“Syd, roll your window down a couple inches.” Sydney obeyed her mother and shut the passenger door of the car, squinting up into the bright gleam of the unnatural cross perched on the spire. Jesus didn’t die on a titanium cross. He died on some criminal-fit wooden posts. For our sins. Thank God.
Stop touching your stomach, she reminded herself as she followed her mom and brother up the cement steps to the tall oak doors of the church. An old man pressed his thin lips together and crinkled the corners of his eyes in greeting as he slowly hauled open the door for Sydney, but his welcoming expression went unanswered as she sailed by him into the foyer with her eyes down and her knuckles tangled together in front of her ribs. She wondered if the other church members bustling around the green carpeted lobby noticed her gliding around on tiptoes. She wondered what each whisperer guessed to the next about why Sydney Benton seemed slightly strange this morning. She wondered if they could detect, with each step, the weight of something that didn’t even breathe yet roosting impatiently just behind her navel.
She slid into a pew next to Ellie.
“Hey,” Ellie yawned.
When would Sydney have to tell her friends about her drive downtown last night? How she almost went to the Walgreens in Obispo Plaza but had panic attack about seeing Jen’s mom there again? When would she confess that the old man at the CVS had looked at her with such disappointment that she started crying? Like it was her own grandfather or something. The pew was particularly hard this morning.
“Welcome, everyone, to worship this morning. Take a moment to greet your neighbor.”
Murmurs began in the back of the sanctuary, and Syd let her eyelids droop, feigning sleepiness, the look of don’t-talk-to-me, but Ellie was oblivious. “Syd, did you smell the frickin’ Frito Lay plant on your way here today? God, I don’t know what they’re doing to those things, but I’ll never eat another potato chip again. Seriously. It was like assault of the olfactory senses. I should press charges.” Syd’s laughter was pinched, taut. She couldn’t remember what real laughter sounded like. She tried a couple versions out and laughed for a little too long. Ellie was looking at her like she was nuts. What do normal people act like?
“Guests or announcements?”
I threw up this morning because Josh forgot to make reservations at the Olive Garden for our 4 month. “And a very special welcome to the Jacobsens’ new addition, Cathleen Fey.” I doubt there will be applause for mine. Unprayable, irreversible bad news is aired out before and after the service, not during. Why remind people that some children are raised right (by their standards) and still piss it all away on a rainy March night on a plaid green couch in the Serrano’s basement? But new babies for a married couple of nine years? That’s cute. That’s fine.
The microphone emitted a blast of whistling feedback before the worship leader said, “Now, if the children would come up here, Natalia has a story she’d like to share with you.”
Wordlessly, Syd fled to the bathroom, where she sat on the toilet in the stall farthest from the entrance and stared at the chipped gray hinges of the stall door, breathing sporadically until the patter of black leather Mary Janes and unlaced, clunky Oxfords receded to the nursery.
“Are you okay?” Ellie asked as Sydney returned to the pew.
“Geez Ellie. Everyone poops. Cool it.”
A middle aged woman with terrible bangs leaned forward over the pew and stuck her mouth right between Ellie and Sydney’s ears.
“Girls…” she warned.
When the woman retreated, Ellie reached for her bulletin and scrawled underneath the attendance count from last week. That lady doesn’t poop. She’s got something blocking the exit… Syd hummed low under her breath—substitute laughter—and gave a wink, but the golf pencil remained in its holder on the back of the pew in front of her.
Pastor Flynn walked up to the pulpit, shuffled his notes, adjusted his microphone, and looked directly at Syd. Stared. His mouth moved, but her heartbeat muffled any words he preached. It drowned her ears, and everything was silent and hollow, like her entire head was enveloped by an enormous spiraling seashell. Every word Pastor Flynn said, his eyes piercing hers, was unclear and heavy and underwater—a dampened pulse. It reminded Sydney of the ride home from the concert she and Josh went to at Lakeside Amphitheatre on their first date. The bass had been so loud in the rain; her hair was as drenched as if she had just stepped out of a shower, water streaming off it as they danced and shouted to each other over the drums. And on the ride home, while they wrung out socks and laid them on the dashboard, they yelled over silence because they forgot what it was like to hear. The hammering bass still pounded in their brains. And now the words of a muted sermon, throbbing in the core of her ribs.
