What Sister Zoe perceived with guilty sorrow, Sister Dana viewed with guilty happiness. Her putting Melanie to bed the night before had stirred a sweet nostalgia. And beyond the caring, the touching, the coddling intimacy un-rebuffed, the nun again experienced the joy of being needed. That was what she had really missed—Melanie's dependence on her… Marcy's, rather. For in her heart she found herself returning to the former name. It was Marcy she knew she had loved, still loved, in fact. Melanie was much too independent, strong-willed, too complex. Her needs had long outrun the nun's ability to fulfill them. Marcy's needs were simpler. How easy it would be to slip back into all her fond routines, with Marcy.

But the young nun realized that this would not do. Her former love had been impure. She must not let her baser self regain its domination. So Melanie was whom she must address, Melanie. She must look upon this relapse as a God-sent second chance. It would not last, but while it did, she knew the Lord was watching. Could her love be fashioned into a form acceptable to Him, or would it once again revert to profanation? Judgment (and temptation) lay in wait.

The girl was up, sitting in her robe and slippers, staring out the window. The veil had not yet lifted. Sister Dana made the bed. The pillow was still warm. A tiny hair lay atop its cover—Melanie's hair—another sure reminder.

A soft knock signaled Sister Zoe's arrival.

"Good morning, Sister."

"Good morning, Sister Dana. Any change?"

She cast a glance at the silent girl and shook her head.

The elder nun approached.

"Melanie?"

She stooped beside her, studying the distant look now governing her gaze.

"Good morning, Melanie. Did you have a restful sleep?"

She did not answer. She did not hear.

 

 

A mouse had captured her attention as it scurried along a dusty shelf, looking frantically among the books for a place to hide. It halted, its polished eyes alert, trained on its pursuer, who took a step. The mouse darted off, then disappeared.

 

 

"Did she, Sister Dana?"

"She got up once to use the bathroom. That was all."

 

 

The tracks went in; none came out. The space was very dark. Melanie gingerly removed a volume. It was very heavy; it took two hands. The mouse was there, trembling in the corner. She tugged out another book to admit more light. The chase, again, was on.

 

 

"Does she hear us, I wonder?"

"Sometimes, I think. She'll do things if you ask her: brush her teeth, wash her face, put on or take off her clothes."

 

 

The mouse found shelter wedged behind a range of jagged mountains in a moonlit world she had not seen before. Was Benjamin at work on something new? He had not told her. Forgetting the mouse, she attended to the unfamiliar scene.

 

 

"Has she spoken?"

"She moves her lips at times as if she's speaking, but never makes a sound."

 

 

The cubicle was studded with varieties of cacti, in a landscape marked by brittle rock and eerie dried-up creeks. Beneath a tree, a green-skinned tree with spike-like thorns in place of leaves, a toy-sized van was parked, headlights beaming across the sage. The van looked black, had racing stripes, spoked oversized wheels, and a convex porthole that glowered like some iridescent eye. The doors in back, she noticed, were ajar. She poked them open with her finger and stole a peek. Inside the van, a roof light lit incredible detail: dashboard ornaments, high-tech gadgetry, speakers, tape deck, bucket seats, then odds and ends strewn about on a plushly carpeted floor. She saw scissors, tape, a high school backpack, a jar of Vaseline, a tube of heat rub, cigarettes, matches, beer cans, a heap of shredded clothing, random clumps of matted hair, and, in the middle of it all, a brownish stain, the sight of which provoked a twinge of nausea.

 

 

"Melanie? I have to go now. Sister Dana will stay with you. I'll come back to visit later."

She stroked the fuzzy head then motioned Sister Dana to the door.

 

 

What was missing? The driver? Was that what Benjamin had left out? Maybe there had been an accident. Apprehensive now, she strained to see beyond the van, but was too short. She gathered some books from the shelves and stacked them in a pile on which to stand.

 

 

"If there is any change, I want to know immediately."

"Yes, Sister."

 

 

Three men were now in view. Two were posed in active postures (climbing down a wash). The lighting made their faces look grotesque. A third (ahead of them in shadow) was perched above a spot discoloring the ground. The more Melanie stared, the more disturbing grew the situation—and yet she could not tear her eyes away. Something bad was happening. Those faces—the lights—the sickening smell of alcohol—the taste of dirt and blood and fear—the pain! The pain was everywhere! And then that awful, awful shrieking noise that…

His hands upon her shoulders stopped the insect sounds completely. Benjamin turned her wincing face aside.

