By Mandy Ruthnum
Faith had no intention of breaking the teacher’s leg, at first.
Mrs. Greening wrote her name on the whiteboard on the first day of school while Faith examined her from the back row. There was no wedding ring. Faith’s eyes traveled up, from black two-inch heels, to bare muscular calves, to the loose comfortable skirt and peasant-style blouse. Mrs. Greening turned sideways, and Faith could just see the edge of her white bra through the opening in the front of the blouse.
The sixth graders ended up in a portable classroom that year. They baked and sweated in their metal oven in the hot September sunshine. Mrs. Greening refused to open the doors of the portable in case the feral school cat came in. Two of the children cried as they were so uncomfortably hot. One day, Jessica almost fainted. Faith had loved Jessica since grade four and ground her teeth as she watched Amy run to get water for her. Mrs. Greening didn’t give a shit. Apparently, her cat allergy trumped the risk of death by dehydration. At recess, the children burst out of the portable like astronauts exiting a shuttle. The schoolyard was a large L-shape of green grass with a sandbox, swings, monkey bars and a border of West Coast forest on two sides.
Casey, a yellow and white cat with no fixed address, slept in an overturned stump in a swampy part of the woods next to the school. She had one decent ear left. She hunted birds and mice for food. Sometimes a kid brought a can of Fancy Feast or tuna for her. She wandered around at recess, craving the touch of sticky sweaty little hands, surprisingly, for a cat. She sidled into the portable one day and was dispatched with a kick from Mrs. Greening. The children hated their teacher passionately, in the way children can unite strongly against a common enemy.
“For the third time, Faith, sit down and get your math done now”.
With great deliberation, Faith picked up her water bottle and emptied a liter onto the ground. The puddle expanded beneath two rows of desks. Several kids picked up their feet. Mrs. Greening’s face was suffused with rage. Faith always enjoyed this moment of suspense, after she made a “bad choice”, and the curtain rose on drama.
“Go to the principal’s office!”
Faith sauntered away, grinning to herself. She returned to the portable after the other kids had gone outside for recess. She had completed her penance of listening to the principal yammer on about respect and obedience for ten minutes. It was strangely similar to Dad’s sermons in church on Sundays. Pastor Randy. An aptly-named man.
Mrs. Greening grabbed Faith by the throat and pushed her against the wall of the portable, away from the windows. She had a sheen of sweat on her upper lip, and the beginnings of a mustache. She smelled like sardines with an overlay of cheap rose perfume.
“Listen, I’m not like other teachers.” She smiled, and I noticed that one of her canine teeth jutted sharply outward. “I won’t put up with your bullshit. Nobody will believe this happened. Nobody will listen to you if you say anything because of who you are. Get your act together or you’ll be sorry.”
A genuine threat, to be sure. The game was on.
Faith enlisted the aid of Warren, an open-mouthed boy who operated solely with his reptilian brain. Warren did small-time bad things, like putting honey into a kid’s hair and chortling with glee, or ripping someone’s art project into tiny pieces for no apparent reason. He worshipped Faith like a goddess.
“Our goal”, she told Warren, “is to drive her crazy so she’ll leave and never come back.” Warren nodded solemnly, chewing on a piece of fruit leather. There was greyish plaque stuck between his teeth. He’d been wearing the same dirty black track pants for the last four days.
The following Tuesday, Mrs. Greening left the classroom during morning recess. She usually hunkered down at her desk for that short break, marking papers with a cup of cold Timmy’s at her elbow. Warren and Faith crept quietly into the empty portable and took a look around to make sure they were alone. Faith nodded at Warren and he went into the tiny bathroom beside the coatroom, took off his pants, and promptly shat a log into his underwear. One of Warren’s few talents was the ability to shit at will. He delicately removed his underwear, wrapping it carefully around the shit. He pulled his pants back on while Faith guarded the door.
Faith pointed and her minion dropped the package right in the middle of Mrs. Greening’s desk. They went back outside to wait for the end of recess and raced to the other side of the playground. Jessica and Amy were jumping rope. Faith watched Jessica’s long honey-blond curls bounce up and down, and that dimple in her left cheek. Faith couldn’t help smiling.
