Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story
by Rayme Waters
It was either the hot spell or Sister Agatha that caused it. We
sat that afternoon, two weeks short of graduation, stunned by the
oppressive heat, our navy cotton trousers and blue plaid skirts
moist between our skin and the seat of the desk. Although the door
was open, there was no breeze, only the distant sound of a thresher
and Sister Agatha's voice, reading aloud from her favorite section
in Lord Jim. She was a short, fat, mottle-skinned
nun, with breasts like ramparts stuffed inside the casing of a
blue wool habit. One set of wrinkled, nicotine-stained fingers
held the edges of her teacher's edition firmly while the other
hand shifted her weight on the creaky metal chair. Even without
the heat, it was dreary to finish each day with a woman who punished
you if you weren't sitting at your seat, facing forward, book open,
when the bell rang. We started each class with a reflection: usually
a prayer or a quote from a saint.
"Today marks Pentecost, class, and in remembrance, we will reflect on the
Holy Ghost's visitation in the Scripture." She put on her glasses and
read from Acts of the Apostles, second chapter, first verse.
"Are there any questions before we move on with today's assignment?" She
asked as she closed her worn, leather bound Bible.
I'd heard this same passage at Sunday mass and had a big one. Although I rarely
liked where asking questions got me with Sister Agatha, I raised my hand not
quite above my head.
"I've never really understood who, exactly, the Holy Ghost
is. It seems like we focus mostly on God and Jesus and the Holy
Ghost just comes up
"The Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity, a
separate and equal being from the Father and the Son."
"But what do they mean by Ghost? Can you see it?" I
"Sometimes he's fire, sometimes he's the gift of language.
When you feel something you cannot explain, that is the Holy Ghost.
He is the manifestation
of Christ in us--what you feel when you feel God's hand."
"The Holy Ghost is a man?" I said.
Sister Agatha sighed, "Yes, if you want to get technical
about it, the Holy Ghost is a man."
"Boys rule, girls drool." Came a whisper from the back
of the room.
"Detention," Sister Agatha said quietly, the edges of her mouth dipping
as if tied to a set of fishing weights. "Please turn to page
132 of your books."
Now, each moment hotter than the next, we listened to Lord
I fidgeted, drawing a glance from Sister Agatha, which stilled
me in my seat.
As last year's students had warned us, she kept a copy of the
Cliff's Notes for Lord
Jim within reach in case we might dare to venture something
I sat near the back, protected somewhat by the phalanx in front of me. Sister
Agatha rarely called on the girls, punishing poor feminine participation with
after school gum scraping tasks. With an audience, though, it was the boys whom
she loved to ridicule. She would cold call them, lead their answers and then
pounce. I watched the boys from behind as their postures shifted around; some
legs stuck out straight, some jiggled underneath the metal gills of their desks,
fingers ran through hair, black leather loafers slid over the dull linoleum.
I kept my feet tucked under my book bag as I'd worn sandals on this hot day instead
of regulation white socks and navy loafers. No one took the bait as Sister Agatha,
eyes like a searchlight, beamed about from her squat watchtower. James Byrne,
who sat one over and up from me, leaned back and rolled his head from side to
His hands were big, powerful and tan. He'd broken his ring finger twice against
a rushing line and wore it taped for most of fall. The nails, usually clean,
held a little bit of blackness that meant he must have spent his lunch break
working on the engine of the convent's van. I stared at James's hands, lingering
on the arc between his forefinger and thumb, until I felt him watching me. Did
he see my sandals? Did he remember the last time I'd worn them? When, with his
bandaged hand, he'd undone the straps and slipped them off my feet?
I shifted my gaze and we locked eyes. The heat dissipated as I went cool for
a moment, then he looked away, rubbing his chin on his shoulder.
"Breaking a promise is a breach of faith with mankind, class.
Lord Jim lost his honor when he abandoned the Patna; he needs to
be wary of his
chances for redemption. "
Still no one answered and her finger began to slide down the roll sheet on the
podium to her left, seeking a name to call.
