HEAVEN HELP ME
by Abbie Johnson Taylor
A bright light illuminated the dilapidated barn’s interior. Was it the moon or the Star of David? Mary Ellen didn’t know or care.
The pain sliced through her, taking her breath away. Her stomach tightened, and her back ached. Gasping and crying out, she grabbed Bobby Joe’s hand. As the pain subsided, she said, through clenched teeth, “Who’s crazy idea was this, giving birth in a barn?”
Bobby Joe wiped the sweat from her brow. “This wasn’t my idea. I tried to get you to the hospital. It’s not my fault the car ran out of gas.”
“You’re doing fine. When the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, she probably didn’t even have a midwife. If she can do it, so can you. Besides, you said yourself nine months ago that this baby was conceived by an Angel of the Lord. Maybe He’ll look out for you.”
“Very funny,” said Mary Ellen, as she remembered when she first discovered she was pregnant.
At sixteen, she was living with her father in Casper, Wyoming, and attending high school. Her grades were good. She participated in the concert choir, speech team, drama club, and cheerleading squad. At her father’s insistence, she was also a member of the Catholic church’s youth group.
She became involved with a boy, and when she told him she was pregnant, he swore he wanted nothing to do with her or the baby. Since abortion was out of the question, she came up with a plan she thought would work.
“An Angel of the Lord came to me last night,” she told her father one morning at breakfast. “He told me that I have been chosen to give birth to the second Messiah.”
“What?” asked her father, glancing up from his newspaper.
“I’m going to give birth to a second Savior. The Angel said His name will be Jesus Christ II, and He will save the world.”
“Tell me this is another play you’re doing at school.”
“This is no play. I’m pregnant with the second Messiah.”
“Pregnant!” He threw aside his newspaper and glared at her. “Who’s the boy?”
“There’s no boy. The child was conceived by the Lord.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard! Go up to your room and stay there.”
Mary Ellen looked at her untouched plate of eggs and bacon. Since she was already feeling nauseated, she didn’t mind leaving it. As she rose to her feet, she asked, “What about school?”
“You’re not going to school today. Go upstairs. I don’t even want to see you.”
As she climbed the stairs, the nausea increased. Leaving the door to her room open, she flopped onto the bed. The nausea subsided. She waited to hear her father rinsing the dishes and putting them in the dishwasher and the slamming of the back door, but there was only silence.
She finally pulled herself to her feet and crept down the stairs. On the landing, she stopped and peered over the railing. Her father sat at the dining room table. The newspaper lay where he’d tossed it, and he was staring into space. “Dad, aren’t you going to the office today?”
He jumped and glowered at her. “Of course, I’m not going to the office today. I need to figure out what to do with you. Get upstairs!”
Mary Ellen’s stomach heaved. In the bathroom, it all came out, the bile, the tears of desperation.
That afternoon, her father said, “Go live in sin with your cousin Agnes.” He handed her a one-way bus ticket to Sheridan, a smaller town approximately 150 miles north of Casper.
The bus wound its way east. After about an hour’s layover in Gillette, it headed west, pulling into Sheridan late that evening. She took a cab to Agnes’s address.
The house was white with green trim. A light shown in the front window. A nearby street lamp illuminated the area.
As she stood on the sidewalk, she was filled with a sense of foreboding. She’d only met her cousin once years ago when she was eight and Agnes was about ten years older. When Mary Ellen was fourteen, Agnes announced that she was a Lesbian and that she had a partner. The family refused to have anything more to do with her.
As Mary Ellen stood gazing at the house, she wondered what kind of people Agnes and her partner were. Would they invite her to engage in sexual activities? Would they force her? Her upbringing taught her that homosexuals were sinners. Was she a sinner?
Cold blasts of icy wind blew wet, heavy snowflakes that covered her in minutes. She shivered, despite the warmth of her winter coat. She pulled its hood over her head and tightened the strings. Clasping her hands in prayer, she murmured, “Heaven, help me.”
