Sunday, October 30, 2011

Church of the Living Dead

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Recently, fifteen-year-old Tabitha Dunkleman found herself sitting in Pastor O’Donnell’s office anxiously awaiting a decision on a request she had made. She was with her best friend Katie who also happened to be the pastor’s daughter. Tabitha hoped that would make a difference. If the pastor didn’t let her shoot in the church, there was no way she could make her short film.

Tabitha had only recently decided she wanted to be a movie director. And the kinds of movies she wanted to make were horror movies. She’d written a short script about zombies attacking a wedding called “Old, New, Undead, Blue.” She’d asked Katie to star in it because Katie was her best friend. The fact that her father also happened to have access to a church was a bonus. Now they just needed him to say yes.

“When did you want to do this?” O’Donnell asked.

“A week from Friday,” Tabitha said.

The pastor checked the church calendar. “Well, there’s nothing scheduled for that Friday, but the Humpleman wedding is in the sanctuary on Saturday, so you’ll have to make sure you leave everything the way you found it.”

Tabitha grinned and swore they’d be extra careful.

With their location secured, Tabitha spent the next ten days meticulously planning her shoot. On the designated Friday, the cast and crew gathered at the church after school. Tabitha had recruited a quiet boy named Ben from her art class to do the zombie make-up and effects. Tabitha knew that Katie thought Ben was creepy – he always wore black and drew bizarre pictures all over his notebooks. But creepy was just what Tabitha needed for her movie.

Ben had been at work all week creating a crucial prop for the film – a severed arm. When he unveiled it to Katie and Tabitha they both took an involuntary step back in disgust. “That’s not real, is it?” Katie asked.

Ben laughed. “Of course not. It’s made of latex and gel. I found a video online that showed how to create realistic body part props.”

Tabitha smiled. “This movie is going to be awesome.”

Ben began doing make-up on the actors who were to play zombies while the crew set up the camera and equipment. The crew consisted of two people – Tabitha and cinematographer Becky Goodhart, a twelve-year-old member of the church whose primary qualification was that her parents owned a top-of-the-line digital video camera.

It took longer than Tabitha anticipated to set up the gear, but they still finished before the make-up was done. Tabitha checked her watch nervously. She called Ben aside to ask what was taking so long. “It’s the little girl you got to play the ring bearer,” he told her. “Her dad’s made me redo her make-up three times.”

Tabitha had cast Sierra Smith, a five-year-old girl from the church, to play the part of a zombie ring bearer. Her father, Arthur, was certain Sierra would be a movie star some day. Either that or President.

At first, Ben had just dusted Sierra with powder to make her pale and smeared dark eye shadow under her eyes. But Arthur noticed how much gorier the other zombies were, and insisted Ben make Sierra similarly gruesome. So Ben added gaping wounds on her cheeks and forehead. But when Arthur saw this, he worried that when Hollywood agents saw the film, as he was sure they would, they wouldn’t be able to tell how cute Sierra was. So Ben tried to split the difference, but the result was neither horrific enough nor cute enough to satisfy Arthur.

“None of my books explain how to do make-up that’s both horrifying and cute,” Ben confided to Tabitha.

While Ben reworked Sierra’s make-up for a fourth time, Tabitha decided to shoot some of the scenes with the non-zombie characters. Katie was starring as the bride. She had convinced her boyfriend, Alex, to play the groom. The idea of dressing up in a wedding dress and marrying Alex in the church thrilled Katie, even if it was just pretend.

They began with a scene where the groom professes his love for the bride as the zombies close in. Katie was terrific, but Alex couldn’t seem to remember his lines. Or rather he remembered them, but never in the proper order. After fourteen takes, Tabitha suggested the two take a break so Alex could study his script some more. They were now two and a half hours behind schedule and hadn’t gotten a single shot. Tabitha was starting to worry that she wouldn’t even finish the film.

Tabitha went to check on the status of Sierra’s make-up. She was pleased to discover that Arthur had finally approved a look – basically the same pale, hollow eyed effect Ben had started with. They set up for the shot of the zombie ring bearer chowing down on the fake arm. Unfortunately, when Sierra saw the arm, she began to cry. It took half an hour to convince her it wasn’t real, and another half-hour to get her to pretend to bite it.

When they finally did get Sierra to chew on the arm, it was delightfully disturbing. Tabitha’s confidence returned in a flood – only to abandon her just as quickly when they tried a shot of Sierra shuffling up the aisle. Sierra did a very convincing undead shuffle, but could only go two steps before breaking into a giggle. Tabitha did her best to demonstrate a proper zombie moan, but it only made Sierra laugh more.

Tabitha decided to give Sierra a break and return to the bride and groom scene. She found Alex running lines with Ben. “How’s it going?” she asked.

