As the Reverend Isaiah stood backstage waiting to make his entrance, he knew he was a dying breed, a wrinkled relic hanging onto the last remnants of his glorious past.
There was a time, many decades ago, when he'd toyed with the idea of leaving his calling and becoming an actor, because he'd been blessed with the physical tools and skills that made any stage a place where he could perform his holy roller magic.
Back then, he had thick black hair he wore long like a mane, and a booming voice, along with a natural instinct for just the right gesture or turn of phrase that would excite a crowd and bring the audience exploding to their feet.
He'd started out as a lowly country preacher, then ascended the religious ladder step by step, next as a truck driving evangelist, then a tent filling revivalist, until he finally became a full-fledged miracle worker billed as a chosen messenger of God.
For the last forty years he'd travelled endless highways and backwoods roads, bringing his fire and brimstone show to downtrodden audiences desperate for even the tiniest promise of hope and salvation. But the best return was always with going big and bold with his mostly poor audiences. His specialty was using the power of faith to cure untreatable diseases, a high-wire act requiring a special kind of performing skill and unshakable confidence.
He'd grown up poor too, on a tiny dirt farm in Alabama, in the lingering shadow of the Great Depression. His parents were god-fearing country folk, who clung to religion like a life raft, hoping it would keep them afloat in a daily storm of unbearable hardships.
The greatest was the passing of his younger twin sisters, who died when they were six from a severe case of childhood chicken pox. This almost broke his parent's already withered spirits, but their faith kept them trudging onward, and it also gave them a new focus for their religious fervor.
They saw that their only son had been spared, so they jointly decided this must be a divine message they couldn't ignore. From this point on, his destiny was pre-ordained and he followed it without disagreement or discussion, dedicating his life to spreading the holy word.
And now it was sixty years later and he was a tired relic ready to retire.
Like any business, his had evolved into something brand new, and he could barely recognize it anymore. While he was still playing to crowds in rented halls and movie theaters, his younger counterparts were preaching to millions on TV and the internet. They'd discovered a better way to sell their product, but he was too old to learn these new age tricks.
For him, it had always been about being up close with the desperate horde hungering for a miracle, pressing his flesh against theirs to make it happen.
Billy hobbled over with his pre-show shot of bourbon. He'd been with him from the very beginning as his right hand man, a childhood friend from the same small town. He'd had polio as a kid so his skinny frame staggered like he was always drunk. The fact that he was always drunk only added to his shaky unsteadiness.
"Knock em dead," Billy rasped, handing him the plastic cup with a wobbly hand.
"I feel a little tired tonight," he confessed.
"I've heard prayer always helps," Billy mumbled.
This brought a smile to his sagging face.
With Billy, he'd long ago dropped the pretense that he was toiling away, selflessly doing God's work. Now it was just a job, much like the acting profession he'd toyed with decades ago. He was playing the part of a heavenly anointed miracle worker because it paid the bills, and it also came with other fringe benefits he'd always enjoyed.
He'd started out in a cheap black suit when he was a lowly country preacher, but now he was draped in a thousand dollar midnight black robe that glowed mystically in the bright theater lights.
His long black hair was shorter now, and silvery white, and his booming voice had aged too, losing a good bit of its power.
But when the bourbon rolled down his throat with a fiery burn, he felt that glorious confidence surge back. He waited for the canned religious music to end, then he strode on stage with his hands raised high. There was an explosion of shouting and clapping, and he always knew where the loudest was coming from.
And, yes, there it was.
Stretched out in front of the stage was a long line of trembling sick people hungering for a miracle. With the bourbon still burning in his throat, he dropped his wrinkled old hands down from the heavens, because it was time to go big and bold.
She'd driven for most of the day on sun-baked roads from her home outside Kansas City on a personal pilgrimage.
Her destination was a small city in northern Texas called Wichita Falls. It had just turned twilight when she turned into the gravel parking lot of the rundown motel. As she lugged her overnight bag from the car, she caught a fleeting glimpse of a giant night sky slipping in overhead.
She was thirty years old, but the trip had still been exhausting, a long distance trek with just a brown bag lunch to get her there. But now her energy and spirits were climbing, because of her excitement about the night ahead.
When she opened the door and walked inside the musty motel room, she began to feel in even more of an exalted mood. She quickly unpacked and took a hot shower, imagining the scalding waters were a baptism of sorts, that tonight would be a new beginning.
She knew that others had taken the pilgrimage too, leaving their squalid small towns in search of a miracle. They'd all been victims that had been handed a cruel fate, forced to live a ghost-like life of frailty and sickness.
As she got dressed in front of a dirty cracked mirror, she also knew she was luckier than most.
There was no doubt that her face was a wonderful creation, so she always showcased it in the best way possible with carefully applied make-up. Her hair was long and deeply dark, falling in loose curls across her shoulders and down the long curve of her back. There was a luminous glitter to her green eyes, and her skin was a soft and frail white.
She covered the rest of her body in clothes that revealed nothing. This choice of dress wasn't because of modesty or shyness, but because of her affliction. While a part of her was undeniably beautiful, a part of her was undeniably not.
When she saw the large sign hanging in front of the movie theater, her heart stuttered with anticipation.
