“Can I come in?”
Teetering on the edge of another emotional breakdown, I refused to answer. It was impossible to speak; even to utter a simple “no” would have been an invitation for unwanted tears, and I hated the tingly sensation of a constricting throat. I won’t cry this time.
He slowly pushed the door open and waited in the doorway. I was lying in bed on my side, facing the ghost-white wall, a stubborn twelve-year-old girl who refused to look her father in the eye. Acknowledging his presence meant I had to acknowledge what he had done.
“Hey,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed near my feet. After a tense moment, he reached out and placed his hand on my ankle. I recoiled at his touch and tucked my legs into my body. He nervously rubbed his hands together, the sound reminding me of rain. “How are you?” His tone had shifted from casual conversation to disquieting worry. I had trouble hearing his voice amidst the echoes of guilt, shame, and remorse.
But I still didn’t answer. My throat tightened, face dampened with tears. There were so many things he didn’t know. He didn’t know I cried myself to sleep almost every night, gasping for breath when my sobs threatened to choke me. He was unaware that I took every possible opportunity to stay late after school and spend time with friends. He had no idea that I had attempted to run away, and in one turbulently painful moment, considered suicide. The one and only place I had ever considered safe—my bedroom—had been violated by the very person I wanted to avoid.
“Okay,” he said, accepting my silence. “You don’t need to talk. Just listen.” He paused, and as I stared hard at the wall, his facial features were projected from my mind onto the blank canvas before me. I saw his deep-set eyes weighed down by thick, overgrown eyebrows, his prominent nose threatening to curve and crash into his smooth, clean lips.
“I’m fighting for us. I’m trying to keep this family together.”
I scoffed, and the projected image frowned at me.
“I want you to know that whatever happens, it’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
I know, but does that matter? I now paid the price for his grievous mistake.
“Both me and your mom love you so much.” His voice cracked as he began to sniffle and rub his nose. “Take care of your sister . . . she needs you now more than ever.” The projected image begged me to look into its eyes, to understand the importance of this plea.
Lost in my personal hell, I had forgotten that she, too, suffered. She had no one to blame for her puzzling grief because she didn’t know what was wrong, or more importantly, who. She clung to me whenever our parents fought, and I tried my best to comfort her. I didn’t want the truth to damage her.
“I’m sorry. I messed up big time. You have no idea how horrible I feel. Every day is another day I live in this hell. Sometimes I wish I was dead—” He stopped abruptly, this time the tears freely flowing from his eyes, causing the projected image to vanish completely.
“I don’t,” I said, turning to look at him.
The response surprised us both.
So much had changed in the short span of a month. I had started September at a new school, a new grade, with new subjects and new friends. Everything was so new, I felt like I was starting life again. But it was exciting, and I was ready for it. Or so I thought.
I came home from school one October afternoon and worked quickly to finish my homework. I was determined to be the perfect student—complete assignments early, go to all after school activities, join a club or two, etc. Once I finished my homework, I rewarded myself with cartoons. Oblivious to my father’s fidgety behavior when I asked to watch SpongeBob, I happily invited my sister to join me.
We raced into my parents’ bedroom and tumbled onto their bed to watch TV. Once we had settled down and stopped trying to put each other in a headlock, I sat cross-legged on the plush off-white comforter, while Elexa lay flat on her tummy, kicking her feet back and forth in rapid see-saw motions. We laughed loudly at all our favorite parts, sometimes laughing before a joke to prove to each other we had the episode memorized.
During one of many commercial breaks, I headed downstairs to fetch a glass of water. As my mind transitioned from cartoon humor to the task at hand, a particularly serious tone in my parents’ hushed conversation held me captive at the top of the staircase. My thoughts scattered, and I hid from their view, my back pressed against the wall. Something told me I needed to keep very still and very quiet. So I listened.
“You what?” My mom’s voice cracked. I felt an unexpected lurch in my stomach. I’d never heard her sound so unabashedly angry, so pained.
My mom took in a harsh breath. “How . . . could you do this?” Her voice shook with thunderous fury.
I clung to the wall for support as a powerful wave of nausea hit me. What was going on? I jumped as a loud smack reverberated from the kitchen. I chanced a peek around the corner to see her standing, palms firmly pressed against the kitchen table, eyes blazing.
I couldn’t even construct one rational thought. They were remnants of repressed ideas now flowing freely through my head.
“It was five years ago,” my dad finally choked out. His ragged breathing shook his entire body. “It was senseless and . . . and reckless. It didn’t mean anything! Back when I used to work at Allen’s—the bathroom . . . I don’t . . . know . . . I’m so sorry . . .”
His language was beginning to break apart, the sentences becoming scattered stones at the bottom of a rushing river. I cringed at each of his pauses; they wounded me. They proved that he was guilty of something terrible. They proved he was a—
“Cheater! You cheated on me!”
I stumbled back into my parents’ bedroom and quickly shut the door behind me.
