Maggie knows how Alex feels. The high school rumor mill is constantly churning and she knows what it feels like to have all of the other kids whispering about her behind her back. She hates that Alex has to deal with that. She knows the kind of names that are flung around— has been on the receiving end herself more than once— and while she hopes that kids in Midvale are a little more progressive than their Nebraskan counterparts, she still worries.
Worrying about Alex makes it easier to bear the brunt of her own bullies honestly. Now that she’s in the ninth grade, the fact that she’s never been on a date is more of a thing than it ever was, and it gives her peers more ammunition than just the mere fact that her surname is Rodas instead of Smith or Williams. Alex’s letters are a safe place. She can be herself on paper. She doesn’t have to pretend to be anything that she isn’t.
Alex’s last few letters have broken her heart though. All summer she has had to watch as the handwriting she’s grown accustomed to gets smaller and smaller, the letters impressed harder onto the page. The one she got last week described how Alex had been writing outside by the ocean when it started to drizzle, but Maggie knows teardrops when she sees them. She knows that it really hurt when her dad didn’t have as much time to surf with her in the summer.
This week’s letter though…
She’d read it multiple times and every time it hurt more than the last.
She settles onto her bed, notebook in one hand, Alex’s letter in the other. She takes it out of the envelope, carefully unfolding the pages once again.
Today is the worst day of my life and it’s only the first day back at school.
Honestly I don’t even know where to begin.
Kara started school with me this year. She’s in a bunch of my classes and she’s not even in my grade which is so frustrating because she’s such a show-off. And I feel kind of bad about it because I know she can’t help it. It’s her first time in school and she’s just. Not used to it. So I’m really trying. I even let her sit with me and Vicky at lunch.
I won’t be sitting with Vicky anymore though. Not after today. She’s been spreading these rumors about me... She keeps saying that I’m in love with her or something because I hated her boyfriend but it’s just. Not true. At all. I hated her boyfriend because he’s a jerk. And I’d never want to date Vicky in a million years. Especially not after the things she said about Kara and about you.
So we’re not friends anymore. It’s been kind of building up for a while but this was just the last straw, you know? I want nothing to do with her. It just sucks because like, now it feels like everyone is whispering about me. I mean, I know they are. I could hear them in gym class. But yeah. Anyway. I don't really want to talk about it right now...
I hope your first week is better than mine. You’ll have to tell me what science classes you’re in. Maybe we can find some way to study together. Or maybe we’ll be reading the same books in English class this year! That would be fun. Like a long distance book club.
Talk to you soon,
Maggie takes a deep breath inward, then exhales slowly, falling back onto her bed, wishing she could do more for Alex. And... she knows she shouldn’t feel this way, but she just can’t help feeling a little bit hopeful. Alex wasn’t bothered by the nature of the accusations, she was bothered by Vicky’s betrayal. And that made Maggie’s head spin with theories about what that could mean .
Unfortunately for Maggie’s curiosity, Alex doesn’t mention the rumors again. Instead they talk about anything and everything else. In September, Alex’s science fair project wins first place and Maggie’s wins second, causing Alex to gloat for weeks about being the superior science geek. In October, Maggie makes her own Sherlock Holmes costume, complete with a deerstalker cap she crafted from an old flannel shirt, and Alex responds with a photo of her own outfit— a vampire complete with face paint, fake fangs, and heavy eye makeup. Maggie’s heart flutters when she sees it and she keeps the photo pasted in her notebook, right next to the letter. In December, they send each other small gifts and Maggie saves up her allowance for a month to buy her a stuffed otter, which Alex names Gertrude.
But in February, everything changes.
Maggie has never cared much for Valentine’s Day. She hasn’t gotten a card from anyone other than her parents since she was in elementary school and the teachers stopped requiring kids to give one to every student in the class. She doesn’t miss the candy. She always felt like Sweethearts resembled chalk a little too much for her liking and if she really wanted chocolate, she’d buy her own favorite kind at the store on the fifteenth.
