hated Sundays like a Baptist preacher hates Catholics. She hated
David Ambrose, her father, who drove to church that morning with
the entire family kicking and screaming in the backseat of the
S.U.V. She hated how David turned on the preachers frequency
on the radio, nodding his head. He was so sure the time of reckoning
would come, that he knew it in the cold joints of his clavicles,
and in every bone. Chelsea wasnt so convinced of the impending
judgment. She leaned up to the leather drivers seat, her
lips pursed tight and her brows arched upward like the arcades
of a cathedral.
what are we being judged for? What did we do? Chelsea wanted
sins, Chelsea. That Snickers bar you ate for breakfast this morning.
The Nirvana album under your bed. Your blue hair. Only you know
what youre being judged for. And believe me, you are. Even
as we speak, God keeps a tally. And youre losing, Chelsea.
David continued nodding his head as the preacher on the radio
evoked flames and little fork-tailed devils in the charcoal underfoot.
When Im a doctor, youll be saying something else.
Chelsea was Pre-Med at U. Chicago, dreaming of the day shed
don a stethoscope.
him what kinda doctor, Chelsea. Lannagan, her little brother,
grinned his loose-toothed grin. He loved seeing Chelsea squirm.
doctor. Aurelie, her mother, finished before Chelsea had
bent her tongue to begin forming the words. Chelseas
going to help women have their freedom. Aurelie was vocal
about wishing shed never begotten kids childlessness
meant more time and more money to buy shoes and red sweaters.
that supposed to mean? Were like slavery? Lannagan
asked. We kinda are, arent we Chelsea? Lannagan
had stopped listening as they pulled up to the million-dollar
church complex, their S.U.V. clanking as they hit the speed bumps.
He turned off the radio, straightening the part in his hair with
the little mirror on the visor of his car.
in, David shook hands with everyone, telling them how hed
gotten his soul saved by one of Pastor Raymonds television
commercials in the middle of Tool Shop T.V. Chelsea
rolled her eyes, Aurelie checked out the other men. Seven-year-old
Lannagan grinned and tried to wiggle some teeth loose. All was
as it should be in the Ambrose family.
the service started, Chelsea winced. Her head felt heavy. She
sensed the migraine coming, and dreamed soft pillowy dreams of
Tylenol and Excedrin.
pastor mounted the huge black stage, lit with leftover Christmas
lights, lasers, and the huge cardboard Jesus, glowing in the background.
Chelsea rolled her sore eyes. She knew that churches shouldnt
have a light and sound system, or a laser show. She thought about
how her God was quiet, that God exists quietly, unlike the choirgirls
jumping like Mexican beans in neat little rows on the platform.
started shouting, Saved from what? Saved from what? Money
hogs! Jesus pigs! She started to stagger. This was what
always happened when she had a bad headache. A white light struck
her down, as David always said God would someday smite the sinners.
She crumpled like a napkin, a small blue-haired pile on the floor
of the church.
Chelsea was dragged up by her father, she had chipped a fake silver
fingernail on a red velvet chair and her hair looked tangled like
a birds nest.
I be excused from the worshipping crap? she asked, her crown
of tangles bobbing as she walked to the restroom.
slammed the big wooden door behind her, the LADIES
sign falling and cracking like an egg. She passed the mirror,
stopping for a moment to observe just how sick she looked. Chelsea
shut the stall door behind her. She thought of her father, how
he would say that God had struck her down like a lightening bolt.
She almost smiled.
threw a stall door open and leaned over the toilet. Chelsea opened
her mouth wide. She knew what was coming. As all the chocolate
spilled from her insides, she thought: God is not here, in this
place. She wiped her mouth with a coarse paper towel, and walked
back as the service ended. The new converts wept in their overalls
and flannel shirts, taking in the smoke and spotlights as one
would drink in television. She walked through the aisles, scanning
the blank faces for her family. After a few minutes, she went
back to the S.U.V and waited. She opened the door, which David
left unlocked to show his trust in The Lord, and sat in the back.
