I remember my last day at St. Margaret’s. It had been snowing, as it did every winter in Ashford, Pennsylvania. The roads disappeared under blankets of white, and businesses closed, slowed by the weather and the Great Depression. From my window, I watched people hurry home to their families, breathing on their hands to keep warm. Everyone had somewhere to go, everyone except the twelve of us stranded at St. Margaret’s School for Girls.
We sat huddled around a long wooden table, keeping each other awake while waiting for supper. St. Margaret’s was a new school, even if the building was old. It stood two stories tall, with a boarded up attic and an erratic power supply. Sister Mary Anthony told us never to go up to the attic. The place used to be an almshouse until its previous occupants burned to death thirteen years ago. No one knew who started the fire. Some said it was an act of the devil. Some said it was a resident of the house who had too much to drink.
The building, miraculously, survived.
After the fire, the city wanted nothing to do with Number 9, Charles Street and put its charred remains up for sale. When no one came to buy it, the building was turned over to the church and converted into an all-girls boarding school. Local folks believed a holy presence would relieve the place of its bad omens.
From the walls, copies of the religious paintings frowned down on us. The clergy had attempted to refurbish the inside of the building to match that of other boarding schools, but they lost interest when the Depression hit. Broken chandeliers swayed above our heads. Some lights worked, others didn’t. Father Somebody decided it was too costly to replace them.
Outside, parts of the playground stuck out of the snow: the top of the slide, the chains of the swings. They were donations from the St. Clair’s Construction Company. I heard Roger St. Clair himself oversaw their installation. Apparently, they were his way of giving back to the community.
My hands slid into my pockets for warmth. Sister Mary Anthony said we should thank the Lord for our blessings. Silently, I thanked Him for my seven years of education, and for making me beautiful like my mother. She had been a tall, wispy girl, with golden curls and green eyes. At my age, she had the local boys squabbling over who would carry her books. At nineteen, she married a rich man ten years her senior.
When supper arrived, a loud creak echoed above our heads and the last working chandelier flickered out. Sister Mary Joseph walked over to the fireplace and struck a match.
Outside, the snowstorm started again, pure as the Virgin Mary, cold like the pits of our stomachs. As the nuns served us each a bowl of chicken soup, I glanced around at the other girls. Susan twirled her thumbs. Carol complained about the broken clock. Patty listened to Shirley telling Joan that her mom would come any minute to pick her up. And Nancy, little Nancy cried.
To drown out Nancy, I thought of my own mother. She came home one evening seven years ago, her pretty face distraught, and marched into my father’s office. We were going to lose everything, she said. The market crashed in October. No one had money for food, much less pocket watches. If Father didn’t change his business soon, we would go bankrupt.
I didn’t hear what Father said, but they talked for hours. When Mother came out of his office, she put on her coat and went outside.
That was the last time I saw her.
Shirley tapped my shoulder and pointed to the roof. Pieces of the rafter stuck out, soggy from the melted snow and worn from years of use. A drop of water hit my forehead.
“Really Julia. Move out of the way before it ruins your supper.”
Sister Mary Anthony appeared with an arm full of candles. Her mouth was twisted into a pucker of disgust as she set a candle in front of me. I shifted my soup and roll of bread to the right.
As I did, a loud crack sounded above my head. A large burlap sack dropped through the roof and exploded against the table. Soup splattered everywhere, but no one noticed. What caught the nuns’ attention was the bone floating in my soup. That, and the layer of ashes that peppered the air.
The nuns panicked. Sister Mary Joseph ran up and down the aisle, screaming about the end of the world. Several others knelt and prayed. I leaned in to get a closer look at the bone bobbing in my soup. It was thin and gray, and one of the ends was missing.
Sister Mary Anthony recovered first. Quickly, she evacuated us into the hallway. Carol and Shirley gathered the younger girls. I slipped the bone in my pocket along with my roll of bread. Mother said it was rude to be wasteful. The other children tried not to breathe in the ashes.
While we waited for the nuns to calm themselves, I went down the hall to the kitchen. My stomach growled. A pot of soup sat on the stove, half full, next to a stack of newspapers on the counter. I took out my roll of bread. It tasted bland. Sister Mary Anthony wouldn’t let us have sourdough.
As I chewed, I picked up a copy of the newspaper.
ST. CLAIR CONSTRUCTION COLLAPSING UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
I tore out that page to use as a coaster.
MANSION PARK CEMETERY REACHES FULL CAPACITY
I made a note to move before I died.
