Hot Ticket, fiction by Larry Thacker

Pret­ty much every 4 am on a Tues­day found Ed loaf­ing at the Quik Pick #2. He would slow sip cof­fee and flirt with Elma as much as she’d allow, all the while mind­less­ly shuf­fling through lay­ers of tossed scratch tick­ets that accu­mu­lat­ed all night in the garbage bin.

The only mon­ey he’d spend on the Lot­to was from the occa­sion­al win­ning tick­et some­one tossed by mis­take. It was easy to miss a win­ner. He resent­ed a lit­tle not being able to afford buy­ing his own, like some that sat around all day like it was a neigh­bor­hood casi­no, spend­ing dis­abil­i­ty mon­ey on hand­fuls of dol­lar scratch tick­ets. He hard­ly fished out a win­ner, but he had found a fifty-dol­lar tick­et once and was able to gorge on a big lunch at the Waf­fle Stop with enough left for three gal­lon jugs of gaso­line. Most­ly they’d accu­mu­late in his wal­let.

Ed wasn’t the only one that scoured these assumed los­ing tick­ets, but he was one of the few with the patience for it. Some were awful­ly ter­ri­to­r­i­al. Sam­my tore into the bin about sev­en in the morn­ing. John would get there about ten. You could see it in their eyes when they spot­ted a bunch in the garbage, swivel­ing their heads around like a para­noid ani­mal. Ed was more laid back. It was a game. It just helped pass the time before the sun was up and the grass dried.

He was sip­ping his sec­ond cup of cof­fee, half-awake one par­tic­u­lar morn­ing, watch­ing Elma sweep up around the Cof­fee Oasis, when the huge flashy neon sign over the counter flipped from 499 to 500 mil­lion dol­lars on the Super Lucky Ball Cash Jack­pot Sweep­stakes. That wadded stash of win­ners in his wal­let sprung to life. They vibrat­ed they want­ed out so bad.

He hur­ried over to the scratch counter, swept the lit­tle mounds of grey shav­ings away and emp­tied his wal­let of those tick­ets and made his way to the check­out.

Elma, I reck­on it’s time to spend these win­ners,” he whis­pered, hand­ing over a hand­ful of ragged tick­ets.

She winked. “Feel­ing lucky, Ed?”

He cracked a grin. “You make me feel lucky, Elma. I wouldn’t both­er if you weren’t work­ing right now. That sign just flipped over to five-hun­dred mil­lion.”

She looked up, blinked and gave a sigh. “It sure did, didn’t it? God, what I’d do for that kind of mon­ey.”

That sound­ed like a prayer,” Ed offered as the lit­tle speak­er set to yelling Yahoo! every time she scanned a tick­et. “You won twen­ty-three dol­lars, hon­ey. Not bad.”

He was look­ing over the thick bound rolls of scratch offs behind the counter and stud­ied his cash.

How many you want?”

Let’s do ten dol­lars of Lucky Ball tick­ets. And I need sev­en dol­lars in gas.” That left him three dol­lars. He eyed his favorite scratch off — the “All Fired Up” one hun­dred thou­sand dol­lar gold­en tick­et.

And give me a num­ber eight. I’m feel­ing all fired up, Elma.”

She smiled, attuned to his sub­tle joke.

 

The sun inched up, rais­ing the tem­per­a­ture and new light slow-chased the shad­ows across the pot-holed lot. It remind­ed him of sun­rise on the moon. Or Mars, maybe. Cratered and grey, a blan­ket of light seep­ing over the minia­tur­ized land­scape. He clinked open his sil­ver lighter with one prac­ticed snap of his fin­gers and lit a smoke. He was patient. He’d move when the light reached his back bicy­cle tire.

With what was left of a sec­ond cig­a­rette smol­der­ing from is clamped lips, he filled two gas cans he’d rigged over the back of his bicy­cle. He nev­er wor­ried about the fumes. He fig­ured if he was bound to die in a fire that would have hap­pened long ago.

