The Play Will Make It Okay

One trip in her travel agent’s catalog among all the others caught Lydia LeGwin’s eye. It had a beautiful illustration next to a striking title: resplendent in yellow light and surrounded by blond, barefoot children in white robes kneeling and arms raised in adoration to a Christ figure in apotheosis, and above it in all capital letters: A GOOD TIME BELOW THE COMPROMISE LINE (WITH THE PASSION PLAY).

Her group (affectionately called “Lyddie’s Biddies” by herself, each biddy that belonged to her church bowling group, and the agency that regularly did group business with her) was looking for something to do in the Deep South in the summer, and the itinerary seemed to scratch that itch: starting in New Orleans, it featured stops in Baton Rouge and along the Mississippi River through that same state, then Tennessee, then a stop or two in the Ozarks on the way to the final stop at Missouri’s southern border, at a little town called Over-The-River for a two night stay to see “the passion play.” The more she read on, the more she found out just how much the passion play earned its “the” in that title:

When 1820 rolled around for the people of Over-the-River, Missouri, and even though the rest of their fellow Missourians got to enjoy statehood along with them, there was little time or energy for them to do so. On top of hard winters, on top of their not being much agriculture for them to take advantage of its new status as a slave state, the Over-the-Riverfolk could expect constant raids from the powerful Quapaw tribe just as much as could the significantly-larger town of Poplar Bluff up above them. Well, not long after that year the Quapaw started to bring not only death by arrows and axes, but smallpox. Much of southern Missouri (including the Quapaw) was decimated by the smallpox outbreak of 1821, except, miraculously, and perhaps in deference to all the other bullshit they had to put up with, the small town of Over-the-River.

Badly-caricatured and head-feathered effigies of Quapaw braves set alight became an unsettlingly common sight when spring rolled around the small town in those years. For a whole year after the outbreak, smallpox raged outside of Over-the-River, while the fires of straw-and-feather men raged within. That is, until the local pastor Hezekiah Griffin was shocked to discover his nine-year-old son Aberdeen mysteriously stricken with a fever, then a cough, and then unmistakable pus-filled sores that scabbed off his skin and turned into red scars. Hezekiah, in his might as a man touched by God, prayed hard for a miracle. He didn’t get one of course, since, well, you know, people don’t get better from smallpox, and little Ab died a month later. So Hezekiah, rather than become an unbeliever as a lesser man in his position might have done, prayed for another miracle, and broadened his definition of that word by a lot. He vowed on the day his son died, like Abraham begging the Lord to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, that if the Lord would just so spare the town of Over-the-River from the plague, he would in His honor put on a play. Not just any play, but the most magnificent production ever seen depicting His Son in His final days, His selfless passion, his proof of boundless love for the world and mankind. If the Lord would redeem his town, if He would in his infinite love and mercy let the angel of death pass by that town, Hezekiah would glorify God who had so redeemed the world entire for those washed with His blood.

Wouldn’t you know it, it worked. One year, then two years passed, then more after that. Hezekiah and Over-the-River alike rejoiced and thanked the Lord above for only killing his one son with smallpox. True to his word, the whole town of Over-the-River put on its first six-hour-long passion play extravaganza on May 1, 1826. And even after pastor Griffin’s passing, on the very day before the Confederate States voted to secede from the Union, the town on his behalf never broke his word, putting on the play every day from the first of May to the last of October every five years, deciding to postpone the event only three times in its history: once in 1941 during the war blackouts, once ending prematurely near the end of its run after the attacks of September 11, and once in a summer-long celebration for the town following news of the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden.

Lydia circled the trip in her catalog and made a note to ask for fifty brochures to put by her church bulletin board. She was surprised that she had never heard of the event until that moment. It had so much going for it, it was spectacular, religious, southern, and best of all, it was rare! Better sign up now, she could imagine telling her fellow biddies, you don’t want to be kicking yourself for five whole years, do you? Better get those deposits in quick, with a trip like this you can bet space is going to fill up with other groups! Besides, she made pretty good numbers on the Noah’s ark in Kentucky trip a few years back, so maybe this one was another hit waiting to happen. Maybe, for once, she could actually get enough signups for a comped room!

