Mussie, Then And Now

Jasper Jackson cautiously entered the All Things Christian Store for the first time ever, although the business had been in Greenville for years. He felt out of place as he observed all the religious artifacts, gifts, books, CDs, and other items for sale.

"May I help you?" The woman behind the counter asked and Jasper realized he was the only customer in the store. Soft Christian rock music was lightly playing in the background.

"I'm looking for a Crucifix," Jasper said politely. "Gold, maybe."

The woman nodded and led him to a wall in the far back corner of the store. Several crosses hung from the wall and more were in open-faced boxes on shelves. Jasper could feel the eyes of multiple crucified Jesus' staring at him. In addition to Jesus, Jasper also felt the eyes of the woman on him too and he glanced at her with uncertainty.

"Hello, Jasper," she said with a knowing smile on her face.

Jasper squinted at her. "Do I know you?"

"Mussie Hamilton," she smirked. "It's been a long time."

Jasper's mouth fell open as he gawked at her with disbelief. "No offense, Mussie, but a Christian Store is the last place I'd expect to find you!"

"It's true," she agreed with a slight laugh. "But Jesus is all about redemption!"

He looked at her, surprised that she was dressed so modestly with a plain long gray skirt and a white blouse. She wore no makeup and her brown hair was pulled back in a bun.

"Are you one of those born agains?" Jasper asked.

"No, not really," she shrugged. "I mean I try to be a good Christian but I'm not one of those Bible Thumping pray-on-your-knees annoying zealots who tries to convert everybody she encounters!"

"Good!" Jasper teased. He took a crucifix from the shelf. "I'll go with this one," he decided.

"Have you been converted too?" Mussie teased as they walked to the front customer counter.

"No, it's for my Aunt Rose," Jasper explained. "She's moving into an assisted living apartment and I thought she'd like this over her bed."

"Very nice," Mussie replied, wrapping the gift as Jasper watched.

He handed her his debit card and she ran it through, handing him his receipt when returning the card.

"Thanks for visiting All Things Christian," Mussie said warmly as she placed the gift in a bag and handed it to him.

"It's been an interesting experience," he smiled before starting for the door.

"Jasper!" Her tone almost sounded desperate and he looked back at her with concern. She glanced at the clock. "I close up in ten minutes," she said. "Would you mind waiting for me? There's a nice quaint café just around the corner."

He looked at her for a long moment as their entire past flashed through his mind. Should he politely turn her down and walked out of her life as quickly as he had arrived? Was there any point in continuing this unexpected meeting? He chewed on his lip and sucked in his breath. "Okay," he said, finally. "I'll wait for you there."

She seemed relieved and she nodded her head in acknowledgement as she watched him leave the store.

The woman Jasper encountered at the Christian store was not the person he remembered from his youth. The Mussie Hamilton he grew up with had over-plucked eyebrows, thick bangs and wild hair styles, wore expensive and endless Abercrombie and Fitch clothing and more make-up than a circus clown.

"Polite and Christian" would definitely not be the adjectives he'd use to describe her personality back then. Mussie was a spoiled bitch and a narcissistic creep and Jasper literally hated her guts. Unfortunately, she lived on his street and she terrorized the neighborhood girls, including Jasper's kid sister Ally, which is why he got involved in Mussie's orbit at all. He wanted nothing to do with her but he was forced to play the role of big brother when Mussie insisted on being a bullying jerk. His interventions usually involved threats, insults, and peer pressure around school since he was a popular athlete and a few years older than Mussie.

The café was a former diner that had been reconfigured and redecorated into a contemporary eatery with choice menu selections (soups, salads, specialty sandwiches), a variety of teas, and a glass display case full of exotic desserts. The tables were small and round and the décor was modern and abstract. Jasper wasn't quite sure what he was doing there or why he agreed to meet with Mussie. What was the point? They had nothing in common and a past that could only be described as rocky at best. Jasper read the menu, checked his phone, and tried to look cool as he waited. He didn't have anywhere to go, really, but was that any reason to kill time with Mussie of all people?

She entered the café, finally, taking a seat across from him at the intimate table. "Thanks for waiting," she smiled, looking uncommonly nervous.

"How did you end up at a Christian store?" Jasper had to know.

"My grandmother ran it for years," Mussie answered.

"I never knew that," Jasper said with surprise.

"It wasn't something I talked about," Mussie said. "Anyway, she got sick a couple of years ago and I decided to help out. She died and now I live in her apartment above the store."

"Wow."

