These Houses Chapter Sixteen

Copyright Amy L. Montz


            “They have never been this rowdy.”  Bess scanned the crowd with a discerning and judgmental eye.  “Seriously, they act like we only won the most important game against the biggest asshole of a school, after an amazing interception by a linebacker, a linebacker, of all people, and an eleventh hour save by my white sister and her guerilla photography.”

            “That’s pretty much exactly what happened,” Mags said.

            “Oh.”  Bess turned to grin at her.  “Right.”

            They both turned back to look at the roaring bonfire, and the hundreds of Milton students milling about.  The crowd was in high spirits, and the music was so loud that Bess and Mags had retreated to the edge of the field near the woods, conveniently close to the tables full of complimentary Donut Holdup hot chocolate and donuts.

            Mags had her camera in her hand, but she wasn’t taking pictures.  She had when they first arrived, but when it seemed to garner her too much attention—no one spoke to her, not really, but they did smile and watch her with curious and friendly eyes—she decided that maybe tonight was the one night she might be less conspicuous without her camera.  “Where is the hero of Milton, anyhow?”

            “Enjoying his hero’s welcome, I imagine,” Bess said.  “Can you believe Colin threw the ball that far?”

After Sean’s interception, Milton had trailed only by one touchdown.  They rallied, and made two, winning the game by seven points.  While Sean’s interception hadn’t won the game, it had given the team the enthusiasm they needed to get back in the game.  Colin and Hugh had pretty much done the rest.

“Pass me one of those Boston crèmes.”

            Mags obliged Bess, snagging a chocolate sprinkled for herself.  She settled back on the ground next to Bess’s chair.  She shivered a bit in the night air.  Her sweater, which had seemed like such a good idea in the stands, what with the press and crowd of hundreds of bodies, was no match against the increasingly colder evening.  “Where’s Sean?” she asked, nonchalant.

            Bess lasered those sharp eyes on her.  “Last I saw, Queen B and her sycophants were congratulating him for his part in tonight’s festivities.  Why do you care?  I thought you didn’t care.  I thought you were all, sure, he’s got those blue eyes but blah blah football players blah blah.”

            Mags shrugged, blushing now, grateful for the dark of the night, the flicker of the fire across the field so Bess couldn’t see her.  “No reason in particular,” she said.  “Just curious to see if he was enjoying his hero’s welcome, too.”  She returned her attention to the donut in her hands and took two large bites before Bess spoke again.

            “Hey, Mags?”

            She directed her eyes up to Bess.  “Don’t, Bess.  Not tonight.”  Because she knew, knew exactly what Bess was going to ask her.  How could she not?  It was the same question she was asking herself, and had ever since the game.  Hell, Mags thought, ever since last weekend when he had given her a ride home.  Bess was going to ask her if she liked Sean Thornton, and Mags, in all honesty, did not know how to answer that question.  Because while a part of her denied it, denied liking a football player, a guy so clearly involved with someone else, a boy who had such an obvious problem with her from day one, still, there was that pull between them, the taut tension that tightened and loosened and she didn’t know how to read it.

            “What do you mean, ‘Don’t, Bess’?  You don’t even know what I was going to say.  Cheeky white girl.”

            Mags burst into laughter.  “Okay, you’re right.  I’m sorry.  What were you going to say?”

            “I was going to say, ‘go get some shots of the bonfire before everyone gets too nuts and too drunk for us to get any useable shots.’  Jesus.”

            “Right.”  Mags stood up and brushed off the back of her sweater.  “That’s what you were going to say.”

            “Are you psychic?  No?  Then shut the hell up.”  Bess grinned at her.  “And get me another donut before you go.”

            Mags did, a maple bar this time, before she weaved her way in and out of the crowd.  She got a few shots of the bonfire itself, which was large but not overwhelming so.  Nothing dangerous.  She got a few more shots of the crowd, and even managed to get Colin, Hugh, and Sally to pose for a few.  Mags, despite her dislike of Bronwyn and by extension, the Milton cheerleading squad, actually liked Sally, who hammed it up for the camera in hilarious ways.  As she walked away, she turned back to see Colin and Sally, both smiling, leaning in for a kiss, clearly head over heels.  Click.

