These Houses Chapter Fourteen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

            Mags realized that while she would never admit it to another human being, she liked her afternoons and evenings spent at school, waiting for her father to finish with football practice.  First, of course, was the fact that she got to take as many photos as she wanted of all of the groups practicing—football, cheerleading, marching band, and now, volleyball and cross country—as well as those students who stayed late at school for various activities—her own newspaper colleagues, the yearbook, student government.  There were definite advantages to becoming the unofficial official school photographer.  She got to watch everyone and no one paid her much mind.

Second, but most importantly, she got to escape her mother for a little while longer.

            It was that thought that made Mags regret her delight in staying late on campus, but her mother had changed so completely when Freddie went away: she stopped working, stopped cooking, stopped caring about anything but Freddie, her so-called illness, and her invalid bed.  She didn’t really read, or watch TV.  She just lay in bed most day every day.

            Mags’s father had said once that her mother was suffering from depression, but Mags knew it was more than that.  She knew that it was in part a way of punishing her for her part in Freddie leaving. 

            She knew, because her mother had said so.

            Not to her, of course, and never in her hearing.  But she had told her sister, Barbie, one night on the phone, and Mags had accidentally picked up the phone to hear her own mother say, “It hurts Margaret for me to be so withdrawn.  She doesn’t understand, I know.  But… but a part of me is glad that she’s hurt.  She needs to realize what she did had repercussions beyond herself.”

            That had been a year ago, during the height of the version of the Amish shunning she had received at her own high school.  The notes in her locker calling her a slut, the stuffed rats that would appear on her desk with the nametag “Margaret Hale” attached, all from the same set of girls, she was sure.  One of the boys from The Incident had a sister at her high school, the other, a girlfriend.  Their friends, with all the natural order of things in the world, fell in line.

Even that, Mags understood.  In some weird, screwed-up way, she understood their anger.  Her brother had put those two boys in the hospital.  One, because of the injuries to his knee—sometimes in her nightmares she heard the sickening crunch of the tire iron against that bone, heard herself screaming at Freddie to stop, heard Freddie’s grunts of exertion—could no longer play football at all.  The other had to be benched for a semester and almost lost his scholarship to college.  While Mags found the girls’ anger misplaced—the boys had done wrong, as had her brother—it made sense.

What hurt the worst was how all the other students fell in line.  How they ignored her.  Stopped speaking to her.  Stopped inviting her to parties, asking her to be in their study groups, talking to her at school.  And then, the teachers seemed to pick up on it as well—not on purpose, never on purpose—but the classroom ran smoother if they called on someone other than Mags.  She had already been shy, quiet, reserved.  Happier behind a camera than in front of it.  So when the student editor had taken away her outlet, taken away her position as photographer of the paper and given it to Jenn Beltman for senior year, she had considered speaking to her guidance counselor about getting her GED and starting college early.

But her dad had been let go, and she had been asked if she wanted to stay in New Orleans or come to Marlborough, and again, she had spoken a three-letter word that changed her life.

Mags, do you want to come to Marlborough?

Yes, she had said.  Yes, yes, yes.

But now, as she walked the hallways, restless and trapped inside by the rain, she wanted to be nowhere else but home.  Unfortunately, Mags didn’t know how exactly she was defining “home.”  Did she mean her grandmother’s house?  Or, even farther, New Orleans?  The cooler weather made her long, physically long for autumn in the French Quarter, for the crisp tartness of cool, the water drying in the air.  Halloween on the horizon.  Not that it would be in any way cool yet in New Orleans—it was only September, after all—but this weather was so like October in the deep south, down to the rain still pouring outside in fits and bursts, that she felt homesick.

She came across her favorite space to be on campus after hours, the senior lounge, with its wall of windows and the greenery beyond.  The Environmental Club had designed it some years back so that it was feng shui, or ergonomic, or Green, something Bess had explained that Mags hadn’t quite understood, but it was cozy and comfortable, with chairs and natural light and some green space beyond.

It was empty, of course, as it always was.  Anyone else staying behind this late on a school night was involved in a club or sport.  So Mags got a halfway decent hot chocolate from the vending machine, nooked herself on an oversized chair with her Macbook, and logged into Milton’s network to research her Euro project.

