Good Samaritan Points
Her uncle told her about a rabbit named Nutmeg. It was a cute baby but developed extremely undesirable habits as it reached maturity. “Soon as anyone came near Nutmeg’s hutch,” her uncle said, twisting his mouth to one side, “he would immediately ejaculate. The whole wall was spattered.”
Zoë had the sense that he’d told this story many times to more sophisticated audiences, that it was an anecdote that went with low lights and sour-smelling drinks and that the expected reaction was laughter, but she didn’t know what he was talking about, and told him so. He showed her.
“There,” he said after. “Like that. Every time. You didn’t even have to touch him.”
Dr. Madden insisted Zoë call her Lydia. She asked questions like “What is your favorite subject in school?” and “Do you have a favorite stuffed animal?” and “Why don’t you pretend these anatomically correct dolls are you and your uncle and show me how he touched your inchoate genitalia?” Not in those words. But she did trot out the dolls. Zoë dug around in the toy box, found their clothes, and covered their paunchy, unmottled nakedness with miniature asexual jumpsuits. Dr. Madden wrote this down.
It was tacitly understood that no charges would be pressed. Things were supposed to return to normal. But Zoë knew they wouldn’t. Once she finally disclosed that her dad’s brother-in-law had been touching her since she was five in areas covered by a swimsuit, everything became a question of etiquette. Survival depended upon proper place settings, the micromanaged synchronization of arrivals and departures, the elusive Christmas gift that would not send a subliminally accusatory message. Her parents agonized over doorstops in the shape of mice, hand-crafted by Amish people. They dithered over Precious Moments figurines. “Are you crazy?” Zoë’s father asked her mother, brandishing a little-girl Hummel clad in a perilously short pinafore and listing lederhosen. “That’s suggestive! They’ll take it the wrong way!”
Once a week, beginning at Christmas vacation, Zoë’s mother dropped her off at Dr. Madden’s downtown office in an old grain elevator converted to a shabby-chic office space with oblong curtainless windows and chipped radiators that clanged nonstop in the winter. It reminded Zoë of the classrooms at St. Monica’s, which were so cold that the sisters and brothers let them wear their winter coats indoors from Thanksgiving to Easter.
She didn’t know if her parents were sending her to Dr. Madden because she was broke and needed fixing, or because they secretly didn’t believe her and were counting on the doctor’s superior interrogation methods to ferret out the truth, get her to say she made it all up so the family could continue its annual pilgrimages to Connecticut every Christmas to visit the graves of its dead and sit at Aunt Marilyn’s gigantic festal table without the awkwardness of carefully-orchestrated seating arrangements and a half-apologetic campaign of ostracism against the offending uncle, Aunt Marilyn’s husband. Her parents wanted everyone to be friends. Their wholesome holiday enclave had, at Zoë's indiscretion, become tabloid fodder overnight.
When he wasn’t scrutinizing pieces of bric-a-brac, her father was randomly saying things like, “I cannot believe he had the fucking gall to do that to my daughter, in my dead parents’ house, with me asleep upstairs.” It sounded as though he was talking to himself, muttering lines for an upcoming stage role as the angry, wronged patriarch. Sometimes, though, Zoë caught him peering at her oddly as she watched TV or ate dessert or roller-skated around the concrete-floored basement, caught him staring at her as if chagrined by her unabashed engagement in normal, recreational, pre-molestation activities. He wanted proof. She wondered if it would be a good idea to stop talking.
Something in her overturned, like a rock spongy with grubs beneath, and in the weeks before school resumed she stayed up for hours bending God’s ear, fetishizing prayer, clinging to His coattails and wrapping her arms around the pillars of his legs, stroking Him like a rabbit’s foot rubbed to a bald knuckle. She prayed for a tornado: something annihilating and swift. She prayed to be forgiven for praying for a tornado. She thanked God profusely for letting her be born with functioning limbs. She apologized for not being nicer to her limbs and making better use of them. She prayed for a flood and for Dr. Madden to be swept away by it. And, as if in poetic justice, she wet the bed.
