Say the Word

The bear was the only reason the children signed up for Vacation Bible School in the first place and Felicity Gaynor knew it. But that didn’t bother her. What did nag at her, in hindsight, was that she hadn’t actually seen the creature, even when she handed $125 to Troy Phelps, the bear man, especially since that cash constituted her last paycheck from Good News Christian Books. During a sales meeting on her last employed Monday morning, Felicity had admitted that she found herself rooting for the Antichrist while reading Too Late! The Tribulation Trilogy—her point being that Satan was crafty that way and could hook you in before you knew it. Mr. Samuels called her into his office, scrawled out the severance check with a furious hand and thrust it at her without another word. After the shock subsided, Felicity scrambled to find another way to serve, lest the Lord interpret her lack of purpose as sloth, since the last thing she needed was to piss off the Almighty again. So she prayed with the fevered sincerity of the desperate, and within a week she was blessed with another chance: to revive the Calvary Baptist Vacation Bible School after years of steady decline. They couldn’t pay her, and that was a problem, but she had a higher reward in mind. If she kept her end of the bargain, the Good Lord would surely keep His. And for her part, that bear was her ace in the hole.

Even though Felicity had been born again three years ago, there were still times it felt like living in someone else’s skin. To mark her conversion, she had taken to wearing pink—primrose pink—head-to-toe, every day. “Like Johnny Cash,” she said, “only ladylike.” Even her Bible was pink and she raised it to shield her eyes from the August sun while she walked door-to-door and slipped bright yellow fliers into her neighbors’ mailboxes. On the flier a cartoon bear wore a robe and sandals, from the neck down identical to the Son of God with whom the bear sauntered arm in arm. Have Fun Bearing Witness for the Lord! was the headline she’d come up with. Felicity had spent fitful hours with scissors and glue at the church photocopier, reducing and enlarging that bear’s grinning clip art head until it fit just right atop the Savior’s duplicated body.

The muggy air pressed on her like a heavy hand, and the constant lazy buzzing was enough to drive a person crazy. Felicity squinted down the block. American flags hung lifeless from every porch, and it made her think of a silent parade. She could make out her own house by the gutter dangling from the roof, like a broken arm trying to wave down help. She made a mental note to set out another potted geranium.

On the way home, she stopped to hand the last flier to a frowning boy pushing a bike with training wheels. His helmet kept slipping down over his eyes; it was covered with stickers shaped like looped ribbons that read: Support Our Troops.

“Have your momma call and sign you up.”

“It’s summer. I don’t want to go to school.” He tried to hand the flier back.

“This is different,” she said, folding her arms. “This is fun.”

He looked at the flier again and screwed up his face. “What’s that bear doing with Jesus?”

Felicity got that short-of-breath feeling she’d always had when she was on the verge of making a sale at Good News. “That bear is Jesus’ friend. You can be Jesus’ friend, too.”

“I don’t like him,” the boy said. “He looks like a terrorist.”

“The bear?”

“Jesus.”

Inside her house it was dark and chilly and smelled of overripe tropical fruit. She had thought the Mango Mist room deodorizer might bring a whiff of the exotic into her home—there had been something hopeful about it at the time—but now it just made her queasy. Her dress clung in damp clammy patches to her chest and shoulders and underarms. The blinds were down, the curtains pulled tight, and she groped through the living room until she made it to the kitchen.

Felicity set her pink Bible on the counter and had just begun piecing together a bologna sandwich when she heard a rustle coming down the hall. A shadowy figure in a camouflage poncho filled the doorway. He had on wraparound reflective sunglasses and two tiny images of her floated where his eyes should have been.

“I’m hungry,” her husband whispered.

At least he wasn’t wearing his old welder’s mask, Felicity thought. At least I can hear what he’s saying.

She hurried to the pantry. “What sounds good? We’ve got soup. We’ve got chicken noodle soup.” She also had vegetable alphabet but the last time she served it to Monty, he’d come unglued trying to arrange the letters into the Pledge of Allegiance. She would have offered him part of her sandwich but he’d only take meals that came directly from a can.

