Mom and Dad smile constantly now. That’s what bothers me.
At the dinner table, Mom says, Honey, would you please pass the asparagus?
Dad says, Certainly, dear. The bottom of his face is a great half-moon of exposed choppers as he passes the platter.
Mom accepts it, her pearly whites gleaming.
Billy and I each raise an eyebrow.
Mom uses small, silver tongs to transfer a few spears from the platter to her plate. She says, And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. She says, Hebrews thirteen sixteen.
Dad closes his eyes, holds up an arm, cranes his head back. He says, Praise be unto Him.
Billy and I have seen this behavior before: Mary and Joseph were the same way.
Mom and Dad are arguing about something stupid. This is before they act like Mary and Joseph, when things were crappy but normal.
They’re arguing about something stupid because they’re always arguing about something stupid. It’s Dad’s cooking or Mom’s lack of ambition or Dad’s beer belly or Mom’s chattiness. They’re a nonstop revolving door of meaningless arguments.
Mom and Dad spend so much time arguing or waiting to argue that they aren’t exactly present when they do ordinary things, like tie a necktie or put on make-up.
We’re enjoying a quiet, yet tension-filled ride to Church when Mom looks over at Dad. She tells him his tie is crooked. Dad barks that Mom looks like she applied her make-up with a leaf blower. On and on they go until the car’s tires hit the asphalt of the Church’s parking lot. Once that happens, boom, they’re dead quiet.
Dad parks and turns off the car. He and Mom turn around in their seats, peer at Billy and me in the back.
They stare at us until their scowls soften and become smiles.
Dad says, Sorry, guys.
Mom says, That had nothing to do with you. She says, You’re great.
Dad looks at each one of us in turn. He says, You ready?
We all nod yes.
Dad smiles. Mom does, too. Billy and I follow suit.
Our merry band of pretenders gets out of the car. Grinning like the freshly lobotomized, we enter the Church.
During the service, we’re singing “How Great Thou Art.” I glance up at Mom and Dad while I belt out the second verse. You know how your eyelids droop when you’re sleepy? That’s what Mom and Dad’s mouths are doing – they smile, their mouths go slack, they smile, their mouths go slack. They’re so busy smiling, so busy keeping up appearances, they forget to sing.
A Deacon stands at the end of our pew, scanning the crowd. He too is smiling until he spots Mom and Dad. Then, like Mom’s and Dad’s, his mouth goes slack.
The service ends. We start toward the exit but are flanked by two Deacons just before we reach it. One puts his hand on Dad’s shoulder, the other puts his hand on Mom’s. A third Deacon comes up behind Billy and me, puts his hands on our shoulders.
One of them, still all smiles, says, We’d like you folks to come with us.
Dad looks at Billy and me. He doesn’t bother smiling. He says, We’ll be right back, guys. He motions to the Deacon at our backs. He says, This man will look after you while we’re gone.
Mom and Dad are led away. So are Billy and I.
I’m staring at a poster of a woman helping an old man across the street. They’re smiling at each other. Block letters at the bottom of the poster proclaim, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:17.”
It’s one of several that adorn the walls of the Sunday School classroom.
Hard, wooden chairs, arranged in neat little rows, take up the majority of the room. In the front row, Billy and I occupy two of them.
We’re silent, sitting up straight. And smiling. Always smiling.
After a while, footsteps echo in the hallway, that click clack of dress shoes against linoleum. There’s a pause, and then the door opens.
A handsome, square-jawed man in a dark blue suit and red tie enters. His brown hair is neatly combed, a part running down the left side with laser precision. He’s followed by a leggy, statuesque woman in a pastel blue blouse and black skirt. Her long, blond hair falls perfectly across her shoulders. They each carry a Bible, and both of them are smiling. They look like they actually mean it.
They pull two chairs from the front row and put them in front of us. They sit.
The woman puts a hand on her chest. She says, I’m Mary. She puts her hand on the man’s thigh. She says, And this is Joseph.
Joseph says, What are your names?
