The hill fire
by Michael Putnam
Jesus caught fire sometime before midnight. One of the late-shift officers called Police Chief James Reynolds who then called Reverend Albert Henry. By the time their vehicles reached the bottom of the hill leading to Bryce United Methodist Church, Jesus’ entire left arm was on fire. The hillside already had residents setting up their lawn chairs and carefully wheeling stocked coolers through the grass, down from the main parking lot overlooking the church and its immolating savior.
Jesus was thirty-five feet tall and made entirely out of wood. He wore his robe and sandal getup, arms outstretched, and His palms pointed heavenward over His head. Jesus stood next to the church’s entrance in the center of the drop-off turn-around. He wasn’t facing the church or the hillside; he faced Interstate 70, where, separated by a gnarly line of brush and overgrowth, He kept watch over both the east and westbound lanes between two exits. Much of the stretch between those exits was lined with billboards: restaurants, car dealerships, an RV-friendly motel, the strip club a few exits West. There were even two billboards advertising the other church in Cartersburg (Grovewood Lutheran), and these billboards were closest to Jesus.
The fire had already caused a few cars to pull off to watch this Son of God burn. Unseen from the hillside, or even the turn-around, a few white LED headlights glowed from where these cars were parked, the drivers instinctually angling their vehicles to illuminate Jesus. Some people sat in their cars, some on their hoods, most of them kids feverishly trying to get the best picture on their cellphones to post on social media.
Police and firefighters already on the scene were milling around the church entrance with orange cones, trying to decide the best method for blocking off the turn-around. Heat from Jesus warmed the mild July air. Mrs. Henry used the lift in the van to lower her husband, the Reverend, out of the side door and then kissed his cheek. Following her husband’s instructions before he gave them, she drove back up the long driveway to the parking lot to keep an eye on things from up there. The church’s main parking lot was quickly filling with cars belonging to members of both the Bryce United and Grovewood Lutheran congregations. Even the agnostics were showing up on the hill. For one summer night only, Jesus would bring Cartersburg’s population together. An event not to be missed.
As Police Chief Reynolds and Reverend Henry stared up at their burning messiah, a mechanical roar both men recognized came from the top of the hill. A red pickup with oversized wheels and vanity exhaust pipes on either side of the cab drove down the driveway from the parking lot above. Instead of waiting for one of the police officers to move them, the truck drove over a few of the orange cones used for the blockade. It was the Fire Chief, whose truck turned with erratic precision over the curb of the turn-around and onto the grass at the bottom of the hill. The Fire Chief turned his truck completely around and got it facing the burning statue.
“Jesus Christ,” Reverend Henry said, flicking the joystick on his wheelchair forward to roll toward the truck.
Police Chief Reynolds walked behind the Reverend. Fire Chief Donald Abernathy Jr. rolled up his tinted, driver’s-side window, waited for the last few bars of a rock song to end, then killed the engine. He threw open the door and jumped down onto the grass, not bothering with the metal step under the door. He pulled up his jeans, squinted at the Police Chief and the Reverend, then turned to Jesus, whose whole left arm was ablaze. The fire was starting to creep up His shoulder and into His armpit. He had already started to illuminate the turnaround and hillside, even the parking lot above.
“Shit, that arm’s a fire hazard,” the Fire Chief said to his police counterpart. “Heard you folks been losin’ cheeks in the seats lately, but I have to say this is an irresponsible way to try and drum up enthusiasm.”
“Glad you could join us, Junior,” Reynolds said.
“Kind of my wheelhouse aint it, Jimbo?” the Fire Chief said, looking down at the Reverend. “And Reverend, put that damn mouthpiece on, you’re gonna kill yourself,”
Reverend Henry, plastic oxygen mask around his neck, scanned the hillside in vain for a glimpse of his wife, and pulled the mask onto his face. He flicked the joystick on his chair and turned away from the Chiefs to face the fire.
“Let’s get it out and get these people on their way,” the Fire Chief said. “No sense waiting for your boss to show up, right?”
“Well, now, hold on. Let’s think this through,” Reverend Henry said. He coughed, pulling the respirator off his face. “And she’s not my boss, Junior. She deserves to be heard with regard to community matters.”
“Reverend, don’t tell me,” the Fire Chief started.
“Chief Reynolds, what is your opinion with regard to town safety?” Reverend Henry asked, his breath fogging up the respirator. “Are we in any immediate danger?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the Fire Chief said. “Seriously, guys?”
“Reverend, all due respect, we’re talkin’ gravity,” Reynolds said. “You keep Him burning and you risk the whole hill catching fire once pieces start raining down. Not to mention if a wind picks up. Plus there’s potential to, you know, reach the church. Now with that being said, it might not exactly be any immediate threat.”
