In which I enter an alternative universe where burly men read Cosmo and giant house cats roam sacred corridors
For as far back as I can remember, I have told everyone I know that I am going to be a writer. And it's not just some idle dream. I have been a busy girl, and my hard drive is bulging with the results of this ambition: a heaping assortment of almost-but-not-quite-finished short stories and at least three this-time-I'm-really-off-to-a-great-start-and-I-mean-it novels. Unfortunately, every single thing I have written--until now, that is--is fatally flawed. "Write what you know!" everyone told stubborn little me. Very good advice--that I completely ignored. Instead, I wrote and wrote, filling my stories to the brim with people and places I have spent my life reading about instead of the people and places that are my life. But all that changed the moment I looked out the window in Mr. Eliot's English class and screamed. Suddenly I had my very own story.
My tale begins in September, my first month in the "upper school" at St. Veronica's, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I know, I know--it sounds snobby, like one of those schools in the movies or TV, but trust me, it's not. Believe me, I'm not rich, and my friends aren't either. St. V's is just a nice, ordinary all-girls' school that just happens to be in a pretty expensive neighborhood. Yes, we wear plaid skirts with our lovely red blazers, and yes, there are a few nuns running around the place, but there are no limos parked outside or helicopters on the roof or anything like that.
We are just starting Great Expectations in Mr. Eliot's English class, taking turns reading aloud from the first chapter. So Leigh Ann Jaimes is reading. Someday, Leigh Ann, a very passionate reader, will win an Academy Award. When she reads, it's like one of those fabulous, a_star_is_born auditions for a Broadway play. Great Expectations, the "greatest novel ever written" per our Mr. Eliot, starts off with this spooky scene: as a cold early-evening fog hangs over a churchyard cemetery, the poor little orphan Pip is wandering near his parents' headstone. As Leigh Ann pours her heart into every word, I'm picturing the mist hanging over the graves, worn smooth by the passage of time. I feel the chilly, clammy air, hear the trees creaking and swaying in the wind, and so there I am, perched on the edge of my seat, when Leigh Ann reads: "'Hold your noise!' cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. 'Keep still, you little devil, or I'll cut your throat!'"
I gasp. Loudly.
Leigh Ann, along with everyone else in the room, spins around to look at me.
"Everything all right, Miss St. Pierre?" Mr. Eliot asks, peering over his glasses and trying to hold back a smile. Mr. Eliot is one of those teachers who is basically cool, but still a total geek--always making really corny jokes that only he gets. His first name is George, which explains a lot. Get it? George Eliot, like the novelist? Except that that George Eliot was really a woman named Mary Ann Evans. Oy.
I blush--just a little. "I'm fine. Thanks for asking though." Always keep 'em guessing--that's what I say.
He nods to Leigh Ann to continue.
Across the room, my best friend Margaret Wrobel has this huge smile on her face. She mouths the words "deep breaths" at me, which is what she always tells me when I get too excited, or too scared, or too anxious, or too anything. I'm a very emotional person--I just don't seem to have that "whatever" gene. Everything matters in my world.
Margaret reads next, and her version of Charles Dickens is flavored with a soupeon of a Polish accent, a remnant of the first seven years of her life in the suburbs of Warsaw. My eyes drift off for a moment, turning to the stained glass windows and the gray stone walls of St. Veronica's Church, separated from the school by a courtyard that is maybe twenty or thirty feet wide.
And then I scream. And this time, I am at least as startled as everyone else in the room, with the possible exception of poor Mr. Eliot.
"Sophie! For crying out loud. I know it's an exciting book, but please try to control yourself."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Eliot, but I saw--" I point out the window at the church, but the thing that had been so scream-worthy is gone.
"Nothing. I thought I saw something, but it must have just been a pigeon."
"My gosh. What was this pigeon doing?"
The bell rings (yay!) and I gather my books quietly and glance furtively out the window, hoping to get a second look at what I had seen for just the briefest flash.
Margaret and I walk to the locker we share.
"So, what was that all about?" she demands, after we get away from the crowd outside the room.
"I saw something," I whisper.
"Something like_. . . dead people?" Margaret whispers back.
