St. Bridget’s liked to wring the creativity out of its students. It began with clothing; dulling flannels and embroidery down to grey skirts and white button down shirts. Then, the professors reprimanded fiction. The girls were allowed it, of course, but the disappointed scowls that the professors gave shamed them into reaching for the only thing that earned them validation––the word of God.
Every night, Joanne began again. She never repeated a place or character yet always had full stories, bursting with detail, at the ready for her friends. The girls didn’t get much entertainment besides Mrs. Phuller’s class, when the teacher’s arms shook, lips thinned, and veins popped as she reprimanded them for falling asleep in her class. And even that wasn’t fulfilling anymore.
“When the last bell rings, go to sleep! You’d get a full eight hours if you do! Why are you wasting such time? What could you possibly be doing?” This was, as always, met with silence and guilty eyes. Joanne shifted in her seat.
“No, really, what?” Her eyebrows shot up, making her forehead wrinkle deeper.
Joanne sat up straight. “Nothing, Mrs. Phuller. We-we just had a lot of work.” The girls nodded.
“You’re telling me that every night, you’re up so late doing work? Lily, is this true?”
Joanne closed her eyes. Lily picked at a thread in her grey skirt. “Yes. Yes, ma’am, it’s true. We started… We started editing each other’s papers. It takes a while, you see, ma’am.”
“Alright. I suppose that’s fine,” Mrs. Phuller said, although she pursed her lips.
The girls let out their collectively held breath, and the tension melted out of the open door.
Of course, after the last bell rang, they huddled on Joanne’s bed until it dipped dangerously low to the ground, every girl attentive and ready to listen. The tales were always captivating––you could hear subtle gasps and see grasping fingers at every carefully crafted sentence. Some liked to close their eyes; not to sleep, no, but to immerse themselves within the new molded worlds.
Joanne never liked Lily. Lily was all clouds and flowers and pastels, and her friends were like sunflowers, turning to follow her and reaching to get a bit closer. All of the professors preferred Lily for her sharp remarks, perfect posture and well-timed praise of the bible, and Lily knew that. She wasn’t manipulative, she simply said the right things at the right time. The teachers liked Joanne, too, but their affection projected sympathy and concern. Until quite recently, all Joanne had was the smooth, velvety quiet of night when everyone, even Lily and her sunflowers, seemed transfixed by her. Over time, however, the girls began to talk to Joanne during the day. It began with a courteous nod, acknowledging the previous night, and progressed into classroom chatter. With every passing night, the girls drifted closer towards Joanne. It was as if her stories lingered and they weren’t quite ready to let go. But even then, Lily tried to keep her head above the water.
The moon cast a milky glow and the stars were muffled by clouds. After a long day of the sharp autumn air, the dull voices of professors, and simple monotony, the girls were once again anxious to immerse themselves in a world that wasn’t their own. After the last bell, they huddled on Joanne’s bed and waited with bated breath. Joanne took her time. She simply looked at each girl in turn, like she was searching for something. She lingered on Lily’s until Lily averted her eyes.
Each girl held Joanne’s gaze until she found what she was looking for and finally closed her eyes. Words immediately came pouring out. It was as if she could see a world and was surrounding them with it, trying to pull them in as well. Everyone was holding their breath––the tension was building and building, the girl’s hearts beating so strongly that their bodies seemed to sway with the ocean’s tides. Lily was still.
The sun crawled into the sky while Lily deflated at her desk. Mrs. Phuller was already writing something on the chalkboard when Joanne and a few others shuffled in. The class went by completely muffled and blurred. Everyone was still encapsulated in last night’s story and still slightly swayed with its rhythm. Mrs. Phuller noticed something was wrong––the girls didn’t just look tired, they looked vacant and foggy-eyed. Lily, however, simply looked tired. As the classroom was slowly emptying, Mrs. Phuller pulled Lily aside.
“What’s gotten into all of you lately?” Asked Mrs. Phuller. Her voice was softer than usual.
“Oh, nothing, ma’am.” Lily tucked some hair that had fallen out of her ponytail behind her ear.
“Is that so?”
“Oh, I’m not as dumb as you kids think.”
“Ma’am, we don’t-”
“Oh, yes you do! I see those… those smirks behind my back!”
“Ma’am, we didn’t mea-”
“Listen to me closely, young lady. I used to be your age, if you can believe it, and I know some things you girls like to get up to. I need you to tell me what’s been going on so–so I can know you’re safe!” Mrs. Phuller sat down at her desk expectantly. Lily sighed.
“We’re all safe, don’t wor-”
“If you don’t tell me, I’m afraid I’ll have to call your parents and tell them you’re causing trouble.” Mrs. Phuller said and she clasped her thin hands together. Lily’s eyes widened.