She hardly comprehended a word of his speech, but she couldn’t stop looking at Pastor Flynn’s eyes. They found her often, and he didn’t blink, didn’t stutter, didn’t break. He could see through her like a window. She wondered if her secret was transparent too, or if it was there in his sight, a half-formed being floating a few inches off the pew.
The preacher blinked, and his eyes dropped to the podium. “We can’t do anything to make God love us more than He already does. We can only show how much we love Him by sharing His love with others. Let us pray.”
Sydney reeled as she bowed her head too swiftly. Her feet were waves on the carpet beneath the pew. She pressed her eyelids together and began to pray, the murmuring voice of Pastor Flynn providing gentle white noise.
God, take it back. I’d do it if I could but I can’t and I just want to go back to where people aren’t looking at me funny—I don’t even think they are really, but it feels like it all the time—they stare and they can see my stomach getting bigger even though I lost weight because I can’t even look at food because I knew a week ago because I was late, the worst kind of late, and I get sick when I think about Josh—I haven’t told him yet because I wasn’t sure until I took the test yesterday and it was a mistake, because if he’d remembered to get dinner reservations, we wouldn’t have been in the basement and I wouldn’t have wanted to mess around because I always eat too many breadsticks, and I’m scared he won’t handle it very well; he can’t lose a soccer match without yelling and punching something—he’s not going to be a good dad and I’m not going to be a good mom because I don’t want to be a mom, ever, and I don’t want to keep it, but I know You would stop listening to me if I killed it, and I know that’s what it is really, murder, and I couldn’t live with myself if I was a murderer; and I’m scared to give it up for adoption because there are a lot of people who would be terrible parents, like me, and I can’t just give it to a stranger unless I know them—and I can’t keep it; I don’t want it; but I can’t stop naming it Ethan and I don’t know if it’s a girl or boy but its name is Ethan and I can’t do this because Kellen will kill Josh if he finds out because he’s protective of me because he’s my brother but Ethan can’t grow up without his dad and I’ll be terrible as a mom because I’m not my mom, but I guess my mom wasn’t perfect—just look at me—but I love my mom so much and she’s the greatest mom that ever lived; she should be raising Ethan except she can’t because then I’d have to tell her that Ethan’s mine and he’s not. He’s not mine. Not Ethan. Make it stop. Ethan, why? God make it stop, I can’t do it, Ethan. Make it stop.
Sydney stood for the closing hymn, which was something with a boring alto line. Two notes, essentially. Ellie sang them with gusto. Sydney cleared her throat, opened her mouth, and cleared her throat once more with a small shake of the head to excuse her absent voice. This is an awful hymn. Maybe the worst song ever written. That or “Achy Breaky Heart.” God, I hate that song. And I hate this song. And that brick over there is crumbling. They all are. The whole stupid church is gonna collapse and the last thing I’ll hear is this crappy song.
The organ blared out from the front of the church. Postlude. Once, to make Ellie smile, Sydney crossed it out in the bulletin and wrote “When Old People Attack.” As if part of a well-greased machine, as soon as Sydney had straightened her knees and Ellie grabbed her sling bag, Mrs. Yarris descended on them like a swarm of musty, Avon-perfume-scented pigeons.
“So how is the school year shaping up for you kids this semester?”
“Pretty good! Prom is this weekend so Syd and I went to the Modern Art Gallery downtown for StuCo and helped decorate and stuff. We bought our dresses like, months ago though.”
Damn it. Prom. Will Josh even want to go if he knows?
“And you, Sydney?”
“Yeah, great, Mrs. Yarris. Varsity band has a concert Thursday. Ellie has a trumpet solo in the Dvorak. And yeah, then there’s Prom.”
Mrs. Yarris nodded and smiled. An awkward silence slowly materialized. Sydney looked around her at the old sanctuary. The architect, whoever it was, didn’t seem to have high hopes for plentiful church attendance. There were about 10 rows of pews on either side, uncushioned, with an aisle hardly large enough to fit a bride and her father walking side by side. The ceiling was high, but not like a cathedral. Just enough to make light-bulb replacement a problematic task. Sydney’s eyes wandered across the sanctuary to the entrance of the lobby. Her mom’s eyes were squinting through the crowd to find her.
