Caged

Part 1: The Rosary

CAGED

PART 1-TEN YEARS OLD (2007)

ONE WEEK EARLIER

The Rosary

I watch my older brother as he leans back on the bus seat, bible over his eyes and breathing even as his chest rises and falls calmly. It's much different to his ragged breaths after a baseball game. Ultear chats with her friend in the seat ahead of us, her posture straight as an arrow as they gossip about the "cute" male alter server they work with. Despite her strict nature, Ultear can be pretty cool (and scary), and I'll take boy gossip over lectures any day.

There's a calming nature to the bus. Most kids hate it—standing on the corner, sitting with a group of loud kids. At least that's how they portray it in the movies. I don't know if it's just because I go to a catholic school but that's not how it is at all here.

Especially on rainy days like this, where the water is tapping its rhythmic tune on the roof of the bus, the heater spitting out puffs of dust occasionally, the rain running down the windows in intricate spider-web designs, the bus is quite calming. There's a murmur of voices in one united hum as my classmates speak to each other.

A puff of wind brushes against my skin as a girl named Sherry whisks past me. Sherry is nearly two years older than Lyon, turning fifteen in February—she's in Ultear's grade. Our school is a K-12 thing. She walks so fast past me that her skirt—hiked up to be way shorter than a catholic school skirt should be—flies up behind her and I catch a preview of her lacy undergarments. Why a fourteen-year-old wears such risky clothes I don't know.

Sherry has outlandish pink hair and porcelain skin, and her lips are always a glossy pink color. She taps on Lyon's shoulder and he pulls the book off his eyes in anger.

"Gray, wake me up again and I'll kill you." Sherry coughs, flashing Lyon a coy smile as he catches a glimpse of her in the corner of his eyes.

Lyon often says Sherry is the hottest girl in school because she wears a blouse that's two sizes too small and has tits bigger than most of the teachers already. He says I'll understand when I'm older. I'm not sure I want to.

Despite liking her body, Lyon will never share the feelings for Sherry she clearly feels for him—she's too obsessive. Ultear likes to tell me that our brother will never hold a girlfriend because he already "thinks with his dick." It's like our inside joke.

Lyon turns to Sherry, his dark eyes making small flickering movements up her curvy form, memorizing her body before we move away in a week. I know she notices it, but she basks in the glory and I think she even shoves her arms a bit closer to accentuate her cleavage, but I couldn't care less because when Lyon turns around I catch a glimpse of something.

A necklace of wooden beads spilling from his pocket. A rosary. Lyon's rosary. It's Rosary Day and I don't feel mine in my pocket.

"Lyon…" He waves me off.

"Lyon." He ignores me once again so I give up, lean forward and seize Ultear's cardigan sleeve.

"Ultear, I forgot my rosary." She stops midsentence and turns to me incredulously.

"You forgot your rosary?" I nod, tears stinging the back of my eyes and an incredibly thick lump in my throat.

"Shit, Gray," she cusses as she turns in her chair. "One day a month you need a rosary and you choose today to be forgetful?" I nod again. I'm screwed. I am so screwed.

The Milkovich Family Rules are like our own Ten Commandments but with far more than ten expectations. Rule #4 is and I quote:

Anything to dishonor God and/or His teachings are prohibited. Therefore you shall not break any school rules, most important being:

A.No inappropriate or offensive clothing.

B.Uniforms must always be fastened properly.

C.Do not speak rudely to or about a teacher, priest or peer.

D.Never question God's word.

E.Neverforget your rosary on Rosary Day, as it shows your supposed lack of respect for the prayers of our dear Lord and Savior.

Lyon grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me back onto the bus bench, rolling his eyes when he sees the tears that are blurring my vision. Whatever comfort the bus provided is gone, and now the rain is just noise accelerating the beating of my heart.

"Jesus Christ, you cannot honestly be crying." When I refuse to answer, Lyon rolls his eyes and mutters something I can't decipher before he and Ultear converse in their older sibling way.

"Do you have your cell phone?" Lyon asks.

"Yea, why?"

"Call Mom and have her bring it."

"Dr. Brown will never let that slide."

Dr. Brown is my teacher. He is a burly man with graying red hair and a thick beard. He's very religious and when he lectures us about God his pasty skin turns red, a vein in his head pops forward and his Adam's apple bobs underneath the parts of his beard that have grown onto his chin and neck.

"Well we're halfway to school and our idiot brother is crying his eyes out so what else do we do?"