This year is different though. This year, she doesn’t roll her eyes as the student council buzzes about the halls plastering the walls with posters advertising the school dance. This year she has someone she likes. Someone she is interested in, in more than a friendly way. This year she has Alex.
She’d waffled over the decision for weeks, pouring over all of their letters, trying to find a hint that Alex might like her back. She’d hazarded a few compliments in some of her replies, she even admitted to Alex that she thought she looked beautiful in her school picture. Alex hadn’t reacted badly at all, she even chastised Maggie for making her blush! That was definitely flirty. The evidence for Alex liking her definitely outweighs the opposite. Particularly because Alex never refuted the rumors Vicky had circulated back in the fall. That has to mean something. It has to.
She walks to the convenience store after class, even though it’s snowing and she should really get home before it gets dark. She just knows that if she doesn’t go out and buy the card now, she will lose her nerve. It’s only a few days until Valentine’s Day and she has to get the card out if she wants Alex to get it by the 14th.
Nothing jumps out at her though. First of all, all of the cards are super cheesy. Maggie knows that Alex loves terrible puns, but some of them are horrendous. She opens one up and a pop up of a bumblebee springs out, making her grimace. Won’t you BEE mine? That’s beyond horrendous even. She sighs, setting the card and its matching envelope back in the display.
She ends up looking through every single card on the display before leaving empty-handed, much to the chagrin of the shopkeeper. The snowfall picks up about ten minutes into her walk and she shivers, stuffing her hands deeper into the pockets of her worn coat. The sun has started to dip low over the horizon and the world has grown quiet save for a few brave cars still out and about. She shouldn’t have lingered for so long at the shop. It’ll be late by the time she gets home and her mom will be waiting with a lecture.
A pair of headlights flash behind her, the low rumbling of an engine growing closer. She stops, hand held up over her eyes like a visor, and grins when she sees the familiar alternating red and blue lights of her father’s police cruiser.
The car slows to a stop, idling beside her, and the window rolls down.
“Margarita!” her father says. “What are you doing out so late? You should be home!”
“I had to meet with Ms Greenwald, my science teacher, after class.” She kicks up a bit of snow. She hates lying to her father, but it’s the only way she won’t be grounded for being out so late.
She opens the passenger door of the cruiser and slides onto the worn leather seat, bringing back memories of all of the ride-alongs she’d had when she was younger.
“Well, we won’t tell your mother,” he leans over the console and winks conspiratorially. “As far as she’s concerned, you came right to the station after school to keep me company, right?”
Maggie winks back, a huge grin on her face as they speed off towards home.
After dinner, she asks to be excused to her room to finish her homework. She doesn’t really have any homework truthfully, she normally finishes it all in class, but this way they’d leave her in peace for a few hours to write to Alex.
She takes a spare bit of computer paper and a few colored pens and sets to work. She tries out a few different science puns before settling on one she thinks will make Alex smile: “You must be made of copper and terillium because you are CuTe!” It’s endlessly corny, but Maggie has been writing to Alex for over a year now and she’s well-versed in her particular brand of corny humor. Alex will love it. Now she’s just got to write the actual message.
She wipes her sweaty palms on her pajama pants.
She starts with Dear Alex,
I’ve really enjoyed being your pen pal. I think that’s probably pretty obvious. I like talking to you. I like hearing about your life, even the really boring days. I like cheering you on from afar when I know you have a surf competition and I like comforting you when you’re upset because of something Kara has done. I like you, Alex.
I like you more than just as a friend and I think that maybe you might like me too. So, will you be my Valentine? I know I can’t really take you to my school dance or anything, since you’re in California and everything but. Maybe we could just like. Both wear dresses and listen to the same music and maybe you could call me? I know we haven’t done that before but I just thought maybe that would be a nice date. If you want to be my Valentine’s date that is. I hope you do because like I said, I really like you, Alex. I think you’re so smart and so funny and you’re really, really pretty.
So. If you want to, call me at 555-456-2134.
