By E.J.G. Cutter
Halloween night, and they were gathered the recreation hall of the Sacred Light Evangelical Church, a thriving nondenominational parachurch serving a suburban congregation that preferred good contemporary Christian music and comforting Bible-based sermons over traditional hymns and hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. The Reverend Nelson Norbacher—a plump man, not quite thirty, with round red cheeks, wearing an orange polo shirt to celebrate Sacred Light Evangelical’s alternative to Halloween, the Harvest Heritage Fest—was telling a group of five depressed-looking children about the pilgrims. He liked the kids to call him Pastor Nelson.
Harvest Heritage Fest had been Pastor Nelson’s own idea. Youth ministry was a challenging vocation, especially these days. You had to reach out into the community and connect with the kids, get them in the doors, before you could even start to lead them to salvation. The temptations that could lead young folks astray included so ostensibly harmless an indulgence as bags of candy. Tricky, so to speak, to get their attention off sweets and, by extension, the many ungodly social paths that lead to sinful behavior.
This was the first year for the Fest and its Unhaunted House. So far— running on the October Saturdays leading up to Halloween proper—it had been a moderate success. The senior pastor, one of the assistant ministers, and a few of the deacons had feared it would be like one of those Hell Houses some churches ran with gruesome depictions of sin and the fate of the unrepentant. That wasn’t Sacred Light’s style. They did not condone hyperbolic theatrics. As Norbacher had assured them, the Unhaunted House was low-key and educational, but still “cool” enough to attract middle-schoolers and tweeners.
Mr. and Mrs. Gunderson, dressed as pilgrims, were standing in a booth covered with autumnal-colored leaves cut from construction paper, and shored up with cornstalks. They’d built it, a mini-stage of sorts, in the church’s cavernous Fellowship Hall as a part of the Unhaunted House. The Gundersons pantomimed “Pilgrims at Harvest Time”: smiling, each handing the other an ear of corn, and then gazing up at the stars painted on the ceiling as Norbacher finished, “—so that’s the true meaning of harvest time—a time to give thanks for the food and shelter the Lord gives to those who do His work in the world.”
“Then what’s Thanksgiving for?” asked an irritating flaxen-haired girl—what was her name?—Shawna.
“It’s… the same,” Norbacher said. “But this is, you might say, the beginning of that season. Now, let us go to the next display—”
Here: another scene, this one made up to look like a bedroom, with two Happy Children played by the lanky, red-haired Ferley girls, long-legged twins in braces and white shorts. The twins were kneeling in prayer on a rug by the bunk beds set up for the display.
“Those beds are like way too small for those girls,” Shawna observed.
Norbacher ignored her. “You can see that while the other children are out on Halloween, endangering themselves in more ways than one while ‘trick-or-treating,’ these children are grateful to be safe at home, where the criminals and servants of Satan can’t get them—”
Norbacher broke off as the twins stood up and turned toward him. They were suffused with a curious glow, a deathly blue-yellow light, like moonlight…in a place that had never felt moonlight. Their braces were spreading over their faces, then turning inward to pierce their eyes. The girls seemed to feel no pain as the blood, gleaming dark red, trickled down from their eyes. Serrated metal claws sprouted from the twins’ outstretched fingers. They rushed at the children.
Shawna ran like a rabbit and sped safely out the door, but the other children stumbled and fell and were set upon by the twins.
Norbacher backed away, his heart hammering so loud it was like a drumroll in his ears. (He wasn’t even remembering to pray.)
The pilgrims were transforming into monsters (demons?) too, as was the man who played the Angel of Plenty, and they were attacking the ladies who had the Kool-aid and cookies set up on the little paper-covered table across from the display…
Norbacher turned, and bumped into a smallish, dark-skinned, thick-bodied man with a large hooked nose, matted black hair and gray-black beard. The man wore a coarse white and red robe. He looked to Norbacher like he might be half African-American, and half Jew.
In a kind of shock-induced trance, Norbacher stared at the bleeding wounds on the back of the stranger’s hands. The words Paul wrote to the Galations immediately popped into his mind: “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” What was it the Catholics called them? (Greek had not been his best subject in seminary.) Stigmata! That was it.
“W-who…?” Norbacher stammered. His mouth was too dry to get the rest of the question out.
The man gazed at him for a moment, his large brown-black eyes brimming with a sad kindness. Then he replied in a language that sounded Greek, and yet a trifle Hebrew. (It was actually Aramaic.) The words echoed, and when they finished their echo, they became English within Norbacher’s mind.
“I am Yeshua. You call me by another name—your name for the false idol you have made of me: Jesus.”
This must be a dream. (It wasn’t.) “What—?”
Again, he didn’t have to finish the question, to be answered.
Yeshua shrugged. “Oh I’m quite genuinely here,” echoed the prophet’s voice. “And the attacks happening across the room are all too real. I embodied so I could watch over at least some children tonight, those who are out celebrating Halloween. I’m sorry I didn’t get here in time to save the children you brought to this ludicrous display.” He glanced at the windows and chuckled. “I’ve often watched children on this prettily pagan night—I rather like Halloween, you know. The amusing costumes, the parties, the trick-or-treating, the happy children!” Yeshua smiled gently. “I do like to see children happy. Childhood lasts for such a short time.” He shrugged. “I came in person tonight because someone—an unhappy child in profound need, a girl named Shawna—called out in deep desperation and great sincerity to the ancient powers. And the old spirits came from their sleeping places to wreak revenge upon the world. You have already seen them manifest themselves here; you have seen them kill. I will protect those I can. I can help some but not everyone. I am not God, after all. Gautama and Muhammad and Krishna are trying to protect those they can, elsewhere… but many will die tonight. Less than a million, I would suppose. Still, too many. Mostly adults. Hypocrites who deny children their childhood will be first in line. Still, the pain will not last long.”
Norbacher went unsteadily to his knees and clasped his trembling hands together, “Uh… Lord… is this Judgment Day?”
“No, no, that’s all a lot of nonsense made up by fools.” He sighed. Anger flickered in his eyes. “I’ve been so grievously misquoted… No, it’s just a bloody harvest of souls, and the world will not end, nor will it begin again, more’s the pity…” He looked past Norbacher’s shoulder. “Excuse me, you are to die now, and I don’t have the authority or inclination to interfere.”
Jesus turned away, walking through a wall. Norbacher heard an eerie chortle behind him and turned in time to see the white-faced giggling pilgrim, Mr. Gunderson gone quite mad, swinging the harvest heritage scythe at him. The blade was coming down at the pastor’s forehead. It had been intended as merely part of the set, Norbacher thought dazedly, it was not to be used for—
Norbacher didn’t complete the thought.