An Atlantic First by Jim Shepard

Pushed up against the glass, Sister Louisa’s face looked funny, Biddy thought. Like the blowtish in the encyclopedia. She was yelling something, her eyes very wide and her face very red, but Biddy really couldn’t make it out through the double doors. He was scared at first, because she looked a little like the Flahertys’ dog, who always had to be chained up and when he jumped at you was all pink gums and yellowish teeth, but that passed quickly, and after a while she wasn’t even funny anymore. She yelled again, shaking the handles on the doors, and Biddy examined her teeth.

Actually, Biddy wasn’t his real name; it was Eustace Lee, named for some uncle his father had always remembered as sharp, as in, “Old Eustace was sharp, boy.” He didn’t like the name Biddy and he didn’t like the way strangers would screw up their faces and repeat it when they heard it, but then, he always felt it fit him for some reason, and. well, Eustace Lee was no bargain, either. He never knew where the name came from (his mother claimed it came from his being a little “biddy” baby, but he didn’t think even she believed that). It was his from as far back as he could remember. Even Sister Louisa called him Biddy, except when she got mad.

Although later the doctor would keep saying how well planned it was, Biddy hadn’t decided to do anything until right before recess, after Sister Louisa had come in for Question Time. He had interrupted Janie Hilgenberg (everybody interrupted Janie Hilgenberg), who was asking a dumb question about when the new bathrooms would be finished anyway, and had asked the same question again for the third day in a row about the old drunk and Father Hogan, and the whole class had swallowed together and it had become very quiet. Sister Louisa had gotten very red (although not as red as she was later, against the glass) and had come toward him just as the recess bell rang. Biddy knew where he was headed after recess and he knew that yelling had been enough the first two times, but it wouldn’t be anymore.

—Now, Biddy, just why did you lock everybody out?

—Answer the doctor, Biddy.

—Please, Mr. Henderson. I’ll question the boy . . . Biddy?

—I didn’t want to get hit.

—Who was going to hit you?

—Sister Louisa.

—Why was Sister Louisa going to hit you?

—You must have done something, Biddy. Tell the man.

—Mr. Henderson, would you . . . please take your wife and leave us now? You’re really not helping at all.

—Look—you said we could stay the first time.

—I’m sorry, but I’ll begin the sessions right now. On your way out. tell the receptionist to hold all calls for the next half-hour. Thank you. Okay, Biddy, why was she going to hit you?

—Because I asked about the old drunk again.

—What?

—I asked her about this old drunk, see, and why Father Hogan couldn’t go to McDonald’s and everything, and I guess it was a stupid question.

—I don’t understand.

—It’s okay. Nobody does.

—She was going to hit you for asking a question?

—Well, I asked it before. I was sorta getting to be a pain.

—So then the recess bell rang, right? What did you do then?

—Well, everyone went out except the two old secretaries in the office and Mrs. Fensterblau—

—Mrs. Fensterblau?

—The fifth-grade teacher, so I told the secretaries that Sister Louisa wanted them and Mrs. Fensterblau— that Greg—that’s her kid—got hurt on the monkey bars, and when they left I locked the doors.

— But ... let me get this . . . uh . . . how did you lock the doors?

—I had time enough. Sister Louisa left her keys on the desk and I went around and locked them.

—It was that easy? All the doors?

—There’re only three, not counting the main ones.

Incredible. And the other sisters didn’t have keys?

—Only to the main doors. I guess. I remember being real early one morning and Sister Theresa saying we had to go around to the front because her keys didn—t open the other doors.

—So what about the main doors, then?

— I got Charlie’s mop—he’s the janitor—and slid it through the things on the doors. It held real good.

Sister Louisa hadn’t figured out what was going on; nobody had, until they noticed the mop through the glass and Biddy sitting on the stairs.

After he’d gone up to the second floor he could watch the nuns rushing back and forth from door to door and could hear the far-off rattle as they tried each one. After a while, his parents came and went right to the main doors, but he didn’t go down. A little bit after that Charlie came and started fooling around with the office door around back, so Biddy went down and stuffed a doorstop under it and then slid the big heavy office desks over in front of the door, one by one, until they just about reached the opposite wall.

He walked up and down the halls for a while before settling into a classroom. He felt, suddenly, that all this was his.

He almost jumped three feet when Benny Alexander tapped at the window and asked if he could come in too. He saw the unlocked window right next to the one Benny was tapping on and hurried over, trying to look as if nothing were wrong, and locked it, and then ran from the room to check the other windows Across the hall a seventh-grader was trying to get in with a boost from Sister Veronica, and Biddy ran over and tried to pry him loose but he wouldn’t let go so Biddy bit his hand and he yelled and fell back on Sister Veronica, and Biddy shut the window. And there were more noises, in the fifthand first-grade rooms, and Biddy got rid of one quick but the other didn’t care how hard Biddy bit so he got some erasers from the chalkboard and clapped the other one’s face with them until his face and hair were all yellowy-white and he choked and gagged, and he let go too.

