A Delivered Sign © 2008 by S.H. Gilbert

 

 

The good Pastor Sidney Daniel Huddleston arrived in Defeated with his family on a beautiful late summer day and went to heaven in a wheelbarrow from there.  

The drive from Memphis seemed to last twice as long as it should have, and for once not because of the never-ending unspoken contention between Beverly and Erin and himself.  The distraction was a gorgeous morning. 

The potted asphalt gleamed from storms the night before. Clouds reflected the dawn into a soft salmon haze that permeated the landscape.   Moving east from the flat lands and flood plains of the state toward the central highlands, the hills and trees played tag with the shadows cast by sun over clouds. 

When they passed the state highway sign welcoming them to Nottamun County, Beverly scanned the roadmap.

“We’re almost there.”  As she listened to her voice she was caught off guard by how eager she spoke. 

As they came closer to Defeated, the number and breadth of lakes rose, until they merged into one long shoreline of cedars and water and sky. 

The car curved through the end of a seventy-foot stretch of limestone and they passed an elegantly sturdy log home.  

Beverly pointed to the front yard where a wild turkey wandered, casually alert, looking for breakfast.  There was a white cat in the yard as well, a dozen yards from the unapproachable bird.  The cat had just given birth, her teats still full as they braced the side of her body.  Poised to leap, she stared in wide-eyed awe as she considered this epic hunting opportunity.  Beverly laughed hard at the notion of a cat that would stand up to such a formidable challenge.  She had to roll down the window to get air, and during the rest of the ride would attempt to bring it up every twenty minutes or so, only to stutter back into silence from laughing.  

For the first time in many years, he felt like they were a family again.   Beverly was warm and open, even affectionate toward her husband and daughter.   Erin seemed finally content with her lot in life, in which having to spend her senior year at a new high school was equated with inexorable, psyche-scarring abuse.  For the last three weeks, Erin had been engaging in breath defying oral and blogged manifestations of Gothic suicidal daydreams.

They passed and noted a neat green metal sign with white lettering, welcoming them to Defeated.  It was not so much a city as it was a rural afterthought.  A general store and a gas station gave the only indication of any urban activity at all. 

As they approached a compact white picket square of a building, a couple in their early sixties standing at the road waved their car into a paved cul-de-sac large enough for a score of vehicles. 

The church deacon and his wife, who followed them into the empty parking lot and patiently waited while the Pastor parked the car with near painful precision, greeted them.  Mr. Dixon was dressed in a clean white shirt and pressed pair of carpenter overalls.  His baseball cap had seen a rich life, however, and carried motes of dried muck from hundreds of fishing spots. His missus, dressed for the warmth of the day, was comfortable in a Hawaiian muumuu.  They each carried a covered dish.  Their rustic appearance dismayed the fashion sense of Huddleston’s wife and daughter, while simultaneously enhancing the feeling of moral superiority within the Pastor. 

“I’m Dow Dixon and this here is my wife Daisy’, said the portly man, gesturing to his portlier wife.  “We wanna thank you and the Good Lord for comin’ so soon in response to our letter.  We brought y'uns some peach cobbler and poke sallet.  My wife’s recipes.  She’s done won first place at the poke sallet festival in Gainesboro three years running now.”

“Poke sallet?” 

Erin was dubious. For the first time in many a year, the three Huddlestons were in perfect simpatico with each other.

Driven by uncharacteristic curiosity, Beverly waved a brown bang from her neat plucked eyebrow and looked quizzically at the clear blue casserole dish. 

“What on earth is poke sallet?”

Daisy Dixon smiled broadly at Beverly, who was in turn trying not to stare rudely at Daisy’s crooked front teeth or the missing ones at the left side of her mouth.

“Little sister, are y'all in for some good eating!  First you gather up a bucket or two of poke leaves, only you have to get ‘em young ‘cuz they turn all poison on you once it gets too late in the year.  You boil ‘em twice, to steam out the bite and toughness, then you fry ‘em up in bacon grease and eggs.  You never tasted anything else as good, I tell you that.”

