These Houses Chapter Fifteen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

            The evening of the Milton-Helstone game was crisp and clear, and Mags felt a charge in the air as she walked through the stands, taking pictures of the Milton fans, their red and black vibrant and powerful.  Mags had also dressed in Milton colors, wearing her favorite dark grey jeans—the ones with the holes and thinned patches that she had made, from overuse—a “MILTON STRIKERS FOOTBALL” t-shirt and a knee-length black hooded cardigan.  She hadn’t been to a football game since… well, since The Incident, and she was surprised how much she had missed it.

She also found herself surprised that she wasn’t more upset Edie and Henry hadn’t called her back.  She had turned her phone back on Thursday morning, but there were no missed texts, no voicemails, no sign that her two best friends—former best friends, she corrected, and only felt the bottom of the world fall out just a little at the thought—even cared that she had called.  Her moment of weakness just proved to her what she had suspected: moving to Marlborough was the best decision she could have made.

And now, in the stands, watching hundreds of Milton and Helstone fans, of town folk come out for a high school football game, she saw the benefit of a small town.  More importantly, she saw the benefit of being an unfamiliar face in a small town.  The only people in the stands who knew who she was were a few of her fellow Strikers and Caleb Mueller.

“Well, hello, Mags!”

Mags lowered her camera to smile at the man in question.  “Hi, Mr. Mueller,” she said.  She walked up two rows and crouched in the stairway next to him.  “Here to see Sean?”

“Of course.”  He turned to the two women sitting next to him.  “I’m sure you know Lily, right?”

She nodded and smiled.  “We’ve met, first day of school.  You’re Sean’s sister.”

The look Lily gave her wasn’t mean.  It wasn’t judgmental, friendly, or polite nonchalance.  It was… curious.  Lily cocked her head and examined Mags.  “We’re in different grades,” she said to her uncle.  “She has a class with Sean.”

“And this is my sister,” Mr. Mueller said.  “Rose Thornton.”

Mags turned to look at the woman who had Sean’s eyes and Lily’s hair.  She examined Mags even more curiously than Lily had, and Mags felt herself pinking under the scrutiny.  “Hi, Mrs. Thornton,” she said.  “It’s nice to meet you.”  She extended her hand to the woman in question.

After a moment’s hesitation, Mrs. Thornton shook it.  “Hello,” she said.  “You’re Fred Hale’s daughter?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said.  There was an awkward silence after that while Lily and Mrs. Thornton stared openly at her.  Mags cleared her throat and stood.  “Well, I need to get back to my post.”  She lifted the camera in her hand.  “Yearbook, paper, blackmail, yada yada…”

Twin little smiles cracked on Mrs. Thornton’s and Lily’s faces, while Mr. Mueller laughed outright.  Good, Mags thought.  The sense of humor ran in the family, at least.  “I’m sure,” Mrs. Thornton said.  “Best you run along.”

“Oh, and thanks for having so many errands for Sean to run to his grandmother’s.”  Mags shifted her weight from one foot to the other.  “I can usually catch a ride with him when he does.  Otherwise, I’ve got to get to school at 6:30, when my dad arrives.”

Mrs. Thornton’s brow furrowed.  “What’s that again?”

“In the morning,” Mags said.  “Sean says he’s usually bringing something to his grandmother’s, and she only lives about five houses down from my grandmother.  So I can catch a ride with him.”

Mrs. Thornton shook her head.  “I don’t understand.”

“Mom, he didn’t want to tell you, but he goes to check on Grandma a few times a week.”  Lily turned to her mother.  “He didn’t want you to think he worried.”  She turned back to Mags.  “He does,” she said.  “She’s shown some early signs of dementia, so he’s been going by several times a week.  I do, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Mags said.  “If there’s anything we can ever do, let us know.  We’re just a few houses down.”

Mr. Mueller and Mrs. Thornton exchanged a look.  “We will,” Mr. Mueller said.  “Now go get to work!”

She waved as she headed down the stairs, but was stymied when a gust of wind smacked her hair across her cheek.  Redirecting, Mags headed to the handicapped section of the stands.  When she slid into her seat next to Bess, she rummaged through her bag.  “I don’t know why I let you talk me into this.”  Bes had insisted she wear her hair down, not for any other reason than, “Because I said so.”

            “What, your hair?  It looks gorgeous.  I only wish my hair was as thick and as shiny as yours.”  Bess reached out and tugged on a lock of Mags’s hair.  “It’s like, shampoo commercial wavy.”

            Mags shook her head.  “It’s getting in my shots.”  She found a rubber band and put it between her teeth.