The saying went in Over-the-River that “the play will make it okay.” Everything that had to be built, or fixed, or added when it was not needed before, was done with the faint reassurance that there would be enough flyover state tourists to fill up the five-thousand seat amphitheater (which back in 1826 was a mere set of wooden benches that could seat fifty) every day of the months of May to October every five years to pay for it, no matter what it was.

It was why, despite an otherwise paltry population of eight hundred according to the 2010 census, there was a steadying influx of Best Westerns and Ramadas and Hampton Inns every year, it was why there had to be more parking lots and swimming pools and playgrounds built, more housing when people decided to have families here, more schools for bigger districts when those families had more children. It was a mild hysteria that threatened to spiral out of control by the fourth year, but then all made sense by the end of the fifth. The play made it all okay.

Margaret Frazer, along with her husband Fred, was one such couple, who twenty years ago would have never considered Missouri as having anything for them, aside from the setting to a Judy Garland musical she might have liked when she was younger. It was Fred who first took her to see the play, not long after they both completed college, as a graduation present from Fred’s very religious parents. It was Fred who fell in love again, this time with the town, with the beautiful production he just witnessed, and the beautiful tradition that led to its creation. He wanted to set roots there the next year, and she supported him. He tried to find work up until the fourth year since the last play, when Fred and Marge together decided to use the last of their savings and open up a bed-and-breakfast. Of course it worked out, the play made it so.

But every now and then, even at that moment while Marge perused the humongous booking list for the coming season, she wondered what it would be like to maybe have her quaint homey hotel somewhere else, anywhere else. She wondered what it would be like to offer strangers their home in a place worth visiting every day of every year. She wondered how wonderful it would feel to be in the black every year, instead of for the first year and a half after the last play, then sort of in the red by the end of year three, then wondering how it’s all going to work out by year four, and finally stressed all over again at year five for an entirely different reason, over and over again, for what seemed like would be the rest of her life. What she would have given for nothing more than five years of peace.

She didn’t have time to think much more about that, though. She deleted another email about how to keep safe from the virus, this time from her internet provider, and sent a text to her daughter that she would be on her way to see her in the next rehearsal. She was always relegated to one of the adoring children in years past, but this time she was going to be an angel. Just imagine it, an angel this time!

What Wyatt Griffin was thinking was far less eloquent that what he was saying in the town meeting: Hell no. No fucking way. I don’t care if I get five viruses, and cancer in my balls to boot.

We have to be the voice of reason in all this, he told them. Oh sure sure, the safety of our guests is our top priority, we’re going to swab every inch of every surface in the town. It’s small enough, we can certainly do it! We can reassure them all they want, but we can’t panic like everyone else. Besides, we have a historical responsibility we have to uphold. Here, look at this…

He held up his phone for everyone to see, as if they could see whatever he pulled up on the tiny screen.

Lourdes is closing their springs for the seasons, due to concerns of the virus. Lourdes, for Christs sake. A miraculous healing spring, where you can possibly get the virus! Are you kidding me? We can’t afford to be that stupid. Remember folks, we’re here to thank God Almighty for preserving us in the face of a devastating plague. What a slap in the face to God it would be if we broke his promise over the threat of a, let’s face it, extremely mild version of exactly the same thing he delivered us from over a hundred years ago! No. Show me the actual documented case in the town, show me the real risk, not mere concern, of putting on this play, of our promise to God. Show me the risk, and I’ll consider postponing it. 

He was silent for a moment, for effect, and realized to his chagrin that his appeal to emotion was quite as successful as the virus’ had been. Time to change tactics, just like Hezekiah before him.

Or, if none of you agree with me, fine. But if the bookings have told me anything, it’s that the guests sure do. They’re braving the constant barrage of warnings from the news and airlines and hotels to come here. If you want to tell them they can’t see this once in a lifetime experience, go ahead. And if you all think you can afford the bills from last year’s expenses, if we put on the play a year, or two years from now…

Where there were unsure murmurs from his last pregnant pause, this time he was met with cold, terrified silence. He couldn’t help but let a faint giggle skip out of his smile as he pocketed his phone.