Lisa, I say.
Billy, says my brother.
Joseph says, Do you know why we’re here?
Billy and I exchange a glance, shake our heads no.
Mary says, Your parents needed to go on.
Joseph says, A retreat.
Mary nods, says, A retreat. She puts a hand on Joseph’s arm, says, Joseph and I are going to take care of you while they’re gone. She smiles, says, It’ll only be a couple weeks. She says, We’ll have fun!
Billy and I get ready for bed. We brush our teeth, wash our faces.
We go to our bedroom. We used to each have our own but Mary and Joseph decided to make some “teensy-weensy adjustments” and turned Billy’s room into a Bible study room.
Although he didn’t say anything, Billy scowled. Mary caught that, said, Tsk. She said, That’s one strike. She pulled out a small notebook, jotted something down.
We get into our beds, pull the covers up. Joseph looks at Mary, says, Forgetting something, aren’t we?
We already brushed our teeth, says Billy.
Mary smiles. She says, No, silly. She puts her palms together in front of her chest and cocks her head.
Billy and I nod, get out of our beds, kneel beside them.
We clasp our hands together, close our eyes, recite a simple prayer. In monotone, we ask God to bless us, our parents, and our dog, Noodle.
We say amen and are about to get back into our beds when Joseph clears his throat and turns to Mary. He says, Guess we aren’t much to be thankful for, are we, Mary?
Billy says, We didn’t ask you to stay here. He says, You were forced on us.
Evidently, he’s still upset about being evicted from his room.
Mary steps forward. She says, Excuse me?
Billy says, Our parents were taken away from us. He says, We didn’t want you here in the first place.
Mary’s still smiling but it’s not her usual smile; she wears a vengeful rictus that an evil clown might have. She pulls out that same small notebook and scribbles something inside it. She says, That’s strike two, mister man.
My back is to Mary and Joseph when I mouth the words, Just do what she says.
We kneel again, thank God for Mary and Joseph.
Our voices are as empty as the prayers themselves.
We’re sitting on the couch. It goes Mary, me, Joseph, Billy. Mary has her arm around me, Joseph has his arm around Billy.
My skin is crawling. Judging from the grimace on Billy’s face, probably his is, too.
On the television, there’s some show that recounts Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Every talking head and “expert” on the show treats it like it’s undeniable fact.
Billy’s eyelids begin to drop. As they do, his head leans forward. This happens two times. The third time, Joseph catches it and signals to Mary.
She reaches for her notebook, which is sitting on the end table.
I say, This is complete garbage. I say, Where’s the evidence supporting any of this? I say, Am I expected to believe that a man actually died and came back to life?
A sharp gasp from Mary and Joseph.
Billy’s head jerks up, and he smiles at me. And it isn’t for show.
Mary bolts off the couch. She grabs her notebook with one hand, grabs me with the other.
I’m pulled into Billy’s old bedroom and pushed onto a couch that used to be in the living room. Mary yanks a Bible off the shelf, thrusts it into my hands.
She says, This is your evidence. She says, This is all the proof you need. She opens her notebook, scrawls something in an angry hand. She says, That’s two strikes for you, missy.
Mary marches out of the room, locking the door behind her. I stretch out on the couch, open the Bible to the New Testament. I lay the book on my stomach and close my eyes.
I hope Billy appreciates the diversion. I didn’t have even one strike, let alone two. Granted, he has to watch the rest of that stupid show and I don’t.
Thank God for that.
Mary, Joseph, Billy, and I are in the foyer to greet my parents when they finally come home.
Mom and Dad stride into the house hand-in-hand. They’re both smiling.
I try to remember the last time I saw them like that, but I come up empty.
Billy and I run to them, throw our arms around them.
Mom says, Praise be unto Him.
Dad says, God’s will be done.
Billy and I disengage, stare at them for a moment. The irritation, the pettiness, the tension, they’re all gone. They look like Mom and Dad, but they’re not them. They’re like Mary and Joseph now.
Billy starts to cry.
