The day before our last confirmation class, Gemma Anderson does not return home from her afternoon jog. The four of us hear this from Ruth Jones at the Stop and Shop on Main Street, while we’re buying brownie mix for our sleepover. In the fluorescent light of the baking aisle she tells us that her cousin lives on the same street as Gemma, and that the cousin says a dozen police cars have been driving up and down the neighborhood all day, doing turn after turn in the dead end.
“They just went into the woods with the German Shepherds,” she says. It’s nine o’ clock now, dark enough that Sammy backed into a garden gnome when we left for the store. “Her parents brought out one of Gemma’s pajama shirts for them to sniff.”
“Where do they think she went?” we ask. A wrong turn in the Norris Forest, an unfamiliar fork on the McKinsey running path? Or was it more deliberate—a borrowed vehicle, a map with her route highlighted in yellow?
“Went?” Ruth’s eyes bug with the shock of our naiveté. “You don’t think someone took her?”
No, we don’t. It’s not where your mind jumps first, not here in Nashquitten, where there’s never anything more scandalous in the police log than a noise complaint. An anonymous voice announces a sale on Klondike bars. “Well,” we say, sounding like our mothers when they run into a mom that quit PTA, “Nice talking to you.”
Back at Sammy’s, we scoop raw brownie batter out of the bowl with our fingers and wonder if Ruth’s lying. Last year she spread a rumor that Vice Principal Douglas kept a dead tarantula named Precious on her desk. She’s also the captain of the dramatic monologue team, the origin of most gossip that circulates through school. We’re licking the tips of our fingers clean when all of our cell phones vibrate simultaneously on the kitchen counter. Our hands linger in our mouths as we lean forward.
AMBER ALERT: Nashquitten, MA. CHILD: 17. White F 5’5” 120 Bro/Bro.
The message fades from our screens and we feel a panic swirl through our chests, our hearts vibrating like the wings of the gypsy moths we captured in Lucy’s yard last April, their bodies beating against our caged fingers. We grasp for each other’s batter-splattered hands and squeeze, hard. No one says you’re hurting me but when we let go our palms are bone white and aching. “Oh my god,” says someone, maybe all of us, maybe none of us—maybe we’re all just thinking it.
* * *
We can’t sleep that night. We lie on Sammy’s floor in a tangle, heads tilted to stomachs, ankles pressed to thighs. Our pulses drum through each other’s skin, steady and persistent. We wonder about Gemma’s body. If she was taken—and maybe we’re being paranoid, maybe Ruth’s getting to us—was it because she was remarkable or unremarkable?
Which are we?
We stay silent. Words sour on our tongues, nothing more than coarse approximations of what we feel. In the quiet we blink up at the bluish glow-in-the-dark stars on Sammy’s ceiling. We stuck them there, years ago.
* * *
Sammy’s mother drives us to St. Anne’s, solemnly asking if we’d heard the news before shifting into drive. She’d learned of Gemma from Lindsay Kelowski who’d heard it from Sandra Wang who’d heard it from Dana Meyers. Our mothers belong to a network of women so fiercely in touch with the town’s happenings that our fathers refer to them as the NAG—Neighborhood Affiliated Gossips. “It’s not gossip,” we’ve heard our mothers say at one time or another, but we’re not sure we agree. We side with our fathers, who at some point we decided knew more about the world than our mothers. It was their lack of concern about the crusted dish left soaking for two days, or the laundry neglected in the basket, or the stain blooming on the carpet. Our father’s largest worries, that we can tell, are tethered to their jobs, those parts of their lives that we do not see. Our mothers are constantly around, even those who work, like Lucy’s and France’s: texting, calling, FaceTiming. We want what our fathers have: to leave the house in the morning and truly leave it behind until returning at dinnertime.
While Sammy’s mother parks, we find seats in the last pew, where we can pass notes to each other during the service without getting side-eye from the old ladies with blue rinsed hair (the ones who think St. Anne’s has perhaps turned a bit too progressive). Our mothers wave from faraway rows; only Lucy’s and Frances’s fathers are present. They are allowed to miss church. We are not.
