These Houses Chapter Seventeen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

            It took approximately seventeen minutes for Edie to stop talking, long enough for Mags to realize that Edie thought she was coming back to New Orleans with them.  Oh, Edie didn’t come right out and say it, of course.  Merely suggested that “when you’re home” and “once we get back,” all phrases carefully articulated to hint to Mags that something bigger was going on, and Mags wasn’t supposed to know about it.  Not yet.

            But Henry knew.  He kept looking at Mags as if she would disappear in any moment, like a puff of smoke from his cigarette.  He had changed over the past few weeks, grown harder, perhaps, lost some of the puffiness of youth to become leaner, more masculine.  He had never looked more handsome.  But Henry was still… Henry.  Beautiful, dark, brooding Henry.  Her best friend.  Estranged, but still.

            “What do you think, Mags?” he asked.  “Ready to come home with us where you belong?”

            Mags felt something rise in her stomach, like little soap bubbles ready to pop at any second.  They expected her to come to New Orleans.  To come home.  Even after everything that had happened in New Orleans, they still expected it to be where she belonged.

            “It was supposed to be a surprise,” Edie said, and smacked Henry’s arm.  They were quiet as the GPS directed them to turn right.  “But aren’t you excited?  I mean, your dad will still be here, of course, to finish out the year, but… oh, Mags.  Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry.  We thought you knew that, at least.”

            She hadn’t even realized she started crying until Edie said her name, but the wetness on her cheeks, the tightness of her eyes, all of it led to the very simple fact that she had never, never felt more betrayed in all of her life.  Her mother was leaving her.  Her mother was leaving her, hated living in Marlborough so much that she’d rather go back to New Orleans without her husband and daughter than stay here another day.  She knew her mother would blame it on her nerves, or this, or that, but the plain fact of the matter was that she was abandoning her family, and Edie, generous, sweet to a fault Edie, could not comprehend that Mags was not coming along.

            “She was keeping it secret for a surprise,” Edie whispered.  “Of course she was.”

            “No, she wasn’t, hon,” Henry said.  He seemed as shocked as Edie, but more… resigned?  He knew the darker side of Mags’s mother, after all, the recriminations, the scenes, the blame cast her way for Freddie’s exile from society.  Her mother had never stopped blaming her, not really.  Maria Hale had a favorite child, and it wasn’t Margaret.  Mags had known this her entire life.  She just never expected others to see it so officially.  So suddenly.  So painfully.  “Mags…” Henry began, but didn’t get to finish.

            The GPS announced they had arrived at their destination.  Mags charged out of the CRV before Noah had even had a chance to put it in park.  When she walked into her grandmother’s house, the screen door hit the brick wall with a bang.  She bit back the apology lurking just behind her lips.  No need to start this conversation with an apology.  If anyone was to apologize, it better be her mother.  “When were you going to tell me?” she said.

            Maria Hale looked up at her daughter, and the smile fell from her face.  She had been entertaining her sister and brother-in-law, more animated than Mags had seen her in years.  “Sweetie, you know this weather isn’t good for my—”

            “I’m your goddamn daughter,” Mags said.  “Does that mean anything to you?”

            “Of course, my angel.  It means everything.  But you don’t want Mom to be sick, do you?  This weather can’t agree with me.”

            Maybe she hadn’t believed it.  Not really.  Not like faith.  Maybe a part of her expected her mother to tell her of course she was staying with her teenaged daughter who needed her, needed her so desperately to be a mother.  But no.  Once again it was Mags versus the world, Mags always on the side of herself.  All alone on the side of herself.

            “But Maria, I thought…” Aunt Barbie didn’t finish her statement.  Even she, it seemed, just assumed Mags would come home.

            “Mags is happier here with her father.  Everyone knows she’s a daddy’s girl.”  Maria looked around and caught eyes with her husband.  “Fred, tell them.”

            “Does no one even want to know what I think in all of this?”  Mags whispered the words, so low that her mother almost didn’t hear her.

            “I want to know,” Henry said from the door.  Edie was with him, Noah just behind.  “I think we’d all like to know what you think.”

            “I think…”  That you are selfish.  That all of you are selfish.  “That it’s best for me…” to be away from all of you.  In a place that appreciates me.  “To…”  She found herself bereft of the words she needed to move on.  To tell everyone what she wanted, for once in her life.

            For once in her life.  She had an opportunity, for once in her life, to make a decision.

            “Margaret?” her grandmother asked.  “What do you want?”

            “I want everyone to just leave me alone,” she said.  She sank down into a chair with a tired sigh.  “I want to go to school here, where no one blames me for what happened with Freddie.”

            “Sweetie, no one blames you for—”

            “Of course everyone blames me, mom.  I was stupid enough to almost get raped at a party, and then I was stupid enough to tell my brother about it.  That’s what everyone thinks.  That’s what you think.”

            Her mother started crying, big cringing sobs.  “That’s not what I think at all,” she said, choked through her tears.  “How can you even say that?”

