The latest Time magazine with a photo of her ex-boyfriend Howard on the cover as person of the year lay crumpled in the trashcan. The article gave him mixed reviews in the superman category. Reporters said he throws super tantrums when people don’t like the way he fixes their problems. As a result, fewer police departments now ask for his help in catching criminals. Police chiefs said they don’t care if he has a 197 I.Q.; he has no people skills; he doesn’t follow the rules; he causes more problems than he fixes. In short, he has no heart as the idyllic Superman had.
The word “ex” was her favorite part of the story. Maria stubbed out her cigarette in the chipped saucer on the stained wooden table that had one uneven leg propped up with two match books. She stared out the kitchen window that overlooked the parking lot of the stucco apartment building. Tuesday was her day off from her online newspaper job, and she liked the pause to work on her freelance writing.
She took one sip of her first cup of coffee; then the door to her apartment crashed open. The steaming coffee flew up, out, and on to the linoleum floor as Howard, her old boyfriend, side-stepped the crooked door and walked in. The door lurched to one side with the top hinge loosened by her boyfriend’s dramatic entry, and she sighed. Her peaceful six weeks were over. She’d been so careful. No one had known where she was, not even her parents.
“I found you.” He pirouetted around the studio apartment. His Roman nose wrinkled at the sagging brown velour sofa, chrome yellow, Chinese ginger jar lamps on end tables, and the straight chair with paperbacks stacked on it.
Still silent, Maria held her laptop, her only life, to her chest. She now knew how Rainsford had felt when he realized Zaroff had toyed with hunting him: she felt complete terror with nowhere else safe to go.
“It took six weeks this time.” He pursed his lips and put his hands on his hips. “I thought we were happy, and then I came home, and you were gone again. Look at this place. How can you stand to live like this?”
“It’s mine,” she said. “I want you gone. Now.”
Instead, he began with a personal inventory of changes. She pushed away the fear of having no control and began tapping her foot as a very small step forward to freedom from Howard.
He continued, but his voice was distant somehow as she studied him. Even with superpowers, he was human. Yes, he, like a few others, had developed special abilities like flying or super strength or x-ray vision, but like Superman, he had a kryptonite weakness somewhere. Indeed, if everyone had innate powers as experts postulated in factual online news sources, then she had to find hers to have a life again.
“And just look at you. What have you done to your hair?”
She resisted the urge to touch her auburn curls.
He moved to her right side and studied her hair for a moment. He grinned. He focused on her hair, and she could feel a physical warmth from his eyes on her scalp. The intensity of heat burned, and she screamed. Her permed curls unraveled and fell to her shoulders in straight strands.
She ran to the kitchen sink and placed her head under the faucet to run cold water over her scalp. The coolness helped but only the part it covered. The rest of her scalp still hurt. A coolness enveloped her, and she realized Howard had given her a cap of cool air to combat the heat. Tears ran down her cheeks from the injury. This was a first. Howard had never hurt her physically before. Would she survive only to become bald? She decided freedom was worth the price of baldness. She could still think as she pleased. There was a way out she hadn’t found yet.
Maria pushed past him to find aspirin in the bathroom cabinet. The cap of cool air moved with her, and her hand shook so at the surreal moment that she dropped a couple of the pills on the floor before being able to swallow a few. She scooped handfuls of water from the faucet to wash them down, then turned around.
“I’m sorry! Don’t worry. The burn is only first degree.” He gave her a chiding look. “I don’t know what to do about the red part, though. I guess cut it off, but that means you’ll have short hair again. Yuck.” His eyes traveled down her body. “You’ve lost more weight, Maria. You’re too skinny. Get dressed, and we’ll find a buffet somewhere.”
“No, I am not going anywhere with you. You hurt me.” Somehow her anger pushed through her fear, and her voice did not shake. Defiance was her only recourse.
He continued his litany. “I don’t understand. I love you. I thought we were so happy.” His lower lip protruded.
He began pacing in the small apartment and stopped when he came to the dinette table. On it sat a package of cigarettes and half-filled ashtray.
