1 | holly
The winter sun was bright and reflected blindingly off the snow as Peggy walked home from school. She partially unzipped her coat and loosened her scarf knowing she would have to do them back up before getting home or get scolded by her mother. She meant well, but –
Peggy didn’t bother to turn and see who it was. While some teachers and other adults insisted on calling her Margaret, only one person had the gall to call her Marge.
“Hello, Jack,” she said neutrally when he caught up to her, which didn’t take him long. When he had finally surpassed her in height at the beginning of high school, he had been tall in a gangly teenager sort of way. However, as Peggy had realized somewhere between eleventh and twelfth grade, he had really filled out. Now, he was tall in a manly adult sort of way. Which she could of course never tell him – his head would inflate so much that he might float away.
Which would, of course, be a tragedy. A terrible loss.
“So, are you going to the Winter Semiformal?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she said. She looked over at him “Why?”
He shrugged. “Just wondering.”
Peggy rolled her eyes but said nothing. It wasn’t that she wanted to go to the dance with Jack. But if he wanted to ask her, why not just come out and say it? She wasn’t going to let him vaguely suggest it and expect her to interpret his meaning.
They turned the corner, in sync, as they had nearly every day of high school. Peggy’s home came first, then Jack’s. Their parents, upon moving in next to each other, had initially decided on Jack and Michael, Peggy’s older brother, being friends, but they had never hit it off. Jack and Peggy, on the other hand, were only a grade apart and told anyone who would hear it that they despised each other. This did not prevent them from being thick as thieves and being ever ready to jump to each other’s defense.
Of course they had their arguments – many, in fact – like the few months when Jack insisted on calling Peggy a ‘kid’ due to their massive nine-month difference in age. Peggy didn’t speak to him for a full two weeks, walking silently beside him to and from school every day, until Jack caved, apologizing and telling her that the guys in his class had been teasing him for being friends with her.
She had graciously accepted his apology and told him to screw what people thought of him.
It was a mantra not often far from her lips and while Jack would never admit it to anyone, he would hear her voice saying it in his head sometimes and found newfound confidence in it. Because Peggy was the most fearless person he knew, and she believed he could be fearless too. What more encouragement did one need?
Peggy started down her driveway. “See you.”
“Yep, adios.” Jack watched her for a moment, then walked over the snowy lawn to the next house over.
It was a week until the dance. Peggy and Jack walked side-by-side down the sidewalk.
“Have you narrowed down the places you’re applying to yet?” Peggy asked.
Jack kicked at a chunk of ice, and it skittered ahead of them. “Yeah, I think so.”
Peggy frowned. “I don’t understand why you’re not more excited about getting out of this town. I’ve had my list narrowed down since ninth grade.”
Her frown deepened for a moment then she tried to smile. “I know you’re not the most observant person, Jack, but surely you’re aware of my intended career path.”
He looked over at her, an incredulous smile playing at his mouth. “Firefighter? I thought you’d gotten over– I thought you’d changed your mind about that.”
“What do you mean, ‘gotten over?’” Peggy demanded.
“Nothing,” Jack said. “So, what colour are you wearing to the dance on Friday?”
“Gotta make sure we don’t clash.”
Peggy could not believe him. He looked at her like this was an extremely reasonable way of asking her out, eyebrows raised as he waited for her to answer.
She shook her head and sighed. Until he asked her directly, she would not answer directly. If he wanted to go out with her so badly, he’d have to buck up and just ask her.
“See you tomorrow, Jack,” she said as they reached her house.
She was really not intending on going to the dance; she didn’t even know if she’d say yes if Jack managed to ask her. But it didn’t hurt to be prepared, so she spent an hour that afternoon figuring out what she would wear if she did end up going.
The next few days passed without Jack bringing up the dance. Peggy wondered if maybe he’d given up. She was surprised to feel some disappointment at that thought. After all, she never really wanted to go with him anyway. If she had, she would’ve asked him.
Thursday was bitingly cold, and they walked with their shoulders hunched and bundled tight against the cold. The wind and their scarves over their faces made it hard to understand each other, so they hardly spoke until Peggy was about to wave a quick goodbye at the end of her driveway.
