MJ pulled up outside of the brick townhouse her mother and John lived in. It was located in a new development where shopping centers, townhouses, apartment complexes, and community parks intermingled. Zoey had expressed her derision of it multiple times. The narrow streets, professionally landscaped grounds, and uniform exteriors made it seem like some futuristic retirement community. Those were the exact reasons MJ’s mother had found it so appealing. John liked order, patterns, and all things nonchaotic; this was his utopia. The only downside was that it was no longer in walking distance of the church they had grown up attending. This detail along with the mere idea of a change as big as this had sent John into a downward spiral. All moves were difficult, but this one had added a new level to Dante’s Inferno.
It had occurred a few months after MJ had settled into her townhouse and adopted Oreo and Willie. Much like being a new parent, the first few months with her new dogs had been full of sleep deprivation, poop in unexpected places, and questioning whether she was really cut out for this. One afternoon, her mother had called to ask for help with the move, MJ had accepted, despite her desire to spend the time and energy catching up on sleep. When she had arrived at her childhood home, it looked just as it had every other day of her life: the chipped black mailbox, the slightly overgrown lawn, the green mold stains on the gray siding, the faded maroon shutters, the decrepit wicker furniture on the front porch. The only difference was that there was a large orange moving van in the driveway.
She brushed past the maze of boxes and partially disassembled furniture. Her mother’s voice called to her from the kitchen.
“What can I do?” MJ asked, expecting to be directed toward a stack of boxes or a linen closet that still needed to be packed.
Her mother frowned. “John is upset about the move. We have a situation.” MJ waited for her to elaborate. “He’s locked himself in his bedroom closet and is reciting Exodus.”
“What chapter is he on?”
Her mother glared at her before saying, “I thought since you’ve always had a special touch with him…”
“I’m just patient and trying to see things from his perspective.”
“Well you speak tongues or whatever to those pound dogs. Clearly God gave you some kind of special skill.”
“John’s not a dog.”
“I wasn’t implying that,” her mother replied defensively.
MJ gave her a look, unwilling to entirely believe her.
“Just go and get him out, would you?”
MJ sighed. “Sure thing.” She turned on her heel and made her way to John’s basement bedroom. Along the stairwell were pictures of Thom and John at various ages; Thom with a goofy grin that slowly developed into an irresistible smolder while John always appeared straight-faced, never looking directly at the camera. At the bottom of the stairs, MJ’s growth was summarized in a framed collection of her school pictures from kindergarten to senior year.
John emerged from the front door wearing his usual suit. He strode stiffly to her car and yanked open the passenger door. “Good morning, saints. Good morning, sinners,” he greeted loudly, getting in. It was how the pastor had addressed the congregation at the beginning of every service. John had opted to use it as his only greeting.
“Good morning, John. Please speak quieter. Did you let Mom know that you were leaving?”
“She said not to bother her.”
“But the rule is that you let her know whenever you leave.”
“This was An Exception.”
MJ huffed. “I’ll text her and let her know.”
“Text her when we’re at church. We’re going to be late,” he whined, eyeing the clock on the car’s dashboard.
MJ put the car in drive and glanced at the back seat where Oreo and Willie were sprawled out, dozing. Despite John’s loudness, they’d grown accustomed to him, loving him for the times in the nearby park when he’d sit on a bench, petting them and reading to them from The Bible or singing his favorite hymns.
As they made their way out of the development, MJ scoffed. Too many poorly designed intersections and roundabouts that only magnified the lack of driving etiquette people had.
“I’m going to miss the Call to Worship!” John said, pointing at the clock.
MJ nodded, and pressed her foot down on the accelerator. “I’m sure God will forgive you.”
“What if I’m so late I miss the Prayer of Confession? I’ll have to wait a whole week for his forgiveness!” He started to rock back and forth in his seat, humming. It was a mechanical hum, a song of refrigerators, lawn mowers, and dryers; a constant, calming purr with which he underscored the unavoidable crises.
“John, forgiveness isn’t a once-a-week-kind of thing, right?” She was thankful that despite her lack of faith, she’d held onto a vague knowledge of Christianity, if only to reason with John.
“Yes.” It came out strained.
“You can go to God anytime and receive his forgiveness, right?” MJ longed for logic to work for once, but it never did.
“Yes.” He continued to rock. Intermittent with hums, he quoted, “‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ First John chapter one, verse nine, New International Version.”
“Yeah, exactly.” MJ slowed down to turn into the neighborhood that served as a shortcut to the church. “We’re almost there. Traffic wasn’t bad at all.”
“You took a shortcut!” John continued to rock.
“I thought you wanted to get to church on time!”
He hummed and rocked for a while as MJ continued to weave through the quaint residential streets, before finally asking, “Why do you hate God, Mary Jane?”
“I don’t hate him; I just don’t agree with him.”
“‘Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.’ First John, chapter two, verse eighteen, New International Version.”
MJ let out an exasperated sigh. This discussion wasn’t uncommon between them, but today it left her feeling nauseous. She rolled down the window. “John, I’m not discussing this with you. It’s okay if we don’t believe the same things.”
“‘How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from God?’ John, chapter five, verse forty-four, New International Version.”
