by Alex Haber
At the far end of our street there is a cul-de-sac, a dead end of houses removed from our proper neighborhood. We gather in the woods behind the cul-de-sac in a clubhouse built at the top of a tree, titled with an old bar sign one of us stole from the rubble of a nearby fire: The Rusty Nail.
From our clubhouse we can see into the houses of the cul-de-sac. Two of the properties are owned by old hags, the ancient Agmon sisters, whose rundown houses face each other across the street. Other than to investigate the strange whirring noises that come from their bedrooms at night, we’ve had no reasons to study them.
The third house, painted pale yellow so that it stands out from the plain white others, and with large, uncurtained windows, belongs to Sister Holly. Sister Holly is the youngest nun we’ve ever seen – all of us students at the Catholic boys’ high school. She must be just a few years older than us, and she doesn’t teach, as far as we know. Each day she leaves her house in full uniform, heading to an unknown place: a convent in the city, we imagine, or some other queer religious institute. Our parents call her Sister Holly – the italics a tone in their voices – when referencing her.
“Poor Mary Miller,” says my mother to my aunt one evening at the kitchen table. Across the room my father sits in his usual chair, whittling a piece of wood into some sort of knick-knack. “That daughter of hers is going to end up in the family way.”
“A disciple of Sister Holly,” says my aunt.
Our street is full of these sayings, these innuendos, though we’ve never seen anyone at the pale yellow house but its owner. In the clubhouse we share our findings, trying to understand the young nun.
“Ms. Hamel said she’s had an abortion.”
“Who’s Ms. Hamel?”
“She works at the clinic.”
“You’ve never been to any clinic.”
“She got expelled from the convent. That’s why she can’t teach in town.”
“I’d confess my sins to Sister Holly any day.”
We swap binoculars in the evening, watching Sister Holly’s routines on the top floor of the house. Her hair falls down to her shoulders, slick and dark from the shower. She wears a towel, or else a pair of off-white underwear. She lies on her bed with a book, her feet up in the air. We watch them sway. We encourage her to go even further. “Roll over!” we chant. We become obsessed with the word “abortion.” She’s the first and best woman any of us have ever seen; a curse printed in the Bible by mistake.
One day we’re sitting in the Rusty Nail when one of us dares another to sneak into the pale yellow house in the cul-de-sac. Of course we’ve all thought it before. Sister Holly has a hold on us. The girls on our street, who attend our sister-high school, distract us during the day, but Sister Holly keeps us up at night. Those with girlfriends choose the sway of Sister Holly’s legs, prefer her discolored white bras to the lacy black show bras of their girlfriends. The grotesque faces of the nuns at school only elevate our affection.
“What would be the point?” the dared boy asks. “She’d freak out and call the cops on us. She’d close her windows up for good.”
“Then go in when she’s out in the city, or wherever she goes all day.”
“That would be even more pointless.”
The mission, of course, is obvious. “Bring us back a souvenir.”
But the nervous boy backs down. “It’s not worth it. It’ll ruin everything.”
“It won’t ruin nothing.”
That’s when I hear myself volunteer. “I’ll do it,” I say. The boys have been joking, all of us packed inside the clubhouse, sweating and bored in the late spring sun. They turn to see me – a slight, thin boy in the corner of the fort – to figure me out. It’s not often I have their attention. “I’m serious,” I say. I take the binoculars and look inside the familiar window. “You can watch from up here.”
The boys look around the clubhouse. “Well, what are you waiting for?”
“Tomorrow,” I tell them. “After school.”
We all know Sister Holly will be home at any minute.
At sundown I leave the clubhouse and go home for dinner. I change to hide the cigarette smoke, which hangs like a cloud around our tree. As we eat my mother talks about her job at the Sunday school, my father grunts at appropriate pauses. I drink two glasses of milk and sit beside my father after dinner as he whittles what appears to be a small balsa rabbit.
In bed I can’t sleep; my nerves feel electric. I replay the afternoon in my head – the wide, uncertain eyes of the boys – then picture again the pale yellow house. It has two stories like ours, though the houses on our street are larger, constantly under construction – basements added, swimming pools dug, attics expanded – so the houses in the cul-de-sac appear old, from another time. I wonder about the inside of the house, the mysterious layout of the rooms. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I try to see the décor of the hallway: modest and beige, crucifixes, a couple of them, hanging at a tilt. I imagine the smell of her bathroom, her soap, the feel of her carpet on the soles of my feet. I think of the pale white color of her underwear, and then I’m really going.
The next day I get to school early. I worry about the other boys, if they’ve taken me seriously. But they tease me in a brotherly way. They raise their hands in class, deflecting the inquiries of the nuns. The nuns act suspicious, slanting their eyes, but they carry on as usual. It amazes me that the girl in the cul-de-sac can be one of them, can have anything to do with these old, bitter women. In the back of the classrooms I bite my lips and watch the clocks, wanting this to go on forever.
Soon the final bell rings and on the way to the Rusty Nail the boys talk.
“She’s a nympho,” says one boy. “You lucky son of a bitch.”
“In his dreams,” they laugh.
A small boy not usually one of us has come along to the clubhouse today. Somebody’s cousin.
“I wouldn’t do it if I were you,” says the cousin.
“Well you’re not him,” I’m defended. I haven’t had to speak all day.
They pass the binoculars. I can’t see her dresser, but it has to be nearby – in the corner of the bedroom; against the far wall; beside the window. We establish an emergency signal, in case Sister Holly should return ahead of schedule: the boys will fire a bright orange flare gun one of them stole from their father’s safe box.
