[If you you missed Episode 1 of Me and Mags click here to read it first!]
The trick that launched me into my year of popularity was the secret of the Second Day Outfit, and I learned it from my little brother of all people. Justin was in sixth grade when I was in eighth, the last time we’d been at the same school. On the second day, when we were walking home from the bus, he said, “Girls are so weird.” This was not an unusual statement from him, so I ignored it, but after a moment, he elaborated. “On the first day of school, they all wear something new and trendy or expensive looking, as if they’re a whole new person. But no one ever cares because they’re wearing something new and shiny too. Then on the second day, everybody goes back to what they’ve always worn anyway. It’s so dumb.”
I’d looked down at my Forever 21 t-shirt and black leggings—new because I’d outgrown my old clothes since last year, but, as Justin pointed out, also the same as what I’d always worn. My hair was in a messy bun instead of down and straightened with care. I hadn’t even put on earrings, whereas the day before I’d borrowed one of Mom’s Kendra Scott necklaces and ducked into the bathroom during each passing period to reapply my lip gloss.
“Also,” Justin said, “girls giggle too much.” He started imitating the high-pitched laughter of the girls in his class, and I thumped him on the back of the head.
I didn’t forget Justin’s observation, though, and began making plans for ninth grade. By the time I started high school, I had outfits picked out for the first two weeks.
It worked. People noticed. Soon I was the one deciding where we sat in the cafeteria, and I had my choice of partners for group projects. Friends asked if I was going to a party before they decided if they were. Suddenly, finally, I was popular.
Until April, when everything happened and life blew up around me. I couldn’t tell you what I wore the last two months of school or if I even went.
My second day of tenth grade at Temperance High School wasn’t the real second day. Everyone else had been in school for a few weeks already. I stared at my closet, considering. I picked up a striped romper that I knew looked great on me. It made my legs look long, and the v-neck showed just the right amount of skin. I held it up in front of me, then put it back in the closet. Being popular suddenly seemed like a lot of trouble. I pulled on black athletic shorts and a long-sleeved teal t-shirt with a trendy logo on the pocket, and put my hair in a bun. But when I turned to face the mirror, I didn’t see myself. I saw a clone. Just like my old school, this was what all the girls at Temperance wore. It was the best way to blend in and be anonymous, but was that what I really wanted?
“Hadley!” Mom yelled. “Are you ready? The bus will be here soon!”
“Just a minute!”
I took the clothes off and stood in front of the mirror in my underwear, thinking. Not every girl at school wore the shorts + trendy tee uniform. I thought of Mags and a smile pulled at my lips. She’d been dressed in a faded green t-shirt, a long gray skirt tied at the waist with a shoelace, and black combat boots. I didn’t have anything that “alternative” in my closet and wouldn’t have worn it if I did. Still…
I closed my eyes and thought about what I wanted to feel on my body. Then I pulled on a faded pair of jeans with a hole in the knee. Not a fashionable hole, a real one, made from absentmindedly picking at the fibers with my fingernail while watching TV. I threw on a soft purple t-shirt that said “don’t flatter me” across the front, slipped my feet into a pair of sneakers, and grabbed a flannel for my cold classes.
Mom was about to shout my name again when I hurried past her, picking up my backpack and lunch. She looked at my clothes and her forehead creased, but then she smiled and told me to have a good day. On my way out the door, she said, “That flannel used to be your dad’s,” but I pretended I didn’t hear her.
I was sitting on the floor in the hallway by the elevator, waiting for the bell to ring. Groups of students were standing or sitting around in similarly-dressed clumps, talking or looking at their phones for a few last precious moments before putting them in their lockers for the rest of the day. (Temperance’s phone policy was no-nonsense from first bell to last.) I saw Vik, who I remembered from English and Biology. He was a head taller than anyone else in his group—mostly girls, including loud, complaining Shay. He stretched his neck left and right, nodding at whatever Shay was saying but not appearing to really listen. She swayed back and forth in front of him, trying to make eye contact, but he either didn’t notice or was very good at pretending not to. He had the air of someone devouring a delicious lunch, bite by slow bite, never once looking at the drooling dog at his feet. The image made the corner of my mouth turn up.
The elevator doors opened and a boy in a motorized wheelchair began exiting. But his chair only made it halfway out before the wheel got stuck. He motored forward, then back, then forward, then back, moving barely an inch each time.
