The Catechism of Emily Pry

by Jan Fallon | Free Excerpt

Camping in Death Valley, Paxson Woelber

Chapter One

The Catechism of Emily Pry
By Jan Fallon

Her boredom made her bold. And that left her breathing heavy in the dark, nose pinched against the stained-glass, looking for something. Something to keep her occupied during the long weekend ahead. The moonlight wasn’t bright enough for her to see through the bubbled pane to the shadowed grounds three stories below, ears imagining the sound of mice or man among the bushes skirting the historic building.

It was late Friday, and by now she was mostly alone.

The rooms of St. Mary’s emptied by late afternoon as parents collected daughters for weekend visits. Millie watched from the top of the stairs, sitting cross-legged behind its large banister, peeking between the rails as giggly girls descended into their arms, overnight bags in tow, then pass through the large oak doors, cheerful conversations trailing—reunions with younger siblings and family dogs waiting at home.

Millie didn’t mind being left behind. Intrigued by the majestic structure and garrisoned setting of her new home, she looked forward to following the empty hallways secured by statuesque saints to tucked stairways that led up or down.

During her first few weeks at St. Mary’s, she’d already gotten good at faking it. Rumpled bed clothes puffed up and formed to fabricate one asleep, drapes pulled to veil her room in darkness, fluffy slippers dulling footsteps across the polished plank floors.

Millie hoped the nun-on-duty would believe it was her tucked in room D-304. The third floor residence halls: Ava, Brigid, Cera, and Digna, were all named after obscure saints heralded as a hermits, helpers of the sick, and holy. D-304 was down St. Digna’s hall. Millie liked her; a devout girl from the hills of Central Italy—a romantic place for a saint to pray and eventually perish.

If Millie was successful, she’d have all night to explore the empty halls.

If she wasn’t. If she was caught and lost her spot at St. Mary’s, then she’d really be alone.

Brave as Millie was, the thought left a chill that didn’t come from the black, cold lead framing the colorful window—it came from her past. She didn’t know much, but she knew she’d arrived at St. Mary’s on charity, and from day one was on probation, even before she’d earned it.

She was about to.

With her forehead still pressed against the glass in the empty hallway, she heard the faint footsteps of the nun-on-duty. She let out an unfiltered gasp, loud enough to be heard, and chastised herself.

“Shh, Millie Pry, you’ll be caught and earn Digna’s scorn if you are!”

Instead of pointing her fuzzy slippers back toward D-304, Millie ran toward the large gothic-hinged door at the end of the hall, pushed the left panel open and slid into the chambers of Corridor E.

None of the girls ever went down Corridor E. It was dark, damp and dusty—and it didn’t even have a name.

She headed toward a scalene shape of moonlight emanating from the first room with an open door and entered. Crouched to the floor, peering with one eye down the hall, Millie closed herself behind the old oak door, which squealed a metallic pitch, then latched.

Silhouetted by odds and ends, thrown haphazardly in towers that almost reached the ceiling, it was apparent this room wouldn’t be used for studies or anything else anytime soon. Boxes, a tumbled array of what was once a stacked set of wooden slats, and outcast furniture were cobbled in heaps here and there.

Millie ducked between boxes and toppled baskets, to tuck herself under a small wooden desk shoved against the back wall.

She listened.

What she heard was not a mouse, but a man carrying something a bit too heavy and heaving deep-throated grunts under its weight—the plod of heavy boots peeling off the tile with sticky residue as they walked somewhere in the darkness of Corridor E.

Millie turned, eyes searching to find a way of escape, then froze.

Something brushed her forehead and caught the fear of the unknown, which gave her a tingling rush of childish willies.

A spider web perhaps—stuck to the bottom of the desk, dust and insects still moving glued to sticky threads?

She lifted her head just enough to see the web, and instead saw a corner of yellowed newsprint moving slightly under her breath, daring her to look, its halftone image telling part of a forgotten story.

For a moment Millie set aside her pending trouble to read what she could.

“Missing infant. Turmoil. Tears,” were the only words large enough to read. She tugged at the article, tagged to the desk with chewing gum now dry, hid it in the pocket of her robe and set her course toward D-304. Between the faint steps in Digna’s Hall and the heavy boots in Corridor E, Millie wasn’t sure she’d make it back to her room in time, replacing the pillows propped in her likeness with her own flannelled form.

Before entering the residence hall, pulling at the large gothic door with all her might, Millie looked back and saw the moonlight from the cluttered room go dark. She heard the door squeal its metallic pitch, then a key strike the glass and brass handle—the cylinder in need of oil turning with much effort until it set in a loud clank.

Locked tight.

With whispers of thanks to Saint Digna, Millie ran to her room, pushed pillows aside and curled under her chenille bedspread, fluffy slippers still on, waiting for the nun-on-duty to secure her presence and propriety.

She heard metered footsteps pad their way toward D-304 and once the scan of a simple penlight crossed her bed, were followed by metered steps away. Millie could tell by the husky silhouette they belonged to Sister Barbara.

“G’night Sister,” Millie said as the rattle of rosary beads came closer and paused.

“Ms. Pry.”

Millie was done roaming the halls of Saint Mary’s tonight, but she wasn’t alone—and that kept her awake and wondering who locked the door in Corridor E.

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