They sat at opposite sides of the kitchen table; the only sound was the repetitive clink of Monty’s spoon in the bowl followed by a quiet slurp. Neither of them looked up. Felicity concentrated on the pink slab of meat between spongy white slices of bread. No mustard. She’d forgotten the mustard, that’s what was wrong. All she could taste was the bland rubber of processed meat. She didn’t even like bologna. But it was too late; she didn’t want to disturb Monty. She wanted him to finish his soup.

Monty put down his spoon. “You can reverse your fate.” He said it in a rush of exhale, like a wheeze.

Felicity looked up and waited for the rest.

“There’s a word for it,” he added.

Still, she waited. Since he’d come home, there were times she was convinced that the Lord would eventually speak to her through Monty.

What was the word, she wanted to know.

But he pushed away from the table and rustled back down the hall to the bedroom. She heard the soft crackle of the shortwave radio. The wailing would start soon.

It had been six months since his tour of duty was complete. There was talk he might be called up again; he was “able-bodied” according to the Department of Defense. There was a small shameful part of her that secretly hoped for this. Felicity reached for her Bible and fingered the dogtags she used as a bookmark.

In the meantime, the bills were piling up and the house was falling apart.

It was still hot outside, and buggy; the buzzing rose and fell but never let up. Felicity stepped among the potted geraniums to the shady side of the porch. She brushed powdery rust from the seat of an old metal lawn chair and laid a threadbare pink towel over it before settling in. In her lap, her spiral notebook divided and color-coded Vacation Bible School by day, by hour, by quarter hour. She prepared to pray. Most people, she knew, had the mistaken notion that prayer came easily for the devout. But when the stakes were high, praying could feel like a strain on par with passing a kidney stone. It didn’t help that Pastor Hugh’s words pushed their way into her head: “If you don’t get what you pray for, Sister, you aren’t praying hard enough.” Felicity said her Amens, and opened her notebook to lay out her strategy for Vacation Bible School. She sat up straighter, determined to get this right. Those sweet souls, she thought, were like so much Jell-O—ready to be molded, firmed up and sealed tight for the Lord.

The turnout was not what she’d hoped. Of the 137 fliers Felicity stuck in mailboxes or tacked up on bulletin boards in groceries and Laundromats, she took twenty-four phone calls. When Monday morning rolled around, a dozen kids trickled in. One was the pastor’s son who, she assumed, was already saved, and who, she surmised, was there to keep an eye on her. But if twelve was good enough for Jesus, twelve was good enough for her.

They gathered in the church basement, its concrete block walls a weak pea-green. The room was used mostly for post-funeral gatherings and the occasional homemade wedding reception. Felicity and Monty had held theirs in that very basement four years ago. She and her chirpy mother had covered the place with burgundy crepe streamers that went limp from humidity and clashed nauseatingly with the pale green walls. The reception had been too long and the basement too stuffy and her dress too stiff and the virgin punch too sweet. She sat on a metal folding chair and watched Monty move through the cramped room, a stranger to her, handsome in his Guard uniform, upright and true. He’d been determined “to do right by her,” even though it meant rushing and raising questions. But then, not a month later, her body played a trick on them both, expelling the tiny thing even before she began to show. It wasn’t something she let herself recollect in detail. That was the sort of pain you had to stay ahead of or it would pull you under. But Monty had startled her with the force of his grief, a grief so jagged she vowed never to let him be torn apart like that again.

Right after, she recalled thinking about God’s habit of shoving you face first into ugliness as a way to bring you closer to Him; that was the way it always seemed to work. At the time, she decided it was a nasty trick, the sort of cruel dysfunction that would land a human father on a daytime talk show. But now she understood that when God smacked you around it was for good reason. In her case, anyway. But Monty was a different story, which, when she thought about it too long, made her angry all over again.