            “Most girls would be sobbing at a sight like that, not photographing it for posterity.”

            She turned, camera in hand.  Click.  When she lowered it, Sean was still looking at her, eyes intense, hint of a ghost smile on his face.  “Well, unlike most girls, I don’t cry myself to sleep at night thinking about Colin Higgins.  Besides, I think they’re gorgeous together.”

            “They are,” he said.  “He really likes her.”  There was a shadow on his cheek.  A bruise.  It had been a brutal tackle.  But he wasn’t favoring his arm anymore.  At least, not that she could tell.

            “Actually, I do, too.  She photographs well.”  At Sean’s look, she smiled.  “Most people, when they know they’re being photographed, go all fake.  When they pose, it’s stiff, or silly, and doesn’t translate because it’s all about them.  Sally, however, doesn’t try to look gorgeous.  She makes faces, and poses with the people in the crowd, not alone.”

            “I don’t think I get it,” Sean said.

            “Here.”  She moved closer to Sean and showed him the picture of Sally and Colin on the screen on her camera.  “See?”

            “Are they… are they pretending to sword fight?”

            Mags chuckled.  “Yep.”  She glanced up at Sean and found him closer than she had expected, her hair—down now, at Bess’s insistence—draped over his arm.  She blushed and took a step back to give him some space.  “That’s what I mean.”

            The song had changed at some point, from Kanye West to Nine Inch Nails, and the crowd began to dance, swelling together with the music, and Mags switched her camera back on and lifted it.  “I wish I could get a shot from above,” she said to Sean as she took multiple pictures of the crowd, the fire and flame flickering behind them.  “This is amazing.”

            “It’s sort of our ‘fuck you’ song to Helstone,” he said.  And then, after a pause, “I also remember this, the first day we met.”

            She lowered her camera to look at him.  “You remember that?”

            He shrugged and directed his eyes back at the crowd.  “What would otherwise be a snotty Gown except she’s lying on the filthy concrete at my uncle’s shop, wearing a NIN shirt that she made herself, practically dancing to ‘The Hand that Feeds,’ taking pictures of my marble stash from about a million years ago?  Yeah, it’s an image that kind of sticks with you.”

            “SCT,” she said in a soft voice, remembering the initials in the concrete.  “Sean what Thornton?”

            “Caleb,” he said.  “After my uncle.  He’s my godfather.”  And then they were both quiet, watching the crowd.  “Do you really want a shot from above?”

            “I do,” she said.  “Why, can you fly?  Are you Superman?  Have you been holding out on me, Town?”

            When he turned back to her, his eyes were bright, even in the dark.  “Do you trust me?”

            And she did.  She didn’t know why but right now, in this place, at this time, with this boy, she did.  When she nodded, Sean took her hand—it was warm, and firm—and led her to the crowd.  Then, before she could figure out what he was going to do, he crouched in front of her, grabbed her around her legs, and lifted her.

            She hated girls who did girly things, like screech at bugs or squeal at boys.  But when she squealed, she felt it was completely justifiable.  “You’re insane!” she said.  “I’m too heavy!  Put me down!”

            He looked up at her, the Sean Thornton ghost smile curved on his face.  “Take your pictures already,” he said.  “The song doesn’t last forever.”

            So she did, dozens of them, of the crowd moving as one, as if it shared one brain, one source, one body.  The music moved through them and she belonged, part of this group of people, this boy holding her, his arms, strong and steady around her legs.  When she looked down at him, she saw he was still watching her so click, she took a picture of him, too.

            He loosened his grip and she slid down him and found it hard to breathe, here against this boy, the entire scene too odd, too intimate, too dependent on another body and another person.  He had lifted her, held her, let her down, and she had trusted him to do so.

