Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart

by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/21350.html)

Christina stepped out of the deathly heat inside the bus into the deathly heat outside it, which was equal if not greater but at least not so stale. It wasn’t a long ride from Fishkill, but both her undershirt and blouse were already sticking to the skin on the backs of her shoulders, and she could feel sweat trickling little warm rills down the path of her spine. It was a few days into September, but there was no sign as of yet the world had noticed, or might be considering opening its hands and letting August go. She supposed she could have gotten a ride, probably a cooler ride, back to school, but after the fights and silences of the end of the summer she’d thought it better to look after herself. To seem to disappear, like a ghost or a bad dream at dawn. She supposed that was what they’d wanted all along.

The bus’s exhaust made a shimmering haze in the air as the driver lifted her trunk and smaller shoulder-bag from the luggage compartment, and as she stood by, fanning herself with her hand and squinting into the sun. The driver carried the bags to the gates, and there looked uncertain, but Christina favored him with a polite but firm smile that told him his work was done, and he set them down, tipped his hat to her, and went back to the driver’s seat. She took the trunk’s short leash in her hand, slung the shoulder-bag where it belonged beside her purse, and tossed her sticky hair back from her sticky cheek so she could look ahead. It was nice to be back here, she had to admit, at least compared to being anywhere else.

The bus groaned into life again and pulled away behind her, and she dragged the trunk on its rickety little wheels between the two stone pillars on either side of the school drive, where the open, graceful, wrought-iron gates attached. A little ways past them she began to fall in line with the other girls, most of them in laughing, talking clusters, at some stage of making their way up the driveway to Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart. She didn’t laugh or talk with anyone, but she made her way, just the same.

Our Lady was probably the best Catholic school for girls in the upstate region, and almost certainly the best one that boarded. The Hagertys had insisted on it for her, pushed her to work for the scholarship in junior high school, and she had obeyed them as always. It had a brother boys’ school, St. Luke’s, half a mile away; the two occasionally swapped students for coveted classes, and would hold a sternly chaperoned senior prom together in May, at the Elks’ Club uptown. Christina’s foster brother Patrick attended there, although he wasn’t due back for another week. Quite a few of the girls who graduated from Our Lady — who hadn’t already met promising husbands at St. Luke’s, that was — went on to Vassar, no more than a twenty-minute drive down the road.

Senior year many girls had single rooms, but not the ones on scholarships and “budget housing”; Christina was to be tucked in a tiny fourth-floor double with Sally Fuller, an unfortunate name for a morose, round, doughy girl who looked destined to become somebody’s maiden aunt. Sally and Christina got on reasonably well, though, which was better than she could say for most of the girls in her class. They tended to think she was far more stuck-up than was merited for someone who was Irish, who didn’t know her real parents, and who wasn’t rich (not necessarily in that order), and she tended to think it was absolutely not worth trying to talk them out of it. Aside from a few daily comments meant to be overheard and smirks only half-hidden behind cupped hands, though, she had never really come in for any special meanness, and supposed she wasn’t worth the bother. It was too hard to get much of a rise, in any case.

Except, well… sometimes.

She dragged her trunk past the main office, with its American flag, enormous crucifix, and large framed portrait of President Eisenhower in uneasy community on the wallspace behind the bustling nuns and secretary, and into the glossy dark wood and brick of the downstairs hallway. Hauling it up the four flights of stairs was quite a bit more difficult, especially with the sun blaring outside; she was puffing by the end of that, and drenched in sweat, her face so slick her glasses were threatening to slip off her nose. Not particularly ladylike.

Less than five steps from the top, the sweat on her tired hand just got too slick, and she lost her grip on the handstrap. She let out a little cry of frustration and dismay as the trunk went sliding and she scrambled to catch it back again — and a hand shot from behind her and snatched the strap firm and hard, hauling the whole rig up to sit firmly on the top steps. Christina panted, shut her eyes, swallowed some of her breath.

“Thank you,” she said, and turned, and found Sharon Goshe standing beside her trunk with a hand resting on it, grinning at her. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was still difficult to classify into pleasant or unpleasant. Sharon hung around with a lot of the girls who most actively hated Christina, and you couldn’t exactly call her nice, but she wasn’t exactly hostile, either. Just irritating in a way that was entirely her own. She stood only a little shorter than Christina, and probably a good forty pounds up the scale; she was no Sally Fuller, but Christina was very slender (scrawny, if you were a Debbie Stephens or a Leona St. Clair, say), and Sharon was big-framed and curvy by nature, and strong by virtue of being field hockey captain two years running. She had a startling fall of auburn hair, deep reds in dark browns, which she seemed to only barely bother curling at the ends, wearing it parted on the side and hanging to her shoulderblades. She wore makeup and nail polish and heavy earrings and bracelets, and even the years of small disciplines for these infractions had not been able to eliminate them. She was wearing street clothes now — civilian clothes, Christina thought — a halter dress that showed her freckled shoulders on top and was well estranged from her knees at the hem, but even when she was in uniform her blouses fit tight, and she rolled up the waistbands of the skirts beneath them to hike up the hemlines. Years of nuns measuring the difference with the same rulers that then exacted punishment had been likewise unable to dissuade her. Christina had heard stories of St. Luke’s boys climbing in and out of her dormitory window for years now, and saw no reason to disbelieve them. Sharon could probably make a boy climb most anywhere, and probably would just for that reason.

“You’re back early,” Sharon observed, still smirking at her. “Just couldn’t wait for Sister Margaret’s nose hair, or are the cops looking for the bodies you’ve got stuffed in here?” She thumped the top of Christina’s trunk on here. Christina elected to ignore the question.

“So are you.” She brushed past, to start pulling at the trunk again, and Sharon turned with her to stay in eye contact range. “Watch out so I don’t bump you.”

“Need a hand?”

“I’m fine — ” She yanked the trunk up to the top of the steps only with a Herculean effort, though, and knew Sharon knew it; she hovered at the top for a moment, holding onto the trunk, wiping sweaty hair out of her eyes, and Sharon stayed where she was.