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

While it was true that Wyatt, the mayor and de facto director of the play, shared the same last name as the play’s founder from so many years ago, he would insist to anyone who asked, but again with the same insouciant and dare-we-say malicious grin, that it was just a coincidence.

Strange, thought Harry Gaddis as he checked into the bed and breakfast. With Joyce there was always something to haggle, something to complain about. But as this was his first trip by himself since as far as he could remember, it was disconcerting when he received his key and realized how not difficult it was to get it.

While it was true that Harry was the actual working member of the non-profit men’s retirement group in his county that arranged trips and cruises for the community, it was always Joyce that took charge of them. He always brought his wife to the board meetings, and while he technically signed his name on the contracts and approved of the trips, it was Joyce that actually read them and made sure he should sign them. It was important work, she always said to anyone who asked, and Harry always agreed with her. Some of these folks who lose a husband or wife as old as they are, they treat it as the end of their lives themselves. To Joyce, convincing depressed elderly widows and widowers to take the chance and go on a cruise to Panama or a trip to Switzerland with her and Harry wasn’t just an exercise in immense privilege (but also, I mean, let’s be very clear, it was), but a matter of life and death. When a cruise went off without a hitch, she could go to sleep at the end of the day next to Harry knowing on some level that she saved a life or two. He agreed, of course, it was just that Joyce was always better at making all that work than he was.

They had been planning a cruise to Alaska. They had been to every state in the country except that one, even Hawaii. The day after they made final payments, Joyce had made a lobster bake to celebrate. After the meal, they went out to the Elks lodge with his buddies and Joyce, as usual, got fall-on-the-floor drunk with them. The next morning, Harry was surprised to find himself waking up before her for once, and to surprise her he let her sleep and tiptoed to the kitchen to make breakfast in bed. Compared to the massive lobster bake the day before, it was a simple affair of bacon, eggs, toast, and coffee, but even that was a big deal for Harry.

It took him until noon to get everything just the way she liked it (he had to throw out a few eggs that were cooked too hard, and he would take the risk of her finding out and chewing him out over it), and when he sauntered in to the bedroom he couldn’t help but laugh a little as he saw Joyce, who hadn’t moved an inch in her sleep since he woke up. It wasn’t until he was halfway to the bed, when, finally getting why she hadn’t moved an inch, that he froze up and dropped the whole breakfast on the floor.

As he sobbed into Joyce’s daughter’s arms that day (his son Bob was at work when he called, he didn’t expect to hear back from him until at least six pm on a good day), the only thing he could say, among the ambulance lights and sirens and men and women uniform walking all around the house, was I made her breakfast. Over and over again, I made her breakfast. I made her breakfast. 

It didn’t matter what all the emails and the news told him. It didn’t matter that Bob kept telling him not to go (though what did he really care? He had his suspicions that by now Bob was just waiting up for his will). It seemed as though it was going to be his last trip anyway, before he could travel with Joyce again, anywhere they wanted to go, but until then, there was no way, after everything Joyce did for him, for their lonely friends, for their whole community, that he could refuse a chance to see the world one more time for the mere fact that he was a widower who was afraid to step out of his door.

Mrs. Blake slid off a portion of her germ mask to tell her five children that twenty minutes had passed and it was time to put on some more hand sanitizer.

Jayceon, the oldest of the young Blakes stuffed in their mother’s Volvo minivan, let out a sigh as he took the bottle from his sister, Amberleeigh. If the mask he was wearing had any purpose at all (and it certainly wasn’t blocking the virus from getting into his system! (but don’t tell mom that!)), it was useful for hiding the swears he muttered under his breath.

