These Houses Chapter Nineteen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER NINETEEN

            At first, it wasn’t worse than the New Orleans Situation, but it was damn close.

            Mags came home to dozens of phone calls, hundreds of texts, from people she had never even met before, all wanting to know about what happened, and why, and if she had a political agenda.  They kept saying that over and over again, the reporters: political agenda.  Did she have one?  Is that why she put herself in harm’s way?

            She wanted to scream at the situation, tell everyone that she didn’t put herself in harm’s way.  She put herself accidentally in harm’s way, to try to push Thornton out of it.  Or maybe part of her thought they wouldn’t hit a girl.  That if she were in front of Sean, then whoever was throwing the bottle would stop, realizing what was happening.  But no.  The bottle was thrown.  The situation was done.

            But then, the video went viral.

People from freaking New Orleans began calling, and then major news networks—although the ones with certain political agendas of their own were suspiciously absent, she thought.  And when someone dug up the story from New Orleans, it was all over the news: Girl Who Cried Wolf versus Girl Who Got Hit by a Bottle.  No one had believed her in New Orleans, just that she was an underage girl at a party with her older brother, told said brother she was attacked, and said brother went, according to one website, “apeshit crazy” and beat the snot out of the guys.  Since she was seventeen, her name should be withheld, but the images made it not matter.  Everyone knew who she was, and while the news channels wouldn’t say her name, they said her brother’s.  It was everywhere.  She couldn’t hide from it.

She tried, of course.  Monday morning, she refused to go to school but her father wouldn’t let her skip again.  “The worst thing you can do is not go to school,” he said.  “Better just to get it out in the open and be done with it.”

She disagreed.  Mags thought the worst thing she could do was show up and have everyone looking at her, everyone staring at her, not even the benefit of her camera to protect her face from the stares.  She held her camera in her hand—mourning it, she realized, more than she even mourned her mother’s leaving—before she took out the SD card and threw it in the trash.  There was no fixing it.  It was gone, forever.  This thing that had been such an extension of herself, this machine that made her whole, was absent from her life.  Even the camera on her phone or the compact digital she had wouldn’t be the same.  Bruce was gone.

She grabbed the compact digital from her desk before she left for school and checked her appearance one more time.  They wanted to call her a Gown on the school’s gossip sites?  Fine.  She was going to dress how she wanted to dress, Gown and Town be damned.  So she wore the peacock tunic dress her grandmother gave her, her hair in a Katniss braid around her head and down her shoulder, and her peacock bracelet on her arm.  A pair of clunky Mary Janes completed the outfit, and she felt powerful, in that way only good fashion and a great outfit could make one feel.  If she was going to be a Gown, she would be a Gown the best way she knew how.

Thornton wasn’t there to pick her up, of course, but her dad drove her to school.  She paid attention this time, in case she ever had to walk home again.  Watched the rain from the previous night cuddle together in puddles, in corners of drains and collected on low-lying street corners.  She paid attention to everything, from the moment they left the house to the moment they turned into the street for school.  It was for that reason she saw the news crews outside of Milton, and the huge crowd of protestors around the main entrance.

“Hell, no!  We won’t go!” they were chanting, loud and in sync.  She reached for her camera and winced as she realized it wasn’t in her bag, that Bruce would never be there again.  Instead, she grabbed the compact digital and took a couple of quick shots.

“Maybe you shouldn’t go,” her dad said, his voice solemn.  This wasn’t what he wanted for her, after all.  They had moved from New Orleans to escape notoriety, not embrace it once more.

“No, I’m here.  Let’s do this.”  She got out of the car and headed for the main entrance, leaving her dad to go through the teachers’ entrance on the side of the school.  As she moved closer, she realized that the chant went from protest to cheering.  They were cheering.  For her.

“Margaret, what were you thinking when that bottle hit your head?”

“Miss Hale!  Miss Hale!  What is your stance on the protests?  Do you side with your former principal?”

“Former principal?” she asked before she could help herself.

And then she saw who was in front of the door, no, chained, to the front door of Milton High School.  Two beautiful twins, Bess and Colin Higgins.  “Superintendent Thornton!” Bess screamed at one of the cameras.  “How could you let your teachers face these economic challenges?”

“What happened?”  Mags saw Sally and grabbed her arm.  “What’s going on?”

