These Houses Chapter Twelve

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER TWELVE

            The coffee was brewing, the biscuits were baking, and Sean Thornton was making everyone eggs by the time Principal Higgins came into the kitchen and kissed her children on the head.

            “Sean,” she called to the boy at the stove.  “Have I told you lately how good it is to see you Sunday mornings?”

            “It’s good to see me making eggs,” he called back.  “The entire Higgins clan is ruled by their stomachs.”

            Principal Higgins turned to Mags and smiled.  “Good morning, Mags.  I’m sure the twins have told you how bad of a breakfast cook I am.”

            “Well…”  Mags said.  “Just until you’ve had your coffee, right?”

            “There was once this incident,” Bess said.  “Involving salt on oatmeal, sugar in eggs, and burnt toast.”  She shuddered with a delicate twist of her shoulders.

            “Sean took up the slack long ago,” Colin said.

            Mags just watched them banter back and forth as she sipped her coffee.  It was another familiar scene, like the first day of school, but this time, she felt as if she belonged.  As if she were one of them rather than an interloper, an outsider integrating herself into their personal lives.

            From their conversation, she was able to glean that this was, pretty much, a standard Sunday morning in the Higgins household: Sean making eggs, Colin making coffee, Principal Higgins finding the donuts she had stashed away so they didn’t eat them in the night, Bess providing scintillating commentary about the entire cooking process.  As a new inclusion in this scene, Mags had added her own touch: from-scratch drop biscuits.  Her great-grandmother’s recipe from New Orleans.  They had all seemed surprised and pleased when she offered, Sean and Colin bringing her various ingredients from the cabinets when she asked.  When they were stymied by the lack of buttermilk, Sean had pulled out his phone, looked up a substitution, and after several minutes shaking heavy cream in a jar, they had butter and buttermilk.

            “Like a wizard,” Mags had said.  Sean had given her a little half-smile back.

            Now, Bess looked over at her, a strange smile on her face.  “So, I have been meaning to ask you.  Did you sleep well, down on that end of the couch?”

            Mags gave her a confused look.  “Sure,” she said.  “In fits and starts, though.  You?”

            “Where did you guys sleep?” Principal Higgins asked as she tore a sour cream donut in half.  “Not all of you on the couch again.”  At Colin’s pointed stare away, she sighed.  “What is Mags’s family going to say, with her sleeping on the couch with two boys?”

            “On the principal’s couch,” Bess said.  “God, Mom.  Seriously.  Like anything would happen with you two feet away.”

            “I’m not worried about something happening.  I’m worried about what her parents might think.”

            “My parents don’t care,” Mags said.  “They don’t care what I do.”

            Everyone, even Sean, turned to look at her with that statement.  She felt the red creep along her cheeks and she looked down at her cup.  “I mean, it’s no different from back home.  I used to sleep with boys all the time.”

            Colin cleared his throat loudly while Bess burst into laughter.  Sean said nothing, but his smile was full and dimpled.

            Mags threw her face into her hands as Principal Higgins made a little noise in the back of her throat.  “Y’all know what I mean, right?”

            “Despite what you want?” Bess said.  “That floor will not open up and swallow you whole.”

            Mags flitted out one hand, palm up.  “A little help?”

            “Anything for my white sister.  Mom, she’s got experience sleeping with boys.  Sheesh.  Give my girl some cred.”

            Mags pulled her face away from her hands to stare at Bess.  “You are not helping.  I forbid you from speaking anymore.”

            “What?”  Bess gave her a now-familiar wide-eyed innocent look.  “I mean, I’m sure you slept with Henry loads of times.”

            “Who’s Henry?”  Colin leaned forward, his chin resting on his hands.  “Do we know him?  Does he go to Helstone?”

            “Henry’s her boyfriend back home,” Bess said.

            Mags threw a napkin at Bess.  “He is not my boyfriend.”

            “He is a boy, and he is your friend.  Hence, boyfriend.”

            “Well, considering he actually isn’t that much of a friend right now, I don’t think he counts.”

