Vinegar Hill: Excerpts

Excerpt One

In the gray light of the kitchen, Ellen sets the table for supper, keeping the chipped plate back for herself before lowering the rest in turn. The plates are pink with yellow flowers twisting around the edges, and they glow between the pale frosted glasses, the stainless steel knives and forks, the plastic pitcher of milk. In the center of the table, the roast platter steams between the bowl of wrinkled peas, the loaf of sliced bread. Ellen wipes a water stain from the cupped palm of a spoon. Soon all the bright plates and glasses and flatware will be soiled. She finds herself imagining how it must be, to wait for that first hot splash of meat, the cold dribble of milk.

“Time to eat,” she calls down the narrow hallway to the living room where the children and her husband and his parents are all watching TV. She gets the cloth napkins from the drawer and folds them into tall, peaked hats, something her mother always did when she wanted the table to look nice. The napkins are also pink, and they match the plates and the tablecloth, and come very close to matching the curtains which are drawn tightly closed. The yard beyond stretches plain and white into the next yard and the next, the single straggly pine along the lot line stiff with ice. When Ellen walks home from work late in the afternoon, that tree reminds her of an animal, the way it stands without the slightest movement, corralled by the neat rows of houses lining the block.

The children straggle in and sit twisting in their chairs, raising the cloth napkin hats to their heads, giggling at their game. James and his parents shake out the hats, and James smooths his across his lap, his shoulders firm against the back of his chair. Ellen sets a saucer of margarine beside him, and abruptly the color seems too bright, like cheddar cheese or sweet, summer squash. She fights a vague queasy feeling; when James’ father begins Grace, she closes her eyes, speaking each word clearly in her mind, trying to concentrate, to be grateful. It’s one of the first prayers she ever learned, chanting along with her mother and sisters in the cozy heat of their farmhouse kitchen, the family cats brushing their ankles like silk. She remembers the rich odors of mustreipen and sausage and thick bread pudding, the eager edge of hunger a deepening crease than ran from her chest to her stomach.

Bless us O Lord. These thy gifts.

By the time she has finished, the serving bowls have already begun their slow start and stop around the table. The children are looking at her curiously; she takes a piece of bread. James ladles peas onto his plate with a clatter that lets her know she has embarrassed him in front of his parents, in his parents’ home. They eat without speaking, and it’s hard to swallow without the gravy of conversation, the children’s playful bickering, James’ questions about her day, her own questions and his responses, the hollow overlappings of their words.

She watches his jaw as he chews his roast, the roast she has prepared for him, dry, the way he likes it. The motion of his jaw is steady and unconcerned; his lips are pinched tight over his teeth. She thinks I have kissed those lips, I have pushed my tongue against those teeth, and this thought fascinates and repels her. Amy asks for milk and Ellen fills her glass. Herbert’s napkin slides to the floor and she tells him to pick it up. But her eyes are fixed to James’ jaw, and she thinks about how strange it is that one small thing like a jaw or a look or a brush of a hand can become so much larger than it actually is, so large that it closes itself around you and squeezes until it is hard to find air.

It is November, and she can hear the wind moving over the walls of the house, stroking the windows, trying to coax its way past the curtains to blow the flowers from the napkins and plates, to muss the perfect leaves of the plastic plants that hang side by side above the sink. The house is filled with knick-knacks — china angels, statues of saints, small glass animals with beady eyes — and each of them has to be dusted and the surface beneath polished with lemon oil, and then each has to be set back down precisely as it was before, the beady eyes staring in the same direction, the dust settling about it in the same design. The copper duck and goose jello molds have hung for so long above the stove that the paint behind them has kept its color, and when Ellen takes them down for polishing, a perfect bright shape of a duck or goose remains. A place for everything; everything in its place. The house is as rigid, as precise as a church, and there was nothing to disturb its ways until three months ago when Ellen and James and the children moved in because they had no place and nowhere else to go.

Excerpt Two

Amy crouches outside her parents’ bedroom with her ear pressed against the door. Inside, James sleeps fitfully; she can hear his breathing, rough as a cat scratching wood. The smell of his illness drifts through the house, clinging to the curtains, slithering along the walls. Pneumonia. Bronchitis. Beautiful words like the names of dolls. Natalia. Clarissa. Pleurisy. But Amy is almost eleven, too old for dolls. On New Year’s Day, she gave her own dolls funerals and buried them in cardboard boxes in her closet. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Now they are sleeping in the arms of God.

