Pyrokinesis. Cigarette breaks. Nuns!
Our serialization of Mary Grimm’s novelette Nothing Bad starts now with “The Fire.”
Persis and Jimmy had their heads together over their notes in chem class when Melissa Sloan’s hair caught fire. She started screaming and running back and forth in the aisle between the lab tables.
Persis sighed. She went to the back of the room, got out the fire extinguisher and expertly pointed the business end at Melissa. The foam shot out and covered her head and most of the front of Sister Rene’s habit.
Melissa stopped screaming and began to cry, long gasping sobs with hitched breaths in between.
Sister wiped some foam off her cheek. “Someone needs to take Melissa to the girls’ bathroom. Go on – and help her clean up.”
“But Sister,” Melissa cried, “my hair.”
Sister visibly calmed herself, smoothing her hands down over her habit. “It’s just a patch that’s gone,” she said. “And your forehead is only a little red. Also,” she took a deep breath, “vanity is a sin. You can get some calamine lotion from the office.”
“I think I see a blister, Sister,” Persis said.
Melissa began to cry again.
“Do you want me to go to the office, Sister?” Persis said.
“You’ve done enough!” Sister spun around. “Everyone, get out your textbooks and answer the study questions at the end of chapter ten.”
Melissa was led out of the door by her lab partner, still crying, and the students started turning pages, grumbling. Persis went back to sit by Jimmy.
“Did you do that? Jimmy asked.
“Why would I?”
“Because you hate her?”
“Why would you say that?” Persis tapped her fingers on the desk, watching Sister write on the blackboard.
“She said that stuff,” Jimmy said. “You know, about your mother.”
“Yeah,” Persis said. “But no. She is a waste of space though.”
“So you didn’t do anything,” Jimmy said.
Persis shook her head. “I only use my powers for good. Or when it’s really important.”
After chem class, Persis went to the girls’ bathroom, planning to smoke a cigarette and hide out for a while. She walked down the hall through the between-classes traffic, fixing a bored look on her face. The hall was dark, the overhead lights turned off to save money. She went down the east stairs, adjusting her gait to the sag in the middle of each step. It was a decrepit building, more than a hundred years old. There was supposed to be a ghost, a nun who got pregnant or her secret boyfriend broke up with her or something. Persis knew that it wasn’t haunted, but she kept this knowledge to herself as experience had taught her.
As she passed the first-floor office, she looked in. The principal’s secretary was frowning at something on her desk. Persis stuck her tongue out at her, even though she wasn’t all that bad. She speeded up when she saw a shadow behind the frosted-glass door of the inner office. Sister Mary Incarnate; the principal, had a round-moon face that ought to have been friendly, but wasn’t, and round glasses that reflected the light so that her eyes were hidden.
Persis took the back stairs to the basement and stopped at her locker to get two detention-worthy items, a cigarette and a pack of matches. She picked up a book as well – The Silver Chair. Some girls came out of the cafeteria with bags of chips. None of them made eye contact, which was fine with Persis. She was happy to be past the age where girls beat each other up over rivalries and misunderstandings. Persis had been small for her age until she was thirteen, and she’d been beaten up a fair amount by girls who thought she was weird or too smart or who had heard things about her strange family. Now she was big enough to take that kind of thing on, but because of her reputation, she didn’t have to.
Book under her arm and cigarette hidden in her hand, she went into the girls’ bathroom. It was a big room, painted dark green, the ceilings so high that there could be birds nesting up there on the exposed pipes, who knew. She went to the last stall on the north side and locked herself in. This stall had a window, high up on the wall. It was painted over with the same dark green as the walls, but the paint was flaking away, and light came through the slats and scratches.
Lowering the toilet lid, Persis sat sideways, braced herself against the wall, pulled her feet up, and opened the book. She had a study hall now, but it was monitored by Sister Eugenia, who always slept at the front desk, snoring gently, a little drool seeping from the corner of her mouth.
Settling herself more comfortably against the wall, she prepared to lose herself in the adventures of Jill and Eustace. She got out the matches, but before she could light up she heard the door open, and the echoing voices of several girls.
“I heard she’s going to have a giant scar,” she heard someone say.
A toilet flushed.
“Can I borrow your chapstick?”
“I heard she looked like a freaking candle.”
Purses snapped and unsnapped, the whoosh of hairspray, faucets turning on and off.
“It just happened, right out of the blue, no one knows why.”
The girls were quiet for a minute. Finally one of them said, “She’s in that class, you know. Persis Landry.”