Oh, my little lamb, Mom says, hugging Billy. There there, she says.
I glance up at Mary, expect her to take out her notebook, give Billy his third and final strike. Instead she hands it over to Dad.
It’s official: Mary and Joseph’s reign is over. But the nightmare doesn’t seem to be.
That poster of the woman helping the old man is staring me in the face. Again.
The Sunday School classroom is emptied out, and I’m sitting in the front row. Again.
Only Billy isn’t beside me this time.
Today’s Church sermon focused on the “Mysterious Acts of God,” how God does things for certain reasons, how those things should not be questioned.
During the Pastor’s spiel, Billy looks at me, arches an eyebrow. I shrug. Luckily, nobody notices.
We’re walking to the car after the service when Billy says, If God can do anything He wants, why does He let wars happen? He says, If He has all this power and doesn’t stop wars from happening, doesn’t that make him a pretty crappy god?
Mom and Dad stop in their tracks. Dad takes Mary’s notebook out of his pocket, makes a note as he shakes his head.
He says, That’s it for you, young man. He takes Billy by the arm and goes back into the Church. Mom and I follow.
Dad finds a Deacon, whispers something to him. The Deacon shakes his head, nods.
A second Deacon joins us. Mom smiles, says, Go with this man, little lamb. She says, Your dad and I have to take care of something.
I’m escorted to the Sunday School classroom, sit there until Mom and Dad come to get me.
They pull chairs from the front row, place them in front of me. Smiling, they sit down.
Dad says, Your brother. He says, He had to go on.
I say, A retreat.
Mom nods, says, A retreat.
I smooth the skirt of my dress. I say, It’ll only be for a couple weeks, right?
Mom and Dad smile, nod.
Running my fingers along the frilly hem, I say, And he’s going to get lobotomized, right? I say, Like you guys were? I point at the poster of the woman helping the old man. I say, Because that’s the only way anybody would actually buy that crap.
Dad takes out the notebook, adds a third strike for me. He says, Such a disappointment, little lamb.
Mom says, You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires. She says, Ephesians four twenty-two.
When I see Billy again, he’s sitting in a hotel room. A hotel room that doesn’t have any windows.
A Deacon collects me after Dad puts the final nail in my coffin, so to speak. The Deacon blindfolds me and leads me out of the Sunday School classroom.
As the door shuts behind us, Dad says, Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. He says, Joshua one nine.
The Deacon and I walk down stairs, up stairs, through hallways. I’m so turned around I can’t even guess where we are.
Eventually we stop. I hear a key being fitted into a lock, a deadbolt snapping back. I’m gently led through the doorway, and the blindfold is removed.
My eyes adjust to the soft but abundant light that suffuses the room. And there’s Billy, sitting on the edge of a twin bed. The door shuts behind me, the deadbolt slides home.
Billy runs to me and throws his arms around my waist. I return the gesture, patting his back like Mom used to.
I take in my surroundings. There are two twin beds, a night table, a bathroom. It’s a cozy prison cell.
Billy and I each sit down on a bed. He swings his feet, says, Wonder what’s gonna happen now.
I shrug, say, Good question.
There are two Bibles on the night table. I pick one up, let it fall open to a random page. I look at it and snicker. I say, Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. I say, Matthew seven fifteen.
Seriously, Billy says.
Billy and I are sitting on a bed, facing each other. I hold my hands out, palms up, and he holds his hands out over mine, palms down. I smile, slightly jerk my hands, and Billy yanks his away. He rests his hands on top of mine again when we hear the snick! of the deadbolt. Billy looks at the door, and I slap the tops of his hands. He doesn’t notice; he’s busy looking at the door as it swings open.
Two Deacons pass through the doorway, one after the other. They stand to either side of it as the Pastor enters.
The Pastor wears a black suit with a red tie. His gray hair is parted down one side. A Bible is clutched in front of his chest. He’s Joseph, age 60. Only his teeth are whiter and brighter than Joseph’s could ever hope to be.
