fiction

Grace

Grace

The rumor around the Island was that Our Lady Grace High School was cursed.

It started when Molly Mariposa died in a car accident three weeks before her graduation day.  She was a basketball player, tall and thin and gorgeous.  Her mom was driving, and her two sisters were in the car, too.  They were hit by a drunk driver, and Molly died – just her, thank the Lord, everyone would say, though I doubt anyone in the Mariposa family was thanking the Lord that night.

The day after Molly died was one of the craziest days I ever experienced at Grace.  Everything was off.  Teachers were sobbing and walking out of class.  My friend Kali and I wondered why they didn’t just close school.  Not in a mean way, you understand.  We weren’t annoyed.  We were upset, too.  And it didn’t seem like sitting in AP Latin while Sister Mary Therese cried like a baby was helping anyone at all.

They called the printers so they could edit the school yearbook and put a beautiful beauty shot of Molly on the final page.  There were at least a thousand people at her funeral, and Kali and I talked about how the older you get the fewer people will be at your funeral, for sure.

Six months later, Lise Petrone was dead.  She was an athlete, too – in fact, she and Molly had played soccer together, though Molly’s main sport was basketball and Lise’s was softball.  She was two years older than me, but I didn’t really know her.  Kali knew her, a little; they had two classes together and Kali played JV softball.  She sat with the softball team at the funeral, and they all wore their jerseys; I could find Kali easily in the crowded whenever I wanted by spotting the all caps KEENAN on the back of her shirt.  Lise was wearing her jersey, too; it was open casket, which some people find eerie but it’s what we’re all used to.

Lise’s death was a little different.  She’d been drinking with friends – not with her teammates, Mrs. Keenan told my mom, and I wasn’t sure why.  Would Lise not have choked to death on her vomit if she’d been drinking with her teammates?  Were the mothers speculating that softball players didn’t drink?  Because Kali and I knew that this was not true.  However, maybe her teammates, seasoned partyers, would have had the good sense to turn Lise on her stomach when she passed out, and everything might have been okay.

It wasn’t until junior year, when Olivia Batista was killed, that all the talk of curses started.

 

Grace was a Catholic school, so we weren’t supposed to believe in curses.  There were nuns everywhere, walking the mint green hallways, assuring us that there was no such thing as curses.  The boys would jostle each other and tease Sister Mary Therese: “Kind spooky, isn’t it, ma’am?”  It was easier for them, to laugh and make jokes.

But they had to wonder, too, looking at the simple facts of the situation.  Molly would have graduated from Grace in 2014.  Lise would have graduated in 2015.  Olivia would have graduated in 2016. A girl a year, for three years running.  And Kali and I, by enrolling at Grace in 2013, had sealed our fates as future graduates of the class of 2017.

My name is Amelia Bryant, and there’s a good chance that me or someone I know is going to die by next June.

“There’s no such thing as curses,” my mother tells me gently, stroking my hair, one Sunday evening at home.  It’s just the two of us, laying on the comfortable sky blue sofa we’ve had my whole life.  “You have to stop talking about this stuff in front of your brother.”

I roll my eyes, annoyed, but I don’t get up.  I love the feeling of being nestled beside my mother, her stroking my hair.  It makes me feel like I’m a little kid again, when I thought my parents could fix anything and everything that was wrong with life.  “Peter does not listen to a word I say, Mom,” I say confidently.

Mom smiles.  “You’re wrong about that,” she says.  “He listens to everything you say.”

“Yeah, like when I’m on the phone talking about my own business,” I say, a little snappily.  I feel guilty immediately.  Mom doesn’t need that.

She checks the clock.  “I have to leave in a few minutes for work, okay?”

“I really don’t think you can call a Sunday night happy hour work, Mom.”

She laughs.  I try to make her laugh at least once a day if I can.  My heart is pounding a little, but I am careful not to let it show in my voice.  “What time will you be home?”

“No later than eleven.”  She ruffles my hair and then nudges me.  I sit up, and I look at her.  We look a lot alike.  Brown hair, skin that’s pale in winter but browns nicely in the summer, and we’re both exactly 5’6″ tall.  I have my dad’s eyes, though.  So does Peter.  I’m in my pajamas currently, though, and Mom is wearing black pants and a pretty white ruffled top.  “Don’t let Peter give you a hard time.”