A woman at anoth­er pump stared at his dan­gling cig­a­rette as he pumped. He squint­ed back through the smoke’s heat.

What?”

Her eyes round­ed, sur­prised.

Well, any­body who can’t wait to smoke until they’ve pumped their gas is an addict.” She huffed and bolt­ed toward the store, to tat­tle obvi­ous­ly.

Baby, I’m addict­ed to more than smok­ing,” he mut­tered with a grin. Then he ped­dled off to mow some yards, tot­ting his mow­er along­side and whistling loud enough so Elma might could hear him head­ing down the road.

 

Ed accom­plished more than mow­ing yards when he was work­ing. It was more like scout­ing. Peo­ple qui­et­ly knew the deal. You didn’t acquire a rep­u­ta­tion as the county’s “go to” arson­ist with­out good rea­son. Who couldn’t put two and two togeth­er? Why would he be tak­ing care of the mow­ing at some seem­ing­ly aban­doned prop­er­ty before it soon went up in smoke? Or the care­tak­er of a slum­lord dump that was so run down not even the most des­per­ate ten­ant would live there — that just hap­pened to burn?

Peo­ple knew. They just didn’t care.

Ed felt like he was offer­ing a ser­vice of sorts. Home­own­ers liked it, espe­cial­ly if it helped put them ren­o­vate. Insur­ance com­pa­nies were indif­fer­ent. They were charg­ing peo­ple high­er rates any­way because of the fre­quen­cy of fires. They’d pay out and drop them from cov­er­age. Land­lords liked it for the insur­ance pay­out. The slum­lords loved it when a place burned they were get­ting pres­sured to tear down.

State inves­ti­ga­tors were so back­logged with arsons across south­east of Ken­tucky they’d most­ly giv­en up on all but the fires that hurt or killed some­one.

And that was a rule Ed wouldn’t break. Nev­er hurt some­one with a fire.

As for the fire depart­ments, as long as no one was hurt, they were fine with hav­ing steady work and train­ing. Wasn’t it the pur­pose of fire fight­ers to fight fire?

 

What lit­tle guilt Ed felt about his occu­pa­tion wasn’t long lived. With so few car­ing and so many ben­e­fit­ing, there were days when being a fire bug felt like a reg­u­lar job.

But most reg­u­lar jobs don’t run the risk of killing you.

Gaso­line is a volatile, unpre­dictable pro­pel­lant. But it’s cheap and it works. Fumes build up and that’s what burns. Pour a thin line through a struc­ture and wait long enough and when it ignites every win­dow in the house will blow out. He liked old car­pet­ed places. Wood floors took too long to catch. Old cur­tains were good. Linoleum. And you couldn’t just start a fire in one room, the whole struc­ture had to catch. For a thou­sand dol­lars he guar­an­teed a fire so involved by the time the fire depart­ment arrived that they’d just throw some water on it to keep it from spread­ing. A neat pile of charred splin­ters was what he want­ed.

Truth be told, though, he’d have done most of his jobs for free. Some ven­tured he had a fetish. Ed reck­oned he did. Very lit­tle excit­ed him more than fire. There was such mys­tic about it. The vio­lence. The risk. The pleas­ant­ly lit decay. The art­ful pow­er of it. The heat. It was a dance with a force of anni­hi­la­tion. Some­thing phys­i­cal mor­ph­ing to no more than what a light wind might sweep away. An utter ele­men­tal dis­ap­pear­ance. Dan­ger­ous­ly beau­ti­ful. Addic­tive.

 

By late that night, Ed was rethink­ing this love affair with fire, though, dazed and on his back as the fin­gers of flames licked up the ceil­ing of the stair­way he’d just exit­ed through the air. He’d done every­thing right, he thought. Scoped out the prop­er­ty, esti­mat­ed the inside before break­ing in the back win­dow. A gal­lon of gas would do the job.