“Up on fourth again, huh?” Christina thought this exceedingly obvious and didn’t dignify it with a response. She didn’t know why Sharon had to grin like that. “It’s going to be nasty up there, when it’s this hot outside.”

Christina shrugged. “I guess I’ll live.” Sharon laughed, which she had a full-bodied, unselfconscious way of doing that made her large bosom do alarming things. “Thanks for the catch, anyway.”

“No problem.” Sharon turned and headed down the stairs, waving with her back turned. “I’m on second. Drop by sometime if you ever need condoms, God knows everyone else does.”

And for a second after this bit of wit, Christina actually found her mouth opening to ask — and shut it again right away, grimacing a little. Asking Sharon? Really? She had to be crazy to even think about it. And anyway, she’d been over this; it was nothing. Nothing. No big deal at all.

And putting the whole summer out of her mind, she grabbed hold of her trunk again and dragged it down the hall toward her room, and the new school year.

School started out more or less normally: the new ninth-grade girls looking even more impossibly young than the year before, the classes harder (though not by much), the nuns easier and easier to get around. Christina took calculus and physics in tiny groups of three and four girls, lost in arching classrooms paneled with dark wood and pierced with high vaulted windows. She’d always been good at math, although she didn’t imagine much would come of it. They read Shakespeare and Chaucer dutifully in English class, picking through poetry haltingly and out loud. That was sixth period, in the dead becalmed lull between lunch and the day-end dissolve into sports and chores and homework, when the sun lay still in the classroom. Sharon sat three seats ahead and to the left of Christina, close to the windows, and sometimes Christina’s eyes would fall on her hair and rest there, watching the afternoon light pick out the red embers buried in its brown, watching the strands that touched the nape of her neck glow — sometimes for long minutes, until Sister Elizabeth called on her and she caught herself again.

She didn’t think about much; the beginning of the school year was too busy, and she was glad. She worked, ate, slept, worked, read privately from secondhand copies of Virginia Woolf books she’d gotten for herself, watched Sharon Goshe’s hair in sixth period English, avoided most everyone else (except for Sally Fuller, who was unavoidable, and anyway spent too much time writing poetry and theorizing how scientists were going to destroy the world to be much of a bother). And for a while, all but the tiny, nagging voice still at the back of her mind thought it might really be all right.

“Do you have a pad?”

Christina jerked a little, startled, and turned her face up to the blurry shape standing there; she hadn’t gotten her glasses back on yet, and most of everything in the locker room was still blurry shapes. It was Sharon’s voice, though, and that made her a little uncomfortable for reasons she couldn’t exactly specify. She hadn’t put her glasses back on because she hadn’t put her blouse back on, and she sat in her uniform skirt and her undershirt draped from her thin shoulders, but what did it matter? They were all girls.

“Um, no.” She fumbled the horn-rims off the remains of her stack of clothes, nearly dropped them, then put them on. It was definitely Sharon, and she nearly dropped her glasses again even though they were now firmly on her face. The other girl was still damp from her shower, her wet clinging hair more dark than red, and wrapped casually in her towel as she stood leaning on the bank of lockers where Christina’s was. Her toenails, Christina noticed for no good reason, were painted a pale pink that seemed to iridesce in the fluorescent lights, like mother-of-pearl. Most everyone else had dressed and left by now, only a few girls Christina didn’t know tidying up at the far end, and one she did a little closer by; that was Georgia Sands, Sharon’s co-captain of the field hockey team, a tall slim girl with an impossibly long blonde ponytail who would have been strikingly beautiful if she had any expressions but ‘sullen’, shrugging back into her silver crucifix over her uniform blouse. Georgia was one of the few people Sharon spent time with who wasn’t especially hostile to Christina, since Georgia made it clear in every word and gesture that she hated everyone in the world with perfect equity. She and Sharon fought and snipped at each other constantly in every class Christina saw them in together, which made her wonder vaguely about the state of the field hockey team. P.E. had finished fifteen minutes ago, and she didn’t know what Sharon was doing still hanging around like that, but… well, actually she guessed she did.

“No, sorry. I ran out and never got more.” Her tongue wanted to add something else, something that would proclaim her innocence, guess I should try to remember, but she stopped it. Sharon would think whatever she thought.

Sharon blew a strand of wet hair off her forehead and bounced a little, impatiently, on her feet; without even what clothing she normally wore, bouncing like that crossed the line from alarming and went all the way to scandalous. “Shoot. I guess I’ll have to beg one off Megan before lunch.” She glanced down at Christina then, and grinned. “What?”

Christina blinked, trying to look less uneasy than she felt. “…What what?”

“You see anything green?” Sharon didn’t really seem offended, though; her grin was getting wider even as she planted her fists on her hips. Christina looked back at her uniform blouse anyway, trying to get it ready to put back on with oddly uncooperative hands.

“Aren’t you going to get dressed?” she asked quietly, instead of responding to that. And she was definitely expecting Sharon to have some sort of retort to that one — and probably something she wouldn’t want to hear, something no girl but Sharon would ever think about saying out loud — but she didn’t. She looked at Christina a moment longer, and then laughed, and went back to her locker, unraveling the towel from around her as she went. Christina looked back at the buttons of her own blouse in a hurry. She sat hearing Sharon humming from the side bank of lockers and the rustlings of her putting back on her uniform, trying not to be so aware of it all, trying not to keep thinking about why she hadn’t remembered to get more sanitary napkins: because she hadn’t needed them since July.

Of course there was no cause for concern. It was probably perfectly normal for a thin girl to miss a period now and then, or even two, especially if the girl in question hadn’t been sleeping well or eating much. It was probably normal for someone in that state to feel sick and tired and sore sometimes, too. All perfectly normal. All nothing to worry about.

Sharon left, still humming, her bag slung over her shoulder, and Georgia and the other two girls did too, and Christina stayed, staring into her lap. She lost most of the break that way, and had to run down the hall in the end, to make it to History on time.

