Like a good mystery, the alley was both hidden and obvious. You could walk right by it and never see it. A gap by design. My secret smoking lounge. And, that day, my front-row seat to the crime that would change everything, the first rip of the unraveling.
I had no money for cigarettes, of course, but smoking what I confiscated from my students was fair game. Students aren’t allowed to smoke at Saint Sebastian’s—it was my duty to step in. And Sister Honor says waste is a sin. So, there I was on my stoop in the alley on Sunday night, minding my own business, roasting in the delirious heat that never ceased, not even at dusk. Django Reinhardt guitar spilled from a car somewhere on Prytania. Music was the connective tissue of New Orleans—there when you needed it, like prayer. Both prayer and music were holy, and they saved my sorry ass more times than I could count.
A true believer, me, despite the optics.
That’s why Sister Augustine positively welcomed me to Saint Sebastian’s School last year. She saw my potential. She was the only one who gave me a chance when no one else would, not even the daycare where they employed security guards too rough for correctional facilities, or the auto repair shops where everyone was on meth, or the insurance agencies in Bensonhurst. I was willing to work nights and weekends, for fuck’s sake, and I had the makings of a damn good investigator: equal parts methodical focus and capriciousness with the patience of a hunter and an appetite for femme fatales. They still said no. But not Sister Augustine. She invited me to New Orleans, into the Order, with a few provisions.
There were only four of us: Sister Augustine (our pious Mother Superior), Sister Therese (a former hippie with resting beatific face who fed stray cats), Sister Honor (an interminable killjoy who detested me), and me, Sister Holiday, serving the impossible truth of queer piety. We were as different from one another as The Book of Leviticus to The Song of Songs to The Book of Judith. As an Order, though, as the Sisters of the Sublime Blood, we made it work. For God’s love—the only real love—and for the sake of the kids and our city. Our motto, To share the light in a dark world, is carved into the plaque on our convent door.
We were a progressive Order, but Catholic Sisters all the same, with rules to follow, or, in my case, to test. We were focused, working diligently at the school, the church, the prison, and our convent. Our bedrooms were modest. Our convent bathroom was spartan and cavernous with a musty, sepulchral air. No mirrors anywhere. No hairdryers. The shower stalls sported cheap plastic curtains. When I spaced out in the shower, never for too long (Sister Therese timed me to preserve water), I’d watch droplets form little stalactites on the ceiling. The convent’s common areas were as austerely appointed as holy tombs, and as cold, a blessing in the sweltering, insistent heat.
Even my shady alley was blazing hot. I had my goddamned gloves and scarf on that Sunday, as Sister Augustine demanded, and it felt like they had melted into my skin. It was still a glorious moment alone, before the staff meeting adjourned, before I stepped into the convent for supper, with two cigarettes collected on Friday afternoon, nabbed from behind Ryan Brown’s pointy ears. “Aw, Sister, again?” Ryan Brown, a sophomore at Saint Sebastian’s, the king of self-owns, whined after I took his smokes. “C’mon.” He threw his hands in the air like a toddler. Of all my students, he had absolutely no street smarts. My contraband supply flowed through this curious kid. Most students fled the instant I walked into a room, whereas Ryan Brown lingered. His flagrant violations of our tobacco rules made it seem like he was trying to get caught. Or he was bad at being bad. Not like me.
I held up the cigarettes. “Showing off your smokes makes you a tough guy?”
“Learn how to fight for what you want,” I cut Ryan off. No time for excuses. “Or learn how to hide it better. Otherwise, you’ll lose everything.”
My wisdom held a kind of grace, I’ll admit.
I offered my students the only thing that mattered in life—honesty—and I’d serve it the way I meted out revenge, ice cold. I was a fuckup about most things, but when it came to commitment, I was all in, like a python eating a goat, sinew and toenails and skeleton and all. Like my Sisters, I did everything I could to lift each student, to help them carry the light in their own hands, not hold it for them. Sometimes that meant calling out their sloth and turpitude. And I knew how to clock BS because I lived it. To break a horse or a human, you must first understand wildness.
