Smoother Than Oil, Bitter As Wormwood

Smoother Than Oil, Bitter As Wormwood

Vincenzina Monteleone

 

“It was love without reason, love for something futureless, love that appeared to exist only to be itself, imperious and all demanding, the kind that would cause him to make a fool of himself in an instant.” 

—   Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away 

 
In the last week of my junior year, the old McGill house at the end of the road finally gained new occupants. The hundred-year-old, three story home had sat abandoned for so long that vines of bright bougainvillea had crept up one side and hung over the front porch awning. I noticed the newcomers on my bike ride to Clay County High, sitting up straight on my twelve speed to rubberneck at the movers hauling furniture up the grass-covered path to the house. An older man in a tucked-in button up surveyed the crew, directing them toward the wide doors that were swung open. A large woman swept off the porch, jeans hugging her wide hips; another, younger girl trimmed the dangling magenta blooms from the awning, long, tanned legs never-ending as she rose on her toes to reach the flowers. My bike glided past, morning sun reflecting off the spokes, flashing light across the porch. The girl stopped her pruning and followed the white light with her gaze, head lifting briefly to meet my eyes. I peddled away with conviction, backpack bouncing against my back. 

 

I told Momma about our new neighbors that afternoon, sitting at the counter while she cooked dinner. “People moved into the McGill house today,” I informed her nonchalantly, finishing the last of my Algebra homework for the school year. 

 

“I saw,” she replied, her back to me as she stirred beef stew. Her box-dyed hair fell from its waves as steam wafted up from the pot. “I stopped by to welcome them to our little neighborhood, brought over a pie.” She placed a lid on the pot. “They’re the Dawsons, from Crenshaw County over in Alabama.” She turned toward me, one hand in an oven mitt, and smiled. “They have a daughter – I reckon she’s your age.” She pulled the cornbread out of the oven and the smell filled the kitchen like a warm fog.
 
My eyes avoided hers. “I guess so.” 
“And they’re Baptist, too. Hopefully we’ll see them at church, along with that new Reverend.” I didn’t respond, so she continued. “I still can’t believe Reverend Chambers passed away – he was only in his seventies; that’s how old your Papaw is, you know.” I made a sound of agreement and looked at the equations on the page, but the Dawson girl’s dark hair and long legs filled up all available space in my brain. The possibility of seeing her in church, and eventually having to talk with her, was daunting. 
The next four days I saw the Dawsons as I biked to school, cleaning up their yard, moving in furniture or fixing the broken beams and bricks of the ancient house. The daughter was always there, hair tied back and the ripped hem of her shorts riding up her thighs as she worked. Her coffee-and-cream skin contrasted with the bright green of the tall grasses and the vibrant fuchsia of the bougainvillea. One morning, I almost crashed after staring at her for too long, my bike veering toward the embankment. I quickly straightened out, but not before my shoes skidded against the road as I tried to regain my balance. I glanced back to see her staring at me and I peddled faster, my cheeks and neck flushing as pink as the bougainvillea. 
I didn’t see much of her until the second Sunday of summer, when the May flowers were just starting to blossom and the air inside the one room chapel had yet to turn sticky like fresh cane syrup. Service hadn’t started, and everyone weaved through the antique wooden pews, meeting each other over the backs of the low benches to embrace and make dinner promises none of them meant to keep. A din rose above the crowd and reverberated in the high slanted ceiling. “Oh, there’s Evelyn Biles,” Momma announced and patted Daddy on his arm. “Let’s go say hi – you know, her husband just left her and she’s not doing too well up here.” She subtly pointed to her head, where her short auburn hair refused to move because of the half can of hairspray it held. Momma rose from the pew and smoothed her church dress over her pudgy stomach. “Savannah, honey, why don’t you come with us? Mrs. Biles has always liked you.” 
The memory of Mrs. Biles’ bony hands caressing my cheeks and saying I looked just like her daughter – who got pregnant in high school and dropped out to live with her meth dealer boyfriend – was not something I wanted to relive. “I’m fine here, Momma.” 
“She just doesn’t want to hug the crazy cat lady.” 
“Shut up, Adam,” I hissed and punched his shoulder. 
“Adam, you can’t say things like that out loud! And Savannah, don’t hit your brother.” Momma looked over at Daddy standing next to her. “A little help, Kenneth?” 
“Listen to your mother, kids.” 
Momma left us with one command – “Behave.” – as she and Daddy made their way toward the back of the chapel to chat with Mrs. Biles, leaving Adam and me alone at the end of the pew. Adam leaned back against the armrest and stretched his short legs out toward me, his bright phone screen reflecting off his glasses. 
I glanced over at him, watching the mirrored image of Angry Birds on his lenses. I took the distraction as an opportunity to slip my book out of my bag. Carefully, I flipped the yellowed pages and found my bookmark – a dried sprig of honeysuckle that had been in the book when I found it hidden under old theology books in the library's Free Bin, buried treasure waiting to be discovered. The flowers’ smell and color had faded over time, but they reminded me that I wasn’t the only one in this town’s history who liked to read something other than hymnals. 
