“What’s wrong, Mary?” Baby John asks. We still call him Baby John, even though he’s already five. He lies flat in the bunk across the room. Gabriel, his stuffed lion, stands guard on his chest. My tossing must have woken him. Matty, my older brother by 10 months, snores from the bunk above him.
“Nothing,” I say. “Go back to sleep.” Nothing’s a lie. I can’t sleep because my soul’s going straight to hell on account I’ve blasphemed the Holy Spirit.
Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is the one unforgivable sin. And I did it on accident. I’ve sinned lots and lots of times before but those were the forgivable kind. Like the time back when I was six and forgot to shut the screen door. Chip, our doggie, let himself right out. By the time we’d realized he’d made a break, he was all gone. We piled in the station wagon and drove all from Castle Hill to Soundview, calling out the car windows.
I remember lots of dogs running the streets that day — furry and short-haired, black and brown, tiny and gigantic. Other girls all over the Bronx must have forgotten to shut the screen door too.
“Mary’s the Devil,” Matty kicked me hard as we drove along. He and Chip were good buddies. I cried from Matty kicking me, and Dad yelled back from behind the wheel, “I’ll give you both something to cry about.”
Mom turned to us from the front passenger’s side, a finger on her lip. Scrunched in her seat, face pale, droopy eyes, she looked like a dying Tinkerbell. When Daddy’s voice got like that, Mommy got in trouble too. So, I piped down and turned to Baby John nestled in a car-seat between me and Matty. He was a real baby then, just one year old. He shook his rattle at me, smiling that toothless grin. We never did find old Chip.
Even though it was naughty to let Chip out, God forgave me. At church that next day, I’d knelt in the pew and repented with all my heart just like Daddy told me to. That fixed it. But now I’m ten, a big girl, and what I’ve done this time can’t be fixed. It’d be nice to be Matty, snoring away with his free ticket to heaven.
Maybe I was picked by God to be lost, just like Judas Iscariot. I sure did cause Mom lots of pain, the way Dad punished her when I sinned. Like that time when I was eight and had been fishing quarters from the kitchen counter jar. Each day after school, I’d dig in there and grab a few to feed into the Pac-Man machine at the corner bodega. I didn’t think it mattered, there was so much dusty change just piling up in a jar. But that day, Dad got off shift early, swinging through the back door into the kitchen, way before he should have been home. He caught me on the spot.
“You’re a thief now?”
I dropped the quarters on the floor and shook my head.
“Answer me.” That vein on his shaved head bulged. He was bearded, all Hulk muscles. His arms were covered in colorful tattoos of crosses, saints bleeding from their heads, the Virgin Mary with tears falling from her eyes.
“I didn’t steal.”
“Daddy,” he said, his voice rising. “I didn’t steal, Daddy.”
“I didn’t steal, Daddy.”
“You are a thief and a liar, Mary Jane O’Neill.” He stomped towards me, just like a T-Rex, waving the bible he kept on the kitchen table. He opened it up and read that verse he liked to read when I sinned. “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God.”
When he spoke from the bible in that voice, there would be hell to pay. Mom came running into the kitchen, all the way from upstairs. I remember she smelled like baby powder and her hair was in that ponytail she wears when she’s doing chores.
“Go on up to your room, Sweetie.” She’d wedged herself between me and Dad, her tiny hands shaking on his gigantic arms. She looked like a baby rabbit about to get stomped. I shrank away and ran up to the room I shared with Matty and Baby John.
“What’d you do this time?” Matty sat on the carpet building his Lego battleship. They call me and Matty Irish twins, on account that from June to September, we are the exact same age. We don’t look too alike though.
I remember hearing Daddy’s screams all the way up there, even with the door shut tight. And then we heard plates smashing. Or they could have been cups. Or bowls. It was hard to tell. Baby John stood up on his tippy toes in his crib, hanging onto the rail with one hand, and batting the mobile zoo critters with the other.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said, making raspberry sounds at Baby John who squealed and giggled.
“You’re gonna get left behind, Mary. When the rapture comes, you’re gonna be stuck on earth with all the other Baddies.” Matty shook his head, like he was a grown-up.