Ultear leans forward and reaches into her backpack, successfully blocking herself from my vision as she settles back into her chair. I'm too short to see over the seat. I listen to her talk to my mother until Lyon grabs me by the shoulders again and turns me towards him. He looks me square in the eyes with those slanting black eyes. It reminds me of when Dad lectures me and blue and black clash with grinding anger.

"Gray, in case Mom doesn't get there in time, take this." I look at his now outstretched hand and see the beads hanging from the parted space between his fingers, the kind of cheap crystalline plastic ones you get at the craft store. I recognize the thin, worn in string and those blue beads well. It's one of the crappy rosaries the first grade teacher has all her students make. Lyon keeps it in case he forgets his.

"If this isn't good enough for your cock-sucker teacher, tell him next week you're moving to the States next week where you'll be praising every star on the flag, becoming a democrat and eating cheeseburgers on Fourth of July." I grin through my tears; my teacher is a conservative vegan who hates America and everyone in it.

When we arrive at school the bus puffs out a cloud of steam as it stops, the heating shutting off abruptly as the doors swing open. The bus driver snubs her cigarette in the ashtray on the dashboard, the flame sizzling into a low ember then disappearing after burning out the small remnants of the paper.

A Canadian chill settles in my bones as I near the doors—even though Canadian Thanksgiving just passed last Monday on the eighth, its freezing cold in Toronto already, as it often is this time of the year, and the rain feels like it could turn to snow any second. I can imagine my cheeks turning red, my nose chapping at the end from the windy air.

After entering the school I stand in the staircase doorway and watch as Lyon and Ultear pad upstairs to the upper grade classes before making my way down the wide, straight hallway, halfway down to the fourth grade classroom.

I see Dr. Brown holding the door open for his students as they file in sporadically, uniforms all covered in dark spots from the rainfall. My teacher's own outfit is dry and his dark red hair is falling in those tight ringlets. He glances me over as I slip through the doorframe. I feel his dark eyes bearing into my back. His gaze makes me shiver more than the open windows as they allow drops of water and wind in.

The classroom has mint green walls and worn brown rugs, just like the hallways. Two of the four walls are brick, the others plaster, and the brick wall leading towards the outdoors houses a line of big, dirty windows. The windows are the kind you push forwards. They open up like a door for snow and wind to whip through the class. It's no wonder everyone in my class keeps their school jackets on constantly.

I sit in my spot in the corner of the room, tapping my fingers incessantly. Only now I'm not tapping the tune of a song I inevitably have stuck in my head, but from sheer nerves. No one notices—I'm always stuck in the corner of the room, sometimes alone, because my tapping is distracting, but not even Dr. Brown, one of the strictest teachers in the school, can stop it. In addition to that, I'm always stuck at the end of the table because as a left-handed individual, I elbow people. A lot.

I've almost calmed myself down the mantra of Mom will make it when Maria Avery rushes in, maroon cardigan damp from the rain, ginger hair falling in stringy, flat strands, brandishing a new rosary of shiny pink, wooden beads.

As she shows off her new religious trinket to her friends I interrupt her speech.

"Maria?" Her dark brown eyes survey me with skepticism as I continue and I suppress a shudder at her hard gaze. "You don't happen to have your old rosary with you, do you? I can pay you if you let me borrow it just for today—who needs lunch, right?"

She crosses her arms in an Ultear-like fashion. "And where's your rosary, Gray? I remember you having a real nice one, with that red wood and all." She's mocking me. I know she is. She thinks that I get the nice rosaries because I have a lot of money, in reality I get it because my father will barely spend a penny on anything not religious.

"I forgot it."

Maria laughs, shoulders shaking in giggles, her red hair shaking and splattering the clouds' tears on the front of my maroon polo shirt. Her yellow blouse is becoming extremely see-through in the collar-bone region from her short hair.

Behind her, her best friend Rose's face lights up in ecstatic joy as she laughs in her mocking chortle, fawn brown hair bouncing lightly—the rain seemingly never touched her. When she laughs she screeches like a bat. Rose has hated me since I pulled her hair in first grade. I really don't see how she blames me—those brown curls are tauntingly bouncy, and it's inevitable to get a few hair tugs.

"Gray forgot his rosary," she chants in a sing-song voice. I grit my teeth, praying Dr. Brown hadn't heard.

"Shut up, Rose," I mutter through a clenched jaw. A tan had claps my right shoulder as Danny, a blonde haired boy, walks past.

