I was drinking a Burger King Mocha Frappé on the morning of the day I found out Dad wasn’t saved. Pennsylvania backroads whipped past our station wagon. Mom was driving us to Kids Camp. I was twelve so I sat in the passenger seat. In the back, my younger sisters, Rose and Mae, poked each other and giggled. Mom’s free hand plucked a tube of Revlon from her purse and twisted off the cap. Damp mountain air lifted her puffy bangs off her forehead and her cranberry lips mouthed the words to a Martina McBride song on the radio. The creases in Mom’s forehead relaxed the way they did whenever it was just us girls.
Mom steered the car into our pastor, Reuben’s, gravel driveway. All around us, other Believer parents chatted amongst themselves. Mom’s nails pricked the tips of my cheeks as she scrubbed sunscreen in. I just wanted her to leave already. Some of the more devout parents stayed all day to help Rueben with the camp but most drove off waving wildly and blowing kisses. Mom’s good-bye kiss smacked loud in my ear. She told me and my sisters that Dad would pick us up after work that afternoon.
My sisters and I sprinted down the dirt path towards the pavilion. During the rest of the year, Reuben hosted a Sunday Service in his basement. It was God who’d given him the idea for this camp, so he had the pavilion built in the woods by his house a few years ago. Reuben wrestled to unstick the stacked plastic chairs and wiped sweat from his thick, brown mustache. He waved hello to all of us kids as we filtered in. Posters with hand painted Bible verses and mustard yellow fly traps hung from the pavilion’s support beams. I set my Bible next to my best friend Sierra, whose Bible case was ballerina pink with Daughter of God glued on in cursive rhinestones.
Reuben’s wife conducted the hymns. My eyes followed the swinging fat of her triceps back and forth while we belted How Great Thou Art. We learned about Jesus and ate peanut butter and jellies and carrots smothered in ranch. After lunch, in line for the outhouse, my stomach flip-flopped, the same way it did nights when Dad trudged silently through the front door, right past my mom, and into the basement. The end of lunch meant it was time to split into small groups. Behind me, a girl showed another how to press a cross shape into a mosquito bite with her nail to get it to stop itching.
My group met on Reuben’s back porch. There, we were supposed to practice Speaking in Tongues. The group leader said Speaking in Tongues was a gift available to all born-again believers. The kids whose parents were longtime members of the church Spoke in Tongues fluently. Mom had been born again only recently. We were kids, but we already knew the truth of God’s Word. I felt embarrassed thinking about how my mom, a grown-up, could have lived for so long in the darkness and not even know it. I sat quiet and played with the laces of my Airwalks, praying the group leader wouldn’t realize I hadn’t been called on.
Then, the teenage group leaders asked for any questions we still had about Bible Lesson. One boy asked what would happen to his cousins who didn’t go to church. Our group leader’s answer was gentle, but firm. The only way to obtain Salvation was through Christ. I chewed at the skin of my thumb and imagined Christ coming back some night when my family was out to dinner at the Old Country Buffet. Jesus plucking Rose and Mae from their spots at the dessert bar. My mom, while she stood in line for another helping of carved turkey. Then me, sitting across from Dad, lapping up soupy orange cheese sauce. My sisters and Mom and me ascending to Heaven, leaving Dad alone in the booth with our plates of pork chops and green beans and the bill.
After small groups, the adult volunteers took over and drove us to the creek where most kids tried to catch crayfish with plastic neon nets.
Sierra criss-crossed her legs on top of a big rock at the edge of the creek. I liked Sierra because she was skinny in the way I wanted to be. I hopped up and scooted next to her. Across the creek, Rose and Mae squatted, examining a tadpole. The adults looked at their watches and took turns going up the bank to smoke cigarettes.
Sierra’s thighs were thin strips of muscle, clinging to the bone, curving inward like crescent moons.
“Ugh, I can’t wait till this week is over.” She squinted mean into the sun reflecting off the water.
“Why?” I asked.
“Cus next week my dad is taking us to the Outer Banks. It’s so much more fun than stupid, boring Pennsylvania.” She said it like pencil-veiny-uh.
I thought about Wildwood, New Jersey. I tried hard to picture the tiny motel we’d crammed into. How the walk from the motel to the ocean seemed to take hours and how Mom’s shoulders slouched under the weight of the beach chairs. How Mom said we should just take the highway home and Dad said Traffic and how sweat suctioned our limbs to the seats of the station wagon for the whole five hour drive. My parents said we couldn’t go this year and didn’t tell us why, but I knew it was because of money. Money seemed to be the reason for everything my parents did or didn’t do lately. It was the reason that I spent hours picking up sticks in the yard and slipping the five dollar allowance from Dad into Mom’s purse.