But Zoë thought everything would go back to normal once she returned to the fluorescent-lit realm of her second-grade homeroom teacher, Sister Mary Ann. Sister Mary Ann was not nice. She was predictable, which was better. Squat and ruddy and choleric as the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, she addressed the class by barking out “Gentlemen and ladies!” before making them open their math workbooks or telling them someone had died—usually a priest from the rectory across the street—with a bitter, righteous sorrow that implied the children were to blame. “Your first Communion,” she told the class sternly, “is going to be the most important step in your lives so far.”
But when Zoë walked into homeroom the first day after Christmas vacation, Sister Mary Ann’s iron crucifix and solitary Reading Rainbow poster were gone. Multitudes of plush teddy bears wearing human clothing leaned against each other with drunken jauntiness all along the deep windowsills. The chalky-blue cinderblock walls were covered with posters of kittens in trees, bunnies in wicker baskets, bear cubs reading books. The desks had broken from their row formation and arranged themselves in a circle in the center of the room. Folk art and hanging philodendrons proliferated.
And Sister Mary Ann, with her modified wimple and serge skirt and formless solidity, was gone, replaced by a reflexively smiling woman in red velour sweatpants and a fluffy sequin-studded sweater. Her skin was darkly tanned and leathery, her brown hair whipped into a stiffly elaborate soufflé, her teeth glowing white and symmetrical.
“Hi there!” she said to every child who entered, wringing her whippet hands. “Hello!”
Zoë’s stomach lurched. She extricated herself from the woman’s shoulder-squeeze and slid into a seat beside Katie Khagany, who had been her assigned desk mate during Sister Mary Ann’s reign.
“Where’s Sister?” she asked Katie.
Katie smoothed her uniform jumper and shrugged. “I got that same bear for Christmas,” she said, pointing to a windowsill cub in a pink acetate-and-taffeta tutu.
Zoë took her pencil box out of her book bag. Most of her classmates were gathered at the windows, manhandling the bears, grabbing handfuls of Dum-Dums from ceramic candy dishes scattered here and there. The room no longer smelled of pink erasers and drafty air. The radiators were shut off and draped in Indian tapestries. Three large space heaters, coils glowing orange, radiated blasts of arid warmth. Zoë’s collar itched.
Once the room was full, the strange woman hovered in front of the blackboard with her hands clasped, beaming. She made deliberate eye contact with each child in turn.
“Well, hi there, everyone!” she said. She hopped onto Sister Mary Ann’s huge oak desk and sat cross-legged. “I bet you’re all wondering where Sister Mary Ann is!”
The class stared at her. The woman said, “Well, Sister Mary Ann had a little family business she had to take care of, up in New Hampshire. Her niece just had twins, how about that!” Her face gaped in mock astonishment. “Sister went up there to help her out for a while. So I’m going to be here working with you all for the rest of the school year. My name is Mrs. Lewis.” She twisted around her torso and wrote it on the board, still cross-legged.
“Now,” she continued, “Brother Andrew told me that Sister started you off with the Our Father every morning. Before I learn all your names, I thought I’d teach you my favorite prayer. We’ll say it every day from now on.”
As Zoë tried to digest the mental images of Sister Mary Ann with a family, Sister Mary Ann cradling twins in the crook of each stout reddish arm, Mrs. Lewis led the class in her favorite prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
She made them say it three times until they memorized it.
Later, filling in blanks in her reading workbook while Mozart played on Mrs. Lewis’ record player, Zoë felt her balance slowly returning, like a bobbing cork righting itself in a current, until Katie Khagany dropped her pencil. It skittered under Zoë’s feet and she picked it up and put it back on Katie’s desk.
“You!” Mrs. Lewis said. She was coming toward Zoë, white teeth bared and lips drawn back with inelastic glee. “Zoë, right?” Zoë nodded. Everyone looked up.
“That was a very sweet thing you just did,” Mrs. Lewis said. “Did everyone see that, how she picked up Katie’s pencil for her? Zoë, you just earned yourself a Good Samaritan point.” She strode over to the blackboard and wrote Zoë’s name, with a 1 beside it. “What I want most of all is for you to be nice to each other, to follow the Golden Rule,” she said. “Like Zoë just did. Every time I see one of you doing something nice for someone else, you’ll get a Good Samaritan point. When we have 100 points for the whole class, we’ll have a pizza party!”
