Lucy Vidrio’s big sister always claims that sixth grade is terrible. “The worst year of my life,” Jacinda had promised Lucy when she’d been home from college this summer. “I don’t think I can overstate how miserable I was.”
But she’d also promised Lucy bomb teachers , as though that makes up for drama and departmentalized schooling and getting her period sometime soon, and so Lucy goes in with high hopes. She isn’t all that academic, though she does love to read, and she’s gratified to discover that Mrs. Mills loves reading just as much. She gets Bs when she’s lucky and As barely , but that’s par for the course with Mrs. Mills. Everyone knows she’s a tough grader and no one is dumb enough to talk during her class, but she’s one of the best teachers Lucy’s ever had and everyone knows it.
Plus, there’s always the chance for excitement. The only person in the school who isn’t afraid of Mrs. Mills works next door, and she’s equally entertaining in the classroom and out. Lucy’s going to miss them next year. “ Mrs. Mills,” Mrs. Swan says one afternoon in April, always with that drawl around Mrs. like she can’t believe that Mrs. Mills is married. Lucy’s classmates tend toward that same disbelief. We’re supposed to believe that someone actually chooses to live with Mrs. Mills? Do you think Mrs. Mills has kids? Can you imagine Mrs. Mills in love or do you think she treats her husband like she treats us?
Even in a small town like Storybrooke, it’s been hard to keep track of Mrs. Mills. She’s been spotted a few times in the diner, but always with other teachers– Mrs. Swan or Mrs. Locksley or occasionally that high school senior who runs the student newspaper, never a husband. Maybe the Mrs. is just there by default, Lucy reflects, and that’s why Mrs. Swan is mocking it now.
She saunters into the classroom like she owns it, right in the middle of a class discussion on thesis statements. “ God , it’s boring in here,” she says, heaving a sigh. She turns to the class to say in a mock whisper, “Some people count sheep. I count lectures I’ve overheard from Mrs. Mills’s classroom.”
“Are you here for a reason ?” Mrs. Mills says, eyebrows arched.
Mrs. Swan gives her an exaggerated pout, the kind that Lucy can never figure out if she’s making fun of Mrs. Mills or flirting with her. “What? Can’t a girl miss the stuffy literature teacher next door? Or her charming class?” Mrs. Swan says, winking directly at Lucy. Lucy grins back. “Oh,” Mrs. Swan says, as an afterthought. “Also I need your cable.”
“We’ve updated our smartboard systems. You have all the cables you need,” Mrs. Mills says, exasperated. Sometimes, Lucy thinks that Mrs. Mills doesn’t mind Mrs. Swan annoying her, and that she actually likes it. Lucy might be projecting, though.
Mrs. Swan shakes her head. “Nope. I lent the connector between the computer and the board to Mulan and never got it back.”
“So bother her .”
Mrs. Swan cocks her head. “When this is so much more fun?”
Mrs. Mills bends down, finds the cable, and thrusts it into Mrs. Swan’s hand. “ Goodbye ,” she says, and Lucy makes a little mark on the corner of her desk. Front corner desk is the tally desk , and Lucy grabs it whenever she can. There’s an identical one in the front corner of Mrs. Swan’s room, complete with the same cross in the corner, the M over the first arm and the S over the second. Lucy draws in a line over the S and notices with satisfaction that it’s winning. Mrs. Mills is winning on the tally desk in Mrs. Swan’s classroom, of course, and this is just symmetry.
She has Mrs. Swan first in the morning, which means that they’re sleepy-eyed and listless for the first few minutes of class the next day. Mrs. Swan always takes that as a personal challenge. “If I can’t wake you up, who can? Mrs. Mills? She’d put you into a coma.”
Soon, they’re immersed in a wakeup exercise, and Mrs. Mills is flinging their door open, glowering. “What now ?” she demands. “Can I have just one class before you drown me out?”
Mrs. Swan gestures at Lucy’s two classmates at the front of the room. “PEMDAS rap battles, obviously.” She says it like they hadn’t invented them on the spot and that this is an everyday occurrence, and Mrs. Mills squints suspiciously at Mrs. Swan and shakes her head.
“I understand maybe a third of what comes out of your mouth on a good day,” she says, her words cutting. Or maybe they’re meant to be cutting. They sound almost rueful to Lucy, almost affectionate. Lucy considers the fact that they’ve been teaching together since Jacinda was in sixth grade, eight years ago, and that that’s a really long time to sustain hatred.
Mrs. Swan laughs. “I’m sorry to hear it,” she says, tossing her hair.
“I’m sorry it isn’t less,” Mrs. Mills shoots back, and Mrs. Swan laughs again, flashing Mrs. Mills a bright smile. And Lucy is almost positive that Mrs. Swan doesn’t hate Mrs. Mills, at least.
Not that the rest of her class agrees. One boy waits until Mrs. Mills leaves before he sings in a low tone, “Ding-dong, the witch is gone,” and a few of his friends snort.
Mrs. Swan gives him a sidelong glance. “Don’t let her hear you sing that,” she says. “You’ll just encourage her.” The boys sit back, smug that Mrs. Swan is on their side, and Mrs. Swan sings it for a week whenever Mrs. Mills stalks out of the classroom.
