Fiction Fiction Issue

Missionaries

Elder Case wanted to win enough converts to make district leader. Elder Joseph was … confused.
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Illustrations by Sam Weber

Joseph watched as Case began to undress on the bluff overlooking the rock quarry. Case removed his shirt, then his shoes and socks. He planted his feet on the weathered rock at the edge and leaned over to peer into the water below. The sun was directly overhead, and a breeze riffled through the sycamores lining the old factory road. Case’s chest was a white-marble tone, and the line on his arms where his tan began made him look like a painting someone had only half finished. He removed his watch and tossed it onto the pile. It landed with a click, striking the plastic LDS tag upon which his name was spelled out in white letters. Joseph sat behind him in the dirt of the road, next to two bikes and a parked van, studying Case’s outline against the blue sky.

“Not only does the Mormon Church offer salvation,” Case was saying, “but in addition to your salvation package, you receive a principality in the kingdom of God.” He smiled over his shoulder, then pulled his belt out of its loops and tossed it onto the pile. “Which sure beats the living arrangements you have now, Claude.”

Claude was sitting on the bumper of the van, its back doors thrown open to reveal a stained mattress and sheets, across which were scattered several water-stained romance novels. His face was framed by wiry gray hair that extended down his jaw and collected under his chin, and he was trying to roll a joint on the frayed knee of his corduroys. The reek of mildew and sweat coming from the van was overpowering, and Joseph, who was sitting in front of Claude, wondered how long he could hold his breath.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Case continued. “You’ve got a nice thing going here, living in your van. No neighbors to bother you, only one key to worry about, nice view. But it’s not what God’s got planned for you, Claude. Elder Joseph, what does God have planned for Claude here?”

Case turned to Joseph, who’d just picked a dandelion from the grass and was holding it against his nose to combat the odor. Joseph didn’t answer immediately, and Case gave him a look and coaxed him with his hands. “He has a condo set aside for you in heaven, Claude,” Joseph finally answered.

“That’s right, Claude. Have you ever been inside a condo?” Claude looked at Case as if he were crazy. Case just smiled and scratched at the hair under his arms.

Case and Joseph, both 19, their birthdays within a month of each other, had arrived a little over an hour earlier, walking their bikes down the stretch of railroad bisecting Ijams Nature Center until they found the overgrown access road that led to an abandoned marble plant and the adjacent quarry. Case had learned about the place from a college student at the fort, where he and Joseph had been handing out tracts. They’d found Claude’s van parked beneath the kudzu-choked mill, nearly 50 feet above the water in the quarry.

Claude was stretched across the mattress in the back of his van reading a romance novel called Gentle Rogue. The cover depicted a man and a woman, scantily clad, swooning across the rigging of a ship. Joseph was wary of the old man, but Case saw only opportunity.

“Morning,” Case had called with genuine enthusiasm.

Claude dropped the paperback onto his chest, looking at the two over the spine with obvious distrust. “The quarry’s over there, if that’s what you came for,” he mumbled.

“Well, we did come for a swim, but that’s not all,” Case said. “We’re here to help you, sir.”

It amazed Joseph how effortlessly Case was able to sell the Church. He envied Case’s confidence, his ability to grab people. Case had been out in the field for nearly a year now, and by the time Joseph arrived three months ago, Case had already baptized 15 converts, which put him well on his way to becoming district leader in the Knoxville branch. Case believed what Elder Robert back at mission headquarters had told him the day he arrived: “As long as the convert puts out his cigarette on the way down to the water, he is worthy.”

Case shielded his eyes against the sun and turned toward the quarry. The water was a grayish-blue, which reminded Joseph of the Great Salt Lake. He pictured his mother standing ankle-deep in it, head haloed by brine flies, talking about the wonders of God. “A sea in the middle of the waste,” she’d said. “That’s what you have to be in this life, Joseph. Balm in the desert.”

“Hey, Claude. You ever jump from here?” Case ran a hand through his hair, cleared his throat, and spat off the side of the rock. Joseph noticed that the skin along Case’s midriff had pimpled.

Claude ignored Case, concentrating on his efforts with the joint. Joseph rose to his feet and edged out toward the quarry. He put his hand on Case’s shoulder. “I don’t think you should be jumping into there,” he said. “It’s against the rules to swim, you know. Plus, no telling what’s down there.”

