“Everyone Has a Gift” is our second installment of Mary Grimm’s novelette, Nothing Bad.
Click here to read Part 1, “The Fire.”
He was still holding Jimmy’s hand, their palms clasped, slightly sweaty and warm, which made Jimmy feel happy and nervous. He thought that maybe Alex had forgotten he was doing it, but then he squeezed Jimmy’s hand. “How did he know?” Jimmy asked. “That man.”
“I think it shows to some people,” Alex said. “Like she has a shine that some people can see. I don’t know.”
“Did she ever do it for you?”
“Once, when we were little, by accident. It was like looking through a door that she opened up. People think it’s the future, but Persis says she’s not sure about that. I wanted to go through, but she wouldn’t let me.”
“What was it like?”
“It wasn’t scary, like it is for some people. It was all colors. There were animals, I think. I could see a house in a tree. She says it’s worse if someone isn’t a good person. It’s dark then, but they still want it.”
Jimmy looked down at the grass, conscious of their hands touching and of the time slipping by. Only six minutes until the next period. “It’s hard to know how to be her friend sometimes,” he said. “I don’t have any magic at all.”
Alex used their clasped hands to poke Jimmy in the stomach so that Jimmy would look at him. “I don’t know about that.” The space between the brick wall and the fence suddenly seemed smaller. A little breeze scuffled the leaves around their feet. Alex pulled on Jimmy’s hand, drawing him closer.
“I know you’ve dated girls,” Jimmy’s face was hot, and the place where Alex was touching him burned.
“I’m bi,” Alex said, shrugging. “You haven’t.”
“I might have tried,” Jimmy said, “but everybody else knew I was gay before I did.”
“Nice to have it confirmed.” He leaned forward and tipped Jimmy’s beret back, then took it off. He held it out, examining it. “Vintage?”
“It was my uncle’s.” Jimmy was leaning forward, too. “He was a Green Beret.”
“Nice,” Alex said, his mouth so close to Jimmy’s that Jimmy could feel the breath that formed the word. “I’m kissing you now.” He cocked his head to the side. “Or just say no?”
Jimmy didn’t say no, and their lips came together a little awkwardly, touching and then sliding, their mouths parting. Alex had one hand on Jimmy’s elbow. He dropped the beret and put the other on Jimmy’s neck. They both nudged a little closer, still cautious, their bodies against one another. When they pulled back, they could hear the bell ringing distantly.
Alex looked down between them. “Think of something disgusting,” he advised, “unless you want everyone to know what we’ve been doing.” He grinned. “Not that I mind.”
Persis slipped into gym class late. The volleyball net was set up, but the other girls were clustered at one end, by the climbing wall. Sister Pancratia was demonstrating the proper technique for using the hand and footholds from the ground, her scrawny limbs waving around. Persis crossed the scarred wood floor and put herself in the back of the group, next to Jen, who was in her English class.
“I heard about Melissa,” Jen said, voice low.
Persis nodded, keeping her eyes on Sister.
“She was looking for you,” Jen said. “Sister Carnation.”
Persis shrugged. Jen was friendly, but Persis didn’t really trust her. “What did I miss?” she whispered.
“We are going to climb, girls, climb like monkeys.” Jen’s voice was high and squeaky, an inexpert imitation of Sister Pancratia’s.
Persis laughed, not too loud, but just then Sister turned around and saw her.
“A mark for being tardy, Miss Landry,” Sister said. “And another for being out of uniform.”
Persis tugged at her t-shirt. She had on her gym shorts, but her gym T was too small, and she couldn’t afford a new one. She was wearing one of her step-cousin’s, black with a half moon on it.
Sister gestured for the first two girls in line to go up the wall in tandem.
“Two marks,” Jen remarked. “You’re going to be in detention again before you know it.”
When it was Persis’s turn, she was paired with Olivia Malthus. Persis sighed. Olivia was one of the girls who hated her, as opposed to those who were afraid of her, or those who just didn’t like her much. Olivia had hated her faithfully for two years because of a fight in the cafeteria which Persis won by opening The Door for Olivia, although she knew she shouldn’t. Persis didn’t know what Olivia had seen, but she had hated and feared Persis ever since.
As soon as they were off the gym floor, Olivia was in her space, shoving her elbows into Persis. “Girls, girls,” Sister Pancratia chirped. “Give each other some room. Remember, it’s not a race. We’re only competing against ourselves.”