Persis imagined them nodding their heads like floppy dolls. Then they were all going out, the door clapping behind them. Closing her eyes, Persis lit her cigarette and inhaled, letting the smoke come out through her nose. Bitches, she thought. As if she’d be so obvious.
She heard the door open again, just one set of footsteps, coming toward her stall, Persis put her finger in her book and waited.
The person stopped in front of her stall.
“What do you want, Alex?” Persis said.
“She sees all, knows all.”
“I can see your shoes,” Persis said.
The shoes in question, a pair of red Chucks, did a little dance step, toes cocked out. “Can I come in?”
Persis opened the door. Alex was wearing gray uniform pants and white shirt, but as always had pushed the dress code to its limit, with vintage onyx cufflinks and a white leather belt.
“You okay? I heard about Melissa-caust.”
Persis took her finger out of her book. “I’m fine.”
“ I just wanted to get the on-the-spot account.”
Persis hugged her knees. “Nothing to tell. Sister Rene was pretty hilarious,” she added.
“And now to more important things. Where should we go to lunch?”
“We’re going out?” Persis picked her cigarette butt off the floor, field stripping it efficiently. If you threw cigarettes into the toilet whole, they often didn’t go down.
“You’ve had a traumatic experience, and I had a pretty brutal math test. So we need to be outlaws at lunch. You could invite one of your friends, too. Like, hmmm, Jimmy?”
“Outlaws? You know nobody cares if we go off campus for lunch, right?”
“It’s against the rules.”
“No one cares about the rules,” Persis said. “Except when they feel like it.” Or when they don’t like you, she thought.
Alex started to say something, but stopped when Persis froze. The door to the hall opened and someone came in. Persis put her hand over his mouth, and he made wide eyes at her. She pointed to his feet, and with exaggerated care, he lifted up first one foot and then the other, placing them on the toilet seat, bracing his back against the door. Persis moved a little to make room for him.
Outside the stall, there was no noise or movement, and Persis wondered if she’d been mistaken, if someone had come in, checked her hair, and gone out again. But there was a sense of presence, a waiting that sucked at the air in the room. Her skin prickled, and she could see goosebumps raised on the skin of Alex’s arms. His legs were trembling a little with the strain of keeping himself off the floor.
“What?” he mouthed silently.
She shook her head, and they waited, tense and poised, for another minute. Just when Persis was almost convinced no one was there, a voice spoke.
“If there’s anyone in here,” the voice said coldly, “they should know that I’m in a very bad mood today.” Sister Mary Incarnate’s voice turned musing, but still cold and measured. “Some people think the rules aren’t for them.” There was a hard thwack, as something struck against the floor. “They are wrong. Some people think they are beneath my notice, or that they are too—“ she paused, “—talented. That they can always get out of trouble.” The thwack again. “They are wrong.”
Persis put her hand on Alex’s leg.
“They should know that I can be a friend. That there might be an exchange of value. They might think about that when they’re running around with their inappropriate friends. Corruption. Aberrance.” The sound again of something striking the floor. “They might think about that.”
Persis wished she could put her arms around him as she used to do when they were kids, next-door friends, when he’d been hit again by his father or thrown out by his mother. She rubbed up and down his calf, wanting to keep him quiet.
But the principal seemed to have said what she wished to. The door to the hall opened and closed with an admonishing click.
Alex fell against Persis and she opened up her arms to hug him. “I hate her,” he said. “I hate her so much.”
Half an hour later, they paused just inside the door of the basement cafeteria. Jimmy was in line in front of the steam tables, crowded on one side by a group of soccer jocks and on the other by Mary Alice Greer, who was even taller, and more muscular. He had just gotten a tray.
Persis caught his eye. He looked pleased to see her, but then his eyes moved past her to Alex, who was doing a restrained (for Alex) wave with both hands. Jimmy got a complicated look on his face, which included yearning and fear. Persis made a come-here gesture, and Jimmy hesitated, looking back toward the cafeteria line, as if it was a harbor of safety. The first cafeteria lady had a ladle full of steaming glop hanging over his tray. Persis jerked her head at Jimmy. Beside her, Alex made grabbing and pulling motions with his hands, as if Jimmy was at the end of a rope he was hauling in. People were starting to look at them, which was probably what made Jimmy come over to them at last.
He pulled out of line. The steaming glop landed on someone else’s plate, and the gap between Mary Alice and the soccer players closed up as if he’d never been there.
“What do you want?” Jimmy hissed at Persis.