“What took you so long? It’s back on!” Elexa pointed at the TV and giggled.
I wanted to heave. I crawled onto the bed and buried my face in my dad’s pillow, taking in his sweet scent. I now knew what he really was: a cheater.
“Watch, Saundra, watch!!” she cried. “You’re missing it!”
I swatted her away, and she mistook the gesture for playfulness. She climbed onto my back and rested her chin against the top of my head. We stayed like this for a few minutes as she continued to laugh at the TV. Though uncomfortable, I welcomed the physical pressure. At least it was tangible—I could feel it, quantify it, understand it.
Our mom’s voice carried all the way upstairs when she called us for dinner. I told her I wasn’t hungry, but my mom wouldn’t accept that answer. “You will come downstairs and you will eat this food.”
The four of us ate dinner in relative silence; the only person attempting conversation was Elexa. She brought up the episode we had watched, but I stared down at my plate, unresponsive. My mom’s gaze was fixated on her green beans and sliced ham. She had little attention for anything else, and she kept sniffling and wiping her nose with a neatly folded napkin. Not even my sister’s catastrophic water spill fazed her. My dad kept flicking his food back and forth on the plate before taking small bites here and there. His eyes looked red and irritated, and they frequently darted left and right, left and right, left and right.
I could barely eat anything. The taste in my mouth was sour and spoiled, so I left most of my food on the plate. My mom wordlessly allowed me stand up to leave without finishing my food. She looked off into the distance as she grabbed my plate with shaky hands and dumped the food into the trash. The pulped green beans and jagged slices of pink meat fell into the basket.
“Baptism,” Elexa said the second we stepped out of the car. “I need to be baptized. I’m old.”
My parents shared a quick, worried glance.
“It’ll happen, sweet pea. Promise,” my dad responded after a beat. “Besides, plenty of older kids get baptized.”
“You’re not old,” my mom said flatly. “You’re only nine.”
“You can baptize me now, right, Daddy? The bishop said it’s okay?” she asked hopefully, her eyes lighting up as she pulled at his coat.
“It will be soon,” he smiled, his hot white breath circling his head.
I watched a frown form on my mom’s face as my dad and sister linked arms and walked into the grocery store. I reached to take her hand, but she fixed her coat and stuffed her hands deep into her pockets.
I knew she was unhappy. Even though my dad had confessed in front of a disciplinary council, his punishment hadn’t been severe enough to please her, and for a few bitter months after, she did her best to avoid discussing baptism with Elexa.
That night, I overheard a conversation between my parents about my own baptism. My mom still worried that my baptism five years ago—the same time as Dad’s sin—hadn’t counted.
“Of course it counted,” Dad responded. “Do you really think God would keep an innocent kid from being a member of His church?”
“No, of course not, but I thought He’d stop a sinner like you from baptizing one!”
They quickly launched into another argument, and I couldn’t bear to listen any longer. I pulled away from the air vent I used to eavesdrop and crawled into my bed, worrying for my salvation. What if it didn’t count?
Elexa’s persistence eventually won, and my parents came together a month or so later to set a date and time for her baptism. Preparation for the event was minimal. The baptismal invitations were passed through word of mouth, and the small group of attendees packed in the first few rows of chairs in the baptismal font room. The program was short, clear, and beautiful—a few words were spoken and a few songs sung. I felt the undeniably sweet, swelling sensation of warmth and peace.The Spirit.
Elexa entered the baptismal font dressed head to toe in white, her long locks of blonde hair separating as they touched the water. My dad followed closely after her, also dressed in white. He gently placed his left hand on the small of her back while slowly raising his right hand.
“Elexa Sylvia Veronica Morgan Hall,” he began, enunciating each of her names slowly and with feeling as if each one represented a particular facet of her human makeup. “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ—”
My mom began to tremble next to me. She pressed white tissue paper under her left eye and then under her right, wiping away thin streaks of tears.
“—I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
He lowered Elexa into the water as her small hands plugged her nose and gripped his arm. As he lifted her back up, she sputtered for a moment, having opened her mouth too soon. She wiped the hair from her eyes and hugged him. He held her close, his hand caressing her hair as he kissed her on the forehead. They exited the font hand in hand, their clothing heavy from the dripping water as they climbed the stairs.
I stared into the mirror above the baptismal font that now reflected an empty body of water, and as the small ripples of water traveled from one side of the font to the other, I understood that Elexa had been the vessel for my father’s repentance. Through her baptism, he had been made whole, his sins completely forgiven as if he had been baptized himself.
As they changed into dry clothes, I waited in silence next to my mom. She said nothing to me, but I could tell something was working within her. Her eyes were moist as her hand slid its way into mine. I held it, the sensation of her soft skin against mine a physical comfort to accompany the spiritual one.
My dad and sister emerged a few moments later, and the four of us embraced.
“Thank you,” Elexa whispered as we held onto each other, and I knew within my heart that this baptism counted for us all.