I FEEL DISBELIEF.
That’s how it starts: with a pervasive sense of this cannot be happening and thinking that no one is going to believe me when I tell them because I don’t even believe it myself. The thought Mom is going to freak when she finds out races through me in a wave of giddiness.
There I am in seventh period AP calc and Ms. Lewis is drawing tangent lines on the board and her arm and the chalk slope up, up, up and there is a knock and the door opens and Sister June our principal is standing there and I see the expression on her face and I know. I know. I know it right then. Sister June’s eyes are on me and suddenly I can’t remember anything about the slope of the tangent.
“I need Olivia Peters in the office right away,” Sister June says with unmistakable joy and I am already shutting my notebook and textbook and shoving them into my bag because a girl can hope—sometimes a girl can’t help but hope, you know? I try not to look at any of my classmates, who are staring, especially Ashley and Jada because they know I’ve been waiting, counting the days until May, but as usual my two best friends get the best of me so I glance in their direction.
They take turns holding up a series of notebook pages. Like flashcards. Back and forth. Quick. Practiced. As if they already know, too.
Just remember . . . says the first, flipped up by Jada . . .
You are poised . . . says the second, courtesy of Ash . . .
and beautiful . . .
Thank you, I mouth, feeling touched they’ve put on such a show but still trying not to allow my mind to go there, when Sister June inquires, “Olivia?” and Ms. Lewis wonders, “Miss Williams and Miss Ling, is there something you’d like to share with the rest of us? Hmmm?” and I follow Sister June out the door. I am too nervous to smile so instead I stare at the dark blue folds of Sister June’s habit and try to squelch the feeling of hope bubbling up in me because surely it will be dashed to bits when I get to her office and she tells me something anticlimactic like—“We are so pleased you’ve never missed a day of school in all your years at Sacred Heart!”—which is true, or—“You passed the AP English exam and will be getting college credit!”—not that I wouldn’t be happy with this information, but let’s face it, it’s not that news I want to hear.
Sister June and I walk down the hall with its long line of lockers on either side, their red paint so chipped that if I use only my peripheral vision they look like giant abstract paintings. Sister June’s skirt rustles with every step, making the only sound besides the soft pat, pat, pat of my black ballet flats and the purposeful tread of her thick, rubber-soled nun shoes against the carpet, so worn it’s impossible to tell what color it used to be when it was new. Every few feet Sister June glances my way and I detect the trace of a smile on her pursed lips and my heart quickens until it is beating so fast I imagine it is racing the fifty-yard dash and has left my body at the starting line.
Please, God, let it be what I think it is.
Sister June stops short because we are at the office entrance and I am so startled I almost knock her over. She looks up at me and her cheeks are flushed with pride and not makeup because nuns don’t wear makeup, and she clasps my hands between her soft, wrinkled ones and whispers, “Oh, Olivia, your life is about to change,” and that’s when I notice her eyes are shiny and that’s also when I know I know beyond a shadow of a doubt what is waiting on the other side of the door.
Who is waiting.
Sister June grasps the knob, twisting it. With one hand on my back she guides me or maybe encourages me or even ensures that I don’t run away because this is my big moment, and we enter the reception area as a united front and just like that it happens, the same way I’ve been imagining and daydreaming all these months ever since the contest was announced in October and Ms. Gonzalez, my English lit teacher, encouraged me to enter it.
There he is. In the flesh. In person.
Looking at me.
I’ve never been this close to him before and I am struck by the tiny lines that web from his smiling eyes, the gleam from his perfect white teeth, his thick salt-and-pepper hair, the size of his hands, so large, the hands of a strong man. Everything about him seems to glow from within and soon I am aware that I am not the only person in the room who finds this visitor striking.
The reception staff surrounds him like he is a movie star or some other kind of celebrity or maybe even God come down from heaven to ask, Hello how is everybody doing? He is speaking but I can’t focus on the words, I am only aware that Ms. Jones who does the school attendance is nodding her head, “Yes, yes. Yes, yes, of course,” as he talks, and Ms. Aronson who does class registration is murmuring, “Hmm-hmmm,” softly over and over, and Ms. Gonzalez is saying, “Oh my. This is wonderful. Wonderful! Qué bien! I knew she had it in her!” and beaming like she has just won teacher of the year or maybe even a Pulitzer Prize. Him, well, he looks younger in person than in the photos on his book jackets and when you see him on television, and maybe this is why all the women look at him with such admiration. Or is it adoration?
The door creaks as Sister June shuts it behind us.
Everyone turns in our direction and for a moment there is silence.
“You must be Olivia,” he says then. His deep voice booms. “Olivia Peters!”
I open my mouth but nothing comes out.
