Highway to Hell

by Susan Triemert

As Cynthia shimmies between the pews, she scratches her fingernails into the grain of one of the backs, whittling rivulets into the preserved oak. Before tossing a hymnal into the aisle, she sweeps pages with her fingertips, fluttering them like moth wings. She finger-stabs a page and dramatically clears her throat. “I’m on the highway to hell.” She swats a stack of collection envelopes out of a seatback pocket, kicks down a kneeler. A custodian near the confessionals tilts his head, but remains silent. At thirteen, Cynthia gets away with more than most, especially around older men; she has a better body than the lifeguards at the pool, and even though we’re not allowed to wear makeup, teachers often suspect she has on mascara and lipstick. Every few weeks Sister Beatrice slams a lavatory pass on her desk. “You. Look. Filthy.” Each time, Cynthia returns, batting her lashes, with the same raspberry pout, and now rosy, finger-pinched cheeks. 

Minutes before our detour upstairs, Mrs. Jorgenson had instructed us to fetch the milk cartons, a coveted task since it involves traveling through a tunnel to the church basement. I was surprised we were sent together–last week my mother had requested I no longer be seated near Cynthia. My mother wonders if the reason she’s acting out is because of what happened with her little brother. Most people are shocked Cynthia’s parents didn’t pull her out, too. I’ve overheard adults say they assumed she’d be the member of that family to stir up the most trouble. Street smart, some mothers say. Advanced for her age, say others. 

When Cynthia transferred into St. Matthew’s a few years back, I hoped we’d become friends–she’s the only person I’ve ever met who refuses to refer to God as a “he.” She used to think females should be allowed to be priests, but now she hates priests. I don’t blame her. Funny how no one believed her little brother until other boys, sons from families who weren’t here on scholarship, came forward. “Broken,” Cynthia calls him now. “Though not as broken as I am.” Lately, she seems ready to kill anyone who crosses an unspoken boundary, and I wonder how much more the worry will change her.

Cynthia leads me towards the holy water. I watch as she scoops both hands into the basin and splashes it back over her head. Droplets spit far enough to reach the lectern.“You will never be absolved of your sins.” As she shoves her way through the big wooden doors, she belts out, “Now you’re on the highway to hell.”  

Because older nuns come here to pray, I am tempted to wipe off the tiles. Instead, I reach beneath the holy water, clutch a handful of bulletins from last Sunday’s mass, and hurl them outside. “Be free,” I say, and follow Cynthia out into the sunlight.

Susan Triemert holds an MA in Education and an MFA from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. Her essays, stories and poems have been published in places like Colorado Review, Gone Lawn, and Pithead Chapel. She is assistant non-fiction editor at Pithead Chapel and non-fiction editor at Red Fez. You can find her work at susantriemert.com or on Twitter at @SusanTriemert 


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