She leaned her head against the cold window, and slept.
sound of doors opening shook her from dreams of fetuses, zygotes,
cadavers, and battered women. She breathed in deeply and closed
her eyes. Her head still felt like shed let the devil inside
it was swollen like stubbed toe. Chelsea stared out the
window the whole way home, and no one spoke except for David,
who let out an occasional Amen and Thats
the shit! as the preacher expounded upon Bible verses. And
when cars butted in front of him, an occasional Damn you
to hell and Fuck slipped between his holy words,
sandwiched between bible verses and the hot breath of a man who
Chelsea thought was tired of this world, alive only in the quiet,
clean place between his oversize ears.
rolled her eyes. She thought of her white lab-coat, and the bruised
women to whom shed give temporary relief.
* * *
few days after the church visit, the toads were back. Theyd
taken over the back yard, nesting in the hollows of the fence
and in abandoned dovecotes. Chelsea kind of liked them. Theyd
come last summer, their chirping like grass or new foliage, like
a hymn bent low to the ground. The weather was wet like it was
last summer, the ground smushy and swamp-like. She said it reminded
her of something from the poetry she read, something ungoverned
by exterminators or big sticks. But if David could have invoked
a giant megaphone at any time and amplified his threats of the
Judgment, it would have sure as hell been right now. The toads
had cuddled up to his pipe, left on the patio by a careless wife,
and one frog had threaded its tongue though the smoke-hole. Chelsea
walked outside to get her textbook, left out on the patio by her
kid brother, and saw her dad trying to step on the toads.
what are you doing? They come with the wet weather, in a few days
theyll be gone. Chelsea tried to stop him from smashing
their tiny wart-covered bodies.
cant have toads running our backyard. Its in the scriptures.
Theyre a bad sign, Chelsea. Somethings gonna happen.
He started reciting Psalms, squishing toads as though they were
thought: Hes crazy. She got in the car and drove off to
her favorite monthly poetry reading downtown, thinking the whole
time about what the white flash meant. She knew what it meant
She was going to die. Chelsea had come across more serious
things than migraines in her studies and was surprised at how
often her symptoms matched up with the part of the textbook corresponding
to Brain Tumor Malignant. After a few days
of thinking and fact-checking, she knew it like her father knew
there was a god. She couldnt quite prove it, but she felt
it in the marrow of her bones.
slowly, she listened to an Anne Sexton cassette tape. Chelsea,
as a pre-med student, hid her Lord Byron books from the Chemistry
majors. Rhyming wasnt exactly hard science, they said. In
the tapes story, it was raining dolls. Anne was throwing
her lipstick at the church on Mercy Street. Chelsea smiled.
became convinced that she was going to die about once every three
weeks. First it was the sore on her leg, which was actually an
infected razor cut. It showed through her fishnets, and she knew
it meant death. Then it was the hacking cough that comes with
four packs a day during finals. Everyone else chalked Chelseas
death-complex up to the girls non-believing existential
philosophy of life. She took her own pulse constantly, and tried
to speed the process.
night, Chelsea picked up a guy at the poetry reading and wondered
if Yeats was right, that sex and death were inextricably linked
for her that evening. She wanted someone safe, who wouldnt
ditch her for some blonde who did nothing to prevent the bombings
of Planned Parenthood clinics across the nation. She found him
by the punch bowl. The flirting stage was short and sweet: Chelsea
liked his sweater-vest, and he was taking her home.
wasnt until she had gotten inside his studio apartment that
she began to wonder about him. There were Metallica posters everywhere,
bongs, hard rock C.D.s, and concert memorabilia, in addition to
the pill bottles.
resounded from Chelseas lips as she opened the door.
supposed to like poetry! What about the thrift store khakis youre
wearing, goddamn it! She almost cried. Chelsea couldnt
handle one more surprise this week.
picked up a bong, and proceeded to stuff it full of pot and light
it. She liked the feeling of deaths jagged fingernails tickling
her back. She knew that if she was going down, she might as well
go down in flames.
* * *
cell phone rang when she was sleeping off the marijuana and alcohol
the next morning. She pushed sweater-vest boy out of the way,
climbed over sheets and blankets and answered it. It was her mother.
come home. You need to come home right now. Youre dads
gone crazy. Aurelie Ambrose sounded frantic, and Chelsea
thought about the other ten times shed received a phone
call just like this one.
