Original Sin (short story)
September 4, 2017
From her husband’s bedroom doorway, Mary watched her two-year-old daughter Kylee sway in front of the television in the living room. Bathed in the light from an animated Disney movie.
Mary inched the bedroom door shut without making a sound, but when she twisted the door handle lock, it made a slight click snapping into place. She cringed. Waited. Afraid to breathe.
She could hear Kylee humming along with a song on the TV. Good.
Mary’s mind was being difficult. Clarity blurred by second-guessing. What ifs.
MESS. But wasn’t that to be expected? She’d drifted to this place one brain cell at a time. And now there was no more fight inside. Only resolve manifested by hollowness kept in check by a nagging nausea. It was making sense why she found herself locked in her husband’s bedroom.
She wrestled with the voices. Maybe if I just stayed small, it would be okay was pushed aside by Who will clean it up? and He’ll be mad.
Sanity clocked in. What would happen to Kylee? finally fought its way up for air and broke through the surface. Stop being so selfish.
Being careful not to chip her front teeth, Mary relaxed her trigger thumb and eased the barrel out of her mouth.
She’d already taken a test drive.
Mark kept his nickel-plated revolver on the top shelf of his bedroom closet underneath a stack of rarely used blankets piled next to a haphazard array of decaying boxes. The gun was an older model that looked like the six-shooters in cowboy movies. Kylee was too young to reach or even find her father’s gun, but it still made Mary nervous having it in the house.
Picking a day when Mary knew Mark would be gone until dinner, she cradled the weapon in her hands. Dead weight. The metal felt cold against her skin. The single-action pistol was fully loaded. Mark always said, “An intruder doesn’t wait for you to put the bullets in.”
The wooden steps creaked as Mary descended down into their primitive basement. The space had been used decades ago as a root cellar. There was a concrete pad that served as a landing at the bottom, but it only extended about ten feet. The larger portion of the floor was dirt. The only thing down there was the washing machine.
When they rented the house, the owner asked if he could leave his old tub-style appliance behind. Mark thought it was a great idea. Mary could use it and would just have to accept that the basin had to be filled with cold water from a garden hose and the clothes pushed through a wringer that would pinch and crush your fingers if you weren’t paying attention.
Mary had never fired a gun before. She chose the basement because she worried about the noise carrying. In this part of the country, the nearest neighbor was a quarter-mile away. Even so, it wasn’t hunting season and she couldn’t risk sound echoing from the woods behind their property. Some old nosy farmer down the road might tattle.
Aiming at the dirt in a far corner, she peered over the sights, but her skinny arm couldn’t hold the pistol steady. She gripped with both hands and was able to keep it level. A sickening sense of power washed over her as she overlapped her index fingers on the trigger and turned her head to one side. She forced her eyes shut and winced in anticipation as her fingers pulled back, but the trigger didn’t budge. She squeezed harder and when it still didn’t give, she thought I didn’t realize they were this hard to shoot.
Maybe she wasn’t doing it right. Do you have to pull the hammer back? Of course, stupid. Holding the weapon away from her at an angle, she used her left thumb to pull the hammer back. It clicked and locked into place, and the moment it did, her right index finger twitched and the gun boomed before she could aim.
She went deaf for a few seconds followed by a ringing in her ears. She smelled gunpowder and there was a slight needling sensation in her right cheek. She began to shake.
Mary numbly scanned the area in front of her and saw she hadn’t shot into the dirt – she’d blown a two-inch circle of concrete out of the far foundation wall. Two thoughts presented themselves: Mark will want to know what happened and How am I going to fix it?
She touched her cheek and came away with blood on her fingertips.
Kylee appeared on the top step with her hands plastered against her ears. Forcing a nervous smile, Mary concealed the gun behind her back and stumbled up the stairs. Even though Kylee was scared silent, Mary answered her.
“Mommie’s okay, honey.”