Jack caught her arm. “Wait,” he said, pulling his scarf down a little. “What time should I pick you up tomorrow?”
“For school?” They always left at the same time, had for years.
“No, for the dance. It starts at seven, but I don’t know how early you wanna go.” He tried to say it casually like it was already a done deal that they were going, but Peggy knew him too well. She could see the uneasiness in the way he was standing, in the tension around his mouth.
So, she took some pity on him. “Jack,” she said. “You’ve never actually asked me if I want to go with you.”
“Well, do you?” he countered, quickly. Nervously.
Peggy managed not to sigh. “Why don’t you ask me and find out.”
He clenched his jaw like she was being the unreasonable one here. Then he looked her in the eye and said, very seriously, “Margaret Elizabeth Carter, would you like to accompany me to the Winter Semiformal tomorrow evening?”
She pursed her lips, trying not to laugh, and rolled her eyes. “I would be honoured.” She couldn’t stop the smile. “Thank you for asking.”
Jack stood up a little taller and grinned. “Great, I’ll pick you up at 7:15, no one’s there right at the beginning anyway.”
“We could just walk,” Peggy pointed out. “No need to drive.”
“Of course we do,” Jack said. “I gotta show my girl a good time.” He winked, then turned and walked across the snowy lawn, a bit of a spring in his step.
Peggy watched him go, smiling as a slight flush crept over her cheeks that had nothing to do with the cold. Maybe she did want to go to the dance with him. Maybe she should’ve just asked him weeks ago.
Jack rang the doorbell the next morning, waiting for her on the porch instead of at the end of the driveway like he usually did. Peggy had told her mother the night before, so she gave her a knowing smile as she stepped outside.
“Morning,” Jack said cheerfully. He stepped in to give her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“You’re in a good mood,” she said dryly but smiled as they walked down to the sidewalk.
“Well, I’ve got a hot date to the dance, don’t I?” he said.
Peggy exhaled a laugh.
“You could say I’m hot.”
“Why? You seem perfectly well aware of that.” She took his arm, knowing that her fingers would be frozen by the time they got to school, but not minding all too much.
“So, you do think I’m hot,” he said.
“See, this is why I don’t say things like that, your ego’s already far too big.”
“That’s not the only thing that’s –”
“Jack, if you finish that sentence, I won’t go to the dance with you.”
He shrugged and took her hand and pulled it into his coat pocket with his own. Peggy smiled to herself as their fingers intertwined in the warmth of his coat.
Instead of parting ways upon entering the school, Jack walked Peggy to her locker and her first class. Angie, ever observant, gave her a look when she sat down beside her.
“You and Jack seem extra cozy today,” she said.
“He asked me to Semi yesterday,” Peggy said with a soft smile.
“Yesterday? That’s cuttin’ it a bit close.”
“I think he’s been trying to ask me for the past week.”
“And I’m sure you made it very easy for him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Peg, you’re intimidating. Guys find you intimidating,” she said like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Jack and I have been friends since we were little.”
“Yeah, so he knows well enough to be at least kinda scared of you.”
At seven that evening, Peggy stood in front of the mirror in a red dress that fell just above her knees. She allowed herself to feel some giddiness. Jack had been a sweetheart all day, snagging her a good spot in the cafeteria for lunch and holding hands in the hallway. But he was still Jack, still dry-humoured and sarcastic and not afraid of arguing with her. Which she was happy about; if they were going to do this, she didn’t want him to change how he was around her.
The doorbell rang and Peggy took one last look in the mirror before descending the stairs.
Jack stood in the entryway and looked up when he heard her footsteps. His eyes held a soft wonder in then and she swallowed.
When she reached him, he said, “You look... great.”
She smiled. “You don’t look so bad yourself.” It was, of course, an understatement. Shirt and tie under a button-up vest that hugged his shape. He looked amazing.
He grinned and winked. “Ready to go?”
She rolled her eyes but took his hand.
The dance was loud and busy and colourful and getting to full swing when they arrived. Peggy even found herself basking in the couple surprised looks they got for clearly coming in together.