Mom, Im coming. She didnt want to go home, but
knew her mother would probably end up on the funny farm with David
if left alone. Chelsea gathered her belongings and some of the
nerd boys pot in a big shopping bag and shut the door as
he slept soundly, looking as drug-free as a high school D.A.R.E.
Chelsea got home, David Ambrose opened the door. It was the first
time Chelsea had seen him cry outside of the million dollar white
brick church, and she knew Aurelie had left him by her phone call
and the look on his face.
didnt know what to say. She felt paralyzed from the neck
down, her brain racing with quick, useless thoughts.
thought about Aurelie. Her mother was beautiful like the heroin-addicted
women shed seen in clothing ads. She wondered if it was
another man, one who could buy her red high heels and slim, silver
father said, Its the toads.
smiled. What do you mean, the toads? Where is Mom?
Theyre a bad sign, Chelsea. Plagues, you know, once
they come, they never let up. Its one thing and then another,
and another. Before you know it therell be locusts and crabs
and flies. Its never just one thing, Chelsea. David
was shaking his head.
Mom leave? Why do you think Mom left? Chelsea knew hed
smiled. I really dont know. I didnt do anything
to make her, Chelsea. Just doin the Lords work.
that supposed to mean? She furrowed her brow.
gave away our money to the poor homeless folks. I had to do something,
what with the frogs taking over our backyard. The Lords
angry, Chelsea. I know, and you do too. Went to an A.T.M. and
took it all out of our bank account. Theres homeless people
whove got food now, honey. Were gonna have a better
place in heaven. He patted Chelsea on the shoulder.
he said with a big Cheshire-cat grin on his face, Im
not going to pay money for you to kill babies.
marked the fifth time this same thing had happened. Chelsea knew
Aurelie always came back, their credit cards full of marks from
the constant swiping. It was usually like this her dad
managing the money that was there, Aurelie spending dollars yet
My tuition money?! Ill never get in Columbia! She
slapped her father in the face and walked toward the door.
look like hed been stun gunned. Then he smiled again and
said, Im not letting you near a family planning clinic.
Youre going to spend every Wednesday night in youth group.
hadnt felt this scared since the Halloween when she was
eight, and David dressed up as Freddy Krueger it was a
surprise until Chelsea opened her closet. She missed the black
sheep her father used to be. At least he was sincere. Chelsea
closed the door quietly behind her. She knew not to make crazy
people angry. And Chelsea didnt really know where she was
going. She got in her tiny Honda Civic, dented and beaten with
use, and drove to the grocery store. She walked around the aisles
with her hands in her pockets. The lights bore down on her like
a heavy rain, and her head began to feel large and swollen. The
pamphlets in the doctors offices had always said: LIGHT
IS HARMFUL TO MIGRAINE-TROUBLED PEOPLE. Maybe she wasnt
going to die after all. As the migraine closed in on her, she
thought she might as well have some fun before crumpling down
to the floor. She picked up a little red basket, and weeded out
all the foods David would designate as bedeviled. There was a
little money on her debit card, so she bought them.
thought: The weather is abnormally sunny. The curb was littered
with ladybugs and ants, little bottle-caps and Diet Pepsi cans,
but she sat down there and ate a truffle. Her head felt like she
was lugging an anvil on her tiny shoulders, and the sun became
larger and larger. Before Chelsea knew it, the whole sky was one
bright light. Light is harmful to migraine-troubled people,
Chelsea whispered as though it were a spell to keep the boogey
men away, light is harmful to migraine-troubled people, light
is harmful to migraine troubled people, light is harmful to migraine-troubled
people, light is harmful to migraine troubled people, light is
harmful to migraine-troubled people, light is harmful to migraine
troubled people. She folded herself neatly like clean laundry
on the curbside, her hair spilling onto the pavement like a flood
of blue chlorinated water. Someone tried to wake her up, or at
least she thought thats what was poking her. Then more poking
from several well meaning soccer-moms. And the sirens sounded,
a song rising up from the street.
