Abigail watched through the car window as the sun’s glow faded behind the church. She would be confirmed soon and on Tuesday nights her mother dropped her off at church for CCD class. Now the building grew bigger—a familiar brick triangle with a large oval plaque of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus at its center. Mary wasn’t looking at the baby in her arms, but staring ahead. She’s watching me, Abigail thought, looking back into the stone eyes intently.
Abigail liked going to Mass, receiving communion. She loved the taste of the Eucharist and would wait in line, palms open and outstretched, a tight, eager smile plastered on her face as the priest blessed the body of Christ before she mumbled an amen and turned her back to him and quickly placed it on her tongue. She would push it to the roof of her mouth and suck on it until it evaporated. Sometimes, she was able to make it last the rest of the Mass.
She once asked her mother if they could buy the type of bread used for the Eucharist at the grocery story. Her mother had laughed and said, if you find a store selling it, you let me know, sweetie.
Averting her gaze from Mother Mary, Abigail leaned her head against the doorframe and looked up at the passing clouds, wondering if her father, who had recently passed away, was looking down at her and her mother at that very moment.
She found comfort in the fact that her father was in heaven. After his funeral, Abigail’s mother had told her that if she ever missed her dad and wanted to talk to him, she could have a conversation with him in her head, and he would hear her, because he was in heaven, looking down at them, missing them too. Abigail liked to watch the sky as the clouds moved about, growing and shrinking. She watched and knew he was watching back, twisting the clouds into different shapes for her amusement.
When her mother had sat Abigail down to tell her the news, mascara was streaming down her cheeks like little black worms crawling out of her eyeballs. Abigail stared. Her breath stopped short—she felt like she had been called on in class and didn’t know the answer. It wasn’t until her mother asked if she had heard her that she realized her mouth was agape and she was hastily picking her cuticles. She looked down at her hands. Her thumb had begun bleeding. She told her mother yes, she had heard her. Her mother said other things, but Abigail had stopped listening. She put her thumb in her mouth and began sucking the blood, focusing on the taste of metal and salt, rather than her mother’s voice or the beating of her heart, which was pounding so hard her ears thumped to the rhythm of it.
Now Abigail glanced at her mother in the front seat. She had begun singing under her breath to a song on the radio, tapping her fingers on the wheel as she drove. Abigail’s mother faithfully brought her to church every week after her father’s death. While Abigail enjoyed the calm noiselessness of church, her mother would squirm and fidget at Mass. After, she would take Abigail out to breakfast so they could talk and talk. Unlike most of her friends, Abigail loved spending time with her mother. She was her best friend and they spent these breakfasts talking about Abigail’s schoolwork and friends. Abigail had never lied to her, and knew she never would. Honesty means everything to me, her mother always said. I’d rather you do something bad and tell me than lie to me; we can always figure it out if you are honest. Abigail believed her.
At these breakfasts her mother smiled and cracked jokes and laughed and let Abigail order a milkshake with her pancakes. Something had left her mother when her father died. Her mother used to have a glow about her. When she laughed, other people laughed, simply because her laugh was so heartfelt and real—exploding with the purest kind of joy. The glow had faded, as if the little mascara worms from that night had sucked it out of her.
It hurt Abigail every time her mother pretend-laughed. Every time the strange hiccup-like noise left her mouth, it felt as if a sledgehammer was chiseling away at her heart bit by bit.
But her mother was trying, for Abigail’s sake, and Abigail knew this, and her mother knew that Abigail knew this, but they both pretended anyway. Abigail still laughed when her mom laughed, not because the laughter was contagious, but simply because her mother needed her to. So on Sundays after Mass they drank milkshakes at breakfast and Abigail ate her pancakes with extra syrup and laughed with her mother.
Abigail liked to think that her father took her mother’s laugh with him to heaven, to keep him company while he adjusted to his new home, and would return it soon.
Here we are, her mother said, slowing the car down and pulling into the church lot. She came to a stop near the front steps, where Abigail’s friends Elaine and Wendie were sitting. Hers mother waved at them, and the two girls smiled and waved back.
Abigail joined her friends on the steps. They watched the sunset and told each other what they planned on saying in confession.