Olivia kicked out, her foot connecting with Persis’s shin. “Sorry,” she called, for Sister to hear.
Persis reached grimly for the next handhold, planting her feet hard. She edged away, trying to get some space,, but Olivia was right behind her. She grabbed at Persis’s foot and yanked, pulling it away from the wall. “Oops,” she shrieked, her voice rising excitedly.
Persis hung from the handholds. She kicked at Olivia’s hand, but it was now out of her reach.
“Girls, girls.” Sister Pancratia.
Olivia reached up again and got hold of Persis’s ankle.
“Let go,” Persis said. Her fingers and wrists ached. Sister Pancratia had turned away, admonishing the other girls to form a line in pairs.
“Bitch,” Olivia hissed. “I heard what you did to Melissa.”
Persis managed to kick out of Olivia’s grip. “You don’t even like Melissa.” Almost to the top, Persis hung fifteen feet off the gym floor. “Leave me alone.”
“Or what?” Olivia said, looking excited, but also scared. “You’ll turn me into a dog?” “More like a cow.” Persis pulled herself up to the top, where there was a bar to rest against.
Olivia clawed her way toward her. “You can’t do that.”
“No,” Persis said. “That’s not anything like what I can do.” She looked away from Olivia’s red face, distorted by anger and fear. She pulled her knees up under her and braced against the handholds just under the top lip of the wall, pushed off and jumped to the floor, arms out like wings.
After gym class, Persis had half a free period, twenty-five minutes until play practice. She thought about going back to the girls’ john for a smoke, but decided against it without quite admitting how much she’d been spooked earlier. Instead she took her cigarette out to the schoolyard, where the girls’ softball team was practicing.
There was a place past the outfield where the fence was overgrown by a lilac hedge. The bushes looked solid and dense, but there was a space behind them, a dusty corridor bounded on the other side by the fence. She inserted herself between the branches and wriggled through. On the other side of the fence was the building known as the priest’s house, although there was no priest there anymore. The grass was rarely cut there. A car sat in the cracked and crumbling driveway, rusting into the ground, the two visible tires flat. This was where the principal took people who were being punished with more than detention. Everyone knew it, although no one said it aloud. Every once in a while Persis would see a face at one of the windows, a hand pulling the curtain aside, or think she did. Now though, the windows were empty, flat and unreflecting.
She sat, bracing her back against the fence, and lit her cigarette. Only then did she notice she wasn’t alone. Derek Stone was sitting a few feet away. He’d probably been watching the softball players. “Perv,” she said.
He laughed. “It’s only pervy if I’m getting off on it.”
“Point.” Derek was OK. He’d never given her a hard time, never ganged up on her. He could be popular, but he didn’t seem interested – wouldn’t play sports, didn’t pay attention in class.
“What about you?” He moved a little closer, so they could talk low and still hear each other.
On the other side of the bushes, Sister Pancratia was exhorting a base runner to run like a cheetah. Persis could see dust rising from the field in a golden cloud, scuffed up by running feet. “Just wanted a smoke.”
She passed one over. He took her cigarette to light his and then returned it, placing it carefully between her lips.
They smoked in silence, listening to the thud of the ball and the traffic on W. 41st St. It felt warm and close in here, safe, and Persis drifted a little, thinking about the way Alex and Jimmy had looked at each other, how they kept looking away and then back. She was not so sure about love. Her mother and her grandmother and all the collateral members of her family seemed to have fallen into love in a way that suggested this feeling was more important than food or security. All those hard and desperate loves ended badly, not only for the lovers, but for everyone around them. She and her step-cousins, Selden and Morrison, the survivors of these love wars, were all now living with their grandmother, a strange little family of almost-siblings.
She could imagine, if she tried hard, being in the place where Alex and Jimmy were now, drawn together, every look and touch part of a conversation that promised–something, something so important that you’d give up your home, your money, your daughter. Stupid, she thought, for it was no good thinking of her own parents. Alex and Jimmy would probably hurt each other, end up hating each other. But still, she was a little envious.
Derek finished his cigarette and stubbed it out in the dirt among dozens of other butts. “You want to hook up?”
“I have play practice in half an hour.”
“That Scarlet Letter shit? You’re the big star?”
Persis nodded. She stubbed out her own cigarette and leaned her head back against the fence.
“Maybe you should practice a little.” Derek hitched a little closer. “Earn the A.”
“It stands for adultery, stupid.” Persis closed her eyes.
“So?” Derek was close enough so that she could feel his breath on her neck.