The research was fascinating.  Mags was surprised that so much academic work—serious work on ladies’ business, she told the Bronwyn voice in her head—had been done on Victorian cooks and domestic servants.  There were books after books, articles after articles on the lives of the Victorian lower class—working class, Mags reminded herself.  One of the articles insisted on the term “working class” as “lower class” was derogatory and hierarchical.  She looked into the Beeton person Mrs. Scotch had suggested and found that the University of Marlborough library had a copy of the cookbook.  She made a note to go there on the weekend to look at it, when her computer pinged at her.

She glanced down and saw her Skype account was flashing.  Grinning, she opened it up.  “Hi!” she said, waving at her webcam.  “Hi, hi, hi!!”

Her brother grinned back at her.  “Maggie-Moo.  How’s tricks?”

She tapped her fingers against the screen.  He looked even tanner than he had the last time they had Skyped, a few weeks back.  But he was still Freddie: green eyes, lighter hair, quick smile.  “Mom said you were going to try to call tonight.  How are you?  Is everything okay?  What time is it there?”

“Ridiculously early.  Three or four.”  Freddie shook his head.  “Don’t worry about that.  I just got off work, so I’m still wired.  You’d love the coffee here, kiddo.  It would keep you awake for days.”

“How’s everything going?”

He shrugged, but his smile was still bright, still relaxed.  “It’s okay, Mags.  No worries.  Seriously, I’m good.  But I want to hear about you.  Your last email said this school has finally come to its senses and named you Queen Photographer or something, right?”

Mags laughed.  “Sure,” she said.  “Something like that.”

“Hey, seriously, though.  Are you excited to be going home?”

Her brow wrinkled.  “What?”

There.  Freddie’s smile faltered and she saw the confusion build in his eyes.  “Going home,” he said.  “Aren’t you excited?”

“Tonight?”  She shrugged.  “I mean, sure.  I’ve been on campus forever, but…” at his look, she felt her eyes widen.  “Do you mean New Orleans?  When am I going to New Orleans?”

His smile flashed again, quick and easy, but there was something darker underneath it all, as if his confusion still shadowed everything.  “Sorry, I guess it was supposed to be a surprise.  Mom told me she… she bought your tickets for Christmas.  You’ll get to see everyone, have your New Year’s Eve party the way you always did.  Don’t tell her though, okay?”

For ten years, every New Year’s Eve, they had gone to her Aunt Barbie’s camp in Mississippi, the whole family.  Lots of food and fireworks, TV late into the night, and of course Edie, Noah, and Henry by her side.  Every year for ten years.  “Oh!  Sure, I guess, but…” her voice trailed off.  “I haven’t talked to Edie or Henry in weeks, so I don’t know what will happen.”

Freddie squinted at the webcam.  “What’s going on?”

She shook her head.  “Stupid kid stuff.  Don’t worry about it.”

And then her brother’s face grew serious.  “Mags, whatever happens, you know I love you, right?  That mom and dad love you?”

“Of course I do.”  Suddenly worried, she leaned forward.  “What’s wrong?  Is something wrong?”

“No, goofball.  Nothing’s wrong.  I just want to make sure you know that.”

Mags could read her brother.  She always could.  She knew when something was bothering him, knew when he was hiding something from her.  He was a terrible liar, certainly not capable of plastering sunshine on his face when he needed to.  But he also went to war because of something he did to protect her, to defend her honor, so she felt that if anyone deserved their secrecy, their privacy, it was Freddie.  “I love you, too, Freddie.”

Another quick, bright smile.  “So tell me about school.”

            They talked for a good twenty minutes before Mags realized the time.  “Hey, I really have to run.  Practice should be over by now and dad’s going to want to get home.”

            “Sure thing, Maggie-Moo.  I should be getting some sleep anyways.  Love you.”  He tapped his fingers on his cheek, twice, and she tapped her own, twice, where his kiss goodbye would have gone, were they in the same room.

