The first boy I slept with called it my “Jesus scar.” It’s on my side, on my “natural waist.” The scar itself is about half inch around and puckered in. He stuck his pinky finger in and rubbed it in a circle.
“Just like Jesus, you know, with the spear.”
Blood and water.
“Yeah, I got it. I go to church too, you know.”
Jeremiah smiled. “Every Sunday, right?”
I whapped his bare chest. “And all the days between.”
The trouble with Hawaii is that it’s too hot to stay under the sheets for long, but neither of us wanted to move. We laid there on top of them until his phone went off, reminding him he had music practice in an hour. Beneath everything, Jeremiah was a good lover—he cared about the people around him deeply, and with intention. He had the eyes of a wolf, laser-focused without it ever being clear where he was looking.
At first, Elle didn’t know about Jeremiah and never actually wanted to. She and I aren’t that kind of close. We know everything there is to know about each other, but we don’t deal in facts. We’ve always asked for promises, and they all hinged on the big promise, the one repeated when we were first put in charge of the junior high ministry at church. We made each other promise that we would always protect our kids. From what? They said. From what? We asked back, as though there should be things that we let through to them, as though there is a level of evil they needed to see. Elle knew I was keeping something to myself; the Rules between us said that we could. Our Rule, with each other, was that there was nothing we had to say. The night of the attack, when I got the scar, Elle stopped the bleeding by putting her index finger into my side, two and a half inches deep, and she stayed that way until we got to the hospital. On the drive over, I learned the smell of her hair and the natural smell of her scalp. She is a person made of wood smoke and sweet pea and salt, and maybe a flower whose name I can’t remember.
Rachel, weeping for her children.
Jeremiah is not very good at the guitar, as I found out the first time I saw him play. Despite that, he’s a natural-born harmonizer, and he’d slip between the notes everyone else was singing and add something worth hearing. We’d been quietly dating, what he called “courting” and I called “hooking up with,” for almost three months. At that point, the guitar didn’t matter. What mattered to me is that he was there for kids. He took care of them, I thought. He hadn’t ever tried to graduate from youth ministry, even when he was in his twenties. I loved being in youth ministry, and I told him I was in my twenties too, even though I’d just turned seventeen. My parents homeschooled me after the accident, so I had the schedule of an adult. And he was happy, too, to finally meet someone who knew where he was coming from.
“It’s so hard, Jacks, trying to get through to these kids. Take Alicia, for instance. Won’t look at me. Won’t talk to me. It’s like she’s got something to hide.”
I looked. Alicia was small, Korean build, probably half-white, someone who Elle’s brother-in-law could get through to. I didn’t want her to be my responsibility, not ever. There’s something about little sisters—and Alicia was a little sister—that just doesn’t make them reachable. They just want so badly to be held, and the wrong kind–Alicia was the wrong kind—have secrets that barely belong to them that they cling to their chest. The last time Elle let me hug her, she was inside me.
“He’s bad news, Jacks.”
Elle didn’t pull punches, at least, not with me. We were sitting in her car after dropping off the last car-full of junior high kids. I asked her if she’d met him. With her sister and brother-in-law as pastors, she’d met just about every Christian on Maui. It wasn’t a question of whether she knew who he was—it was whether or not she knew what kind of man he was, in any sense of the word.
She shrugged. Elle was the jealous type, even in friendships.
Elle continued, “Also, he’s kind of a loser.”
Technically speaking, she was correct. He lived—still lives—at home, with no real job. He’s a person who tries to convince non-gamers of the significance of his high score. I remembered his bass playing the week before; he didn’t play that as well as guitar, not by a long shot. He’d said they put him on bass for a month while some drama got smoothed over. That’s all, just some drama. One of the kids in their youth group was having trouble – he wouldn’t say who, but I suspected someone who Alicia was close to, and hoped he wouldn’t ask me what I would do in that situation – and I figured he must not have practiced enough that week.
“He’s called, Elle. You know it. Gifted.” I was annoyed. She saved my life once; that doesn’t mean I owe it to her.
She looked at me and I was a child again. Elle can do that: look straight at you, into you, to the age of you she wants to speak with. If anyone else talks to me like I’m five, my whole back burns. If Elle does it, my five-year-old self listens.
She sat back against the driver’s seat. “Do what you want. I mean it. I’ll be here whatever you decide. But you have to live with it. You.”
I went to change my Facebook status to “Single,” that night, just to see what would happen, and I realized I’d never set it to “In a Relationship.” Instead, I texted him that we should probably stop seeing each other, that I didn’t want my sister finding out I was with anyone. He understood, and I hoped that was the end of it. Someone new would come along, I figured. There’s always someone new.
When the spring break all-church youth camp rolled around, we took the kids to the far side of the island, halfway to Hana, and used the YMCA camp in the jungle. It was easy to keep the kids tired there, far enough away from town that no one ever tried to sneak out. Plus, there’s the kind of views that make people talk, and the camp is wide open. People can have conversations out of earshot, but not out of eyeshot. Alicia came, with her older half-sister, Kat. I knew there was a story there, that I wouldn’t have time to learn it or tell it. As it turns out, Kat was almost my age, one of the oldest non-leaders. Two nights in, she still refused to go up and ask for prayer, which meant Pastor K made me go up to her, in her seat, and ask her what she needed from Jesus. Elle sat in the row behind her, one hand on her shoulder. Elle actually likes difficult cases. That’s probably why Pastor K sent me.