“Where are Eliza and Missy?” Ellen asked when she tucked Amy into bed that night. Usually the dolls slept between Amy and the wall, their perfect heads propped up on the pillow. They looked sweet in the matching night gowns that Ellen had sewn for them; yellow, with lace stitched to the collars.

“They are dead,” Amy said in a deep voice she had copied from Father Bork at school. “Do not speak of them again.”

Now Amy imagines James’ lungs like two pink mittens, swelling with air, rising up out of his chest, towing his soul to heaven. Dead people turn into guardian angels. Amy imagines James whispering advice into another girl’s ear. Wash your hands. Cheer up. Children should be seen and not heard.

Perhaps he would like being a guardian angel. Guardian angels get to travel all the time, and whenever James comes home, he is eager to get back on the road. When he leaves, Amy forgets about him quickly. When he’s home, she thinks about him all the time, and this is the second week he’s been home sick, lying in bed, struggling for air.

Wash your hands. Don’t chew with your mouth full. Turn out the goddamn lights.

Amy is certain Eliza and Missy have become her own guardian angels. Unlike James, they are practical angels, with practical things to say. Your grandmother hates you. Your dad’s really weird. If you imagine something hard enough, you can make it come true. Because of Eliza and Missy, Amy knows things other girls her age do not. Eliza and Missy give Amy special powers, magical powers, that warn her of the many secret and terrible things that are hidden in this world.

Before Eliza and Missy, there was no one to look out for Amy, no one to protect her from those secret, terrible things. Last summer, she was walking in Autumn Lake because she had not yet learned to swim. The water was cool and tasted of iron. Ellen swam along side her, graceful as a seal. “If you kick your feet, you’ll float,” she said, but Amy walked, step by cautious step —

up to her hips —

up to her waist —

up to her chest and then her foot came down on something soft. There were sharp knobs buried within it. Amy grabbed one of those knobs with her bare toes and pulled the thing to the surface.

It was a drowned dog. The knobs were bones. The flesh was rotting, and it dissolved in oily pools on the surface of the water. “Drop it!” Ellen shouted, and Amy kicked at it and screamed, because she had never thought of a dog that way, as a thing made of bones and juices and skin. As Ellen guided her back to shore, Amy could see what the dog had been in life, a little terrier, white and brown, barking and circling and barking, just like Lassie always did when something was wrong.

What is it, girl? What is it —

The sound of James’ breathing has stopped. Is he dead? Should she call her mother? Amy puts her hand on the doorknob, and imagines James’ long, narrow body sinking into soft muck, knobs for bones, dissolving. When the doorknob twists beneath her hand, she jumps back, slamming herself hard against the wall. A man is standing in the doorway, clutching his bathrobe to his throat, his hair a rumpled halo. Is he dead? Is he real?

“What do you want?” the man says sharply. “How come you’re pestering me again?”

Amy runs down the hall to the room she shares with Bert. She slams the door, gets in the closet, and hides behind her dresses. It was here that Ellen found the cardboard boxes that held the bodies of Eliza and Missy. On the cover of each box, a cross was drawn in heavy black magic marker. RIP 1975-1980. The eyes of the dolls were taped closed.

“They are deceased,” Amy had said Father Bork’s deep voice. “Do not disturb their rest.”

Ellen sat down on the floor of the closet with the shoes. Her shoulders moved up and down. “You’re just a little girl,” she said, and she stroked the matching nightgowns the dolls wore, smoothing the rumpled lace. “What is happening to you?”

That day at Autumn Lake, Amy had been furious with Ellen, a wild, helpless fury that left her shaking and cold. “Why didn’t you tell me it was there?” she said, as the other children and their families stared. “Why did you let me step on it?”

“I didn’t know,” Ellen said.

“Yes you did, yes you did,” said Amy.

But now she is older, and she knows better. When her mother explains, she nods and waits.

“You didn’t know,” she agrees.

* * * *

At supper time, Amy comes out of the bedroom to help Ellen fix the meal. The kitchen is dimly lit, close, smelling of grease. Tiny yellow flowers watch from the curtains. Yellow eyes, patient, like the waiting eyes of dogs.

“Hey, Mom,” Amy says. “What are we having?”

“Meatballs and rice,” Ellen says. “Set the table and fix up some Jell-O for dessert.”