I had only gotten three pages in when a voice I didn’t recognize spoke from above me, close enough to hear over the buzz of chatter. “That’s one of my favorite books.” Though I couldn’t place the voice, it was soft and dulcet and gave my skin a heat that was not caused by the sunlight filtering in through the open church windows. I lifted my head and looked up into doe eyes, wide and green. “My name’s Jancie, by the way,” she added as an afterthought, tucking glossy chestnut hair behind a pierced ear. 
I blinked up at her, eyes scanning her tanned and freckled face. The curve of her cheekbone was familiar and stuck in my mind. “I’m Savannah.” 
She smiled to reveal a small gap between her two front teeth. “Like the city?” 
“Yeah, like the city.” 
Her smile grew as she sat next to me, salmon dress covering her knees. We stared at each other for a few moments. I was very aware of each breath I took, every rise and fall of my chest. My eyes fell from hers and wandered down her neck, marveling at the shallow bowl formed by her clavicle where a ray of sunlight was sitting, illuminating her skin with a soft glow. Something deep within me shifted. 
“So, you like O’Connor?” 
My gaze jumped up and I raised my eyebrows in question. “Hmm?” 
She huffed a laugh through her nose and pointed to the book in my lap. “Flannery O’Connor. Do you like her books?” 
I stalled for a second, looking down at my lap. The old book sat open, fragile pages forgotten. “Oh!” I flipped the book closed but my thumb remained between the pages, keeping my place. The book jacket was ripped at the folds but still intact – a crude black drawing of a man in a sunhat, two brown corn stalks in the foreground and a royal purple backdrop. “I – I don’t know,” I answered honestly, shrugging. “This is the first of hers I’ve read.” 
“Well, this is a great one to start off with.” She looked down at the book. “The Violent Bear It Away is her second novel. ‘The world was made for the dead. Think of all the dead there are.’” She articulated the line like she was reciting The Gospel and not an old book that nobody else but me had wanted. “‘There's a million times more dead than living and the dead are dead a million times longer than the living are alive...’ She was a remarkable writer.” 
I stared at her, the words echoing in my brain. “Yeah...” 
“Well Savannah, you’ve already met Jancie, I see.” Momma shoved her way into the pew, pushing Adam’s legs off and sitting on my other side. The commotion of the chapel suddenly rushed back to me, snippets of conversations and hushed gossip assaulting my senses. The room seemed brighter than before. Two more people pushed past me and sat on the other side of Jancie. “Abraham, Dawn, this is my daughter Savannah.” Momma introduced me as she fanned herself with the church pamphlet. “They’re our new neighbors from down the road,” she said and nudged me with her elbow. 
The blank look that had settled on my face swiftly turned up into a smile out of habit or training, and I stuck my hand out to greet them. “Pleased to meet y’all.” 
Mr. Dawson took it first and strongly shook it, nodding his head toward me. His smile was as warm and soft as his hand, causing crow’s feet around his bright eyes. He replied politely. “You, too.” 
I turned to greet Mrs. Dawson but she was already lumbering over to me, face beaming in my direction. “Oh honey, I don’t shake hands – I only hug!” I was physically lifted from the pew and enveloped by Mrs. Dawson’s hefty body, my arms barely escaping to respectfully hug her back. When she let go, she held my shoulders at arm’s length to get a good look at my face. In turn, I got a good look at hers: large blue eyes framed with black eyeliner, scarlet rouge spread across her apple cheeks, pink crème lipstick - though none of this concealed the splotchy redness that comes with age and sun damage. What best hid her age was the healthy honey hair that curled around her face and down to her shoulders. Mrs. Dawson looked past me to my mother. “Oh, Abby, she looks just like you.” 
After introductions, I sat back down next to Jancie. I glanced at her out the corner of my eye. “Were you going to tell me we were neighbors?” 
She sniffed, crossed her legs and smoothed her dress, a sliver of tan knee left visible. “I didn’t know if you had your bike here. I wouldn’t want you to crash into something again.” 
A grin blossomed on my face despite it reddening with embarrassment. I slipped my book back into my bag and put them under the pew, which allowed me to sneak a closer glimpse of her toffee legs. “I didn’t crash. I almost crashed. There’s a difference.” 
Momma shushed me as the chapel grew quiet, the new Reverend finally taking the altar. 
——————————————————— 
The last few warm weeks of May went on like this – inconspicuous touches of the hand, looking away when one caught the other looking, accidental caresses of a leg, a knee, smooth skin only being kept apart by a thin layer of cotton. There were quiet conversations about books and music and a paperback of poetry was placed in my bag one Sunday morning. I started curling my hair and eyelashes, both blonde, and would watch myself in the mirror as I applied mascara with an unpracticed hand. Sundays became a reverie from the other six days of the week filled with the monotonous happenings of summertime. But even on those days when I would lay in the grass behind my house, blades sticking into my back and honeybees buzzing in my ear, I would think of Jancie and her large green eyes and long tan legs. May turned over into June, the air got heavier and the sun became a searing gold coin in the sky, but the tingling feeling remained at the apex of my thighs. 
Jonathan Collins hadn’t done this to me. His hands weren’t soft, and his voice hadn’t wrapped itself around my brain and replayed over and over again like a scratched jukebox record. He made me call him my boyfriend. He tried to lift up my skirt in World History. There had been other boys I took time out of my day to think about, boys with strong chins and sturdy legs who were older than me, but their faces never remained in my mind for long. They were fleeting recollections now, light and swift in their leaving as dandelion fluff floating in the breeze. 