It’s weird , though, the ongoing feud between Mrs. Swan and Mrs. Mills. The older kids claim that it’s been going since Mrs. Swan had started teaching at Storybrooke Middle School, but it doesn’t seem like it’s nearly as cloaked in bitterness as it could be. Mrs. Swan hangs out in Mrs. Mills’s office all the time, and Lucy sees them herself at the diner one early morning, a few weeks after the PEMDAS rap battle argument. They’re eating pancakes and drinking coffee, leaning forward as Mrs. Mills says something in a low tone. It looks almost… intimate , like they’re really, really close friends, and Lucy shies away from the table before she can intrude.
Mrs. Mills spots her anyway. “Morning, Lucy,” she says, and the smile she gives Lucy is so different from the ones she gives in school. It’s a little gentler, a little warmer, and when she turns back to Mrs. Swan, it’s almost conspiratorial. “Lucy wrote that opinion piece on school lunches that I want Henry to run in the student paper.”
“Aha. Good at math and a writer. One in a million.” Mrs. Swan winks at Lucy. “I figure that anyone who can get on Mrs. Mills’s good side is an unparalleled talent, huh?”
Mrs. Mills snorts. Snorts , like she’s a regular human being and not the picture of poise and grace. Lucy stares. “Mrs. Swan only says that because she’s never once experienced it.”
“To be honest, I’m not sure you have a good side,” Mrs. Swan says, and then “ Ow! ” when Mrs. Mills ostensibly kicks her under the table. She turns back to Lucy. “See what I mean?”
Mrs. Mills leans forward, close enough to murmur something into Mrs. Swan’s ear. Mrs. Swan’s smile grows, and then she murmurs something back. Lucy is left with the strangest impression that she’s missing something , but she can’t put her finger on what it might be.
She clears her throat. “I’d better go,” she says. “My bus is–” She points vaguely down the block, and she’s left with the faint afterimage of her teachers bent toward each other, speaking in such low tones that one’s lips are nearly at the other’s ear.
She doesn’t think much of it when they’re back in their rightful places in school and Mrs. Swan has rearranged Mrs. Mills’s painstakingly organized desk into an elaborate maze of paper clips and pencils. Mrs. Mills sighs heavily and ignores it, and the class is tactful enough not to say a word when she sits absentmindedly on her desk at one point and then jumps up, a thumb tack at that spot on the desk.
She peeks back into the classroom later that day and sees Mrs. Swan and Mrs. Mills tidying up the desk together. Mrs. Mills says something, and Mrs. Swan puts a hand where Mrs. Mills had gotten tacked and holds it there. Lucy gapes, because that’s definitely Mrs. Swan’s hand on Mrs. Mills’s ass , but Mrs. Mills just rolls her eyes and walks away.
They really are good friends, Lucy decides, though she doesn’t mention it to her classmates. They’d laugh it off, probably, because who would see Mrs. Mills and Mrs. Swan and think that they were friends ?
Near the end of the year, Jacinda comes back from college, bright-eyed and enthusiastic and chatting with Ana about Ana’s political science final like she’d always been an expert in politics. “You’ve got a while to go,” she tells Lucy, curling up with her on the squishy pillow in the room they used to share. “Oh! You know who’s in school with me? Do you remember Sabine?”
Lucy remembers Sabine very vaguely, Jacinda’s girlfriend who’d moved away three years ago and left Jacinda in tears for weeks. “Are you two together again?” she asks, and Jacinda bites her lip and then promptly denies it, but Lucy grins. Good . Jacinda deserves a cool girlfriend.
“And how is your school?” Jacinda asks pointedly, and Lucy tells her about science lab and some of her new friends this year and the article that she’d gotten to publish in the student newspaper. She talks about Mrs. Mills and how much fun math is, and Jacinda perks up. “They’re still at it, huh? Ms. Mills and Ms. Swan?”
“Always,” Lucy says, shaking her head. “I’m pretty sure that they’re secretly friends, though.” At least Jacinda won’t laugh at her.
Jacinda raises her eyebrows. “Friends, huh?”
The next day is the weekend, and Jacinda takes Lucy out for milkshakes and then wanders Main Street, pointing out all the little things that had changed in the past year. “Gold has a pawn shop now?” she says incredulously. “I heard he was fired but I thought he’d just go work in some other town.” She stares wistfully at his storefront. “I remember when this place was an ice cream shop for, like, two months. Good times.”
“I’ll bet.” Granny’s makes a mean milkshake, and Lucy doesn’t think that some other shop could match hers. She has no memory of said ice cream shop.
They meander toward where some of Jacinda’s old friends are hanging out at the park, waiting for them. Two of the girls are fresh out of high school and already engaged, and they happily discuss color schemes and wedding dresses– and Sabine , of course– with Jacinda while Lucy skips stones in the pond. “Where’s Henry?” Jacinda asks suddenly. “I messaged him that I was coming back, but he never answered.”
