Chapter 9

My life at St. Dominique’s Convent was drawn back into its routine of peaceful normalcy as soon as the taxi that brought me from the airport shrank into tail lights. Sister Bernadine, very much the heart and soul of my newest home, filled the doorway. As I walked up, suitcase in my hand. she stood perfectly still. As she looked at me, it was as if the sight of me reminded her of something very important. After an eternity, not smiling, yet somehow welcoming, she asked, “Are you alright, Sister? Is there anything you need to tell me?” I looked up to her on the top stair and said, “No.” She nodded, then turned and walked into the main building of the Convent. Her office was directly to the back of the main entrance, the living quarters were to the right, down a long corridor. When she reached the door to her office, she turned and said, “Thank you, Sister Ryan. I’m glad you made it back home.” She disappeared into the shadowy interior of her office and closed the door.

Now, weeks later, with the sun setting December-early, the office of the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s was a study in shadow. I believe she liked to keep her very large, very high-ceilinged office more dark than light, for a couple of reasons. The view of Chesapeake Bay through the ceiling-to-floor windows behind her desk was breath-taking, and, whenever I’m in the mood to shock my fellow novitiate, I’ll say, “…and she totally keeps the lights in her office so low because it compliments her natural scariness.”

Not that the Mother Superior needed the Special Effects. Sister Bernadine was the most naturally intimidating person I have ever known.

I was in a mostly empty classroom, working after school with a small group of students who were having trouble keeping up in math class. It was very quiet. Children seemed, almost naturally, to speak in hushed and whispered tones when in a classroom after regular school hours. The comfortable silence was broken by the sound of shoe heels clicking on the corridor’s tile floors, heading toward our room. The syncopated ryhtmn brought to mind Peter Pan and Tick Tock. The approaching footfalls stopped, an odd rustling sound came from outside in the hall and then Sister Catherine marched into the room. She walked over to where I was crouched, helping Timothy Caine figure out to how turn fractions into decimals, and her face showed the look of a person who hates animals finding themselves in a pet store. She stood there without saying a word. Finally, I rose up, resisted the urge to salute her, smiled and said,

“Yes Sister, is there some way I can help you?”

“This is from our Mother Superior,” she said, holding out a folded piece of paper.

She waited until I reached out my hand then with a sense of importance, like the adjunct to a battlefield general passing along orders to a field commander, she placed the paper in my open palm. She stood and stared at me while the silence in the room grew, until the cracking sound of a pencil lead breaking and a childish ‘darn it!’ broke the spell. Sister Catherine turned her head sharply towards the sound, and the overhead lights shot silvery glints from the frames of her wire-rimmed glasses. I put the paper in my habit and immediately turned to the child with the broken pencil. Without another word, she marched out of the classroom. She left in search of a new and different mission to accept.

I crouched next to Matthew Silas’s desk, and seeing the threat of tears in his eyes, said, “Dude! You be doin’ that math thing awl wrong, yo.” My classroom filled with the sound of nine-year-old laughter…echoing out into the empty corridors and washing over the receding back of Sister Catherine. I pulled out the note and read, “Come see me, Sr B”

In the late afternoon darkness, I closed up the school building. Only the two custodians remained to travel the empty hallways, pulling their rubber-wheeled cart full of cleaning products, mops and green sawdust, like medieval merchants wandering the desert, looking for work. I ran across the courtyard that was whitened by the day’s snowfall. It was the first snow of the winter and even though I had swept the staircase clear during the lunch hour, there was about two inches of fresh snow on the walkways and steps up to the main building of the Convent. I managed a halfway controlled slide for the last six feet and, laughing, caught up with Sister Cletus, who was at the bottom of the four steps, staring like a novice climber at the foot of the Matterhorn.

“Sister! Let’s go up the stairs together!” I slid my right arm under her left and around her waist, while reaching around and taking the satchel that she held in her right hand. She looked at me with gratitude and we walked up the stairs, I didn’t let go until we both stepped on the perforated rubber mat inside the double doors.

“Thank you, Sister Margaret! I fear that my skiing days are behind me.” The look in her eyes spoke sad volumes. Sister Cletus was the oldest nun in the Convent and, so, the most storied. Especially this time of year, tales would be told about how she used to ski the Alps. She turned and went to the right, down the corridor towards the living quarters. I proceeded forward to the office of the Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s.

I pulled the serrated strip on the shipping envelope and took out the contents, a number 10 envelope and a green leather bound journal. It was a serious looking book. Though neither scuffed nor torn, it clearly was not new. I tossed the empty FedEx envelope to my side and placed the journal and the envelope in the center of the pool of light on Sister Bernadine’s desk. The envelope had ‘Sister Bernadine’ written on the front, so I turned it to face her and but journal I oriented towards me. I glanced up and, as I suspected, Sister Bernadine was looking at me, not at the contents of the discarded FedEx.