Jancie was tall and glowing; Jancie was a light in which I found myself drowning. Jancie was a girl, with soft edges and peach pink cheeks. I was a girl, too. I knew it was sinful, but the forbidden fruit had been sticky and sweet on Eve’s tongue. As June turned over into July, as I laid in the shade of the magnolia tree, I ate strawberries and oranges, and let myself wonder if Jancie liked the taste of the fruit as much as me. 
——————————————————— 
“The Lord is preparing us for the kingdom of Heaven,” Reverend Taylor proclaimed, his hard voice resounding throughout the chapel. “The Lord is teaching us…to love…as he loved us. Look to the Book of Galatians.” A great noise filled the room, hundreds of hair-thin pages flipping to the correct page. “Chapter five, verse fourteen: ‘For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’” Reverend Taylor looked over us from the altar, black shirt buttoned to his neck. “’Love thy neighbor as thyself’, Paul tells us. It’s that simple, y’all. But…it’s not always that simple, is it?” 
Reverend Taylor was a towering man with hair the color of crude oil. He was a stark replacement to the docile and grandfatherly Reverend Chambers, and it was obvious that this was a welcome change – there were many more “Amens” uttered, sometimes shouted, in the church house and almost everyone’s eyes remained trained on Reverend Taylor’s imposing form, the congregation hanging on his every word. The black button up that was his normal preaching attire always had its sleeves rolled up to show muscled forearms covered in wiry hair. His face was handsome enough, a clean jawline jutting from a strong neck and an angular nose sloping down his face. He spoke with the authority of a prophet and commanded a room so well that even the grumbling of stomachs didn’t distract from his sermons. A group of girls from school began sitting in the second pew, their dresses growing shorter with every passing week. 
Reverend Taylor didn’t impress me much. His steel gaze often met mine when I wasn’t doodling on my church notes and then quickly jumped away to make intimate eye contact with someone else. One Sunday in the middle of June, Jancie leaned over and whispered that the Reverend looked like the Jason Bourne of preachers. My snorting laugh was covered with a cough and I swatted invisible flies from my face to dispel any further suspicion. 
The next week, Jancie asked Momma if I could stay the night at her house. 
“I don’t see why not. Savannah?” She looked expectantly down at me, a drawn-on eyebrow cocked in question. 
I wiped sweaty palms on the linen of my dress. “Yeah, that sounds fun.” 
Two hours later, my twelve speed was propped up against the Dawsons front porch, and Jancie showed me around the mid-renovated house. The smell of paint permeated the walls and the rafters were visible in some rooms, bare bones of a whole skeleton displayed like centerpieces. But there was a robust, protective sense to it; the McGill house had been there amongst the pines and crepe myrtles long before any of us moved onto the street. 
“This is my room,” Jancie said, and she swept her arm out as if to present a prize on Wheel of Fortune. It was a modest-sized room, but the large window facing the side yard made it look bigger than it was. A double bed sat in the corner along with a bookcase colored with glossy spines. I didn’t have much time to admire the peek into Jancie’s life before she pulled me back downstairs, hand clasped in mine. “It’s not that great – this is what I really wanted to show you.” 
We made our way to the backyard, past her cooking mother and lounging father and out into the tall grass. Grasshoppers shot in all directions as we disturbed the green and brown blades they rested on and honeybees buzzed from wildflower to wildflower around us. The expanse of grass gave way to pine trees and Jancie led me a few more yards past the edge of the woods until an old wooden structure emerged from the thicket. “Whatcha think? Pretty cool, huh?” 
I stretched my neck to look up at the dilapidated barn, a million spider webs glinting in the setting sun. My words were hushed. “It’s amazing.” 
The barn had obviously been swept and gutted as much as it could be without causing damage to the structure; a thick quilt covered a large patch of the dusty floor and some hurricane lamps sat on a shelf. Jancie let go of my hand and trotted to a far corner, where she squatted on the balls of her feet. The absent space where her hand had been in mine quickly grew cold. She waved me over and I kneeled next to her on the hard floor. “Look,” she whispered, pointing to a small hole in the wooden wall that led to the needle-covered ground outside. Hundreds of little spiders crawled through the opening, tiny specks of life skittering along the brown wood toward orange sunlight. I glanced over at Jancie’s profile and saw her grinning, watching the minuscule spiders with her big green eyes. She reached out a slender arm and allowed some to crawl up her fingers like drops of black water. “They tickle, watch out.” I put out my hand when she motioned for it and about ten of the little creatures fell on me. I wanted to shake them off, but willed myself to keep still, my gaze trailing the spiders as they crawled about my fingers and knuckles. Jancie was right, they tickled my skin more than any ladybug ever had. 
“I’ve never held spiders before,” I told her, stopping one that was crawling up my arm by swiping it to the ground. 
She limply shook her hand and most of them fell, scampering off to join their siblings. “There’s a first time for everything, Savannah. You just have to be brave enough to try.” 
