The choir sang “How Great Thou Are” the congregation stood in tradition, just as their father’s and mother’s had before them. At least I assumed it was their tradition, it seemed like something that would be a tradition in a church. The morning sun illuminated the stained glass depiction of Christ crucified in brilliant colors casting a reverence upon the macabre scene. All along the walls of the cathedral stood edifices of stories told throughout the bible, a statue of the Mother Mary, stained glass depictions of the fall of the Garden of Eden. Along the wall to my right stood seven statues of saints and surrounding each statue a stained glass depiction of the great stories taught in Sunday-School. Moses and the burning bush glowed with the morning sun alongside the serpent tempting Eve in the impressive cathedral I’d not expect to find this the small town in eastern Oklahoma.
I had been invited to attend the christening of my friend’s first child, an odd request considering I had only kept a distant connection with them over the last few years. We had slowly lost touch after Dan and Connie moved away from our hometown to the small rural town of Finkton where Dan had taken a position at a bank. That is until Dan called excited to share the news that he and Connie were expecting their first child. We had kept in touch a little more frequently since then with the occasional phone call or email. I was still surprised when they asked me to attend the christening of little Sarah. I had resigned myself to being a long distance friend and had not anticipated anything more than an announcement card commemorating little Sarah’s arrival into this world. Regardless of the oddity of the request that I attend the ceremony I’d accepted without a second thought. I was eager to share in the experience of a significant event in my friend’s lives. And so here I stand listening to a choir of Midwestern farmers and small town folk sing with all their heart and it made me smile.
I claim no religious predilections myself, but come from a religious home. My father ensured that my brothers and I attended services at least once a week. According to my mother it was for the best that we attend since we had so much of our father in us. I hadn’t understood what she had meant until my first semester of university which heralded my introduction too Gentleman Jack Daniels. It was the beginning of a tumultuous relationship that has to my great shame haunted me to this day. I remember asking my father one Sunday morning why I needed to go to church? I explained that I had attended all my school lessons without complaint, completed all of my homework and even did all my weekly chores. I hadn’t even said the “S” word. A word I had been particularly proud of learning from the pharmacist’s son Bobby who lived at the end of the block. I vividly remember my father’s look, sad and slightly ashamed. He said “Church is for those who need to be there, to keep them on the right track. If you miss just once you can end up in a whole heap of trouble.”
Sitting in the pew brought back memories of my childhood, of feet dangling in the uncomfortable shiny shoes Mother required my brothers and I to wear, of Pastor Rothmire saying “Amen” far too often and of Dan, doodling in the sketch book his mother always brought to keep him in the seat. This chapel’s dusty smell of aging wood and stone, the sound of the choir singing in harmony as the congregation stood was as inviting as an old friend could be. Dan and Connie were seated in the front row just three pews up from me; I don’t think I can remember a time when Dan looked so happy. Not even when he told me that Connie had said yes to his proposal, the smile he carried then held nothing in comparison to the pride and joy now displayed across his smiling visage.
The minister walked somberly to the pulpit and nodded towards Dan and Connie who shuffled their little bundle about until Connie held her. I watched as the couple approached the ornate table, set just below the pulpit. It had been draped in a thick red wine colored cloth. Connie placed Sarah on the altar and knelt along with Dan who had already bowed his head reverently but couldn’t help but look up at every movement and noise Sarah made. The minister walked down from the stage to stand between the pulpit and altar and faced the crowd as the music continued to play as little Sarah wiggled and squirmed on the wine colored cloth.
The choir reached the crescendo in harmony as something wet landed on my cheek. I look up expecting to find a leak or condensation from a pipe cooling the building. Instead I see a mist of black soot shifting and pulsing. Lightning flashed silently in the dark mass illuminating a fire burning within the shifting fog. The fire inside burned like that of an erupting volcano belching and pushing ever further out in gasps and exhales of smoke and fire. I look around me to the congregation who stood completely oblivious to the strange manifestation now hanging just feet above us all. I begin to shout out the danger when a scream the likes I’ve never heard came from above. The cloud of smoke and lightning rolls back revealing a figure consumed in flames. Its skin completely burned away exposing muscle and sinew, teeth and bone. Lidless eyes dart from person to person as the screams of the tortured soul forces its way through exposed clenched teeth.
