I don't believe in Jesus. Just like I don't believe in Buddha, even though I carry around a wooden Guan Yin statuette in my backpack. I have an excuse: it was from my Mom, who had sincerely asked me what she should reincarnate into so that we could be together after she died.
"A Great Dane," I said.
"A dog?" she said. "That's pretty disrespectful."
"Sorry," I muttered, and patted her hand just in case she was actually mad. Her hand was clammy and the skin felt loose as if she were really old, instead of just forty-five. "Great Danes are good," I said. "They're loyal. Better than humans!"
She smiled and sighed dramatically.
"At least," she said, "a cute dog. A Bichon Frisé, or a Chow Chow, or some kind of terrier."
I said, "Then you might as well be a cat."
She laughed—she thought cats were demons—her chest heaving but the sound caught in her throat like she didn't have the strength to push it out. She wiped away a clump of fine brown hair from her mouth. "Go study," she said. She was worried about my upcoming SATs. It was still months away in October, but she had been worrying since freshmen year. Now she made me do a practice test every weekend but it wasn't helping. I wasn't concentrating. Sometimes I would pick a letter and bubble it down the entire column to speed up the process so I could do things that actually mattered. My family was big on game nights. We had three people so one of us always switched between teams. But as the year went on, Mom became too weak to jump around, so game nights turned into movie nights, with the staple meal of homemade gumbo and Costco pizza, large, with everything. In June we moved the party upstairs to my parent's bedroom where Mom now rarely left.
Mom died in August. When school started again, Dad started inviting this blonde lady to our house after dinner on Sundays. She asked me to call her Emily but her name was Mrs. Young. I used to walk her neighbor's dog. She was a Born Again, only a few years older than me, newly married, and was scared of the German Shepherd I walked. When I passed her house, I often spotted her squatting in the midst her multi-colored flower bed, her head bent, her shoulders tense, as if always cognizant that without her, the garden would spoil.
At our house, she wore a Jesus-fish necklace and was hell-bent on saving our souls. She preached sitting on our sofa, holding a cup of hot tea and eating cheese slices that Dad had bought especially for her. I usually sat through her visit, even though Dad told me I could leave if I wanted. Something about her made me itch. She exuded an aura that said we were all drowning and only she knew the direction of dry land. Mom had told me that in Buddhist mythology, there was a god that controlled water called the Water Dragon King, "so really," I told Mrs. Young once when Dad was out fixing a broken sprinkler, "if Moses parted the Red Sea, then he was in cahoots with the Water Dragon King. Only, I want to know what sort of deal they struck. Cause I hope Moses didn't have to sell his soul."
Mrs. Young sat there for a moment just looking at me, her teacup mid-raised. She probably didn't know that the Water Dragon King didn't take souls, nor that I mashed myth into religion, but she seemed horrified by what I said and slowly lowered the teacup as if she might break it. I took a piece of cheese, Gouda, her favorite.
"I don't think," she started slowly, "that I did a good job of explaining what happened."
"You did," I said, keeping my voice sincere. "It's just that Mom told me about the Water Dragon King a while ago. You know, before she died."
I let it sink in, bit into the Gouda, watched as she paddled for solid landing even as she sat entirely still, the AC stirring her curls. But she recomposed herself way too quickly, her face relaxed into a smile. She actually put her hand on mine.
"Genna," she said, "do you want to talk about her?"
"Talk about who?" I said.
"We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to, but I'll be here whenever you're ready."
"What are you talking about?" I said. I pulled my hand back but she kept hers on my knee. It felt like a hot plate and I wanted it off; I was terrified that it might burn me—absurd, I knew, but I couldn't help it.
"Okay," she said, with all the understanding in the world, which made me want to curl my fingers around her neck and squeeze. So to get her off my case I said the first thing that came to mind. "I had a sex dream," I said. It was a lie.
Mrs. Young took back her hand and placed it on her lap. I let out a breather.
She said, "Okay," and looked into my eyes, giving me a chance to expound.
I didn't want to back down, so I started talking about a vision of getting into the backseat of a Mercedes and going at it with a guy from school. Mrs. Young listened to all of it and then said, "Have you been temped in real life?"
"Hell yeah," I said.
"Have you acted upon it?"
"That's the plan," I said, to peeve her.