It was true that Sharon had always seemed to have an odd sort of interest in her; she would speak to Christina when no one else would, and even if she was never exactly friendly, Christina couldn’t exactly put her finger on what she was. She supposed under the circumstances it was only natural to be interested back. She responded to Sharon in the same cool way she did everyone who came too far into her space to be ignored, but only Sharon seemed to like it, as though it were a game they were competing in and rattling Christina was just a little bit of sport that would be fun for both of them, instead of a random cruelty. Maybe that was why she was the only one who ever really succeeded; maybe Christina even let her. She just couldn’t tell.

She was drinking from the water fountain in the largely deserted main hallway (she’d left lunch early, tired of reading at her empty table), when a warm prankish hand cupped one cheek of her protruding bottom — too warm, too intimate, up under her skirt. She jerked forward hard — harder than the situation demanded, nearly panicking in a way it definitely didn’t deserve — and got droplets on her glasses and a spray of water sluiced across the front of her blouse for her efforts. She shot upright and whirled around so hard she fell back with her fanny against the water fountain this time, only to face Sharon, close by and already laughing.

“Sorry, sorry,” she was saying, maybe noticing the bad reaction, Christina’s wide eyes through the dark curls across her face, “just couldn’t resist… Here, let me get that.” She stepped into the angle of Christina’s legs and scrubbed with her fingers at the wet spot on Christina’s shirt, across the top of her breast, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Her smirk didn’t seem to suggest she actually thought so, though.

“It’s… okay.” Trying feebly for some sort of composure, trying to back away and only running up against the fountain again. There was probably another wet spot on her skirt now, and probably Sharon would take it in her head to fondle that one too. Not that she hadn’t already. Christina brushed ineffectually at her hand. “It’s all right, I’ll take care of it.”

For one reason or another her nipples were standing out hard against her blouse, managing to defeat the resistance of both undershirt and stiff school-uniform fabric, and the side of Sharon’s hand brushed the nearest one as she pulled her hand away. Christina tried to suppress her hiss of breath, and while she was at it to believe it had been accidental. Sharon put her hands on either side of Christina’s hips instead, bracing their palms on the water fountain. They were close enough to kiss. “Sorry. Really. You just have such a cute little butt — I wish I were that skinny.”

“What is the matter with you?” Christina returned — almost hard enough to be a snap, almost losing her temper that much, and the widening of Sharon’s grin said it was all part of the game — “Didn’t anyone ever teach you to keep your hands to yourself?”

“Nope,” Sharon said cheerfully, and knocked a lock of Christina’s hair out of her eyes with one finger, making Christina look up at her again. “You like it, admit it.”

“I do not.” The water was almost gone now anyway, faded to no more than a slightly wrinkled patch. She took her hands away, and couldn’t find a good place for them. Sharon just kept grinning wider, like it might split her head in two if she kept going.

“Yeah? You really don’t?” She leaned in, her hair tickling the side of Christina’s cheek, her red lips close to Christina’s ear. “If I reached up under your skirt and put my fingers down in your little panties, I really wouldn’t find you wet?”

Almost on cue there was a loud clunk of the dining room door, and muffled laughing voices came clear into the hallway as a group of girls emerged; Christina jerked, and Sharon pushed off from the fountain and walked away as naturally as could be, without making even a second’s eye contact. Christina stared after her anyway, completely flabbergasted (and a little rubbery about the knees), as she walked away down the hall, her hands linked behind her back; and as if she’d known Christina would be watching — of course she’d known Christina would be watching — after a moment Sharon unlinked them and shook them off, deliberately, so that Christina could see the drops of wetness flicked away from her palms and fingers. Just water from the fountain, from where she’d been holding on. Even so.

She would never know if that afternoon put off her decision longer than it might otherwise have been, or if it actually made it easier to make somehow, but in the end it probably didn’t matter. She would have been driven to it one way or another.

It was a Saturday morning — thankfully, not a weekday with a morning class or a Sunday when she would have had to go to chapel — in the middle of October, and the mid-autumn light of 6 a.m. streamed cool blue and beautiful through the bathroom window as Christina crouched hunkered with her knees up to her chest in the end toilet stall, throwing up into the bowl. The last time had been Tuesday, and she had tried frantically to believe it was stomach flu, or something she’d eaten; had succeeded, in fact, enough to convince Sister Margaret she was sick and stay in bed through morning classes. But now it was Saturday, and she thought she might be ready to stop trying to believe things. Maybe even to stop trying not to believe the only one that really felt like the truth. There was a slight hardness to her belly now, a firmness, not really anything you would notice, especially not with her so thin, but it was there, and no stomach flu had put it there. She knew. To be totally honest, she’d probably known all along.

She flushed and hovered there for a long moment longer, her lips slack and slick, her hair hanging around her face, her glasses tucked neatly into her left hand. Finally she groped up for the wall and pulled herself up, shuffling out to the sinks and rinsing her mouth, brushing her teeth, washing her face. She put her glasses back on and looked at herself in the mirror, and saw a thin eighteen-year-old girl with all the cold wave mostly slept out of her short dark hair, who looked pale, tired, and stupid.

She didn’t go back to her room, where the gloomy mountain of Sally Fuller slept on in the other bed, not even to get dressed or try to do something with her hair. She just crept in her robe down the side stairs and to the first floor.

At first she didn’t think Sharon would answer her knock, and then a long string of grumbling started thinly somewhere deep in the room, and gradually gained thickness and strength as it approached the door, ending in a “What?” just as the door flung open. There was no question that she’d woken Sharon, who was a mess of hair above her puffy, annoyed face and in a little camisole with tiny shorts, but a part of her couldn’t really regret it. Seeing her face, Sharon’s face shuttled through a bleary gamut of responses: from annoyance to amused speculation, then slowly to concern as she really saw how Christina looked. “…Hi. What’s going on?”

“I need help,” Christina said. Her arms had locked around herself somehow, and she was staring somewhere in the space between their feet, hers slippered, Sharon’s bare. She tried to think of how to phrase things, but before she could really get anywhere with it, her mouth had decided for her. “I’m pregnant.”