            “That’s only because he wants to be your kissing boyfriend and you up and moved to Indiana instead.”

            Mags turned to Principal Higgins to find her watching the proceedings with one eyebrow cocked.  “How much do you love your daughter?  I mean, will you miss her that much?”

            “Right now, or just in general?”  Principal Higgins pretended to contemplate it.  “Do I get a replacement daughter?  Will recompense be paid?”

            “Mom,” Bess said.  “You know no one could replace me.  I am one of a kind.  Unique.  Special.  Like a unicorn with a limp.”

            “I’ll give you Sean,” Mags said.  “A son for a daughter.  They’re worth more, right?”

            “Hey, don’t drag me into this,” Sean said from the stove.  “It’s not my fault you’ve got lots of boyfriends you sleep with.”

            “This now counts as justifiable homicide, right?” Mags asked Colin.

            “Oh, sure,” he said.  “You’ve got several witnesses who can vouch that it was just self-defense.”

            “Okay, children, enough hazing.  We would like Mags to come back at some point.”  Principal Higgins reached a hand over and patted Mags’s arm.  “Since I am pretty sure what you mean is, ‘Why yes, Principal Higgins, I do have male friends that my parents know about and we have, on occasion, fallen asleep in the same room without any unnecessary complications,’ we’ll just leave it at that?”

            The buzzer sounded.  “The biscuits are ready!”  Mags leaped out of her seat and all but ran to the oven, the sound of Bess’s laughter trailing behind her.

            She stood and waited for Sean to move from the stove so she could open the oven, but he didn’t.  “Come on, Town.”  She tapped him on the arm with the oven mitt.  “Time is biscuits.”

            “Two seconds,” he said.  “We are at a very critical juncture.” 

            She peeked over his arm to look at the eggs in the pan, perfect yellow curds buttery and delicious-looking.  “Are you… are you using chopsticks?

            “They are the best tool for cooking eggs.”  He swirled the chopsticks around once more and she watched, fascinated, as the eggs cuddled together in faultless little clumps.

            “Wow.”  Without even thinking, Mags hopped up on the counter so she could see better.  “How did you learn this trick?”  She leaned closer and, wobbling, caught his shoulder for balance.

            She felt his muscles shift under her hand and, blushing, she pulled away.  “I did a lot of cooking when I was younger,” he said, his voice soft.  “It just sort of stuck.”

            “You should be a chef.”  But the earlier relaxed moment was broken now.  Her skin was bright and taut with the weight of her embarrassment.  She waited as he moved his pan to the back burner before she jumped off the counter to get the biscuits.

            “Actually, that’s kind of what I want to do.”

            He said it so soft and so fast that Mags wasn’t sure she had heard him.  But when she looked up, she found Sean Thornton looking at her, those intense eyes serious, the blue darkened.  “Really?” she asked.  She placed the pan of biscuits on the stove, away from the warm burner the eggs had been cooked on.

            He leaned against the counter, his hands resting behind him, pushing up his shoulders.  “Stupid, right?”

            “What?  Are you kidding?  That’s amazing.”  She closed the oven door and stood closer to him.  His quietness suggested to her that it was a secret desire, even from Colin and Bess, who were bantering back and forth with their mother, their voices too loud to overhear anything happening by the stove.  “Why do you think it’s stupid?”

Sean shrugged but his ears pinked a bit.  “My mom thinks it’s stupid.”

            “Did she say that?  Did she say, ‘Sean, I think your dream is stupid’?”

            The ghost-smile.  “No.”

            “Then you’re reading her wrong.”  Mags reached around Sean for a plate and began placing the biscuits on it.  “Trust me.  Take this from a girl who wants to take pretty pictures for a living.  Try justifying that to parents of a son who went All-American and was majoring in Engineering before…”  Her voice trailed off and she lightened the tone before she could go down the Freddie road.  “Anyways, I’m from New Orleans.  Eating is a professional sport there, you know.  I think people who can feed me are, like, superheroes.”

            “Well, they’d have to be,” Sean said.  “I’ve seen you eat.”  The ghost smile grew wider.

