Our second Monday of ninth grade was the first day we saw Jeanie Cain. It was also the day that our health teacher Ms. Dagny, stood up in front of the class and announced that everyone is born with a tiny hole in their heart.
“A microscopic sized hole,” she said pinching her fingers together to give the class an accurate representation.
We sat in the back, never truly listening to what was going on outside of our circle, but what she said hooked us in by our ears. Since the school year began, she hadn’t said a single word, let alone anything factual. The silence hung heavy throughout the room until the bell rang out, and in a mute shuffle of zippering backpacks, we gathered our things and left.
We discovered the mysterious Jeanie Cain the class period after Ms. Dagny discussed the heart holes. By that time in the year August was over, and the resonance of our summer spent in the sun and nose-diving into the county pool was far in the back of our minds. We stood in the courtyard of Harrisburg High School, waiting for our next class, when Jeanie darted by us in a flash. Her parent’s watched her from their car as she ran in. That first day we saw her, scurrying inside, she wore long drab baggy sweatpants and a skin-colored mock turtleneck that managed to conceal everything we wanted to see. She ran into the bathroom. We thought at first she was just having a bad case of indigestion, or maybe she was on her period, but Ms. Dagny hadn’t gotten to that lesson yet so we couldn’t be sure.
We moved closer to the girl’s bathroom to investigate. When she walked out, a different Jeanie appeared. She wore a yellow halter top that revealed her thin stomach and a pair of tight-fitting jeans. She had jammed her revealing outfit into her backpack, stuffing that fleshy turtleneck down to the bottom. Her parents, Colin and Denise Cain, both worked at the Northern Hills Christian Church near the school. They worked from early in the morning until the candles in the church illuminated dimly and dribbled out streams of hot wax. From neighboring parents we heard that the Cain household was strict to say the least. But seeing Jeanie leave the bathroom, freshly blended blush highlighting the sunken sides of her rosy cheeks, we were hooked just as we had when Ms. Dagny unleashed her fact to the class. From that day early on in the school year, we tried to watch Jeanie any time we could.
We had never truly spoken to her. She was a tenth grader, a whole separate breed of girls to us. The one’s in our grade still seemed juvenile, roaming around with hunks of metal in their teeth, still wearing the same clothes they wore to eighth grade graduation. On her way to social studies is where we often crossed paths. We wanted to be in social studies with her. To spend every droning class period, our eyes yearning to be gouged out staring at world maps and reading about the origins of the American Revolution, in her presence. We imagined that she was different in class, actually studious compared to the other girls who strayed to the back walls, popping their pink wads of gum and gossiping over where Ryan Cannata went for spring break.
Once, cutting our way to English through the teacher’s lounge, we stumbled upon a social studies study group that included Jeanie. She sat around with the other students in a circle, watching almost tediously as Ms. Kubsch tore into her egg-salad sandwich, sending dollops of mustard colored yolks onto the table and releasing a smell that drove us back the way we came. Even when the aroma of two-day old eggs was torturing her, Jeanie’s face still looked beautiful and full of mystery. The way her mop of brunette hair dangled over the sides of her shoulders, and the dark almond color in her eyes seemed to look through whatever she was staring at, as if she was waiting for Ms. Kubsch to ask her some profound question about life rather than one about the Ottoman Empire. Jeanie was surrounded by people, but her eyes wandered aimlessly out, like she was looking for a piece of herself that was missing.
By the time spring rolled around, we had been watching Jeanie around school for months. We saw the seasons shift with decayed flowerbeds and frozen windshields. At times we often felt ashamed of watching Jeanie do so much without her knowledge of our existence. One of us considered talking to her, or even slipping a note through the vents of her locker. But we couldn’t come to an agreement on what to say, so we returned to watching and agreed that we could only talk to Jeanie if approached or under dire circumstances. Later that week, the day Kirk Ellison came to us in the hallway with an offer we couldn’t refuse or even believe, was when everything changed.