She signs her name with a flourish, her heart beating like a drum in her chest. It’s the first time she’s given Alex her number. It would be a big leap, going from words on a page to hearing Alex’s voice, but she wants it so badly. She re-reads the card over and over again. She’s tempted to crumple it up and start again or even just abandon the thought entirely, but no. She can’t. It’s good. Her feelings are out there and Alex will see them and whatever happens, happens. She’ll go out tomorrow morning to buy stamps and envelopes and then she’ll send it off.
That night she dreams of Alex’s smile.
She wakes up to the smell of coffee and eggs sizzling in the kitchen— a telltale sign that her father has Saturday morning off of work.
She quickly pulls on some jeans and a sweater and heads downstairs, joining her dad at the kitchen table. He greets her with a smile and hands her the comics section from the newspaper in front of him. Her mom serves her a plate of eggs and a cup of coffee, kissing her on the cheek as she sets the food down. She scrunches up her face as her parents both chuckle.
“Margarita, I need you to go pick up some more groceries for me this morning,” her mother says, sitting down with her own plate. “I’ll give you some money.”
Maggie frowns, both at the use of her full name and at the mention of errands. “I have more homework to do, do I have to?”
Her father raises an eyebrow at her over his paper. “More homework?”
“Yeah, uh, Ms Greenwald gave me some extra reading for fun,” she backtracks.
“Well if it’s just for fun then, you can help your mother out, Margarita,” he chastises. “Family comes first.”
She huffs, but agrees, quickly eating the rest of her breakfast and finishing off her coffee in several large gulps. She’ll have to go out to mail Alex’s card later in the day.
When she returns from the grocery store, her dad is standing in the kitchen. He’s clenching his jaw, like he does when he gets an emergency call from the precinct, but he’s not wearing his uniform. Her mom is sitting at the kitchen table now, but she won’t meet Maggie’s eye.
“Sit down, Margarita.”
His voice is low and firm, with an edge. The last time she saw him like this, her grandfather fell ill and she had to miss a week of school to see him in the hospital. What could it be this time? They were just in Omaha for Christmas and everyone seemed fine…
She nods nervously, placing the grocery bags on the counter before taking a seat across from her mom. “What’s wrong?”
“I found something in your room, Margarita.”
Her dad pulls an object from behind his back and throws it down onto the table. It’s her notebook. But that doesn’t make any sense. She’d left it out on her desk, but it’s not like it was clutter. Her room was fairly clean, so he couldn’t be mad about that. Is he upset that she lied about having homework?
“How long have you been writing to this girl?”
“I... since last year?” Maggie’s gaze shifts back to her father, confused. “Alex is my penpal…”
“And this?” He holds up the valentine she had made for Alex. It’s slightly crumpled and her heart falls. “What is the meaning of this?”
“It’s… I like her and I just thought—”
She is stunned silent.
“You’ve shamed your family.”
She can’t speak. She can’t breathe. Her entire world is crashing down around her. She looks to her mother for support, but finds her looking away. The tears start to prick at her eyes and she can feel her lip tremble.
Her father hands her a suitcase she hadn’t seen when she first entered the kitchen.
“You have thirty minutes. Pack your things.”
He grabs her by the arm and yanks her up away from the table. He pulls her up the stairs and practically throws her into her room, tossing the suitcase at her.
“Pack. Your. Things.”
Her room is ransacked. Clothes are all over the floor, pulled from drawers still left open. The small box of keepsakes she normally stores under her bed has been turned over, the letters and photos inside ripped to shreds, much like her heart.
Under her father’s watchful eye, she shoves everything she can manage into her suitcase, including the ripped up photo of Alex with her surfboard. Maybe she could piece it back together…
“You’re done, let’s go,” her dad’s voice is gruff, leaving no room for argument and she follows without a word.
On their way out the door, she goes to grab her notebook, but her father beats her to it, stalking over towards the fireplace and throwing it into the flames.
She watches as all of her dreams burn.
She doesn’t know where they’re going. Her father shoves her into his cruiser, into the backseat like a criminal, and doesn’t say a word. He just turns on the radio to his favorite oldies station and keeps his gaze out onto the road. He doesn’t even look back at her in the rear-view mirror.