He wasn’t count­ing on the sev­er­al plas­tic milk jugs of old gas in the cel­lar. He’d set the fire down there first and was on his way out when the jugs instant­ly melt­ed, spread­ing pools of fuel across the floor and blow­ing him out of the cel­lar stair­way up into the kitchen. Now the fire was on top of him, stalk­ing, upside down crawl­ing across the black­en­ing kitchen ceil­ing and catch­ing the cur­tains of both the back door and win­dow he’d crawled through.

He tried shak­ing the con­cus­sion off, close to black­ing out, smoke broil­ing the air above his head, singe­ing down on the tips of his ears and nose.

This is it. You’re gonna black out.

He strug­gled up on his knees.

And burn.

He was always amazed how loud fire could be.

And die.

Then the voice was there.

 

You think you know me?

 

A fig­ure, a man of sorts, immerged above him, the black above part­ing in a swirl to make way for his stature. His rai­ment was smoke, peel­ing from his body, twirled with the liv­ing orange of heat, eyes in dark glow­ing knowl­edge.

Ed fold­ed his hands, forc­ing his gaze up into the black, lit at the fringes with orange, alive fire. He knew as sure­ly as the pain jolt­ing through him he was star­ing into a hell he’d sel­dom con­sid­ered.

 

You think you know me?

It was the dev­il him­self, wasn’t it?

You don’t know me. Not yet.

Tears from the smoke streamed down his cheeks.

Don’t wan­na know you one bit, you dev­il.”

You’re about to meet me.

 

Pain like num­ber­less red-hot pin­cers clamped into every inch of his skin, bend­ing him dou­ble. He was scream­ing for the Lord then, his voice only a squeak under the crack­ling con­sump­tion of every­thing around him. Had he ever done such a thing? Des­per­ate­ly called out to God?

Then anoth­er voice was there in the room. The smoke peeled back in swirls. A cab­i­net fell from the wall and explod­ed smok­ing frag­ments across the room.

 

You don’t know me, do you?

No Lord…I don’t…”

Do you want to die here? So hor­ri­bly?

No,” he coughed and gagged.

Swal­lowed up in a Hell worse than this?

No!”

What do you want to hap­pen?

I want to live, Lord! Live!”

Anoth­er explo­sion fired off in the cel­lar, push­ing more black over his back, dark­en­ing the room.

Let me live…I’ll do anything…don’t let me burn, Lord! Any­thing.”

Any­thing?

Yes.”

You might wish you hadn’t made this deal.

 

There was a groan and crash and his back was show­ered in hot glass. His sleeves were smok­ing. His mind snapped back clear­er. The cur­tains had burnt up and the old win­dow glass had buck­led and fall­en in, a rush of night air slic­ing into his smoke packed lungs like ice. There were sirens. He hob­bled out, the shirt on his back smok­ing, the stink of his own cooked hair all over him. He heard laugh­ter as he stum­bled up the back hill into the safe­ty of the for­est, half blind and bare­ly breath­ing.

 

He hacked black up out of his lungs all night, shiv­ered with fever from the pock­marks of burns on his arms, neck and back. He drank so much water his bel­ly felt like it would pop. He’d toss and turn, get up, pace. Get­ting caught wasn’t his wor­ry. But the voic­es. The voic­es relayed in his mind, tear­ing him away from the idea of sleep when he final­ly would close his eyes. Was that God? Was that the Dev­il? What crazi­ness was this?

He went to the kitchen to force some food into his nau­seous bel­ly. His wal­let stuck half out of his smudged jeans pooled in the kitchen floor along with his shirt. The orange-peach col­or of his Lucky Ball tick­ets stood out from the black­ened mound of sod­den clothes.

Ed grinned, a surge of fan­ta­sized relief flood­ing his imag­i­na­tion. He found a pen­ny in the floor and start­ed scrap­ing.

 

Gold­en Tick­et Num­bers: 13. 43. 24.

  1. 17. 34
  2. Free Tick­et. 35.

A free tick­et. Bet­ter than noth­ing.

  1. 32. 26.

Thir­teen?