Her voice rang in my ears like a church bell all through dinner. I shoved Mrs. Dawson’s mashed potatoes and broccoli in my mouth without really tasting them. I only spoke when spoken to and smiled at the correct moments. That thing that had shifted in me at the beginning of summer was restless. It pushed against my lungs and made it hard to breathe; its fingers wrapped around my heart and gave it a new beat and I didn’t know if it was killing me or giving me the life that I never knew I needed. 
Dinner ended with full stomachs and a red glow from the sun, and soon afterwards Mr. Dawson helped Jancie and I set up two air mattresses in the old barn and left us to settle in for the night. He lit the hurricane lamps before he left and the shallow lighted haloed around us. Moths loomed near the lights and sometimes fanned our faces, but we swatted them away. My voice returned from being swallowed and I let myself laugh at her stories. Her words still sat in the pit of my stomach, weighty like a river stone. 
The conversation morphed from stories of our past to musing about the new reverend. “I really don’t know what those girls see in Reverend Taylor,” Jancie admitted, stretched out on her back to stare up at the ceiling. “He’s just average looking. Besides, he’s the reverend – it has to be extra sinful to lust over him.” 
“He’s handsome,” I said automatically, no emotion to my voice. Jancie sat up on her elbows and gawked as I tried to recover and escape the box that had been made for me. “Well, Momma thinks he’s handsome.” 
Jancie gave me a grin, showing the gap between her teeth. “But you think he’s handsome, too, huh?” 
“No, he’s average looking like you said.” 
“Uh oh, Savannah’s got a boyfriend!” Her taunting words caused color to bloom up my neck and to my cheeks, the embarrassment not at all about my feelings for Reverend Taylor. “Oh no, she’s blushing!” 
I reached over the trench between our mattresses and gave her a shove to distract from my heated face. “Shut up. The reverend is not, and never will be, my boyfriend.” 
After her snickering quieted, she asked me another question. “Have you ever had one?” 
“Had one what?” 
“A boyfriend.” 
“Oh.” I looked away. “Yeah. My freshman year.” She said nothing and waited for me to continue. “Jonathan Collins. He was in my history class.” The name was sour as it slipped off my tongue. To remember him while I was there with her was an ironic joke. 
“Did you guys ever kiss?” 
I was still for a few moments, running the questions over in my head. Then it was my turn to prop myself on my elbows. “What?” 
She looked over at me with those wide eyes sparkling with innocence. “Did you ever kiss Jonathan Collins?” 
My brows furrowed and I blinked a few times like that might clear up the intention of her question. “I don’t – I mean, no. No, I – I’ve never kissed a boy.” The crevice behind my knees grew sweaty from the insulation of my sleeping bag and something else. 
“What about a girl?” Jancie asked quietly, crickets and katydids filling the quiet night. “Have you ever kissed a girl?” 
“No.” 
Our eyes met like the moths to the lamps, unable to stay away for long. I had answered her question honestly and simply. As I studied the way her thin lips parted and her forehead smoothed,  her throat bobbed with a gulp, I was at once terrified and eager at all the possibilities hovering between us. Her freckles were more pronounced in the low golden light, speckled across the bridge of her nose and at the edge of her upper lip like undiscovered constellations. It was the heavy moment waiting for the thunder to echo and lightning to crack open the black clouds with rain. 
Jancie’s voice boomed in the barn. “Are you brave enough to try? 
God came to me that night in the form of honeyed lips and petal-soft fingertips, laughter against my skin and the clash of teeth. The danger of our actions excited me and made my hands shake but she grabbed them in her own. The thing inside me raged and thrashed, and I finally had an inkling of what it meant to be Holy. 
——————————————————— 
Martin’s was always busy. What was so grand about their dry and crumbly meatloaf, or the day-old pies rotating in the mirrored case, I didn’t know. But when the wet Georgia heat puddled on the asphalt of the church parking lot and Reverend Taylor spoke longer than the allotted hour and a half, the congregation pooled toward Martin’s, with elder ladies’ feathered hats bobbing like strutting peacocks as they made their way to their Lincolns and Cadillacs. Momma always liked Martin’s and insisted on traveling with the herd to the cramped dive. Seeing as there hadn't been some sign from God disavowing dry meatloaf, Adam, Daddy and I all piled into the hotter-than-hell Volvo. 
It had been three weeks since I stayed the night at Jancie’s. In those twenty-one days, I had spoken maybe ten words to her; I switched places with Adam so I could sit at the end of the pew, left for the car as soon as service finished and stopped riding my twelve speed up to kill time. I told Momma it was because of the swelling heat of late July and I asked Jesus to forgive me for the lie. The thing sitting in my stomach was quiet and still after it got what it wanted, but I didn’t feel dirty even though I knew I should. At any moment, I was sure Momma or Daddy would somehow corner me and demand to know what happened that night, Reverend Taylor lurking behind them in a black sunhat. I avoided everyone and confined myself to my stifling hot bedroom or the shady patch of tall grass under the magnolia branches. I only ate lemon slices covered in sugar instead of strawberries and oranges and let the grasshoppers crawl along my legs.  
