Katherine Ogletree Roberts’ shoes were too cheap for school. She begged, cried, dropped to her knees, fell prostrate on the shoe store floor, desperate for a more expensive pair—something elegant. Loafers, she hoped, with shiny maroon leather buffed to match the rich mahogany desks at St. Isaac’s, and penny slots deep enough to house two Susan B. Anthony silver dollars.
“I got those coins for you, not your shoes.”
Other mothers pinched pennies, Katherine knew, but not like this. Mrs. Roberts squeezed them dry between her fingernails until crescent craters dented the centers and sent fine copper wire springing from the edges. She was miserly and something of a braggart about it, bewitching to watch her work a coupon book—thirty percent here, buy-one-get-one there, scratch-off codes, and morning-busters, the scissors and the clipping. And, oh, the clearance.
“You’ll look cute,” her mother said, inspecting them under the fluorescent light.
“I’ll look like a chimney sweep.”
The shoes Katherine’s mother picked were casual and flat, made of an unknown gravelly substance somewhere between canvas and suede. A chunky ruffle adorned the toe-cap, pinned in place by a triad of industrial-looking buttons--perfectly plebian, a sure-fire way to finish last in the race for student body president, to suffer slights as boys patrolled the cafeteria sniffing out dates for the homecoming dance. Popularity itself rattles. The common ground of friendship slips beneath shoes such as the ones her mother chose. She knew. St. Isaac’s would be her fourth high school in as many years—a fresh, terrifying start.
When the cashier rang the items with no sales tax and announced something about statewide stimulus, Mrs. Roberts said, “See that?”
But Katherine Ogletree said, “Sometimes you get what you pay for.”
Obedientiam—obedience—was the first pillar of St. Isaac’s mission statement. Obedience was expected in action as well as in dress, and outliers were not tolerated. Girls were to wear their hair in compliant braids, boys in fades, white pressed Oxfords with green knee socks, plaid ties, and slate-colored slacks or skirts. Each July, Sister Meredíz sent each student and family a memo containing information regarding the recommended style of backpack for the academic year. But shoes could be any style; black or brown.
Katherine shuffled her new, cheap shoes up the marble staircase of the Cathedral adjacent to St. Isaac’s where the chaplain and the spiritual director and the rest of the administration had organized the annual back-to-school meet-and-greet for faculty and students. The faux-suede fabric of Katherine’s shoes darkened and squished in the dreary morning rain, but wet as they were, they couldn’t match the cool deep black of the other students’ shoes. Under the fluorescent lights of the department store, they matched the other boots and flats shade for shade. But underneath the rainclouds, next to the polished expensive leather soles of her classmates, hers were charcoal at best.
Further, hers seemed to be the only pair so affected by the rain, as though the others had undergone a collective weatherproofing before Katherine had arrived. Offending raindrops exploded upon impact with the plastic tips of their laces and their smooth rounded tops and rolled lazily to the pavement. But every ounce of water that fell saturated Katherine’s feet more, soaking her socks, and irritating the tender flesh around her ankles. Even inside the church, stray drops of holy water flew from the hands of those who blessed themselves in haste and landed right on Katherine’s oversoaked feet.
She stamped them on the dark red rug of the Cathedral’s grand entrance.
All around her, students whispered and hugged, celebrating their return to the hallowed halls of St. Isaac’s. Sister Merediz set brightly covered tables with elaborate trays of doughnettes and danishes, sliced up fruit with four kinds of dip, milk and tea and decaf coffee. Katherine watched from the corner by the door with one sopping foot on top of the other. The students seemed not to notice her at all, let alone look at her long enough to pass judgment on the quality of her footwear. Perhaps her shoes wouldn’t bring about her inevitable social death as she’d predicted, but they sure did hurt.
She slipped one off, then the other, and held them by the stiff backs of the heels. Her socks left wet tracks across the floor. She ambled through the crowd, searching for familiar faces, but everyone looked the same in this sea of white and green and gray, except the girl with strawberry hair who breezed past the pastry plate and swiped a doughnette. By the time Katherine cut through the crowd, the girl was gone. She took a Danish, anyway. All she really wanted was something sweet to take away the nervous feeling behind her ribs.
She chose one filled with a deep violet jam that burst from its flaky pocket and spilled down the front of Katherine’s button up.
Sister Merediz cleared her throat. The students stopped and gaped. The Chaplain shook his head and said, “Well. We might as well say Grace.”
Katherine bowed her head and squeezed her eyes shut, whimpering out a prayer. When she opened her eyes again, the Cathedral’s narthex was cleared of all persons and foodstuffs, and a pink slip was pinned to her shirt pocket:
“MIND THE PILLARS--” it read, in a harsh, serif font. And below, “Slovenly clothes; slovenly character.”