He hadn’t even thought of the boys’ bathroom window’, but flat against the wall next to it watching Sister Theresa trying to wriggle through, he was thinking of it now. He took a stack of tiles from the corner from under the new toilet seats and, just out of reach, slid the frame down tight on her. wedged the tiles in. and left her hanging there yelling his name.

—What do you think of me asking all these questions?

It’s okay. I ask a lot of questions too.

—Uh—that other sister—just how did you trap her in the window like that?

—I dont know how she got up that high. Someone must’ve given her a boost. I got a stack of tiles from the corner and stuck them in the top, you know, like this, so she couldn’t move either way.

—Why do you think they sent her instead of the janitor?

—Charlie’s kind of old for things like that.

—But why her, do you think?

—They probably figured she was the skinniest.

—You don’t think it was because they knew you liked her the best?

—No.

—Do you know how long she hung there?

—No. I heard her yelling for a while. I guess they got her when they got me.

Didn’t you worry about her hanging there?

—No. She couldn’t move.

—No, I meant . . . uh . . . Why didn’t you push her back out instead of trapping her?

—I didn’t think she’d let go.

—Did you try?

—No.

—Why didn’t you bite her hand, too?

—I didn’t want to. I couldn’t.

—Ah. Why not?

—Her fingers are like . . . cold. Like worms. ! couldn’t.

For a while, Biddy just sat on the steps of the second-floor landing, watching everybody swarming around below. The teachers were still trying to keep most of the kids together and quiet on the playground, but they weren’t doing too good a job.

He wondered if he’d stay all night. Then the nuns all ran down to the street and a big black car pulled up— Father Hogan’s car—and Biddy knew he wouldn’t.

—You never thought that all they’d have to do is get ahold of Father Hogan?

—No. I forgot about him.

You didn’t think all along that he’d come and let them in?

—No. That’s a dumb question.

—Why?

—Because. It’s dumb.

—Why is it dumb?

—Because! If I knew they’d get back in, why would I lock them out?

—What did you think when he drove up?

—I don’t know.

—What did you do?

—I ran down and tried to jam up the last doors.

—And you couldn’t.

—There was nothing around, and I heard them coming.

—So what did you do?

—I ran. I ran up to the top. I ran into a room but it was stupid to try and hide and I knew it so I came back out to the stairs.

—Who was the first person you saw?

—Sister Louisa.

Biddy crouched over the top of the stairs, rolling back and forth on the balls of his feet. Sister Louisa came up slowly, one hand gripping the rail. Biddy saw what he should do—what he should’ve done and wanted to do long ago—sail down those stairs he’d walked down so much. And he was out, arms outstretched, and Sister Louisa’s open mouth was rushing up at him and there was a shock, first soft, then hard as they tumbled down the stairs, the loud kathumping mixing weirdly with Sister Louisa’s shrieks. Then they were still, at the bottom, and Sister Louisa’s leg was over his chest and everyone was running around and shouting.

—Do you remember anything lying there?

—No.

—Do you remember it hurting?

—No. There was a lot of crying and screaming.

That’s because they saw the blood from your head.

—I guess they thought I was dead.

Everyone he talked to in the hospital asked him what had happened over and over, which he r thought was strange, since Sister Veronica had seen what had happened, along with everyone who’d been behind her on the stairs. They asked if he liked the food. They asked if he was warm enough. They asked if he wanted anything to play with and when he really couldn’t think of anything to say, his mother cried.

—You said something a few sessions ago about an old drunk?

—Uh-huh.

—Tell me about this old drunk. Where did you see him?

—In McDonald’s.

—What was special about him? Why’d you notice him?

—I don’t know. It’s dumb.

—I may not think so.

— It’s dumb.

Biddy didn’t like McDonald’s any more than his father did. But his mother was refusing to cook again, so they were eating there anyway. There weren’t many people there at all, except some old men by the counter. Biddy watched them until his father told him to stop staring and finish his shake. His eyes wouldn’t leave one of the old men, though. He wasn’t like the other old men Biddy had seen, or even like the others in the booth. Some were slumped over and some were talking quietly, either to themselves or to each other, but what caught Biddy’s attention about this one was his eyes. They were wide open and bright, and moved around very quickly. He talked very fast and very loud, like he’d never be allowed to talk again, and there were little drops of sweat all over his check. What he said didn’t make much sense from what Biddy could make out, and he guessed it didn’t make much sense to the other old men, either, because they kept ignoring him. Biddy kept thinking. Why won’t they listen to him? and he felt bad and didn’t finish his shake—and it was strawberry—and as they got up to leave his father said he’d “better start eating.”

— Do you mind your parents’ not being here when we talk?

— No.

—Why not?

—They were sorta a pain, I guess.

— Ah. Why do you feel that way?

—I mean to you.

—Oh. Are they ever a pain to you?

—No.

—Never? Do they understand lots of things?

—No.

—Do they understand most things?

—No.

— Does that bother you?

—No.

—Do you think they try and understand?

—I don’t know.

Biddy tried to explain about the old man’s eyes to his father in the car on the way back from McDonald’s, but his father told him he should’ve spent more time eating and less looking at old drunks. He was just not eating enough, his father said. All skin and bones.

