get caught up with a visit to the archives.
– Chapter 5 –
The summer between junior and senior year had been serene and inspiring. Maranatha spent it visiting her great-grandparents in Michigan. They lived in a sleepy town called Jackson, best known as the birthplace of the Republican Party and home of the nation’s first penitentiary. But despite those morose distinguishers, Jackson had always been a haven for Maranatha. She spent countless afternoons curled on the swing on Grandma and Grandpa’s enclosed porch, reading a small stack of novels and, at night, she’d walk to her cousins’ houses, the harmless streets lit with yellow lamps, to catch a Mason jar full of fireflies. Sometimes, the air was so thick with them they felt like pelting rain. In Jackson, the sky was a colander, crowded with tiny spots of light. It was nothing like the near-black nights back home in Ridgewood, where the air was too polluted to see the constellations.
There were no chores, no snaps of parental complaint, no sudden yells. She wasn’t dogged by complicated rumors here or due in the house at exactly 3 pm. In Jackson, she was free. She could wander off to cookouts or the county fair that featured a double Ferris wheel and deep-fried Oreos.
She could do anything.
Despite her own diminutive frame, Grandma constantly clucked her concerns about Maranatha’s weight (“Girl, you bout thin as a sheet!”) and pushed chicken and cornbread and pound cake and pie at her all summer. She seemed pleased, as Maranatha had rolled her suitcase to the door to se that the girl had gained at least ten pounds. You could stand a few more, Grandma chided, as she shoved a fold of money into Maranatha’s palm when they hugged goodbye.
She’d been in no rush to come home. Relief washed over her, when she left baggage claim for the pick-up curb and realized her mom and stepdad weren’t there yet. One final, perfect hour passed before they pulled up to the curb. She spent it listening to her discman and pretending she was waiting on a car service that would take her to the home of the foreign diplomats who’d be sponsoring her education abroad through the rest of high school, college, and grad school. Straightening her spine, she folded her hands in her lap and turned her face to the sun, pretending to be a royal awaiting tea service. But her good posture and temperament were fleeting, as within minutes, she saw her stepfather’s old, diesel Mercedes hugging a curve and careening toward her.
Nothing of consequence happened in the week between her arrival from Jackson and her first day of school. She and her stepfather had one of their customary arguments in her mother’s absence, the kind where he could accuse Maranatha of “insolence” and Maranatha could insist that she’d done but defend herself and her mother would throw up her hands and walk off, calling them both childish, the kind where later in the evening, Anne would crack open her daughter’s bedroom door and softly insist that she work harder at keeping the peace when she wasn’t home to play moderator: “It’s his house, after all….”
She’d gone to church, of course, and watched as her stepfather danced his praise jig on the front row, while her mother offered slightly more reserved applause or swaying hands beside him.
Her nana bought her new school clothes: itchy cardigans and plaid pleated skirts, a heavy, turquoise ankle-length sweater dress, and blessedly, one pair of Gap jeans. She also stocked up on purple ballpoint pens and Mead Five-Star notebooks, determined to be a better student this year than she had been in years past. A passing student, at least.
On her first morning as a high school senior, she hiked the straps of her lavender Jansport further on her shoulders as she took the front steps two at a time. Septembers weren’t that bad. She was always still coasting on the placidity of summer when school started. It was the other eight months that proved problematic. But this was senior year. There was an end and it was near. College was on the horizon—secular liberal arts college, prayerfully in a city far, far away. Not only that, she could say with absolute confidence that she wouldn’t be darkening the doors of Holy Pentecost Academy after they awarded her diploma. The resolute comfort of that was all the motivation she needed to barrel through to graduation.
The front hall hummed with electric chatter. There was an excitement far more palpable than there’d been in years before. Several of the familiar faces she saw positively shone with the radiance of imminent liberation. This, Maranatha thought to herself, was the only thing that linked her to them; even the students who didn’t mind the school were eager to leave it.
“Hey, Anathema,” a girl’s voice rang out from behind.
It could’ve been anyone’s. Voices had become muted and interchangeable. Whether airy or husky or impossibly nasal, they all sounded the same hurling insults. Anathema was among the most common—and the one they counted among their most clever, since it borrowed from scripture. But a few years back, when she won a school-wide essay contest and Principal Harris mispronounced her middle name, Shalott, as Charlotte, a lot of kids had taken to calling her Harlot.
