The hall is empty. The hands clunk on the clock above the lockers. One minute till the bell.
I grip my bible with clammy hands, run my tongue over my teeth, hoping there isn’t a hunk of bran from my muffin lodged between them. I pray for the strength to be able to do what I have to do if I want to get to heaven.
The bell shrieks through the hallways, the door to my chosen classroom opens and bodies swarm out. I scan the crowd for a suitable target. They’re moving too fast. Finally, the last kid wobbles out on crutches. He’s short and skinny, with zits like tiny volcanoes. The kind of kid that could use a friend and a Saviour. I step in front of him, bar his way.
He looks at me with curiosity. Maybe hope.
“Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour?”
People look up from their lockers. The boy’s pimples go a deep shade of red.
“Fuck off and get a life you freak.”
I jump out of the way of his crutches, slip my bible under my shirt, race back to my locker.
It’s already the end of September. I’ve been born-again for two months, and I still haven’t led one lamb to Jesus.
“Are you excited about the dance?” My mother rinses a pot in hot water, hands it to me to dry.
“I’m not going. I’ve decided to go to the social with Ruthanne.”
I know it’s the Christian thing to do – go to the social – I just wish it wasn’t on the same night as my first high school dance. I just found out Cam will be there.
Mom lowers a casserole dish into the soapy water. “Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Everyone will be drinking and smoking and necking. There won’t be any other Christians there.”
What if I went and Cam asked me to dance? I don’t know if I could say no. He’s so cute with his red curly hair, his freckles…. But Pentecostals aren’t allowed to dance.
“Oh for heavens sake, Jan. You’re only fourteen.” She grabs steel wool and starts scrubbing burnt-on cheese. “Don’t you think you’re getting a wee bit too holy?”
We continue the dishes in silence, but under my calm exterior, an un-Christian anger boils. She thinks I’m going to grow out of this ‘little phase’. But I’ll never grow out of Jesus.
In the basement of the Pentecostal church, about twenty of us sit in a circle. I focus on the pastor in the middle, try not to think of Cam at the dance, waltzing with some grade eleven girl with big bazookas.
“The question today is: Is there hope for you? And the answer is YES! YES! A resounding YES!” The pastor stabs the air with his bible.
An older girl, Lily, cries out, “Praise the Lord!” and waves her hands above her head like palm fronds.
“If you accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour, you will be filled with so much joy that all that emptiness and anger will be squeezed out. There will be no room. You will be filled with the light of Jesus.”
“Praise the Lord!”
During a summer retreat, this pastor baptized me in the Holy Spirit. I was filled with the joy he describes, till tears streamed down my face, my body convulsed, and I babbled in tongues. I prayed until my legs froze in a kneeling position and one of the older boys had to carry me back to my seat.
But all the emptiness and anger has not been all squeezed out. It’s still there.
Adam, Lily’s boyfriend, walks to the middle of the circle with his guitar. He looks at Lily, smiles a joyful smile, starts to sing in a deep, sexy, Bruce Springsteen voice.
“It’s different now, since Jesus saved my soul.”
As I sing along, I close my eyes and let Adam’s voice throb deep inside me. I want a boyfriend like him. One who’ll look at me the way he looks at Lily. Like I’m the only one who exists.
On the drive home with the Jenkins family, Ruthanne leans into me and whispers, “You know you have to witness for Christ if you want to get to heaven.”
My stomach tightens. “Of course I know. I’ve been trying.”
I’ve been working on my family, but I will never witness at school again.
“Well, you have to try harder.”
“I don’t see you witnessing.”
“Who do you think brought you to Jesus?” Ruthanne crosses her arms, looks out the window at the fields of corn.
So Ruthanne was witnessing when she invited me to her church. I thought she wanted to be my friend.
I fix my eyes on the back of her father’s head. There are comb marks through his silver hair, like corduroy. He’s a tele-evangelist. Probably saved so many souls on his TV program that he’ll get his whole family into heaven.
Ruthanne’s mother twists around and smiles. “Why don’t you invite your family to the Fellowship Potluck next Sunday? I’m sure they’d fit right in.”
I try to picture my family holding hands around the fire, smiling like Ruthanne’s family, singing “Praise Be To Jesus.”
“Thank you. I’ll ask them.”