She pulled him into the hall. “We’re going out to lunch,” she said, as they approached the basement door. The door once had an alarm to keep students from leaving the building, but it had been broken for years.
“I have Latin study group,” Jimmy said.
“You know all that stuff,” Persis said. “They’re just using you to get better grades.”
The three of them went out the door and up the stone steps, coming out in the side yard of the school. It was secluded and narrow, overgrown with ivy and weeds. Usefully, there was a hole in the wrought iron fence where it was attached to the chapel. They squeezed through, and walked fast down the sidewalk toward Lorain Avenue.
“I’m Alex Spolianski, by the way.” Alex held his hand out to Jimmy, who took it awkwardly .
“I know who you are,” Jimmy said. “We’re both in the play. Well, I’m just the pianist.” He blushed when he said “pianist.” “I’m not actually in the play, I mean.”
The play was a musical version of The Scarlet Letter, which had been written by Sister Bernadette, the English and drama teacher. “We haven’t been introduced.” Alex turned to Persis. “Which is totally your fault. When friends have very attractive friends, and they’re all in a play together, they should introduce these friends to each other.”
“Alex, Jimmy Munoz. Jimmy, Alex Spolianski.”
Alex pushed in between them and took both their arms. “Are we going to Alvie’s?”
“Where else?” Persis said.
As they walked down the street, they made minute changes to their appearance, so that their uniforms weren’t so obvious. Persis rolled her skirt up so that it was above instead of below her knees. She wore a nonregulation men’s sweater that she kept in her locker for these expeditions: black with purple stripes. It hung almost to the hem of her shortened skirt. She had produced a pair of long dangly earrings from her purse, putting them into the second set of holes pierced in her ear. Jimmy wound a long wool scarf around his neck, letting the ends hang down in front, and pulled on a military beret. Alex didn’t need to do anything, since his uniform was already so nominal.
A few minutes later, they were ensconced in a red leather booth at Alvies, a small, sketchy diner across from the West Side Market. They ordered an extra-large fries to share, and drinks: black coffee for Persis, a coke for Jimmy, and chocolate milk for Alex. Alex maneuvered it so he and Jimmy were sitting on one side, Persis on the other. They had a good view of the bustle of W. 25 St., cars and buses, people waiting at the bus stop just outside the window, shoppers going in and out of the Market. A few feet away from Alvie’s, an old woman was selling flowers and good luck charms. The flowers looked as if they had come from her yard, each sparse bouquet carefully wrapped in a torn scrap of newspaper.
“Soooo,” Alex said. “What shall we talk about?” He raised his hand, as if they were in class. “I vote for the Fall Dance. Are you going?”
He was looking at Jimmy, which made Jimmy blush and quickly push a french fry into his mouth.
“Seriously?” Persis said. “You never go to those things.”
“They are lame,” he agreed. “But maybe this year, we could go as a statement. We could wear inappropriate clothes, or dance in a way that would annoy the chaperones. It would be ironic. Don’t you think?” he asked Jimmy.
“I don’t know.” Jimmy was trying to occupy himself with his drink.
“Cut it out,” Persis said. “You’re making Jimmy nervous.”
“I am not,” Alex said.
“He’s not,” Jimmy said at the same time.
They looked at each other, Alex grinning, and Jimmy almost smiling.
Persis sighed dramatically. “We should talk about what’s going on at school.”
Immediately the other two became serious. “Did you tell Jimmy about what happened in the bathroom?”
“No,” she said, and proceeded to do so.
Jimmy dragged a fry through the puddle of ketchup on his plate. “She’s getting worse,” he said.
“She was seriously scary. I’m glad I was there for P,” Alex said. “I’m your hero, right?”
Persis gave him a look, and drank some of her coffee.
“All right.” Alex raised one hand. “I confess to having been scared out of my pants.”
“But what does she want?” Jimmy said. “ She’s the boss. What good is it doing her to act like this?
They sat for a minute without speaking. The little diner was emptying out as the lunch rush abated. The cook had come up to the counter and was having a quiet argument with the ancient waitress. Persis liked to think that they were married to each other, the mom and dad of the diner. They both chain smoked – everything you ate here had the added flavor of tobacco.
“Sister Inquisition hasn’t ever liked me,” Persis said. “You remember freshman year,” she said to Alex. She’d had a class with the principal and was singled out for Sister Mary Incarnate’s special brand of sarcasm. It was a math class, and Persis had gotten bad grades until she caught up. She’d been so excited to start fresh at Transfiguration Academy. And even now, she wasn’t totally sorry. The nuns were weird and sometimes mean, but it was more interesting, and she had made a few friends.
