football.  The mind does boggle with the oddity of it all.”

“I could say the same about you.”

“Of course I like football.  I’m a football player.

“No.”  She laughed, quiet and low.  “I mean Buffy, and Nine Inch Nails.  AP Euro History.  The dichotomy that is Sean Thornton.”

He shrugged and stared at the television screen.  “Uncle Caleb is a closet nerd.  He practically raised us after my dad…” his voice trailed off.  “Anyway, he bought me comic books, action figures, took me to see Star Wars and Batman and even Chicago Comic Con once.”  He turned to look at Mags and she saw his eyes lighten, even in this dark room.  “But I’m a 6’4 white boy in the middle of Indiana.  There is nothing else to do but play football.”

“With your shoulders?  Of course there isn’t.”  She rested her chin on the pillow in her arms.  “I’ve been at every practice the last three weeks, though, and I’ve seen you play.  I think you’re wasted as a lineman.”

“I’m too big to be anything else.”

“You’re fast,” she said.  “And you’ve got good hands.  The ball sticks to you like glue.  You should be on offense.”

He glanced over at her, one eyebrow raised.  “You think I’ve got good hands?”

She felt the blush burn across her body and was grateful he couldn’t see it in the dark.  “You know what I mean.”

“Why, Gown, are you teasing me?”  His ghost smile was back, edging the corners of his lips, crinkling his eyes.

“To hell with you, Thornton.  See if I try to give you sports advice anymore.”  She smiled back at him, still blushing, but appreciating the ridiculousness of her comments.

And then there was awkward silence between them, stretching out to make her remember that she was in her pajamas, on a couch with a strange boy in his pajamas.  Two strange boys, she amended, in a strange state for which she hadn’t even gotten her new driver’s license.

“What are you doing?”

They turned to see Bess blinking up at them.  “Hey,” Mags said.  “I apparently had a nightmare.”

“Sir Sean slayed the dragon?  Excellent.”  Bess sat up and yawned so wide, her jaw cracked.  “Whew.  Come on.”  She smacked Colin on the arm and he snorted awake.  “We’re missing out on fun.  As always.”

“Hey.”  Colin gave Mags that lazy smile that made her insides melt, just a little.  She didn’t like him, not in that way, but she could certainly appreciate the pretty with the best of them.  “Your hair is really cute right now, all stuck up like that.”

Mags stuck a hand on her head and felt the snarl had gotten worse.  “Seriously?”  She turned to Sean.  “You failed to mention this?”

He shrugged and gave her his half smile.  “It’s no worse than Bess’s.”

“White boy, I’ve got a fro.  It’s supposed to look like this.”  Bess nestled back in her blankets and yawned again at the TV.  “Hey, did my girl tell you how she told Adam Bell to go fuck himself?”

“That is not at all how it happened,” Mags said, but both Sean and Colin had turned to her.

“You did what?” Colin asked.  “For real?”

“I did not.”  Mags turned to glare at Bess who stared at her with wide, innocent eyes.  “I told him my coursework had made me fucking exhausted, but that’s not the same as telling someone to go fuck himself.”

“Curse words sound so cute in her mouth,” Colin said to Sean.

“Like a toddler,” Sean agreed.  “Adorable.”

“Seriously?”  Mags gestured her hand at Bess.  “Can you clear this up?”

“Nuh uh,” Bess said.  “Because my version’s much better.  He asked for her number, too.  And she wouldn’t give it to him.”

“Wait, wait, wait.”  Colin held up his hands in surrender.  “Start at the beginning.”

Mags told the story as it was, leaving out the specific references to Sean, while Bess added her own embellishments.

“And then I left,” Mags finished, “sans Batarang and grappling hook.”  The last was said with a glare at Bess.

“What?”  Bess widened her eyes.  “I like you as Batgirl and Adam as the Joker.  It’s fun.”

“She’s way more Mary Marvel,” Sean said.  “Not at all suited for the Bat family.”

“I can’t tell if you complimented me or insulted me,” Mags said.

“Who cares?  You told Adam freaking Bell to go fuck himself.”  Bess clapped her hands.  “This has made my night.

“Hey, why is she so bloodthirsty for this boy?”

“Helstone’s school paper won out over our paper last year in a state-wide competition.”  Sean shook his head.  “He was editor, and Bess was editor.  It wasn’t pretty.”

“He’s an asshole,” Bess said.  She slumped back into her seat.  “We were the plucky underdogs.  If eighties movies have taught me anything, it’s that the plucky underdog always wins.”

“And gets to kiss the boy on top of a glass table,” Mags said.

“Or in the rain,” Bess said.  “All sexy kisses happen in the rain.  So says eighties movies.”

“Or on riding lawnmowers,” Colin added.

“Or in response to just having saved the community center,” Sean said.

“Through the power of break dance.”  Mags smiled at him and was surprised when he gave her his full dimpled smile.  “Breakin’ II: Electric Boogaloo is the classic story of the triumph of good versus evil.”