Mr. Jenkins turns the car up their driveway. Dad sits in his Austin Mini, waiting to drive me the rest of the way home. Cigarette smoke drifts out his open window.
I look around the table at my family, my father at the head, my mother at the other end, Susan and I side by side, with me closest to Dad because she’s scared of him, and Eric across the table, on his own. I close my eyes and pray, trying not to move my lips.
Please Father, give me strength.
“Hey, Brat. Pass me the potatoes.”
I open my eyes, make a face at my brother, but don’t say a word. The old me would have told him where to go but I’m trying to lead by example.
I pass him the mashed potatoes, then look over at my mother.
“Mom, we’re Protestant, right?”
My sister and brother look up from loading their plates with roast beef, mashed potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.
“Yes, we’re Anglican, I suppose.”
“Aren’t Protestants Christian?”
“So we’re Christians then.”
“Well, I call myself an agnostic.” my mother smoothes the napkin over her skirt.
My father puts down his fork. “We’re not bloody agnostic, we’re atheist.”
“Well, if we’re already technically Christians, why can’t you guys come to church with me? The Jenkins family invited us all to a potluck next Sunday.”
“Jesus Christ. Here we go again.” My father drops his head into his hands.
“Why can’t you just come and see how beautiful it is? Everyone’s so happy.”
“That’s because they’re all a bunch of brainwashed morons.” My brother crams half a Yorkshire pudding into his mouth.
I glare at him, but hold in my anger.
“Eric, really. They’re just a bit confused,” Mom says.
“A bit confused, Jean? Give your bloody head a shake. You have no goddamned idea what you’re talking about.” Dad’s already had one Scotch too many.
“I’ll come to your bible group tomorrow,” Susan says.
I give her my warmest smile. “Thanks, Sue.”
“Bible group?” My parents look at each other.
“I’m starting a Munster bible group. I put flyers up all over town. I have to witness to other people, not just family if I want to get to heaven.”
“Really, Jan. Do you think that’s such a good idea? It’s all fine and dandy to be a Christian, but you don’t have to tell everyone about it. It can be a quiet thing.”
“I can’t be quiet about my love for Jesus.”
My father lets his fork crash to his plate. “Jesus Christ, Jean. Would you talk some sense into your daughter?”
“You’d better keep your fucking mouth shut at school.” Eric’s eyes narrow behind his wire glasses. Did he hear about my pathetic attempt to save Zit-Face? That would mean Cam heard too.
“Watch your goddamned language.” Dad leans toward my brother.
Susan stiffens beside me, pushes her food around her plate.
“Me watch my language?” Eric jumps up and his chair bashes against the wall behind him. “This is a pathetic excuse for a family.”
He stomps through the living room, down the stairs, and slams the door to his room so hard I’m sure he’s broken the hinges again.
Mom turns to Dad. “Really, Ron. Must you?”
I sit cross-legged on the grass on our front lawn, facing my congregation: my sister, Susan, Nancy and Cheryl Bissonnette from next door and their little brothers David and Bruce, Joy from across the street, and Greg from the house beside her. Even with the flyers I put up all over Munster, only my friends have joined.
I open my bible, turn to Corinthians. clear my throat.
“Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body.”
I’ve highlighed anything to do with fornication. Cheryl just lost her virginity to a guy from a high school in Ottawa. Or at least she says she did.
“What’s fornication?” Bruce asks. He’s only eight.
“It means fuck,” his brother tells him. David’s ten.
“David!” I narrow my eyes at him. Greg and David start snickering. I continue, trying to ignore them.
The Bissonnettes are Catholic so Cheryl thinks she has a ticket to heaven, but not according to the Pentecostals. I don’t want to come out directly and tell her fornication is a ticket to hell.
“Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is outside the body; but he that commiteth fornication sinneth against his own body.” I stumble a bit on the words, say ‘againthst’ accidently.
“It thounds like you have a lithpe,” Greg lisps and he, David and Bruce fall onto their backs holding their stomachs, laughing. The girls look at each other and try to keep their lips in a straight line. I glare at Greg. He’s Susan’s age, two years younger than me, but I will have to live forever knowing he’s the first boy I ever kissed, even though we kept our mouths closed. It was spin the bottle. I had no choice.
