“Come on, Larry, we’re leaving,” Mom said to Dad as she pulled me along by the hand, marching me up the stairs to the entrance of the church.
Dad followed behind us as we crossed the entryway, into the church proper where she led us through the door behind the pulpit. In the back hallway, she pushed me ahead of her up the steep staircase to the attic where us poor folk, mostly my family, could stay for free during the three-day Bible conference.
Releasing me, Mom hurried to the double bed the three of us were sharing and started stuffing our belongings haphazardly into our overnight bags. I wandered over to the open window and looked down at the massive tent behind the church. It was a clear day and the PA system carried the voice of the preacher to me.
“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” he said and then, louder, for the people in the back, or maybe just for me, “You must turn or burn!”
The attic was sticky with heat and humidity, but I shivered. Turning from the window to look at Mom and Dad, I watched as she zipped the last bag and he pulled the blankets up over the pillows in his sloppy man-version of making the bed. Mom was vibrating with anger. I had no idea why she was so upset, I was just thankful that her anger wasn’t aimed at me.
Dad silently shouldered our bags and led us back down the stairs and out to our truck. I dawdled at the door, while Dad threw our bags in back, under the cap. I knew we were leaving, but I didn’t understand why. I didn’t want to go.
Mom motioned for me to get in the truck and I obediently slid across the bench seat to my spot in the middle. Dad put the keys in the ignition as Mom climbed in after me. She mumbled, “Put your seatbelt on.”
“Do you think we’re overreacting?” Dad asked and Mom gave him the look. He sighed and turned the key, bringing the truck purring to life. He put the vehicle in gear and made for the exit of the parking lot – a large field, really – before again attempting to speak reason.
“We spent a lot of money to come,” Dad said. Even at the tender age of nine I knew what he left unsaid. We were poor. We’d have to skimp on things at home for a while to make up for coming to the Bible conference. “Maybe we should—“
“Maybe nothing.” Mom was firm, there would be no argument. “Drive,” she said, and Dad drove.
I sat quietly between my silent parents, confused. I glanced at Mom and saw the muscles in her cheek twitching. Yep, she was still mad.
“No one calls my daughter evil and gets away with it,” Mom finally broke the silence, anger dripping from her words. Dad sighed.
“That’s not what she said,” he countered and Mom turned her blazing eyes on him.
“Your mother looked me in the eyes and told me our daughter—her granddaughter—has the Devil in her. What else do you think that means?”
This wasn’t the first time I realized I wasn’t good, just the first time I’d heard it spoken out loud. Apparently, God loves the sinner, but not one like me. I sat silently trying to process this information. For all that I tried to be good, I was still failing.
The preacher made his way to the door as the last notes of the hymn faded out. He smiled a crooked little smile, with his tiny, puckered lips. He always looked like he’d just sucked a lemon, and I had to bite the inside of my cheeks to keep from laughing at the thought.
We joined the queue of church-goers to shake his hand on the way out. As we got closer, I could see the sweat on his upper lip and brow. It must be hard work spreading the Gospel, I thought.
Dad shook his hand first—men were always first—and then Mom. I held out my hand and he grasped it in his, which was almost as small as my ten-year-old ones.
“Ann,” he said and held my hand firm, not letting go, while his beady eyes bore into me. I swallowed hard. I knew what was coming.
“Ann, do you have It yet?” he asked. The two people behind me in the line stepped around us and slipped into the night, while he continued to hold my sweaty hand and stare at me.
It, do I have It? It was salvation.
As much as I could understand, I needed to have an earth-moving aha moment. Quietly believing in God wasn’t good enough. There had to be a moment when I fell on my knees before God and realized I was just a poor sinner. Jesus Christ had died for my sins. There had to be a life-changing story that I could share to convince them I was a Believer, worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
I shook my head, no, and immediately wished I had lied. The preacher continued to hold my hand, keeping me captive, and reached to close the door. The people on the stoop, my parents included, nodded as the door closed leaving me alone to his firm grip and intent gaze.
Grabbing his Bible in one hand, his other guided me to the last chair at the back of the church. With no other choice, I sat, and he flipped his Bible open. In monotone, he read a verse and looked up to study my expression. “Do you have It yet?”
I shook my head.
He read another verse. Looked up. “Now?”
I shook my head.
He read another verse . . .
. . . and another . . .
. . . and another . . .
. . . and I cried, wondering why God had forsaken me. Why wasn’t I good enough?
Finally, closing his Bible with a thump, he shook his head and led me back to the door. As it opened, the night air rushed in, and I rushed out. The fresh air cooled my hot, tear-streaked cheeks.
Just two vehicles remained in the parking lot. I hurried to my parents’ and threw myself into the back seat. “Are you okay?” Mom asked,and I buried my face in my hands and wept.
Silence from the two adults in the front. Dad started the car.
On the drive home, my hitching sobs punctuated the hum of the tires on the road. Someone turned on the radio and country music drowned out the sounds of my pain. While Randy Travis sang about digging up bones, all I could think was, “Devil inside—that’s why God won’t save me. I’ve got the Devil inside.”
And like Damien, the Antichrist child from The Omen, I grew to loathe that building. The sight, the smell, the message told inside. Because all evil things hate the holy, and I was evil.
My Grandma said so.
Suann Amero (she/her) is an Atlantic Canadian writer who loves romance and horror, tea and coffee, cats and dogs. A living contradiction, she is currently working on a sapphic romance novel, and an adult urban fantasy series. Her work has been published by The Pine Cone Review, Dark Recesses Press, Black Hare Press, and Antimony and Elder Lace Press, to name a few. Suann can be reached on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SuannIAm or Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/suann_i_am