"Good luck, Fullbuster." He snickers as he speaks, walking off towards his friends. We've had the same people in our class since kindergarten, some of us have even been together since preschool. Oh, the joys of Catholic school. Strict teachers and little to no opportunities to meet new people. I never fit in with the crowds at school, which concerned Lyon and Ultear more and more every time I quietly listen to them talk with their friends, perched on the curb with nothing but a stick and chocolate-colored dirt to keep me company.

Just like in my family, I stick out like a sore thumb in class. There are others with black strands of hair, but theirs are pure onyx, not the blueish raven that mine is. Paper white skin tacked at the end of a line of normally colored kids. Even Maria is tanner than me, and gingers are naturally less pigmented. Maybe she's a genetic weirdo like me. Well, I suppose it isn't fair to call myself a genetic weirdo, maybe with my birth parents I would fit right in.

The bell rings in its shrill, old fashioned way. The building is so old they still have school bells that pounds a metal knob into the bell and produces an ear-splitting shriek. Dr. Brown sweeps in and the door slams shut when he arrives at his desk. His eyes sweep over the class in silent roll call before he sits down heavily, the wheeled chair sliding backwards slightly from the force of his weight.

"Alright class," he begins in his formal, angry voice. I wonder if something happened to him to make him this stiff. Maybe he had a dad like mine. I hope not. I wouldn't hope for anyone to have him as their father. "Today, as you should know, is Rosary Day. Take yours out so I can give you your participation grade. Every time you mess up or goof off, 5% is taken off of that 100, so be smart, please." He's not allowed to do this. He's not even supposed to take a grade for having our rosary, let alone take points off for messing up.

"In ten minutes the assistant principal will come on the loudspeaker to lead the-"

A buzzing from our classroom speaker signals a private intercom message to my class specifically.

"Or now?"

Dr. Brown, please send Grayson Fullbuster to the office. Grayson Fullbuster to the office.

My teacher's eyes narrow on me as my name is announced, but he still walks over to the button that activates our speaker's microphone and calls out.

"Sending Grayson Fullbuster to the office."

I've never stood up faster in my life as I rush out the door. Mom made it just in time.

She's standing at the end of the hallway. Her sweater's shoulders are sprinkled in rainwater, her purple umbrella dripping steadily onto the carpet. I see the red beads hanging from the palm of her hand.

She gives me a quick hug before pushing me lightly towards my class. "Go." She laughs as she talks, clearly not upset that she had to use her day off to deliver me a rosary I was too forgetful to remember. She can't stand my teacher. My mom thinks he's too strict and too harsh on us. My dad loves him. He thinks that his forceful ways will mold us into model citizens. I think my father and my teacher should get together and go bowling.

An incredible weight has been lifted from my shoulders as I turn the old, rusting door knob and enter the cold classroom with a creaking sign.

Dr. Brown has a bible in his hands and he continues reading as he glances my way, suddenly stopping when he notices the rosary in my hands. Crap. I didn't have the rosary when I left the class.

I blush and quickly tuck it behind my back, standing still under his watchful, austere gaze. The mint green suddenly seems too bright, the carpet too dank, the eyes of my classmates too many.

My teacher smiles warmly, but it's laced with malice and disgust. It's the same grin my dad gives me when I do something stupid before he either tries to "shake some sense into me" or yells in my face.

"Gray," Dr. Brown begins, his eyes dripping with a sickening mix of artificial tenderness and pure evil. "Did your mom drop that off for you?"

I nod slowly, I can feel my eyes widen. Everything seems to be more intense. Voices are louder. Colors are brighter. The wind is sharper. I can hear Rose and Maria snicker towards each other, and catch sight of the brunette lean sideways, tuck her friend's ginger hair behind her ear to clear a path for her whispery voice.

"So you forgot it?" I nod again. The room is getting incredibly stuffy, and the cold is biting my skin. Dr. Brown reaches forwards and curls his fingers around the necklace, giving it a gentle tug.

"Well I'm afraid I can't give you credit for this. I'll need you to hand over the rosary now." I tighten my grasp on the rosary. He's yanking harder now, and it seems as though he's about ready to clasp a cold, hairy hand on my wrist and force it from my fingers.

My prediction reigns true as he grabs my thin wrist and pulls in it in the opposite direction of my religious necklace. "Stop," I whimper.

He keeps pulling, now pulling my arm towards him and the rosary to the side. My classmates finally fall silent as they watch the struggle. My teacher can overreact a lot, but he's never laid a hand on a student for this long or this hard.

"Grayson, you're being extremely disrespectful to our God." He finally rips it from my grasp and begins to saunter away, the red orbs shaking tauntingly as the droop towards the ground.