“You guys, this is serious,” I say through clenched teeth. But they won’t stop laughing. Even Cheryl, Joy and Nancy are laughing. Susan’s the only one trying not to.
I slam my bible closed, stand up, take one last burning look at my friends, and march up our three concrete steps into the house.
“Every Christian has had a family member or a friend who is not a Christian,” the Pastor starts out, “but we are commanded to share the gospel.”
I squirm on the hard wooden pew beside Ruthanne, her parents, her brother. I look around at the well-dressed, attentive congregation. It doesn’t look like they have loved ones who are agnostic, let alone atheist.
“Be warned. Don’t delay your witnessing. John 3:3: ‘…no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’”
I look down at my boots and fixate on a puddle of melted snow. I’ve been a Christian for six months and I still can’t convince anyone to come to church with me.
“They are all going to burn in HELL!” I jerk up straight in my seat. What is this? I thought we’d be singing Christmas carols.
“Praise the Lord!”
“So pray for those sinners in your life. Set an example and live a godly life. And if you want to clear your path to heaven, you must preach the gospel at all times. Let us bow our heads in prayer.”
I try to pray but my stomach hurts. I’m sure I have stomach cancer. I can feel something black and evil lying dormant, waiting for the right moment to strike.
The pastor wishes us Merry Christmas as we file out of church.
On the drive home, wedged between Ruthanne and her brother, I work up the courage to ask my question. I need to know from an expert.
“Mr. Jenkins? Can I ask you something?”
“Of course you can, Janice. Ask me anything.” Our eyes meet in the rear view mirror.
“I can’t get my parents to accept Jesus as their Saviour.” My throat feels tight. “I was just wondering if everyone who isn’t a Christian goes to hell? Or… maybe there’s another way to get into heaven?”
“Don’t you worry, Janice.” Mr. Jenkins smiles into the mirror. “You just do the best you can.”
I smile and relax back against the stiff leather.
“And besides,” he adds. “When you are up in heaven, dining with the Lord, and you look down and see your family in hell, you will feel no sadness because you will be with our Heavenly Father.”
Mrs. Jenkins nods in agreement, her stiff blond curls immobilized by hair spray.
I clasp my fingers over my stomach and push, trying to stop the cancer cells from multiplying. I close my eyes.
Please, please, don’t let my family go to hell.
I’m wearing a long white gown, dining with Jesus in heaven. Suddenly, something grabs my foot and I look down. Susan, Eric, Mom and Dad are crawling through the floor, scrambling over each other as they try to escape the fire, screaming and reaching for me as their skin falls off their bones. Jesus turns into Ruthanne and she laughs and says, “I told you what would happen if you didn’t save them.” She keeps changing faces, Jesus then Ruthanne, Ruthanne then Jesus.
I wake in a cold sweat, croaking a scream that won’t come up my throat.
I untangle myself from my sheets, run upstairs. As I stand over my parents’ bed, Dad groans, “Jesus Christ, not again. What are those idiots doing to her?”
“Ron, just go sleep in the den. Grab the Gravol from the bathroom before you go.”
He throws back the covers, gets out of bed, and I crawl into his warm space.
“I don’t want you to burn in hell! I don’t want to be dining with the Lord and watching you and Dad and Eric and Susan screaming at my feet! I’m so scared of dying. What if I go to hell too?”
I sob into my father’s pillow while my mother rubs my back. Dad comes back with Gravol and I wash bitter orange pills down with water. He pats me on the head like a puppy, then grabs a blanket and leaves the room.
I curl into a tight ball, around the cancerous ache in my gut. I’m dying because God knows I’d rather be in hell with my family than in heaven with Him.
“I don’t believe a god could be so cruel as to send good, decent people to hell, Jan.”
“But Dad and Eric take the Lord’s name in vain and drink all the time.”
She ignores my list of their transgressions. “I believe what’s important in life is to be kind to others.”
I want to believe her, and I almost do, but I hear the pastor’s voice of warning: Be careful. The Devil speaks through those we love.
The doorbell rings. I race up the stairs from my room, push open the door. My brother’s friends, Chris, Jeff and Cam slouch on the front steps, hands in pockets. Jeff’s wearing his tight black leather jacket as usual. He thinks he’s the Fonz. I can’t believe I had a crush on him.