The Pastor looked back to see his wife and daughter gaping like fish in a boat.  He glared at them quickly and they shut their mouths.  No use in alienating these people now, and he surely didn’t want things to end up like they did in Memphis.  After all, he told himself, it wasn’t his fault that the congregation lost faith in him; it was the poor attitude of his wife and daughter.  He did love his wife and child like lambs in the flock, but sometimes he almost felt they were more trouble than they were worth.

“Thank you for your consideration, Mrs. Dixon.  I’m sure we’ll find it a very . . . filling dish for dinner tonight.  Now, if we could get to the church?”

The Dixons looked at each other and laughed.  It was not a malicious laugh.  The Huddlestons were not used to hearing good-natured laughing at their expense.  The Pastor felt his skin flush and the old bile begin to back up in his throat.  Beverly and Erin, used to the warning signs, stepped back and turned to the side, to keep them out of harms way.  They also felt a bit safer having witnesses there.  It had saved them in Memphis.

The Dixons nodded their heads in unison toward the plain blockhouse behind them.  The building the Pastor had assumed was the community center, or perhaps a warehouse.

“Won’t have far to go, Pastor.  Not much to look at, but she fairly rings with Sunday morning and Wednesday night hymns.  Don’t feel embarrassed – you don’t need to get all awkward and red faced – you among friends here.  Truth be told, most folks miss it unless they know it.  Unless you see the church signs yonder on the grass there.”

Dow’s attempt at being comforting was successful enough that Huddleston lost some steam and Beverly and Erin relaxed a bit.  Huddleston walked around to examine the signs.   They were each on separate posts. 

The higher wooden sign proclaimed this “The First Church of the Forgiven Redeemer’.  The wood burned sign had seen many seasons and was still being lovingly cared for by the deacon.  Huddleston was impressed by the craftwork on the sign.  It was a rare event to impress the Pastor.

The sign next to it sat about six and a half feet tall, braced upon two metal posts set in concrete.  The display unit was the type that could be back lit at night and kept the foot tall black lettering attached within plastic straps that went from side to side.  The side facing him read “Message on the other side”

He turned back to Dow to question the choice of phrase.  Dow shrugged with good nature, though he was also a man who felt he had more important things to attend to in his spiritual agenda.

“Well, you know over time weather and wear and tear happens, and we ended up with more letters for the other side. This side we just glued the letters to the sign.”

Huddleston strolled a few feet along the road, and then glanced at the other side of the sign. In silence he read, lips moving, the message again.  His face began displaying tell tale signs of rage once more.  Dow noticed this and walked around to read the sign, on which the phrase had been changed to read ‘Prepare to meet thy doG’.  A sheepish grin on Dow’s part tried to mollify Huddleston’s growing anger.

“Kids, you know,’ Dow said apologetically.  ‘They get bored because there’s so little to do on weekends.”

“Aside from church, you mean.”  Huddleston made no attempt to hide his disdain for the lack of moral supervision he was now convinced permeated this area. Dow made it clear he could hear as well as the next man and was quick to speak for kith and kin.

“We have good people live here, Pastor.  Just give them some time and you’ll see we’re all God’s children.”

“I’m sure.” The Pastor replied, his voice dripping with at least two of the seven deadly sins.

 

 

For the next three weeks, the Pastor focused his sermons on the need to obey and honor and respect authority.  Specifically, he entreated the self-imposed captive audience to respect his word of authority as an emissary of the Lord.

His intonations fell on at least one deaf ear.

During that time he had put up at least three different phrases on the church’s outside display board, and each one of them had been altered.

“If they obey and serve him, they shall spend their days in prosperity, and their years in pleasures.”  had been turned into  Anybody free, amidst hells hyphen, alien Sidney airdrops panty peruser hysteria thieves”. This statement caused a number of befuddled parishioners to approach him courteously, asking for the book and verse that particular inspirational statement had come from, and what exactly it meant.  A few wondered why the Pastor was mentioned by name.  This embarrassed Huddleston, who did not want his good name and budding reputation besmirched by a connection with ladies lingerie. 

During the sermon the Pastor, unused to the tactic, tried to make light of the sign.  He had his best response when he admitted in a cautious tone that he didn’t know how to take the manner in which the sign had changed.  Someone sitting in the pews spoke up, a reed thin young man with a self-propelled mop of unruly black hair atop his head.

“It’s the Book of Sidney, Verse one – one.”