“I need a scar.”
A bruised reed He will not break.
I sat next to her, in a folding metal chair that wanted to slide me to the floor. “A scar’s not something to ask for.”
She held out her wrists, covered with bracelets. Even so, the skin beneath had texture, a sheen. Unmistakable. “It’s impossible. That’s the kind of shit we’re supposed to ask for.”
“Sometimes the impossible leaves scars,” I said. I didn’t know how to make her see my point.
“I need a bigger scar. The ones I have won’t ever prove anything. Are you still seeing Jeremiah?”
This was not the way these conversations go; I said nothing. No one, that I knew of, had known. I grabbed her hand and bent my head so we would look sincere. She followed suit, covering her eyes for a moment.
Finally, quietly, as the bridge of the music repeated for a fourteenth time, she told me what it was that never left scars. She’d had trouble in middle school, getting into fights with the other girls at the church. Her dad was dead, she was angry, and then she was trapped. When she was twelve, after she’d punched a girl in the bathroom during worship, Jeremiah asked to talk to her outside. He’d put her hand down his pants and told her she didn’t have to worry about anyone finding out about just how angry she was, at least not from him. He would be praying for her, she said. Blessing her food.
In the years since, when he wanted to try something new, she was his test run. She knew who I was because he’d let my name slip once. Not groaned it—
“it wasn’t a porn,” she said bitterly.
Even so, he said it, talking about how he wanted to impress a girl. I looked her over. She was a child still, softer than I was, unable to sell the story that she was full-grown and dangerous. Jeremiah believed I was an adult. She was his child, one of his youth group members, someone who belonged to him because she was under his care. The only thing he’d left her was virginity, in the loosest sense of the term. She suspected he’d lost it to me, because he’d asked her if she was ready to take their relationship to the next level a few weeks ago. I did the math: he went back to her the day I texted him that we should stop seeing each other. She laughed.
“Joke’s on him. I got my driver’s license while he was busy.”
Elle looked at me, at nine-year-old me. It wasn’t until that exact moment that I realized I was wrong about her: I had believed that Elle didn’t know everything. Of course she did. She knew exactly what kind of man my father was. She was there the night I got my Jesus scar. Elle knew. Alicia knew about Kat. Suddenly I understood what it was that bothered me about Alicia: she could see through Kat. She could probably see through me too. A fourteen-year-old was learning all my secrets, just by seeing my face so close to Kat’s. I glanced up. She was kneeling by the stage, concentrating on her own kneecaps. Or crying. If she was crying, someone would go to her soon enough. She wasn’t my problem, I tried to tell my conscience.
“What happened to you isn’t your fault,” Elle said, squeezing Kat’s shoulder, but looking me in the eye. I didn’t want to understand. She believed Kat. Not only did she believe Kat, but something told me she had already known something was wrong with Jeremiah, something no one could name, the unseen knife in the dark.
The thorn in the flesh.
My girls fell asleep early that night, tired out from too much Jesus, I thought. They were good kids, most of them. I wondered what I would do if Jeremiah asked to see me alone. We were each other’s secrets. No: he was my secret. He had spoken my name. More importantly, he wasn’t mine. He was his. He was hers. He was someone else’s, always someone else’s. I was missing the point. He had assaulted a child, knowingly. I was a technicality, but only a technicality. At twelve, Kat would have looked young for her age. When you work with teenagers, you learn to spot the late bloomers. God damn him, he broke every commandment, took the Lord’s name in vain with a child’s hand in his, and I smelled his smell. I crept out of my sleeping bag, soaked in panic-sweat. At the last minute, I grabbed my Bible and notebook. If nothing else, no one would ask why I was outside if I had them with me.
Elle was sitting alone on one of the boulders that marks the edge of the safe zone, still and silent like I’d never seen her.
“I’m already praying,” she said.
I tasted copper on my tongue. Whatever happened between Jeremiah and I died. I was resurrected, but not until a few weeks later, when I heard that Kat had attempted suicide. She didn’t leave a note. I suspected she had already said everything she needed to say, and been silenced. That’s the kind of betrayal you don’t come back from. Alicia was the one who told me; I didn’t ask her how she got my phone number. She’s the wrong kind of little sister, I thought. The nosy kind who knows everything about everyone and no one even remembers her star sign.
Elle and I went to see her. Alicia was there, with another girl. We had brought roses, and I had brought mint, a teacup saucer, and a water bottle with a squeeze top. It was something my mom would do years ago, when I was in the same hospital, getting the same transfusions. You crush the mint leaves in a little saucer of water, and the whole room slowly smells sweet and clean. It clears the smell of urine, anyway.
“That’ll leave a mark,” I said.
“I hope you’re right,” Kat replied, a little stoned on medication and blood loss. Blood loss is pleasant in the way getting over food poisoning is pleasant. It’s mercifully weakening.
Alicia watched me until I left. I could feel her eyes on me until we got back in Elle’s car. I deserved whatever it was she believed about me. I was everything Kat was, except for I had maintained my anonymity. My scars weren’t mine, but my body was. My death wasn’t mine. My life was. Her sister barely belonged to her, and Elle held me from the driver’s side while I sobbed until the CD we were listening to started over again. When we left, the skin around my scar was burning, stretched taut.
Tell Me, which one of them was a neighbor to the injured man?