Copyright Amy L. Montz
“…disappeared for a WEEK! What do you expect me to do?!”
Mags just barely tuned Bess back in to hear the end of her tirade. “Dad told you I was sick.”
“But what kind of sick keeps you from texting? Did you break your hands?” Bess lifted Mags’s left hand. “Looks fine to me.”
“Bess, look, I…” Mags sucked in a breath. “It was bad. I was an awful friend for not calling you, but…”
“I thought you left.” Bess’s face crumpled a bit and she squeezed Mags’s hand. “I thought you left to go back to New Orleans without saying goodbye.”
“Oh, God, Bess, I would never. It’s just… my mom left.”
“Left your dad?”
“Not like that.” Mags shook her head and sank down into a seat next to Bess’s wheelchair. “More like, left Indiana. We just happened to be here, too.”
“Jesus. That’s awful. Do you need a mom? Because mine loves you.” Bess squeezed Mags’s hand again before she pulled away. “I’m sorry. What can I do?”
“Forgive me for not calling?”
“Of course. I just… I don’t know if someone else will.” Bess nodded over at Sean who was sitting with Bronwyn by the pool slide, smiling and laughing. Other than telling her “hello” when she showed up at the party, he hadn’t spoken to her since she arrived. “I think he thinks this is about him. What happened in the woods that night, anyhow?”
Mags looked around them at the party, full of seniors and their parents, and even some of the teachers from the district. But more were suspiciously absent, apparently did not come out of protest that the superintendent was throwing parties, even out of her own pocket, while the teachers were hearing words like “cut backs” and “furloughs.” “We almost kissed,” she said as she watched Sean across the pool. He stiffened a bit, as if he knew she was looking at him, but did not turn her way. She wanted to get a shot of him like this, his brooding jaw, his heavy eyes. The nerd in her compared him instantly to Kon-El, Superboy, who was so full of anger that it exploded inside of him. This was what she had turned Sean Thornton into. Made him remember a part of himself that maybe was better left unremembered.
“What?!” Bess smacked her on the arm. “Are you serious? Why didn’t you tell me? No wonder he freaked out when you didn’t come to school.”
She almost didn’t hear Bess when the music grew louder. She moved closer to her friend. “I was still trying to process it but then everything else happened and I kind of… forgot.” For lack of a better word, she had forgotten the incident in the woods until she saw Sean again. Maybe not forgot, not exactly, but definitely pushed it to the back of her brain. Dealing too much with her mother and Henry had caused her mind to protect itself from worrying about even more things she couldn’t control. But now, here in sight of Sean…
“He is really conscious of being abandoned, you know.” Bess shook her head. “And I mean, let’s not forget about Lily. She is going to tear you a new one if she thinks you hurt her brother.”
“What is the deal with that, anyhow?” Mags asked. “Do you know why he…” she let her voice trail off, suddenly worried by her question. Maybe it wasn’t right to ask about his scars, his possessiveness over his sister.
“Has no one told you yet?” Bess asked. She turned in her wheelchair and winced a little with the movement. She began to cough, deep wracking coughs that sounded like a tear in her side.
“Are you okay?” Mags asked.
“Just a little touch of pneumonia, that’s all,” Bess said.
“A touch of pneumonia? There’s no such thing, Bess. Seriously,” Mags half-stood. “We need to get you inside.”
Bess put a hand on her arm. “Outside’s better,” she said in a quiet voice. “Inside is too cold. Out here, it’s nice and dry.”
It was, a nice breezy dryness that belied everything Mags had ever come to believe about the summer. Marlborough’s weather was so different from the muggy heat of New Orleans that she felt like an amphibian coming on land for the first time, gasping for desperate air.
“It’s not a big secret or anything,” Bess said. “About Sean and his dad. He got into some real trouble when he was younger. His dad was awful to him, used to… used to beat him, put out cigarettes on his arm. He would get in between the dad and Lily, sometimes even Mrs. Thornton, and that would just make the dad madder.”
“Sean got into fights at school, the usual. And one day, a cop paid attention. Came to the house, saw what was going on, and arrested the dad. He’s still in jail, you know. It’s been hard for Sean.”
Mags looked out across the pool and this time, caught Sean looking at her. Those bright blue eyes were almost hidden from this distance, but all the same, she saw him looking at her. So she tried. She raised her hand in a wave and waggled her fingers. Then, just on faith, she pulled out her phone and texted him. “Sorry, Town. Not u, but me. It’s been a bad week. Talk later?”
She watched him get the text, watched the little smile spread on his face, that true smile, the Sean Thornton half-smile that brought out the dimple in his cheek. He looked up at her, one eyebrow raised, before he texted back, “Sure, Gown. Whatever u say.”
