By J.J. Fletcher
At Gilmanton Academy, which looked down upon the average one-room schoolhouse that most towns had in 1873, Nancy Robertson and Henry Webster had already skipped two grades. Their teacher, Miss Oberhund, always paired them off together because they were more advanced than the others, and to prevent the bullying that occurred from the older students. While Henry could verbally defend himself with arguments fit for a lawyer, he was small for his age, a difference magnified by the older boys around him. Not that long ago, a few of them had pushed Henry into Dr. White’s office and apothecary, trying to scare him. He discovered a friend in Dr. White, who explained to Henry that he, like some of the specimens on a shelf, was just an anomaly. It didn’t make him bad; it just meant he was different. His brain was different from most others. Dr. White said that different was good.
Nancy wasn’t the prettiest girl in class, but to Henry, what went on between her ears was much more thrilling than what went on with her face, though he liked the soft, spiral, blonde curls cascading around her face, and he especially liked the butter-yellow sweater she often wore. What he liked most of all was that Nancy’s brain, like Henry’s, was an anomaly too.
The crisp fall day that Henry came to school and told the class about the articulated skeleton at Dr. White’s, the only person who did not shrink back was Nancy. Henry’s cousin Josiah said “ar- what?” Miss Oberhund said it was inappropriate to discuss in school and, more importantly, a violation of God‘s laws. Another student laughed at Henry and called him a strange bird. But at recess, Nancy approached Henry.
“I find articulated skeletons fascinating,” she said, tipping her head to one side. “I think medicine is going to change dramatically during our lifetimes.”
Henry’s mouth was agape. “You do?”
“Yes. I don’t believe we are violating God’s laws either. I think God gives us knowledge for us to discover. These skeletons are a way of adding to our knowledge. He doesn’t want us to be stupid. He wants us to be able to help ourselves.”
Henry nodded enthusiastically. “And how can we help ourselves if we don’t know how our bodies work?”
“I’ll tell you what’s a violation of God’s laws.” Nancy nodded in the direction of Josiah and his friends. “Those dim-wits.”
Every day after that, Nancy and Henry were inseparable at school. The teacher didn’t like them just sitting and talking on a bench, so they would walk and have their philosophical conversations while the others played ball or king of the hill. They exchanged school pictures in the fall and apples at Christmas and handmade pink and red cards on Valentine’s Day.
Holding the card from Nancy, Henry felt strange inside. For the first time, he felt he found someone who understood his interest in how bodies work and in Dr. White’s specimen jars. He smiled at the Cupid with his bow and arrows. Nancy had written, “I like you so much I wouldn’t want you to be shot by Cupid’s bow.” They had previously discussed the workings of the heart and how stupid they both thought “getting hit by a bow” sounded.
The school year waned, and Henry saddened at the thought of not seeing Nancy daily. Out in the warmth of the May sun, they enjoyed conversations about what human bodies are capable of and not capable of. One day, they were discussing how interesting it was that humans can breathe air but not water.
Feeling the kindred spirit between them, Henry felt safe enough to tell Nancy about one of his experiments, but he wanted to show her, not just tell her. After school, Henry took her to the creek by the cemetery. He wanted to share with her what he’d learned about currents and the flow of water–and of his underwater breathing tests.
“You know,” he said. “We can breathe water for a little while.”
“No, we can’t,” Nancy said, stopping under a willow tree.
“Yes, we can.” Henry beamed, pride emanating from his smile. “I tested it myself.”
“You breathed in water?” She tapped her foot impatiently on one of the jagged rocks on the creek’s bank.
“Not I. But I watched someone else.”
Nancy’s eyes widened. “You watched someone else. Who? Why didn’t they tell anyone? Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“Do you remember my cousin Olin?”
“Yes, of course.” Her faced changed, but Henry didn’t notice. “I’m so sorry. That must have been difficult for your family to have him go missing, only to be found here.” She indicated the creek in general.
“He breathed water before he died.” Henry shyly turned his toes in the dirt. “I watched him.”
“You watched him?”
“I watched him.”
“Henry! What do you mean?” Her brow furrowed. “What happened?”
“It was an excellent experiment.”
“Yes. He was so mean to everyone. And you didn’t see how he was on the way home from school every day. So I decided to use him.”
“Yes. Then dispose of him. No one really liked him.” Henry broke a twig from an overhanging branch.
“Henry, that’s no experiment. What did you do?”
“It was two-fold. I wanted to test our underwater breathing abilities, and I also wanted to learn a little about currents. So I put him in the water. He couldn’t swim, you see.”
“You did it on purpose?”
“Well, yes, Nancy. It was part of the experiment.”
“Henry, I don’t think you conducted an experiment. In fact, I’m quite certain you committed murder.”
“You let him drown? You didn’t jump in to help him?”
“Jump in to help him?” Henry was confused. “No. I told you–it was an experiment. I was there. Holding him.”
“Holding him in the water?”
“Yes. I held him up because I wanted to see how long he could breathe under the water.”
A look of fear crossed Nancy’s eyes. It was a look Henry would come to learn well.
“That’s not good Henry. We have to tell someone. “
“You broke the law.”
“But we’ve both said the laws are old-fashioned. This was in the name of science. And medicine.”
“It’s not science nor medicine. It’s a violation of both. And it’s–” She broke off, stepping back. “It’s a violation of God’s laws.”
“God‘s laws?” Henry’s eyes flew open. “I thought we had agreed that the Bible wasn’t right either?” He was very confused. His right temple began to throb. “I don’t want to tell anyone. They won’t understand.”
Nancy slowly backed away. “I think I have to go home now, Henry.”
“Don’t go. I don’t want you to go. I thought you would understand.”
“Henry, I must go. I’m sorry. I can’t talk anymore today.”
She took a few steps back slowly at first, then more quickly.
“Nancy,” he called. “Nancy!”
She turned to run as he gave chase. She stumbled over a rock protruding from the riverbank and fell, curls bouncing. Henry was at her feet before she could stand. A large rock next to her caught his eye. He threw himself on her and picked up the rock.
A search party discovered Nancy Robertson’s body two days later as the whole town of Gilmanton searched for her. The rock that crushed her skull was found a few yards away, bloodied. She was lying primly on her back, curls arranged to frame her face, her arms positioned on her chest, her hands folded together.
After her funeral, Henry walked slowly behind his mother and father and sister, Ellen. Ellen looked over her shoulder at Henry, then said something quietly to their father, who said, less quietly, “Yes, I’ve never seen the boy like this. It’s as if he has–” He hesitated searching for a word.
“Feelings?” his sister supplied.
At home, Henry ran up the stairs, eager to escape his family’s stares. He sat on the floor and pulled out his small wooden box from under his bed. He opened it, and his cloudy face cleared when he saw the marble, a button, a white leather glove, and a strip of leather. But, when his eyes landed upon Nancy’s school picture and valentine, the clouds returned. To the box he added a tiny yellow thread from the butter-yellow sweater she’d been buried in. A tear dropped from his eye.
Bio: J.J. Fletcher has recently finished a crime novel, The Devil Inside Me, in which a descendant of H. H. Holmes–Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer–resurrects his duplicitous and murderous legacy in the Windy City. “Violation” is part of a collection of short stories that re-imagine the childhood of Holmes. You can read the others in the series at jjfletcherbooks.com.
A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, Fletcher teaches Spanish to high school students. When she’s not teaching or writing, you might find her rescuing animals, reading Agatha Christie novels, or attempting to garden.