            Bess’s hand shot out and plucked it away.  “No way, my white sister.  You are going to look like a girl tonight and enjoy it.”  She grinned.  “Who knows?  Maybe some cute boy will whisk you away into the woods during the bonfire.”

            Mags rolled her eyes.  “I don’t know why you think the fact that I keep my hair up is the only reason boys haven’t ‘whisked me away’ to begin with.  There’s a whole personality here to contend with, Bess.  I’m surly.”  She grimaced and bared her teeth.

            Bess rolled her eyes.  “I’m so scared.”

            Mags grinned.  “If I promise to put it back down after the game, will you let me put my hair up and get all of the amazing shots my demanding bitch of a paper editor wants?”

            “Fine.”  Bess shook her head and handed over the rubber band.  “But you are never going to get a date to Homecoming with that attitude.”

            “I’m never going to get a date to Homecoming, period.  It’s next weekend.  Let’s accept this.”  Mags made quick order of her hair.  “Besides,” she said when she was done, “who are you going with?”

            “Sean, of course.  He asks me every year.  That boy is sweet.  I swear, I don’t know why more girls aren’t hanging all over him.”

            Mags couldn’t help the little smile on her face.  “Oh, yeah?  You’re going with Sean?”

            Bess nodded.  “It’s one of the reasons Queen B doesn’t like me, I think.  Sean would rather go to Homecoming with his best friend’s crippled sister than the co-captain of the cheerleading squad.”  Her eyes widened.  “Hey!  I just had, like, the most brilliant idea!  You should go with Colin and then we could all go together!”

            Mags shook her head.  “No, I don’t want your brother giving me a pity date.  I’ll go stag, take my pictures, and head home.  Besides, he would be heartbroken if he couldn’t take Sally.”

            “Yeah, I guess that’s true.”  Bess squinted her eyes at the cheerleaders.  “He’s got it bad for her.  I bet you he’s going to escape to the woods with her tonight.  Milton boys for decades have been using this shit as an excuse to get with the ladies.  Unless it’s family, you don’t whisk away someone you don’t want to get with.  You feel me?” 

            “Now, explain this to me again.  What is this ‘whisking away to the woods’ thing you keep talking about?”

            But the marching band started with the Milton Strikers fight song, and Mags stood up.  “That’s my cue,” she said.  “See you when I see you.  Bye, Principal Higgins.”  She waved at the administrator who had just walked up.

            “Have fun, Mags,” she said, and handed her daughter a bag of popcorn.

            Mags set her camera down on the walkway and, with a quick look to make sure no one was watching, slipped through the bottom rail so she was on the field.  She grabbed her camera and began slipping along the edge of the grass, snapping shots of the marching band, the cheerleaders, and, when they ran onto the field, the players.

            Number 11.  That was Colin, while Number 35 was Sean.  She got shots of both of them before she turned around to see the crowd behind her.

            There was no easy shot to take, but when she looked across the way, at the sea of blue and silver on the other side, Mags decided to infiltrate enemy territory for a shot of the Milton stands.

            She slipped around the posts of the scoreboard, on the walking trail leading around the field, and headed toward the Helstone stands.  There, the crowd was just as raucous, just as excited about the game.  Bess was right: the entire town did come out for this game.  The stands were over capacity on both sides, while the parking lot was filled with tailgaters watching the game on portable televisions.

            When she reached the Helstone side, she caught a shot just as the team left their huddle to head to the field.  The entire Milton side was on its feet, roaring “Strike!  Strike!  Strike!”  She got a few dozen shots of the stands, of the kickoff, of the boys on the bench, her father on the sidelines.

            “Now I know you’re lost.”

            She turned to see Adam Bell behind her, smiling.  Next to him was a petite girl, a camera in her hand.  “Trinh, let’s get a shot of the Milton photographer here.”

            Dutifully, Trinh clicked the shutter before she turned back to the field.

            “Hi,” Adam said once Trinh was gone.
            “Hi,” Mags said.  She moved back to the path.  “I’m not spying.  I just wanted to get a shot of the bleachers.”

            “No, you should stay.  Come meet everyone.”  He reached out for her arm, but she shied away from him.  “Okay, then don’t.  I’d rather have you all to myself anyways, apologize for being the world’s biggest asshole.”

            She shrugged.  “Apology accepted.”  She turned back to the path, but Adam jogged to catch up with her. 

            “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

            She stopped suddenly and he almost ran into her.  “Why are you wearing your uniform?”