The second pillar of St. Isaac’s was Nitidae—neatness. The word was etched on the second marble column outside the school building, but even if it were not, its importance would be obvious. Evidenced: the matching stainless steel lockers in the hallways, the reflective ceiling lights housed in cradles of frosted glass, the stark linoleum floor waxed like drifted snow over an icy lake yet unscratched by blade. Though the private academy boasted a robust 590 students, their black and brown soles never scuffed the white floor. The students were too careful to preserve the fickle happiness of Sister Meredíz. They practiced precision, and cleanliness, and being neither seen nor heard.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral was connected to the school through a private side entrance, but the walk was long. Their stiffness of Katherine’s dried-out shoes scraped against the soft skin of her heels and the inflamed area of her right ankle where a bone jutted out just a little too far. Even with the protective layer provided by her thick green knee socks, her wounds chafed and blistered and wept. The shoes oppressed her feet and forced her to walk stiff-kneed. Even her arches were sore, tight from discomfort. She shifted her weight in front of her locker, breathing deeply and wincing loudly.
A tall boy scowled as he passed her.
“Sorry,” Katherine whispered, but the apology only set the scowl only set deeper in the boy’s jaw.
She shrank her shoulders and stared at the floor until he passed.
The door of her locker caught on its own clasping mechanism and clanked when she opened it. Inside, she unzipped her backpack and rifled through it for her science textbook. Her hardbacks were wrapped. Her notebooks, labeled. The one marked “Biology” was yellow and snagged on something at the bottom of her bag.
“Come on,” said Katherine, tugging harder.
With one last great yank, Katherine freed the notebook from the backpack, and with it, a plastic bag full of Susan B. Anthony silver dollars and a good luck note her mother. Katherine’s momentum knocked her backwards. The metal spirals of the notebook ripped the apart the plastic and spilled silver dollars across the hallway.
“Shit!” said Katherine.
She hurried to her knees to gather the coins. Her cheeks flushed as she was suddenly and psychically aware of the spectacle she’d become. Shaky, she turned toward the corridor where two girls wearing shiny gemstones tittered and pretended there was something else to laugh about.
She grimaced when she got back on her feet. Then she found the slip of pink carbon paper hanging from ventilation slats of her locker like a mocking tongue.
“MIND THE PILLARS,” it read across the top. And under the infraction line was scrolled, in perfect cursive, “Loosing of coins; loosing of tongue.”
Katherine arrived late to the cafeteria. The juniors and seniors lunching together slurped vegetable soup with pronounced politeness from wide, polished spoons. Each gray table sat two rows of four students, eight place settings for eight gray trays, eight gray bowls, and eight water cups. Eight napkins folded like turkey plumes unraveled and placed gently across laps. Not a drop of soup or grain of rice out of place.
In the line, a middle-aged cafeteria worker with perfect blow-dried blonde hair traded orange paper lunch tickets for two dollars cash. Katherine, meantime, scavenged for a seat with her bleeding feet and her brown paper bag. She was a lunchroom ghost, haunting from table to table, drafting cool air as she breezed by. It was only the first day, she thought, she could take her lunch outside and eat, and kick off her shoes, and try again for better luck tomorrow.
The red light from the illuminated exit sign above the doorway hid her embarrassment as she stalked toward the staircase when from the very last table in the back a girl said, “Hey, brown bag.”Katherine’s pinky toenail ripped as she came to a hard stop. “Saw you got another pink slip. Is that strike two?”
The two gemstone girls were sitting alone in the back. One had strawberry hair and a bright pink necklace. The other was brooding and dark.
“But it’s not a big deal,” Katherine said. “I cleaned it up.”
“That’s good. Because you don’t want to get strike three.” The brunette wore an emerald pendant that glowed each time she giggled—which she did with each bite of chocolate pudding swirl she took. Her hair was dark like chocolate, too, and she wore it draped over her shoulders down to her hips in thick waves, an obvious breach of the school dress code which required all girls to wear braids. Katherine touched her own hair, and considered how tight it made her head feel, like her braid was holding up her eyebrows.
The girls ogled Katherine’s paper lunch bag.
“Oh,” said Katherine, crinkling it. “I was gonna eat outside.”
“You don’t have to do that. We bring our own lunches, too.” The girl with the strawberry hair unwrapped a sucker and lolled it around in her mouth. The dark-haired girl was still licking chocolate smears from a white plastic spoon clumsily. Two empty brown bags were balled in the center of the table.
“Yeah, okay,” said Katherine. The gemstone girls sat on the same side of the table, which gave them the best view of the cafeteria proper and allowed them to whisper. Katherine seated herself across from them, but caddy-wise, so she didn’t obstruct their view.
