Adults often said: stop me if I told you this before.
They did not ever mean it. If they told you once, it was probably because they wanted you to be prepared when they were going to tell you again. Like the way love can seem to be nothing more than preparation, a hardening of the gifts and maladies you’ll carry with you to the next love, and the next. This we’ve come to know: whatever grabs you first is the story you’ll be telling yourself forever.
The year we were twelve, love was as thick in the air as pollen after a hard spring rain. It didn’t have to attach to anyone in particular, or any two people. It was just there hovering, and some of us breathed in and sneezed it right back out, a little agitated, a little dreamy, while others stood there under the crowded pink trees, eyes closed, and drowned in gold.
Montana was one of those who swarmed at love. Love was her target, her destination, her dragon to slay and her butterfly to befriend. Out of all of us in our class at Pembroke School for Girls, she was the oldest in some ways—the ways that matter to girls—and if not quite beautiful she was in the same quadrant of the color wheel.
“That Montana,” our mothers said to each other when we eavesdropped after carpool or sleepovers. “She is something.” We’d wait to hear more. What did they think she was, exactly, and how did it make her different than the rest of us? But the mothers would nod, maybe do something significant with their eyebrows, and that was it.
Montana’s kind of something was a story we told each other over and over. Back in fourth grade at a roller rink birthday party, Montana skated up to the group of us, color hectic, dark hair wild. “You see that guy over there?” she asked, gesturing broadly at the rink. “He skated up behind me and grabbed me right up off the ground. I couldn’t move or anything ’til he set me back down.”
We all looked at the rink with new intensity. “Who? That old guy? That guy in the black t-shirt? Him?”
“Yeah, that one,” Montana said, breathing hard. Out of her school uniform, her clothes tended to sparkle and jangle, adorned with big-eyed animals above tight glittery jeans. Her Smarties candy necklace had begun to melt against her sweaty neck, leaving pale sugary streaks. It was as though right in front of us, someone was painting her into something different. “I was so scared.”
The two Ellas grabbed each other’s hands. “I don’t want to go back out there.”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Montana said, switching gears. “He probably just did it the once.”
But a few minutes later Lacey came tearing over. “He grabbed me too,” she said. She was a good-sized girl, already edging towards breasts that might’ve been just fat, or might’ve been real breasts; we were never sure.
“He picked you up?” we asked doubtfully. “Like off your feet?”
Montana linked her arm through Lacey’s. “He’s super strong,” Montana said.
At this point most of us became aware of wanting our moms. What we wouldn’t give for the gray musty haven of a minivan, our brothers kicking our shins, the babies wailing from their car seats. But we had to seem tougher than that. After all, Montana and Lacey were fine, better than fine, they were basically invincible. The man we’d been warned about all our lives had shown up and grabbed them, and here they were to tell the tale.
“Did you scream?” we asked. “We didn’t hear you scream.”
“You can’t scream,” Montana said. “He’s got a hand over your mouth.”
If anyone thought to question the logistics of this—a man grabbing you and holding you aloft while skating and keeping a hand over your mouth—no one did so out loud.
“How come no one stopped him?” one of the Ellas asked.
Montana rolled her eyes. “Because no one cares.”
The rest of us could see that this was true. The roller rink was a study in neglect and twitching neon. The skate floor was uneven, the carpet soaked in orange drink; the whole place smelled of sweaty socks and old popcorn even though no popcorn was sold. The music was raucous and frequently torn through with static. Teenagers smelling like smoke commandeered the place by five o’clock onward, so all our birthday parties had to be scheduled for early afternoon, leaving a long stretch of evening afterward to feel irritable from too much sugar and a vague crawling dissatisfaction we didn’t know how to name. Disappointment? Jealousy? Whatever the feeling is when the fun thing is over and done, and you want it to have been more fun than it was, but it’s too late to fix it, and besides, you have to confirm to everyone (the party-giver, your mom, your brother to make him feel like he missed out) how outrageously much fun it was, and you’re beginning to guess that this could be true all your life, and fun is just another thing that, in the end, isn’t all that fun.
“Which guy was it again?” we asked with some desperation. Lacey and Montana turned and gestured unhelpfully.
Three more girls fell victim to the lifter that afternoon, at which point some of us were so scared we’d nearly wet our pants and could not eat our cups of soft white ice cream with wooden paddles.