“You have to be married for adultery.” Persis could hear the small rustlings as Derek adjusted his position.
“What do you call it when no one is married?”
“Let’s do that then.” Derek pushed his mouth against her throat, licking. He put one hand on her breast, and then stopped, waiting to see if she’d push him off.
Persis listened to his uneven breathing. He really wanted this, she thought, and the sincerity of his desire made her like him better. He’d never been mean to her, and he wasn’t a gossip. He wasn’t afraid of her either. “Clothes on,” she said. She opened her eyes and looked into his, inches away. Now that she’d said yes, she was starting to get turned on, like an itch crawling over her body.
“Can we lay down?” Derek asked, already pushing against her.
She went with it, until she was on her back, head against the fence. She wriggled a little, until she wasn’t pressed so hard against the iron bars. Derek reached up under her blouse, which she allowed, but when he tried to undo her bra, she slapped his hand. “Clothes on,” she reminded him.
He was kissing her, not too sloppily, and lying so heavily on her that she wished she’d demanded that they do it standing up. His hands moved over her, alternately smoothing and pinching. The wetness of his tongue and his heat delivered her into a dreamy state, where her body came alive while her mind shut down. When Derek pushed her skirt up, she didn’t even protest when he pulled her underpants partway down. He stopped touching her to open his pants, which irritated her, since it started to pull her out of the dream. Then he laid himself over her and started to rub and thrust against her, braced on his elbows, his head hanging down with his cheek against hers. Persis felt as if something was approaching them, or they were approaching it, her body moving under his as if by doing so she could help them find whatever it was. She knew about coming. It was always obvious when boys came, but for herself, she was never sure.
She opened her eyes to look at Derek. His eyes were half shut, his mouth in a grimace, his forehead furrowed. He wanted it so much, she thought. She pushed herself harder against him, not sure if she was trying to give it to him, or get it for herself, and then he jerked, out of rhythm, gasping, and she could feel the wet of him on her stomach and legs. He lay on her, breathing hard, and then flung himself off to lie beside her.
Already she could feel the itch and pressure fading away in her body, leaving behind only a vague dissatisfaction. “I hope you’ve got something to clean up with,” she said to him.
Half an hour later, Persis sat cross-legged at center stage in the auditorium, waiting for Sister Bernadette to stop fussing with the stage directions. Alex had given her a look when she came in late and rumpled, but he hadn’t said anything. He was kibitzing a solitaire game, surrounded by most of the chorus, all of them sporting a piece of notebook paper that said “Chorus” in purple magic marker, Sister’s idea, to remind them of their play identities. It was only the third rehearsal, and already she was despairing about their commitment.
Persis smoothed down her own label: a large letter A in red marker. She could hear Jimmy on the piano, practicing one of the songs with the mute pedal down, his fingers barely touching the keys. She felt restless and unhappy. The auditorium was claustrophobic, as if it was filled to its thirty-foot ceiling with some kind of energy, the air sodden and heavy with it. She still felt sticky, although Derek had sacrificed the t-shirt he wore under his uniform shirt to clean up.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen,” Sister Bernadette said, coming to stand by Persis. She motioned with her hands vigorously, gathering them in. When the cast had made a circle around her, she rose on her toes, swaying back and forth. “We have three weeks to bring this together. I know you can do it,” she added, although her mournful face seemed to say that she didn’t know it at all. “Today, we’ll just do the songs, shall we? We’ll go through the scenes and move into place, but no lines.”
“I am a gentle young woman,” Persis sang, letting her voice roll out and fill the auditorium. She had told no one how much pleasure this gave her, the sound of her voice and the way it affected people with a mixture of awe and envy. She felt, almost saw, how her voice was pushing the thick and uneasy air away, squeezing it out the doors and the propped open windows. Jimmy’s accompaniment was unsteady, not always on the note with her, but by mid song they’d managed to catch up with each other, and they finished the first verse together, and went on in tandem to the end.
“Very nice, Persis.” Sister looked as she always did when Persis sang, as if she’d been given an unruly dog to tame. “Now chorus, please.” She waved her hands at Persis and Persis stepped to the side of the stage.
Alex smirked at her. He was front and center among the eight choristers, all chosen because they had experience singing in harmony. Alex had belonged to his church choir, surprisingly. “Hester, oh Hester,” they sang. “Look to your soul. Looook to your sooouul.”
