The mouth was wrong. The nose was a bit too big. She had even misplaced the two tiny moles. But the resemblance, for Melanie's purpose, was accurate enough. With the charcoal's edge, she began the kinky swirls, a wonderfully thick corona this time. If it would only grow as fast as she could draw it! The face took on a whole new character as its outlines were adorned. She let the ringlets run right off the page. A mane! With flowers! She crushed in petals with her chalk.

She held the pad toward the mirror, her face beside it, comparing. The reversed image tended to accentuate the drawing's flaws, but not her own. Her three-dimensional features were unquestionably prettier. And when her crown of stubbly hair matured, she knew she would be beautiful. Would it come in straight or wavy, in graceful strands or undulating curls? She had tried out possibilities on paper, reserving the latter pages of her sketchbook to that end. It was Sister Morgan's nearly finding these the day before that had caused the girl such heart-pounding alarm. Maybe they were vain, but doing them gave Melanie special pleasure.

Rather than risk their discovery again, she carefully detached all six self-portraits from the pad, and laid them out across the bed to see which one she liked best.

There was a knock at the door.

She hastily gathered them up.

"Just a minute."

She hid them in her dresser drawer, face down beneath her panties, then grabbed the pad and flipped back through its pages.

"Come in."

As she began reworking the sketch she had done the previous day in class, Sister Dana entered with a package.

"Don't tell me you're actually working on something besides those silly chess problems."

Melanie closed the sketchbook altogether, hoping to avoid a similar comment on her drawing's subject matter. She did spend inordinate amounts of time on solving Julian's riddles. Novice though she was, the poeticism he had ascribed to certain attributes of the game had made a strong impression. An affinity was there, as was a desire to please her teacher—please, impress, or show him up, in accordance with her ever-changing moods.

He did not coddle her. She respected that.

The latest problem, for example, was even harder than the first—a real mind-tickler—and had consumed many hours of trial and error already. But, oddly, she was not discouraged. Something in the nature of these challenges enticed her.

The package caught her eye.

"What's that?"

"A present."

"For me?"

The Sister nodded, pleased at having aroused some curiosity.

"Can I open…"

"May I…"

"May I open it?"

"Not with those hands!"

Her hands were absolutely black with charcoal, as was the streak, from a well-scratched itch, along her nose. Melanie excused herself to wash.

The nun glanced down at the abandoned sketchbook. A fleeting sense of tact repressed her impulse to peruse it. The book somehow looked personal—thus all the more alluring. She heard a water-tinkling sound beyond the bathroom door.

The temptation was irresistible. With affected nonchalance, she flicked open the cover, revealing a smudgy image of… herself. Multiple emotions stirred: gladness at the sentiment, guilt at having peeked, fear lest she be caught, and then, on looking closer, a stinging indignation, for Sister Dana thought the portrait was brazenly unflattering. To her, the soot-filled eyes betrayed licentiousness, the mouth was unmistakably embittered, and the chin receded with nothing shy of truculence. She clapped the cover closed. So that was how she was viewed! Her fingers tightened on the package as Melanie returned.

"Now may I?"

She displayed her hands for inspection.

The nun's resentment softened.

"Please?"

"You may."

In two quick rips the wrapping fell away, disclosing Sister Dana's precious Bible.

"But this is yours, Sister."

"I want you to have it."

"But your father gave it to you the day you became a nun. You told me so. No, I couldn't."

Melanie was genuinely moved. Commensurately, Sister Dana's pique dissolved.

"Please. Were he alive I know he wouldn't mind. I've written you a dedication just inside the cover."

Melanie found it.

My Angel,

Though thou may never fully know thy preciousness to me, if Jesus loves His children half as much as I love thee, we'll meet in Heaven,

Forever,

Dana

Watching Melanie read the vulnerable inscription, the nun relived the moments of its writing. She had been alone, locked inside her room, curtains drawn, lampshades taken from the bulbs to intensify the light. She had faced the mirror naked, gazing at the spectacle of a sinner. At her feet had lain her Bible opened to the lines her father's prideful hand had penned. Beneath these she had scrawled her own to Melanie. In her fist was her father's razor.

It had been the night the girl had briefly disappeared, the night the nun had almost lost her mind, and worse, her soul. Had her thoughts been less distraught, she would have recognized that the act she had stood contemplating would have damned her for eternity to Hell. And yet her hand had nearly carried out the fatal deed, was poised, in fact, above the vein when a voice called out from deep inside the mirror. "Ring the bell," it said, "the bell." She had stopped, her body trembling, her wits straining to decipher the phrase's meaning. Then it dawned; the girl was merely lost, not run away!

"Sister?"

Melanie recalled her to the present.

"Yes, my sweet?"

"You're not going away, are you?"

She smiled.

"No, love… No."

"I'm glad."

She reached up and laid her palm on the young nun's cheek.

"Thank you, Sister. I'll treasure it. Always."

The nun was overwhelmed by this unprecedented gesture (never before had the girl initiated contact). She stammered a confused goodbye, and, rejoicing inwardly, withdrew.

Melanie returned to the inscription. Above the one to her was its predecessor (in paler, faded ink):

My Angel,

It seems this day is one that I have longed for all my life. And now that it has come, I trust our Lord will smile unendingly, knowing He has conceived through such a humble man as me, a daughter such as you.

Your loving father

Melanie read the last three words again… then again. She sat there for a long while, softly sobbing.

 

"It is pwobably...

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