When Mama finally came to fetch us he was in the car. I still didn’t like the look of him. He didn’t belong here with us. Jack grabbed the seat behind Mama, for once snapping the seat belt into place without being asked. I slid into the seat behind the strange man who made Mama act funny. Then I glared at Jack and he stuck his tongue out at me. If only Mama could see how Jack really is, I thought.
Mama pulled the car into the street and I felt a sense of relief to be going back home.
As the stranger leaned toward Mama, his mouth grazed her ear. He said something we weren’t meant to hear and she giggled. While he was bent over I studied the snake tattoo winding its way from under the tight white t-shirt near his right shoulder. It curved around toward his left ear. It seemed almost alive and I hoped it couldn’t see me. The man said something else and Mama swatted his arm. He grabbed her hand and held it still. Mama looked away from the road and they stared at each other until a horn blared.
Mama swerved the car to the right and I fell toward the center of the car. Before I straightened I saw his hand slip up Mama’s thigh under her new floral skirt. I pushed myself upright and looked out the window.
I was never going to let a boy touch me that way.
The drive to seemed to take forever. I watched as buildings and trees flashed by. A boy on a bicycle reminded me of the accident the previous night. Did the man on the bike live? Did he have family to meet him at the hospital? A woman walked a dog smaller than a cat as a man with a great big fluffy dog that looked like a bear struggled to keep his giant dog away. Would the big dog attack the little one?
Mama pulled the car into the lot of the church. We were late, as always and there was only one spot left, all the way in the back, past where the pavement ended. Before we could get out of the car Mama said, “Y’all made us late dawdling at yer dad’s so I don’t want no trouble. Just git in there and take a seat.”
I wanted to point out that if we had known she was coming to take us to church we would have been dressed, but I knew there was no point.
I walked slowly toward the church. Ahead of me Jack held Mama’s left hand while the stranger help her right. In frustration I kicked a rock. I must have hit it harder than I’d meant to. It went flying toward the man then bounced off the back of his knee. Without stopping he glanced over his shoulder at me. I couldn’t read the expression in his narrowed eyes that seemed almost black. But a shiver ran through me.
As we entered the church, Mama wasn’t satisfied to sit in the back. Instead she marched straight down the center aisle to a half-filled pew in the center. She leaned forward and said in a half-whisper, “Are these seats taken?”
My cheeks burned as I saw the pastor pause in his sermon. Mama eased into the pew, squeezing in front of the people already seated there. The man wasn’t able to fit and three people moved into the aisle so he could slide in next to Mama. Jack followed. Apparently they didn’t see me and the original occupants of the pew filed in after Jack.
I was left standing in the aisle. My skin tingled. I knew if I didn’t sit with Mama she’d be mad, so I whispered to the person at the end of the pew, “Can I get in too?” She frowned at me, then sighed as she shifted her knees to the right enough so I could scoot past. As I got to where Jack was seated I realized there wasn’t enough room for me. “Scoot over,” I said to Jack.
Mama leaned over past the man and with a shushed me with a finger over her lips. I pointed wordlessly to the full seat. Mama said, “Jack, come sit on my lap baby and make room for your sister.”
Jack jumped up and cuddled on Mama’s lap. I sat down next to the man, his arm and leg pressed against me. I could smell the stench of stale cigarette smoke along with something I couldn’t identify. I tried to ignore him and stared straight at the pastor, but I could see him looking down at me out of the corner of my eye. What is he staring at? I wondered.
The pastor cleared his throat and said, “Let us turn to Matthew 18:2-6.” I reached toward the bible in front of me at the same time as the man, my hand bumping into his hairy one. I pulled back as if I’d been bitten. I found an extra one that was to the left, in front of the people who had let me in.
I turned to the page. I couldn’t read yet but I had learned to recognize the names of the books of the bible and I liked to follow along.
The pastor read in his rumbling voice:
“He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.
And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.’”
The pastor paused, his gaze resting on each member of the congregation for a moment before moving onto the next. With his eyes firmly fixed on me he said, “In this passage Jesus honors the innocence of a child. He asks all of us to hold in high regard the innocence and forgiveness of children. Then warns that anyone who causes harm to one of his followers, one of his children, would be better off drowned.”
He continued to talk but my mind was stuck on what he’d said. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t look down on children as anything more than an inconvenience. For the first time, the pastor seemed to just be telling a story, a fairy tale like Goldilocks and her bears.