“Principal Higgins was fired over the weekend for letting the teachers protest without reporting it,” Sally said.  “Bess and Colin have joined the protest in protest.  It’s a mess, Mags.  A real goddamn mess.”  She winced when she saw Mags’s stitches.  “How are you?”

“Yes, Miss Hale.  How are you feeling after your ordeal this weekend?”

Mags ignored the cameras, squeezed Sally’s arm in thanks, and moved to the door.  She noticed it got quieter as she moved closer, and even Bess stopped screaming long enough to watch.  “Bess?” she asked, as she stood in front of her friend.  It became so quiet one could hear the drip drip of the leftover rain sidling down the drain pipe.  Everyone was waiting to see what she would do, and the cameras burned her with their attention.  Everyone was watching her once again, and she couldn’t handle it, couldn’t deal with the publicity but this was a situation, something bigger than herself.  Something she believed in.  If they were cutting teachers, then they would eventually cut her dad.  And if not him, someone like him.  It just wasn’t fair.

“What do you say, my white sister?” Bess asked.

Mags moved to the door, turned around, and screamed, “Save our teachers NOW!

The crowd went nuts.  The protestors screamed their support, the anti-protestors screamed obscenities and other choice phrases at her, at Bess, at Colin and the dozens of other students and teachers at the front door, but it was too late.  Mags turned to Bess and said, “Let’s not give them a reason to arrest us.  Peaceful protest.”

“We are peaceful,” Colin said.

“No, we need to sit.”  Mags looked at Bess.  “On the ground, I mean.  The rest of us.”

“That way the cripple is prominent,” Bess said.  “I like it.  It works, O devious one.”  She turned to the group and yelled, “Hey!  We are peaceful protestors!  Let’s do Dr. King proud and sit this one down!”

Like one, the crowd listened to its de facto leader and sat in front of the school doors.  When Mags tried to count them, she realized there were at least a hundred people protesting, if not more.  They grew quiet in an instant, and with that, the counter protestors began screaming louder.

“Get the hell out of the way!”

“Let my kid go to school and get an education!”

“Let them talk,” Bess said.  She coughed again, those great deep wracking coughs from the day of the party.  Her pneumonia, it seemed, was not getting any better.

And then, there was an explosion of voices once more.  Mags looked up to see Sean Thornton making his way to the front of the protest.  The news crews were thrusting microphones and cameras in his face, asking him if he planned on joining the protest against his mother.

Sean met Mags’s eyes and she saw the pain in them, the boy torn between doing what was right and doing what was expected.  No one expected Sean to join the protest.  No one had asked him, she bet, because no one assumed he would go against his mother.  But there were, according to the reporter who kept yelling statistics, 50% of the teachers fired, resigned, protesting, or just let go as surplus across the district.  That was a huge number, and Superintendent Thornton was in part responsible for it.  This affected Sean’s education as much as it affected anyone else.

“Bess, Colin, don’t do this,” Sean said as he stood in front of them.  “Your mom can get her job back.”

“Sean, man, don’t do this,” Colin said.  “Fight with us.  See how we are?  Just a statement.  Come on, man, you know better.  This is crazy.”

“Please, Sean,” Bess said.  “I’ve been out here all night, and I’m tired and wet.”  Mags hadn’t known Bess had been out all night in the rain.  “Get your mom to come out here and talk to us.  That’s all we want.”

“I can’t make promises for my mother,” Sean said.  “This is her business, not mine.”

“But it is your business,” Mags said.  “It’s all of ours.  We are the district’s students.  That means that it owes us an explanation.  To us, to our parents, to the taxpayers.  How do we expect to get a good education if half of our teachers are gone?  If our principal is gone?”

“This means something, Sean,” Bess said, before she started coughing again.  “This means…”

            Before she could finish her sentence, Bess’s eyes rolled back in her head and she fainted.

#

            For the second time in a week, Mags was at the hospital.  And for the second time in a week, a protest was disbanded by the health of a teenage girl.  Bess passed out, went gray, and would not wake up.  Colin, Sean, and Mags rushed her to the hospital, and by the time her mother showed up, the news was officially grim.  Bess had done major damage to herself staying out all night in the rain, and her pneumonia had grown worse.  Given that her immune system was already compromised, the doctors did not have a strong outlook.

