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This story is a sequel to Sarah’s recent piece, Get in Line: The Politics of a Scandal.

Mackenzie McDonald had heard many a tall tale in her lifetime. When your father is a children’s book writer, you’re bound to hear at least a thousand or so before the age of 10. Stories where everything from the scenery to the speech were heightened, the fibs of fiction stretched to the point of unbelievability.

When she was younger, an elementary school fledgling, her favorite was Paul Bunyan. Paul, well he was just there, a character blending into the background as much as a giant could, but Babe the Blue Ox and Ezra? She loved them, their dynamic. She saw herself in both: Ezra, who despite being a small child was the key to solving the problem of far-flung houses, and Babe, who didn’t know her own strength.

Just a small child herself, Mackenzie recognized already she was underestimated by a world that overlooked her brain and her cunning to place her in the box easiest for them. She also knew she crawled into that box herself sometimes and closed the lid, downplaying the power that she could feel thrumming through her veins. She didn’t want to rock the boat.

As she aged, Mackenzie never outgrew that belief, even if she outgrew the story.

Now what she found most intriguing about tall tales was not the stories themselves, but how different cultures defined themselves by them. Each country had at least one, all rooted in the same lesson: if you listen, you will understand. They were the stories of the generations, passed down by lips, then by pen, then by print, relaying the wisdom the elders believed was important for the next in line to know. For example, in the Korean tall tale A Bridegroom for Miss Mole, the father’s search up the chain of creation for the grandest thing in the world to marry his daughter taught of the country’s respect of and adherence to hierarchy. In the African tall tale of Lost Beads, the storytellers wanted those listening to know the importance of truthfulness and kindness through the example of girls who pay the ultimate price by acting with neither.

So, when Lincoln Holmes declared in her own dramatic fashion there was money missing from the Grant High School Student Government coffers, Mackenzie automatically began to search for whatever lesson she could be trying to teach with her own tall tale: what goes around comes around? To never trust the popular or neglect the oft annoying voice of reason?

It had to be something, because this scandal had to be a tall tale, Mackenzie decided.

The figures Lincoln presented were most definitely exaggerated, if not an outright lie. It was like how her mom said she needed 25 stitches rather than the actuality of 10 when she fileted her arm on the shattered glass of the window she tried to sneak into one night after curfew. She was overblowing it, making her never-lie-to-your-parents story into a cautionary tale. Lincoln was doing the same, throwing Mackenzie into the most unflattering light possible in a move that reeked of revenge.

At least that’s what Mackenzie thought until she looked at the actual numbers Lincoln had typed out for them in an oh-so-neat report and realized this was no tall tale at all, no trick of the eye or of the mind.

This was legit real life. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. 

When Mackenzie was a child, her dad liked to read to her from his large leather-bound tome of fairy tales, one hundred or so stories inside. Wedged somewhere in the middle was Little Red Riding Hood, and everytime her dad regaled her with the match-up between Red and the Wolf, he reminded her that if she were ever in trouble, like the red-caped girl, she should run.

It was the instinct that clicked into action as her classmates─her electorate─watched her and the rest of the council with wide eyes and fingers frantically moving across phone screens.

What had once been whispers had roared into unconcealed conversations. Mackenzie could only imagine the posts going out on social media now, the Tiktoks that would mock her and her friends. Unfortunately, if this were all true, those would be the least amount of damage done.

“We need to go to a closed session,” she said to herself, to her fellow members, to the crowd.

“Babe, I think that might be a little much,” Jacob told her, his tone irritatingly placating, as if she was indeed a baby that he could coo into submission. “Let’s just move on.”

“We can’t move on. There is money actually missing,” she dropped her volume as she hissed, “and we are the prime suspects. We need to figure this out without an audience.” With a pound of her makeshift gavel, Mackenzie called for “order” and looked down the table to Kim, who, with red flushed skin and a jumping gaze, seemed just as frenzied as she felt. “Can we end this meeting?”

“I–uh… I yeah, I think,” Liz nodded without consulting her bylaws. Of course, what did it matter? Mackenzie had bucked the rules just a couple minutes before by not following the list of audience concerns and comments, and that was just out of pettiness. This was out of self-preservation. Weakly, Liz called for the meeting to move to closed session, a statement which Mackenzie reiterated, restraining herself from going full bellow over the raucous demand for answers.

Slowly, the rows drained out into the hallway.

On the tail end of the stream was Lincoln, passing by the table with thick eyebrows knitted, and shoulders square, as if she couldn’t decide whether she should be concerned or confident and went for both.

Mackenzie sent Lincoln out the door with a glare. Right now, she didn’t know who exactly was to blame for the money’s disappearing act, but she knew that Lincoln was responsible for the clusterfuck she was now living in.