I heard the back door slide open. Dad had fixed the sprinkler. He headed for the bathroom and once he shut the door, Mrs. Young searched through her purse and grabbed a handful of individually wrapped squares. She took my hand and pressed them into my palm. Condoms. I imagined her purse full of them, assorted colors and sizes. They definitely weren't for her; they were for the damned like me.
At school, I found my best friend Nate on the basketball court. His girlfriend, Olivia, was on the sidelines eating chicken fingers and guarding Nate's wrapped burrito. Nate was playing one-on-one with my other buddy, Daniel, a scrawny guy with a rather cute face. As I approached them, I kept thinking about Mrs. Young's hot-plate hand. I walked onto the court.
"Me and Nate against you," I told Daniel.
They let me in without complaint. Nate winked at Olivia. I thought he was hinting to her about how easy they were being on me and I chucked the ball hard at him. He caught it no problem. He dibbled toward the net, faked a left around Daniel, went straight down the middle and shot. He missed the net entirely and the ball went out of bounds. He jogged after the ball and passed it to Daniel, who walked back to half-court. They were very mild, as if the game didn't matter. Olivia clapped and cheered vaguely, "Come on, you can do it."
"Come on," I cried, and Daniel dribbled in. I was on his case right away. I had only played basketball handful of times, including PE. Both Nate and Daniel were much better than I, but Nate had left Daniel entirely to me, hovering around us like an off-course moon. Daniel was having an easy time keeping the ball out of my reach. He backed up toward the hoop, chuckling. I was practically hugging him from behind, and when we got close to the hoop I was so afraid that he would shoot that I slapped his arms like a flailing fish.
"Foul!" called Nate from his orbit.
"Dude, chill," said Daniel. He stopped playing and held the ball under his arm. I knocked it out and raced after it. "Mine!" I called, got the ball and took a shot. It bounced on the rim and then went through the net. "Woo!" I said, and threw my hands up in triumph.
Nate, Daniel and Olivia were all looking at me. Lately people have been looking at me that way too often and I was annoyed.
"What?" I said.
"Nothing," said Nate.
"Let's do something tonight," I said, surveying the three of them. "The Mystery Spot. Us. Tonight. Movies and booze. All in?"
The Mystery Spot was a tourist attraction less than an hour away where all four of us had been to countless times. The admission was only five bucks and there was actually a gate with a wooden door, but we found a low chain-linked fence around the back, behind one of the piles of fallen redwoods, and ever since then we had talked about sneaking in at night. The place was supposed to bend gravity. The main attraction was a three-room cabin that had slid down a hillside. The cabin was slanted, but that didn't explain the odd angles that people could hang from the bar in the ceiling, or the way people looked like they were slanted forty-five degrees when they stood on the top of a few steps of stairs. The cabin also made me dizzy, which the tour guides had said happened to the people more keen to the supernatural. We had wanted to expose the hoax. But tonight I secretly hoped the place would still work. Thinking about the cabin standing there, defiant against the rules of physics, gave me a strange sort of comfort.
Near two a.m. we parked the car in the visitor's lot and walked into the redwoods. We climbed the fence. It was easy. The only thing really locked up was the gift shop at the bottom of the hill.
The cabin was the same as always, wooden and bare. We went through the cabin to the inner, windowless room where it was almost entirely dark. Even though all the door have been taken down, the doorways were at an angle where moonlight couldn't quite reach us. We knew that there was a nook on the right side without steps or bars, and we huddled over. Nate took out his laptop and put on Shaun of the Dead. "Beer me," I said, and Daniel handed me one of the few good ones.
No one cared about the movie. Soon after the opening credits I heard giggling from Nate and his girlfriend's corner, so I tapped on Daniel's arm, and he followed me into the next room where the floor slanted us toward the side of the door-less frame, but we stayed inside, scampering down to the corner. We were laughing and I spilled some beer. I went down on my knees to try to mop it up with my jacket but it had already rolled away and the floor was smeared. It was my first beer so it must have been the cabin making me dizzy. I was delirious that The Mystery Spot was working and I whispered to Daniel, "I'm attuned to the supernatural."
"I believe you," he said. He kissed me on the lips. I let him go about it, so he kissed me again; this time he stayed and started roaming his hands all over. I draped my arms over his bony shoulders and wondered how far I wanted to go. I thought about the condoms Mrs. Young gave me. They were still in my jeans pocket. I had never done it before but Daniel was an okay dude and, well, I could do worse.