            She stared up at him, straight-faced.  “Wow.  You really are going for that asshole of the year award.”

            “Hey, I’m not about to lose out for the first time in ever because you’re ‘new’ and you’ve got ‘sensitive girly feelings.’”  He fingered scare quotes for most of the sentence.  “I have a reputation to maintain.”  Sean grabbed the frying pan in one hand and gestured for her biscuit plate with the other.  “Thanks,” he said, soft again as he took the plate.

            “For what?” she asked.

            “For not mocking me.”  Then he smiled, full-dimpled.  “Well, for not mocking me about that.

            “Well, one day, you’ll go to New Orleans, call me when you get there, and I’ll take you to all of the best places, all the hole in the wall restaurants, the food trucks, hell, my grandmother’s house for gumbo.  And then when you’re this rich and famous molecular gastronomist—”

            Sean wrinkled his nose.  “Please.  I want to cook food.  Not foam.”

            Mags couldn’t help her grin.  “Sorry, so when you’re this rich and famous serious chef, you’ll say, ‘That Margaret Hale.  It’s all thanks to her and the food tour of New Orleans she made me take.  Yes, clearly, I need to give her all the money and accolades in the world.’”

            Sean’s face cleared and the look he gave her was something unreadable, something new.  “That’s a promise,” he said.  And then he turned away.  “All right, Higginses.  Let’s eat.”

#

            They were making a last-ditch, valiant effort to finish the remaining three donuts when Principal Higgins’s phone rang.

            She stared down at the caller ID.  “Sean, it’s your mom.”

            He checked the phone sitting next to his plate.  “She hasn’t called me,” he said.  “It must be for you.”

            “Hi, Rose.  Did you want to talk to Sean?”  Principal Higgins stood and began walking to his office.  “Not yet, but I will be in a second.”  She disappeared down the hallway and, a moment later, they heard the sound of a door close.

            Three sets of eyes swiveled to Sean.  “What?  I don’t know why she’s calling.”

            “It has to be work,” Bess said.  “Your mom only calls mom’s cell phone if it’s something for work.”

            “Sean’s mom is the school superintendent of our county,” Colin said to Mags.  “So it’s probably something you did.”

            Mags laughed.  “Probably,” she said.  “What with all of my boyfriends and that sleeping I’ve been doing.”

            Sean stared down at his phone, a puzzled look on his face.  “I just got three texts in a row.”

            “From whom?” Bess asked.  She tried to snatch the phone from his hand but he pulled it away.

            “Five now.  Hugh, Hunter, and a few other guys from the team.”

            Colin walked over to where his phone was charging.  “Seven for me.  What is going on?”  He pulled Bess’s phone from its charger and handed it to her.  “You’ve got three.”

            Mags just reached for the last sprinkled donut and waited as they scrolled through their texts.  “So, is anyone going to tell me what’s going on?”

            Sean looked up at her.  “Coach Keegan’s in trouble.”

            “What?”  She leaned over to see his phone and he moved it toward her.  The text from Hugh was simple and to the point.  “Dude, wtf. Have u heard anything abt Coach? What’s going on??”

“What happened?”

            Sean shrugged.  “Nobody knows or isn’t saying.”

            “Alex thinks it has something to do with a blog.”  Bess looked up from her cell phone.  “What kind of blog?”

            Mags’s eyes grew wide as she remembered the conversation she overheard on Friday.  “Guys, listen,” she began, but didn’t get to finish.

            In unison, both Sean’s and Colin’s cell phones beeped.  The two boys looked down.  Sean finished reading first.  “That’s from your dad,” he said, looking at Mags.

            “Why is my dad texting y’all?”

            “Because he just called an emergency meeting for the entire team tonight, and we’ve got to let the team know.”

            Team Captains, Mags thought.  Of course they would need to get in touch with everyone.  The complicated phone tree that was football.

