The crowded bus jostled over potholes while it dodged motorbikes and dogs, bumping Sister Cass into the people standing so close. She gripped the strap hanging from the ceiling, a far reach for her, and wished for a pole or something else more substantial. She could smell the heat of the day on herself and fellow passengers. A trickle of sweat dripped down her back, inside her habit. She shifted and tapped her heel, needing to move. No one made eye contact with anyone else.
The man on her right seemed too close. There was a scar through his left eyebrow, splitting it in two, and wizened creases around his eyes and mouth, though he didn’t seem old. Her instincts spoke a warning and she could feel her skin prickle. He clutched something in his hand. Only ten more stops and she could be free of this cage.
The day had not gone as she had imagined. It was a long float on chaos – so not so different from any day of the overwhelming last few weeks. But reflecting on the crush of children, their happy faces, eager hands reaching for a handshake, she had to smile. She’d been delayed in leaving the school. Goodbyes were often like that, she supposed. Wondering the time, she glanced down at her wrist and her breath caught. Her watch was gone! She cast around: the man with the scar. He had slipped it right off her arm without her even noticing!
She looked directly at him then, glaring out of her veil. He stared guiltily through the dirty window, shifting himself away from her – as much as the tight space allowed. He clasped his fist to his stomach, but she could see the metallic glint. The nerve! She needed that watch. But what to do? Checking her pockets, she felt a highlighter pen.
“El reloj,” she whispered to the man who had stolen her watch, as she stuck the pen below his left shoulder blade. “Just give it back! El reloj. I want the watch.” She could feel the man stiffen and couldn’t suppress the mirthful vindication in the pit of her stomach at turning the thief into the victim. Do unto others. Her heart was racing but she pretended she didn’t care.
The man shook his dark sweaty head, and she pressed the pen a little harder into his rib. “El reloj,” she hissed. He fiddled with his hands and passed her the watch. At the same time, the bus stopped and he darted out.
Yes! Cass felt like hooting a self-righteous crow as she tucked the watch and the pen into the deep pocket of her jumper. She kept a closed fist on them both for the other nine stops, as people got off and got on and pressed too closely to her. They swayed and lurched together with the rhythm of the crappy street.
The brutal sun was sagging when she finally got to the guesthouse. It would be dark soon, hopefully with a respite from the heat. Inside, she genuflected and crossed herself at the small Mary statue in the alcove and hurried to her room, wondering if she should feel remorseful for tricking the man with her fake-gun. She didn’t feel guilty. She knew it was the only way to get her watch back, and actually Cass felt a little proud that she had thought to do it.
She leaned one hand on the wall—the white plaster cool and rough—and pulled open her door with the other, sighing when the wooden door had closed behind her. She pulled the watch and that blessed pen from her pocket, but as she went to set them on the little table beside her bed, she froze.
There was her watch, here this whole time. She had never put it on this morning.
Nausea swept through her as she realized the truth. She had stolen a watch. She, dressed in her novitiate’s grey jumper, rosary and crucifix, and white veil, had demanded a stranger’s wristwatch on the crowded bus. At gunpoint! Mortified, she dropped the offending pen and the damning watch onto the wool bedspread, and she sank to her knees.
“Crumbs and shoestrings,” Cass swore at herself, then glanced around. Good, her roommate wasn’t there. She grabbed the edge of the bed and pulled herself up to sit. She took the stolen watch in one hand and picked up her own watch in the other, comparing the two. They were about the same size, but her watch was silver and this new one was a more muted pewter. How had she not realized? Incredulous, she shook her head and laughed, tears in her eyes. Her mother would be so appalled if she were still alive. So disappointed in her.
She set her own watch back on the table and ran her finger over the stranger’s pewter one, noting that it ticked quietly, like a heart’s flutter. It was nice but not fancy. Slim and dainty, it certainly was not a man’s watch. She tried to recall the poor man she’d taken it from. Dark hair just over his ears, wavy but not curly, that scar on his eyebrow. Taller than herself, certainly, but by how much? What had he been wearing? Just a T-shirt, was it blue or grey? Jeans, dirty but not ragged. Like a working man. How old? That, she couldn’t guess. She remembered his shifty, guilty body language. What was he doing with a woman’s watch? Had he taken it off his own wrist? She tried to remember, but she hadn’t seen properly with his profile to her.
“Hi Sister. What’re you doing?” Sophia asked, pushing her glasses higher on her nose. Cass jumped up and shoved the watch into her pocket. Sneaky Sophia. How had she gotten in here so quietly? “And why are you wearing your habit?”
“Oh, I just got back from my school,” Cass replied as she pulled the veil off her head. She looked at it with dismay. Of all the days to have the whole outfit on!
“The last day,” Sophia stated, passing a prayer book back and forth in her hands. She had on a blue blouse and tan shorts, Cass noticed. Had she worn her habit at all, other than to church service?