            “Did you get what you wanted?” he asked.  His arms were still curved around her, not touching, not really, just not fully released from his grip.

            Again, she knew the words were not what they were, the meaning underneath there and she didn’t feel like she understood how to sort it out.  “Almost,” she said, playing the game and when his smile curved wider, she knew it was the right answer.


            They broke apart at the same time, both of them coming to the sudden realization that there were people around them, perhaps watching, perhaps listening, but no, no one was, and the voice was just Colin, who smiled wide at them both.  “Hey, they’re here.”

            Sean turned back to Mags.  “Go stand by Bess,” he said.  He gripped her arm for a second and gave her a gentle nudge.  “Trust me.”

            And again, she did, because she didn’t know what else to do.  She went and stood by Bess whose eyes were bright with anticipation.  “What’s going on?” Mags asked.

            “Whisked away,” Bess said.  “It’s time, my friend.”

            “Time for what?” Mags asked, but she saw the crowd start to disperse, the good-natured shrieking as more cars swung onto the field.

            “We won the game,” Bess said.  “So now Helstone is coming to fight.”  But she didn’t look scared.  She looked… exhilarated.  “Tell me, how good are you at dodging bullets?”

            “Dodging what?”  But Colin was coming toward them, grinning wide, saying “Go!  Go!” to Mags.

            “What about you?” she asked Bess.

            “I got Colin,” she said.  “Go!”

            And so Mags started to run, turning back to see Colin pluck Bess out of her chair and head toward them, Sean and several other Milton students close at their heels.  All three of them were grinning like idiots and Mags had no idea what was going on.

            “Come on!” Bess said.  “Run faster!”

            The first water balloon flew, high and far, from the edge of the field, to land with a sizzle and pop in the bonfire.  “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” Mags said, but she was laughing, too, and running into the woods.  But she skidded to a stop suddenly, and reversed her position.

            “Where are you going?” Bess screamed after her.

            “My bag!  Save yourselves!”  She started running back to the donut table, where her bag was nestled.

“Gown, wait!”  Sean grabbed her hand and held her back.  “You can’t go back in there!  You’ll get hurt!”

She burst into laughter and grinned up at him.  “By water balloons?!”

He shook his head, mock-solemn, which only made her laugh harder.  “I will take this bullet for you, Margaret Hale.  If I don’t make it back, tell my mother… tell her I was brave.”

“No way, Thornton.  I’m not letting you save the day again.”  And she dashed past him, and managed to duck before a balloon caught her on the hair.  She grabbed her bag, ducked two more balloons, and took Sean’s hand when he held it out.

He pulled her from under the table and they ran together into the woods, deeper and deeper, past groups of students huddling, giggling, waiting, for the Helstone kids to find them. 

“How is this not illegal?” Mags asked when they slowed down.  She had let Sean do all the leading, as she had no idea where they were going.

He shushed her and slowed down as the woods grew darker, the trees denser, quieter.  She was sure they were further in the woods than any of the other Milton kids.  “There.”  His voice was a whisper as he tugged her towards a copse of trees.  “No moonlight.  We should be safe.”

They walked in and crouched behind a large tree trunk.  Sean peeked around it and, with a satisfied nod, turned back to her. “Are you hurt?” he asked.  “They… they didn’t get you, did they?”

She started giggling again, and he affected an angry face.  “This is no laughing matter,” he said, his voice harsh.  “There’s no coming back from this.  This is war, Margaret Hale.”

Mags laughed harder, but at his look, slammed a hand over her mouth.  She saw the edge of his mouth twitch and she doubled over, almost unable to breathe.

“We do this for the women and children,” he said.  “For America.”

She was shaking and he started grinning.  She pulled her hand away to suck in a deep breath.  “Stop, really.  I need to breathe.”  She smacked his arm and her face fell as she pulled her hand away.  “No,” she said as she stared at her hand, the wetness coating her fingers.  “No, no, no.”

“I didn’t want to tell you,” Sean said, shaking his head.  “I… I don’t have long now.”  He faked a cough.  “Please, make sure my mother gives me a proper burial.”