A moon appeared, and the snow lessened. A car turned into the driveway of the house next door. A figure emerged from its interior and came toward her. She saw a boy about her age, tall and slim. Most of him was hidden by his winter coat and hat, but she liked his face. His blue eyes gazed at her with concern. “Are you lost?” he asked with a smooth, southern drawl.
“Not exactly,” she said. “I’m here to see my cousin, but I’m wondering if this is such a good idea.”
His eyebrows raised. “If you’re not sure you want to visit, why did you come?”
“Because I have nowhere else to go,” she answered, struggling to keep the tears from escaping. “My dad kicked me out because I’m pregnant. He told me to go live in sin with my cousin and her partner, who are Lesbians.”
“Whoa. You know, Agnes and Kim aren’t so bad. I deliver their paper every day, and they’re actually very nice. Kim even gives me homemade cookies. They teach at the college.”
“Okay,” she said, feeling somewhat reassured.
“I’m Bobby Joe Harper. My family moved here from Alabama last year. My folks work for the veterans administration, and they were transferred here. What’s your name?”
“Mary Ellen Carson.”
The front door of Agnes and Kim’s house opened, as the porch light came on. A woman appeared and called, “Hello there.”
“Hi Agnes,” Bobby Joe called. “I was just talking to your cousin.” With a wave, he hurried away.
With trepidation, Mary Ellen sauntered up the walk and climbed the steps to the front porch. “Look at you!” said Agnes with a broad grin, as she pulled the girl into her arms. “You were just a little thing when I last saw you.”
To her surprise, Mary Ellen found herself crying on her cousin’s shoulder. She hadn’t been comforted by another woman since her mother passed away three years earlier.
“Let’s get you and that baby of yours inside before you both freeze to death.” With an arm around Mary Ellen, Agnes guided her into the house. “Why don’t you take off your coat? Sit here, and I’ll get you some hot chocolate.”
Mary Ellen sank onto the couch, enveloped by the room’s warmth. Besides the sofa, there were two armchairs. A coffee table stood in front of the couch, and an end table was placed next to each armchair. A bookcase dominated one corner.
Another woman sat down next to her and took her hand. “Hello, you must be Mary Ellen. Agnes told me about you after your father called this afternoon. I’m so glad to meet you. I’m Kim.”
Mary Ellen smiled, reassured by Kim’s warm grip, as they shook hands.
When Agnes appeared with a tray, Mary Ellen was surprised to find that the two women looked alike. They could have been twins with their identical brown hair and blue eyes. “A penny for your thoughts,” said Agnes, as she handed Mary Ellen a steaming mug of cocoa and Kim a cup of coffee and settled herself on the couch on Mary Ellen’s other side with her own mug.
Mary Ellen turned to Kim. “Are you sure you’re not my cousin, too? You guys look like sisters.”
Agnes laughed. “That’s one of the things that attracted us to each other.”
“Stewart had a cute birth mark on his nose,” Mary Ellen found herself saying about the father of her unborn child.
As tears threatened, Kim squeezed her hand. “I know, sweetie. People say they love you, then desert you when you need them the most. We’ll take care of you.”
“She’s right,” said Agnes, putting a hand on Mary Ellen’s shoulder. “We’ll stand behind you, no matter what you decide to do about the baby.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Mary Ellen, as she gulped back tears.
“Kim and I have been trying to have a child of our own, but it’s not easy,” said Agnes. “Adoption can be a pain in the anatomy, and there’s no sperm bank here in Sheridan.”
Mary Ellen brightened. “I could give my baby to you and then go back home, couldn’t I?”
“I hate to say this, kid,” said Agnes. “but when I talked to your dad this afternoon, I got the impression he doesn’t want you darkening his door again.”
“You’re probably right,” said Mary Ellen, as tears threatened to fall. “What am I going to do? Where will I go?”
