By Monty Matzinn
The air pulsed with the hiccuping laughter of the children, pouring out of the old church, their cheery faces turned up to the smart, summery sun. Sister Grace followed behind them, counting their bobbing heads.
Thirty-six children. All eleven years. Only one would die today. Sister Grace wondered if they’d be ready, if she was ready. If anyone ever could be ready. They made their way to the churchyard gate and Sister Grace followed. Always following, only a few steps behind. Never speaking a word—that was a vow, a vow she’d taken when she’d been only a little older than the children she now shepherded across the green fields towards the school. She hadn’t known what it meant, then.
She wasn’t sure she knew what it meant, even now. But she hadn’t spoken a word since the day she promised. Jack had dawdled away from the group, clambering up through the weeds and the flowers in his little church-day suit. One of the children called after him—a red-head—but Jack was off, bumbling after some fluttering insect or woollen-tailed creature flitting through the grass. Sister Grace let him go.
It wouldn’t be Jack. Too meek, too kind. Sister Grace turned her eye back to the others, moving into the school hall. It would be one of them. Alice Vyse held the door open for Sister Grace, shut it behind her. In the school hall, they’d make the choice. The laughter had died. The shadowed hall had swept them into uncertain quiet. They gathered in a circle, as they’d been taught. Sister Grace moved her way to the centre. One of the thinner girls had started to cry, licking the swell of her tears from her upper lip.
The silence held for a beat, before one of the bigger boys broke it with a gasp:
“It’s Tommy Brace! I know it is. He never sleeps, sometimes.”
“Shut up,” Tommy Brace said, childishly furious, “I don’t never sometimes sleep. I just have nightmares, is all.”
The boys fell into bickering, loud and clipped, and it was only the raise of Sister Grace’s spindly hand that silenced them again. Alice Vyse stepped forward, shyly. “I think it might be Victoria,” she offered, toeing at the floor with her polished shoes,
“She doesn’t share. She used to, when we were at the barn, but now…”
Victoria, broad-shouldered, looked embarrassed, “Sorry, Sister Grace. It’s just—” Sister Grace cut her off, hand raised. It couldn’t be Victoria. There was honesty about her eyes, in the selfish curl of her jaw.
“What about Nicolle?” one girl asked. Nicolle let out a frightened sob.
“Maybe it’s you, Jane,” Tommy retaliated.
The accusations started to flood. Fingers pointing, faces flushing with fear, with wicked righteousness. Sister Grace watched, waiting for a sign. Eventually, Tommy Brace pointed a finger towards the red-headed boy, insistent:
“It’s him. I don’t even know his name.”
“Don’t be stupid, Tommy,” Jane said, “That’s Rodger.”
“That’s not Rodger,” another boy complained,
“I’m Rodger. He’s Ben.”
“Ben? No, he’s Quinn.”
Someone laughed. Nicolle’s sobbing grew hysterical. The red-headed boy stood still, watched the children turn on him. Sister Grace raised her hand again. The red-headed boy stared up at Sister Grace. Expectant. There was nothing evil in his face but, perhaps, that was how she was supposed to know. Finally, she wondered, eyes narrowed, have I caught you?
The red-headed boy shrugged, slow, “Is it me, Sister?” Sister Grace took a step forward, knelt down in front of him. He looked like a child. Like all the others before him. There was no malice, no power beyond power. No cruel smile that let her know she was right,after so many wrongs.
Sister Grace had chosen all sorts of children, before. She’d sent nearly a hundred children through the door at the end of the hall—that small, black door—and she’d never been right.
Sister Grace stood. Nodded.
Tommy and Rodger took the boy by his shoulders, and led him down the hall. The boy let them. He turned to look back at Sister Grace, once. Face pale and blank.
Am I right?
Was she ready to be?
The boys stopped at the little door. Opened it.
The boy walked in. They shut it behind him.
Sister Grace waited.
One of the girls raised her hand, asked if they could leave. There was a murmur of sheepish agreement. Sister Grace nodded. It was time, after all. They washed out around her, a sea of little faces. Sister Grace listened idly to their conversation. Let them wash around her and away. Rodger and Tommy were the last to leave.
“You’re right,” Tommy lamented. “His name was Ben.” Rodger shook his head, “I told you.”
They pushed out into the the sunshine. Sister Grace watched them go.
Another year, then.