There’s a story behind this story, albeit a short one. I asked friends for writing prompts; one of them responded with “fearnot” (possibly mistyped; I haven’t asked). On a whim, I googled the single word and discovered that there’s a little place in Pennsylvania called Fearnot. I began considering how I might combine that name with the biblical two-word version of the phrase. (P.S. – there’s a Bethlehem, PA, too.)
I don’t look up from my magazine. I hear this a lot. “Yeah, weird name for a town, isn’t it?”
“No, not ‘Fearnot’—fear not. Hey. Mary.” He reaches out and taps his fingertips on the page I’m reading. “You might want to pay attention.”
It’s not like I haven’t dealt with my share of obnoxious customers in the years I’ve been working the family convenience store. What really gets to me is when they use your name, though. Just because I’m required to wear a name badge doesn’t mean everyone gets to talk to me like we’re buddies, and this guy is really pushing it. Gritting my teeth, I finally glance at him.
“It’s a little early in the day, isn’t it?” I ask, stepping back from the counter. I’ve dealt with plenty of drunks, too.
The guy sighs. “Would you just let me finish? This is important.”
He doesn’t look drunk, or high, or crazy. He’s just the standard plaid-shirt-trucker-hat-white-guy type that we see a lot of around here, since we’re just off the highway. There’s definitely something weird about him, though, and it just gets weirder the longer he talks to me. I don’t know how to explain it. If the Long Island Medium were here, she’d probably be talking about auras and shit like that. Not that that’s something I’d usually say I believe in, but my impression of this guy is of presence—like there’s more to him than fits in a body. It’s making my skin crawl, especially once I see that he’s the only customer in here with me. The store phone is on the wall behind me. If I want to call Dad in, I’ll have to turn my back on the guy across the counter.
He’s noticed my uneasiness. He grins and says again: “Fear not. Like I said—found favour with God.” Then he goes back to reading from his phone. “And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called—”
“What the fuck.” I reach behind me for the phone, fumbling up and down the wall until I knock the receiver off its cradle. It swings down on its spiraling cord and I try to grab it without looking away from the guy, in case he tries anything.
“Whoa, whoa, you’re fine, kid.” He moves back a little, holding up his hands. He’s still got the phone out. “Sorry. HQ likes things delivered pretty formally.” He gives his screen a quick appraisal. “Okay, yeah, we can skip the rest. I got through the important part. Anyway, congrats! No need to invite me to the baby shower.”
I’ve gotten hold of the receiver by now. I can’t dial without turning around. “Get out of my store.”
“Sure. Just a second, though—I want to make sure you processed all that. I know it’s probably tough to wrap your brain around. I’m Gabe, by the way.”
“Get out, or I’m calling for help.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger, kid. Sure, it’s a shock, but HQ’s got big things for you. Just the one big thing, really, but it’s big. You’re going to be the really important mom to a really, really important guy.”
He’s keeping his distance, at least, and his tone is as casual as ever. I look him in the face, trying to evaluate him. There’s no volatility in his expression. As far as I can tell, he’s mentally stable and is utterly sure of the things he’s saying. That doesn’t make them any less bizarre.
“Gabe,” I say, “please get out. I’m very uncomfortable right now.”
He drops his eyes to the floor. “Sorry. There wasn’t really a better way to tell you that you’re three weeks pregnant with the incarnation of divine purpose.”
“Not getting any less uncomfortable.”
“Really, I’m sorry about that, but that doesn’t change anything.”
My grip on the receiver has loosened just a little. He’s still got that sense of presence about him, but now that I’m getting used to it, it doesn’t seem particularly ominous. Just…present. I don’t think he’s a threat. And I’ve still got the phone in my hand. I can play along for a while—this morning has already been more interesting than my entire summer so far.
“So…pregnant with divine purpose. What, I hooked up with God?”
Gabe snorts. “Please. He doesn’t go in for that kind of thing.”