I just don't get it. How does not having a damn rosary every time disrespect God? The prayer should matter, not the object you hold while you say it.

I don't know what possessed me—maybe it was God punishing me for doubting the significance of a cord of wooden beads—but I suddenly lunge forward and grab the rosary, ripping it from my teacher's hands.

The string snaps, and suddenly it's not just raining water. It's raining red beads around me, and each one seems to fall in slow motion before returning to regular speed as it crashed into the ground, bouncing away in different directions. I watch them as they fall. One rolls to a brunette named Amanda's foot. Another bounces off of Adam's book laying on the ground. A few roll under the teacher's desk. One finds its home mockingly in the shadow of my jacket. A single red bead is laying in my half-bent fingers.

The whole class is silent. Not even Rose or Maria pick up a bead and roll it sardonically between their fingers. Sometimes, quiet is peaceful, calming. Other times, quiet is violent, and this particular silence is quite ferocious.

My eyes finally turn their blue gaze towards my teacher and I discover him staring down at me, nostrils flared, fists clenched, skin red and that same vein popping from his forehead.

I suddenly find myself wondering how much more trouble I could get in if I did the unthinkable. The things no one would ever imagine I do. If I grabbed a bead off the ground and chucked it at Rose's smug face. If I tore Maria's new rosary into shreds like I did mine and shrieked Ammo! at the top of my lungs. If I took Adam's book off the ground and chucked it at Dr. Brown's face. If I gathered the beads up and tossed them across the room as though skipping stones across a lake. If I took Danny's baseball cards hidden in his desk and tore them up. If I shoved the beads down Dr. Brown's throat like pills before taking off down the hall. I do this often. Imagine the things I could do but never would.

My teacher grabs me by the wrist again and drags me towards his desk where he pulls out those legendary pink slips I've only ever imagined in my mind.

I watch him scrawl out my full name and other details on the paper in his scratchy handwriting.

NAME: Grayson Fullbuster

AGE: Ten years old

GRADE: Four

REASON: Destroyed a rosary after forgetting it. Left tattered remains of the sacred instrument on the ground.

REQUEST: 1 week suspension

OUTCOME:

He leaves the OUTCOME line blank. It's up to administration now. The prayer going on over the loudspeaker has been long forsaken.

He shoves me out into the hall and points down the passage towards the office—I suppose he's too angry for words now.

I hear the voices of my classmates explode into action behind me as I shuffle down the hall, feeling my teacher's eyes on my retreating form.

I look down at the pink slip. It's less legendary now that I see one with my own name written down. It's just a slip of paper with black words printed on it. Lyon's friend, Dana has gotten tons of pink slips. I remember them from the time they let me tag along with them as they hung out. Dana has them plastered on his wall like trophies. He even claims to have held charged tours of them for our goody-two-shoes peers. I don't know if I believe that. When I saw the older kid's, they seemed mythical. It seemed like a dragon—surreal and unattainable. But now that I have one of my own, it just seems like what it is: a piece of paper flimsy enough to tear from the slightest gust of wind. But that paper has the power to destroy my life.

I turn the knob to the office with a shaking hand, the secretary looking up as the old door creaks open. I walk up to her desk, paper clenched in my fist as my feet shuffle across the worn rug. I unclench my fingers and hand the woman the slip, eyes falling on a jar of expired butterscotch, molded together with old age.

Through her reading glasses she observes the paper, dark red eyes scanning the words. Her desk tag says "Porlyusica."

With a loud hmph she stands, leading me to Principal's office, past the AP's office where the woman is doing the rosary service over the announcements. The golden words of the principal's office gleam down at me menacingly in the patchy light. The secretary raps on the door before swinging it open, the wooden blockade hitting the wall with a band, the wall shuddering with its rattling creak.

The principal surveys me in shock as he motions for me to sit; it was normal for Lyon to turn up in his office, the secretary's hand clasped on his shoulder, but I was the quiet one—the shy kid who remained unknown in a school of just 160 kids.

I watched him pull out my information and saw him slowly tap out dad's number.

"He's at work," I burst out. Not a lie, Dad's in a bank office typing numbers into a calculator. The principal rolls his eyes, starting over and this time placing mom's cell phone number into the machine. It's the second time mom today has had to use her day off for me.

The one-sided conversation falls on deaf ears, the only sound I hear is my own beating heart. I don't know how much time passes but very soon Ms. Porlyusica slams the door open before stopping away and my mom is behind me, a pale hand on my shoulder.