            “Love you.”  She waited until he disconnected from Skype.  She always let him disconnect first.  She never wanted to be the first to say goodbye.

            She closed her computer and felt a shudder ripple through her body.  Again, she was reminded that everything else—the bullshit of school, the passive anger of her mother, not talking to Edie and Henry—meant nothing in the face of her brother, thousands of miles away, at war.  What could compare to that?  Her own life’s difficulties, her mother’s easy dismissal, her pain, her torment, was because of this situation, of this concern.  A son, at war.  A useless daughter, at home, to blame.

            A scrap of poetry flit through her head, something they had read in English.  “These heroic happy dead / who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter / they did not stop to think they died instead.”

Sunshine, she thought.  Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine.

            When she checked her phone, she realized it was well after 8:00.  Her dad would be pissed that she was taking so long.  She threw her notes and Macbook in her bag and half-ran down the hallway to the parking lot.  At least he hadn’t called yet.  He might still be wrapping things up.

            She burst through the doors and skidded to a halt.  The parking lot was half empty.  Her father’s parking spot, fully so.

            Mags pulled out her phone and checked again.  No missed calls.  She called her dad and he answered on the third ring.  “Hey, Mags,” he said.  There were loud sounds in the background that he had to half-scream over.

            “Dad?  Where are you?”

            “We had to cut practice short because of the rain, so I went out with the new assistant coach to talk strategy.  Is everything okay?”

            Mags sank down on a bench, mindless of the wet seat.  “I’m… I’m at school.”

            Her father was quiet for a minute.  “Didn’t you get a ride home?”

            Her face crumpled and her tears fell down her cheeks.  Silent.  No sobbing.  She could not allow him to hear her cry.  “No, Dad.  I didn’t get a ride home.  You told me to wait for you.  Remember?”

            Clearly, he hadn’t, and she knew that.  Her question had been rhetorical.  “Magpie, I’m sorry.  I really am.”

            “Can you come and get me?” she asked.

            Another brief moment of silence.  “Honey, I would, but… can’t you call your grandmother?  We’ve already ordered dinner.”

            Her stomach growled in response.  He had apparently also forgotten he had promised to take her to Jake Malloy’s for dinner.  Sunshine, she thought.  Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine.  “Sure, Daddy.”  Her voice was bright.  “Of course I can.  Have fun!”  She hung up without waiting to hear his reply.

            Mags started to put her phone in her bag, but instead, cupped it in her hands in front of her face.  When the tears came, sudden and full-bodied, she almost couldn’t breathe.  It was too much: her mom, Freddie, Edie, Henry.  She could call her grandmother but tonight was her one night out at the church: potluck dinner, book group, and bingo.  And as her grandmother was currently the one adult in her life who remained constant—surprising, Mags thought, after years of not being there, she was the only one who was now—Mags wouldn’t take her one night a week away from her.

            On instinct, she pressed a speed dial number on her phone.  She wasn’t surprised when it went straight to voicemail.  She was surprised when she found herself leaving a message.  “I hate this,” she said into her phone.  “I hate every moment of not talking to you.  I don’t know who’s to blame, Edie.  You?  Me?  The situation with Henry?  I don’t care.  You are my bestest friend in the entire world, and…” her voice caught.  “And it’s been too long since we talked and I miss you.  More than stars.  More than poboys and the French Quarter.”  She paused.  “I just talked to Freddie and my dad left me at school.  Just left me, without even remembering I needed a ride home.  When is everyone going to stop punishing me?  Edie, when?”  And then, as quickly as she called, she hung up and dialed another number on speed dial.

            That rang, at least, but went to voicemail very shortly afterwards.  Mags sucked in a deep breath.  “Hey,” she said.  “It’s me.  No matter what you think, no matter how much you hate me, you are still my best friend.  And it sucks, full out fucking sucks not to talk to you, Henry.  This is not me apologizing, because honestly?  I am done with apologizing for things I didn’t do, or never intended for.  But it is me calling to tell you that…” she paused for a second.  “You hurt me.”  She was surprised when the words burst out of her mouth.  “I needed you that night and you hurt me.  Remember that next time you blame me.”  Another pause.  “But despite that, you are still my best friend because that’s what friends do: forgive each other.”  Another pause.  “Never mind.  Just forget it.”  She hung up before she could say anything else.