Ed chuck­led and scratched under the num­ber, hop­ing for maybe a dol­lar. Then his fin­gers stopped mov­ing and he bat­ted his dry eyes in the kitchen’s puny light.

Under the num­ber thir­teen was $100,000 in fat gold­en let­ters.

 

…and when you smash the red-hot glow­ing Gates of Hell open, soul first, and feel the con­dem­na­tion both in spir­it and body, you will great­ly grieve the days you turned from God’s gift of grace! You’ll know in your heart, as you rot in a devil’s hell for all eter­ni­ty, you turned away, broth­ers and sis­ters!”

The con­gre­ga­tion respond­ed.

Amen…Glory! Amen.

I was there once…turning my greedy, deaf ears from God’s voice. Know­ing God’s mes­sage was in my ear dai­ly, around every cor­ner, in every bad choice I made. But I heard him, final­ly, in my time of need and almost too late. I heard God and now I stand here today preach­ing my promise to him!”

Amen. Amen.

I was broke – like many of you.”

            Amen.

I was sad and lonely…just plain tired of liv­ing. Like some of you, maybe, here this morn­ing.”

Amen. Bless him, Lord!

I was bur­dened with evil. Not liv­ing for God!”

Amen!

Now here we are, blessed with hope, free from Hell and Satan’s mighty and stub­born grip on this here Earth.”

Ed paused for a deep breath, dab­bing sweat on his brow with his shirt sleeve. They were lis­ten­ing.

 

Three months had passed since Ed won the Gold­en Tick­et Jack­pot, his world instant­ly turned inside out. God had obvi­ous­ly inter­vened, hear­ing his des­per­a­tion, set­ting his path anew. Then the hard part kicked in, to not make a fool of God for let­ting him escape that pit into Hell house that was burn­ing down around him.

Broke in my pock­et and bro­ken of spir­it in the morn­ing. Mon­ey in my pock­et from the hand of God by sun down!” he’d wit­ness to any­one that lis­tened. “The ways of God are not mys­te­ri­ous to those who believe in mir­a­cles.”

He’d opt­ed for the one time pay out. Sev­en­ty-thou­sand dol­lars. The morn­ing the state trans­ferred the funds there was $13.56 in his check­ing account. Like mag­ic, by noon there was $70,013.56. At the bank to make a with­draw­al, every­one stared, a mix of grins and frowns, all judg­ing in some way or anoth­er.

What do you plan on doing with all that mon­ey, Ed?” a cashier who’d nev­er paid him any atten­tion flirt­ed as she flipped down a thou­sand dol­lars in hun­dreds. He liked the way she licked her thumb every three bills. Fun­ny how he was more attrac­tive sud­den­ly.

The Lord’s work,” he mum­bled with­out think­ing. Not a great way to flirt back, he guessed. But it was the truth, wasn’t it? He was con­tract­ed now by the spir­it.

 

You all know I’ve been on the wrong side of the law a lit­tle. That ain’t no big secret. Who of you haven’t?”

Bless him, Lord.

We’ve all fall­en short of God’s grace. But to be blessed with epiphany! You all know what an epiphany is? It’s a sud­den real­iza­tion. I won’t both­er y’all with the details, but let’s just say I was into things I ought not to have been. And it about killed me.”

Bless him.  

Then the voice of God All Mighty came down and wrung me up by the shirt col­lar and showed me Hell…”

Ed’s sting­ing sweat filled eyes scanned the crowd. It had dou­bled in the last month, fill­ing the pews he’d bought from that failed Mount Ver­non Holi­ness church. Now the pews were near full and the store front rental he’d leased was feel­ing cramped.

The morning’s preach­ing felt good. That is, until Dil­lon Ham­by mag­i­cal­ly appeared on the back row. He’d snuck in. If Dil­lon was there it wasn’t for the preach­ing. He’d be bring­ing work. Work Ed couldn’t do any­more. Work he wouldn’t do, by God.

A notice­able stum­ble worked its way into Ed’s train of thought as he avoid­ed Dillon’s eyes.

