“Everyone knows. It’s on Facebook.” Akeesha whimpered.” My girlfriend broke with me.”
Reverend Penniman made his way around the side of the bell tower feeling the tug of the harness. He looked up at the teenager.
Her hoodie covered all but the bill of her ball cap. She wiped her tears with the black leather band she wore on her wrist. “I wanna die.” She inched forward to the lip of the shelter. Her hand left the arch.
“No!” Reverend Penniman yelled his arms stretched out as if he could catch her.
The crowd oohed.
He moved slowly around the tower until his back was to the mob. “Sit on the ledge baby.”
“I’m goin to hell when I die. Bible says so.” Her voice quivered. “Greaty found out. Said I’d bring shame on her house—more than my mama in jail. Said a woman’s body parts were made for a man to make babies.” Her voice trailed off.
“Greaty loves you, child. She’s running around screaming and bossing, telling us to get her baby off the tower. You hear me, child?” He watched horrified as she balanced herself on the rim of the tower. A slip and she would die.
“They callin me a freak.”
“Sit down now. We need to talk.”
“Jump faggot!” someone hollered across the street.
Reverend Penniman looked back at the crowd. Officer Johnson grabbed the man. Perry hauled him away.
“They all stupid.” Akeesha sobbed.
“We can work this out.”
“Don’t dish with me, Reverend. Talkin’s no good,” she shouted.
He lifted his head up to see her lip quivering. “Can be,” he said.
“I’m goin to hell. Might as well get it over with.”
“Now, don’t talk like that.” He thought of all those times they knelt together holding hands. Their eyes shut tight, the way Akeesha repeated his words to rid herself of the sin of homosexuality. When they were through, her face was wet with tears. He’d never forget how she’d wipe her fingers several times across her jeans like she’d been holding hands with a leper. He knew then she’d yet to be cured.
He talked to his daughter about it. Rose told him the gay people she knew said they were born that way. She told him his generation treated the Bible like a deli, picking and choosing what to live by, who to hate and the nonsense of fearing God. His conversations with his middle child made him reflect. That’s all it did. He loved his children equally, but Rose had the gift of benevolence.
“You jump, I’ll try to catch you. Then I’ll die trying to save you. You know that’d make Flo mighty mad, child.” He took a careful step back to get a look at her face. She gazed out at the Montgomery horizon. Her calm scared him.
He remembered the first time Greaty brought her to church. She was four, always carrying her dump truck and running it along the pews. During the sermon, she’d nestle into Greaty’s bosom, thumb in her mouth. Her short hair braided. When she got older, she sang in the choir. For extra money she gardened around the church. He’d take her to McDonald’s afterwards. They talked. She was a good girl—even if she did look like a gang banger— thoughtful and quiet, never swore, didn’t do drugs. But she suffered at school. It showed in her grades, and she finally dropped out. He was the only man in her short life, and she clung to him like a daddy. Her great grandmother looked after her like a one-eyed cat watching two rat holes. She ain’t goin to end up in jail like her mama, or dead like her granny. She gonna be respectful, yes, indeed, she gonna be a fine woman when she grow up.
“Akeesha,” he said with a stern voice. “You want to give Greaty a heart attack? I told you how worked up she is.”
“She always worked up.”
“She loves you.”
“Quit lyin!” She spread her arms out.
“I’m not lying. You’ve seen her below. Running around. Now you hold onto that post.” The noon light threw no shadows. The wind rippled his shirt. He felt the sun beating down on his bald spot. “God loves you.”
“Then how come we pray to change me?”
“Cause you wanted to be like other girls. Remember? I’m not a psychiatrist. Praying is all I know.”
Reverend Penniman took out his handkerchief and wiped his brow. In the 1980s, he buried a young man who died of AIDS. He’d never forget how his boyfriend threw himself on top of the casket crying and shouting the dead boy’s name. He never thought homosexuals had feelings until he witnessed that young man’s grief.
“We prayed to make your life easier. So you’d be happy.”
“Didn’t work. My life be easier if people left me alone.”
“You’re probably right, child.” The reverend wiped his mouth with the handkerchief and put it in his pocket. Even if his heart struggled with what he was going to say, perhaps he could save her. “Maybe God made you perfect the way you are,” he said, thinking of Rose.
“You lyin so I don’t kill myself.”