The rock burned the backs of my thighs so I tried to cross my legs the way Sierra did. In my head I prayed: God, please make my dad be born again. Please help him to believe in Your son Jesus Christ. And even if he doesn’t believe, could you please let him come to Heaven with us? If he got to Heaven and saw you I know he would believe then. Please give my parents more money. Please don’t let anyone I love die. And if they do die then please take them to Heaven. Keep your hedge of protection around us always, Amen.
Dad picked us up in his work truck. It was Dad then Rose then Mae then me in the truck’s bench seat. Cheeks tinged pink and hair tangled by creek water, Rose and Mae drifted to sleep before we even reached the highway.
I cranked the window open and tried to gulp in the fast air before it could smack my face. All around us, the Blue Mountains reached toward heaven. Sunlight shone down through the trees, split off into thousands of flecks of light. The day before, at camp, the adults taught us that God had counted every grain of sand. So, He could probably count all those light-flecks, too. I cranked the window back up. The blood in my arms was heavy and my heart beat thudded in my neck. My group leader’s voice looped in my head.
“Dad, do you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and believe that God raised him from the dead?” The words spilled out of me before I knew what I was saying. I wondered if that was what speaking in tongues felt like.
“I don’t want to talk about that right now.” Dad flicked on the turn signal and maneuvered us into the fast lane.
He said there was a special lunch at his work today and his boss let him take home the extra food and that we should all just try to have a good night.
All those sandwiches made it feel like somebody’s birthday. There was turkey and roast beef and chicken. They glistened on the plastic party tray. Dad had even snagged leftover fruits and veggie sticks.
The skin around Mom’s eyes crinkled as she asked us what we learned at camp that day.
“Making bracelets,” Mae replied.
“About David and Goliath,” Rose said.
There were so many things I had learned. The most important one, the adults said, was that God was my Father and I was His kid and no one could love me more than He could. I looked at my dad. Oil and mayonnaise fell in runny clumps from his fingers. He shoved them into a napkin.
Instead I said, “Sierra’s family is going to the Outer Banks.” I said it like out-ter bank-suh.
“What’s that?” Rose asked.
“It’s the beach, honey,” Mom said.
“I miss the beach,” Mae whined, slithering down in her chair.
“I know, me too, honey,” Mom replied.
Dad sucked in a lot of air and then asked Mom why nothing was Goddamn good enough for her. He asked her why, in the middle of such a nice dinner, she had to whine about missing the beach. He asked her just exactly how she expected them to afford the beach when she’d already asked him to pay for us to go to Kids Camp.
I felt stupid for bringing up the beach in the first place.
In unison Rose and Mae said “May we please be excused and still have dessert?”
Mom nodded yes.
I followed them down the hallway into the bedroom the three of us shared. Each shout from the kitchen made me clench all the muscles in my shoulders. My eyes focused hard on a J-14 quiz about what type of boy I should try to flirt with that summer. Rose and Mae made their stuffed animals talk to each other. Rose’s mouse hugged Mae’s leopard. I decided to keep all my muscles clenched because I was getting tired of having to clench and unclench them.
Eventually, Mom said, “What does my sister have to do with this?” which meant it was about to get even louder.
“No. No. Do not even pretend like that bitch has ever liked me.”
“Real nice. Keep swearing. You’re setting a great example for the girls.”
The words flowed from my parents’ mouths so naturally it was almost like they were Speaking in Tongues, except I knew God would never assign them those words.
I corralled Rose and Mae into the closet. Their faces peered up from in between our hanging puffy winter coats. Mae’s face scrunched up and burst into tears. She pressed her snotty face into my hip. I reached across her to cup Rose’s ears in my hands. The whole closet smelled like dust and dried hot chocolate powder. Mae’s tears soaked the front of my jean shorts. I handed her the leopard and the mouse and she squeezed them until her knuckles went white.
God, I know there’s more important things like kids without food and kids without moms or dads but please, please help us. If you could just come into my Dad’s heart, just make him a Believer so that he’ll be nice. Please God.
Outside, cicadas howls swelled until they became a background noise I didn’t notice anymore.
Rose and Mae clopped their stuffed animals around the closet and eventually, we emerged back into our room. I picked up my magazine. The shouts were still coming, but less frequently now. I just wanted it to be tomorrow so I could go back to camp. Maybe I’d even try Speaking in Tongues like all the other kids. I stared at a glossy picture of Jesse Mcartney and thought about Sierra and her Bible case. I imagined running my thumb over those rhinestone words, Daughter of God, pressing hard into them until they punctured my skin.
Kay Jean is a writer from Central Pennsylvania. Her work has previously appeared in Hobart.
image: M. M. Kaufman