A Short Story by Charles Booth
In the summer of 1988, when Jake Asher was twelve, his mother traveled all the way to Yugoslavia to meet the Virgin Mary. She returned a week later, heartbroken. The Mother of God was nowhere to be found, only tourists and peddlers of holy relics.
Mrs. Asher had been filled with a giddy, child-like joy when she arranged to visit the small town of Medjugorje, where the Virgin Mary was said to be vacationing in those days. It was as if the dark spell cast by her husband’s suicide a year earlier had finally lifted.
“I’ve been praying so long for this, Jake,” she said, holding his hands to her chest. It surprised him how fast her heart was beating. “It’ll be wonderful. Just wonderful.”
But when she returned, all the pain of the last twelve months fell heavier upon her shoulders, causing Mrs. Asher to slouch as she shuffled up to her bedroom. Jake’s grandmother, who had stayed with him during his mother’s absence, kept her own head down as she packed her suitcase. She left without a word, hesitating only briefly at the front door before getting in her car and driving the 12 hours back to her home in Louisiana.
That night, Jake tucked his mother into bed, noticing as he brought the sheet up to her chin a few bald spots in her normally long, blond hair. Her face looked older, thinner, than when she’d left, her voice deeper, but the strangest change came when Jake tried to hand her the rosary for her nightly prayers.
“No,” she said, turning over and groaning. “Not tonight.”
She had said a rosary every night since his father died, and when she finished, she fingered the beads dreamily and whispered how nice it would be to meet the Virgin Mary, like those lucky children in Fatima years ago. But the night she returned from Medjugorje, she asked Jake to leave her alone. When he shut the door, he heard it lock behind him. She stayed in her bedroom for a week. Sometimes at night, Jake heard her walking through the house scavenging food or crying out to Mary to please come save her, but during the day, everything was silent.
This being late July and the middle of summer break from school, no one suspected the depths of neglect Jake was experiencing. The boy had always been a well-behaved child, maybe a little too shy and a little too dependent on his mother–but his big, sad blue eyes were enough for most people to ignore his personal flaws. In that week inside the house without his mother’s presence, he stopped bathing and stopped brushing his teeth. He didn’t eat nearly enough, and those sad eyes gnawed their way deeper into his skull, so that they hid in little, shadowy caverns in his face.
He watched television, searched the cabinets for food and tiptoed into his father’s long-closed home office to catch a faint wisp of the lingering Brut deodorant in the air. But on most mornings and afternoons, Jake simply hid under the dining room table and, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock, let his boredom guide his hand into his underwear.
On a muggy Friday night, after he finished touching himself, Jake heard footsteps and the rustling of cloth approaching the dining room table. Expecting to see his mother, he hurried to wipe his belly dry with the elastic band of his underwear. He stood, his back aching from where he’d been hunched over, and, smoothing down his thick, oily hair, was surprised to find someone other than Mrs. Asher standing before him.
It was a girl, also about twelve years old, with brown eyes and freckles scattered across her chubby, prepubescent cheeks. She wore a white robe with a blue shawl wrapped around her head. Jake blinked his eyes tight and then squinted, trying to figure out if the Virgin Mary was really standing only a few feet from him. She didn’t waver or disappear. She remained close to him, like a statue, but it wasn’t until he smelled the sweat on her body, the dried dirt on her feet, that he realized she was real. Small pinpricks of fear tingled up his sides, and he felt as if a block of ice had lodged itself inside his chest.
Jake took a step back and pointed down the hall.
“She’s down there.” Immediately, he regretted saying this. In his terror, he confused the Virgin Mary for the Grim Reaper, and he believed he’d condemned his mother to death.
The girl took a step closer, and, before he turned his head away, he thought he saw her roll her eyes.
“I’m not here to see her,” she said.
The Virgin led him to his room, and she sat heavy on his bed, causing the springs to squeak. Her fingers carefully removed the shawl from her head, and she shook out the brown hair that fell to her shoulders.
“God, it’s burning up in here,” she said. “Why don’t you shut that window and turn on some AC?”
Jake swallowed. He kept his eyes to the ground and strained to keep his legs from shaking. His fear wasn’t from seeing a ghost, or possibly the touch of death she must possess, but rather from being so close to a girl his own age. He blushed, and when he looked in her direction, he found that he was unable to speak. The Virgin Mary, in her attempt to cool off, had removed her robe and sat on his bed in her white panties and a white tank top. Her back was to him. Her spine bulged down the middle of her shirt.
“Mom says we can’t afford to keep the air on,” he said. “My dad didn’t take care of us like he should have, so we can’t waste money.”
The Virgin Mary let out a harsh, guttural laugh that frightened Jake.
“Mom says.” She mocked his high-pitched voice. “You’re such a momma’s boy.”
Her pronouncement stunned Jake. He felt the accusation against his nose, and the pain throbbed up into his eyes. But he didn’t cry. He flushed, balled his hands into fists.
“No I’m not.”
But even he didn’t believe what he said. There was no conviction in his words, and the Virgin Mary laughed again.
“You’re helpless, Jake,” she said. She bit her fingernails as she talked and spit them on the floor. Jake watched her stand and roam around his room, picking up rosary beads and baseball gloves and tossing them aside without any care or thought about their worth.
“What’s this?” she said. She stood by the battered dresser, covered in baseball cards, and picked up a plastic toy snake. “Where’d you get this?”
“My dad bought me that.” Jake didn’t like her touching it. He wanted to grab it from her hands, but he stayed put.
“Really?” She smiled. “Where?”
“Last summer. He took me to Atlanta. We went to a Braves game and to the zoo. He bought it for me at the zoo.”
“I like it,” she said. She put the snake gently back on top of the baseball cards. “It’s the only thing in this house with any character.”
She went back to the bed and sat down. She kicked her legs, and didn’t try in the least to hide her boredom.
“So, what do you do now?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you normally do at night?”
“I go to sleep.”
Jake laughed, but stopped short because of the look she gave him.
“You mean you go to sleep with your mom,” the Virgin Mary said. “I know. I watch you.”
Jake again felt the little pinpricks of fear across his body. He didn’t like being watched. He thought about all the time he spent under the dining room table, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock.
“You lay in bed together and she rubs your hair and sometimes you draw on each other’s backs with your fingers,” she said.