She didn’t look at Sharon’s face, not wanting to see the reaction, but for a moment she imagined it wouldn’t have mattered anyway; her eyes were too blurry, and she couldn’t have seen a thing. She felt Sharon’s arm curl around her shoulders, though, the skin still bed-warm, and allowed herself to be led into the room and the door shut behind her. And after that there was really no need to look.

“My foster brother’s friend,” Christina said later, when she could talk again, and when Sharon asked. They were sitting on the bed, turned to each other, Christina staring into her lap at the unopened Mars bar she was playing with between her hands. Sharon had offered it from her small but respectable in-room stash, saying chocolate was the best happy pills she had to offer, but Christina wanted to wait on it until her stomach was a little more certain. “His name is Lars, I think. Lars something.” She glanced up at Sharon and caught her in a look of relief, and raised her eyebrows. Sharon’s mouth twisted into a rueful half-grin.

“Sorry. Just… for a second I thought you were going to say your foster brother. At least that’s something, right?”

Christina shrugged, which was the best she could do without looking too shocked. She would have laughed at even the suggestion of such a thing about Pat before this summer, but now… “…I guess you could say I’m sort of the good egg, and Pat’s sort of the bad one. They adopted us at the same time. Mrs. Hagerty can’t have children of her own, and they believe in big families, or at least middle-sized ones, so they went to the Catholic orphanage two towns over and picked out a boy and a girl with dark hair, like them. I was six and he was five, I think. I don’t remember much. Not my real parents either.” She paused, turning the Mars bar upside down, to think. “They let Pat get away with more, so he does it. Lars is one of the friends he goes smoking and drinking and drag-racing with. Greasy hair and their shirt collars turned up and everything. I think they’re telling themselves he’ll grow out of it.” She thought Sharon might laugh at that, but she didn’t, just nodded. “He, um…” She put her hand up to her face and scratched the side of her nose with one finger, bumping her glasses out of the way to do it. Crying under her glasses always made her itchy somehow. “Lars came over one day and they were doing something, I don’t know what, and then Patrick went out to the store. I was in my room, I usually stay in my room when Pat’s friends are over. Lars came in.” She couldn’t look at Sharon, so she looked out the window instead, the candy bar drooping out of one of her hands. “I thought he was just. You know. Kidding around, at first. Trying to scare me. He was, I guess, but then he saw I couldn’t stop him or go anywhere, and…” Her head dropped, and her glasses slid down, lending the world a blessed lack of clarity.

Sharon had gone very still. When Christina stopped talking, she said, calmly, “You want me to kill this guy?” Christina looked up, half smiling wanly, and found Sharon completely expressionless. “I’m completely serious. I know some people. I could get it done.”

She spent a long time staring into Sharon’s face, but couldn’t get the measure of whether or not she was telling the truth. There just wasn’t enough emotion to make for a cue. In the end, it probably didn’t matter either way; somehow the thought that Sharon didn’t mean it but was bragging about such a thing was even more frightening.

“I should have done something, I guess,” she finally said, almost apologetically. Letting it be read as a no. “Kicked him and run away, or something. I just froze. Pat would have come back — ” Would he have done anything? “Really, it’s my — ”

Sharon’s hand caught around hers, startling her into stopping, making her drop the Mars bar. “If you’re going to say it’s your fault, stop and think whether you really mean think that’s true,” she said, with unexpected viciousness. All this intensity was a little funny coming out of a girl still in her pajamas, Christina thought but chose not to point out. “Because if you do, God help you, ’cause as much as I might like to I can’t. There’s nothing I can do for somebody with no goddamn self-respect to begin with.”

Christina could have argued that interpretation, she guessed, but she didn’t. She let it — and the taking of the Lord’s name in vain — slide for now, and thought. Really thought, seriously and long. At the end of it she shook her head. “No,” she said, finally. “I guess I don’t think that.” Sharon nodded, and sat back, and she kept talking.

“I told the Hagertys, but they asked Patrick, and he said I was lying,” she said. A little steadier now; this part was easier to talk about. It was easier to be angry than scared. “He said… I’d been leading Lars on, flirting with him, and he tried to get fresh with me because of it, and so I wanted to get him in trouble. He’s a boy, so they believed him. They told me whatever happened, it’s a girl’s responsibility to keep a boy from giving into his urges.” She was at least gratified — oh, tell the truth; relieved — to see that Sharon looked mad enough to spit all over again, too. “I kept trying to argue with them, but they wouldn’t listen. I finally gave up.” Her hands twisted together in her lap, twisting up a bit of her robe in place of the candy bar. “…And then this.”

Sharon reached for her knee and just touched it with her fingertips. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” Christina said, and it was almost the truth. “They’ll still never believe me about why it happened. They’ll just think I’m a tramp instead of a tease.” She was startled to hear some of that viciousness moved over to her own voice, and tried to clamp down on it. “…And I’ll get thrown out of school, and then out of the house. They’ll never pay for me to keep going to school here, let alone to college, or anything like that. The best I could hope for is to find someone to marry, and… I’ve never even had a boyfriend.” This was not quite the name of the misgivings she had about the idea of marriage, but it came close enough.

“It sounds to me like you do know,” Sharon said quietly. Christina didn’t move for a little while.

“It’s a sin,” she finally heard herself saying. “It doesn’t even matter what anybody says. I’d know it was anyway.” She thought for a moment, then sighed. “But, yes. I guess… I do know, or I wouldn’t have come to you.” Then how that sounded sank in, and she looked up with startled, sorry eyes, only to find Sharon laughing.

“Yeah, I guess my reputation precedes me,” she agreed, with at least apparent good cheer, and Christina relaxed a little. “I’ve actually never had one myself, but only because nobody gets in or out without a rubber.” She grinned and winked at Christina with this, who made a vague attempt to smile back and not look scandalized. “But I know how to get it done. When do you want to go?”

“It has to be pretty soon. I’m going to start showing.”

Sharon gave her a critical glance. “…Probably not for a while, but I guess I understand wanting to get it over with. Can you give me a week?”