But on this first sweltering day of Vacation Bible School she kept her focus on the positive. The basement’s lone air conditioner chugged away from one of the high, shoebox windows, and faintly ruffled the Christian flag at the front of the room. The children lined up while Felicity seated herself at the scarred upright piano and began banging out “Onward Christian Soldiers” with precise out-of-tune fervor; the G key stuck under her middle finger and she had to punch it each time until her joint ached. The tinny chords bounced off the walls as the children marched around the room’s perimeter. They mumbled through the verses as they shuffled, but when they reached the refrain they perked up and shouted the words:

Onward, Christian so-o-oldiers, marching as to war,

With the cross of Je-sus going on before!

The youngest, Lucas, an energetic redhead, thrust a small freckled fist into the air and stamped his feet as he marched. When Felicity slowed the song for the final dramatic refrain, the boy jumped onto a metal folding chair and with a rat-tat-tat-tat mimicked a machine gun mowing down a row of invisible enemies. Sarah the quiet girl shrieked.

Felicity flinched, but she admired the boy’s enthusiasm.

When she got home, the house was quiet and the bedroom door was open. She crept down the hall, tentatively called out for Monty, but got no reply. The last thing she wanted to do was surprise him. She’d done that once and ended up on her back with his hands around her throat.

After he’d come home from the war, she began sleeping on the davenport and had turned the bedroom over to Monty. She stopped at the threshold, switched on the light and her heart sank as it always did.

There were three fresh punches in the drywall.

She had long ago given up on the room she had lovingly decorated as a newlywed. Now it resembled a junkyard except that all the salvage was shiny and new. The carpet, the bed, the dresser, the nightstand, the windowsill, the desk, every surface was littered with metal pipes and fittings and bolts and brackets and screws and springs and nails—pieces sharp and heavy and hard. Felicity went to the utility room and came back with a handful of super-strength garbage bags. She waded in and went to work, picking up what she could, starting with the bed. At least she could clear off the bed. Out of habit, she pulled back a corner of the comforter to check: the sheets were still tucked tight from when she’d changed them three weeks ago. She patted Monty’s pillow, noticed how flat it was. When she got a paying job, she’d buy him a new pillow, thick and soft, to lay his head on. The man needed rest; that’s what he needed.

Back to work. She had dragged four loads of hardware to the backyard by the time she heard Monty’s truck. He came in through the kitchen, wearing his hooded poncho, his face concealed by a welder’s mask, carrying two large paper sacks that clanked against his legs as he lurched down the hall.

The sacks were always from Miller’s Hardware, not the cavernous Home Depot. She knew he preferred Miller’s narrow aisles and chock-full shelves with their homey labels of black felt tip on masking tape. Tomorrow she would load up the car and return the bags she just cleared out. They knew her at Miller’s and she could return things without receipts, though the younger Miller tended to huff and roll his eyes when he saw her coming. But one bag of elbow pipes and lug nuts would buy a bag of groceries.

Before turning in for the night, she sat on the floor outside Monty’s closed door with her Bible in her lap. From inside came the murmur of muffled voices from the shortwave. She draped Monty’s dogtags around her neck and began her nightly drills. Since she’d been born again she had devoted herself to memorizing the entire Bible. She’d always been good at memorization, and people used to say she’d become an actress some day. At Good News they used to quiz her when things were slow, and she took pride in snapping out chapter and verse without blinking. Tonight she was making her way through 2 Kings. Here was the story of Elijah, he and his bald head mocked by a gang of youths. Out of the forest came two she-bears, called into action by the Lord—Look out!— and those bears went about doing the Lord’s work, mauling to death forty-two of those kids. What a mess, Felicity thought. But what a lesson! She bookmarked the page, thinking it might come in handy this week.

The next morning, the church parking lot was roped off and she had to park on the street. A crew dragged jackhammers from a red Anspaugh Asphalt & Roofing truck. The brawniest man tipped his helmet and turned her way, one broad shoulder dipped lower than the other as though he were tilting, about to fall, and she felt his eyes on her as she crossed the street to the church and stepped up the walk. This made her feverish in a way that seemed familiar and dangerous, but she didn’t dare look at him.