            Mags stood and walked to her bag for her cell phone.  No missed messages.  No missed calls.  No texts.  She didn’t know what she expected.  Perhaps some trust after their late-night conversation on Friday after the game.  But clearly not.  She threw her phone back in her bag and grabbed her camera instead.  “Anyone else saying anything?”  She felt comfortable with it in her hands again.  She snapped a few random shots of the donuts on the table, just for something to do.

            She looked up to find Bess watching her, a sympathetic look on her face.  “You could be our spy,” she said.  “You’ve got the inside scoop, Ace.  Literally.”

            Mags shrugged and lifted her camera again so that she could look through the lens at all of them.  “Dad doesn’t really talk to me about things like this.”  She wondered what she looked like in this moment to warrant such a gentle look from Bess.  Wide-eyed and sad.  Click.  Left out and forlorn.  Click.  A martyr, Henry had called her.  Was she bringing it upon herself?  Was she determining her own martyred state?  Click, click, click.

            But she never wanted to be Joan of Arc.  She just wanted to take pictures and have her parents forgive her for Freddie.  In the larger sweep of the universe, in light of Bess’s illness, of losing Henry and Edie, of existing so unstable in this new, unknown place, her parents’ navigation of their own tricky lives wasn’t neglect.  Not really.

            “We’ve got to get this going.”

            Mags swung the camera to focus in on Colin, his serious expression, his earnest chat with Sean.  Click. 

            “I’ll head home and get the phone numbers.”  Sean, putting his phone in his pocket.  Click.  “Gown, you need a ride home?”

            Mags lowered the camera from her face.  “You don’t mind?”

            “Clearly I do.  That’s why I offered.”  Sean, despite his concerned look, his seriousness over what Henry would call “a serious fucking situation,” gave her a ghost of the ghost smile.  “Come on, then.  Get your things.”

            “Call me if you get anything juicy!” Bess called after them as they headed out the door.  “And I will see you when I see you!”

            “See you when I see you,” Mags said, repeating what had become their usual goodbye.  “Thanks again, Principal Higgins.”

            “You’re welcome, Mags.  Anytime you want to come over, you just come on over.”  She slipped into her right heel at the same moment she was securing an earring in her ear.  Apparently, there was an emergency meeting for all faculty and administration of Milton High.  The situation must be serious indeed.  “You two drive safe.”

            Mags paused for a second when she stepped outside, confused by the sleek silver SUV instead of the GTO.  But yes, she remembered that Queen B—Bronwyn, she told herself, trying to break the evil nickname Bess had given to her—was too precious to ride in the GTO.  Even still, she found herself going to the driver’s side on instinct, before she heard the automatic locks click on the doors and she slid into the passenger seat.

            The SUV was everything the GTO was not: new, clean, and with working doors and floorboards.  And radio.  When Sean started the car, obnoxious pop music blared out of the speakers.

            “Sorry,” he said, and reached to turn down the volume.  “Bronwyn likes to mess with the radio.”

            Mags shrugged and stared out of the window.  She didn’t have to wonder why she cared.  She knew why.  She just could not fathom what Sean even saw in a girl like Bronwyn.  Then she remembered what Bronwyn looked like in her cheerleader’s uniform, and mentally amended her statement.  She could not fathom what else Sean saw in a girl like Bronwyn.

            “Can you control the iPod?”

            She turned to find him gesturing a silver iPod at her.  “Sure,” she said, and reached to take it.  His fingers brushed hers when she did and for some reason, it made her blush.  She started scrolling through his music, all 160 GB of it.

            They drove in silence as she moved through his music before she finally burst out with, “Really?  Styx?  This is a joke, right?”

            “Who are you to judge?  They are the masters of the rock ballad.”

            She clicked on the Greatest Hits album and chose her song carefully.  In a moment, the beginning strain of “Oh, Momma,” filled the car.  “Great sound system,” she said, almost screaming over the music.  “It was clearly meant for classic rock.”  She kept scrolling through his music.  “Oh, no.  No, here’s one better.”  Styx was cut off mid-croon and Rush began blaring “Tom Sawyer.”

            Sean reached over to lower the volume so they didn’t need to scream.  “I think you’re making fun of me.”