The class stared at her. Then Steven Tucker raised his hand. “What if we do something mean to someone else?”
Mrs. Lewis shook her chalk at him. “That’s a very good question, Steven. In that case, two points will be deducted from the entire class total. So if we have 98 points as a class, but Katie hits Zoë and Zoë hits her back, how many points will we have then?”
Katie and Zoë glanced at each other as their classmates piped out figures, 96, no 94, 94, 94, none of them raising their hands, everyone tipping desks forward while Mrs. Lewis stood there beaming, nodding, waving a bouquet of red and purple and orange Dum-Dums bright as stained glass.
Zoë had never liked the low-rent theatrics of St. Monica’s lay teachers, all of whom engaged in varying degrees of starry-eyed, pandering evangelism. Every year, as the sisters and brothers got old and retired, there were more and more of them. The lay teachers started the tradition of St. Monica’s annual Christmas-card photo: a still-life manger scene featuring a prepubescent Mary and Joseph and a Cabbage Patch Preemie Jesus. That December—perhaps due to the haggard, soulful listlessness that had hung over her in the weeks before disclosing her uncle’s actions—Zoë had been chosen as the Virgin Mary. Someone had lost the Cabbage Patch doll, and the Christ Child was portrayed by an Ewok from Star Wars whose dark synthetic fur protruded wildly from its swaddling clothes. Zoë, cradling the hirsute Jesus, flinching as Mrs. McCollough, the music teacher, moved her into position with an intimate, sniveling gentleness that reminded her of Uncle Martin, had decided then and there that she would tell. She would put an end to it. She gazed suddenly into the lens with an expression of grim resolve that made her look less like a blessed virgin than a flinty-eyed, Depression-era child bride in a Walker Evans photo.
Zoë thought telling would stop everything. Not just the uncle’s nocturnal groping, but her own weak love for the role she played with him, the novelty persona of cosseted scamp: how she had craved and courted the attention of the uncle before his hugging and cuddling and teasing snowballed into strange, fast-breathing caresses that she could not return, that blanked her out of the scenario completely even though she was the centerpiece of it, there but not there, like the eye of a tornado. But in the weeks before Christmas her parents had been arguing about bills and were distracted, snappish; it took a while before they realized what she was telling them and then everything escalated terrifyingly. They were both coming at her at once, necks thrust out, faces red, not blinking, their voices rising as they spat questions at her until she burst into tears with the knowledge that she had damaged everyone’s life in some irreversible and unfathomable way. Afterwards her mother, contrite, tried to hug her and Zoë was nauseated by the soft pale flesh and the earthy smell of her mother’s hair.
She grew violently averse to the queasy maneuverings of affection. After the weekly meetings with Dr. Madden began and Mrs. Lewis replaced Sister Mary Ann, Zoë’s overwrought prayers gave way to fantasy scenarios in which God assumed human form—hulking and male and draped in dark cloth—and hurt her physically, from afar. There was no actual touching involved: just starbursts of pain in a pristine vacuum, bright as stainless steel, and her own bottomless stoicism. She maintained perfect composure. The pain was divinely mandated. It was a force moving against her as amoral as an earthquake, and all it demanded of her was endurance. She fell asleep to fantasies of being hurt almost to death and woke up in a wet bed. Her mother always heard her get up, and came in to help change the sheets.
One afternoon Dr. Madden said, “Your mom tells me you have some problems at night, when you fall asleep.”
Zoë snapped to attention, wildly searching her brain for any possible way her mother could have detected her nighttime fantasies. Did she talk in her sleep? Could her mother read minds? She felt her face grow hot and taut and was about to deny any and all alleged perversity, when she realized that Dr. Madden, with her customary adherence to euphemism, meant the bedwetting.
Dr. Madden wore a midlength skirt with flesh-toned nylons, and she crossed her legs in a careful, self-conscious way that made Zoë shiver in disgust. “Waking up in a wet bed isn’t much fun, is it?” she said. The corners of her mouth turned down. “How would you feel if it stopped?”