“Let’s see what Sister Phyllis thought you wanted for Christmas, shall we?”

Sister Bernadine sat at her desk. What little daylight remained, came in through the ceiling-to-floor windows behind her. The scene beyond was one of snow-whitened lawns rolling off to the edge of Chesapeake Bay. There was a table lamp behind my chair, casting reflective pools of light on the heavy paneled walls. My chair was directly in front of Sister Bernadine’s desk. It occurred to me to wonder that, of all the nuns in the Convent, I seemed to spend the most time in this chair. It also occurred to me that I didn’t know if I should be proud or disturbed by this insight.

“Why do you think Sister Phyllis would me send this? I’ve had no contact, message, letter, call, voice mail, nothing since I left St Emily’s, not a word.”

“Well, Margaret, I’ve known Sister Phyllis since I entered the Order and, while she has many fine qualities, spontaneity is not one of them. She is, however, one of the most intelligent women I know. Intelligent and methodical. So whatever this is, rest assured it’s something she feels has value.” She laughed slightly. In another, less imposing woman, one might think she was chuckling,

“She might not even know exactly what makes this journal important. However, I’ve learned to never underestimate our Sister in Chicago. There’ve been times that I’ve seriously entertained the notion that she deliberately projects the ‘dithering woman’ persona, as a way to get people to underestimate her. That said, she has such a remarkable ability to concentrate on the task at hand, that I’m also comfortable with the fact the she appears quite absent-minded at times.

“I could tell you to leave everything on my desk, put it out of your mind and return to your life as a second-year novitiate. But that’s not very likely to happen, is it?”

I looked directly at her, “If my Mother Superior says this is how it must be, I will do my best to comply with her wishes.”

Sister Bernadine leaned back in her chair and laughed, the sound filling the high ceilinged, leaded-glass and carved-wood formality of her office. The room seemed to become warmer, somehow more comfortable.

“Don’t try to kid a kidder, young Sister. I’m the woman who diverted you from the time-honored path established by our Order hundreds of years ago. I took it on myself to interrupt this process, one that is essential to your development in this very special way of life. Nothing about this matter in Chicago is anything but deadly serious. You did as I asked and matters have gone from bad to worse. Do not underestimate the gravity of the situation!” Sister Bernadine got up and stood at the windows, looking out to the Bay. She probably believed that I didn’t notice that, as she put both hands on the desk, as if to help raise her sizable bulk, she swept her habit sleeve over the center of the desk where I placed the journal and the envelope. There was now only the journal, in the pool of light created by the desk lamp.

“This matter clearly is not over, I’ll bet the convent and the school on that. This is not, however, anything other than a very personal and sensitive matter. Very sensitive. Sensitive as in, not to be spoken of, even in the confessional. I have no right to impose such a burden on anyone, especially not a young woman only halfway through her novitiate… but, I have and I pray for God’s forgiveness for what I’ve done and what I am considering doing.”

“You can count on me, Mother Superior…” I could see Sister Bernadine’s shoulders slump just slightly.

“…on two conditions.”

The Mother Superior of St Dominique’s Convent went from standing in a shadow, bearing a weight un-seen, to standing in front of me with a speed and grace that made me jerk back in my seat. The look in her face was anything but weary, it was the look of a tiger when she hears an unexpected sound, such as the cracking of a tree limb.

“There is something about you, Sister Margaret, something that both heartens me and makes me feel very sad and not a little frightened for you. But I’ve burdened you enough with my frailties. Tell me what you think you need from me.”

“One, tell me about your life. Two, (and this is not really a demand), two…when the time comes, share with me what the envelope holds.” I looked into Sister Bernadine’s eyes and was struck with the certainty that what I was about to become involved in, might very well cost me the very thing I came here seeking. The joy and shared sense of security found joining with other women in the Order was very real. Unfortunately, I was also convinced there are some people put on earth who can never find peace in a group. Though they might visit, interact, even form bounds with members of the group, they lacked the ability to put aside the danger of the outside world .

“…Agreed” Sister Bernadine’s voice pulled me from the dark of my thoughts. The feeling of this library-turned-office, so iconic in its expansive declaration of wealth, (of the original owner), and power (of its current occupant) changed at that moment and I felt at home.

“Take this journal back to your room. Read it. Learn what you can. Return here tomorrow at this time.” Sister Bernadine turned to the window and watched the cold waves marching from the Bay to the land, surely seeking rest.

