Authors: Jennifer LoveGrove
ECW PRESS / MISFIT
THE FIRST LINE WAS SMALL,
timid, and red. I was scared, but it was the only way through. I breathed deeply and drew the line longer, pushed harder, and it bloomed.
It hurt. I clenched my teeth, then smiled.
I etched another line, perpendicular to the first. It burned, clear and pure, both pain and pleasure, sheer release. Red beaded and dripped down my arm, but I didn't look away. Compared to everything else that had happened, it was nothing.
I clenched my fist tight, then opened it. Something surged through my veins â a warm rush, a high, and then, exquisite release.
I stretched out my arm and admired my newfound craft. A perfect red letter L.
It seemed only natural to discuss it with her, and just as normal when she responded.
What do you think? Pretty, isn't it?
Little poppies, little hell flames.
Do you like it?
No. You're a freak. Better do what I say. Or I'll tell.
Footsteps padded above me and stopped at the door. Someone was listening. I shoved my tools in the drawer and switched off the lamp. I sat still and silent, trying not to move or even breathe, willing myself invisible.
WHEN I WAS A LITTLE
and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said what everybody else said: a Full-Time Pioneer. That's what we were all supposed to be â obedient brothers and sisters who spent all their time going from house to house, knocking on doors, spreading the Armageddon virus. The people would smile and nod in approval, at me, then at my parents, then back at me, their joyous, too-bright heads bobbing in a sea of Pharisees.
At the meetings â Tuesday nights, Thursday nights, and Sunday mornings â I would sit down, cross my legs, smooth my skirt, and open the latest issue of
. We'd all read it together and answer questions about it, sing some songs, and pray. I thought it would be like this until Jehovah took over and killed everybody else off, and gave us â the loyal sheep, on the right hand of God â eternal life in Paradise on Earth.
If I hadn't finally figured out things were not what they seemed, I might still be there, sitting in the Kingdom Hall, waiting.
AS A TEENAGER, I DEVELOPED
something like claustrophobia, but it happened mostly when I was alone. Thoughts would rush my brain and keep coming and coming, one after another, thoughts of Uncle Tyler, of Lenora, and it would overwhelm me and I couldn't breathe. It was the house, I told myself, the same old creaking house, and I needed to escape. I still lived at home then, with my parents making all the decisions, in the same town where the elders seemed to be perpetually peering over our shoulders. Every day, the walls inched toward each other, closing me in.
It began with the house, but then I became claustrophobic within my own skin. Hunger, exhaustion, cold, pain, even pleasure â all of them had abandoned me. I felt nothing. A chrysalis of numbness had grown thick around me. If I spoke, my voice sounded distant, and when I listened to others â at school or at the Hall â it was as though I was under water. If my parents forced me to eat, I picked at the pasta or grilled cheese on my plate but I tasted nothing. That was just as well; I had also developed a paralyzing fear of throwing up. I would go to great lengths to avoid germs, gagging, and even the vaguest mention of vomit. Sometimes I would dream that I was about to throw up, and I would jolt awake just in time, shivering and panicked. Then I would recede back into numb immobility. I was a prisoner in my own body, trapped no matter where I was or what I was doing. I started to wonder if I even existed anymore.
One fall day at school I sat and alternately stared at the teacher or down at my books while I pinched the insides of my arms. Purple bruises blossomed. By 3:00, I had four of them on each arm, evenly spaced apart.
I started to feel more alert then, and by the time I got home, I had come up with a way to get outside of the haze of myself, to escape the thick fog around me, and find her, my sister, and bring her back home.
THE TOWN THEY LIVE IN
has two stoplights, some stores and banks and a library, an arena, one high school, lots of farms, at least a dozen pagan churches, and one Kingdom Hall. There are about seventy-five brothers and sisters in their congregation, and the worldly people know who they are. Every weekend, Emily's family and most of the other Witnesses go out in service, from house to house talking about the Bible. Emily knows it's wrong, but most of the time, she dreads it. Her stomach aches with nervousness and her hands are tiny, hard fists in her yellow mittens.
Her father pulls the car into a driveway in the country and turns off the engine. A rusting pickup truck, its windshield smashed, sits up on blocks near the garage. The porch sags as though falling from the house, the walls' white paint is peeling, and one of the windows is boarded up. Though the sidewalk isn't shovelled, footprints from the front door imply that people do live there. The sky clouds over, shadows fade, and it's darker than it should be on a Sunday afternoon.
â Are you ready, Emily?
â I think I have frostbite. In my feet. Maybe I should stay in the car this time. Emily hunches into her parka, a stubborn blue iceberg in the back seat.
â Lying is a sin. He opens the car door.
â Out you get.