When Felicity sat down at the piano, there were only ten children. This deflated her and she did her best not to scan yesterday to pinpoint where she’d gone wrong. Don’t look back. Lot’s wife found out the hard way. She would not let Satan get a cloven toehold on her mind by letting doubt creep in. Felicity tried to lift her spirits by attacking the opening hymn with extra gusto.

Afterward she took the children next door to the parsonage where Pastor Hugh had an above-ground pool. There, using the empty pool, a garden hose, her Bible, and the children split into two groups, she demonstrated the story of Noah.

The Great Flood had not gone well. First, it took forever to fill the small, but deep pool, and Felicity—shouting out scripture to be heard over the jackhammers—had to repeat some verses and ad lib others just to mark time. Meanwhile, on her orders, the designated sinners stood stock-still in the pool while on the surrounding deck, Noah’s family began to taunt them. The longer it took the more Noah’s clan jeered. When the water finally rose chest high, Sarah began to whimper that she couldn’t swim, and Charlene started to protest in a very angry voice that she hadn’t done anything wrong. This only fueled Noah and his gang. They continued to torment the sinners and sat down, legs dangling in the pool, to kick water at the unfortunates. By the time Felicity got to the part about Noah sending out the dove, Lucas—the most vicious of Noah’s children—was pulled in by his ankle, and Charlene held him underwater until Felicity jumped in and dragged him out.

Felicity pushed wet hair from her eyes to unlock her car door. Her ears still rang from the jackhammers even though they were packed up and gone. The expanse of parking lot was now great chunks of concrete, craggy as a moonscape.

She thought she heard someone clear his throat behind her. When she turned she recognized the tilting shoulder.

He said, “Run away with me.”

It was Ray-o. Clean shaven. It had been a long time.

“Holy shit,” she said.

He laughed, hard. “Good one.”

He rubbed a hand along his chin feeling for the absent beard that she knew so well. He smelled sweaty and familiar. She suddenly became aware of her drenched clothes and crossed her Bible over her chest.

“I mean it, Liddy,” he said. “Just say the word.”

What is the word? she wondered out loud.

“Pie,” he said.

Felicity leaned back against her car. The sun-scorched metal burned through her damp clothes down to her skin. It felt good.

“Either that,” he said, “or tequila shots at Sparky’s. Your call.”

At Jan’s Putt-Putt & Pies, Felicity kept her Bible on the table. Now and then she ran a pink-lacquered fingernail over Monty’s dogtags.

“Lemon meringue,” said Ray-o, shaking his head. “You’ve changed.”

“I got right with God.”

He smirked and offered her a cigarette which she refused. He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “Don’t tell me you quit everything.”

“Cold turkey,” she said, her eyes narrowed. “By the Good Lord’s intervention.” She placed a hand on her Bible.

“Cold turkey is dry and tasteless, darlin’.” He slipped the cigarettes back in his shirt pocket.

When the waitress placed Felicity’s plate in front of her, he reached across and swiped a thick finger through the meringue leaving a deep gouge. “At least it’s sweet on top,” he said and licked it off. Without the beard his mouth looked cleaner somehow. She watched him dig his fork into the crust of his cherry pie. Red juice ran out and over the white plate.

Felicity sighed and turned her gaze out the window. A miniature golf ball rolled past the stunted windmill, down a curved embankment and plopped into a water trap. A little boy began to cry.

“When was the last time you went to church?”

Ray-o looked upward, trying to recall. “The church came to me. The week before I got out. Got a pep talk from the prison chaplain. Wholly unnecessary. You’re looking at a model of rehabilitation.” He winked. “Next time, no witnesses.”

She gave him a withering look.

“That was some hard time,” he said and shook his head.

“It’s all hard time,” she said.

She pushed her pie away and he sank his fork into it and took a bite. His face soured. He moved the plate away and swigged coffee, poured more sugar into it and drank again.

“I don’t want you bothering me at the church,” she said.