Warren and Faith were greeted by a chorus of omg what is that smell? Who shit their pants when they came back inside? The girls shrieked dramatically and pinched their noses. Mrs. Greening’s high-heels sounded on the metal stairs and all at once she loomed in the doorway. As the stench hit, her whole face wrinkled with disgust. She walked slowly between the desks, ignoring the hullaballoo, and finally came to stand at her own desk. She stared down at the log of shit lying on the blue cotton underwear. She nodded once and pursed her lips.
“I want all the boys to line up against one wall,” she said.
There were about twelve boys in the class and they looked at each other, confused. Warren flushed deeply. Faith wore her best-confused expression.
Mechanically the boys formed a line against the whiteboard, while the girls settled in at their desks to enjoy the show. The outside door was left open.
“I want all of you to show me the elastic of your underwear, so I can see that you are in fact wearing underwear,” Mrs. Greening said in a dangerously calm voice.
One by one, each kid hooked a thumb into the elastic waistband of his underwear and hiked it up high so Mrs. Greening could see. Warren was second-last in line.
“Show me your underwear, Warren,” she said.
Warren looked at the floor.
“Get out of my sight!” Mrs. Greening bellowed, “Principal’s office!”
Warren didn’t look at anybody as he left the portable. Later that day, Warren’s mother arrived in the classroom to gather his schoolbag and things while he waited outside in the car. She exchanged a couple of words with a stony Mrs. Greening. Warren never came back. He never, ever came back.
That night, Faith waited hungrily at the table for the macaroni casserole her mom had made. Mom and Dad sat down. The three of them held hands around the table while Dad said grace.
It had been six months since Randall Junior had left home. The story Dad told the congregation was that Randall was serving the faith in Africa, but in fact, he had knocked up his girlfriend Salima and the two of them were living in sin in Toronto. Mom and Dad had told the story of his African service so often, they almost believed it. Nobody had heard from Randall during all of that time. Faith missed him fiercely. Now she had nobody to roll her eyes at during Dad’s sermons on Sunday.
At school, Faith waited and watched. One cold November morning, Mrs. Greening left her car door unlocked. At recess, Faith grabbed Casey and stuffed her into the car. Casey yowled and mewed but nobody heard her. Over the course of the day, she peed in the car, scratched her claws across the upholstery and rubbed her hairy flanks over the seats. At a quarter past three, Faith waited behind a tree across the yard to spy. Mrs. Greening let fly a string of expletives as she opened the car door and a streak of yellow and white shot past her, scratching a hole in her black pantyhose. Tentatively, Mrs. Greening peered inside and recoiled as the smell of cat piss hit her.
Mrs. Greening started riding a bicycle to school every day. She wore a navy-blue Spandex suit as she cycled and changed in the staff room when she got to school.
“Great way to stay in shape, Anne!” called out jovial Mr. Benoit from the parking lot.
“Well, it’s just temporary,” she called back, “my car was invaded by a pest, and I tried to get it detailed but I can’t get the stink out. I’ll trade it in.”
Faith bit her lip to suppress a laugh as she eavesdropped around the corner.
Mr. Benoit walked over to Mrs. Greening as she secured her bike to the rack.
“How are you getting your mother to the doctor without a car?”, he asked.
“Luckily, her doctor does home visits, so we’ve been ok so far,” Mrs. Greening replied.
“She’s on a waitlist for a care home now. Her dementia is at the point where she doesn’t even recognize me half the time. She screams a lot and is up at night.”
Mr. Benoit made a clucking sound and shook his shaggy head.
“God knows how you do it, Anne.” She shrugged her shoulders and gave him a wry one-sided smile. “I heard your husband left last month,” Mr. Benoit went on, “listen, Jan and I have been wanting to have you over for dinner for a while. How about Friday night? You can bring your mother.”
Three days later there was a commotion near the edge of the yard at lunchtime. Two of the first graders were screaming. The playground supervisor looked up from her phone and ran over. Casey was dead. Faith pushed through the crowd to see for herself. She lay on her side next to the stump, an empty tuna can beside her. Her eyes were open, staring glassily at the cloudy grey sky. The whites of her eyes had turned yellow. Her face was curiously bloated and there was a puddle of vomit beside her head. Faith reached out to touch her. Casey was cold and stiff.