“That sounds fine.” There was a dreamy feeling creeping into everything she was saying, like she couldn’t possibly be having this conversation. She wondered how long it would persist. Maybe all the way until everything was over. That might be nice.

Sharon nodded, and patted her knee. “I know someone in the Bronx — a friend of a friend. She’s a real doctor, most of the time, so she knows her stuff just fine, and you can get appointments with her to take care of little extra problems. I’ll give her a call and try to get you in next weekend. Does that sound okay?”

“Yes…”

“Hey.” She glanced up, and found Sharon tilting her head to meet her downcast eyes, looking serious again but not too serious, not to any degree that failed to be soothing. “It’ll be okay. I’ll take care of you.”

And without thinking she reached out and took Sharon’s hand from her knee, and clasped it between both of hers. “I believe you,” she said.

Sharon managed to make an appointment for the following Friday night; “date night,” she called it half-jokingly, and Christina almost found it in her heart to think it was a little funny. She would have the weekend to rest afterward, which Sharon insisted was important. She knelt and prayed every night that week — prayed hard, and intensely, she thought enough to make Sally a little uncomfortable. There was no reply that she could discern.

She woke up on Friday with anxiety twisting her already unruly guts, sat through a day of classes that seemed to go on forever. That evening, at eight o’clock as they’d agreed, she went down to Sharon’s room, waiting while Sharon tossed through the room and muttered to herself over a last few things. Then they climbed out the window into the bushes, as quietly as possible since it was early on a weekend night. It was surprisingly easy. Maybe she’d overestimated the dedication of the St. Luke’s boys.

The taxi picked them up a block or so away from the school’s front gate, with an affable enough middle-aged man driving it, who seemed delighted to see them. Well he should be; it was nearly a two-hour drive to the Bronx from here, which came to a small fortune on the meter. It was a frankly absurd thing to do, but Sharon had insisted that they were not taking the bus for this, and Christina hadn’t exactly been inclined to argue. Sharon was paying for it, and for the operation, and refused to hear it when Christina expressed any discomfort or desire to pay her back. She had plenty of money to throw around, she said, and stopped the conversation before it could get started. Christina suspected she felt guilty now, over the time she’d cornered Christina, and wanted to tell her it was all right, but couldn’t think how.

They talked little on the way, in fits and starts, awkwardly conscious of the cabbie’s presence and the small space. Sharon lit a cigarette after asking permission from the other two. Christina guessed she should have been surprised that Sharon smoked, but wasn’t really. She ended up asking about Sharon’s family, since Sharon already knew so much about hers, such as it was, and Sharon seemed a little surprised by the question, then amused.

“I don’t talk about it much, I guess,” she said, sucking on the filter between her lips and then tapping the coal out the cracked window. It was a cold night outside, but they were all three bundled into coats. “See, my mom’s Jewish.”

This time Christina couldn’t even pretend not to be surprised. “Really? I… I hadn’t any idea.”

Sharon glanced at her, and grinned, her lips curling out around the cigarette. “Well, no one does,” she agreed. “Because I don’t tell them, and neither does my dad. You really think I’d be in a fancy Catholic school like that if they knew I was a half-breed?” She laughed, not nicely, and Christina’s brow knotted a little at the phrase; still, she guessed it was a pretty accurate version of what some of the people running Our Lady might say. “It’s not really polite to say that sort of thing anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still hear it. Boy.” She tapped ash out the window again, and blew smoke in a stream. “We live in Manhattan — Mom, Dad, and I — and there it’s not so bad. Mom’s a big activist, she’s in these Jewish women’s groups and they keep trying to organize. She and Dad are really excited about the sit-ins and stuff down South.” She glanced at Christina again. “Dad’s a professor at Columbia. I think he’s a communist.”

And this time Christina couldn’t even pretend not to be scandalized. “Sharon! What a thing to say about your own father!”

Sharon looked first perplexed, then amused. “No, I mean — he was involved in a lot of socialist groups before the war. I think he was a member of the Socialist Party, too, or something like that. I’m not sure when or if they really had something like that, but that’s what he says.” Christina found herself a little embarrassed, but mostly bewildered, so she kept quiet. “We were pretty scared during the hearings, though. I was only eleven or twelve and I didn’t really realize what was going on, but I got that if something got slipped up or somebody told on Daddy, he could go to jail or worse. He got through it all right, though. He’s smart. Really smart, actually.”

Christina was nodding. “That doesn’t surprise me.” Sharon glanced at her, eyebrows raised, and she shrugged with a faint smile. “So are you.”

Sharon flapped a hand at her dismissively, although she looked pleased. “Nah, not me. Just the town bicycle.” She dragged on her cigarette again, her red lips wrapped around it tight. In the dim shadows Christina thought she looked like an old movie star like that: Mae West, maybe, or maybe Greta Garbo. “Anyway, I grew up in some funny circumstances, I guess. Mom and Dad know what I’m like, but I think they’re kind of proud of me. ‘As long as you’re careful,’ is all they’ll say. I am, too.”

It’s easy when you know how to be, Christina thought, but also didn’t say. She looked out the window instead, at lights approaching and receding in the darkness of the highway.

They reached the place at around 10:15, with a good quarter-hour to spare before Christina’s “appointment.” The street corner where the cab driver dropped them off was dark, shabby, and mostly deserted, and he seemed a little worried about leaving them there, but many of his fears seemed to evaporate after Sharon paid him — cash, of course. She reminded him that they needed a pick-up around midnight; he assured them it was taken care of. The cab drove off finally, and they walked around the corner and through two blocks of bad neighborhood to a little brick rowhouse squeezed in among a dozen identical siblings. The woman who let them in was dressed in a doctor’s white coat, and was of late middle age, bespectacled, and possessed of a quiet, professional demeanor that Christina found intensely soothing. Sharon waited in what was obviously a converted living room, and the doctor led Christina to what was obviously a converted kitchen. Although the house itself was a bit run-down, a great deal of determined effort seemed to have been made toward cleanliness and sterility in this room, and she found herself wondering, cynically, how people without a ton of money (or a rich benefactor) ever managed to get through this alive.