Two hours in, she starts to recognize some landmarks. Her favorite antique store. The diner where she and her aunt sometimes escape to during family gatherings to grab a milkshake. They’re in Omaha then.
The car finally comes to a stop in front of an apartment complex. Her father opens the door for her and orders her out, then marches her up the stairs to an apartment on the third floor. He knocks, the sound of his fist banging on the door making her flinch and her upper arm throbs with pain.
The door opens and for the first time all day she feels just a shred of relief, because standing in the apartment in too-big pajama pants and a worried expression, is her aunt. She steps out of the apartment, immediately placing herself in between Maggie and her father, and immediately lays into him. She thinks she must have zoned out, because before she knows it, her aunt is carefully guiding her into the apartment with her suitcase, slamming the door behind them.
“Huh?” She snaps out of her daze.
“I asked if you were hungry?” Her aunt is looking at her kindly. “We could order a pizza and then we could talk?”
Maggie shrugs. She doesn’t know how much her aunt knows. One of her parents must have phoned her because she didn’t look surprised to see them, but…
Her aunt seems to know what she’s thinking because she sits down next to her on the couch and throws an arm around her shoulder.
“You haven’t done anything wrong, Maggie.”
“But… he said… he said I’m… because I’m gay…”
It’s the first time she’s said it out loud. She expected it to feel better. For her to feel free. Instead she just feels shame.
Her aunt has a spare room, but it’s not cleaned out yet. Maggie doesn’t mind the couch though. It’s comfortable enough and at least she’s not sleeping on the street. Her dad didn’t have to drive her to her aunt’s place after all. He could have kicked her to the curb with nothing. And yeah it was probably to save his reputation— a cop can’t be seen throwing his only daughter out, no matter how homophobic Blue Springs might be— but she’s still grateful for that.
They do end up getting pizza, Maggie's favorite, but she isn’t very hungry. Everything tastes stale. She manages a few bites anyway though, just to please her aunt, who hasn’t stopped fretting over her in between outbursts of anger at her father.
Eventually her aunt loses steam and they just sit, an old rerun of “Law & Order” playing softly in the background, as they both nibble on their crusts.
Now that she’s a little calmer, she takes the time to look around the small apartment. Her aunt doesn’t have much in the way of clutter. She’s got a couple small plants, a framed photo of her recent graduation on a bookshelf teeming with books, and some decorative pillows, but the walls are devoid of any of the religious paraphernalia that she’s used to from her parents’ house.
Her aunt catches her taking in her surroundings and places a comforting hand on her knee. “It’s not much, I know. Scott was the decorator. You’ll have to help me out.”
“You’re really going to let me stay here?”
“Of course!” Her aunt looks offended that she even asked. “We’ll go out and get some furniture and stuff for your new room tomorrow ok? And next week we can see about enrolling you in school.”
Maggie leans her head up against her aunt’s shoulder. “Thanks, Aunt Maria.”
“Of course, kid.” She gives Maggie a side hug. “And like I said, we can talk about it if you want, or not. It’s totally up to you.”
“I- I want to talk about it.” Maggie looks down at her shoes. “I just…”
“It’s okay, take your time.”
“It’s just. There’s this girl…”
Her aunt’s eyes soften. “The one you were scribbling to all of last summer?”
“I… yeah…” Maggie grows quiet at the thought of Alex and her notebook with Alex’s letters now reduced to ashes. “I wanted to tell her how I feel…”
“Oh Maggie, that’s so sweet.”
“My dad ripped up the letter.” Maggie shrugs one shoulder. “She’ll never know now.”
“Why not? You can just write another one. Tell her what happened.”
“I can’t. Her address… my notebook…”
“You don’t have it? Oh Maggie… maybe I can go get it—”
“It’s fine," Maggie interrupts softly. "It’s. She doesn’t feel the same way anyway.”
Maggie wraps her arms around herself. She can feel the tears bubbling back up and she fights to keep them at bay. She’s cried enough today. But it’s no use. The minute her aunt holds her close, she falls apart.