Following is an excerpt from Lynn Sloan’s forthcoming novel Principles of Navigation, posted by permission of Fomite. © 2015 by Lynn Sloan.
In an hour Alice would know. Breathless, shaky, wishing she could stop time so the possibility that she was pregnant wouldn’t be snatched away, she paused half a block from the office of the Haslett Herald Weekly and tried to locate the faint clicking deep inside her, more felt than heard. The sound of her body changing? She strained to listen, but all she was certain of was the wind in the awnings. Across the street, in the town square, workers dismantled the nativity, and on the lamppost in the front of the Herald’s office, a man stood at the top of a ladder, taking down ancient tinsel garlands. From her purse she pulled Patricia’s postcard with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Looking at the Virgin’s merry face always calmed her. She kissed the card and tucked it back in her purse, then wrestled open the door to the Herald.
“Bitter out there,” she said to Fritzie Janke, who sat at her desk behind the counter that divided the reception area from the working space. Alice blinked in the glare of the new fluorescent lights that Barry had installed in response to Fritzie’s complaints. Barry did pretty much as Fritzie asked. Fritzie had worked for the Herald since Barry’s father had been the editor, and she knew where every file, every photo, every scrap of paper could be found.
Alice swung up the panel in the reception counter to enter the workspace. Behind Fritzie’s desk were two long worktables and rows of file cabinets topped with Little League and bowling trophies from teams the Herald had sponsored over the years. The back three doors guarded a drafty bathroom, the furnace room, and the stairs to the second floor where Alice’s cubicle sat outside Barry’s office. In its heyday when it was the only newspaper in this part of the state, the Herald employed three reporters.
Fritzie poured Alice a cup of coffee, without bothering to ask. Behind her pink-tinted lenses, she looked weary, and her pre-Christmas perm had lost its snap. “Try this. It’s the good coffee. Weren’t you going to the county board meeting?”
“No coffee for me.” Not if she were pregnant. “And unbelievable, the meeting started on time, and ended early. I thought I’d stop in before heading out again.” Dr. Petrillo’s. Fighting a spasm of nerves, she stared at a new snapshot of a little kid in a snowsuit taped to Fritzie’s desk lamp. Fritzie treated the office like her living room.
“Cute kid,” Alice said.
Wondering if Donnie was Fritzie’s nephew or her great-nephew, Alice glanced at the messages Fritzie handed her. “What’s this? ‘Interview visionary. God’.”
Fritzie tapped a cigarette from her pack. “Barry got a call from some farmer. Seems there’s a girl who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary, out west of here.” She patted the papers on top of her desk. “Here’s the name, address, phone. Girl’s a senior in the high school. Go see if it’s a hoax.”
“Either that or weed behind the barn.”
Heidi Fender was the girl’s name. Fritzie snorted, and Alice crossed her arms and intoned, “A high school senior on her family’s farm in the county reports seeing the Virgin, eight months before the arrival of the millennium. Could this be millennial madness or . . . a bible-thumping nut? A Nostradamus believer? A hallucinating junkie? A fifteen-minutes-of-fame seeker?”
Fritzie laughed and offered Alice a donut, which she declined.
“Mrs. Becotte, I’ve got good news. You’re going to have a baby.”
After a blood test, urine sample, and quick exam, she was sitting in Dr. Petrillo’s office, facing him across his wide desk with a forest of family photos. He asked again for the date of her last period. What else had he said that she’d missed? Her brain wasn’t working. “You’re five weeks pregnant. So, adding 14 days, because this is your first, August thirteenth, that’s your due date.”
“Please not the thirteenth.” She knew she sounded foolish, superstitious.
He gave her a look, but said, “We’ll make it the twelfth then. We’ll know better in a month or so. I’d like to see you regularly, once a month, and you can go about as you usually do.” He gave her a prescription for vitamins and a handful of pamphlets and told her to eat normally, a sensible diet, expect a moderate weight gain, nothing big, and avoid alcohol.
