The Novel?

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Chapter 1

            The doldrums of fifth grade were just beginning to set in for Nina Dunkel, especially when her two closest friends were absent from school. It was only mid-November, but the routine was getting to her. Nothing entertaining or exciting had occurred since the day that Sister Anita Learnham was scolding Tim Fibberan about his excessive missing homework excuses.

            As he continued to beseech, “…but Sister I couldn’t…”

Sister interrupted loudly, “You seem to have a lot of big buts, mister.”

The class broke out in laughter as she continued. “I want no more big buts in my classroom.”

Sister began to notice the laughter and demanded an immediate halt to the merriment. The class quickly came to order, however, they whispered about it for days.

            Another day in fifth grade meant reading, writing, math, religion, science, and history. It was, however, the day of the week when the students visited the library. As Nina stood in line in the library waiting to check out her books she spied the new arrivals behind the librarian’s desk. She tilted her head to read the spines. None of the titles inspired her, but she read on. The book on the bottom was upside down so she had to read it backward while twisting her neck slightly around. Suddenly, she gasped, clearly without thought.

            “Oh my gosh, it’s here!”

            Everyone turned and glared at her. How dare she make a noise in the library? Nina didn’t even realize that her thought was spoken aloud. Never mind spoken, it was shrieked. Now she was in for it. The librarian, Sister Wanda Reed did not appreciate any noise in the library. Loud breathing was actually forbidden. There was even a sign above the door.

“LOUD BREATHING FORBIDDEN”

            From above her glasses, Sister Wanda Reed eyed the culprit and snidely asked, “Was that you Miss Dunkel?”

            With the entire class focally gazed in her direction and Leo Gonnatellonu actually pointing at her with two hands Nina could hardly deny it.

            “Y—ye-yes, Sister it was me, I’m so sor…”

            But from behind she felt and then eventually heard someone whisper ever so breathily in her ear, “You are gonna wish you had glued your lips shut after she gets done with you.”

            It was Marcy Itolduso offering her usual biting comments when the trouble was not directed at her.

            Nina was now frozen in fear. Her mind raced with thoughts of doom, gloom, and mayhem. How could she explain the outburst? What would she tell her parents?  She might get expelled from school? They would probably have to move out of the parish. A moment of clear thought calmed the blood from leaving her head. She would definitely go to confession and beg for forgiveness. Her head continued to spin and there was a light at the end of a tunnel. Maybe, this was purgatory. The light was speaking her name “a la” death’s door. This was it, the end was near.

            The light was calling, “Nina, Nina Dunkel, come over to my desk right this minute.”

            The light, of course, was not death’s door, it was worse. It was the commanding voice of Sister Wanda Reed and her pointed finger directing Nina to the side of her immense oak desk.

            “Are you going to listen or do I have to send you to see the principal?”

            Naturally, no rational fifth grader in their right mind would ignore Sister Wanda Reed. The thought of being banished to stand before Sister Marsha Law, the principal, made her stomach ascend to her throat. With a huge gulp, Nina managed to swallow the almost upward force of nature. This unfortunate inhale caused a humongous…

            “Aaarghrup,” belched a red-faced Nina as she swiftly left her place in line to square up in military precision to Sister Wanda Reed’s desk.

            Laughter from the boys at the bodily out-gassing from Nina’s throat brought Sister Wanda Reed to her feet.

            Roy Alpayne had tears streaming down his face. And while he knew the wrath of Sister Wanda Reed was not to toy with this was just too comical; besides the other boys were just as uproarious. Why Lewis Change was in such a rollicking state of laughter he had inadvertently knocked the “Pennies for the Poor” can to the floor when he flew forward in hilarity toward Sister’s desk. The coins rolled across the desk and onto the floor slowly making a “plink, plink, plink” as each penny hit the cold grey tiled floor. Surely, Lewis would be required to pick up each and every one of those pennies and maybe even have to make a small donation.

