Dara had brought seventeen stuffed animals in her mother’s suitcase. One of them—a lion named Tangy—was missing. Joanne shushed her. “We’ll find it later,” she said. “We don’t have time.”
Joanne was right. Andrew wanted to play the game. Glory would start in an hour, so they had ten, maybe fifteen minutes before Aunt Lisette would come fetch them for the service. They had sequestered themselves in one of the hotel’s empty rooms.
It wasn’t really a game. It was more an answer to a question. The idea itself was bad, very bad, and the other cousins might watch and think very bad things about Dara, but she had agreed, and it seemed wrong now to go back on her word.
Their church, Wells Covenant, always rented out a hotel for the biennial Glory, a gathering of the twenty-odd churches that composed Salt and Light Ministries, but this was the first Glory that Dara would remember. She hid herself behind the room’s divider, waiting for Andrew to take off his pants and lie down. Joanne huddled with her, giggling when her older siblings Nathan and Leah snuck in, locking the door behind them.
Andrew was new to Wells, and he was the one who had told them about the game. He was cute, so Joanne refused. His disappointment was palpable. Joanne was a full year older than her willing cousin, and much prettier.
“Ready?” Joanne called.
“Ready,” Andrew replied.
The other girls shoved Dara from behind the divider, their laughter maniacal. Nathan remained at a distance. He looked uneasy.
Dara stumbled toward the boy, flustered by her own grit. Without a brother of her own, she had always been curious about what it was that made a boy different from a girl. She understood some of her mother’s vague insinuations, but she wanted to see it for herself.
Andrew lay on the hotel bed, his eyes concentrated on the nearby window. He still wore his pink shirt and fluorescent pink tie—the combination part of some joke with the other boys. He had inched the shirt just above his lower half, allowing her a clear view of the offending member. It was smaller than Dara had expected, and rather boring, resembling a wet, fat finger. She didn’t understand its need for secrecy.
“Touch it!” squealed Joanne, sneaking peeks with Leah.
This was the second part of Dara’s promised activities. Dutifully, she leaned forward and poked it with the tip of her finger. Andrew grimaced, and the girls laughed. “I did it,” Dara said, feeling, for a moment, an odd sense of triumph.
Andrew re-buttoned his pants while the others talked excitedly about what had happened. “What did it feel like?” Joanne asked.
Dara shrugged, still distracted with the thought that it was she who had committed the act, and that it was all already over. She wiped an imagined stickiness away from her finger using the rough fabric of her dress. “Warm.”
The other girls giggled with horror, expressing their revulsion at the thought. “I couldn’t ever,” said Leah.
“You’ll have to,” laughed Andrew, his smile knowing. “Everybody does it.”
“That?” Joanne said, incredulous.
“It’s where babies come from,” he said. “Where you came from,” he added, laughing again when he saw her disgust.
Nathan shook his head. “This isn’t right,” he said. “Mom won’t be happy.”
“We didn’t do it,” said Leah, mussing Dara’s hair. “She’s the sinner.”
“But we watched,” said Nathan.
“Barely,” Joanne laughed.
“Thinking it and seeing it is just as bad,” Nathan sputtered, losing control of his voice. “Dad always says that.”
Dara waited for the others to laugh, as they usually did when Nathan went into one of his speeches. At thirteen, he was the oldest of the Wheelers, and the most self-righteous. He never approved of his sisters’ little plays, and often said so, but Joanne was never one to take him seriously.
His sisters, however, were immediately shamefaced. “You’re right,” said Leah dejectedly.
“Mom will be so disappointed,” added Joanne, already tearful. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s my fault too,” said Nathan, his eyes downcast. “I should have stopped it.”
“I shouldn’t have suggested it,” Andrew admitted. “I just didn’t think anyone would go along with it.”
The group all turned to Dara. She swallowed. She wanted to remind them that they shouldn’t tell her aunt anything, and that they especially shouldn’t mention her, but she feared their judgment. “I’m sorry,” she said, her tone half-hearted. She didn’t understand why everyone had become so upset.