Case grunted and shook off Joseph’s hand. “You’re such a lamb, Joseph. Christ, my mother has more backbone than you.”

Joseph lowered his eyes and shrugged. He never liked it when Case swore. “I’m just saying you’re an idiot, that’s all.”

“Won’t deny that.” Case undid the button on his slacks and dropped them, and his briefs, to his ankles. He pulled his feet out, then kicked both garments over with the others. One of the first things Case had done upon arriving in Knoxville was replace his temple garment with Fruit of the Loom underwear. Joseph thought of this as Case turned to him and grinned. For the past few months Joseph hadn’t been able to look at Case without being reminded of what wasn’t under the other boy’s clothes.

Case looked over his shoulder at Claude, and Joseph followed his gaze, trying not to let his eyes rest too long on Case’s naked body. Claude had finished rolling the joint and was passing it in and out of his lips. Case yelled, “You know God doesn’t like you to do drugs to combat loneliness.”

A smile wavered at the corner of Claude’s lips. “You want to hit it?” he asked.

“Well, it seems like the only Christian thing to do.” Case walked over, light-stepping over the gravel and the broken glass. As he approached, Claude moved around to the front of the van.

“Where you going, Claude? Ow, shoot!” Case raised his foot, regarded it for a second, and extracted a thorn from his heel.

“Need a light,” Claude yelled from the front of the van. A few seconds later he came back, lighting the joint with the van’s cigarette lighter.

“You’re a sad man, Claude. It’s divine intervention we came when we did. Isn’t it, Joseph?” Case kept his back to Joseph as he took a hit.

“Yeah, Case.” Joseph noticed the muscles of Case’s back tense, and he wondered if Case could feel him watching. Case passed the joint back to Claude, and the old man extended it toward Joseph, who shook his head and focused on a puddle filled with water and gasoline in the road beside the van, around which hovered tiny violet butterflies.

“You’ll have to forgive Joseph. He lacks social grace.” Case looked over his shoulder, blowing smoke into the air and beckoning Joseph with his finger.

Joseph hesitated. Then he walked over, took the joint from Claude’s hand, and brought it to his lips. He tried to inhale as little as possible. The wind picked up, and the rusted girders of the mill groaned audibly under their cover of vines. Case shivered and wrapped his arms around his chest.

“You going to walk around naked all day?” Claude asked. “You haven’t exactly walked into Eden.”

“Does it bother you, Claude?”

“Not really. You’re not going to tell me about how man was made in the image of God and we shouldn’t be afraid of our nakedness, are you?”

Case smirked and shook his head. “No, I can see you’re the kind of man who doesn’t appreciate a lot of smoke and mirrors. Let’s face it, Claude. You’re hell bound, and I doubt anything can save you.”

“At least you’re honest.”

“I try, Claude. Now.” Case slammed the palm of his hand against Joseph’s chest. “Let’s do this.”

“Do what?” Joseph asked, rubbing his chest.

“Strip.” Case began pulling at Joseph’s shirt.

Joseph watched as one button snapped off and went sailing into the grass. He pulled away and stood staring at Case.

“Come on, Joe. We’re a team. We’re going to the river together.”

“It’s not a river, it’s—”

“Whatever. You know I wouldn’t make you do anything I wouldn’t do.” Case extended his arm. His palm looked soft to Joseph, like an infant’s. “I’ll even hold your hand.”

Joseph felt the blood rise in his neck. “I don’t need to hold your hand.”

Claude began to giggle, which set the van bouncing. Joseph noticed that his teeth were broken and jagged.

“Don’t do it, boy,” Claude said. “Your friend’s crazy.”

“All right,” Case said. “Let’s go take a leap.”

Joseph straightened his shoulders, but as they approached the cliff, he felt his stomach kink. As he inched up to the edge and peeked over, Case came up behind him and swatted the back of his pants. Joseph jumped and clutched Case’s arm.

“Don’t worry,” Case said. “I was just going to suggest you take those off. You don’t want to walk around wet, do you?”

Joseph let go of Case and began to remove his shirt and pants. Case picked up several rocks from the cliff and spun them into the air above the quarry. He turned to look at Joseph, flipping a flat stone over on his palm as he spoke. “You keeping your temple garment on?”

