Classes were over now, except for those who had detention, and they were all shut away in the big study hall, or if they had task detention, down in the kitchens scrubbing pots or peeling potatoes for the sisters’ supper. After leaving the library, Persis ran down the stairs, and when she got to the first floor, she ran without pausing to the door no one was supposed to use—the convent door, the students called it, where the nuns went out to the convent at the back of the school yard. She shoved it open and was outside, invisible from the street behind yew hedges higher than her head.
Here she stopped to catch her breath, which sounded loud in the space between the green-needled walls. After a moment, she went on, walking quickly. At the end of the path, just before the turn that would take her to the convent, she stood facing the hedge, running her hands along the bushes. “Here,” she muttered to herself, “here, here,” pushing a little at the dense green branches. And finally, her hand went in, a space big enough for a slender girl to push through. She held her arms close to her sides and kept her head tucked down to avoid scratches.
When she was almost to the other side, Persis stopped, a screen of branches between her and the open space beyond, unmowed and weedy, walled in by the hedge and an extension of the chain-link fence that surrounded all of the school grounds. On the open side there was the mustard yellow brick wall of the priest’s house.
No one was in sight. The gate leading to the school yard was latched. Persis waited, listening, and heard the creaking squeak of metal on metal. She closed her eyes, feeling cold and afraid, pressing herself back into the hedge. The gate opened, and she forced herself to open her eyes. It was Jimmy. She grabbed his arm and put her hand over his mouth to keep him quiet.
She pulled him into the hedge with her. “What happened?”
Jimmy was crying, and she shook him a little to make him talk. He wiped his face with the back of his hand. “Alex was doing his in-service job, moving boxes in the storeroom, and I was helping him.” He laughed, hoarse and awful. “We were just fooling around, you know? He stole my beret and put it on. He was singing the song from the play, and he was trying to make me dance with him.”
Persis pulled him farther into the yew. “And then what?”
“She came in. Sister Incarnate. Alex had his arm around me. It wasn’t anything really.” He pushed his head into Persis’s shoulder. “Why did she only take him? Why not me?”
Because it was more awful to take only one, Persis thought. “What did she say?”
“She said he was a corrupter. I thought she was going to hit him, but she said he needed a little peace and quiet to think about his transgressions.” Jimmy sagged against her.
It was like a code, Persis thought. A little peace and quiet meant whatever had made Becca into a walking doll.
“She said something about a study, about science. I didn’t do anything,” Jimmy whispered. “I just let him go. And then I saw her coming back. She came back through the gate.”
“That’s good,” Persis said. “We’ll go and find him.” She took his hand and stepped out into the knee-high weeds.
They walked across the little yard toward the priest’s house. The windows were all blank today, the curtains drawn. They walked past the clamshell shrine, its statue’s face obscured by vines. The concrete steps to the porch were cracked and crumbling, and the boards of the porch floor bare of paint, littered with trash and broken bricks. Jimmy tried the door, rattling the knob, and then pushing against it with his shoulder.
“It’s locked,” Persis said, thinking of the clanking set of keys that the principal carried.
“Can’t you do something? Can’t you open it?”
“It’s not like that,” Persis said.
“It’s a door, I thought that’s what you could do.” Jimmy sounded angry.
“It’s just a way of talking, it doesn’t have anything to do with real doors.” Persis stood listening, wishing she’d hear Alex’s voice calling out to them, laughing at them maybe, calling to them from an upstairs window, making a joke about being Juliet in the balcony scene the way he had during the Shakespeare section last month, hanging from the fire escape.
She picked up one of the bricks lying on the porch and smashed it into the window by the back door.
Jimmy looked at her, shocked, but then he picked up another brick and knocked out the shards of glass so they could climb in.
Inside it looked surprisingly normal. All the things you’d expect in a house, although everything was old—appliances in the kitchen, cupboards with cups and plates. A table in the dining room, one chair drawn back as if someone had just gotten up. Every time they went around a corner, Persis found that she was holding her breath. They had gone through to the front of the house, a stiff formal room with couches and chairs upholstered in a faded flower pattern. There was a crucifix on the wall, brown, except for the bright red of the blood around the nails.