The name on the mailbox is “Bales” and Emily shivers, her whole body, her thoughts â everything shakes but her toes, which really are numb. Tammy Bales is one grade above Emily, but three years older and much bigger. She should almost be in high school by now. Tammy throws rocks at her during recess and calls her a JoHo.
Do not take the Lord's name in vain.
Sometimes, on the worst days, Tammy calls her a JoHo Shitness, over and over, right up close. “JoHo freak,” she yells in front of all the other kids. They laugh, everyone laughs at Emily, the loser who doesn't even get birthday presents, and the teachers shake their heads.
Turn the other cheek.
But Emily turns red instead. Once she tried to be as tough as her sister, so she stammered, “Sh-shut up!”
â What did you say? Tammy Bales grabbed the collar of her shirt and twisted, pulled Emily to her red face, bumpy with acne.
â Nothing. Emily could only mutter, and Tammy shoved her, disgusted. Emily landed face down in the sawdust in the jumping pits, choking.
It's Emily's turn to speak at the door. Her parents say she's ready, they rehearsed for two hours the night before.
Good afternoon. My father and I are just making some calls in your neighbourhood, coming by to talk to you about the state of this world and about hope for the future .Â .Â .
Emily wears her navy blue polyester dress with a mouse embroidered just above the hem. The style is too young for her, it's childlike, and her tights are too small. They're itchy and the crotch has slid halfway to her knees, and she must take small ridiculous steps. Emily wonders if she is allowed to say
â What did you say? Her father grabs her arm, hard, and roughly turns her to him.
â What did you just say?
â Nothing. I coughed. I'm cold. I think I'm getting a cold. I didn't say anything!
Her father says nothing, looks at her for what feels like a full five minutes. They walk up the driveway toward the farmhouse, the snow crunching like broken glass under their boots.
â Straighten up. We're almost to the door. Do you remember what you're going to say? Do you have the magazines ready?
She nods, as her stilted footsteps tromp double-time with his to keep up.
Please God, Jehovah, don't let Tammy Bales answer the door. Please give me the strength to do this right on my first try. Please let Dad not be mad. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Emily knows that she has to say
in Jesus' name, Amen
after a prayer or God won't hear; it's like a stamp. A letter won't get beyond a mailbox without a stamp, and Jehovah won't get your prayer if it's not sent
in Jesus' name, Amen.
Emily and her father creak three steps up to the door, where the doorbell glows orange, and she knows it will be hot to the touch.
She presses it and jumps back, landing on her dad's foot.
â Calm down, Emily. You'll do just fine.
There are thumps like footsteps, or maybe a dog, and some rustling, but no one comes to the door.
â I guess they're not home. Emily turns to leave. Her dad grabs her shoulders and swivels her back toward the door. He knocks vigorously and it echoes as he peers through the screen door window.
â You know the rule. We knock three times before we move on to the next house.
There is another thud from inside, and Emily's bowels rumble and she needs to go the bathroom. Soon. She winces, and no one answers.
She closes her eyes and presses the doorbell one last time. They wait, but there is only silence now, and then the clang of the loose eavestrough on the side of the house as the wind blows.
They drive on, and at the next house, an old woman answers the door and listens, nodding, to Emily's entire speech. She smiles, takes the magazines, says nothing, and closes the door.
THEIR THREE-BEDROOM HOUSE
the outskirts of town, and there's a linen closet at the top of the stairs, near the bedrooms. Emily knows her mother hides the gifts there, but they're already wrapped, so she can't tell what they are. Every day she fights the urge to peel back the wrapping paper and peek. Sometimes she even mutters, “Get behind me, Satan!” but then feels like she's done something wrong, because you shouldn't
make a mockery of God.
â Don't you want to open yours now? Maybe just a little look? I won't tell Mom.
â Be patient, Ems.
Lenora smiles calmly and returns to underlining her
magazine in preparation for the meeting. Lenora has a tiny bit of yellow highlighter on her right cheek. It looks like egg yolk, or the smear of a dandelion. Emily doesn't tell her.
She closes Lenora's bedroom door behind her, and the house is quiet except for the clatter of her mom making dinner. Cutlery rattles, the water blasts then stills, the oven door clangs shut.
Emily can't wait any longer.
She tiptoes to the closet, opens the door, crawls inside, and pulls the door shut behind her. It is dark and musty, but Emily isn't afraid. She digs a flashlight out of her skirt pocket and switches it on with a click, sharp and too loud, like when her dad cracks the knuckles on his good hand. She hopes no one heard. After a pause, she lifts up each blanket one at a time and sets them aside in sequence, making sure she doesn't get the sheets and bedspreads and pillowcases out of order; her mom will notice.