The lanky churchgoer apparently didn’t realize his words would carry that well.  His family and friends held their hands over their mouth to keep in the spontaneous belly laugh, or slapped him on the back in a small quiet chorus of ‘That’s a good’un.’  A bit self-conscious, he avoided the Pastor’s glacial stare, which seemed to target him with laser precision throughout the rest of the sermon. 

After service, many parishioners, shamed and mortified, came up to him and vowed that the sign would not be bothered again.  They carried humiliation with a disquiet responsibility.  Huddleston liked that in his parishioners.  He changed the message that afternoon back to its original inspirational thought. 

True to the word of the good people of Defeated, the sign was not altered again that week.

That next Sunday, he thought he had the answer.  He awoke just after dawn and set the sign with the phrase “Endure God’s Wrath”.  He had timed how long it took to put the message up, assuming it would take at least that much time to change it again.    He finished by seven and went in the house to get ready for the service. 

Shortly after eight, the service was opened.  As was his directive, Beverly and Erin came in before anyone else. 

Some folks milled in yawning behind exhausted knuckles while a few other hearty souls braved a full body stretch.  There was a fair amount of giggling from the younger ladies gathered at the foot of the stairs.  When they saw Erin, they waved her over to them and whispered to her, their hands fluttering in the air.  She stifled a squeal that was just milliseconds from erupting and went back outside quickly.  The other ladies flew to their pew seats avoiding curious glares. 

A few minutes later, Erin returned, her hands shielding her reddening face from the rest of the parishioners.  She sat down next to the young women who were unsuccessfully trying to hold back giggles seething between them with the tempo of a pulse.

Huddleston came in, oblivious to the alteration, approached the altar, and began setting out books.  The Dixons entered, sweating out their obvious discomfort.  Dow watchfully approached the Pastor and whispered in his ear.  Huddleston froze in mid motion. 

Erin watched her father as stifled his choking rage, safe in the knowledge that she was too far away to be singled out.  When he met her gaze, she stopped breathing for a second.  He could hear her even when she was thinking, she feared.  Resolutely, she concentrated on the sign, reddened and fought back her own laugh. 

Huddleston strode purposely down the aisle, ignoring the swell of titillation that followed him.  He drew in a sharp breath as he stepped briskly onto the walk, bearing down upon the sign like a pilot in a dogfight.   He walked around to face down the display sign.

“Endure God’s Wrath” had been changed into Andrew hugest rod”. 

“God loves an honest man and woman”, he began his sermon that week, straying from his previously scheduled exegesis on why wrath was good.

“What God doesn’t love is when some misguided sinner decides to insult God’s house.  This morning I had put up a message that I thought would be a worthwhile thought to consider until next week. And it was mocked.  I do not want the people of this God-“.  Huddleston stopped rather than say ‘God-forsaken’.

“ -This God-fearing community to think that I would single them out for retribution.  What God Almighty works through my hands is another matter. .” 

He paused to scan the congregation, most of who were rather perplexed and a few, mainly children, who were alarmed beyond their years.  As the flock milled out after service, only a sure-footed few stared the Pastor eye to eye as they shook hands upon departing.

“Interestin’ service” held consensus as the most frequent response.

Most disturbing to Huddleston was the changed message the third week, when “Eternal Damnation awaits all sinners” became “Altar animations wanted an Erin sells”.  He was sure it was a slander against his virginal daughter. 

It was not right for his family to be made targets.  They were not strong enough. They weren’t like him. He had seen to that as he ran his family into the ground.

Huddleston had learned throughout his life to carry a thick skin.  Even as a child, his pasty pocked face inspired ridicule and his screaming fear of life defined his social interactions.   The taunts had only made him impervious to emotional response.  At Seminary, he concluded finally that the sin and temptation he saw around him at Seminary were just excuses to have God and deride him too.  He would rise above his lessers at the Seminary, his adversaries in life, and he would show them all what benefits piety brought with its presence. 

It despaired him that Beverly and Erin were not as strong.  Beverly he could almost understand; she had always been a bit too malleable.   He had hoped that Erin might catch his fire without being scorched by his willfulness.  She was a private girl, though, who held to herself since elusive childhood.  He tried thinking through things.  He had never been very good at it, but he tried for the sake of the sanctity of his family.  How could he protect his family?  By the time Morning Prayer service started, he thought he had his answer.