Kylee pointed at her mother’s wound as Mary brushed by the toddler and stepped into a nearby bathroom, closing the door behind her. She set the gun on the side of the sink and looked in the mirror. It was a small pockmark, but it was oozing. Mary turned the faucet on and scooped water in her hands to splash up into her face. She flushed a small concrete pebble from the opening in her skin. Using a wet facecloth, she applied pressure for a good minute or two.
Luckily she had some old Band-aids in a drawer and she put one on with trembling fingers. It didn’t stick on one side because her skin was still moist. She pulled it off and tried a second bandage and that one stayed.
Even though Mark barely looked at her anymore, there was no way to hide it. And Lord help her if he happened to go into the basement and see the damage to the wall, but he rarely went down there unless it was to corner her while she was washing clothes. She would deal with that damage later.
On her way to Mark’s bedroom to return the revolver to its hiding place, she whiffed the stench of gunpowder again. No argument. Mark might smell it when he went to bed. She had to clean the weapon. She stuck the edge of a rag soaked with dish soap into the end of the barrel and wiped around the outside lip of the empty chamber. There was still a hint of odor, but you had to sniff it up close to tell.
Mary tried to think of everything. After studying the pistol, she figured out how to release the pin and rotate the barrel one chamber in reverse so the empty shell casing wouldn’t show.
True to form, Mark hadn’t even glanced at Mary when he came in the house that evening. He’d gone straight to his room and locked the door.
At dinner, Mary picked at her plate in between coaxing Kylee to eat spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and canned green beans. Mark was so busy wolfing down meatloaf that it took him a few minutes to notice her cheek. He clanked his fork down on his plate.
“What’s wrong with your face?”
Mary had steeled herself for hours by practicing her reply to the inevitable.
“Kylee was swingin’ a toy around and I got in the way.”
Mark threw an annoyed look in Kylee’s direction. “What’d you do that for?”
Mary felt sick inside for deflecting the blame. “She didn’t mean it. It was on accident.”
Mark straightened up. “Doesn’t matter. She’s gotta learn that isn’t the way. You have to nip these things in the bud.”
Mary didn’t rise to the bait – a risky undertaking considering how angry Mark could get over the simplest infraction.
Mark remained focused. “You spank her?”
“No.” Mary was afraid to look at him directly.
Mark leaned in with his elbows on the table and narrowed his eyes. “Why not?”
“I’m okay. It was no big deal.”
Mark locked in. “Yes, it is a big deal. You look stupid.”
Mary kept her head down. Mark reached over and gruffly peeled away half of the bandage to see for himself. “Oh, that’s beautiful. That ain’t gonna heal right.” He left the Band-aid hanging. Mary did her best to smudge it back on.
Mark went back to eating. He pitchforked a chunk of meatloaf into his mouth and breathed heavily through his nose while he chewed.
He wasn’t done yet.
“You’re gonna have a permanent mark on your face.”
Mark eased back into his seat. “Next time you better do the right thing.”
Mary knew better than to make eye contact.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” he sermonized as he wiped his chin and the side of his mouth with a shirt sleeve.
Mary agreed with an almost imperceptible nod yes.
Mark pushed his chair back and stood with authority. “I swear. I don’t know what’s going to become of this family.” He shook his head and waved them off as he left, saying, “That’s why you shoulda had a boy. One carrier of original sin in the house is more than you need.”
As Mark stepped into the next room, Kylee put her hands over her ears and squealed, “Mommie! Boom!”
Mary put an index finger to her lips to signal silence. Kylee slapped her highchair tray and giggled.
Mary cleared the table and washed the dishes. When she was finished, she didn’t remember having done them. She wasn’t upset anymore. She was nothing.
Her mind wandered to the church.
Everyone in their rag-tag congregation loved Mark. What wasn’t to like? He was youthful and vibrant, just like the majority of his young and country audience. To them, he seemed like the nicest guy. Always had time to listen or lend a helping hand. He even hosted a faith-based pre-school three days a week. For free.
Plus he wasn’t affiliated with any organized group. They were so grassroots, Mark considered it a badge of honor that their house of worship was a rented space in a dying strip mall.