Daniel started to nuzzle my neck, more like a vampire than a lover, and had somehow slithered his hand up my shirt and was squeezing my left boob, making little noises like he was into it. He smelled like skin. I touched the back of his neck above the T-shirt. His skin was surprising smooth. I tugged at his T-shirt and he took it off in a hurry. I hugged him; I wanted to feel his back, to feel the smoothness extend down his body. I wanted something to change. I wanted to have sex with Daniel Delauney and it had better be good. It had better be absolutely, out-of-this-worldly, fantasti-fuckin-ly good because I wanted to get high on that goodness.
I took out one of Mrs. Young's condoms. "Look at you," Daniel said. I broke the seal and held the condom cold and limp in my hand. Daniel was already butt-naked. His penis looked odd at that angle but his thighs were surprisingly muscular. I handed over the condom and he put it on. We lay down. A disorienting gravity was pulling on us and we yielded to the cabin. When he got to it, it was over quick. I wasn't even sure what happened and he was huffing like he had just played a sudden-death round of basketball with Nate. He thumped back against the floorboard.
The cabin was cold on my back and I got this odd feeling in my chest, like I was harboring something sickening and dead.
The next day after school I drove over to Mrs. Young's house. No one was home, so I sat in my car on her street and waited. I didn't know what I was going to say when I saw her, but it felt important. I felt on the edge of something.
Around six she pulled into her driveway. I got out of my car and jogged toward her. She was getting out of her car and she dropped one of her paper bags of groceries.
"Fuck," she muttered.
"Mrs. Young," I said.
She spun around with eyes real wide. She looked like a mess. Her eyes were skirting around like she hadn't gotten sleep. In the orange light of day I could see the wrinkles around her mouth. She looked so small. "Can I help you with that?" I pointed at her bags.
She declined, saying they weren't heavy, which seemed like a lie. I wished she would at least put them down, but she just stood there with her arms tensed around her groceries, waiting for me to speak. The odd feeling I had was ballooning up in my throat. I wanted to puke it out, but I was afraid. It didn't feel dead anymore, just dormant. I imagined it curled up into a furry ball, an eight-legged freak, and I could almost feel its sad little talons scratching at my thyroid, trying to find a way out.
I said, "I can't believe in Jesus." I swallowed and continued, "But if Dad likes it, it's okay by me."
"Good, Genna," she said. "Let's talk about this on Sunday."
"I'm also going to college," I said.
"Was that ever a question?" she said. Dad had told her about my upcoming SATs.
"Maybe," I shrugged. "I'm just saying." I felt silly. I didn't know why I couldn't stop telling her things. I said, "I think that some things you want to be true are not very good. Like Hell. I don't want to believe in that. Or Heaven. I think I would rather believe that we can find what we want right now. I want that to be possible."
"I believe what's true," said Mrs. Young.
"You have to know something about Mom," I said. "She went to China and lived there for, like, ten years, when she was young. Then once my Dad visited her there. They had been going out for a few years. Long distance. And that time when Dad visited she got pregnant. I'm not confessing," I said. I had her now; she put the groceries on the ground. "Mom believed what she believed," I said. "And if Dad wants to believe in Hell, well, I guess I can't pretend to understand his reasons."
"Have you talked to your dad about any of this?"
"Have you asked him why he is turning to the Faith?"
Inside her front window the curtain fluttered. I thought I saw the flick of a broad man-hand. And Mrs. Young suddenly felt like a stranger, not intimate like an enemy. I ignored her question and said, "Look, I think you're okay. I'm okay with you and Dad being friends. But it doesn't mean I'm not going to try to persuade him against certain things."
"We want what's best for those we love," Mrs. Young said. "I admire you for what you're trying to do."
Talking to Mrs. Young was like sticking pins into Jello; nothing changed, no one bled, which I supposed was why I wanted to bounce things off of her, both literally and figuratively. Anyway it wasn't really her I needed to talk to.
When I got home the kitchen was warm with gumbo. Dad was standing by the table, ladling the gumbo into two bowls. It was the kind with sausage, the kind I didn't care for, but he had also ordered a large mushroom pizza. I walked into the kitchen and Dad didn't protest when I hugged him. We sat down together at the table.
"I want to ask you something," I said.