All weekend I had waited for the perfect moment to savor the cigarettes, and it had finally arrived that Sunday. I was sweating through every layer of my uniform, but I needed more time outside. Without a minute to myself, I’d snap at Sister Honor. My fuse was still dangerously short, and Sister Honor knew how to wind me up.
I pulled out one of the stolen cigs that I kept hidden in my guitar case. Ran it under my nose, sniffed it, and lit it with the last match in the book. A cloud of gnats dispersed as quickly as it formed, not like the sunset, which remained, the battered gold of a pocket watch that seemed to slow time itself. Twilight was the hinge between day and night. Gauzy tides of heat pushed and pulled me. My skin pruned under my gloves. They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. But New Orleans is the crucible. The home of miracles and curses—neither life nor death but both. In such a liminal space, like standing in a doorway, you could be in or out, doomed or redeemed.
Sweat rained down my back. I was surprised it was so quiet out there, in the moth-thick alley, no live show or rehearsal in the old theater. Putting the Devil back in Vaudeville, the poster promised. Like the Devil would let anyone tell them where to go. The theater, like so many grand spaces in the city, was devastated by the storms that grew stronger every year. Paint on the front door peeled off in big mahogany rolls. On route to ruin, still delicious. More opulent than Buckingham friggin Palace.
With all the matches gone, I had to chain-smoke my contraband, lighting one with the other. Such luxurious tobacco—probably an import. Our wealthiest students were fuckers—I’m sorry, Lord, it’s true—but their smokes were superior to the garbage I choked on back in Brooklyn, back in my old life where my fingers bled for rent money, for tips, for my next whiskey.
A crescent moon floated like a talon. Frogs croaked in the privacy of their night disguise. A creaky chorus, the nocturne. Ever more haunting in the tropical steam and amber smoke of the streetlights. Meaty magnolia blossoms held glinting veins of pink, little hearts pumping inside each petal. I took another drag, let it sink in.
Suddenly, the back of my throat soured. My eyes watered as a wave of extra heat slapped me.
Then, a smear of red and orange. The night sky exploded. It took a beat to understand what I was seeing.
The school. My school on fire. The east wing of Saint Sebastian’s was burning.
Livid flames stabbed through an open window.
In a few seconds, the horror erupted. That’s how it feels—the fastest slowest moment. Anything so unexpected warps time, with wretched clarity and blurriness. Like a car accident. Like your first kiss. The tiniest details at once magnified and obscured.
A flaming body dropped from the second floor of the burning east wing and pounded the ground like a vicious fist.
“Dear God.” I dropped my cigarette and tore from the alley across First Street, to the person in the grass. “Help!” I screamed, but nobody was around. Breathless, voice clipped.
Jack. It was my cleaning confidante, dead.
“Jack!” I knelt by his side. “Oh my God.”
He didn’t blink or flinch, just smoldered. A thin line of blood trickled from his right nostril, so delicate, like it was painted with care by a rare brush.
Jack charring in the grass, his limbs splayed—the devastating choreography of a stomped roach. His burned flesh smelled acrid and terribly sweet.
Did he fall through an open window, trying to escape the smoke?
Was he pushed?
Lord, hold Jack close.
The doors were always locked after the staff meeting, which ended more than an hour ago, the meeting I skipped.
I thought I heard a cry from inside. I had to be certain the building was empty. The door handle was not yet hot, so I placed my short scarf over my mouth like a bandit and unlocked the door. Smoke blasted into me.
“Hey!” I sprinted down the hallway screaming, coughing. A peculiar strength led me forward. “Anybody here?”
Plumes of smoke crab-crawled sideways across the ceiling. Ashen tendrils dripped through seams in walls, silent as breath.
The fire alarm was stiff. Old red paint flaked off as I tugged at the lever. I cursed at it, as if that would help. It finally budged and clicked down, sounding a shrill alarm that would shake the dead. But no sprinklers activated.
“Anybody here?” My throat was raw.
