It is a lazy summer day in the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee; much like the day before, and the day before that. Everything seems normal - at least on the surface; like an idyllic, pastoral painting; the sky dyed with pastels of blue and white, the ground carpeted with dark green fescue and bluegrass, a clapboard farmhouse resting on top of a hill, sugar maples, oaks and Eastern red cedars providing welcome shade from the heat of a Tennessee summer sun. You can almost see moving images of little children running barefoot through the grass; an era before tweeting and texting and the triumph of technology over all.
Alas, appearances lie.
Behind the clapboard farmhouse sits a red barn, all bright and new looking; fresh enough to lull a casual observer into believing it the benign keeper of hey for cattle and shelter for goats. A closer look reveals the color to be not barn red, but blood red.
Locals tend to close their eyes when passing by that barn. Something is just not right about it. Some say it is unnatural. Some say it's obscene and evil. But they don't say such things out loud, for the owner of the barn is Sheldon Sprigg, a well-respected man of the cloth, the preacher at Hare’s Corner Church of God Incarnate. Sheldon is the most upright man in these parts. He keeps the law religiously, and makes sure his wife and teenaged daughter do too. After all, to obey is better than sacrifice.
Still, there's just something that not right about that barn.
Sheldon stands beside the open window, waiting for God to speak again. A breeze tousles his hair. He folds his arms tightly and shivers. The breeze continues to blow, riffling through the pages of his open Bible. Sheldon gasps as the breeze dies down, and the pages stop turning. Lord, is this Your sign? This must be a sign!
The Bible is opened to the first chapter of II Thessalonians in the New Testament. A sharp red glow highlights part of the page, and Sheldon reads out loud.
“And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”
Sheldon stumbles to a chair, hyperventilating. He whispers to himself, “This has to be about Ginny. She won’t listen to me. She is running further from God every day. She constantly disobeys God and is disrespectful to me. I have to do something to save her soul from everlasting torment in hell. Lord, I beg you, show me how to save her.”
A bright, white light from outside streams through the window, illuminating the room. Sheldon peeks out the window. The light seems to have its source in the barn. Sheldon laughs out loud, then stifles the laugh and whispers. “Yes! A sign! Lord! Oh Lord! Tell me how to save my Ginny!”
Sheldon runs downstairs, out the back door and into the yard. He walks toward the barn but covers his eyes as the light grows brighter. He falls to the ground and speaks into the red clay earth that smells like a freshly plowed garden in the cool of the night. He begins to pray.
“Lord, I am dust compared to thee. Forgive me. Help me, Thy unworthy servant, to save Ginny, my only child. Thou knowest I have lost Daddy to eternal torment. Don’t let me lose Ginny.”
Sheldon’s eyes remain closed, and he does not see the being coalesce in the light. It is humanoid in shape and blood-red in color like the barn. Its thick arms have wrinkled hands that end in sharp claws. The body is covered with scales that steam with smoke. If the beast were not humanoid someone might label it as a dragon. Curved, goat-like horns and small ears appear on each side of its hairless head. It has no teeth, but its lips are abnormally wide, the mouth perpetually open in a mocking smile.
Smoke hides the being for a few seconds, and when the smoke clears a figure appears who looks like a stereotypical painting of Jesus Christ: long, dark hair, white, seamless robe, and sandals. A bright glow surrounds the body and a halo appears over its head. The light fades, and Sheldon raises his head. He immediately swoons, and the figure lifts him to his feet and smiles.
“Sheldon Sprigg,” the creature says, using exactly the same still, small voice Sheldon heard by his daddy’s grave.
Sheldon’s head is slightly bowed, his eyes closed. He feels as nothing before Christ his God. He speaks in a voice that approaches a groan. “Oh Lord, I can’t gaze upon at your face. It’s too bright.”
The being that looks like Jesus says, “I must adjust my appearance so that you are able to look at me without dying. I have seen your home and have compassion for you in your struggles. How I can help you with...Ginny?”
Sheldon opens his eyes and extends his arms, as if pleading. “Thank you, Jesus. Ginny doesn’t want to obey you. My wife takes up for the girl. I know Thou hast seen all of this.”
The false Jesus says, “You can call me ‘You’. No need to talk to me like Mary Tudor. As for Ginny, things are far worse with her than you realize.” He places his hands on Sheldon’s head.
Sheldon’s eyes fill with tears, and he snuffles out the words, “What has she done now?”
The creature’s voice grows deeper and louder, a trumpet sounding out the wrath of God. “Tonight,” he says, “when Ginny was supposed to be studying, she went to a bar with her evil friend, Susie.”
Sheldon looks up at “Jesus” and holds his hands to his head, shaking his head as in denial. “Ginny?
The phony Jesus’ voice remains deep, and more than a tinge of anger is present. “Do you doubt my word?” he asks.
Sheldon pales, bows to the creature, and says, “No, Lord! I never doubt you. Forgive me if it seemed that way. What can I do to save Ginny’s soul?”