            As soon as it was done, she wanted to take it back.  She hadn’t wanted to be the first to call.  But she felt… hollow.  Carved out and empty and she had nothing left to give.  Not to anyone.

            Mags turned off her phone.  She didn’t want to deal with anyone if any of them—Edie, Henry, her father—chose to call her back.  She was done being a martyr.  Two years of doing for others, for apologizing, for sunshine fucking sunshine, and what had it gotten her?  A mother who blamed her for the actions of her adult son.  A father so used to her taking care of herself that he no longer remembered that sometimes, she couldn’t.  Two best friends who had depended on her far more than she ever depended on them, and when she did need them, they both fell apart.

            Fuck them both, Mags thought.  Fuck them all.

After settling her messenger bag across her body, she started the three point two mile trek home.  In the end, three miles wasn’t anything she hadn’t done before.  At least, she thought, it had stopped raining.

It was dark, though, and wet.  Slick from the rain and puddles dotted the sidewalks.  But it was beautiful, too.  Cold, almost, the moon bright and full, the air crisp, like apples.  Like cranberries.  Mags took out her camera and began taking shots: a crumbling Victorian on Main street, night-blooming jasmine, the bright sign of Donut Holdup in the background.

Mags lowered her camera.  Donut Holdup.  She turned to look at the street name and realized that once again, she had gone the wrong way off campus.

What hadn’t defeated her before certainly defeated her now, and she was two steps away from just sitting on the sidewalk and waiting until morning, when a familiar van drove down the road and slowed.  The passenger window rolled down as the van pulled into an empty driveway.

“Mags?”  A face peeked out of the window and a tiny hand waved.  “What are you doing?

Mags felt her bottom lip tremble as she ran over.  “My dad left me on campus and I tried to walk home but I got lost again and…” she burst into tears and hated herself for it.

“Colin!  Open the goddamn door already!”

The side door made a mechanical sound as it pulled away from the van and slid open automatically.  Mags gripped the doorframe near Bess and rested her head against the metal.  “I’m sorry,” she said.

Bess leaned up and pressed a kiss to Mags’s cheek.  “The next time you apologize to me for something you didn’t do, my lips will be my fist.  You got me?”

Mags felt her eyes grow wide.  “What?”

“Get in the car,” Bess said.  “Enough with your bullshit.  We’re getting you enough sugar to cure what ails you.  Have you even eaten?”

Mags shook her head and Bess clucked her tongue.  “Well, that settles it.”  She turned to Colin in the driver’s seat.  “Jake Malloy’s?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” Colin said.  The smile he gave Mags was sweet, and kind, and she almost cried again in thanks for these two people who had befriended her so easily, so completely.  “Come on, new girl.  We’re taking you hostage until you laugh at least fourteen times.”

“I thought you were in St. Louis,” Mags said as she climbed into the van.

“Well, I’m back now, and just in time, it seems.  Christ, I’ve always got to rescue you, don’t I?”  Bess’s words were fussy, but her eyes were anxious.  Mags realized what she must look like: swollen eyes, shivering with the cold, walking down the street in the middle of the night taking pictures, of all things.  Getting lost, again, leaving school.

She started giggling.  Once she started, she couldn’t stop, and the twins stared at her, wide-eyed, as if she were going to go Joker on them at any second.  “How the hell do I get lost leaving that school every time?”

A smile cracked on Bess’s face and she exchanged a look with her brother.  “I have theories,” Bess said.  “And only five hundred of them deal with the sad state of Geography education in the US.”

“The rest have to deal with Thornton and the long way he takes when he drives you to school.”  Colin pressed a button and the van door began closing.  “But that’s neither here nor there.  My ladies need burgers, fries, and ice cream, and that’s a job a man can do.  That’s a man’s job.”

Colin put the van in reverse and waited for traffic to settle so he could back out.  Mags leaned forward and rested her chin on Bess’s seat.  “I love you, you know.  I would have never been able to do any of this without you.  School, the paper, dealing with… with the fallout of everything from New Orleans.”