I was mean to my mom last week, Wendie said. I also swore at my brother, I’m going to confess to that.
Oh, me too, Elaine added, I’m saying that too.
They lined up for confession at the beginning of each class. Every week Abigail planned what she would say in her head before she went inside. She would go over it again and again before it was her turn. But she would always get so nervous when the priest began to speak she would blurt out that she had forgotten to do her math homework, even though she never forgot to do her math homework. After a long pause he would ask her if she had anything else she would like to say, and her heart would flutter and her cheeks burned so fiercely she would quickly say no and walk out before he had a chance to respond.
She always felt bad later, but told herself she would just have to remember to ask God to forgive her next time for forgetting her confessions.
The girls headed inside prepared with their list of sins. But this Tuesday they skipped confession. Sister Theresa directed them all into the classroom in the basement of the church. Desks were arranged in rows facing a chalkboard in the front with a crucifix hanging above it. There were about ten students total, including Abigail, Wendie, and Elaine, led by Sister Theresa.
Sister Theresa’s voice was deep like a man’s, and she was very old. She wore large, circular glasses that took up most of her wrinkled face, and she walked with a cane. Her stiff joints made her look contorted like a pretzel. She had been a nun for over fifty years. She often confused the students with her past students and wasn’t always quite sure what year it was. Sister Theresa liked to tell the class a story about how she met the pope over and over again. No one had the nerve to correct her.
Abigail liked Sister Theresa because she was doing God’s work and cared about them. When her father died, she had made lasagna for Abigail and her mother and visited them at their home. Her mother and Sister Theresa sat in the kitchen while Abigail hid in the hallway and peeked in at them. Sister Theresa had her claw-like hand gripping Abigail’s mother’s soft hand as she sobbed. At one point, Sister Theresa had looked up and into Abigail’s eyes. Abigail froze. Neither of them made any movement or said anything. Sister Theresa nodded slightly and returned her attention to Abigail’s mother.
It hadn’t lasted more than a few seconds, but they had shared a moment, and Abigail wouldn’t forget it.
It was before she ate a slice of that lasagna that Abigail prayed to her father for the first time—she told him she missed him and she loved him and she would take care of Mom the best she could. Abigail loved that lasagna and was still working up the courage to ask Sister Theresa if she would make it for her upcoming thirteenth birthday.
After they were shuffled into the classroom, Abigail and her friends sat in their seats in the back row.
I wonder what’s going on, Elaine whispered, as their classmates filed in.
Abigail shrugged, looking around the room. Her eyes stopped at a man who had suddenly appeared next to Sister Theresa. He was saying something, and Sister Theresa was laughing—Abigail had never seen the sister smile, let alone laugh before. The man looked over at Abigail and winked. Embarrassed, she crossed her arms and turned her head quickly toward the front of the classroom.
When everyone was seated, Sister Theresa stood in the front of the room and explained that because they were getting confirmed soon, the church had brought in a speaker to tell them his story.
Mr. Robert Kellan, Sister Theresa explained, is a motivational speaker who gives talks at churches around the country. He has recently moved to the area with his wife and children and they have quickly become active members in the community. The girls should all be thankful that he volunteered to speak with them. Abigail, Wendie and Elaine sat quietly, looking at one another through the corner of their eyes with eyebrows raised.
Listen very carefully, Sister Theresa said, her eyes sharply darted from student to student.
Robert Kellan was a heavy man wearing an orange polo tucked tightly into his dark jeans. He stood near the door twirling his mustache hairs with his index finger. He waved to the class and dragged a chair to front of the classroom, so he could sit and face everyone else.
He began by introducing himself, explaining that he didn’t grow up in a religious family, but that God had saved him and he wanted to share his story with each and every one of them. Abigail liked his accent, the way the he drawled out his words, and his voice was soft and somewhat soothing.
Robert Kellan pulled out a set of rosary beads from his back pocket. The beads were gold and shiny, and reminded Abigail of her father’s wedding band. His band was in the first drawer in her mother’s jewelry box. Sometimes Abigail would sneak into her room and take it out and put the band on her thumb and stare at it. It was smooth and Abigail liked the way it felt on her skin when she spun it around and around.
Robert Kellan began rubbing the beads between his fingers.
