Kaylee remembers a time when God was kind. She was seven then, or maybe eight, and she can still see the dusty brown skin of the village children who taught her to play capture the lion. She remembers the exquisite pain of burnt fingers from too-eager handling of a steamy roasted yam. She can see the small whitewashed church, and hear the warm African voices singing with wonderful dissonance in a language that still whispers in the corners of her brain. She thinks she could almost speak it again, and sometimes she does—then wakes up, confused to be back in America.
God was kind, then, because Kaylee’s father and mother were happy and busy, and they sang while they walked to the village. God was kind, because her father’s little church filled up with knobby-kneed men and colorfully-skirted women with swaddled fat babies.
But on one frigntening day, they had to leave the village and the whitewashed church in a frenzy of terrified activity. Kaylee and her brother Kurt held hands silently on the long, bumpy road to the airport, and they watched, wide-eyed, as Africa disappeared beneath the clouds.
Now they have been back in America for six years, and gradually, Kurt has disappeared, too. The laughing older brother who used to tease her in Africa with squirming white palm grubs has become a basement-dwelling phantom with dyed-black hair and leering tattoos. Her mother and father missed the transformation; they were hosting Missions Teas and attending meetings of the church trustees. But Kaylee watched…
…and her beloved Kurt is gone. Her parents looked up from their hymnals and agendas one day and saw him there, a sullen stranger. They shouted, they cried, they prayed with clenched fists, they made a decision. He can come back, they said, when his heart is right with God.
Kaylee sees Kurt leave, and wonders how he will become right with God when he is no longer allowed in God’s house.
In America, God’s house fairly glitters; filtered light from colored glass windows illuminates her father’s pulpit and the stage where the musicians perform with chilly perfection. Even the people in the pews glitter, each one smiling and beautiful.
But Kaylee searches for the African church in a corner of her soul; surely the dusty people there were beautiful, too.
Surely Kurt is beautiful, too.
Daddy, she says, can’t you just talk to him? But Daddy shakes his head and closes his office door.
Mom, she pleads, can we go to him? Take him some cookies, maybe? But Mom looks at Daddy’s closed door and walks away with a hand on her mouth.
Kurt, she texts, come home. But Kurt replies in clipped letters: 2 much chrch 4 me lv u kaylee
She is suspended now, between her parent’s rigid world and her brother’s dark one. She wonders—will her parents will try to find her if she, too, hides in the shadows? Kaylee feels the pull of the forbidden, the unknown. She does not want Kurt to be alone.
With a trembling hand, she pulls a pair of scissors from her desk and begins to cut and slash at her tee-shirts, her jeans. She chops at her hair, then blackens her eyes with thick layers of mascara.
Can you see me, God? Will You still recognize me if I pierce my tongue, if I streak my hair with blue?
I’m going away for a little while—but don’t stop hanging on to me, okay?
If Daddy wonders where I am, You can tell him. You know where to find him.
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