She couldn’t help her smile and felt at least, she salvaged something, a friendship, perhaps, but maybe the interesting Something More that was happening between her and Superboy over there.
“What is that?” Bess asked, cutting through her reverie.
The sound had grown louder. When the music cut off with a sudden quietness, the words outside of the gate were audible. “Strike! Strike! Strike!”
At first, Mags thought it was a group of football players doing the Milton fight song, but she realized all the football players were there, and they were as quiet as the rest of the guests, listening to the words outside of the gate.
Sean stood and moved toward the gate. After a moment, most of the students followed him. Outside of his gate, in a huge crowd, were all the absent teachers, holding signs, chanting “Strike!” and converging upon Mrs. Thornton’s house.
“What are they doing?” someone asked next to Mags.
“They’re protesting,” she said, and pulled her camera out. It was instinctual more than anything, to take photos of such a group. She began snapping as one of the teachers moved forward.
It was Mr. Weinbacher, their newspaper teacher, the one Mags had heard talking about strikes just two weeks before. “Rose Thornton!” he called out. “When are you going to answer our demands?”
“Where is she?” Mags asked Bess.
“I think I heard that she stepped out to get more ice,” Bess said. “She’s not here!” she yelled at the group.
Mags’s father hushed her. “Let us handle this, Bess.” He walked forward. “Rose isn’t here. This is not the time or the place for this, Jim.”
“Of course it is. Having a huge party while the rest of us are considering food stamps to make ends meet? You’ve got to be kidding me. What are you doing here, anyhow?”
“Her son’s here! Why don’t we ask him?” Someone yelled out the accusation from the crowd and Sean’s face grew angry.
Mags walked over to Sean. “You’ve got to do something. Speak for your mother.”
“I can’t do that,” he said. “I can’t get involved in this.” But after a moment, he yelled out, “This is my home!”
“And your home is housing a bunch of traitors!” Mr. Weinbacher said. “Sean, look around you. These people are taking on the jobs of two or three teachers in order to fire people. How is that fair?”
“Did he get fired?” Mags asked Sean.
“This week, he was let go. Not fired.”
Mags imagined it didn’t matter. “Sean, you have to do something. You’re the voice of your mother in this situation. You—”
“Sean, you’re eighteen. You’re old enough to have an opinion about this. What do you think?”
“I think you’re all invading my house! Go home!”
The crowd roared at that moment and Mags saw it, saw someone lift a bottle and aim it at Sean. She didn’t think about anything other than the fact that she had pushed him forward, she had made him move into the line of fire. She threw herself at Sean to push him out of the way just as the bottle made contact with her head. There was a loud pop, a bright light, and she thought, I’m hit, and then she thought, what a ridiculous thing to think, and then she felt arms around her, warm arms, strong arms before she felt nothing at all.
“Mags?” a voice asked, hesitant.
Mags blinked her eyes open and saw a fuzzy shape in the corner. There was a steady beeping and a sense of whiteness, of coolness wrapping around her. Her vision cleared, and she saw Sean. “Where am I?” she asked.
“You’re at the hospital. You have a concussion. They hit you pretty hard with the bottle.” Sean moved closer and gave her a little half smile, pained, sympathetic. “I am so sorry.”
He looked so sad, and she thought that this was another time when a woman was hurt and he couldn’t stop it. Poor Sean, she thought. He was forever trying to save us and we forever hurt him because of it. “Why are you sorry?”
“Because that bottle was meant for me. And…” he paused and turned to grab a bag in the corner. “You dropped your camera. When you fell.”
He took it out like a baby, cradling the neck and back, and showed her the broken lens, the cracked case. She felt tears burning her eyes but she refused to let them fall. Not here. Not now. It wasn’t the real concern, was it? “Oh well,” she said. “It’s just a thing, right? Totally replaceable.” With what money? she thought. It was an expensive camera, from their better days. She had babied that thing for years, keeping it perfect and clean, and now… the tears burned her eyes again but she couldn’t let him see them fall. Not now. Not over a camera, when his home had been invaded.
“I’ll replace it,” he said. “I’ll get you a new one. A better one.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “It’s not your—”
“No,” he said. “I—”
“Margaret?” a voice asked from the curtain.
They turned to see the doctor and her father standing there. “Hi, Daddy,” she said.
“Are you okay, Magpie?” her dad asked.
“My head hurts,” she said. “What happened?”
“You’ve had quite the scare, young lady,” the doctor said. “How are you feeling?”
They went through a series of tests, following fingers with eyes, asking ridiculous questions about who was president and what year it was, and told her she had four stitches running along her right scalp and temple. He assured her it shouldn’t leave a scar. Mags shrugged; she wouldn’t even admit to herself that it worried her, the prospect of having a scar on her face.