His nose twitched. He sneezed, and the gust of air sent cigarettes, ashtray, and butts flying across the table onto the worn linoleum floor.
His nose twitched again, and a second gust spread the heap further across the floor. With a humph, he stalked to the back door, propped open the screen door, and backed up to stand in front of the pile of butts and ashes. He took a deep breath and blew the whole mess out and across the small porch and down to the lawn below. His next exhale lifted the tin ashtray and sent it flying.
“There,” he said. “I’ve helped you kick the habit again.”
She made her voice as firm as possible. “It’s my apartment, and I can smoke and do anything I want to.”
“But I love you. I just want to make you happy.” He lifted his hands, palms up in disbelief. The longer he talked, the surer he seemed to become as he described the life she had escaped. Gaslighting, he created a future only he could enjoy.
“You can go back to your old job at that small paper in Charlotte. I negotiated a raise for you, by the way, $50 more a week.” He paused. She said nothing, so he shrugged. “It won’t take very long to move your things to my house. Except for clothes and books, we can donate the rest.”
She had never given him a key to her old apartment and found she loved the nights she had had free in her own place with her cell turned off.
“We’ll go to a used bookstore and find cookbooks so you can get better in the kitchen. You’ll also need a helmet and paddle for my kayak, and you can find a kettle and stand so you can make your coffee in the morning when we’re camping. That way you won’t be so grouchy. One thing I don’t know what to do about and that’s how to help you stay awake during book-club nights. That was embarrassing to see you asleep in the corner.”
She started to shake her head no, but the aspirin hadn’t kicked in yet, and it hurt. “No, I like being on my own, choosing my own job, and doing things with my friends and parents. I lost twenty pounds in the six months we dated because I was so miserable.” She glared at him. “How did you find me this time?”
“Your former landlady. She didn’t want to, but all I had to do was sigh.” He chuckled and rubbed his hands together. “Two pictures fell off her wall, and a plant overturned. I started to sigh again, this time heavier, but she gulped and gave me your address.”
Maria forced herself to breathe. The violence was escalating.
Howard put his hands on his hips. “I turned in your resignation to your boss on the way over here. Yes, I followed you to work yesterday and waited until you left before I talked to him. All you have to do is pack your clothes, and we can go.”
She went to the kitchen, put her laptop on the one counter in her kitchen, and faced him.
“You had no right to follow me or to cost me my job or to be here. Who do you think you are?”
Howard shook his head and stepped toward her with his huge hands spread palms up.
His voice quivered. “Please, just come back with me.” His eyes filled with tears. “I even bought you a stationary bike so you can exercise at home and train to go biking with me in road races.”
Maria took a step backward, closer to the windowsill. She picked up the now chipped coffee cup and set it on the scratched, ring end table that she loved for its imperfections, a trait Howard didn’t value.
Straightening, she said, “Go now. I don’t want you in my life. I don’t love you anymore.”
Tears ran in the runnels down each side of his nose, and he cried as she turned him around and pushed him over the door lying on the floor and out. Even as she angled the door to fill the space and put the other end table to hold it in place, she could hear his cries on the landing, then finally his heavy trudge down the stairs. The sound of breaking railings followed him down.
No other doors opened, but Maria knew the other tenants were probably aware; they had figured out her situation and stayed away. Eventually, she would get a call from her landlord, and she would give him Howard’s address as the place to send the repair bill. This was her third apartment in the eight months she had moved out of the city Howard lived in and deposits ate a chunk out of her savings.
Shaking, she worked her way slowly to the faded chintz chair by the window and rubbed her cold hands together. His drama always drained her. Another howl from the street under her window chilled her hands even more, and she curled up into a ball in the chair and covered her ears.
When there had been peace for an hour, she took her hands away from her ears, put a cold washcloth on her still-warm head, turned on her cell, and called her parents.
“Mom, he found me. Can I come home?” Maria really wanted her mom’s and dad’s hugs right now as if their arms could shield her from Howard somehow.