She parked in the lot behind the theater, then joined the jostling stream strolling back on the sidewalk to the front entrance. The giant night sky was pitch black now, sweeping and infinite overhead.
When she shuffled inside and heard "Amazing Grace" thundering out from the speakers in the theater, her excitement surged again. She'd been carrying around an abysmal pain in her body and soul that had poisoned her life, but she had faith that her encounter tonight would remedy that.
Then she wondered if the same song that had been playing thirty years ago when her beloved mother had come.
She'd heard the story on a stormy summer night just a week before her mother had died, and she'd carried it locked in her heart ever since. Back then, the doctors didn't even have a name for the disease her mother had, because it was so rare. Every avenue of treatment they had at the time hit a dead end, and that's what had finally brought her mother in a white cotton dress to the man that promised miracles.
Even now, as she joined the long line of trembling people in front of the stage, she could still remember her mother's whispery voice as she described that night.
She talked about a man with long black hair like a lion's mane, and a booming voice that could soar out from the stage and caress your soul.
The man on the stage in front of her now was a much older version of that, but it was still the same man.
The line in front of her staggered forward, as one by one, they ascended up the wooden steps to the stage. It was a sad parade of the sick and afflicted, but when each one reached the stage, and hovered in front of the silver haired man in the glowing black robe, their eyes were brimming with hope.
Then it was finally her turn.
She walked slowly up the stairs, and was led across the stage to the Reverend Isaiah.
He took both her hands, stared deeply into her glittering green eyes, and she felt a sudden shudder course through her body. He must have liked what he saw because he stared even longer. Then, with a sudden and dramatic movement, he swept his hands on top of her head, pressing flesh against flesh, and shouted out, "Glory be to God!"
Then he reached into his robe and slipped a card in her hand with a final squeeze. "I'm also available for private appointments, which I believe the cure of your ailment requires," he whispered in her ear.
Yes, she thought, as she was led away offstage. He was much older than the man her mother had described in her whispery dying voice, but he hadn't changed a bit.
She'd returned to the rundown motel and placed the call right away. She wanted tonight to be the night, because after all these years her pain-racked-heart couldn't wait any longer.
He answered his phone with the familiar voice that sounded like it came straight from the heavens, commanding and soft at the same time, caressing and caring.
She explained that she needed to see him right away. She said he was right, her affliction was so ferocious and strong it required more of his anointed attention.
"Of course, my child. I understand. I'll come to you directly."
She immediately slipped out of her long white dress and hurried into the shower, letting the scalding hot water wash over her naked body again. She wanted to be freshly scrubbed and clean, as pure as she could be. The Bible said the body is a temple, so she prepared hers for the holy encounter ahead, like a sacramental offering.
When the sharp knock came at her door she was sitting on the bed, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
She'd worked extra hard on her make-up, applying it in expert brushstrokes across her beautiful face. The part of her that wasn't beautiful was again covered up in a long white dress that echoed her purity.
She opened the door and was instantly greeted with the wafting smell of bourbon, as he stumbled into the room. The magnificent glimmering black robe was gone, replaced by wrinkled brown pants and a yellow shirt. Away from the radiant lights, he didn't look divine at all.
"You're a beautiful and blessed young woman..."
He stepped closer, pressed his flesh against hers, bringing his whiskey soaked mouth down to her lips.
She reached over and flicked off the lights, plunging the small motel room into darkness. She could feel his shaky old fingers crawling over her body, unbuttoning buttons, rubbing against her, hungry and desperate for an encounter he'd had hundreds of times before.
"I'm sick," she whispered.
"I know my child..."
He'd taken off her white cotton dress, dropping it to floor like a discarded rag, leaving her naked in the darkness.
And now they came, at the stroke of midnight, stumbling and crawling down the motel hallway just as they'd planned.
It had taken her years to find them, pouring over the history of Reverend Isaiah's holy roller tours. Most were living in secluded hovels, hiding away from the rest of the world, because there was no part of their body that was beautiful.
Together, they were a secret congregation, but not of faith, but of pain and misery. All of them had been born to mothers with a morbid illness, so their physical forms came out of the diseased wombs twisted and deformed.
She'd been luckier than most, with at least one part of her body not desecrated. But the part of her body that was not beautiful, was gruesome too.
They poured in through the door in a writhing, twisted mass, and grabbed the Reverend Isaiah with a fluttering fury of gnarled hands. They dragged his screaming flesh from the musty room, then down the motel hallway to a door, then outside to an open field that was barren and rocky.
"Father..." came the hoarse rasp from the twisted mass.
They dragged him outside, because they wanted the savage ceremony to be beneath the wide open heavens watching from above. The sky was still pitch black, sweeping and silent. The Bible preached an eye for an eye, so the writhing mass felt fully justified with the ritual they'd planned.
"Oh God, please stop..." he kept screaming over and over again in a drunken wail.
But deep in his terrified heart, he knew he'd long ago lost any right to hope for a miracle from the heavens above.
About the Author
Sheldon Woodbury is very excited to have another short story on Popcorn Fiction. He's a writer, a teacher, and the very proud father of William, his ten-year-old son.