The service that morning consisted of the fervent archetypal meat and potatoes laundry list of moral indignities and perilous lifestyle choices.  His roll call for those vices was so inclusive that it condemned anyone who was in earshot, and the mouse in their pocket, to eternal damnation. 

He was in such rare evangelical form that damn near every soul in the congregation avoided him on the way out.   Grandmothers with no children and single folk with no prospects went out through the Sunday school door while those that could snuck out through the fire exit.  

Huddleston didn’t care about the escaping lemmings; he was looking for Zeb Miller, who ran the scrap metal yard and who was unanimously recommended as the best metal worker in the area.  Huddleston waited by Zeb’s truck as he approached.

“’Nother interestin’ bit o’preaching, back there, Pastor . . ..” 

Zeb, a lanky, good natured man with a long sandstone colored braid that shouted defiance to his gray beard, spoke to Huddleston with a bit of caution, unsure what he might be asked to obligate himself to.  Zeb didn’t mind obligating himself as long as he had some say in the matter.  Where the church was concerned, his experience was that they expected to have that say instead of him.  And it was easier getting beer from a bee than pay from a church.

He waited for Huddleston to speak up, not appreciating that Huddleston was not familiar with the action of politely asking others for favors.  Zeb rocked on his heels and watched the sky while Huddleston groped for the right words.

“Beautiful morning, ain’t it?” 

 “What?   Yes . . . why, yes – it is a gorgeous sky. . “ 

Zeb was consternated to see how unaware the Pastor was of his immediate surroundings.

Huddleston was genuinely startled by the sky, by the migration across the horizon of majestic white and graying cumulus canyons, by the shadows engraved into the billows.   A jangle from Zeb’s keys as he adjusted them in his hand brought Huddleston somewhat reluctantly back to earth. 

“Zeb – I don’t want to inconvenience you-“

‘Here it comes.’ 

“I’m looking for someone to raise the display sign, so it  - so it can be seen by more folks.”

‘Like Aunt Claire wants to show off Uncle Gill’s pecker’, thought Zeb, though he didn’t say that.

“Church gonna pay for it?”

“Some.  I’ll make up the difference out of my own pocket.”

“How high?  You mean like one of those billboard signs?”

“Not that high, but with a little platform around it.  Maybe twelve feet high.”

“With scaffolding to hold up a man.”

“Just me.” replied the Pastor, before he realized what he’d said.

“Me and my son’ll do’er for you Pastor.  We’ll have ‘er up before your next service.”

“Your son?”

“Junior.  AJ.  He wuz the one made that joke ‘bout the Book of Sidney couple of weeks back.”

“I see.”

“Look, here’s what we’ll do yuh.  I’ll take 10% off the bill since he was rude that day.  He can work free to pay it off.”

Huddleston decided that was acceptable and shook hands on the deal.   He then asked the fateful question.

“Your son was named for you?”

“Named for me, yes’ir.”

“But your name is Zeb.”

“M’people, friends call me Zeb.  It’s m’middle name.   Zebediah.  Andrew Zebediah Studds is m’full name. He's Andrew Studds, Jr.”

Andrew hugest rod’, thought Pastor Huddleston.

 

Naturally, the work took nearly a month of Saturdays.   AJ was in school during the week and the road commissioner hired Zeb to shore up metal work on the county bridges, and as most of them were over lakes, it became impossible to commit to any other job during the week.  The Pastor watched from his house across the road from the church, marking the progress the sign was making.  It soon became unequivocal to Huddleston that the two men knew what they were doing as they set about their business with impeccable professionalism.  It was unusually hot for that time of autumn, so Zeb and AJ both worked in tank top tee shirts, which accented the excellent shape both men were in. 

Beverly and Erin both seemed to dote on the father and son with lemonade and lunch as the men erected two twelve foot metal poles, atop which anchored the sign and then placed a catwalk around it so the sign could be changed.  Huddleston never paid much attention to the men, busy as he was on preparing the Sunday service.   