Rebecca Chen sticks her head in between Margaret and me. "What's going on? Why are we whispering?"
"Sophie says she saw something scary out the window during English class. She actually screamed."
Rebecca's interest level increases immediately. "You screamed? In class? Cool."
"I saw a face in the window. That little round one in the church. C'mon, I'll show you."
We return to the _now-_empty Room 503 and _re-_create the scene.
"I was sitting right here, and for just a split second, I saw it, plain as day. A woman's face, really pale, almost white, with long white hair."
"You dozed off," says Rebecca. "It was a dream."
"No, I was wide awake. You know how sometimes you're sitting there with the remote, and you're flipping through the channels as fast as you can, but every once in a while you see something--something you recognize, like a cute guy, or a scene from your favorite episode of Seinfeld or whatever--and even though you only saw it for like a split second, you still take it in? Well, that's what it was like."
"Sophie, we're on the fifth floor," Margaret says. "That means we're forty feet up. That window is above us--it's probably just an attic or something. Sorry, but it's pretty unlikely that there was an old lady at that window."
"Unless it was a ghost!" Rebecca is getting more excited by the minute. "Or someone trapped! Or being held in a secret room, like in The Man in the Iron Mask!"
Margaret, the smartest person I know, can't resist an opportunity for a good literary allusion. "Or maybe she's in the church seeking sanctuary, like Quasimodo. You know, The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
A couple of years ago, Margaret's dad salvaged a complete set of the Harvard Classics that some moron in their building had put out with the trash. Margaret has made it one of her missions in life to read all seventy volumes.
"Guys, I'm serious. I know you don't believe me, and I don't blame you, but I swear I saw her. And, uh, the weird part is, even though I only saw her for a second, I got the strangest feeling that she was trying to say something to me."
"Like what?" Rebecca asks, eyes wide.
"Like she needed help or something." I wait for them to scoff.
"Look, Soph, I know you well enough to know you wouldn't scream unless you saw something, so if you say you saw her, we believe you. Don't we, Rebecca?"
Rebecca looks dubious but goes along. "Oooo_kaaaayyy. I mean, yes. Absolutely. I believe you. Do you believe I'm starving? Can we go to lunch now?"
"C'mon, Bec. Lunch can wait. We have a mission. I have a granola bar in my bag--it's full of oaty, nutty goodness, and it's all yours."
"Really? You think we should go right now?" I can pass up lunch--especially a school lunch--for a little adventure.
"Why wait? If it is a ghost, this could be the one day in the year that she shows herself, you know, like the anniversary of the day she was murdered. We have to go now."
Rebecca positively lights up at the mention of _murder. "Okay, you guys, but I have to be back in time for English. I walked in ten seconds after the bell yesterday and Mr. Smelliot gave me the _stink-_eye. I don't think he likes me."
"We have lots of time," Margaret replies. "Thirty-five minutes. And Mr. Eliot likes everybody."
"Hand over the granola bar," Rebecca commands. "Sheesh, no wonder you're such a twig."
Margaret leads the way. Somehow she knows the back way into the church--through a door that I'd walked past a million times without ever bothering to wonder what was on the other side, and then up a narrow staircase illuminated by a single bare lightbulb. At the top of the stairs, she pushes open another door (which groans like a grumpy old man), and just like that, we are in the church foyer about six feet from the security guard.
He has a full head of white hair that stands straight up in that fifties style--cut perfectly flat on top. Makes me want to set a vase on it. He looks up from, oddly enough, the latest issue of Cosmopolitan.
Margaret steps right up to his desk. "Hi! We're students over at St. V's and we were just wondering if it would be all right if we took a look around the church. I mean, we come over here for Masses, but we never get to really see the church that much. Is that okay?"
He holds a hand up to his left ear, which is outfitted with a rather large hearing aid. "Say again. Didn't quite get you."
"IS IT OKAY IF WE TAKE A LOOK AROUND? WE'RE FROM THE SCHOOL." She points at the crest on her blazer.
He squints through his fingerprint-smudged, thick lenses. "School's around the corner." I note that he is taking the Cosmo quiz--"Pushy or Pushover?"