The Creature replies, “You must punish her so severely she will remember never to disobey me - or you
- again. If Elma gets in the way, you must be a man and stand up to her. As to how severely you punish Ginny, you can use your best judgment — unless things get worse. You have been far too lenient.” I have been too lenient, even these past six months, Sheldon thinks. Elma interferes due to her mushy heart. Her meddling will cause Ginny to lose her soul, and Elma will damn herself for failing to train Ginny in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. I’ll end up losing both Ginny and Elma to Satan’s fold if I fail the task my Lord gave me.
“Forgive me for my past leniency, Lord,” Sheldon says. “I have failed thus far as a father. I won’t fail Ginny, nor will I fail You again. She will never forget what I have in store for her. Never. I promise, Lord.”
“Good,” the creature says. “You will see me again. Go inside, and don’t look back. Remember Lot’s wife.”
Sheldon turns and walks toward his back door. He takes care not to look behind him. Lot’s wife looked back toward Sodom and Gomorrah and changed into a pillar of salt. Sheldon is so focused on not looking back that he fails to see the stumbling block right in front of him. He sprawls to the ground, rolling to his side with his face directly toward Jesus. He clamps his eyes shut, wildly praying for mercy that he might not be consumed in fire and brimstone. He gets up, lowers his head, turns around, and starts toward the house again. He leaps and yelps like a toy poodle when the reflection of his face in a puddle startles him.
“Jesus Christ!” Sheldon curses. He immediately bows his head and prays, “Forgive me, Lord. I did not mean to use Thy name -- Your name — in vain.”
Sheldon brushes straw and dirt off his back, shakes his head, opens the back door of the house, and steps inside.
Michael Potts grew up near Smyrna, Tennessee and is currently Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. His undergraduate degree (in Biblical languages) is from David Lipscomb University. He also holds the Master of Theology from Harding University Graduate School of Religion, the Master of Arts (in Religion) from Vanderbilt University, and the Ph.D. in philosophy from The University of Georgia. Michael has twenty articles in scholarly journals, nine book chapters, six encyclopedia articles, six book reviews, and he co-edited the book, "Beyond Brain Death: The Case Against Brain Based Criteria for Human Death," which was published in 2000 by Kluwer Academic Publishers. He also has over fifty scholarly presentations, including one presented at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at The Vatican in 2005. Michael is a 2007 graduate of The Writers Loft at Middle Tennessee State University and a 2007 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. His poetry has been published in Journal of the American Medical Association, Iodine Poetry Journal, Poems & Plays, and other literary journals. His poetry chapbook, "From Field to Thicket," won the 2006 Mary Belle Campbell Poetry Book Award of the North Carolina Writers Network. His creative nonfiction essay, "Haunted," won the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Award, also sponsored by the North Carolina Writers Network. Besides reading and writing, he enjoys vegetable gardening, canning, and ghost investigations. He and his wife, Karen, live with their three cats, Frodo, Rosie, and Pippin, in Linden, North Carolina.
I grew up and still live in the rural South. I was reared in Tennessee and now live in North Carolina. Like many Southern Gothic and Southern horror writers, there have been no problems with developing strange characters. These characters really exist in some community somewhere in the South. Flannery O’Connor’s character, Haze Motes, seems too bizarre to be true, but he exists as the redneck skeptic in many a rural community, hostile to all religion and to religious people. Sheldon Sprigg, a character in my horror novel, Obedience, is deeply religious, but in a harsh, legalistic way that focuses only on judgement and ignores mercy. As result, when a demon appears to him in the form of Jesus and tells him he must kill his daughter to save her soul, he believes the monster to be Jesus and tries to obey his commands. Yet despite the preternatural elements of the book, Sheldon Sprigg is based on an actual person I once knew who scared the pants out of me when I was a teen in Bible class. He looked at us with eyes that locked onto ours one by one as he told us if we did not lead someone to Christ, we were going to burn in hell. Everyone had their heads down, and we slinked out the door to the worship service following class. Later, this man came to believe he was Jesus and ended up dying by suicide. I asked, “What if this man were a preacher who was approached by an evil creature pretending to be Jesus who appealed to his harsh legalism?” and the character of Sheldon Sprigg was born.
There is plenty of fuel for future stories in some of my relatives. One of them, a great uncle, when he was a child, hid a pitchfork, prongs up, in a hay slide in the barn the local children used. My dad was in that group of children and saw the pitchfork in time to remove it before someone was hurt or killed. Later, that same great uncle stabbed one of my uncles with a knife and laughed about it. When he was a young man, he moved from one of his brother’s wives to another’s, having affairs with any who would consent. One of his brothers found out about this and chased my great uncle with a Japanese sword he found in World War II, yelling at the top of his lungs, “I’m going to kill you, you son of a b__!” Luckily for him, my great uncle could run fast and got away.
My granddaddy’s first cousin murdered a man, slitting his throat to the point that only a bit of the spine was attached. One of the daughters of the man he killed married my granny’s first cousin. A distant cousin of mine, a police officer, was murdered at the police station by a man with mental health issues. Violence fills the rolls of my family history, staining them blood-red. These characters may live again in future novels or short stories, rising from mold-encrusted graves to haunt readers and make them fear to walk from the living room to their bedroom at night lest a knife stab them in the dark. Scaring people, after all, is what horror writers do best, and I appreciate my (un) dead family members and acquaintances for helping me create those footsteps that follow readers of my work. It is my sincere hope that they are very loud—and scary—footsteps.
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