“Pretty sure he’s going to fall asleep in the middle of playing a video game in twenty minutes, Mom.”  Her face falls, and I regret my words.  I know she worries that she lets him play video games too much.  I wish she wouldn’t worry so much about that.  My guy friends are all into video games, and two of them got early admission to Harvard.  “It’s okay, Mom.  I have your cell.  Have fun.”

 

I know I shouldn’t watch the news, but I turn it on anyway, as soon as my mom is out the door.  She teaches at the local public middle school, and she’s constantly attending retirement parties, holiday dinners, celebrations of her co-workers’ lives.  She and Mrs. Keenan work together, so they were riding there together.  I’d thought about asking Kali to come over and keep me company.  I wish I had done that.

Hey you there?

The local news plays quietly.  I flip to CNN, then back to local news.  My plan is to study journalism when I go away to college next year – if I go away.  I think I’d be good at reporting the news on TV.  And then I’d know everything that was happening in the world.  Which would be comforting.

Hi!  You okay?

My phone buzzes and I look down, grateful to see Kali’s little white bubble.  I didn’t need her to come over – I was being ridiculous.  Just the text was enough.

Yeah just going to watch TV and chill.  

NOT THE NEWS.

I almost laugh out loud, but I remember my ten-year-old brother asleep upstairs and choke it back.

No news.  Just reruns of 30 Rock.

Okay text if you need me ❤ ❤ ❤

I’d already checked on Peter twice, but I tiptoe upstairs to peek in his room again.  He was right where I left him, his little freckled face smushed into the pillow in that adorable way that only Peter sleeps.  He drives me crazy, but I love him and I usually check on him every fifteen minutes when we’re home alone together.  It makes it hard to get really invested in a TV show, but it’s worth it because then I know he’s okay.  I wait until I see his chest rise and fall once, and then I tiptoe back downstairs to the sofa.

I go over to Netflix and throw on an episode on 30 Rock so I’m not lying to Kali, and I check the time; it’s nine thirty.  I lay back on the sofa, wishing my mom was still home.  I squeeze my eyes shut.

The problem, really, is the way Olivia Batista died.

It was terrible, all the girls dying.  I mean, death itself sucks, which I know better than most girls my age.  But Olivia’s death was not a horrible accident, and it wasn’t a dumb irresponsible teenage mistake.

I didn’t know any of these girls well.  Grace is a pretty big school – the highest enrollment of any Catholic high school on Staten Island.  It’s coed, so that’s part of it.  And the athletics there are well-known.  Kali and I chose it for the soccer team; they were state champs three times in the last ten years.

After Olivia died, I saved the newspaper with the news article and her obituary.  I cut out the picture of her – it was her senior portrait.  Which is funny, because she was just barely a senior when she died, but we take our senior portraits in the spring of junior year.  I glued the newspaper cutout of her face on the last page of my journal.  Then I looked up the obits for Molly and Lise, and I printed them out on our computer when Mom and Peter weren’t home.  I cut them out and glued them on the same page as Olivia.

I knew this was strange when I did it, but I couldn’t not do it.  It’s not like I looked at it every day, just every once in a while.

Olivia died of a blood clot, and to me that meant the next girl to die would die by murder.

 

My eyes pop open, and I sit up, startled.  An episode of 30 Rock is still playing, and the time on the cable box flashes 10:30 p.m.

I feel like I have goosebumps as I reach for the remote – like I know what’s going to happen next.  I flip the TV to the local news.

It doesn’t surprise me at all, the words: SUSPECT AT LARGE.  The closeness of it does.  There’s been a shooting at a gas station, less than thirty minutes from my house.

There’s a lamp beside the couch, and I switch it off, then immediately back on.  The hairs on my arms are standing up, and I can feel my breath quickening.  Is it better to have the lights off, so the murderer thinks no one is home?  Or is it better to have them on, so they think we’re inside waiting with baseball bats or a gun if my mother was the type of woman to own a gun?

SUSPECT AT LARGE.

My phone is in my hand.  It usually is.  I type a brief and breezy text to Kali.

You okay?  I’m still watching TV.  So bored LOL.

I wait anxiously, staring at the TV, willing Kali to text back.

She does.

Yup!  Going to take a shower.  Need to look hot tomorrow LOL.

I desperately want to send a different kind of text, to Kali and to my mom, the same text: Please come here right now.  

However, I know that my mother does not need this right now.  I close my eyes, feeling my phone in my hands, and try like mad to slow my pulse.  Is that a thing?  Is it possible for me to slow my pulse, just by sheer will?