When our mothers finally arrived, we ran to the cars. “How was it?” they asked, over the babies’ screams. “Fine,” we said, or “okay,” or “I want a fruit roll-up.” It wasn’t ’til much later—bedtime for some of us, or weeks or months for others—that we told our moms the whole story.
“That’s ridiculous,” they said. “Montana was lying.”
“She was not,” we shouted, or whispered, or tearfully gasped. “I saw him!”
“You saw this guy pick up Montana?”
Well, no, we had not. Seen that. But.
“Montana likes to play games. You know that. She was messing with you.”
“Lacey said it too!”
“Oh, well, Lacey,” they said, and that was the end of that.
Did we believe our mothers? Some of us, sometimes. This we already knew: two things could coexist that seemed like they would cancel each other out like positive and negative numbers in math. Our fathers, for example, could love us but hardly ever visit and often forget our birthdays. We could be incredibly lucky to have gotten a scholarship to such a good school and be receiving such a quality education, and still frequently feel dazed with boredom and unable to name a single foreign capital.
Montana could be lying about the lifter, and there could be menace everywhere, circling the rink, looking like anyone.
So in February of seventh grade we were stunned, maybe, but not disbelieving when Montana reached us before school in the atrium one morning and asked, breathlessly, “Is she here yet?”
We looked at each other. “Who?”
“Ms. Felkonner,” she said, as though this should’ve been obvious. “Have you seen her?”
“I think I did,” Lacey volunteered. It turned out we’d been right on both counts about Lacey: she was fat, and she had enormous breasts. She wanted to be an actress and had a deep arresting voice, so she was frequently cast in school plays in roles usually reserved for weedy sopranos, leading to lots of hushed parental phone conversations about the “suitability” of the drama teacher’s pick. When word got back to Lacey about the protests, as it always did, she was unmoved. “They’re just jealous,” she’d say, and go back to altering yet another costume to suit her dimensions. We were both annoyed by Lacey’s conviction and protective of her. She was ours.
“What about Ms. Felkonner?” we asked. “Why do you want to know?”
Montana leaned against the brick pillar and closed her eyes, giving us all a moment to admire her sparkly silver eye shadow. “Can you keep a secret?” she asked when she opened them.
We all nodded. Secrets? About all we did at twelve was have secrets, ours and everyone else’s. Anything worth knowing was worth calling a secret. We ate secrets for breakfast.
“I think I’m in love with Ms. Felkonner.”
We stood there in silence a moment. “Why?” one of the Ellas finally asked.
“She’s so beautiful,” Montana murmured. “And she’s not that much older than us. And she just has this extra, I don’t know, like you want to listen to her from inside her head, you know?”
We sort of knew. Ms. Felkonner was new, both to the Midwest and to our school. She came from somewhere back East and had recently finished graduate school. Here she became the sole faculty member (thus the head) of our psychology department after Mr. Emmons quit to work on the Alaska pipeline. None of us had taken a class with Mr. Emmons, but we had all signed up for psychology with this new teacher, eager to have someone so young and artistically dressed explain us to ourselves.
“What about guys, though?” Lacey asked. “Don’t you like guys?”
Montana rolled her eyes the way she had since she was eight years old. “I am so over guys.”
This was not entirely idle boasting. We all knew that the summer before, Montana had gone to stay in Arizona with her aunt and uncle so her mother could go to work every day without being worried to death about what that child was getting up to, and she was kissed repeatedly by her cousin Tallis who was sixteen. “Kissed and then some,” as Montana put it. She kept Tallis’s picture in her locker for a while, but when the chance came to return to Arizona for Christmas break, she faked a stomach flu so persistently her mother gave up and let her stay home.
Ms. Felkonner chose that moment to emerge through the front doors and head down the walkway. She wore a crisp white blouse under a rust-colored sweater. “Good morning, Ms. Felkonner,” Montana called out as she passed, as a wake might crest after a ship.
The teacher turned back and her smile brightened by degrees. “Good morning, Montana,” she said. “Don’t you look nice this morning.”
Montana stayed where she was long after Ms. Felkonner vanished into the crowd, staring. Her back was very straight, her face very still. We instantly felt more awake and alert. This was a look we loved and dreaded in equal measure. Montana had an idea.