“Help!” someone yelled in the distance. It felt simultaneously far away and right in front of my face, but I could barely see. “We need help!” It was a familiar voice, but I was so panicked I couldn’t place it, like a song in fast-forward.
The smoke smelled like hot garbage as it spun me. Like in Brooklyn, the night of ignition. The night my old life ended.
Nothing was in its right place. No one should have been inside. “Keep talking! I’ll find you.”
The air was cement-thick, but I saw movement—someone at the end of the hallway.
“Hey!” I choked as I ran toward them, sliding over a sharp puddle of broken glass. “Hey.”
The shadow elongated then vanished in an instant with the clean, continuous lines of a fish in motion. A blessed spirit. Been waiting my whole life to see the Holy Ghost, and it had to be here? If bad timing was a religion, I’d be the Pope.
The cries amplified behind me. I snapped around, tried to follow the voices. The door to the old religion classroom was open and inside the room, squashed on the floor, were Jamie and Lamont. Why were they there? What did they see? What did they do?
I ran to them.
“He’s cut!” Lamont pointed to Jamie’s leg where blood flowed from his thigh. “My ankle broke or something.”
Both boys were sitting side by side under the chalkboard. They looked like kindergartners preparing for story time, save for the furnace of fire and smoke, and the blood pouring out of Jamie’s leg. A wedge of broken glass, the size of an open hand, stuck out of Jamie’s thigh. The shattered transom I skated through in the hallway. He squirmed as he held the outsides of his left leg. His blue eyes raged as he howled.
“I’m carrying you out.” I knelt. “Lamont, throw your arm around me. Jamie, next. Did you see Jack up here?”
Neither boy answered, frozen with shock. Or was it guilt?
I tried to carry them both but could barely lift an inch before all three of us slumped back down with a horrid thud.
Jamie roared. The glass in his thigh must have lodged deeper.
If I tried to carry them again, it could get even worse.
The workings of the body were as mysterious to me as the mind, but even I knew I had to stabilize Jamie’s leg. “One, two,” I said, and on “three,” using my glove for traction, I pulled the blood-slimed glass out of his thigh. Bits of him remained on the glass, on my gloves. He screamed like he was getting carved alive by a butcher.
Lamont sat helpless, trying to comfort a gnashing Jamie as blood spilled down both sides of his pulpy thigh.
Nothing prepares you for the cruel wet red of an open wound. A second mouth. Demonic.
I prayed, tried to channel Moose.
Praying is schizophrenic, Moose’d say to piss me and Mom off. You’re talking to nobody. I pleaded with him not to join the army, the way he begged me not to join the Order. Like it did any good. Reverse psychology was a family practice. I joined the convent and Moose signed up for combat medic training on the very same day. We traded old lives for new lives like it was a simple or silly thing, easier than making a quarter disappear. Stagecraft. Who’d ever think the queer ass Walsh kids would become a nun and a soldier. Ta fucking da.
I ripped off my scarf—the thin cloth Sister Augustine made me wear—and tied it tightly around Jamie’s thigh. A quick tourniquet. “I wish I could carry you both, but I’m taking Jamie out first—he’s lost so much blood.”
“Don’t leave me!” Lamont cried; his brown eyes were bloodshot, leaking fear.
I tightened Jamie’s tourniquet, placed his left arm around my shoulders and lifted him from his waist. “Up!” Like a drunk couple on a cheap jazz honeymoon, we hobbled as one being. Jamie was taller than me, solid muscle, but I lifted him enough to walk.
“I’m coming back, Lamont. Swear to God.”
Adrenaline thundered through my veins, like the uppers I used to snort, like the divine surge of Godly strength in the parables I came to love.
Hail Mary, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, our hope. My third eye.
I kept us limping into the hallway. Lamont whimpered on the ground, dragged himself like a seal after us, crying out for me, for God. Blood powered out of Jamie, making quick work of my shitty attempt at a tourniquet. It would have been aces if the Holy Ghost delivered a miracle right then and there, but we couldn’t wait for divine intervention.
A flaming ember shot into my left eye—“Fuck”—like a bayonet landing in my cornea. The awful precision of what cannot be controlled.