It hurt, but not much; what hurt worse was knowing she was damned, and in a way she never could have explained to Sharon, who seemed to somehow live in a world without such threats yawning at her feet. It was a sin, it had to be, and she would stay damned for it because she could never confess it. She couldn’t place that much trust in the two priests who served Our Lady. If what had happened here, what she had done, ever came back to the Hagertys, by any means, her life would be gone. She thought maybe her decision was selfish, and was entirely sure she was damned for all of it, but was equally sure there was no other option. And when there was no other option, by God and the Lord Jesus, she would take the one that was open. Maybe someday even damnation could be washed clean again. Maybe someday she would even stop thinking that was what it was.

Afterward she lay with her head on the pillow the doctor had tucked gently under it, on the best operating table available for such things, the overhead light too bright in the haze the painkillers had left behind. Sharon came in at some point and held her hand, and salt water ran absently from her eyes in streams that dripped into her ears, and she thought Hail Marys to herself in a kind of dizzy fugue until it occurred to her to wonder why, and how she thought the Virgin could be expected to be sympathetic to this sort of thing. After all, she’d kept her unwanted pregnancy.

At midnight Sharon supported her on her shoulders and helped her back to where the cab was waiting, and they went home. She cried for a while as they drove, and Sharon held her, and then finally she fell asleep on Sharon’s shoulder. They went back to Sharon’s room, with no need for discussion, and she slept there, in Sharon’s bed, curled in her arms. And she had the whole weekend to rest.

She got better; and the next few months passed without incident.

Except that she and Sharon were sort of friends after that, sort of more than friends actually, and only “sort of” because Sharon seemed to have trouble really being friends with anyone. But she became openly friendly with Christina — much to the consternation of her hangers-on, who eventually learned to overlook this sort of behavior as they did much of what Sharon did with herself — even invading her solitary table in the cafeteria at lunches. And it was here, in the early winter near the end of that year, that Sharon made the challenge.

“So where do you want to go for college?” she asked at the table one afternoon, sucking on the straw in her glass of juice with half her mouth. “Vassar?”

Christina wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “It’s a good school, I guess, but… I don’t know about another four years of mostly the same thing.” She swept a hand vaguely at the rest of the cafeteria.

Sharon nodded. “And I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick of ‘pretty good, for a girl.'” Christina wasn’t remotely aware that she had been getting sick of any such thing, but didn’t bother saying so. “I don’t think I could break into any of the old boys’ clubs, but… Father David’s always crowing about me in History, and he suggested Stanford.”

“Stanford,” Christina echoed, and considered, disemboweling her Jello. “That’s a really good school. You think you could?”

Sharon shrugged. “Nah. But it sounded good. You know, for something to think about.”

Christina frowned, sitting up in her chair a little. Her food was probably relieved. She’d never really had much of an appetite to start with. “Don’t sell yourself short. I think you could do it in a heartbeat. Probably Harvard, too, if you really wanted.”

Sharon laughed, and kicked back a little. “This is why I keep you around, you know. You’re good for my ego.” Christina’s eyes narrowed, and she leaned across the table, narrowly missing putting an elbow in what was left of dessert.

“Apply,” she said. “I bet you you get in. Anything you want.” Sharon’s interest, as she might have suspected, was caught immediately.

Anything?” Christina faltered, then firmed, and nodded. It was her future they were talking about, after all. It was worth a little of Sharon’s — teasing, or whatever it was. “Well, how about you?” Sharon said instead, though, and that actually managed to startle her. “I bet you you could get in too.”

“Oh, I didn’t say — ”

“Come on!” Sharon laughed again, and leaned her elbow on the table and her chin on her fist. “I’m not going to Stanford alone.”

…There was absolutely no reason for Sharon’s saying that to make Christina’s heart flutter inside her.

“All right, fine,” she said, at last. “But I have much less chance of getting in than you do, I bet.”

“Yeah?” Sharon’s grin just kept getting wider. “Anything I want?”

“…Yes.”

Sharon fell quiet after that, for a moment, and they went through what remained of the meal mostly in companionable silence. Until at last she said, with no preamble, “I’ve got it.”

“…What?” She thought it was only fair to be hesitant. Girls were moving around tables all around them, and as always some were looking at them. Sharon just grinned, though. Well, it wasn’t exactly a grin anymore; now it was more of a leer.

“Kiss me,” she said, and it took Christina so by surprise she almost ruined the terms by complying on the spot. …At least, that was the only explanation she could think of. “If you get into Stanford, you have to kiss me.”

Christina opened her mouth, then closed it. There were half a dozen protests she could raise against this — chief among them that she hadn’t really intended on betting on any such thing in the first place — but somehow she didn’t seem to want to. “Fine,” she said, doing her best to say it with such eye-rolling amusement that Sharon would think she wasn’t taking it seriously. “And if you get in, what do I get?”

“What do you want?”

She thought about this, couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t either sound suggestive or like a lame excuse, and settled on a lame excuse. “You… have to do my physics homework for a week.”

Sharon groaned, but it seemed like she was the one with the genuine eye-rolling amusement here. “Oh, boy. I don’t think you’re supposed to be punishing yourself, you know…” She shrugged agreement, though, and shook Christina’s hand, startling her a little. “It’s a deal, then.”

“It’s a deal,” Christina agreed, and followed Sharon up to put away their dishes with a strange, inexplicable little smile on her lips.

They applied, and Christina more or less forgot about it until mid-spring, when the letter came, and when Sharon came strolling into sixth period English with a little cat-smile on her lips. She came over to Christina’s desk (fortunately not seeing Christina fumbling frantically with her bookbag), fetched a melodramatic sigh, and dropped a cream-colored envelope on top of her books.

Christina didn’t even have to ask what it was. Her heart immediately put on speed — much more than it had when she’d checked her own similar envelope, which she chose not to examine too closely. She looked up at Sharon, but Sharon wasn’t looking back at her, just leaning on the desk with her eyes turned innocently skyward. Christina gave up and opened the envelope, fumbled out the sheet of paper, and read with dawning delight.