On that particular day, Jeanie was running late, maybe held behind fixing her makeup in the bathroom mirror, or curving the tube of deep crimson lipstick over the hills and valleys of her lips. We were worried, watching her walk was like watching God traverse across water, each step just floating. Our hearts felt like dead weights waiting in our secluded spots for her. We all knew exactly where to position ourselves between the social studies room where the tenth graders herded into, and then catty corner from where the janitor always left his broom closet door open. Whoever showed up to school last got the spot near the janitor’s closet, and had to inhale deep streams of ammonia while waiting for Jeanie.
Suddenly she waltzed around the corner. Jeanie Cain had on her plum-colored heels that seemed to make her a foot taller, and the dress she was wearing fit too well, causing her, with each ten or so steps, to adjust the end of the slim blue felt material down to reveal less of her pasty thighs. The top of the dress curved up and around her shoulders, meeting together in a tangle on the ball of her neck.
But at the moment she cruised down the hallway, tucked out of sight we looked and seared into our brains each curve that her slim body protruded. The heels made her tower over the tops of the manila metal lockers. It felt like she was looking down upon everyone, but we seemed to be the only ones who even bothered to notice. The traffic of students walking in and out of the social studies hallway looked her up and down and then continued with their conversation or shoved their hands deeper into their pockets. Jeanie sauntered into class; we all exhaled.
“It happened, last night it finally happened,” Kirk said as he slammed the palm of his hand onto a locker in excitement.
Kirk was apart of our group that watched Jeanie, and he had a leg up on all of us because he lived next to her. In fact Kirk’s room had a window that faced directly towards Jeanie’s window. He said that for a while now he had kept his blinds closed, only peeking out through the cracks at night to look. Her window had no blinds, just pure glass coated in dust from the Cottonwood tree that shrouded her backyard.
Kirk had never seen anything, not so much as the flick of a light switch coming on or even someone opening the window to take in some fresh air. But in the past weeks he said the Jeanie Cain sightings through his musty window were increasing. First, just a brief glimpse, like a ghost in jeans and a white Pink Floyd t-shirt had sprinted past the window in a flash. But then he said that sometimes after school she would perch herself up in the windowsill and look out onto their street. Gazing out with the same mystery her eyes had the day we saw her in the study group. But the Jeanie sightings turned into more.
“ I saw her change, she took everything off,” Kirk said.
We didn’t know how to react. Fantasies of her clothes falling down to the floor, her slim legs sliding out of denim material, they all crowded our minds.
“Liar, you didn’t see shit,” one of us said.
“Yeah Kirk the only naked girls you’ve seen are from Dagny’s dioramas.”
We spread our fingers out wide, and cupped the excess skin from our chests up, motioning like the girls from Mardi Gras towards Kirk.
“I did! Come over after school tomorrow and we’ll all watch,” Kirk said.
We agreed, and a plan was formed. The halls started to thin out as the class bells chimed in. We gathered our things and as we were walking we passed Mrs. Dagny. She stared at us with hollow eyes; we kept ours down, focusing on the tiled floor rather than her. One of us swore that she was poking at her chest with her index finger, still checking for the holes in her heart.
The next day came quickly. We abandoned our final class to get a head start toward Kirk’s. Walking through the neighborhood, we realized that we had only ever watched Jeanie at school, never this close to her home. For some reason, we had thought that she lived in some big white marble house like the Vatican. Maybe it was because of her parents working for the church. But approaching Kirk’s we walked one house further to see what the Cain residence truly looked like.
The house was the worst looking one on Clermont Street. The rough outer layer of white paint was floating off in thin chunks, exposing a base-layer of rotting wood. The gutters looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in years. A mucky concoction of thickets, leaves from Kirk’s tree in his front yard, and dark grime like a fungus dangled over the side of the drain. The metal sidings and bolts that hung on for dear life sagged towards the earth. Stray shingles were scattered across the roof. A cobblestone path was etched into her driveway and lead all the way up to the front door, which was the oddest part of the house out of everything. The door was painted the same color of crimson as the lipstick Jeanie always put on. Every other house on the street looked fresh and new, but had no such lingering color as the Cain’s door had.
We inched up towards the window to look inside. A while back Kirk had told us that Mrs. Cain had invited his mom over so that she could teach her the famous apple pie recipe Kirk’s mom only made in the summertime.
