The canvas tent looked large enough to swallow half of Cross, and part of Christopher Ryan wished it would. Thursday had been his fourteenth birthday, and there were far better places for him to be than a revival on a bright and beautiful Sunday.
“Christopher,” his mother said, taking him by the arm and turning him to face her. “Today will bring us closer to God. It will serve as a reminder of His love for us. You need to lose your sour attitude and remember that, young man.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Christopher replied, keeping his voice neutral. His mother’s tongue could be harsh as the back of her hand, and he had no interest in receiving the brunt of either one.
“I shouldn’t have to remind you,” his mother continued, straightening his tie, “how hard your father worked to bring this revival to Cross. Nor how great our struggle has been here. The town has never shown any affection for our ministry, or your father’s efforts to create a Christian community.”
“I know, Ma’am,” he said.
“Excellent,” his mother said, smiling at him. “Now, let us go be an example to others and help lead them to the light of the Lord.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Christopher said, forcing a smile.
“That’s my good son,” his mother said, and she smiled and gave his cheek an affectionate pat.
Together, they left their small home and followed the street up to the farm road that led to the grounds of the revival. They passed parked cars and joined a thin, but steady stream of people. Christopher recognized several from Sunday service, and he offered them his false smile.
His mother wore a long, dark gray and modest dress, and she moved easily amongst the people. She greeted them and fawned over children as she played the role of the pastor’s wife to perfection. Her small form was in constant motion, her slight build filled with boundless energy. Christopher had never seen her slow down, or even rest.
His mother, as far as Christopher Ryan knew, never slept.
When they entered the massive tent, Christopher was reminded of the time his parents had taken him to a circus outside of Boston. It hadn’t been to attend the performance, but to witness for their community. Between handing out pamphlets, Christopher had snuck glances at the various acts.
Until his father had seen him.
Christopher shoved the unpleasant memory aside and followed his mother to the first row of fold-out wooden chairs. The passage from entrance to seat took longer than the walk from their home to the tent as his mother saw and greeted more people she knew.
Finally, they arrived at their seats, and once his mother was situated, Christopher joined her. He managed to suppress a groan at the sight of the empty seat beside him.
His father would join them later, it seemed.
Christopher’s attention was drawn to the front of the tent where large, wide steps led up to a long, low stage that had been constructed. Three chairs were arranged behind a podium, and he knew that his father would soon be on the stage.
Christopher had attended revivals before, both as a participant with his parents and as an assistant for small events his father had organized in the western portion of Massachusetts. The memories of which reminded Christopher of how little enthusiasm there was in Cross for his family’s faith.
They had overcome such difficulties before, but those had been encountered in towns where Catholicism dominated the spiritual landscape.
Cross was different.
Few people attended the Catholic Church, and there was only slightly more attendance at the First Congregationalist Church. There were other churches, but there were even fewer members of the town who patronized them.
It was as though Cross didn’t care for God.
Christopher had never experienced a lack of faith in a community, and in his heart, he knew his father’s efforts in Cross would fail.
His mother leaned closer and said in a soft voice, “It’s nice to see you smiling.”
“I am excited, Ma’am,” Christopher said. But not for the reason you think.
“Good,” his mother said, “your father will be pleased.”
Movement distracted Christopher, and he looked at the raised platform. His father and a trio of men climbed the few steps, each man dressed in a black suit, the creases as severe and stark as the features of the men. While his father approached the podium, the other men sat down. Yet before his father could speak, someone else stepped close to the stage.
A girl, perhaps the same age as Christopher, came in from the rear of the tent. On her head she wore a black hat, the brim curled up around its entire length. Her light brown hair had been put into a braid that hung down to rest against the white sweater she wore. An equally white border collie stood at her side, the dog’s intelligent eyes peering out at the gathered crowd. The girl’s black skirt ended below the knees, and her white socks had fallen down around her ankles. And while all of her clothes looked fairly new, her shoes, by contrast, did not.
Christopher had the unsettling image of the girl and the dog walking thousands of miles together, her feet always clad in the worn leather of the shoes, and he tried to shake that idea away. When he was able to focus his thoughts again, he saw his father motion to one of the ushers.
The man, one of the newer members of the church, walked toward the girl and reached out for her arm. As his hand touched her, the usher screamed. Flames burst into life, raced up his arm and enveloped him. After a moment of stunned hesitation, people leaped from their seats and attempted to put out the flames.
The girl, in turn, reached out and touched the platform. Like the usher, it too exploded into flames.
Christopher’s father and the other men tried to flee, but the fire followed them, and the flames overwhelmed each of the men as they tried to leap to safety. Within moments their dying shrieks filled the air.
His mother rose up and hurried towards the girl, and later in life, Christopher often wondered what she had been thinking. For like the usher, when Christopher’s mother grabbed the girl, fire consumed the woman.
Sitting numbly in the wooden folding chair, Christopher watched the flames spread. They swept over people and raced up the sides of the tent. The ground burned, and the girl and her dog watched it all.
Finally, her attention fell on Christopher, who had been unable to force himself out of the seat.
She smiled at him, her eyes reflecting the bright flames, and she uttered a single word he heard clearly above the chaos around him.
And he did, the screams of the dying following him for the rest of his life.
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