in the past, when i’ve posted excerpts of longer works of fiction, i haven’t prefaced them with any type of summary. a friend of mine told me this was a problem for him and deterred him from reading. so, in an effort not to deter you, here is yet another excerpt and the summary is as follows:
this is the story of maranatha miller, a lifelong loner at a private, pentecostal school who, at the age of seven, has a chance encounter with a troubled graduating high school senior named gideon. years later, gideon returns to the school as a teacher, when maranatha is a senior herself. forbidden, mostly repressed romance ensues as the two forge undeniable bonds, in spite of themselves.
their story is set against the backdrop of a larger scandal, as parents and former students form a class action suit against the school for unethical policies and abusive practices, and maranatha and gideon–both victimized by these practices over the years, in different ways–are called upon to testify.
the story spans three decades and each chapter represents a different period in time. this first chapter is the chance encounter i was telling you about. enjoy!
– Chapter 1 –
Whenever the primary-schoolers made their way to the Main Building, they were dwarves in a city of giants. The second grade class at Holy Pentecost Academy clasped hands so tightly they dampened and it became trickier to keep their slippery grip on one another. The wanton giants tromped about, jostling them without ever looking down. The tots trembled, inching through the halls of the Big Kid School, where assemblies were held in a massive, musty auditorium.
They should’ve been beside themselves with glee and anticipation. It was Friday, October 30: Hallelujah Day. Every year, the whole school gathered for candy, costumes, and a fantastical filmstrip about druids, witches, and all the satanic trappings of Halloween.
It was one of the most exciting days on their academic calendar.
But first they had to get past their initial ten minutes in Main, all of which they spent in wriggling in taut-eyed, primal fear. Usually, a third of the kindergarten class wet itself in anticipation. Then, slowly, as they made their way toward their candy-paved utopia, everyone settled down and suddenly, sharing space with students three times their size wasn’t such a Herculean feat, after all.
Maranatha smiled at the littler kids. She remembered kindergarten fondly. When she was five, she blended in. The other children shared their pipe cleaners and tissue paper in Arts & Crafts; and no one spread the word that her PB&J was covered in cooties when she tried to lunch-swap.
But now that she was seven, everything sucked. By second grade, all the kids knew what it meant to have a mom and dad who’d never married. Just yesterday, Demetria Simmons leaned over and hissed, “You were conceived in sin,” during story hour. Maranatha’s cheeks had raged, her eyelids hot and wet, as she looked around at the nodding heads and giggling lips. Everyone had heard.
Lately, she’d been learning to keep her head down. She knew the number of stitches in her sneakers. She knew how many Formica tiles stood between her and the cafeteria. It was comforting to focus on her own her footsteps, so comforting that when she really thought about it, the big kids bumping her on their way to the auditorium had never really frightened her at all. Maranatha felt dwarfed, no matter where she was and the size of things couldn’t bother you if you never looked up and noticed them.
* * *
The boy was like other boys his age. There was nothing special about him. He was tall and thin and the color of brown M&Ms. His close-shaved hair had been trained by a barber to swirl counter-clockwise at the crown. As a senior, he was immune to the lures of candy and conscience-pricking. He’d stopped caring about Halloween when he was 11. Getting out of class for the assembly didn’t especially excite him, either. He cut class at least once a week, anyway.
That afternoon, he smelled like Gain and Newports. He and his boy, Gerald, were fresh off a smoke break out behind the softball diamond. Now, in the crowded hall, they were tossing a ball of foil back and forth, pretending to be Jordan and Bird. Since they were charming and popular, the other kids and even a couple teachers simply laughed it off when they stumbled into them.
No one ever told them to stop.
The boy, whose name was Gideon, was yelling about a flagrant foul while lunging for the foil, which had just popped off his wrist and sailed toward the ceiling, when he slipped (perhaps on an ecstatic kindergartener’s pee). He fell and, after landing, heard an ominous crack underneath him.
* * *
Because her eyes were fixed on a battalion of black ants trooping across the hallway floor and because she was so busy rooting for them to live, even after watching several of them crunch under other kids’ feet, she didn’t notice the boy hurtling clumsily toward her. Even if she’d seen him, she wouldn’t have been able to free herself from her single-file, second-grade chain fast enough to avoid crunching under the weight of him.
* * *
Gideon scrambled up from the ground as quickly as he could manage and just after he planted his feet on the floor, he scooped the little girl he’d toppled into the crooks of his arms. A bone below her left elbow jutted oddly under her skin, and he tensed, expecting the delayed wail that always accompanied moments like these. He waited for someone to threaten him with expulsion. He stood still, expecting the word “horseplay” to be bandied about by an administrator. He listened for mention of his parents being called at work. Instead, there was nothing. No wail, no threats. Just a miniature woman, a dainty noble girl, who buried her face in his bicep and kept eerily silent.
This, he thought, racing toward the nurse’s office, is why normal schools separate their grade levels. He hated Holy Pentecost. It was the kind of place that found a way to cosmically chastise you, even for just playing around. It was the kind of place where you inadvertently broke babies’ arms.
“It’ll be okay,” he whispered. But it wouldn’t. As long as this little girl was a student here, things would be bad for her. She’d grow up paranoid and confused and unprepared for the world-at-large. She’d be duped by men and judged by women. There’d be no end of hidden tears. He’d seen this future in many a Holy Pentecost graduate. He’d seen it in his own older sister.
No one escaped this school unscathed.
Still, he hoped he’d been convincing. The crown of the girl’s tiny head was still hidden against his arm. Her tight copper ringlets felt feathery against his skin. A faint vanilla pudding smell wafted off her. She was too young for cynicism.
Nurse Haskins said there was nothing she could do but give the girl a cold compress—wet paper towels, frozen in a baggie—and wait for the paramedics she’d just called. In the main office lobby, in a metal folding chair across from the secretary’s L-shaped desk, Gideon held the girl in his lap, while they listened for the medics. He gingerly pressed the compress to her arm and recoiled whenever she winced.
* * *
Maranatha felt tears somewhere deep down inside her. They raged like the creek a few blocks from her house, where she sometimes snuck away to watch the pebbles glisten under the coursing spray. But she knew the tears wouldn’t come. Not for this. It hurt, but the pain felt far away, rushing up and receding every few minutes. It wasn’t like when the girls in her class called her dirty and the teacher overheard but didn’t scold them. It wasn’t like when Patra Davis saw her napping under a tree at recess and sawed away at her afro puff with safety scissors until there was nothing left but two inches of frizz.
Right now, she couldn’t settle on a feeling long enough to know what to do with it. As quickly as tears and a yelp came up, they pulled back down into her throat. She just kept still.
She’d been hurt badly enough for a hospital visit once before. She hadn’t cried then either, until she saw blood. There was no blood here, just the beginnings of a bright red bruise and a lump the size of a Jumbo Jawbreaker.
“What’s your name?” the boy holding her wondered.
“Boy. Tall order.” She could hear the smile in his voice, but she didn’t see it. Her gaze fixed on her dangling feet.
He offered her one of his slender hands. The fingers were long and spindly. When she placed her little palm on his, she wondered if it would disappear if he enfolded it. Was his hand big enough to swallow hers whole?
“You can cry if it hurts.”
I know, she thought she said aloud.
Ten minutes later, two men in dark blue uniforms bustled in and hooked a little sling around her neck before lifting her onto a gurney. She blushed furiously and fought the urge to look back at the boy, who was already being scolded by Principal Holbrook about irresponsibility and horseplay.
It wasn’t until they rolled her into the ambulance, where she saw needles and tubes and saline drip, that she finally began to sob.