To celebrate our 2021 Writing Contest that is currently underway, we are FINALLY releasing audio performances of last year’s winners!
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT OUR CURRENT WRITING CONTEST. SUBMISSIONS DUE JUNE 30.
FIRST PLACE WINNER OF 2020 SHORT STORY CONTEST!
When an angelic visitor gives average-joe Harley Miller the power of miracles, his first attempt at the miraculous leads to disastrous ramifications. Enjoy this hilarious and thought-provoking short story by Spearfish local Joanna Mechaley.
This entry won 1st place in our 2020 Short Story Contest!
The Remnant by Joanna Mechaley
When the town of Meadow outlawed miracles, Harley Miller blamed himself. And he should. Any student of theology could’ve told him to start with something smaller. Loaves and fishes, for instance. Tuna on toast never offended anyone. But, lacking proper mentorship, he’d gone with his gut. His gut, apparently, had terrible judgment.
Water to wine. On the top ten list of miracles, it ranked second only to resurrection. It was a bold choice, but what’s the point of a miracle if not to galvanize an audience? Not a single sermon has ever focused on curing ingrown toenails or healing farsightedness. Since the beginning, miracles have been earth-shaking, plague-inducing, sea-parting wonders.
Plus, the end of the world sounded awful. If he could lighten the blow of “judgment is nigh and God is stamping out the vineyard” with some free merlot, shouldn’t he? After all, it would serve as an ice-breaker and an apocalyptic illustration.
None of these thoughts, however, would occur to Harley until later, when he would find himself ricocheting between bouts of justification and self-flagellating blame, clinging to whatever emotional life raft would bear his overburdened conscience to shore.
First, though, the visitation.
The stranger had materialized in his living room, interrupting Final Jeopardy! with a command to “fear not.” From his position on the couch, with one hand on the remote and the other nestled comfortably in the waistband of his pajama pants, Harley found plenty to fear. The stranger towered over Harley, his head grazing the ceiling, his torso dwarfing the narrow room. His voluminous robes indicated the expectation of a slumber party although Harley couldn’t imagine anything more uncomfortable than snuggling with this mountain of a . . . was it a man? The natty pile of feathers gathering over the visitor’s toes seemed to suggest otherwise.
Harley struggled off the couch, capsizing a bottle of Miller High Life on his way up. He glanced between the visitor and the foam dribbling over the edge of the coffee table, trying to draw a connection between the two.
“The end is at hand,” the stranger intoned, presenting Harley with a primitively carved staff. “Sin no more and gather the remnant,” and he vanished in a blinding flash of light, now you see me, now you don’t, conveniently frying the television with his Houdini-esque departure. He had also, as Harley would later discover, scorched a patch of carpet with his bare feet, a parting gift. Maybe the burn was shaped like a cross, maybe it wasn’t, but it would definitely cost Harley his security deposit.
Harley comforted himself with the idea that the whole episode had been the result of a tainted batch of hops—except a week’s worth of empty Miller bottles lined the coffee table and he hadn’t experienced a single angelic visitation prior to that night.
He examined the staff closely. It reeked of incense. Other than that, though, it resembled any other museum-quality handicraft. No Aramaic text appeared on the wood, it didn’t hum with power, “Property of J. Christ” wasn’t engraved on the shaft; it was just a very old, fragrant walking stick. It could hardly be expected to generate miracles, if that was what the angel had intended. Harley would look ridiculous lugging it around town like some kind of urban shepherd, pounding it on the sidewalk every time a blind man crossed his path.
He fell to his knees, praying desperately. He asked for intercession. He asked for the brass to do what the Almighty commanded. He asked for the peace that surpassed his understanding of mental health commitment laws.
He couldn’t fathom what qualified him for such a task. When he made it to church at all, he slipped into the back row fifteen minutes late, once the hymns and handshaking had finished. He was no motivational speaker—he worked in IT, for Pete’s sake. He could think of a dozen people more suited to the job. Maybe two dozen. Let it pass to one of them.
Nevertheless, when he finally rose to his feet, he obediently recited the first miracle he remembered from years of Sunday school. “Water to wine.” He tapped the staff uncertainly against the floor.
He turned on the faucet, hoping for very little, and the water tumbled out as clear as ever. Congratulating himself on his failure, he reached for the handle.
The plumbing groaned in response. The faucet spat like a tomcat in a bathtub. The pipes seized and belched. Dark liquid streamed from the spout, staining the basin.
Harley tentatively collected a palmful. He sipped. He was no sommelier, yet a certain fruit-forward boldness teased his tongue, full-bodied with a dry complexion.
It was definitely wine.
It had worked.