            “Roy Alpayne and Lewis Change, out of line and over to the door,” barked Sister Wanda Reed.

            The boys quickly curbed their laughter and whisked their gangly legs to stand at attention on either side of the door. They knew the routine, disband and assume the position.

            Meanwhile, Sister Wanda Reed descended into her slat back throne to continue the check out procedure. Everyone in the line was hushed and no one dared look at each other for fear they may inhale too loudly. When all of the students had finished checking out Sister used “referee-like” hand signals to direct the class out into the hall to wait for Sister Anita Learnham. Like ants on a potato chip crumb, the students fell in line.

            Nina continued to wait at Sister Wanda Reed’s desk. Standing completely still she had hoped that maybe she could just blend into the wall of books behind her.

            Sister Wanda Reed observed the class in the hall from the threshold of the library while still managing an evil eye toward both Roy and Lewis. She dismissed the class to Sister Anita Learnham and exchanged niceties.

In a flash, she made a 180° motion that caused the veil and gowns of her habit to whoosh like a stealth jaguar in the jungle while the beads of her rosary echoed the crack of a whip. The boys were doomed.

Although Nina had never actually heard Sister Wanda Reed dish out a sentence; there was a school tale of urban folklore that Sister Wanda Reed had a way of eradicating those who failed to comply. According to the account, it involved reform school and a summer spent dusting the pews in the church. The names of those involved were never spoken again and once their penance was up, public school was their eventual fate. Nina would now be a witness to this extreme consequence as Sister had not even glanced in Nina’s direction. Usually, there were no innocent bystanders to such an event. Although, technically since it was Nina’s expectoration which caused the boys laughter, she was not blameless.

            Sister stood above Roy with a stern demeanor and looked down at him. Lewis was visibly shaking as he knew he was next. Suddenly, she crouched down pulling her gowns up so they did not puddle around her. She leaned in toward Roy and …smiled? Was that a smile Nina thought? It probably meant that Sister would begin some kind of crazed maniacal laugh. Roy just stared back at her blankly his ears blood-red and a bead of pre-adolescent sweat rolling down his cheek.

Wait a minute, Nina supposed, that may have been the tears.

Nina could see Sister’s lips moving and strained to hear. Nothing, she could not hear a thing. Lewis, on the other side of the door, continued his dazed quaking.

            Nina looked intently at the exchange between Roy and Sister Wanda Reed.

             What was this? Nina thought.

Roy was beginning to crack a sedate smile right back in Sister Wanda Reed’s face. He was out of his mind!

Nina began to say a prayer for Roy after all the Alpayne’s were neighbors and with seven boys in the family, it would be a shame to lose one to reform school.

Without moving her lips Nina silently prayed, “Dear God please help Roy Alpayne. He knows not the road he is about to tread. Though he will soon walk through the valley of the shadow of death he is, but a mere immature child, sloth. Strike the sloth, God. I guess that was mean. Anyway, Roy meant no harm with his disorderly laugh and while I know last week during gym class I prayed that he would fall flat on his …ask, not of me, why I made the request and you denied rather, please give him the strength to wipe that “smirky, little smarmy” smile off his face. Amen.” Nina dared not bless herself, she figured God would understand.

            The smile on Roy’s face did not falter and it seemed as if Sister was continuing to smile right back. Sister pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her habit and wiped Roy’s tear. She wagged her finger back and forth ever so slightly in front of him. Sister stood and motioned him out of the room.

            Roy turned back, quickly looked up at Sister Wanda Reed and sniffled, “Thank you, Sister.”

            He then skipped out into the hall.

            “What in heaven’s hamsters was going on here,” Nina contemplated in silence. “There is no skipping in punishment.”

            Everyone knew that Sister Wanda Reed meant business in the discipline department and as much as Nina’s prayers were intended to save Roy she had at least hoped that Roy would have earned some demerits. Nothing! Not even a mention of a mark on his permanent record. The only words Nina had heard were Roy’s and he… thanked her? This whole scenario made absolutely no sense!