There were choruses of Amens when Mark pounded the fire and brimstone home, especially the Sunday before the presidential election when he called out that “phony negro” for what he was. Mark’s ministry was God-inspired and based on a literal translation of the Bible. Mark never failed to remind his parishioners that he was merely a chosen instrument – a humble servant who had been called to his destiny.
Not long after Mary met Mark at a church social in her home town, they got married. Things were good at first, but one night Mark had a vision. The Lord had spoken to him and Mark was profoundly affected. Jesus was directing him to abandon their lukewarm Baptist fold and start a movement that truly wrapped itself in The Word.
Mary was in her third trimester when Mark announced they were pulling up stakes and moving to a rural area two states away in order to obey God’s will. Mark had already put down the first month’s rent on a rustic farmhouse where they could be liberated from the world’s influences.
No more TV or movies. No magazines or newspapers. Not even a phone. Plus Mary was now forbidden to wear make-up except on the nights her husband deemed they would be having sex.
Mark decided they should have separate bedrooms in an effort to demolish lust. He spent long periods in his room with the door locked and Mary was told in no uncertain terms that his bedroom was strictly off limits unless Mary was putting his clean clothes away or making his bed. If he needed to succumb to worldly desires, he came to her room.
The boredom that became Mary’s existence set in quickly. After the first six months, she’d gotten up the nerve to discreetly suggest that a TV might be alright as long as it was used in a Godly manner. Mark had eyed her with suspicion and contempt. Then, in a surprise move weeks later, he’d come home with a second-hand TV, a dented VCR, and a handful of well-used Disney VHS tapes he’d picked up for ten dollars at a yard sale.
Mary knew better than to ask for cable. Back home, Mark walked in one afternoon and caught Mary watching Oprah Winfrey. He flew into a rage and yanked the plug because his wife was “getting too many ideas from that false prophet.”
The TV was popular with Kylee who delighted in watching the same animated features over and over. She knew all the songs and hummed along, being careful to capture every nuance a two-year-old can accommodate.
Mary was initially entranced as well. As the months wore on, Mary had become so ostracized, even watching “The Little Mermaid” for the fifth time was a treat.
Eventually, Mark put his foot down and made a rule that viewing would be limited to an hour a day. Each day when he returned home, he felt the back of the TV to make sure it wasn’t warm.
On one occasion, he’d become infuriated and locked the TV away because Kylee was humming songs from the movies at dinner instead of hymns. Mary went out on a limb and begged Mark to reconsider, reasoning that it was a way to distract Kylee from pulling on the cord when Mary was pressing the family’s clothes with a hot iron.
After a week, he relented, but added that when Kylee was old enough to be home-schooled, the TV would become completely unnecessary and banished altogether.
Mary’s only outings during the week were with Mark attached. Sunday services in the morning and evening. Wednesday night prayer meetings. A weekly supermarket run where Mary was encouraged to keep the groceries under fifty dollars. They only had one car and Mark had duties to fulfill. His pre-school. Visits with members of his flock. Knocking on strangers’ doors looking for potential converts.
Mary wiped off the table with a dishrag. She felt like she was traveling at high speed through a narrow tunnel with fragments of memories whipping by her on both sides.
Flashes of firsts.
The first time Mark forced himself on her.
The prickly sting from the slap he gave her when she needed rebuking.
The day he’d caught her with cooking vanilla on her breath.
They were firsts of many. She had to keep that in mind to stay resolved. But then the voices seeped in again.
Hadn’t she deserved to be punished? Wasn’t Mark just trying to help her from falling deeper into the original sin she had brought into the marriage? The Bible had been clear on this in the Old Testament which Mark tended to mine most of his inspiration from. Each letter in its text was divine and not to be doubted. Mary never admitted out loud that there were times when she wished the book of Genesis had never been written.
And yet, in the New Testament, Jesus had come to deliver from all evil with his teachings and ultimate supreme sacrifice. And wasn’t Jesus the be all and end all? No. Mark had picked that argument apart.
