Before the video of the swimming pool recedes from both public consciousness and her own, and before she swears off Pearville forever and escapes to a faraway college where she picks up a semblance of a British accent and an affinity for tweed and a pale business major from Manchester—before all that, Mae must first return to high school.
It's an aggressively pleasant October day, crisp and colorful, the type of morning entire feeds are made of, but Mae doesn't take a photo of her cozy turtleneck. She simply slides into Shelby's car without a word. “All black, huh?” Shelby remarks. “Going to your own funeral?”
“May as well be.” Mae grazes fingers over her tight crop. It feels like petting freshly cut grass.
“It won't be that bad.” A new car freshener shaped like a pumpkin smells of chemicals with a hint of spice, and the wind shakes leaves delicate as rose petals from the trees, and Main Street opens up and accepts the little convertible into these vibrant clutches. A golden day, Mae thinks, as a leaf drifts onto her shoulder and lingers there all the way to the coffee shop.
Inside, commuters in wool coats shuffle toward the register. Quiet and self contained, they respond to emails with purpose and pull credit cards from stylish wallets. “Pretty familiar, huh?” Shelby checks her reflection with her phone. “How does it feel?”
“Comforting, mostly.” Mae loves being part of their orderly queue—a straight line leading to a tangible reward. At her first internship during law school, she will always volunteer to get the office coffee, gender stereotypes be damned, and will enjoy each step of the process: studying a detailed list of preferences before stepping up to the cash register with confidence; rattling off a series of complex orders; strutting down the street in a suit and heels with a cup tray in each hand, the most cheerful person in the financial district.
Shelby's voice drops. “Are you seeing this?” A few feet behind them, in view of the bay window and everybody, a couple in coordinating flannel manages to step forward despite their fused faces. Her arms stretch around his waist. His hands clutch her wild hair. Grant and Taylor had become that couple. “You think they'd be embarrassed.”
Mae sees Taylor smile mid-kiss. “I dunno, they look so happy.” She inspects Taylor's boyfriend. “Do we know him?”
A visible eye roll. “He's a junior, yeah, a band guy. They met at...” At Ethan's party, Shelby doesn't have to finish.
“Well at least something good came out of it,” Mae quips. In college she will perfect the art of using humor to diffuse a situation, but today she's just grateful to see it put Shelby at ease. The tactic will only be necessary while young, since, like all her peers, she'll become less interesting and more anonymous as she ages. Middle-aged womanhood, it turns out, will be the perfect vessel for someone running from their past. “A small coffee, please.”
“Same for me.” Shelby can't stop staring at Taylor. “Is she wearing his clothes, too?”
Mae adeptly spins a straw inside her cup. Milk begins to bubble at the surface. “You don't think they're cute?”
“Don't pretend like you're not judging. You can put on some nice girl act on TV and back at school but you can't fool me.” Shelby holds up a canister of sugar before dumping it into her coffee. “This is known as a healthy risk. Have I told you that I'm taking healthy risks lately?”
Too soon, they are back on Main; pulling into the school parking lot; staring at double doors; walking through them. The patented scent of chalk dust and cheap cologne inundates Mae's nostrils. She is not prepared, not yet. It feels like the first day of school. Her stomach tightens. The building must be filled with strange faces. Her classes can't be in the same order. All her books will be gone. She imagines classrooms overtaken by nature: vines shooting through tile to strangle desks.
As she walks toward her locker, Mae becomes aware of a curious thing: nobody is paying her any attention. No acknowledgment. No stares. Maybe she's not even here. As she glances at her leggings to make sure they're still moving, Mae realizes that her dark pixie cut has rendered her temporarily anonymous. Instead of an abstraction to be viewed and admired, she is an assemblage of bone marrow and nerve endings and blood cells working together to send ankles and feet down the hallway. It is the same feeling she will have when she takes up karate, and when she addresses a courtroom. At its core, it is a sense of capability, of activity instead of passivity.
It's thrilling, and it only lasts a moment. “Mae?” Abby Giles stops in her tracks, incredulous. “You look terrific.” She sounds a bit disappointed.
“Yeah, I see it,” Mae replies preemptively, to prevent Abby from angling wrists further around books to show off her left hand. “As long as you're sure.” The spell has been broken. A crowd gathers. Mr. Lemaire calls her name over the intercom.
Lemaire's office feels smaller than ever, and twice as suffocating. The principal takes up a quarter of the space in size and presence but says nothing. “We called you in,” says Lemaire, “because you've been elected Student Council President.”
“I've what?” Mae had forgotten about the election.
Despite their good news, the adults address her seriously. “We held it a few days ago.” Handing her a ballot. “And you won by a landslide.”
Mae turns her attention to the slip of paper. “But Ethan's name isn't on here.”
Lemaire shuffles in his chair. “Well, due to extenuating circumstances...”
“So I beat Nico the narc? Anybody could do that.”
“Nico didn't think so. He demanded a recount.” Both adults snicker. Mae smiles for the first time today. “Do you accept?”
“Of course I accept!” As if there had been a question.
Lemaire shoves a stack of papers aside to reveal an intercom microphone. “Would you like to give an acceptance speech?”
“Well, during the morning announcements. We thought you might have one prepared.”
“A lot has changed since I wrote it.”
Mae decides to speak. She sits through a recap of the latest football game; audition details for this year's musical; an update to the parking policy that benefits no one. A collective groan, echoing through the senior hallway and seeping through Lemaire's door, only dissipates when the student council members are announced. Mae leans forward in her chair. Toes dig into the floor. The chrome gazes back at her sullenly—like a conference call microphone, she will realize later when introduced, as a young clerk, to the ritual gathering of suited adults around a slip of plastic. So odd, she will think, as she peers into the center of the board room table, that this used to be the dominate method of communication: to speak into an inanimate box, unsure of how those on the other line were interpreting your message, or if they could hear you at all.
“This speech will be short.” Mae catches her reflection in brushed metal. Her eyes follow its curves to a grimy cord and overstuffed power strip. It occurs to her that perhaps she has outgrown this place, and perhaps all of Pearville. “Hello, fellow students. First of all, thank you. Your support means everything to me.” She mentions that she is happy to be back, and focused on the future, and excited about all the goals they'll achieve, together. “And I hope...” When she swallows, her features flicker. “I hope you will be able to see me as your president. As the person I am today.”
It will be a remarkable transition from teenage fashion plate to studious college student to polished attorney. Instead of seeking out her father, Mae will distance herself from her mother, will change her name as soon as she turns eighteen, will use the money from the Harrington family to finance autumns and springs spent on the Cambridge quad; a summer rental in a drafty back bedroom of a Victorian row house; her first New York apartment. Her friends, many of whom will be independently wealthy, will think it crass to question her finances, and soon their interpretation of her will become her own. Every now and again she'll find her own adult life wondrous, but even snippets of wonder will be accompanied by flashbacks, and so it will be easier to play the part of someone who ended up in her position by accident, as opposed to decades of hard work.
“All done?” asks Lemaire.
“Yes, for now.” Mae leans into the microphone, fingers pressed into the wood desk. “That's all I have to say.”