Every single part of this trip had been hellish so far, and was guaranteed to continue to be so. From the two-hundred mile drive from their house in Dubuque to Over-the-River, Missouri (which meant we don’t have to worry about flying and getting any of the virus that way!), to his mother’s constant nagging about “what’s going on in the world,” the constant pit-stops to get more groceries and toilet paper (best be prepared when we get back home), her wiping off his phone screen with a lysol wipe, swatting away his fingers every time she caught him scratching an itch on his nose, and worst of all, the ever-presence of Gam-Gam. Jayceon was not alone in the Blake family in despising his hateful, senile maternal grandmother with every inch of his willpower (including his mother!), but neither was it any less apparent that this trip was for her and her alone. It galled him that they had to placate their shrill grandmother as they allowed her to witness something only she wanted to witness, disgusted him how baldly apparent it was that throughout it all his mother was solely looking out for her share of the will, which, just like the Second Coming of Christ, was bound to happen at any moment, if only she kept the faith till then. Well, it served him right for not thinking of a better excuse to not come home from college that summer.

Jayceon muttered another weak insult through his mask to his next oldest sister, Kaighleeigh, before he went back to what he was reading on the screen of his tablet. It made him, not quite happy, but happier, to read up on the farce they were wasting so much time and money and effort to see. He was not too young to remember years ago, back when Courtnee, Chlowee, and Khaleeseeigh had yet to be born, when his mother dragged him, along with Gam Gam, still a pain in the ass but not as old as now and so limber-minded enough to be even more hateful, to see not one, but three church-group screenings of The Passion of the Christ.

He didn’t see what the big deal was with passion plays. He remembered the big one fifteen years ago. It was violent, pointless, anti-semitic, and worst of all, he already knew the ending, even way back then! So it comforted him a bit to read up on this one, and confirm all his biases one hundred and fifty miles before being subjected to it again. Why surprise surprise, look at all the traditional earmarks of anti-Jewish sentiment flagged by the Anti-Defamation League that the town of Over-the-River resisted for years. The familiar themes of deicide and collective guilt, “his blood is upon us and upon our children’s children!”, supersessionism from Judaism to Christianity, and for fuck’s sake, the Jews even have horns on their hats! It was almost too appropriate to find out that none other than the wealthiest racist who ever lived (or was it the most racist wealthy man?), Henry Ford himself, attended the play in 1926, which made interest and then attendance skyrocket in what was once a niche and waning piece of Americana, very much like the Klan at that time. It would not have surprised him a bit if he dragged along Woodrow Wilson to have him declare the play was “scripture spoken in lightning” or some shit like that.

He couldn’t help but laugh at the mayor, too. Wyatt Griffin, if that was his real name, this pudgy, patchy-bearded, mulleted, right-wing clown, this absolute fucking ghoul. In an article linked to the wiki he was reading, the man simply said that he was adhering as close to history as possible. If the Jewish religious leaders had a major hand in bringing about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who was he to downplay the truth? When a catholic interviewer reminded him that the pope had reminded other practitioners of the passion play of the Nostra aerate, a resolution voted on by the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God as if this followed from Sacred Scripture,” the man simply laughed in his interviewer’s face and replied, “we’re not Catholic.”

He had to admit, he admired the man on some level, Jayceon realized as he stretched his legs and clutched his head, sick from reading on his tablet and only fifty miles past since they left home. Just like our president, he knew a bunch of marks when he saw them.

Well, she’s the group leader, maybe she’ll listen to me, thought Virginia Momsen on the motor coach on the five hour ride from the Ozarks to Over-the-River.

She called five times, left just as many messages, and close to twice as many emails, she told Lydia. And it was quarter after nine, right at the start of business by now, so of course they got them! No, they’re just ignoring them, they just don’t care about their clients, no, they don’t care one bit about making sure they get an experience that justifies the ridiculous costs these trips are running these days!

Nothing was right, nothing at all. As if it was bad enough the driver for her home pickup was fifteen minutes early, he spent the whole hour-long drive to the airport playing rap music. Rap music, and when he could see perfectly clearly that there was an elderly woman in the back seat! Then the flight at the last minute connected to Dallas, when it was supposed to connect to Denver! She had a whole half hour longer to connect to my flight to New Orleans, and what was she supposed to do! She was prepared for an hour-long layover, not an hour and a half! From there, three of the seven hotels they stayed at had an extra bed in the room, even though she specifically asked for a single! She had to sleep in a queen bed, with another, empty queen bed next to her!

