for those just joining us: start here.
– Chapter 2 –
Holy Pentecost Academy hardly seemed the same place, with its potholes in the sidewalk, flimsy plastic flapping across broken windows, and ripped flag sagging at half-mast. Maranatha parked her car and sat for a minute, half-debating heading back home. Just being here, outside but on the grounds, made her feel defensive and nauseous and ashamed.
The postcard on her dashboard noted that she only had five minutes before this thing got started in earnest. Her decision needed to be quick. She grabbed the card and her patented leather clutch and stepped out of the car.
She’d known all along she’d go in.
The side door truants used to use to dash was locked, so she navigated a slalom of orange cones, nestled in ditches of crumbled concrete, to the front entrance.
Her skin prickled. Holy Pentecost still chilled her to the bone upon entry. The sickening scent of cheap cleaning solution, reconstituted meats, and powdered eggs still wafted right up to her from the cafeteria. But there was another smell here, too, something like vinegar and mold.
She looked at the banners hanging from the ceiling above the main office. State Girls Volleyball Champions, 2006, Division C. Pastor’s Award for Excellence in Stewardship, 2008. 2001 Winners of District Youth Evangelism Challenge. Oratory Competition 1998 Runner-Up.
There were others, but she moved on, almost stumbling into a sign taped to a music stand. It read, Town Hall Meeting, Auditorium, 7:30 pm. And underneath, a big red arrow, like anyone who’d be here wouldn’t pivot left by rote.
She heard the screech of a microphone, then keened her ear to see if she recognized the voice mumbling, “Testing, testing.” She didn’t.
A group of women swanned out of a door 200 feet ahead and she froze as they filled the hallway. From here, they looked to be about her age. They were well-dressed, in silk blouses with skirt suits or swishing wide-legged slacks. Their clacking heels rang in her ears. Sweat beaded in her palms. What if she knew them? What if they were former tormenters, like Patra Davis—or worse yet, what if one was Demetria Simmons who had, by graduation, become a kind of frenemy?
She hadn’t seen any of these people in twelve years. Occasionally, in her desperate attempts at holiday small talk, Maranatha’s mother had leaked a few updates about alumni here and there. She knew, for instance, that Cammi Shaw, who barely waited till eighth grade to have sex, then swapped Maranatha’s name for hers when recounting her grand tales of exploit, had recently bought a three-bedroom townhome in Owings Mills. Demetria married a surgeon. Bryce Hall, the cutest boy in their graduating class, was a recovering alcoholic who lived with his mom. Some other boy whose name she hadn’t retained had beaten some type of rare cancer.
Maranatha wasn’t ready for any of this. She tried to square her shoulders, as the cluster of ladies approached. Then she saw them squinting and whispering, trying to place her. Panicked, she turned on her heel and headed for the bathroom at the other end of the hall.
It was strange how the bathroom air still assaulted her. One whiff and she felt herself curdling from within. Underneath a liberal dousing of bleach, there remained the faint odor of vomit and menses, likely decades old. Maybe it was all just memory.
Once in a stall, she realized her shortness of breath and listened to herself until staccato sips of air gave way to longer, steadier inhalation.
It’d been so long she’d forgotten. Never arrive on time. Always slip in the back; always slip out before benediction.
She looked down again at the postcard. Her mother had forwarded it to her two weeks ago. Come discuss the state of our children’s future, it urged. But what it really should’ve said is: Come help us run damage control in light of these abuse allegations all the local news outlets have decided to heavily cover.
What was she doing here? There wasn’t an inch of this place that hadn’t caused her sorrow. She couldn’t even look at the walls of the stall she was in without thinking of all the things about herself she’d had to scrub off them.
At first, she’d relished the idea of being on hand to witness the school’s messy public undoing. She’d imagined making the auditorium her personal amphitheatre, standing on a theatre seat, shaking her fist at the ceiling, and holding the concerned constituents enrapt with a very profane tirade about the various crevices where their discussion of the state of their children’s future could be shoved.
But as a general rule, Maranatha tried very hard to be honest with herself. And she’d known from the first time she read this postcard that she’d attend this meeting and wouldn’t have the courage to say anything at all.
She pushed the stall door open and gave herself a thorough appraisal in the wide murky mirror above the rusted sinks. Her hair fell just right across her shoulders. Her jeans were snug but not ill-fitting. She paced a bit to make sure that she didn’t look like Attack of the 50-Foot Woman in these heels. The bronze tones in her blouse were flattering.
She looked fine.
By the time she made her way back toward the auditorium, she could hear that the meeting had not only been called to order, but a speaker was already being introduced. Perfect. She’d be able to creep in, undetected. She’d sit on the very last row and dare anyone to move her.
An usher at the door gave her a program and, after thanking her and tipping past, she rolled her eyes, wondering why they all felt the need to make everything seem like a Sunday service.
“I know you all have seen some of this coverage on the news and heard that there’s talk of federal investigation,” a small elderly woman rasped into a microphone. “But I can assure you the bylaws of Holy Pentecost Academy do offer us certain protections—.”
“All I wanna know is: are y’all gon’ lose your accreditation before my daughter gets to graduate? I mean, tell me now, so I can see about havin’ her enrolled someplace else!”
Applause rippled for a moment, as Maranatha indeed found her seat in the absolute back of the place and began to concentrate. She opened her program and skimmed the agenda, trying to figure out where they were now. Then she noticed the topics: Civil Rights Violations. HIPAA Protection. Appropriation of Funds. Accreditation. Legal Representation (Introductions).