* * *
woke up in a hospital bed. The sheets like were like tinfoil,
and the little steel bedposts were cold when accidentally touched.
doctor closed the door behind her and started flipping though
hadnt even noticed the door opening. Seizures,
The mussed little blonde woman said. Chelsea thought: She looks
like a female Albert Einstein. The little woman continued, Mild
seizures are causing the white lights, collapsing and such. Ill
be right back with some pamphlets.
first thing she noticed that really scared her, though, was her
father sitting in the visitors chair. The second thing that
frightened her was Aurelie Ambrose, walking into the room with
a shopping bag full of fancy bibles.
I thought you left us. What happened to Forty Ounces
to Freedom and Seventeen Chardonnays after Shopping?
You know, all the stuff you used to say about how unhappy you
were. Chelsea half-wished Aurelie had just gone, but didnt
want to be left alone with David for more than a minute.
you want to tell Chelsea or should I? David asked, his wife
slouched and chic in the chair behind him.
I saw the Devil and what Davids been telling you is very
real. Aurelie leaned closer to Chelsea, her hot breath rank
in the cool hospital air.
what-what? Chelsea always stuttered when crazy people talked
about the devil.
blonde, Irish, went to Harvard
I thought I loved him, Chelsea.
Until I knew. She now had a lovely platinum cross dangling
from her neck, the little flecks of light shooting from the metal
into her hair.
did you meet the fucking devil? A singles bar? Mom, this isnt
like you. Chelsea was now raised up in her bed, her shoulders
straight and her hands slightly cold without blankets.
your fathers church, honey. The devil always goes where
you dont expect him. Aurelie took Chelseas hand.
are you trying to tell me, other than you need to get committed?
Chelsea was convinced her mother had had some of the stash she
brought with her from the poetry geeks apartment.
he told me I could have everything I wanted: a loving husband,
money for your medical school, shopping, if I just got in the
car. I did. But Im back. Because thats not important.
I just have to trust that the Lord provides for everything.
An unearthly calm emanated from Aurelies starved body.
Dip into my stash,
did you? Chelsea knew that someday her mother would resort
to drugs, but she didnt think it was going to be so soon.
Honey. Im high on Jesus. She smiled.
gave up, her heart pounding with the injustice of her diminished
* * *
day Chelsea came home, Aurelie cooked brownies, donning a little
apron. Her hair was twisted like a big cinnamon roll on the back
of her head. She looked like a heroin-addicted Stepford wife,
her pink suede pumps clicking on their hardwood floors. And Chelsea
felt out of place in her bedroom, even with the pot stash and
her Death Cab for Cutie posters. She felt as though shed
intruded on her parents, happy in their bubble of Saved
From All Evil Ever in the History of Everything. Chelsea
didnt understand it. She missed the years when her father
was the black sheep of the family, drinking too much whiskey and
putting rental BMWs on credit cards. The day shed come home,
she thought: Ive crossed the border into The Absent God
mother knocked at the door. Chelsea, do you want some cookies?
I have walnut, peanut butter, and chocolate chip. You can pick.
You are Pro-Choice, arent you? Aurelie laughed her
dry, cough-like laugh.
Im pro-abortion. The med school has no affiliation with
Toll House, Mom. Chelsea was bouncing a rubber zygote that
shed lifted from the anatomy lab against the smudged wall.
She was frightened at what a good mother Aurelie had suddenly
become. Chelsea noticed herself becoming meaner and more vicious.
She was even working on the ratio between her mothers baked
goods and her own ruthlessness.
Chelsea wasnt dense she knew that her mother was
determined to maintain her perch in heaven, come Harvard graduates
or high water. She continued bouncing her zygote. Chelsea closed
her eyes, caught it, threw it again. It didnt come back.
She cracked her left lid open. There was a blonde man, in a sweater
with a giant H on the pocket. He had a pipe, and was
smoking fine tobacco in her room.
released a puff of smoke from between his lips. Youre
Chelsea Ambrose, he said as the last of the smoke drifted
off. Do you know what youre name means? I mean, the
Ambrose part? He lifted an eyebrow upward.
I think so. It means Im a crazy guys daughter.
Chelsea furrowed her brow. She really didnt know.
for the gods. Ambrosias what the gods ate on Mount Olympus.
His voice rang out in a deep-throated U.K. accent. The Harvard
man took another puff.
I know youre the Devil, but
Did you used to teach
at U. Chicago? Chelsea asked.