Gemma is on the prayer list, even though she goes to Catholic St. Mary’s like the rest of the town. We attend St. Anne’s, which is everything St. Mary’s isn’t: scruffy, liberal, Episcopalian. Babies are frequently howling during the services, and sometimes Julie Hunt brings her terrier strapped to her chest in a baby holder, and Father John will bless them both during communion.
We don’t write notes during the hymns or the prayers, which pass as routinely as the morning announcements at school. It is only Father John’s sermon where we turn our attention to each other instead, because at seventeen we are already tired of being told to forgive without limits and love without boundaries. We are teenage girls, which means we have learned the dangers of naiveté. There are words we have been called, other than our names: bitch, slut, prude. Places that have been grabbed, other than our hands: chest, crotch, ass. Things we have been told, other than the truth: This is just between us; I’ll stop; I love you.
We watch the heads before us nod in unison, stained glass light rainbowing their scalps. It’s true—we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We have sinned. But what came first: our neighbor’s sin, or our own?
Frances tears a scrap of paper from the service leaflet and scribbles on it with one of the golf pencils meant for filling out donor pledges. To defeat level one of Bad Episcopalian you must first complete a prayer for Mr. Fenderbaum. Mr. Fenderbaum was our old gym teacher. He’d always walk through the girls’ locker room to borrow shower spray—“boy’s is out,” he’d murmur, eyes surveying our widest parts: thighs, hips, breasts. He called all the girls in his classes Smiley. “Smiley, look alive out there!” he’d shout during a basketball game. You’d have no idea who he was talking to unless he caught you in the corner of the gym when everyone else had gone down to the locker room. “Something on your mind, Smiley?” he’d ask, touching your naked arm to show how much he cares. “You can talk to me.” The sad thing is, some of the girls did. They followed him into his office, a windowless concrete box near the paper supply closet, and sat on the swivel chair he offered. And because he pretended to listen, they would return after the last bell, and do what he asked.
Or maybe that wasn’t it at all. Maybe they went back to see what they could make him do. To learn what could happen if you played a man at his own game.
To defeat level two you must forgive Jimmy Olsen for locking the door during Seven Minutes in Heaven, Celia adds.
To defeat level three you must forgive Uncle John for kissing you on the lips, Sammy writes.
Lucy shakes her head and reaches for the pencil. We’re going to hell. Lucy’s father is one of the deacons, and she has to “play the game,” as we call it, because he roped her into acolyting once a month, something the rest of us immediately vetoed when Mrs. Taylor proposed the idea to our table at the Pancake Supper. Whenever Lucy acolytes we sit in the front row, pulling faces and making the sign language word for fine: one palm held to the chest, thumb touching breastbone before the hand hinges forward. This is the only word we remember from the brief lesson we received during diversity day last year, and it has become our secret distress signal, from I think I just got my period to save me from this boy to I think I’m about to cry. Fine, fine, fine.
Father John finishes his sermon and we sigh with relief—the service is at its halfway mark for everyone else, but for us, it’s almost over. Mrs. Brown comes up to the microphone to lead the prayers of the people, and the reply has been etched into our memory so deeply that it is less a response than a reflex: for our bishop Lord have mercy, for our president Lord have mercy, for this town Lord have mercy. She comes to the list of names, which includes Sammy’s grandmother and Frances’s sister, and finally we hear Gemma Anderson. Is there a collective intake of breath, or do we imagine it? A sudden reverence—something we once felt every time we entered the sanctuary—dips our heads toward the ground, seals our palms together. We stay like that until hear us, Lord; “for your mercy is great.”
When they start passing the gold plate for the collection we slip into the hall, where we climb the carpeted steps to the choir loft. There we open the window next to the baby grand and share a pack of American Spirits that Frances has transferred to an Altoids tin. We tug old choir robes over our dresses so their cotton won’t catch the smoke.
“Do you think Gemma’s alive?” Celia asks, tapping her cigarette on the edge of a coffee mug holding rainbow pencils.
“Yes,” we say. “For now.”
“But we can’t be sure.”
“We would know.”
“How?” she demands. “How would we know?”