“You have my word.” He put a hand over his chest. His fingertips were callused and she tried not to think of the last time she’d felt them on her skin, one needle scratching on a Hank Williams record, another piercing her vein, she and Ray-o floating together in sweet darkness. In those times with him, before Monty, she could feel buffered from the world’s hardships, and now she felt the pull of how easy it could be, how easy to fall again.

“When I was a kid,” he said, and it startled her, “I called it Vaccination Bible School. Inoculate with the Savior. Protection from the tetanus of sin.”

“It’s no guarantee,” she said, tiredly. “It’s complicated.”

“I know all about complicated,” he said and signaled for more coffee. “How’s Monty?”

She began tugging at her bangs, something she hadn’t done in a long time. “He’s . . . different,” her voice trailed off.

“You look good in pink. Healthy.” Ray-o’s brown eyes suddenly looked sad around the edges. “You remember that horse my folks had for awhile? Sugar Ray? Remember when that hay pulley dropped in the barn and knocked him out cold? No, maybe you didn’t know about that. Anyway, he was never right after. Walked into fenceposts, stumbled over rocks. Would stop dead in his tracks and stare at the ground like he didn’t realize he was standing on it. So I had to take him out. Ruined my week.”

“That horse was traumatized, that’s all.”

“Misery comes in all stripes,” he said. “Mercy does, too.”

Felicity began to neatly fold the corner of her placemat. Outside on the third hole a teenager clubbed a concrete tortoise shell.

“I can set you free, Liddy,” he leaned forward and whispered. “Both of you. Just say the word.”

Felicity touched the tiny gold cross at her throat. Her windpipe had a memory of Monty’s thumbs, the pressure. The welder’s mask hovering over her. She had tried pushing him off with her legs. She clawed at his grip. At the last moment, on the edge of blacking out, she took in as much air as she could and shouted at him like a drill sergeant. Instantly the pressure released, and Monty pulled off the mask. In one lucid moment she had seen that he finally recognized her. It was the most horrible moment of all.

“When I was at State,” Ray-o said, “my cellmate had been a real go-getter on the outside. Rotary Club type. He was real proud of that. His boy had that disease where they shut everything out. You know which one I mean? Kid wouldn’t talk, no eye contact. Screeched like a cornered weasel when anyone tried to touch him. This guy, Baumgartner, said all he wanted from his son was a hug. Then one night he lost it. Started shaking the boy and didn’t know when to stop.”

“He thought he could shake some sense into him,” Felicity said.

“No, he thought he could shake some love out of him—like a piggybank. Except the piggybank was empty.”

Felicity abruptly picked up her Bible and stood. “The Lord loves you, Ray-o.”

“I really don’t give a good God damn what he thinks,” he said, reaching for her wrist. “You, on the other hand, I do.”

Felicity shoved a stack of newspapers she’d been hiding from Monty into the trash and dragged the garbage can scraping down the driveway. She’d cancelled the subscription, but they kept showing up. The newspaper on top showed a picture of a National Guard unit in training: kids with heavy artillery. Monty had joined the Guard just before their wedding. At the time, they’d never dreamed he’d do anything more strenuous than fill sandbags when the river flooded.

There was a dead sparrow at the edge of the lawn. Felicity hadn’t seen many dead things, but you could always tell by the eyes. Dull. She used one of the newspapers to scoop it up and place it in the trash. It was so light, a tiny mound of feathers and hollow bone. Like nothing. The only story Monty had told her of Baghdad was about birds. A letter he wrote a few months after he’d been deployed. Hellacious crazy here. Someone told me about birds flying upside down. Didn’t believe it until today. I saw it with my own eyes. A pair of turtledoves. Which way is up? I don’t know myself anymore.

