“You’re such a dork, Tommy! Stop asking me out,” I snapped.
“So that’s a no?” Tommy grinned.
I waited on the steps to the church. Daddy gladhanded the Elders, trying to squeeze more onto the collection plate. Mama appeared and squeezed my arm. Even through the jacket, her grip hurt. I winced away, the nasty bruise on my arm throbbing all over again. “Why, Tommy Doyle. Of course my Ruby means to say yes. She’d be pleased to go out with you.”
I stared at her. She tightened her grip, her fake smile getting bigger. “Uh, yeah,” I said, daring to pull my arm away. That was a mistake. It hurt so bad, tears popped into my eyes. I blinked them away, nodding.
“Great,” Tommy responded, oblivious to it all. “Friday at 7:00? We can grab a movie.” I kept nodding like a bobblehead doll. “See you in school tomorrow.” Terrific. By lunchtime everyone would know. As though it weren’t hard enough being the preacher’s daughter. My arm ached loudly.
I looked with longing at the jeans and running shoes my classmates wore. Mama insisted on skirts and long sleeved blouses. “We’re examples to the town, Ruby,” she insisted. “The Lord expects you to dress appropriately.” Sure He did. Mr. Miller wrote some dates on the board. As I dutifully copied them in my notebook, Sarah and Lori giggled in the back corner. I refused to turn. My face heated, to my dismay. I pretended to read my notes carefully.
The giggles became outright laughter and pointing in the lunchroom. A commotion at one table turned out to be some guys. I couldn’t see Tommy well, but I seethed. He was probably enjoying his celebrity. Would he talk the preacher’s daughter afterward? Ha! I’d sit through the movie and then insist on going home. Poor Tommy would leave with hopes dashed. My shoulders dropped, realizing he’d likely lie about getting a feel off me. I heard that’s what boys did.
Anger fueled me the whole walk home. I tromped into the house. “Ruby, you stop that right now,” Mama scolded. “What’s made you forget your upbringing?” Her eyes had that glint in them. Danger ahead, but I didn’t care.
“I don’t want to go out with Tommy Doyle, Mama,” I told her. “He’s annoying and will probably tell them I did nasty things.”
“He’s the son of a church elder, girl,” Mama snapped, as though that meant something. “How dare you defy me? It’s not smart to come into my house stomping your feet and whining.” Her voice edged like a razor. “Get the belt.”
My stomach dropped as I hurried up the stairs. Dawdling would only make it worse. I grabbed the hated belt, tensing at the memory of past beatings. Mama was already in the back bedroom. Without waiting to be told, I lay on my belly and pulled up my skirt. Crack! I bit my hand to keep my whimper inside. My thighs stung to high heaven, but making a sound would just bring on more. As the pain echoed through me, I counted. Seven strikes this time.
“Learned your lesson yet, girl?” Mama asked, patting her hair back into place.
“Yes, Mama,” I responded in a strong voice as required.
“Why you make me do this, I have no idea. I just do as the Lord requires.” She held out the belt. Taking it from her, I walked as quietly as I could. Every step was a jolt of familiar heat. The Lord required this? Hypocrite.
I hid in the bathroom. It was the only excuse that kept Mama away. My hands balled into fists on my lap, pressing my nails hard into my palms. Breathe, Ruby. Just breathe. I refused to let the tears out. I felt I was drowning in pain and loneliness. Another deep breath bolstered me. I hurried downstairs to do my homework.
I got out of the shower Friday evening to discover Mama laid out my clothes. “Let me see after you dress,” she called up to me in a happy voice. The pink blouse had a high lace collar; a pink floral ruffle ringed the hemline of the linen skirt. I sighed. New clothes.
Mama fluttered about when I presented myself, fussing at my hair. She sprayed it into place and even spritzed my wrist with her perfume. Perfume! Tommy would think I actually wanted to do this. I thanked her like a good girl.
As the clock struck 7:00, the doorbell rang. “Well, Tommy Doyle, don’t you clean up nicely,” Mama gushed, as though she’d never seen him dressed up for church.
“You look real pretty,” Tommy said to me.
“Thank you,” I answered politely as Mama hovered.
“Have her home at 10:30, Tommy,” Mama simpered.
In the theater, we crab-walked to seats in the center of the row. “No, wait. You sit on the other side. I don’t want to accidently bump your sore arm,” Tommy told me, stepping past me. I sat, numb with surprise. I noticed little of the movie. How did he know? I struggled to find the right words.
Outside, Tommy stopped suddenly. “Look, I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable in there. C’mere, I want to show you something.” He took a couple steps into an alley and tugged at his shirt. My eyes widened at the bruises on his back. “You don’t have to say anything. Just so’s you know I understand.” Dumbstruck, I nodded.
“We have time. Want to get a soda?” he asked, tucking in his shirt.
“That would be nice,” I responded, surprising myself. His smile made my belly warm. I reached out to touch his arm. “Thank you.”
He coaxed me into conversation over a Coke. I even laughed. “Want to do this next Friday?” he asked as we left.
Something bubbled inside. I grabbed hold of the lifeline. I shared this secret with Tommy Doyle? The Lord worked in mysterious ways after all.