She takes a seat next to me, slight anger in her eyes as the principal recounts the accusations. Whether said anger is targeted towards me or the teacher is unknown.

"Gray." By mom's commanding tone I realize she must've been calling me for a while. "Show me your rosary."

I advert my gaze, holding out the single red bead that I've held in my hand the whole time. With a meek expression I wait as my mom looks at it then hold back a small smile as Mom stifle's a laugh. She hates the catholic school almost as much as us kids. I don't even know if she believes in God, to be honest.

"If I recall properly, Gray told me that Dr. Brown has been giving grades for how well they recite the rosary, which you banned. Fix your employees before they 'fix' the students," Mom says, fuming in anger. "We'll accept the week-long suspension and you may as well pass it on to Lyon and Ultear too after today is over—I don't want my kids in this school again, especially my youngest. It's not too late to save him from this over-religious crap. Let's go, Gray."

I follow Mom outside, the office's feeble warmth completely disappearing as cold Canadian, late October wind seeps through my white winter jacket.

Mom unlocks the car to her old Honda—we aren't rich by any stretch, if our old townhouse is any evidence to that, and as the car roars to life dust smacks me in the face as I break the course it chose to follow when it tumbled from the grates of the vent. The heat her car produces is toasty but I'm only slightly warmer than I was in the drafty school—the car's heat only goes so far. Dad has the nicer car despite the fact Mom drives more.

"Mom?" I ask feebly from the backseat. "What'll Dad say?" I hear her sigh as we roll from the parking lot.

"I don't know, sweetie." She pauses before continuing her speech. "How about we get some ice cream?" I grin—Mom knows in my mind it's never too cold for ice cream, even when I'm shivering and sneezing my brains out. Despite my surfacing joy, there's still an underlying tone of fear in my mind. Dad gets mad enough when Lyon's in trouble, and I feel as though the shock of my getting in trouble paired with his clear annoyance for my very being will be a deadly combination.

Mom pulls into a parking lot, stopping the car. I sit there in silence for a moment while the last sparks of heat fizzle out, all remaining warmth escaping out the windows, turning into the cold air around it as the chilly wind accepts it into their world.

I climb out of the car and follow my mother into the small ice cream parlor, the neon sign on the door flashing with the bold red and blue words ICE CREAM. The paint on the glass is chipping, lacing words onto the doors and windows in curvy golden cursive. Homemade Ice Cream and Frozen Yogurt.

The bell jingles pleasantly as I follow the tall women in front of me into the room, the aroma that only ice cream parlors manage to create wafting into my nose. I'm greeted by the friendly shop-owner, a woman with cinnamon colored hair and warm chocolate brown eyes.

"Why's Gray-chan not in school?" she asks as she cleans out a glass for us. Mom laughs heartily, finally free from the judging eyes of my administrator.

"Got suspended. He tore up his rosary in front of the entire class." The lady's eyes widen with a mix of shock and amusement. I guess I have a reputation for following the rules. She laughs heartily—her son goes to our school too and she agrees with Mom's opinions of the place. Unfortunately, in our small town, Holy Family Catholic School is one of the only schools around.

Mom orders my normal mint chocolate chip for me, picking out a strawberry ice cream for herself. I watch Mrs. Hanalee (the shop owner) bustle around behind the counter, scraping out the frozen treat for us.

The ice cream shop is chilly, but the warmth is slightly greater than it is outside and I'll take anything I can get. I personally find the chill of Canada refreshing. Mom watches me slowly lick the ice cream from my bowl. It's a ritual Dad hates that I do: ordering a bowl of ice cream then licking it down before reverting to a spoon when the remaining amount is too far down for my small tongue to reach. It makes Ultear roll her eyes; Lyon smirks slightly as he tries not to laugh at me; Dad looks away in embarrassment and Mom smiles at the sight of my quirks surfacing. I think Mom likes using me to spite Dad sometimes. Her eyes hold a certain light when my Dad shows silent annoyance.

Mom asks to see my remaining bead again, rolling the wood in between her thumb and index finger. I stay silent, choosing not to mention Dr. Brown grabbing my wrist unless she asks. That may be harder to hide than I expected however because when I slide up my jacket sleeve there's a bruise forming on my pale skin. I quickly tear the sleeve down before Mom notices my gaze trained downwards. Maybe even if she noticed she wouldn't question why. I look at the ground too often.

My mother stands up as she finished her food, scooping up the garbage and tossing it in the bin. I follow her, hands instinctively grabbing my rosary bead as she tosses it back to me.

"Keep it as some Catholic school memorabilia."

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