We staggered to the stairwell. Momentary lee from the smoke, a small prayer answered. That’s where I saw Jack’s ladder and toolbox. The janitors did most of their cleaning and tinkering at night, but on a Sunday?
Did Jack start the fire? The boys? None of this made sense.
But it never does. Twice now I’ve stared Death in the eye. I know it’s gunning for me. For all of us. If I can keep outrunning it, I will.
Jamie’s eyes were open, but his gaze was blank, the resigned look of someone who’s given up. I slapped him hard across the face. “Focus,” I said, even though my mind was running in ten directions. I thought we’re fucked! and we’ll make it! at the same time, and I needed to know what the boys knew. I drilled my tongue into my gold tooth, hard enough to bleed. It was a nervous tick, but it grounded me, a secret covenant, invisible to everyone but me and God; it helped point me ahead.
As we reached the ground floor, a different alarm began to shriek. The tall, heavy emergency fire doors of Saint Sebastian’s east wing started to swing slowly.
The automatic doors were locking us in.
“We’re getting out of here.” I surprised myself with the jolt of energy the word we imparted.
I kicked my foot into the main door, one breath before the magnetized fire doors sealed the east wing shut.
Holy Ghost, don’t leave us.
I grunted as we staggered outside, where school papers and ash rained. Jack Corolla’s body lay perfectly stiff near the east wing’s entrance. A now empty shell that had once held everything that made Jack Jack—the talking-with-his-mouth-full, the walrus laugh, the nervous energy. Jack’s spirit vanished.
Jamie, barely conscious, murmured, “Is that…a body?”
The wail of police sirens, ambulances, and fire engines shook me. A fire truck slowed then stopped in front of us as we wobbled. Firemen and women leapt off, unraveled their orange hoses, and ran to the blazing school.
Jamie collapsed on the ground, his eyes closed, mouth hung open as if in a deep, sloppy sleep. Paramedics rushed. Seeing that mangled, bloody kid in their capable hands was such a relief, almost unbearable. Thank you, Lord.
“There’s another student inside!” I yelled with my sandpaper tongue. “Lamont. He’s hurt.”
“Where?” asked a medic.
“Second floor, street-side. Jack fell through the window.” I turned around and pointed to Jack’s body in the grass. My hand, as I lifted it, felt like carved marble.
A woman with a badge appeared and helped steady me as I started to fall. For a lightning quick moment, we fell together. But she posted her legs, straightened her back, and flexed her arms to keep us both upright.
“Chill Sunday night, eh,” the woman said with a smile that lifted higher in one corner, like a capsizing ship.
“I have to”—I choked—“inside.” I couldn’t string words together.
She tightened an iron grip around my bicep. “Nah. We’ll take it from here. You’ll be less dead outside with me.”
The woman’s ID was clipped to the left chest pocket of her wrinkled blouse—Fire Investigator Magnolia Riveaux, New Orleans Fire Department. “Keep breathing. I’m Maggie.” In the ambulance headlights, her face glowed with sweat. “You hurt?” she asked, knowing the answer.
“Cinder in this eye.”
“We’ll get that flushed out.” She walked me toward an idling ambulance that had parked in the courtyard. The EMTs were creating a staging area.
“You saw the fall?” she asked. “I hear that right?”
“Jack Corolla.” I coughed and when my lips smacked, I realized they were chapped from the heat. “Don’t know if he jumped or was escorted out or what. Jack’s our custodian.”
She swiftly lifted her two-way radio, pressed her lips against the perforated surface of the mic. “217 to Dispatch.”
“Go ahead 217,” said the voice in the radio.
“Got a witness”—Investigator Riveaux locked her eyes on me—“what’s your name?”
I opened my mouth to talk but no more words came. How enraging to be silenced by my own body.
“Lungs might be scarred here,” she told the invisible radio person.
The night air was thrilling and sickening, like a gulp of swamp water. That was the marshy taste on my tongue as I passed out. My body turned to goo, and I slipped through her grip.