by Yasmeen Khan
Yasmeen Khan is a teen writer living in Texas. Her work has been recognized by The National YoungArts Foundation, The Adroit Prizes, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and more. She was a 2019 Best of the Net nominee and is published or forthcoming in Sooth Swarm Journal, L’Éphémère Review, Body Without Organs, and Bitter Melon Magazine. When not writing, she can be found eating mangoes and daydreaming. She was born in 2004.
Local Girl Discovers God's Mercy at Chick-fil-A
God’s mercy is soft pink and fizzing. Gelatinous, it floats to the top of my syrupy lemonade like sunrise. I probe it with my straw, half-expecting it to pop. You don’t notice, sitting across from me with a twelve-count box of nuggets between us like a crystal ball. You tell me Chick-fil-A could burn you alive and you would still shell out eight crumpled dollar bills for an order of waffle fries. I am giggling at you the way my sister taught me to giggle at boys in letterman jackets, scooping the mercy onto my napkin with a plastic spoon. When you finish eating, I transfer the mercy to the empty nugget case, the light receding into the greasy cardboard.
I bring the mercy to church on Sunday. For the first time in years, I think about God. How He slipped His mercy into my drink like a rumor. If God was a blond boy in a uniform behind the cash register, all yes ma’am and my pleasure as if He wasn’t skipping fourth period for a handjob beneath the bleachers. If this was some kind of elaborate joke: the night my mother wouldn’t speak to me, the heavy silence of her wrists on the dinner table. The pastor is shouting, his arms splayed out like crucifixion in the hellish heat, still 90 degrees on the fading end of August. God is always watching, recording each of your sins. Next to me, my mother nods dimly. Even in church, her blouse is low-cut. Hair loose around her shoulders, ringlet curls she wanted so badly to look natural. Powdered face. Waxy lipstick. Like many other demure housewives in the congregation, she is crying. The pastor’s voice crescendos so high it falls just south of heaven. Chill out, I want to yell at stained-glass Jesus. This town needs a sedative. This town needs a hit of your navy blue sweater. Deeper than midnight. How I sink into it like a dream.
I see you at Chick-fil-A because you aren’t allowed to come over anymore. My mother and I still don’t talk about what happened that night, but to please her I’ve started wearing my hair in two heavy braids that lean against my collarbones. I’ve started slicking mascara onto my bottom lashes, black teardrops gathering at my waterline. I’ve started wearing sundresses and going to the mall with girls from church. When I wait outside their fitting rooms, I think about how you and I used to bike through the ritzy neighborhoods of our town until our legs went runny like watercolors. I buy skirts without trying them on and tell my mother how much I love my new friends. Most days, she scowls without looking at me. On the rest, she stares blank into the kitchen sink and bites her lip.
In the parking lot of the megachurch, I sit with the box of mercy on my lap. Beneath the cardboard, it winks and glows. My mother pulls out onto the road. I flip through the radio channels and catch fragments of lyrics and conversations: sexy / heart / game / candy / club / bitch / bitch / bitch / Christ. I settle on an old Taylor Swift song. I don’t know if it’s the princess pop or my new blouse or the mercy that’s getting to her, but for the first time in months, my mother smiles: a flash of her bleached teeth, lipstick smeared on the bone.
At school, I search for divinity, the mercy packed at the bottom of my lunch bag. I take notes in the margins of my chemistry notebook, searching for sainthood on the backs of baseball players. Which is to say you’re a cheerleader. Which is to say I’m trying to think of something other than the flickering bulb beneath my lampshade when my mother burst through my door, your legs looped around my waist like a silver locket. Angel Gabriel as the boy hunched over his phone beneath the table, his spine protruding from his back like wings? Saint Francis as the girl who sobbed when her boyfriend smashed a turtle on the concrete, the blood burrowing into the lines of his palms? Purgatory as the fuzzy blue light of the projector, dust motes falling across the whiteboard like snow? Holiness evades me: you wink when you catch me on the bleachers at a football game, your body thrown high into the milky suburban starlight.
I start witnessing miracles. When I come home from the football game, my mother is baking cookies. I walk to school without mosquito welts rising on my elbows. The TV buzzes warm with memory: a grainy 80s movie, all bright sweaters and curly blondes, years before anyone’s knees went knobby with heroin and heat. I ace my Calculus test. My English teacher seats me next to you. You draw flowers on my palm beneath the table while he lectures us on metaphor, mood, macabre. I clutch the mercy between my knees. The ink from my skin spills onto my notes like orange juice: lush and hopeless and bright.
This is all to say that the closest I’ve gotten to religious ecstasy is the night I told my mother we were studying for history. Your mouth salvation, sticky with gloss. My back bent like a martyr. When my mother found us---a tangle of limbs, knotted like rosaries---she grabbed your hair by the handful and threw you onto the ground. The sky was violet as oblivion, and on my knees at my windowsill, I watched you run out from my driveway. It was sunset. It was the last time I prayed.
If God is always watching, then he was on the roof of our Chick-fil-A that night. God, who doesn’t like pickles in his chicken sandwich. God, watching me watch you disappear into the burning light. He intercepted my prayers like telegrams. All my hope a blind transmission. Licking barbeque sauce from his fingers, God laughed and flung mercy from his sleeve like ash.