At the end of the final day of work, Zeb and AJ were invited to supper, which Huddleston vaguely protested.    The supper was well received, the hostesses were charming, and the host was desperate to end the evening.  Even after they left, as the women were busy in the kitchen, the chatter and stifled giggles suggesting the continued presence of Zeb and AJ.

 

During service, he could not help but notice the quick glances and subtle smiles exchanged between his women and the Studds.  

After the service, as the three of them stood in the doorway, Zeb and AJ approached Beverly and Erin.  Huddleston felt like an afterthought.  Not that they didn’t shake his hand and thank him for a sin biting sermon, which they did.  

            A couple of nights later Beverly told him that AJ was coming over after dinner to study. 

It wasn’t the short notice that caught in the craw of Pastor Huddleston; it was the way his wife and daughter fixed themselves up as if they were going out to Sunday dinner.   It was only after he answered the doorbell that he understood what ‘after dinner’ meant.   Zeb and AJ were joining then for dinner. 

The Huddleston women both pressed the fact of how few good meals the widower and his son probably had, and did so with such rare determination that for once the Pastor threw up his hands. He would not dare debase his purity by giving in to craven jealousy.  Only righteous anger was pure, and Huddleston was full of that. 

It was Tuesday night and before dinner plates were in the wash, the Pastor was busy putting together his Wednesday night sermon and lettering the sign.  While Zeb and AJ were being offered their choice of desserts, Huddleston was twelve feet in the air.

            Where there are no righteous, the sermon is always dry.”

            After a final nod of satisfaction for his inspirational message, Huddleston climbed down a small metal ladder at the east side of the catwalk.  

Huddleston opened a recessed panel inside the left post, which had been cut out by Zeb, then replaced the ladder within the cranny.   He glanced around to make sure he was unobserved.

            It was almost unheard of for a church message to be changed in the middle of the week.  It just wasn’t done.  Huddleston could hear them even now in his mind, he supposed, their caw-caw patois beleaguering him. 

He suddenly didn’t care about the petty concerns of his pedestrian flock.  About the fast pitched, good-natured conversational tones he could hear through the closed windows of his own house.   He WAS God’s chosen shepherd.  Above all, he held to that abstraction.

 

            The Wednesday night congregation, which was not as crowded as usual, found Huddleston’s sermon to be less accusatory while more patronizing.  Huddleston used silhouettes of a silken voice to promote his version of the nuclear family.  That it might be God’s version as well was an afterthought at best.

There was little interaction between Huddleston and the assembly as they left.  They were all too tired.  Upon the last worshipper departing, Huddleston went back in and straightened up the pews.   It was later when he left the church later that night that he noticed the sign.

            “Don’t you realize what they’re doing to you behind your back?”

            There was no way.  How could anyone change the sign that quickly?   Someone had dared to defile a tool of the Lord.  As an officer of God, it was up to him to rectify the matter.  That night, he changed the sign once more, to read “Those that challenge the righteous shall perish from the Earth”.

That would show the town where he stood.

            The next morning he awoke to find the sign now declaiming “Even if you knew how you were being betrayed, you’d be too weak to change”.

 

            Zeb and Dow went all the way to Faye’s Café in Gainesboro to talk about the problem with the Pastor.  Daisy joined them and so did Harvey Seadon, who was the mayor of Defeated.  He listened, unconvinced, to Dow’s defense of the Pastor.

            “I ain’t sayin’ I’m a disagreein’ with yuh, Harv; I just think he’ll get out of this mind he’s got his'self into right now.” 

Dow was conciliatory toward the question of what to do with Huddleston; he knew what a pain it was to install another new pastor without having given this one a chance to work out.  Harv was having none of it.  Leaning back in his chair in the fluid motion that always signaled his intent to hold the floor, he smoothed back his dark wavy hair with both hands then slid his thumbs in a tight arc into his suspender straps.

            “I tell you fellers; that man is one teacup short of a picnic lunch.  He gets me so sour after one of his sermons that I can’t hardly eat a thing without it come back on me the rest of the day or night.  He’s got Betty so nervous I have to purt' near pull her out of bed on Sundays.  Then come Wednesday she’s always got something in the oven or on the stove.  And she’s not the only one starting to be too busy to show up at church.  I know Daisy’s been talkin’ to Betty and I bet most other wives in town.  Isn’t that right Daisy?”