There was silence for a moment. “Always. Anytime. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” Her mother’s words helped her breathe again. “Your father’s pacing and cursing right now. I’ve warned him that anger raises his cholesterol, but he says he wants to be the big bad wolf who blows Howard away, maybe to the Arctic, to a small iceberg that’s melting.” Maria heard a loving smile in her mother’s voice and again wished she had found the right guy as her mom had. She packed her laptop in a backpack, picked up her duffle of clothes and books, placed her spider plant on a neighbor’s doorstep, and left. There was no way to lock up and nothing of value anyway, so she just dropped the useless keys in the manager’s mailbox.
She had sold her car to pay for moving and to stay off the grid. Outside, she paced back and forth in front of the blue stucco-ed complex holding everything she owned. She felt exposed to Howard’s x-ray vision as if he were perched in a nearby tree watching her, which he probably was. However, he had been to her parents’ house before, so his being around made no difference now.
Her parents’ gray sedan pulled up, and she sank into the front seat beside her mother.
“So, what’s the plan now?” Her mother gripped the wheel so tightly her veins formed a line of hills on the backs of her hands.
“There’s nothing left to do but join a convent.” She meant that as a joke, then realized a convent might really be the only safe place. A religious Protestant, he respected churches as he did nothing else.
“I just can’t believe that Bozo won’t let you go.”
Maria sighed. “You don’t know the half of it. I’ll tell you everything at home.”
Seated in her parents’ sunny living room, she still felt watched. Her father brought her a Scotch on the rocks and sat down beside her. He held her other hand while she downed half the drink.
“I have a plan, but I’m afraid to tell you because he might hear and stop me.” She paused almost as a reflex for Howard to appear.
As far as she knew, super hearing wasn’t one of his powers, but he had added heat vision now to his pest arsenal to control her. On the way home, she realized from interviews she had done with abused women, she was now one of them. She had left him four times, so far, and only had enough money left for another two months on her own. She couldn’t put her parents in danger, so this time had to be the last. She not only had to shorten the number of times abused women tried to leave from seven to three but also to do it against a “superman.” Long odds.
At home, she and her parents conferred as if for a war council.
“Who in the universe would give a person like him superpowers?” Her mother sipped from a cup of coffee. “All of that ability wasted on making you miserable. What good has he done anyway?”
“He’s a super nag, all right. He has most of Superman’s powers, it seems, but no empathy.” Maria sipped on her scotch. She still had a scalp headache and wore a cool, wet hand towel. Her father would hover and replace it when it warmed up from the burn.
“Maybe we all can develop superpowers.” Her father paced and rubbed the back of his head as he did when pondering. “Isn’t that what totalitarians do? Convince you they know what is best for you, regardless of what you think or want?”
“Or maybe our fear fuels or causes people like him.” Her mother pounded the coffee table in frustration. “There’ve been a few other people, some women, who have also developed specific powers this past year. I’ve read journalists postulating that times of pestilence, famine, war, climate change create opportunities for power grabs. No one can explain the physical powers, however.”
Her father paused in his pacing. “You’re right. Fear does fuel power, and maybe it can manifest in a physical sense.”
Too discouraged to think about the origin of the problem right then, Maria just shrugged.
“If Howard calls, I don’t want to talk to him. I think I’ll go to bed and sleep. I tossed and turned last night, probably from premonition.”
“Is there anything you’d like to eat first?” Her mother hugged her again and put a new cold, wet washcloth on her head. “I’ve put a cloth in the freezer, and when it’s ready, I’ll replace this one. Don’t panic when you feel it, all right?”
Maria hugged her mother back and relaxed for a moment.
Maria’s only window of opportunity for her plan would be early in the morning as Howard liked to sleep late and only went to work at 9 or 10.
Her father shook her awake. When she looked at her fitness watch, she saw it was 2 p.m., four hours after her confrontation with Howard.
“Maria, I’m sorry, but he insists on talking to you. I turned our cells off, but he managed to get through anyway.”
“But, of course, he’s totally wireless now. What else is new?” Her voice broke at yet another threat.