“I want it to stop,” Zoë said. She looked at her hands.
Dr. Madden inched forward. “How would you feel about an alarm,” she said confidentially, her face so close that Zoë could see the unblended striations of her beige foundation, “a little alarm you could wear at night, that would wake you up as soon as you had to go to the bathroom? How does that sound?”
Zoë began to cry. She didn’t mean to, and she didn’t understand why soft tones of voice and direct eye contact, the wheedling seduction of these tiny kindnesses, undid her. It wasn’t sadness that brought the tears on; it was fear: the same knee-jerk panic she felt when Mrs. Lewis began writing her little notes on scented paper with bears on them, leaving them on her desk, tucking them into her tests and assignments. The notes said things like, “Zoë, you look so sad. Are you all right?” and “Zoë, if you need someone to talk to, I will listen. Please know I’m your friend.” Every time she got one, hot liquid surged to her eyes and she had to blink several times. She threw the notes out, in plain sight of Mrs. Lewis. She was careful to perform no good deeds.
Dr. Madden put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “It’s all right,” she said. “It’s all right. Maybe that would be too scary, huh? You don’t have to do that if you don’t want to.”
Zoë put her hands over her face and thought of instruments of torture—clubs, cudgels, truncheons—words squat as fire hydrants, solid as pit bulls.
Mrs. Lewis made them form a line and handed out torn-up pieces of Wonder Bread.
“This is the Body and Blood of Christ,” she said as the line snaked around the wreath of desks, “and we do not chew the Body and Blood of Christ. We let it dissolve in our mouths. We quietly go back to our pews, we kneel on the kneeler and we pray, holding the host in our mouths until it is gone.”
She gave each of them a shiny plastic rosary. Zoë’s was pink. “I picked this one out just for you,” Mrs. Lewis whispered, patting Zoë’s shoulder and shooting her a measured, meaningful look, as if to invoke the scorned notes. Zoë glanced around in horror.
After two weeks of practice, Brother Andrew, the vice-principal, was brought in. “I want you to walk,” he said, “as if you have marshmallows on the bottoms of your shoes. There will be no clomping, there will be no whispering, there will be no pushing or shoving. The person sitting on the aisle” —he made a sweeping gesture—“goes first, and re-enters the pew on the opposite end they came from. And you’ll be walking like mice. Mice with marshmallows on the bottoms of their feet. Or I will be very upset.”
Mrs. Lewis hovered in the background with arms crossed and eyes averted in mute disapproval of Brother Andrew’s fear-mongering. Everyone, even the sisters, was slightly afraid of him. He reminded Zoë of the granite statue of St. Augustine, St. Monica’s son, in the school’s prayer garden: immobile and upright as a chess piece, with a rippling concrete beard and a hat that looked like a bucket stuck upside down on his head. It was the same kind of hat the Pope wore for Christmas Mass on TV, but the Pope looked stooped and dwarfed by the power of the hat. On St. Augustine it seemed to be something grown out of him, an extension of his towering, terrible, corrugated forehead. He was huge. He was nine feet tall. When Mrs. Lewis took them out to the gated prayer garden to experience nature, Zoë ignored St. Francis with the Disneyfied bird on his shoulder, St. Patrick with his staff and serpent, even the Virgin Mary, small-boned, a demure ingénue amidst scowling elders, eyes downcast below her pale blue hood. It was St. Augustine Zoë stared at, gazing up at him and knowing he was about to fall on her.
Brother Andrew had no beard and wore no hat. He wore a long white robe with a tasseled, braided white rope around the waist, and his hamster-brown hair receded from his forehead. His anger, however, was searing and just. Last year, in reaction to plans for remodeling St. Monica’s 100-year-old cathedral, Brother Andrew had taken to the pulpit after Mass and swept his arms to encompass the marble pillars, the gigantic marble crucifix grafted onto the back wall, the wine-red velvet curtains of the confessionals, the Stations of the Cross rendered in blazing stained glass. “You can’t get this at K-Mart,” he thundered, sweat gleaming on his balding head. “Would you remodel the Sistine Chapel? Would you remodel the Vatican?” All the children had giggled reflexively at the mention of K-Mart. But Zoë shivered, transfixed.