The next morning Montana did not meet us in the atrium. When we investigated, we found her in Ms. Felkonner’s room, organizing folders in a giant metal filing cabinet and nodding at whatever the teacher was saying. We quickly ducked out of view.
“She’s been hurt,” Montana reported over lunch. “I don’t know the details yet but I think a guy cheated on her and left. That’s why she came all the way out here, to make a fresh start.”
“How did you get her to tell you all that?” Ella R. asked.
Montana shrugged. “I just asked where she was from, and how she liked it out here, like that.”
The next day we spotted Montana walking beside Ms. Felkonner in the hall, pausing at the bench beside the principal’s office. Montana was nodding, hands clasped behind her back. They laughed, briefly, like ladies parting after tea, and Ms. Felkonner headed into the office. Montana sat down on the bench for a moment, reached for her shoe as though to tie it, even though it wasn’t untied. We watched her close her eyes, longer than any blink we’d ever had.
She colonized our imaginations, our free time, our dreams. Once Montana pointed it out, none of us could stop noticing more things about Ms. Felkonner and how those things made her special, brighter, and softer than other people. Like how she pronounced “huge” without the h. How her ears were asymmetrically pierced—three on one side, four on the other. How she almost always wore rust or black, never blues or greens, and how those colors made her paleness look slightly different on different days. How she bit the inside of her cheek between sentences, but only the left side.
These details were the stuff of enormous narrative power. We spiraled them into meaning, into metaphor, into entire lives. We stood in front of our bathroom mirrors and whispered it: Uge.
The one human, out of all the many humans, who suddenly mattered to our breath.
If Montana was her favorite, we all found ways to make an impression. Some of us did extra reading and waved our arms frantically to be called on, or walked around looking moody and apprehensive in the hope she’d ask what was wrong. (However, when she did ask, we never knew what to say. What was wrong that hadn’t been said a thousand times before? We wanted something more interesting to be wrong.) Ella R. wrote poems that Ms. Felkonner returned festooned with sparkly smiley faces, as though they were part of some ungradable extra assignment.
Even Ella H., the smallest and loneliest and youngest of us, stumbled briefly into the spotlight. Ella H., we realized once we started reading Dickens, was our waif. She was a year younger, having skipped kindergarten due to some advanced brain qualities detected in the school entrance exam. She’d been reading since she was three, legends went, but she was desperately shy, prone to blush at a breeze or a glance or someone reading the word congenital aloud in science class. Her mother seemed somehow more single than our mothers: a frail hairnetted widow who dressed her only child in dollar-store blue jeans and floral tops with despairing prints. There were never boyfriends about, never any uncles or neighbors to come watch her at Science Fair or Graduation, or eat muffins awkwardly in the atrium at Father Appreciation Day. Ella floated in an agonizing surfeit of self-consciousness so pronounced it was hard to get near her without apologizing.
There was a rumor, unconfirmed, that her father had killed himself.
There was another rumor, and this one seemed somehow truer, that Ella H. had found his body.
Our fathers had left us, yes, but at least we could assure ourselves it might be temporary.
Ella’s father had jumped ship forever. It was a hard thing to wrap our minds around. That even her father had decided to never see her again.
We kept her around because she and Ella R. were so close, they may as well have been telepathic, and because being mean to Ella H. felt like daydreaming about murdering your baby brother or taking coins out of the donation box at Christmas.
Ella H. walked into Ms. Felkonner’s class one cold morning looking as she often did, sweater misbuttoned, hair lank and unbrushed, regulation knee socks dripping past her skinny shins. Ms. Felkonner glanced up from her desk. “Oh,” she said. “There’s something wrong with your shoe.”
Ella looked down in mute horror at being acknowledged, and saw it was true: the sole on her loafer had worked loose, and the top of her shoe pulled up from the bottom with every step. Ms. Felkonner bent down to examine it. “You could trip on that,” she said. “Take it off, let me see if I can fix it.”
Like a sleepwalker, Ella hobbled to the chair beside Ms. Felkonner’s desk, where the teacher rummaged until she found a tube of super glue. We hovered close while she worked, inhaling twin streams of sharp, poisonous glue and the piney shampoo scent of her dark curls. We’d never been this close to her before, never had the chance to study the slight hollow at the back of her neck, the way her blouse pulled to one side, the unbearable intimacy of the colorless down along her jawline.