            “Never.  That’s a filthy lie.”  She kept scrolling.  “Seriously?  This is a gag, right?”  Kansas’s “Carry On, My Wayward Son” began.

            “Are you going to stick to one song or just keep up this seventies montage?”

            “Hey, the seventies montage is all your fault.  There is entirely too much classic rock on here.”  She scrolled back and found the song she wanted.  “Okay.  Here’s one we can both agree on, I think.”

            A pause, then a fun guitar riff.  “‘Hey man!  Leave me alone,’” Mags sang with the opening lines.

            “Nice choice,” Sean said.  “Although I would never connect you and Bowie.  Too… Townie for you, I suppose.”

            “Hey, I’m a total blam-blam,” Mags said.  “Besides, this is ‘Suffragette City.’  It is only the greatest song in the history of all songs ever.”

            Sean looked over and stared at her with those unreadable eyes.  “You’re a contradiction, Margaret Hale.  You know that, right?”

            “You’re the one who can’t afford the ticket back from Suffragette City, not me.”  And then she grinned at him and was rewarded with a dimpled smile back and while the thing that had loosened between them in the night loosened more, something else tightened in return.  She felt it, a rubberband-snap of something she couldn’t explain and couldn’t, no matter if she tried, photograph for posterity and exploration.  She didn’t know this, not exactly, and she wasn’t sure he did, either, because her confusion was written on his brow, and his lack of understanding was felt in her bones.

            Awkward again, he turned back to the road and she turned back to staring out the windshield but there was the song between them, there was David Bowie and an SUV with a great sound system and at some point, they both starting singing.  Softly at first, to themselves, under their breath, but then, with a shy glance from him and a shyer one from her, they started singing louder.  His thumb tapped against the steering wheel and her foot bopped in return.

            And then, at a stoplight, the music crescendoed to the guitar and drums beating a heartbeat bass.  Sean pounded against the steering wheel harder, and Mags’s hand tapped against her leg and then the both of them, at once, sang with David Bowie: “‘Awww… wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!’”

            The laugh spilled from her lips and she smiled over at him, a full smile, the biggest she’d had since she moved to Marlborough because for the first time since New Orleans, since Henry and Edie she felt she was herself again with these people, with Bess, with Sean in this car.  She was light again.  She was Mags again because no one here knew about what had happened that night at the party.  No one here knew about the video or the boys or her brother’s righteous fury.  She felt she had shaken off her stern composed exterior, the sunshine, ever eternal sunshine, in light of breakfast and laughter and a great song.

Mags looked over at Sean, expecting his laughter, too, but instead she caught him staring at her, his expression unreadable, his eyes shadowed.  She felt the smile fall from her face and she darted her eyes back to the windshield.  “Sorry,” she said, and reached out to lower the music.  “I just… I really like that song.”

His hand caught hers on the volume control and, with gentle fingers, covered hers.  “No,” he said, and turned the volume louder.  “Find another.”

            She did.  “Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails.  And another, Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” and then Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  And again, Vanilla Ice, and Rob Base, and Tool, and some part of her wondered how long it took to get from Bess’s house to her grandmother’s because it had been almost half an hour since they left—or longer? Mags wondered—but then they pulled up at her grandmother’s house and Sean’s phone exploded in another series of texts.

            He reached out and lowered the volume, and like that, the fragile spell between them was broken.

            “Seven in a row,” Sean said.  “Five from my mom.  I’ve got to get home.”

            “Right.”  Mags didn’t know how to leave this, how to exit this car, how to keep the balance between them going into school.  “Thanks for the ride,” she said, in the end, as lame and ridiculous as possible.  She turned to get out but paused before she did.  “Bess was right.  I met Adam Bell on Friday.  I… I have to ask you.  Do y’all really think I’m like him?”

            Sean stared at her for a long moment.  “Define ‘y’all.’”

            “You,” she said.  “Colin.  The entirety of Milton High.”

            “Would it bother you?” Sean asked.  “If we did?”

            “Of course it would,” Mags said.  “He’s an asshole.”

            There, the ghost smile.  “And that’s why I don’t,” he said.

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