“Great,” Alex replied. “Ben’s going to be the groom. He’s a much better actor than I am.”

Tabitha looked at her watch. She was almost four hours behind schedule. “Fine,” she said.

“So you’ll tell Katie, right?” Alex said.

“Why me?” Tabitha asked.

“You’re the director.”

Tabitha went to break the news to Katie. Her star was not pleased. “Ben’s a nerd!” Katie hissed. “Nobody will believe I’d marry someone like that.”

“They will because you’re such a great actress,” Tabitha replied. She was a natural at dealing with actors.

It took quite a bit more buttering up, but finally Katie agreed to do the scene with Ben. They got into position and Tabitha called, “Action.” At first it didn’t go very well. Ben was indeed a fine actor, but when he took Katie’s hand, she wrinkled her nose as though he were already undead. And when he went to kiss her, the rest of Katie’s face scrunched up just like her nose.

But then something happened. As the kiss lingered, Katie relaxed into it. When she and Ben separated, Katie stared at him slack jawed.

“Cut!” Tabitha yelled. “Katie, that’s your line.”

“Sorry,” Katie mumbled.

“From the top,” Tabitha ordered. “Action.”

This time, the romantic tension was electric. Tabitha got so caught up in the scene, she forgot to call cut until Becky nudged her. “That was amazing!” Tabitha shouted. “I bet we win awards for this film.”

When Ben went to put on zombie make-up for his next scene, Katie pulled Tabitha aside. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” she whispered. “Don’t tell Alex, but Ben is an excellent kisser. Alex is kind of… slobbery.”

Tabitha went to see if Sierra had gotten over her giggles. She found the little girl curled up on one of the pews asleep, using the fake severed arm as a pillow. “It’s an hour past her bedtime,” Arthur said apologetically.

“I guess we can cut that shot out of the movie,” Tabitha said with a sigh. Just when things were going so well.

Arthur apologized again and gently shook Sierra. “Time to go home, honey.”

Sierra climbed to her feet and staggered out into the aisle, her eyes glassy and half-closed and her mouth hanging open loosely. She looked just like the walking dead. “Start rolling,” Tabitha hissed to Becky. They got the shot.

It was now 11:00 p.m. and there were still several scenes left to shoot. Becky’s mom had come to pick her up, but Tabitha convinced her to let Becky stay a while longer by offering her the hastily added part of the bride’s mother.

They were setting up for the last scene, the tragic revelation that the groom had become a zombie, when Becky’s mom finally ran out of patience. She insisted Becky come home, but did agree to let the camera stay behind. Alex took over as cinematographer.

At 3:00 a.m. Tabitha finally sighed, “That’s a wrap.” Only she, Katie, Alex, and Ben were left to clean up. Tabitha was so exhausted she no longer cared whether the film was any good, she was just happy to be finished. Ben, however, was still full of energy. As Tabitha was making a final sweep of the sanctuary picking up props, he jumped out at her from between the pews, still in his zombie make-up, growling.

Tabitha was too tired to be startled, so she just chuckled.

“Is that how you react when the undead tries to bite you,” Ben said, pretending to pout.

“Better be careful,” Tabitha replied. “I might just bite back.” And then she kissed him.

A second later she pulled away, her face flushing. “I don’t know why I did that,” she stammered. “I guess… Katie told me you were a good kisser.”

“Do you agree?” Ben asked. Tabitha felt herself blush even deeper but couldn’t muster an answer. “Well, I think you’re a pretty good kisser,” Ben said with a smile and kissed her again.

“A-hem!” It was Katie. She was looking at them in utter shock.

Tabitha wiped Ben’s monster make-up from around her mouth. “We were just—”

“I saw what you were just,” Katie said. “Come on, I have to lock up and I’m tired.”

The filmmakers headed home for some well-earned sleep.

The next day Pastor O’Donnell was presiding over the Humpleman wedding when in the middle of his musings about the nature of commitment, someone let out a blood-curdling scream. It seemed the bride’s aunt had discovered the fake severed arm that had been forgotten under one of the pews.

Happy Halloween!


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Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Car Wash

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Recently, Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell invited a visiting African aid worker to speak at a potluck mission luncheon about her work with refugees in Uganda.

Pastor O’Donnell sat with his fifteen-year-old daughter Katie. As the presentation started, Katie felt a special kinship with the Ugandan victims of political oppression. After all, she was being forced to attend this snoozefest against her will. She would much rather have been at the movies or shopping or even doing homework. But her dictator of a father insisted she be subjected to the torture of tuna casserole, ambrosia salad, and a depressing slide show.