After I had glued the photos of Molly, Lise, and Olivia in my journal, there was a blank space on the page, just big enough for one more newspaper head shot to fit.  I had not thought of this before I started my creepy art project.  If I had thought of it, I would have shifted the photos, so that they were artfully crooked and took up more room on the page.  It wouldn’t ease my worries, but the vision of that blank space wouldn’t be as haunting.

Everyone knows that the curse is real.  I overheard Sister Mary Therese talking to the principal about and her voice trembled.  My mother says it’s not real because it’s her job to say that, just like it’s my job not to bother her with frantic texts every time I have a panic attack.

SUSPECT AT LARGE.  They’re talking about it on the news right now; I turn the volume up, only slightly, not wanting to wake Peter.

“Police are searching for an armed man after a shooting at a Shell gas station on Hylan Boulevard,” the reporter is saying, her voice even and calm.  She probably has a police scanner nearby, to get updates.  “The suspect allegedly shot the man working behind the counter and two other individuals, both female, before fleeing the scene in a black vehicle headed in the direction of the South Shore.  All three victims are expected to survive.”

Of course they are.

I run up to check on Peter again, to see the rise and fall of his body.  I want to crawl in bed beside him, but that would be ridiculous, and I’d rather he not see me like this.  He has enough going on, too.

My phone is still in my hand.  I walk back through the living room, muting the TV as I pass, and head into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of water.

Mom actually had to deliver the news about Olivia to me.  Mrs. Keenan heard and called her, and Mom sat me down at the kitchen table to tell me that one of the girls at school, on the first day of field hockey practice for the season, has collapsed and died during a team jog.

She looked at me carefully as she told me, as if I’d fall apart.  I tried my best to keep my facial features composed as she spoke.  She explained that the doctors were reasonably certain that Olivia had died due to a blood clot that had traveled to her lungs, and I remember thinking that the coaches would be relieved to hear that, because if I were her coach I would have worried that I’d pushed the team too hard, but a blood clot was in no way the coach’s fault.  Still, that kind of death – that kind of shock – my eyes started to well up.

“Amelia, don’t do that.” my mom said gently, reaching for my hands.  I have a habit of balling up my fists and rubbing at my eyes when I start to cry, almost as if I’m trying to push the tears back inside my head.

I nodded at her and said, “I’m fine, Mom.  I didn’t really know her.”

Now I’m sitting at the same kitchen table, and I’m methodically reviewing the facts I know to be true.

The top three causes of death for adolescents between 15 and 19 are accidents, homicides, and suicides.

Molly Mariposa, Class of 2014, basketball player, died in a car accident during her senior year at Grace.  Lise Petrone, Class of 2015, softball player, died in an alcohol-related incident during her senior year at Grace.  Olivia Batista, Class of 2016, field hockey player, died of a pulmonary embolism during her senior year at Grace.

I decided that the next death would be murder because the accidents had already happened, and I found it highly unlikely that either Kali or I would commit suicide.

Because the next dead girl was definitely going to be one of us.

 

It’s 11:10 now, which is okay because Mom texted and told me she was dropping of Mrs. Keenan and should be home by 11:45.  I am still seated at the kitchen table, feeling like I need to jump out of my skin.  My entire body is pulsating, and I’m sweating.  I can’t hear the TV from the kitchen, but I checked my phone and the suspect is still at large.

I hear a noise, and I freeze.  This is it, I tell myself.  It will be done soon.  

There are footsteps padding toward me, and I turn to see Peter, his hair rumpled and an imprint on the side of his face from the pillow.  “Is Mom home yet?” he says grumpily, yawning.

“No,” I say.  I can’t wipe at my forehead, because then he’ll know I’m sweating.  I can’t hug him, either, which is what I want to do most.  But my heart is racing, and I can’t take the chance that he’ll feel it.

“Okay.  Love you, ‘Melia.”  He turns and walks back to his bedroom.

His brief presence distracts me, and I breathe a little more easily now.

I have told no one – not Peter, not Mom, not Kali – of my certainty that a murderer will end either mine or Kali’s life by next June.  But I’m right.  I know I’m right.

The dead Grace girls are all athletes.  Grace is known for four big sports, on the girls side – basketball, softball, field hockey, and soccer.  So it makes sense that the next dead girl will be on our soccer team.  And Kali and I are the only two seniors on the Our Lady of Grace 2016/2017 Girls’ Soccer Team.

Class of 2017.  Hip, hip hooray.

I want to text Kali again, but she’s probably busy and if she doesn’t text back right away I’ll freak out.