“I can’t tell you!” Lily’s voice shook while Mrs. Phuller slowly leaned back in her chair.
“Why, might I ask, are you less affected by… whatever this is,” she waved her hand in the air, “than the other girls? And… Oh, I don’t know if it’s my place…”
“What is it, ma’am?” Lily’s palms were sweaty.
“What happened to pull Joanne out of her shell so quickly? And, and the girls seem to… gravitate towards her now.”
“Oh, I know, ma’am. My friends, they like Joanne a lot. N-Now. They still like me, of course, but Joanne’s new- uh, nevermind.”
“What? Joanne’s new what?” Mrs. Phuller was leaning forward, “You know, if you tell me now, I won’t say anything to your parents.”
“Fine!” Lily groaned, “Fine, but you can’t tell them I told yo- I mean, please don’t tell the other girls I told you, ma’am.”
“I won’t. Now, what’s been going on?”
The sun set deeply that night. The wind blew daggers into Lily’s eyes as she shuffled back to her dorm. She opened the door, the gust of warm air making her hands tingle. She watched with glassy eyes as the girls huddled on Joanne’s bed. Lily jumped as the springs creaked. No one spoke a word, they all simply shifted around and began to even their breathing. Their chests seemed to rise and fall in sync with one another. Lily perched on the edge of the bed, smoothed down her skirt, and waited. Her words began tentatively. They reached the edges of her lips and drifted down, like bubbles, to pop and leave the air thicker than before. Soon the girls became foggy-eyed and calm. Lily’s stomach was foaming and churning. Joanne moved along, her sentences trains on a track, gushing with steam, hurtling and twisting and pulling others along for the ride.
The door flew open. Joanne’s head snapped towards the noise, her eyes wide. None of the other girls noticed, they looked as though they were asleep. Lily kept her head down and picked at a thread in her grey skirt.
“Homework.” Mrs. Phuller said.
“O-oh, well, we took a break,” Joanne said, standing up.
“I see that. Stories, yes? Quite impressive, indeed. They seem to have… captivated,” she glanced at the sleeping girls, “your friends. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“What?” Joanne’s eyebrows wrinkled together.
“Look at them,” Mrs. Phuller inclined her head.
Joanne looked around, eyes widening as she swept them across every girl’s face. Then she looked at Lily, who slowly lifted her head.
“Come with me,” Mrs. Phuller said, and she began to walk out of the room.
“Wait!” Joanne stood up. “Please, I don’t know what happened!” At this, Lily stood up. Both Mrs. Phuller and Joanne stared at her, awaiting an explanation.
“Well, Joanne, you’ve been telling us these wonderful stories every night,” Lily shifted her weight into her hip.
“They’re just stories. What do they have to do with- with this?” Joanne gestured at the still sleeping girls.
“You tell me! One minute everyone thinks you’re a freak, and the next, all of my friends want to hang out with you! And for what?” Her voice wavered, “Those stories you tell every night? It’s like… It’s like they hypnotize people into liking you!” Lily folded her arms and blinked.
Joanne thought quickly.
“Ma’am, please sit down.” Joanne gestured to a desk chair. “I think I know what happened.”
“Good!” Mrs. Phuller sat down and turned to Lily. “I knew we’d get it out of her.”
“Okay. I need you guys to try to imagine this or it won’t make sense. Close your eyes.”
“Let her talk!” Mrs. Phuller snapped.
Joanne took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and began crafting. She made it realistic and told the story of how it all started. What started, she didn’t really know, but what she did know was how to build a world out of hope and desire and peppermint, and she knew how to pump life into that world, making characters out of marble with her own bare hands. She waded through the story, describing the way her footsteps sounded that morning as she walked through the halls, and how her teeth had been cold from the milk in her cereal. She told about the ice in her teacher’s gaze and the agonizing monotony of grey and Christianity. And by the time Joanne began to tell about what happened at the last bell, Mrs. Phuller’s eyelids had drooped over her foggy eyes. Lily looked incredulous.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Joanne went over to her shelves and began to fold her clothes.
“Where are you going?!”
“I don’t know! Away. I don’t know.” Joanne pulled a suitcase from under her bed.
“But, you can’t just leav-”
“I- I just did that on purpose!” Joanne threw a number of various items into her bag and zipped it. “Something’s wrong with me. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Lily’s face was streaked with tears. As Joanne left the room, Lily sunk to her knees, wailing, “What have you done?! Come back!! Joanne?! Where are you going? You can’t just leave them like this!!”
St. Bridget’s had finally wrung all the creativity out of its students.