“He threatened to fly back from Charlotte if I didn’t get you.” Her father’s voice held mingled rage and hurt at not being able to protect his little girl.
She fumbled the cell phone he offered her.
“How can you sleep when you hurt me? You hurt me. All I did was help and love you. Look at all the things I bought you for Christmas. I spent seven hundred dollars on you. I’ve decided to give you a couple of days to think things over and come back to me. You can have a visit with your parents.” He paused.
Maria wanted to hurl hurtful comments at him, then thought better. “How about Friday and the weekend, and you don’t snoop whatsoever?” Her heart pounded in her ears as the image of the convent beckoned as an oasis.
Could he read thoughts yet?
There was silence on the other end.
Her stomach contracted. She added one enticement. “I promise to come back if you’ll leave me alone for that long. Just let me catch up on my sleep and talk to my parents. I want to be bright-eyed when I leave with you.”
“Three whole days? Well, okay, but this is the last time we’ll be apart.”
When she had hung up, her father frowned. “Do you think he means it? That long without nosing in?”
“I’ve probably got forty-eight hours. I hope that will be enough.” Maria managed to sleep on that sliver of hope.
Her mother woke her at dawn. They drank coffee and looked out the bay window onto the street. Her father had the saddest look in his eyes when he looked at his daughter.
“Why does no one fear him, as we do?” None of them had an answer.
Because Howard’s diving through building walls to catch criminals in the act had caused lawsuits by landlords for damages against police departments, law enforcement hesitated to respond to complaints about him. If she called them, they might want to help her, but physically they could do nothing. In fact, the only people who appreciated him now were rape victims of all genders because he gelded their attackers with his heated vision rays.
She understood the wish to hurt rapists, but not the way he did so.
She looked at her parents. “All I know is one day almost a year ago, he lost his temper at my leaving the first time. He stomped his foot, and it went through the floor. Then came flying and the rest.”
“I just wish you’d found a nice, normal young man to date.”
Maria put her hand to her now-straight hair that looked like stiff, dark, red yarn and sighed. “I’d considered dating another guy until Howard got so strong, but I was afraid of what he would do to the poor man—not hurt him physically—but just a few puffs of his super breath, however, and the poor man’s car would flip over, or the roof of his house would be gone.”
No, she couldn’t chance anyone else being hurt, but her only hope was Howard would defer to her being in a holy sanctuary. She had seen his devout prayer in church and had heard him say only his faith had helped him endure a childhood with addicts for parents. If church and God had been a refuge for him, maybe he would let her have the same.
An hour later, her parents let her out in front of St. Jude’s Convent, a community of forty nuns who worked in local Catholic high schools as teachers and counselors.
“Are you sure? I don’t know that journalists make very good nuns.” Her mother hugged her. “But if living there keeps you safe, all right.”
Her dad held her duffle out to her. “This is an unusual choice for a domestic abuse shelter.”
“I can’t risk endangering other women at a real shelter. Maybe God’s power will protect all of us here. I only hope they’ll let me in until I’m safe from him.”
The abbess, whose name the receptionist said was Joan, was the Mother Superior of the convent. Not sure how the abbess would feel about Howard, Maria planned only to tell her that she was being stalked and was looking for a place of refuge for a little while. The domestic violence homes were full for at least a week, which was true, as she had called two the previous week when her premonition of being watched had begun.
She walked into a small office filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a large desk flanked by blue cloth wingback chairs. She looked at the abbess who had a questioning look.
“Please, let me stay even for a few days. I’m Episcopalian, but it’s the same God, and maybe I can find Him again here. I’ll abide by all your rules. I promise. I have nowhere else to go.” She knew she sounded desperate and put her shaking hands in her jeans’ pockets. Then she took them out and lowered herself to her knees with her hands in a steeple. She could feel herself shaking so badly she had trouble staying balanced. She hadn’t realized how scared she really was.
The abbess’s eyebrows rose. She stood up from her desk, walked around, and placed her palms over Maria’s hands.
“Dear Lord, please guide me in helping this poor child. What is Your Will?”