“Not you too, Jimbo,” the Fire Chief said. “My boys are waiting up in the lot. Just give me the go ahead. We don’t need to sit here and deliberate or wait around for any further instructions.”
The fire crawled in a weird straight line across Jesus’ chest. It would soon spread down his stomach to where His belly-button would have been, had the sculptor decided Jesus had a belly-button. Maybe there was one under the carved folds of His robe.
A white van reached the bottom of the hill, its side door rolling open before the vehicle was put in park. As soon as the van stopped, the BUMC elder council gingerly stepped out the rear and walked over to the three men.
The self-appointed leader of not only the council but the church and its parishioners as well, Ruby Shoemaker, closed her door and joined the group with a bundle of foil in her hands.
“Well boys, we may have just doomed the whole town waiting till Ruby showed up,” the Fire Chief said.
Ruby approached the three men with a hot-dog-shaped tin foil in hand. “They got food trucks up there. They’re coming up with new food stuffs,” Ruby said, unwrapping her foil. “Now, who’s ready to bear witness to a miracle?”
The vendors and the local news van were parked beside each other near the back of the almost-full parking lot. A news crew from the city half an hour east pulled up in a van much newer than that of their regional counterpart. The crews nodded to each other and, both ready to shoot, walked to opposite sides of the hilltop to begin conducting interviews.
Once the smell from the food trucks reached the people on the hill, families sent emissaries up to the parking lot with cash in hand. It didn’t take long for the hotdog vendor to create the Messy Messiah chili dog and the pizza vendor to take the first order for a Devil’s Own Three Meat Pizza. Both were hits with not only the hill crowd but the news crews as well, the latter able to add a little fun onto the end of their report on the Cartersburg Hill Fire. That title was misleading since the hill was not currently on fire, but it made for good television and a great tag for those discussing the story online.
The excitement on the hill could be partially attributed to Buck Hyde bringing some of the big halogen lights he usually lent to the youth soccer fields from his hardware store. The illumination gave validation to the crowd on the hillside, as if no longer sitting in darkness was reason alone.
When they weren’t lining up to be interviewed, the more socially-conscious members of the Cartersburg community made a point of getting around the hill. Based on their affiliations and friendships, pockets coalesced around charcoal grills and tables of light beer and boxed wine. Side-eyed glances made it clear that, while Cartersburg could come together to watch a thirty-five-foot-tall burning Jesus, the members of the town would not fully assimilate. There were still rivalries. Each group needed to have the loudest laughter, or cite the most scripture involving fire, or represent the city better than anyone else in front of the television cameras making the rounds on the hillside. Jesus had been burning for more than an hour. The more He burned, the higher the stakes. Members of Grovewood Lutheran saw themselves as the less-showy (more righteous) faithful in town, but they had to balance that superiority with compassion and concern now that the cameras were here. The Bryce congregation still had to decide what exactly a thirty-five-foot tall burning Jesus meant for their church and their congregation, preferably before He came raining down on the church and lower part of the hillside.
The fire progressed as the crowd continued to grow. One of the town’s three fire trucks idled at the top of the hill, waiting to be summoned. To people in the parking lot at the top, the hillside was a mass of people moving between groups and sharing their food and drinks. Both groups, those above and below, mostly ignored the presence of the other.
The various hillside and parking-lot conversations halted as a crack came from the statue and Jesus’ flaming head fell to the turn-around, bursting into cinders. There was a gasp from the crowd, who then went back to their mingling. Now He was headless, and both arms were ablaze. Really, everything from the waist up was on fire or had broken off the statue already.
“That’s it, I’m heading for the hydrants,” the Fire Chief said.
“Stop him,” Ruby Shoemaker said. “He doesn’t even go to our church.”
“I’m the damn fire chief,” the Fire Chief said.
The police officers stationed around the hydrant near the church’s entrance deferred to their elders and made way as the group surrounded the water source.
“Jimbo, call your guys. Don’t be stupid,” the Fire Chief said. “Ruby, be reasonable. This has nothing to do with my church affiliation.”
“Junior, watch that tone with a fellow Chief,” Reynolds said. “And watch how you talk to Ruby.”
“Now, Ruby, hasn’t this maybe gotten out of hand?” the Reverend asked, rolling slowly over to the where the council stood. “I was with you there at first, but this is quickly becoming dangerous.”
Ruby nodded to her former passengers. The BUMC elder council joined the police officers and closed ranks around the hydrant.
“Ruby Shoemaker, you get them the hell away from there,” the Fire Chief said. “You don’t control the whole town.”
“Reverend,” Ruby squawked. “Do not forget the gravity of the situation we have here in Cartersburg tonight. The eyes of the country are on our little community.”
The Reverend sighed and flicked the joystick on his wheelchair which spun to face the Fire Chief.
“Junior, please,” Reverend Henry said. “I’m doing my best.”