Monty had locked himself in the bathroom again. When he first did this, the tub would run for hours, and Felicity’s panic would rise along with the water. She pressed her ear to the door and waited and waited. Finally the faucet shut off. The sound came to her as an echo: Monty sloshing around, then stillness, followed by a faint keening; it made her think of a lone dolphin isolated in a tank. But as long as she could hear him, she knew he was alive. She waited, phone in hand, ready to dial 911. She had purged the house of firearms and ammo and knives. She controlled and administered Monty’s medication, grateful to the Army for drilling into him blind obedience. But water she couldn’t do much about.

She sat on the floor and held her Bible and thought about Ray-o’s horse. Goodbye misery. Goodbye pain. That was charity. Wasn’t it? The deliberation made her hopeful on the one hand, but mostly it made her sick.

Monty thrashed in the tub. Through the door, Felicity told him how much progress she was making. This was a lie and she begged forgiveness for telling it. Only eight children had shown up today, including the Pastor’s son. The Bible story had been a disaster: God’s wrath against the Pharaoh and his people. To drive the point home, she’d instructed the children to each bring in a baby doll. When the time came for the terrible lesson, Sarah, the quiet one who was constantly looking down at her Keds, refused to give up her Pitty-Patty and when Lucas wrested it from her, Sarah’s pale complexion turned scarlet and her body convulsed until Felicity feared the girl would have a seizure. She quickly put the doll back in Sarah’s arms and tried to distract the children with crafts, had them glue macaroni on cardboard crosses for two hours until their parents arrived.

Later that night Felicity couldn’t sleep. She turned on the television with the sound low and sat very close to the screen. This distorted things in interesting ways. A dark man, very distraught, came on. The caption identified him as an Iraqi whose car had been fired on at a makeshift checkpoint. His pregnant wife had been hit when a bullet pierced the windshield. An honest mistake, said the military spokesman. Confusing times. They cut back to the man. His face was a contorted grimace; he pulled at his thick hair. The man did not speak or understand English and the interpreter tried to convey what the man was saying, but could only blurt out disjointed words. Felicity sat with her palm pressed to the flickering screen, her face close. She watched the man’s lips; she wanted to know. What were the words? The man cried out Allah, Allah, and this she could interpret for herself. She thought of her Baptist God, the real deal, the Almighty One and Only, and this man reminded her of His fearsome wrath. It made her shudder. But the man’s grief was unbearably raw. She sent up a prayer for his soul and quickly changed the channel.

That night she dreamt of the bear. Felicity was lying on concrete, an airport runway—military, she realized—and with great effort she lifted her heavy head and looked down to see the bear, the tips of its thick fur aglow, devouring her, slowly, beginning with her tender left foot which had disappeared entirely inside the bear’s bloody gnawing muzzle, its enormous paws gripping, pulling the leg deeper into its mouth. Felicity was terrified, but instead of acute pain, she was alarmed to realize she was aroused. A personnel transport plane roared low overhead and she could see the soldiers staring down at her as if they knew her secrets.

It was so hard to be good. Most folks just didn’t understand how hard it could be.

Felicity sat at her kitchen table with a pile of nude plastic bodies, a cheap dozen-a-bag, the dolls’ tiny sateen dresses in another pile. The clothing was a fire hazard. To cover their nakedness, Felicity used a black Sharpie, drawing modest bathing suits over their pink plastic skin. She was a bit concerned that the dolls were all girls; she hoped that didn’t send the wrong message. Earlier in the day, after stopping at the craft store, she’d gone to Miller’s and exchanged two bags of Monty’s loot for a galvanized tub and a carton of Sterno. She was confident this Lake of Fire lesson would be the one to draw them to the altar Friday, where she and Pastor Hugh would minister to the lambs as they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

And if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get to see the bear.

The bear had her worried though. Troy Phelps, the bear man, hadn’t returned her calls all week.

The doll she was working on had a sweet expression. Felicity felt a pang of regret for its fate. She tilted the doll forward and backward; its thick-lashed eyelids slid open . . . closed . . . open . . . closed.

It was so hard to be good.

She picked up the phone and dialed Ray-o’s old number; she was giddy for him to answer, just as she prayed it was disconnected.