“Yeah. It was busy. They had me teach a million classes before the final farewell assemblies, and kids kept gathering after to wish me well. It was nice.” Nice, but way too much. Cass forced a smile. “How was your last day?” Each Sister had been assigned to a local service agency or community improvement project for the two weeks they were here. Cass had been placed with an over-crowded public school as an assistant to an English teacher. Sophia had been helping at an orphanage nearby.
Sophia shrugged. “It was fine.”
Almost the same height, they stood facing each other, awkwardly. Inhaling, Cass nodded, wishing she could think of some smooth phrase to send her away. Of all the Sisters at the Franciscan community, she liked Sophia the least, and was unlucky enough to be her roommate on this mission trip to Ecuador. She supposed they had been put together because they were near the same age: Cass nineteen and Sophia twenty-one. They were a good ten years from anyone else’s age, Cass figured. While Cass was a novitiate, the step before taking final vows, Sophia was still in postulancy, the discernment time before becoming a novitiate. Since Sophia had come to live in the Community five months ago, Cass had tried to like her, but had not managed it.
“Dinner soon,” Sophia said, cocking her head sideways. Her short stature, auburn bob, and freckles made her look so young. But she had a flat lack of emotion that made her seem old; she never got angry, had no sense of humor. She set the prayer book onto her pillow and left.
Cass stood waiting, listening to Sophia’s retreat. Then she flung herself face down onto her bed, giving it a few punches, a childish tantrum. Her black hair tumbled across her cheek as she turned over in agitation. The watch dug into her hip, the evidence of her thuggish behavior. She inhaled deeply and exhaled long and slow, giving a final puff to blow the long tresses from her face. She pulled the watch from her pocket and brushed errant hair from her eyes. Holding it above her, she inspected it. Cass found an engraving on the back in tiny print:
Areli ♥ Goyo
Clearly these were names, though she’d not heard them before. And the heart! She must have stolen the poor man’s gift for his girlfriend or wife! Now she felt even worse. Talk about breaking holy commandments. Talk about damnation!
She heard a noise and stuffed the watch inside her pillowcase. She laughed anxiously, realizing that she’d just been staring at a watch but didn’t know what time it was. In a swift, practiced move she put on her own watch: 6:53, time for dinner. She straightened her shift and smoothed her hair, as if that would hide her sins from the prioress’ knowing eyes.
Crumbs and shoestrings. Cass hurried to the meal room.
Cass leaned back on the bench, trying to read Prioress Benedict’s face for a response to her request that she extend her time and remain behind. Cicadas filled the otherwise silence.
Having wrestled with the watch dilemma all through dinner, Cass had resolved to find the man she had robbed and return the watch to him. That decision made, what followed was an internal debate of how much of the situation to tell. As little as possible, she’d concluded, but enough to convince the prioress. She knew she just couldn’t leave the country the next morning as planned.
It had taken some searching before she found the prioress alone in the little tropical courtyard, with its dense lush foliage and narrow twisting paths. In the shadowy darkness of night, she made her request. The tiny wise woman had asked many questions and Cass answered all of them, though without being entirely truthful. With growing disquiet, she was vague about exactly how she’d ‘found’ the watch on the bus. Now she waited, conscious of the stifling heat.
The prioress’s features were too calm, too peaceful. Running her palms along the worn seat of the wooden bench, Cass concentrated on masking her own features with similar peace. She banished her worry from her face but it settled in her chest, where her heart beat rapid and shallow. She mused at how many must have sat on this bench over the years, polishing it to such a smooth plane. Cass felt sure she was not succeeding with the calm face thing. She should really practice that, maybe with more meditation…
“Though it seems you are dealing with something heavy on your heart, Sister Cassiopeia, I cannot let you stay behind.” Prioress Benedict’s words jerked Cass from her blabbering train of thought.
“No, no, dear. Perhaps you can leave the timepiece you found with the guesthouse hotelier, with a note.”
“Um, certainly.” Cass knew her dismay was showing. The man would never know to find the watch here. With a “thank you” she dismissed herself and returned to her room.
Feeling surly, she plunked onto her bed. On the other bed, Sophia was paging through a blue paperback.
She looked up from the book. “Hey, where’d you go?”
“Oh, I just felt like wandering,” Cass shrugged, not wanting to discuss it with her. “What are you reading?” Cass said to change the subject, trying to jeer because she felt like being mean, but her question was too innocuous.
Sophia held up the book. “It’s called ‘Rosaura a las diez.’ It’s a murder mystery. Argentine author.”
“Rosaura to the ten?” Cass translated.
“No. ‘Rosaura at 10 o’clock.’” Sophia clarified.
“Oh.” She found the title somewhat unnerving, since it spoke of the time and thus reminded her of the watch. Of her trespass. “Is it good?”
“Yes.” She was already back reading.
The evening was the same sticky hot that it was every day. Cass kicked off her sandals and stared at the fading sunburned triangle on the tops of her feet where the sandals didn’t protect them. Her feet were dirty, like they were at the end of every day here. Though she showered every morning, each night she felt compelled to wash off in the bathroom sink before getting into bed.
After stewing for a bit, Cass got out some writing paper and began her note:
Don’t worry about me – I will catch a later flight. I must return the watch.