“Of the plucky underdog overpowering corporate America,” Sean said.  “Really, the modern fairy tale of the American dream.”  And then he stretched, arms lifted above his head.  When he collapsed back into himself, he was a few inches closer to Mags.

She noticed.  She didn’t know why she noticed, but she did.

“Never deny the power of break dance.  Well, except you two.  You’re white.”  Bess yawned before she threw the remote at Sean.  “Sean, you call it.”

“How many infomercials are on at three a.m.?” Sean asked.  “Place your bets.”

“Four,” Colin said.

“Forty-five,” Bess said.  “What?  I’m an optimist.”

“Your turn, Gown.”

Mags found all three of them looking at her, expectant.  “What?” 

“Take a bet,” Sean said.  “How many infomercials do you think are airing right now?”

She turned to look at him and the TV and then back at him again.  “How many channels are there?”

“My girl wants an informed decision,” Bess said.  “Smart.  Very smart.”

Sean thought for a moment.  “With digital?  Probably close to three hundred.”

“I say eighteen.”

“My bet’s thirteen.”  Sean settled into a sitting position and started the channel surfing at “1.”  “Game on.”

Bess dropped off at channel seventeen, after only one infomercial, while Colin lasted until the low one hundreds, having found ten.  Mags scooted closer to Sean so that they could whisper, as not to wake the twins again.

“That’s twelve,” she said as they slid past channel 145.  “And honestly, how hard is it to peel eggs that there are four, four separate channels airing that infomercial?”

“What a mess,” Sean said.  “There has to be a better way!”

She curled onto the couch again, hugging the pillow under her head.  “You’ve known them a long time, haven’t you?”

“Since first grade,” Sean said.  “She likes you a lot.”

“I like her.”

“Colin likes you a lot, too.”

“Colin likes anything with two X chromosomes.”

Sean exhaled through his nose.  “This is true,” he said.  “But I mean, he likes you because of Bess.  Because you became such good friends so quickly.”  He paused for a moment.  “Most people do this whole ‘pity the cripple’ thing, and act like being friends with her is an act of charity.”

Mags’s fingers played with the edge of the pillowcase.  “I think she’s the one performing the act of charity with me.  She took pity on me day one.  I’ll never forget that, you know?”

They were quiet as they slipped past channel 156, then 157.  “Is she dying?” she asked in a soft voice.

158.  159.  160.  “Yes,” Sean said at channel 162.

She peeked up at him, saw his jaw set hard, his eyes unreadable as always.  “She’s a fighter,” she said.

He glanced down at her then.  “She’s that, too,” he said.  “For a long, long time.”

They were quiet then, the words stretched between them, answers made, unable to be taken back.  She didn’t want to talk anymore.  Not about Bess dying.  Not about events so far beyond her control.  Sean seemed to respect that and the silence grew comfortable, easier, less about pain and more about the late hour.

There was a shift on the couch and his pillow bumped against hers.  188.  189.  “Hey, Gown?”  190.  191.

“Hmm?”  Her eyes were heavy now, flitting open and closed at the rhythm of the changing channels, Colin’s soft snoring, the weight of Sean’s body on the couch next to her.  The cold of the room, the warmth of her blanket and the coziness of the couch, all of it was making her feel sleepy again and she knew when she did fall asleep once more, she would not have any nightmares at all.

“Are you coming to the game on Friday?”

She peeled one eyelid open to see him looking at her, so earnest, so intense, so close she could feel his warm breath on her face.  She opened both eyes.  “I’m photographing it for the paper,” she said.

“No, I mean, are you coming?  To the whole game?  And the bonfire after?  Not just for the paper?”  His sentences were ending up again.  He was nervous, but she didn’t know why.

“I’m coming,” she said.  “To everything.  With and without camera.”

And then he smiled, his dimpled half smile, his face smooshed against the pillow.  “Good,” he said.  “Make sure to wear black and red.  It’s important.  Especially at the bonfire.”

“Really?”

“Really.”  And then, impossibly, he winked at her.  “It’s a Town thing.  Just trust me.”

“I trust you,” she said.  “See how quickly I’m learning your ways?”

His face sobered and he nodded.  “You are,” he said, and turned back to the television.  196, 197, 198.

 Mags’s eyes grew heavier around 214, and she started dozing around 225.  When she woke, it was to the thin sunlight of early morning.  She peeked to her left and found Colin and Bess still curled asleep on the couch.  She shifted a bit and looked to her right. 

Sleepy blue eyes, also just opened, blinked at her.

“How many?” she asked, her voice husky from disuse.

Sean buried his head in his pillow like a puppy, rubbing his face in the cotton, before he looked up at her, a languid half-smile stretched on his face.  Mags felt something, something she didn’t recognize, something she couldn’t identify, give in her chest and flutter, just a bit.  Click.  “Nineteen,” he said.  “You win.”

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