“Sister Inquisition is crazy,” Alex said. “Crazy as a loon. What is a loon anyway?”
“It’s a bird,” Jimmy said. “She’s not crazy.”
“Are they crazy birds?
“Alex,” Persis said. She had finished her fries, and she pushed the plate away.
“It’s about power, maybe?” Jimmy said. Characteristically, he was trying to work it out. “She likes the power she has over all of us? It’s not just the students. The other nuns don’t like her either. She makes them nervous.”
Persis picked up her purse. “It doesn’t matter why,” she said. “We have to deal with it no matter what’s in her head.” She got up and went to the cash register to pay.
“We have to have a plan,” Alex said to Jimmy, putting a hand on his arm. “Don’t you think? Maybe we need to stake her out, make a note of her activities. We can follow her in turns.”
When they were out on the street, he jostled against Jimmy, letting their hands brush. “We should have, I don’t know, walkie-talkies or something.” Alex was a fan of vintage spy thrillers.
“Following her won’t do any good,” Jimmy said, and then looked sorry when Alex deflated. “But I don’t know what will.”
They walked down Lorain in silence for a minute. The street was lively with cars and buses and motorcycles. Storefronts were filled with used appliances, watches and jewelry behind bars, giant boxes of detergent and powdered milk.
“Becca was crying on Monday when she came out of her office,” Jimmy said. This was not an uncommon occurrence, and Alex and Persis waited for him to go on. “She looked strange,” he went on. “As if she couldn’t even remember her name.”
“She hasn’t been back in school yet,” Persis said.
As they approached a cross street, a man came up to Persis. He was old, older than her grandmother. His clothes were old, too, torn and patched and torn again. He was towing a red wagon with a garbage bag in it, the bag as raggedy as his clothes. “Please, miss,” he said to her.
Persis got out a dollar, but he shook his head. “No.” Can I have the touch?”
Persis stiffened, drawing back, and both Jimmy and Alex came up to flank her. “Back off,” said Alex.
“Just open The Door. Only for a minute,” the man said. “ I can trade you something.” He fumbled in his garbage bag, looking for something barterable.
Persis had gone pale, and she let Jimmy and Alex take her hands. “You probably wouldn’t like it,” she said.
“Please,” he said. “I need it.”
“Sorry,” Alex said. “No can do.” He tugged on Persis’s hand and started them walking to the corner. “Hurry up,” he said to Jimmy.
Behind them, the man started yelling. “It’s nothing to you, nothing. I want to know what’s coming.”
They waited on the corner for the light to change. People were turning to look, even coming out of the shops to see what was going on. The man had started screaming, no words, just a jumble of syllables. “Got to hustle,” Alex said to Jimmy and Persis.
They crossed against the light. Persis looked back. The man was dragging his wagon along, following them, but slowly and jerkily, as if he could hardly walk. Some onlookers were pointing at her, but most of them seemed confused. Several had their phones out to take videos.
“Just keep walking,” Alex said. “Don’t hurry.”
The man was still following them. He stopped in the middle of the cross street, causing cars to go around him, honking their horns. “She’s got the touch,” he screamed, suddenly articulate.
They ducked down 41st St. and started to run, cutting across the little park between W. 38th and Lorain, and then slowing down for the last couple of blocks.
“Nice,” Alex said. “Not even late.” First lunch would be over in eleven minutes.
“That was crazy,” Jimmy said. They squeezed through the gap in the fence, Persis first, then Alex. Alex took Jimmy’s hand to pull him through.
“Not a big deal,” Persis said. She felt a little shaky, but basically OK.
Alex nudged her. “It’s been worse.”
“You mean that’s a thing?” Jimmy said. “It’s happened before?”
Alex nodded, but Persis said, “Not all that much. I should go. I’ve got gym.”
She went quickly down the steps and through the door, leaving Alex and Jimmy.
Click here to read Part 2, “Everyone Has a Gift.”
MARY GRIMM is the author of a novel, Left to Themselves, and a story collection, Stealing Time, both published by Random House. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Antioch Review, and the Mississippi Review, as well as in a number of journals that publish flash fiction. Currently, she is working on a historical novel set in 1930s Cleveland. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.
K KAZ is a 26 year old nonbinary artist living in Los Angeles. Their art has been published in Cal State Northridge’s literary magazines. contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org