When Frances’s sister was in the car accident we all felt a churning in our stomachs, an uneasiness we didn’t understand until our mothers called us into our living rooms and said something terrible had happened. We think of the chimpanzees we studied in biology class, who groomed the fur of a sick female for days before her death, whose mate pounded his chest moments before she died.
Our cigarettes begin to crumble between our fingers. “We just would.”
* * *
After the service we sit on the paisley couch in Father John’s office with the New Teen Bible on our laps, which he ordered especially for us. Each book is interspersed with text messages between God and his disciples, such as: God: Hey, Noah, can u do something 4 me? Noah: What’s up? God: Ppl r becoming wicked so I’m sending a flood. Can u build an ark 2 save the animals & preach 2 the ppl about repenting their sins? Noah: 4 sure.
Father John walks in with a plate of donuts from coffee hour, curated specifically to our tastes: strawberry with sprinkles, cruller, Boston cream.
“How are you girls holding up?” he asks. “I know Gemma was your classmate.” He catches himself. “Is your classmate.”
We look to one another, then the carpet. Eye contact is dangerous with Father John. He takes it as a sign of unspoken confession, a signal of your barricaded desire for connection. This is a safe space, he has told us more than once.
He settles into the chair behind his desk and sets down the donuts. “Are you feeling worried? Anxious?”
The thing is, we like Father John, we really do. He does not interrupt with the gruff authority of our grandfathers or listen with the filtered attention of our fathers. We wish that Brian were still in the class, that the Model UN kids had not corrupted him with their agnostic ways. At least when Brian was here they could fill the silences with small talk about the Patriots. Now it’s just us four, and not a session passes without horseshoes of sweat dampening the armpits of Father John’s black blouse.
“Well,” he says, breaking the silence. “If you want to talk, I’m always here.” We nod, our mothers’ voices swirling in our heads. Please, girls, just try harder—for us?
As if it hasn’t always been for them. We inherited our faith before we could speak, our naked heads dunked in the dove-shaped baptismal fount, our skin rubbed with holy oil. We screamed at the bizarre routine, triggering a wave of laughter among the congregation members, who knew this was simply part of the ceremony: protest.
Father John clears his throat with a phlegmy trill. “On a cheerier note,” he continues, a brief pause acknowledging the awkward transition, “How are you all feeling about becoming official members of St. Anne’s adult congregation next Sunday? Any doubts?” He pushes the plate of donuts closer to us, as though sweets are the key to our disclosure.
“No.” We don’t touch the donuts. “None.”
* * *
We tell our parents we’re going to Celia’s after class, but instead we go to Jimmy’s General Store and buy paper cones of Italian ice from the cooler in the back. We eat them on the concrete steps of the squat brick building, as we have since we were nine. The steps are splattered with our fallen drips from years past, stains of melted sherbet and popsicles.
“What if we know the guy?” Frances says. “The guy who took Gemma.” Last week Frances offered to tattoo our hips with nothing but a sewing needle and an unsharpened pencil. She is not afraid to say what we’re all thinking.
We think of Dylan, who pushed Celia’s head into his crotch when they were alone in his bedroom. Eric, who raised a broken beer bottle to his wrist, showing what he would do if Lucy left him. Patrick, who trailed Sammy’s bike in his truck because he said he liked the view. Travis, who texted Frances for weeks on end nothing but, fuck?
“Yeah.” Our Italian ices are melting and we tilt our heads to catch the dribble. “Maybe.”
* * *
At school on Monday we expect an assembly, but there is none. Instead we are greeted by flyers half-heartedly taped to the mayonnaise-colored tile of the hallway, bottom corners flapping towards the floor. They are printed on the backs of posters for last week’s Spring Fling Dance, ghost outlines of roses and tulips lurking beneath the police’s phone number, beneath CALL WITH ANY INFO ON ANDERSON CASE.
Sammy snatches one of them off the wall. We lean against the janitorial closet and run our fingers over the wrinkled paper. We try to place the picture we saw on the news reports: face round and pale as a rice cake, hair and eyes the color of chocolate pudding. There are two hundred students in our grade, ninety of which are girls, all of which are more remarkable than Gemma. She is not pretty enough to trigger a memory of jealousy, not unattractive enough to trigger one of pity.