As soon as the room was empty of everyone but the council and their substitute adviser, Mr. Germain, Mackenzie lost it. In retrospect, she would rate her reaction as being on par with Mike Rogers when he tried to attack Matt Gaetz during the 2023 House Speaker Race. In the moment, it didn’t seem irate enough.

“What the fuck, guys?” she asked, paying little mind to the gasp and subsequent chiding of Mr. Germain, who was getting much more than he bargained for when he agreed to take on this assignment. Already he was showing more interest than their usual advisor, Mrs. O’Leary, who used the meetings to catch up on grading or her inbox. Before this, Mackenzie had enjoyed that freedom.

Now she resented it, wondering if their advisor had given them a modicum of oversight, if they would’ve ended up here.

“Why are we listening to Lincoln Holmes? She’s making a big deal out of nothing,” Jacob said, resting back in his chair with ease like this was study hall or one of his dates with her. He raked his hand through his lemon hair, his forest green Henley pulling taut against him with the movement.

“Again, $500 is not nothing. When we have $2,000 in our account, that is literally 25 percent of it. Twenty-five percent that is suddenly gone,” she tossed back, slowing her speech as if that would make Jacob understand.

Rolling his shoulders, he sighed. “That’s assuming that her numbers are right. She could be saying this to just make you look bad. I mean, it’s clear she doesn’t like you. She thinks you’re an idiot.”

Mackenzie stiffened, her vertebrae digging into the unmalleable black plastic of the chair. Her thin peach sweater offered little padding. “She never said I was an idiot.”

“It was implied.”

Mackenzie felt the warmth of embarrassment cloak her from head to toe. “I didn’t think so.”

But was it? Is that how Lincoln saw her then? Someone just skating by on luck and good will?

And what about now when Lincoln looked at her, what did she think? What was she thinking as she left the room? Did she see a girl who was stupid and over her head in a position she should’ve never been? Who was getting what she deserved? Who was swindling the school or who had been duped into a ruse?

She wouldn’t see someone like her, that was for sure, not after everything else she had said during the debate that fall, implied or not.

As much as Mackenzie was used to people classifying her in the way that best suited them, Lincoln’s announcement that the only reasons Mackenzie could want to run for Student Government President were for clout and because she was following her boyfriend’s aspirations cut like a thousand paper cuts, stinging, burning.

In reality, she was doing it for the same reasons Lincoln: she genuinely cared.

Just because she wasn’t as vocal about it as some people did mean that it wasn’t true, that a fire to help, to do good, wasn’t burning inside her, too.

Was it fair to say that Mackenzie was doing it to enhance her college applications? Yes, fine, she was, but there was also something to be said in taking action for the purpose of proving her worth not to someone miles away in a random admissions office, but to herself. To be able to say that she could do this, and that people believed in her enough to, and that maybe that small, squat, pretty, bubbly, popular box they had so quickly placed in was not the only one she belonged.

And now that was ruined. The only other box they would deem fit for her was that of a high school money launderer. The designation would follow her all her life.

“Is that what you’re implying about me? Because I’m not dumb. I’m pretty smart, except apparently in who I trust,” Mackenzie questioned, and looked up and down the line at the rest of the table. Her friends. Had she been underestimating them just as they had her?

“Jesus, you’re being so dramatic,” Jacob groaned into his palms, and anger flared inside her like a flamethrower at its highest setting.

“And you’re being an asshole,” she said flatly. This was the boyfriend that she supposedly followed around like a puppy dog? This guy? Maybe at one point, but not now. No way in hell. “Who, for the record,is not taking this as seriously as he should be. She pulled the numbers from our own reports, Jake. I’ll pull them up right now and compare them, but I don’t think I have to.”

Lifting the cover of her laptop, she logged into the student government server and dragged down the cursor to the Treasury file, and skimmed the Excel sheet.

Each number in Lincoln’s report matched the sheet before her.

“Why wouldn’t you have to?” Jacob asked, frustration evident in the terseness of his words and the warmth that had left his molten chocolate eyes.

Mackenzie doubted hers and his were from the same source, and in that discrepancy, began to doubt him, too.

“Because I was counting money with you and Jai, too, and this,” she said, tapping her finger on the paper Lincoln had given them, “is not the same.” Mackenzie swung her head towards Jai. “Why aren’t they the same?”

In his seat, Jai shifted back and forth, crossing his legs and uncrossing them, just to fold himself in another way. The movement was decidedly out of character for a boy who generally channeled the calm of a monk. “I, uh, I’m not sure. I’ll need to look over my stuff, I think.”

Jacob barely let Jai’s words meet the air before he started up again.

“Why didn’t you catch them until now, Mick? Isn’t that on you to know?”