Momma elbowed her way through the crowd inside Martin’s, avoiding loud church ladies and southern gentlemen on her way to the corner booth. The gaudy dress she wore shaped her like a tulip wilting from the stem, hips wider than they really were thanks to the peplum and tuck of extra fabric. The garment was printed with faded magnolias and pansies, and we all trailed her sashaying behind like bees following the scent of pollen. 
“Oh, look who’s here,” Momma said as we all sat down, her next to Daddy and Adam next to me, phone still glued to his hands. She nudged Daddy and nodded into the crowd of hungry Southern Baptists behind me. My eyes rolled of their own accord as I struggled to pick the least sacrilegious thing on the menu; I was pretty sure everyone was at Martin’s, since Martin’s was the only diner within a twenty-mile radius big enough to house the tithing part of the congregating; it was impossible to be anonymous in this town. I paid no attention until Momma said my name. “Savannah, go ask the Dawsons if they would like to join us for lunch.” 
The words on the laminated menu failed to make sense and the black marks morphed into an inkblot test. I felt my tongue grow cottony and tried to blink the pleading look out of my eyes. “Momma, there’s – there’s no room.” I indicated the four-person booth we sat in. 
“Nonsense, they can bring up another table. Remember the verse Reverend Taylor ended with? ‘Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.’” Her overdrawn lips opened too wide as she recited the verse.  “Now, go over and invite them to join us.” 
I blinked once, twice, then: “I really don’t think there’s any more room—” 
“Listen to your mother, honey.” Daddy flipped his menu and didn’t look at me, voice as impersonal as it was on his business calls. My eyes danced between them in desperation. Surely this was a sick joke – God was punishing me. I slid out of the booth, accepting defeat. 
It didn’t take me long to spot the Dawsons. Mrs. Dawson’s height gave her away, a good head above most everyone else, and Mr. Dawson stood next to her in a tight white button up straining against his gut. 
She was with them, of course, leaned against the wall next to her mother, watching her own foot scuff against the dirty tiled floor. Chestnut hair curtained her face, hair that I remembered between my fingers, silky and sleek and smelling like her tangerine shampoo. Through her hair I could see her lips tipped into a bothered frown, and the memory of those lips smiling against my shoulder flashed in my periphery, the lingering phantom of shared kisses burning my own. A slender hand pushed the hair out of her face and behind her ear. I was glad I wasn’t wearing those heels Momma bought me or else I would have twisted my ankle and fallen on Martin’s filthy floor. 
“Mr. and Mrs. Dawson,” I said, settling the tremor in my voice. The Dawsons smiled when they saw who was speaking to them over the drone of chatter and Mrs. Dawson waved to someone over my shoulder. In the millisecond of distraction, I glanced over at her, still leaned against the wall; her eyes were already trained on me and I looked away quickly, schooling my expression into a grin. “Would y’all like to join us for lunch?” 
I had been right – there was no room at our table, but Mr. Dawson wrangled a busboy to push another table over as Momma and Mrs. Dawson hugged, their plump bodies squishing against each other. “Dawn, I’m so happy to see you,” Momma said as if she hadn’t seen Mrs. Dawson half an hour ago at church. “Come on now, sit down. Wasn’t the reverend just terrific today — Savannah, make room for Jancie.” Her fat hand ushered me closer to my brother. “And Adam, I swear if you don’t put that phone up, it’s gone for a week.” 
A small squabble broke out between them, but I wasn’t listening – I couldn’t listen, because Jancie’s thigh pushed against mine even as I unstuck my legs from the vinyl booth. The thin cotton of her sundress rode a few inches above her knee and my face betrayed nothing as I felt the soft and firm parts of her calf, her ankle, as she pushed closer to me. Adam’s elbow dug into my ribs on my other side, a knife stabbing into me and tethering me to real and tangible things; things like the sweating glass of tea sitting in front of me and not the image of the lantern glow on her round face, or her loud, obnoxious laugh at my terrible joke. I tugged my own dress further down my legs to evade skin on skin contact. 
“Savannah, what do you want?” 
My eyes snapped up to Momma, looking expectantly at me with penciled, raised eyebrows. My mouth went dry at her question, cold confusion numbing my body. What do you want? Kohl lined her bulging eyes and only drew more attention to her fake eyelashes. I searched her face and felt my brows pulling together. What do you want? Jancie seemed to push harder against me like she knew the thoughts buzzing in my brain. Momma blinked at me. “Savannah, the man is waiting for your order.” Her lips drew into her cheeks and became thin pink lines, and she looked more like a bullfrog than anything. She nodded toward the end of the table, at the young man standing there with a pad in his hand, and I suddenly realized the whole table had gone quiet at my reluctance to answer the question. Then I realized what Momma had actually been asking. “Uh…hamburger steak. Please.” 
As I looked at the waiter I caught a look at her face next to me, stifling a grin. 
Lunch went on mostly uneventful. Adam tried to play on his phone again and Momma made Daddy take it away, as promised. He pouted even after his food came, and his elbow endured in my side. As did Jancie’s thigh, then soon her foot found its way out of her shoe and onto mine. My palms grew slick and I rubbed them on my dress. For a second, they felt like her hands, and I blamed the sticky heat of summer for making my head foggy and leg twitch. I reached for my tea and glanced in the amber drink before bringing it to my lips but brought the glass back quickly and gazed in the liquid again. “There’s something floating in my tea,” I said to the table. 