Maria was almost sorry when the abbess stepped away and helped her to her feet where she held on to the abbess’s hand for several moments to regain her balance. The abbess had such a presence that Maria was surprised at her not being more than an inch or two taller, but then she realized reticence about her problem was not realistic. She still hesitated at naming Howard as her reason for needing help. Who could or would want to stand with her against such a force?
“Mother Superior, is that the right title? The shelters are full, and I’m fleeing a powerful man who won’t let me leave him no matter how I try.” Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she hoped this part of the truth would convince the abbess.
“My Child, the only thing I ask is whether the man you are fleeing will hurt my flock. Can you assure me of that?”
“He respects God more than he does me, Mother Superior, so I think you’re safer than I am. But I don’t know anything for sure anymore.”
The abbess paused as she realized Maria couldn’t promise her convent safety. “Child, I’ll meet with my people. They deserve a say in facing danger. I’ll send a sister to help you. We can at least give you a few hours of prayer with people who, I’m sure, will care about you. I already do.”
Maria wanted to cry on the abbess’s shoulder, but her starched habit made the idea somewhat daunting.
“Thank you. You won’t be sorry.” The abbess escorted her out of the office and into another one where she asked her assistant to help her with logistics.
The convent was small, and the room that one of the sisters showed her had only a single bed, small dresser and a crucifix over the bed. Pegs on the wall served as a closet for coats and jackets. Before the sister left, Maria asked for a pair of scissors. When the sister returned, Maria took her cell out and turned the camera towards her to record the first step out of the prison she had lived in for so long. As she cut each hunk, she felt lighter and started a video to record her steps to freedom: to being normal again.
“My name is Maria, and only I am the boss of me.” The statement felt as if it were a statement floating like a banner at a distance. It didn’t feel true, yet, but she would pull it closer with repetition until it floated inside her and became her creed of being. Next, she donned the plain white shift, the gray outer garment, and covered her unevenly cropped hair with a white kerchief. Cutting her hair short, something he detested more than curls, was another step forward.
“Maybe I’m now ugly and plain enough he’ll lose interest,” she told herself. But that thought didn’t feel real. She looked around the room and realized she had even fewer things than ever before. Things didn’t matter anymore to her. Only freedom did.
That afternoon became a blur of faces, prayers, murmured conversations at dinner, and finally evening prayer before everyone went to their rooms to sleep.
The next morning, Maria heard a soft, but insistent tap on her door. Checking her watch, she froze at seeing it was five a.m. Stumbling out of bed, she opened the door where the nun motioned for her to dress and follow her for a reading of morning prayer, then Mass. In the chapel, she didn’t try to follow what prayers and litanies the others said. Instead, she stared at the figure of the baby Christ held by a smiling Mary while tears streamed, and her nose ran. A sister beside her in the last row nudged her and handed her a handkerchief. That brief hand on hers offered more kindness than Maria could handle, and her eyes became watery streams of grief and relief.
After Mass, she followed the line of sisters to the cafeteria where the smells made up for the early wake-up call. Her stomach growled, and Maria blushed and laughed.
She spooned rich creamy oatmeal into a soup bowl and added cinnamon, butter, and blueberries to it. On a small plate, she chose homemade raisin bread and added spoonsful of apple butter. A mug of freshly ground coffee anchored her to this new reality. The sisters spoke in soft voices, and she saw several glance at her, but no one asked her why she was there. Full for the first time since she could remember, she had finished less than half of the food on her plate, and she felt guilty at wasting food.
The sister who’d sat beside her in Mass leaned in and whispered. “I’m Sister Victorine. Don’t worry about leftover oatmeal. We have a compost pile but wrap your bread up for a snack later. There’re bottles of water at the beverage station. Take one and follow me.”
Maria shied away from sitting in the open courtyard. Instead, she went to a vine-covered pergola next to an old pin oak as if Howard couldn’t see through it.