“No, there has to be something we can do.”  She gripped his shoulders and shook him.  “Goddamn you, Thornton, don’t you die on me!  You’ve never given up on anything in your life, so live!

His smile was dimpled, but full, and she realized she hadn’t seen it before, not really.  Not like this.  “You’re having fun,” he said.  “Admit it.”

“Freely,” she said.  “Why would I lie about it?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Because you seem programmed to deny it.”  He leaned forward and whispered, “It’s a Gown thing.”

“Hey, you’ve got to stop that.  I just saved the day.”  She lifted her arm and made a muscle.  “I am the hero of Milton High.”

Sean stood up and offered her his hand.  “That you are,” he said when she was to her feet.  “This must be about respect.  Normally, they throw eggs.  We’ve stepped up, it seems, thanks to…”

There was a rustle in the woods beyond.  They both quieted and Sean took her by the elbow and pulled her deeper into the shadows.

“Do you hear it?” a voice asked, from about twenty feet away.

“No,” another voice responded, farther away.  “Let’s get back.”

“Hang on.  I swear I heard something.”

Mags, knowing it was a game but surprised by her own fear, moved closer to Sean on instinct.  He put his hand at her waist and turned so that she was against the tree trunk, his body forming a barrier between any intruders and thrown water balloons.  And while a part of her wanted to giggle at this useless show of chivalry, another part of her felt as if every nerve was on edge by the sweetness of the gesture.  The nearness of his body.

He lowered his head to whisper in her ear but he was too far and speaking too low to hear, so she snaked up her hand, gripped his head, and pulled him closer.  “A few more minutes,” he said.  He didn’t pull away and she felt his pulse throb against her palm, his breath warm on her ear, her neck, his hand curved in at her waist, his vanilla and rain smell almost overwhelming her.  She could hear him, hear him breathing, and when he pulled back to look her in the eyes, she felt suddenly, inexplicably older.  Grown up.  Her body reacting in ways she had never felt before. 

This was what had been missing with Henry, she realized.  This awareness of two bodies, sharing the same space.  The overwhelming sense of another person, of every tiny action, of every miniscule movement.  The absolute freedom and empowering strength that came with understanding how another person reacted to you.

His mouth curved, that dimpled ghost smile so intimate then, as he stared down at her.  She realized her hand still cupped his neck and her thumb had traced the slight ridge of the hairline crack scar along his jaw.  Over and over again, without even realizing it, the sensitive pad of her thumb caressed that little raise of skin.

His fingers tightened on her waist, pulled her closer, and his other hand cupped behind her neck, tangled in her hair.  

When he lowered his mouth to hers, she stood on her tiptoes to meet him halfway.

They were a breath away, half a breath away, when a sharp whisper broke the night.  “Thornton!”

Mags caught her breath and pulled back, staring up at him, her hand falling away from his face.  Sean’s hand fell, too, and when it did, he closed his eyes for a brief second, his jaw set, frustration palpable.

She felt her frustration, too, felt it burn within her and wondered why she hadn’t realized before, that she wanted to kiss Sean Thornton.  It seemed important that she know this information, but she hadn’t.  Had she?

When he opened his eyes again, he stared down at her, silent, but… different.  Surer, perhaps.  A ghost of his ghost smile on his face.

Mags, without thinking, reached out and laced her fingers with his.  He lifted her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.

It was such a surprisingly intimate gesture that she felt it throughout her body, like the charge of ozone, right before it rained, and she stared up at him, so unwillingly break this odd little spell.  His smiled curved wider now, and she smiled back, before they heard it again.

“Thornton!  Where the hell are you?”

She released her fingers from his, the moment broken now by Colin’s whispered shouts.  “Here!” Sean said, and turned from her. 

While Sean exited the copse of trees, she reached down for her bag and, after patting it, reassured herself her camera was there.

She gave herself ten seconds.  Ten seconds to close her eyes and lean against a tree trunk and try to figure out what in the hell had just happened.


