Maranatha: Chapter 11.

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– Chapter 11 –

The Law Offices of Cooper, Willis, and Dunn were in an office park near a shallow manmade lake. Shady elms encircled the lake and ducks flitted back and forth between the brackish water and the long grass. When Maranatha pulled into the labyrinthine parking lot, she angled her car into a spot under one of the trees, even though the building she wanted was much farther back in the complex. She stared out at the water for a while and at a pair of agitated ducks, boxing one another with wildly flapping wings. Then she leaned forward, resting her chin on her steering wheel, and gazed up at the sky.

She couldn’t see the sun, obscured as it was by tufts of cloud, but its beams barreled down in angled rays; and she imagined God holding a scepter refracting the light. Maranatha had always thought of God as air, intangible and shapeless unless He compressed Himself into something small enough for her attempt to fathom—like a white giant in a robe with stone tablets, holding a scepter of sun.

Jesus, on the other hand, was always very human to her. She had no doubt that, if she shuttled back in time two millennia, he’d be there. He’d have rebel eyes and a wry grin and she’d be madly in love with him, so in love that when he died, she’d cut her own wrists and hope to die along with him. But then, as she awaited her end, the gashes she’d opened would seal and her life, so amazingly spared, would be listed among the last of the pre-resurrection miracles.

The Holy Spirit seemed something else entirely. It was what she felt when she made bad decisions, constantly, impartially observing. It was what the “something” whenever she heard the words, “Something told me to…” It was the complicated scriptures that still floated up to her, all these years after she’d memorized them. The Holy Spirit hovered and always felt really close by, too close sometimes, like a person whose slightly stale breath you felt clinging to your barely conscious face, as he checked your vitals.

Maranatha liked the way she imagined the Trinity. It helped her to conceive of each branch in a very personal way. She’d never told anyone of the grand tales she’d spun, dating back to early girlhood, of God as avenger and Jesus as rescuer and Holy Spirit as conscience and key. She feared accusations of blasphemy from people who were part of her old life—Anne and all the old church folks she might meet during the course of the trial. And she feared skepticism and ridicule from the people who were part of her life now—the academics at the colleges where she taught, the few acquaintances she still knew from college, her Tuesday Night Writers Circle.

It was a part of herself she’d learned to fiercely guard. Holy Pentecost Academy had been cruel. Sometimes, it was even vicious. But she’d stopped believing that anyone there represented the God she knew by the time she was ten years old. After that, their behavior stood on its own, apart from what she thought Christianity was or what she hoped it could be.

Holy Pentecost was just a nightmarish Evangelical factory where she’d been trapped until she turned eighteen. She’d been reminding herself of that her whole adult life. The Academy was just something to get over; it didn’t hold the truths of her faith and she shouldn’t allow it to shape her future.

Of course, that was nearly impossible to accept, no matter how many mantras and positive confessions and “forgetting those things which are behind” sermons she heard. This was why she needed to sue the school. She needed sit among people who knew, and talk about how deeply this place scarred its students’ souls.

She’d made a list, like Jeff Cooper had asked, of any incidents that might be useful to reference in a Statement of Claim. The burden of proof was on the students, he’d told her, and the more evidence of damage they could corroborate, the more likely they were to be granted a trial.

“There aren’t too many cases like this, Ms. Miller,” Jeff had said on the phone. “It’s not every day that a Christian private school is brought up on abuse charges—and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how sensitive an issue religion is. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t want to see this thing go to trial—and even if it does, we’ll be hard pressed to find an unbiased jury. This is very polarizing stuff here.”

Polarizing. He wasn’t lying. Maranatha reached into her purse and pulled out the small legal tablet where she’d jotted down her list:

–         Random chastity checks

–         The exorcism of Jacob Rich

–         Girls-only “conduct assemblies”

–         School-wide fasts

–         The public humiliation of Cammi Shaw

It was that last incident on the list that sprang to mind as she locked her car and started up the hill toward the lawyers’ offices. It happened, ironically, on Hallelujah Day. Maranatha remembered it vividly, because of her own anticipation. As with every other tradition that year, she felt an atypical giddiness at the anti-Halloween assembly because it would be her last. But there also the added significance of Mr. Agee’s reemergence. She couldn’t keep herself from grinning, as they walked almost side by side through the crowded hall, she a half-step behind him. A few days before, he’d come up to her in the hall, as she stood transfixed in front of some boy’s morbid biblical diorama. She’d surprised herself by initiating a conversation—or trying to, anyway. And even more impressive was the air of sophistication she mustered, using an SAT word: macabre.

She wanted to say something again. This, too, was macabre, this somber but frenzied march toward the auditorium for propaganda and Pixie Stix. But she couldn’t use the same word again; he’d know she’d been bluffing the first time, grasping at straws for grown-up-sounding vocabulary.

Maybe his walking up to her and the artwork that day had emboldened her. She glanced up at him and teased, faux-sternly, “Hey. Watch your step.” He looked startled at first and then he laughed, abruptly and with his whole body. Had it been even a little less raucous, were there fewer students shoving and yelling and punching each other playfully in the arms, Mr. Agee would’ve drawn attention to himself. As it was, the single clap of his hands and the way he lightly touched his stomach to compose himself went all but unnoticed.

By the time they found seats inside, she on the end of one row and he on the end of the row right behind her, electric pulses were still shooting through every part of her body. She made him laugh. She could hardly stand it.

Principal Harris took his usual spot at the podium to introduce whatever festivities the student planning committee had cooked up. Would it be another pageant, where Wiccans cast a near-deadly spell on an innocent trick-or-treater? Or would they cut to the chase with that old standby filmstrip and let them go early with their bags of bite-sized confections?