“God’s love will shelter us from harm here.” Victorine sat opposite her on the bench near St. Frances of Assisi holding his palm with seeds to feed a sparrow. She spoke as if divine love could really block Howard’s abilities to find her and interfere.
“No, Sister, I’m sorry. None of you are safe because I’m here.” Maria looked at the manicured lawn with tall stone walls covered with pink and red bougainvillea. Her idea to come here for safety was wrong. Her plan was like a drowning person’s grabbing the person trying to save her and then with frantic efforts taking them both under. She had no right to endanger others in her desperation.
So, she had to divulge who her abuser was, and Sister Victorine gasped.
“That son of a bitch! He’s a Lucifer who will be cast down.” She didn’t look frightened at all, just angry at Howard’s usurping powers only the Trinity should have.
She continued. “Let’s see how he does up against our sisterhood with our prayers. Come, we must let Mother Superior know and then light candles and summon His aid for this battle.”
Maria’s mouth dropped at the open defiance she’d not dared voice for so many months. She followed Victorine to the abbess’s office to alert her to the forthcoming battle of wills.
The abbess’s eyes blazed even more than Victorine’s, and she called the sisters to the chapel to alert them. She didn’t ask Maria to come forward but pointed to her as the child they would be girding their loins to protect.
More tears flowed from Maria’s eyes, and yet she doubted faith alone could defeat Howard. Nor did she want any of these stalwart believers hurt.
Holding onto the railing in front of her, she rose to face them.
“You don’t know what he can do. I’m sorry I came and put you in danger.” Her voice shook, and she sobbed loud, wracking sounds that shook her until she almost fell.
Sister Victorine rose and enveloped her with starched linen arms that smelled of lavender. Everyone waited until the sobs had wrung Maria dry.
The abbess and everyone in the chapel recited Psalm 23 and almost shouted the lines, “Yea, though we walk through the valley of death, we will fear no evil, for Thou art with us.”
At the end, the abbess spoke directly to Maria. “Let Him restore your soul and let us walk with you. We fear no mortal man.”
Almost Maria believed. Almost. “But, Ma’am, I mean, Mother Superior, trust me. He, I mean Howard, not God, won’t listen to you.”
“Hush, Child. We don’t care. He will listen to God and know Who rules all.” The abbess and everyone else said, “Amen,” in a loud unison. Then the abbess turned to Maria. “When will the earth devil likely come?”
“Later today or tomorrow. I asked for three days, but he’s likely to come early just because.” She shrugged.
The abbess paused, closed her eyes, and held her palms together in supplication. She looked up and prayed aloud to St. Jude. Two lines especially resonated with Maria: “Pray for me. I am so helpless and alone. Intercede with God for me that He bring visible and speedy help where help is almost despaired of.” Maria so wanted to believe. Not being alone for the first time gave her a feeling of a soft kind of hope, not the blazing sureness of everyone, but a softening of the deep despair she’d felt after each discovery and return to hell on earth.
Soft chatter filled the chapel as the sisters discussed weapons for battle. The abbess called for order and listened to suggestions which included rakes, rolling pins, and large umbrellas to form a wall between Howard and Maria.
The abbess pursed her lips and frowned at the idea of an actual battle.
“Who are we, and how do we battle best?”
Sister Victorine turned to Maria. “Does he have Superman’s super-hearing?”
Sister Victorine called another sister forward and made several gestures with her hands. The sister nodded and began signing to everyone.
Everyone smiled at this way of communicating, but Maria didn’t know what they were saying.
Smiling in the face of power seemed a bit overconfident, but she did begin to worry a tiny bit less.
The abbess announced the meeting over and signed the Trinity with everyone.
“Go back to your duties and wait for the bell to signal a gathering wherever Maria is when the he-devil arrives.”
Sister Victorine took Maria to the clothing storage room, picked out a Postulant’s habit and wimple, rosary, and large sterling cross. She showed Maria how to dress and sent her to the fitting room.
When Maria reappeared, the sister made adjustments and showed her how to wear the wimple.
“We each have one, and you’ll see us wearing it today along with our habits as we do for formal events.” She gave Maria a wink and held her forefinger up to her mouth for silence. She squeezed Maria’s hand and signed the cross as a blessing.