The bell for first period rings and bodies flood the hallway, tugging us toward the center of the school like a riptide. We lose one another in the wave of canvas backpacks and messenger bags, brushing up against metal zippers and mesh water bottle pockets. Above us we see the heads of our taller classmates: boys with hair newly cropped for spring, nicks announcing the curve of their skulls; girls with vanilla-scented braids, brushed smooth only an hour ago. They do not glance at the posters, which have begun to slip from the walls into the crowd, just another flu flyer or SAT class announcement. We are careful not to step on them, though they are already stamped with the prints of dirty sneakers.
An ugly thought: if not for Gemma’s family, would anyone have noticed her gone? We shake it from our heads with a snap of our ponytails. Of course we would have.
* * *
When we return home from school the air is thick with our mothers’ anxiety. They are baking casseroles for the Andersons, they are dusting the bookshelves, they are calling one another on the phone, saying can you imagine if she were yours? We try to avoid them altogether, to run right up to our rooms without being noticed, but they turn towards the stairs and say, where do you think you’re going?
Sammy’s mother gives her a black can of pepper spray no larger than a lipstick. Frances’s mother shows her the proper way to execute a kick to the groin. Celia’s mother buys her a metal cat to hang on her keychain, its ears sharp as thorns. “Carry your house keys when you’re walking home,” Lucy’s mother instructs. She demonstrates how to hide the jagged teeth between your index and middle finger, how to dart for the eyes.
“You’ll probably never have to use this,” they tell us.
“Did you?” we ask.
They smile, ruffling our hair as when we were kids, and say nothing.
* * *
On Wednesday morning policemen come and open Gemma’s locker, put her gel pens and star-stamped notebook into plastic baggies labeled with different letters of the alphabet. “Nothing to see here, nothing to see,” Principal Hector declares as we bottleneck the hallway. “Move right along, this isn’t your business.”
There is an announcement over the loudspeaker after the Pledge of Allegiance: “In regards to recent events, anyone who feels they need extra support should seek out Ms. Sweeney in guidance.”
Who will seek out Ms. Sweeney? Who are Gemma’s friends? How do you know if you need extra support? At lunch we scan the cafeteria for tables that are visibly distressed. But the basketball girls are throwing chicken tenders at one other, the alt girls are sharing a package of grocery store sushi, the student council girls are trading Poptart flavors.
“Someone must be missing her,” Lucy says.
“Yes,” we agree. “But who?”
In the last month alone two cats, three dogs, and one albino iguana went missing in Nashquitten. There is a special section for missing pets in the Nashquitten Mariner called “A.W.O.L.: Animals Wayward or Lost.” The cats, dogs and iguana were all found within three days of wandering from home.
Is it that much harder to find a girl?
* * *
Confirmation would have slipped to the backs of our minds, if not for our mothers. They come to us when we’re alone, knocking gently on our closed doors. They sit on our desk chairs and our bed corners. They tell us that though it may not seem like it, this is actually the perfect time to be confirmed. Right now our faith is more essential than ever.
“Are you praying?” they ask.
“Of course,” we say.
Our mothers aren’t stupid. They look at us like we’re lying, but for once we’re not. We’ve been crossing our chests in bathroom stalls and murmuring Gemma’s name as we shove folders into our backpacks. We’re not convinced that prayer works, and yet, it seems selfish not to try.
On Wednesday we gather at Celia’s house after school. We attempt calculus homework in the kitchen and eventually our mothers arrive, congregating in the living room, where they sip whiskey and diet ginger ale from coffee mugs. Today is normally (one glass of) Wine Wednesday, but upon arriving they handed us their keys, said that we’ll be driving home. “What’s happening on Sunday, Luce?” Mrs. Flanders calls from the living room after they’ve finished their first round. “What are you going to wear?”
“Clothes?” Lucy says without looking up from her notebook.
“Don’t be fresh.” We can’t see into the doorway of the living room from our spot at the kitchen’s corner, but one of the mothers snaps her fingers in agreement.
“Does your homecoming dress still fit, Celia?” Mrs. Warner’s voice is louder than usual—she is the type of woman constantly encouraged by her husband to speak up, speak up! “Around the waist?”