“I understand that Christianity provides you with certainty and structure and all the other things you like, and that’s fine. I am different than you.”
“‘Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue–’”
“‘–in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching–’”
“‘–has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching–’”
“‘–do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares their wicked work.’”
“New Rule: When you are with me, we do not discuss religion.”
“Second John, chapter one, verses nine through eleven. New International Version.” His rocking subsided.
MJ pulled into the church parking lot, and found a space. “Okay, we’re here,” she said, putting the car in park. She looked at him to make sure he understood.
John got out of the car and slammed the door behind him.
“Hey!” MJ stepped out of the car. “Where’s my ‘thank you?’” She felt the sun beating down on her.
He paused on the sidewalk that led to the side entrance of the church. He didn’t turn to look at her. “It’s against the rules,” he mumbled.
“What rules? Mom and I never made a rule about that.” She was standing on the edge of the sidewalk now, a few feet behind him. Her car hummed behind her. She could hear the faint dinging that sounded whenever she left her keys in the ignition.
“Not your rules. God’s rules.”
“God’s r–” MJ suddenly felt nauseous. She lunged from the sidewalk and vomited into the bushes.
“See! God is punishing you!”
MJ took a few deep breaths and ran her hand across her mouth. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Organ music sounded through the walls. At least the congregation probably couldn’t hear what was going on.
“No, it’s nothing.” She waved it off, standing slowly.
“Are you sick like Mom is?”
“No, I just threw up.”
“Are you hungover?”
“Are you bulimic?”
“That’s not how bulimia works.”
“Are you pregnant?”
“No way.” MJ hoped with all her heart that for once John’s autism would do her the favor and not let him understand whatever ounce of dishonesty her body language was expressing.
“Mary Jane, you cannot tell lies in church.”
“We’re in the parking lot.”
“God is everywhere.”
“You’re breaking the rule!”
“There’s An Exception!”
“Mom said that no matter what, if you ever mention being pregnant, I have to tell her.”
MJ put her head in her hands. “Oh my god, you’re in on this too?”
“Mary Jane, you cannot take the Lord’s name in vain!”
She held up her hands in defeat. “I can’t deal with this right now. Go to church, John. Goodbye.”
Before disappearing into the church, he yelled, “I’m telling Mom!”
John walked down the hallway to the narthex. “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” was being played on the organ. He sang along as he collected a bulletin from the table by the doors that led into the sanctuary. He entered through them and made his way to the second pew from the front on the left hand side. The congregation knew John always sat there, so they had left a space for him. The organist liked to play the music loudly, hammering down on the keys. He did not like this normally, but this was in praise of God, so he allowed the music to throb through him as he sang along from memory, feeling yellow, like the sunlight coming in through the windows behind where the choir stood in the maroon and white robes. He looked up at the wooden cross that hung above the chancel table set for communion. He was a radiant yellow now or maybe a light green. He could not be both. He had to choose one. He was green, he finally decided when he sat down in the pew and the pastor began to read from the Old Testament. He listened to the scripture, reciting in a whisper the New International Version as the pastor read from the King James Version. Then the pastor led them in the Prayer of Confession, and John felt purple as he silently recounted his sins to God. He was sorry for being late and sorry for his sister’s behavior; he wished he could confess her sins for her. When the pastor delivered the Words of Assurance afterward, he felt light green again. Light green was a good feeling. It meant God was in control of everything, and because God was in John, then John was in control of everything too. John was light green like the altar cloth and everything was okay.
When MJ returned to the car, Oreo and Willie stuck their heads around the headrest of her seat. She scratched their heads, her fingers feeling that their ears were pulled back in fear. Undoubtedly, the yelling match had upset them. “I am so sorry you had to witness that, boys. You do not deserve to have that happen to you.” She gave each of them a one-armed hug.
Her ringtone began to play, causing them to jolt in her grasp. MJ let go of them and picked up her phone from the cup holder. The caller ID said Zoey West. “Hello?”
“Hi, MJ,” Zoey greeted. “I am so sorry that I’ve been out of touch with you for so long. I must apologize for the way I left things.”
“It’s fine. Are you fine?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine. There was just a bit of a family emergency. I didn’t want the press to get all over it, so I’ve been trying to lay low and take care of things.”
“I’m not looking for answers, Zoey. Don’t worry. You don’t need to explain it all if you don’t want to.”
She let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, MJ. You’re so understanding. I feel like I’ve been recounting the same details over and over again.” She took a deep breath. “Anyways, my boys are back home with me, so I’d like you to resume walking them. I also have Jacob’s dogs at my place, so they’ll need walks as well. I’ll pay you extra, of course.”
“Can you tell me what breeds his dogs are?”
“Yeah, Lucy is–” Zoey paused. MJ could hear a faint voice in the background. “Oh god, sorry, I gotta go!” She hung up.
“Bye…” MJ said to the dial tone before setting her phone back in the cup holder and turned to look at Oreo and Willie. “That did not sound good.” She shrugged. “But there’s nothing we can do about it now, so how about we go to the dog park?” Oreo pressed his wet nose against hers as if to agree. Willie wagged his tail.