Now, ignoring the glower of Mrs. Lewis’ disapproval, Brother Andrew brandished a wooden board with a rawhide loop at the end of its handle, pulling it from behind his back like a magic trick, and said, “I’m not going to put up with any shenanigans, not from any one of you. I’ll use this if I have to!” Zoë felt her waist disconnect from her torso. A shimmering band of numbness quivered at the place where they’d been joined.
She thought of Brother Andrew that night. She imagined a histrionic chalkboard-screech of pain on her skin: a feeling that would usurp every other, hone and flatten her into a strange, cold person of unmannered competence. She slapped her own face—softly so her parents wouldn’t hear—but remained coolly unmoved. So she imagined Brother Andrew resting a warm palm on her head and saying, “I know I won’t have to do this again,” and the warmth of it stayed with her through the night, the unshakable sensation that he had deposited something there: an indelible residue on top of her head in the perfect shape of a hand.
When she woke up, she peeled off her urine-soaked pajama bottoms and underwear and remade the bed with the oiled, expressionless poise of a kabuki dancer.
Two days before her first Communion, Zoë stood in the living room as her mother fitted her for the dress she’d sewn from a Butterick pattern. It was white and lacy, with an empire waist and a long veil that hooked around Zoë’s ears.
“Who’s doing it, do you know?” her mother asked Zoë. “Is it going to be that visiting priest from Vietnam?”
“What does that matter?” her father said.
“Well, he doesn’t speak English very well and I can’t tell what he’s saying most of the time.”
“That is racist,” Zoë said, not accusingly, but with a certain pride in landing on the word.
“No, it isn’t,” her father snapped. “It’s a statement of fact. I know what racism is. I took a road trip through the Jim Crow South when I was nineteen, and I saw racism. Don’t call your own mother a racist when you don’t even know what racism is.”
“Will you please? We’re trying to do something here,” Zoë’s mother said. They began to argue in tedious circles, and her father got up and started pacing as he ranted, face red and eyebrows drawn together. Her mother kept stabbing pins into Zoë’s dress and Zoë looked at herself in the floor-length mirror her mother had propped against the entertainment center: the veil silly atop her bowl-cut hair, the sagging knees and dirty toes of her white tights, the hole where her front teeth used to be. She took stock of the living room. Her eyes skidded over the towering oak entertainment center with its cardboard backing and its carved wooden duck and dusty encyclopedias. The murky greenish-black painting of people jumbled in a city square in the rain, wielding coppery umbrellas; the uneven black granite tiling of the foyer. Then she closed her eyes for a minute as her parents yelled, and opened them again to see if the room had changed, if her face had changed, if anything at all had been altered by her decision to calmly, soullessly bring about an outcome.
The girls sat, a row of white-frosted cupcakes, in the front pew of the cathedral, the boys in the next pew dark-suited and devoid of cowlicks. Mrs. Lewis had given each of them a wrist corsage, pastel blossoms browning at the edges and smelling of refrigerator. Into Zoë’s corsage she had tucked a pink Post-It scrawled with her womanly, loop-heavy cursive: “Thinking of you today, Zoë!”
The pews were scarred and greasy with lemon oil. Stuffing oozed out of the cracked red leather of the kneeler. Zoë needed to blow her nose. Then Father Nguyen was saying in his heavy accent, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper.” Zoë and the others murmured what they had been taught: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Father Nguyen gave the altar boys the Eucharist. The hymn started—“Lord of the Dance” from the blue-covered Missal—and the quavery old ladies dragged the pace down as usual, and Zoë sang so low it was hard to discern the faint ghost of her voice droning behind all the others, tuneless but unwavering like the hum of a refrigerator, and she was briefly surprised and disturbed by how almost-dead she sounded. Then she got in line behind Katie Khagany and filed out of the pew.