Bess reached up and patted Mags’s cheek.  “I don’t know what to do with you,” she said.  “You are a hot Gown mess who has absolutely no sense of direction.”  But then she turned and smiled at her, and it was sweet, and caring.  “I love you, too.”  Her voice was soft when she said it, but Mags heard it, heard the sincerity in it.  The truth.

She settled back in her seat and stared out the window, enjoying the coziness of the van as they drove to dinner, the bounce of the music, the friendly bickering between the twins.  And when they went to dinner and ordered everything on the menu—pretty much everything, between them all—and settled into a quiet, private corner of the restaurant, Bess turned to her and asked, “So, what happened?”

“My dad left me at school,” Mags said.  She wanted to leave it at that, but the words just started spilling out of her mouth.  “My mom blames me for the fact that my brother’s in Afghanistan.  My brother’s in Afghanistan because he got to choose it over jail.  He got that choice because two years ago, he took me to a college party where I got drunk, four guys messed with me while I was passed out, and caught the whole thing on video.  Oh, and when my brother found out, he beat the shit out of them so severely that he was arrested for it.”

Bess blinked.  “Well,” she said, “I meant more of, ‘why were you walking home?’ but I guess that works, too.”  She put down the burger in her hands.  “Is this the thing you couldn’t tell me earlier?”

Mags swirled a fry in ketchup.  “Yeah,” she said.  She chomped on the fry and looked up to find both of them watching her, waiting.

Colin shook his head, his eyes narrowed to slits.  “What do you mean ‘messed with you’?”

Bess shot him a look.  “She doesn’t have to tell us.”  She turned to Mags.  “You don’t have to tell us.”

“No, it’s okay.”  Mags realized that it was okay.  She wanted to tell them, wanted to get it out of herself, feel cored out, clean, not empty and hollow.  “They didn’t… they didn’t hurt me.  Not in the way you think.  They just… messed with me.  I was passed out drunk, and they…” she looked down at the food in front of her.  She had eaten her burger so quickly that her stomach almost hurt from it.

“Stupid things,” Mags said finally.  She felt the blush burn on her cheeks.  “They posed me with things so it looked like I had slept with them.  The house’s dog.  A blow-up doll.  A couple of the boys themselves.  Then, they took panty upshots and put their…”  She looked up at Bess to find her friend’s eyes bright.  She sucked in a deep breath.  “Put their dicks near my cheek.  Shit that stupid boys do when they’re stupid drunk.”

“And they taped it?” Colin asked.  He sat back in his chair.  “God, no wonder you hate video cameras.”

Mags nodded.  “It was some hazing ritual for the freshmen on the team.  They had to get so many things on video.  Whoever finished first got to, I don’t know.  Skip practice.  Not have to be the tackle dummy.  Get a better dorm room.  Who cares?  Just something stupid.  Not worth anything that came after.”

“They didn’t know you were his sister,” Bess said.

Mags shook her head.  “They knew who I was.  They were just too drunk to care.”  She sucked in a breath.  “And then, I woke up because whatever they were trying to do with me, they dropped me.  I fell off the chair and busted up my lip, my knees.  I started freaking out.  I was scared.  I thought they were going to… well, let’s just say that they were getting more and more creative as the night progressed.  So I ran.  I ran, looking for my brother, but I couldn’t find him.”

Colin’s face grew harder.  “I would have killed them,” he said, “if anyone had done that to Bess.”

“My brother almost did.”  Mags took a sip of her milkshake and was proud to see that her hand only slightly trembled.  The story was getting easier, after all, with the telling of it.  “They were the first ones done, so they were all crowded around, showing their teammates the video.  I found Freddie, finally, and when he saw me, he flipped.  I think he realized then what had happened.  So pointed to the guys holding the camera and asked me—”

Was it them?

“And I said—”

Yes.  Yes, yes, yes.

“And he went after them.  He was angry, drunk, possibly high, and there was entirely too much rage in him.  He found a tire iron and crippled one guy, beat the other one severely before the cops got there and arrested him.”