She had almost kissed Sean Thornton.


She had almost kissed Sean Thornton.


She had almost kissed Sean Thornton.

And so on, until she got to “ten,” and told herself that no, Sean Thornton had almost kissed her.

She sucked in a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and exited the copse of trees.

Sean was there, chatting with Colin, who flicked his eyes back to her.  They widened, just for a second, but then, he started grinning.  “Hey, new girl,” he said.  “We won.  Can you believe it?”

“Of course I can,” she said.  “We few, we happy few.”

“The plucky underdog always wins,” Colin said.  “The girls are already waiting for us in the car.  We should get going.”

“Get going where?” Mags asked as she trailed after them.

“We won,” Colin said again.

“Yes, I know.  So you said.”  Mags paused.  “Wait, what did we win?”  When they didn’t answer, she half-ran to catch up.  “What did we win?”

            Sean waited for her, hand outstretched.  She reached out to take it and felt it, then, Sean’s body leaning closer, felt the rubberband snap and pull and stretch.  “Are you hungry?”

They were the first words he had spoken to her since they left the woods, and they made absolutely no sense to her.  She turned so she could look up at him.  “What?”

“Hungry,” he said again.  “Are you?”  His hand tugged her forward, through the woods to the opening beyond.  He took her bag and slung it over his shoulder.

“When am I not?” she asked, only just realizing she had turned over her bag without a second thought.

“Good.”  He laced his fingers with hers and pulled her closer, slowed down so that they walked, slow and lazy, through the thinning tree line.  “Because it’s the last tradition.  And we won.”

“The war?” she asked.

“Yep,” he said.  “We get First Street Diner, all night.  No Helstone Devils allowed.  Strictly Milton Strikers.”

“Oh,” Mags said.  “Because that’s clearly the battle to win.”

“You only say that because you haven’t had their bacon.”  Sean shook his head.  “Heathen.”  He stopped and turned to look at her, his hand still laced with hers.  “What do you say, Gown?  Pancakes and bacon?  Hot chocolate?  Let this Town show you how to live it up, Milton-style?”

She felt a little smile curve on her face.  “Are you going to try to steal my bacon?”

“Of course I am,” he said.  “It’s my duty.  My privilege, as a wounded vet.”  He gestured at the water stain on his jacket.  “But I’ll buy you triple bacon, so you’ll have to plenty for me to steal.”

“That seems fair,” Mags said.  “But I feel like I’m getting tricked.  There’s no such thing as free pancakes and bacon.”

“No, there isn’t,” Sean agreed.  “Are you going to the Helstone Ball?”

She blinked at the change in subject.  “What?”

“Did Adam Bell ask you to the Helstone Ball?  Earlier?  At the game?”  He paused for a second.  “I saw him talking to you and Bess said…”

“Oh.”  It felt like years ago, light years, but she nodded.  “He did.  But I said no.”

A tiny smile curved on his face, the ghost of the ghost smile.  “Yeah?  Are you sure?  It’s a pretty big Gown event.  Biggest all year.  All those fancy people with their… with their…”

“Fancy pants?” she asked.

“Exactly.”  Sean nodded.  “Very fancy pants.”

“I’ve never been one for fancy pants,” Mags said.

Very fancy pants,” Sean said.

“Those neither.  Besides, I’m a little insulted you had to ask, Town.  After all I did for the Milton Strikers today.”  She peered up at him.  “What does this have to do with the aforementioned and, need I remind you, afore-promised pancakes and bacon?”

“I’ve already got a date for Homecoming,” he said.

She blinked.  “I know.  You’re going with Bess.  That’s fourteen shades of awesome.”

“I am,” he said.  “We go together every year.  But she never goes to the after-party.  She’s usually too tired.  One might consider asking someone else, without insulting aforementioned date, especially if aforementioned date were a platonic friend.”

The trees were too close then, the laughter in the field beyond too loud, Sean too close.  She didn’t want to move away.  She did.  She didn’t.  “As payment for pancakes.”