“Girls,” Ms. Felkonner finally said. “Could you back up a little? You’re in my light.”
We could not. We stayed in her light, breathing deeply, trying to pull her into us so we could keep her forever, right there in our brains next to the cut grass and gasoline (or the bourbon and peanuts, or the cigarettes and lime aftershave) that meant our fathers, and the moldy cedar and lake water of our summers at camp. All that we’d lost and meant to keep forever.
“I think we’re all set,” Ms. Felkonner said, holding up the shoe. She slipped it back onto Ella’s foot: dirty, wilted, now in one piece. “Back to your seats, girls.” Ella’s blush looked life-threatening. The rest of us wandered away, our hearts a mean bramble of sadness and hunger. We felt older, somehow. We looked back at that moment by Ms. Felkonner’s desk with nostalgia undiminished by the fact that it happened only minutes ago: we’d been so young when we followed her up there.
“Open your books, please,” Ms. Felkonner said. “Who can tell me about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?”
Furtively, we sniffed at each other to see if any traces of pine or poison remained, but it was gone. What we could tell her about needs.
When we got home that afternoon from soccer or track or band or errands with our mothers, we went to our separate rooms and stared furiously at our closets: these tidy or messy rows of clothes that demanded no attention, no rescue. That did nothing to declare the enormity of their need. Then, while our mothers called us to set the table and our brothers played video games and the phone rang and the dishwasher hummed and a car alarm wailed outside, we attacked in silence: tore crucial buttons from a blouse with a sharp pop, took scissors to a seam in a skirt, fingered open a hole in a cardigan. Sweating lightly and breathless, we put teeth to knee sock, inhaled detergent, prayed.
The destruction of our clothing turned out not to be one of our more successful ideas. After several days of an escalating campaign that came to include ink stains and handfuls of crumbly winter dirt rubbed into our coat sleeves, the assistant principal showed up to address our homeroom about the importance of good grooming, of tidiness and hygiene, and singled out Montana as an exemplar of these qualities. She rolled her eyes at our stains and drooping hems. “You are all such idiots,” she whispered on her way back to her desk. “You’re not getting anywhere with that mess.”
We got to psychology class dejected, and slumped to our desks, rested our heads on our arms.
“Girls? Everyone okay?” Ms. Felkonner called from the front of the room.
What did we want from her? We didn’t know, really. We just knew how to want.
What if we were older?
We lay on our beds splattered with weak late-winter sunshine and dreamt of being nineteen. The impossible heaven of nineteen, we thought. We could drive, for one thing. We’d be living away from our families—college, probably, though who knew? Some of us had half-siblings or cousins or even our mothers who told stories about “taking a year off”—traveling, or working on a boat, or following some rich family around Europe as a nanny, and nineteen seemed to be the age this year could be taken off, removed from the permanent record.
If we were nineteen we’d know how to approach Ms. Felkonner. We could reckon with her as an equal. We imagined meeting her in a streetside café in let’s say Paris on our day off from nannying. The tables are flooded with sunlight, bright blue teacups and pastries swimming in brightness. Ms. Felkonner walks by and recognizes us, despite the passage of years, despite our now grownup haircuts and long elegant limbs and fully proportional breasts. She is so excited to see us she grasps our hands, hugs us. She’s a bit lonely here in Paris, whereas we have made friends all over town and know all the sites. We buy her a coffee and some pastry and when we’re done we link arms and take her to a garden we know of, not a garden full of tourists, but a special one, private, where a stream wanders through for people to stroll beside and speak quiet French.
Ms. Felkonner tells us all about the boyfriend who left her here, alone in Paris, and the other ones who left her before that, all their faults and small cruelties and annoying habits, so we’ll know what sort of behaviors to avoid. We find an apartment together that allows dogs.
The scenario was somehow both impossible and as immediate as our own skin. We couldn’t imagine Ms. Felkonner considering us equals, and we also couldn’t imagine life not turning out exactly the way we dreamed.
