Carolyn Oliver

Covalent Bonds

As a rule, Sister Agatha arrived three minutes early to any appointment, earthly or divine. Her promptitude never wavered, except when she started using a walker. Then she was five minutes early.

The armless chairs outside Principal Etten’s inner sanctum were simultaneously spindly and too deep. A twinge of arthritis pain—more than a twinge, she grudgingly admitted to herself, in the spirit of truthfulness—ran through her fist as she gripped her rosary tight, anticipating the effort that would be required to stand up.

Danielle and her parents were already inside, and here came Tyler and his father, stomping their slushy tennis shoes over the just-polished floors. The boy looked slightly diminished with his tie done properly and his top button fastened. The glasses were overkill.

Inside, Principal Etten made a great show of giving her a comfortable seat on the plaid sofa, which left the parents standing like sentries behind the two teenagers in chairs. Danielle had evidently unrolled the waistband of her skirt—it hit at her knees now.

“Sister Agatha, I believe Tyler and Danielle are students in your 11 Honors Chemistry class?” said the principal.

Obviously. “Yes.”

He fiddled with some files on the desk before he realized she wasn’t going to elaborate. “And I understand there was some kind of kerfuffle yesterday?”

“A disruption to my lesson on covalent bonds, yes.”

“Could you tell us about that?”

He’d sat in on the same lesson two years ago, checking his watch every few minutes, confident she wouldn’t notice. His confidence was misplaced. “Covalent bonds are molecular bonds—two atoms sharing a pair of electrons. For example—”

His dropped his surely-we-can-clear-up-this-misunderstanding tone. “I’m sorry, Sister. I meant, could you tell us what happened with Ms. Watson and Mr. Vander here?”

What happened was this: she’d turned to the board to draw a simple diagram of methane—how she loved all the colors chalk came in now—heard a crack and a scuffle. Always a few students found it hilarious to demonstrate sources of methane. She turned slowly, careful not to tweak her back. Danielle stood over Tyler’s desk. When she stepped aside, the boy was hunched over, his hands covering his nose, beginning to blurble curses through the blood. She sent him to Sister Felicity, and Danielle to her own office, not the principal’s.

Black nail polish, seven earrings, six inches of thigh visible below her hem. Nothing ever changed.

“Did he touch you?” she asked, hoping to startle the truth out with her abruptness. She was aware of what the students called her. Stickler, years ago. Bitch, more recently. Demon pride, it was, how she felt about her reputation for exactitude.

Danielle said, her voice soft but underlaid with flint, “He snapped my bra. He said things.”

She imagined that the girl would not want to repeat those things to a nun. But she’d been a girl too, once, and Victor Evans had told the entire eighth grade she’d agreed to meet him behind the church for—

Best not to remember that. Ruminating was no good for the soul.

“Ah. Well, best to put it out of your mind. Remember to get the notes from the rest of the lesson. Your friend Graciela was paying attention. Here’s a pass for your next class. US History?”

Danielle nodded, too surprised by her brisk, consequenceless dismissal to say more.

Sister Agatha returned to the present, addressing herself to the slight sheen on Principal Etten’s forehead. “It is my understanding that Danielle acted in self defense.”

“I didn’t touch her!”

The principal made a placating gesture toward Tyler and his father, who’d opened his mouth. “And you actually saw Tyler”—a pause as he searched for a verb, came up with the wrong one—“accost Ms. Watson, Sister Agatha?”

She could see it, the twitch of the boy’s cheek as he tried not to smile. 

Confession tomorrow morning at eight. If she managed to get up from this sofa. If the good Lord in his mercy granted her one more day. 

Carolyn Oliver’s very short prose and prose poetry has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Indiana Review, Tin House Online, and New Flash Fiction Review, among other journals. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net in both fiction and poetry. Carolyn lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she serves as co-editor of The Worcester Review. Visit her website to read more of her work.