“What are ya gonna do, Junior?” the Police Chief said. “I believe this is a church matter.”
“I’m gonna knock you out, Jimmy,” the Fire Chief said. “Just like senior year, just like when we were kids, just like I’ve always done.” He waved to the truck waiting at the top of the hill. “This is my show now. There’s a fire in Cartersburg and the Cartersburg Fire Department is going to put it out.”
“I’d like to see that,” the Police Chief said. “Any of that. The knocking out part or the putting out part. Either one. I’d really like to see it.”
The Reverend’s wheelchair backed up so he could face both Chiefs. The fire truck came to a stop behind them, blocking their view of the hillside. He took a long pull from the respirator.
“Christ, boys, stop it,” the Reverend said.
“Reverend,” Ruby Shoemaker said.
The wheelchair turned to Ruby and the council.
“Ruby, you aren’t helping,” Reverend Henry said.
“I don’t right care, Reverend. If God intended to sacrifice His son one more time, then that’s what’s going to happen. I’ve made a barricade for you already. I’ll take the heat for this one. Let Him burn.”
“Reverend, you’ve got a tight window to sort all this out, I’m gonna go have a smoke,” the Fire Chief said. He walked over to the fire truck and motioned up to the driver for a lighter. “Don’t let publicity get in the way of your obligations to keep your flock safe.”
“Those things’ll kill you,” Reverend Henry gasped from behind the respirator.
“Same as this fire would,” the Fire Chief said.
The hill continued to pack in with visitors from towns over, families from cities away. Near dawn, a van pulled up a few blocks from the hill – the closest it could park. The van differed from Ruby Shoemaker’s in a variety of ways, as it differed from those of the news crew: it was much longer, it was windowless, the seats had been removed, and there was an armor-clad knight with a flaming sword impaling a grizzly bear painted across both sides. The van belonged to Our Greatest Sacrifice ministry, a non-denominational church from rural Illinois, which welcomed controversy and violence in the name of God.
The twenty-three members living on the church’s compound had loaded up their van as soon as the first videos were shared online. The church was known for “taking their ministry on the road” at a moment’s notice as well as “driving faster than their angels could fly” if they saw an opportunity to get their message on television or, better yet, into the unwilling ears of flesh-and-blood sinners. They sped over at 80 miles per hour to reach Jesus before He was engulfed or extinguished. Reaching Him before one of those two outcomes was imperative to their image and their media attention. They lived for any opportunity to profess their unique view of God to the masses.
Barnabas Atwood threw open the driver’s door and stepped down from the van. He adjusted his fire-engine red robes, snorted, snorted harder, and launched a wad of spit onto the street. He pulled open the door and took in the twenty-two members of his congregation, squatting or sitting on the floor in the back of the van.
“How we doin’ back here?” he sneered.
“Remy cracked his head pretty bad on one of those bumps. He ain’t responding,” one of the men said.
“Leave the door open for him to get some air. We’ll deal with it later.”
The twenty-one conscious members of the OGS congregation exited the van two at a time until they were all standing around Barnabas Atwood.
“Which way?” Barnabas asked.
“That way, the way we came in,” one of the women said, face illuminated by her cellphone. She pointed up the road.
“Then that way it is,” Barnabas said.
Those present from Our Greatest Sacrifice followed their leader to the hill fire.
The OGS members brought a cloud of anger with them across the crowded parking lot as Atwood and his acolytes came to face what was now only a pair of tall burning legs. The OGS members were already being shoved and verbally abused by the crowd around them. They welcomed the abuse and egged on those Cartersburg residents already infuriated by their presence. Down by the turn-around and the flaming half of the savior, the bickering stopped as they heard the first screeches of the megaphone.
At first, it was mostly a shrill mess of sound. Deciphering the message of the newcomers was further obfuscated by the hill people. Their resistance to the twenty-two new arrivals created a cacophony flowing down the hillside like a banner at a football game. As the sound grew and changed, the sun began to rise over Cartersburg. Daylight, however, would not stop what the OGS congregation had set into motion.
“Residents of Cartersburg, viewers across the country and those streaming these events across God’s kingdom.” The words from the megaphone were coming from the center of the hillside as the news crews converged on the little circle formed by Barnabas Atwood’s faithful followers. “How much clearer a sign do you need? He’s more than mad, He would not immolate His only son if you had not angered Him in a way like never before.”
The crowd on the hill pushed against the OGS circle.
“He sacrificed his son once. Can you imagine what you must have done for Him to do it again?”
“Shut him down,” Ruby Shoemaker said, pushing both Chiefs toward the hill. “He’s spreading his poison.”
Police Chief Reynolds sent his officers into the crowd. He turned to the Fire Chief who made a show of sighing then told a few of his fire fighters to help as well.
“I’m only doing this in the interest of avoiding a riot,” the Fire Chief said.