Let us pray,” he abrupt­ly offered the flock.

 

Talk made it to his ears as every­one milled about, hug­ging and hand­shak­ing and sip­ping cof­fee after the ser­vice.

Nobody can preach hell fire and brim­stone like Ed.”

I start sweatin when he talks burnin in hell like that. It scares me.”

Well, he ought to know fire, now shouldn’t he?” anoth­er whis­pered.

Ed avoid­ed Dil­lon and start­ed clean­ing up the donut crumbs and cof­fee spills. Dil­lon wait­ed.

Ed could feel him in the room, sensed the shal­low wheeze from the man’s six-foot, 300-pound frame.

Got a job for ya, Ed,” Dil­lon final­ly offered, sure he already knew Ed’s answer.

It’s good to see you, too, Dil­lon,” Ed lied.

I said I got a job for you.”

Ed huffed and glanced up from wip­ing down the cof­fee mak­er. This con­ver­sa­tion was bound to hap­pen even­tu­al­ly.

Dil­lon, you know I’m preach­ing now. I’m done with that work. Told you that on the phone. I got­ta be done with it.”

Dil­lon smirked with a grunt. “Yea, but I want­ed to see myself. I tell ya, though, the Lord couldn’t have picked a bet­ter man to preach Hell, huh?” he laughed. “You almost con­vinced me. It’s a good scam though. How much you rakin in when you pass the plate?”

I mean every word of it.”

Maybe. But I got a job for you any­how. The old Reynold’s place up on Flat Ridge. There ain’t no chance of being caught. Even by God if that’s wor­ryin you. It’s all by itself up there, just beg­gin for a vis­it by the expert. Nobody’s lived there for­ev­er and the own­ers stand to make a pret­ty pay­day off the insur­ance. You do this job and we both make mon­ey, plus them.”

Ed drew a long steady­ing breath. The tug of the fire was still there, like the old coal mines burn­ing hun­dreds of feet under­ground. Always there in a slow, hot burn, qui­et and dan­ger­ous.

You healed up from that last job, are ya?”

Bare­ly. But like I said, I’m not inter­est­ed.” The just heal­ing blis­ters down his back tight­ened with chills.

Dil­lon stepped clos­er, study­ing down on Ed. The floor gave with Dillon’s weight.

Eddy, you and me go back. A lot of his­to­ry tan­gled up between us. So much so, the way I see it, if I say you have a job to do, you’ll just do it.”

The voice raised in Ed’s ear.

Save this man and we’re even.

I’m not drop­pin this, Ed.”

I know you ain’t.”

 

Ed locked the front doors, swip­ing his shirt sleeve over the glass. The large panes across the whole store­front want­ed anoth­er clean­ing. He’d just detailed them last week, but the coal trucks kicked up so much dust it was impos­si­ble.  He looked up sat­is­fied. Church of the Holy Fire of God was embla­zoned dark red on black cloth stretch­ing down the awning.

He had such big plans. It was large, an old Dol­lar Time store. Plen­ty of room for a “Tour Through Hell” fes­ti­val as a Hal­loween alter­na­tive. A size­able food pantry. Coun­sel­ing offices. They’d have a bus. Revivals in the park­ing lot. A newslet­ter. A web­site. There was mon­ey for it all.

 

Wednes­day morn­ing Dil­lon slid into the booth seat across from Ed’s steak and eggs break­fast at the Waf­fle Stop. Ed’s appetite dis­ap­peared.

I seen you pray­ing a minute ago,” Dil­lon jabbed, sip­ping his cof­fee.

Yep.” Ed crammed his mouth with a chunk of steak he hoped would keep him busy chew­ing rather than talk­ing.

You didn’t used to.”

Ed forced a swal­low.

Pray before every meal now.” He bit a roll in half.

Yea. You didn’t use to do a lot of things. But some things you did do.”

Ed sipped a loud gulp of cof­fee.

Why keep this act up?”

Ed thought on that a moment.