“Here, take mine.” 
The strong voice startled me, but I did not look over. I sat still as she took the glass out of my hand and replaced it with her own, the condensation electrifying our fingers as they touched. 
“Well Jancie, ain’t you a peach,” Momma said from across the table, stuffing another bite of crumbling meatloaf into her mouth. “Remember that verse from this morning, Savannah? A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” The accent was thick and heavy and I stared at the tea in my hand, feeling water droplets travel down my fingers like those baby spiders we found in the barn. “Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed,” repeated Momma with certainty, and she grinned at Mrs. Dawson next to her. “And the Lord delivers, Savannah. Don’t you ever forget that.” 
I set the glass of tea back on the table. I was no longer thirsty. 
Conversation went on normally and uninterrupted for the duration of lunch, Jancie engaging more than I remembered her doing since we met. Then again, I was far quieter than Momma had raised me to be and I slunk so close to Adam that he elbowed me away. We all sat there for so long that the crowd inside Martin’s began to dwindle. Momma was on her fourth Coke when she stopped mid-sentence and smiled toward the end of the table. “Well, good afternoon, Reverend.” 
Reverend Taylor stood like a rooted oak, sturdy arms clasped behind his back. He wore the same black button up he wore every Sunday, rolled up to his elbows, and I took the time to wonder if he had five of the same shirt or one shirt he washed every week. He kindly smiled at Momma and Mrs. Dawson, the shallow dimples in his cheeks giving him a boyish look despite the black stubble on his chin. “Afternoon, y’all. I don’t mean to interrupt.” 
“Not at all,” replied Mr. Dawson, standing to shake the reverend’s hand. “You’re always welcome, Reverend.” 
“Yes, we just didn’t know we’d run into you at Martin’s, of all places on God’s green earth.” 
Reverend Taylor chuckled at Mrs. Dawson’s comment and nodded his head in agreement, a few strands of black hair coming loose from the gel and falling over his forehead. “It must be God’s will, because this is the first I’ve stepped foot in here.” 
“All is as the Lord wills it,” Momma added proudly, pushing her own hair back from her face. 
“Indeed, Mrs. Bishop.” He stood there for a few moments, hands still clasped behind him and thick brows drawing together. “I actually have a question for you – well, for Savannah, really.” My head shot up at the sound of my name and I met the reverend’s gaze, his icy eyes piercing mine. “Vacation Bible School is next week, and we still need some help getting everything together,” he began and addressed me directly, never breaking the gaze. “I saw you signed up to be a youth leader; would you care to help us finish setting up? You would be a real help, Savannah.” 
“Oh. Yes sir, of course, I would love to.” It was the most I’d spoken all afternoon. 
His stark white teeth shone through his lips as he grinned at me. “Wonderful. I’m actually heading back to the church house now…” His usually firm voice trailed off, unsure of how to proceed with the question. 
Momma saved him the pain. She cleared her throat before she spoke. “Savannah can ride with you – she’s got nothing else going on today, right sweetheart?” 
Riding with Reverend Taylor to spend the rest of the afternoon in the sweltering chapel along with a dozen other congregation members was nowhere near my ideal plan for the remainder of the day. I would have been content if I had napped in the shade and I tried to forget the feel of Jancie’s touch and the sweetness of strawberries for the fourteenth day in a row, but somehow, a convoluted mess of sense surfaced in my consciousness: if you go with the reverend, you can get away from Jancie. 
I gave the reverend a pleasant smile. “No, I don’t have any plans, Reverend.” 
——————————————————— 
The set up for VBS was immensely simple yet time consuming: stapling information packets, attaching different colored ribbons to the end of the pews, making cornhole boards. It took the magic out the event and turned it into another religious task. Even with six others, including the Reverend, the work lasted until the sun began to set behind the trees. 
“Thank you for your help today, Savannah,” Reverend Taylor said as he held open his car door for me to climb in the passenger seat. The sedan was sleek and black, much like the reverend’s clothing, and the faint smell of cigarettes wafted from the backseat. I tried to ignore the off-putting scent but something about it made me lean away from his touch. 
“It’s nothing, sir.” 
“Oh no, Savannah, it is something,” he insisted, buckling his seatbelt and pulling out of the church parking lot. “You showed leadership today and took time out of your day of rest to work for others. The Lord is smiling down upon you.” 
I smiled but it came out more of a grimace. Reverend Taylor appeared not to notice and kept one hand on the steering wheel while the other fiddled with the tuner until the local gospel station filtered through the speakers. I gave him directions back to my house and we made casual conversation. He asked me how my summer was going. Fine, I said. He wondered how my brother was doing. Fine, I said. He questioned me about the state of the other teenagers of the congregation. Fine, I said. 
“You and Jancie Dawson seem like close friends.” His low voice reverberated in my ribcage. 
“We’re neighbors.” I felt the need to correct him. Jancie and I were neighbors – that wasn’t a lie. But a line had been crossed and I wasn’t ready to acknowledge just how far over that line I had ventured. I smoothed my dress over my knees and held it there. 
“The Lord tells us to love thy neighbor as thyself.” Reverend Taylor turned down my road and took his foot off the accelerator. I watched his eyes flash to my cotton-covered knees. “We should all love each other as Christ loves us.” The car rolled to a stop a few yards from my driveway and he took the key out of the ignition. 
