There are two people in the dunking pool. One doing the dunking and one doing the pretending. I’m the tallest one in line. And I’d rather think of pizza. Pizza with all the toppings. Toppings Mom doesn’t like. Onions, bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes. A dusting of black pepper. Olives. Parmesan. One slice with melted chocolate. I like surprises when I’m alone.
I’ll think of that slice when my head goes underwater and the preacher pulls me up like a marionette and water comes out my ears. The crowd will stand. Probably sing. Then I’ll crawl up the submerged steps like a salamander and press my face into a snow-white towel, the kind you only see when you’re visiting. I’ll keep the cursing to myself because you can’t make a sound in here unless you’re singing. Then I’ll head to the front for inspection. Mom will fix my hair and hug me tighter than she ever has before because the shame’s been flushed out and she can hold her head up high. Well, not yet.
The water is at my waist. And the preacher rallies the crowd, one hand in the air, the other on my back. I think about chocolate and sun-dried tomatoes, the time my first boyfriend showed up with a Chocolate Jesus and wine and told me my prayers had been answered.
The water covers my face. And it’s over in an instant. I wipe my eyes and Mom’s face lights up like a jack-o-lantern. She’s in the front row—her face as bright and polished as a candy corn—smiling for the first time since I was a baby. Making me wish I had done this when I was red-lipped and red-eyed and wanting to run but too scared to try. It would have been easier then, like falling onto a bed of cotton. Or cottontails. Lined up straight and docile. Face down. One dunking could have stopped the lamentations, her fear of unwashed solitude. Destruction of family legacy. A future with no pretty babies. Or a future with unwashed, pretty babies. But now everything’s changed. I’m a vision everyone can see.
I follow the other visions to the front. The crowd walks by, single file, shaking our hands, hugging us, saying it’s never too late. Not even for me. I glance at the short ones, their eyes bright, shoulders straight, nodding at everything the crowd says. I wonder if they believe it. Or just want to go home in peace, grab food, retreat to their rooms and their music, bide their time before they start to disappoint. Or maybe they’re ahead of me, listening to transgressions in the quiet of their rooms, listening to songs about chocolate deities, knowing nothing soothes the soul like a bite of blasphemy without reprisal or remorse. If they don’t already know it, they’ll find out very soon.
Darlene Eliot was born in Canada and grew up in Southern California. When not writing short fiction, she enjoys time with her sweetheart, watching Marx Brothers movies, hiking the Bay area coast, and watching the weather change hourly. You can find her on Twitter @deliotwriter