The girl who had hit Allen’s wife with a truck was on the docket for baptism that Sunday. Though she’d broken every bone in Melody’s body just a year ago and murdered every part of her except her still-beating heart, she was about to be baptized. Her unblemished pickup glinting in the lot overlooking the Maury River almost made him squeal tire and head home. He could relieve the caretaker he’d hired for Melody and save himself thirty dollars.
He hadn’t wanted the girl to come, to accept Lipscomb’s offer of baptism at Allen’s hand, a show of repentance that might satisfy the pastor and the churchgoers of Goshen, but couldn’t halve his hate. A dozen times in the year since the accident, Allen had waded into the Maury with the members of his wife’s church and practiced drowning the girl. A dozen times, Pastor Lipscomb had bleated for those who were ready to come and be counted, and Allen had taken each one by the shoulders and pressed them into the riverbed while the pastor, too frail to lend any hand but his voice, prayed. Each one was the girl when Allen sank them, his grip always lingering a few ‘Mississippi’s more than was necessary before he lugged them out, water-blind and gasping, into the arms of the circle. This time his grip might linger too long.
He pulled into the gravel lot shaded by hackberry trees and cut his engine a good distance from the girl’s Ford, its make and model greener than his by ten years at least. Members of the True Vine Church of Deliverance wiped their faces down by a picnic table on the river slope, waiting for the pastor to show. The girl sat by herself in the weeds with her back to the lot, ponytail swinging as she shook a pack of cigarettes. She had a name – Aggy – though he refused to pay it much use. Allen walked over to her truck, circled the body, stooping for signs the mechanics might have missed; a crack in the windshield where Melody had landed, snapping her spine, or a hollow in the grill gouged by her broken hip. Besides some red mud on the tires that gave him pause, it was showroom. The chrome sparkled in the sunlight and a glossy new Washington & Lee sticker filled out the rear window.
Allen pulled the house key from his pocket. He wanted to carve a message in the side of her door, but couldn’t find what to write. If he wrote the right thing, then he could go ahead and tear the truck down to its tires and bolts. He could punch through the hood, hoist the engine, and claw it apart like a gray loaf of bread, or some other fantasy as foolish and toothless. Another bitter pageant to replay on the drive home. There was still time enough to leave.
“Wish you would,” her voice behind him said. “I hate that truck, Mr. Neels.”
They’d met just the one time, the night the girl barreled through his mailbox and sent Melody some thirty feet onto the neighbor’s lawn, but he could see that the year since then had dimmed the light in her face. Her lips were painted black. She had less color than he remembered, even in her hair, which hung brittle and wiry. He should have taken some sort of satisfaction in her shabbiness, but he had the urge to shout at her for more.
“I didn’t want to fix it,” she said, “but my parents told me people would think the wrong thing if I drove it like I wanted to, with the glass all smashed and the nose popped in. They thought people would say I was sick, when I just wanted them to know I was sorry. I could just drive it into the water and bury it, but then that wouldn’t make up for anything.”
He wanted to tell the girl how it felt when Melody squeezed his hand for the first time after the accident, what he had thought it meant then, and what he knew it meant now. Allen weighed the key in his fist and slid them both into his pocket.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think this is a car sort of problem.”
Beyond, the Maury churned, filling the silence. Now that she’d spoken to him, there was no retreating. Allen turned and made for the path that doglegged toward the river bank, where he could avoid everyone at the tables.
“You never responded to my letters,” the girl said. “I wanted to see you, see how you’re getting along.”
“Now you’ve seen me.”
She said something else, but he was too far down the path to hear it.
He sulked by the boulders that rose from the sand as latecomers crowded the girl, sharing hugs and making her welcome the way they once had done for him. Allen had joined the church at Pastor Lipscomb’s insistence. The pastor was one of the first to visit Allen in the hospital, after the doctors tapped Melody’s skull with a shunt to stop her brain from swelling. They spoke about Melody’s love for the church, something of a mystery to Allen, who’d preferred staying home Sundays while she practiced for the both of them, but he nodded as though she’d kept no part of her life secret from him because that seemed the easiest thing to do. He’d been raised Christian, knew Lipscomb would ask him to forgive the girl, but told him that Jesus had never wed or had a wife stripped away. When Lipscomb left he’d thought that’d be the end of it, but two weeks later the pastor called and asked him to come to Goshen Pass for the first time.
Here hobbled the old man now, coming down the river path with a box of old hand-knit robes. Pastor Lipscomb seemed to be pushing for ceremony; the gaudy sort of thing people of the highlands tsked at and whispered, Too Roman. Some of the crowd shifted on their feet, looking vexed by the changes. Allen marked the robes as a sign of the pastor’s high hopes for the day, but the sight of them kicked his pulse. The pastor had sworn up and down no spectacles. Lipscomb must have seen the color in his face because he beelined for him as soon as he laid out the robes, stopping just once to squeeze the girl’s hand in passing.