I was sixteen the first time I drank alcohol, he said, not looking up from the beads. My father was abusive, and when he drank he’d hit my mom and my sister and sometimes me. I wish I could say I did something, or at least tried to, but I just felt useless. I started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and it didn’t take long for me to drop out of school and move out, to get away from him. But in trying to escape my father, I abandoned my sister and mother, and that always stayed with me.
I travelled, worked different jobs here and there, but I couldn’t keep up, my drinking got worse and well, I got desperate and decided to rob a convenience store for some quick cash. I needed the money and well, of course I was caught.
The charges weren’t serious, but my sister had to bail me out of jail. I had no one else to call, but I hadn’t seen her in years. I was in my mid-20’s at this point. My sister was older, had married a nice guy she met in college. She converted and started going to church with him, said it helped and told me I should too. I didn’t want to, I thought the whole thing was a load of crap, to be honest, but she gave me a set of rosary beads—he looked down at his hands again—and told me to pray one Our Father and ten Hail Mary’s every day for thirty days. She said give it a month, Robbie, just a month, and I promise you something amazing will happen.
I took the beads, shoved them in my jacket pocket and said thanks, and left. I continued on my way. Doing dead-end jobs, barely getting by, I stayed in touch with my sister, lied, told her I was doing well at work. She didn’t ask me about the beads again, and I had forgotten about them.
One night, I was walking down the street, and I was really down, considering doing something drastic. My life, I felt, was just a disaster, and I walked by this beautiful church. It’s dark out, but the church is just—there are no words to describe the beauty. It was glowing, a light in all that darkness, and something compelled me to go in. I just knew I had to. I walked inside. It was empty and I sat down in the back. I stared at the crucifix for a few minutes, thinking about how my life had turned out, and I reached into my pockets and there were the beads.
I took them out, and I did what my sister told me. I prayed. Our Father, Hail Mary, over and over. And I did it the next day, and the next, and continued praying, waiting for something—anything—to happen.
At this point, he paused and looked around the room. Everyone was silent, listening intently, waiting. His eyes stopped at Abigail. Chewing on her bottom lip, she leaned forward. He smiled at her, and then continued.
And nothing happened. Twenty days go by. I went to that church everyday, I did what my sister said, and nothing happened. So I called her, explained the situation, and she says to me, don’t stop now, Robbie.
So I didn’t. After we got off the phone I went to the church and I did it again. I went to bed that night and the next morning, I look over at my nightstand, and one of the beads has turned gold.
Abigail looked down at his hands. He was clutching the beads with both hands now, his fingers turning white from holding them so tightly.
Pure gold. And the next day, the next bead turned gold, and the next, well, you can see, he opened his palms, unveiling the pure gold set of beads.
I call my sister and she tells me, God is speaking to you, Robbie. He is calling on you! And at that moment, I look out my window, and in the sky I see a beautiful cloud, shaped like a cross, and I knew, I just knew.
He saved me. I got my act together, got a job. Eventually met my wife, and ever since, I’ve been telling my story. And now here I am. I want to say I’ve felt so welcome since I’ve moved here, and have met so many wonderful people, and you guys are about to get confirmed, you are making a huge step in your lives, strengthening your bond to God and becoming active members of the community. You should all be proud of yourselves.
Abigail looked at Sister Theresa, who was smiling at Robert Kellan and nodding like a bobble head.
She looks silly when she smiles, Abigail thought, feeling embarrassed for the old woman as she watched her head go up and down up and down up and down.
Robert Kellan continued in his drawled out voice, slow and gooey: I don’t want you to take away from this that you are going to pray and your rosary beads will turn gold. That wasn’t the miracle, now was it?
He scanned their faces. Abigail looked at Wendie, wondering if they were supposed to answer the question.
The miracle was finding out that I wasn’t alone. None of us are.
He stood up and put the rosary beads back in his pocket. At this point Sister Theresa walked to the front of the classroom. Shaking Robert Kellan’s hand, she asked if anyone had any questions.
Abigail looked around, and noticed a boy in the front making an O with his mouth.
People asked to see the beads, and Robert Kellan happily obliged, laughing as he let students feel them as they exited the room.