“When can I go home?” she asked.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “I’d like to keep you in for observation, if that’s okay. See if you feel like you’re going to throw up, or dizzy, or confused.”
“Okay,” Mags said.
“I’ve got to finish some paperwork, but I’ll be just down the hall, okay? Thornton’s offered to say with you.”
“That’s fine, Daddy. I’ll be fine.” She didn’t feel fine. She wanted her mother. Had never wanted her mother so badly in her life. But her mother was 700 miles away and she was here, instead, in a hospital gown with a boy watching her with intense eyes.
Her father stepped out with the doctor, leaving her alone once again with Sean, and the television.
The five o’clock news was on. And Mags saw her own face on the screen.
“I was going to tell you,” Sean said. He seemed apologetic only in the way someone slightly aware of her phobia of cameras would be. “But someone was filming and called the news. They’re using it to argue against the teacher strikes. Anytime a kid gets hurt, they get upset.”
“I can’t…” her voice trailed off as she watched herself get hit with the bottle, again and again on the screen. But what was after the bottle was even more fascinating. Sean Thornton, wrapping his arms around her, lifting her so she didn’t fall to the ground. Sean Thornton, yelling at the group, “She’s just a girl! You’ve come here as adults and hurt a girl! Are you happy now? Are you happy?” And the group just melted away after that, embarrassed, humbled, the fight taken out of them.
No one knew who threw the bottle. Just a person in the crowd. She and Sean watched as the news anchors argued that it wasn’t one of the teachers but instead, just a hanger on, or one of the students. It didn’t matter. The damage was done.
“Why did you do it?” Sean asked her after he turned off the television. She had watched herself get hit three times. And that was enough. He stood when she gestured for him to turn it off, and walked closer to her bed when he did.
She pulled the sheet higher on her chest, her hands clutching it so tight, her knuckles felt swollen. “Because I brought you into the danger,” she said. “I made you go forward and talk to them. I shouldn’t have done that.”
He was quiet for a long moment, then, “Well, it’s the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a Gown do.”
She felt the anger rise, then, bright heat inside of her gut as she comprehended his words. He was teasing her, after this. After all of this he had the audacity to tease her. “How can you? I’m in the hospital and you say that?”
His face fell, the little half-smile melting away. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Well, that’s how it sounded.” Deep down, she knew her anger wasn’t for him. She knew it was for this stupid situation, for the embarrassment and fear of being on television, even, if she was to be fair to herself, a little bit him. But not entirely.
“Mags, I’m sorry. I just…” he paused. “I thought you liked me.” He pinked around his ears and she knew how embarrassed he was, then. “I thought you liked me because… I mean…”
She couldn’t. Not here. Not while in a hospital gown with stitches on her head and her face, God, her face on the evening news. “I didn’t do that because I like you. I would have done it for anyone. I put you in harm’s way. It was my responsibility to get you out of it. I don’t like you that way, Sean. That’s not why I did it.” She just wanted him to go away, go away and let her live in this moment in which she was hurt and scared, with a concussion and a scar. Why did he not just go away? What did she have to do to get him to leave her alone?
“Mags, I just… I like you, too, and, after what you did. I mean, that was the most selfless thing I’ve ever seen anyone do, and…” his voice trailed off. “How could I not love someone for protecting me like that?”
The anger rose in her gut and she felt it burn the back of her throat. Sean and Henry and Edie and all of them expected too much from her. Why did everyone think declarations of love were enough? Why couldn’t they let her be? Just be alone and not bear the weight of all of this… need? “Well, I don’t love you. Why does everyone keep saying that to me?”
It hit him like a fist, or a cigarette in the arm. His face grew hard and she watched his pain become visible, palpable. “Do you have so many people telling you they love you that it bothers you? Don’t you care that I have feelings for you?”
“I just…” why couldn’t they all just leave her alone? She was on the news for God’s sake. On the goddamn news. And there was nothing she could do about it, no way she could protect herself and everyone wanted something from her. “Can’t you just go right now, Sean? You’re… well, you’re offending me, talking of love while I’m lying here, and I’m…” on the news and exposed. How to tell him how exposed she felt, and to talk about her feelings on top of it?
“Fine.” His hurt eyes belied his hard expression and she saw it, the shell he put around himself. “I’m so sorry my feelings offend you. Thanks for everything, Margaret. Enjoy your fifteen minutes of fame.” As he walked out, he paused by his chair. He leaned down, placed her broken camera on the seat, and said, “I’ll still replace it. I know you’re poorer than you pretend. I’m good enough for that, at least.” Then, only with those cruel words—and hers, too, she reminded herself—between them, did he leave.