“It’ll dry.”

Case shrugged and hurled the stone away. “Suit yourself. You first.”

“Why do I have to go first?”

“Because I said so.” Case turned and walked a few paces behind Joseph. “I’ll be right after you.”

Joseph heard Claude yell from across the road, “Belly flop, boys.”

A dull ringing started in Joseph’s ear, and it seemed to him that the rest of the world got strangely quiet, that even the insects stopped whatever rituals they were engaged in. It was as if the world had turned to watch him, wondering what he intended to do next. He wondered briefly if God were watching and thought about Salt Lake and his parents. “Never be led from the path,” his father had always said. “Even angels have been known to trip.” Joseph decided he couldn’t do it, the very thought of the fall made his guts churn. But a moment later the weight of Case’s body slammed into his back, sending them both over the edge of the bluff.

He surfaced a second later, gasping for air. Case emerged a few feet away from him and howled, the sound echoing around the walls of the quarry. The burning sensation in Joseph’s side became a searing pain, and he began thrashing. Case swam over and snaked an arm under Joseph’s, holding him above the water. “Sorry, man. I just thought you needed some inspiration up there.”

Joseph tried to catch his breath. “You OK, Joe?” Case patted Joseph’s chest and held him up so that they were both afloat.

“I can’t breathe,” Joseph said.

Case pulled Joseph toward him. “Just keep trying,” he said. “It’ll get easier.” Joseph allowed his back to relax against the firm surface of Case’s chest, their legs entangled under the water. “You did good, Joe. I’m proud of you. We should call it a day after this. To celebrate.”

“What are we celebrating?” Joseph said, wheezing and coughing.

“Well, obviously somebody up there loves us.”

Joseph lay sprawled on the bed with an ice pack pressed against the side of his chest. The swelling had gone down, but a dark-purple bruise ran from under his right arm to below his waist. He winced as he tried to move, shifting his weight on the mound of pillows under him. He eyed Case, who was on the other side of the room crouched in front of the open door of the refrigerator. He emerged with a tub of butter and a butter knife and came and stood by the bed. “Here, put some butter on the bruise,” he said. “It’ll help reduce the swelling.”

“What?” Joseph looked at Case dubiously.

“Trust me. It works.”

Joseph took the tub and knife from Case. He opened the lid and smeared the butter gingerly on his discolored skin. He cringed at the cold.

Case and Joseph’s studio apartment was in the partitioned attic of an old Victorian on Fifth Street. In the three months they’d lived there, clumps of dust had curled into the corners of the linoleum floors. The ceiling sloped at odd angles, and at night the wind whimpered around the eaves, sometimes keeping Joseph awake.

Joseph studied the few stars he could see through the window. He usually tried not to think about his parents until after Case had drifted off into sleep. He was an only child, and his mother hadn’t wanted him to go on the mission. His father, however, insisted it would be a growing experience and would get him out of an awkward phase. Joseph stared at the butter smeared down his side. Some of it was still curled from where the knife had cut it. He thought about the Family Home Evenings he’d spent with his parents. He could hear his father’s slow baritone relating the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. Afterward, he’d sat between his father’s legs and watched as he carved sleeping lions from bars of Dial soap. He’d loved the way the soap curled around the edge of his father’s pocketknife, as if the world were bending to his will.

He blinked and tried to turn his head without moving his lower body. “Case, what did you do with your parents on Family Home Evenings?”

Case snorted. “My mother would turn off the TV and make me and my sisters read the Book of Mormon. God, Mondays were frigging boring.”

“What about your dad?”

Case ran a finger through the mess on Joseph’s chest and put his finger in his mouth. “Did I ever tell you my dad is a physicist?” he asked. “He took me to his research facility once for Family Day, when I was ten. He worked with supercolliders at Stanford. We went in 1993, just a few years before someone in his department won the Nobel Prize for discovering the tau lepton, or something like that. That’s what my dad does. He uses these machines to throw particles and atoms at each other to try and see what they’re made of.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“That kind of stuff always excited my dad. He’d come home talking about how he hurled a helium atom at a whatever particle and something remarkable happened. It was all Greek to me, and that’s all he could talk about. Quarks, mesons, dark matter—scientist stuff. It was like some secret code. How’s your side feeling?”

