Just before my Granny Ava died, she pulled me near to her face so all I could smell was antiseptic and her slight sour breath. “Peach,” she whispered, “your mother . . . isn’t . . . human.”
I jerked back so hard the metal bars on the side of the hospital bed we’d had rolled into her living room rattled. “Gran!”
She waved one boney hand. It flapped from her wrist like torn paper. “Listen.”
Holding my breath, lips pinched tight, I leaned back in so she could continue. “Your mother never dips her fingers into the well of holy water at Mass.” Granny Ava touched her hand to her forehead. “She saves the host on her tongue.” Ava touched her heart. “I’ve seen her tuck it into her pocket just as she kneels to pray.” As she touched her left shoulder, her eyes floated shut. “And that rosary she uses – plastic!” Finishing the Sign of the Cross, Granny Ava grasped my wrist. “You must beware, and remember. I can’t die without someone else knowing.”
My throat was dry. I wondered what death knell in her brain was making Granny say these things.
“Peach!” she hissed. “Promise you won’t forget.”
As though from some great distance, I looked at the thin white hair curling away from her forehead, at the red flush surrounding her eyes, at her lips, which I used to kiss in exchange for a song or a hard green peppermint. “I promise,” I whispered, thinking, my rosary is plastic, too.
And then my granny died.
Mom came in from the kitchen, one hand on her cheek and the other gripping my dad’s. The glass sliding door let in perfect white light from the backyard to shine over our tableau, and sorrow felt like a water balloon sloshing in my stomach.
Dad moved around to put an arm on my shoulder. “Hey, kiddo, you ok?” I nodded, my eyes on Mom as she took my place perching on the bedside stool. Tears tightened her eyelashes and she touched Granny’s forehead reverently. Dad said, “I’m going to call the hospice nurse.”
I stayed back, and saw as Mom picked Granny Ava’s rosary off the baby blue quilt. The blood red beads had come from the Vatican, blessed by the Pope himself, Ava always said with pride. It was only because I was staring that I noticed Mom tug her sleeve up high enough to lift the rosary without it touching her skin.
Naveen Rao opened the heavy wooden door of St. Sebastian’s just enough for me to slip in. It was seven p.m., a half-hour after evening Mass let out, and the church was supposed to be locked for the night. It hadn’t occurred to me in sixteen years of living that a church would ever be locked, but yesterday I’d come by on my way home from a late evening at the library, only to find my admittance barred. After two minutes despairing God himself had denied me because what I wanted was pretty sacrilegious, I’d realized that the doors were probably locked for more mundane reasons.
“Thanks,” I whispered, sliding under Naveen’s arm. He was still wearing his dark school sweater that hugged his shoulders, and my heart picked speed at being close enough to see how the brown in his eyes broke out into about a dozen colors. Too bad he was frowning at me.
“I’m not sure I want to be thanked,” he said back, not whispering, but low enough we wouldn’t be heard if anybody was far at the front of the church.
I smiled my most winning smile, but felt the corner of it shake. “It’s an adventure,” I offered, unable to stop whispering. We stood in the vestibule, a wide hallway where the only light filtered in through the blue and yellow stained glass in the door or glowed out of the two alcoves at either end. One held a statue of the Virgin and the other a smaller statue of Sebastian, with three lonely arrows coming out of his shoulder, hip, and thigh.
Naveen lowered his eyebrows, studying me. A couple years ago, his mom was baptized Catholic, and with the usual devoutness of the newly converted, she volunteered in the rectory nearly every evening. Naveen came here after school for a quiet place to do homework. He hadn’t been baptized with his mom, and to my knowledge was still as technically heathen as they come. But it had still been easier than I expected to get him to agree. All I’d had to do was drop by his lunch table and ask. What will it cost to convince you to let me into the church tonight after evening Mass? I’d said, leaning my butt on the table next to his lunch and trying to look both innocent and sexy, for which I’d left an extra button on my uniform shirt undone, but also put on my pearl-drop necklace and no make-up except for pale lip gloss.
He’d tilted his head back and kept his eyes on my face, while his bros from the baseball team joked about sneaking me anyplace I liked. He ignored them, and I did, too, even though I had to tuck my fingers under my thigh to keep from swatting at them. Finally, Naveen said, Just a compelling reason.
It had made me laugh in surprise, and I’d told him the truth: I have to do it because of my grandma’s dying command.
Now, in the dim light, he said, “It’s hard to believe Ava wanted you to sneak in here.”
I shrugged, trying not to look surprised again. Of course he’d known Granny – her helmet hair was legendary in the bell choir, and she was a Eucharistic Minister once a month at our all-school Mass. “It wasn’t exactly her direct wish.”
“Peach,” Naveen said, exasperation pulling at his mouth.
“It’s related,” I hissed. “Swear to God.”
His eyes darted toward the statue of the Virgin, and I slid a quick smile on and off my lips. “What then?”
Grabbing his wrist, I pulled him with me toward the wide arch that led into the sanctuary. A purple carpet spread out at our feet, running between the rows of pews up all the way to the altar. Candles flickered at the front, and in a cluster toward the right where you could kneel to pray. High overhead thin violet banners hung from the rafters. I shivered at the immensity, though all things considered, the church probably only held five hundred people. Alone like this, with all the candlelight and shadows, it felt infinite.