Mrs. Greening expressed her deepest sympathies to the class. “I know you all loved Casey,” she said, “but this is one of those things that happens in life sometimes…life is so temporary. We have to make the best of the time we have together, right?” Her smile was truly frightening. Art class that day was Casey-based. The children were asked to write a poem, draw a picture, and exorcise their emotions regarding the death of the school cat.
“How did he die?”, Alexa asked.
“Who knows?”, replied Mrs. Greening, “Cats are more fragile than you think. I mean, even a few Tylenol can kill a cat.”
She indicated the bottle of Tylenol sitting on the edge of her desk, looked directly at Faith and raised her perfectly sculpted brows. The rest of the kids started working on their art projects. All Faith could hear was the sound of the shovel hitting half-frozen earth as the janitor buried Casey.
Later that day, Faith sat in the kitchen, watching her mother. Cathy stood at the kitchen counter, chopping cauliflower into chunks fit for the food processor. Once again she was on a low carb diet trying to lose the 75 pounds she had not so mysteriously gained over the last ten years. Grains were verboten and cauliflower rice was de rigueur. Cathy washed her hands and wiped them on her apron. She poured a glass of milk for Faith, mixed in a spoonful of chocolate syrup and gave her a couple of chocolate chip cookies out of a package. Faith dunked and ate. She didn’t mention Casey. Mom didn’t need to think about a dead cat. Dad smelled like perfume when he came home late from his church meetings, and Randall Junior was in Toronto about to become a father at seventeen. Keeping secrets had become a full-time job for Mom. And cauliflower rice wouldn’t be as comforting as salt and vinegar potato chips.
The kitchen table was covered with a slab of glass. Cathy had stuck many pictures of Faith and Randall Junior underneath. Faith’s glass left a ring of condensation on Randall’s smiling grade eleven face. She wiped it away with her palm.
“Any word from Randall, Mom?”
“No honey. He is so busy serving in Africa. I’m sure he’ll contact us when he has a chance. Don’t worry. Say a prayer for him when you miss him.” She reached out and squeezed Faith’s hand. Faith squeezed back and smiled at her Mom.
Two weeks later, Faith stopped at a construction site on the way home and picked up two large bricks. With difficulty, she lugged them home in her backpack. The next morning, she told her mother she had to leave early to work on a book report. Cathy kissed Faith on the forehead and sent her off for the day. It was still dark outside. Faith biked with the bricks wrapped in a towel in the backpack so they wouldn’t bruise her bony spine and ribs like they had the day before. She placed the bricks squarely in the middle of the bike path, spaced a foot apart. Hopefully, Mrs. Greening would be looking up, not down, as she pedaled along. Faith arrived at school early, her backpack now deliciously light and empty. She sat on the steps of the portable reading a Far Side comic book until the schoolyard came alive with voices and the rolling creak of swings.
Jessica walked up to Faith. She could smell the lavender soap on her, the sweet candy breath. “Can you come to my birthday party?” Jessica asked. She handed Faith a pink-edged card. “It’s a sleepover.” Faith’s heart was beating quickly. She had lost the ability to speak, and could only nod and smile. Jessica suddenly turned and ran towards Amy who was climbing out of her dad’s Honda.
The starting bell sounded. There was no sign of Mrs. Greening. The children started whispering and eventually, the volume turned up to a dull roar. The vice-principal came in and gave the kids some math worksheets to do. Faith’s palms were sweaty. She couldn’t focus on the page. A knock sounded at the portable door, and the principal shuffled in. He squinted at the children, adjusted his glasses, and announced, “Mrs. Greening, unfortunately, fell off her bicycle this morning on the way to school. She broke her leg. Her femur-bone,” he added awkwardly. “She won’t be coming back to school for a couple of months at least. She’s in the emergency room now.”
There were a few gasps from the class, and a murmur of noise rose to a crescendo and died down rapidly. Faith felt a deep peace inside. It was the feeling of the first day of summer vacation when only good things await you. Mrs. Greening never came back to the class that year. The grade six class was taken over by Mr. Richard, a teacher who appeared to be the human version of a potato, but much kinder and smarter. Faith started hanging out with Jessica and Amy in the schoolyard a couple of times a week after the birthday sleepover. They talked about which actors were hot and how they wanted to wear lipstick but their moms wouldn’t let them. Jessica wanted to be a doctor when she grew up.
