How They Lost Us

Eleanor Gallagher

We plotted the shape of our rebellion in the back of the bus on the last day of Billy’s suspension.

“We could put packs of gum in all their desks.” This was my brilliant idea.

“Shut up, Tattle-tale.”

It had been my nickname since kindergarten. I couldn’t help it; I thought lying to the nuns was the same as lying to God. When they pinned me with that look — and they had learned pretty quickly that I was the weak link — I blurted it out, whatever it was.

What the other kids didn’t know that day was that a crack had already appeared for me between God and the nuns. I no longer trusted their infallibility, those wives of Christ. I was starting to think their marriage might be more like my parents’, where my dad punished me for doing things that only made my mom laugh. How could Jesus have agreed with what they did to Billy?

At St. Ambrose, the rule against chewing gum was enforced as if the stuff were the Devil’s own invention. Violators were made to clean all the bathrooms in the school; it’d take you a whole day and at the end of it, you’d be wet, smelly, and quite sure you never needed to chew gum at school again. I could buy that God didn’t want us to leave it under the desks, making work for the janitors, dirtying up His Creation. And of course he didn’t want us to be distracted from our lessons. But why would He care about gum that wasn’t being chewed?

Last week, Billy Flynn had tested the letter of the law by keeping an unopened pack in his desk, and he got away with it for a week until Sister Elizabeth found it and dragged him by his ear to the Mother Superior. He protested that he wasn’t actually chewing gum, but Mother Superior caught him on a grammatical technicality, explaining that chewing was a participle and an adjective, not a verb, and did he need to repeat Sister John the Baptist’s English class? Billy was suspended for a week, which to us was a crime given what Billy faced at home. Whether the nuns didn’t know or thought a few beatings would do him good we never knew. All we knew was that such injustice made rebellion requisite.

It was the new girl, April, who told us it wasn’t open revolt that we wanted, but to get away with something right under their noses.

“That way you can look at them every day and know that they don’t know.”

April was exotic, with a name from the calendar instead of the Bible, and she had lived in Hawaii, a place we thought was only for vacations. Her hair stuck out from her head like spun sugar. I sat behind her on the bus and reported eight distinct shades, from silver to copper to ash to something like sparkly dust.

“I’ll be the first,” she said. We listened as she outlined the three steps. First, the size had to be impressive. Anyone could blow a tiny bubble and suck it back in before someone noticed. That was not going to give us the thrill we were looking for. “It must obscure the eyes,” said April. We held our fingers in front of our faces, to see how big the bubble would have to be. We said we didn’t believe a bubble could get that big, so she showed us the meaty chunks of gum she would use, like bites of flesh.

“And it can’t pop in your face, you have to suck it back in all the way.” A lot of us didn’t know this could be done either. She said it would help prevent us getting caught, which was the most important step of all. “No one can tell, and if they do, they’ll have to be the next one to try it.” I could feel all their eyes on me.

“Tomorrow at lunch,” she said. “Be sure Billy saves me a seat.”

We sat at our usual tables in the sea of the lunchroom. The nuns stayed on the edges, only wading in if there was trouble. Ten minutes before the bell, April said “Ready?” to Billy, who was her lookout. The frozen look he’d returned to school with had vanished when we’d told him about our revenge. April had been chewing the gum all lunch to get it ready, pretending to eat her sandwich while slipping me pinched-off pieces under the table.

Faster than we would have believed, the bubble was huge. It grew past her nose. Her dirty blonde curls splayed out like a degenerate halo, looking more unruly than usual against this fat forbidden thing she was making for us.

“Blow, blow, blow,” rose up softly from the surrounding tables and we all heard the hiss of her breath inside the bubble, echoed by our own intakes and sighs. We were one with that bubble and the girl behind it. I fought the urge to check if any nuns were coming; the effort cramped my stomach.

Another hiss and Billy said, “One down. Do it. Now.” We’d all seen the thin places that could spell doom. April’s mouth opened and she began reversing course, the trickiest part of all. At the edges of our eyes we felt the nuns converging. Had they seen or did their preternatural sense for trouble draw them?

“Hurry, April,” someone whispered but she was too good or too wicked to panic. We saw her unwavering focus when her eyes came back into view crossed and pinned to the orb as she tipped her head back to keep it from catching on her nose. How did she not run out of breath? I held mine so tight, it hurt when I let go, so relieved to hear the soft pops like a muffled gun and see it suddenly gone behind her pursed lips. “Got Two,” whispered Billy, and some of us saw her throat move just before Sister Patrick’s black presence drew all our attention.

Our attention, but not our eyes, because Sister Patrick was the best of all of them — she could see a lie before it formed on your lips. She said nothing, which told us she hadn’t seen. She was waiting for a confession. We fell silent, finishing our lunches, crumpling our trash. April picked up her apple and ate it bite by bite as if she had all day to enjoy it.

By now the tables around us had fallen into the same trap with their respective nuns and it was a game of chicken or hide-and-seek between equally determined competitors. My heart was thudding — we had not talked about how to accomplish Step 3; we had been too enthralled with April’s part: how she would do it, if she could do it, what the nuns would do to her if she didn’t. I knew I had to keep my mouth shut, and even though my blood rushed, my lips didn’t twitch. Someone surely would have broken open but God bless Mary O’Malley for knowing what to do.

She grabbed the apple from her brother Peter’s hand and took a huge bite. He yelled HEY and slugged her in the arm, and then Mary kicked Rachel Wiggens under the table and Rachel emitted her signature siren wail — and with this familiar signal of chaos, we knew how we could win. Violence was officially punishable, but the nuns generally ignored it as long as there wasn’t too much blood. I’ll give them that: they seemed to recognize the hypocrisy of punishing us for what they did in the name of God every day.

Sluggings erupted around the tables and the nuns flew into a tizzy trying to figure out what was going on. What a relief to let out some of our energy, to make noises which weren’t confessions but which loosened our throats. The power of our majority filled us. Maybe this thrill was proof they had been right about gum all along.

I snuck a peek at Sister Patrick and her eyes were waiting for me as they always were. Instead of seeing God, though, I saw inside that nun to the ordinary woman she was. She crunched her eyebrows in a renewed effort to nail me, but I held our stare just long enough to let her know she would never again penetrate me. When I looked away, I slammed my open palm on the table to punctuate the point. “Three,” I said.

April, who had seen it all between Sister Patrick and me, held her half-eaten apple across the table and I took it like it was communion. I saw a tiny string of bright bubble pink caught in the chapped skin of her lip, which stretched to the breaking point as she grinned at me like the sun.

ELEANOR GALLAGHER writes and quilts in Tucson, Arizona. She reads fiction for Atticus Review. This is her first professional publication.