“I don’t know,” she told him. “Call the pastor.” My parents weren’t very good at talking about serious things.
When the pastor arrived, he sat on the couch with my sister and me. Since Tonya always wanted to try whatever I did, she said she wanted to walk down the aisle, too. I sat on one side of the pastor, and she sat on the other. I don’t remember a word he said, only that I stared at my mother. I don’t know how she knew that this was more than I expected, but when she said, “It’s O.K.,” I ran to my room and cried on the bed until Tonya joined me. When my mother came in to check on us, we were playing with our dolls.
My sister was born a year after me, so I’ve never known a life without her. My mother wanted twins, and she dressed us in matching clothes from the time Tonya was born. Most people thought it was cute, but eventually I asked for clothes that were different than Tonya’s. I wanted jeans and sneakers, button-down plaids. I thought it was only fair; when Tonya got my hand-me-downs, she wore the same yellow polka-dot dresses and delicate pink shirts she had been wearing for the last year. Still, my mother thought it would hurt Tonya’s feelings if she found out I didn’t want to match.
Tonya and I slept in the same bed until I moved out at eighteen. When we whispered
together at night, Tonya told me about the dresses she dreamed of wearing at parties when she grew up.
“I want a white lacy dress with long gloves,” she said. “I want the dress to drag the floor in the back like a wedding train, and long, dangle earrings.”
“I can’t believe you’d really wear that,” I said. I knew in those moments I couldn’t go anywhere without my sister.
When I was eight, my parents went to a fire alarm party—something similar to a Tupperware party—where they watched a movie about what happens to people who don’t have smoke alarms. My parents ordered two smoke detectors and a fire bell. The fire bell was installed on the ceiling. The installation technician showed us how to manually pull the button on the bell if we heard someone breaking in. Once set off, the clang of the bell was loud enough to scare off anyone looking to do harm. Tonya and I were too short to reach the bell and would have to get a chair from the kitchen at the other end of the house if we wanted to pull the button.
My parents wouldn’t say what they saw in the movie, but it was bad enough to cause a change. After the party, my parents refused to lock the door at night, and if my sister or I locked it out of habit, my father would tell us how we would burn up trying to get the door unlocked when the house caught fire.
Tonya and I quickly realized that an unlocked door meant there was nothing keeping out a kidnapper or murderer. We lay awake discussing how once we were asleep, we would never hear him enter—there would be no need to break a window or kick in the door, and the quiet creak of it opening was barely noticeable when we were awake. We told each other stories of how the man would come in, cut us with a hunting knife or a straight razor, and no one would save us. We slept every night with our legs intertwined and an arm around each other so that if someone tried to take one of us or tried to cut one of us, the other would know.
If Tonya or I got sick, my mother made the well sister sleep on the couch while she slept with the sick one. She didn’t understand why when she slept with me, I wanted to sleep close or put my legs against hers. She insisted I sleep on the other side of the bed, which meant she’d never wake up if someone came in. When we had to be split up, the sister sleeping on the couch would sneak into the kitchen after everyone was asleep and lock the door. Our belief in our togetherness, of what we would do for each other, was what kept us safe.
After the visit from the pastor, I kept my curiosity about being baptized to myself. For years after, during each Sunday service I talked myself into, out of, into, and out of walking down the aisle. I told myself that the devil would get me, that my mother would tell me I didn’t know what I was doing, that I would go to hell, that everyone would laugh. At night when I went to bed, I imagined the devil trying to push his way into my body through my chest so he could pull out my soul. I prayed that God would keep it from happening. I asked my sister to pray for me. Eventually she started asking me to pray for her, too. The nights we spent wrapped around each other became about more than kidnappers and murderers. We were afraid the devil would take one of us now, and we only knew that if we were going to hell, we had to go together.