She worms her hand beneath a rough wool blanket spattered with pink roses and slides out a silver rectangle. Her name is on it. Without making any noise in case her sister hears and tells on her, Emily peels back a corner of the shiny paper, careful not to tear it. She tilts her head and shines the light beneath the paper to see if she can tell what it is, but can't see anything but more paper. Her mom must have known she would look and double-wrapped it. More than anything, Emily hopes it's the huge encyclopaedic
that she saw in the giant bookstore at the mall in the city. It's heavy enough. What else could it be? She smiles and bounces up and down a little bit on the pile of blankets; a miniature celebration dance. But she loses her balance and starts to slide. She grabs at something, anything to stop herself, but reaches only blankets and keeps sliding. She braces her hand against the closet's wall to keep from crashing, but it's too late.
She thuds against the door, but it doesn't open. She holds her breath, leaning there, hoping that no one has heard her, hoping that she hasn't ripped the wrapping paper.
â What's going on up there?
Emily says nothing. She hears her mom move chairs and lay plates on the table.
â Hurry up and get downstairs. Dinner's ready.
Emily doesn't move. She tugs at the paper a little more and tries to look, but the reflection of her own shadowy, scrunched up face â top teeth gritted over bottom lip â glares back, and guilt burns through her like an electric jolt. She is cheating. Surprise Day is still a week away.
After Lenora thunders down the stairs, Emily puts the blankets back, flicks the flashlight light off, and climbs from the closet.
â HOW WAS SCHOOL TODAY,
girls? Their mother pauses between bites of her pork chop and potatoes, which she has cut up into tiny, even pieces. Emily pauses before she answers, unsure if it's one of her dad's no-talking-at-the-table nights or not. Those happen, along with no-talking-in-the-car, a couple of times a week after he's had a bad day. This time, he says nothing, and she and Lenora answer in unison.
â Okay. They look at each other and laugh.
â Do you have any homework? Their father doesn't look up from his food when he talks.
He holds the fork in his right hand, between his middle and index fingers and thumb, spearing food and putting it in his mouth rhythmically, without speaking. The last two fingers on that hand are missing. He has a pair of round, pink stubs left and that's all. Sometimes people stare, but Emily's used to it. It's been that way since before she was born, but when he was her age, he still had all his fingers.
Emily sometimes wonders how much it hurt when the car accident tore off his fingers. Nothing that compares has ever happened to her. What hurt more, the bone being crushed or the skin burning off? Or did he pass out during the accident before he felt any of that? Who else was there? How badly were they hurt? Other people talk about car accidents they've been in, but although this tragedy is decades old, they're not allowed to ask about it.
â I'm already finished my homework.
Lenora got straight As during her first year in high school.
â What about you, Emily?
â I don't have any today.
â Good. You can both get started on the
article for Sunday's meeting. You can help your sister with the bigger words, Lenora.
â I'm already done that too. I'm working on the next one.
â Good girl. Emily, ask your sister if you need any help with this week's. If she doesn't know, ask your mother, and if she can't help you, then you can ask me.
â All right.
Emily had already tried to read “Exposing the Devil's Subtle Designs,” which was all about immorality in music and worldly people and how to
fight against independent thought
, but her mind kept wandering. Isn't all thought independent? How can you think someone else's thoughts? She doesn't always understand everything in the magazines or at the meetings, but she gets the important points, like the Ten Commandments and the Last Days, Armageddon and the Resurrection. She can even list all the books of the Old Testament, in order, by heart. Lenora promised to help her with the New Testament.
â I have a question though.
â Don't talk with your mouth full, Emily. Her mother frowns and readjusts the napkin in her lap.
No one says anything for a while. Emily runs her toes along her chair, counting the round bumps in the leg. Six.
â What is it, Emily?
Her father, now finished, sets his fork down and looks at her.
â Well .Â .Â . She falters. She has gone over this in her head a hundred times, and still her face goes red. How will she ever give a talk at the Kingdom Hall in front of everyone someday if she can't even ask her dad a question at home?
â Go on.
Emily breathes in deeply and pushes it out. The edges of Lenora's napkin flutter across the table.
â I want to be on Library Staff. At school. It's not after class, it's onlyâ
â You know better than that, Emily. You're not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities.
Extracurricular activities are what worldly kids do. It means stuff at school that is not mandatory, and kids from the Hall aren't supposed to be part of that, because it will make them miss some of the meetings or have
. But Emily knows that some of them join teams and clubs anyway.
â But it's only at recess or at lunch. It's not after school, so I wouldn't miss any meetings. I'd be putting books away by myself instead of being outside with worldly kids.
â Your sister doesn't do extracurricular activities at the high school; it would be unfair.
â I don't mind. Why not let her spend her time in the library instead of with worldly kids? I know what kinds of immoral things kids talk about at recess, not to mention the swearingâ
Ever since Lenora got baptized last year, their parents have treated her more like a grown-up. Emily tries not to be jealous, but it's hard.
