BY SHARON FRAYNE
Copyright is held by the author.
NOBODY IN the Grade 8 class at Dalewood Public School wanted to walk to school with Smelly Margaret. Or be her friend. Whenever Lori saw her bulky form clumsily striding along the sidewalk where their route intersected, she’d devise a plan to avoid her. Slow down, speed up, change direction. Anything to avoid Margaret.
It was hard enough to join the Pink Ladies Club, and it wouldn’t help Lori’s chance if anyone saw her walking with Margaret on the first day back after the holidays. Her breath puffed in the frosty winter air and she pulled up her favourite Christmas present — a pink plaid cashmere scarf, to hide her face.
It didn’t work. Smelly Margaret spotted her and waited at the corner, waving.
“Careful,” Margaret called. “Under the snow, this sidewalk’s really icy.”
Damn it, this time she couldn’t be avoided. As the wind whipped fine needles of snow against her, Lori faked a smile. She took shallow breaths and shivered. Margaret always smelled like she needed a bath. The clothes she regularly wore looked like they were handed down from someone older and bigger. Including the oversized black coat she had on today. So frumpy dumpy. No sense of fashion at all.
Omigod, she’s such a loser. . . hope nobody sees me with her.
Lori heaved a sigh. “Hi Margaret.” There. She’d made an attempt to sound happy and hide her true feelings — pissed off. “Guess we’ll have to walk to school together this morning.”
“Thanks for catching up with me, Lori. How was your Christmas holiday?” Margaret’s voice was eager, but her eyes brimmed with tears.
Must be the cold, thought Lori. Or… she’s so happy to have a chance to walk with me, it’s making her cry.
“Okay.” She shrugged. “We had a big family party. It was our first Christmas since we moved here, and everyone wanted to see our new house. Mom cooked a turkey dinner and all my boring relatives and dumb cousins came over. My presents sucked, though.”
“What do you mean? Didn’t you get anything?”
“Not what I wanted.” Inside her mittens, Lori’s hands formed fists. “I have to own a pink Kate Spade purse, and I told my parents. There was tons of stuff under our tree and I was sure it’d be there. My little sisters got what they asked for — everything! So when I got a big package… I knew it was a purse by the shape . . . I could hardly wait to open it.”
A black BMW sped by, spraying them with a slop of brown slushy snow. A side window rolled down, and Mandy, the grade 8 leader of the Pink Ladies, stuck her face out and laughed. Then she pointed and plugged her nose. Lori turned towards Margaret to see if she’d noticed. But Margaret’s head was lowered.
“Sorry,” said Margaret, rubbing fuzzy grey mittens on her face. Her thin, blue plaid winter coat was splattered with slush from the passing car. At the open collar, spots of sludge marked the skin on her neck. “Go on, tell me about your Kate Spade purse.”
“That’s just it! It was a fake! It was a sleazy imitation. I was so embarrassed and humiliated. I told Mom she was a cheapskate. I could never be seen in public with it. The other girls would laugh at me. It has to be real. It’s one of the conditions, so I can join their group.”
She glanced down at the sidewalk and mumbled, “I wouldn’t be caught dead with that phony purse.” Then she glanced at Margaret’s face and continued, “Anyhow, I got other stuff, like this scarf — but that part sucked. Ever since we moved here last fall, I’ve wanted them to accept me. My mother doesn’t understand how important it is for me to fit in. All I really want is for them to like me.”
Margaret’s eyebrows knotted. “I’m confused. Why do you want to be in their group?”
Lori didn’t answer. For a few minutes, they walked in silence, stepping over frozen chunks of snow and avoiding the icy patches on the pavement.
It was awkward to be seen with Margaret, Lori mused. Her body odour was pretty bad, and she was so big and clumsy. And that dumb old backpack she carried. Mandy and the other Pink Ladies had style. Most of them wore multiple earrings, makeup and frilly false eyelashes. They had great clothes and nice hair. Just like the models in magazines, they were beautiful.
But talking with Margaret was surprisingly easy. It felt like she was honestly listening and interested in her point of view. Maybe since Margaret was such a loser, she could understand how important it was to be accepted by the top group at school.
“Because they’re pretty . . . and cool . . . and so popular. I want to be like that.”
Margaret shook her head. “You are pretty. But you’re not stuck up and mean. And you’re also nice . . . that’s better.”
Besides the offensive smell and weird clothes, something else about Margaret was different. Lori stared at her face trying to figure it out.
“Someone said that your dad’s a minister, right?”
“Yes.” Margaret smiled in a way that was open and innocent. “He’s always busy at Christmas time. He says people are nice to each other over the holidays, but then forget to care for each other during the rest of the year.”
Despite the blustery wind, Lori’s face burned. She fidgeted with her scarf and stammered, “Well, what about you, Margaret? How was your Christmas? Did you get the presents you wanted?”
“No.” Margaret didn’t say anything more.