“No child. I’m saying it cause God has a reason for you being here.” He heard sniffles. Then he saw her skinny hand swipe across her face. “Oh baby, come down and let’s have a good cry together.”
He watched for any movement from her feet.
“Quite a view up here,” he said, trying to sound casual. “We live in a beautiful city. Don’t you think?”
“I wanna go to California.”
“Now, why would you want to do that? What about Greaty?”
“What about her?”
“Girl, I’m getting a crick in my neck looking up at you. I haven’t eaten today. At my age, I’m on a schedule, and I get awfully tired if I’m hungry. We can talk better down here. Sit behind the tower. Alone. I want to talk to you like a grown-up.”
“I am grown up.” She shifted and pulled the hoodie off her head so it fell around her neck. “Jalissa broke with me. Who gonna love me?”
“Child, there’s a whole lot of people in the world. There’s got to be one just for you.”
“You not being honest.” She tugged the hoodie back up. “You wanna boy to love me. I don’t wanna boy.”
“Darlin baby, I admit I don’t know much about such things. All I know is that I love you, and that love is greater than any judgment I cast upon you.” He hesitated, and thought about the words that flowed out of him so effortlessly. It sounded like something coming from Rose’s lips, not his.
He looked up. “Akeesha!” Where’d she go? He held onto the tower. He circled it fearing she jumped from the other side. “Akeesha!” he cried. He didn’t dare to take that part of the roof. The slant angled too steep. He felt weak, a little dizzy but his adrenalin rushed. He went back the way he came, the harness tugging. Sweat poured into his eyes.
The door to the roof creaked open.
“What you wearing Reverend?” Akeesha stood in the archway.
“Lord have mercy, child!” His heart felt like a bowl of confetti. Instead of fearing the worst, she had climbed inside the tower and took the stairs to the roof. “You could have answered me when I called. You done scared the daylights out of me, child.”
“What you mean, your love greater than your judgment?” Akeesha asked.
“Oh, oh, my darlin baby—we should enjoy this magnificent view of our city and thank the good Lord for the beautiful child that you are.”
“I’m not beautiful.”
“In God’s eyes and mine you are.”
“I swear on my sweet Flo’s life.”
“Then why we waste all that time prayin when I’m already okay?”
He caught a glint of the stud that she wore in the center of her tongue.
“You not as smart as you think, Reverend.”
Reverend Penniman let out a hearty laugh. “Well, I’ll tell you a secret, Akeesha, I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I have to make it seem like I do or no one would come to my church.”
“They won’t come anyway, lyin and all.”
He thought about what Rose said, how the young have turned away from religion. “You know my daughter, Rose? She’d agree with you. You know she’s studied in India. Traveled the world. Says God is always expanding—not sure what that means.” He walked slowly toward the girl. “You know something, Akeesha?”
“You taught me something.” His voice fractured. “You taught me, child. And I’m truly grateful.”
“Taught you what?”
“Can we sit here, for a minute? I’m really tired.” He slid down the wall. The harness grabbed at his thighs as he sat.
Akeesha walked like she’d been on the roof a hundred times, maybe she had, he thought. She sat next to him.
“You taught me to accept you.” He slowly pulled the hoodie down so he could see her face. “I’ve always thought of you as one of my own. Flo, too.”
Akeesha took his gnarled old hand. She spread each of his fingers to include hers. He felt love in her fingertips.
The confetti in his heart flung out over his beloved Montgomery. It showered like a vital rain. “I think there’s only love in God’s house,” the reverend mused. “So much of life is good.”
“Can we go to KFC?”
Reverend Penniman smiled. “Not McDonald’s? We always go to McDonald’s.”
“Sure enough. My treat,” he said. “I could take you to a fancy place where we sit at a table with a white cloth and linen napkins. We can order ribs. They have finger bowls with water so our hands don’t get all sticky. Eat as much as we want.”
“No. KFC,” she said, standing and holding her hand out for the reverend to grasp
DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer published worldwide. DC’s stories have appeared in over seventy-five anthology and online literary publications, including: Lunch Ticket, Silver Pen’s Fabula Argentea, Fiction on the Web,and many more. “Billy Luck” is nominated for Best of the Net 2017 Anthology and won first place for short story at Defenestrationism’s summer contest of 2016. The international literary site The Missing Slate, in Aug. 2016, honored DC as author of the month for the short story “Boots.”