It was there, in his unwavering deflection onto her, that Mackenzie saw the truth. She should’ve seen it sooner, maybe right away in his too-blasé reaction, but with this she can’t ignore it. There was no accident in the math, no miscalculation. This was purposeful misallocation, and Jacob, rather than admit his probable heavy hand it in, wanted to hand her over as scapegoat instead.

Jacob, her best friend, the boy whom she loved not for his intelligence or musical prowess, but for the way he brushed his thumb over her cheek when he asked if she was okay, and could make her go from tears to ab-aching laughter in three seconds flat, and for the way he sounded at 2:00 A.M. across telephone lines, soft and raspy and hers.

For the way he made her feel, like she defied every box, and yet could go into any she wanted to.

For the way he loved her, or she thought he loved her.

Jacob, the boy who was a backstabbing thief.

If anyone would’ve told her this story, she would’ve said it was the tallest tale of all. The lesson: don’t trust anyone.

“It’s on all of us actually,” she said. She tried to keep the emotion out of her voice, but that was difficult when every card in the hand she’d been dealt was one of betrayal. “You realize that, right? Just because I’m president doesn’t mean this only falls on me. If money is missing, they are going to come down on all of us. There goes scholarships, colleges, anything where they want us to manage money or have some kind of moral standing. That’s all gone. Don’t any of you care about that?”

Mackenzie waited for a response from him, from anyone in that room, but all she received were silence and blank stares—if the gazes even met hers. Jai made eye contact only with the smudges of pencil and marker on the table top, and Betty with the finely trimmed ends of her black braid. Their reactions, she knew, could be in shock, but Mackenzie couldn’t help but see the greater implications in the inaction, namely that somehow and in some way, they were all in on it.

This wasn’t heartbreak, as much as her chest splitting open and hemorrhaging.

“If that’s the case, I’m out. You guys can ruin your own lives. I’m not ruining mine.” As fast as she could, she grabbed her things, not slowing to slide her laptop into her maroon Jansport, as she beelined it to the door. From behind her came calls from her friends and Mrs. Germain  to stop, to not be so ridiculous, or trigger-happy, but in her mind, they had lost their right to ask anything of her when they couldn’t answer a simple question.

On the other side of the slammed door, the hallway was desolate, discarded balled-up papers on the floor evoking images of tumbleweeds in the desert. Quiet came at her from every direction, raising the volume of her ragged breath to stereo surround sound.

What the hell? What the hell? What the hell?

“Are you okay?”

Mackenzie jumped, her laptop nearly slipping from her fingers.

She caught it by its thin silver edge and cradled it to her chest as she spun around to find Lincoln against the bank of navy lockers, that stack of incriminating paperwork tucked against her leg. The confidence of before was tuned down to one, and the worry amped up to eight, maybe nine.

“God. What do you want?” Mackenzie asked. All the force was depleted from her system, so she was running on the fumes of exasperation.

“I didn’t want to come after you. That was not my intention, I swear. It’s not personal. I was just worried about the money,” she said hurriedly.

“Well, me, too, but I don’t have anything to tell you. I have no idea what is going on, but I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Mackenzie told her. In her mind, she heard her dad’s voice once again, telling her to run from the trouble, to get out of that school and as far away from it as she could; but that would require energy, and that fizzled out the second she crossed the threshold.

“I didn’t think you did,” Lincoln said, brushing the brown tendrils framing her face behind her ear. Mackenzie shot her a skeptical look. “Okay, maybe I did at the start, but I don’t now.”

Unlike the people in the Student Government Office, Lincoln held Mackenzie’s gaze and spoke without any deflection or disparagement. In that, Mackenzie found another truth, one that had her believing Lincoln was telling her own. In her, Mackenzie saw another version of herself: a girl who had been mischaracterized and mistreated by the people around her, all the while wanting to do the right thing. In her, she saw a way forward. Inside herself, the flame reignited.

“Do you want to make some change?” Mackenzie asked Lincoln, who cocked her head in return. Her eyes searched the room, as if she was looking for someone to pop out with a camera and tell her she was being pranked on live stream.

Cautiously, Lincoln nodded. “Of course. Always have.”

“Good.” Mackenzie took her by the arm, turned her towards the principal’s office, and began walking, taking Lincoln with her. “You can help me.”

In elementary school, Mackenzie hadn’t wanted to rock the boat.

In middle school, she still hadn’t, but wanted people to understand that she had the capability to if she chose. Now, closing in on the end of her high school career, she didn’t give a damn. She wanted to rock the boat until it capsized.

It was time she wrote her own tall tale, casting her and Lincoln as her own version of Babe the Blue Ox and Ezra. It’s lesson would be clear and simple: don’t ever turn on Mackenzie McDonald.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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