“I can’t feel the lower half of my body. Or the upper half.”

Case laughed. “Me either.” He took a swat at the dust clots on the floor. “So what does your father do for a living, Joe?”

“He sells insurance for an indemnity company.”

“That sounds really ordinary.”

“Sorry.”

Case nudged Joseph’s shoulder. “Scoot over. And give me a pillow. We’ve got an early day tomorrow.” He carried the tub of butter and the knife back to the refrigerator.

“Where are we going?” Joseph asked, sliding toward the wall.

“North Knoxville. Mechanicsville. Elder Robert says the families out that way are lower-income. Poor people are more pliable.”

Case pulled his undershirt over his head and jerked down his pants. He dropped both on the floor and switched off the overhead light. Once his eyes had adjusted to the dark, Joseph looked at Case, who was lying on his back with his arms behind his pillow, staring at the ceiling. His shoulder seemed to radiate heat.

“Hey, Case,” Joseph said.

“What?”

“How come you never call your parents on our P days?”

Case sighed. “I don’t have anything in particular to tell them. Once I make district leader, I’ll call home to let them know. Shouldn’t be too much longer. I’ve brought in more baptisms than anyone else. My dad made AP of the San Francisco mission when he was out in the field, before he went off to college.”

They stopped talking, and Joseph listened as a listless summer rain passed over the roof, the drops pattering against the window above them.

The next morning, the rain had passed to the east, and the wet lawns grew steamy as Case and Joseph pedaled into North Knoxville. Joseph’s clothes clung to his body, and sweat ran down his forehead into his eyes. Each revolution of the pedals hurt his side. He tried to ignore the pain, keeping his eyes on Case’s back ahead of him. As they headed into Mechanicsville, Joseph saw that most of the houses they passed were white or sickly green clapboard and leaning at precarious angles, seemingly held up by telephone lines. Some were boarded up and wrapped in yellow police tape.

Case had ripped a street map out of the phone book. They would start on the east end and work their way west, ending up at the edge of the industrial park. Case leaned into a curve and came to a stop in front of a house nearly swallowed by dogwoods. Panting, Joseph came to rest beside him. Case propped his bike against a low wrought-iron fence and slung his backpack off his shoulder. He unzipped the side pouch and took out a tattered copy of the Book of Mormon. “Let me do the talking while we’re here,” he said. He looked at Joseph, who nodded.

Case’s hair was wet on the sides and clung to his face. He swabbed his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “All right, then. Let’s do this.”

Joseph leaned his bike against Case’s and followed after him. Old tires lined the walkway, and from their centers swelled fistfuls of geraniums, marigolds, and some flowers he didn’t recognize. Their scent hovered around him like the perfume his mother wore on Sundays when she attended chapel.

Case stood holding the screen door open against his hip and knocked loudly, breaking the quietness of the morning. Joseph felt the muscles of his neck tense. This was the part of the job he hated—standing at a door unsure what lay behind it. “Do you think anyone’s home?” he asked, just as the door swung open to the end of a chain. The face of the elderly black woman framed by the door seemed surprised it didn’t open all the way.

“Hello, ma’am. My name is Case Riseler, and I was wondering if I might have a moment of your time today.”

“I don’t have any money to give you,” said the woman. She was wearing a blue bathrobe with two huge pockets on the sides, and her gray hair was cut close to her head.

“We’re not looking for money, ma’am. We’d like to talk to you about the Church of Latter-Day Saints. It’ll take no more than 15 minutes of your time.” Case took half a step closer to the threshold and smiled. Somehow he made it seem as if he’d already been invited in. Or at least it seemed that way to Joseph.

The woman hesitated and looked behind her into the house. She mumbled softly, “The house isn’t really clean. And I don’t have much time for religion anymore.”

“That’s all right, ma’am. We’re not here to pressure you. But could we at least step inside for a moment? Maybe cool down a bit? Plus, Elder Joseph here needs to use your restroom, if you don’t mind. Isn’t that right, Elder Joseph?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Joseph said. “I need to use your restroom.”

The woman stared hard at them for a moment. “You don’t look old enough to be elders.” The two boys didn’t respond. “House is a mess,” she said again.

“It’ll just take a moment. Scout’s honor.” Case held up two fingers and put his other hand over his heart.