A tingle slithered up my spine. “Reverend, my house is just —” 
“Can I pray with you, Savannah?” he asked fervently, cutting me off. His steely eyes melted and looked almost desperate, gray irises warming to a light blue. Two small lines appeared between his thick black eyebrows. “The Lord has put it on my heart to calm your soul with prayer.” 
No one had ever asked to pray over me before. The first thought that entered in my mind was that Reverend Taylor must’ve known about that night with Jancie. Somehow he found out, be it through divine intervention or some other method, and now he wanted to plead with God to forgive me. I stared at the reverend with round, wary eyes and slowly nodded. I couldn’t trust my throat to properly sound out a sentence. 
“Excellent,” he said, opening the driver’s side door. “Let’s move to the backseat – there’s more room.” 
The night was sticky against my skin, the heat of the day rising from the black road. When I opened the back door of the reverend’s car, the light inside did not come on so I felt my way onto the seat. The cigarette smell was immensely pungent and when I closed the door behind me there was nowhere for the odor to go. Reverend Taylor’s face was illuminated by the muted moonlight coming through his tinted windows; long shadows fell across his face that was at one time handsome, but now looked jagged and put together wrong. He enveloped my hands in his clammy ones and jerked me closer to his side. I was able to see his eyes were closed so I followed suit. “Dear Heavenly Father, I lift this young woman up to you.” His rough hands tugged at my wrists and pulled them into his lap. “This young woman who is troubled, who is unsure of her path.” His voice filled up in the small car and with every word, his wandering hands crept up my arms like leeches. “Bless this girl, O Lord –rebuke her and pour your blessing upon her. As it is written, Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people.” He grasped my shoulders now, kneading them in a fast rhythm. I cracked an eye open and glanced at his dense fingers digging into my skin. “She is your daughter, Lord, and I am her teacher, and through you I will teach her the truth.” One of his thumbs brushed over the top of my breast. “Let me teach her, Lord.” 
The feeling in my arms returned and I shoved Reverend Taylor away as he groped my breasts through the cotton of my Sunday dress. A large hand grabbed my wrist and pulled me flush against his chest and he hooked his other hand under my knee, forcing me to straddle his thigh. His eyes were open now, the hardness returned to them as he scanned my features, my bared teeth and disheveled hair. His strong arm wrapped around my neck and wrenched my head to meet his, foreheads butting against each other as his lips found mine, biting and running his tongue along them. His stiff stubble scratched my cheeks and chin and I screamed into his mouth, thrashing against him with strength I didn’t know I possessed. “Let me teach you, Savannah,” he rasped against my cheek, the hand behind my knee gliding further and further up my thigh. 
Suddenly a flash of light illuminated the inside of the car, reflecting across the windows almost too fast to notice. But Reverend Taylor noticed, whipping his head to look out the window behind him and loosening his hold on me. It was almost too quick. Almost too quick turned out to be a long time. 
I flung myself backwards and kicked my legs into the reverend, hitting hard muscle and something harder, my loafers fumbling for some sort of purchase against his body. I felt for the door handle and I pulled, the door opening behind me, and I fell out onto the street. It was animalistic, it was violent, it was everything the Bible said God’s wrath would be and more. The lights came on when the door opened and I caught a glimpse of the trash that littered the carpet: old fast food bags, brown fries, and at least a dozen square, aluminum condom wrappers, gleaming in the overhead light. It took me a few times to pick myself up off the asphalt and run toward what I hoped was my house, Reverend Taylor’s shouts sounding muffled as blood pumped in my ears. 
No lights were on in my house – the night had run away without me. My feet slapped against the road as I sprinted away from that claustrophobic hell, and I saw golden light illuminating the trees on the other side of my house. My heart sprang into my throat. 
Jancie was sitting on her front porch, the light on as she read. She looked up when she saw me, my dress twisted and knees scraped. She stood from the porch swing, her book abandoned on the wicker. Her hair was pulled back and she was in the shorts she wore when I first biked past in the beginning of May, a lifetime ago. “Savannah?” she said as I lumbered up her porch steps. “What’s going on? Are you —” 
I swallowed her words with my lips, tasting her sweet cherry chapstick. My arms rested, exhausted, over her shoulders, but were too weak to encircle her. Her hands automatically came up to cup my face, warm hands, soft hands, hands that did not tremble or shake when they held me. I tasted something salty, too, and it was only then that I realized tears were streaming down my face. 
I heard tires screech and skid past but I did not look to the road. 
——————————————————— 
Three days later, Momma woke me up before the sun rose. 
She wouldn’t look at me. Placing a crisp white dress on my bed, she told me to get dressed. I was too tired, too frightened to ask why. I pulled the dress over my head and slipped on the old Mary Janes she had laid out next to the outfit. They were too small, but I stuffed my feet inside them anyway. My steps were careful and soft as walked down the stairs. 
Momma was waiting for me outside, dressed in her black chiffon dress and thick heels, standing next to the car. She still didn’t look in my eyes and instead moved to my side and guided me down the driveway. Hidden behind our car was Reverend Taylor, his sedan parked at the curb, a long, silver scratch running along the side. Something that had not been there three days ago when he had driven me to church. 
