This story was written for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2021, in which I placed 2nd.
Max 1,000 words in 48 hours
Location: sunken treasure
Object: knitting needle
The Reverend would recognize his chapel by the bell still rising out of the dunes. The rest of the town had disappeared when, in his words, the Lord shook the earth like a rug and turned the ground to quicksand.
He’d fled with them, sullen, carrying sacks of meager possessions in their carts and over their shoulders. But he carried only his Bible and stared solemnly at the horizon, as was his purpose, his final mission as Pastor of the doomed mining town sinking into the desert behind them, to act as a mirror for their sorrows that they might feel less alone in the Lord’s mystery.
He spoke strong words by their fires, shared their food, drank their water, until they reached the next town. Constant sandstorms pushed many onward. The Reverend stayed and preached to the few left of the inspiration to be found in Jesus Christ. People had no alms to give but were eager to listen, because they assumed he spoke of their Lord and Savior, who could be prayed to and asked to calm the storms and still the earth’s trembling.
But the Reverend’s devotion was for a different Jesus Christ—a statuette made of solid gold and meticulously hand-painted, which stood behind the pulpit in his chapel, now under several feet of sand.
The steeple’s white paint had chafed but its iron cross still stood. If his parishioners could’ve beheld it they would’ve given over their first-born sons as acolytes.
He rolled his shirtsleeves and took a sack from the horse cart. Clawed up the shifting sand to the steeple. Took the rope from the sack, tied it to a beam and dropped it in.
“Oh, praise the Lord!” a voice said in the dark below.
He looked down and saw a filthy face appear in the patch of light.
“Reverend Holcomb, is thatchoo? Reverend, it’s me, Kasper Baney!”
The Reverend swallowed a groan. Nineteen-year-old Kasper Baney. Slept in the front row of every sermon Kasper Baney. Picked his nose before dipping into the holy water Kasper Baney.
Kasper shouted, “Oh, you’re truly a real, true savior!”
“My child, have you been down there long?”
“Since the storms. I was milkin’ the cows when the ground started shakin’ and I got kicked. Woke up in the middle of a sandstorm with the barn collapsin’ around me.”
“I figgered it might be the reckoning! Safest place for the reckonin’s the church.”
“I been down here for days, huntin’ rats to eat with this knittin’ needle I found!” He held up a bloody wooden rod.
The Reverend shouted, “Kasper, let’s get you outta there, how about? Climb on up the rope, son!”
“Okey!” Kasper tugged the rope and began to climb.
The Reverend leaned against the steeple and waited, watched his horse stand patient in a world of sand. He’d take the Jesus to the city, where no one knew who he was. Where someone with money could do anything.
Kasper’s head appeared. He wrapped his hands over the lip of the chute, grunting.
“My child, let me help you.” The Reverend offered a hand and pulled.
Kasper’s head knocked the bell, he slipped from the Reverend’s grasp back into the steeple and landed with a bang.
“Oooooh, sweet sweet Lord, my leg’s broke!”
The Reverend looked down and saw Kasper crumpled on the floorboards like a spider half-crushed. The patch of light cast perfectly on his red puckered face.
The Reverend sighed, pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it down the hole.
Kasper whimpered and stared at the gun.
The Reverend pulled the hammer back.
“Ho, Reverend!” said a voice somewhere behind him.
He turned to see Mr. Baney riding up. Mr. Baney’s shape was unmistakeable, almost a perfect circle with arms. While his son snored through sermons, Mr. Baney wheezed. The Reverend had often wondered how someone with so little money could be so fat.
Kasper shouted from below, “Help! Help, please!”
“Ho, Mr. Baney!” the Reverend said, discreetly holstering his pistol. “Your timing couldn’t be better. I’m afraid your son’s in trouble.”
Mr. Baney dismounted his horse and tried to mount the dune. It was like watching a grapefruit try to climb stairs.
“He’s down there—still alive by the Lord’s good grace.” The Reverend crossed himself. “But his leg is broken. I’ll need your help pulling him to safety.”
Mr. Baney found a shallow slope and wobbled up it, kicking sand.
The chapel roof creaked.
Mr. Baney tried to look into the steeple. “Kasper?”
“Pop, my leg! My leg’s broke, and Reverend Holcomb was gonna shoot me!”
The Reverend tisked. “He mentioned a cow kicked him in the head during the quake. He’s delusional.”
“Kasper,” Mr. Baney shouted, “we’re gonna get you outta there! Hold tight!”
The Reverend said, “I’ll tie the rope around him if you can pull him up.”
“I’ll try,” Mr. Baney wheezed.
The Reverend lowered himself into the steeple, and as his eyes adjusted to the dark he saw the Jesus statuette on the dais. “Give me strength,” he said.
Kasper stared. “You were gonna shoot me…”
The Reverend leaned in and whispered, “Down here, I’d be sure not to miss.”
He tied the rope around Kasper and shouted for Mr. Baney to pull.
Kasper screamed, Mr. Baney roared, and the boy rose toward the light.
Then Mr. Baney threw the rope back down. The Reverend tied it around the statuette and began to climb.
He saw Mr. Baney’s face appear above. The chapel groaned, and the roof crumpled. Sand shifted.
“Reverend!” father and son shouted. They both pulled the rope, felt slow progress through the sand and wreckage, and eventually saw Jesus rise from the mouth of the steeple.
The Reverend didn’t answer their calls.
Kasper sobbed and hugged the statuette on his lap in the cart. Mr. Baney led the way on his horse.
They left the endless dunes, where now only an iron cross jutted from the sand.