The basement of our house was a terrifying space—even more so than our closets where we found brown recluse spiders and, once, a snakeskin. The basement had steps leading from a door off the kitchen. The walls were gray concrete block and the floor was cement. Water ran down the walls and pooled in the floor. There was one bulb hanging from the ceiling that dimly lit the area and two small ground-level windows that were so dirty light couldn’t get in. Every time my parents sent Tonya or me down to the basement, it was always with the warning “watch for snakes.” We were in constant fear of storms and tornados, not because of the damage they were capable of, but because we would have to go down to the basement for an extended period of time if there was a threat. Eventually, instead of heading down to the basement, we stood outside during storms and watched tornados form and get sucked back into the sky.
Our washing machine was in the basement. It sat raised on boards to keep it off the wet cement floor. Nights my mother told me to do laundry, I begged my sister to go with me, and when my sister was told to do laundry, she begged me to go as well. We ran as fast as we could down the stairs, gathered the clothes as quickly as possible from the washer—careful the whole time to stand on top of the wooden boards in order to avoid any snakes that might crawl out from under the platform and bite our feet—and ran back upstairs, pushing the one in front up the stairs with will-to-survive force. There was always the feeling that someone was chasing us. We were never able to say whether it was a person or snakes or the devil, but we felt something at our backs.
The only shower in the house was downstairs, too. My sister, mother, and I used the bath upstairs; my father and brother used the basement shower. It was really just three walls of fiberglass that were barely as tall as my father, with a mounted showerhead. There was no door or floor—the shower floor was the basement floor with a drain cut out. The shower sat next to a cabinet of jarred green beans, pickles, and jams that had been in the basement since before I was born. One morning my brother ran upstairs yelling that there was a snake in the shower. My mother insisted he was lying and sent me down to investigate. Between the washer and shower was a giant copperhead. By the time my father got home that afternoon, the snake had disappeared.
But the basement was in some ways a place of discovery. I knew it was unusual to find anyone else down there, so I spent many hours sitting at the top of the stairs, daydreaming my way out of the fierce mouths and hands above. Our house was heated by the woodstove in the basement. Each fall my father cut trees and stacked piles of wood in the basement. The heat traveled through vents and warmed our feet in the mornings. When I was older, I sat next to a man in church who smelled just like the heat coming from the vents in my house in the mornings. I had never realized that I might smell like the wood burning in our house.
The basement was also the place where Lindsay taught me communion. Lindsay was my age, and her sister was our baby-sitter. I was fourteen and watched my brother and sister for small stretches, but when we were going to be home alone all day, my mother hired Lindsay’s older sister to come over. One day, my brother begged Lindsay and me to play hide-and-seek with him. While he was counting, Lindsay decided we should hide in the basement. I warned her about the dangers—the snakes, the water, the dark—and that my parents had forbidden us to go to the basement when they weren’t home, but it was the best hiding place in the house. As we ran down the stairs, I tripped and smashed into the concrete wall at the bottom. I gashed my knee and it bled on the floor. Lindsay held me around the shoulders, blowing on my knee as best she could until her sister came down to help us back upstairs. While her sister panicked, Lindsay cleaned my knee then washed the blood from the basement floor. When my parents came home, Lindsay told them I cut my knee when I fell off the swings outside.
After that, Lindsay and I were nearly inseparable. Lindsay’s house was built on stilts, like the houses in swamps or rainforests. There were eighteen steps to climb to get to the front door—I counted them in nervous anticipation each time I went to her house. We had dinner at the table with her family, and I was surprised to see that Lindsay’s family had a Bible on the table. Their religion was so different from my Southern Baptist family’s—they went to church on Saturdays and they never exchanged gifts at Christmas. I assumed they had a different Bible. Or maybe not even a Bible at all. I pictured them reading from scrolls at church and large spiral bound books at home. I don’t know why.
Lindsay and I both played in the school band. I loved it; she hated it. She begged her parents to let her quit, and it was one of the only things she ever made fun of me for. She couldn’t understand why I loved standing under the stadium lights on Friday nights, especially in the rain, or why I walked heel-to-toe through the halls, just like I did on the field. She hated that her curly, almost-orange hair wouldn’t fit under the band hat, and she cringed and cursed each time she put on the uniform. When we tried to raise money for new uniforms, she refused to sell a single magazine, work at the car wash, or bake any cookies.