“If he’s my baby daddy, he could have had the decency to show up himself instead of sending you.”
“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough, Mary.”
I plant my free hand on my hip. “Is he at least going to pay child support?”
“I wouldn’t have pegged God for a deadbeat.”
Something shifts in Gabe. I feel it more than I see it, and it makes my fingers lock tight around the phone. In this moment, I’m certain that he’s not human. There’s far, far too much of him to be contained in the body standing across from me. When he speaks again, his voice surpasses the merely auditory and seems to cut through planes of consciousness I’d never known I could experience. “Mary,” he says. Just that—just my name—and it shuts me up. I feel like someone’s grabbed my shoulders and shaken me.
And then he’s back to Gabe, in his flannel shirt and his Timberlands, with the big smile on his stubbly face. “I know this is a little wild,” he says. “You’ve just got to trust me. More than that—trust the one I’m speaking for.”
I stare at him, off-balance. Now that the moment of jarring revelation has passed, it seems distant and absurd—a half-remembered dream with its own skewed logic. However weird this guy is, there’s nothing he can be but human. “You’re really serious,” I say to him. “You really think all this is true.”
“I’ve got access to a lot more information than you do, kid. Whatever you say now, in eight months you’re going to be delivering the Son of God. …Delivering. Heh.”
I ignore what’s apparently an in-joke. “Like I’m going to believe that when I know it’s scientifically impossible for me to be pregnant, based on complete lack of sexually activity—not that it’s any of your business.”
“Just go check. I’ll even pay for the test.” He pulls several crisp bills out of his wallet.
Grudgingly, I take the money and stick it in the register, then dig behind the counter for a pregnancy test. Dad keeps them back here so he can side-eye all the local teenagers who ask for them.
“Go wait outside,” I tell him. He obliges and I lock the door behind him. Then I head to the tiny bathroom back by the soda fountain.
– – –
When I come out of the store, Gabe is sitting on the curb, playing with his phone. I sit down a few wary feet away.
“So?” he asks. He’s grinning again.
“What the fuck,” I say, defeated.
“Sorry. You’ll just have to believe me when I say it’s for the best. The best possible best.”
“Why me, though? Is this payback for something I did wrong? Mom always said my smart mouth was going to get me in trouble…”
“This isn’t punishment, kid. You’re the one for the job. Smart mouth and all.”
His enduring good mood isn’t doing anything to help mine. “My parents are going to kill. me. And Joe—” I dig both hands into my hair, realizing. “Shit. I can’t lose him, Gabe. He’s the best guy I’ve ever met.”
“You won’t lose him. Believe me.”
It’s definitely easier to believe him in light of that little blue plus sign. But I still don’t want to believe him. “This is really God’s will, or whatever? I couldn’t just talk to Planned Parenthood and save myself all the trouble?”
“Nah. The phrase ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ is pretty potent when we’re talking divine intent.” He reaches over and offers his hand. When I take it, he squeezes tight and says, “It’s going to be all right, Mary. Really.”
There’s a pause. I look at him and find that his smile has worn down a little at the corners. He gazes off at something I can’t see. For a resonant moment, I can feel the expansive otherness of him again. Then he breaks out of it and looks back at me. “It’ll be all right in the end,” he says. “There’s a lot to happen before then. But you don’t need to worry about that right now.”
“Yeah. I have enough to deal with.”
A semi-truck pulls into the lot. I get up from the curb and start toward the store, then turn back to Gabe. “You going to visit me again?”
He shrugs. “No idea—that’s up to HQ. But we’ll be looking out for you. Remember what I said at the beginning?”
Fear not. I shut my eyes for a moment, trying to fill myself up with those two words. When I look up, Gabe’s gone and the driver of the semi is climbing out of his cab. I go back into the store and slip behind the counter, where my magazine is still open to a full spread of celebrity baby bumps. Shaking a little, I turn the page.