Not that I dont already know what youre going to say,
Chelsea Elizabeth Ambrose. He smiled.
just remind me of someone. Hey, how did you know my middle name?
Chelsea straightened herself up in her chair.
know it all Chelsea. And I know what you want more than anything.
do I want? Chelsea mussed her blue hair on purpose and tried
to look imposing.
apartment. The devil grinned again.
straight. Chelsea ran her fingers through her indigo locks.
You wanna make a deal or something? The moon shone
into the window, its blank stare asking nothing in return.
a smart girl, Chelsea. What do you think the deal is going to
be? He twisted his almost-invisible mustache.
give you my parents, you give me a nice place. Work for you?
She looked hopeful.
thinking more along the lines of
Saving your soul. You know
it would make David happy. I want you to tell everyone that youve
had an epiphany. A religious one. I want you to really believe
it. Within one week youll have an apartment and no seizures.
was stunned. A fierce believer in free will and rational choice,
she knew no one could make her do anything if she changed her
mind. Sure. She continued bouncing her zygote.
we have a handshake? Then its a gentlemens agreement,
as youd loath the title of lady. He continued
grinning, his white teeth glowing in the dim light.
he climbed out her second-story window without so much as a thunk,
Chelsea wondered if this was what happened to Aurelie the night
shed left. She let the thought bounce back to where it came
from. There wasnt much she could do. She just hoped she
didnt have to wear an apron. She hated the white frilly
kinds, their lace brown with spots and neglect.
* * *
sat on the red beanbag chair in her room. Everything in that small
haven looked like it had been lifted from the anatomy lab: the
womb-shaped squishy chair, a grow-your-own-cerebellum kit in her
window, the rubber zygotes that she used as bouncing-balls, and
the neuron-shaped lamp on her pink desk. Most of her friends just
called her devoted to womens rights or very
high when she went shopping.
the devil had just left. Chelsea thought: Was he real? Its
the next apocalypse movement waiting to happen, or worse: Pro-Lifers,
she thought to herself. But she knew that if her mother, father,
and her own self had seen the same thing, it couldnt be
the pot stash.
was one thing to do: Chelsea had to leave, and she had to do it
fast. She had to get out of here before she did something shed
regret. Shed promised her self a long time back that she
wouldnt be anyones evangelist guinea pig. And there
was no reason to stay if shed never be back in college,
anyway. Shed leave before anyone made her save her soul
from some red fiery unknown. The girl was already itching with
scriptures to recite for her Dad, but she told herself: Interns
disease. Get packing. She threw rolling papers, dime bags,
clothes, and Hershey bars into her duffel bag. This was her master-plan
at the time:
1. Shimmy down the rain gutter.
2. Walk for awhile.
3. Hook up with a band and make a living as a roadie.
already missed her biology classes, but the textbooks were too
heavy for her to carry. As she wiggled her foot back and forth,
looking for the hollow piece of metal, she noticed something flat
under the window. Chelsea poked her head out. Goddamn it,
someones always leaving stuff in the wrong places. I could
have tripped on that
She didnt say ladder.
She wasnt that stupid.
climbed down and, once she was out of her parents earshot,
called her roommate from U. Chicago on her cell-phone. Hey,
Kegan? Its me, Chelsea. I think theres something messed
up going on with my dad and these evangelists. I think he hired
this guy to come to my bedroom and say he was Satan and---.
Chelsea ran her fingers through her ocean-colored locks before
Kegan cut her off.
youre breaking up. Call tomorrow, okay? I got smashed with
that guy from my internship and Im really out of it. Later!
stars had leaked through nights cheap motel curtain. There
was nothing she could do but run.
* * *
first night after she bolted from the Ambrose house, with its
Biblical wallpaper, Chelsea slept on a park bench. As she stared
up at the clear, moonless sky she thought: I know its
Dad. Hes behind all of this. He sent the goddamn devil to
my room. He stole my Please Stop Breeding t-shirt.
Just prove me wrong, goddamn it
lit a cigarette, since she was saving the good stuff for the road.
As the Camel Light grew shorter, Chelsea noticed that the grass
looked grey in the dim light. Rods and cones, Chelsea thought.
One kind of cell picks up color, the other kind skims out dark
or light. Once you take bio notes, you never forget
logical thoughts bounced between the walls of her head as she
fell asleep. The stars began to melt like icicles after New Years.