I loved Lindsay’s room because it smelled like her perfume—sweet, and faint enough that when she wore it, I had to be nearly touching her to smell it. Lindsay’s mother bought her two bottles of the perfume, and they sat, pink and shimmering, on Lindsay’s vanity next to the bed. At her house, we took separate showers right before we went to bed. We slept in the bed Lindsay shared with her sister, all three of us piled on. Lindsay and I slept close—sometimes the fronts of our bodies against each other, sometimes front to back, always with an arm around the other. Lindsay’s sister slept as far on the opposite side of the bed as she could; she wanted to make sure I didn’t feel crowded. With Lindsay I never felt crowded.
At my house things were different. My room smelled of dust and burning wood. There was a poster of Earth above the bed, but Lindsay wasn’t interested in space. We shared a bath together before bed instead of showering separately; she taught me to run the water as hot as we could stand it. Lindsay and I slept together in the bed I usually shared with Tonya, who stayed on the couch. After everyone else was asleep, Lindsay and I crawled under the bed with a flashlight and pulled blankets down on either side so no one could see the light. We read Teen magazine and laughed at the “Body Blues: Periods” and “He Hurt You: How to Handle Breakups” articles. The sounds were absorbed into the mattress, into the floor.
When we finally went to bed, I lay on my back and Lindsay lay on her side facing me so that it would be easy to touch each other, to see each other in the mostly dark. We were careful not to make any sounds now. Before long, we had switched places without knowing how. Always, I stopped too quickly and regretted it when Lindsay turned her back to me. I slept with my body pressed against hers in apology, my arm draped over her hip.
At school, I sat in front of Lindsay. When I turned to look at her, we pretended not to know. When I turned back, she ran her fingers from the crown of my head down through my hair—a feeling like drops of warm water cleaning me of everything. She twirled my hair at the ends, pausing long enough to graze the nape of my neck.
After that year, my mother decided we no longer needed a babysitter. Lindsay and I didn’t have any more classes together, so we ended.
One Sunday morning, my friend Christy pulled me aside before church. She told me how the pastor came to her house the night before and that she was going to be baptized at the evening’s service. She asked if I was ever going to be baptized. I told her that the thought of everyone watching me walk down the aisle was one of the things that had kept me still at the end of services.
“I’ll walk down with you,” she said.
During the song at the end of service, I stood rooted in place. I tried not to look at Christy. I bowed my head and pretended to pray. She grabbed my hand and led me down the aisle, my head still bent. I felt every eye in the building watching me; I couldn’t feel myself breathing. I heard the hum of people’s voices so I knew they were still singing, but I couldn’t make out the words. When we got to the front, the pastor sat me on the pew to his left and murmured a prayer beside me. I tried to repeat it, but hadn’t heard what he said. After the music ended, he asked my father to come stand with us in the front of the church, and then told the congregation to come by and offer congratulations. My father hugged me so hard he lifted my feet off the floor. Once he set me back down, the congregation members filed by and offered a handshake or hug. Christy stood on one side, Tonya on the other, but she didn’t look at me.
I noticed Carol Anne waiting. I tried to hurry the others through the line so she could get to me faster. I was only twelve, but I loved Carol Anne like I loved no one else. I loved the way she opened her mouth wide when she sang, her blue eyes moving from one audience member to another. I loved how she pulled at her wheat-blond hair one strand at a time, root to end, when she talked or was nervous. I chose to learn flute in the band because I loved the way Carol Anne shaped her lips when she played the flute. In youth choir, when she placed her hand on my chest just at the top of my stomach because she wanted me to sing louder, my breath caught. When my father, who farmed with her father, brought me along, she took me to her bedroom to wait. She showed me pictures of her and her friends while I sat as still as I possibly could on her satin comforter. I was afraid of wrinkling its smooth surface.
When Carol Anne finally made it through the line, she stood in front of me with tears in her eyes.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said. “I hope you know I love you.”