            Daisy, ignoring the debate by design, was quietly talking truck parts with Zeb.

            “I just wanted to check.  You still got the rear gates, right, Zeb?”

            “Y'bet.”

            “Daisy, don’t change the subject.  You ain’t never been one to hold back your opinion before; why clam up now?”

            Daisy and Dow, who had gone to high school with Harvey, knew how well he liked to bait folks into a brawl.  Dow also knew his wife could hold her own with anyone during a squabble. 

Daisy had been staring at her lap during Harvey’s interrogation, hoping to blend into the background. She smoothed her skirt slowly and with purpose unknown.  When she spoke, it was in a tone of voice so restrained that the men moved closer to hear her.

            “The simple fact is we need to respect the Pastor.  We aren’t ever going to know God’s ways just by what his messengers ask of us.  Or of him. We don’t know how God is testing him.  We can only let his trial be our trial, as it was with Jesus.  We’ll be delivered a sign.  Let our faith in that work its way through, please, Harv?”

            “I’ve done that for weeks now, Daisy.   And where is he right now?   I bet he’s just standin’ on that damn sign, puttin’ up some other doom and gloom message just so he can say one of the folks in the pews went and changed it.  I’m getting’ tired of this, I tell yuh.  I say show his sorry ass the door and let Dow preach ‘till we find a replacement.”

            Zeb observed Dow’s unenthusiastic shifting in his seat and decided to add his two cents.

            “The man’s as friendly as an Osage Orange tree.  Can’t deny that.  Guess, though, if you hire on that school of preachin’, you’d best expect a little bile with the fire and brimstone.  As long as he ain’t hurting his family or the community, don’t see no harm in him stayin’ here ‘bouts.  I’m with Dow.”

Harv knew Zeb well enough to know his decisiveness.  Nevertheless, he opened his mouth as if preparing a response, which moved Zeb to talk to Daisy to close off discussion.

            “I guess you’ll be drivin’ m’truck ‘till I bring yours back, Daisy.”

 

            Huddleston stood in front of the damned sign and examined his latest doom and gloom pronouncement. 

            “Woe will be unto them who dare defileth the work of my Lord’s hand!”

               It had occurred to him that he was not thinking clearly these last few days; perhaps, he thought, he was being prepared for an epiphany.  After all, he reasoned, who needed secular logic in the face of the Lord’s over powering will? 

He went inside to calm his nerves with a cup of chamomile tea.  After some fifteen or so minutes, he went back outside to see if the forces of darkness were again meddling with his ministry.  Oddly, he thought, he was almost elated to see the sign changed; it was something he was starting to depend on.

            You’re being played for an idiot and you’d better do something about it right now!”

            The sign was right, he realized with a shudder.  

Beverly and Erin had gone to Nashville to shop and see the sights and when they got home; if they got home, he thought, if they didn’t just go straight over to Zeb and AJ’s house and share their day and their bodies with them . . .

The mental picture of his wife undressing, her auburn hair wet on Zeb’s pillow, his daughter’s lighter hair sweeping gently over the face of AJ, mingling her hair with his, her fluids with his, drove Huddleston into new paroxysms of impotent anger.  He went into the kitchen and grabbed the bottle of French brandy they used for fancy dinners.  Just a sip to calm my nerves, he thought.  Just a sip. 

By the time he had finished what was nearly a full bottle, he thought he had his plan.

            On unsteady legs he made his way out to the sign and brought out the ladder.  It took a half-hour to finish the new message.

            Damnation!  I will smite who takes what is mine!”

            On the way down he lost his footing and slid the last few feet back to the base.  As he landed, he heard an engine and turned to see Zeb’s truck idling a few yards ahead of him, then continue down the road.  Huddleston smiled a tight dangerous grin.  He had a new plan.  The car.   No, Beverly and Erin had the car.  He ran to the church van.  The keys were in the ignition because this was a community where you could trust folks.  After a few minutes of trying to turn the engine over, he started up the van and pulled into the road. He pushed the van to sixty miles an hour in an attempt to catch up with the two home wreckers.  All he wanted to do was to talk with them, that was all.  Tell them not to fornicate with his wife and daughter; that was all. 