Hunched over yogurt and mini-pizzas at our lunch table, we speculated which foreign capitals Ms. Felkonner would be most likely to frequent. “After we graduate, you’re never going to see her again, you know,” Lacey said, unwrapping a Starburst with prodigious speed. “If she even lasts that long.” Lacey was the only one of us unmoved by Ms. Felkonner, despite having been loyal to Montana since kindergarten, even to the degree, we privately thought, that she didn’t really think for herself enough. “I want a boyfriend,” she would say when we talked too much about Ms. Felkonner. “Is that so strange? Just a boyfriend.”
Lacey, who in ordinary conversation seemed to be projecting to a theater’s back rows, went out of her way to escape Ms. Felkonner’s notice. She doodled her way half-heartedly through psychology class and rolled her eyes when one of us darted over to the teacher in the hallway. The day after the episode with Ella H.’s shoe, Lacey came to school in a skirt so new a plastic tag poked out of the waistband. She seemed intent on letting everyone know that she, for one, was in no need of repair.
By the middle of spring, we hardly ever saw Montana around. She’d given up Band and French Club, and spent most of her time helping Ms. Felkonner sort her files, clean her shelves. “This room was left in such a state,” we’d often heard Ms. Felkonner complain during class when she couldn’t find something. “Mr. Emmons seems to have fled as though the building were on fire.” It was true: there were piles everywhere, old textbooks, dust-covered stacks of essays. Though slowly through the long weeks of spring—thaw and bud and sleet and bloom—some order seemed to be taking hold.
“What do you talk about with her all the time?” we asked Montana at lunch. She was wearing her hair differently these days, letting her bangs grow out.
“She talks, mostly,” Montana said, took a bite of her sandwich, set it down again. “She’s had a hard time and she wants to save me from making the same mistakes.”
“What was her hard time?” we always asked. “What mistakes?” But Montana shook her head and wouldn’t elaborate. “It’s private,” she told us. “Don’t you understand some things are private?”
“I’m worried about Montana,” Lacey said later, walking home. We had finished a rehearsal for the upcoming Spring Play, As You Like It, with Lacey a robust and lusty Rosalind, and even those of us who painted scenery were released together with the stars into the evening warmth.
We trailed our hands across rose bushes, inhaled the cut grass and warm hay of a nearby field. School would be out in three weeks, and we’d be off to a grandmother in Palo Alto, or a father in Madison, or summer camp in Colorado, or volunteering at the hospital. Each of these destinations carried its own dread and jubilation, but in all of them curled the seed of reinvention. Maybe this year we’d get a standing ovation at the camp talent show. Maybe Madison was teeming with shy, cute, good-natured twelve-year-old boys to watch movies with and develop a months-long postcard relationship. Maybe we’d see someone die at the hospital and be forever changed.
It was a difficult evening to worry about anything.
“What’s wrong with Montana?” we asked.
Lacey shook her head. “I call her and she’s never around. I stopped by her house last weekend, and her mother said she was over at Ms. Felkonner’s apartment, helping her. ‘Helping her with what?’ I asked. Her mother didn’t even know. ‘I’m just glad she’s found something constructive to do. She doesn’t listen to a word I say, never has. If that woman can talk some sense into her, it’s all for the best’ ” Lacey did an extremely good imitation of Montana’s mother and the barmaid swagger she’d always used to address her only child.
We leaned closer in. “Do you think they’re…you know…together?”
“Ew,” Lacey shouted. “No, I do not think they’re together.” Lacey also did a regrettably good imitation of us. She made that one word squish with jealous fear. “I think Montana’s given over her brain to that woman. I think her mother is crap and so Montana has had to go out and try to find a new one, and this one is taking advantage of her. Talking to her like she’s an adult! Telling her about her personal problems, when everyone knows Montana is the one with personal problems. Ms. Felkonner should be helping her.”
We didn’t disagree. But the idea of that kind of relationship was almost more scandalizing than the idea of a sexy one (whatever that might entail, exactly). A relationship where the adult told you things and sought out your company; a relationship where the adult took you seriously. Montana might as well be nineteen already.
“I’m going to tell,” Lacey continued. “It’s not right what she’s doing. I can’t believe none of the other teachers have said anything.”
“You can’t tell on Ms. Felkonner,” we cried. “She’ll get in trouble. She’s our favorite teacher.”
Lacey shook her head. “What is it with you all and that woman? Why is she your favorite teacher? What’s one thing you like about her that’s not because Montana told you to?”