“I’m Alex.” The strawberry girl popped the sucker out of her mouth, then back in. It was pink—bubble gum—and matched the pink garnets that flashed in her ears, and the tiny one in the cleave of her nose.
“I’m Katherine. Katherine Ogletree.”
“Ooh!” said the brunette.
“Sounds rich,” Alex said. “why aren’t you getting hot lunch?”
“Well,” Katherine fumbled with the stem of an apple. “I’m not really rich. I’m on scholarship. What I mean is—Ogletree isn’t even my real last name.” She laughed.
“So, Ogletree is your mom’s name?” the brunette asked. “I like it.”
“Uh, no,” Katherine said. “I just kind of—”
“—You made it up?” The cheeked candy added sibilance to the question.
“I wanna do that,” said Alex.
“Me, too.” The brunette licked the last of the pudding from the foil top and stuffed the trash in her lunch bag. “I want my name to be Blanchard.” Her emerald necklace flitted like a big jumping bean.
“We’ll call you Blanche, for short,” said Alex.
They all laughed.
Blanche doubled over, holding her belly.
Katherine struggled to open the wrapper on a sealed stick of mozzarella cheese.
“Here, I’ll get that for you.” The strawberry blonde pulled her right hand from under the table. A pink glove covered it, with a thick black strap around her palm and a gold buckle that wrapped tight from her pinky to her wrist. It matched her jewelry and her general flamboyance, but there was something unnatural about it.
Blanche still guffawed at her new name. She unzipped an expensive-looking but phony name-brand purse to retrieve a pack of pocket tissues. As she brought it to her nose and eyes, Katherine noticed she was wearing a glove, too—hers green.
Katherine couldn’t help staring. There was something about it--some stiffness or lack of dexterity in the lesser fingers. When she looked back up, both girls were staring back, silent and grim-faced.
“Don’t get strike three,” the strawberry blonde said.
The buzzer announced the end of the lunch period. The girls reached for their empty lunch bags.
“That’s all right,” Katherine said, “I’ll get it.”
The rest of the juniors and seniors filed their trays in rote. Katherine stood and winced. She’d forgotten about her feet. She stepped easy toward an unused wastebasket and tossed the Ziplocks and candy wrappers and apple cores. When she returned to the table for her backpack, the gemstone girls were gone.
On Sunday night, before her first day of school, Katherine had painted her toenails with French tips. Nail varnish was forbidden at St. Isaac’s, but a little white and clear on her toenails couldn’t hurt, especially if the other girls peeked at her feet when she changed he clothes for eighth period.
In PE, students at St. Isaac’s were issued standard white v-necks with dark green shorts. Athletic shoes were also provided, but were purchased wholesale and took aome time to break in.
Katherine approached the PE teacher, Mr. Cafarelli, in private, asking if she might take the afternoon off to rest her feet. He handed her a paper package of blister-blocker and said “Suit up, or shut up.”
She retired to the rest room rather than the women’s locker to clean her wounds and change her clothes. The blisters were worse than she thought. Her knee socks were red and dark green-brown in spots and they stuck to her heels and ankles and toes. She propped her foot on the white sink for closer inspection and found that hairy fibers from the socks had taken root beneath her skin. She tried pinching them between her nails, but her eyes and fingers wouldn’t match up, and she extracted only a few.
The cut on her ankle was already scabbing over. A patch on her heel glowed red and radiated heat and seemed more similar to a burn than a blister. Her little toe was canvased in skin-covered jelly bubbles. She poked at them. A voice behind her said, “You shouldn’t do that.”
Katherine shrieked and spilled the box of bandages on the floor.
“You scared me,” Katherine said.
“Let me see those.” Alex rushed to the sink and gathered up Katherine’s foot.
Katherine threw her arms out for balance.
“Whoa,” said Alex. “Those are gnarly.”
“Ew!” Blanche plucked Katherine’s knee sock from the floor with the pinchers of her green glove hand.
“Do you know how to make these go away?” Alex asked.
Katherine shook her head.
Alex slid her glove across her neck. “Slice them off. Best to just be done with it. Sister Meredíz has a wicked letter opener in her office. It’s like an exact replica of some famous sword or something. She let me use it before.”
“For this?” she asked.
“No, not for this.” When Alex shook her head, her earrings clinked. She eyed Blanche and smiled. “You’re so funny, Ogletree.”
“Here,” said Blanche. “I think I have some ointment in my bag.”
“Only Blanche would have ointment in her purse,” Alex said.
The bandages from Mr. Cafarelli came in a variety of sizes. Alex chose the smallest size and peeled back the sticky paper.
“I can do that.” Katherine reached for the bandage, but Alex had already pressed it on. Blanche was preparing another, but their touch was alien and probing with the stiff plastic of their gloves made Katherine cringe.