Well, she was keeping a list of every single part of her trip that came up lacking. She was looking forward to calling the agency and demanding an itemized partial refund for every fraction of every aspect of her trip that was not up to the standards it should have been, given the exorbitant price she had paid. You know, this happens every time. She had been doing business with them for ten years, at least four trips or cruises a year, and they never get it right! Branson, Palm Springs, Quebec, even that Sicily trip, there’s always something they screw up! What did they think, that her husband left her an infinite pool of money in the trust, that it turned into a tree in her backyard that grew as much of it as she needed?

Lydia sighed as she nodded to her travel mate and looked out the window to some more mountains. A comp is a comp is a comp, she told herself, again.

When the Sunday rush was over, when all the biddies and soccer moms and their brood were tucked in to their rooms for the night, Marge would often sneak outside in the twilight and just stare at all the weird paintings frescoed upon the walls of the old historical houses of Over-the-River. Most of them, her BnB included, if they didn’t directly reference the passion of Christ, featured harmless Americana kitsch, roosters crowing, Tom Sawyer-types lazing along the riverbank, azaleas under the bright smiling sun, that sort of thing. But one caught her eye among the others, one she needed a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dark to really appreciate: it was a boy, nine years old, wearing only a pair of overall dungarees, holding hands and dancing in a ring-around-the-rosie with what looked like a who’s-who of the town in 1821: farmers, poor waifs, town drunks, shopkeepers, rich landowners in white suits and their glamorous belle wives, even the local pastor. Upon a closer look, the boy himself was wearing a crown on his head, and his skin was covered in red welts. Everyone else holding hands had the same red scars upon their face, with expressions that looked like moaning, wailing, or maybe, coughing? Was this an old medieval dance of death someone painted when the other painters weren’t looking? And the boy, was he none other than the most famous case of smallpox the town ever knew, the whole reason she and everyone else were there at all? Was he supposed to be the young, sick, and dying preacher’s boy, Aberdeen Griffin himself?

Harry read up on some local literature in his hotel bed as a way to get himself to sleep before the big day. He realized that Over-the-River was a hundred miles away from the Mississippi. There was also a town, about fifty miles east of Branson, called Under-the-River. That made even less sense.

He giggled to himself as he read about the little saying the folks used to tell their children for years, they just as much aware of how nonsensical the names were as he was:

“Liver and onions, liver and onions

Deliver the liver to Over-the-River

Slivers in bunions, slivers in bunions

To Under-the-River, that liver, deliver.”

Joyce would have thought it was funny, too. He said it to himself over and over again, the way others would count sheep, falling asleep before he had a chance to turn out the light. “Liver and onions, liver and onions…”

Of course Lydia got seated next to Ms. Momsen again. She couldn’t blame any of the other biddies for avoiding the same dubious honor.

It at the very least reminded her to step out of the auditorium, amid murmurs from the crowd and the orchestra tuning up, to make a quick call to the agency. It was incredible, the turnout for the whole thing, especially considering what was going on in the world. She of course considered the possibility that it may not go, but after seeing the sincere reassurances the town of Over-the-River sent her (not unlike what the cruise lines were doing lately: pre-screening people who had been to China, checking their temperatures before letting them into the town environs, wiping down everything with sanitary wipes), she was confident it was the right thing to do, Momsens and all.

She finally got ahold of the agency, knowing full well it was two hours behind over in their Sacramento office and giving them a chance for them to reach at least eleven am. I’m so sorry about Ginny, she told her agent again. I’m so, so sorry… 

All the children of Over-the-River participated in the play, if not for any other scene, then for the prologue, when a massive congregation of children, some in shimmering white robes, even others in appropriate period-piece wear of the 1821 days, in Mark-Twain-esque rolled-up pantaloons, knelt in tableau in adoration before the radiant, all-powerful, all-compassionate Christ, even the lead boy among them, a tiny, sickly boy of nine years old, who lays before the feet of his Lord and lifts up one hand in adoration before he breathes his last. The children exult their Lord and weep for the life of Aberdeen Griffin alike, and the Lord in turn smiles upon them, more than happy to preserve His new covenant for the town of Over-the-River.