We looked at each other and then away. It was something about her voice, one of us thought, or the way she leaned forward on her elbows at her desk when she talked about the causes of depression and schizophrenia. It was her black sweaters and her asymmetrical earrings. It was that she told Montana things, and therefore must have had things to tell, unfathomable adult things that required such tenderness from the listener, such unshockable calm.
“She listens to kids,” Ella R. finally offered. “She really cares about what we have to say in class.”
“So does any good teacher,” Lacey said. “Although I agree there are sadly few of them at Pembroke. But that doesn’t mean what she’s doing is right.”
There was a long silence. “Montana gets to go to her apartment?” Ella H. finally said. The resignation of a girl who already knew how to lose everything. Lacey put her arm around Ella’s skinny shoulders. She glanced back at the rest of us and shook her head.
The next morning, Lacey dropped down out of her mother’s gold SUV and marched straight to the principal’s office. It was early still, hardly anyone around, but she was spotted by Ella H., who was there for advanced math tutoring. By the time we got to psychology a few hours later, the assistant principal was standing primly in front of the room, shuffling Ms. Felkonner’s newly organized files like a deck of cards. Montana was conspicuously absent.
“Where’s Ms. Felkonner?” we asked immediately.
“She’s had a personal emergency,” the assistant principal said, bland as pudding. “She’ll be out for several days, most likely. Who can tell me where we are in your lessons?”
Naturally none of us could.
The assistant principal sighed, pressed the pads of her index fingers into her eyes. “She wasn’t feeling well. Her mother came to pick her up.”
We stared at her, our silence steely, our veins thrumming with nerves. We imagined an interrogation scene out of a movie with Ms. Felkonner and Montana taken to separate rooms in the basement and questioned aggressively by police until they confessed. To what? We weren’t sure exactly.
Good, some of us secretly thought. Montana finally gets what’s coming to her. After acting so special and grown up and who does she think she is?
Poor Montana, others thought, imagining the interrogation not unlike the court-ordered therapy we’d been through after our parents’ divorces. The cringe and mortification of it.
Still others churned and trembled: What about Ms. Felkonner? What if we never see her again? What if she leaves us forever and we never get to tell her how we feel, which is? Which is? We still lacked words for this meteorological swirl. We still hadn’t learned names for our volatile emotional weather.
“Girls? Do we need a pop quiz to remind us of what we’ve been learning?”
We had been learning, it seemed, that life was an inchoate stew of misery and desire, and no one ever gets what they need. When we saw Montana that afternoon at soccer practice (because her mother hadn’t come to get her at all; she had been in the office being gently but pointedly questioned by the principal about things that, Montana reported, were none of her fucking business) her eyes were red and puffy, and she had plenty of words for her fury.
“You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” Montana shouted. “You couldn’t let me have anything to myself.”
“It wasn’t us,” we shouted back. “It’s not our fault.” Though of course it was. But it felt somehow unfair to be blamed when we were the ones who had lost.
That evening, our mothers found on their answering machines a message from the principal, and came to question us while we lay on our beds with headphones, or sat at our desks pretending to study, or tried, fruitlessly, to scrub mud stains out of wool coats. “Honey? Do you know anything about this?”
The message briefly told Pembroke families that a teacher had been accused of an inappropriately close relationship with a student. There was no suggestion of sexual impropriety, the message hastened to add, just a blurring of adult/child boundaries that was nonetheless worrisome. It did not name names. It mentioned the teacher was put on unpaid leave pending a more thorough investigation and the student’s needs were being addressed “professionally.” In a shameless bid for more information, it encouraged parents to talk “sensitively” with their daughters about the incident, and if anything relevant should come to light, they should “not hesitate” to contact school officials.
“Is this that teacher you mentioned?” our mothers asked. Or, “Is this why you haven’t been seeing much of Montana?”
We slammed our bedroom doors, or acted annoyed and superior and refused to talk, or cried on our mothers’ shoulders while they patted our heads and asked, “Why are you so upset? You didn’t do anything wrong.” As though right and wrong had anything to do with it.