“See,” Barnabas said. “They’re sending in their thugs to put a stop to us. They don’t want the truth set free. His truth.”
The OGS circle closed tighter as members of the hillside threw punches to break their ranks.
“Faithful, witness this madness. They’re afraid. They see our faith, and it’s a mirror for their own hypocrisy. Hold strong.”
“Stop him. Do something.” Ruby continued to push at the Chiefs.
“Ruby, calm down, Jesus.” The Fire Chief shook the woman off. “Reynolds, get your elder.”
Ruby harrumphed in protest of the Fire Chief’s comment.
“The world is watching. The world can see you assault our non-violent, peace-loving family,” Atwood screeched. “Sinners. Liberals.”
“No.” Ruby looked to the Reverend, then to the council. “No, no, no. We must show our faith to denounce this villain.”
Ruby Shoemaker stumbled off toward the statue.
“Ruby, no,” Reverend Henry spun his wheelchair and rolled after her.
Mrs. Henry came running from the parking lot down the hillside toward her husband. Meredith Henry reached her husband, who was still following Ruby toward the statue. She dug in her shoes as the chair dragged her across the asphalt.
“Aww, come on,” the Fire Chief said. He ran to his truck and threw the vehicle into drive. “Someone’s gotta stop that woman from lighting herself on fire.”
The truck roared past the Reverend dragging his wife and then past Ruby, who was trancelike, heading toward what was left of Jesus. The Fire Chief pushed the accelerator down farther and gripped the steering wheel as his truck climbed onto the small platform the statue stood on. His grill cut Jesus off at the kneecaps. The flaming thighs of their Lord and Savior landed on the windshield, blinding the Fire Chief, and the truck disappeared into the brush, speeding toward the highway. A second impact with a tree stump sent the Fire Chief’s head into the steering wheel, knocking him unconscious as his truck tore through the guardrail. Entering the freeway, the truck smashed into a mid-sized sedan and pushed it across both west-bound lanes. The Fire Chief’s truck rolled until it reached the bottom of the grassy median, where it finally came to a rest.
Ruby regained her composure. The members of Bryce United’s elder council stopped talking. The Reverend stopped rolling, and his wife stumbled from no longer moving forward. Even the hillside quieted down.
“The dumb son of a bitch. Just can’t help himself,” Reynolds said. He ran across the turn-around, followed the truck’s hole through the brush, and slid down the embankment to the freeway.
“Look there,” the megaphone screeched. “Someone decided to finish the job themselves. Heathens, you’re all heathens. You lack strong faith, you lack good deeds. You lack the conviction to-”
The megaphone blared feedback then went silent as the circle of OGS members broke apart and the crowd on the hill converged on Barnabas Atwood. Even those at the bottom didn’t immediately notice the fire reaching the grass. Some Cartersburg residents did notice and forgot their anger enough to scramble up the hillside. Those farther up, near the battle with Our Greatest Sacrifice and points higher, finally took notice and many, but not all, joined those running uphill away from the flames. The megaphone screeched as Barnabas screamed under the mass of bodies on top of him.
Firefighters and police officers broke off from trying to contain the crowd to rush back down to get a hose hooked up. The firefights at the top of the hill screamed into their walkie-talkies for those below to keep a clear path for the water line. Putting out the hill fire was further complicated as large amounts of water, along with the precarious footing caused by the hill’s incline, met with an all-out brawl. Several people to lost their balance and rolled into the flames. The fire fighters at the bottom turned their hoses on those unfortunate people caught in the flames, until more broke off from the fight, lost their balance, and started rolling down the hillside. Bodies rolled through the flames, some were put out, some reached the scorched remnants of Jesus in the turn-around with their clothes still lit. Some ran down the hill to get out of the flames. A few incorrectly assumed those who had slipped and rolled down the hill were displaying their intense devotion and ran toward their burning brethren and the warm embrace of their savior, chunks of whom were still on fire in the turnaround.
As the Police Chief tried to pull the Fire Chief out of his wrecked truck, he saw various friends and neighbors break through the brush, burning and wailing and running like their salvation depended on it. Those people on the highway who hadn’t fled were filming from the safety of their vehicles, headlights illuminating the scene.
Michael Putnam grew up in Central Ohio and received his BA from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He has an MA from Cleveland State University and an MFA from Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he currently lives with his wife, their son, and their corgi. He has been previously published in Pisgah Review, Hobart, decomP, Exit 271,The Bookends Review, New World Writing, and Scintilla, among others.
— Jacob Collins-Wilson
“We parked in front and I heard the music, felt the bass and my dad got out and told me and my mom to wait and I knew those kids were in trouble because that music was too loud and they better hope there aren’t any cuss words because my dad barged in when I was taking a shower and took my Slipknot CD because it cussed.”