Matty was talking about a movie we’d seen at church, where the saved people disappear off the face of the earth. Planes without pilots crash to the ground, cars with vanished drivers run off bridges. The unredeemed get trapped with the Anti-Christ on an earth full of fire-rain, earthquakes, blackened skies, and horses with lion heads and snake tails.
After that movie, I remember me and Matty dashing up to the front for the altar call, to accept the Lord Jesus Christ into our hearts. Baby John had stayed on Mom’s lap, but it didn’t matter. If anyone’s going to get raptured, it’s him.
“I will not get left behind! Shut your stinking mouth!” I threw a pillow at Matty’s head, but it hit his ship, knocking all the Legos apart. He ran at me, fists flying. We tumbled to the floor, scratching and punching. I kicked him hard in the knee and pushed him away but not before he got one more swipe at my head, just as the door to our room flew open.
“Matty, what have I told you about hitting girls?” Dad yelled from the doorway. I could hear Mommy downstairs, whimpering, sweeping up whatever had been smashed up when she and Dad were talking.
“She started it,” he whined, still on the floor, rubbing his knee.
“What did you say, Matthew Thomas?” Dad flashed the wooden spoon. I wouldn’t wish that spoon on anyone, not even Matty. Dad grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Baby John and I stared at the closed door. I picked him up and danced him around, bouncing him up and down. He squealed and shrieked and giggled so loud he almost drowned out the business in the hall.
Mommy and Matty got hurt that day cause of my thieving. But as bad a sin as that was, Dad helped me get back into God’s grace. That night, he’d laid his hand on my head and called on the tender mercies of the Lord to deliver me. And God took me back. But God’s not taking me back this time. I’ve finally crossed the line and it’s all I can think about as I lay in my bed staring at the ceiling fan above me.
Maybe I’ve been chosen to be damned. Matty would earn a dollar for every A on his report card and Daddy never yelled once at Baby John. But not me, no, I could never stop messing up even if I tried. Sometimes, it was on accident—I didn’t even know why Dad was giving me the belt or the wooden spoon. The house felt covered in firecracker booby traps waiting for me to trip over.
I tried to make myself quiet and small, like Mommy, stay out of his way. I’d run into the closet when he got home from work, waiting until he’d had a drink or two. Then it’d be safe to come out, because by then he’d mostly forgotten about me. That worked for a time, until one day he found me.
“Sweet Mary, why are you hiding?” he asked, his voice flat and low.
We sat side by side on the bed, his big arm around me.
“I was just playing, Daddy.”
“You’re not afraid of me, Mary, are you?” His breath smelled funny, like medicine or the stuff mom uses to clean the bathtub.
I shook my head no.
“I’d never do a thing to hurt you, Mary, you know that right?” He tilted his head down toward me and cupped my chin in his hands. His eyes made me feel sad for him. When he got quiet like that, I knew I wouldn’t get the spoon. When he got quiet, sometimes he’d even let me have ice-cream or stay up past my bedtime. And he’d leave me be. I guess, somehow, I’d been a good girl.
But that never lasted. And that’s why I’m here now, unable to sleep, wondering how hot hell is and how sad I will be to never see my family again. Why couldn’t God have made me good like Baby John? He always shares his ice cream with me, even his favorite chocolate peanut butter. After I’ve been punished, he comes into my room and tickles me until I giggle. He lets me color with his crayons in his drawing pad. Look at him there in his bed with his stuffed lion, Gabriel. Even the moonlight coming through our window lights up his head like a halo.
But the moon does not shine on me. Because one week ago, I blasphemed the Holy Spirit. It was my little league game, and Daddy had got off work early to take me. I was all dressed in my pinstripe uniform ready to go. But then I couldn’t find my cap. Stupid, stupid me. Mommy told me to leave it out on the table so I wouldn’t forget it. But I didn’t listen.
And when Daddy got home, I still couldn’t find it anywhere. He was yelling “where’d you leave it, Mary Jane,” louder and louder. I got scared and ran all over the house looking. I made Daddy so mad, he punched out the glass panes in our French door, one right after the other, till he was bleeding all over. Matty hid under his bed. Mommy had to call Uncle John in to watch us so she could take Daddy to the emergency room for stitches.