His eyes were bright, too bright, turquoise, even, in the dark night.  “And bacon,” he said. 



“What do you expect as payment for the aforementioned and afore-promised hot chocolate?”

He laughed, and she felt the vibration of it through his arm, to hers.  “This is getting into deeply problematic territory.”

“Hey, you’re the one trying to bribe me with delicious foods.  It’s all on you, Thornton.”

Without any preamble, he tugged her hand and she was close to him then, too close, feeling the heat radiate off this boy who was smiling, half-cocky, half-shy, at her.  She felt her chest warm, expand.  “Come with me,” he said.

She couldn’t breathe with it all, so she just said those three little letters, that one word that kept getting her into trouble, again and again.  “Yes,” she said.

His smile widened.  “Yes?”  He lifted her hand and pressed a kiss to the inside of her wrist.  This one she felt all the way to her toes.

“Yes,” she said.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.

            He tugged her again and they broke through the trees into the field beyond.  There were still several cars parked there, including Colin’s van.  Mags hesitated as she saw one car in particular, a bright blue Honda CRV.

            “You okay?” Sean asked.

            “Fine.”  She blinked up at him.  “Déjà vu, I think.  That car just looked familiar for a second.”

“Come on,” Bess hollered from the window of Colin’s van.  “Everyone’s already gone.  We had to go find you.”  But she wasn’t upset, not really, as she grinned at Mags. 

            “What’s this ‘we’?” Colin hollered back.  “I had to find them.  You did nothing.”

            Mags paused again and Sean stopped with her.  “Mags?”  He dropped her hand, and she realized after a second that he was misinterpreting her hesitation.

            “No, no,” she said.  She squinted at the blue CRV again.  “It’s just…” her voice trailed off and she bolted, running as fast as she could across the field.

            Mags vaguely heard them asking her what was wrong, but she was already past the van, launching herself at the girl just exiting the passenger side of the CRV.

            “What are you doing here?”  She was laughing and crying and laughing again as the girl in her arms started crying and laughing and then they fell over, right there in the field, still clutching each other.

            “I got your message,” Edie said against her, squeezing her so tight Mags almost couldn’t breathe.  “And there’s a hurricane, so school let out at twelve and so we all decided to come to bring y’all back.  It was a surprise.”  She pulled back and stared at Mags, a huge grin on her face.  “I love you.  I miss you.”  She pulled her close and squeezed.  “Let’s never not talk again.”

            “Agreed,” Mags said.  She wrapped both arms around Edie and just held her, held her and breathed in her cotton candy smell, her sugary sweetness that was Edie, cousins so close in age they could have been twins.  They had done everything together, closer than sisters because sisters couldn’t escape each other.  But they could.

The past month washed away, washed away there in a muddy field in the middle of Indiana and Mags thought she would burst with the emotions spilling out of her.

“Henry’s here,” Edie said in her ear.  “And there is a big tall drink of water that is eyeing us up and down while Henry is staring at him like he’s the devil incarnate.  Is there something?”

Mags laughed through her tears.  She pulled away, gripped Edie’s face in her hands and pressed her forehead against hers.  “Just.  Literally, just five minutes ago and this is the best goddamn day of my life.”

Edie laughed her full-throated laugh and the two girls extricated themselves from each other and stood.  “All right, then,” Edie said as she brushed off the back of her jeans.  “Boys, you can have her now.”

            Mags was barely standing when Edie’s boyfriend, Noah, picked her up and spun her around.  “Missed you much,” he said when he put her down.  “Indiana’s entirely too far away from us.  It’s lonely without you.”

            Mags laughed, giddy and dizzy with the spinning.  She stumbled a bit and turned to see Henry, staring at her, eyes flashing hunger and something else—anger?  Longing?—before they cleared.

            Her smile and laughter fell as she stared at him.  He was the same Henry, of course.  Same bright blonde hair, falling in his same dark eyes.  Same long fingers clutching the same Camel light.  Same style of shirt, even, this one declaring “FREE SHRUGS.”  She had often joked that between the shirts he bought for her and the ones he bought for himself, he was singlehandedly keeping Think Geek in business.