Sydney looked back at the still-smiling Mrs. Yarris. “Sorry, I’ve got to head out. My mom’s waving to me.” Ellie looked at her phone then back at Sydney, who nodded once (I’ll call you, don’t worry) as she exited the pew and stepped into the aisle.
Weaving through the church crowd was usually annoying. Usually it felt like a stream, the babbling brook type, with Sydney as the trout she always saw on old educational shows on PBS, desperately swimming against the current. She always wondered how they wriggled fast enough to shoot out of the water and get over those little waterfalls. Against the current. That’s how it felt at church last time. Today Sydney walked steady, brushing against everyone; Cloe and Maxwell Harrison from New York, Emily who babysat Kellen when they first joined the church, that girl that ran by their house at 4pm every day, Monica—touching them each as individuals—considering their mothers, wondering if they were convinced their lives were planned, noticing how warm their skin felt as it pressed against hers—even though hers was warm to begin with. She didn’t know where her mom was anymore.
Talk to someone.
There were no chairs around when Sydney crossed from the sanctuary back to the green carpeted lobby and paused next to the bulletin board and pastor’s office. She wanted to sit down on a chair and disappear, her skin browning and developing wood patterns like the back of Kellen’s guitar. People would walk by and think that’s an odd shaped bench and not even know she was on it. Instead, as she waited for an escape route to clear, Sydney rifled through the pamphlets under the bulletin board, discarding the ones about Christian mysticism—whatever that is, the politics of witness, and Christian family dynamics. She opened the brochure for a Christian camp that camouflaged itself in the woods a half hour outside the city, a camp she had gone to and loved. Where she had sung catchy songs about Jesus, read scripture, watched the campfire lower to embers and known that she wanted to do good things with her life, be a good Christian. But it was so easy to leave her camp-self there when she went home, leave it gazing at the departing car with puppy dog eyes and good intentions. Much more complicated to try to drag that naïve, brown-eyed girl into a public high school. She wouldn’t last an hour.
Sydney shifted her eyes to the right where Pastor Flynn’s conversation with Jerry Nickel seemed to be tapering off. They shook hands and the pastor turned to walk in Sydney’s direction, those direct eyes keeping their undivided attention locked on her. The brochure for Agape Christian Retreat bent in her hands as the most daunting conversation she could ever experience blossomed in her mind. Her breath caught as she eyeballed the one arm-length distance between her and the pastor’s office, where the horrifying conversation would take place, and her eyes desperately darted away to the window. Outside on the asphalt, Sydney saw her mom squinting at her phone next to the car door. Kellen was nearby, running his hand over his face, still groggy. Run. Get out of here.
Brochures haphazardly deserted on the table, Sydney turned to the left on her shaking heels, breaking through several people to push open the heavy wooden exit doors. Her fingers felt grimy as she walked down the sidewalk, rubbing them together and then on her jeans as she trotted the lessening distance between her and her yawning brother.
I will eat anything and everything.
“Yeah. Okay sure.”
Sydney slid into the car behind her brother, and her shins pressed against the back of the passenger seat. The gray fabric was soft beyond her denim knees. She moved them left and right, the grain smooth, the grain rough, the grain smooth, rough. Sydney looked up into the mirror at her mom, who was humming that awful hymn to herself and checking her blindspot. The earrings Dad bought her for their 20th anniversary—the kind that are probably handcrafted in Kenya—jingled as she swiveled her head back to the road in front of her. Then, her eyes met Sydney’s in the mirror. Sydney felt that familiar drumbeat pound her ribcage, a continuous, thick river of adrenaline pulsing to her wrists.
This is it. Open your mouth.
Her lips parted, and she drew in a breath which rushed through the thin spaces between her teeth—cold—and flooded every corner of her cavernous lungs. She felt the fever of her skin, the sweat on her arms. Her ribs were pressing on the inside of her chest.
Her pocket buzzed.
Hey we r waiting 4 u at the car. Love mom.
“We’re going to Chipotle, right?”
“Uh-huh. Dad’s already there.”
Sydney sunk her teeth into her tongue, glancing up at the car’s ceiling full of pen marks and scratches, her right leg pulsing. Rough grain, smooth grain, rough, smooth.