When Mommy and Daddy left for the hospital, Matty flew down the stairs, and dove right into me, pushing me onto the floor.
“I hate you, you evil witch.” He punched and punched away, til Uncle John pulled him off and sent him up to his room.
I sat on the couch, rubbing my arm that was bleeding just a little. Though I didn’t feel any pain – Matty couldn’t hurt a fly. While Uncle John went to the bathroom to get me a Band-Aid, Baby John had come downstairs with his blankie and plopped down next to me. Matty probably woke him up from his nap when he slammed the bedroom door.
“Are you ok, Girl?” Uncle John asked, returning to the living room. Baby John covered us under his blankie, leaning his head against my shoulder. I tried to not be mad, cause I didn’t want to upset him. But my stomach was burning, and my chest, and ribs, and throat felt like fire. My teeth chattered so much I bit the inside of my lip on accident. My head felt like an explosion.
“I hate Daddy,” I said.
Baby John hid his head under the blankie.
“There, there, Girl,” Uncle John said. “You don’t mean it. What does the Bible say about honoring your mother and father?”
“I don’t care!” I said. “I hate him, I hate him, I hate him!”
Baby John started to cry. I guess I scared him with my yelling. But I couldn’t stop. It was like I’d taken the cap off a shook-up coke bottle, with my words flying everywhere.
“And I hate Matty, and Mommy, and I hate God too!”
And that was the exact moment when my soul was condemned to hell. How could I ever say I hate God? I didn’t mean those words. I didn’t even know they were in my head. I said them on accident, but it doesn’t matter. I’d blasphemed the Holy Spirit.
Uncle John was extra nice to me after that, getting us my favorite pizza with pepperoni and sausage on top. He played Legos with me and let me watch cartoons. He must have felt sorry for me, knowing that I was doomed to hell.
When Mom and Dad got back from the hospital, his arm was all bandaged up. They both looked tired and droopy, like it was late at night even though the sun was still out. Mommy vacuumed up the rest of the glass that Uncle John missed from the French door Dad punched out. I expected Dad to punish me, but he hugged me instead, and said he was sorry. Uncle John must have told him what I’d done – there was not a spoon in the world that could save me now. Daddy must have given up.
Which is why I can’t sleep one wink tonight or most any night since. I put the pillow over my head and cry so as not to wake up Matty or scare Baby John with my secret.
I do this for who-knows-how-long, when I feel the bed shake. A body crawls next to mine that smells of creamy peanut butter and cheese crackers. I pull the pillow off my head. Two gigantic orange marble eyes stare right at me. Gabriel, Baby John’s stuffed lion, is sitting on my stomach. I can’t help but crack a smile.
“Meow, meow,” Baby John says as Gabriel dances on my belly. I laugh. “Meow, meow, meow.”
“What sound does a lion really make?” I ask. We’ve played this game before and I know he knows the answer.
He pauses, tilting his head.
“Woof, woof!” he barks, making Gabriel hop up and down on my belly. “Woooof!”
“That’s a doggy sound,” I laugh again, and pet Gabriel’s head. “Try again.”
He looks out the window, making that face he makes when he’s thinking hard, with his eyebrows all scrunched up. Even though we both know he knows the real answer.
“Roar, roaaar,” he says in a voice deeper and stronger than his own, his Gabriel voice that sounds just like a cartoon hero. He is lifting Gabriel up above us with both hands, “Roaaar!!!”
“That’s right, Sweetie,” I say, the words come out of my mouth kind of shaky. “The lion roars, just like that.”
He brushes my cheek with Gabriel’s furry paw, dabbing at the tears still at the edge of my eyes.
“Roar, roaaaar,” Gabriel yells, a little louder.
He sits Gabriel back on my belly and holds my hand.
“You’re a good girl, Mary,” he says, still with the Gabriel voice. “Roaaaaaaar!”
And it is in this very moment, looking into Gabriel’s golden eyes, my brother’s head against my shoulder, his hand in mine, the whir of the ceiling fan spinning round and round above us, somehow, I am forgiven.