I’m trapped between thorns. Kate whispers behind me, “Go, go.” When I inch forward, sliding my palms against the dusty creek bed, another thorn catches my t-shirt. When I wriggle backward, another thorn. “I can’t,” I say.
In the basement of Praise Community Church, we sit on a cold linoleum floor. Kate’s family has invited me to attend the children’s praise activity instead of Trinity Lutheran’s Sunday School and children’s choir practice. I’m not sitting in a wooden chair too small for me, my grandmother picking out notes on the untuned piano. There are so many children here. I sit beside Kate and her sisters because I don’t know anyone else.
Nondenominational, my mother reminds me when I tell her how many other kids there were. How after the service, with its singing and people in jeans, Kate’s family took me to Subway. Her father told us to bow our heads. Then he prayed over our subs. My mother shakes her head as she puts another plate into the dishwasher.
Kate’s father buys a new house in a new development. A half torn up field and an emptied creek mark the boundary between the still empty lots and the green, fertilized lawn maintained by a sprinkler kept on a timer despite late summer water bans. We spend one afternoon circling piles of bramble surrounding the creek.
“There’s water further down,” Kate says. “From the thunderstorm the other night.” We slide down the rock-studded banks to the entrance, a half circle of thorns. “You first,” Kate says behind me.
Kate and I run around the second floor of her house. It’s almost twice the size of the ranch-style I live in. Her parents won’t let her visit my house.
Kate’s little sister, Anna, sometimes joins us as we slam doors on each other, each pulling the knob at opposite ends. Anna has closed her bedroom door. I run to open it. “Surprise!” I yell. Anna is standing without a shirt on, her arms crossed over her chest. Before she can reply, her mom closes the door and protects it with her body.
I have to lie on my stomach and press myself forward against the hard floor of the creek bed. A thorn catches my hair. I wrench my arm behind my head to pick it out.
I’m no longer allowed over at Kate’s house. I catch her staring at me at recess and I want to say hi but my mom has told me not to talk to her, either. They think they’re better than us.
“You know you’re going to hell, right?” Kate blocks the exit. We’ve been assigned to rearrange the choir robes according to size and number after the Annual Holiday Concert. We have kept from talking, placing each blue polyester robe back in its plastic wrapping and hanging it in the long, narrow closet. I want to keep the silence.
“Answer me. We’re not leaving until you answer me.”
I toss the robe I’m holding back on the pile and turn to face her. “I’m tired of this,” I respond.
Kate has left me to the thorns. I can see a few puddles of leftover rainwater beyond the brambles.
The guidance counselor swivels her chair toward me when I sit down. “I’ve heard you’ve been bullying Kate,” she tells me. Instead of laughing, I only smile.
I force my body backward through the thorns, gathering more. When I emerge, Kate’s already climbed back up the bank of the creek bed. She walks toward her house, yelling. I follow behind her. Kate’s mom opens the backdoor. She looks us both up and down and then looks at me.
“You made Kate filthy.”
Kate’s father has been having an affair with the Praise Community Church secretary for years. He has embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from congregation offerings. Kate’s mother divorces him. My mother calls me to tell me he’s hung himself in his apartment.
They bulldoze the creek bed. They place a pipe for drainage and fill it in.
Praise Community Church now has two new pastors. A Praise Preschool. Downloadable PraiseCasts. A 21st Century Church. A pure and faultless religion.
I look up through the thorns. A white glare bursts color in my vision. I call for help. A cicada clicks in answer.
Alyse Bensel is the Book Reviews Editor at the Los Angeles Review. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Shift (Plan B Press, 2012), and her poetry has appeared in MAYDAY Magazine, Cold Mountain Review, Cider Press Review, and Word Riot, among others. Additional prose has appeared in Prairie Schooner, CALYX, and the Colorado Review. She is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas.