Angela greets the Bradys warmly. “Did you have trouble finding the house?”
“Oh no, no trouble at all.”
“Come in, come in.”
Courtney hadn't told Mae where they were going, had said they were getting ice cream sandwiches. But as the old Honda continued down Colt Road, and then across the steel bridge, Mae was struck with the now-familiar sensation of steel and plastic closing in around her. The car door was locked, but still she tugged on the handle, threw herself against the window, kicked the dashboard with both sneakers.
This afternoon, six days since Mae was last here, no young drunk bodies drape over elegant chairs. Nobody spoons on the chaise. A platter of catered food atop an heirloom rug occupies the center of the sitting room and around it are Ethan, and Ethan's father, and a stranger in a pastel button down. “Help yourselves!” Angela urges. Mae ignores her. Her mother piles a saucer full of fruit and cookies.
Courtney tugs on her freshly ironed shirtdress and motions for Mae to sit up straight. Across from them, Harringtons uniformly slouch in their casual autumn wear.
With a round of handshakes, the lawyer finally introduces himself as Wilson. “Shall we begin?” Without waiting for an answer: “I just want to say that I truly appreciate you both stopping by to chat with us. It's wonderful to get everybody together in one room.”
As she quietly nibbles on a cookie, Courtney manages to nod and shake her head at the same time to indicate that it's no problem, but the slick way Wilson talks unnerves Mae. The man reminds her of a stick of butter in cufflinks.
“And now I have a question for you, Mae. Do you recognize this drawing?” Wilson brandishes a piece of paper. It's Shelby's drawing (sketched, photographed, uploaded, shared, commented on, downloaded and now enlarged and printed on cheap copy paper) of Jasper and Ethan.
“Sure. It was going around. I'm not sure why you're bringing it up now.” The white paper dangles in front of her eyes, as irrelevant as a political cartoon in a history textbook.
“And you uploaded it onto the internet?”
“Internet what? No. And I didn't draw it, either.”
Ethan interrupts. “We know you engineered the whole thing to make me look bad.”
Mae hears herself say “oh you make yourself look bad” and it sounds like a line from TV. To her right, curtains constructed of material she doesn't recognize (silk) frame oak trees too vibrant to be real. Mae's eyes follow drapes to the ceiling, along exposed beams, to rest on a chandelier presiding over platters of food.
Missing are peering museum tourists, pointing out all the intricate details, exclaiming how adorable this tiny room is.
“Kids.” Wilson hands the drawing to Courtney. “This is serious business. I don't know if you've heard phrases like cyber bully and the like, but spreading lies about someone online is quite sinister and falls under libel. The Harringtons are technically able to sue you for defamation.”
Mae forgets about the trees. “You're suing us? You've gotta be trolling.” She addresses Angela—Angela with her Mona Lisa smile and achingly natural makeup. “We don't have any money. Mom, just tell them we don't have money so they can't sue us.”
But Courtney stares at her cookies. “You wouldn't touch those payments.”
The room grows foggy, as though a cloud crept through a window. Gulps of air thick with confusion. Everybody else sits on dry land, exchanging words, but Mae can't grasp their meaning.
“They don't have to end when Mae turns eighteen,” Wilson the lawyer is saying. “We are willing to settle on very generous terms.”
Settle, as in settle down; don't speak up; don't press charges; don't seek justice. The sensible solution. Settling, Mae knows, means money.
Courtney asks, “How generous?”
“Enough to matter.”
Other things that matter: Pride. Truth. Being heard.
Mae cannot look at them. Graceful moldings stretch round the walls and rise up the darkened fireplace and toward the windows. Perhaps they help hold the room together. And then there is Ethan.
Ethan, hair freshly cropped, sits tall in front of the fireplace. How she hates herself for kissing him. When he finally lifts his eyes, she is back on cool grass. Lips pry open. Tongue slips inside. Thigh muscles bulge. Bare feet on bare grass.
She despises him.
She despises herself more.
Ethan's parents peer at Mae curiously. Courtney wants to know what she thinks. Ethan taps an impatient foot. The cart of catered food sits largely uneaten: waxy fruit and plastic sandwiches in a grand museum. Sightseers comment on how realistic the apples look, how the human figurines are dwarfed by their surroundings.
Wilson pulls up his sleeve to reveal a massive watch. “Don't mean to cut this short but I've got to get going soon. Golf date with my son.” He shoots Marc a knowing smile. “What do you say? Shall we put all this behind us, forget any of it ever happened?” The lawyer holds out his hand for the shake.
A maternal palm on Mae's shoulder. Courtney rubs her daughter's back to urge her on. Mae is surprised by her own voice. “I'm not ready to put it behind me. And your money doesn't matter to me.” Touch abruptly vanishes. Mae's back feels naked. “I'm ready to go home now.”
Courtney begs, “Please don't do this, Mae.”
“I told you she wouldn't go for it.” Ethan's eyes roll. “She's loving this.”
The door is so close; Mae can see the handle peeking from the hall. But first she must leave this chair. Wobbly legs, forcibly steadied. “I know you think we're trash.” Courtney has no choice but to rise too, and there they stand: two bodies defined by the actions of men. “But we're people just like you're all people, and we're going to go home now.”
Four sets of eyes follow Mae's wide strides toward the door, trailed by her mother's hurried ones. Back in the car (their car, their space), they sit in silence for a few moments. Cool air surges through clattering vents. Mae flips on the radio, set to an oldies station, and a tenor croons over lush strings.
Courtney's voice, thick with resignation, nestles between octaves. “You think we have a choice, but we don't.”
“I'm sorry, I can't hear you.” Mae watches the Harrington house recede into darkness.