Copyright Mark R Morris Jr, 2016
All rights reserved
Centerville was the world’s most average town. It had an average number of stoplights, schools, city parks and exactly the average number of residents. It wouldn’t be fair to say that nothing ever happened there, or that it was boring, although the people of Centerville would have agreed, had you said those things, but statistically speaking, it had exactly an average amount of crime, an average amount of money and an average amount of charity. It was “Centerville” after all, where they “Aimed for the middle”. No joke, that was the campaign slogan the marketing team had come up with for the Centerville tourism drive. “We aim for the middle,” and although no one really liked it, they had to admit, it was about average.
So, when John Doe – his real name, for the record—first revealed that he had made a wish and it had come true, you can imagine everyone’s surprise. And, when he revealed what that wish had been, many were even more surprised. John had asked the Universe, God, whatever he believed in, for a sign, and sure enough, a large billboard suddenly appeared, smack in the flaming middle of the world’s most average town.
At first, it was assumed it had been put there by an advertising company and the local atheists held a protest, picketing with signs that read, “This is not a sign from God,” in response to a letter to the editor of the “Centerville Median” –the town’s paper—that suggested it was. Centerville looked absolutely ridiculous on the evening news with national correspondent, Welsh Phillips. But after the two man police department had literally questioned every single citizen of Centerville capable of answering questions, the only evidence they could uncover was two barking dogs the last night before the sign made its appearance, and one vague report of a “light” in the sky in the vicinity of the town’s center. There was not, however, anyone who could say they saw a sign being built, which, it being smack in the middle of town made that kind of hard to comprehend.
Then there was the fact that it had no decipherable markings, like a manufacturer’s name plate, or a sticker with an advertising company logo. I say decipherable, because, Ruth Anne Myers claimed she saw the face of Jesus in a tiny rust spot that began to develop after the third day of the sign’s known existence. But Mike, an ex-hippie that ran the town’s only vinyl record shop, proved quickly that it looked more like Jerry Garcia by comparing it with his photo-realistic tattoo, and by the fourth day, you couldn’t really see it anymore.
But what really got people talking was when John Doe made his announcement, “The sign spoke to me.”
It was the fifth day since John had brought everyone’s attention to the sign by claiming he’d wished it there. Pretty much the whole town, except for Elmer Handy, who suffers from IBS, was at the high school chili dinner fund raiser when John took the stage and snatched the microphone out of principal Hiller’s hand, in the middle of reading off numbers for the bingo tournament, to raise money for new greenhouse glass for the botany club.
“I got a message from God. He spoke to me on his sign. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and I’m supposed to share it with you all…” John had more to say, but no one heard him, because nobody wanted to be the last person to find out if John Doe was losing his marbles or not. Kids, moms, Dads, Grandparents, uncles, aunts and the unaffiliated, all gathered on the lawn in front of the First Church of Centerville, staring up at the sign and one by one, they began to see the message.
Except for one man. Jordan Montgomery was something of a hermit, and he didn’t come into town too much. Not to say that he was a homeless drifter, he made his living online, doing online things that most of Centerville didn’t understand, but he hadn’t been seen in town since the sign had ‘appeared’ yet, and as everyone stood looking up at it, Jordan just stood looking around, trying to figure out what the hubbub was all about.
“Mister, can you see the message from God?” a little blonde boy, about nine years old asked him. Jordan got down on one knee and motioned for the little boy to come nearer.
Jordan whispered in his ear and the boy pointed up towards the point that most everyone was gazing at, except for Glen Lippert, who’d just gotten new bifocals, and couldn’t quite get them to work yet. He was looking far to the left of the sign’s location.
“I see it! Praise the Lord!” shouted Reverend Miser, “It’s true! It’s true, he’s sending revival to our town, just like I asked Him to!”
Several of his congregants gathered around the preacher and shouted their agreement that revival was coming and they could read it too. The choir started into a chorus, and before long, people were clapping and dancing in a funky little shuffle that no one ever sees outside of certain Sunday services.
“That’s not what it says at all!” shouted Mertyl Bench, “It says, Mary Louise Bagenbaum is a slut!” This last was delivered as loudly as her 78 year old voice would carry it and accompanied by a thrusting point of accusation in the direction of the aforementioned Ms. Bagenbaum with Mertyl’s four footed, orthopedic cane.
“Well, if it does,” shouted Mary Louise, “Then this sign is sent straight from the pit of hell, because as God is my witness, no man has ever touched me, except for Dr. Marlow, and that in a professional capacity!”