They hung out with some of his friends, and some of her friends, dancing in a group. Then a slow song came on and Jack pulled her into his arms. They swayed together, somehow in sync even though they’d never done this together before.
Peggy liked the feeling of his arms around her waist, pulling her closer, her head resting on his chest. She could feel his breath against her forehead and his heartbeat against her cheek. It was steady and she was glad. They were still comfortable around each other, even though the type of relationship had changed.
When the song ended and they merged back with Jack’s friends, Peggy went to go get a drink and met Angie at the punch table.
“And?” Her grin was very close to shit-eating.
Peggy didn’t even try to suppress her smile. “I suppose... we’ve been having fun.”
She rolled her eyes and poured herself a drink.
There was a burst of laughter across the gym and they both turned to see that it had been a group including Jack and his friends. Jack didn’t laugh as loudly as the others even though he seemed to be their focal point. He glanced over at her with a trace of what looked like nervousness and she made her way across to him, holding two glasses.
He said something to his friends and met her partway. “Thanks,” he said, accepting the drink.
“So,” she said with a smile. “What was so funny over there?”
“Oh,” he said. “Nothin’. You know, guy stuff.”
“Guy stuff,” she said, a little amused. “So, I obviously wouldn’t understand.”
“C’mon, don’t be like that,” he said, which was a bit more defensive than she had expected.
Peggy looked at him, quiet for a moment. “I wasn’t actually being like that, but now I’m thinking maybe I should. What were you guys laughing about?”
He tried to pass by her and go to the snack table, but she stepped in his way. “Jack.”
“It was a joke. They didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Mean anything by what?”
“They’re jerks anyway. They just say stuff sometimes.”
He wasn’t looking at her. “It was about your firefighter thing. You know.”
“My firefighter thing.” Her voice is calm, dangerously so. “You mean my lifelong dream and planned career path as a firefighter.”
Jack glanced up at her for a second and then away again. “Yeah, but, you know...”
There was a long silence and Peggy began to realize where this was going.
“You’re not, like, serious about that.”
She set her jaw. “And why wouldn’t I be serious?”
He sighed. “C’mon, Marge, do you really wanna do this right now? We’re at a dance – our first date. Let’s just have fun.”
“No.” She put her hands on her hips. “C’mon, Jack, tell me what you think of this thing I’ve been wanting to do, oh, only my entire life.”
“Fine, okay,” he said, finally looking at her. “I don’t wanna be that guy, but you know there aren’t many women firefighters.”
"Really? I had no idea.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “What, you think it’s more likely that you’ll go off to college next year and become some big-shot lawyer? Newsflash, no one ever fucking leaves this town! You’ll be back eventually and become the small-town lawyer who –”
“Yeah, well at least I have a shot,” he snapped.
She stared at him, like she was seeing a new person, because there was no way that the Jack she grew up with would say something like that. “I can’t believe you. All the shit I have to put up with, because I’m outspoken or whatever, shit you’ve defended me against, and you –” She was so angry she could hardly come up with the words to say.
“Look, I didn’t realize this was such a big thing for you –”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should’ve paid better attention.” Peggy began to walk away from him, pulling her arm out of his reach when he tried to stop her.
“You’re being ridiculous!” he called after her.
To her annoyance, she couldn’t even come up with a good retort to that. But she did manage to hold back the tears until she was out of the gym. She hurried down the half-lit high school hallway, taking shuddering breaths as her eyes began to well up with tears. In the – fortunately empty – bathroom, she leaned over the sink and cried, gasping sobs that echoed off the cinderblock walls.
Because this was different from all their other squabbles. This was an argument in earshot of his buddies who had been laughing – at her. This was something not just solved with a quick apology before school on Monday.
And because, damn it, she thought that maybe she and Jack could have had something. It wasn’t like the thought hadn’t occurred to her, over the years. But she knew she could never be with someone who looked at her dreams and thought they were a passing fancy, a joke. That was how the rest of this miserable little town saw it, and with Michael off at college, she had relied on him to believe in her, at the very least.
It just really sucked to be wrong.