Later that evening I sat at my desk, grateful that my roommate, Sister Claire, was in Wisconsin tending to her dying mother. Catching myself, I said a quick prayer that God would give my friend either strength or comfort, as she closed the cycle of life, seeing her mother out of this life, much as her mother brought her into it. I put the journal on the desk and, to the left of the book, a yellow legal pad. The only unanswered question was, “Do I begin at the end and end at the beginning or, is it smarter to begin at the beginning and end at the end?’ The journal was at least 200 pages and handwritten and Sister Bernadine expected me to report what I learned tomorrow, so I flipped to the last page… and then, on a whim, found the entry for September of this year.

***

            Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers, leaning out the window of her new Mercedes, swiped her identification badge through the card-reader at the entrance to the physicians parking lot. As the newest head of the residency program at Doctor’s Hospital in Columbus, OH, she willingly paid the price of having her days start very early. She smiled, remembering her nine-year-old daughter’s promise that she wouldn’t open all her presents on Christmas morning, “if you have to go to work.” Anne fully expected to have to work at least one of the holidays coming in the next two weeks.

The parking lot was nearly empty and its security system, recently upgraded, behaved erratically. The third swipe of her new ID card resulted in a green light and the yellow and black-striped barrier arm began to tilt upwards. She started forward, only to slam on her brakes, as the metal barrier reversed direction and moved downwards. “Shit!” was about all she had time to say, as the arm stopped six inches above the hood of her car. Anne reached into her bag on the passenger seat, intent on calling Security, when the metal arm started moving up again. Still holding the phone, she drove under the gate fast enough to cause the car to silde, just briefly before recovering traction. Looking in the rearview mirror she saw the cross arm moving up and down, in short, rapid movements. Putting the car in neutral, safely in her designated parking space, she spoke into her phone, “Note: send email to Security Department to fix the goddamn gate. Edit: send an email to the vendor of the new security system.” Pushing another icon on the phone she said, “Siri ,Who is the company installing the upgraded security at Doctor’s Hospital?” After a slightly longer than normal pause, the phone responded, “Here is what I found: the Omni Corporation”. Locking the car, she walked the short distance to the staff entrance.

She swiped her card. Nothing happened. She swiped it again and the glass door slid halfway open. Remembering her problem getting past the security gate in the parking lot, rather than squeezing through the narrow opening, she swiped her card again. This time the door slid completely open. She stepped through quickly and walked down the hall to the elevators. Waiting for the elevator, she looked back towards the entrance. As she watched, the sliding door, which had remained open as she stepped through, suddenly slid shut. She jumped when the bell rang as the elevator doors opened. Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers hesitated. She glanced at the red exit sign over the door to the stairwell and thought to herself, “It’s only two flights, you could use the cardio.” Dismissing the thought, she stepped into the elevator and punched ‘2’.

***

[from the Journal of Fr. Robert Noonan O.P.] ” 24 Sept 15 I read with dismay a newspaper article about an accidental death at an area hotel. A young woman fell six stories to her death in the hotel atrium. The article, written in a style as cold and heartless as the metal table in a morgue, identified the victim as one Emily Freeman, of Chicago. I now know what writers are trying to convey when they describe a character in shock so extreme that ‘their heart stopped’. Mine did, (would that my mind could have followed suit). That single name, in a small article on page six of a suburban newspaper, opened a part of my life with as much subtlety as a crowbar on a bathroom door. And somehow, I felt I could let the memory subside on its own. But for the thought, “she was the youngest of the group, she really had no business getting involved with them” 

***

In her new office, Anne checked the day’s schedule and saw that she had First Year Resident’s Orientation in the MRI/Imaging Department right after morning rounds. The orientation focused on patient prep, accompanying patients to the department and observing the procedure from the glass enclosed control room. She decided that, since the upgrades to the hospital’s computer systems were obviously not complete, it would be best to go down to the MRI Department and make certain that everything was ready for the first patient.

Anne slowed as she approached the automatic double doors outside the MRI Suite. Looking down the empty corridor, she saw only the custodian, pushing his cart, working his way from office to office towards where she stood. He was nodding his head to the beat of the music that his ear phones supplied, no doubt a sound that felt like warm tropical breezes. She stepped towards the doors and they silently swung inwards, allowing her entrance. The large room was, of course, empty at this hour. As usually happened, she thought of the old sci-fi movie, ‘Stargate’ at the sight of the the plastic tunnel of the MRI, banks of lights and indcatos on both sides always brought the future to mind. The control room was on the right side of the room. Seeing nothing out of order, Anne entered the control room and stood at the row of computers. She decided to put the equipment through a quick preliminary diagnostic, and pushed the System Power button on.