Mrs. Marlow slapped her husband, “How could you!” and ran crying from the church lawn toward home.
By now shouts proclaiming what the sign said were coming from every corner and fights were breaking out, groups of people were bursting into tears, or laughter, or in the case of Jim Peabody Richards, getting naked. “It says we are to return to our natural state, like Adam was with God in the garden,” he declared and sat down on a park bench in all his glory in front of God, the town council and everyone.
At this point an official brigade of town officials and parks and recreation director Merc Robroy, were headed toward the church steps with the portable PA and a long extension cord from the high school across the street, because Pastor Donaldson could not be found to open the church doors. The mayor took the steps and Robroy had speakers erected in record time.
Tap tap! Weeeeeeee sounded across the lawn as mayor Brick Johnson, former high school quarterback, took the stairs and called for attention, tapping the top of the microphone with a single finger, “People! People of Centerville! Citizens, please!” he continued like this for a good minute, until Robroy pushed up next to him and finger whistled shrilly into the microphone, causing everyone to hold their ears, and at the same time, shut their mouths.
“We need to go about this in an orderly fashion. We have determined that what ought to be done is that the three professional ministers in our midst should meet in private consultation to determine if the sign is indeed from God. And if so, what, if any message it contains for our fair city. This is best left up to the professionals,” The mayor said, with a white, gleaming smile. “All in favor say aye.”
After a bit of looking around, the town seemed to come to some decision and since this was the way things were normally done here, everyone said, “Aye!”
The mayor smiled, “Well, I think that was pretty clear, but just to be fair, all opposed?”
For a moment it seemed as if no one would speak up, then a small voice at the back of the crowd spoke up, “Nay!”
Everyone turned to look and there was the little blonde boy that Jordan Montgomery had whispered, standing near Mr. Montgomery and looking every single one of them in the eye, without flinching.
“Well, he’s just a kid, playing a prank,” the mayor said, “he doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
The boy moved toward the stage and the crowd parted, whispering behind their hands as he passed, “That’s June and Bobby Landers boy, I never knew he was such a trouble maker.”
Finally, the boy stood in front of the mayor and the mayor said, into the microphone, “Son, don’t you believe in God?”
“Maybe I do and maybe I don’t,” the boy said, “it depends.”
The mayor chuckled and the crowd laughed, nervously. “Depends on what son?” the mayor asked loudly. The crowd grew quiet, shushing each other to make sure they heard what was next.
But they didn’t need to bother, Dylan Landers, the boy, climbed the stairs and held out his hand. After a few seconds, the mayor reluctantly surrendered the microphone.
“It depends, sir, “ Dylan said, politely, “On what you mean by ‘God’. If you mean a God that would tell Reverend Miser a revival is coming, then I’m not sure, because the last time Reverend Miser had a revival, he ended spending the night at my lady neighbor’s house and his wife left town for six months. If you mean the God that Myrtle Bench claims told her to say something awful about Ms. Bagenbaum, then I hope He doesn’t exist, because who would want to believe in a God that embarrasses people, especially when it’s not true? Myrtle’s been imagining Mr. Bench had a girlfriend since I’ve been old enough to know what that meant. ”
There was a collective gasp from the town. The mayor looked around helplessly, sure this was not going his way. The boy, however, handed the microphone back and the mayor accepted, “Thank you. Well, son, the definition we have always used here in Centerville, is the accepted definition. That’s why I am calling on the men of the cloth to decipher this for us.” The mayor looked away from the boy and started to address the crowd again, when he looked down and saw the boy’s hand was outstretched.
Mayor Brick Johnson was sweating bullets by this point. This was primarily supposed to be a ceremonial position. Collect a paycheck, take some pictures, good for business, he’d never encountered anything like this. Slowly, almost painfully, he surrendered the microphone to his tiny opponent again.
“Seems to me, that if it’s God, he doesn’t need a sign, he ought to be able to speak to each of us individually,” the boy said.
The mayor refused to take the microphone again and instead he knelt beside Dylan, “Look kid, don’t you think it’s important we come to some kind of understanding about this? If we just let everyone believe whatever they want to believe, what will happen? You saw it, people fought, and one man is still running around without pants on. Everyone sees there is a sign, we just need to figure out what message it’s sending.”
The boy held out his hand and the mayor, finally relented and handed him the mic, the boy addressed the crowd, “ I don’t think these messages are coming from God at all, but I think I know…”
At this, the mayor snatched the microphone, “Well, that’s about enough of that, of course they are! John Doe told us he wished for this sign and then it was John that brought us here to read its message. We can all see it’s a message from God, can’t we?” there were a few hoots one big Yeeaahhhh! And a reserved round of applause.