Amy chooses lime Jell-O, careful with the boiling water, and then sets six places: Fritz at one end of the table, James at the other; Mary-Margaret to James’ right, Ellen to James’ left; Bert between Fritz and Mary-Margaret, and her own place beside her mother. Napkins. Salt and pepper. A serving spoon for the meatballs. In the living room, Mary-Margaret is playing the organ, and Fritz is watching TV. Fritz turns up the TV volume; Mary-Margaret turns up the volume on the organ.

“So much for your father getting any rest,” Ellen says. “I don’t know why he’s getting better between their noise and you pestering him all the time.”

“He pesters me,” Amy says.

“That’s not what I am told.”

“It’s weird, having him here.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if he could be here all the time? If he could find a job close to home?”

Amy knows Ellen wants her to say how it would be nice.

“It would be weird,” Amy says.

“Maybe we could move into a place of our own. Like in Illinois. You remember Illinois?”

“That would be ok,” Amy says, although what she remembers best about her father in Illinois is him sending her from the table whenever she picked up her fork incorrectly. You don’t want to grow up like a hick, he said. Or There’s a right way to do everything.

“Wasn’t it nice, then, having Daddy with us more of the time?”

He liked Amy and Bert to sit side by side on the couch, doing nothing, saying nothing. Then he’d stare past them as if they weren’t even there. Once, he pulled an envelope out of his desk, and showed them how much it had cost for each of them to be born.

“It was OK,” Amy says.

You didn’t know. You didn’t know.

* * * *

At school, beautiful Sister Justina tells them to start a journal. When Sister Justina talks, her hands shape the air into pictures for everyone to see. Her voice is something Amy can taste, something so good she can never have enough. All the girls in Amy’s class want to enter convents when they grow up and wear the lovely deep blue Sister Justina wears and speak in Sister Justina’s delicious voice.

“What should we write in it?” somebody asks.

“Thoughts, wishes, hopes, dreams,” Sister Justina says. Her hands sweep together, collecting and polishing the words. “Things that have happened. Things that you want to happen. Anything you like. Take fifteen minutes now to begin.”

Amy writes JOURNAL on the cover of her notebook, then opens it and stares at the first blank page.

I have nothing to say, she writes. My dad is home sick, but he is better. Soon he can go back to work. I want to have a cat, but he says no because of fleas. I have a brother, he is six.

When Sister Justina bends over Amy’s shoulder, her dark blue habit sweeps Amy’s cheek. “Was your father very sick?” she asks. Amy nods, blissful, too shy to speak.

At recess, the girls cluster by the fire hydrant, pretending to smoke cigarettes, exhaling puffs of warm air into the cold March wind. Kimmy Geib has a Magic Eight Ball, a round black globe with a clear window in which brief messages appear: Yes. . . Maybe. . . Most definitely. The girls stand close together, making their backs into a wall that shields the Magic Eight Ball from the jealous gaze of St. Michael’s Church across the street. Occasionally, somebody twists her head to watch the boys, who are playing kick ball in the dirt field next to the school.

“Isn’t this a sin?” Jennifer Robbie says.

“Not if you don’t really believe in it,” Kimmy says. “Who wants to ask it something?” but everybody knows she’ll pick Amy, because Kimmy wants Amy to be her best friend. Amy takes the Magic Eight Ball, closes her eyes.

“You have to tell us your question,” Kimmy bosses, “and it has to be a question that can be answered yes or no.”

Amy cannot think of a question. She waits, rubbing the cool, smooth surface of the Magic Eight Ball. She listens to the shouts of the boys, the thunk of the red rubber kick ball. On Valentine’s Day, the boys had tricked a first grader into licking the metal hydrant. The first grader hung there helplessly, making low, grunting noises, like a pig or a cow. His tongue had been the exact same color of the kick ball. At home, when Amy told them about it, Fritz had laughed. Stupid one, just like Jimmy, he said, and she’d understood that, once, her father had been that boy. The questions Amy has cannot be answered yes or no. Secret and terrible things are hidden everywhere in this world.

“Give it to me if you’re just going to sit there,” Lynne Peters says and she grabs the ball away. “Magic Eight Ball, does Clayton Grasse like me?”

“The answer is no,” Amy says, but Lynne shakes the Magic Eight Ball and peers eagerly into the window. Then she blinks and her mouth folds in on itself; she shrugs, pretending it doesn’t matter.

“I told you,” Amy says. “Clayton likes Jennifer Robbie.”

Jennifer Robbie blushes; the other girls stare at Amy curiously. The bell rings, and Kimmy hides the Magic Eight Ball beneath her coat. “How come you didn’t ask it a question?” she says, matching her step to Amy’s, allowing the other girls to pass by so the two of them can walk alone.