The townspeople arranged and rearranged themselves, one scene after another. Persis was offstage for a while, and she sat on the piano bench with Jimmy, turning pages for him. She could feel him gearing up to ask her something, and to forestall it, when he was between songs, she whispered in his ear. “What did you and Alex do?”
“What?” Jimmy said, too loud, then more quietly. “Nothing. We talked.”
Persis waited, keeping her eyes on him.
“Nothing much,” he said. “He’s nice.”
“So are you,” Persis said.
Jimmy fiddled with the pages of the music while Sister rearranged the clusters of townspeople for the big trial scene.
“I wish there was some way to know,” Jimmy said. He looked at Persis. “You know? How things would turn out.”
Persis drew back from him a little. “I never do that,” she said. “Not for friends.”
Jimmy put his hand on her arm. “I’m not asking, don’t worry.” He spread his fingers out on the keys. “But sometimes I wish there was an easy way, a good way. To know how not to screw up, or if someone was going to…”
To hurt you, Persis thought. She put her arm around him and squeezed. He was warm, his shoulders bony. Would sex be better if she could have it with Jimmy, she wondered. Or Alex? Or would it be just as cold and messed up?
When she had sung the last song, Hester’s farewell, Sister Bernadette gave them a pep talk, exhorting everyone to learn their lines and so on. Persis sat on the piano bench with Jimmy, Alex sitting on the floor in front of them, his back against Jimmy’s legs. “You were certainly in voice today,” Sister Bernadette said to Persis as everyone was leaving. “Have you thought about a career in music?”
When Persis was younger, she’d imagined herself as a singer in a band, standing onstage while everyone looked at her, screaming while she sang. She’d written some band fanfiction in this vein, doing first person versions of herself masquerading as pop stars. “No, sister,” she said.
“Well, you should,” Sister Bernadette said. “Everyone has a gift, you know.”
Persis waved goodbye to Jimmy and Alex. She was in the library last period, doing her in-service job. It was customary to hate the in-service jobs, but in fact she loved it. She liked the quiet, and the books, and she liked Sister Dolora, who was tiny and ancient. She waved her hands like wings when she talked and sang under her breath when she was doing a task. She called Persis “sweet girl” in such a way that it seemed she had always known her and watched out for her.
Today Sister was busy with inventory, and she only smiled at Persis, pointing out the cart of books to be reshelved. Persis did this quickly, and then made her way to her hideaway, a large closet with a window that looked out over the schoolyard.
The closet was almost as big as her room at home, smelling pleasantly of paper and, for some reason, lemons. The dust that gathered in the corners was as soft as velvet. There were haphazard stacks of defunct magazines that Persis sometimes looked at—old New Yorkers and Ladies Home Journals, and a box of Highlights for Children—and a wooden chest which, Persis knew, held old newspapers and a snarl of lace tablecloths. An ancient rubber raincoat and a number of bib aprons hung from a row of hooks on the back wall. Persis wadded up several of the aprons to lean against and propped herself up in the deep windowsill.
Persis had brought her math homework, but instead of starting it, she picked up one of the books she’d stacked on the trunk, part of a box Sister had found when she began the inventory. They were all children’s books, old and dusty.
Today she chose a book with a blue cover, a book of fairy tales. The pages were yellowed and stiff, edged with gold, the illustrations a little faded but colorful. She opened it to the story of the twelve dancing princesses and began to read, leaning her head against the chilly glass. This was the best part of her day, a quiet place that belonged to her, where she was safe, enclosed, guarded by her dotty watchdog. More than once, Sister had pretended to forget that Persis was here when someone came looking for her. Or maybe she had really forgotten, Persis wasn’t sure.
She sat with her head resting on the cool glass of the window, and let herself imagine the closets full of shoes, the trees of silver and gold and diamond. She had reached the part where the young man is following the sisters invisibly in their boat, when a movement outside caught her attention. She turned to look out the window. The principal was walking across the yard, her black skirts and veil flapping behind her. She was pulling someone along with her. Persis pressed her face against the glass. It was Alex, stumbling behind her. He wasn’t wearing his coat.
For one moment, Persis was frozen, her spine curved, one hand flat against the glass, the other still marking her place in the story. The next, she had sprung up from the window, almost falling against the trunk in her haste. She pushed the door open and ran out into the library. Sister Dolora was placing books on the shelves one by one, and humming, moving so deliberately that she seemed to be inhabiting a different sort of time, sticky and slow flowing. Persis ran past her, calling out that she had to go.
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: email@example.com.