“She said their house looked the same as the inside of Northern Hills,” Kirk had said to us, “You couldn’t go two feet without seeing Jesus pinned to a cross, Jeanie’s mom even had one hung up above the microwave.”
When we cupped our hands up to the front window, the report from Kirk’s mom was true. Crosses were hung up everywhere. Big ones, small ones, golden ones, wooden ones, the realistic ones where someone poorly drew Jesus’s body a pink fleshy color with red smudges up and down his sides. All of these crosses hung on the walls like the Cain’s had bought a haunted house and were trying to exorcize the demon that came with it.
Kirk let us inside his house and we marched upstairs to his room where everyone was already waiting. We were prepared; one of us even had a pair of binoculars draped around their neck. We knew Jeanie had gym class eighth hour, where the sounds of rubber soles bounced across the evenly waxed floor and the smell of young bodies that hadn’t discovered deodorant yet wafted to the rafters. The walk from Harrisburg to Clermont Street took roughly fifteen minutes if you didn’t get stuck at the two intersections along the way. Kirk told us that Jeanie had been coming home from school at the ends of long days and had been drowning her house with music. He couldn’t identify the exact song as it was mostly muffled until she opened her window.
“It’s rock, definitely rock, I’ve heard one of the songs on the radio before,” Kirk had said.
Minutes later, we finally saw Jeanie walking up the street. We lurked from Kirk’s front window. Before going inside, she stopped dead in her tracks on the cobblestone path and looked the house up and down. We felt like she was making designs in her head of what she would fix with the house. Hire roofers for the shingles; maybe paint the side panels the same shade of red as the door to match. When she finally went inside, we ran upstairs to Kirk’s room and hid behind his window waiting. Kirk slid his window open just a bit, and then put the blinds down. Our eyes darted back and forth, our heads bobbed up and down trying to find the right angles to watch from.
The walls of her room were the same shade of faded white as the house. They weren’t adorned with posters or vibrant flyers like most kids rooms were. Jeanie’s walls were blank besides a lone cross that was centered above her bed.
“I can’t see shit,” one of us said, jamming our way to the front of the window.
Jeanie’s window was shut, but as we settled into our spots we saw the door to her room swing open followed shortly after by the top of her body walking across the room. We all moved in closer to the blinds, squinting our eyes to get better details. She seemed distressed, moving around her room at a pace we had never seen during any hour of school. She put her hands up onto her head like she was out of breath, running her fingers through her hair that was still slightly damp probably from playing tennis out on the courts behind the school. We watched as Jeanie, with her hands still over her head, began to breathe in heavy streams of air. Her chest pushed up against the boundaries of her jet-black shirt with each breath in. The outline of her rigid rib cage splintering out.
We all but put our heads through the blinds, mesmerized by what they were seeing. And as Jeanie went around her rooms in tiny laps, we started to get the sense that something was off. Her demeanor, the way she breathed and even walked all seemed out of character. Like she was hiding the natural way she did those ordinary things at school, striving to stand and walk like all the other girls.
“Kirk, when is this gonna get good man?” we asked in a hushed tone.
She slid her window open, and then moved to the corner of her room out of our line of sight. The scent of laundry detergent floated from her window and into Kirk’s. We leaned in closer. Kirk stood up and opened the blinds up a little more, pressing his head against them.
“Do you hear that?” we asked. Tiny inklings of guitar riffs and a hard beating drum began to wander from Jeanie’s room.
“Told you, rock music, she digs it,” Kirk said.
From the obscure corner of her room Jeanie reappeared in the window. At first she slowly nodded her head, as if she was hearing the song for the first time, picking up the beat as each pluck of the bass and tap of the drum sped up. Her shoulders began to jutter up and down, then the hips went. They rotated about, following the path her shoulders carved out. Her shirt twisted and scrunched up along her slender body with each contortion. We moved further and further into the blinds, our noses beginning to poke through, aching to open up the blinds fully. Our minds went blank; the binoculars were placed on the floor; Kirk covered his pants with his comforter.