Troy Phelps lived out on a county road. Ray-o drove slower than she remembered and the truck was brand new, not that beat-up Chevy they’d hung out in. That helped. To make small talk she told him about the lessons.

“The patented scare-the-bejeezus-into– ’em method,” he said.

“The Lord is my model, Ray-o. Since when has He ever gone easy on us?”

“You’re hardcore, Liddy.” He grinned at her. “If only you’d use your powers for good.”

She blushed and fidgeted with the door lock. She turned away so he couldn’t see her smile.

“So what’s the score, anyway?” he asked.

She knew what he meant. Felicity began to answer, then stopped. Her smile faded. She really couldn’t say how many souls she might claim for the Lord this week. But she was starting to think the odds were not looking good.

The road forked off then narrowed to a gravel drive that ended at Troy’s boxy white farmhouse. A tattered American flag hung limp from a pole out front.

Felicity looked around as they got out of the car. There was no sign of the bear. “Maybe it’s out back,” she said.

“Maybe it’s in town getting a manicure,” said Ray-o.

Troy appeared at the screen door. He stepped out and kept wiping his hands on the front of his jeans. His eyes darted around when he spoke.

“What a surprise!” he said.

“Tomorrow’s the big day,” she said. “Wanted to check out our star performer.”

“That would be a reasonable thing,” Troy said.

“And where would we find our furry headliner?” asked Ray-o.

“That would be a reasonable question,” Troy said.

Felicity felt her Christian patience leaking. “Where is he, Troy?”

“At the moment,” Troy said, looking up into the top of a pine tree as though the bear might be perched there, “I don’t rightly know.”

Felicity fixed her eyes on him. “The Lord hates a liar, Troy.”

He looked at her, perplexed. “I thought the Lord loved everybody.”

Ray-o said, “That was your first mistake.”

“See I was going to call you,” Troy began, “but I thought maybe he’d come back.”

“He ran away,” Felicity said flatly.

“Could be,” Troy said. He brightened. “I have a UFO abduction theory if you care to hear it.”

Felicity walked around the house. Out back was a large iron cage, wide open. She went up to it and sniffed. Nothing. No fur shed, no dried dung. Just an old rusted bowl. A dull panic began to knot her throat.

Troy came around the side of the house, Ray-o on his heels. Troy wiped his mouth and swiped a hand over his bald spot. “He might come back.”

“The Prodigal Bear,” Ray-o said.

“What about my money?” Felicity was upset, but this sounded like an afterthought.

“The bear’s disappearance would, I believe, be considered an act of God, which supercedes any and all agreements. Otherwise I’d have delivered him in good faith,” Troy said. He looked around for a way out. “Besides, I don’t have it.”

Felicity marched down the driveway, gravel crunching under her pink shoes. She turned and pointed at Troy. “He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house,” she said with fervor. Then she added, “Psalms 101:7. In case you’re interested.”

Before he got in the truck, Ray-o pushed a finger into Troy’s sweaty chest and said, “You, my friend, are fucked six ways to Sunday.”

Ray-o gunned the engine; the tires spat gravel behind them. “There’s no bear,” she said.

“I know that, babe. I’ll get your money back.”

“It isn’t the money,” she said. “There’s no bear.”

“Christ on a cracker, Liddy. I’ll prance around in a bear suit, if that’s what you need.” He reached down to punch the cigarette lighter. “Anyway a little disappointment might do those kids some good. Character-wise.”

Parched fields hurtled past in the late afternoon light, and Felicity stared, unblinking, until they became a blur. This wasn’t about the kids. All this time she’d been trying to wheedle God into a miracle, but her bluff got called. What was left for her to do? She was wrung out. She knew the answer was to pray harder, but just thinking about Monty now made her tired.

The sky had cooled to twilight when Ray-o walked Felicity to her door. A crisp envelope stuck out of the mail slot; it was from the Department of Defense. She nudged aside a planter of geraniums and sank onto the porch step. She opened the letter.