It took only a few minutes on the now dark winding road to catch up with the truck.  The van moved closer.  Just a nudge was Huddleston’s plan.  He bumped the back of the truck.  The truck picked up speed.

  Oh no’, thought the capricious and good Pastor, ‘you won’t evade my wrath that easily.’ 

He bumped the truck again as they were approaching a bend in the road.  This time the truck’s brake lights lit up.  They were going to stop. 

‘Good for them’, thought Huddleston as he stepped on the gas pedal. 

He hit the truck harder than he thought he would and watched with detached satisfaction as the truck went over the embankment and down the side. 

He pulled up to the shoulder and rolled down the window, listening to the truck crashing through the underbrush.  After a few moments, he heard only the soft whirring of the truck’s engine as he watched his breath fog in the cold air. 

‘Now, I guess I can offer Samaritan services.’ 

He got out of the van, trying to maintain balance as he walked to the edge and looked over the side of the embankment.

            The truck had landed on its roof, crushing the occupants, who were both hanging halfway out of the shattered windows. 

The headlights bounced off the trees in front of the truck, softly illuminating the immediate darkness around the broken bodies of Dow and Daisy.  

Huddleston blinked and rubbed his eyes.  It was Zeb and AJ, he told himself at first.   He stood for another few seconds, getting his bearings and clearing his mind.  No amount of mental clarity would change the fact that he had killed the church deacon and his wife. 

With a searing sob that tore itself from the Pastor’s throat he flung himself away from the accident scene and made his way back into the van.

            How did this happen?” he asked himself, as if he had been an innocent bystander. 

Suddenly, with vicious precision, he understood.  It was the sign all along. 

That damned sign had led him to doubt his family, his flock.  That damned sign had led him from the arms of his Lord.  He couldn’t bring Dow and his wife back, but by God, he could make sure that damned sign didn’t lead anyone else astray.

            As he drove back to the church, his anger and anguish fought each other for prominence.  As he approached the church, he slowed the van to a crawl, so that the sign would be unaware of his presence. 

He knew now what he had to do.

            He put the van in park and began revving the engine.  He put the van in drive and roared toward the sign, hitting it on the right side.  The post buckled. 

He backed up a few feet and hit the post again.  The sign stayed up, refusing his personal crusade to fall. 

He put the van in reverse and prepared to do battle once more.  This time he aimed the van, now hissing steam and moving crookedly on its front wheels, toward the left post and slammed into it. 

Huddleston leaned slightly out of the driver’s window when he heard the creaking metal.  He was just in time to see the corner of the heavy sign fall toward him. 

Not enough time even for a prayer of penance.

 

            When Beverly and Erin came home an hour or so later, they were met by the volunteer fire department and by Zeb and AJ, who explained the loss they and the community had to deal with. Beverly wanted to see the damage.  The entire front of the van had been crushed by the impact of the display sign, and the last message Pastor Huddleston would put up was still, amazingly, intact.  Beverly, Erin, Zeb, and AJ read it.

“A man cannot buy his way into righteousness, no matter what price he may pay”

 

It took another two months for a new Pastor to be brought to the community.  Zeb, who had been asked to be the new deacon and reluctantly agreed, met him at the church with Harvey in tow.  The new Pastor’s name was John Melia, a fresh scrubbed man of innocence who had just finished his training at the Bible College.

            “We think you’ll like it here, Pastor”, Harvey said.  “Nice town, good folks. ’Ceptin’ for that tragedy a couple months back.  It’s all settled now, though.  The church was left money from the last deacon, and the whole town decided to replace the church sign with somethin’ modern, one of them there LDD-“

            “LCD – Liquid Crystal Display.” Zeb gently corrected Harvey

            “Right – one of them kind of signs.  Ummm – you ain’t got no problems with that kind of sign, the modern ones, do you, Pastor?”

            Pastor Melia smiled and shook his head.  Harvey was clearly relieved to hear this.

            “Well, that’s great, just great.  Best thing about this kind of sign is that you can change it from inside the church.  Stay warm and dry that way.  Figured we’d wait and turn it on to welcome you.”

            Harv walked over to the post and flicked the power switch on.  A smattering of letters crossed the front of the sign as it warmed up and then settled into the welcome for the new Pastor.

            Prepare to meet thy doG”, it read.

                                                                           THE END