A transfer student from another Catholic high school, Rose McCraig liked to talk about the sickly saints, the holy anorexics who starved themselves for God.
“St. Maria Maddalene dei Pazzi, St. Catherine of Siena, and let’s not forget St. Veronica,” she said after introducing herself at the end of first period. She riddled off each martyr like they might be familiar to us, taught with the respect they deserve in our mandatory Bible study class. The other girls managed to quietly back away from her saucer eyes and skeletal cheeks, disappearing down the hallway. Only I stuck around, rubbing the back of my notebook while she finished her lurid description of St. Veronica’s intestinal suffering and eventual death.
“Honestly,” I said when she stopped to take a breath, “it’s more of a Mary and Baby Jesus curriculum here.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her the school was one holy joke, with a balding creep for a principal and teachers who didn’t seem to have a saintly bone in their bodies. The only decent thing at the school was before first period, during the blank hour in our schedules. Zero Hour. I glanced over at the new girl’s stringy hair, her bony legs jutting out from her uniform. The high pitched bell rang through the hallway but she didn’t wince.
“What about St. Rose?” I asked her.
“Oh, she wasn’t anorexic, she was just chaste,” she replied. “Typical.”
She flipped her knobby hand in the air like she was hitting a virgin, those airy, easy things. It was the way she said it, typical, as in basic. As in, I am so beyond.
“You seem interested in true devotion,” I said.
“I am,” she said, pushing her chin up so she looked me straight in the eye. “I truly am.”
“Come one hour early tomorrow,” I told her. “Wear running shoes.”
This how I broke it down, repeating what Mrs. Diante always told us: At Zero Hour, you leapt for God and lunged for Christ, you inhaled sweet baby Jesus and exhaled the Holy Spirit. You entered the school gymnasium before first period to set a bold intention for your day, and if you are lucky, the rest of your sinful life.
On Rose’s first day, she could barely make it through the Rise and Shine sequence.
“Who’s the greatest?” Mrs. Diante said as we jogged in place, our sneakers slapping the exercise mats.
“Jesus Christ!” we shouted.
“Who’s the greatest?” Mrs. Diante said, her big palms raised high in the air.
“Us!” we shouted, louder.
Early morning sunlight trickled in from the rafters as we leapt and lunged in straight rows. Rose began to hyperventilate during the second set of Rise and Shine push ups.
“Weak,” Serena P whispered as she watched her slip around on her exercise mat.
During relay practice, the other girls avoided being her partner. She and I were paired together, the two slowest sprinters out of ten. The Asian and the Anorexic.
“So sorry,” she sputtered as she loped over the finish line towards me, looking like a white, emaciated angel flitting around the pointy orange cones.
No matter how much huffing and lifting she did, she smelled clean and she didn’t sweat. I didn’t mind sweating next to her during the holy drills, especially on mornings when I moved slower than usual, deodorant seeping from my arm pits, my shoe laces flopping around, untied. Compared to the other girls, my jumping jacks were always off, my snap backs lacked pep.
When the Rise and Shine Sequence was finally over, Praise be to God, we clapped once as a group and transitioned to our hands and knees.
“Contemplation of the soul can be found in the forearm push up,” Mrs. Diante said as she paced by the basketball hoop. Her pectorals jutted from her orange terry sweat suit, the major muscles of her arms and legs spongy under the fabric. Around her neck, she wore the whistle, welded into the shape of the cross.
I hovered over the mat and lowered myself slowly so my belly button couldn’t kiss the floor. Beside me, Teresa S did double time. Her biceps swelled up to her ears like loaves of bread. At the end of the line, Skinny Rose moved at a pace Mrs. Diante liked to call paint drying.
“C’mon, Mariah Wong,” Teresa S said, watching as my knees began to drop. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.”
I could feel the other girls looking. I poured desperate energy into my arms. I willed my stomach to tighten, pictured the activation of bun shaped muscles under my lumpy skin. They gathered around me and began the chant.