“Andrew’s new,” said Joanne, shaking her head at her younger cousin. “You should have known better.”
Dara felt the stirrings of injustice, of indignation. “But you—”
“I told him no,” said Joanne. “I shouldn’t have wanted to watch. I only wanted to watch because I knew it was wrong.”
“That’s really brave, to admit that,” said Leah, rubbing Joanne’s back.
There was a rustling and a knock on the door. Nathan stepped in front of Dara to unlock it. Joanne straightened her dress, and Leah rested her head on Joanne’s shoulder. Andrew had already seated himself at the desk at the foot of the debauched bed. He was scratching a curse word into its side.
Aunt Lisette had come to take them to church. She wore a high-waisted peacock blue dress and nude tights with short, modest black heels. Her eyes curled around the room and the wrinkled bed before briefly settling on Dara. The latter could make nothing of her aunt’s expression. Turning to Nathan, Aunt Lisette tilted her head and smiled in a quizzical fashion. “No need to keep things locked, I hope,” she said.
Nathan hung his head. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
“Are we ready?” she asked everyone, ignoring his apology. “Leah, you’re not even dressed.”
Leah was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, an outfit she shouldn’t have brought to Glory. Any other young girl would have been given a spanking just for its presence in her suitcase, much less for wearing it. However, Leah was a slower, special child, and was given certain allowances. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t find my dress,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” said Aunt Lisette, taking her daughter’s hand. “We’ll look for it together.” She nodded at her children to follow, and Dara assumed this meant her, too. Her parents had already left for an early care group meeting and had entrusted her in Aunt Lisette’s care.
Andrew said his goodbyes and went to find his mother. Dara waited in the hallway with Nathan while Aunt Lisette and Joanne helped Leah change. He said nothing to her and remained standing when she squatted down next to the closed door. He did not, however, neglect to send a disappointed look in her direction. She asked him twice what was wrong. Both times he shook his head, turning away once more.
Leah’s hair was brushed and her dress pressed when she emerged. Joanne’s own dark mane was neatly tied in a braid, and she held her hands stiffly behind her back. Aunt Lisette had added a pair of pearl earrings to her own ensemble. She adjusted Nathan’s tie, admonishing him for his wrinkled pants.
Noticing Dara, she turned to her niece with surprise. “Honey,” she said. “What are you still doing here?”
Dara laughed, unsure of what to say. “I’m supposed to be.”
Aunt Lisette shook her head. “No, dear. Your parents didn’t say anything about that.”
Dara’s eyes widened, unable to conceal her own terror. “I’m supposed to go with you to the service.”
“No,” said Aunt Lisette, nodding at Nathan to begin leading his sisters downstairs to the car. “You’ll have to wait here for them. They never said a thing to me, and I don’t want them to worry.”
Joanne, as she passed, pressed Dara’s missing stuffed animal into her cousin’s hands.
“Dad has a cell phone,” Dara interjected. Shivering despite the summer heat, she cradled Tangy against the bare skin of her arms and neck. Everyone else had already left for the service; she would be alone in the hotel. “You can ask him.”
“But I don’t have one, dear,” said Aunt Lisette. “Just go back to your room and wait for them there.”
“But it’s locked,” said Dara.
“Then wait outside.” Aunt Lisette was finished with the conversation. She began walking toward the elevator. “I’m sure they’re already there now.”
Dara, clutching the lion, followed her aunt down the hallway, and watched as the elevator doors closed with Aunt Lisette waving goodbye behind them. Dara looked to her right, then her left. She had not noticed, until then, how quiet it was. The floor was empty. All she could hear was the distant sound of a broken air conditioner dripping onto the marble floor.
Allison Lamberth grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An adjunct professor and freelancer, she now lives in New York City with her husband and son. Her short stories have previously appeared in Chaleur Magazine.