By Monday morning it had all fallen to pieces. Other girls and several teachers had corroborated and maybe even elaborated on Lacey’s story about Montana’s relationship with Ms. Felkonner, and Ms. Felkonner’s room was empty as though ambushed by a strong wind. Montana didn’t return for the last weeks of school, didn’t come to the phone for days, and when she did respond she refused to talk about what had happened. The assistant principal took over psychology class, without enthusiasm or any pretense of knowledge about the subject.
Grief smoothed us out into sand, filled in the hollows and sinkholes where we might’ve felt other, more interesting things. It plowed over the higher points. At odd moments we caught ourselves standing perfectly still, as Montana had often done earlier that spring, eyes half shut, willing ourselves back in time. We took the long way around to avoid Ms. Felkonner’s hallway. Everything made us think of her; nothing brought her closer. She was gone.
The last day of school was always the carnival. It was early June and bright as calypso outside. Even though we were too old to be excited about the carnival, we kind of were anyway. There were game booths run by the high schoolers, races and competitions in the broad field overseen by the gym teacher, and food grilled by the science department in the parking lot. Everything smelled smoky and green. We spied on the teachers in their jeans and khaki shorts, laughing and trading summer plans. We were shocked anew by their ability to seem human.
We forgot ourselves at the carnival. It had been such a hard year, we reflected. Four of us had started our periods. Two of our mothers had gotten engaged to boyfriends. One of our brothers had been expelled. And of course, the whole Ms. Felkonner situation. Maybe it was best, we each thought privately, to be done with this year, to get a break. Start fresh as eighth graders.
So, for a little while, we played. We threw ourselves into egg races and ring toss; we blasted past younger girls in the relay; we spent our raffle tickets with a wild hand. Lacey found a stash of super soakers in the back of a prop closet and we set up a fort behind the gym shed, blasting anyone who came close with gales of icy water. We sent Ella H. back behind enemy lines for more pitchers of water, more water, to keep hold of the territory we’d carved out.
At three o’clock, the teachers started cleaning up; the little kids went back to their classrooms to collect their things.
Then, without warning, there was Montana. She’d told Ella R. she might show up for the carnival, to say goodbye at least, but she’d been missing all day, hadn’t battened down the hatches with us behind the shed, hadn’t been at egg toss.
She stepped out of a green Volvo at the convenience store across the street, and Ms. Felkonner got out of the driver’s side. We were shocked to see her. She’d been fired, after all, and wouldn’t she know it would look terrible, just awful, for her to be seen with Montana? Who actually was kind of the cause of all the trouble?
Montana leaned against Ms. Felkonner’s car and buried her face in her hands, sobbing. Ms. Felkonner seemed to be crying too. She wiped her face as she spoke softly and patted Montana’s shoulders. When she finally looked up, Ms. Felkonner smiled and gave Montana an envelope from her purse. She kissed the top of Montana’s head so gently—we couldn’t believe how gently—and got in her car and drove away.
Montana swiped a fist across her eyes, still crying, and put the envelope in her pocket. We watched her take a deep breath, and watched her walk down the street ’til she disappeared.
The moment scoured us out somehow. We wanted to be both of them at the same time, in both bodies, experiencing the leaving and the being left and that sweep of grief and sweetness. Whatever had passed between the two of them was nothing like what we’d imagined. It was a country we’d not yet been to, that kiss. And we felt a deep and lonesome unwinding start in our bellies and work its way up through our arms and down through our legs, because there was so much we would never know, and so many things we had only a very short time to understand before we would be too old to understand them, and time was slipping away, and there was nothing we could do.
We looked at each other, these deeply familiar others in our soaked t-shirts and gym shorts. We had known each other’s names before we could read. Lacey shrugged, hefted her super soaker onto her shoulder and let loose a final glorious arc of water. And we all began to shout, and ran for our own soakers, and turned on each other, laughing, screaming, unable to keep our footing on the slick of mud and grass beneath us, sliding into each other and falling, rolling, wrestling, staring close and filthy into each other’s fathomless eyes.
And when our mothers finally pulled up to the curb, waiting for us; then, with growing impatience, honking their horns, it was as though we were so far away we couldn’t hear them, didn’t recognize their shapes or sounds. Our mothers had to get out of their vans and chase us around the grounds while we sprayed each other and then turned on them with our lovely cold ammunition. “Stop that!” our mothers shouted. “Come here this instant. Don’t make me tell you again.”