“We need to get Sammy a haircut,” Mrs. Kimball says, in a hushed tone that fails to drop to the volume of a whisper. “Those split ends look like straw.”
“They forget that it’s an occasion for the family, too,” says Mrs. Hodgkins. “It’s not just about them.”
Frances rolls her eyes. “We can hear you.”
We lower our heads and continue to solve the quadratic equations in front of us. The older we get, the less energy we have for arguing with our mothers. We no longer care about being right or about being heard. We just want to be left alone, away from their attempts to shape us into girls we’ll never be.
* * *
The week continues without any news. On Friday we skip school and spend the day in Frances’s bed, because she has a king size her Aunt Lottie gifted her post-divorce. (We feel a particular bond with this mattress, because we helped Frances cleanse it with a bundle of sage, eliminating any bad sex vibes.)
We each call in sick to school, imitating the voices of our mothers so easily that we wonder if we are growing into their cadences rather than mimicking them. Normally skipping would make our hands sweat and our hearts skip, but not this week. We remind ourselves of our perfect attendance records, our honor roll achievements, our polite behavior. The stakes of school do not feel as high as we once believed them to be.
Frances has been charging a collection of gold-flecked crystals on her windowsill, where they can collect energy in the moonlight. We place the smooth stones on one another’s foreheads, touching toes beneath the blankets. “They’re protection crystals,” Frances explains. We hold our heads still on the pillows so that the rocks will not slip down the bridges of our noses.
“Will they protect my uterus from impregnation?” Sammy asks. “I’m almost out of birth control.”
“Just shove one of the crystals up there,” Celia says. “My cousin did that with a potato once.”
“She did not.”
“Did too. And a turnip another time. She says root vegetables are best.”
“You’re so full of shit.”
Lucy fake gags. “I’m gonna puke.”
“Shut up, all of you,” Frances says. “This is serious business.”
“Sorry.” We touch the crystals to make sure they’re still in place. “What now?”
“Close your eyes and let the energy move through you.”
We do as she says and concentrate on the coolness of the crystals against our foreheads, picture light branching from the stones into our veins, infusing our blood with a secret defense serum.
“Is it working?” Frances whispers.
A soft heat warms us from the inside like a glug of hot tea. This is how prayer used to feel. When we couldn’t sleep without first pressing our palms together. When we wore needle-thin crosses around our necks. When we thought recitations could keep us safe. Watch over me as I sleep tonight, and be with me when I wake at morning’s light.
“Yes,” we say. “It’s working.”
* * *
The next day we drive around town in Sammy’s Toyota. Sammy’s the only one with her own car, which she has named Betsy and bedazzled with stick-on jewels of all colors. According to Sammy, the car is the physical manifestation of American independence. Sammy is very into her independence. She says she’s never getting married and plans on being our generation’s most notorious spinster.
Normally, we would start our Nashquitten 500 in the harbor, then loop through the Driftway and North Side. We’ve been doing this since we received our licenses a few months ago: burning time by going nowhere. But today we are not driving laps—today we have a destination.
We approach Sagebrook Drive slowly, because going our usual ten miles above the speed limit seems disrespectful. There are no police cars or yellow tape, as we imagined there would be. We know from the news and the paper that this is her street, but we cannot tell which house is Gemma’s as we drive up and down the newly paved road. All of the neutral-colored houses, with their trimmed lawns and two-car garages, seem equally innocent.
“It’s that one,” Frances says, pointing to a white colonial with black shutters. She rubs a finger against the window, leaving a greasy trail. “Look at the trashcan.”
We crank down the windows and lean outside to see the trashcan, which has been dragged to the curb for pick up. The plastic top is slightly askew, and crushed casserole pans poke out beneath, their aluminum caked with crusted cheese and tomato sauce.
“Shit,” we say.
“Do you feel that?” Frances asks.
“I don’t know. It.”
“Shut up,” we tell her, but something heavy settles in our stomachs, something that makes us think Gemma isn’t coming home.
* * *
That night Lucy’s parents are at St. Anne’s annual budget meeting, so we sit on her floor eating takeout pizza while she digs through her closet for last year’s yearbook.
“Don’t drip on the rug, please,” she says from behind a wall of skirts and jackets.