I looked between Momma and the reverend, whose jaw bloomed with a blue bruise that was on the verge of turning a sickly green. I shook my head, breath coming out in harsh pants. “No. No, no no. I’m not doing this.” I gave Momma a distressed look even though she wouldn’t meet my gaze. “You can’t make me do this.” 
“It’s for your own good, Savannah,” she said in a strained voice. “The reverend told me about your sin of the flesh. And he’ll cleanse you, Lord willing.” 
“Where’s Jancie?” I asked in a rising voice. 
“Don’t say her name,” Reverend Taylor boomed in the quiet morning, taking a threatening step toward me. I took two steps back. “Uttering her name will only increase her power over you, and in turn Satan’s power over your soul.” 
“Where is she?” I repeated, addressing Momma firmly. 
"She’s gone. Her parents saw fit to send her to a camp. But Reverend Taylor said your soul can still be saved.” 
        ——————————————————— 
Reverend Taylor’s car seemed so much bigger in the early morning sunlight. My body jerked with every pothole, every crack and crevice where aged asphalt had split. The middle seat in the back allowed me to see though every window and watch the trees speed by, but my gaze remained on the carpet of the Reverend’s sedan. He must have vacuumed since he invited me in last – the old fries and condom wrappers were absent from the beige flooring, and the cab smelled distinctly of Lysol. New seat covers attempted to smother the cigarette smoke that had permeated the air, but the faint odor was still there, a lingering ghost of sins past. 
The reverend didn’t speak while he drove, Momma’s car a safe distance behind so as to not stir up suspicion. The first day of August was just beginning and the rising sun flashed across my neck, my bare, pale arms, as the flat cotton fields gave way to thickening trees and windier roads. The car was stifling, but I knew it was nothing compared to the pain ahead. 
My too-small Mary Janes scuffed against each other and I willed my mind to wander to anything else but her face. I drew a cross in the fresh carpet with the toe of my shoe; the vertical line of the cross curved up at the bottom and became a J. I quickly and quietly ran the sole of my shoe over the shape, erasing it from the floor but it remained burned into the back of my eyelids as I squeezed them shut, a tear or two rolling down my flushed cheeks. I swallowed the bile threatening to crawl up my throat. 
Momma’s tense voice echoed in my ears. “It’s for your own good, Savannah…The reverend will cleanse you, Lord willing. 
I could still feel Reverend Taylor’s large, sweaty hands on me, hard fingers pushing into my shoulders and caressing under my knee, along my spine through my Sunday dress. Goosebumps rose on my chilled skin. The dirt from his touch still lingered on me like a greasy film, and I felt anything but clean. 
I glanced at the reverend from my center seat, disgusted that I ever found him anything but hideous. His deep-set eyes were akin to peach pits as they stared at the road ahead of him. I studied what I could see of him through the rearview mirror; tight skin stretched across his long face, large nose drawing the eye and high cheekbones casting shadows down his shallow cheeks. The longer I stared at him the more I remembered Jancie and the stark disparities between them. Jancie’s hands were always soft and sure where mine trembled, her voice tickled like dandelions as she whispered warm words across my skin. I bunched up my white linen dress in a fist, eyes piercing the reverend’s own, though they did not look back into mine. 
The car lurched and turned down a gravel drive hidden between low-hanging magnolias. Gray dust swirled around as the tires crunched over the rocks, emerging from the arching trees and onto the bank of a wide creek. Reverend Taylor skidded to a stop and quickly exited the car, snatching the cracked leather Bible from the passenger seat. He slammed the door and stretched toward Heaven above. I heard Momma’s car slow to a stop behind us. 
“The reverend will cleanse you. Lord willing.” 
I gazed out the window of the sedan and watched the muddy water rush and splash against the rocky shore – it could have been blood, red and thick with clay. Reeds and cattails sprouted along the opposite bank, where an oak tree hung low over the water, gnarled and knotted branches stretching towards me with Spanish moss wrapped around their fingers. A creeping vine of bougainvillea was intertwined in a branch close to the water, pink blossoms giving the old oak the illusion of vibrant life. The flowers taunted me as they swayed in the wind, waving the memories of summer right in my face with no qualms whatsoever. 
I climbed out of the car a few minutes after the reverend, smoothing my dress behind me as I crouched to exit. Reverend Taylor grabbed my arm in a harsh grip not unlike the one he used a few days ago and led me toward the water without a word. Momma stood at the bank, heels sinking into the mud; I knew she was crying, I could hear her obnoxious sniffling, but I didn’t spare a glance in her direction as the reverend pulled me into the creek. Cold wetness filled my shoes, doused my socks, climbed up my legs as I waded deeper. The hem of my white dress touched the torrent and the ruddy water seeped up into the fabric, rusty blood spreading from an open wound. 
Reverend Taylor’s deep voice was easy to find over the rushing flood. “For the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil...” He held the ancient Bible in the hand that was not grasping my arm and read from it proudly, like the prophet he so wished to be. “But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.” His peach pit eyes looked down into mine and with all the strength in his long arm, he plunged me into the red water, the air that had occupied my lungs replaced by thick, rusty blood. 

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