by Jack Blanchard
The rain blew down in sheets
and rolled off the dead man's face like tears.
His hat lay upside down several feet away,
collecting rainwater and flapping in the wind.
Rapid bolts of lightning reflected in his wide-open eyes,
and flashed the tombstones on and off,
leaving the chalky names and dates in deep black.
The hammer was still in his hand.
The game was over, and nobody won.
It had been building for a long time, the argument,
mostly around the bar at The Golden Pheasant.
In a small town, a dispute can last for months or even years.
Nobody's going anyplace.
But even for people who know each other well,
it can be hard to gauge how seriously
and personally the other guy may be taking the heat.
These things can get out of hand.
After all it was just a discussion about religion,
or spirituality, if you prefer.
Andy, the bartender and owner, was an agnostic,
so he was more like a referee, with nothing to prove.
Four or five of the guys were steady churchgoers,
and liked to gang up on the lone atheist, Henry Peckham,
a farmer with a few acres north of town.
Henry always held his own,
calling them pie-in-the-sky guys, and things like that.
He sneered at their Bible quotes.
"What kind of proof is that? The ravings of ignorant primitives."
He seemed to be the coolest head in the crowd.
He could really get the churchies red in the face,
and enjoyed doing it.
Last Wednesday night the whole debate took an unforeseen and fatal turn.
It was the wager that did it.
Hugh Turley, church deacon and local John Deere dealer, had had it!
He said, "Nobody dies an atheist.
It's just a pose to pass the burden of proof to others.
How about a little test?"
If Henry was a true unbeliever,
he would dare to go to the town graveyard
on the next stormy night,
and exactly at midnight,
pound a wooden cross into the ground and shout:
"There is no God!"
The other fellows took it more as a joke,
and the laughter is what pushed Henry Peckham over the line.
He shouted: "GOOD!"
According to the TV weatherman there was a storm due Saturday night.
Arrangements were made,
and it was too late to back down.
* * *
They watched Henry from the shelter of their trucks,
as he walked up Cemetery Hill,
his long raincoat billowing in the wind,
the cross in his left hand, and the hammer in his right.
The hard rain sounded like sleet against the truck cabs.
Nobody was laughing.
He stopped at the top of the rise,
and in silhouette they saw him check his watch.
It was moving up to midnight.
He looked back once at the trucks and smiled.
Then he got down on one knee,
held the cross in place,
and hit it squarely with the hammer several times,
driving it solidly into the wet earth.
He raised his head
and shouted something they couldn't hear over the storm,
but they knew what it was:
"There is no God!"
As the atheist got up to leave,
there was violent thunder and lightning,
and something grabbed him!
He tried to run, but he couldn't move!
They were in no hurry to run up there,
just to have Henry sit up and laugh at them for their foolishness.
They sat and waited him out.
They could hold out longer in their vehicles
than he could in the rain.
Fifteen or twenty long minutes passed
before they opened the truck doors and got out.
The rain was letting up
and wet moonlight was backlighting the clouds.
Henry Peckham was obviously dead as hell.
* * *
"A heart attack", Doc Emmerson said.
"Odd. Henry had no history of heart trouble.
He didn't know what grabbed him.
It was just the cross he'd pounded through the hem of his coat.
It literally scared him to death.
I wonder what in God's name an atheist would be afraid of?"
Copyright © Feb. 3, 2005, Jack Blanchard. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.