“Sharon, that’s wonderful!” She was up and hugging Sharon before she could think too much about the gesture — but then, there was nothing wrong with hugging your friend in public, was there? She pulled back to arm’s length and smiled at Sharon, genuinely pleased. “I knew you could do it. Congratulations.” Sharon flapped a hand at her, looking discomfited and pleased, and she let her smile grow into a smirk. “I’ll bring my physics homework by tonight, then,” she added, and Sharon groaned with no less melodrama.

“I hope you like it done badly. Say, did you get — ?” Before Christina could draw breath to answer — or dive to finish damage control — Sharon spotted the edge of Christina’s cream envelope poking out of the top of her bookbag, where she’d been trying desperately to stuff it out of sight before Sharon came in. It wasn’t that she didn’t want Sharon to see it, exactly, it was just — well, Sharon was… Sharon, and they were in a mostly full class right now, and, well…

It was too late for any of that now, though; Sharon had already swooped in on the envelope and pulled it free, ignoring all of Christina’s stammering attempts at protest to pull it open and read the letter inside. Her spreading grin was huge, sunny, and a lot more honest than normal, Christina thought. She turned back to Christina and bent, and Christina braced herself — and then felt Sharon’s mouth barely brush the corner of her own, as chaste and closed as a sister’s kiss.

“Good job, Chris,” she said low, and stood back up to smile sweetly down into Christina’s wide-eyed face. “I guess we’re both pretty smart for girls after all.”

And before Christina could say a word — even if she’d had a word to say — Sharon was sauntering back to her seat, and Sister Elizabeth came bustling into the classroom, and there was no more chance.

She did bring her physics textbooks and workbook by that evening, and held them out with a small wordless smile when Sharon opened the door. Sharon, still in her uniform from the day (although with even more buttons undone on her blouse than she normally dared during classes), looked first surprised, then a mixture of amused and exasperated. “I can’t believe you’re serious about this,” she said, accepting the textbooks and putting them in on her desk. Christina followed her in a few steps, watching with the smile still seated. “I may be a whiz in History, but I have to tell you, I flunked algebra twice.”

“Well, a bet is a bet,” Christina said, and casually turned to push the door shut behind her. “And speaking of which — ”

And they were kissing. And there was nothing remotely sisterly about it.

It was easier than she’d imagined; she seemed to fit into Sharon’s arms like it was her place, her slight body’s angles fitting into the concaves of the curves of Sharon’s. Sharon’s mouth was first startled pliant, then curving away in a soft smile, and then usurped with a warm wet tongue that Christina took perfectly willingly. Of course she’d known she meant to do this, she wasn’t the sort of person who acted on impulses, but anything else it happened to mean… information suspected, perhaps, if never really known, not in any fully convincing sort of way. Still, she couldn’t summon up any particular shock with herself. Perhaps her priorities weren’t where they should be, but after having an abortion, she thought being a Lesbian seemed like relatively small change, theologically speaking. And that was just if it meant anything at all. Sharon was, after all, Sharon.

“Just didn’t want you telling anyone I’m a welsher,” she murmured into Sharon’s lips when they finally had some fraction of an inch of distance between. Sharon laughed, and the puff of warm breath was strange on such sensitive skin.

“Whatever makes you feel better…”

They were already kissing again by the end of this, staggering back a few steps, Christina’s hands fumbling up to the tail of Sharon’s blouse and pulling it away from her skirt, feeling the warmth of her skin first through the stiff starchy fabric and then directly with her palms. Sharon freed her hands from around Christina’s waist and started unbuttoning her own blouse, casually, and Christina could find nothing to object to about this; she put her hands on Sharon’s chest above the cups of her brassiere as the shirt pulled away, not exactly timidly. As she dropped her shirt away Sharon dropped fluttering kisses along Christina’s cheek, and thrust out her chest, out and up, so that her breasts — the top parts of them spilling out of the lace cups, the straps dimpling into her full rounded flesh at the shoulders and back — pushed themselves directly into the palms of Christina’s hands. She couldn’t find much to object to about that, either, although she supposed she should have done. Sharon purred at the touch, and when she could feel hard nubs of nipple under the lace Christina flicked her fingers across them, making Sharon hiss, then moan, and squirm on her feet. The wriggle itself was sort of shockingly arousing — her skirt twitched as her thighs rubbed together, had to be squeezing and rubbing between them too, it was so transparent Christina found her eyes fixed and her mouth too full of saliva. Then she flicked Sharon’s nipples again, and found herself thinking of the day in the hallway — and startled herself by grinning, a much rarer expression for her than for Sharon, and dropping one of her hands to reach up under the back of Sharon’s skirt and squeeze.

Sharon laughed, more throaty and less full-bodied now, and grabbed her, and then they hit the bed in a crazy heap, Sharon ending up kneeling on the bed next to where Christina lay on her back. “Everything okay?” she purred — Christina didn’t think she’d ever known a woman outside the movies to actually purr before — and stalked out over Christina’s body on her hands, then pushed her weight over onto just one so she could flick open the buttons of Christina’s blouse. Christina brushed her bracing wrist with her fingertips and swallowed, looking somewhere indistinct between Sharon’s shoulder and the window-blinds.

“Good,” she said softly — admitted — and closed her eyes, and there was Sharon’s mouth on hers again, hot and wet. She was lifted, and helped lift herself, and her shirt pulled away, and Sharon was petting one of her breasts through her undershirt. Her hand felt especially warm through the silky fabric, almost fever-warm.

“This is cute,” she murmured in Christina’s ear, making her feel a little heat up in her cheeks, but resolutely bite down on it. “I always thought so.”

She shrugged, trying to be as casual as Sharon at least seemed about this. “Well, I don’t really have enough up top to need a bra.”