“Stay here with us,” said Kim, squeezing her hand. “We’ll raise the baby together. It’ll be the closest we’ll come to having a child of our own.”
Mary Ellen could no longer control the tears that cascaded down her cheeks. “I don’t know why you’re being so nice to me. I’m not even a… um… Lesbian.”
“Family should stick together,” said Agnes. “Your religious beliefs and sexual orientation shouldn’t matter. Your family should stand by you, no matter what. It’s too bad our parents don’t realize that. We’re going to stick together, and to Hell with the rest of them.”
When Mary Ellen finally managed to dry her tears and blow her nose, she said, “Thanks, guys.”
“Of course, sweetie,” said Kim, patting her shoulder. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Agnes wasted no time enrolling Mary Ellen in school. Bobby Joe drove her there and home every day, and they became friends.
Eight months later at Thanksgiving, they were standing on a swinging bridge a block away from where they lived. A moon illuminated the snow-covered creek bed. Bobby Joe removed Mary Ellen’s mitten. “What are you doing?” she asked with a giggle. “It’s cold out here.”
“I won’t let your fingers freeze,” said Bobby Joe, as he clasped her hand between his gloved ones. “I’ve got something for you.”
He reached into his pocket, and Mary Ellen gasped, as she felt a ring being placed on her finger. “It’s not much,” Bobby Joe said. “I bought it at a pawn shop, but it sure is pretty, isn’t it?”
Mary Ellen turned her hand this way and that until the ring was caught in the glow of moonlight. “Yes, it’s beautiful.”
“You know what it means, don’t you?”
“What it means? Bobby Joe, are you asking me to marry you?”
“Of course, silly,” said Bobby Joe with a laugh.
“Why? You haven’t even slept with me.”
“That doesn’t matter. This kid needs a dad. I know yours wasn’t the greatest, but mine is, and I could be a good father and… I love you.”
Stunned, Mary Ellen gaped at him for a moment before saying, “I love you, too, but what about Agnes and Kim? They want to help me raise the baby.”
“I know. They’re nice people, and they’ve been good to you, but this kid needs a mother and a father.”
Mary Ellen thought of her own childhood before her mother died. Because her parents were unable to have more children, they doted on her. After cancer took her mother unexpectedly, her father became more and more distant, and she felt more and more neglected. She realized that she wanted her baby to have the same happy childhood she had when her mother was alive.
Later, they found Agnes and Kim drinking coffee with Bobby Joe’s parents in the Harpers’ living room. “Dad, Mom,” said Bobby Joe, taking Mary Ellen’s hand. “Mary Ellen and I have decided to get married.”
“What do you mean you guys decided to get married?” said Agnes. “Mary Ellen, Kim and I thought we were going to help you raise the baby.”
“You guys could still baby-sit while we’re in school,” Mary Ellen said. “Maybe Bobby Joe and I could live with you until we find a place of our own.”
“You’re too young,” said Mr. Harper.
“I know,” said Bobby Joe. “but this kid needs a father, and I know I could be a good one like you, Dad.”
“I’m sure you can,” said Mrs. Harper. “Wanting to take responsibility for this child is admirable. Mary Ellen, you’re a good girl. It’s a shame this happened to you, but let’s not make any hasty decisions.”
“Hasty decisions,” said Bobby Joe. “I’ve known for months that I love Mary Ellen, and I want to marry her. I just now worked up the courage to ask her.”
“And I realized I love him, too,” said Mary Ellen.
“Marriage is a big commitment,” said Mrs. Harper. “You two have your whole lives ahead of you and college to think about. As long as Agnes and Kim are willing to help with the baby, maybe you should wait.”
After a few minutes of interminable silence, Mr. Harper blew his nose and said, “Son, you can’t get married without our permission. Your mother’s right. Why don’t you wait a couple of years? If you still want to get married, you’ll have our blessing.”