I try not to look at Cam as I open the screen door.
“Whoa. This chick’s excited to see us!”
Jeff’s staring at my chest. The other boys’ eyes drop. I look down to see my nipples, popping up stiff under my tight shirt.
“If you grow a bit, I might even take you out sometime.” Jeff laughs.
I cross my arms over my chest, my face burning.
Cam pushes Jeff off the front step, into a cedar shrub. “Fucking moron.” He looks back at me. “’Scuse my French.”
Warmth pools in my lower tummy. I give him a grateful smile, then yell over my shoulder, “Eric, your stupid friends are here!”
The guys head downstairs toward Eric’s room, but Cam hangs back, waits till they round the corner.
“You wanna go for a bike ride with me this weekend?” he asks.
Electric currents zip through me way more than when I was baptized in the Holy Spirit. For almost a year now I’ve been a good Christian. I haven’t danced or gone to parties. Then just yesterday Cheryl told me Leslie told her Rudy saw Ruthanne at Mark’s party last weekend. Not only was she dancing, she was necking with Jason.
If Ruthanne can neck with a non-Christian, I go for a little bike ride with one.
“Yeah, okay,” I say.
“Wow, it’s sure hot for May.” I try to lift one hand off my handlebar to wipe the sweat from my forehead before Cam sees it, but my tires wobble. I quickly re-grip the handlebar.
The bulky seams of my cut-offs are making it hard to sit on the seat, and my little blue short-sleeved sweater with the tiny pink embroidered flowers is not feeling very appropriate for biking.
I ride beside Cam, watching where my front tire goes. The road isn’t paved yet in this new development. There are just a few frames of houses up, like skeletons, and the other lots are undeveloped. Cam stops in front of a clump of trees.
“You want to have a wild party?” he asks.
I’m not sure what he means. I know Glen Vandermolen’s party is coming up… He’s going to think I’m an idiot if I don’t know what he’s talking about.
He lays his bike in the ditch and heads down a faint path into the woods. I follow. He steps over a log into a tiny grassy clearing.
“This is pretty,” I say.
Cam lies on his side, leaning on his elbow.
“Come here.” He pats the grass.
I just stand there. He says it again so I kneel on the grass beside him.
He pulls me down till I’m on my back looking up at him. I smile uncomfortably. He leans over and starts kissing me. His lips bang against my lips, and our teeth meet with a clink. Before I can clamp my lips shut, he slips his tongue into my mouth. It’s slippery and smooshy. One part of me screams, I’m necking, I’m really necking! but most of me wants to get up and run home.
Then I feel his hand slip under my sweater. I pull away but there’s nowhere to go and I can’t talk because his tongue is still in my mouth. He slips under my padded bra and kneads my boob. I start breathing heavily, trying to get air, and he must think that means I like it because he moves to the other boob. He pulls back and grins at me, his hand still cupping me under my bra.
“You like that?”
I shake my head. “No.” I hold my breath, press my lips together as though that will stop the tears. At least it’ll stop the tongue.
He pulls his hand out from my top and I start to breathe again, but his hand goes lower. He pops open the button to my cut-offs. Starts undoing the zipper.
“What would you do if I went down your pants?” I stare at him. Frozen. I can’t talk or move.
“You couldn’t stop me.” He grins.
I start to cry. The tears come freely, just like when I’m in church. But I don’t feel filled with joy this time.
Without saying a word, Cam gets up and heads back toward the bikes. I sit up. Do up my shorts, pull my bra back over my boobs and follow him.
We part ways at the mailboxes. He steers his bike toward Upper Munster, and I race down the hill toward home, not caring if I crash. I’ve been straying from the Lord and hardly going to Young People’s and now He’s punishing me.
In my room, I pull out my bible and start reading. But I can’t concentrate. There’s a yearning in my gut – like spring fever – that makes me want to jump up and down on my bed and scream. Makes me want to throw a pack on my back and hitchhike across Canada. All the way to the ocean. I hurl myself back on my bed and the bible slips to the floor. With my eyes closed, I imagine Cam’s tongue in my mouth, his hand under my bra. He pops open the button on my shorts. This time I don’t stop him.
First Place Non-Fiction Winner – Room Magazine – 2011
Published in Room 35.2