As the family neared the compound, they caught their first glimpse of The Bakers. A dozen girls in long floral dresses with golden hair in elaborate braids walked along the side of the road. Each carried a woven basket covered with checked cloth, like the one Little Red Riding Hood brought to her grandma. Lydia looked at their homemade dresses and lace-up boots, then down at her own skinny jeans, halter top, and Adidas, and felt both jealous and sad for them at the same time.
The allure of the Bakers’ treats was that they were all handmade by virgins. The girls baked all day at home, carried each batch up the hill to the store while they were still warm, and then their parents sold whatever was on hand to whomever was next on the endless line that stretched day and night from their cabin’s front door down to the parking lot.
Lydia’s brother Mitchell took his iPhone out of his jacket pocket and aimed it at the virgins, but their mother reached across the van seat and yanked it out of his hand. “No pictures!” she warned. “If you take their picture they won’t serve us.”
Obviously that rule didn’t apply to the food. At rustic wooden picnic tables under shady blossoming trees around the compound, tourists aimed their phones at generously domed muffins, golden apple fritters, and cookies the size of dinner plates. There was also a good amount of trading going on. A piece of this for a taste of that. Everyone wanted to try everything.
The line to get in was about a hundred people long, and quite a few tourists toward the back were snacking on previous purchases while waiting for their next turn at the service counter. As the family inched gradually forward, music started drifting down the hill from inside the cabin. The melody sounded like a variation on the gospel children’s song “This Little Light of Mine,” but the lyrics had been changed, and the tone was much more pointed. “Jeeeeeeeeeee-sus is gonna drop a dime on you,” a chorus of women sang. “Jeeeeeeeeeee-sus is gonna drop a dime on you. Jesus is gonna drop a dime on you, a dime on you, a dime on you, a dime on you.”
“What does that mean?” Mitchell asked his parents. He was nervously fiddling with his phone, but he didn’t take it out of his pocket.
“It’s old-time slang from the time before cell phones,” his father replied. “Pay phones used to cost a dime to make a call. So if you wanted to rat someone out to the cops, you’d use a pay phone and ‘Drop a dime on them.’ ”
“But why would Jesus call the cops on you?” Mitchell asked.
“Maybe Jesus is gonna tell on you to God instead,” Lydia suggested. They were all quiet after that until they reached the front of the line.
“Whoever has the money step to the register, the rest of your party can step to the side,” came a booming voice up ahead. Lydia and Mitchell flattened their bodies against a wall of preserves in the entryway while their father stepped up to the counter.
Behind the cashier in a little food prep area, five round, sturdy women in aprons were decorating fresh-from-the-fryer doughnuts with glossy chocolate ganache, peanut-butter chips, and marshmallow fluff—each round morsel was an individual work of art. “Jeeeeeeeeeee-sus, is gonna drop a dime on you,” the women sang as they worked.
“Forty dollars,” the register woman said to their father.
“Forty dollars for what?” he asked, handing the money over anyway. His family certainly hadn’t waited on that long line for nothing.
“Forty dollars for absolution,” she replied, and thrust a wicker basket into his arms. “Next!”
Mitchell and Lydia didn’t even wait to see what they’d gotten. They just turned around and raced each other back down the hill to the end of the line. Their parents peeked under the dishcloth on their way to join them, but their faces registered nothing.
“What did we get?” Mitchell shouted when his parents came within earshot. Their father handed their mother the basket.
“Pretzels!” she announced. Lydia and Mitchell stared at her in stunned silence. Lydia thought Mitchell might cry. Nobody reached for the basket.
“C’mon, these are good!” their father insisted, sounding angrier than he probably meant to. He reached into the basket, pulled out a big twist of dough, took a bite, and chewed for a long time.
“Look, they got pretzels,” one young man whispered to another from the line forming behind the family.
“You have something to trade?” Lydia and Mitchell’s father asked, eyeing their basket. They were going back for seconds, too.
“Sorry, no,” the taller of the two replied. “It’s just that they must really think you’re a sinner in need of extra absolution. The Bakers know everyone is in line for sweets. So if they stick you with bread, it means you should come back and try again.”
“I’m not made of money,” Lydia and Mitchell’s father grumbled to their mother. She gave her husband’s arm an encouraging squeeze and they all stayed where they were on the line.