Sister Theresa wasn’t very interested in the old man’s eyes either. Biddy was sure that somebody should know, that somebody should help. He went to Sister Theresa. Maybe it was crazy, he asked, but couldn’t Father Hogan be a sort of missionary? Didn’t priests always want to be missionaries? Why did they have to go so far away all the time?

At the conference with his mother and Sister Theresa, Biddy had tried to explain that all they had to do was go dowm to McDonald’s and see the old man’s eyes, but Sister Theresa kept asking the wrong questions, and his mother cried.

—Why don’t you talk about things with your mother?

—I didn’t say I didn’t.

Do you talk about things with your mother?

—No.

—Uh-huh, Why not?

— I don’t know. Are we almost finished for today?

Almost. Do you tell your mother things that happen during the day?

—I don’t know.

Do you tell her what you like and don’t like?

—No.

—Why not?

—Because. I don’t know. She knows, I guess. We don’t fight.

Biddy didn’t like Fruit Loops. He didn’t like the way they got so sweet after a few mouthfuls or how they turned the milk pink. There was a time when Biddy would eat things he didn’t like, but he really didn’t see any reason to anymore. And he didn’t like Fruit Loops. So they sat together patiently, Biddy and the Fruit Loops, waiting for his mother to give in and throw the dish into the sink, spilling milk and soggy Fruit Loops across the counter, and say again, “And your father yells at me because you’re not eating.”

Biddy would feel bad when she did, but, after all, Fruit Loops were Fruit Loops.

— Do you have any pets? A turtle, or something?

—No.

— Did you ever have one?

—I had a canary once.

—Did your parents give it to you?

—I got it at Woolworth’s.

—What did you call him?

—Eustace.

—Eustace . . . Why do you think you called him that?

—I don’t know.

—What happened to him?

—My mother gave him away.

—Why?

—I didn’t take care of him.

—What didn’t you do?

—I didn’t take care of him.

—Were you mad at your mother for that?

—She didn’t like him anyway. He never sang or anything.

Biddy had had no idea that they’d been waiting three days for him to ask about Sister Louisa. They were mad. His mother had said. “Biddy, don’t you even card?” in such a way that Biddy was really scared that some part of him he needed for that was missing. The doctor had said he was sure that it’d just slipped his mind, and his mother had felt better, but his father had just stared at him. He wondered if he should ask how Sister Louisa was.

—Let’s talk about Sister Louisa . . . You don’t mind, do you?

—No.

—When did you find out she was hurt?

—When they told me.

—Did you feel bad for her?

—I guess so.

—Was she your least favorite teacher?

— I guess.

—Why?

—She hit people.

—Is that the only reason?

—She yelled a lot, too.

He never got as upset as some of the other boys did after he’d been slapped. Benny Alexander and Jimmy Bridges were always getting slapped, and their mothers would come in a lot and get mad at Sister Louisa sometimes and at Benny and Jimmy sometimes, but neither seemed to do much good. Biddy never thought it would.

He didn’t mind the bandages. Everybody in the hospital thought he did and kept asking about it, but he really didn’t. For a while he wished they were over his mouth, too; he thought it would look good, nothing showing but his eyes. He wouldn’t have to talk, either. Still, they seemed to make his mother cry a lot more easily, and she cried a lot before.

He never minded when his parents fought, because then nobody talked. There was no yelling or anything. Sometimes after supper his mother would go into the TV room and turn the TV up loud and cry, but he didn’t really like TV that much anyway, so he would just go upstairs. But the suppers were quiet and when they’d tell him to stop playing with his food and eat they wouldn’t keep repeating it but only say it once and he could hardly hear it. Sometimes his mother would cry during supper if it was a bad fight, but not very often, and she always stopped. He was never too hungry but he tried to eat everything because then they wouldn’t argue about why he wasn’t eating. Mostly he liked breakfast, because he ate breakfast alone.

His mother kept asking if he was excited about going home and he didn’t want her to cry so he said he was and she seemed happy. His father told him that he should “go easy,” but he really didn’t know what that meant. His mother told him that everything would be all right just before she left, and he knew she was going to cry again. She started in the hall after they left and he wished the fall had made him deaf instead of breaking his head.

Are you looking forward to going back to school tomorrow?

—I guess.

—Are you worried about it?

—I don’t know.

—Are you worried you’ll get into trouble again?

—No.

—Why hot?

—I won’t get into trouble.

—Why hot?

—I worl’t.

—This is our last session, Biddy. What do you think? Did we learn anything?

—Mmm.

—Do you feel better?

—Mmm.

—Do you?

—Better.

—Well, if you start to have trouble again, you can come back, and we’ll have more talks, okay? —Mmm.

No one spoke to him all day except Benny, who wanted the rest of his Yodel. He played kickball out front as usual, but everybody got quiet when he came up and no one yelled when he tripled and it tied the score. No one really looked at him until it was Question Time and Sister Louisa came in with her neck brace and asked if there were any questions. There were none. □