Katie’s veil brushed against her nose, almost making her sneeze, and she buried her face in the chilled buttery petals of her corsage. The rest was like sleepwalking. Zoë had planned to furl her hands together in a bird’s nest, the way they’d practiced, but at the last second, with Father Nguyen’s dark eyes staring into hers benignly and his hand raised, she stuck her tongue out. As the priest said, “The Body of Christ,” she answered, “Amen,” with her tongue straining, lolling out of her mouth so that she felt it drying out in the air and the strong roots of it aching, and the host stuck to it: perfectly round, a primitive coin, currency of some strange and brittle country.
She couldn’t remember which shoulder to touch last. It didn’t matter. She did a sloppy sign of the cross and then stomped back to the pew, lurching like a monster, chewing with her mouth wide open. She looked around. No one, least of all Brother Andrew or Mrs. Lewis, was paying her any attention. Zoë chewed and chewed, standing up in the pew, sticking her tongue out like a cat, not kneeling at all, the host desecrated and in smithereens, and no one turned around, no one noticed at all until she gave one final grind of her molars, assembled the small wooden slivers into a sticky missile on her tongue, and spat, straight into the air.
Brother Andrew knew better. But Mrs. Lewis thought it was a flaw in her teachings, coupled with the indigestibility of the host: “It’s not just a piece of dried-up bread, Zoë,” she said. “No matter what it tastes like. It’s been blessed by the priest. It’s God. It symbolizes God. I don’t know if that’s something that I explained well enough.”
Mrs. Lewis’ hands were knotted on top of Sister Mary Ann’s desk. She unfolded and wrung them, knocking over a wooden paperweight in the shape of an apple with a smiling, be-spectacled worm emerging. Brother Andrew hovered behind her, arms crossed.
“She knows that,” he said. “She knows.” He studied Zoë warily. Zoë looked him in the face and wondered, from a muffled, bemused vantage point somewhere on the ceiling, what effect her large eyes were having on him. Then she blinked, thinking of God on the floor of the empty cathedral: how easily He could be mistaken for a pile of pencil shavings, debris from a pocket, a lump of sawdust. She saw the rows and rows of twinkling red votives that reminded her of pictures of Las Vegas, casting their light like watery blood on the pieces of Him, and the world going on just as before, without a blip. Everyone else had swallowed. Perhaps everyone else who ever took Christ in their mouth had swallowed. Perhaps that was enough to outweigh her transgression, to keep things functioning: the weight of all that pious bolus, all those teeth gentle and gingerly as hands on glass. She thought of Dr. Madden, and how she now had something to tell her that would not produce a there-there, a shoulder-pat, a flustered rummaging in the toy box, a corresponding picture book. Dr. Madden would look at her just as Mrs. Lewis was, just as Brother Andrew was: with incredulity, with something like awe. And Zoë would feel as she did now: like she was sitting high up on a pyramid, like she was the very narrow and diminishing apex of something huge and grounded, at an altitude at which her bed, her eyes, her armpits could never be anything but dry.
Mrs. Lewis said, “Is that true, Zoë? Did you know that? Did you understand what we’ve been studying, about the Eucharist?”
Zoë nodded. Then she said, “Yes,” and made herself
laugh for Brother Andrew’s benefit, because he was looking with
grim assessment at his hands, as if contemplating the damage they were
capable of, and how it could be tempered. “I’m going to be
in my office,” he said to Mrs. Lewis, “and I’d like
Zoë to stop by in no less than ten minutes.” He didn’t
look at Zoë. He walked out of the room with his shoes squeaking,
and they both watched his tassels dancing gracefully as he rounded the
Zoë shook her head.
Then Mrs. Lewis picked up Zoë’s hand, the right one with the corsage still drooping from its wrist. She plucked it from the desk like a pencil, with a benignly casual air of entitlement, and held it in the air so long Zoë was afraid she was going to kiss it. Zoë’s face seized. She squirmed in her seat. But Mrs. Lewis did not let go; she held Zoë’s hand in both of hers and she pumped it up and down, slowly, idly, almost as though she was playing a game. “I saw you,” she said, “and you didn’t shake anyone’s hand before Communion. You just folded your hands in your lap.” Zoë watched her, thickness rising in her throat.
