We picked up half a dozen more kids from the really rural parts and thirty minutes later the bus rolled to a stop in at an old farm. In the middle of a field was what looked like a circus tent. But a circus tent with something wrong with it. It was dirty and patched and not all of the stripes were lined up. The center poles that were meant to hold it up were pointing to different parts of the sky giving the structure an uneven sag. The tent had the look of some immense diseased and limping beast looking for a quiet place to die.
Chad took the lead since this was his element. He was a preachers kid and had all of the confidence of someone born to a twisted royal hierarchy. I couldn’t stand the kid but didn’t really care about making other friends so I fell in behind Chad and my little brother. A toady to the toadies. I didn’t care. My body was too sore from bracing myself on the bus ride from Hell and my stomach was doing flipflops. Both from breathing diesel exhaust and the realization that we would have to get back home the same way we go here.
The roof of the tent was strung with lights that couldn’t quite penetrate all the way to the ground level. This meant everyone in the tent walked in a type of half shadow like zombies.
“Here” Chad announced pointing to a salvaged wooden church pew. “this is the best seat. Steve save us seats. We’re going to go walk around.”
My first reaction was to tell him to go fuck himself but the pew was all the way in the back and was probably better than sitting in one of the rows of folding chairs. I stayed but I convinced myself it wasn’t because that asshole told me to. I was there because I wanted to be in that seat. I would only allow them to sit next to me because I had to keep an eye on my brother.
From my seat at the back of the tent I watched Chad make his rounds like a visiting dignitary, my brother following behind him caught up in his wake. Since Chad was a preacher’s kid these were his people. He was recognized by kids and adults alike due to his fathers involvement in various churches around the state. He was the most popular of the unpopular kids. A Prince in this twisted and creepy cast system.
I never liked this Chad kid or any of his little brothers or sisters for that matter. He was too arrogant and confident for no reason. He wasn’t particularly smart or attractive but he acted like he was and for some reason it just pissed me off. The whole family had a social awkwardness about them that surrounded them like an aura. The people under the tent didn’t seem to notice though. They were just as bad. Yes, he was definitely in his element.
I was playing my favorite personal game of “find the flaw in the people around you” when the lights went out. I was pointing out to myself the fact that “missing tooth and no bra lady” had ugly shoes when the inside of the tent went completely dark. Everyone was dead silent. I’m normally not claustrophobic or afraid of the dark but I knew I was surrounded by people I couldn’t see.
A moment longer than was necessary but before people started to panic the lights came back on and everyone was instructed to take their seats so we could begin. Chad was only a few feet away when the lights came on but I could have sworn he was further away before. My brother Bubba was across the room looking lost.
The sermon was more than what I had seen at normal church. The words pouring forth from the pulpit were made louder by a scratchy public address system. The responses from the crowd often involved standing, jumping, crying and shouts of Ayyyemen. The message was more about Hell, damnation and the end of the world. The preacher didn’t just stand and read in a dignified way I was used to either. He was running, jumping and reaching toward the sky showing us the growing sweat stains in his armpits.
When it came time for the congregation to make its offering there was also more guilt behind the push to give. Luckily I was unmoved by guilt tactics. And broke.
We were instructed to put our offerings in the little envelopes that had been provided on the seats. We could write our names on the envelopes and ask for special prayers. I dropped the fifteen cents I didn’t know I had, sealed the envelope and wrote, Scooby Doo on the envelope. Just so it looked like I gave something.
Chad made a special show of writing out his family name on the envelop then took out a thick wallet and made sure we saw him place two twenties inside before sealing it. Wooden plates came around and I saw the less obvious benefits of our seating arrangement. For one thing the plates were passed from back to front so they started with us. This only mattered because as soon as the offering plates were out of sight Chad dropped to the ground rolled under the pew, under the wall of the tent and outside to freedom. I hated this kid but a good idea was a good idea. Bubba and I followed.
Once outside we broke into the bus. Not that it was difficult since, like seatbelts ands upholstery, locks were a luxury not necessary for the revival crowd. I layed down in the backseat and tried to take a nap while Chad rifled through the bus drivers things looking for cigarettes.
Not finding any smokes Chad turned to Bubba “Think any of these other cars have cigarettes in them?”
“No” I said sitting up and sounding more like my mother than I really wanted to. “You’re not going to go looking through other peoples cars. They’re probably locked anyway.”
“I can open a car door” he said in that smarmy condescending tone of his “ Come on Bubba let’s find a hanger”
From the loud speakers inside the tent I heard “Scooby Doo, Fifteen cents”. The crowd laughed uneasily. “Every cent counts” said the person reading off the contents of the envelopes. Not only did they expect us to give them money but they told everyone how much you gave. I’m glad I didn’t put our real names.
It was an hour or so before people started pouring out of the revival tent. I didn’t sleep but, instead listened to the casting out of devils and the special prayers of healing from inside the bus. It was a full forty minutes after that when Chad and Bubba returned form their excursion. They hadn’t found a hanger or cigarettes.
“I can’t believe you smoke. It’s dumb and bad for you” I told Chad totally ignoring the burglary part of his plan.
“My dad said your dad is dumb and that he’s an alcoholic” was his reply. He took out his wallet and took out the cash and put it in his front pocket before stuffing the wallet back into his back pocket.
This pissed me off. I didn’t want to agree with his dad on anything. I couldn’t let it go though.
“You know this is all fake, right?” Nobody really likes you they’re just pretending.
This question didn’t have the sting I intended. “You think I don’t know that?” he said. “Come on Bubba” He took my brother up toward the front of the bus leaving me to my thoughts. My thoughts of course were about how much I wanted to get even with this kid. I came up with fantasies that involved pushing him through the hole in the floor of the bus when I noticed a black square on the seat next to me. Chads wallet.
I grabbed it and stuck it in my pocket in case he realized it was gone and came back to look in the last logical place it could have been. The ride back home was taking longer than the ride to the revival took for some reason. This gave me time to come up with some sinister plan involving his wallet. I could use his drivers license for... but I drew a blank. He didn’t have a drivers license. I could take his credit card for.... Again why would a ten year old have a credit card? Come to think of it why would a ten year old even need a wallet at all?
I slunk a little lower in the seat so I could take the wallet and look for clues. We were still on the back roads so it was pretty dark but I could make out a drivers license and credit cards. I couldn’t believe it. That goody goody church boy had a fake ID! Well now I have a fake ID, I thought.
It was at that point the bus turned on to a real street and the headlights from a truck behind us gave me enough light to get a clear look at the wallet. Staring up at me was from a Missouri Drivers License was the face of Albert Eugene Wilcox. Nobody I knew but his name was right there.
The other slots of the wallet had a few credit cards, a variety business cards, a few receipts.... Maybe it was the hour of exhaust I had been breathing but nothing quite clicked. I put the wallet back in my pocket.
How did he get credit cards with a fake ID? That guy had to be fifty years old nobody would believe that was Chad. Then some part of my brain tired of me going down the wrong road of logic brought it together for me in a mental montage of pictures. The lights going out in the tent, Chad on the other side of the room by the time they were on again, Chad making a show of putting forty dollars in the collection envelope, Chad removing the cash and putting the wallet in his pocket...
The little fucker stole it. And he didn’t accidently leave it in the seat next to me either. He planted it next to me. It was obvious now. This little prince of the tent revival, this preachers kid was a psychopath. I would have to keep my eye on him. I would have to watch my back. I would have to try to pick up some tips.