The old woman began to fish inside the pockets of her robe, then stopped and stared at the two boys. Joseph wondered if she remembered what she was doing. Then she reached up, unlatched the chain, and swung open the door. “All right. But just for a minute.”

The interior of the house was dark. Rays of light stole in through the curtained windows, highlighting the dust. The place smelled of polyester. Behind the woman was what at one time might have been a living room. Joseph could make out a couch and table on the far wall, but the couch was covered with heaps of clothes, newspapers, and assorted gimcracks. Every available inch of the table was covered with curios—porcelain clowns and angels, boys with straw hats and fishing poles, animal figurines. The old woman turned and hobbled through the snarl, down a path that angled to the right into an equally overrun kitchen. Case turned and whispered to Joseph. “Jesus Christ, this woman’s a loon. Look at this place.”

Joseph nodded and fell into step behind Case as they trailed the woman into the kitchen. She seated herself at the kitchen table, upon which rested a tower of salt and pepper shakers, stacked plastic cups, and canned food. Lines of ants stalked across the yellowed linoleum floor, which sagged in several places. Case took a seat beside the woman at the table, balancing the Book of Mormon on his thigh. He smiled and looked around. “Seems cozy. Joseph, why don’t you go find the restroom, while me and Mrs.—I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Ida Marsh,” the old woman answered.

“Ida. That’s lovely. Where’s your bathroom?”

Ida raised a gnarled finger and pointed to a door at the back of the kitchen next to the stove. “Through there and to the left. Down at the end of the hall.”

Case looked at Joseph. “You heard the woman, Joseph. In the back there.” He made a scooting motion with his hands.

As Joseph headed into the dim hallway, he heard Case start his spiel. “Ida, have you ever wondered what God has planned for you …” He found the bathroom at the end of the hallway. In the corners of the room, dust-colored mushrooms had sprung up in clusters between the tiles. He stood in front of the mirror and thought about Ida in the kitchen with Case. Then he thought about his own mother, dusting her collection of cut-crystal angels in the living room, where the light from the windows could catch them. He wondered if she could ever end up like Ida—alone, with the house slowly filling in around her. The possibility felt very real. He pictured his mother’s wrist as she went to open a door, her veins visible under her skin, as if they were wrapped in the thin pages of a Bible. He waited a few more minutes, then headed back toward the kitchen.

“I don’t have any way to get down to the mission,” Ida was saying.

“That’s all right,” Case said. “We can send an elder down here to pick you up and take you to the church to be baptized.”

“They’d do that for me?”

She said it without emotion, yet the tone of her voice put Joseph at the edge of tears—he felt just as he had on the tarmac of the airport in Salt Lake City when his mother pressed a silver dollar and a gilt-edged copy of the Book of Mormon into his hand. The book was to keep him on the path. The dollar was for luck, she started to say; his father finished explaining when it was clear she could not. He’d spent it accidentally at an airport kiosk when the plane touched down in Knoxville, on a magazine and a bag of saltwater taffy. He’d reached into his pocket and pulled out all the bills and change he could grasp. When the cashier lifted the coin from the counter, he was too embarrassed to ask for it back. He told himself it didn’t matter. Yet he could still hear the weight of that coin as it was dropped into the coin drawer among its lesser brothers.

“Of course,” Case said. “I’d see to it myself.”

Ida’s hands picked at the threads of her robe. She appeared to be weighing her options. “Well, maybe I should start back to church. Once Stuart gets back from the war, he’ll want to go.”

“Who’s Stuart?” Case asked, swiping at the grime that had appeared on his pants leg.

“He’s my son. He’s over in Vietnam right now.”

Case glanced up at Joseph, who was standing behind Ida. He rolled his eyes and grinned.

“Maybe Stuart could be a deacon in the church when he gets back,” Ida said.

Case turned toward her. “Maybe.”

“Case, we should probably tell Ida how some Mormons feel about blacks in the priesthood,” Joseph said. “I think she should know.”

Ida turned and looked at him as if she didn’t understand what he was saying. Case glared and made a cutting gesture with his hands.

“I mean, the Church officially allowed blacks into the priesthood in 1978, but still …” Joseph’s voice trailed off, and he dropped his eyes.

Ida turned back to Case. “What’s he saying?” She shuffled her feet.

