The preacher preached.
His patchwork tent was pitched at a dusty midwestern crossroads, bordering on flat acres of waving wheatfields. Outside were parked the battered old cars and pickup trucks of the people who’d come to hear him speak of the coming End Times, come to hear his straining voice warning of the approaching chaos.
The preacher preached.
From a makeshift pulpit atop a creaky platform he ranted and cried out, warning these poverty-stricken people of even worse days approaching.
“The will of God is written in the sky in fingers of flame! Wormwood falls from heaven, consuming sinner and saint alike!”
The preacher preached to his audience of black people, white people, rural farming people, people who lived on the outskirts of wealthier society. They sat in their old wooden folding chairs, intently listening to the Message being hurled down on them like fire from the skies.
The preacher preached, and no longer were his words soft and comforting, as they had been in the days of his delusion, back in the old church.
Back in Morgan City.
His name had once been Reverend Meeker, but he had changed it to something that felt more like the name God wanted him to have. Now his name was Reverend Storm, and now, when he preached, his words hailed down upon the listeners, shot through with lightning and thunder.
“Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and sea, for the Final Days are upon us!” he said, ejecting a fine spray of spittle with his words. No longer was he the cherubic little man full of good cheer, brimming with pastorly peace. Now his eyes burned with a manic gleam. The white fringe of hair around his head had grown out scraggly and long. It bounced and waved as he jumped up and down, propelling his words out to the fascinated audience.
“By the Lord’s word,” he yelled, “the Earth shall be cleansed, the disease burned out, and the temples of the prophets shall fall!”
“There’s no more time for forgivin’! No more time for salvation! Who among us shall be raised to Rapture when the Judgment Trumpet blows?”
He scanned the audience, savoring the silence. A vein in his neck—just below the swath of scar tissue from his burning—throbbed.
He was emptied of his message, spent.
He spun and walked off the platform, fatigue waving over him. He’d given his message, and now he needed rest. Needed rest desperately.
As he pulled aside the canvas flap that separated the stage from one of the two trailers that served as his traveling revival show, Sister Martha and Brother Abner were stepping into place before the worn old microphone.
Soon he could hear the sounds of their singing echoing through the makeshift hall of the tent.
“When that day arrives, sweet Jesus,” they sang. A good hymn, thought Brother Storm, heading for his room to rest. They’d sung that song back at the Lutheran church in Morgan City, back before God had delivered His Message to the reverend. But he’d never realized its full import.
Now he opened the door of his little study and collapsed into a cheap folding chair. He left the door open. It was hot outside, and the room had poor ventilation.
Before him was a card table, with some books he’d been using for study that morning. Off to one side of the room was an old surplus army cot.
He closed his eyes, weary.
But he knew that strength would return with rest. And then he would preach another message this evening, another message to more people, come to hear the Word.
On the table before him was a bottle of whiskey.
Before the time of Reckoning had arrived at Morgan City, he’d never drunk alcohol. But God had told him that it was all right to drink from time to time. To calm his nerves…
He poured a few ounces into a glass, tilted the contents, and drank.
Immediately he felt better. Steadied.
He leaned back in his chair and closed bis eyes.
“When, Reverend?” said a voice from outside. “When?”
He opened his eyes and he saw an old black woman, leaning in, her face a map of hard times, her eyes filled with tears. She had been moved by his message.
“Ma’am?” he answered softly, his voice hoarse from the preaching and the whiskey.
“The Day of Reckoning… how far off?”
He stood and turned, looking down at something on the card table.
“Soon, missus,” he said, picking up the mason jar.
He looked down at the contents.
He was still amazed and grateful that he had been chosen as God’s own minister of judgment.
In the mason jar he’d taken from the Tick Tock diner, the piece of the Beast crawled around aimlessly, trying to get out, trying to feed.
“The Lord will give me a sign,” said Brother Storm. “A sign…”
The mason jar slipped from his sweaty fingers.
He caught it and placed it carefully back in its box.
Not now, thought the former Reverend Meeker.