by Tony Noland
Whittle closed his eyes and prayed more fervently than he had ever done before, filling his mind with the prayer, not merely in silent supplication to God almighty, but in a desperate, almost frantic plea which completely drowned out the deacon's wheezy voice, just finishing the first reading, a long passage from the prophet Jeremiah. Please God, he prayed, Tick screws up everything he touches, please, please let him have screwed this up, too, please!
There was a slight shuffling as the choirmaster stood to lead the congregation in the singing of the psalm. The rich tenor voice rolled across the pews of sweaty men and women like a proud sea eagle crying out over the water. The responsorial came back to him like an echo of a rolling wave, ragged and powerful. Whittle's bible was turned to the psalm, and he joined the singing without paying attention. Fourteen verses would take perhaps three minutes, then there was the second reading, then the gospel lesson. Figure on another fifteen minutes, twenty at most before Reverend Carrin started his sermon.
Why, God, why did Tick have to be such a fool? And why did he have to rope me into it?
August was when summer turned lousy. The fourth of July was just a distant memory which turned the long days even more flat and tiresome as the tales of it grew in the telling. It was too hot to play, and the games they'd been playing all summer were played out anyway. It was too dry to go swimming, what with the creek so low in its bed and the mosquitoes hitting their stride on the mud banks. By the ox-bow bend, they were so thick they had to fight each other to find an open patch on your skin to bite.
Worse, anybody foolish enough to say how boring the summer was got put to work quicker than you could cut a switch. There were garages, sheds and workshops to clean out, gardens to be weeded, windows to be washed, fences to paint. The list went on and on, enough to crush the life out of any kid who spoke up, and most who didn't.
If Tick's discovery of the box of sparklers had led to a few flashing moments some clammy evening, if they had been used to light up a game of kick the can or had served as the special effects in a game of space rangers of the lost ark, if the boys had simply lit them and enjoyed them and moved on, Whittle would not now be facing damnation.
As Reverend Carrin finished reading the gospel, one spark leapt from the candle near the altar. Whittle's heart lurched and hammered in his chest, but the candle burned on, smooth and serene. With the rest of the congregation, Whittle sat down, sweat pouring down his face and neck. His mother handed him a paper fan, motioning that he should remember to keep it low and be quiet. Disturbances in church, especially by boys who were old enough to know better, led to repercussions afterward.
Sermon note cards arranged at the podium, the Reverend began his sermon. He started slow, with a joke about the weather, the oppressive heat that made everyone smell of wool and garlic. It was a lead-in to his main theme, building on Jeremiah.
Oh, God, why did it have to be Jeremiah? Did Tick know the reading for today? Had he been that organized? Reverend Carrin always preached about hellfire when the reading was from Jeremiah, that old scourge of the ancient world. Could Tick have known? Is that what gave him the idea to pack the sparkler dust in a long, deep hole in the middle of the big candle? When the wick burned down and exposed the gray flakes, they would catch and make "a show like no other". Out in the shade of Tick's dad's garage, Whittle, Billy, Tom, Carl and Charlie all laughed uproariously at the idea, its inspired brilliance leading to a full two hours of screaming, hysterical portrayals of the Reverend, the choirmaster, Mrs. Cook of the altar guild and everyone else in the congregation. How the boys would laugh should such an unlikely, impossible thing ever come off!
Another spark shot from the candle. The Reverend looked back at the flash, but did not interrupt the flow of his sermon.
In Whittle's pocket was the scrap of paper Tick had shoved into his hand, right before the service started. "I snuck in and did it this morning. Will go off half hour after lighting."
Charlie was the altar boy this morning. He'd lit the big candle forty minutes ago. Whittle could see by his bored, sleepy expression that he knew nothing of what was to come. All of them would be rounded up for questioning and every one of them would be dead, completely and utterly dead.
Please, God, please!
With the very first time Reverend Carrin pounded his fist on the podium, it was as though God had heard Whittle's silent pleadings and had decided to answer, not with mercy and forbearance, but with all the righteous indignation of creation itself. Just as the words, "... and he will smite you with HELLFIRE!" slapped into the faces of the congregation, the candle erupted in a gout of flame a foot, two feet, three feet high.
The wax, Whittle thought. Oh dear sweet Jesus the wax! The sparkler dust was not fountaining out in a fourth of July display, it was igniting the liquid wax like a rocket, spraying a jet of billowing, roaring flame up into the air above the altar. The brass candletop was channeling it upwards in a swirling blast, red-orange and white that went on for what seemed like hours.
Men shouted, women screamed, children cried in terror. The Reverend backed away from the altar in shock. He turned to face the congregation to say something, but was interrupted by Mr. McAndrews leaping from his pew, his hands clenched in fists in front of his face. He ran past the Reverend and fell to his knees before the altar, screaming in a broken, ragged voice, "Please, God, forgive me! Don't burn my family, please, God, I'm sorry for what I've done, I'm sorry, please! I swear I'll never do it again, please!" Tears streamed down his face as the flames collapsed and the candle, now lopsided and chopped in height, guttered back to a smaller flame.
Mr. McAndrews' hysterical, sobbing voice, "Praise God, praise him, praise God, praise his name, I'm sorry, please forgive me, thank you Jesus, please" was joined by a chorus of others in the pews and moving forward to the altar, pleading for mercy and forgiveness, begging for deliverance from fire and damnation, shouting praises to God for the miracle before their eyes, crying in wonder and shock. Amid the fervor, dozens of cell phones were out, taking pictures, making calls to families and to the media, alerting the world to this tangible sign of God almighty in their midst.
And though Whittle both peed his pants and vomited onto the pew, he was far from the only member of the congregation to have done so. Who could not be overwhelmed at such a moment?
This story continues with "Three Cold Cokes".
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