Her mother’s head snapped up in alarm as the back door swung shut. She knew Regan wouldn’t interrupt them without good warning, being sensibly concerned that she might be tasked with additional chores or—worse—walk in on them saying the sort of things that weren’t suited for tender young ears. Regan knew she was fortunate to have parents who loved each other as much as hers did. Laurel’s parents could barely stand to be in the same room for more than a few minutes, and Regan had been witness to several fights that should never have happened in front of a guest. So the fact that her parents still liked to murmur sweet nothings to each other was probably a good thing, but that didn’t mean she wanted to hear it.
“Heather’s, um, Heather’s here,” said Regan, twisting her hands like she thought she could spin her fingers into a rope that she could use to climb away from here. “With, um, her mother.” She looked at her feet, not at either of her parents, who were already in the process of getting to their feet, putting their glasses of iced tea down.
“Do you know why?” asked her mother, who had noticed that Heather hadn’t been coming around the way she usually did, but had been chalking it up to the kind of fights seven-year-old girls got into on their own time, strange and incomprehensible and vicious as anything. They were fights that solved themselves best when the adults stayed as far away as possible.
Cheeks burning, Regan began to shake her head. Then she caught herself, and nodded.
“Well, let’s not keep them waiting,” said her mother.
Regan led her parents to the entryway, where Heather and her mother stood, Heather’s mother still holding fast to her daughter’s shoulder. “I knew you couldn’t know anything about this, or you would have put a stop to it,” she said, without preamble.
“Put a stop to what?” asked Regan’s father in a polite but mild tone. He’d never cared for Heather’s mother, who seemed to think all the world’s problems could be resolved by shouting a little bit louder every time she opened her mouth.
Heather’s mother took a deep, slow breath, straightening as she did, like a balloon in the process of inflating. Her grip on Heather never wavered, and the taller she stood, the more Heather slumped, as if she was overwhelmed with the pressure of what was about to happen.
Regan shrank into the space between her parents, unwilling to meet Heather’s eyes.
“Bullying,” said Heather’s mother, voice like stones falling into place in front of a tomb, locking its contents away from the world. Her hand spasmed before clenching tighter on Heather’s shoulder. “Your daughter and Laurel Anderson have been bullying Heather since the start of the term. They won’t let her participate in any activities they’re part of, they’ve shut her out on the playground, and that Laurel didn’t even invite Heather to her birthday party. My daughter is a sensitive child. I want this to stop.”
“Regan?” Regan’s mother turned toward her, expression solemn. “Honey, is this true?”
To her shock and embarrassment, Regan’s eyes filled with tears. Her nose filled with snot in almost the same instant, and she tasted it on her upper lip, sticky and salty and childish. She was almost eight. She wasn’t supposed to start bawling like a baby just because her mother sounded disappointed in her.
“N-n-no!” she managed, shaking her head so hard that tears splashed to the floor. “We’re not bullying her. We’re just not playing with her anymore!”
“Honey … why not?”
“B-because Laurel says she doesn’t know how to play like a girl, and we’re girls, so we only play with people who know how to play like girls do!” said Regan, and began, desperately, to explain what had happened the day Heather brought the snake to school. She didn’t mention how beautiful the snake had been, or how much she’d wanted to touch it in the seconds between its appearance and Laurel’s loud, vocal revulsion.
By the time she finished, Heather was crying too, although her tears were more subdued than Regan’s, born less of panic and more of resignation.
“Don’t you think it might have been wrong of Laurel to treat Heather that way?” asked Regan’s mother. “There’s nothing wrong with liking snakes and bugs, and I remember when we went to the fair and you held the python all on your own, not because anybody made you. Laurel doesn’t sound like she’s being a good friend.”
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