A girl, sitting two rows up, jerked in her chair. Genevieve Snow. She was a girl
I didn't notice much: stocky, quiet. If she hadn't been in my honors track, I
probably would not have known her at all. She moved again, banging her knee against
the metal desk as she tilted more than she ought. No one woke from the Conradian
stupor. Sister Agatha glanced up then read on, lines of annoyance forming on
her brow like ripples in the sand. I gripped the edge of my seat. Gennie inched
more and more to the left with tiny shudders until she fell, her white cotton
blouse making a zipping sound against the satin lining of the blazer hung on
her chair. Sister Agatha screeched out the fallen girl's name; James and I stood.
Gennie jerked as if taken from the sea, propelling herself into a desk headfirst,
her face slack, eyes only white. At this point, or maybe even a second sooner,
I did the smartest thing I ever did at St. Philomena's: I ran for help.
At the time, our school was still very much in the country. A dusty plain of
scrub grass separated the portable classrooms from the older, main school. I
sprinted narrow path between the two, the hem of my skirt whipping at my knees,
my illicit leather sandals biting into my heel and ball. Leaving the path, I
ran up the stairs toward administration, the dry heat like a furnace at my sides.
A stone figure of St. Philomena embedded in the arch above the door had one hand
"Something's happening." I grasped the counter in the
The ancient receptionist, Mrs. Murks, sat at her desk and looked up at me as
if she'd been asked a date in history she didn't know.
"Something's wrong. Gennie Snow is hurt. Call someone, do something, please!"
Murks stared me, then at her phone, lifted the receiver, dialed
and then finally, I heard her ask for an ambulance.
Go back now dear, you've done what you can," she said as she
"Look, Amethyst, I'm sorry. I never meant..." he said.
"It's okay," I said, shaking my head.
"No, it's not. I did exactly what I promised I wouldn't."
I shrugged and bit my lip, already edging down the stairs.
We walked back to the classroom together. He reached for my hand, but I shook
it off and crossed my arms tightly about my chest. The rough, thin strap of my
beaded sandals cut more deeply into my skin with each step.
When we got back, Sister Agatha held Gennie who was now conscious and still.
Bearing Gennie's full weight in her arms, Sister Agatha rocked slowly, talking
low: a prayer. A siren came close and then the medics were in the classroom,
taking Gennie from our teacher's arms and strapping her to a stretcher. Sister
Agatha slipped a pendant out of her habit, over her head and laid it on Gennie's
chest. When they passed, I saw it was St. John the Baptist, and that Gennie clasped
it in her hand.
Sister Agatha began to coax the class back to their seats.
"Sit down, sit down. It was a mild seizure. She's in good
hands and we've got to get back to our lesson."
James and I still stood in the doorway. He, usually so quiet,
spoke again. "Here
I am, I want to be a doctor, and when I have a chance to
do something right I run."
There were a lot of things I could have said: "You are going to be a great
doctor, don't worry." Or "But we needed an adult." Or "If
you want to be a doctor, why are you smoking so much, birdbrain?" But,
I said nothing, and eventually he went back to his seat.
Before I did the same, I asked Sister Agatha for a Band-aid. I gestured toward
my feet, thin trickles of blood running from the wounds.
"I don't have one," she said clutching her Cliff's Notes. She paused,
looked away and whispered in a sweet tone I'd never once heard from her before, "You
should have taken his hand you know. The boy was asking forgiveness."
She moved behind the podium and reopened Lord Jim. Without
looking down, she said in her regular gravelly pitch, "Sandals
are not a part of the uniform."
"It's true," I said.
But she didn't seem interested in the prospect of standing over me while I scraped gum from the underneath the pews in chapel; and after a moment I walked to my seat, one across and one behind James, and loosened the straps. I wish I could say that she didn't resume with the Conrad, but she did. The air grew hot and heavy once again as she tried to beat the import of honor and the sanctity of a promise into us until the bell rang, and we moved on, bumping our heavy book bags against one another as we crossed the parched field to our next class.
A powerful piece, finely crafted. The writer does an excellent
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