God is a Twelve-Year-Old Girl
The following story was chosen by Kelly Link as the winner of the 2019 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize. The prize is awarded annually by Selected Shorts and a guest author judge. The winning entry receives $1000, a 10-week writing course with Gotham Writers Workshop and publication in Electric Literature. The winning work will also be performed live on Selected Shorts at Symphony Space in Manhattan on June 12, 2019.
Eugenie is Anointed
Like every Witness kid, Eugenie knows there are a limited number of future angels: 144,000, each alerted to their status while still on Earth, in a quiet but unpredictable way. Eugenie finds out as she drops a pork chop into a bag of seasoned flour. When Sofia, her stepmother, starts shaking the paper bag, Eugenie understands that God has chosen her: her chest tightens, and the knowledge thuds into her brain as clear and unchangeable as the date of her birth. At twelve, she is considered to be unreliable or mistaken much of the time, and she hesitates to mention her news. She pours a half inch of peanut oil into the skillet, then washes her hands and dries them on her shirt.
“What do you have against aprons?” Sofia says.
“What do you have against aprons?”
Sofia clucks her tongue. “Your father doesn’t like it when you echo.”
“I know,” Eugenie says.
This is Sofia’s disapproval at its strongest. When Eugenie’s father married Sofia, he ceded the disciplinary responsibilities to his wife, who turned out to dislike his methods. Wet your bed? Go stand in the corner. Talk back? Wear a strip of tape over your mouth. Sofia preferred to send Eugenie to her room to “think,” where, inevitably, Eugenie fell asleep on her bed.
But he isn’t mean, her dad. He saves sea glass for her in shoeboxes, sorted by color. He gave her a silver-plated necklace in the shape of a heart.
They eat in front of 60 Minutes: pork chops and rice with gravy, cabbage, canned fruit cocktail. Sofia, almost eight months pregnant, finishes the rice right out of the pot with a serving spoon, her GED study guide open on her lap. The ceiling fan makes small ripples in the skirt of her caftan. It’s hot as Hades, she used to say, until Eugenie’s father overheard her and told her to stop.
“Let’s go for a swim,” Sofia says, eyes closed.
“There’s still that dead animal we saw yesterday.”
“I think it’s just a field mouse.”
“It smells terrible.”
“That’s why they don’t make perfume out of a drowned field mouse.” Sofia stands up, holding her belly. “We’ll just scoop it out with the net.”
The back porch light is burned out, so they take a flashlight. Eugenie steps on what turns out to be a nectarine pit. She examines her upturned foot in the flashlight beam, then zigzags the beam across the surface of the water. Her head feels stuffed with questions – do angels have blood, and can they feel water, and what do they eat, and has there ever been an instance of two anointed congregants in one family? She looks at Sofia, who has started plunging the net into the shallow end of the pool, hoping to find the mouse by chance. Eugenie gags at a wave of rotten, wet-wool odor.
“It smells like –”
“Shhh.” Sofia shakes the net. “I’m concentrating.”
Which of the five senses, if any, does an angel get to keep? Eugenie hates her own stupid questions. She sits on the edge of the diving board and dips her feet into the pool, half-hoping the mouse will brush against her toes, because Sofia wants so badly to find it.
“Forget the flashlight.” Sofia’s out of breath. “It’s useless.”
Eugenie drops the light and lies back on the board. Her father is an elder in the congregation, and sometimes she brings her questions to him. If she asks about this, she already knows what he’ll say: some variation of You think you’re special? She doesn’t. She is stringy-haired and terrible at math. Someone at school told her that her breath smells like whole milk – not just milk but whole milk, as if she exhales a kind of fattiness. She gets so bored in meetings at the Kingdom Hall that she makes up secret meanings for Biblical words: Lasciviousness is spun sugar. Lamentations are harps or wind-chimes. Harlot is the perfect name for a flower.
She is not special, and she does not want to be anointed; she has plans for earthly paradise after Armageddon. She has plans to help Sofia with the baby. She has plans to pick berries and eat them without washing them first; her father has assured her that this will be possible in paradise. I am not special, she thinks, then decides to pray – to remind God, who seems to have made what is surely His first mistake.