“I feel silly. I’m so happy,” she bumbled. Her mouth hurt from smiling.
“Relax and enjoy this.”
Her purse clattered to the floor when she leaned across the desk to kiss him.
“Thank you, Doctor. Thank you.”
He laughed. “Nothing to thank me for. Thank your husband.”
At the pay phone in the lobby, she picked up the receiver to call Rolly, then put it back. Not over the phone. This had to be in person.
Not quite believing the good news, she ate a slow lunch in the medical center’s coffee shop and read the pamphlets Dr. Petrillo had give her, remembering nothing. She imagined a baby, small and light, was growing inside her. Images flowed into one another—of white blankets enfolding, wisps of hair dark, like Rolly’s, or curls, like hers, and flower bud fingers.
In less time than she’d expected, she reached the address Fritzie had given her. The Herald’s yellow plastic cylinder was attached to the mailbox at the end of a long, potholed driveway. She parked next to a sawed-off tree stump that probably held a planter in the summer, and looked at the dingy house hunkered beside a line of spruces planted too close, maybe forty years ago. No bathtub Madonnas, no concrete saints, no hand-lettered “repent” signs.
A middle-aged woman with fallen cheeks and a tight ponytail stared at her through the storm door.
“Hello. I’m Alice Becotte, from the paper.”
The woman didn’t move. Alice showed her press ID and the woman waved her into a cold living room where an ugly, stiff brown couch faced two matching armchairs. “That reporter’s here,” she shouted, then left Alice alone.
Above an old TV hung an oily crucifix with palm fronds from last Palm Sunday, almost a year ago. Overhead a board squeaked. Alice waited, her eyes on the stairs beyond the archway. Black cowboy boots appeared, then a long expanse of bare legs under a tight black miniskirt. Lots of silver jewelry, bleached, spiky hair, and heavy eye makeup.
“Heidi?” Alice said. The girl had to be a drama queen. “I’m Alice Becotte.”
“I’ve seen your name in the paper.” The girl raised her hand to her mouth and bit the skin around a black-painted nail. “That series on foster kids who get screwed up. That article on drownings in the old quarry.” Her washed-out blue eyes finally met Alice’s.
Alice said, “I’d like to learn about what you’ve been through. Can you tell me about it?”
“I guess so.” Her eyes flicked toward the back of the house where the woman, the mother, must have gone.
Alice reached for her notebook and began to sit down.
The girl said, “I’ll get my jacket.”
Outside, wind tunneled up Alice’s sleeves, and the zippers on the girl’s too-big black leather jacket clattered like wind chimes. They started off across the frozen field, the girl leading but saying nothing.
Alice was eager to get this interview moving and done with. She wanted to be alone in her own home. She wanted to concentrate on being pregnant.
“If you didn’t feel well enough to go to school, should you be out here?”
The girl stopped. They were in the middle of a frozen field with corn stubble rising from the ridges.
“I don’t feel sick now.” She kicked a stone. The soles of her black cowboy boots were clotted with mud. “I didn’t want to talk in the house. Mom listens to everything. She can’t decide.”
“Whether it’s real.”
“Natural to doubt, don’t you think?”
From under mascara-laden eyelashes, the girl stared at her, flat-eyed. “I don’t lie.”
This girl looked made for lying. “But she thinks you . . . might?” Alice said.
“That’s her problem.”
Birds broke from some bushes along the field’s edge.
Alice thought about the crucifix and the withered palm fronds. “You’re Catholic?”
“Sort of. I mean, they are, my parents. I’m not sure. Wasn’t sure.”
“Do you believe in miracles?” the girl asked.
Alice thought of her postcard Virgin. “I might.”
The girl pointed and they walked toward a clump of trees. “That’s where she comes.”
Alice took out her notebook. “When did you first see her?”
“October twelfth, I remember. Dad hadn’t harvested these fields yet. Before the corn is cut, no one can see you if you sit down here.”