            Believing she was now in some kind of parallel universe or warped dream world she just stood in bewilderment, awaiting the fate of Lewis.

            Sister Wanda Reed turned her attention to Lewis. The less than sympathetic expression returned to her face.  She crouched, pulled at her gowns and commenced a soft whisper toward Lewis’ shivering body. With each word, Luis demonstrated more composure until the trembling finally stopped and a grin replaced the distress. Sister directed Lewis’ attention toward the “Pennies for the Poor” resting on the floor. He dove over to the scene of the crime and merrily picked up each coin. Standing with arms crossed, Sister looked on from the door as Lewis made quick work. Finally, when all the pennies were back in the can, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a nickel, picked the lint from the rounded edge and swiftly dropped it in the can. He strolled back over to Sister, stretched out his hand and Sister grasped his with a firm handshake.

            “This can’t be happening, wake up, wake up, wake up,” Nina called to herself in her head. She was beginning to think she was the crazy one.

            Out of the library, Lewis cheerfully strutted.

            Sister Wanda Reed sighed. Nina was the last one standing. It was now clear that Sister was placing all the blame on Nina; she would be the sacrificial lamb. She was ruined. Fifth grade and it was all over, permanent records, expulsion, reform school…

            “Did girls go to reform school?” Nina thought. “Oh my goodness, she would be the first girl.”

            Nina saw the headlines.

            The Boston PostDunkel’s Daughter off to Reform School

          Beantown LedgerFirst Girl to do Time: A Dunkel

          This was not going to end well for Nina.

            “Well Nina, I guess it’s just us girls,” Sister Wanda Reed alleged as she made her way across the library, the air catching hold of her wimple and veil allowing Nina a glimpse at the graying hairs just to the side of Sister’s temples.

            Nina wondered if she was supposed to respond and questioned to herself, “Was Sister a girl? I mean I know she started out a girl, but was she still, officially a girl? Who can I ask? Are nuns girls? When do you stop being a girl and start being a Sister?”

             She thought about it more and before she could utter a noise Sister was back behind her desk, seated, and glancing above her glasses at the bewildered Nina.

            “Nina, why were you talking in the library?”

            “I’m really sorry Sister. I didn’t mean to cause so much commotion. I happened to notice the new arrivals on the desk behind you and well I…,” Nina explained in one breath.

            Sister dug her sensible-heeled shoes into the floor and rotated the chair on its wheels. Her back was now facing Nina.

            “Wait a minute. With Roy and Lewis, it was whispers at face level. I get her back. I deserve better…I think.”

            All at once Sister whisked back around in the chair with a book in hand. Nina glanced at the title.

            “The book…the book,” Nina swooned in thought.

             It was Holiday for Heebus by Ima Rider.

            “You look a little faint. Are you feeling okay? Did you call out because you were sick?”

            Nina didn’t say anything, she was too fixated on the book and the hold notice protruding from just behind the book’s cover that read, HOLD FOR; Nina Dunkel.

            Nina started to cry. Sister had held the book for her.

            This was a miracle of epic proportions. Nina was not quite sure how Sister Wanda Reed knew she had been waiting for that exact book. Nina thought for sure she would have to wait until Christmas to receive the book as a gift from her great-aunt Rita, who of course was the greatest auntie of all. Great-aunt Rita was an avid wordsmith. She loved books and each Christmas she gave the great-nieces one new book and the great-nephews a subscription to Boys Life.

            Through her tears, Nina asked, “Sister, how did you know?”

            “Oh,” beamed Sister Wanda Reed wiping her own eyes with glasses in hand, “a little birdie told me so.”

            Just then Nina remembered standing outside of Bimble’s Book and Music Nook on Plain Avenue about a month ago.

            Nina was reading the sign in the window that listed the new arrivals. She was waiting for her mother who was in the bank next door getting change for a five-dollar bill so Nina could pay her piano teacher. Nina’s music books were clutched closely to her chest.