“I can’t!” came a voice, again from the back of the crowd, who parted until a clear aisle opened, leading back to the man who had whispered into Dylan’s ear, Jordan Montgomery. Jordan started walking toward the stairs, “I can’t see it, and I don’t mean to say it isn’t true, because I don’t know. I can’t prove what any of you see and you can’t prove what I can or cannot see either. Either way, it seems to me there is no problem with everyone reading whatever message is there and determining where it comes from for themselves.”
“Well, that is because you don’t believe, and you never have!” the mayor shouted and the crowd applauded, timidly at first, but then louder.
Jordan Montgomery stood his ground. The crowd gathered around him and several grabbed onto him to keep him from escape. He tried to speak further, but someone grabbed him, tied his hands behind his back with a belt and Reverend Miser offered his tie as a gag. Not one full minute after he had first spoken out he lay duct taped and trussed like a thanksgiving turkey at the mayor’s feet.
“Hey, the sign says, Montgomery’s an agent of Satan!” someone yelled out.
“Yeah, and that we should lock him up, or better yet get rid of him!” Another shouted.
The crowd was getting increasingly angry, the mayor held up his hands, “It’s okay, folks, we will find out why Mr. Montgomery has decided to play devil’s advocate here today! But, it’s best to let the professionals handle this! Chief Mulligan and Justice Harvey will determine what crime we can charge him with, and we will hold a trial, if that is what is deemed best!”
Several days passed and Jordan Montgomery sat silently in one of two cells in the jail, under the courthouse. He hadn’t spoken since the gag had been removed. Meanwhile, the Minister’s Alliance of Centerville had been formed and a large campaign tent had been erected on the lawn at the foot of the sign. People were coming to services from surrounding counties every night and messages from the sign were being printed on T-Shirts as far away as China. A pay site with a constant live webcam feed of the sign’s changing typography had raised over $300,000.00, which would be spent to build a permanent shrine to the sign.
The minister’s alliance had issued an edict. They believed the sign was from God and should be respected as such, although some of its deeper messages were obscured for the purpose of causing them to seek God. They would be providing professional help for anyone that believed the sign had spoken to them. They also urged citizens to please seek professional, spiritual council before acting on any messages they believed the sign had shared to ensure they did not miss the sign’s intentions and fall under an evil influence.
The trial began on a cool Summer morning two weeks from the day that John Doe had first revealed the sign’s origins, the courthouse was filled to overflowing with visitors and somehow, the town’s three ministers, the mayor, the high school principal and John Doe were all on the jury when Jordan Montgomery took the stand. After being sworn in, he sat silently in the box as the prosecutor badgered him. He had waived his right to council, but a public defender sat at his table anyway. The man weakly argued that Jordan was obviously insane and treatment was required.
Throughout the days that had passed, messages had continued to appear and people had continued to act on them. Richard Johnson had asked the third grade teacher, Mr. Luman, to marry him, which had caused a stir as to whether the sign could speak to gay people. Duke Pitman sold his father’s undertaking business to a man from out of town, who had seen a message that said, “Maybe I should just buy the first business I see and settle down?” So he did.
Chaos had erupted in some homes, while others seemed happier than ever. There was hardly a home in Centerville that wasn’t directly impacted by the sign’s proclamations. Even when some of them didn’t make sense, Chelsea Grammar, the school librarian and amateur calligrapher, had been creating placards of each message and a “prophetic team” was working around the clock to decipher them. A religious television network had shown up and offered around the clock coverage of the team’s ‘revelations’.
Finally, after four hours of badgering, Mr. Montgomery stood. He had asked for his phone to be returned to him and he held it in his hand. “I know for a fact that this sign is not bringing messages from the great beyond, and I can prove it,” he said quietly. He typed on the phone, then slid it, face down, onto the judge’s bench.
A moment later someone rushed into the back of the courtroom! “Let him go! Set him free, the sign says to release Jordan Montgomery!” the woman who had spoken jumped up and down and, finally, pushed the bailiff out of the way, rushing toward the bench, where she showed the judge a picture on her phone, of the message on the sign.
“Your honor, if you would, please read what I just typed here two minutes ago, long before this woman ran in,” The judge squinted at the two phones, then checked his watch.
“Well, it would seem, Mr. Montgomery that you have somehow hijacked the signal through some sort of witchcraft and you are now speaking for God!” The judge said. The crowd murmured.