“Pow-er, pow-er, pow-er,” their words vibrated in my ears, punctuated with rhythmic whistling by Mrs. Diante. She always told us, your power lives inside, punching at the bulky spot just above her heart.
“Pow-er, pow-er, pow-er.”
The girls kept chanting until I completed the last push up, all except Rose. She collapsed onto her mat, her arms and legs jutting out like fish bones. She let out a long, desperate sigh in a pool of sweat, face down. Mrs. Diante hurried over to make sure she was still breathing.
“Some girls just don’t feel it,” Teresa S hissed to me.
Within a week, Rose’s parents decided to pay for new t-shirts for Zero Hour, in gratitude for Mrs. Diante’s attention to their daughter. Then, everyone in the class began calling her Skinny Rose.
“How do we feel? Are we not thankful?” Mrs. Diante said from her perch by the mirror, the whistle wet against her lips.
“We are thankful!” we managed to yell as we sprinted around the gym, our arms swinging at our sides.
“How do we feel? Are we not grateful?”
“We are grateful!”
“Now, let us enjoy the gift of Skinny Rose,” Mrs. Diante said.
At the end of the class, she doled out the new t-shirts, still starchy from the box. They featured a large yellow zero shaped like an angel’s halo and FEEL THE POWER across the chest. On the back, small golden hands pressed together to form a church steeple. We stood in a circle and clapped for Skinny Rose until her sunken cheeks turned scarlet. We filled the gymnasium with our noise.
On the walk home from school, I tried to maintain a slow pace next to Skinny Rose. She sat out on the rest of the Rise and Shine Sequence with an ice pack on her head, leaving me to run relay sprints alone. Still, she insisted on power walking home to keep her heart rate up. We walked fast by the stucco church on the corner and then down the side street lined with bee infested shrubs. The bees seemed to only like me. I batted them away with my hands as I walked, holding my palms out like small flippers. The Zero Hour t-shirt bunched under my arms, the Made in India tag digging into my neck. Skinny Rose extended her legs in graceful arcs, her t-shirt hanging over her body like a bag. We moved like this for several blocks.
“Break,” Skinny Rose announced, clutching her chest, right below the zero.
We paused at the turn off to her house, a bend that lead to the top of Lakehorn Hill and a custom home with a white pillar entrance. Skinny Rose leaned forward on her legs. I watched her chest rise and fall.
“Walk it off.”
The hill rose sharply, curving around private pools and gardens with fresh water ponds. She shook her head.
“Feel the power!” she shouted as she headed toward the hill, trying to pick up speed.
“Feel the power!” I responded, watching her jog up to a beautiful house and parents who truly believe they birthed an angel, their own bony living saint.
I walked the rest of the way, past the strip mall with the Get n’ Go, the Flower Basket, and Henry’s Chinese Tavern. To reach the apartment complex, I crossed a two lane highway clogged with semis and bulky men in pick up trucks. No one wanted to stop for one girl on the side of the road wearing a zero on her chest. But then I remembered the mantra. I focused on each driver, crouched over the wheel, picking their teeth, texting with their head tilted downward. I bore my eyes into them, willing them to pay attention, to recognize my power. Finally, one car saw me, an old man in a blue Chevrolet. He waved as if he knew me, as if he knew a member of the holy blessed future was jogging by him at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
“Oh girl,” my sister Ness mouthed as I closed the front door. “Hit me.” She jiggled the paper carton of week old takeout from Henry’s. Her eye shadow was smudged at the corners and she was still in her blue work scrubs.
“You wouldn’t believe the teeth today,” she said, sitting down at the table with two sets of chopsticks. “Had Dr. Mantel bill this guy extra for all the work I did on his molars.”
“You aren’t even going to heat it up?” I poked at the soggy carton of food.
“Jesus, Mariah. The microwave is behind you.”
“Don’t say Jesus like that.”
Ness pressed her lips together until they turned white. She got up and stuffed the carton in the microwave, flicked the HI button.
“So, how was your day?” she said, dropping the hot cartons onto the table. “How was sweat cult?”