“I already know everything,” Amy says.

Kimmy shakes her head. “Saying that is an even bigger sin than this Magic Eight Ball,” she says, and she reaches out to touch Amy’s coat eagerly, reverently. It’s an ugly coat with worn rabbit fur around the hood, a hand-me-down from one of Amy’s older cousins. “Trade coats with you next recess?” she says, as Amy knew she would.

* * * *

Amy walks home from school dragging Bert by the hand, ears pricked to catch the slightest whisper Eliza and Missy might send from the air. Bert hangs back, sucking his chapped thumb. His nose is running from the cold.

“Don’t walk so fast,” he says thickly, but Amy jerks him along, a fish on a line, and he follows her because he loves her and because he is the sort of little boy who always does what people tell him to do. When they get home, Mary-Margaret lets them in and wipes his nose with a handkerchief. The handkerchief is scented with gardenia and makes Bert sneeze.

“You didn’t dress him properly,” Mary-Margaret says. “Schrecklich.” She is still wearing her bathrobe, and the ruffled belt pinches her thin body almost into two, like the body of a large, pale insect. The house smells of gardenia and Vicks. Peering down the hall, Amy can see the grey outline of her father, sleeping upright in front of the TV.

“I dressed him fine,” Amy says.

“He’s catching cold, just look at him.”

“No he’s not,” Amy says. She hangs up their coats, stretching high on tiptoe to reach the wooden bar. “Ask me any question you can answer yes or no, and I bet I’ll get it right.”

“Smart-pants,” Mary-Margaret says. “You wouldn’t give me sass if you was my gal.”

“Ask me a question,” Amy says to Bert.

“Let’s watch cartoons,” Bert says, and he goes into the living room and switches the channels, quietly, so James won’t wake up.

“Smart-pants,” Mary-Margaret says smugly to Amy. She sits down at the table, where she has a game of solitaire laid out, and carefully arranges the hem of the robe to cover her feet. “You don’t know anything.”

“You’re going to lose,” Amy says. “I’m sure of it.”

But Mary-Margaret peeks beneath the turned-over cards, then shuffles through the extras until she finds the one she wants.

“That’s cheating! You’re cheating!” Amy says.

Mary-Margaret laughs. She peeks under another card. “You’ll wake up your father, yelling like and that, and then you’ll catch it good.”

“Cheater,” Amy hisses.

Abruptly, just inches above Mary-Margaret’s head, Eliza and Missy appear. They thrash the air with their wings. Their tiny pink mouths are open; their sharp white teeth are fierce. They tell Amy, She will pay.

“What are you staring at?” Mary-Margaret says.

That night after supper, Amy goes to her room and writes in her journal about angels. Without a guardian angel to protect you, there is no hope for you in this world, for only a guardian angel can see the secret things, the terrible things, that hide within every second. Say that you are walking down the street, and suddenly you feel you have to cross to the other side, you must cross to the other side, and so you do. Because that’s your guardian angel looking out for you, and if you don’t listen, a car could run up on the sidewalk where you were standing and squash you flat. Or say that someone is telling you a lie, and nothing about their face shows they are saying anything but the truth, but you know they are lying anyway, and you smile at them because you don’t know what else to do. You don’t need a Magic Eight Ball if you have a guardian angel. You already can feel all the answers to questions that can be answered yes or no.

She looks up to see Ellen watching her from the doorway.

“Homework?” Ellen says.

“We have to keep a journal.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“Not really.”

“Then would you mind giving Bertie a bath? I’d like to go for a walk.”

“Where to?”

“Nowhere in particular. You don’t mind putting yourself and your brother to bed?”

Amy constructs a careful face. “I don’t mind,” she says. She doesn’t ask if she may go along, because Ellen will come up with an excuse why she can’t.

“Thank you,” Ellen says formally, and Amy realizes her mother’s face is as carefully constructed as her own. When she goes into the living room to fetch Bert, Ellen is already wearing James’ big overcoat, her mouth and nose hidden by a scarf. She says, “See, Amy’s here to give you a bath. I’ll be back soon, Honey, I’ll come and kiss you goodnight.”

“No,” Bert says. “Stay.”

He is curled up on the couch, small and neat as a cork. Beside him, James is wrapped in a quilt. “Don’t you start now,” he says to Bert, who is sniffling behind his thumb.