Though Marge’s daughter was to be an angel soon, she nonetheless participated in this scene as a robed adorer like anyone else her age. Though she knew it made her happy to be a part of all this, she couldn’t help but feel uneasy at the sight of the sick young boy, especially after noticing that painting the night before. What was it doing there, anyway? How come no one else seemed to see it before? It made no sense to her that someone painted it all those years ago. It was the antithesis of the covenant between God and the town, the sick dying boy leading the whole town in a dance of death was exactly what didn’t happen, exactly what they had celebrated against every five years, and even now.

So who did it, then, and when?

There was no reason for Wyatt Griffin to be nervous, and indeed, he wasn’t. Thirty productions had already gone off without a hitch, and so would this one.

He smiled and let out a sigh of relief as the tableau ended and act one began, when Christ enters Jerusalem on a donkey and throws out the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple, horrified that the holiest space in Jerusalem, the very house of his Father, had been perverted into a cheap and tawdry shrine to capitalism.

The irony of that scene was most definitely lost on him.

An audience member from behind them shooshed Mrs. Blake once again as she finished her quite loud cell phone conversation with her husband, telling him he might as well make another trip to the Costco and buy some more toilet paper and canned ravioli before she got back home with the kids and Gam-Gam. Thankfully, she couldn’t see her eldest son’s smile of schadenfreude through his germ mask.

The play was even more absurd than he could have ever imagined, Jayceon realized, even more than Mel Gibson! He wondered, apart from Jews, apart from Native Americans, what other major historically-marginalized groups of people the play could offend whole-cloth, and without even asking out loud the play was more than happy to oblige him: Every single villainous character was played by the African-American residents of Over-the-River. Twelve black brothers of the white Joseph plotting to kill him and show their white father his bloody coat of many colors, the Persian king replacing his new white bride Esther (i.e. Christianity) with his first, and black, wife Queen Vashti (i.e. Judaism), a black Sanhedrin muttering that Mosaic law above all else had to be upheld, a black Judas seething and preening to betray his very Caucasian master and his equally-white disciples. He could imagine the spin from Wyatt Griffin without even hearing it from the man himself: we wanted it to be as historically accurate as possible, and history shows that the semitic people of that region of that time were darker-skinned than we usually imagine. And with Christ and the disciples, he had been portrayed throughout history, in medieval times and in Renaissance paintings, as white, so why stray away from that history?

He checked his phone as discreetly as he could with his mother on one side and Chlowee, a compulsive tattletale to the very end, on the other, for the time. There were still two hours to go before intermission and dinner. At least the hot chicken here was damn good.

Virginia let out another loud grumble at the sight of Judas accepting thirty pieces of silver. This politically-correct culture was getting way out of hand, so bad that it was even spilling into the quaint town of Over-the-River. Why make so many of the characters African when in the Bible they were very clearly white?

Lord knows what was to happen at intermission, when she was to discover that one of the choices for dinner was the town’s famous hot chicken. Don’t they know there are seniors visiting here? What are they trying to do, kill her?!

Harry liked the costumes the best. It really felt like you were there, in the Holy Land, in the ancient times of the Lord Himself. The acting was okay but a little too foo-foo and hippy-dippy for his tastes.

He took another bite of authentic St. Louis pizza, the second choice for the intermission dinner. Not bad, but if he were the chef he probably wouldn’t have put it on a bed of saltine crackers.

Marge sat beside Fred and, with little choice in the matter, watched on. She was now on what seemed like the fourth instance of someone beating, slapping, whipping, and mocking Christ. She had a horrible knot in her stomach, a horrible feeling that she should get up and drag her husband and her only child away, away from the play, away from the BnB, away from the whole town, but she sat frozen in her seat. She looked at the dumb smile on Fred’s face, she imagined the radiant, dimpled smile on her daughter’s face, overjoyed at the news that she would get to be the angel, and sat paralyzed in her seat.