For a few minutes, the girls continued walking along the sidewalk, shuffling their boots through the snow drifts. The sky was mottled with white, like spilled milk, and the gusts of wind felt sharp in their faces. They both shivered, and Lori pulled her scarf up higher. She noticed the thick snowflakes collecting on Margaret’s eyelashes and the exposed skin of her neck.
In front of them, on the sidewalk a hundred metres ahead, strolled a group of the Pink Ladies, arms entwined. They were laughing and swung their matching pink purses in unison. When they reached a stop light, they turned as a group to look behind.
An icy patch caught Lori by surprise. Her feet skidded out from under her, and with arms flung wide, she tumbled backwards. Her head smashed on the hard concrete. Silver stars exploded, then everything went black. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. Sprawled on her back, the bitter cold seeped through her coat into her body. Her field of vision rocked back and forth in rapid succession. Snow . . . sky . . . snow . . . sky . . .
Where was she? What was she looking at? The world turned upside down.
Then she heard the Pink Ladies howl with laughter.
“What a pair of idiots!”
Margaret’s pale face appeared close to hers, with eyes full of concern.
“Are you okay?”
Margaret put her arm around Lori’s shoulders and helped her up. Dizzy, Lori leaned against Margaret’s body and waited for the world to stop rocking.
“That must have hurt. I’m sorry they said that to you. Are you okay?” Margaret’s voice was a warm whisper in her ear.
Lori blinked away tears, brushed snow off her coat and leggings, and nodded. “Thanks, I’m fine. Let’s keep going.” Feeling woozy, she leaned against Margaret’s side.
As they resumed the walk, the back of Lori’s head ached and she blinked away tears. Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment when the Pink Ladies shrieks and giggles floated back to them.
“Ignore them,” said Margaret firmly. “That’s what I always do.”
Lori nodded. She took a shaky breath, and her words came out in a rush. “How about you? You were going to tell me about your Christmas. How was it?”
Margaret’s eyes flickered over Lori’s face, then glanced away. She bit her lip and when she spoke, it was so quietly Lori wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly.
“My mother died on Christmas morning.”
They both stopped. Margaret took two steps away, to the edge of the sidewalk.
Lori’s jaw dropped. “Oh.” Her eyes filled with tears. She reached for Margaret’s mittened hand and squeezed it. “I’m so sorry.” Her heart thumped, and grim fantasies danced in her imagination. “I don’t know what to say.”
Margaret nodded and patted Lori’s arm. “It’s all right. She was sick for a long time. She wanted to live long enough to see Christmas morning. My father says now she’s with God. No more pain. He said my mother’s an angel who joined the feast in Heaven on Christmas Day.”
Lori gulped and a flood of hot tears spilled down her cheeks. She remembered her own mother’s shocked face on Christmas morning when she’d thrown away the imitation purse.
“You must think I’m a terrible person. Talking about stupid things.” She exhaled and her hot breath hung in the January air like a bitter cloud between them. She inhaled the unwashed aroma of oily hair and stale body odour. Then she threw her arms around Margaret’s bulky figure and hugged her tight.
“You’re a good daughter, Margaret. Your mother loved you.” Her voice caught and she stifled a sob. “She’ll watch over you. Probably she’s watching us right now. When your mother arrived, I know the angels sang a beautiful carol to welcome her.”
Then Lori loosened her cashmere scarf and removed it. She held it wide and wrapped it around Margaret’s neck.
“Keep this. I’m too hot and it perfectly matches your coat,” she said, arranging the fringed edge over Margaret’s chest. “It’s nothing special, but I want you to have it.”
Supporting each other against the wind, they walked in companionable silence the rest of the way to school.
In the shovelled, sanded blacktop outside the entrance to Dalewood Public School, mobs of kids circled like elegant figure skaters or racing hockey players. Fixed groups of student cliques eyed the two girls as they walked arm in arm towards the door. Waiting there were the Pink Ladies with Mandy in their midst.
When the two girls approached, the Ladies gathered tight and turned their backs. Shrieking and giggling.
Ignoring the insults, the girls entered the main hallway, and stomped on the grates to wipe the dirty snow off their boots. Before they separated for their lockers, Lori gently patted the scarf around Margaret’s neck.
“After school, I’ll wait here for you. If you want, we can walk home together. Maybe later you could come over and hang out at my place.”
“Sure, I’d love to,” said Margaret, smiling. “Hey, almost forgot! Happy New Year, friend.”
Lori nodded. “Happy New Year, friend.”
Sharon Frayne’s award winning short stories have been featured in numerous southern Ontario writers’ festivals and previously published on CommuterLit, Uproar, Agnes and True, and various anthologies. She’s a three time winner of the Muskoka Novel Marathon. Her YA novel The Sound of a Rainbow will be published by Latitude 46 in 2023. Caught Between the Walls, her collected tales from an old Niagara Courthouse and Jail, is available on Amazon. She’s a member of the Canadian Authors Association and the Writers Union. Her life in Niagara, Ontario is full of adventures with family and an energetic Labrador Retriever.