“Little sissy boy,” Mary-Margaret says.

“Don’t go,” Bert says, and he begins to cry.

“Bertie, I’ll be right back. I’m just going for a short walk.”

“Hassenfuss,” Mary-Margaret teases. “Mama’s boy.”

Fritz turns to James. “Jimmy, do we got to listen to this every goddamn night?”

“Herbert, that’s enough!” James says harshly.

“Bertie, I’ll be right back, okay?”

“It’s you who’s making him cry like that,” James says to Ellen.

“I’m not making him do anything.”

“It’s you who’s his mother,” James says. “How come you want to leave him like this?”

“Because it’s the only way I can get any time for myself around here!” Ellen says. “You’re his father, even if you don’t act like it. For once, you take some responsibility.”

“I’m sick,” James says. “I don’t know what you expect me to do.”

“I expect. . . help,” Ellen says. She gestures at Amy’s grandparents. “I married you, not them,” she shouts. “I didn’t sign up to be anybody’s servant! Bert, please,” she says.

Herbert howls.

“Christ, Jimmy!” Fritz says. “She don’t like it here, she is free to find somewhere else.”

Amy steps forward and grabs Bert’s hands. “C’mon, I’ll get your water ready,” she says and she tows him, still crying, into the bathroom. She closes the door and turns on the water, so the voices from the living room sound only like the echoes of voices. As soon as he hears the sound of the water, Bert stops crying and pulls down his pants to pee.

“She’s going to be ok,” Amy says.

“No she’s not,” Bert says. He finishes, and steps out of his pants, dripping. “She’s going to get bit by a dog with rabies. She’s going to die and never come back.”

“Arms up,” Amy says, and Bert lifts his arms so she can pull off his shirt. She breathes in the boy-smell that comes off his body. If only he believed in angels. . . but she has tried many times to make him understand, to show him Eliza and Missy, to prove to him that her own guardian angels are powerful enough to protect them all. But I don’t see any angels, Bert says. You’re not supposed to see them, Amy explains, you just have to know.

“Ask me a question,” Amy says. “Ask me any question that can be answered yes or no.”

Bert gets into the bathtub, squats, bobs his bottom in and out of the water, getting used to the temperature. “Is Mom coming back?”

“Very definitely,” Amy says. She wets a washcloth and rubs warm circles over his back, scratching around his shoulders blades until he straightens up and makes them stick out. Wings, Ellen calls them.

“Wings,” Amy says.

“You don’t know,” Bert says sadly. “You think you know, but you don’t. Only God knows if something’s yes or no.”

There’s a scratch at the door, and James comes in, the quilt hanging from his waist like a colorful skirt. “What’s going on?” he says.

“Shut the door,” Amy says, “there’s a draft,” but James just stands there, staring at Bert’s small body, at his penis which is curled and pink as a shrimp.

“Dunk your head,” Amy says to Bert.

“Aren’t you getting too old to let your sister see you naked?” James says.

“Shut the door,” Amy says again, and this time James obeys.

“A big boy like you,” James says.

Amy rubs shampoo into Bert’s baby-fine hair. His head falls back against her hands, his eyes close. His neck moves loosely, and he makes a soft, contented sound.

“A big boy your age,” James says.

They ignore him. He paces the two steps between the frosted window and the door, dragging the quilt through small puddles of water. He coughs, wipes his eyes.

“It’s awful to be sick like this,” he says, and he peers at himself in the mirror. Amy cups warm water over Bert’s hair; he giggles when it runs into his ears. Go away, you will go away now, Amy thinks as hard as she can, but it is several more minutes before James wanders out, forgetting to close the door behind him. Amy closes her eyes and sees her mother walking through the darkness, arms pumping, moving faster and faster until she lifts off the sidewalk and into the wide night sky, far away from Amy.

* * * *

Amy tucks Bert into bed just like her mother would, saying the same bedtime prayer, kissing him on the same place beneath his chin. Then she gets into her own bed, leaving the lamp on the nightstand glowing, and writes in her journal. Perhaps there is no God or perhaps all of us together make up God, but with a guardian angel you don’t need anyone but yourself and soon, if you pay attention, you don’t even need your guardian angel anymore. The angel kisses you goodbye and moves on to someone else, perhaps another girl or an old man or even a cat or dog, because angels can’t tell the difference. Angels can fall in love with anyone. Angels are the most beautiful things in the world.