“Whoa,” she whispered. “Serious shit.”
The usher at the door cleared her throat and shot Maranatha a harsh look. She slumped in her seat and tried to look chastened, but inside she was smirking.
Since she no longer lived in Ridgewood, she’d been keeping up with the newscasts online. She’d seen the HIPAA stuff earlier this week. A young girl, behind a blur of pixels, had tearily recounted a humiliating onsite gynecological exam, performed by the school’s nurse practitioner. “They said there’d been… ‘increased reports of fornication.’ My name came up in the ‘reports.’”
The anchorwoman closed the segment by stating that Holy Pentecost was responsible for practices that some protesters had taken to calling, “True Love Waits, On Acid.”
Maranatha had chortled at that. Was it weird, she wondered, that she was ambivalent about all this? She’d seen some alarming, heinous, bizarre things go down in her day, but hiring a nurse practitioner to perform exams at school? That was disturbing, even by Holy Pentecost standards. Even with the parental permission slips they claimed to be able to furnish, there was no way they could weasel out of being sued, no matter what was said at this town hall meeting tonight.
Maranatha leaned forward a bit to better focus on the elderly speaker at the microphone. Was that… couldn’t be! Mother Millender? Impossible! Mother Millender had to have been about 80 back when Maranatha was a student. Once, when Maranatha failed Mother Millender’s history mid-term, she’d made her stay after school so she could “pray that failing spirit off her.” Maranatha hunched over a makeshift altar—a huge, large-print bible with a dried palm frond folded into the shape of a cross laid atop it—with her eyes tightly shut and hands clasped, per Mother Millender’s instructions. She was stark still, as Mother Millender launched into a loud, meandering prayer that sent a spray of spittle onto Maranatha’s neck. Finally, the old woman crowed, “Now repeat after me. ‘I am the head and not the tail, above only and not beneath.’”
Maranatha muttered the words into her hands and felt knobby knuckles shove her in the back.
“Louder. You gon’ say it till it gets in your spirit!”
Turns out, it takes about two hours to get a single sentence into your spirit.
This was definitely her. Maranatha would recognize those knuckles anywhere.
“We just gon’ pray for the favor of God to carry us through,” she intoned. But her cracking voice betrayed a little worry and something in Maranatha’s chest sank for her.
In spite of herself, something inside her ached at the thought of Mother Millender ending her career as a schoolmarm in disgrace. Nothing was sadder than existential crises among the elderly. But as she began scanning the rows ahead to take her mind off Mother Millender, another feeling surged up inside her.
Terror. A definite, suspenseful terror. Even as she leaned forward, pulling on the chair-back in front of her and narrowing her eyes for better focus, she was practically spasmodic at the prospect of recognizing these faces. How could a silly daydream of triumphal revenge have lured her back to the place that had molded her so twistedly in the first place?
Someone landed in the chair right next to her with a thud. Maranatha leapt what felt like a full half-foot from her seat.
“Well, what’d I miss?”
It was her mother, dressed in something frumpy, ankle-length, and floral. Maranatha sighed. For years, Anne Miller had been downplaying all her assets under a pretense of chasteness. The only makeup she wore was foundation to conceal a smattering of adult acne and barely tinted lip-gloss. But with the right liner and shadow framing her eyes, which sparkled with a mischief she worked hard to repress, and the right rouge on her smooth, ageless cheeks, she’d be a knockout. Maranatha had been urging her to at least update her lip-gloss. She had the kind of curvy lips that begged to flaunted.
“Not now, Ma.”
Anne Miller snatched the program from her daughter’s tremulous hands.
“Lord, girl. You need to calm your nerves.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Well, ain’t this a fine mess they’ve gotten themselves in?” she said more to herself than to Maranatha.
“Why are you even here?” It wasn’t it like she had kids here whose future she had to hand-wringingly micromanage. She wasn’t even a member at Holy Pentecost Christian Center anymore.
“I needed to make sure you weren’t gonna do something foolish.” She elbowed her. “You are my stake, Mare. You are my stake in everything.”
“Well, there’s nothing to worry about,” Maranatha muttered. “I think you know I’m not the violent outburst type.”
Her mother smirked, clearly amused. “You know I’m not talking about this.” She waved the program at the proceedings playing out in front of them.
Mother Millender had handed the mike over to the vice principal, who was starting to introduce a student representative. She was a full-figured girl in a long, denim skirt, who said her name was Sarai Saunders.
“I’m here on behalf of Holy Pentecost’s high school population, who’ll be most affected by any temporary or permanent changes implemented within the next year.” Sarai looked doe-eyed and convinced of everything she was saying.
Maranatha didn’t trust confidence.
“What do you mean?” she hissed at her mother as Sarai announced the petition she was planning to launch, in favor of administrative practices.
Anne turned to look her in the eye. “I think you know.”
She did know, but she didn’t like being called on it. She wasn’t spending a perfectly promising Friday evening in the auditorium of her hated alma mater because she wanted to dance on its grave when they inevitably knocked it down. She certainly wasn’t there to square off with any of those lifelong bitches who’d made her childhood unbearable.
“He isn’t here,” Anne said. “I talked to his mother not too long ago; he’s living somewhere over in Washington State now.”
“If you knew, why’d you come?”
She could barely keep from crying as she shrugged.