I rubbed the chopsticks together and lined them up between my fingers.
“I told you, Zero Hour isn’t a cult, it’s a cultivation of Him through breath and movement.”
“A cultivation of what?”
“Endorphins,” I said, heaping noodles onto my plate. “Spiritual endorphins.”
“Right,” Ness said, glancing at the block letters on my t-shirt.
“Are you still jogging home with that anorexic girl?”
“She has a name.”
“You two seem to be getting close. I’ve been hearing things about her…condition. You know she’s been in and out of treatment before, she told the school counselor she would happily starve herself to death.”
“Well, you can’t say she’s not devoted.”
“Devoted?” Ness swiped her hand in the air, close to my face. “That girl could die. Do you want to die?”
“No,” I said, swallowing.
“Good,” Ness said. “Then eat.”
Ness shoved the food in her mouth and then got up from the table for her usual power nap.
“Oh, someone might be coming over later,” Ness said, leaning her hip against her bedroom door. “A friend.”
“Which friend?” I asked, running through the faces of pasty white men who have stopped by before. Men who would never be allowed if it wasn’t just the two of us.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I think he’s religious.”
That night I clasped my hands together on my bedspread. I wished Ness would keep her sulking face out of my personal life. I hoped Skinny Rose did not become too sickly, leaving me alone at Zero Hour. As I started to close my eyes against my pillow, my cellphone buzzed. “Goodnight and God bless!” the text message read from Skinny Rose. Does she dream of banquet halls, of platters of food she cannot eat?
“St. Veronica asked God to have her sense of taste removed so she wouldn't be tempted,” she told me once.
When I got up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, I nearly collided with Dr. Mantel, the dentist.
“Hello,” he said, standing in the dark at the kitchen sink. The door to Ness’ room gapped open.
“What great incisors you have,” he said, before retreating into her bedroom.
Ness disappeared early for her shift at the dental clinic. The dentist left his fat finger prints on a glass by the sink. I decided to walk to Zero Hour, the sun behind my back, sweat bleeding already through my t-shirt.
“Contemplation of the soul can be found in the rise n’ shine fun run,” Mrs. Diante announced as she watched me creep in late from the corner of her eye. We jogged around the gym in a lopsided circle. At the end of one lap, we are suppose to yell “Power!” and slap Mrs. Diante’s palm, waiting in the air for us like a flag. I tried running on one foot so I could tie my shoelaces.
“For shame, Mariah Wong,” Teresa S said under her breath, jutting her chin out over her swollen bicep. She ran her eyes over me, confirming my weakness, and picked up her pace. Skinny Rose was sitting in a chair in the corner of the gymnasium. I jogged over to her, breaking the circle.
“Oh, I fell on my way up the hill yesterday,” she said, “But I can still worship Him, in rest.”
She showed me the hand clenches she was doing in time to “Our God is an Awesome God,” followed by rhythmic foot tapping, one, two, one, two, and neck rotations.
“Quite good,” Mrs. Diante said, striding over.
“Wong,” she said to me, “Get back into the glorious circle.”
At the end of the fun run, Mrs. Diante instructed me to keep going. The other girls were given a ten minute stretch break, pressing their palms together over their heads, while I ran lap after lap around the length of the gymnasium.
“His Holiness just cannot stand for tardiness,” Mrs. Diante said, her voice vibrating off the rafters, cloaked in an unholy yellow light.
I poured strength into my legs. I willed the soles of my feet to stop burning. There was no chanting or whistling this time, just my uneven breathing as I drew invisible circles around the other girls. They watched me with soft eyes as I slowed down and tried to speed up again. I focused on Skinny Rose in her chair, her eyes closed, her feet barely touching the floor.
“Keep those knees to the heavens,” Mrs. Diante shouted. “To the heavens, Wong!”
At the end of Zero Hour, Mrs. Diante told me to stand aside while the others recited the Praise Unto Him, the prayer to carry them through the rest of their day.
“Late, again, Wong. Slower than usual,” she said with a grimace. “Are you certain you are ready to meet His demands? Are you cut out for the rigors of Him?”