She stops writing, and reaches out to touch the lamp shade, which is decorated with angels in long white gowns. For a brief moment, she is lonely for Eliza and Missy, who used to sleep beside her every night.

“Burning the midnight oil?” James says, and Amy whips her journal beneath the covers, because she did not see him, standing in the doorway, not exactly in or out of the room.

“Yes,” Amy whispers, not wanting to wake Herbert. “Is Mom home yet?”

“No,” James says. “I’m home.”

“He doesn’t want you,” Amy says.

James takes one step through the doorway. His shadow stretches high on the walls. “Let me tell you something,” he says. “It’s hell having kids. Can you remember that?”

Amy does not say anything.

“Say it.” Herbert moans in his sleep.

“It’s hell having kids,” Amy repeats.

“Good,” James says. He runs his hands through his hair. His eyes are wet; he blots at them with a tattered Kleenex. Amy doesn’t need Eliza and Missy to tell her how much he doesn’t want to be there, how much he wants to be wherever it is he goes when Amy forgets to think of him.

* * * *

They turn in their journals just before noon recess. When they come back inside thirty minutes later, cheeks bright with cold, Sister Justina greets them with an angry look which sweeps around the room until it descends upon Amy.

“Ann Grier,” Sister Justina says, and her beautiful voice is filled with stones. “You will bring your journal to Father Bork. He is expecting you.”

Amy takes the journal from Sister Justina, gets her coat from her hook in the hall, and walks across the street to Father Bork’s office. The office is in the living room of the priests’ house, which huddles against the side of the church. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hochmann, lets Amy in and ushers her with small, arthritic steps to the couch. Mrs. Hochmann is in her seventies and has been the parish housekeeper for over thirty years. The look on her face says she has seen all sorts come and go, but, undoubtedly, Amy is something even worse. She tries to take Amy’s coat, but Amy clings to it firmly because she is terrified of Father Bork, just like all the girls are terrified of Father Bork. There are stories that he pulls girls’ dresses up to spank them, and although Ellen says that’s all garbage, Amy waits on the couch with her coat buttoned up to her chin.

When Father Bork comes in, he sits on the couch beside Amy without looking at her. He crosses his legs, crosses his hands, and leans back into the cushions, as if he is planning to sit there for a long time. He fixes his lap with a gaze that is not angry, but very sad.

“Do you know what this is about?” he murmurs to Amy after several minutes have passed. His deep voice sounds like it has been broken beyond repair.

Amy places the journal gingerly between them. “This, I guess.”

“You guess,” he says. He makes no move to touch it. “Do you know why what you have written here is wrong?”

“I thought I could write about whatever I wanted.”

“It sounds here as though you think you are God. It sounds here like you think you know things other people, older grown up people do not. And it admits that you have a Magic Eight Ball.”

“It isn’t mine.”

“Whose is it?”

Amy does not say anything.

“I’m not angry,” Father Bork says, and he fingers the journal, stroking it lightly. “But I am concerned. Think of how you are hurting God. Think of how much He loves you, yet look at the pain you are causing Him.”

Father Bork puts the journal on the coffee table and drapes his arm around Amy. He’s going to spank me, Amy thinks. He’s going to lift my dress. She calls out to Eliza and Missy, Emergency! Emergency! but they do not appear.

“What I’d like to do is offer you the sacrament of confession. Just tell me you are sorry, and God will forgive you everything.”

Amy imagines Eliza and Missy, their yellow gowns, their white sharp teeth. If you imagine something hard enough, you can make it happen. But nothing happens, nothing at all. She is alone with Father Bork, sitting beside him on a couch that smells of cigarettes, his arm like a boa constrictor, squeezing her to his flickering tongue.

“Can you say, ‘I am sorry, Lord, for my grievous sins?'”

Amy bursts into tears.

“Well, that’s good enough,” Father Bork says. “For your penance say four Hail Marys and contemplate humility. Then take what you have written and throw it into the trash. I absolve thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Can you say Amen?”

“Amen,” Amy whispers, hating everything.

After Father Bork lets her go, Amy does not return to her class as she has been told to do. She starts to walk home, but then she remembers Bert: how will he get home without her? It’s an hour and a half before school lets out, and it’s too cold to stay outside for that long. If she goes back into the school to wait, a hall monitor will find her and take her to Sister Justina. Amy has no choice but to enter the shelter of St. Michael’s church, to dip her fingers in the Holy water, to genuflect out of habit. She sits in the very last pew, hands tucked into her pockets as if they are hiding there.

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