            The book Nina was looking for was on the list. Nina had read all the Heebus books by Ima Rider. Who is Heebus?, Heebus Hugs a Hounddog, and Hello Heebus, the books were hilarious and found Heebus in the most extraordinary situations a twelve-year-old girl could endure while living with her grandmother and younger brother in an old firehouse in the big city.

            Nina leaned in with her nose squishing on the window because she thought she might be able to read the tiny yellow sticker which had the price listed next to the title. Nina had saved 85 cents. She had never purchased a book before because she had the library and her one new book from her great-aunt. There was a first time for everything and she could probably convince her mother that since she would be reading, technically it was an educational acquisition.

          While daydreaming about the book, Nina heard the screech of tires and brakes. She twisted abruptly to have a look out on to Plain Avenue. As she turned her practice books flipped upward and out of her arms and flew open on the sidewalk. As she bent and fumbled to reach the books she spied the approaching “just shined” orthopedic black shoes and bottom edge of a nun’s habit approaching from the store. Nina glanced up. It was Sister Melodé Byrd, the music teacher. Sister Melodé Byrd, was a younger nun with a lovely French accent.

          Nina retrieved the practice book to the safety of her arms.

            “Bon après-midi Sister,” Nina greeted politely knowing Sister would appreciate the use of French in her afternoon greeting.

            “Same to you dear,” Sister Byrd replied with her beautiful melodic way. “Are you going into the Bimble’s or just shopping the window?”

            Nina chuckled to herself at the noun-verb confusion “Oh, just window shopping, Sister.”

            “What looks good?”

            “Well, I just noticed Holiday for Heebus by Ima Rider on the new arrivals list,” Nina said excitedly.

            “I have not heard of that book, but your voice tells me you cannot wait to have your copy.”

            “I ‘ve been saving my money, but I’m not quite there yet,” Nina despaired as she glimpsed back to the sign in the window.

            “Bonne chance, dear,” Sister Byrd wished as she headed off down Plain Avenue.

            As Nina remembered that day, she stared down at the book that Sister Wanda Reed placed in her hands. She couldn’t believe that Sister Melodé Byrd was the “little birdie” that Sister Wanda Reed had alluded. Nina would be the first in her class to read the book and the anticipation was unbearable.

            Nina was sniffing back the tears. She had no idea that Sister Wanda Reed could be so kind and thoughtful. None of the legends of Sister Wand Reed included acts of kindness, compassion, empathy and so on. Certainly, the liberation of Roy and Lewis would change everyone’s impression of Sister Wanda Reed from ruthless to noble.

            Nina did love to read and it was clear that Sister had seen that quality in her. There were many times when she was admonished for not paying attention in class because she had a book tucked in her desk and tilted on her lap reading.

            “Sister, I don’t know what to say,” she said stumbling to find the right words.

            This was the best day ever and it wasn’t even Christmas. Out of the blue, and intending to give Sister a big hug; she sprang toward the nun in the chair. With both arms flailing, Nina pushed on the arms of the wheeled chair. The chair flew back; Nina missed completely and fell to the floor. Holiday for Heebus landed in Sister Wanda Reed’s lap.

            A somewhat stunned, Sister Wanda Reed lifted the book from her lap and made eye contact with Nina splayed out on the floor. As she extended the book to the mortified girl below her, she said, “Nina if you don’t want the book, all you had to do was say, no thank you, Sister.”

            Completely embarrassed, Nina rose from her unfortunate mishap. She tugged to straighten her uniform jumper, pulled her blue knee socks up and reaching for the book she said, “Sister, thank you so much, I’ll read this book upon your recommendation and just make my way back to class. Have a nice day.”

            “You’re welcome, Nina. Please apologize to Sister Anita about keeping you so long,” Sister Wanda Reed chuckled.

            With book in hand, Nina twirled around salvaging the tiniest amount of dignity that remained and walked through the library and straight out the door. The events in the library would definitely be the chatter for the rest of the day.