She pulled her foot off the sink and stood barefoot before them. “What happened to your hands? Why do you wear those gloves?”
Blanche pushed her dark hair from her face, and loosened her glove first. The sound of the buckle jangled over her heavy breaths. The glove slid easy from her thumb, her index finger, middle and ring, but there was only air where her pinky should have been. Blanche wiggled her four remaining digits, showing off her empty socket. Alex joined in. Both girls were missing their pinkies above the base joint. Both of their hands were discolored in the same places—like matching, eternal bruises of green and blue and black—and outlined with gruesome scars.
Katherine choked on her words. “What happened?”
Alex said nothing. Her eyes looked suddenly too big for her head.
Blanche’s lip wavered. “Don’t get strike three.”
The door boomed and rattled. From the hallway, the PE teacher hollered, “Roberts!”
“Yes, Mr. Cafarelli?” she said.
“What are you doing in there?” He pounded again on the door. Katherine eased it open, but Mr. Cafarelli pushed it wide, and the corner scraped against her little toe, slicing it open.
Katherine yelped and wailed. Blood and pus erupted onto the bathroom floor.
Mr. Cafarelli said, “Cripes!” and retreated to the hallway. The door hissed shut behind him.
“You’re not going to tell Sister Meredíz about this are you?”
But he was gone.
And the gemstone girls were, too.
The third, final pillar of St. Isaac’s was silentium—silence. This word was posted on two matching signs hanging above the doors in the front lobby of the school. At the end of the day, the students automated into two single file lines beneath these placards as a reminder to mute all conversations until exiting the building.
From her locker down the hall, a folder freefell from the top shelf and exploded its loose-leaf insides. Katherine rescued them in mad panic and pulled the folder tight to her chest as she joined the line at the front door.
Upon entering and exiting the school, each student was required to pass through an overhead metal detector. The machine checked mainly for electronics, which were punishable, but also for weapons and other illicit metal contraband. Each student passed, silent and confident. Katherine slithered through.
A low tone buzzed around her ears.
“Hold on, little lady,” Security Officer Stevenson said. “Probably just first day jitters. Go ahead and try again.”
The students jammed behind her, but they peeled off naturally like water around a jutting rock and flowed to the other line. The officer waved her forward. The low tone buzzed again.
“It—might be my shoes.”
“Shh!” He telescoped his long baton and pointed at the sign. Silentium.
“But you don’t understand,” Katherine said. “They’ve got these three metal buttons on them, and—”
“Miss,” Stevenson said. “I won’t ask you again.”
“Take off your backpack please.” Stevenson took a pair of latex gloves from his pocket and snapped them onto his wrists.
Beside her, in the other line, the gemstone girls nodded at Katherine, but she scowled at them as they passed through.
Katherine slipped her backpack from her shoulders and let it fall to the ground with a loud thud. The other students breathed faster and moved more quickly through the line.
Officer Stevenson picked up the bag and shook it. “What’s that sound?”
“My mom packed me some silver dollars for good luck.”
“Cute,” he said.
But cuteness didn’t stop the security officer from from scouring her school things with a flashlight and a wooden stick or from dragging her by the braid to Sister Meredíz’s office, and slunking her in a leather-backed chair behind the principal’s desk. The chair and the desk were shiny mahogany as she’d imagined and stuck to the back of her legs when she sweat as she waited for Sister Meredíz to return.
On the edge of the desk was fixed a miniature knight in a suit of armor, his hands around a long-sword letter opener, just like the gemstone girls said. It was sharp to the touch, even on the sides when Katherine reached for it.
Beside this was a pink slip.
“MIND THE PILLARS” it read. And below, “Buttons on shoes instead of lip.”
Half an hour passed, then an hour, two. Sister Meredíz never appeared. The lights in the school flashed then flickered off.
“Best to just be done with it,” she said. Katherine took the letter opener from its pedestal. She slunk into the space beneath the desk and sat. She slipped off her shoes, peeled down her socks and sliced open the thick translucent skin that had grown over her wounds on her feet. Thick water leaked from them onto Sister Merediz’s dark, plush carpet. The pain was severe but invigorating. The healing process could begin.
When she was finished, she held her left hand in front of her and wiggled her fingers. She stared at her pinky.
“Best to just be done with it.”
Faint footfalls approached in the hallway. The sound of Katherine’s silver dollars jangling together was unmistakable, and slowly getting closer.
Barefoot and crouched beneath the desk, Katherine wrapped her fingers tight around the letter opener and waited.
Megan Fahey is an MFA student at West Virginia University where she teaches creative writing and works as editor-in-chief of the Cheat River Review. In addition to having some short plays produced, her work has appeared in Blinders Journal, Stoneboat, and Cease, Cows among others.