“Should we call for him?” Jimmy said.
They looked at each other, neither wanting to be the one who broke the silence. “Let’s look first,” Persis said.
They went up the front staircase, magnificently bannistered and carpeted in faded red. The rooms on the second floor were hotter than downstairs, and the air more stale. Only one of the bedrooms had furniture in it, the priest’s bedroom probably. There was the usual sort of bedroom stuff in it, but also a little altar with a cushioned kneeler in front of it. A statue of a saint was on the altar, one of the martyrs, holding what had killed him in his outstretched arms. A flock of votive candles flanked the statue, set on a wax-spattered lace cloth.
Jimmy looked in the closet, which was full of stuff, dozens of cassocks on hangers and pairs of old men’s shoes, but no clue where Alex might be. Persis opened the door on the other side, which led to a bathroom, white tiled, the sink stained with rust. They went out into the hall, and checked the other rooms one by one, all empty except for a few boxes on the floor. Jimmy kicked one and the ancient cardboard split, spilling out dozens of hymnals. Another was crammed full of dusty plastic flowers. They opened the double doors at the end of the hall—a linen closet with threadbare sheets and towels and a set of gardening magazines.
“Maybe he’s not here?” Jimmy said.
Persis shook her head. “He must be. Where else could she have taken him?”
They opened the last door in the hall which revealed a flight of narrow steps to the attic. Persis started up, but Jimmy pulled her back, pointing to the stair in front of them, where dust lay thick and undisturbed, “No one’s gone that way for a long time.”
“He must be in the basement,” Persis said, now whispering. They went back down to the first floor, feeling as if they were descending through layers of time. The basement door was in the kitchen. It had a padlock on it, but it hung open.
“Come on then,” Jimmy said.
Persis could tell that he was trying to sound brave. The door swung soundlessly to show them the steps leading down. There was a light switch by the door, but the light was already on, illuminating the steps in a dim yellow glow.
The main part of the basement looked empty, except for the furnace and a tangle of tools on the floor. A door in the front corner revealed a small room with wooden shelves built in, empty, too, except for half a dozen canning jars, their tops rusty, filled with something brown. “Where,” Jimmy began.
“Look,” Persis said. “Back there, where it’s darker.” She pointed toward the back of the basement. The floor ended in a hip-high ledge, stretching back, unlit, where the basement hadn’t been dug out all the way. “Alex?” she called, not too loud.
They leaned against the wall and looked into the cave-like space, trying to see in the dark. “Alex?” Jimmy hoisted himself up, his voice trembling. “I wish we had a flashlight.”
Persis followed him, crawling, feeling the grit under her knees. There was a little light ahead, from a small grimy window. She widened her eyes, trying to see something useful, trying to be ready. But it was Jimmy who found Alex.
He was up against the wall under the window, rolled in something bulky, only his head free, his mouth gagged with a piece of cloth tied so tightly that it had forced his mouth open. He didn’t react when Jimmy made a noise, but when they tried to free him from what seemed to be an old rug, he flailed out, fighting them. “Alex,” Jimmy said, “it’s us, we’re here.”
But he continued to hit out. “He can’t hear us,” Persis said. In the dim light from the window, she saw that he had plugs in his ears, and another piece of cloth tied over his eyes. She took Alex’s hand, squeezing it, holding him back from punching Jimmy, and motioned for Jimmy to undo the gag and blindfold. She wrapped herself around him after Jimmy pushed the rug away and then helped get the ear plugs out.
Alex was gasping against Persis’s neck, holding her tightly. “How long?” he said. “How long? It seemed so long, it was so dark.” He pulled away to look at her. “You saved me. Just like always. And you,” he said to Jimmy. “Where’s your white horse? I’m totally undone.”
