The Wrong Side of the River
Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity

Mom thought I was handsome enough to be in movies. She said I looked like a young Robert Redford. I wasn’t sure if I should take that as a compliment until I looked him up online and found out he was some really big movie actor from the seventies. I didn’t really look like him at all except for the red hair and freckles, but if I stood in front of the mirror, took my glasses off, and squinted my eyes really tight, so just a little bit of blobby color came through, I could sort of see a resemblance.
Solo wagged his tail and looked up at me with wide hopeful eyes.
“Sorry, boy.” I said, trying to tame my unruly cowlick with a gob of gel. “No time for treats. Dad’ll have a heart attack if I’m not downstairs in five minutes.”
Solo’s ears drooped as he slumped down, gloomily.
“I promise we’ll have a training session as soon as I get home. I want to teach you how to do one of those twisting jumps like the dolphins do at Sea World, but without the water. What to you think?”
He put his paws over his face and whined.
“Julian,” Mom said, tapping on my door. “Are you just about ready, sweetheart? Daddy’s getting a bit… antsy.”
I straightened my glasses, patted Solo’s head and opened my door.
Mom beamed. “You look so handsome, pumpkin. What a lucky mommy I am to have such an attractive boy.” She kissed the top of my head and led the way down the hallway to the stairs.
That’s the nice thing about moms—they always think their kids are good-looking and smart and charming, even when they aren’t.
Dads are the exact opposite.
“Julian!” Dad shouted, just as we made it to the staircase. “You cannot make us late this time! I hardly need to remind you how important this meeting is for me. For us.”
“Of course, dear,” Mom said, straightening her pearls and giving her very best mayor’s wife smile.
The whole way to the assembly hall Dad lectured me about the importance of punctuality and how being a man means you don’t let the people around you down, while Mom patted his arm and said in a calming tone, “Now George.”
As we drove over the bridge to the old side of town, Dad started on his usual rants. “Someone ought to do something about that crumbling old hotel.” “These roads are deplorable. I wish they weren’t so proud of those awful cobblestones.”
We pulled up to the hall and parked in a special spot labeled, “Mayor,” and got out of the car.
Dad nearly ran for the double doors and Mom hurried after him, even though it was clear from our lone car in the parking lot that we were the first ones here.
The air in the Northside of Montague was different somehow. It smelled like history—a mix of old books, horses, and flower box roses.
I was only five when we moved to Montague. We’d stayed in a hotel just down the street from the assembly hall. Mom had taken me to a play at the old theater on Cherry Street. She fell in love with an old Tudor cottage just north of the river but Dad convinced her it was a fire trap and insisted we’d be much safer in one of the brand new eco town homes over the bridge.
Inside the hall Mom ushered me into the fifth row on the left.
“Why so far back?” I asked. “There’s no one else here?”
“Your father felt it would be better if it didn’t look like he was stacking the audience with Southside supporters.”
She ruffled my hair and smiled a very rare smile reserved for times when she felt my dad was being a bit crazy.
We waited. And waited. And waited. I tried to pull out my phone to play a game or something, but Dad gave me the evil eye. I stuffed it back in my pocket and sat quietly, staring at the lectern and watching Dad smile and shake hands with almost every single person who came in the room.
The seats in the hall didn’t start to fill until about fifteen minutes before the meeting.
That’s when Romy Madison came in, tall and beautiful, with skin like caramel pudding and hair dark and shiny enough to be in a shampoo commercial. She’d sat right in front of me in for two whole months in seventh grade Pre-Algebra before the teacher realized she was way too smart for regular math and sent her to an accelerated class.
Romy excelled in everything—school, theater, sports, social life—which meant, of course, that she was one-hundred and ten percent out of my league.
Her mother was schmoozing with the people on the other side of the aisle as Romy and her little sister stood beside her and smiled. I hadn’t noticed until then that the room had divided just like the city, with all the people from the north side of the river on the left and all the people from the south side on the right.
I guessed that made sense, but it didn’t seem very neighborly. Montague was kind of like that though—not very neighborly. I shrugged and looked back at Romy, whose smile was starting to fade as her mom chattered on.
I knew I’d have to step up my game if I wanted her to notice me. As soon as school got out last spring I told my orthodontist I wanted clear bands on my braces. Up until then my best friend Ben and I would coordinate band colors so when we smiled we’d have matching blue or green teeth, but that seemed like the kind of thing Romy wouldn’t get. Plus, Ben’s older sister said they made it look like we had food stuck in our teeth.
Also, I guessed a girl like Romy wouldn’t want to be seen with an eighty-pound weakling, so I also started working out and drinking muscle building shakes three times a day. I’d only managed to gain two pounds during the summer, but I could tell I was bulking up because I had to let my belt a full notch.
But more than anything else, I practiced my acting, because I knew there were only four boys in drama, and if I got good enough I’d have a really decent chance of sharing the stage with Romy and maybe even getting to kiss her.
She walked down the aisle with her mom and sister, her long dark ponytail swishing behind her. Then she looked toward me and waved.
For some reason the fact that I’d never spoken to Romy Madison, and she probably didn’t even know who I was, escaped my mind for a moment and I stood up, smiled broadly and waved… right at the same time as a girl two rows behind me.
I turned the wave into a hair rub and sat down, trying to look like I hadn’t just waved to to the girl of my dreams when she was waving to someone else.
No big deal.
Probably happens to everyone.
They kept walking until they passed our row. I braved another look at Romy just to see if she’d be looking for the random kid who tried to wave to her, but her focus was on her mom.
“Rosemary, we’ve already discussed this. You can see your friends another time. Right now I need you to sit with Sage and keep her entertained. I don’t think I should have to remind you what’s riding on this meeting.”
“Fine,” Romy said, rolling her eyes and grabbing her sister by the hand.
As she walked away, flipping her ponytail over her shoulder, I promised myself the next time I saw her I’d be way more impressive.

Keep Reading

Chapter 2

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean Romy

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