In the minutes that followed, it occurred to Mary Ellen that they could run away, somehow get false identification cards, drive to Los Vegas, get married there, and start over somewhere else, but what about the baby? Bobby Joe interrupted her thoughts. “I suppose we could wait, couldn’t we, Mary Ellen?”
“I guess,” she answered.
Bobby Joe surprised her by pulling her into an embrace in front of everyone. “Mary Ellen, I promise I’ll still love you in two years.”
“I hope so,” she said, fighting back tears. “I’ll always love you.”
A month later, as they were driving home on a little-used country road late on Christmas Eve, Mary Ellen said, “Bobby Joe, I think I’m in labor.”
“Okay,” said Bobby Joe, pulling to the side of the road. “I’ll call Agnes and have her meet us at the hospital. Oh shoot, my cell battery’s dead.”
“Oh, God, I think my water just broke!”
“Just relax,” he said, taking her hand and surveying the surrounding landscape. A bright moon illuminated the newly fallen snow. “I think I see a house in the distance. We’ll go there and ask for help.”
He put the car in gear, and they soon pulled up in front of a broken-down house that looked deserted except for a light shining in a front window. “I don’t know about this,” Mary Ellen said, as Bobby Joe helped her from the car.
“Don’t worry. If no one’s home, the door might be unlocked. We can at least go in and use the phone to call 911.”
They climbed a rickety flight of snow-covered steps to a sagging porch. Bobby Joe banged on the screen door. Mary Ellen gazed at the little brown house. Its paint was peeling in places, and a nearby window sported a shattered pane.
She gaped at the man who opened the door. He wore nothing but white boxer shorts, and his hair was as white as the snow. He almost lost his balance, as he teetered in the doorway. She smelled alcohol on his breath, mixed with the odor of his unwashed body.
“We need help,” Bobby Joe said. “My wife’s going to have a baby.” Mary Ellen was surprised to hear him refer to her as his wife but realized that explanation was simpler.
The man stared at them in disbelief. His voice slurred as he spoke. “Sorry, buddy. There’s no room at the inn. You can use the stable around back if you want.” He slammed the door.
Back in the car, Bobby Joe tried to start the engine several times, but nothing happened. After glancing at the fuel gauge, he said, “We’re out of gas.”
“Oh, that’s just great,” Mary Ellen said, tears welling in her eyes. “Now what are we going to do?”
Bobby Joe took her hand. “I think we’d better find that stable. We’re not going to make it to the hospital tonight.”
Now, here she was, several hours later, lying on the hard cement floor in a deserted barn behind the house. “We could have made it to the hospital if you’d only made sure the car had a full tank of gas before we left town.”
“How was I to know you were going to give birth tonight of all nights? Besides, the pains seem to be getting closer together. It can’t be too much longer.”
Mary Ellen raised herself on one elbow and surveyed the interior. “What can we wrap the baby in? I don’t see any swaddling clothes, do you?”
“We’ll figure something out,” Bobby Joe said, as he eased her onto her back and wiped the sweat from her brow. “Maybe my sweatshirt will work.”
“You already gave me your coat as a cover,” she said, shivering and pulling the garment more tightly around her. “If you give the baby your sweatshirt, you’ll freeze to death. As a matter of fact, I may freeze to death before I have this stupid baby.”
“No, you won’t,” Bobby Joe said, as he lay down beside her and took her in his arms. “I’ll keep you warm tonight. In the morning, the old man should be sober enough to help us.”
As they lay huddled together, she experienced more and more pains. Soon, they came one after another. He murmured soothing endearments, as she strained to bring forth whatever life was inside her.
After she pushed for the last time and heard the baby’s cries, she saw light and heard murmuring voices. Hands touched her. She was enveloped with a sense of peace.
Note: The above story can also be read on Campbell’s World. I was inspired to write it after hearing the song, “Breath of Heaven” by Amy Grant. You can click the Play button below to hear me sing it, accompanying myself on piano.