Reverend Miser shouted, “Blasphemer!”
“What if I told you that I haven’t hijacked anything, but I did this by the power of technology and that I am responsible for the sign being erected?” Jordan said.
There was a collective gasp and silence fell across the room. The judge peered at Jordan Montgomery over his glasses, “I’d say that’s a very serious statement. We’ve heard from the spiritual leaders of Centerville and it is unanimous that the sign is from God. So, if you want me to think otherwise son, do it again,” he handed the phone back to the accused man, who smiled, as he typed on it’s screen, then turned it face down and slid it across to the judge.
For the second time, someone ran into the court room, “Your honor! Your honor! The sign says all of us are guilty!”
This time the bailiff did not even try to hold the messenger back as he calmly stepped aside. The young woman brought her phone to the front of the court and again showed the judge the image she’d captured. The judge studied it carefully, then nodded, “They are the same,” he said, gravely.
From the jury box a voice rang out, “This can only mean one thing!” It was the oldest of the town’s three ministers, Pastor Lloyd Dunhearst, “Mr. Montgomery is a messenger from God to confirm the sign! The sign is right! We are all guilty, I suggest we bow and pray, then let us consider what amends we need to make to our angelic visitor!”
Everyone in the court closed their eyes and bowed their heads, Pastor Dunhearst continued, “Lord, we have committed a grave error! Thank you for sending your messenger to clarify your message and turn us from our evil ways, for we know that we often entertain angels unaware! Amen.”
Before the echo of his amen could die out, people moved to mob the witness stand with notebooks and smart phones, each with a message from the sign they felt clearly pertained to them, but needed prophetic decoding. Reverend Miser saw his chance and moved from the jury box to the witness stand before the first person could reach Jordan Montgomery, who just shook his head and dropped it into his hands with a sigh.
“Brothers and sisters! Brother Montgomery is in prayer as you can see, he can address each of your messages in a private consultation for a small donation. I will be happy to host this service in my chancel directly across the lawn in the shadow of the blessed sign! All proceeds will be given to the Shrine of the Sign, of which, I have graciously agreed to be curator,” Miser entoned.
And with that, the bailiff escorted Montgomery from the box, followed by a flood of townspeople and visitors from as far away as 2000 miles. They walked out of the courthouse and down the steps. A crowd had gathered on the lawn and as Jordan Montgomery looked up to the sign, everyone froze. There, hovering thirty feet above the green, in a square frame, suspended underneath the rotors of four large drones was a man in a hardhat and a tool belt. When he saw the crowd, he picked up a bullhorn and spoke.
“Mr. Montgomery! I found the problem and it should be back online within a few seconds. It seems we were mixing the cell signals from the antenna inside the sign, with the radio signal from the billboard server. It’s been broadcasting messages from the town’s mobile users from the Private Snap App! I’m surprised no one called to complain. There were some pretty revealing texts on there!”
The man turned back to an open hatch on the side of the sign and snapped it shut. The sign went black, then lit white, then a message scrolled across its face. “Thanks to Centerville for being a great city to work in! This sign is a thank you gift for all you have done for me, my family and my business, use it in good health! –Jordan Montgomery, Montgomery technologies.
For years to come the debate would rage over who had known first that the signs from God were merely misunderstood ramblings on an anonymous social media app. Several came forward, claiming they had known one or more of the messages was not from God, because they had added it to the App. Curiously, none of them cared to clarify which of the messages they were taking credit for.
As for the mystery of how the sign came to be in the center of town, without anyone noticing, that was explained by Jordan. His trucks were too heavy to access the small patch of land he had purchased for it, without tearing up the Town Center Green. So, he’d had it airlifted into position using industrial drones, that are very quiet. The light in the sky, had been spotlights used to help center the sign over the bolts in its concrete foundation. The sign had been delivered late and since the area was clear, they had determined they might as well set it up and that’s how John Doe, on his early morning run, after asking the universe for a sign the night before, had found it first.
From then on, Centerville began to change. It seems that Jordan Montgomery may have inadvertently delivered a message from God after all. Centerville was indeed a ‘Great city to work in’. They’d just needed someone to give them a sign.
As for what Jordan Montgomery had whispered to young Dylan Landers, he’d simply said, “If that’s a message from God, then I’m God. Do you believe that?”
If you like this, check out the rest of the stories in #21Stories21Days
Also, check out part one of my novella trilogy, Jacked, for 99 cents on Amazon!