“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Case said. “He’s talking about the Mormon Church, not the Church of Latter-Day Saints. So if I send a car around on Thursday, will you be here?”

She looked at the corner of the room and grunted. Then she nodded slowly. “I’ll be here.”

Case stood up. “All right, then. We’ll send a car around on Thursday. We’ll let ourselves out, if you don’t mind.”

Case motioned with his book for Joseph to follow. As they crossed the yard, he said, “What was that all about? Why did you tell her about the blacks-in-the-priesthood thing?”

Joseph kicked at the head of a marigold. “I don’t know. I felt sorry for her.”

“Jesus Christ, Joe. It’s not like we were robbing her.” Case pointed at Joseph’s face. “You just thank God she was soft in the head, because if you’d ruined that conversion, I would have skinned your scrawny hide.”

“Don’t you feel bad at all?” Joseph asked.

“Why should I, Joe? Grow a frigging backbone. We’re here to do a job. We’re here to bring people to the Lord.”

It’s like a game to you, Joseph thought. It doesn’t mean anything.

“Don’t you want to make AP?” Case said, as if he’d heard Joseph’s thought. “Don’t you want to make our parents proud? That’s what we’re here to do, Joe.”

Everything felt off-kilter to Joseph. Who did Case think he was, bartering with salvation as if it were currency? “This just isn’t what I thought I’d be doing here.”

Case sighed and shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was quiet but hard. “If there was one thing I learned from my father, it’s that the way to make it is by force of will. It’s what people respond to. Otherwise, you end up a statistic, like Ida there.” He pointed toward the house.

Joseph didn’t say anything, and Case stepped toward him until he was uncomfortably close. “Listen to me, Joe. The ends always justify the means.” He stared hard into Joseph’s face and then punched him on the arm. “Come on, don’t look like that. We got a lot more houses to get through. I promise we’ll do whatever you want tomorrow. Just you and me. But right now, I need you to focus.”

Joseph sat on the carpeted floor of the girl’s living room, picking at the matted spots around him. A chronicle of accidents, he thought, his eyes following the lines of the stains, wondering if he could determine where they came from. He was seated Indian-style in front of a blue La-Z-Boy. Case and the girl were seated on the couch. Joseph thought she was a little older than they were, but not by much. She was what Case called a goth kid, dressed all in black, with scuffed combat boots peeking out from under the hem of the layered, gauzy skirts of her dress. She was wearing thick coats of lipstick and eyeliner, and the purple-black color made her look bruised. She and Case were smoking cigarettes, flicking their ashes into the ashtray between them. Case was selling salvation. The girl was listening with a strange expression, a half-smirk. She picked at the fabric of her skirts.

“So do you live here alone?” Case asked. He had his arm slung over the back of the couch.

“Just me,” she answered, smoke streaming from her nostrils.

A stereo on a low table was playing a CD of some band Joseph wasn’t familiar with—a soft, brooding music that he didn’t particularly like. Several shelves of books lined the walls, and he tried to focus on the titles. The only ones he could see clearly were a collection of Lovecraft stories and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.

“So you guys are Mormons?” the girl asked. “How many wives do you all get?” She looked at Case from under her eyelids.

“Most Mormons don’t follow the polygamy thing anymore,” he said. “It’s only the really devout and unconventional sects.” He scratched at his hairless cheek, looking bored. It was the same routine he used with all younger people, pretending that he wasn’t really that interested in what he was doing, that he was cool with just hanging out.

“That’s unfortunate. Polygamy was the one thing that made you guys interesting.”

Case gave the girl a mock-hurt look. “You don’t find me interesting?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

Joseph was growing restless. He didn’t like being in the girl’s house. It smelled of stale incense. Candles were tiered throughout the room, the wax puddled around their bases in stiff globs. “It’s getting dark, Case. Shouldn’t we be going?”

Case turned toward Joseph, but his expression was vacant. Joseph began to feel that he could be heard only vaguely and not seen at all.

“I can take you back to your apartment,” the girl said. “I’m still waiting to see if you can convert me, though.”

“So what’s it going to take?” Case asked.

The girl smiled, and her teeth flashed in the half-light. She flicked her cigarette over the ashtray, and a stray fleck of ash landed on her lap. Case leaned forward and pinched it from the fabric. “Thank you,” she said.