“We’re not,” we chorus, shifting our legs to cover a stain of marinara blooming over the fabric.
“Here’s tenth grade.” Lucy appears with a thin hardcover book creased at the spine. She plops into the middle of our circle and we fight to turn the pages, tearing the glossy paper as we flip to the student photos. There is Polly Abner, Lance Acken and Lily Anderson, but no Gemma Anderson. We turn to The Fallen, a page dedicated to dropout students, but she’s not there, either.
“Fuck,” we say.
Lucy closes the yearbook. “Maybe she was new this year.”
“Maybe,” we say. But the truth is that no one moves to Nashquitten at our age. The only reason to move here is to start a family. You see our stellar test scores and miniscule crime rate. You drive to one of our five beaches and catch a crab in the shallow water. You walk the quiet sidewalks and smell the tiger lilies poking over our fences. Gosh, you say. What a nice place to grow up.
* * *
Early Sunday morning we gather at the salt marsh, our meeting spot since childhood. The sun is just beginning to rise, a trickle of citrusy light on the horizon, and the water is low and muddy, reeking of fish. We are still in our pajamas, not yet dressed for church, and our skin prickles beneath the thin cotton. It’s cold here, air blowing off the nearby ocean that flooded these parts years ago.
“Today’s the day,” Frances says.
We nod, settling onto the ground and pulling fistfuls of grass towards us. It is straw-like in our palms.
“So we’re all going?” Frances asks. She is the only one standing. Looming. “For sure?”
We know what she’s getting at. “We can’t just ditch.”
“Why not?” It sounds tough, but she won’t look at us as she says it.
“They’d be mad.”
“Who?” She hurls a stone into the marsh. It lands with a wet thunk. “Who’s ‘they’?”
We glance at one another, little more than silhouettes in the early light. “Everyone.”
“You think everyone is going to care?” Frances asks. She’s clutching a sharp stone in her hand, chipped at its edges. “You think everyone is going to notice?”
We stand up and examine our legs, covered with red marks from the long yellow blades, a series of slashes. “Yes,” we say, tired of this nonsense. “They would.”
We think she’s going to throw the stone, but she pockets it instead. “I wouldn’t be so sure.”
* * *
St. Anne’s is hosting the confirmation service not only for us, but the entire South Shore deanery. We’ve never seen the parking lot this crowded except at Christmas and Easter. Even the spots near the dumpster are taken, where the pavement’s constantly swampy with a mustard colored liquid.
We follow the line of blow-dried and unwrinkled teens inside, where we are directed into Parish Hall. Our parents are funneled into the sanctuary. “Good luck,” they whisper before we part, as though we’re warming up for an important sports match.
A large circle of metal chairs has been arranged in the hall, and we sit on the side closest to the kitchen, from which the smell of post-service refreshments drifts: monkey bread, tater-tot casserole, deviled eggs.
Everyone is chatting with someone else except the girl beside us. Her dress is too heavy for May, a knee-length red velvet clearly recycled from Christmas season. Her eyes are swollen with the signature puffiness of a cry, something we are well acquainted with. She looks up for a second and we smile. “What church are you from?”
“St. Mark’s in Weymouth.” She tucks a flyaway curl behind her ear. If only we had some hairspray. “What about you guys?”
Her eyes widen. She leans closer, grasping for Lucy’s arm. “Did you know Gemma Anderson?”
We’re not sure how to answer, and we want to say the right thing. This girl is vibrating with intensity. “We went to school with her.”
She nods. “Me too.” Confusion flickers over our eyebrows. “Not at Nashquitten, of course. At Minot Community College. We were in the Accelerated Scholars program together. Gemma was always talking about how stupid it was that they still required her to take P.E. at your school. Administrations never have our best interests at heart, you know.”
She is talking too fast, saying too much. The rush of information makes us lightheaded, like we’ve just stood still after a cartwheel.
“It’s nice to talk to other people who knew her. I almost didn’t come this morning.” She flashes a sympathetic smile. “How are you all holding up?”
“Oh, you know.”
The girl places a supportive hand on Lucy’s arm and drops her voice to a whisper. “Are you going to be at the funeral?”