"Let me try." I move closer to the ear without the hearing aid. "Excuse me." No response. "EXCUSE ME!" He looks up and I hold out my camera. "WE JUST WANT TO LOOK AROUND. MAYBE TAKE SOME PICTURES. IS THAT OKAY?"
"No flash." And he turns the page to "If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother" (note to self: pick up this issue for future reference).
"Well, that was interesting," says Rebecca as we wander through the double doors and into the actual church.
"If we can't sneak by him, we are without a doubt the worst snoops in history," Margaret declares.
St. Veronica's is pretty spectacular, and I am actually looking forward to a little "snooping." But Margaret is all business.
"We have to figure out a way to get up there." She points to a series of arches at least thirty or forty feet above us on the wall of the opposite side of the church. "If you were looking from Mr. Eliot's room, that's about the right height."
"What's this part of the church called?" I ask.
"The long part, from the doors to the altar, where the highest part of the ceiling is, is called the nave. This part, where we are, that goes across the nave, is the transept." She emphasizes the "trans" so I am sure to get it. (Margaret is very big on vocabulary--root words and prefixes and all that stuff.) "If you were to look down on the church, it's shaped like a big cross."
"I never realized that. Makes sense, though. How do you know all this again?"
"Ahh. Thank God and the Harvard Classics."
"Amen," says Margaret. "Now, do you see where those confessionals are?" She points to the three identical wooden doors where parishioners go to confess their sins. (Now here's a confession for you: sometimes I _"embellish" my own confessions to make them more _penance-_worthy. Pretty sad, huh? All in all, I'm a distressingly good girl.) "Now look to the right of them. See that door? That's where we need to go first."
We aren't too concerned with Robert, the security guard--and I use that title loosely--but we still try to look tres nonchalant as we make our way to the door we have targeted. It is near a painting on the right side of the church, and we suddenly become very interested in all the artwork. The door is heavy, built of dark, deeply carved wood with a grid of twisted iron over a _stained glass picture of a golden chalice.
"Zee Holy Grail. Very Monty Python." Rebecca, _assuming this really bad French accent, quotes one of her favorite lines: "I fart in your general direction."
We all giggle because, let's face it, saying the word "fart" in church is deeply wrong and funny.
I put my hand on the doorknob and look at Margaret. "What do you think?"
Margaret is nervous but determined. She knows her parents would kill her if she got into any trouble. She takes an audible deep breath: "Go ahead. Try it."
I try turning the knob. Locked. "Now what?"
"Let me see." Margaret kneels in front of the door. "This lock is ancient. Rebecca? Can you pick it?"
Rebecca joins Margaret on the floor, inspecting the lock. "Got a bobby pin?"
Suddenly Margaret stands up. "Someone's coming. Look interested in the painting."
A middle-aged man in a chocolate-brown suit several sizes too big appears from behind the altar, straightening candles and trimming wicks. Margaret coughs, and he looks up, a bit surprised to see us.
"Good afternoon, young ladies." He comes closer and looks up at the painting of the sixth Station of the Cross, Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus. "Beautiful, isn't it? Captures the weightiness of Christ's burdens, don't you think? It's my favorite."
I have spent enough time with my parents in museums in New York and Paris to have at least a vague idea of great art, and this ain't it. Rebecca, the artistic one among us, could do much better. We all nod in agreement anyway.
"We're doing a class project. Do you happen to know who the artist was? It doesn't appear to be signed."
Oh, yeah, my friend Margaret, she's smooth.
"It's no one famous. Sadly, we can't display any truly valuable art anymore. We've had a few pieces by better-known artists stolen right off the walls. Can you imagine--stealing from a church! All fourteen Stations of the Cross were painted in the 1930s by a former parishioner, a Mr. Harriman. There are several more of his paintings in the rectory. Mostly copies of Caravaggio." (Bad copies, I'll bet!) "His granddaughter is still a parishioner; in fact, she lives right next door." He lifts the bottom corner of the painting and pulls it away from the wall, examining the back. "Ah, there it is. 'M. Harriman 1934.' " He then sticks out his hand to each of us and smiles pleasantly. "I'm Gordon Winterbottom, the church deacon."
Excerpted from The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour by Michael D. Beil Copyright © 2009 by Michael D. Beil. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.