Chelsea still slept, a Gender Bombs tank top stretched
across her skinny stomach.
* * *
Chelsea stammered as she pushed either an ugly woman or a long-haired
man off her park bench. She narrowed her eyes and said, Get
your own park bench. Jesus. Shivering, she unzipped her
bag and pulled out a hoodie and some cigarettes.
man just sat there on the ground, startled that she had woken
up. Chelsea stared at him, noticing that he wasnt too bad
looking, and judging from his t-shirt, he might be able to help
her out with a roadie job. In fact, he kind of looked like the
lead singer of Cinema Strange, eyeliner and all. Chelsea felt
herself softening up and asked, Dude, there are other park
benches. Why are you here? She squeezed the rain from her
frizzy hair and sat up straight, her fingers clinging to the edge
of the bench with cold. Chelsea lit a cigarette to keep warm.
She looked at him again out of the corner of her right eye. She
thought: He looks like that A.V. nerd from my middle school, except
his hair is dyed and hes not wheeling a crappy stereo around
on a cart. She thought: Maybe Im not taking this road trip
alone after all
Im not homeless. My parents kicked me out. You just looked
nice sleeping there. I was just going to leave, seriously.
He ran his fingers through his black, bright-red-streaked hair
and started picking up his backpack.
cool, Chelsea said. Do you smoke? She unzipped
her bag again and looked for some Camel Lights.
guess I do now. He took the cigarette, inhaled, and started
laughed and said, Ill bet youve never been really
smashed either. Why did you get kicked out? She stared at
him, trying to figure out what hed done. If it wasnt
drugs or beer, it had to be interesting.
just stared off into the clean, fog-laced air and said, Im
gay. He started looking up at the stars, smiling. He coughed
looked at the wet sparkling grass. She couldnt believe shed
gotten her hopes up he didnt want to go on a road
trip and eventually hook up with her. He was just sensitive. Damn
it, Damn it, Damn it, Chelsea thought.
He grinned and stopped hacking. He really is a smoker,
was cold. Im Chelsea, by the way.
Gavin. He French-inhaled his cigarette smoke, the white
strands floating from his nose and mouth.
where did you go to middle school? Did you go to Parkview
South? Or am I just weird?
looked at her like she was crazy. Yeah. How did you
Wait, were you that fat girl? Gavin covered his mouth after
the words slipped out. He looked at her again. No way.
straight. The fat Mensa girl with a bunch of Star Trek books.
Chelsea flipped her hair back, filled with pride for her flat
stomach and skinny arms.
do you have any cash? He lifted one eyebrow.
And a debit card. Why? She hoped he wasnt a mooch.
robbed my parents blind before I left. You have no idea.
He continued to smirk.
didnt see why he was remarkable for taking someones
money. Shed done it dozens
of times. What makes you so special? she asked.
you been around druggies? When theyre really high they start
talking about stuff that doesnt exist. Like the Abominable
Snowman. Or Elvis coming back from the dead. Black American Express
cards. Well, I have one of them. It totally exists. You can put
a fucking condo on that card. Those things dont have a limit.
You have to be invited by the company to apply for one. Its
this big secret, and I think Madonnas got the only other
one. Look. He reached into his backpack.
your parents just report it as lost? Or stolen? Chelsea
was beginning to think he was just another one of those crazies
in the park.
They cosigned when I went into rehab. Stupid bastards. Its
mine. He pulled a leather wallet out of his backpack. The
leather was soft and shiny, and a Saks Fifth Avenue tag hung from
the front flap. He pulled a little plastic rectangle from the
He handed it to Chelsea.
looked down and squinted. The card looked like her normal green
one, but it was black with little grey sparkles. On the front
was a picture of a soldier, and the words: Centurion Banks
Most Preferred Customers Have Access to a World of Fine Services
and Spending Power. Certifiably Limit-Free. She turned it
over and skimmed the fine print. She found the line that said:
This card is hereby non-cancelable, non-transferable. Use of
card represents agreement to these terms. In cases of co-signature:
if the primary party fails to pay, the card will remain active
and co-signer will be billed for all charges.
shit, Chelsea said. And the world began to heave and spin