“I’m shaking your hand now,” Mrs. Lewis said. Her voice was even and gritty. She moved Zoë’s hand up and down several more times. Then she said, “Peace be with you.”
There was a bear on the windowsill behind Mrs. Lewis’ head: the only naked one in the room, Zoë realized. It was not even accessorized, not even with a brooch or a tiara, and it looked cold. “What do you say back?” Mrs. Lewis said. She was almost whispering. Zoë stared at the bear behind her teacher’s head. She remembered this, the grand, liturgical sound of it, the seigniorial goodwill. She whispered, “And also with you.” Then she pumped Mrs. Lewis’ hand up and down, once, out of sheer instinct.
“That’s right,” Mrs. Lewis said. “That’s right.” She let go. “You have cold hands,” she told Zoë. “You’d better go now.”
As Zoë walked out, her right hand much warmer than her left, Mrs. Lewis sat still in her chair with her chin cupped in one palm. She nodded once. Then Zoë was alone in the long, shiny hallway streaked with bars of noon light shifting, intersecting like crossbeams on a highway. On the walk to Brother Andrew’s office she ducked under them and twisted between them, never letting them touch her just as she never walked on cracks, never took an odd number of steps, avoided the aisle seat of the pew, never ate her lunch when people were watching, never remembered which shoulder to touch last.
As she neared the office she began to walk slower and slower. Then a shaft of light hit her and she stopped—not abruptly, but after a series of half-hearted stumbles, like a wind-up toy with a spent battery.
The bar of light reminded her of a girl in her first-grade class named Rachel, a fierce blond girl who ruled the playground with the dangerous, careening charisma of a comet. One late winter afternoon as a group of them were walking home from school in the dusk, Rachel took a flashlight from her book bag and cast a tiny stream of light, training it ahead of the group like a leashed dog with its nose to the ground, letting it test out the terrain and carve out of the dark a thin safe corridor. She said anyone who stepped out of the flashlight’s path would die from lack of oxygen, that the light was all that was allowing them to breathe and the surrounding darkness was like Mars, like the moon, like a planet where the air was poison. As soon as she said it it became true. Zoë felt her lungs constrict and her heart drum out a wild SOS, and she was dying by quick degrees as the little skein of light got farther and farther away, kept moving steadily as a conveyer belt.
“Rachel!” she screamed. “Wait!”
She jostled and pushed to get into the light. She kicked and scratched. A boy named Jay, who was asthmatic, began to wheeze. Rachel relented, dousing each of them in turn with a ration of life-giving light like the priest flinging around the metal canister of incense, and all the way home they each got just enough to survive on. Then everyone procured flashlights of their own, and it became a daily ritual: a group of five or six children walking slowly home on thin tightropes of light, stooped and deliberate as arthritics.
But one day, after Rachel had been expelled for putting burrs in Jennifer Jackson’s hair and for some other infraction no one would talk about, Zoë, walking home alone, switched off her light and found that she could breathe fine. There was no poison. She stood still for a while in the dusk, taking deep pure breaths, suffused with a strange guilty elation.
Squinting in the shaft of blinding light, she had the same feeling of coming out of a spell, emerging into a world that was safer but much stranger. Even when she started walking again she almost fell down and had to support her weight against the bulletin board of outdated New Year’s resolutions. She thought she must be falling in love with herself, if such a thing was possible. There were so many soft places that had never been properly heralded: the warm silky expanse of abdomen, the inside of the wrist with its tender blue marbling of veins and its matchstick bones. She plunged a hand down her undershirt and was moved almost to tears by the chamois softness of her torso. Her fingertips dabbled in the shallow divot at the base of her throat.
Then she remembered where she was going and what would happen. She tried to summon up the high-altitude feeling but it wouldn’t come back. She feared it was gone for good, because her whole body was fizzing with the vengeful insistence of a limb awakening from sleep. Outside Brother Andrew’s office she stood touching herself for so long—stroking her forearms, tracing her lips, introducing a fingertip to the heartbreaking softness of an earlobe—that he finally had to get up from his desk, put a hand on the nape of her neck and steer her in, gently. Then he closed the door.