"I know, right?" Mussie laughed. "See what happens when bullies grow up? Some bullies anyway."

"You weren't Christian in high school."

"No, I majored in making kids miserable in high school," Mussie admitted.

"Do you ever go back to the old neighborhood?"

She shook her head no. "My parents sold the house once we were out of school. I'm only in touch with a couple of kids from the old days, just barely. We used to call ourselves the 'Fantastic Five' for our supposed magnificence, especially in the Class Favorites section of the year book. 'Best Hair,' 'Most Likely To Succeed,' 'Most Outgoing.' Of course, we were in charge of "counting" the votes so it was easy to win!"

"You definitely thought you were cool," Jasper recalled.

"The hierarchy of popularity was defined by family name, status at the country club, and who you played tennis with," Mussie explained. "And having an in with the boys who trained us in the art of teen cruelty helped. I didn't want to be bullied so I became one, especially toward girls who looked for the attention of boys I considered mine."

"You weren't very nice," Jasper agreed.

"I existed in the social orbit of the Fantastic's select circle and it felt good having the power."

"You weren't very nice," Jasper repeated.

"I liked the attention from the top dogs," she continued. "The Fantastic Five enjoyed an alliance of shared cruelty, making fun of anyone and everyone." She gave him a pleading look. "I knew I wasn't very nice and what I was doing was wrong but we fed off of each other. I perfected shaming and bullying and I understand why you didn't like me. I didn't even like myself."

"You were a mean girl," Jasper told her.

A waitress came to the table. Mussie ordered green tea and a cucumber sandwich. Jasper settled for a flavored water and a ham and cheese on homemade rye.

"I flirted shamelessly with boys," Mussie admitted when the waitress was gone.

"Why?" Jasper asked.

"Because I liked the way they made me feel even though I usually treated them like dogs if I knew they liked me." She sighed. "I could be so cruel."

"Why?" Jasper asked again.

"Position and status and power and influence and popularity," she answered. "We practiced our meanness."

"The Fantastic Frauds," Jasper noted.

"It was necessary for survival," Mussie explained. "We were, despite appearances, insecure and vulnerable so went on offense. We shit on guys to project an image of being untouchable but we lived in constant states of anxiety fighting for acceptance, desperate not to be judged or pushed out of the power status quo. We feared being eliminated or becoming irrelevant so we hurt a lot of people, especially ourselves."

"Pretty pathetic," Jasper said.

"We were mean girls, after all, terrible people, merciless by any standard, borderline psychotic."

"Why are you telling me all this?" Jasper asked.

"Now that I understand what life is really all about, I'm haunted by shame," she confessed. "My overwhelming guilt about those years fill me with regret but I guess I deserve that. I just wanted you to know that I'm sorry for behaving the way I did."

The waitress returned with their food while Jasper stared at Mussie, trying to figure out if had contempt for her or pity.

"What happened to the Fantastic Five?" He asked when the waitress was gone.

"Amber's a successful accountant in Boston, Lisa came out and recently married her long time lover, Kara is in med school, and Maura lives in Spain," Mussie answered. "I'm the only one still living in the area. I took over the store because I needed to find a meaningful identity and do something that matters. I'm thirty. Time to start living my life."

"Is this the life you want?" Jasper wondered.

"It's the life I've been given," she answered. "I'm grateful for the do-over." She saw the cynical look on his face and she smirked with understanding. "I know it's hard to believe."

Jasper was embarrassed to be called out on his doubt. "I haven't seen you in a long time, Mussie," he said. "I realize the way I remember you is not the way you are now."

"It's okay, I understand," she smiled. "Sometimes I don't believe it myself!" She grinned and then looked at him. "So, what have you been up to?"

Jasper told her about his years at Boston College and hanging around Bean-town for a few years post-graduate before finally making his way back to Hillsboro where he now worked for a non-profit energy consulting firm, renting a condo a few miles from the old neighborhood where his parents still lived in the house he grew up in. His sister Ally lived in Ohio now.

He and Mussie updated each other on familiar names from the neighborhood and school, safe conversation that had nothing to do with Mussie's previous life.

Jasper paid for the meal and walked Mussie back to the store where he had parked his car.

"Thanks for spending time with me, Jasper," Mussie said earnestly. "It was important to me to make amends."

"I'm glad things worked out for you," Jasper replied neutrally. "Take care."

"I will, you too," she smiled.

Jasper got into his car and drove away not quite sure what to make of his time spent with the former mean girl, Mussie Hamilton.