by Douglas Wood
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At four AM, David is up for the third time, brushing his teeth before bed. This time he washes his face too, just to be sure. He’d skipped that before. Reenacting his bedtime ritual will quiet his jangling mind, soothe it, set it drifting toward slumber, or so he hopes. The eyes of the man in the mirror are painfully red-rimmed. The drops seem to sizzle when he squeezes them in.
The last step of his routine, his before-bed facial exercises: David chews a huge, imaginary piece of gum. Count of thirty. Relax. His lips pucker and grin, pucker and grin. Ten reps. Relax. He closes his eyes. Smiles. Opens them. The grin aimed back at him is manly, warm, toothpaste-commercial bright and absolutely symmetrical.
Of course it’s symmetrical, now. Now, when he’s concentrating. But when he watched the playback of the talk with the focus group? His smiles, all of them, pulled right, which brought his nose grotesquely off center. Grotesquely. Getting chosen for Redemption could all come down to something as silly as that. If he isn’t Redeemed, his family—not just his wife and the girls, but his brother and his family, his parents—what will happen to them? Maybe nothing. In all likelihood nothing, of course. (It’s a blessing just to be nominated, or so the bishop told him. But he has to say that.) But David’s imagination flirts with other scenarios. Scenarios elaborate and bloody. It’s crazy, this line of thinking; he knows it is. He knows. But how hard is it to smile like a normal person?
He jabs the light switch with his thumb. Everything goes black.
For the third time tonight, David pulls back the sheets and slips in next to Marilyn whose body curls up against his chest. In moments, her soft heat begins creeping over him, advancing like a smothering gas. He rolls onto his side. She follows suit, hugging, holding tighter.
David prays his memorized prayers and tries to keep from suffocating until sunrise.
Walking home, Maggie can hear her sister slam the door from halfway down the block. Well, she isn’t the only one upset. Maggie stomps up their front sidewalk, giving the puddles some extra stomp action with her rain boots before she goes inside.
From the corner comes a cheery, Peep!
Maggie ditches her rain slicker by the door, kicks off her boots and heads straight to the kitchen. Mom is out with Dad, so even though making lunch is supposed to be her sister’s chore, Maggie is going to have to cook the macaroni today. Whatever.
She fills the medium-sized pot with water and clanks it down on the blue flames, only spilling a little bit. Pinch of salt. Next, she climbs up onto the glassy coolness of the marble counter, up to the top shelf to retrieve the blue box of macaroni. She gives it a couple of gratuitous, satisfying snake-rattles before she drops to the floor, her chocolate-colored school uniform parachuting around her legs. She digs out the cheesy packet, setting it next to butter and milk all squared up on the counter’s edge. On tiptoe, she stares into the pot of cold, still water. Nothing.
For Maggie, waiting is the hard part about macaroni.
Before she realizes, her lips are moving. Muttered words go spilling over each other as fast as she can recite them, like Mother Conway taught them to. “ONE! You-shall-have-no-other-gods-before-me. TWO! You-shall-not-bow-down-to-any-carved-image-nor-nor…any-likeness-of-anything-in-heaven-nor-in-the-earth. THREE! …”
Maggie got an eighty-one on her Twelve Commandments memorization this morning. She tied with her friend Sandy for highest score in third grade, but still, Maggie hates that eighty-one. Her dad even took time to help her memorize. He said he thought she’d do great, but eighty-one isn’t great. She doesn’t have to take the retest on Monday, she wants to.
“…SIX! You-shall-not-kill-a-man-of-God. SEVEN! You-shall-not-commit-sexual-sins.”
The worst part is that she deserved an eighty-one. She got ahead of herself and did the ‘killing’ after the ‘sexual sins,’ instead of before. A stupid mistake. Stupid! She doubles back: “SIX! Man-of-God. SEVEN! Sexual-sins. SIX! Man-of-God. SEVEN! Sexual-sins.”
Her skinny sister Lindsay storms in, plops down at the kitchen table and digs through a shoebox, flinging markers, colored pencils and watercolor brushes everywhere. With a crayon in her fist, she rubs and scrubs it on the paper until waxy, magenta flakes form; her blond bangs hide her face, dusting the page. Lindsay got forty-three percent on the test, third lowest in the class. Maggie feels a little sorry, because if Lindsay doesn’t pass the retest, she’ll have to give sacrifice over it. If she doesn’t pass before she turns ten, it goes on her official California Ecclesiastical Record. And God reads that. (Satan, too.)
In front of the whole class Mother Conway said, “If you don’t do better, Lindsay Donohue, everyone will think you’re just a little who-er. Is that what you want? Is it?”
Lindsay’s face turned blotchy red, her mouth trembled and Maggie thought her sister would lose it. Lindsay didn’t cry though. When Mother Conway turned away, Lindsay stuck her tongue out, which Maggie found scandalous but sort of brave, too. If Maggie was on the business end of Mother Conway’s Little Who-ers speech, she would have bawled her eyes out.
Maggie adds ‘getting mad’ to her mental list of the million ways they’re fraternal and not identical. Maggie is five inches taller and older by seven crucial minutes, too. That makes her the big sister. Maggie hops up on the countertop to sit next to the still-not-boiling water. “Don’t feel bad. Mother Conway said those things for your own good, Linds. For motivation.”
Lindsay doesn’t seem uplifted. She just hunches down over the page.
“Mother Conway was disappointed in the whole class. After all, I only got eighty-one.”
Lindsay lifts her head, out goes her little red tongue, and she hunches down even tighter.
“You just gotta remember: ONE! God is number one, so it’s ‘No gods before me,’ right? Okay. So, you’re not supposed to imagine two gods: Two! ‘No carved images.’ Two carved images, but what are their names? Three! ‘Name in vain—’”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Lindsay crumples her picture and throws it on the floor. “You’re so smart. So, so, so smart.”
Maggie leans over. Stares into the steaming water. A few quiet minutes pass by. Lindsay’s the pretty one—that’s another way they’re different. Maggie’s the big-old, smart one and who wants to be a smart girl? Nobody in the whole Nation Church.
Maggie sees small bubbles emerge and develop, float to the surface. Larger ones appear and burst. She watches the pot come alive and boil and boil and boil.