Her whistle bobbed against the fleshy part of her chest.
“Of course,” I responded, my breath sour in my mouth. I tried to lift my jelly legs to show her how full of spirit I truly was.
The walk home with Skinny Rose took much longer than usual. She leaned over to rest against a shrub or a stop sign for the sake of her heart, doctor’s orders. My legs felt like they had been bull dozed. I knew I would be sore with the glory of Him for days.
“I don’t think it was appropriate, the way Mrs. Diante spoke to you and made you run laps,” Skinny Rose said, resting one arm against the trunk of a tree. She wavered on her feet, her face as pale as ever.
“She can be a bit strict.”
“A bit Satan-like, don’t you think?” Skinny Rose began pacing back and forth on the sidewalk. “Zero Hour should be about tolerance and forgiveness, as He demands. We should not be punished if we are devoted, if we are trying, deeply and completely, with our body, mind, and soul.”
“That’s true,” I said, watching her wobble around, her legs sticking out like tent poles. She coughed from deep in her chest, cupping her hand to her mouth.
“And,” she said, “let us not forget St. Veronica, who was denied sainthood for much too long. Some just cannot see the holiness in others.”
Her coughs turned into hacks and when she lifted her palm, it is spotted with watery patches of red. The blood dribbled down her chin as her eyes glazed over. I caught her just as she began to really fall, her eyes fluttering against her hand.
Ness was trotting out a different song when I barged into the apartment, baring the weight of Skinny Rose. “You gonna break it, girl,” she mouthed as she turned away from the refrigerator.
“Help me,” I shouted, my arms sore from stumbling past the Get n’ Go, Henry’s Chinese Tavern, and then the two lane highway with Skinny Rose. Cars stopped short in both lanes for us before screeching away.
Ness took half the weight of Skinny Rose onto her shoulder and leads us to a chair at the kitchen table. The dentist emerged from the bathroom, rubbing his hands on the sides of his khaki pants.
“Skinny goddamn Rose,” Ness said. “She looks—”
“Dead,” the dentist said.
Skinny Rose inhaled, her eyes widening, and then exhaled more blood. It splattered all over the table and the new cartons of takeout. It covered her waxen face with flecks of red.
“Get her some water,” Ness said to me. “Grab a towel from the bathroom,” she said to the dentist.
“I am light,” Skinny Rose whispered, weaving from side to side, her head dipping against her chest.
The dentist used a towel to mop up the blood on the table.
“This is just too much, Mariah, too much,” Ness said, cradling the cellphone to her ear to call an ambulance and then Skinny Rose’s parents, likely worried sick about their holy angel. I licked the edge of the towel with my mouth and bent down to wipe off the blood on Skinny Rose’s cheeks, as best I could.
I saw Skinny Rose once more, at my last Zero Hour. Ness allowed me to attend so I could turn in my t-shirt to Mrs. Diante.
“Some are not made for power,” Mrs. Diante said, the whistle cradled between her teeth. She handed the t-shirt to another girl in the circle, a new girl with long blonde, braided hair.
Skinny Rose allowed us to walk home, as she could only walk while her heart recovered.
“Does this mean you aren’t coming tomorrow morning?” Skinny Rose asked as we passed the shrubs, the swarming bees.
“Probably not,” I told her.
“You’ll be back.”
We stopped at the turn off, the hill cluttered with the awkward angles of sloped homes and shiny security fences.
“You’ll be back,” she said again. “You’re the most devoted person I know.”
She headed in one direction and then turned suddenly.
“Feel the power!” she said, her face beaming in the sun, her bones loud under her skin. I wanted to tell her she would soon be in a hospital gown and then in a group therapy sessions at a private treatment center, later hosting her own graduation party in her parent’s custom home to make up for collapsing in her cap and gown mid flash with the Zero Hour girls in tow, all toned beyond recognition, their smiles radiating a glorious inner light.
I wanted to say this to her, but by then she was already walking up the hill, afloat, a speck soon to turn to nothing.