“Yes, Jesus is divine, but he was only the son.”
The men in the church had especially enjoyed Mark’s latest sermon on original sin. Mark was on fire.
“Rape! Prostitution! Pornography! Homosexuality! Eve sinned and now man has been dragged down into a cesspool of worldly desires! Women here today – you’re not a victim, you’re an instigator! Stop trying to subvert Godly male headship and subordinate yourselves to the helper position that God has decreed when he defined your role as one of submission! Women of the church – your pain is deliberate! I’m not trying to hold you back, I’m trying to protect you!”
On the drive home, Mary wondered out loud if the redemption Jesus offered might absolve her on some level. Mark’s response was a backhand she never saw coming. She let out a gasp in front of Kylee who watched from her car seat in the back.
In the quiet shock of that moment, Mary broke. Not outwardly. She was smart enough not to do that.
She thought about that ride home in the car when she put the gun in her mouth. And now she couldn’t go through with it and she was thankful that God had stopped her from orphaning her precious little girl. She just had to buck up and weather the storm.
Mary uttered a sigh of relief as she slid the gun back under the stack of blankets. She’d beat the devil. No one would be the wiser. But as she pulled her hand away, she accidentally knocked against an adjacent shoebox and had to grab it from falling. The lid popped off and bounced benignly off her head. She picked it up and took the shoebox down to get the lid back on securely. As she went to put the box back together, she looked inside.
Polaroids. Pictures of the children in Mark’s pre-school classes. Her quivering hands fumbled through the loose stacks. The kids were in various stages of undress. Some completely naked. And worst of all, there were pictures of Kylee.
Mary had trouble finding her balance. She remembered Mark bringing home an old instant camera he said he’d purchased at a flea market. And he’d been upset –crazily so – when stores stopped selling Polaroid film.
Mary undid the lock and came out of Mark’s bedroom. Kylee was still humming, her wide eyes drawn like magnets to the television screen.
Mary had more sympathy for Mark than the jury did. Not guilty. When the verdict was announced, she half-collapsed against her lawyer. She was free to go and reinvent herself. She hesitated before stepping outside. Jail had become her home. Being un-tethered was disorienting.
Her attorney drove her away from the courthouse. He tried to make conversation, but Mary ignored him and rested her head against the glass of the passenger door.
Child Protective Services had placed Kylee with Mary’s parents for the past year. Would Kylee even know her? And years from now when Kylee was old enough to understand, would she?
Unlike those last days in that old farmhouse, Mary’s thoughts presented themselves in slow-motion.
Mark was livid when she confronted him. Angrier than she’d ever seen him. He cursed her for going into his closet when she knew she was forbidden.
She didn’t care anymore. A calm had settled over her.
Mark got an odd look on his face when he saw his gun cocked in her hand and he seemed genuinely surprised when it went off and blew a chunk off the top of his right shoulder.
He’d charged from across the room and almost got to her, but at the last second, she remembered she had to pull the hammer back again and Jesus had taken the wheel.
The wound to his chest was so traumatic that it forgot to bleed for a moment or two. But when it did, it gushed. The round had pierced him straight through his heart. She remembered him staring at her in disbelief. His eyes fluttered and he simply fell back on the bed like he’d passed out.
Letters were mailed to her while she was locked up. Most of the writers were supportive, but some damned her to hell for taking the law in her own hands and striking down a man of God. They wanted to know why she hadn’t sought counsel or just walked away.
During her darkest hours, alone and forgotten, Mary found solace in her Bible. One night in prayer, Mary asked forgiveness for breaking the supreme commandment. There was a big part of her that understood why it was necessary to protect innocence from forces of evil. And even though Mary was convinced she’d done the right thing, it came with the realization she’d be paying a heavy price for the rest of her days.
Mary stared out at the landscapes slipping by and offered up a silent thanks to her Savior for his gift of redemption. Because after all was said and done, no matter what good had come out of it, she’d found it was no easy calling to die for someone else’s sins.