“He’s been busy,” says one of the blonde girls. There are, like, four of them. One of them works on the student newspaper, and she’d been the one to suggest that Lucy might want to take over the middle school coverage next year. Lucy doesn’t really think of herself as a journalist, but Ms. Mills had said she’d be a good choice and Lucy wonders if this might be her niche, after all. “Yearbook and the paper and college prep. His moms are being very intense about college prep.” She snorts. “Bunch of nerds.”
“Strong words from the class valedictorian, Ava,” another blonde says teasingly, and Ava looks alarmed.
“Don’t tell Jacinda that. I have an image to protect.” Lucy watches them, fascinated, and Jacinda pats her shoulder as she finishes her milkshake.
“I’m gonna head over to Henry’s to see how he’s doing,” Jacinda says. “It’s been a while.” Lucy knows Henry, sort of, as the editor of the paper and as one of Jacinda’s good friends. He’d introduced himself as such when she’d submitted her article, and she’d seen why Jacinda had gotten along so well with him. He’s the kind of guy who’s really genuine without being obnoxious, and he has an easy smile and the confidence that comes with it.
She hadn’t known that he has two moms; though now that she thinks about it, she remembers him mentioning both a Mom and a Ma offhand. As someone gay-adjacent, she feels a specal kinship with other gay-adjacent people. “Henry has two moms?” she asks Jacinda as they walk, just to be sure.
Jacinda looks as though she’s smothering a laugh. “Technically, it’s more complicated than that. He has a birth mom and an adoptive mom.”
“Oh,” Lucy says, disappointed. “So it’s like shared custody?” That’s much less relatable than two moms.
Jacinda shrugs airily. “Not really. The birth mom gave up parental rights, from what I remember. Then I guess she adopted him formally after she married the adoptive mom. I don’t really know all the details. Just what Henry’s mentioned.”
Oh . Lucy looks up at her sister, wide-eyed, and maybe she is journalist material, because this is a story she wants to know everything about. “His birth mom married his adoptive mom after he’d been adopted?” It sounds very much like they’d fallen in love , and that would be amazing–
Jacinda shrugs again. “Yeah. It was a big drama back then. The school board got involved and a few people tried protesting the birth mom, but it petered out. Then he was adopted and the protesters got bored. They were really private about it after that. But it was a super romantic story in the end.” Jacinda looks wistful. “Sabine and I went to the wedding together right before she moved. It was in their backyard and we were the only students there– aside from Henry, of course.”
Lucy glances down the block where they’re walking, one of the wealthier streets with roughly five houses on a block and a ton of carefully tended grass everywhere. It looks like the kind of block where there’s a house big enough for a wedding. Part of the story still makes no sense, though. “Why did the school board get involved? Why did they care about who Henry’s moms were–”
She stops talking. At the big white house near the middle of the block, she can see Mrs. Swan, pacing up and down the lawn as she speaks on the phone. “Whoa,” she says slowly. “Mrs. Swan is Henry’s mom?”
She knows that Mrs. Swan is a lesbian– she’s never very quiet about it– but she hadn’t known that Mrs. Swan is married . (Which, you know, still the question about the Mrs . designation.) She’d always just assumed that Mrs. Swan flirts and fights with Mrs. Mills because she’s a free agent, and Lucy frowns suddenly, thinking about Mrs. Swan acting that way while being married.
No way .
Jacinda bobs her head. Mrs. Swan hangs up the phone, sees Jacinda, and beams. “Jacinda! Back from school? What’s this I hear about a reunion with Sabine?”
“Henry has a big mouth,” Jacinda mutters, loud enough for Mrs. Swan to hear.
Mrs. Swan just laughs. “I’ll go get him,” she says. “And Regina. She’ll be thrilled to see you.” She rests a hand on Jacinda’s shoulder, and then smiles down at Lucy, who is still gaping up at her. “Hiya, Lucy.” She says it casually, like she isn’t in the process of shattering every single bit of Lucy’s world view for the past ten months.
Because Regina is…isn’t she…?
Lucy stares as Henry emerges from the house and says gleefully, “Jacinda! Why didn’t you bring Sabine?”
“Shut up,” Jacinda says, and she runs to hug Henry, leaving Lucy alone to watch as a woman emerges from the doorway behind Henry. She rests a hand on Henry’s back, undeniably Mrs. Mills, and Lucy thinks back– to the sightings of the three of them at the diner and the times that her two teachers had hung out together in their classrooms or the office. To the nonstop barrage of bickering and flirting, sometimes indistinguishable, and the affection that can’t be separated from it. To that moment that Lucy had spotted Mrs. Swan and Mrs. Mills in the diner, sitting so close that it had been impossible to characterize their positions as anything but intimate .
Mrs. Swan wanders up the steps as Henry descends them to Jacinda, and she presses a kiss to the corner of Mrs. Mills’s mouth. “I’ll put up dinner. For five,” she adds, and her hand trails over her wife’s waist for one casual, affectionate moment before she disappears into the house.
Lucy’s world, tilted off its axis, rights itself again with that motion, with the little kiss, and with the smile that it leaves behind on Mrs. Mills’s face as she turns to gaze back at her wife with unmistakable, overflowing love.