Maria did feel somewhat armored, so to speak, against the evils of the world in the habit and wimple even if she wasn’t a real postulant. Sister Victorine then gave her the simple tasks of sweeping the hallways for the rest of the morning until Sext, midday prayers at 11:30, followed by a lunch of sandwiches with both chicken and meatless available. After lunch, she met with Sister Victorine and another sister in a small conference room.
Straight chairs covered with a turquoise fabric formed a half circle in front of a small altar of the Virgin Mary and Child. Small lit votives in staired rows flickered and gave the statue’s faces almost a look of changing expressions in the light. Maria lit two and prayed briefly before sitting down.
“I’ve asked Sister Sarah to help you in healing from the abuse. These sisters have each been where you are now in some way.”
Maria looked at both sisters. “Oh, but I haven’t been. I mean not like others. I’m all right.”
They smiled at her with love. Each had a look of serenity that had been tempered by overcoming abuse and moving through pain to happiness.
Sister Sarah’s face had two small circular scars on one cheek, but the smile lines beside her eyes were deep. She took one of Maria’s hands. “Do you have pictures of yourself when you were last happy?”
“When you’ve felt safe long enough, look at them as the place you want to be again. This is just the first cycle of healing you’ll return to until the pain shrinks smaller and smaller. There is more, but you need this now to prepare for the end of the pain. We’ll meet tomorrow but work on finding the real Maria again. She’s there and is a lovely soul.”
“I’m so afraid.”
Sarah’s hands held hers tightly. “A lot of us here know that fear. You have to want out so badly that the word ‘no’ fills your soul and spills out like a blaze of light. Plus, I think our abusers always appear to be invincible and so much larger and more powerful than we. That’s their path to more and more power over us.”
Sister Victorine held her hand.
“Your Protestant hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said, ‘If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders... I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.’ That’s why we’re here.”
A tightness in her chest eased a little more, and Maria worked on magnifying “no” as if it could be a sword to slice the bonds on her and set her free. They rose to leave, and Sarah handed Maria a box of tissues to dry the rivers of tears from both eyes.
The next morning as she was finishing sweeping the breezeway between the dorm and chapel, a loud whoosh, then a whump announced Howard’s landing on the lawn between the red-bricked chapel and dormitory. A bell clanged to summon the sisters and abbess who joined Maria, then faced Howard. The sisters held hands and included Maria in the semicircle. She felt stronger from their show of faith, and the knot in her stomach loosened.
Howard stood speechless for a moment. “Ladies, I mean, Sisters, I’m not...”
Then the abbess walked forward and gestured at the crack in the bricks of the chapel that now ran up from the ground to the roof. The crack was several inches wide, and the stained-glass portrait of St. Jude’s praying for a baby in his mother’s arms now slanted to the right. The sisters took several steps away from the building and looked at Howard in astonishment.
Maria just sighed and shook her head at this latest example of Howard’s being the equivalent of a bull loose in a China shop.
The Mother Superior, however, grabbed the large gold cross around her neck and held it out like a shield. She yelled, “You have hurt God’s House.”
Howard took a step back but then crossed his arms. His eyebrows furrowed as he narrowed his eyes.
Maria saw him start to draw a breath, but then the fastest and strongest feeling of defiance she had ever felt dominated every feeling and thought.
“No,” she cried. “Enough.” She let go of her friends’ hands to stride to the front of the group. She shook her forefinger at her ex.
Before Howard could finish drawing in air to blow on anyone to harm, she called on St. Jude to freeze him in place. She truly believed the saint would help her.
“What are you doing?” His voice strained from trying to free his arms. He looked down in shock at being immobilized.
Maria’s shoulders and diaphragm contracted with the effort at first, but her complete determination to keep the Abbess and convent from further harm held him almost as if he were in an invisible force field. If a human could hurt others, she could stop him, she felt with complete conviction, maybe like Bonhoeffer’s.