            He blinked.  “I wanted to ask you a question, I said.”

            “And now I’m asking you one.”  She lifted her camera and used the zoom to scan the Helstone bleachers.  “All of you,” she said.  “You’re wearing your uniforms.”

            “It’s a way to show support,” he said.  “We like football just as much as the Townies, you know.  Maybe even more.  Milton doesn’t own football in this town.”

            Mags turned back to the field and watched the Helstone defense.  “No,” she said.  “They just own good football.”

            Adam winced next to her.  “Okay, so we’re not on our best game right now, but you just wait and see.  We’ll be celebrating soon enough.  So, can I ask you that question now?”

            She lifted her camera again and got a shot of Colin throwing the ball in a perfect spiral.  “Dammit,” she said under her breath.  Incomplete.  “What?”

            “What are you doing next Saturday?”

            “Photographing Homecoming,” Mags said.  She turned the camera to him.  Click.  “Why?”

            “Do you want to come to the Helstone Ball?”

            That got her to lower her lens, finally, and blink at the boy in front of her.  “Are you asking me out?”

            He smiled.  “I’m asking you to come to Homecoming with me.”

            “Seriously?  You’re asking me to skip my school’s Homecoming to go to your school’s Homecoming, with you?”

            “It’s amazing,” he said.  “Everyone wears formalwear, and we have this fantastic sit-down dinner at the Kozelek House before we go to the Ball at the 1850s Pavilion.  And then, there’s this after-party someone throws every year that is out of this world.  Trust me.”

            Gown, Mags realized.  And Town.  She looked across the field at the Milton side.  Their Homecoming was held in the gym, and some planning committee held a town-wide bake sale to raise enough money for decorations, punch, and cookies.  Helstone, on the other hand, had sit-down dinners and rented out the most expensive places in town.

            And it did sound fantastic, and part of her missed the idea of a boy asking her to a dance.  Of dressing up, going somewhere fancy and having someone escort her.  Before she could even say anything, he reached out and placed a finger on her lips.  “Don’t,” he said in a soft voice.  “Just think about it, okay?  I’ll call you sometime next week and ask for your final answer.”

            “Tell me why I should think about it,” she said.

            “Because I am not really an asshole, I actually do like you, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that a large part of that is because you ripped me a new one—deservingly, but still.”

            She couldn’t help it.  She smiled.  “Very deservingly.”

            His smile grew.  “Extremely deservingly.  But you have no idea how hot it is to have a girl get all avenging angel and righteous fury on you.”

            “That’s between you and your therapist, not me.”  She looked across the field and saw that Helstone now had the ball.  “I need to get back,” she said.  She lifted her camera and zoomed in on the Milton defense.  Click.  She scanned some more, to the linemen.  Click.

            Sean Thornton was staring at her, and she could see the set to his jaw, the unreadable bright blue eyes.  She zoomed in further and… Click. 

            Mags lowered the camera and squinted at the field.  He was still staring.  She lifted her camera, pointed at it, pointed at Sean, and then gave him a thumbs up.  Even from this distance, without benefit of her zoom, she saw his face lighten, the corner of his mouth curve up.  She lifted her camera again and saw him mouth, “Gown,” before he turned back to the field before the play.

            She burst into laughter and turned back to Adam.  “I’ve got to get back,” she said.  “They’re going to think I’ve defected.”

            “So you’ll think about it?”

            She looked at him, this handsome boy who wanted to take her to a dance, and then looked at her classmates in the stands, on the field.  “No, I can’t,” she said before she realized that was going to be her answer.  “I can’t miss Milton’s Homecoming.  I’m sorry.”

            Adam’s smile was tight.  “A guy’s going to get ideas,” he said.  “The more a girl rejects him.”

            She shook her head.  “You don’t get it,” she said.  “This has nothing to do with you.”  And she realized that was exactly why she didn’t want to go.  Because he didn’t realize it had nothing to do with him.  “Okay?”

            He shrugged and turned back to the stands.  “Sure, Mags.  Whatever.”

            She turned back to the path without a backwards glance.  When she got back to the side of the stadium swathed in black, and red, even she was surprised by how much more comfortable it was on the Milton side.  Like she belonged.

#

            By the end of the third quarter, the Milton side was quiet, on edge.  They were down by two touchdowns, and Helstone still had the ball.

            Mags had returned to the stands, but too on edge to sit and watch the game, she had wandered along the walkway at the bottom, taking pictures of the field when she could.  She was currently focused on extreme close-ups of the marching band’s brass section—the boys did fascinating things with their trumpets in between songs—which was why she almost missed the play.