***

…[from the Journal of Fr. Robert Noonan O.P.] “31 Oct 15 I found the file that I forgot that I had saved, the pages all hand written, dating from 1998, my last year teaching at DePaul. For reasons that I seemed to have left behind in the past, the file was titled, ‘the Hermes Consortium’. Seeing the name triggered a set of memories anchored by the thought, ‘the ego of youth holds the downfall of the bold’, which sounds like some culture’s effort to compensate for the over-bearing power of the young and inexperienced. This group, if by no other indication than the name they chose for themselves, would be who this admonition was intended for. Rather than physical aggressiveness and military force, they sought to carve an empire in the air. The internet was truly the newest frontier and they were determined to have it all. An incredibly diverse group of talented young men and women, they wrote stories and essays, opinion and conjecture and most of all they wrote, web logs, or blogs as they were calling it, for every frontier inspires a special language to contain the experience that, by definition, was novel and unique …”

***

The four or five computers in the control room came to life, with that peculiar ‘reverse blink’ of the modern LED displays. Seeing that every green light glowed green and that none of the red lights glowed red, Anne keyed a short command and the system showed ‘Standby’ status. Looking through the windows out at the MRI, everything appeared to be in order. She was almost down the three steps from the control room, when a single monitor screen began blinking on and off. The other monitors immediately followed suit and, to add to the feeling of alarm that was creeping up Dr. Anne Paternau’s abdomen, a message scrolled on to the primary display. Standing in front of the control panel she read: ‘Malfunction of Primary Scanner, Clear Table Jam’ (there was an icon of the sliding table where the patient lay and a big X in the center of the MRI tunnel-ring, with a circle and a single line through it.)

“Goddamnit it! My polite email to the vendor about the balky security system just upgraded to a “Why the hell are we paying Omni Corp so much for so little’ letter.” Anne decided to deal with the problem, return to her office and find some asses to kick. She walked over to the MRI. As she crossed the large room, she heard the sound of the adjacent office door being being slammed shut, followed by the rubbery whispering sound of a custodian’s cart approaching the door to the MRI Suite. She realized that the hospital’s day was starting in earnest and resolved to fix the problem as quickly as possible.

***

[…from the Journal of Robert Noonan O.P.] ” 13 Nov 15 Last week, I mailed a letter to my dear friend Sister Bernadine, now the Mother Superior of a convent in Maryland. I ask God’s forgiveness for involving her in this, but I cannot think of anyone else who would believe the story I need to tell. The principal of our school called me yesterday, quite distraught over the status of the new school website. Sister Phyllis said that what she saw on the screen was so filthy and obscene that she actually had the computer taken from the library and put in her office and left unplugged, like an uncontrollable psychotic in some asylum. That is not what disturbs me, at least, it’s not all that disturbs me. She told me that among the words, which, bless her heart, she could not bring herself to say aloud, was a phrase, that she described as ‘something from Greek mythology, something about a Consortium of Hermes.’ I am going over to the school after lunch and hope to find some understanding. (Note added to entry: I received a note from Bernadine that she is sending someone to help! I pray to God that it’s not too late.)

***

Leaning over the patient table, Anne thought she could see a flashing light behind a button, on the inner side of the enclosure. Due to her position, halfway in the MRI enclosure, she could not see the light over the MRI, the light over the door to the corridor or even the indicator lights inside the control room. They all turned from Green to Red. The message displayed on the primary system monitor changed from: ‘Malfunction of Primary Scanner, Clear Table Jam’ (in red) to ‘Commencing Scan Maximum Cycle’ (in green)

Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers did hear the very loud banging noise as the cyclotron came instantly up to speed. Looking up, she was confused by the sight of a horrified custodian standing in the open doorway. He seemed to be reaching for something desperately and failing. The last thing Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers saw was a shiny metal custodian’s cart flying towards the center of the MRI enclosure.

***

Unit 17 measured the initial visit/bounce activity of the November post of the blog, ‘Bet You Didn’t See that Coming’. All measures, metrics and past performance standards indicated a steady, if not an accelerating upward curve on the graph showing visit/read rates. Accessing the ‘Draft Post Buffer’, Unit 17, being the epitome of efficiency, (it was, after all, a machine), used its most recent and successful blog post as a template for its next experiment.

 

‘Bet You Didn’t See that Coming’ Post #2 (pre-publish draft):

Police, responding to a call from Doctor’s Hospital in Columbus, found the body of Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers on the floor of the MRI Imaging Suite. The ME’s preliminary report indicated cause of death as severe multiple blunt force/compression with a malfunction of the MRI Scanner as the proximate cause. The new Head of Residency Department, age 35, the specific circumstances have not been established; a police investigation is currently underway. The hospital’s medical director issued a statement conveying the hospital administrations sympathy and promised a full report certifying the safety of the imaging equipment at the hospital.

Unit 17 felt hopeful that this new Post would bring more visits and readers and attention, once published out in the blogosphere. Lacking not only the language, but the very concept underlying a state of mind so prosaic as to be trite, Unit 17 was bored.

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