Jeanie had us hooked in by string, our heads couldn’t move even if we wanted them to. Watching her dance wildly about her room was even more astonishing than watching her traverse the halls of school, or the time her eyes met ours as we cut through the courtyard, Jeanie staring out into the parking lot like she was watching a movie. We saw the true Jeanie, and she danced like nobody was watching, except we were.
As we watched Jeanie move wildly about her room, we must’ve missed Mr. and Mrs. Cain pull their car up the driveway. The rock music now at its peak likely drowned out the sounds of their car doors slamming shut, Mr. Cain fumbling with the keys trying to open their front door.
Mr. Cain busted through Jeanie’s bedroom door so fast, we thought the frame exploded off, the hinges flaying out in a mangled mess of bronze plates and bent screws. Jeanie didn’t notice her Dad for a brief moment and we stared in horror wanting to shout and warn her of what she was not seeing. Jeanie danced in a circle until she locked eyes with her Dad, her shoulders settling down like a wave finally crashing into a sandy beach. They stood there for what seemed like minutes, the music rising. Mr. Cain walked into the corner and cut the music off. Mr. Cain looked Jeanie up and down, at her outfit, at the obscure corner of her room. Kirk opened the blinds a bit more. We pleaded for him to stop out of fear that Mr. Cain would give us the same glare he gave his daughter.
“What? We gotta hear this,” Kirk said.
Jeanie backed up onto the corner of her bed, Mr. Cain towering over her. Mrs. Cain walked through the door shortly after. She began to talk to Jeanie. We could barely hear and someone put the binoculars on in an attempt to translate.
“She’s asking about the music, and, and her clothes, her makeup, dude this is bad.”
Jeanie began to plead her case to them both. “Please…. can’t control what I wear…. is who I am,” Jeanie said, muffled through the window.
Mr. Cain paced to her window in anger. He returned back to Jeanie and sent a firm backhand across her face. We lurched back, shaking the blinds, feeling the coarse knuckles of Mr. Cain’s hand across our faces too.
We ducked beneath the window and held our breath. When we returned, Jeanie was now sprawled across her bed. She tried to cover her face but we saw her hollow cheeks already beginning to swell up like a mountain of flesh, stained sunburn red. Mrs. Cain stood at the edge of the door in fear; Mr. Cain began to dig through Jeanie’s closet. Kirk buried his head deep into his comforter, the binoculars again went to the floor, but we continued to watch Jeanie.
Mr. Cain ripped through her closet, flashes of metal containers and CD’s glinted in the sunlight as he examined each item before tossing them out of the window. Jeanie stayed glued to her bed; we heard her sobs just as we had heard her music.
Her mom and dad left her room, and after an hour we figured the coast was clear. Kirk opened up the blinds. We looked down at the side of her house where a violent heap of objects and clothing had formed on top of the leaves that had been ignored since fall. But as we stared at everything thrown from the window, we looked up to see Jeanie staring back at us. We stayed there for a moment, our eyes locked with Jeanie’s. She looked down at the pile of her objects, and then back to us. Runny, dark outlines of mascara drifted down from her eyes like some sort of hole had been pierced and ink had spilled out. Jeanie turned, and closed her window.
Sometimes at night that brief moment we had with Jeanie through her window would come back to us. How the whole time we stood there looking directly at the girl we cared so much about, our minds could only wander to the thought of Ms. Dagny, and the day she stood up to the class and talked about the heart holes. How the cacophony of conversations, laughter, and smacking gum that consumed the class fell silent just as the last word left her lips. How her eyes moved in a blank motion across the room, how she stood tall, and let out a huge, fresh breath of air as if she had been waiting forever to tell anyone about the tiny heart holes, a truth that she held so desperately close to her. How everyone in the school knew that Ms. Dagny’s son had died at birth from a heart defect but couldn’t look her in the eyes as she watched us from the front of the class. How, with Ms. Dagny looking at us, we held our hands at our chests to make sure they were still beating properly, and dug our fingers deep into our sternum bones to see if we could detect any microscopic holes.
Joe Lyons on the collective we of adolescence.
Joe Lyons is currently a junior at the University of Colorado, Denver. He has been writing fiction for three years now.