“There’s no vandalism or crazy shit involved in this, right?” Naveen said, and I was amused that he didn’t like me swearing to God, but he could cuss right in sight of the Crucifix.
I rolled my shoulders. “Nope.” On either side of us, a small silver bowl was affixed to the arched doorway. Holy water waited inside for dipping fingers, so anyone entering the sacred space could bless themselves. I pulled a tiny test tube I’d borrowed from the biology lab out of my jacket pocket and flashed it at him.
“You’re joking,” he said under his breath. “What do you want that for? Ava sending you vampire hunting?”
Opening my mouth to make a joke, I thought of Granny’s fingers tight on my wrist. Your mother’s not human. That was three weeks ago, and I’d watched since then. At the funeral Mass, Mom had skimmed her hand over the bowl of holy water, but not touched it. She mouthed the words to the Creed, but nothing came out. All the actions where there, so perfect and clear I’d never noticed the empty space behind them. I planted Granny’s rosary on the kitchen table, and instead of putting it aside, Mom set everything around it. I skewed the ceramic crucifix hanging in the upstairs hallway, and I know she saw it, but she made no move to shift it. All of the evidence was ridiculous and circumstantial. But I noticed. Everything little thing made my breath freeze, and then on Monday she was in the garden and she snatched a tiny moth out of the air, then crushed it in her fist.
After that she’d started watching me back.
Her hand pushing aside the curtain when I left for school. A creak of the door as she pushed into my bedroom to brush hair off my forehead while I pretended to be asleep. Waiting at the kitchen table with her hands folded, eyes expectant as I entered the room. I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Look, Naveen,” I murmured, uncorking the test tube. “It’s complicated. I have to do this for my own peace of mind.”
“Your own – ”
An echo beat from the front of the sanctuary and we both froze like rabbits. The black of Father Jacob’s shirt flashed against the white-washed wall behind the altar, and quickly, Naveen dragged me back into the vestibule. “Shh,” he warned, and I pursed my lips, wanting to drop something or talk just because he bothered to say something so obvious.
We stood together, my back to the wall, Naveen so close to me I couldn’t see all his face at once. I held my breath, but not because it might be noisy. The test tube pressed against my palm, and that fist was trapped between us. Father Jacob’s footsteps slapped quietly away, and when we heard a distant door click shut, both of us let out a sigh.
“Peach,” Naveen said, not backing away. “I…” He hunched over just enough so our eyes were even. “You know why I agreed to this?”
“My winning personality?” I whispered, trying to grin.
“The way my school skirt swishes?”
This no was slightly less firm.
“Then what?” I was sweating just enough that the glass tube slid in my hand from squeezing so tight.
“That time,” Naveen whispered, “in history class when you kept interrupting Mr. Calvers while he tried to pick on Tate.”
I’d ended up in the vice-principal’s office for that, and hadn’t considered it my finest hour. I narrowed my eyes. “You remember that?”
The first smile of the night lit up his face, even in the shadow. “You made a huge fuss that you had a run in your stocking, but you weren’t wearing any.”
“Ah. Yeah.” I winced.
“The point is, I want to help you. But stealing holy water? Is this some kind of stupid dare?”
I bit the inside of my bottom lip. “You’re uncomfortable with the level of sacrilege.”
“Yeah, just a bit.”
Taking a deep breath, I raised onto my tiptoes, and with my test tube free hand, I grabbed Naveen’s hair and I kissed him.
I kissed him hard. I pushed my body against him, and there was just a split-second before his arm was around my waist and he was kissing me back. Just as hard. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t want to.
We parted with a heave, and my mouth felt raw. With my eyes shut, I gave myself just a moment to lean back into the wall. Then, prying my eyes open, I smiled and said, “After that, it shouldn’t seem so bad to ignore me while I swipe some of that water.”
His face pinched, and I had no clue if he was going to laugh or cuss me out. I’m not sure he knew. I took the opportunity to slip under his arm again and dunk the test tube into the basin of holy water.
When I turned back to Naveen, tube corked, he had his hands over his face. Slowly, they slid down, and he said, “You’re crazy, Peach.”
I paused, letting the dim light from the stained glass windows decorate his face in blue and yellow for a moment. It was my imagination, or I could just see the edge of a smile around his eyes. “I’d love to do that again,” I said.
“Steal holy water?”
“No.” I smiled and backed up to the church doors. “The other thing.”
A giant sigh lifted his shoulders, and with the exhale, Naveen said, “Yeah. The other thing.”
The whole way home, I thought about kissing Naveen instead of how to get Mom to drink the holy water. I thought of his lips, and of how his sweater was soft under my fingers. I thought of sneaking into a church for holy water, and finding a kiss instead.
It made me wonder for the first time what I’d do if Mom wasn’t human. If the water burned her, or whatever I thought it would do. My mom would be gone. I already missed Ava like a hole in my lungs, and Mom leaving would tear off my skin.
Was it worth it? Did it matter? I’d gone to the church for holy water, but come out with a kiss and more.
Through the bay windows on the front of our house, I could see Mom. Waiting for me. She sat at the kitchen table, her hands folded, and nothing on the polished wood except a sweating pitcher of iced tea and two glasses. One for her, one for me.
Before going inside, I uncorked the test tube and poured the holy water into the grass.
photo by Mason Long, via flickr CC.