As the cat-o-nine-tails fell on Christ’s back again, she suddenly burst into tears, hiding her face and silencing her sobs the best she could. A few people in the audience beside her noticed, and raised up their hands and said out loud “Hallelujah. Praise His name.”

Jayceon couldn’t help but smile as some of the disciples sat across from Christ, their backs to the audience. He admired any Last Supper scene that respected and acknowledged the other side of the table.

They were really spending a lot of time with him just on the cross, now that Harry was thinking about it. Did it really take that long back then? And then, not sure why, right when the centurion pierced His side with the spear, he repeated to himself liver and onions, liver and onions… 

This was it. Her big scene. Christ’s mother and Mary Magdalene scramble to His tomb, finding it empty. A blinding light erupts in the scene, stupefying the Roman soldiers into a slumber. That was when she came in! Whom do ye seek in the sepulchre, O followers of Christ?, she thundered to the sobbing women, who answered her, Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified, O heavenly ones. Then, with a smile and a triumphant, booming voice, He is not here; He is risen, just as He foretold. Go, announce that He is risen from the sepulchre.

Marge had to admit, even given how she was feeling, even after everything else that happened, she was never prouder of her daughter than at that moment.

Is this what I died for?

Wyatt Griffin squirmed in his seat. What the hell was the dead kid doing in the scene? He already had his moment in the beginning…

Is this what I died for? the boy repeated, scratching his pox marks, coughing, fiddling with the ill-fitting golden crown slipping on his head, dragging his bloody bare feet across the stage, making red foot prints on the wooden floor with each step.

The way the boy said those words, Lydia wondered if they were meant for him to say, or were they perhaps something even Christ would ask…

To see my father’s house turned to a den of thieves?

The boy led a train of behind him of people from all walks of life in 1820’s Missouri, farmers, town drunks, poor young waifs, black slaves, white-suited landowners and their glamorous belle wives, and even the town pastor. All of them had sunken, irisless eyes, all of them scratched bright-red bleeding welts across their skin, all of them coughed.

Well, that’s it, thought Virginia as she took out her smartphone to write another email. Now I’m just asking for a full refund.

I’m so tired, the boy rasped. Every five years you come to my home, and make a racket, and disrupt my slumber, and leave it worse than how you found it.

Now this was something he didn’t expect, thought Jayceon. A very Masque of the Red Death vibe, very medieval. He always liked that Poe story.

 I’m tired of your noise. I’m tired of you thinking you’re all important, you thinking you all have to say something, whether it’s important or not, whether it’s helpful or not. You all think you matter, which means that none of you matter.

Harry thought about his son, then Joyce. He thought about finally seeing Alaska with her.

Very well, receive my curse. As the Lord once spared this city of the pestilence, so will he bring it upon you now.

You will blame innocent people for your affliction, and you will hoard, and you will trample upon your fellow man, and you will make merry among yourselves, and even till the angel knocks on your very door you will never cease to fill the world with your noise.

That is my curse to you, and the great and terrible truth of my curse is that all deserve it, even the ones who don’t.

The great and terrible truth of my curse is that even had I not given it, so would you have done anyway.

And the great and terrible truth of my curse is the same as it has always been, since the day that God picked up the dust from the earth and breathed life into us all:

As you are, I once was. As I am, so shall you be.

The boy disappeared with his train stage left. No one applauded, no one said a word. The curtain dropped.

Wyatt Griffin coughed.

Lydia LeGwin clutched the arm rest of her chair.

Margaret Frazer wiped away tears in her eyes.

Her husband noticed her sad face, and squeezed her hand.

Jayceon Blake sniffed the air.

His mother took his phone away from him, and scratched her eye.

His grandmother grunted and coughed.

Virginia Momsen cleared her throat.

Harold Gaddis sneezed and wiped his nose.

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