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Courtney Bill (she/her) is currently pursuing a degree in creative writing. She lives on the unceded Coast Salish Territory of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ nations. Her work has appeared in PRISM International, Bipan Magazine and is forthcoming in This Side of West. In 2022, her short fiction was runner-up for the Grouse Grind Lit Prize for V Short Forms and the winner of This Side of West’s Poetry & Prose contest.


Trigger Warning

The second time I look up, Jesus is beckoning me. His hands drip towards me. They are gutted, stained wine red. The inside panel of his forearms crook upwards; an invitation. Streetlights sequin through his stained-glass figure.

The joint I smoked twenty minutes ago in the graveyard fuzzes my vision. The lawn was blistered with shaky yellow lights and sirens sucking into the distance. I tried to read the nearest tombstone’s engravings, but the letters warped together, and I couldn’t peel them apart.

It’s warmer inside. I look down at my hands and clench them in my lap. Each finger overlaps a knuckle. It’s too spidery so I hold the sides of each knee instead. I don’t know where to start.

Religion was always Juana’s thing. Not in the way that one sincerely worships God and attends church on Sundays but in the way that she would read the King James Bible for fun. She would memorize her favourite verses and recite them at house parties. “It’s so amusing,” she’d say, graffitiing a pair of boobs on a red plastic cup. “Pretending that it’s real.”

It’s not working. I can’t remember if I’m supposed to pray to God or Jesus. Or maybe both. I take a hymnbook from the lacquered pew’s rack and thumb to page fifteen: “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy.”

We met in the parking lot of an A.A. meeting. Her dad, my sister. Her dad’s Mercury truck, my sister’s steel blue Chevrolet with a clogged exhaust. She had a jumbo pack of sidewalk chalk in the backseat, and we scrabbled for an hour under the commercial LED lights. I drew a copse of palm trees; she drew the solar system on an asphalt galaxy.

Someone’s back pops as they stand up behind me. An old man with a hunchback pants from across the aisle. The chapel smells like singed wax and Clorox cleaning solution. It’s difficult to arrange my thoughts into a prayer when I can hear pews creak and loafers shuffle against cheap red carpet. In such a large room, there is a tightness to the small collection of sounds. Compact and muted like we’re in a mason jar.

I don’t believe in revelation, so I opt to pray to Mary instead. I’m more interested in her, anyway.

“Mary, mother of God,” I start. I struggle to remember prayers I’ve overheard at childhood sleepovers and Thanksgiving dinners. My thoughts disobey me.

Instead, I remember the benediction of her lips. The cherry pit of her hip bone. The chords of her ribs, taut in olive green tank tops. The kiwi fuzz above her lips. Hand-made beaded necklaces that fit tight against her throat like a surfer from Santa Cruz. Instead, she came from a small county outside of Buenos Aires. She would tell me childhood stories as we ate candied almonds in bed. Chalky streets and forty-degree summers. Her cat named Melocotón. Peach.

I try to carve my initials into the pew’s oak seat with my fingernail, thinking it’ll be a good monument. I rip a hangnail instead.

I remember she was always planning something. A trip to Italy after second semester, her stepmom’s fiftieth birthday party, the letter she wanted to send to her pen pal in New Zealand. If she had access to a car, a protest for the legalization of abortion in Argentina, and if she had the money, the remodeling of her kitchen cupboards. She wanted to paint them orange. She was never happy unless there were three things on her to-do list, and a hand to hold while doing them. It was usually mine she held, her steady thumb tapping to the beat of a song only she could hear.

“Damn,” I said once when she showed me a completed crossword she’d printed off of an Anglican church’s website. “How do you know half of that?”

“It took me ten minutes.” She was always one to brag.

I drag my tongue along my bottom lip. The words won’t come, so I look up instead. The arched ceiling is ribbed like the back of a knotted dress.

There’s a tremor in my left eyelid. The spasms distract me.

I wonder what would happen if I walked up the aisle and began to play the pipe organ. If someone would stop me, if they’d grab me. Were volunteers allowed to touch visitors? Could someone touch me? Was that okay?

It ended when she slipped out through the broken screen door one summer night after an angry dinner conversation. The bottom of the mesh screen, disconnected from the frame, flapped as it closed. She said I was addicted to blaming her. I said she mythologized the past.

She didn’t come back to pick up her dinosaur toothbrush. Four years collapsed in one night. Quick, loud, gone. Like the friction of a thumb sliding against an index finger that creates a snap.

There’s a groan when I kneel, and I don’t know if it came from my own throat or the pew’s vinyl cushion. I place the rims of my elbows on the top of the pew’s backrest.

I envision Mary. She is fragmented and hard to picture. Then, something slips, and her features become familiar. First, the slope of her nose and her cupid-bow mouth. My hands fold themselves, a paper snowflake. Then, sweet gaps between her teeth and iron rings that spoon her fingers. The way she hums when she cooks milanesa at two a.m. My head lowers instinctively, a battle long over. The stuttering of my eyelid calms. The caverns of her palms cupping my jaw, and the dark curls that tangle in her clay earrings. The architecture of moles that speckle her cheeks.

My lips begin to move in prayer and I slide my eyes closed. When I look up, Juana is beckoning me.

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