Maranatha couldn’t decide which should bother her more.
When she turned, she was annoyed to find that the voice in the crowd belonged to Cosi. Cosi was a transfer who’d only been there half a year and already thought she’d earned a place in the chorus of harassers.
“Hello,” Maranatha deadpanned, as the girl approached.
“Have you seen Demetria yet?” Cosi’s hair was a maze of cornrows with cowry shells strung onto the ends. She smoothed them as she looked Maranatha up and down appraisingly.
“You hair looks pretty that way.” Before she even finished, Cosi blurted a smug, “Thanks,” as though she was pleased they agreed.
Cosi’s gaze wandered the perimeter of the crowd, which didn’t seem to be moving much, in either direction.
“I just got here. I haven’t seen Demetria or anyone else.”
Cosi looked confused. She’d already forgotten her original question. “Did you hear there’s a new English teacher? Male.”
This last comment suddenly planted their conversation in the land of the surreal. Cosi’s conspiratorial grin revealed her dimples. Light danced in her catlike eyes and Maranatha couldn’t tell if they were green or gold.
No one just volunteered information to her, unless it was part of an elaborate prank setup. She couldn’t decide how to respond. What she wanted most was to say, “Oh?” and then drift off toward her homeroom. But the idea of a new English teacher intrigued her. She’d been hoping for some turnover in the English department since the sixth grade. It’d been the same three hens her whole life and she could barely stand it anymore. A barrage of questions were just on the edge of her tongue: old? how old? just senior plate at Denny’s old or geriatric? from the church or someplace else? where? will he teach her class, honors?
“Ooh! Dee’s here!” Cosi cheered and flitted away, her tiny purple Coach purse flapping against her hip.
Maranatha shrugged and took a minute to pull her class schedule from the zip-front of her backpack. She had Bro. Berry for homeroom, which was great. He was narcoleptic; she’d never been marked late. She scanned the rest of the list. She’d scored both the electives she wanted, Philosophy, which she knew would be mostly Schaeffer and Kierkegaard with Sis. Nelson teaching it, and Photography, which she’d always wanted because she longed to uncover the mysteries of darkrooms.
All the teachers’ names were familiar but one: Agee, Honors English. Had to be the new guy. Her curiosity was piqued. She wondered if Brother Agee would be interesting, at least. She hoped he’d choose just one unpredictable literary work for his class. She couldn’t bear another close reading of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
She survived morning. By noon, she’d only caught wind of one new rumor about herself: the reason she’d gone out of town this summer was to have an abortion. Which probably meant that Cammi Shaw had gone out of town this summer to have an abortion. Maranatha spent her lunch break alone, in an open computer lab. Most of the time, she didn’t eat during the day, pocketing her lunch money and skipping a trip, however brief, to the merciless cafeteria.
By sixth period, she’d pushed her curiosities to the back of her mind. With her luck, the new teacher would take an instant dislike to her. He’d award her decent grades, but they’d be grudging and her papers would all look like the red-inked beatitudes, full of “not exactly!”s and “derivative idea!”s. And for his final: a blue-book essay on select passages of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
She walked into Honors English with pursed lips, a set jaw, and her head down. There were more seats that usual in the back of the room, but it wasn’t until she’d settled into one that she realized why.
He looked different now, older, but not nearly as old as the octogenarians they were used to, so the front rows were crowded with girls. Maranatha did quick math: he was probably around twenty-seven. His hands were even larger than she remembered and addled with dashes of light and dark scars. She wasn’t used to teachers with strong-looking hands. Fragile, liver-spotted ones with raised veins winding under the skin like rivers were more common. She wasn’t used to his eyes, either. His irises weren’t rimmed with thin blue orbs of cataract, like a third of the academic faculty’s.
He turned and wrote “Mr. Agee” on the board.
“I prefer ‘Mister’ to ‘Brother,’ if y’all don’t mind,” he said before facing them. He flipped the chalk in his hand, then shoved his hand into his pocket, staring at their faces for a while before he said anything else.
“Well, I guess we need to start by introducing ourselves.” Walking around the desk, he rested himself on the edge of it and crossed one leg over the other. His hand was still in his pocket and Maranatha thought he looked like a catalog model.