“Mm. Lucky. And you have such nice tits, I like them…” There wasn’t much Christina could have said to that, but as if to emphasize the point Sharon bent down and very gently closed her teeth around the erect nipple showing its head through the undershirt. Christina let out a tiny cry, and sank her hands into Sharon’s hair, down into where all that red lurked like embers.

Sharon stayed where she was for long moments, teasing with her tongue and teeth until Christina was red-faced and gasping and squirming herself, and then she tugged the undershirt off over her head and tossed it on the floor, sitting back up above Christina to look down at her with a spreading smirk. Christina resisted the urge to curl her arms around herself, over her tiny green-apple breasts, and instead struggled up, breathing fast, to a half-sitting position where she could unhook Sharon’s bra and also toss it aside. Sharon smiled and pulled back a sheaf of her hair behind her shoulder, letting her breasts spill out for Christina to see — as best she could with fogged-up glasses, at least. They were really just huge, too, lying smooth and heavy against the top of Sharon’s ribcage, creamy skin marred with a few freckles at the top and large pink-brown nipples lower down. Then she nudged Christina back to lie down, flipped up her skirt, and pressed two fingers down between her parted thighs and against the damp crotch of her panties.

It occurred to her to wonder, somewhere in between crying out and pressing her fingers nearly into her mouth to keep back any other sounds, whether Sharon had done this before, with another girl. It seemed impossible to imagine that she hadn’t, but she found she didn’t like thinking about it very much. Which was also maybe not a good sign. Or maybe, in a different way, it was.

She didn’t even want Sharon to stop to slide her panties away, not even for that long and with the promise of the return, but she let it happen, and then had to press her mouth into the pillow when it was Sharon’s mouth that came back to her instead of her fingers. The wet tongue felt almost cool stroking up those lips instead, almost chilly when the air of the room hit, she was so hot there already and by comparison — Sharon kissed her, and surfaced long enough to carefully slide the glasses off her face before she could damage them, for which Christina was vaguely grateful, and she kissed the fingertips that passed her mouth on their way by with trembling lips. Then Sharon had crawled back down her, her hair soft and ticklish on Christina’s belly and making whispering sounds on her bunched-up skirt, and her tongue was teasing into the folds between her spread thighs again, her breath cooling the wetness there almost distractingly. After a long and leisurely exploration her tongue ended on Christina’s clitoris, delicately flickering across the tiny, impossibly sensitive spot. It was fast but so light, too light, it sent half-insane fever rushing up her skin and made her whimper without being able to come up with any words to say more, harder, please —

She didn’t have to. As Sharon settled in she pressed down more firmly with her tongue, a world of soft wetness on the only part of Christina’s body that seemed to matter anymore — except for the part very slightly lower, where Sharon’s finger was easing inside her surprisingly smoothly. For all their sometimes being odd colors, at least Sharon’s nails were short. Muscles inside her were fluttering around the invader, and then drawing it in, with a kind of surprised recognition, an I know where that belongs. She might have been apprehensive about it, even panicky, if Sharon’s tongue hadn’t been making it impossible to be anything but relaxed, and as it was the feeling was actually good. Strange, almost not quite right, but… needed. Wanted. Her wet lips hungry for it, wanting it deeper. And Sharon’s tongue, all the while, playing over her clit.

At some point her knees drew up, her toes propped straining on the mattress next to Sharon’s head, just past where Sharon’s hands were gripping her hips and thighs around the outside; at some point she ended up with one hand clenched in the bedclothes and the other one clenched in the pillow, pressing it so tight against her mouth that she probably looked like she was attempting suicide by asphyxiation. There had never been anything so good, never anything so all right. And it was Sharon and Sharon and Sharon, and Sharon alone who made it so.

She wailed into the pillow like a cat when she orgasmed, and the pillow caught most of it. It was almost too much, almost too much to stand, she almost wanted it to stop before it could go all the way to blowing her wide open — Her hips bucked and shuddered against Sharon’s mouth, against Sharon’s hand, impaling herself deep on Sharon’s finger. She seemed to go on like that forever, her voice caught in Sharon’s bed, shaking with the force of pleasure, one shiver rocking her after another until finally they were all quiet and Sharon finally held still.

There was nothing for long moments, and then the slightly uncomfortable sensation of Sharon’s finger making a slow retreat from inside her with the aid of her cramping inner muscles, and then the almost pleasant one of the tip finally emerging at the end. Then Sharon was propped up over top of her again, kissing her, and she was kissing back almost sleepily, a tiny smile shaping her mouth.

“Stanford, huh,” Sharon said down into her smiling face, when either of them could speak again. “I guess you’ll be stuck with me a little while longer.”

“I guess,” said Christina, and rolled Sharon over to her back this time.

Her farewell to the Hagertys come August was awkward, a little, but not so bitter as the summer before, more bittersweet; she was leaving a place where she had spent her childhood, and it was always hard to go from a place like that, no matter how uncertain the relationship had been. It was only even awkward because she wanted to get out before any suspicion could infect their minds that she wasn’t telling them everything about what life at Stanford would be like. They didn’t trust California to begin with, had expressed skepticism, but in the end they had given in because they had looked in her face and seen no other option. And when there was no other option, the Hagertys also took the one that was open.

She loved them, she supposed, because all else aside they had been good to her. But it would also be good to leave.

She crested the shallow hill their driveway made to where Sharon sat on the hood of her car, smoking (which at least she had refrained from doing anywhere near the house). They were both dressed for driving, in slacks and casual blouses, a scarf around Sharon’s head. It was a long way to California from New York, and right now that suited Christina just fine. The light was gold in the trees, the cicadas singing at the top of their lungs all around, like they were trying to tell her get gone, get gone.

“You ready?” Sharon said, when Christina came near, and Christina nodded, taking one last look around when she did so. She’d see it all again, of course, but somehow right now it didn’t feel that way. And she also found she liked that idea just fine.

Maybe there were no pitfalls but the ones you made for yourself. Maybe it was all right to be damned, just as long as you made sure to take the scenic route.

“Let’s go,” she said, and got in the car. And after stealing a kiss behind the windshield, they did.

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