It didn’t matter. She turned her head as far as she could to the right without being obvious. Was he looking at her? She couldn’t tell. All she could see in her periphery was the aisle beside them and Cammi Shaw was tremulously walking down it. She was flanked on either side by her parents, Deacon and Sister Shaw. Cammi’s parents were old. They’d met when her dad was a missionary in Korea. Deacon Shaw had always scared Maranatha with his ever-tensed face and his eyes full of damnation-preaching fire. Sister Shaw was wringing her hands, her own face a mask wrinkled with hurt and worry. The sight was sobering, the three of them marching toward the stage.

It wasn’t like Cammi not to look impeccable and smug. Usually, she wore as much makeup as she could get away with. Sometimes, she was called into the office to have her skirts tape-measured to make sure they weren’t shorter than regulation length. Every once in a while, she was sent home for impropriety and asked to return more modestly the next day. The trips home only made her more popular. Today, the denim skirt she wore was ankle-length and a-line. Her blouse was high-collared, the sleeves practically pinching her wrists. Her face was impossibly pale without its light dusting of blush and deeply crimsoned lips. Maranatha felt uncomfortable just looking at her.

She wondered briefly if Cammi had worn one short skirt too many and now Principal Harris was making her pay with a PSA about modesty. It would’ve been unfair and rather drastic, but Cammi would’ve approached something like that with relish. She’d vamp up whatever lines they’d ask her to read and possibly even attempt tossing in a little double entendre.

Whatever she was being asked to do here had left the rims of her eyes raw with tears.

Now, Maranatha turned full-on in her chair and tried to pass a silent question to Mr. Agee, but he’d lowered his head and placed a hand over his face, like he’d been forced to the scene of a wreck and couldn’t bear to look. She swiveled back toward the stage as Cammi and her parents approached the podium.

“I’d like everyone to return to order now,” Principal Harris admonished. The microphone whinnied with feedback and the auditorium quieted. “Our regularly scheduled Hallelujah Day festivities have been preempted today, by the actions of one of your peers. A week ago, she came to my office with some very grave, very disappointing news, and in light of this confession, I have asked her to come here today to publicly make this confession to the rest of you.”

Principal Harris backed off the microphone and the Shaws pushed Cammi forward. She opened her mouth and then closed it. A sound escaped her, like the helpless coo of a wounded bird. She opened her mouth again and began with a squeak. The, “I…” she eked out ended in a loud, wet sob and the collective hush of the crowd gave way to indistinct whispers.

She started again, sucking in a long hard breath. “I… sinned before God and against my own body. I’ve brought shame to our school and our student body. I committed an act of fornication. I’m pregnant. Please forgive me.” It was a statement she’d obviously worked hard to rehearse, a statement she hoped someone would be merciful enough to stop her from delivering.

Maranatha was instantly livid. Isolated gasps and snickers trickled out from the rows. Cammi covered her mouth and wailed. The sound, magnified through speakers, bounced off the ceiling and echoed against the walls. Her dad stood back, his arms firmly folded across his chest and Sister Shaw was still wringing her tiny hands.

“I’m so, so sorry!” Cammi cried, clapping her hand back over her mouth afterward. She slid down, until she was on her knees, rocking and crying on the floor.

In all her years here, Maranatha had never witnessed anything like this. Pregnancies were grounds for public confession now? What was next, being dragged to a public square and stoned?

“Where is the boy?” she demanded, her voice loud against the stillness of the students and the lull of Cammi’s sobs. “If she has to stand up there, why should she have to stand up there alone?” She pushed herself up from her seat. She didn’t care that it was Cammi Shaw she was defending. Cammi, who started at least one baseless rumor about Maranatha a year. She just couldn’t take the indignity. And she was terrified that, someday, this could happen to her.

“I can’t be here for this.” Her voice sounded half-crazed in her ears as she rushed up the aisle, dodged the teacher at the door who tried to grab her and pull her back, and ran straight out the front doors, toward home.

When she returned the next day, she came with the expectation that she’d be suspended—after an impassioned lecture on repentance and accountability, of course. But as she walked the aging halls, it was as though nothing had happened. No intercom beckoned her to the principal’s office. There was no overzealous chatter about what Cammi had done or what had been done to her. Everything appeared unchanged.

Maranatha had been marveling, ever since the very first rumblings about a lawsuit, that anyone had escaped Holy Pentecost Academy sane enough to want to sue it or lucid enough to know that what had happened to them there wasn’t at all the work of a just and holy God. But as she followed a receptionist toward the main conference room, she saw upon approach at least fifteen people waiting behind the long glass pane that faced the hall. Among them was Cammi herself, offering Maranatha a small terse smile. She saw a few other faces she recognized: Jacob Rich was there and she thought might be named Anais. Demetria Simmons was sitting in a corner, her back to the window. The rest of the people seemed either much younger or older than Maranatha. She greeted them all with a wave as she sat.

No one seemed in the mood to talk while they waited for Jeff Cooper to arrive. They chose instead to occupy themselves with the papers on which they’d written their own list of incidents, both widely known and well-guarded. Whenever someone passed through the hall, their heads snapped up expectantly.

So it was Maranatha who spotted Gideon first, as the reception led him to an office just beyond the conference room. She dug her nails into sides of her purse and, after a few frozen seconds, forced herself to breathe. She willed his eyes toward her, noticing how the lids drooped, as though from years of strained, dim-lit reading. She wanted to take in his face full-on, to study every embellishment their years apart had wrought. But he was determined to keep his eyes forward, to follow without asking questions, to secret himself behind the door the receptionist closed behind him.

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