“Don’t mention it.”

“You’re getting warmer.”

Case’s eyebrows darted up. “What do you mean?”

“Never mind. So how did you two get placed together?” She turned toward Joseph as if to include him in the conversation, but he ignored her.

“Luck of the draw. I’d say it was a pretty good match, though. We get along really well. Isn’t that right, Elder Joe?”

Joseph nodded, but kept his eyes down. “We get along OK.”

The girl snickered and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Why do you call each other ‘Elder’?”

“It’s an address of respect.”

“Should I call you ‘Elder’?” She stubbed out her cigarette.

“You can call me whatever you want. Speaking of which, I never got your name.”

“Margo.”

“Nice to meet you, Margo. So what’s it going to take to get you into the Church?”

“I have reservations,” she said, a smile playing across her lips. “I’m not a stranger to sin. Impure thoughts and all that.”

Joseph suddenly realized that his lungs felt swollen, and he wondered if he’d injured himself seriously when he fell into the quarry.

“Well, we all have those,” Case said. “Nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t think God splits hairs over salvation.”

Joseph could see Case’s erection press against his pants, and he felt himself stiffen. He pulled at the legs of his slacks and hoped no one would notice.

“That’s good to know,” she said, then paused a moment. “Do you want to come to the bedroom with me?”

Case smiled and stubbed out his cigarette. He stood up quickly. “Yeah, let’s go.” Then he looked down at Joseph. “You can find something to do, can’t you, Joe?”

“My side’s really starting to hurt again,” Joseph said, but Case’s attention was focused on the front of Margo’s dress, on the dark velvet pulled snug around her small breasts.

“I have some Advil and other stuff in the cabinet above the stove,” Margo said. “You’re welcome to it. We won’t be long.” She rested her hand briefly on Joseph’s head and walked slowly toward the kitchen, looking back at Case as she entered the short hallway that led to the bedroom.

Case squatted beside Joseph, who leaned forward and crossed his arms over his lap, afraid Case would notice his erection. “I owe you one for this, Joe,” Case said. “Anything you want. I swear.”

Joseph watched as Case followed Margo into the bedroom in back. He heard the squeak of the door. For a few moments, he remained seated, listening to the faint hum that seemed to come from the walls. He rose to his feet and tiptoed to the kitchen and stood in the center of it for a moment, not knowing what to do next. The silence was choking. Then he turned and headed down the hallway toward the sliver of light seeping from a crack in the bedroom door.

He pressed his eye to the crack and saw Case sitting at the edge of the bed, Margo standing in front of him. Case had stripped to his underwear and was slowly unzipping the back of Margo’s dress. It slid off her body and crumpled onto the floor. Case reached for the clasp of her bra, and she pulled the straps from her shoulders. Case bit his lower lip as he hooked his fingers under the elastic band of Margo’s panties and pulled.

Joseph stood watching Case’s hands move up and down the girl’s belly and between her breasts. He thought about all the doors he and Case had passed through over the past few months, and of what Case had told him about the kind of force he needed to be in the world. Joseph reached for the doorknob, but his hand paused above it. He knew if he went any further he would set something off, some part of himself he didn’t wish to recognize. Case pressed his lips against the white of Margo’s stomach, and Joseph heard a sigh escape her lips. She tangled her fingers into Case’s hair.

Joseph forced himself to turn away. He pressed a hand against his bruise as if he were trying to contain it, the throb of the thing. His loneliness at that instant made him gasp. The weight of everything was immense. He pictured his mother and father, growing accustomed to his absence. Somehow everything they’d given him wasn’t enough for this mission.

His back to the door, he decided then that he was going to be different. He was going to be what Case wanted—a force to be reckoned with. With his faith, he would be unstoppable, blessed, a god on this earth, and the world would bend to him. He would take all the Claudes and Idas and Margos and shelter them from lions. Cleanse them of their sins and fears. Then Case would have no choice but to recognize his greatness.

Walking to the end of the hallway by the kitchen, he seated himself against the wall. He sat there quietly, waiting for Case to emerge.

Bradford Tice's poetry and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, Crab Orchard Review, and the anthology This New Breed: Gents, Bad Boys, and Barbarians 2 (2004).
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