His voice was raspy, and Persis could feel him shaking, tremors that shook his whole body. She passed Alex to Jimmy, who was hovering, and they clasped each other, Alex pushing his head into Jimmy’s chest. “You didn’t have to go to all this trouble,” Alex said. “I already was totally into you.”
Jimmy held him awkwardly, but when Alex put his face up, Jimmy rubbed his cheek against his hair, and then they were kissing. Persis turned her head away, not wanting them to see her longing. She looked fixedly out the window, where she could see a patch of unmowed grass, its overgrown stems brushing against the dirty glass.
They got Alex out into the basement, and by the time they made it to the stairs, his legs were working properly, although he still held onto Jimmy, talking all the time, as if the words had welled up in him against the gag. “We’ll go out,” he was saying, “we’ll celebrate. We’ll go to that place where your brother works, Persis, the Silence Bar, and he’ll give us some terribly retro drinks, like martinis or Harvey Wallbangers.”
“But are you okay?” Jimmy asked him.
“I’m fine,” Alex said. “Perfectly fine.”
They were in the living room now, for Persis had decided they should leave by the street instead of going back through the schoolyard. She stood in the front hall by another of the oversized, bloody crucifixes.
“What did she do?” said Jimmy.
“Not now,” Persis said. “Come on.”
Alex took Jimmy’s hand, and then pushed up by Persis, rubbing his shoulder against hers, and that’s how they were, all touching, crushed against each other for comfort, when the front door opened. Sister Mary Incarnate smiled at them.
“It took you longer than I thought,” she said. “I can’t give you full marks, I’m afraid.” Her body filled the doorway. She came in and shut it behind her.
Persis thought that it should be easy to push past her and go outside. They didn’t even have to go back to school. People quit school all the time, younger than them. In the moments that the four of them stood unmoving, Persis saw a future where she and Alex and Jimmy worked together. Alex and Jimmy lived together, and they had a business, they helped people. Jimmy made tea and Alex grew flowers in a little patch of dirt. Persis could see it clearly in her head, sitting on a couch with the two of them while they all laughed at one of Alex’s jokes.
But in the here and now, Alex had fallen back against Jimmy, the trembling starting up again in his legs and arms, and Jimmy was frozen, his irises ringed with white.
“We could sit down,” Sister suggested.
“No,” Persis said.
“Alexander, James, please sit down,” Sister said, ignoring her.
Jimmy turned his eyes to look at her. He still held onto Alex, but his hold was loosened. Sister pointed, back to the room with the bloody crucifix. “You were breaking and entering, which is still a crime, I believe. I am certainly the injured party, am I not? A religious person, doing her a duty toward the children in her charge.”
“Your duty?” Persis remained standing while Jimmy helped Alex, who was almost fainting, to sit. “Torture is in the Bible now?”
“A mild form of sensory deprivation.” Sister remained standing. “A well-known psychological tool to calm the wayward mind and unruly body.” She looked at Jimmy and Alex with distaste.
“You can’t do that again,” Persis said. “Alex—he can’t.”
“A weak vessel.” Sister raised her stick and tapped Alex on the knee. His face went white.
“People will notice if your students start going crazy,” Persis said.
Sister moved around the room, her gait slow and stately. They really don’t, I’ve found. I have that gift, you see, to know which are ready for instruction. And who’s to stop me?” She turned then to look at Persis, an expectant look on her face. “I’m open to negotiation, you know. An exchange of information and skills.”
“Is this about Melissa?” Persis asked. “Because I had nothing to do with that.”
“A tiresome girl.” The principal shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t say I blame you.”
Persis wanted to step back, or clench her fists, anything to hold back what was rising up inside her. Don’t show yourself, her grandmother always said. Don’t put it on the outside, no matter what. People don’t need to know what you are. And Persis had tried, to push down and in, to keep the kernel of herself hidden. But she was here now, and Alex and Jimmy were here, because she hadn’t always been able to obey her grandmother. Even though she hadn’t done anything to Melissa, she had chosen sometimes not to obey, because it was easier, because she wanted to show off.