            Mags joined Sean in the hospital waiting room, as Mrs. Higgins and Colin were in the room with Bess.  They were the only ones there.  Sean turned to her, his eyes bright, and she understood.  She walked over and sat next to him.

            “I feel like this is my fault,” he said.  “I know it’s not but still.”

            “It’s not,” Mags said.  “It’s no one’s fault.  Bess has a bad immune system and she was… God, how could she stay out all night?”

            “Her mom means everything to her, you know.  It’s been just her, her mom, and Colin forever.  Since their dad died.”

“You could do something about this.  You could talk to your mom.”

            “She’s not listening to me.  She’s not listening to anyone but the school board.  It’s not just her decision, you know.  It’s everyone’s decision.  People want lower taxes.  How many times does that come from gutting education?”

            “You do care, then?” she asked.  “Fine, care.  Do something about it.  Protest with us.  We can—”

            “We can what, Mags, fight the power?  Be a children’s crusade?  We’re kids.  There’s nothing we can do.”  He was quiet for a long minute. 

            “Hey, guys?”

            They both turned to see Colin by the entrance to the hallway.  “Hey, what’s the story?” Sean asked.

            “She’s still out.”  Colin was exhausted, the bags under his eyes mocking his usual energy and spirit.  “Visiting hours are over.  My mom’s going to stay but I’m going to head home and get the car.  Can I get a ride, man?”

            “Of course,” Sean said.  “Mags, you, too?”

            “Me, too,” she agreed.

            They were all silent on the way to Colin’s house.  There was nothing left to say, it seemed.  Mags thought that perhaps the boys were too caught up in their own heads to think to discuss Bess’s condition, until Colin said, “I told her not to stay out all night.  God, she’s so stupid sometimes.  I can’t get over her.”

            “She believes in this.  Your mom got fired.”

            “Mom wasn’t fired.  Mom resigned.  The rumor got out that she was fired.”  Colin leaned forward so that he was in between the seats, closer to Mags and Sean.  “This is all bullshit, Mags.  Isn’t it?”

            “I don’t know,” Mags said.  “I don’t think so.  I think this is bigger than all of us now.”

            “Man, do you remember when the worst thing we had to think about was whether the Helstone kids were going to win the diner on bonfire night?”

            The bonfire seemed months ago instead of little over a week.  Mags knew what he meant, though.  “She’s going to be fine,” she said to Colin.  “Go get some rest, and we’ll all head back in the morning.”

            “I’m going back tonight.  I’ll call you guys as soon as I hear something.”  And then, in an uncharacteristic move, Colin leaned forward and kissed Mags on the forehead.  “She loves you, you know.  She’s never had a friend like you.”

            Mags felt her eyes burn bright with her tears.  “Same here.  How can I not love her?”

            Colin put an arm around Sean and squeezed in that man-hug way: half hug, half pounding of the back.  “Thanks, man.  I’ll call you soon.”

            Mags waited as the boys got out of the car and Sean walked Colin to the front door.  They spoke quietly, then shook hands, and hugged.  A real hug this time, two friends comforting each other on the scariness of the world.  Colin said something as Sean was turning to walk back, which Mags, too far away, didn’t catch.  But Sean looked at her through the windshield as he responded, and smiled his little half smile. 

            When he got back in the car, she asked, “What was that?”

            “Colin was just reminding me of something I said at the beginning of the semester.”  He put the car in drive and pulled away.  “You hungry?”

            “I am,” she said.  “But it’s late.  Is there anything open?”

            “First Street Diner is open all night, and they have the best chili spaghetti this side of Ohio.”

            “Chili spaghetti?  Now you’re making fun of me.”  They had eased back into their relaxed banter now, the patter of their relationship easing back to normal now that Bess was in the hospital.  Something about her illness broke the wall between them, and they were tentatively stepping around each other, trying to feel their way into a new conversation style.  “Besides, wasn’t I promised pancakes and bacon?”

            “And chocolate milk, I think.  Come on.”  He learned over and bumped her with his shoulder.  “I’m buying.”

#

            “This is absolutely the best bacon ever,” Mags said as she crunched into a slice.  “The United States of Bacon indeed.  I can’t believe this stuff.”