At seven o’clock, the nuns transitioned from praying to counting the children. Sisters Mary Anthony and Mary Joseph searched the attic. Everyone under eighteen was given a cup of soup and sent to their rooms. I didn’t tell the nuns I already had some soup. Nancy cried all the way up the stairs. I played with the bone in my pocket.
“What was it?” asked Joan when the nuns were out of earshot. She had been sitting too far away from me to see.
“A dead body,” said Carol. “Didn’t you hear Sister Mary Joseph?”
“That’s impossible,” said Shirley. “Everyone knows you can’t fit a dead body in a bowl of soup.”
“You can if it’s been chopped up into pieces,” said Carol.
“Ew!” said a handful of girls. Patty whimpered. Nancy cried louder. Susan shushed them both.
“How do you suppose it got there?” said Joan. I shrugged my shoulders.
“I bet it has something to do with that fire from thirteen years ago,” said Carol. She leaned down to whisper. “My father said it was started to cover up a rich man’s murder, but nobody said anything because the St. Clair’s were involved. That’s why they donated the playground, to quiet the rumors.”
The girls fell silent. Carol’s father was a journalist. He knew all sorts of secrets about the town.
When we separated, I went to my room and closed the door. The bone weighed heavy in my pocket. I planned to bury it after the snow cleared; it seemed rude to toss it in the trash.
Carol’s words hung on my mind. Did it really once belong to a rich man? Still holding my cup of soup, I removed the bone from my pocket and examined it. It looked slim, long, a little longer than the middle digit of my index finger, and too small to have been part of any man, rich or otherwise. Men were big and tall. They had much bigger hands than mine. Maybe the bone belonged to an animal that got stuck in the attic.
As I returned the bone to my pocket and turned on the lights, I caught a glimpse of a hand waving outside my window.
Just a hand. Without the body.
My soup dropped to the floor. Screaming, I ran down the hall calling the names of the other girls. Doors flew open. Scared, curious and confused faces peered through.
“What is it?” Sister Mary Anthony appeared at the end of the hall with her arms full of candles.
I pointed to my room, my face blanched as I tried to explain. A crowd of girls gathered around.
“A hand,” I said. “A hand at the window.”
Carol and the Sister followed me to my room. We found no sign of the hand, just a puddle of chicken soup on the floor.
“What a time for practical jokes,” said the Sister. “I hope you’re happy with yourself, Julia. All this nonsense must stop, do I make myself clear?”
I looked from the window to Sister Mary Anthony. The hand was there. It really was.
Still, the sister seemed upset. I apologized and waited for her and Carol to leave. When the room cleared, I sat on my bed and took the bone out of my pocket. Was this the reason the hand appeared? I rubbed the bone between my fingers. It was too big to be a rat bone but too flat to be a chicken’s. What was it? Or whose was it?
Outside, the clock tower struck ten. I returned the bone to my pocket, turned off the lights and went to bed.
I sprung out of bed in the middle of the night, coughing from the smoke that seeped through the door cracks. My room clouded. I couldn’t see. Quickly, I hurried downstairs. My feet felt light. Carol and Susan ran a few steps ahead.
We stood outside, staring up at the burning frame St. Margaret’s. Firefighters ran in and out of the open door dangling from its hinges. A policeman shouted instructions. Shirley emerged moments later, barefoot and dressed in a nightgown. Like the rest of us, she’d forgotten her coat. I couldn’t feel the cold against my feet, probably because of the fire.
“There are still people in there!”
The policeman directed some firemen’s attention towards the building. The girls and I exchanged glances. Who was missing?
I counted our heads while trying to remember who sat with me at dinner. Shirley, Carol, Susan. A sickening feeling twisted in my stomach. Nancy. Where was little Nancy?
Carol came to the same realization. She ran up to the policeman and tugged on his sleeve. “It’s Nancy,” she said. “We have to find Nancy. She’s only seven years old.”
The police man ignored her.
Carol asked again. She ran from firemen to ambulance workers, pleading with them. No one listened. I followed her movements, my heart thumping in my throat. Nancy’s face swam in my mind. Why didn’t they care? Why didn’t anyone care?
Pushing Shirley aside, I dashed into the building. Flames flickered around me, the air dense with smoke.
No answer. I sprinted up the stairs.
I ran into her room. Nancy lay sleeping in her bed. I shook her. “Nancy!”
She didn’t move.
I ran back towards my room. I needed something to carry her out.
My foot kicked against a heavy object in the hallway. On the floor, a black-robed figure lay sprawled over a smaller figure, both covered in burns, their eyes closed. I looked away. Patty. Sister Mary Joseph.
The door hung ajar. I rushed in, yanking the blanket from my bed. The blanket dropped from my hands.
On the bed lay a blonde girl in a gray and white uniform.