I didn’t say anything. She hugged me. After Carol Anne moved down the line, Christy leaned over and whispered, “When she found out I was getting baptized, she offered to help me.”
It was common for the person being baptized to have help changing in and out of the baptismal gown. I smiled at Christy, but I wished Carol Anne had offered me help. When the last person in line moved past, I ran to the parking lot where I knew she would be, sitting on the stairs surrounded by friends.
“I wanted to ask you a question,” I said, trying not to sound out of breath. My heart beat faster, and I thought my throat would close up.
“Go ahead,” she said, stepping away from the guy she had been talking to, his eyes now turned to me. “You can ask me anything.”
“Christy said you’re going to help her now that she’s getting baptized, and I was just wondering if you’d help me, too,” I said.
Carol Anne didn’t even pause. “I think you’ll be just fine.”
“I need help, too,” I said. I felt the disappointment in my voice more than I heard it. I wanted to take it back.
“But you have lots of people around you to help.” Her voice was smooth, satin-like. A lump moved from my stomach to my throat. “No one in Christy’s family goes to church. She doesn’t have anyone close to help with Bible studies and her Christian walk.”
I slowly caught on to what she meant.
“So, you’re not helping with the gowns?” I asked.
“Oh, of course I will, if you’d like.” She looked a little relieved.
“Sure,” I said. I couldn’t even tell Carol Anne what a Christian walk was; I just knew that
once I’d gone underwater, I wouldn’t have to worry anymore that the devil could get me.
“We should go tell your mother the good news,” my father said after we left church. My mother had recently started work at a local diner. I didn’t want to go to the diner. I thought about what I would say to her; she had a way of overreacting, and this wouldn’t be any different. I was relieved when she worked Sundays because almost every time she did go to church, she went down the aisle after the sermon to pray with the pastor. I hated that she walked down the aisle so often, more than anyone else in church. And she was baptized more than anyone else, too—once when she was a teenager, again not long after they called the pastor to the house when I was six, and again two more times after that. She claimed she never felt right with God, but I wondered if it was because she liked the feel of the people’s eyes on her when she walked forward, their hand in hers as they passed through the line.
I tried to talk to Tonya as we drove to the diner. I asked her what dress she thought she might wear to the evening service. She looked straight ahead and didn’t say a word. When I asked her if something was wrong, she looked over at me then turned to look out the window.My mother saw us drive up and came out wiping her hands on a towel.
“Stephanie has something to tell you,” my father said over his half-rolled-down window.
She walked around the car and opened my door.
“I’m going to get baptized tonight,” I muttered. She pulled me out of the seat and hugged me, telling me again and again how proud she was.
“Will you be there?” I asked. For some reason the idea of getting baptized started to feel—embarrassing.
“Of course I’ll be there,” she said, pulling back from me a little. “I’ll get someone to cover my shift.”
Once we were home, she called our entire family to tell them the news. She even called my teacher. I was beginning to think I might call it all off. The excitement around the event was growing, and I wondered if the excitement was the real reason why people got baptized. If it was, I wanted no part in it.
I had heard my preacher say that God knows your intentions and if your intentions are in the right place, you shouldn’t worry about the results. I figured since my intentions were to go under the water, maybe I could still keep the devil away if I backed out because of things getting so out of control. And besides, Tonya and I had baptized each other in the bathtub more times than I could remember. That’s how she got her lip busted and had to have stitches. I was sure that counted for something in the way of intentions.
I told my parents I needed a nap and went to my room. I took the book I was reading off the nightstand and fell across the bed. The book was about a girl who was dying from cancer. I had a whole collection of those. I bought the first one at the book fair when I was nine, even though the librarian said it wasn’t something she would recommend for a girl my age.
The books weren’t about the cancer. Sometimes the girl beat it and sometimes she died, but the story was really about how much people loved her, how her family and friends were so upset. They forgot everything bad she ever did. And she always had a boy who adored her. Usually, the girl did something special because she thought she wouldn’t be around much longer. One girl wrote her father a note and told him she forgave him for not staying with her mother. Another girl went horseback riding with her boyfriend, even though her parents forbid it because they thought she might hurt herself and die earlier than she had to.