“But you had the video,” Bess said.  “You had evidence.  Why did they arrest him?”

“What does the evidence show?”  Mags shook her head.  “A drunk teenage girl and boys goofing around.  They didn’t rape me, Bess.  They didn’t even molest me.  ‘Boys will be boys.’  But they also filmed my brother beating two unarmed guys with a tire iron.  No matter what else happened, my brother crippled a boy.  There’s no excuse for that, not in the eyes of the law.  Besides.”  Mags shrugged.  “They had much better lawyers than Freddie did.”

“What happened after that?” Colin asked.

“About what you’d expect.  The video at least showed my brother was upset with a reason.  I think it was why he got to settle the case, got a choice between trial and Afghanistan.  But my mom fell into a deep depression and quit working.  Everyone in my school called me a whore and a slut and accused me of making everything up in a fit of jealousy.  Unfortunately, college football’s a bit like a small town, so my dad got let go from his job, and here we are.”  She was starving again, and she reached over for Colin’s onion rings.  He passed them over without hesitation.

“No wonder you don’t want to go back to New Orleans,” Bess said.

“You don’t want to go back?” Colin asked.  He and Bess exchanged a look.  “I just assumed that… I mean, we just thought…”

Bess shook her head at him, almost imperceptible, but Mags saw it.  Before she could ask, Bess turned back to Mags.  “You can trust us.  We won’t tell anyone.”  She picked up her burger and took a large bite for emphasis.

“Of course I can.  I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t.”  Mags felt lighter, freer than she had in weeks, maybe even months.  Maybe this was what she had to do: confess to everyone she came into contact with.  Hi, my name is Mags, and my brother’s in Afghanistan because of me.  At least, that’s what my mother thinks.  Did I mention that my entire senior class shunned me for six months before I moved to Indiana?

“Well, I’m for one glad you’re sticking around.”  Colin reached for his second burger and began to unwrap it.  “Your biscuits are an excellent complement to Thornton’s eggs.”

Bess wrinkled her nose.  “That sounds dirty.  Is that dirty?”

“Anyhow,” Colin continued as if his sister hadn’t spoken, “you didn’t have to tell us, but I’m glad you trust us enough to have done so.”

Mags peeled the batter off of an onion ring.  “I just… I just wanted you to know why I’m such a freak.  It has nothing to do with Milton or football or anything.  It has nothing to do with any of you.  It’s just hard, making friends.  I’ve always been… I mean, it’s never been easy for me.  I just… it’s hard for me to open up around people, so…”

“So people think you’re a Gown,” Colin said.

She glanced up at him and gave him a little smile.  “Pretty much.  Then this happened and everyone turned on me, so…” she paused.  “And my mom blames me.  I think my dad does a little bit, too.”

Colin shook his head.  “How is that your fault?  I would have killed them.”

Bess patted her brother’s hand.  “Don’t you ever do something so stupid for my honor, you idiot.  No offense, Mags.”

“None taken.  I wish he hadn’t.  But he did, and what’s done is done.”  She reached for another onion ring and realized she had eaten them all.  “Sorry,” she said to Colin.

He gave her his lazy smile.  “You can eat all my food, whenever you want.”

“Oh, stop.”  Bess smacked him on the arm.  “Enough of your crazy flirting.  Be real for a minute.  What do we need right now?”

Colin was already standing up.  “Triple chocolate for you again, Mags?”

“Three entirely different kinds of chocolate,” she said.  “Thanks for listening.  For rescuing me.  For bacon and cheese and meat.”

They smiled in unison, almost timed, the two of them both so bright, so beautiful.  Click.  “Hey, you’re one of us now,” Colin said.  “We take care of our own.”

“That also means there’s no escape,” Bess said.  “You’re stuck with us, until the bitter end.”

On impulse, Mags stood and wrapped one arm around Colin.  She tugged him down so that her other arm could wrap around Bess.  “Thanks,” she said again, her voice muffled against them as they both, once again their actions, their movements in unison, wrapped their arms around her.

It was more than comfort.  It was more than acceptance.  It was even more than friendship, real and nascent and true. It was absolution.

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