Sister had come nearer now, close enough to touch Persis. “I could be good for you,” Sister said, her voice caressing. “I know things that would be useful to you. No one has taught you, nurtured you,” her voice going so high and sweet that Persis felt sick. “Your family can’t do things for you. They don’t have the resources. They don’t appreciate you, Persis. All that can change.”
It seemed to Persis that Sister’s voice was making a web, spinning the room into darkness, the light from the windows growing green and watery. Alex and Jimmy seemed far away, small and huddled on the couch. All the air of the room seemed to be moving in a vortex around Persis and Sister Mary Incarnate, slowly turning and sucking at them.
Sister was talking of pretty dresses and places that they could travel, how she had always wanted a child, but that Persis would be better than her child, that they would see things together that no mortal person had seen before. Her mouth and her eyes looked hungry. “All you have to do is show me,” she said to Persis. “Show me your gift.”
“What about Alex and Jimmy?” Persis said.
Sister looked as if she’d forgotten them. “They’ll be fine. I don’t care about your little fag tagalongs. You can make better friends,” she crooned.
Persis took a breath and put her hand out, palm up. Sister’s eyes fixed on it, and she gave a little gasp. “Yesss,” she said.
Persis touched one finger to Sister’s neck, and then dragged it down Sister’s chest. Persis turned her hand so that the fingers pointed down and let go of the thing inside, letting it fill her body with intent. She could hear her grandmother saying don’t show yourself, don’t put it on the outside, no matter what, but she couldn’t listen to that now. She slowly swept her arm to the side and opened the door.
Sister fell back as if she’d been struck. Her eyes moved from their fix on Persis’s hand. She was looking toward the crucifix, but not as if she saw it. Her face twisted as if she were puzzled, and then she groaned, a rasping moaning sound that made Persis’s head ache. One of Sister’s hands reached out as if to touch something and a ripple of motion went across her face, almost a reflection, as if she stood in front of something bright and moving. Persis thought for a minute that she saw something of what Sister was seeing or knowing, a confused impression of something dark, hurtling fast, of dull points of light, a rain of glistening needles. Sister took a step forward, and then another.
Persis stepped aside, then followed as Sister walked unsteadily toward the hall. When she reached the front door, it opened before her, and Sister went out, down the steps, down the front walk to the sidewalk on Bridge Ave. As Persis watched, with Jimmy and Alex crowding up behind her, Sister walked over the dusty weeds of the tree lawn, and out into the street. It seemed for a minute that she couldn’t avoid being hit, but she walked between the cars, following whatever it was that she could see ahead of her. On the other side, she went across the convenience store parking lot, and then past it, and then she was out of sight.
They went back to school the next day. Sister Mary Incarnate’s office stayed dark, and the nuns whispered. Some said the principal had gone back to her hometown to nurse her sick mother, that she’d left a letter calling out people on scandalous behavior, some of the other nuns, even among the regional administration. A girl claimed that she’d seen her walking on the water down at Edgewater Beach, her black lace-up shoes skimming the waves. Someone else whispered that she’d been downtown, walking from bar to bar in her habit, muddy at the hem, grabbing at people and trying to talk to them about her visions. The diocese placed an interdiction on all queries about what had happened, and they didn’t replace her. The school secretary took on the principal’s duties indefinitely.
Alex and Jimmy and Persis passed around the rumors and gossip like everyone else, so as not to attract attention. Melissa Sloane came back to school wearing a flowered headband to cover her bald spot. The Scarlet Letter Musical was performed to an audience of parents, students, and church officials, and Persis’s sweet melodious voice filled the dusty study hall, disturbing whatever ghosts there might be from the school’s hundred years. There was talk for a while that a scout from American Idol was in the audience and that he had offered Persis a spot in the televised auditions, but nothing came of it. Alex and Jimmy settled into being boyfriends, while Persis settled into being alone for the time being, as her grandmother had recommended she should, one of her gifts being both too good and too bad to be able to love anyone as more ordinary folks could.
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.