I couldn’t focus on the book, though. I knew my sister was angry, and I started to feel ashamed for doing something without her—in particular, this big something: baptism. Once it was over I would be safe; she wouldn’t. But I was thinking it was all a big mistake. My parents’ excitement and my sister’s silence seemed like a lot of drama to keep the devil away. After all, hadn’t Tonya and I kept him out on our own so far? I wanted things to be calm again, but then I thought about getting to see Carol Anne. I decided to ask Christy to go first so that it could be just Carol Anne and me in the dressing room. I wanted her to say how she always knew I would do the right thing, how much alike we were, and how that made us belong to each other.
When it was time to get ready, I found my sister crouched in the closet in our bedroom. She refused to look at me. I pulled her out by her arm, but she just stood in the middle of the room. She said she didn’t want to go. She said she wanted to stay at home by herself.
“Don’t you think I want to stay here, too?” I asked. For the moment, it didn’t matter about Carol Anne.
My mother walked by the door, yelling for us to hurry.
I let go of Tonya’s arm and sat down on the bed. I hoped she would do the same and that we could just skip the service altogether. I wanted to see Carol Anne—her blue eyes and smooth hair—but the rest was too much. I wanted to explain this to Tonya, but she was pulling on her dress. When she grabbed her black Sunday shoes and left the room, I closed the door and pulled on the dress I had worn to services that morning. I walked out of the house. My mother was standing on the porch, brushing my sister’s hair with hard, fast strokes, and my father was yelling at my brother to get in the car. I slipped down into the back seat. I realized that things would always be different between Tonya and me. Even though we had promised to stay together, I had left Tonya to the devil and saved myself.
As we walked into church, I looked for Carol Anne. I didn’t see her or Christy, so I knew they must be in the room already. Since the singing was about to start, I told my parents that I should go on back. I looked over at Tonya, but she was talking to someone else. The pastor’s wife, a tall, thin woman with almost all gray hair and only half of a smile, met me as I was walking to the room and said she would show me the way. I followed, hoping she wouldn’t try to hang around once we got to the room. She opened the door and stepped to the side; Christy was already in her gown.
“Where’s Carol Anne?” I asked. “Did she help you change already?” The door clicked shut behind us, but we could still hear the music.
“Carol Anne went to a youth rally with a friend,” the pastor’s wife said. “She called me a couple of hours ago and said he invited her after church this morning. She asked me to help you and Christy with your gowns.”
I looked around the room. The white gown, long and elegant, lay stark on the table, bright against the paneling walls and brown carpet. Christy was smiling, but she looked nervous. I thought of the people in the audience clapping and singing and watching.
“You’ll go first, right?” I asked her.
I told the pastor’s wife that Christy could help me with my gown, and she said she’d be waiting for us on the other side of the water. After she left, I took off my dress, put on my T-shirt and shorts, and pulled on the gown. When the song ended, Christy was looking at me; she hadn’t spoken since I came in. Part of me hoped she was having second thoughts, too.
“You’re up,” I said. She walked out of the room and left the door cracked so I would hear when she was done. I sat and listened for the rush of the water and the amens that always followed. I remembered my mother and all the times she walked down the aisle. I thought about the times she had been baptized, and I knew then I would not be like her; I would never do this again. And if I could have gotten out of it without making a scene, I wouldn’t do it this time. I thought of my sister, so easily sitting by someone else in the auditorium. I wondered if I really would be safe from the devil once this was over.
On the wall in front of me was a poster of Jesus sitting on a stump, with children all around. The sky behind him was blue, and it seemed like the only true color in the room.
Stephanie McCarley Dugger’s first collection of poetry, As Far as You, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications. Her chapbook, Sterling (Paper Nautilus, 2015), was co-winner of the 2014 Vella Chapbook contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Cider Press Review, Gulf Stream, Meridian, The Southeast Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and other journals. She is an assistant professor at Austin Peay State University and is Associate Managing Editor for Zone 3 Press.