The vice principal stares into his coffee.
Mae tugs on her hair. Taylor audibly yawns. Ethan crosses his arms. The clock on Mr. Lemaire's wall ticks with perplexing intensity. Mae, who is used to reading digital clocks, counts by fives to determine the time. It's forty-two minutes after eleven.
“You're all in here,” Lemaire looks up at nobody in particular, “because I received a call from Ethan's mother right after first period. Something about a cartoon. So tell me. How did it end up online?”
Mae, simultaneously appalled and impressed by the vice principal's strategy of not allowing her to feign ignorance, turns to prompt Taylor with raised eyebrows, but Taylor inspects her oxfords.
“It's obvious what happened,” Ethan booms in the silence. “I've been the victim of bullying!”
Lemaire adds a gentle sheen to his tone. His empathetic voice. “Taylor, can you tell us what happened?”
Please answer, Mae tries to communicate telepathically, or the plan will be obvious. We'll all be suspended. Permanent records will be marked. Lives will be ruined forever.
Finally Taylor looks up from her shoes. “I found the drawing in the trash, on the second floor,” she lies. “I thought it was, you know, super pathetic.” With sad eyes, she shakes her head at Mae. “And then I thought, I have to share it. So I did.”
Lemaire produces a disciplinary form from his desk. “What were you doing rummaging in the trash?” He pens the date casually, languidly. Another day at the office.
“It was next to the trash.”
“You just said it was in the trash.”
“Sir, with all due respect, get a clue.” Ethan's sonorous anger swirls around and bounces against cinderblock walls. “Girls like her don't spend their time in the trash. She probably drew it herself!”
“I didn't draw it.”
“Mae, did you?”
“If you didn't, one of your 'friends' did.” Ethan puts air quotes around the word friends. He's on edge; his body balances on the tip of his chair, his normally placid face twisted in panic. “You're not going to let them get away with this, right?”
Rehearsed fingers twist paper against wood grain. “One of my responsibilities, as vice principal, is to make sure the school environment remains free of bullying. We should all feel safe at school, no matter our sexual orientation.”
The phrase sexual orientation hangs in the air. Mae sees it almost drift above Lemaire's head and dangle there pregnant—a bulging balloon waiting to be popped.
Ethan pops it. “Hold up. Hold it right there. I'm not gay. You think I'm gay?”
“I mean...I mean I wouldn't normally think...”
“Ethan.” Mae turns to him kindly. “It's okay to be gay. You don't need to be embarrassed.”
Lemaire glances at the clock. The form stops twisting. Perhaps none of them will be suspended. Perhaps no lives will be ruined today. “Taylor, please take the picture down.”
Taylor whips out her phone. “Taking it down now.”
“Like that's gonna do anything! It's already out there. It's already all over the internet. You can't take it back. Mr. Lemaire, do something!”
“Without proof that it was malicious...”
“Without proof? How much more proof do you need? It was posted from Taylor's account. Do you need a fucking video of them drawing it?”
“That would help.” Lemaire ponders on this scenario before remembering. “And there is no cursing at this school.”
Ethan keeps fuming. “Bullshit! What's the point of having your mom call if this is the best you can do?” He shoves his chair back a few inches before the saunter out. Lemaire rubs the wrinkle in his forehead and sips from his sad mug.
From the doorframe, Mae peers at Ethan as he continues his proud walk down the hallway. Tori Chapin, an activist fond of studded boots and maroon hair, bounds over to him with astounding openness and explains that the Friends of LGBT Society meets every Tuesday in the band room after school.
An unfamiliar tightness appears in Mae's chest.
The tightness remains throughout the day as the sketch—its damage inflicted—recedes from conversation, replaced with the possibility that Ethan Harrington and Jasper O'Toole might be hooking up, and that some gay guys are tops and some are bottoms, and it's hard to tell which is which.
When the last bell rings, Mae runs down the stairs faster than usual and slams against double doors. She breathes in the humid air, chest loosening, and hops on her bike before anybody can stop her. Making eye contact with nobody, she pedals so furiously down Main that her thighs burn by the time she turns onto High Street. She finally allows herself to coast. Cruising past the half-deserted pizza place and liquor store, she finally reaches the cluster of old houses south of the paint factory. Up here, on the other side of Pearville, homes stand tall and narrow and intimate with the neighbors, separated by chain link fences and slips of gravel. Atop telephone poles, aggressive wires slice into facades. Young women with strollers navigate potholed sidewalks.
Mae lives in a shabby bi-level next to the end of the road; the concrete actually ends, without fanfare or warning, and thin trees take over in a faintly wooded area the paint factory owners were required to plant after a long legal battle. Her mother's car sits in the driveway—an unusual sight. Courtney Brady's shift tending bar begins at three in the afternoon, so the house is usually empty when Mae returns from school. Perhaps her mother has been fired. Balancing on the sidewalk, Mae weighs the pros and cons of walking into that shit show of a scene and decides, finally, that her bed is worth it.
“Before you go into that bedroom and lock the door, we need to talk.”
Courtney stands in the kitchen, slouched between the telephone and the window air conditioning unit, which both bulge from butterfly wallpaper to frame her in a depressing tableau. Courtney wears her work clothes—a corset-style tank top and low cut jeans with sneakers—and sips a soda through a plastic straw she swiped from work. “Mrs. Duncan phoned me.”
“Taylor's mom?” Acting innocent is exhausting.
“She mentioned a drawing, and also some election, and also that Angela Harrington phoned the vice principal about something on social media. You know you can't go upsetting the Harringtons. They're our friends.”
That's an overstatement. It's true that Courtney and Angela Harrington became unlikely acquaintances when Courtney worked at the country club, but it's not like they hang out, though sometimes Courtney presses Mae for gossip about Angela's offspring. Hardly friends. “Ethan Harrington is no friend of mine.”
“You know it's not worth antagonizing a family like that.”
“So just because someone has money, they can never be challenged or beaten?”
“Come on, that's not what I mean. It's just that you want people with power on your side.”
Mae prefers to cultivate power herself. “Don't you have to go to work?”
“I do, actually.”
“Alright, then.” Swinging her backpack over one shoulder with exaggerated satisfaction, Mae struts into her room and locks the door. Mae's bedroom is different than the rest of the house. The room is bright, with sunny yellow walls, and immaculate: closet organized by color, shoes on a dedicated shelf organized by type (heels on top, boots on bottom). She painted the mismatched furniture purple and white two years ago, and though she didn't know about primer and spots of wood poke through now and again, the furniture looks much better than before. If there is one thing Mae prides herself on, it's appearances.
Her bed is topped with a floral duvet Mae crawls under now, with her phone and a notebook, to prepare for the debate tomorrow. Struck with loneliness, she sends a vague update and scrolls through her feeds, liking and hearting and commenting, until she manages to push her phone aside and turn her attention to her notebook. Her goal remains unchanged. She still plans to win.