What he did to her was the last straw for his mother. Shipping him to America, to the state of Washington, to be with his would-be father, his treatment of Natalie got him exiled from his London homeland. The loneliness he’d felt all along was finally achieved in real life.
The church is packed today, rows and rows of us, all joined together to worship on a hot July afternoon. Every week, usually the same people, all of whom I can call by their first and last names.
My family lives like royalty here in one of Jesus’s smallest venues.
My younger sister, Cecily, is sitting next to me in the very front row, her small hands picking at the chipped wooden pew. Our church has just received a grant to renovate some of the interior, and our youth group has been helping gather the supplies donated by the local community. This week, our task is to obtain paint from locals and paint these pews over. I’ve been spending my evenings going from one hardware store to another, asking for donations.
As if to underscore the futility I feel about this task, I hear a faint snapping sound and look over to see that Cecily has broken off a small piece of wood from her seat. Her fingernails are painted pink to match the bow in her dark brown hair, but boy, can she be destructive.
“Cecily, we’re fixing these next week. Please don’t.” I gently take her small hands in mine, and she pouts just a little. “You can help paint them to make them beautiful again. You would like that, wouldn’t you?” I smile at her. She smiles back, an adorable missing-teeth smile, and nods her head. Her curls move with her, making my mum proud of her work with the iron this morning.
The pastor is almost finished with his sermon, and my parents are holding hands, staring toward the front of the small church. Sweat has been gathering on my neck, rolling in sticky drops down my back as words about sinning and suffering float around my head. It’s so hot in here that my mum’s makeup has started to shine down her neck and smear black rings around her eyes. This should be the last week without air-conditioning we have to suffer through. Or it better be; even I might feign illness to avoid this sweltering place if it’s not.
At the end of service, my mum stands to talk to the pastor’s wife. My mum admires that woman a lot—a little too much, if you ask me. Pauline, the first lady of our church, is a tough woman, with little empathy for others, so really I get why my mum would be drawn to her.
I wave to Thomas, the only boy my age who’s in the Youth Group. As he walks by, he and his entire family, following the line of people exiting the church, wave back to me. Ready to get some fresh air, I stand and wipe my hands on my pale blue dress.
“Can you take Cecily to the car?” my dad asks with a knowing smile.
He’s going to try to get my mum to stop talking, just like every Sunday. She’s one of those women who chat and chat after saying goodbye a minimum of three times.
I didn’t take after her in that way. Instead, I strive to take after my dad, whose few words usually hold a lifetime’s worth of meaning. And I know my dad loves how much of himself has been passed down to me, from his quiet demeanor, to his dark hair and pale blue eyes (the most obvious traits), to our height. Or lack of height. The pair of us barely stand five and a half feet, though he’s ever so slightly taller than me. Cecily will surpass both of us by age ten, my mum teases us.
I nod to my dad and take my sister’s hand. She walks quicker than me, the excitement of youth causing her to rush straight through the remainder of the small crowd. I want to pull her back, but she turns back to me with the biggest smile on her face, and I can’t bring myself to do anything but run with her. We break into a sprint, rushing down the stairs and onto the lawn. Cecily dodges an elderly couple, and I laugh when she shrieks and barely misses knocking down Tyler Kenton, the meanest boy in our church. The sun is bright and the air is thick in my lungs and I run faster and faster, chasing after her until she tumbles onto the grass. I drop down to my knees to check on her. I lean in and brush the hair back from her face. Little pools of tears are threatening to burst, and her bottom lip is trembling fiercely.
“My dress . . .” She pats her small hands on her white dress, focusing on the grass stains on the fabric. “It’s ruined!” She buries her face in her dirty hands, and I reach for them, pulling them down to her lap.
I smile and speak softly. “It’s not ruined. It can be washed, darling.”
I swipe my thumb across the tear trying to roll down her cheek. She sniffles, not ready to believe me.
“It happens all the time; it’s happened to me at least thirty times,” I assure her, even though it’s a lie.
The corners of her mouth turn upward, and she fights a smile. “Has not.” She calls me out for my fib. I wrap my arm around her and pull her up to stand. My eyes glance over her pale arms to make sure I didn’t miss anything. All clear. I keep my arm around her as we walk across the churchyard toward the parking lot. My parents are approaching us from that direction, my dad having finally gotten Mum to stop gossiping.
During the drive home, I sit in the backseat with Cecily, drawing little butterflies in her favorite coloring book while my dad talks to my mum about the raccoon problem we’ve been having in our bins out back. My dad leaves the car running when he parks in the driveway. Cecily gives me a quick kiss on the cheek and climbs out of the backseat. I follow her and hug my mum and get a peck on the cheek from my dad before I step into the driver’s seat.
My dad looks down at me. “Be careful now, Junebug. There are a lot of people out today with the sun.” He lifts his hand to shade his squinted eyes. It’s the sunniest day Hampstead has had in quite a while. We’ve had the heat, but no sun. I nod and promise my dad that I’ll be safe.
I wait until I’m out of the neighborhood to change the radio station. I turn the volume up and sing along to every song on my way to the center of the city. My goal is to get three buckets of paint from all the three shops I’m visiting. I’ll be happy with one from each, but my goal is to get three so we have enough to cover everything.
The first shop, Mark’s Paint and Supply, is known for being the cheapest in town. Mark, the owner, has a really good reputation in our area, and I’m delighted to meet him. I park in the nearly empty lot; only a classic-style car painted candy-apple red and a minivan are parked in the entire lot. The building is old, made out of wooden planks and unstable drywall. The sign is crooked, the M barely legible. When I open the wooden door, it creaks and a bell sounds. A cat jumps down from a cardboard box and lands on its feet in front of me. I pet the fur ball for a moment before making my way to the register.