“I know you hate the robes,” the pastor raised his palm as if calling him to heel. “They’re on loan from the Pentecostals in Millboro. But today is an important day for our church -”
“Your church,” Allen corrected. “I’ve never had but the one part in it.”
“Our numbers have doubled since you joined us. You may have doubts, but anyone can be an instrument of God. The folks here believe it, as Melody did.” Allen winced when the pastor spoke of Melody as if she had died in the accident because he knew he did it himself sometimes, when he wasn’t thinking. “They see God working through a troubled soul. Even the few that don’t agree know you have my blessing.”
The first time Lipscomb called him out to Goshen Pass, Allen thought the pastor had wanted him baptized. He’d been ready to turn the man down, but he showed up to do it in person because Melody was still in the hospital and he couldn’t look at the new mailbox someone had raised at the end of his drive any longer. He found them in a circle in the river, wearing tee shirts and shorts, heads bowed except for Lipscomb, who nodded at the empty spot to his left. The current tugged at Allen’s boots, numbed his legs, made him need to piss, which he did once he’d pushed waist deep. He took the spot saved for him, mindful of the gaps hidden in the rocks that might skin a calf or vice an ankle. When it came time for the baptisms, Pastor Lipscomb showed him how to hold each one with their arms pinned to their sides so they couldn’t struggle, how to sink them past the point they gave up panic, since the water was supposed to signify death as much as rebirth. The tremors in their limbs as Allen held them down reminded him of the girl sitting in shock on his lawn the night of the accident, shaking like she’d just run a race, too out of breath to answer his questions, cellphone clutched dumbly in her hand.
Lipscomb had kept waving new people forward. The longer Allen drowned them, the more grateful they seemed afterwards. By the last one, his hands were dead lumps. Seven dripping faces smiled back at him. He was sure if he grinned any harder, his back teeth would burst like popcorn. Later that day, Pastor Lipscomb had called him at home and said he could come back every month if he wanted. The pastor seemed to know better than to ask Allen what he felt drowning those first seven, or the ones that came after. He seemed convinced the baptisms were therapeutic for Allen, if not spiritual.
The people on shore bumped sides yanking the borrowed robes over their heads. They looked like ghosts on the first day of training. Allen toed a pit in the sand with his boot and let it fill with water.
“I don’t know that I can touch her,” he said.
“You have to. You’re the only one who can dress that wound.”
“Let someone else dress it,” Allen spat. He shouldn’t be forced to give up the anger that was left him. The little warmth he had. Lipscomb reached out and knit a hand to his shoulder. Allen let the struggle sink silently into the depths of his body, like a stone dropped under water.
“If this goes right,” the pastor said, “We’ll have turned a corner. Think about what Melody would say if she were here.”
Pastor Lipscomb called them to a circle in the mud by the bank, and then rolled up his sleeves as if to perform a great labor. Allen stood to the left of the man, trying to split his tongue on the roof of his mouth. The robe he wore reeked of mildew and attics. It felt like wearing an old children’s nightgown. A small passel of townsfolk from Goshen, drawn by the promise of spectacle, fanned themselves with Church bulletins by the picnic tables. Among those to be baptized was a pair of boys who’d narrowly escaped a crash on the highway the week previous, and another teen whose car had been struck by lightning once on the way to work. It was safe to say the pastor had a theme picked out.
“My friends,” Lipscomb began loud and earnest, “you have heard of the terrible accidents in our peaceful little town. This should remind you that death is ever near. Today we live, tomorrow we die. Every day one hundred people are killed by cars alone. Are you ready to die? Or are your souls in the dark?
“O God, speak to those souls who are in the dark, that they may see Thee and repent of their evil ways. Break down stubborn wills and prostrate sinful souls in fear and remorse. Remember that the Bible says, ‘Ye who do not repent will surely be doomed to Hell.’ I once saw white-hot iron flowing like water in a smelting mill in Roanoke. That molten iron was ice-cream compared to the flames of Hell.”
At the ‘flames of Hell’ part, Allen stared down the girl, but she was chewing her bottom lip, smearing the black lipstick on her teeth like ink. After painting the graphic death of an unconverted sinner, Pastor Lipscomb bid any who wished to be saved and have the prayers of the Christian flock to come forward and take Allen’s hand. The crowd pushed the two boys from the crash into the middle and Allen wrestled them into the deeper water, sent them spitting back to their parents. Murmurs of roughness passed through the ring, but Pastor Lipscomb treated it like fervor. He led the congregation in a round of “Jesus Saved Me” until his voice frayed at the seams. He cried that if Christ was not raised, then the preaching done all down the ages had been wasted. Every single dollar spent on church houses had been spent in vain. They might as well march to the cemeteries, and break up the tombstones. He told them it would be better to sell the bodies for fertilizer and have the bones ground, because they would never see their loved ones again.