Dil­lon, let me ask you what you might find an odd ques­tion. You think a per­son can tip the scales back in favor of their sal­va­tion?”

Dil­lon huffed. Ed’s sud­den and strange reli­gion was test­ing his patience.

That’s what I’m doing. And this ain’t no act. I’m mak­ing up for what I’ve done, for what I’ve done for you.”

You nev­er hurt no one. Any­way, why do you think you was so good at fire bug­gin?”

Ed put him­self back into his old way of think­ing. It was a good ques­tion.

I liked to stay in it til I can’t stand it no more. Some­thing about it felt nat­ur­al to me.”

I was think­ing more along the fact that you just like it. Still like it. ”

Dil­lon leaned clos­er.

You’re a sick, fire lovin low-life. No bet­ter than any of us. You remem­ber that, Preach­er. And don’t get any bright ideas of being bet­ter than me with that ready cash you’ve got.”

Ed man­aged a turn-the-cheek smile.

In the end, there’s some­thing else I’d rather do for you, Dil­lon.”

Oh, what’s that?”

Savin your soul. From Hell.”

Dil­lon about sprayed cof­fee across the table.

I’ve been there. You don’t want none of it.”

You’ll do the job, son. Or else.”

 

Ed was in no good mood when he prayed that night.

Lord, if I can save, or help save, Dil­lon Ham­by, that low-life, slum-pimp of an excuse of your hand­i­work, sure­ly you’d for­give my innu­mer­able sins in the end, right?  Lord, you sure scraped the bar­rel with him, didn’t you?

 

Ed was up on the Flat Ridge by Fri­day night, star­ing the Reynold’s place down in the black­ness, remind­ed of Jesus and Satan fight­ing it out in the wilder­ness. The struc­ture loomed, light­ly framed along its roof line and cor­ners by the half-heart­ed moon. His arms hung heavy with two cans of gaso­line. No good road remained and he’d sloshed the sweet stink of fuel on his shoe’s trip­ping up the hill to the prop­er­ty.

Why was he here? He couldn’t sleep and was pac­ing, obsessed with temp­ta­tion dressed in Dillon’s voice. Final­ly a dri­ve in the dark was all he could think to do and he found him­self at the Quik Pick for some gas. Elma was inside and he hes­i­tat­ed. He’d bare­ly been back in since he’d won, too dis­tract­ed by his new work, but most­ly try­ing to break his habits. She was one of them. They’d nev­er gone out, nev­er spo­ken any­where oth­er than here. Col­lat­er­al dam­age, he guessed. He turned on his heels and paid for the gas at the pump with his new deb­it card.

He’d dri­ven, know­ing he was bound for just where Dil­lon said he ought to be. Like a good errand boy, thor­ough­ly cowed. It wasn’t what a man like Dil­lon did that made him feared, it was what such a man might do.  Imag­i­na­tions grand­ly inflat­ed his rep­u­ta­tion, but not by much. Ed knew where all the bod­ies were, so to speak. Tempt­ing Dil­lon over this house would sure­ly run the risk of some­thing bad even­tu­al­ly.

Now it was just him and his smok­ing ghosts, a hair from back­slid­ing into the fire, to burn with the likes of Dil­lon.

 

But he wasn’t alone.

You want to burn some­thing?

The con­stant chat­ter was con­fus­ing him.

Burn your own place. This place is no busi­ness of yours.

Was that God or the Dev­il whis­per­ing so close up on his ear?

Why would you declare such a thing, God?”

Sac­ri­fice.

Sac­ri­fice?”

Then silence set in and fol­lowed him off the hill.

 

Ed was rolling the next Sun­day morn­ing. The pews were crowd­ed and he had a bel­ly full of frus­tra­tion and praise to cast on the heads of his con­gre­ga­tion. He felt like he’d binged on two pots of cof­fee, his skin crawl­ing with goose bumps, heart thump­ing in his ears, throat strained, sweaty chills run­ning his spine up to the back of his head, brain twist­ed up like a spring, sharp and ready. Was this what the Holy Spir­it felt like?