            She didn’t hear the crowd change as much as she felt it, an electric charge in the air that came from hundreds of people tensing behind her.  She swung her camera at the field and realized that a Milton player had intercepted the ball during the Helstone play.  As he started running down the field, Mags followed him in the stands, snapping shot after shot after shot.  She wasn’t surprised by the number on his back.  She had suspected, before she even looked up, when she first felt the changing surge in the crowd, that it would be Sean Thornton.

            The crowd behind her was on its feet now, roaring with support, chanting “Strike!  Strike!  Strike!”  As he neared the goal, with three Helstone players getting closer and closer behind him, Mags just held down the shutter and let the camera do the work for her, as she screamed with the crowd.  “Strike!  Strike!”

            He closed in on the goal line.  Three Helstone players tackled him.  The ball bounced out of his hands on the other side of the goal line.  In between this, the sequence of events became unclear.  A flag was thrown.  Another Milton lineman helped Sean stand, and both teams went back to the sidelines as the refs and coaches debates the course of events.

            This is what they knew: the three Helstone players tackled Sean before he crossed the goal line.  Sean went down.  The ball bounced out of his hands.  But no one could quite agree on whether the ball went over the line before it bounced out of his hands.  Helstone, of course, argued that the ball was out of his hands well before it crossed the goal line.  Milton disagreed.

            All of Milton tensed even more behind her as the refs debated, as her father yelled at them, as the Helstone coach yelled at her father.  Sean stood on the sidelines, helmet off, mud coating his uniform, in his hair, along his face, the fact that he was favoring his right arm apparent even from this distance.  Colin stood next to him, the two boys watching, in silence, as the adults argued about whether the touchdown was valid.

            Mags almost hit herself, comically and stereotypically, on the forehead.  She ran back to her seat and pulled out her Macbook.

            “What are you doing?” Bess asked, watching her with curious eyes.

            “I got the whole thing,” Mags said.  “The screen’s just too small to see details.”  She whipped out her transfer cable and hooked the camera up to the computer.

            “I’ll stall them,” Principal Higgins said, and half-ran to the stairs leading to the field.

            A small crowd had begun murmuring around them, and Mags tried to shrink into herself as more and more people stared at her.  But then the images finished loading—she had taken over two hundred shots of the game, she realized—and she blew up the pictures of Sean intercepting the ball and running for the touchdown.

            In a few moments, a cheer rose up around her and Bess, and an older man behind her said, “Go, go, go!” and she ran, laptop in hand, to the railing.

            Hands plucked the laptop from her and she turned to see Mr. Mueller grinning at her.  “Go ahead,” he said.  “Slip down.”

            She did, collecting her equipment from him when she was on the field.  Principal Higgins was already leading the refs and the coaches—her father among them—to her.  “Hi,” she said, breathless and shy when they stared at her.  “It’s good.”  And she turned the image to them.

            They were beautiful shots.  Even she was surprised at how good they were when she had just held the shutter down, without aiming, without any artistry or skill.  At some point she had zoomed closer, so that there was close shot of Sean’s face, shoulders, and arm hitting the ground, the mud splashing up around him.  And his hand, ball in it, clearly over the goal line.

            The ball was valid.  The touchdown good.  Milton would be back in the game.

            The head ref nodded.  “I agree.  Anyone disagree?”

            No one could.  When the ref called it, the roar of the Milton fans was overwhelming.  Deafening.  Mags clutched her laptop to her chest and grinned at her father, who grinned back.  “Good job, Magpie,” he said, before he turned back to the game.

            Mags turned to see Colin right before he lifted her and spun her around.  “I knew we kept you around for a reason, new girl!”

            Laughing, she tried to wiggle out of his grasp.  “I’m going to get sick!”  When Colin loosened his grip, she slid away from him.  “Go win this game,” she said.

            “Oh, we will, now.  How could we not?”

            “We’d disappoint her, and we can’t have that.  Not after all the trouble she went through.”

            Mags turned to see that Sean had joined them, and the rubberband went snap between them.  She felt giddy, lightheaded, and she felt on the verge of a giggle fit.  “Didn’t I say you had good hands, Town?”

            And that got her the grin, the new one, the one that was exciting and made her feel warm, in her chest, through her belly.  He opened his mouth to say something, but the ref was yelling for her to get off the field and she blushed and began jogging away, her Macbook still clutched to her chest, an odd but deliberate technological embrace.

            As she did, the Milton stands cheered again.  When she looked up, she realized, with a sudden jolt, that they were cheering for her.

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