Allen scraped his brow. The sun was all the way on now, and it made him a little drunk. If there was life after death, which Melody would he share it with: The woman she had been up until the accident, or the one that lingered, haunting her body? He looked for the girl’s eye, but she glanced around. She was really digging into those lips.
Sweat beaded the pastor’s face: “One more thing and then I’m going to hush. Salvation is not a progressive thing. If you are saved by grace, you are saved all at once. One moment, you are dead in sins: the next you are the ransomed child of God. It is not anything you do, but something that is done for you. In the grave every particle of dross will be cleansed away.
“Now, now, my friends, the light is coming, the face is shining in smiles. God has given his gracious love. Is there not someone else waiting to come forward?” Lipscomb looked at the girl. “Aggy, do not be ashamed. We are waiting for you.”
The girl waded towards Allen, her robes swelling and bunching about her waist like a jellyfish. Her black lips reminded him of loneliness and sex, twin skewers that slid deep between his ribs. When Melody was swollen inside her coma the first month after the accident, he’d sat by the bedside clutching her pudgy splinted fingers, telling her what was going on. Once while she was under, she’d squeezed his hand as if to let him know she was listening, and he thought she was in there after that, despite the hemorrhages blooming in her brain. But Melody came home hollow. Her eyes held specks of light the distant way that water gleamed in wells. She still squeezed his hand when he touched her, but it was a response with no feeling: A reflex, not a message.
He keeled the girl into the water, slid his hands near her throat, when she reached up and guided them the rest of the way. Inside the cloud of robes that veiled his arms, her fingers brushed his wrists and squeezed. He rocked her neck in a cradle of his palms, his grip slack.
She looked so peaceful, that he forgot his anger, forgot even Melody. It was as if the current had slowed to a standstill around her body. The water swirled gently like the surface of a bath, as small schools of bubbles peeled from her lips, drifting farther and farther apart as they rose. The strands of the girl’s hair, which had looked so sickly before, bobbed in a dark bloom around her face, the soft ends combing his arms. Allen felt very small and lost and scared, and like the people behind him – Pastor Lipscomb and the church folk and the townspeople – didn’t exist, until one of them shouted, “Pull her up,” and then the current came crashing back, whipping the girl’s hair into a cone. Her mouth hung half open, as if she were about to say something, and her eyes slid back, which scared him because he couldn’t tell if it was too late. He wanted to pull her up, but she was stuck somehow.
“What’s he doing to her?” a woman in the back shouted. The cry went up and other voices rushed to join. The men from town uncrossed their arms. The True Vine Church of Deliverance broke rank. Some of the members waded towards Allen, pushing the pastor aside.
“Now friends –” Lipscomb flapped.
Allen tried to haul her out, but her legs snagged, and he saw how she’d stuck her heels between the rocks for anchorage. He dragged her hard. Her feet came up bloody and her head lolled. With her in his arms, he spun on them. He pushed through.
“What did you do?” the pastor moaned.
On the picnic table, Allen pumped her ribs with his fists. Breathed into her mouth. He thought he might break her ribs, pushing like he wanted to flatten her out. The people behind him clutched handfuls of his robe, and he wasn’t sure if they were praying or trying to hurt him or both.
If he saved the girl, he’d tell her she was ransomed whether Christ was raised or not. Or he might tell her how earlier that morning, before he came to the river, he’d given Melody her bath. How he’d lain her sideways, careful not to gouge her with the faucet, so he could wash both sides without turning her. She’d run to fat since the coma, but he still managed to lift her in and out of the tub. The pounds started in her legs, sort of swelled up her middle, inflated her breasts. Food had become her last remaining hobby; she could enjoy it without knowing who she was or who was feeding her, and he’d taken to spooning it to her, five meals a day, just to see the change on her face. Melody’s cheek rested near his armpit on the edge of the tub, her face sort of shaking like Jell-O cake while he scrubbed.
He’d saved the hair for last, palmed a dollop of the honey shampoo that didn’t hurt her eyes, the kind they made for babies. Lathered her scalp. Rinsed and dried. She’d blinked like she might be about to say something, and he’d told her, as he often told her, that even if she never spoke again, he would wait.
Lipscomb was still screaming over him when the girl coughed the Maury out her lungs. The last thing Allen did before they pushed him aside, he reached out and wiped her lips as he had countless times the scars on Melody’s spine – his fingers tracing their topographic map of a valley, searching for a sign of home across a distance too great to tell.