From the pulpit the priest stands with outstretched arms towards the fiery being, the choir sings louder raising their arms just as the priest had. I watched as the skin on their outstretched arms begin to burn and boil. The priest held out his hands towards the being, chanting in a guttural language I could not nor want to understand. Above us the burning being now exposed fully from the smoke that lingered behind his burning form screamed as it moved slowly towards the small alter that stood in front of the minister. Lightning streaking from one end of the ceiling towards the other scorching stone leaving me blinded for a moment. As my vision cleared I watched in horror as Dan and Connie turned on their knees with hands raised towards the burning human like creature. To my horror and shame I stood paralyzed as the creature descended floating slowly over the congregation. As it passes over me I clearly see the exposed heart of the creature beating in the burning cavity in its chest. Beat after beat the exposed heart pumped fire through the body of the creature until the flames found an escape through one of the many exposed veins on the skinless monster.
I watch as those around me lift their heads and hands towards the floating creature chanting “Blessed be the flames. Blessed be the flames. Blessed be the flames” in whispered reverence. Euphoria showed on every face I saw. Tears evaporate from the blistering skin of some as they stretched their arms out towards the being. The creature’s intent became clear as it descended and stretched its burning arms towards little Sarah. Panic, along with some primal rage welled up inside me. I found strength from somewhere inside me and willed my legs forward. I was moving before my mind could truly register what my intent was. I rush past Dan and Connie who both had tears streaming from their eyes and seemed lost in a haze. Their skin blistered and boiled but neither seemed to notice or care about the pain. I scooped up Sarah and ran as fast as I my legs would carry me. Screams echoed along the walls from the burning creature. A change in tone could not be mistaken for anything other than anger caused me to tremble in fear as I ran.
I sprint past the rows of pews as those standing in the congregation turn and reach out to stop me. I place one hand over little Sarah who began to cry trying protect her from the grasping hands of those I rushed through. I turn slightly to my side as I hit the crash bar on the exit door sending a searing pain through my hip and shoulder and bolt into the spring sunlight. I quickly glance back at the small chapel, the darkness of the mist and the flash of lightning still erupted inside. Through the walls of the building I felt the tremors in my chest before the ground beneath me started to quake. I dash for my Mustang cradling the crying child as best I can. With no time to find a safe way to place the tiny child in the car, I nestle her into my left arm and slide into the car starting the engine and back out of the parking space as fast as I can. As I shift into first gear I have a clear view of the chapel and the hundred or so people now streaming out of the doors waving burned arms and hands at me as I speed away.
I wind my way through the neighborhood trying to retrace the route I had taken to reach the chapel just an hour earlier. To my great surprise and relief I find the exit to the highway with ease and pull out onto the open road. I put my foot to the floor and open up the big V8 engine determined to put as many miles between us and the demon in the chapel as I can. Half an hour later with no signs of police or any demonic storm overhead my mind begins to try and process what just happened. An epiphany occurs as I pass a billboard for a local casino. I just kidnapped an infant, even if I go to the police or a hospital where the child could be cared for, the child won’t be safe. It won’t take long before Dan and Connie to contact the authorities and I’ll be hunted down, arrested for kidnapping at a christening. No one in their right mind will believe me, a floating demon in a cloud of lightning and fire? No, I will be hunted and if they find me they will find Sarah. If they find Sarah they will give her to the Demon, I can’t let that happen. Looking down at the tiny child now resting quietly in my arm sucking her little thumb fast asleep, I knew I couldn’t let that happen.
I pull into a gas station with a sign for an ATM, adjust the baby as best I can and try not to wake her as I place her head on my shoulder and head inside. No one inside the store paid any attention to us. If they did they most likely would have assumed she was my child. After all, how often do you see a man with a kidnapped child? I fumble with my wallet as I pull out my bank card and withdraw everything I can from the machine making multiple transactions. I switch to a credit card and make as many cash advance withdraws as it allows as well. I repeat the process until I’ve depleted every source of cash I can and just hope that I can reach my savings tomorrow before a judge orders my accounts frozen. I purchased a small milk and an ice tea and return to my car.
I pull out onto the highway trying carefully to shift gears and hold Sarah who looked up at me with inquisitive and judging eyes. I most likely am projecting my fears onto those deep dark wells in her eyes, but still I have a serious dilemma. Turn myself in and watch Sarah returned to her family and the demonic creature that I have no doubt Dan and Connie would again offer her up too. Or I can choose to run, run and not stop. I look down at little Sarah, wrapped in my arm the dilemma vanishes.
“What do you think of Mexican food?” I ask the sleeping child.
I shift into fifth gear and pour fuel into the engine as we shift lanes.
“I hear it’s not so bad in some parts, I think I can learn to speak Spanish. What about you?”Sarah answered only by opening her big dark eyes and stretching her tiny arms.