A few students chuckled. Most paid no attention. Then the elevator doors tried to close even though the boy was still in the way. They collided with his chair, wobbling him, then retreated again. More laughs erupted, bouncing between cliques like a pinball. They came from nowhere and everywhere, from averted gazes and closed-lipped snorts, the kind of cruel amusement that disappears the moment you try to spot it. I hated them for it and hated my former self for being guilty of it and hated my current self most of all for not doing anything about it. I willed my body to move but felt rooted in place as if I too was stuck.
Then Vik appeared. He stepped gracefully into the elevator and pushed the boy’s chair over the impediment. Bump-bump. Without saying a word, he turned the boy in a quick circle before pushing him through the hall, causing groups of shocked and annoyed students to jump out of the way. A moment later Vik reappeared and joined his trendily-dressed peer group again. Shay bobbed in front of him, vying for his attention, and one guy tried to give him a high-five, but Vik ignored them both. He just put his hands in the pockets of his jeans and gazed over the heads of the crowd. When his eyes landed on me, he gave me a small smile. My heart went bump-bump.
When I arrived at Mags’ table for lunch, a teacher was interrogating my new friend. Standing, arms crossed, in heels that elevated her just above five feet, the woman fired questions at Mags, who answered succinctly. I hovered nearby, balancing my sandwich, sparkling water, and banana, and waited.
“Ms. DeVille, you know we have a no-tolerance cell phone policy.”
“Cell phones are not allowed in the classroom.”
“How do you explain what happened last period?”
“Shay Bentley broke the cell phone policy. This was revealed when her phone rang during class. You then confiscated Shay’s phone, which led to Shay calling you an unkind name.”
The teacher closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose. “Could you please explain why Shay’s phone showed that the call was coming from you?”
“I can’t explain that.”
“Did you have a cell phone in my classroom?”
“No. You know this. You searched my belongings.”
“Why did Shay’s phone show that you were calling her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Mercury is in retrograde. That can wreak havoc with technology.”
The woman’s eyes were open again, but she looked at the ceiling (or possibly to the heavens) rather than at Mags. Through clenched teeth, she said, “No cell phones in class, Ms. DeVille.”
Mags said, “Yes, ma’am,” and the teacher left, her heels clopping an angry rhythm across the tile.
“What was that about?” I asked as I slid into the seat I hoped was still mine.
“Just a miscalculation. Could we talk about something else?” Mags said. Despite her calm confidence in front of the teacher, she now looked peeved.
“Sure,” I said, and spent the next twenty minutes listening to the intricate details of Mags’ new beet garden.
During 8th period biology, we were all herded to the lecture hall for school photos. Apparently they’d been taken earlier in the year, but the computer hadn’t saved the images, so they had to be redone. On the way, I paused next to the trophy case and looked at my reflection in the glass—at my purple tee and sloppy flannel. So this was how my sophomore year would be immortalized. I took my hair out of its ponytail and combed my fingers through it. Mags was in front of me in line. One of her auburn curls was sticking out the side of her head like a horn, but she didn’t even glance at her reflection. She also had a small round Band-Aid on her cheek.
“Um,” I pointed to the Band-Aid, “do you want to take that off?”
“No,” Mags said, blushing slightly. “What’s beneath it does not deserve to be in a photo.”
“Ah,” I said, pretending that wasn’t an odd way to speak about a pimple.
I felt someone step in line behind me and turned to see Vik leaning against the display case.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” Vik said.
“Hmm,” Mags said and pulled her journal out of her pocket and made a note in it.
The line progressed slowly.
When Mags’ turn came, she sat down on the small gray stool, feet together, back straight, her gold-brown eyes staring at the camera unblinking, her lips a thin, tight line.
“Smile!” said the cheery photographer.
Mags didn’t move.
“Smile!” she repeated.
“I am smiling,” Mags said.
“Smile bigger!” the photographer chirped.
“Just take the picture,” Mags said.
“Smile with your teeth!” the photographer insisted, and she flashed her own whitened smile as an example.
Mags narrowed her eyes. “You know teeth are just your skeleton poking through your skin, right?” she asked.
The photographer’s smile disappeared. She took the picture. Her voice wavered a little when she called, “Next!”
I was chuckling when I sat in front of the blue backdrop. The photographer didn’t have to tell me to smile. I let my skeleton shine.