His mouth a thousand-watt grin, he says, Hello, my little lambs. He says, I have come to offer you absolution.
Billy says, You have something in your teeth.
The Pastor’s tongue slithers out between his glowing ivories and glides along the slick veneers. He does this while maintaining that smile, looking more like a coyote than a man.
Just kidding, says Billy.
The Pastor’s smile falters for a split second, like a neon sign that’s on the fritz. He says, Accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. He says, Accept Him into your hearts and all will be forgiven.
He closes his eyes and raises the Bible above his head. He says, I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. He says, First Corinthians one ten.
Tell Lord Jesus to suck it, says Billy.
I laugh again. Amen, I say.
The Pastor shakes his head. He says, Such a disappointment. He says, May God have mercy on your souls.
Yeah yeah, I say.
I’m hammering on a cold, steel door with my fists, screaming at the Deacon to bring my brother back.
After our meeting with the Pastor, two Deacons blindfold Billy and me. They load us into a car, take us who knows where. When we arrive at our destination, they walk us into another windowless hotel room.
The Deacons remove the blindfold and let me lay eyes on Billy. They let me get a good look before one of them stabs a syringe into Billy’s neck. The same Deacon picks Billy up as he collapses, carries him away.
The other Deacon follows them out, slams the door behind them. That’s when the hammering begins.
I’m at it another five minutes before I wear myself out. I slump to the floor and start crying. Didn’t expect things to get this dark. Turns out Christians are about as merciful as the Romans who crucified their savior.
On a hotel-style room service cart, a stack of banana and blueberry pancakes sits in front of me. I’m powering through it, washing it down with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. For a glorified prison, I have to admit that the food is spectacular.
Sitting on the edge of one of the beds, I cut into the fluffy cakes with the edge of my fork. A syrupy bite is millimeters from my mouth when I hear the deadbolt retract.
The door opens and Billy’s standing there. Smiling.
He’s by himself, a Bible clasped in his hands. Blue suit, red tie, hair parted. He’s Joseph, age 10.
I drop my fork. It hits the edge of the plate, bounces off, lands on the carpet.
I say, Billy?
He says, Yes, sister, it is me. He says, I’m saved.
I say, Why are you here?
He says, To spread the good word. He says, And he said to them, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. He says, Mark sixteen fifteen.
Good lord, I say.
Billy nods. Exactly, he says.
I stand up, go to him, put my hands on his shoulders. I say, Billy, you don’t really believe that. I say, Do you?
He nods and smiles. I swear his teeth look a shade or two whiter.
I say, And you’re here to, what, convert me? I say, Make me repent?
Billy shakes his head, smiles some more. He says, Why no. He says, I’m here simply to tell you that God is great, that He is risen. He says, That soon you, too, will go forth to tell of the beauty of God’s grace.
Translation: they’re fucking with me. The Pastor, the Deacons, Mom, Dad, all of them. There’s no way out, and they’re rubbing it in my face.
My hands still on Billy’s shoulders, I shake him. Lightly at first, then harder and harder, his head snapping back and forth like it’s on a spring. I stop and he smiles at me. So I slap him across the face.
Slap him again.
A toothy grin.
Let my hand fly.
He says, But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. He says, Matthew five thirty-nine.
I grab him by the shoulders again, twist him around, march him toward the door, pound on it. I say, Get him out of here! I say, You hear me? I slam my fist against it some more, say, Open this goddamn door NOW!
I flatten my hand, slap it against the steel. Between hitting Billy and the door, my hand is getting sore. I don’t care, keep assaulting the door.
Billy says, Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise. He says, Isaiah sixty eighteen.
To Billy I say, Oh shut up. To the door I say, Come on!
Billy says, Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. He says, James four seven.
I shove Billy into the door face-first. When he pulls away from it, there’s a few droplets of blood smeared on the steel. His nose is bleeding. To my surprise, my eyes start to water.
I take two handfuls of the back of his suit jacket, bash him against the door. I start to sob full force. To the door I say, Hear that? I say, That’s your errand boy’s nose breaking! I say, Where’s your god now, huh?