It’s been about six weeks since I figured it all out.  I haven’t been able to sleep at all since then.  I pretend; I go to bed when Mom goes to bed.  And I drink a lot of coffee in the morning, and steadily throughout the day, to keep myself functional.

I’ve always written in a journal, and I’ve had to do so even more recently, what with not being able to tell anyone what’s happening and what’s going to happen.  I’m with Kali all day at school and after school, and then with Mom and Peter all night.  I don’t know if the journaling helps me, though.  Because it all just gets clearer and clearer when I write it out.  I sketch out the three pictures, and then I draw four bold lines, a square, in the blank space.  And I stare at it, not allowing myself to imagine or wonder, and yet imagining and wondering the entire time.

Mom watches the news every evening.  She’s usually cutting out materials for school while she watches, so I don’t think she’s noticed that I’ve been paying closer attention than usual.  She probably thinks I’m just being a little clingy, wanting to spend more time with her, wanting to know that she is okay.  She doesn’t know that I am on the lookout for danger or for bad news at every moment.

If I told Kali about this, she would laugh at me.  She would pretend to understand, and she might even hug me, but she would also laugh and poke holes in my theory.  If I told Mom about it, she would sign me up for therapy so quick that we’d already be late for the intake appointment before I finished outlining my theory, my reasoning, my fear.  I think I might like to go to therapy, except that if Mom knows I need it, she’ll worry, and I can’t have Mom worrying.

 

Olivia died last August, at the end of the month, two days into her senior year.  She wore her senior sweater, the status symbol of all Grace students, for two days.  Two months before that, in mid-June, I remember seeing her in the hallway on my way out of school.  Kali and I were walking out to Mrs. Keenan’s car and Olivia looked effortlessly cool. dangling car keys from her fingers and laughing with her friends.  She had long black hair, shiny and straight, and almond-shaped eyes.

I remember pretty much everything about that day in June.  There was no soccer, and Mrs. Keenan sometimes picked us up as a treat so we wouldn’t have to take the bus home.  Kali and I were catching up on the day’s events – we only had one class together all day long, a fact we bemoaned constantly – and I remember that Kali teased me because I’d forgotten about a math test and bombed it.  “Who forgets about a test?” she’d said, and Mrs. Keenan chided her, and I felt sensitive about her teasing but tried not to show it.

We pulled up to my house, and there was one car in the driveway.  Mom was still at work.  I waved good-bye to Kali, thanked Mrs. Keenan, and headed inside the house.

“Dad?”  I dropped my book bag in the foyer, and I went into the kitchen.  I’m always ravenous after school, because lunch is at ten-oh-four, which is pretty much breakfast.  I found a banana and peeled it.  I began to walk toward my parents’ room.

My dad works as an electrician, and he was off today.  Still, I was surprised to see his car in the driveway, because he’d told me over breakfast that he had a side job to do in Jersey today.  He had told Peter all the details, but I tuned them out because it’s hard for me to feign interest in construction, whereas all Peter has ever wanted is to be exactly like my dad someday.

My dad and my mom have a relationship that is so sweet it’s a little embarrassing.  My mom is quieter and calmer, and my dad balances her out with a big sense of humor and an extroverted personality.  He’s constantly trying to embarrass me in front of my teammates, but it doesn’t work because they all think he’s fantastic and end up envying me, because not everyone’s dad is so warm and friendly.

When I was walking out the door that morning, my dad called me back inside, and I got a little frustrated with him because the bus stop is a mile away.  “What’s up, Dad?” I had said.

Dad heard the annoyance in my voice, and he smiled at me anyway.  “Next weekend, do you want to go see NYU together?”

My annoyance melted away, as he knew it would.  “Really?”  I squealed.  I ran back to him – he was at the kitchen table, sipping his coffee – and hugged him.  “I thought it was too expensive?”

Dad nodded.  He’s pretty honest with me.  “It might be, Amelia,” he’d said, seriously.  “But we’ll look, and we’ll talk, and we’ll see.  Okay?”

We hugged again, and I left for school, and all of this flashed through my mind in the moment before I opened my parents’ bedroom door and saw him, my dad, Dean Andrew Bryant, face-down on the floor, his chest not rising and falling at all.

 

SUSPECT AT LARGE.

I have CNN open on my phone, and I don’t see anything about this situation, which makes sense because it’s not national news.  No one even died.  There’s an updated on the TV that says the victims are all injured but not critical, which seems like a miracle.