“Funeral?” we ask, but everyone is turning in their seats. The Bishop has walked into the room, dressed in a floor-length ivory robe belted with braided tassel. A moss-colored cape hangs from her shoulders, beneath which we can see a metallic emerald stole, whose two fringed rectangles remind us of bookmarks. She clears her throat and taps the floor with a cane that looks meant for herding sheep.
“Hello, my friends!” She spreads her arms wide like she is trying to encompass us all in one giant hug. “Who’s ready to be confirmed?”
There is a cheering from our peers that surprises us.
The Bishop nods. “That’s what I like to hear. This is what the Church needs, enthusiasm from young members like yourselves.” She enters the ring of chairs and begins to walk its circumference, looking each of us in the eye. Her irises are the artificial blue of mouthwash. “There are few things that give me greater joy than ushering in the new generation of the Episcopalian community. But.” She taps the floor with the cane. “I would also like to say that there is no pressure to confirm. This is your decision, not your parents’, or grandparents’, or anyone else’s. Understood?”
“Understood,” echoes the circle.
“Now,” she says. “Shall we pray?”
* * *
While the rest of the room lines up to process into the sanctuary, we run to the bathroom and lock the door behind us. “So she’s dead?” asks Celia. We lost the Weymouth girl to a friend she spotted across the room before we could ask her to clarify.
“Seems like it.” Frances is already sitting on the tile floor, searching the Internet on her phone. We slide down the wall to crouch beside her, the skirts of our dresses wrinkling at the waist like crumpled Kleenex.
“Seventeen-year-old Gemma Anderson, who was reported missing last Saturday, was found dead near the Nashquitten water tower early Sunday morning,” she reads. “Police confirmed that a male suspect is in custody but declined to release a name. An autopsy is scheduled for Monday.”
For a moment, we feel nothing. Like sugar tossed in hot water, we’ve dissolved.
But then we are thrust back into our bodies. Aware of our thighs, cold against the icy tile, aware of spines, sealed with dress zippers, aware of our waists, sore with the indent of panty hose.
“Come here.” We reach for each other’s heads to untangle the braids and buns our mothers constructed only an hour ago, dropping bobby pins to the floor where they clang with the sound of a struck triangle. We rake through the Aquanet-stiffened strands with our fingers, loosening seared curls.
Organ music filters in from the sanctuary. We unlock the door and stumble into the hallway, our path blocked by the rope of waiting confirmants. We consider taking our place at the back of the line, smoothing our skirts and straightening our backs and marching down the aisle to the altar as we have done so many times before.
The music crescendos. Lucy is the first one to raise a thumb to her breastbone. We all move one palm perpendicular to our chests, then tilt our hands forward. Fine?
We run as we had when we were kids playing Capture the Flashlight on our darkened lawns, convinced every shadow was chasing us. “Is something wrong?” someone calls after us, but we just heave open the front door and sprint into the parking lot, passing our parents’ parked cars. We plunge into Sammy’s Toyota, clicking the seatbelts so quickly that the buckles bite our fingers, nip our hips. The water tower looms like an oversized funnel in the distance, Nashquitten painted on its side in thick straight script. We jolt onto the road and imagine Gemma’s last moments, dragged through the woods to the naked patch of field that surrounds the tower (we have been there before, to smoke and drink and kiss). She must have screamed, or maybe she didn’t. As a girl you learn that silence might save you, like when Ricky Flannery pushes you into the dark tunnel of the slide during recess, hand beneath your skirt, saying it will be over quick if you don’t shout; or when your mother tells you not to provoke your brother (provoke, that word so often leveraged against you), that he hit you because you’re too loud, too wild.
But we are not quiet. We roll down our windows and scream into the blurred landscape until our ears ring. Maybe this is how we pray now: howling towards the sky, until no one, not even God, can ignore us.
Alina Grabowski is a graduate fellow at Vanderbilt University, where she’s completing her MFA. Her stories have appeared in Joyland, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Day One, and she has received scholarships from the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She currently facilitates writing workshops for individuals impacted by cancer and teaches creative writing in the Nashville public school system. She is at work on a novel and a linked short story collection, to which “Confirmation” belongs. Find her at www.alinagrabowski.com.