            “I’m sorry,” Mags said on reflex, because she was sorry.  That much was certain.  She was sorry she had opened her mouth.  “I’m sorry, Mom.”

            Aunt Barbie held Maria’s hand as she sniffled her way through a handkerchief.  “It’s your mom’s health, kiddo.  We have to be careful.”

            “I just don’t know why she can’t come with us!”  Edie was crying now, too.  “Why can’t she just come home where she belongs?”

            Was that where she belonged?  Not anymore.  Not in New Orleans, not even with Edie and Henry and Noah.  Certainly not with her mom, who didn’t seem to care whether or not her daughter needed her.  Instead, it was what she needed from her daughter.

            And that, while selfish, was the truth.  Her mother, Mags realized, couldn’t help who she was any more than Mags could help who she was. 

“Mags is better off staying put,” her dad said.  “It’s her senior year.  She doesn’t need to be uprooted again.”

Because her father was right.  She had started putting down roots, finally, in a new place that didn’t know about New Orleans.  Didn’t know about Freddie or any of the problems back home.  “Edie, I love and miss you so much,” Mags said.  “Being without you has been a constant ache in my heart for a month now.  But…”

“But you’re staying here, aren’t you?”  Edie began to cry harder and her tiny body shook with the force of her sobs.  “Is it because we haven’t talked?  If so, I’m so sorry.  Please forgive me.”

“No, I swear, it’s not…” no matter what she did, she was going to upset someone, was going to become upset on her own.  No matter what, she couldn’t make anyone happy, regardless of what she did.  If she went to New Orleans, she would be miserable.  If she stayed in Marlborough, Edie and Henry would be miserable.  And maybe her Dad and Grandmother Hale.

“What do you want, Mags?” Henry asked her.  He walked over and took her hand in his.  “What is it you want because I know I, for one, want you to be happy.”

“I…”  She felt her bottom lip tremble as she stared at Henry, selfless once more, caring only for her well-being and mental health.  “I want to stay here.”

“Then stay here.”  His eyes grew a little bright but he didn’t cry, not Henry.  Not her rock.  The past few weeks melted away and he was there for her, for the first time in forever, it seemed, and that meant everything.  “Because you’re happy here.  And that’s all that matters.”

Mags swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand and composed herself.  No matter what, she needed to compose herself.  She needed to be the grownup now because her mother was sobbing, Aunt Barbie was comforting her, and Edie was a wreck.  Someone needed to put them back together.  “Mom, it’s okay.  I want you to do what you need to do.”

Her mother sniffled and looked up at her.  “My health has just… been so bad, Maggie.  You know that.  And a winter?  An honest to God winter?  I’ll never survive.”

“I know, Mom.”  Mags forced a smile to her face and felt her fingernails bite into her palm, harder and harder and harder until she was sure blood was forming on the skin.  “Do you need help packing tomorrow?”

“No, sweetie,” Aunt Barbie said.  “We’ve got it.”

“Excellent,” Mags said.  “Then I’m going to bed.”  She walked back to her room with as much dignity as she could muster before she closed the door and broke down.  There was something to be said for abandonment, and the abandonment of her mother was worse than Henry, worse than Edie.  Worse than anything she could even imagine.  This was abandonment on a massive, massive scale, and Mags didn’t think even she could get herself out of this.

#

            At 5:00 a.m. she still wasn’t asleep but the rest of the house finally was, after hours of mumbling and murmuring.  Aunt Barbie and Uncle Rob were sleeping in the spare room, and Henry, Edie, and Noah were all piled in the living room.  No one had bothered her, not even tried to sleep on her floor.  Normally, Henry or Edie, or both, would sneak into her room and stay with her to talk all through the night.  But they didn’t even try, not this time.

            But perhaps they would be awake, at least.  On impulse, she sent a text.  “Need a friend, if U R around.”

            After a moment, her phone buzzed.  She checked the text and found, “What R U doing awake?  Come to the backyard.”

She threw on her Catwoman Converse, grabbed a sweater, and stepped outside.  The quiet of the neighborhood, the soft pre-dawn of the morning, all of the scents and smells of a nighttime moving into day assaulted her as she moved toward the dark shape at the end of the patio.

“Hey,” Henry said, his voice rough with lack of sleep.  He gave her a little smile.  “Lucky I was in the neighborhood.”

“You never sleep,” she said, and sat down next to him.  The flash of the match flare lit Henry’s face orange before the smoke swirled around his head.  “How is it you never sleep?”

“Because I nap all day.  It’s the sleep of champions.”  He lifted his arm and she snuggled in next to him, his hand wrapped on her shoulder.  “I’m sorry your mom’s such a bitch.”

“Hey, she’s still my mom.  Watch it.”  She turned and inhaled deep the smell of Henry.  Such a familiar smell, since they were kids he had always smelled spicy, like cinnamon, or clove.  “Are you mad at me?”