Before she could decide what to do, before she could determine whether she wanted to hug him or turn from him, he came over, draped one arm over her shoulders, and pressed a kiss to her forehead, as he had a thousand times before.  “Heya,” he said against her.

            Her bottom lip trembled.  “Heya,” she said, and hugged him back.  He still smelled like Henry, like cigarettes and Ivory soap, the scent of whisky still clinging to his jacket from Mardi Gras.

            She pulled away first and felt his arms untangle from her, felt him separate and knew that this would have to be dealt with, soon enough.  But not tonight.  Tonight, she had more important things to do. 

Mags turned to Edie, took her hand, and tugged her toward the group near the van.  “You two will either love each other or become arch-enemies.  I can’t decide which.  But Edie?”  She pulled her cousin forward.  “This is Bess.  Bess, this is Edie.  My life would suck without either of you in it.”

“Clearly,” Edie said.  “I make the world bright.”

            “You got that right, white girl,” Bess said.  “The world is a shiny place with me in it.”

            “Shit,” Colin said.  “There are two of them.  God help us all.”

            “Shut up,” Edie and Bess said in unison.  They caught eyes and both laughed at exactly the same time.

            “I think it’s settled,” Henry said.  “They love each other.  Or, they might in fact be the same person.”

            “Who’s this?” Bess said from her window.  “Are you Henry?”

            Henry cocked an imaginary hat.  “How d’ye do, ma’am.”

            “Hrm,” she said, squinting her eyes at him.  “I’m gonna watch you.”

            He laughed, surprised.  “There are two of them.”

            Mags made introductions all around, suddenly shy when she introduced Sean to Edie, and Henry to Sean.  But she did, and watched as Henry and Sean eyed each other.  She realized then that Henry had seen her and Sean walk out of the woods, hand in hand.  She imagined a lot of people had, and wondered, just for a moment, what that would mean come Monday.

            “How did you guys know I would be here?” Mags asked once introductions were done.

            “Your dad’s a local,” Colin said.  “He knows about the bonfire.  Trust me.”

            Edie nodded.  “So we came to meet you.  But if you have plans already…?”

            Mags turned to look first at Bess, then at Sean.  Bess rolled her eyes and spoke first.  “Please.  Like I’m going to keep you from your family reunion.  But for reals, I want to hang with this one,” she pointed at Edie, “before she leaves.  Maybe tomorrow night?”

            “Deal!” Edie said.  “You ready, Mags?  Mom and Dad want to see you.  They’re waiting up for you.”

            Mags turned to her Milton friends and saw them there, standing with her New Orleans friends.  All of them there, in one place, and she felt as if all the crap, all the insanity of the last two years, the last few months, died away with the joy that bubbled up in her.  “Tomorrow, then?” she asked, of the group, but her eyes were on Sean.

            Stoic until now, his smiles appropriate, occasionally real when Edie or Bess said something funny, Sean gave her a little hint of his ghost smile.  “Sure, Gown.  Tomorrow.”  He walked over and handed her the messenger bag he had carried from the woods.  When he did, his fingers brushed hers and she blushed, and he smiled, and she smiled back, and when she turned away, she saw Henry staring at them, a small muscle ticking on his cheek.

            They all said their goodbyes and turned to their respective vehicles.  Edie clung to Mags’s arm and held her back, out of hearing distance from Henry.  “He’s gorgeous,” she said.  “It’s going to be hard to leave him, huh?”

            Mags gave her a look, confused, but agreed.  “We’re just, I don’t know.  Sparking?”

            “Full-fledged fire,” Edie said, and laughed.  “I am so glad to see you!”

            “Me, too.”  Mags paused to hug her cousin once again.  “I missed you so much.”

            “More than stars, Maggie-Mae,” Edie said, her head pressed against Mags.  “More than stars.”


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