“I’m Mark. Mark Brendan,” he says, crossing the room with all the energy and confidence you’d expect from someone like him, extending his hand to shake mine, which Sister June passes from hers to his because I am frozen—after all, you don’t meet your idol every day—and then he is grasping my hand with an enthusiasm that is thrilling and finally, finally, the biggest smile that has ever met the lips on my face breaks through and I say, “I can’t believe you are here.”
And just like that, we meet.
He and I meet and everything . . . it all . . . begins.
“It isn’t because you won honorable mention, either.” He smiles, looking down at me because he is at least a head taller. And I am tall.
“Wow, wow . . . I just never expected . . .” I say, because I’ve always loved writing but I didn’t really think it would amount to anything. Still, I’m not going to deny that I’ve always wanted this and my mother—she’s a writer, too—she’s always said I have it in me. But if there is such a thing as divine intervention, of God whispering to us extraordinary things, I’ve no doubt that God whispers to him the words that have moved critics to claim he is one of the greatest writers of our time. “So, honorable mention,” I repeat after him, trying to focus. “That’s not why you’re here, Father?”
And he says, “Please, call me Mark.”
So I respond, “Okay, Father Mark,” and look up at him, hopeful.
“I did go to meet the honorable mentions in person, too,” Father Mark adds because he is charming and obviously a good, kind person. “But that’s not why I am here, Olivia.”
The way he says my name, it sounds like music, beautiful music that I listen to at the symphony, and I wish he would keep saying “Olivia . . . Olivia . . . Olivia” with his emphasis on the O as in Oh-liv-ee-aah and not a-livia the way most people pronounce it with a short a, as if my name begins with an article and I am this object named “Livia,” like liver or just live.
Everyone is silent, waiting. Ms. Gonzalez’s eyes well with tears. Ms. Aronson’s cheeks flush and her body twists back and forth, arms wrapped around her middle like a girl with a crush. Ms. Jones keeps saying, “My, my . . . my, my, my . . .” with her hands clasped against her heart. Only Sister June seems unfazed—happy, yes, but somehow unruffled. Maybe this is a skill she learned as a nun, to be unmoved by handsome men, handsome priests. I wonder why everyone else doesn’t act like Sister June does.
Like I do.
Like he is a man of God.
My dad’s been out of the picture for more than a decade, but my older sister, Greenie, and I have had plenty of other dads over the years, it’s just that everyone calls them Fathers instead of Dads and they are married to the Catholic Church. Priests have been coming to our house since I was little for lunch, tea, Sundays after mass, making sure Mom was okay on her own taking care of us and one big now-empty-of-a-husband house. Greenie and I, we took to these stand-in dads like kids to candy.
Now another one, another Father walks into my life.
“Congratulations on winning the first annual Emerging Writers High School Fiction Prize, Olivia.” Father Mark D. Brendan makes it official, his voice like velvet, and I want to reach out and smooth my hand across those words as they ripple the air. “In addition to getting your story published,” he says, pausing, drawing the moment out, letting the strength of his connections sink in, “you will receive a $10,000 scholarship to the college of your choice, and of course, a spot in my HMU summer fiction seminar.”
“My sister is a junior at Holy Mary University,” I say, as if this matters and because I can’t think of anything else, trying to stay calm, feet firm on the floor, resisting the urge to jump up and down because I want to appear older than my seventeen years and poised, like Ashley and Jada said I am.
“It was an easy decision.”
Easy, he says. An easy decision.
Sunlight streams through the only window, its rays landing in the space between us, and I see him through the specs of dust that shine like glitter in the light.
“Your writing reveals a maturity beyond your years,” he says, his eyes locking on mine for an instant, and then looks at his watch. He holds up an arm sheathed in the black shirt of a priest, the white collar around his neck providing the only contrast against this dark, sacred uniform. “But we’ll have to continue this conversation later. Olivia, ladies, Sister June, I must be off.” One by one, he nods at each person in the room, at each of us one last time, and I want to shout, Don’t go! Stay! but I don’t. “I’ll be in touch again soon, Olivia, to discuss where we go from here. It was truly a plea sure.”
Before I can say another word, a thank you, or even a see you later, Father Mark is at the door, opening it to leave, and I become aware that our entire encounter has taken barely a couple of minutes, though for me, the time goes by like a dream in slow motion. I wonder whether he means what he says, about being in touch again soon, but this question is answered almost immediately.
Before he leaves the room, before he goes, he turns and smiles and looks at me like I am a gift from God, and for a moment I feel like maybe I am.
Excerpted from This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas.
Copyright © 2010 by Donna Freitas.
Published in 2010 by FARRAR STRAUS GIROUX.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.