He had performed a miracle.
Well, technically the Almighty had performed the miracle and he had just acted as a vessel. Still . . . he had performed a miracle!
A grin broke across his face. He began to giggle as his doubts melted away. Of course, he had yet to convince every citizen of Meadow to drastically change their ways or face eternal damnation, but the job was practically done for him. He’d gather the sheep, give the staff a tap and presto-chango, let me tell you about this guy I know. The proof would be in the proverbial pudding.
Harley didn’t realize, however, that he had no need to work miracles in fits and starts. It wasn’t possible to confine the work of the Almighty to the plumbing of his apartment unit as he’d assumed. It sought a larger canvas. The fruits of his labor had already spilled over and every Meadow resident was tasting the miraculous, whether they were prepared to recognize it as such or not.
When Mayor Margorie Thompson stepped onto the porch to water her award-winning azaleas she was justifiably alarmed by the shower of booze that shot from her garden hose. Her four-year champion blooms were equally distressed and fell into a depression that, without serious intervention, would cost her the Grand Prize at the county fair.
And, with just enough time to dry his uniform before the work day began, Jimmy “T-Bone” Tetrault pulled a load of ruined chef’s jackets from the washer. In what his wife would later describe to the repairman as a “typical T-Bone snit,” he tore the door from the machine and flung it into the laundry room wall. He couldn’t possibly maintain his dignity while serving brunch at the Pork and Bean; he was too large of a man to pull off pink.
Sandi Stanton, nearly blind without her glasses, had noted the hue of the coffee pot when she shuffled into the kitchen; however, lacking the visual acuity to distinguish between burgundy and black, she assumed her husband had beaten her to the brew button. The first sip had been a shock; the second, a confirmation; the third, the start of a trend. By the time John Stanton wandered downstairs for breakfast, his wife was singing Moon River and burning a pan of scrambled eggs that could’ve fed fourteen.
When Harley swung by the Piggly Wiggly the next morning for a block of Gruyere and some oyster crackers, he was startled by the headline dashed across the front of The Post. He scoured the paper for phrases such as awe-inspiring, life-changing or born-again. The article contained no such religious hyphenates. The reporter denounced his miracle as an “insidious prank” that had destroyed every inch of city green space including parks, school grounds and recreation paths. The municipal golf course, the city swimming pool, all gone. Letters filled the op-ed pages demanding spaghetti-western, vigilantee justice.
For a town split by a river named Redwater, a town with an equivalent bar to church ratio, a town in which the gross domestic products were barley and kitty litter, it was a surprising turn of events.
Harley considered quietly leaving the neighborhood, trying again in the next county. But when the editor of The Post laid blame on a local winemaker, he had no alternative except to reconsider. Disinclined as he was to step into the guy’s mud-spattered Tony Lamas, as a holy servant he supposed it wasn’t right to let another man take the blame. So, he responded with an act of honesty that would have been admirable, perhaps even romantic, had it not been for the reluctance that preceded it.
Five hundred and thirty-two citizens, by the fire marshal’s count, squeezed into the high school gymnasium. The marshal pointedly ignored the breach in capacity and waved to his wife, who waddled up the stands to claim the seat he’d saved for her. Fans pumped sluggishly, spreading a misery of overbreathed air and body odor. Those who had come late leaned against the walls, casting grudging glances at the bleachers. The winemaker slumped in front, wearing defeat like a wilted carnation at a shotgun wedding.
Mayor Margorie Thompson commandeered the court to a smattering of applause. She was magnificently imposing, the proportions of her face as finely carved as a maritime figurehead guiding her crew through uncharted waters. She swept her warmest mayoral smile across the sea of constituents and tested the microphone with a cordial “good evening.” A shriek of feedback swallowed her words and the student running sound withered in his BVDs and adjusted the volume.
“Thank you all for coming,” Mayor Thompson said. “There are a few points I’d like to make about recent events before opening the floor to comment.”
Harley already knew the talking points. Pepper Johnson had neglected a maintenance issue at his winery and thousands of gallons of alcohol had been siphoned into the city aqueduct, contaminating the municipal water supply. Fiscal hardship . . . waste disposal . . . compensation . . . wah, wah, wah.
He examined the audience. There sat Pepper, staring vacantly at his lap, his posture reflective of an amorphic creature—man devolved into his primeval, slug-like state. Whatever Pepper had been subjected to over the previous days had stripped away his boundless, effervescent energy and left him wallowing in a gelatinous shell of submission. Harley shuddered.