“Honestly?  I got over mad a few weeks ago.  It’s more just embarrassed.  That’s why I couldn’t call you.  And then you deleted your Facebook and Tumblr accounts, and I thought for sure that was about me.  Selfish, huh?  Shit, Mags,” he said, and took a deep drag off his cigarette, “can anyone not be an asshole to you?”  He exhaled loudly, the sound almost whistling through the pursing of his lips.

“I missed you.  I just… I can’t be what you want me to be.”

“I know that.”  He squeezed her shoulder.  “But I can be what you want me to be, and that’s what we’ve always been.  So tell me.  What’s going on?”

They talked well into the morning.  She told him about Bess, about school and Bronwyn’s jealousy, and even Freddie.  But when they got to her mother, she was characteristically silent.  “I just can’t, Henry.  She’s my mom.  You know?  I can only be so mad at her.”

“I can be plenty mad at her for you,” he said.  “We’re leaving today.  She wants to be gone as soon as possible, and the hurricane jogged east.  So we’re in the clear.”

That was her punishment, for causing a scene.  She was going to have to be without everyone a day sooner than she thought.  To have just gotten Edie and Henry back only to lose them again was going to break her even more, into tiny bits and pieces.  “We’ll Facetime,” she said finally.  “And you can tell me everything going on with you.”

The house was coming alive behind them, the noise of people waking, toilets flushed and refrigerators opened.  All of those morning sounds that lead one to breakfast and wakefulness.  “Nothing going on with me that being friends with you again wouldn’t cure,” Henry said.  He stabbed out his cigarette in the grass and put the butt in his little growing pile.  “But as long as you’re okay, I’m good to go.”

Was she?  Even with the Bright & Shinies and her mom and Sean, “Yeah,” Mags said.  “I am.”  She smiled wide.  “Of course I am.”

#

            She wasn’t.

            She had lied to Henry, to her dad and grandmother, to her mom when she left.  She lied to Bess when she called and ignored Sean’s absence of texts.  She spent a week in her pajamas and no one gave her any flack for it.  She simply was, for lack of a better word, mourning.  Her dad went into her room every morning for a week, asked her, “do you want to go to school today?” and when she said, “not today,” called in sick for her.

            Every afternoon, he brought her homework.  She completed it, handed it back to him, and repeated the cycle, every day and every night, for a week.  But by Saturday, when he walked into her room at noon, the tone changed.

            Her dad sat on the edge of her bed.  “There’s a party at the Thorntons’ house today.  We’ve both been invited.  Get your swimsuit and get dressed.”

            “Not today,” she said, as she had said for five days in a row.

“Too bad.  Your time of sloth is over.  Out of bed, into real clothes, and be ready in fifteen minutes.”

            “You don’t understand.  I don’t feel well.”

            “You feel fine.”

            “I feel like shit, Dad.”  And she did, like she would keel over if she tried anything complicated like walking, much less smiling and swimming with other people.

            “You feel fine.  Your mother didn’t die, Magpie, and she didn’t divorce us.  She went home to convalesce.  There’s nothing else to it.”

            How to make him understand that it felt like leaving?  Felt like dying? Seven days without her mother and she was mourning as if her mother did die.  And perhaps she did, the version she had in her head of her mother.  That version was dead.  She was never going to get it back, and that, more than anything, pained her.  How could her mother leave her?  She was seventeen, for Christ’s sake.  She had Homecoming next weekend, even if she didn’t have a date to the dance proper, she still had to go.  And her mother had abandoned her.

            “How come you didn’t make me go to school but you’re making me go to a party?” she asked.

            “Because you should want to go to a party.  That’s how I know this is depression and not sick.  You’ve been sad enough.  Come on.”  He patted her three times on her knee before he stood up.  “You’re going to have fun today if it’s the last thing you do.  And if you don’t?  You’re grounded.”

            “You’re going to ground me if I don’t go to a party and have fun?”  A little smile grew on her face at the preposterousness of the proposal.

            Her dad smiled back.  “I will do exactly that.  So get dressed so we can shake a tail feather.  Or eat barbeque.  Or something.”

            He turned to walk out but she jumped out of the bed and hugged him before he could leave.  “She’s always blamed me for Freddie,” she said in a soft voice.

            He hugged her back.  “She has,” he said, his voice just as soft.  “But no matter what, it’s not your fault.  Okay?”

            And like that, a weight, a final little pressure weighing on her chest and stomach, lifted, and she felt its baby wings as it stretched and flew away.  “Okay,” she said, and for once, believed it.  It would be.  Okay.  It finally would be okay.

            But still, that one little word nagged her.

            Was it them?

            Yes, she had said.  Yes, yes, yes.

            Later, when Mags thought back to this moment, she realized that she had expected the bright lights and stares that had found her then were soon to find her again.  Even here.  Even in Marlborough.  She didn’t know how she knew, some women’s intuition, perhaps, or just a sense of the tide turning.  But when she left for the Thorntons’ party, she felt it creep along her neck and throat.  Something was coming.  Something huge.  And she didn’t know what it was.

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