The paint was only just dry on the bap­tis­tery he’d fash­ioned togeth­er all night. He pat­ted the rail­ing, proud of how it turned out, over four feet high and ten feet across. A small pool, trimmed in stained, full up with cool tap water he’d hosed from the kitch­enette all night.

 

God uses fire! All through the Bible. ‘For the Lord thy God is a con­sum­ing fire, even a jeal­ous God,’ Deuteron­o­my, Chap­ter 4 and verse 24. God speaks through the fire, pun­ish­es and destroys through the fire, warms us and heals us through fire! He doesn’t speak much through the cold or ice, or through water. It’s fire! I looked up the num­ber of times fire and flame is men­tioned in the King James Bible. Care to guess? Any­body?”

A hun­dred,” some­one shout­ed.

Nope.”

Three hun­dred?” anoth­er asked.

Nope. Five hun­dred and fifty one times! And this here bap­tis­tery — what get­ting bap­tized does for you — is replace that very real threat of hell fire with the fire of the Holy Spir­it!”

 

Dil­lon made his way in. He hadn’t slept all night and was in a mood, the curios­i­ty about Ed drove him to task. If he had to beat Ed to death in his own church he’d do it, but he would wait for the ser­vice to end before show­ing Ed the con­se­quences of his stub­born­ness.

But what greet­ed Ed when he final­ly sat took his breath. The back wall was stacked thick with white can­dles, over a hun­dred of them, lit and bounc­ing light along the walls. Ed was hop­ping in the cor­ner scream­ing chap­ter and verse from the lectern, shad­owed and flick­er­ing with the jumpy can­dle light. Some­thing in Dillon’s stom­ach dropped. He’d nev­er seen such a sight.

The Burn­ing Bush! Fire pil­lars in the desert! Fire rain­ing down on cities! The Day of Pen­te­cost! Burnt offer­ings! Over and over! Now I don’t want you all,” Ed con­tin­ued, star­ing through the dim­ness at who he made out to be Dil­lon, “bustin Hell wide open. I want you all in Heav­en with me. Ever, sin­gle, one of you.”

Ed slipped a hand down as he shout­ed and snatched up a small glass­less lamp. He fin­gered into his pock­et and brought out his sil­ver lighter and snapped it open and lit with three fin­gers, set the wick aflame and turned the knob full on. His face and chest glowed bright. He sat the lamp down and rolled up his sleeves and raised his hands to the ceil­ing and closed his eyes in a qui­et prayer. His arms were wrin­kled in scars, shiny in the light, rip­pled past the elbows, evi­dence of his close waltz with the dev­il those months back.

He stalked the mid­dle aisle, eye-to-eye with his peo­ple, now pass­ing the lamp flame under his hand and wrist, a wisp of black­ened smoke twist­ing from his fin­ger­tips. The instant smell of smoked hair and flesh waft­ed and some­one gagged.

Ed’s lit teeth grit­ted back the dam of pain, words hiss­ing through a clenched jaw. He skipped back and leaned down face-to-face with Dil­lon. “By God’s grace,” he gri­maced, “I know fire, broth­er.” He winced and shook, lift­ing and divid­ing the flame in half up his along his fore­arm, a severe red blotch start­ing to char. “Believe me.”

Dillon’s eyes stretched wide and he recoiled. A stench filled his nose, tight­en­ing his throat. The con­gre­ga­tion was qui­et but for their gasps of dis­be­lief.

This here is noth­ing com­pared to the soul con­sum­ing des­tiny wait­ing on the unsaved!”

Some­one whis­pered their won­der how Ed was stand­ing the pain.

Ed jerked the flame away final­ly, tee­ter­ing on the precipice of black­ing out. The peo­ple sighed relief in uni­son. Dil­lon was frozen in amaze­ment.

You don’t think I felt every sec­ond of that?” he winced. “Yes! Yes, I did. But that’s noth­ing com­pared to where I might have gone!”