Grade seven started well. Faith found she was looking forward to school now that Jessica was her friend. In October, Faith came home to find her funeral clothes laid out on her bed.
“What’s this, Mom?”, she asked. “Who died?”
“Aw, sweetie”, said Cathy, “your dad has been asked to do a funeral for Mrs. Thompson who died earlier this week. The thing is there aren’t many people attending, so your dad asked us to come too, for support”.
Faith sighed but obediently put on her black tights, black velvet skirt and white blouse with the little red flower buttons. She felt completely unlike herself in this particular outfit. She slipped on her black leather Mary Janes and went outside. Cathy was waiting in the van, dressed in a somber small print flowered dress and burgundy cardigan. Faith climbed into the front seat. They drove along in silence for a while, and then Cathy switched on the radio. It was set to a station for Christian children’s music. “Read your Bible, read your Bible” sounded monotonously from the car speakers until Mom flipped the channel. Now they were listening to Alanis Morrisette and Faith wished desperately for silence.
They arrived at the church and walked into the lobby. There was a display set up in the entrance with pictures of the dead lady Marjorie Thompson at various stages of her life. Laughing in forties-style clothing, looking into the distance in side-profile at the beach, older now and standing behind an old man in a wheelchair with her hands on his shoulders.
Faith prepared herself to be immensely bored for a period of time.
Her mom stayed back for a moment to sign the guest book as Faith walked into the main church and find a pew. It was mostly empty, only about four or five people waited patiently for the service to start. With surprise, she saw Mr. Benoit and gave him a wave. Faith saw a tall woman standing at the front leaning close to her father to say something into his ear. He guided her towards a seat in the front pew and as she turned around, Faith realized with a shock that it was Mrs. Greening.
Mrs. Greening looked down the central aisle and saw Faith standing there. Her heels clicked slowly down the intervening distance. She walked normally, just as she did before. The injury had healed well.
“Faith”, she said, “I’m so glad you came. This means a lot to me.”
“Mrs. Greening, I’m sorry about your mom.” Faith answered like a robot on the social niceties setting. She wanted to turn and run.
Harp music seeped from the church speaker, signaling the service was about to begin. Mrs. Greening went to her seat in the front pew and Faith went to sit with her mother. They held hands. Faith watched Mrs. Greening.
Pastor Randy was quoting John 14.
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.”
Mrs. Greening used a Kleenex once during the service and got up to say a few words about her mother and thanked everyone for attending. The burial was to be private and there were no sandwiches or tea afterward. Faith wanted to jump out of her skin until she got home and changed back into her t-shirt and sweat pants.
“That poor woman”, murmured her mother as they sat together in the living room watching Wheel of Fortune. “She really has nobody now.”
The phone rang. Faith got up to answer it, but there was only silence, then a hang-up.
A month later, Faith was sitting under the outside stairs at recess to escape the pouring rain. Jessica and Amy had umbrellas. They walked over slowly together. Their faces looked strained.
Jessica spoke first.
“Faith, we have something really hard to tell you.”
“Our moms are saying we can’t play with you anymore.”
“It’s because of your dad.”
“What about my dad?”
Jessica and Amy looked at each other, red-faced.
“You mean, you haven’t heard?”
“No,” said Faith, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Jessica took Faith’s hand in hers.
“Faith, your dad was caught having an affair with Mrs. Greening.”
“What the hell?”
“There was a tape on the internet. It was posted two days ago. It’s called Pastor Randy gets randy.”
Faith felt nauseous. Jessica and Amy were looking at her with such pity and kindness. She turned away and went into the school. Thankfully the girls’ bathroom was empty. She went into one of the cubicles and leaned her face against the cold metal wall. She felt a sense of unreality. The bile was rising in her throat and she vomited into the toilet. Gasping, she went to the sink afterward and washed her face and mouth. She looked into the mirror and saw her own very white face staring back at her.
That evening, her mom was chirping away in the kitchen even more happily than usual. She had baked peanut butter cookies from scratch for Faith. She knew her mother would never talk about what had happened. Instead, she would focus on the upcoming exciting move as the family had been asked to serve in another community across the country. After all, they had God’s work to do.
About Mandy Ruthnum
Mandy Ruthnum is a Mauritian-Canadian writer living on Vancouver Island.