I smash Billy into the door twice more before it opens.
A Deacon fills the doorway. He gently lays his hand on Billy’s head. He says, Do not worry, little lamb. He says, Her time has nearly arrived.
Billy turns around, blood dripping out of his nose and onto his lips, his chin. Teeth stained pink, he smiles. He says, You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. He says, Leviticus nineteen eighteen.
The Deacon closes the door, locks it.
I slump against it, cry until I lose my breath, my chest heaving.
In a dressing room, a poster hangs where a mirror should be.
It shows a beefy woman in an ill-fitting dress standing in front of a mirror. She looks anxious, worried.
Bold text trumpets, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. – Proverbs 31:30”
I turn my attention from the poster to the white nightgown hanging from a hook on the wall. Matching cloth flats lay on the floor below it.
I regard them a little while, wonder if they made Billy wear the same thing or something different. I’m picturing him in a little, white suit – a pint-sized hybrid of Joseph and Colonel Sanders – when there’s a sharp rap on the door.
A Deacon says, Don’t want to keep the Lord waiting, little lamb.
I roll my eyes, mutter, Why not? He’s not going anywhere.
The Deacon says, What was that?
Nothing, I say.
I sigh, shake my head. I reach for the nightgown, stop, retract my arm.
Another knock on the door, the Deacon’s non-verbal reminder to hurry up. I proclaim that patience is a godly virtue. The Deacon grunts in reply.
Florescent lights shine into my eyes when I look up at the ceiling, search for a possible escape route. There are no removable panels, no way out of any kind. Even if there were removable panels, it’s not like I could reach them. There’s no stool in here, even.
A third knock. This one lighter, more demure. A moment passes, and the door opens. It’s Mary. Mary with her jackal smile and perfect blond hair. She’s holding her hands in front of her, a pair of tailor’s shears clamped between them.
Hello again, little lamb, she says. Having trouble getting dressed?
She takes the scissors in one hand, opens them, closes them. Snip snip, she says.
She turns me so I’m facing the fat lady on the poster. I feel the cold metal of the shears on the back of my neck, the tips of the blades pointing due south.
In a movement so precise it seems practiced, she slices down the back of my dress, slashing through my bra and underwear at the same time. She stretches her arm into the hallway, and a Deacon’s hand appears to take the scissors from hers.
Mary steps in front of me, undresses me like she’s peeling a banana. Goosebumps pop out all over my body and my eyes fill with hot tears. I swallow hard and blink back the tears so she doesn’t see them.
She plucks the nightgown off the hook, pulls it down over my head, fits my arms into the sleeves. She bends down, takes my shoes off, replaces them with the flats.
There, she says, putting her hands on my shoulders. She takes my hand in hers, raises it above my head. She closes her eyes, says, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. She opens her eyes, flashes that jackal smile, says, Psalm fifty-one ten.
Mary walks out of the room but leaves the door open.
A Deacon appears in the doorway. It’s time, he says.
I step out of the dressing room and into a bright, white hallway. Not sure where it is in relation to the hotel prison because I was blindfolded before I was taken to the dressing room.
A second Deacon materializes at my back. He and the other Deacon each hold out an arm, signaling for me to start walking down the hallway.
My feet swish over the tiled floor, and I keep my steps as small as I can, trying to delay the inevitable. The nightgown hangs off my shoulders and billows out when it catches an errant puff of air. I shiver.
We reach a white door. It looks heavy and is engraved with a pattern that looks like two halves of a gate.
One of the Deacons steps in front of me, puts a hand on the doorknob, twists it. He says, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. He says, Second Corinthians five seventeen.
The door opens and an impossible luminescence swallows me.
I can’t see my own feet let alone the Deacons. I turn in what I think is the direction of one of them and say, Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful. I say, I don’t know who said that, but whoever it was, it was somebody much brighter than you guys. I say, But that’s not saying much.
Then I shut my eyes and laugh. Laugh as the light becomes darkness.