Ray-o reached up and tugged at the dangling gutter. “You know, I could fix that for you,” he said. She looked up as though she didn’t realize he was there.

“This is a mistake,” she said.

Ray-o took the letter from her and scanned it. “Like hell.” He sat down next to her. “They’re refitting tanks so they can shove amputees back on patrol. You think they won’t take Monty? He may be nuts, but he’s Grade A prime to them. A warm body’s a warm body.”

Until it’s cold, she thought sadly. She took the letter back from him and stared at it.

Ray-o picked up her hand and pressed it between both of his. They stayed silent while the sky darkened and the buzzing insects reached a frenzied pitch. His rough hands, the surprising warmth of them, provoked an ache in her. She clutched the letter in her other hand and tried to push away the flutter of relief it offered. Relief.

“Don’t go away,” she said and disappeared into the house.

Monty’s door was closed, but Felicity knocked anyway and pushed it open against the latest wave of hardware. The room was dim, lit only by the desk lamp; she stepped carefully through the debris and cleared a space on the bed so she could sit, the letter in her lap. Monty hunched over the desk, separating a pile of bolts, the shortwave sputtering in foreign tongues.

There are many ways to lift a burden, she thought. Mercy comes in all stripes.

“Monty,” she whispered. She said it again.

He turned slowly. He had on no mask, no sunglasses. It was the first time she’d seen his eyes in ages. They were unfocused and watery. But they weren’t dull.

She began to pray, then stopped. He was looking at her still, his eyes full. She could not look away. Even though she knew that if she looked long enough she’d see too much, terrible shadows of what he’d witnessed, the unthinkable trapped there in his head. Looking into those eyes, she thought the very idea of prayer fell flat.

They sat that way for a long time, the radio chattering low. Strange voices from the other side of the world.

“You can change your fate,” he said. His voice was rough.

She slowly reached out for him and he looked at her with dread. “I won’t hurt you,” she whispered. Her hand hovered between them. She withdrew and thought, yes, you can change your fate. Or someone can change it for you.

Late that night she packed clothes into two large suitcases then changed into a black T-shirt and jeans. “You look like the old you,” Ray-o said, appraising her. “Only different.” Around midnight, after Monty’s extra meds kicked in, Ray-o helped Felicity carry him to the car.

“He’s lighter than I thought. Light as a feather.”

“He’s lost bulk.” She regarded her husband’s slack face, shadowy in the weak light cast from the front porch. “He’s been living on nothing but soup and tears.”

She loaded one garbage bag of hardware into the trunk next to Monty’s welder’s mask and shortwave. “His security,” she said. “In case he needs calming.”

“You’ll need more than a bag of bolts, honey.”

This she was all too aware of. But she couldn’t think about that just now. She walked back through the house shutting windows, unplugging appliances. On the kitchen counter lay her pink Bible and Monty’s dogtags. She considered them for a moment, then left them there.

In the rearview, she watched Ray-o follow them in his truck, though it was too dark to see his face. He stayed with them all the way out to the interstate. But she wasn’t changing her mind. She thought about getting out to say good-bye again, but what good would that do? So she waited at the on-ramp, and so did he. They both sat, idling, for a few minutes. When he finally turned back for town, she waited until his taillights had dwindled to tiny red specks before she sighed heavily and shifted into drive.

On the highway, the car picked up speed. She had no idea where they were going.

Sometime before dawn, on an inky stretch of interstate, the unwinding blacktop began to lull her. Felicity started to drift, and drift, until an owl swooped low, flashed in the headlights and she swerved. Several miles passed before her heart settled; she looked over at Monty.

“The word, Monty. What is it, honey?” she asked. But he was slumped with his head against the window.

Never mind, she thought. Somewhere birds were flying upside down. How could that be? How in God’s name did the world look to them?

About Dawna Kemper:
Dawna Kemper lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches at Santa Monica College, and is an editorial assistant at Santa Monica Review. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and has attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her stories have appeared in Santa Monica Review and elsewhere, and her work-in-progress is a collection of short fiction.