As an extra precaution we check the soundless homes of the Agmon sisters. Nothing to report. I get punched and patted and have dozens of fingers run through my hair. I’m assured the binoculars will track my every move until I’m there inside the house, and will wait for me at the bedroom window. I’m wished good luck and warned not to chicken out.
And then I’m off, climbing down the clubhouse. My stomach turns as they chant my name and I cross the woods into the cul-de-sac, calculating my footsteps, careful not to trip. The sun feels hot on my neck and shoulders. I’m carrying the heavy weight of their eyes.
At the front of the house I check the curve of the street – no one to catch me, to mistake me for a criminal – before taking the key from the potted plant beside the door. Everything is right. The lock of the pale yellow house submits, and I shut the door and the rest of the world behind me.
Finally I exhale. The first thing I notice is an earthy scent – like flowers steeping, an old newspaper turned yellow. A woman’s scent, I imagine, though my mother has never smelled that way. In the dark of the hallway I survey my surroundings, eager to report my findings. A small bronze mirror hangs beside the door, square and smudged across the middle, and a pair of shiny black church shoes waits patiently beside an empty umbrella bin. I pick up the shoes and examine their insides, worn and stiff, larger than I expected. I sniff them once, on a whim. On a table nearby, a single framed photo of an unknown dog greets the entrance (whose dog? I wonder), a smiling beast with a branch between its jaws.
Queer as it is, I don’t see any religious memorabilia – no crucifix on the wall, no cozy embroidered prayers, like at my home. If her house is anything like mine, I think, I’ll find the stairs in the next room over, beside the den, but instead I’m somehow in the kitchen. Looking around I picture the young nun, for the first time, eating: thin crisps and celery sticks, her teeth lightly crunching. The room seems well-ordered, except for the sink, in which a tower of dirty dishes leans out over the counter. I wonder if the nun has cooked for someone, or if she’s just a slob, though both seem hard to imagine. A tea kettle sits on the stove, probably from breakfast. I want to investigate her refrigerator, but I decide against it when I come across the stairs.
I move slowly, but each step, with a creak, alerts the house of my presence. The walls of the stairwell are bare, but I take my time in the darkness. I linger outside the bedroom, preparing myself to be rejoined with the boys.
Finally, I turn the knob and enter the bedroom. I recognize it right away. It feels like someplace fictional come to life. It also seems smaller in person. Immediately I go to the window and search for the Rusty Nail. To my surprise, I can’t see the tree or the clubhouse from this angle. I’m somehow blocked by trees. I squint and wave to the invisible others; I put on a show, knowing that somewhere out there they’re fighting for the binoculars. Remembering the way they’d treated me at school, I lie down on the bed in my sneakers, rolling into Sister Holly’s usual position, basking in their excitement like a cat in the sun.
I return to the window and bid them farewell. Now I’m feeling good. The dresser waits across the room; I saunter over to it. Rifling through the drawers I expect to find a neat supply of nuns’ clothing – rows of squarely folded black and white outfits. Instead I find sweatshirts, and in the next drawer down, some slacks and old jeans.
The final drawer contains the treasure. Chewing on my tongue, I inspect it all: the textures, the discolorations, the minor holes, the slight stains. I finger through the cotton fabrics; I pinch them between my fingers; I hold them up to my face. No one can see me alone in this bedroom. Without discrimination I shove a pair of each kind into my pocket, wadding them up into tight little balls. On impulse, I also take a pair of stockings and a second pair of underwear, a pair with a small dark stain along the inside. These I shove into the waist of my pants for safe keeping.
With my mission complete, I make a reappearance in the window, holding up my souvenirs like flags. Between the branches I think I can see the bright orange reflection of the flare gun held out in celebration. I wonder what the group will do with these findings, if Sister Holly will notice them gone.
Because I want to make this experience last, I decide to use the bathroom before I go. The pressure of the heist has sunken into my stomach and, in a stroke of excited planning, I think of using the bathroom and not flushing – a calling card to leave behind, like the criminals on TV. I cross the room and click on the wall light of the master bathroom.
Then I freeze in place.
Sister Holly swings a large white curling iron, steaming and plugged into the nearby outlet. She has on her nun’s uniform, squatting barefoot on the tile floor beside the toilet.
“Get back,” she warns me.
I want to run away, to scream, but I only just stare in her direction. She holds the curling iron, straight and trembling, and I don’t know what to do. I’ve never seen her up close before, none of us have, and I look into her brown, liquid eyes. She looks younger in person; her face is small and alert and on her left cheek there is a scar in the shape of a triangle. She stares back, she can’t seem to understand why I haven’t moved, why I haven’t fled. She whispers something again and again in short, stunted breaths, and I realize at this moment that I’ve never heard her voice before.
“What do you want?” she asks me. “Why won’t you leave?”
She bows her head, looks down at my crotch, at the stain I’ve yet to notice. Slowly she stands upright.
“Whatever you want,” she says, speaking quietly, still gripping the weapon, which is steaming, “just hurry.” The room smells like fire and I want her to take a swing. To make a move. But the curling iron lowers a bit to her side. “Please,” she tells me.
That’s when I finally run. I run down the stairs and out of the cul-de-sac. I don’t run to the clubhouse, but back home, to my bedroom. I lock the door. I rip off my jeans, still hot and wet, and the damp underwear and stockings fall out limp on the floor. When I hear the pounds of the boys’ hyper fists on my bedroom door, I kneel beside my bed, naked from the waist down, and cry.
Alex Haber is a writer from Michigan. His work has appeared in several journals, including The Emerson Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and Quick Fiction. He received his MFA from George Mason University.