“I’m Gideon Agee. First-year teacher, used to be a student here. Favorite writers: Fitzgerald. Hughes. Baldwin.”
Carla Davies raised her hand and Mr. Agee gestured in her direction.
“None of those are Christian writers.”
He chuckled, offering his first genuine grin. “No. They aren’t.”
Carla’s eyes widened. She folded her lips into her mouth and glanced away.
“Any other questions? Comments?”
The buzz of the wall clock was his only response so he looked down at what must’ve been a roster on the desk, then peered back at the kids.
Matt raised his hand.
“Tell me who you are.”
While Matt looked momentarily bewildered and then launched into a mechanical introduction including name, age and favorite scripture, Maranatha seized with panic. Tell me who you are? What a request. She listened to the other kids. After Matt, they just rose on their own, row by row, and mostly Mr. Agee just nodded and checked their names off his list.
Finally, when her turn came to speak, Maranatha popped up and spoke just loudly enough for her shaky voice to reach him. Her shoulders pushed upward as she pulled at the overlong sleeves of her shirt. “I’m Maranatha Miller. Really don’t know who I am.”
As she slumped back into her seat, a few students swiveled toward her. Others snickered. Mr. Agee nodded then tilted his head like he was trying to make sense of bad modern art.
“Next?” he prodded.
By any comparison, her day had ended relatively well, so she wasn’t sure why she was so irritable when her mother pounced on her before she’d even fully closed the front door.
Anne used to be an executive assistant at an investment firm. She’d been doing administrative work for most of Maranatha’s life. It wasn’t a career she loved, just one she’d fallen into out of necessity, after she’d gotten pregnant. But she’d quit her job six months ago to become a full-time minister. It’d been an adjustment. Maranatha had been a latchkey kid since she was nine years old. She’d gotten used to the few hours of freedom and silence before her family got home. Finding her mother hovering near the door most afternoons was taking some getting used to.
“How was school?”
Maranatha bustled past her and headed for the kitchen. “Same as every year.”
Anne was on her heels. “What does that mean?”
“Means I’m still the most hated girl there.” Maranatha slung her backpack onto the kitchenette table, flung open the pantry door and stared unseeingly at its contents.
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
Her mother’s capacity for denial—for placing a sunny face on unbearable situations—always staggered her. “It’s been true for years, Mom.”
Anne’s face showed hints of falling, but she recovered immediately. “Well, there’s got to be a reason.” She stared expectantly, like she used to do when Maranatha was little and on the verge of a reluctant confession.
Maranatha wasn’t hungry anymore. In fact, all she wanted was to go up to her room, write in her journal and drown out the sounds of house with her discman’s headphones. She sensed the direction of the conversation, and maybe if she headed out of the kitchen and towards the stairs, she could head things off at the pass.
“There isn’t a reason; it just is what it is.” Drifting away from her mother’s unrelenting gaze, she hoped her voice had muffled and she wouldn’t be asked to repeat herself. But Anne followed her out and blocked her path to the stairs.
“Don’t confess that. You’re always moping around here, making all these negative confessions. Don’t you know that you’re the head and not the tail, above only and not beneath? You’re a leader, not a follower.”
It was a familiar mantra. She could’ve mouthed it mockingly, but that probably would’ve garnered a slap so she just nodded instead.
“And the sooner you let go of this victim mentality, the sooner you’ll get to your destiny in life.”
“You go around with this spirit of rejection on you…. You have to cast that off you. People can’t help but reject you unless you get rid of it.”
Maranatha nodded again. Everything was turning into a sermonette these days. It didn’t take much for Anne to get worked up about casting the enemy out of various areas of their lives.
“We should fast,” Anne declared. “As a family. We should go on a ten-day fast. And we’ll pray that God will break the spirits of depression and rejection. And we’ll believe God for unmerited favor for you at your school.”
“Okay.” Yeah. That would solve everything.
Maranatha hated fasting and hated herself for not just saying, “Fine,” at the door. She should’ve pretended that things were miraculously improving at school, now that she was a senior. She was good at pretending. To prove it, she stopped on her way up the stairs and called over her shoulder, “Thanks, Ma.”