Good luck with your confirmation, he kept repeating, you are all very lucky!
Wendie and Elaine both went up to touch them, but Abigail hid in their shadows, trailing behind them as they left the classroom giggling.
He was holding them—those were the beads!
I saw! So cool.
The girls’ mothers were outside waiting, waving. They said goodbye to Abigail. She sat down on the steps and watched as cars came and went, and the parking lot grew empty. She was the last one left, sitting there in the dark. The silence made her feel uneasy.
You okay, honey? Abigail stood quickly as Robert Kellan approached her, an unlit cigarette in his hand. His shirt was un-tucked now, and it hung over his big belly like a tent.
My mom is on her way, Abigail replied quickly, scanning the parking lot.
Okay, then, he said, lighting his cigarette and inhaling deeply.
Abigail looked at him from the corner of her eye.
Is all of that true? She asked quietly, what you said in there?
He didn’t reply for a few moments, and instead, took another puff on his cigarette, sighing heavily.
Couple months ago, I gave the same speech to a church full of people. All adults, old ladies, mostly. I told my story, and after, there was a little reception where everyone brought food and ate some breakfast and drank juice. It was a weekly thing they did, a tight-knit group these folks were, and I joined, real nice way to spend a Sunday. I’m sitting there sipping my orange juice and a woman walks up to me, plastic rosary beads in hand and throws ‘em in my face.
Not as nice as all you kiddies, that’s for sure. He looked down at Abigail, and although she was staring straight ahead, away from him, they both knew she was listening.
Here’s your miracle, this woman says to me. They did nothing. They aren’t gold. I took the beads in my hand and I told her, you want a miracle? You can see me right now, that’s a miracle. You can hear me, those ears, a miracle. You have hands—cigarette dangling from his lips, he lifted his hands in the air and shook them—and that’s a miracle. Miracles happen everyday, we just don’t appreciate them. She stared at me, dumbfounded. At that point everyone was watching us. She said she was sorry, that I was right. And when I opened my hands those plastic beads were gold.
Abigail looked up at him at this point, eyes sharp, her mouth forming a tight line.
And then we looked around at everyone, and we watched as every single person’s rosary beads turned gold. Right in front of our eyes.
She watched him carefully as he dropped his cigarette on the ground and put it out with the back of his heel. He looked at her, a smirk playing on his face. Miracle, he repeated, his tone harsh and low now, causing her stomach to drop.
Abigail turned her head away, pretending she was looking for the headlights of her mother’s car so he wouldn’t see her blinking back tears.
You sure you have a ride, honey? He asked again, his voice soft and syrupy like honey now. Leaning down so they were eye level, he put one hand on his knee and another on her shoulder. I have a car parked out back, I could—
She’s here, Abigail exclaimed, stepping forward quickly as if a jolt of lightning had hit her. She waved frantically as the headlights grew bigger and bigger until they almost blinded her, but she didn’t move for fear her mother wouldn’t see her, would loop around the parking lot and leave her there.
When the car stopped, she looked back, but Robert Kellan had walked away. She quickly hopped into the backseat. Her mother asked how it went, and Abigail said good as she leaned her forehead against the car window and closed her eyes.
What did you do?
Went to confession. Talked about our Confirmation sponsors. And I don’t know, the usual stuff, Abigail replied. Can we go? I have a lot of homework.
Abigail thought about Robert Kellan and his gold rosary the following Sunday. As she stood up and began making her way toward the front of the church to receive communion, she felt a shiver trickle down her spine as the image of him, cigarette between his lips, hands waving, popped into her mind. A miracle, he had said, a miracle, a miracle.
Where was her father’s miracle?
The question ate at her, slowly gnawing away from the inside out until she eventually allowed other questions to seep in and take a bite—would her mother’s laugh ever come back? If she wasn’t alone, why did she feel lonely? And if her father was really in heaven and could hear her when she talked to him, why didn’t he talk back?
Abigail received the Eucharist, accepted the sacrament, put the body of Christ in her mouth. She wondered why she had never noticed it tasted like cardboard before, dry and stale. She swallowed it whole before returning to her pew.
Victoria Provazza is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, where she serves as the Managing Editor for the literary journal, LUMINA. She is working on a collection of linked stories.