Howard kept struggling and began to plead for Maria to let him go.
“No, you can’t do this to me. I love you. Let me go, so we can be together.”
Each entreaty filled her with more determination.
His face became a deep red from the struggle to move.
From the corner of her eye, Maria saw the Abbess’s face become an ashen gray as she realized there were now two superhumans in the grass courtyard of her 100-year-old convent.
The abbess held her cross tightly as a shield between her and both of them. “Oh, Lord, please, please help me, Your Faithful Servant,” she said and held her cross tightly.
“Don’t worry, Mother. I’ve got your back.” Maria turned to Howard. “Who do you think you are, terrorizing people like this? I’m not letting you free until you apologize and...sign a legal contract to leave me alone and... fix the crack correctly or pay to have it done.” She laughed at the idea of a contract. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Since he was an attorney, he valued binding contracts more than people sometimes, and this agreement would take away his power over her.
Howard’s face turned a deeper red from struggling, and he wheezed. “No, Maria, you lied to me. You said you’d come home with me in seventy-two hours. It’s your fault I hurt the church’s wall. I only came here to take you home.”
The Abbess stepped closer to Howard. “Howard, you’re mistaken. This is Sister Theresa who has left your world for ours.”
He looked aghast at Maria. She shrugged yes.
Maria almost smiled as she saw the abbess with one hand behind her with fingers crossed. She also relaxed as she realized how little effort it took to hold him still.
“Howard, you will hand over your credit card to fix the building and may not speak except to say yes.” She waved a hand at him dismissively.
His mouth moved, but no words came out. His eyes widened, and his struggles increased. He squinted, and she wondered if he was trying to use his laser vision on her. Nothing happened, though.
Maria said, “It’s your call. Do you want to walk out and move on or spend it in a force field where no one can hear your call for help?”
His shoulders slumped, and he nodded yes. She gave him the power of speech back. As soon as she and the Abbess heard him begin to shout, “No,” she muted him again with the universal gesture used on television remotes.
“Bad call. It’s time you went from supernormal to just mortal. You need to lose all your powers. Let’s see. First, no more laser vision that won’t work on these walls.” She waved her hand at him in a begone manner. “Try to see if you still can. I’ll unblock your eyes for a moment.”
He tried; nothing happened.
The Abbess’s shoulders relaxed, and the corners of her lips quirked up. She and Maria nodded at each other, and the Abbess gestured her approval.
“Now, I think it’s time to disconnect you from the grid.” She waved a hand again.
Howard’s eyes glazed, and tears ran down his face.
“Okay, next, you can only lift barbells, not cars, and forget about leaping. You’re limited to no more than a foot off the ground. Your lungs can only breathe normally, no more of those Cat 1 gales from you. Last, you may not hurt anyone again, ever. Now hand over your credit card.”
The sisters danced and chanted: “Thank you, St. Jude. You saved us again.”
Puzzled, Maria looked at the Abbess.
“St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.” The Abbess smiled. She turned to Howard. “How do we know you will leave Sister Theresa alone? She’s stopped you, but I’m not convinced you won’t be back.”
Sister Victorine stepped forward. “Let him sit here for a while to ponder his reversal, Sister Theresa. I’ll find a contract online and print it out. I know our attorney will love to handle this case.”
Maria agreed. She stood in front of Howard with her hands on her hips. “When you’re truly penitent, I’ll let you out. In the meantime, last request, hand your card over.”
Maria handed it to The Abbess who looked at the gold card. “This will be enough to begin the repair, but we’ll send you the final bill to finish the work later. If Sister Theresa chooses to free you, don’t ever come back.”
Maria sighed and smiled. She would be able to sleep, eat, and work once Howard capitulated. The July day’s heat would rise into the upper 90s, and he had no shelter from rays. Dark gray clouds loomed on the horizon. Nope, he didn’t need an umbrella either. She turned her back on him and went inside. He would give up, she was sure.
Woe to any man, or person for that matter, who had the audacity to offer her the wrong kind of love ever again. She wouldn’t give anyone that kind of power over herself again.