            “And real maple syrup for the pancakes.  I told you I wouldn’t steer you wrong, Gown.”  He was quiet for a moment.  “Sorry,” he said, his voice and eyes haunted, apologetic, remembering the conversation in the hospital.

            Mags winced, remembering her behavior.  “Sean, look, I—”

            “I almost forgot,” he said.  “I’ll be right back.”  He slid out of the booth and headed to the front door.

            Mags watched as he pulled a box from the trunk and walked back in.  “What is that?” she asked.

            “Your new camera,” he said.  He presented the box to her as if it were a treasure, and it was, to her.

            But she refused to take it.  “No way, Thornton.  I can’t take something like that from you.”

            “Your dad paid for most of it,” he said.  “Seriously, he did.  I chipped in a bit because it was my fault yours died.”

            “How much did my dad pay for?”  Her hands couldn’t help it.  They moved of their own accord to the box in front of her and caressed the sides. 

            “Enough so you shouldn’t feel guilty.”

            But she did, the moment she saw the camera.  “Sean, this is a really expensive camera!  You can’t give me this!”

            “It’s fine,” he said, and pinked at his ears.  “Seriously, just take it.”

            She knew that he had more money than she did, but even so, this was a gift that came with expectations.  “Sean,” she began, but he didn’t let her finish.

            “You jumped in front of me,” he said in his quiet, serious voice, and again, she was reminded of Superboy.  So serious, this boy.  So concerned.  “You may have saved my life.  We don’t know.  Just take the camera.  Please.  I dropped your other one when I… when I grabbed you to keep you from falling.  So it’s my fault it’s broken.  Besides,” he said, lightening, “your dad helped pick it out.  He said it was an early birthday and Christmas present.”

            “I’m sure it is,” she said, and a “sorry your mom left us” present, too.  Mags put the camera aside and smiled at Sean.  “Thanks,” she said.  “Really.  Thank you.”

            His dimple popped out in his cheek as he smiled back.  “You’re welcome.”

            “Hey!  Margaret Hale!  Look!”

            They turned to see a group of students about their age, Helstone kids from the look of it.  “See?” one said, and showed her his shirt.  “We’re protesting, too!”

            All of the students were wearing shirts that said, “SUPPORT OUR TEACHERS.”  Mags grinned and waved back.  “Brilliant!” she called out to them.

            “Brilliant!” they said back, as if it were a battle cry, before they sank into their booth.

            When she turned back to Sean, she found him thoughtful, his eyes darkened with shadows.

#

            “Thanks for the ride,” she said as they pulled up at her grandmother’s.  “And the pancakes.  And the bacon.  And, I guess, the camera.”

            Sean laughed, a soft chuckle that belied his size.  “You’re welcome.  For all of it.”

            “I feel bad.  I don’t have anything to give you.”

            “Hey, you gave me an excuse not to think about Bess for a while.”

            That wasn’t true, not exactly, since they spent most of their dinner talking about Bess, Mags asking questions about when they grew up, what Bess was like as a kid.  She was not at all surprised to find out that Bess was a pepper even then, and that she got into trouble more often than not for her smart mouth and sassiness.

            “Well, I’m just glad that…” Mags paused, unsure of how to say what she was thinking.  “That she convinced you,” she said finally.  “To go to the cops about your dad.”

            “That’s Bess,” he said.  “Always sticking her nose in everyone else’s business.”  But the humor wasn’t there this time.  It was more reminiscent, thoughtful.  She was certain he was telling her exactly how happy he was that Bess stuck her nose in his business.

            “What time can we go tomorrow?” she asked.

            “I’m not sure,” he said.  “Let me text Colin.”  He pulled out his phone and frowned.  “That’s strange.  Colin’s called six times.”

            And she felt it then, the foreboding, the eternal sense of dread she felt the day they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina.  The night she told Freddie about the football players.  Everything she had ever felt bad in her life she felt come back to her in that moment and she said, “No.”

            But he didn’t hear her.  He called Colin back and she watched as his face crumpled.  She wrapped her arms around him when he reached for her and she held him as he cried.  But still, a part of Mags couldn’t cry because she couldn’t process, not yet, that one of her best friends had succumbed to her illness.  Bess Higgins, her dearest friend in Marlborough, was dead.

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