After a while, Lydia excused herself to search for a restroom. When she found the row of yellow and teal Porta-Johns out past the parking lot, the line for a stall was almost as long as the line for food. She waited as long as she possibly could, then gave up and jogged around to the far side of the cabin where there was a broad back porch, and beyond that, a heavily wooded area that looked private enough. On the porch, a dozen men and boys in coarse denim shirts and button-up pants with suspenders were moving busily like an ant colony, stacking long objects into piles. Lydia couldn’t see what they were carrying clearly, since most of the piles were under tarps, but there seemed to be a lot of activity—counting, moving, arranging.
She was hustling for the tree line, but still straining to see what the men were doing, when she tripped on something heavy hidden in the grass. She stumbled and fell. She wondered for a moment why there was a small metal pineapple on the overgrown lawn. Then she noticed the handle with the metal ring on top. Then she screamed and wet her pants. The prickly warmth spread from the crotch of her jeans down both legs into her sneakers. The front of her pink shirt was soaked up to her bellybutton.
At the sound of her terrified yelp, a boy about Lydia’s age leapt off the porch and came running. She was too scared to move, and also too embarrassed. But when he reached her, he just scooped up the grenade as if it were an apple recently fallen from the nearest tree, and helped Lydia to her feet. He pretended not to notice her stained clothes or the tell-tale smell, and offered her his arm to hold as they walked back toward the cabin.
“Why was there a grenade in the grass?” Lydia asked.
“We keep weapons hidden in different places, in case we need ‘em,” he answered. His Pennsylvania accent was thick and formal.
“Do you buy weapons with the money from the treats?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am,” he replied, then steered her around another hidden grenade.
“What are they all for, though?” she asked. “The weapons. Why do you need so many?”
“Holy war,” he answered. “It’s coming. We just don’t know when. In the meantime, the women are offering absolution to as many as they can.”
“That’s nice of them,” Lydia said, though she wasn’t really sure if it was.
“Wait here,” he whispered, and left Lydia under the porch while he climbed the stairs. Above her head, she could hear boots moving swiftly back and forth and snippets of conversation. Rounds of ammunition were being inventoried and distributed. Occasionally someone would chuckle, but in general, the conversations sounded like they were strictly business.
The boy came back with a long flowered dress in his arms a few minutes later. It was off-white with small pink rosebuds all over it. The collar, long sleeves, and buttons down the front to the waist had clearly been hand-sewn with great care. “You and my sister look like you’re about the same size,” he said, handing it over. Lydia had never been so grateful or so humiliated. He turned his back politely and she slipped the dress over her head, and then she wriggled out of her wet clothes. When she was finished, the boy handed Lydia a burlap sack for her soiled clothes and cautioned her to stick to the path on her way back down the hill. Then he was gone.
As Lydia made her way back to the food line, a few tourists who had already eaten their fill and weren’t afraid of getting kicked off the compound pulled out cell phones and took her picture. Even her own parents didn’t recognize her until she was back beside them.
“Oh, honey!” Lydia’s mother exclaimed. “Don’t you look pretty!”
“Where’d you get that dress?” Mitchell demanded.
“I met a Baker and he gave it to me,” Lydia said, hiding the sack of dirty clothes behind her back.
“See! I knew those pretzels didn’t mean anything. They like our little girl the best,” her mother said proudly, examining the stitching at the waist of the full, gathered skirt with her fingertips.
“We’re done here,” Lydia and Mitchell’s father said firmly. “Get in the van.”
The rest of the family waited a second to see if he was serious. He was. They all got back in the van, and once they’d made it onto paved roads again, Lydia and Mitchell sang a few rounds of “Jesus, is gonna drop a dime on you,” until they got bored with it.
Lydia stared out the window, fingering the delicate mother-of-pearl buttons now adorning her chest. She did a mental inventory of what flours and fruit they had at home. Satisfied their pantry contained all she’d need, Lydia decided that when they got back, she would try and make her family a pie.
Emily Rems is a feminist writer, editor, rock star, playwright, and occasional plus-size model living in New York’s East Village. Best known as managing editor of BUST magazine, Emily is also a music and film commentator for New York’s NPR affiliate WNYC, and is the drummer for the horror-punk band the Grasshoppers. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in the anthologies Cassette from my Ex and Zinester’s Guide to NYC, and her short stories have been published in Rum Punch Press, Lumen, Prose ‘N Cons Mystery Magazine, Writing Raw, PoemMemoirStory, and the Santa Fe Writers Project’s journal the Quarterly. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for fiction in 2015 and is working on a novel. Visit her website emilyrems.com and follow her on Twitter @emilyrems.