And what do you think you're up to, eh? Snooping?

I was just…

Snooping. Out of bounds.

But Benjamin…

There will be no buts.

But…

What did I say?

She stuck out her lower lip reprovingly. He hoisted her up by her doll-like arms and carried her away. Over her shoulder she watched the headlights fade into the dusky gloom, then finally disappear.

She tickled his nose with a lock of her hair as he walked.

I'll sneeze you to smithereens.

Where's that?

Just North of Kingdom Come.

She was happy he was not really mad. He was never really mad, ever. Besides, if there were something he did not want her to see, he should have hidden it better.

She remembered the mouse.

I saw a mouse.

The one in tennis shoes, or the bowler hat?

I think he had on tennis shoes.

That would be Mort. Runs like the wind?

He was pretty fast.

That's Mort.

They were back in the main work area, where Benjamin set her down.

He led me to that desert.

Who?

Mort.

I'll have to have a talk with that rodent.

Isn't it ready?

It is. You aren't. The fools.

Fools?

The penguin brigade. Ah well, it's been pleasant having you for such a nice long visit—though it's time you got yourself back.

When do I get to see the…

Next time, maybe. Whenever you want to.

She was about to insist that she wanted to now, but something held her back. She had seen enough, and did not like it, and wondered why the Miniature Man had made such ugly things… but when she turned to ask him, he was gone.

 

 

"Sister Dana?"

"Melanie!"

"How long have you been here?"

"Are you all right? Don't you remember? Are you really feeling better?"

She felt fine—though obviously there must have been something wrong if saying so caused surprise. She thought a moment.

"Oh! Sister Deborah."

"You do remember."

"Is she angry?"

"No. I don't think angry, just very concerned. We've all been very concerned."

She felt a rush of foreboding.

"What day is it?"

"Friday."

"The date, I mean."

"Oh. Oh no, don't look so worried. It happened just last evening."

She was relieved. This was unlike the times before, then. Granted she had been away and could not account for much since attending Sister Deborah's class, but that terrible hollow feeling she recalled from lapses past had, thankfully, not recurred. And she did remember Benjamin, and the mouse. She must write everything down at once. She looked at the clock.

"Oh no. I've missed English and Math already!"

"Calm down. Sister canceled all your classes. Your teachers have been notified."

"What about Julian?"

"I'm sure Sister told him, too."

The problem! She still had not solved it. How long did she have; three hours? She hastened to the chessboard.

"You're not thinking of going to Chess today, I hope."

The Bishop. The Bishop? The Bishop! She tried the move, quickly testing it for flaws. It worked! It was beautiful, pure poetry, just like Julian said.

"Well, are you?"

She turned.

"I am now. Let's go have lunch. I'm starving."

"First, I must tell Sister. You go ahead and get dressed."

"And then what?"

"Wait for me."

"Why can't I meet you in the cafeteria?"

"Because you're not supposed to be alone."

"But Sister, I'm okay."

"Just wait. I won't be long."

The nun hurried out. Melanie got dressed.

 

Friday, November 7th, at 11:08 in the A.M. Sister Dana just left. I think she spent the night in the chair beside my bed. I'm not sure, though. Things haven't been too clear lately (sixteen hours I guess it's been), like lots of different movies squashed together. The last one is the clearest. I was a little girl again, visiting Benjamin. I was having fun. Except I saw something I wasn't supposed to. I don't know what that was now. Ants? I do remember watching these big red ants, and seeing a spot on the ground. No, on a carpet, in a van. That was it. The spot was on the floor of this van that had all sorts of stuff lying around inside. Outside, it was night. But I could see things, even in the dark. Faces, tiny faces like the ones on Julian's chessmen. Only these were ugly, bad faces. They scared me, but then Benjamin came and I wasn't frightened anymore. He took me away. I can go back, though, whenever I want. Benjamin said so.

Before that, I don't remember much, except that what started everything off was dreams. Sister Deborah said that they were nonsense. I said they weren't. That started an argument and I got mad and bam!

So now I'm going to go have lunch with Sister Dana, and after, go to Chess. I'm excited because this time I figured out the moves all by myself.

 

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