Seated beside the old man, Sophie Whitaker vibrated with reserves of indignant energy. Harley hadn’t laid eyes on Pepper’s niece since graduation, not since she traded the countryside for a penthouse view. He wasn’t entirely surprised to see her—unlike the rest of her family, she’d always favored good, old Pepper and his eccentricities, which was why she’d chosen to live with him rather than her own harassed mother.
As for the rest of the crowd, Mayor Thompson had worked them into a frenzy of intolerance reminiscent of German book burnings and Old Testament stonings. They nodded along with her speech, eyes wet with emotion, pounding their thighs in vigorous agreement, swaying like horses at the starting gate.
As loathe as he was to step forward, Harley couldn’t put it off. He raised his hand. Turns out, the gesture wasn’t as effective in real-life scenarios as it had been in elementary school. The mayor was so enraptured by the brilliance of her own discourse, she didn’t see him. He took a deep breath, hefted his staff and trudged onto the court.
“Mayor Thompson, Pepper Johnson didn’t do it.”
Harley felt the weight of five hundred and thirty-two pairs of eyes on him. It rattled him, yet there was no turning back.
Mayor Thompson smiled coolly. “Mister . . .”
“Mr. Miller. Of course. I believe we already established that the origin of the problem is Mr. Johnson’s winery. Our city engineer has examined the property and found the source of the breach.” As if Harley was a child arguing the unfairness of his bedtime.
The engineer, a paunchy man with disproportionately meaty forearms, leaned forward, regarding Harley with a narrow gaze as he gnawed on a toothpick. The V of his unbuttoned collar exposed an unruly mat of hair. He reminded Harley of a beaver—an eager, openly hostile beaver.
Harley examined the floor. “Yes, I’m aware.”
Mayor Thompson’s smile sagged slightly. “Then I’m not certain what you’re suggesting.”
“I’m suggesting,” Harley said, “that you’re wrong. That, maybe, in an election year you thought it would be in your best interest to find someone—anyone—to take the blame. And your engineer found it in his best interest to support your theory.” Harley looked into the mayor’s face. Her smile had disappeared entirely. “Pepper Johnson didn’t neglect his winery, Mayor Thompson. What happened was a miracle meant to open our eyes to the coming days.”
“Mr. Miller, I do not appreciate—”
“No, Madam Mayor, you do not.” An unexpected evangelical fire lit in Harley’s belly. The words poured out of him. “You do not appreciate the significance of a Heaven-sent revelation because you won’t admit there are powers in this world mightier than the ballot. You place your faith in what you can see and quantify—statistics and votes and bottom lines. You demand proof and reason, yet fail to realize that the Creator of Wonders owes you neither.”
Harley stood—shoulders back, spine straight, feeling uncharacteristically smug—and let his words fade into reflective silence . . . which stretched into awkward silence . . . which bled into embarrassed avoidance. He shrunk slightly and wondered if he should continue.
Mayor Thompson’s eyes narrowed. “Mr. Miller, I would caution you to tread lightly. What you are implying is slander. Unless, of course, you possess evidence of wrongdoing. Do you? Possess evidence?” She contemplated him like a spider who, assiduously spinning her web, feels the thrum of a landing fly. “No. You do not. You expect us to discard logic and common sense in the name of faith. You claim that what happened was a miracle.” She snorted. “You would have us believe in fairytales rather than verifiable fact. Based on what? Your word?”
“Not my word,” Harley mumbled. “God’s word.”
“Do you view us as entirely ignorant? Certainly, you must. I cannot fathom another reason why you would find it appropriate to interrupt these proceedings with nonsense about miracles and revelations.” She gestured toward the door. “Now, if you are finished . . .”
“I can prove it. God doesn’t owe you proof, but . . . maybe I do.”
“Mr. Miller, I don’t have time for theatrics.”
“Madam Mayor, I dare you to let me perform another miracle.” Maybe it lacked the sophistication of his former appeal but, in Harley’s experience, a good, old-fashioned dare almost always yielded successful results. “If I can prove miracles are possible, will you listen to me?”
Mayor Thompson closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Let us see a show of hands,” she said. “How many would like to witness Mr. Miller’s . . . miracle?”
If she intended to humiliate Harley with disinterest, she misjudged her audience. Hands rose across the auditorium. Disappointed by the vulgarity of their curiosity yet with no choice but to concede, she yielded. “Very well, Mr. Miller. The floor is yours.”
Harley resisted the urge to pump his fist in victory. He scanned the room, searching for a particular teenager and finding her in the front row. He’d read about Mindy LaRose’s accident in The Post. She’d been struck by a vehicle in the school parking lot on the same day the angel had visited his apartment. The town was fiercely divided over who was at fault—the driver, the school or Mindy, herself. He approached. “Miss LaRose.”