â I don't think it would hurt, Jim. Could be worse things than volunteering in the school library. Her mother takes a long sip from her glass and as she swallows, her father looks over at her and narrows his eyes.
â Easy, Vivian. Moderation.
He waits and no one says anything. Emily's mother empties her glass and sets it down, hard. Emily bites the insides of her cheeks.
â I'll talk to the elders and see if they think it would be appropriate.
Emily grins and high-fives Lenora. If she doesn't get
for Surprise Day, maybe she can convince Mr. MacKay, the librarian, to order it.
â Thanks, Dad! Can you ask them tonight? Can you call Brother Wilde right now?
â Patience, Emily. In due time.
SURPRISE DAY ISN'T A REAL
holiday. Their mom invented it so that Emily and Lenora don't feel left out when all the other kids at school get lots of new toys and clothes for Christmas. Of course no one has ever actually admitted that aloud; they wouldn't be allowed to celebrate it if they did. Just like no one has to tell Emily not to mention Surprise Day in front of other brothers or sisters from the Hall.
Emily sits on the thick brown carpet in front of the coffee table, while Lenora lounges on the floor, leaning against her favourite armchair. Her arms stick to the brown vinyl and make a peeling noise when she moves. Their parents perch on either end of the itchy orange floral sofa. Across from the couch, the television is dark. Next to the closet, a gun rack hangs on the wall. Their mom complained so much about seeing their dad's hunting rifles there, he put them just out of sight, in the front corner of the living room closet, and now they hang their coats and hats and scarves on the gun rack. He hardly ever goes out hunting anyway.
Each of them holds a gift on their lap. Emily likes the heaviness of her thick silver package, and she keeps lifting it up and setting it back down. She does this twelve times before her father tells her to sit still. She can hardly wait to tear the paper off and start reading.
For their father, Emily and Lenora helped their mom pick out some new ties to wear to the meetings; he'd been wearing the same three over and over. That was easy, but they'd argued over what to get their mom. They agreed on a necklace, but Emily wanted to get one with a pendant of the comedy and tragedy theatre masks, since her mom used to be an actress. Lenora thought that was a bad idea.
â You know Dad always gets mad when Mom mentions her past, before she was in the Truth. Then they'll fight and it'll ruin Surprise Day. You don't want that to happen, do you?
â I guess not. Her mom has a box at the back of her closet full of photographs and programs from plays she was in. It's behind her old boots. Emily doesn't let on that she knows it's there. She loves to look through it when Lenora is babysitting her and on the phone for hours. Her mom wore all sorts of different costumes, from puffy Shakespearean dresses to silver princess gowns and even a black witch outfit. Emily tries not to look at that one, since witchcraft is Satanic, but she loves all the other pictures. Some are even from the newspaper, with her name in bold letters under a picture of her in Elizabethan costume:
Juliet, played by Vivian Golden
. There are even some from when she and Uncle Tyler were kids, like the one where they're holding hands in homemade robot costumes.
Their dad never talks about her acting days and whenever their mom or someone else does, he always says something like
that was then and this is now
that was a long time ago
and that's the end of that conversation. Lenora is right; they shouldn't risk making their parents fight. They settled on a plain silver locket instead.
Emily doesn't know what Lenora's gift is. Her mom wouldn't tell her. It's wrapped in red and green wrapping paper that's covered with fat, stripy candy canes. Her father runs his hands through his short salt and peppery hair.
â That's not very neutral gift wrap, Vivian.
Everyone is quiet and Emily can hear the crickets outside. Seven chirps before her mother speaks. She shrugs her thin shoulders.
â It was on sale.
â That's not the point. It's inappropriate.
â There's no Santa Claus or Christmas trees on it, it's not that bad.
â It's not what we discussed.
â Fine. Her brown hair bounces as she stands, and falls across her face when she reaches for Lenora's present.
â Hey! Can't I just open it and throw away the paper? Come on!
Her mom snatches the box, stomps upstairs, and slams the bedroom door.
Ten minutes pass and no one speaks. Emily doesn't know what to do; she can't open her gift when Lenora has nothing. They wait and wait, and avoid looking at one another, and then their mom returns to the living room and they all exhale at once.
â Here. She thrusts the same box, sloppily wrapped in plain red paper, at Lenora.
â Gee, thanks.
Their father says a long prayer about thankfulness and obedience and forgiveness. Emily thinks he's going slowly on purpose, to make her wait even longer, but then feels guilty for criticizing her dad's prayer. She'll ask Jehovah God to forgive her later, when she says her bedtime prayer. Together they murmur “Amen” and it's finally time to open presents.