My journal is open on my lap to the last page – to the girls.  Their deaths were not national news, either.  Funny how something that is so huge, so devastating, only reaches so far.  There were a thousand people at Molly’s funeral.  Maybe more at Lise’s.  Olivia’s was private – just family.  Dad’s was smaller than Molly’s, but still pretty big.  He was 45 years old.

I was incredibly calm and in control that day.  I immediately called 911 and then my mother, and the ambulance was there in minutes, and we raced to the hospital, but it all meant nothing because Dad was dead and I knew it the moment I opened the door.  He’d been dead for hours.

I was calm and in control for the next three days.  I comforted Peter and I made decisions with Mom.  I slept in her bed every night.  I held her up as we walked behind Dad’s coffin out of the Catholic church where Peter and I were baptized, where Peter would be confirmed next year, where someday, maybe, I’d be married.  I kept my face composed at the burial site, and I hugged Peter in front of me and looked at Mrs. Keenan whenever I needed to calm down; she would look back at me, steadily, as if she knew what I needed without me having to say it.  I avoided looking at Kali, who wept continuously through the wake, funeral, and burial, though she tried to choke back her tears whenever she was by my side.

After the funeral, people came back to the house.  There were probably seven hundred people at the church – then a hundred or so at the burial – and then fifty at the house for coffee and cake.  I didn’t exactly do a head count, but sort of; approximating the number in attendance was how I kept from shaking.

When the coffee was served, when Peter was occupied by our cousins, when Kali and her parents were passing around pastries and fruit, when Mom was sitting in between her two sisters, I hugged Mom from behind – she was sitting at the kitchen table – and asked her if I could watch some TV in her bedroom.

She’d looked surprised, but also not.  She nodded and kissed my hands before releasing them and returning to her sisters.

I quietly walked down the long hallway to their room – Mom’s room, now.  I lay on the floor, in the exact spot where Dad had died.  I turned on the TV and found an episode of Sex And The City.  It was a rerun, one I’d watched at least three times before.  I watched and I lay very still.  Mom found me there, asleep, two hours later, and covered me with a blanket and let me lay there all night long.  When I woke in the morning, she was sleeping beside me.

 

I hear Mom’s car pull in the driveway at the same exact moment my phone buzzes.

Going to sleep love you see you in the morning Kali xoxo

She texts me most nights, just to say good night.  I think she knows I need to be checked in on even though I haven’t said so.

I’m not scared anymore by this point, anyway.  The panic has subsided.  I made it through another day.

There’s Mom’s key in the lock, and then she’s inside.  “Hi, honey,” she says, yawning and tossing her purse on the chair.  She blinks, seeming to digest the scene before her.  “You doing okay?  Want to go to bed?”

I look at Mom.  She is sleepy, and so am I.  Dad was always the chatty one, and Peter is just like him.  They could talk and talk and charm a room.  Mom and I are different – more introverted, quieter, more careful.  But sometimes, and I could never tell Mom this, it felt like Mom belonged to Peter and Dad belonged to me.  Mom has the calm stillness that Peter needs, and Dad could convince me to talk about something without me even realizing his goal.  I am probably the only senior at Grace who came home to gossip with her father, not her mother, about boys.

They each talked at the funerals – the dads.  Mr. Mariposa, Mr. Petrone, and Mr. Batista.  When I got home from Molly’s and Lise’s funerals, I’d told Dad about it, and I’d watched his eyes well up with tears and I knew he was thinking about me.  I didn’t get to see Mr. Batista speak, and I’ve wondered what he said.  How did he process the fact that something in his daughter’s strong, healthy body just broke, with no rhyme or reason, until she fell to the floor and simply ceased to exist?

Mom’s eyes have zeroed in on something, and I follow her gaze.  My skin begins to tingle again – my cheeks get hot.  It’s my journal – open to the last page.  And in that empty space, I’ve scrawled “KALI?  OR ME?”

Mom looks at it for a long moment – it feels like a really, really long moment.  She sits on the couch beside me.  “Amelia, do you -”

The words are out before I can filter, before I can worry, before I can stop.  “Maybe you can stay home with me next time, Mom?”

My mother – my tired, widowed mother – looks at me with the exact same look she gave me on the day we buried Dad.  Surprised, but not.  Understanding, but not.  She wraps me in a hug and pulls me into her lap.

“I need some help, Mom,” I whisper.

“Me, too,” she says immediately.

And the tears finally come.

 

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