He hadn’t bro­ken eye con­tact with Dil­lon, who was squirm­ing and nau­seous.

Ed spoke low, “And you don’t think I’m will­ing to do any­thing nec­es­sary on behalf of God’s King­dom? Be it pain or suf­fer­ing? God’s will be done.”

The pain numbed and the ener­gy surged back and Ed sprint­ed down the aisle and did a one hand­ed hop into the bap­tis­tery, splash­ing feet first, dip­ping his arm into the cool­ness of the water and sucked in a long breath and smiled with obvi­ous joy.

Who among you will be bap­tized this day?!”

I will,” some­one shout­ed, bolt­ing into the aisle. Then anoth­er came.

 

Eight bap­tisms in, Ed turned to help anoth­er step down into the water and a met a face he did not expect. It was Dil­lon, his hand in Ed’s, the can­dles illu­mi­nat­ing a kind of smile he’d nev­er seen on Dillon’s face, the evi­dence of tears fill­ing the cor­ners of his eyes.

Lord, Almighty, Ed spout­ed in his thoughts, what have you blessed or cursed me with here?

He helped Dil­lon down into the waist deep waters and raised his right hand, sup­port­ing Dillon’s back with left.

As Jesus taught, those who con­fess me before men and are bap­tized will live for­ev­er.”

He pulled up close to Dil­lon, star­ing into his eyes and talk­ing too low for any­one to hear.

You for real?”

Dil­lon nod­ded.

Don’t believe him.

I’m sus­pi­cious.”

The organ played over their con­ver­sa­tion.

We don’t believe you,” Ed whis­pered, lean­ing Dil­lon back. “We bap­tize thee in the name of the Father…”

We who?” Dil­lon ques­tioned as his full body fell back into the water.

He came here to hurt you.

Ed popped him back up.

…the Son…” Down again, back up and down.

Dillon’s nose and mouth filled with the sweet sting of gaso­line as he rose for the third time.

…and the Holy Ghost…”

Dillon’s eyes stung closed. He tried to right him­self, con­fused, cough­ing and cry­ing out, flail­ing with a sting on his skin and face, squint­ing to see. Ed was pour­ing gaso­line from a milk jug over his head, soak­ing his clothes.

Vio­lent fin­gers tight­ened on Dillon’s large arm, tug­ging at him with author­i­ty, a heavy men­ace in Ed’s breath­ing. Dil­lon froze. What­ev­er was on him was on Ed, too, soak­ing them, rain­bow­ing into the water, fumes sat­u­rat­ing the air around them.

Shall we final­ly test our faith togeth­er, broth­er Dil­lon?” Ed whis­pered, his sud­den­ly calm voice punc­tu­at­ed with the dis­tinct snap and clink of Ed’s sil­ver lighter.

 

Lar­ry D. Thack­er is an Appalachi­an writer and artist. His poet­ry can be found in past issues of The Still Jour­nal, The Eman­ci­pa­tor, Motif 2, Full of Crow, Kudzu Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zine, Pikeville Review, Coun­try Grind, The South­ern Poet­ry Anthol­o­gy, O’ Words Anthol­o­gy, Vol­ume VI: Ten­nessee, Unbro­ken Jour­nal, Mojave Riv­er Review, Fried Chick­en and Cof­fee, Broad Riv­er Review, The Moon Mag­a­zine, Vox Poet­i­ca, Har­poon Review, Pine Moun­tain Sand & Grav­el, War­ren Anthol­o­gy on Mem­o­ry, Dead Mule School of South­ern Lit­er­a­ture, and Appalachi­an Her­itage. He is the author of Moun­tain Mys­ter­ies: The Mys­tic Tra­di­tions of Appalachia and the poet­ry chap­books, Voice Hunt­ing and Mem­o­ry Train. A stu­dent ser­vices high­er edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­al of 15 years, he is now engaged full-time in his poet­ry MFA from West Vir­ginia Wes­leyan Col­lege.

 

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