Standing within the stand of scrubby trees, Alice scanned the flat horizon broken only by the Fenders’ house and their unpainted barn. Would this soul-crushing place induce visions? Or was the girl making this up? Or smoking pot? Probably not meth. No twitchiness or the red eyes.
“What were you doing, when you first . . . ?”
“Sitting here on this rock.” Next to the flat rock, twisted pop cans protruded from a leftover crust of snow.
“Tell me what you saw.”
“The first time I was just hanging out, and I sensed someone close. I was alone. Everybody had gone to town. I hadn’t heard anyone come up, you know, through the corn. And I would have. I looked around and saw her out of the corner of my eye. But when I tried to look right at her, she kept moving, always off to the side. I knew right away who she was though. She was so beautiful and so . . . I guess, peaceful.”
The girl was telling the truth or what she believed was the truth. Alice felt like an intruder.
The girl went on, the wind snatching away some of her words. “Wears . . . a blue . . . you know, like in . . . pictures.” Alice strained to hear. “Her face, I knew it was her, but her face was so faint . . . I couldn’t see . . . just the glow.”
From the corner of her eye, Alice saw the girl’s lips draw together, as if she was working something out, then she turned to Alice. “You’re going to have a baby.”
Softness spread through Alice. “How do you know?”
The girl didn’t respond. She gazed up, her eyes reflecting the churning sky.
“How do you know?”
Turbulence filled the space between them. Alice felt as if she were pinned between the barren sky above and the scoured, frozen ground, and her flesh had become porous, the thinnest of filters for the wind to stream through. All that anchored her was an impossibly small weight, the baby.
“Did she tell you?” she whispered.
“I just knew.”
Afraid to press, Alice bent to snap off some dried weeds, waiting for more, wanting more.
Near her shoulder, the girl’s boot dislodged a stone. “She never says anything, so far, anyway. She’s not here now, or you would have seen her.”
Alice looked at the Fenders’ house. A wisp of smoke rose from the chimney.
“I’ve seen her now four times,” the girl said. “After that first time, I saw her a week later, here again. Then it was December second, I saw her down by the creek.” Alice followed her gaze to a curving line, maybe a quarter mile away. “Then on December twentieth, I saw her near the barn.” She turned to face Alice. Her eyebrows were pinched. “I try to hold on to her, but I can’t. Do you understand?”
Alice did, although she couldn’t have said exactly what it was that she understood.
“Once I felt her touch on my hand. It was tingly-like, and it spread through me and it made me feel . . . I can’t describe it.”
“Do you have any idea why she’s come to you?”
The girl’s eyes looked bright, as if she might cry. “No. Not yet, no. But I think . . . she’ll show me.” She lifted her face to the sky, her mascaraed eyelashes trembling. “Let’s go back.”
At the house, a curtain moved. Alice thought about the girl going into that grim house. They began to walk.
“If there’s anything I can do,” Alice said, not knowing what she meant. “Or if there’s anything else you remember.” She handed the girl her card.
The girl tucked it in a pocket, then reached for Alice’s right hand. With her index finger, capped by a black-painted nail, she drew a circle on Alice’s palm. “Baby,” she said, cupping Alice’s fingers within her own. Lynn Sloan’s work has appeared in Ascent, American Literary Review, Connecticut Review, Hawai’i Review, Inkwell, The Literary Review, Nimrod, Puerto del Sol, The Briar Cliff Review, American Fiction Volume 13, Roanoke Review, Thin Air, and The Worcester Review, among other journals. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and been finalists for the Dana Award, the Katherine Anne Porter prize, and the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition. A visual artist, Sloan’s fine art photographs have been widely exhibited and collected by museums, galleries, and private collections in the United States and abroad. She received her Master of Science from the Institute of Design and taught at Columbia College of Chicago. She lives in Evanston, Illinois. Visit her at http://www.lynnsloan.com. Homepage photo credit: Andrew Coulter Enright via photopin cc Baby feet photo credit: dogwatcher via photopin cc Tree Stump photo credit: Aah-Yeah via photopin cc