The girl watched him warily, gripping her crutches as if preparing for a fight. Her right leg extended rigidly in front of her. Her mother sat beside her, scowling.
“That looks painful.” Harley gestured at the girl’s brace.
“It is,” Mrs. LaRose interjected. Her daughter rolled her eyes.
“Would you mind explaining what happened?”
Mindy brightened, pleased to play the victim. “I was in the parking lot and Garret Wilson rammed me with his truck. I guess he was too busy cheating on his girlfriend to look where he was going.”
“She needs surgery once the swelling goes down.” Mrs. LaRose added. “She’s all messed up. Torn tendons, multiple fractures. She can’t even shower alone. I have to help.”
“Mom!” Mindy groaned in humiliation.
“What if I could heal you?” Harley asked. “Immediately. Without surgery. Would you like that?”
Mindy sneered. “Whatever.”
Harley assumed that was teenager for “yes, please.” He knelt before her and, praying quietly, passed the staff over her leg, back to front, right to left, paying special attention to the area around her knee. As the pain began to recede, she closed her eyes and groaned in relief, like a dog receiving an intense belly scratch. Harley pounded the staff once against the floor. Tendon and bone knit together instantly and Mindy yelped in surprise. Using Harley as support, she stood tentatively and straightened her leg. She pressed her foot against the floor. Bounced on her toes. The audience craned, trying to ascertain exactly what was happening in the front row to cause Mindy LaRose, a good Catholic girl, to shriek “Mother Mary!” and tear the hospital-issued brace from her leg.
“It’s fixed!” She flew into Harley’s arms, sobbing.
The crowd murmured. Harley stretched his arms like a magician taking a bow, ta-da!, while Mindy clung to his torso. He waited for the first hearty “Hallelujah,” to rise from the crowd.
Instead, Garret Wilson leapt from his seat and shouted, “She faked it!” The teen shook with rage. “She’s a liar!”
Sharon LaRose snatched her daughter and slapped Harley with five-foot-three inches of maternal fury. “We already found a lawyer! She was going to use that money for college, you ninny! We’ll be lucky if the Wilsons don’t sue us for fraud.”
Stunned, Harley took a step backward. This wasn’t the gratitude he’d expected.
Mindy froze, considered the implications of her immaculate healing and collapsed, grabbing her leg in stagey histrionics. “Ooooh, it hurts,” she wailed.
Throughout the gymnasium, people popped from their seats like moles in a carnival game. As they clambered down the bleachers, Harley realized they didn’t look reverent or awestruck. They looked . . . menacing.
The rising hubbub broke through Pepper’s miasma. Like a rabbit scenting predators on the wind, he stiffened, suddenly alert. He bolted from his seat, pulling his niece with him and spinning toward Harley in one graceful step. “Come on. We’re getting out of here before they lose their damned minds.”
He herded Harley and Sophie through the emergency exit, ignoring the blare of the alarm as they burst through the door. After the oppression of the gymnasium, the outside air was impossibly sweet, but Harley had no time to appreciate it. “Move your feet, kid,” Pepper barked, dragging him into the parking lot and down the lane to Sophie’s car.
Harley tossed his staff into the backseat and scrambled after it. “I guess they weren’t ready for a miracle.”
Sophie slid into the driver’s seat. “So, where to?”
Harley laid his head against the window and closed his eyes, suddenly miserable. “Oh, I don’t know. Montreal?”
“How about Carson?”
The neighboring town was twenty minutes away. Harley nodded.
Pepper piped up from the passenger seat. “So, what are the rules?”
Harley shrugged. “Love God and your neighbor, I guess. And don’t look back or you’ll turn into a pillar of salt.” He forced a laugh.
“Really?” Pepper asked. “Why the heck do you suppose that is?”
“I don’t know,” Harley sighed. “Obedience?” The car lurched over a pothole and the staff rolled to the floorboard, bounced once.
“Do you think—” Pepper began.
. . .
Harley felt the vehicle swerve, heard Sophie cursing. He opened his eyes.
A bulky, roughly man-shaped mound peeked over the headrest. It tottered precariously as Sophie struggled to pull the car to the shoulder of the road. Either Pepper hadn’t believed Harley’s warning or he had hardly considered glancing into the backseat as “looking back.” Motives aside, the result was the same. Pepper had turned to salt. He was already beginning to crumble.
Sophie screamed at Harley to change him back. It was impossible—although Harley thought it worth mentioning her uncle would’ve appreciated the irony.
Finding himself deposited on the highway with nothing more than the clothes on the back and the staff in his hand, Harley looked to the horizon. Well, if it was good enough for the apostles, he guessed it was good enough for him.
He started walking.