The tuna casserole and ambrosia salad were as tortuous as Katie expected, and the slide show was indeed depressing. But as the speaker told the stories of several African kids living in a refugee camp, Katie’s resentful attitude began to change. Halfway through the presentation, Katie felt silly for comparing her hardships to those of the unfortunate Ugandans. Though she doubted even they would’ve wanted the tuna casserole.

As the lights came up, Henry noticed Katie wiping at the corners of her eyes. “Are you crying?” he asked.

“Weeping with boredom,” Katie mumbled. She was not about to admit to her father how touched she was by the plight of those heroic kids. It would set a bad precedent for future mission luncheons.

The presentation was still gnawing at Katie’s mind during the youth group meeting that evening. The group’s leader, Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum, noticed how quiet Katie was. After the closing prayer, Michelle asked her if anything was wrong.

“I think we should do something to help the poor refugees in Uganda,” she said.

“What did you have in mind?”

“And don’t tell us you want to go to Africa,” interjected Tabitha Dunkleman, Katie’s best friend. “It’s way too hot there. I don’t like to sweat.”

Twelve-year-old Becky Goodheart rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s why we won’t be going to Africa.”

“I think we should have a car wash,” Katie answered, ignoring the other girls. “We can donate the proceeds to that woman’s organization.”

“What a compassionate proposal,” Michelle said. “I have to say, I’m impressed.”

“Well, we have so much. When we get a chance to help others, we ought to seize the opportunity.”

With that Katie and the rest of the group headed home, leaving Michelle to clean up.

They planned the car wash for a Saturday morning. Katie, Tabitha, Becky, and Katie’s boyfriend Joe showed up bright and early, ready to work. Michelle suggested they make signs to attract passing cars.

Katie labored over her sign, determined not to let the Ugandan kids down. She outlined every multi-colored letter in glue and glitter. She also drew a picture of Africa. Or at least she tried – Katie was no cartographer. The shape resembled a bunch of bananas more than a continent. Katie put so much care into the manufacture of her sign that by the time she was finished, the others had already lured in three customers and were hard at work washing.

It was a warm day and Katie wanted to get a little sun, so she stripped off her shorts and T-shirt to reveal the bikini she’d worn underneath. She stood at the edge of the driveway, jumping up and down with her super-cute sign and shouting at passing motorists.

It proved quite effective. Soon a line of cars was waiting for a wash. However, Katie’s enthusiastic dancing and scanty attire was also distracting poor Joe. It got so bad that at one point he accidentally hosed off Tabitha instead of the car he was washing. Tabitha expressed her displeasure with considerable vehemence. Joe could only stammer, “It was an accident.”

Tabitha released the poor hormonal boy from her verbal tirade and stomped over to Katie. “Maybe you should take a turn washing and let me hold the sign for a while,” Tabitha suggested.

Katie looked her friend up and down. Tabitha’s old jeans and T-shirt were dripping wet and stained with grime, and her hair hung in tangled strands around her face. “Listen,” Katie said as gently as she could, “you’re kind of all messy and gross. I don’t know if that image is going to appeal to potential customers. Remember, this is about the Ugandan kids, not us.”

Tabitha considered having her own “accident” with the hose, but she didn’t think it would reach all the way to the edge of the driveway.

About then, Pastor O’Donnell pulled in. He took one look at Katie and ordered her to put her T-shirt and shorts back on. “I won’t have my daughter jumping around on a street corner in her bikini,” he bellowed.

Katie sighed and rolled her eyes and mumbled something about “old prude” under her breath as she dressed. But O’Donnell was used to that kind of behavior from his daughter and barely noticed.

Instead, he surveyed the church parking lot in amazement. “Wow, this place is packed. I’m really proud of you, Katie. You too, Tabitha. So, which one of you is going to wash my car?”

“You have to wait in line, Dad,” Katie told him.

O’Donnell’s smile faltered slightly. He hadn’t counted on a line. He was supposed to play golf with the imam from the local mosque in an hour. But he wanted to support Katie’s newfound altruistic streak.

As he pulled into the line of cars, Katie nudged Tabitha. “You better get back to washing. People are going to get impatient and might leave. Remember the Ugandan kids.”

“I’m so proud of you,” Tabitha said, giving her a big, wet hug. Then she returned to washing.

It was a good thing, because neither Becky nor Joe were making much progress. Joe had been working on Henrietta Miggins’ big old Ford for an hour. Every time he thought he was done, Henrietta would point out several spots she claimed he’d missed, though Joe couldn’t detect any dirt where she indicated. And Becky was taking a break after getting lightheaded while cleaning interior windows. She had perhaps been a little too overzealous with the ammonia-based cleaning spray in the enclosed space of the cars. But Tabitha was an efficient washing machine. She could scrub the average car bumper to bumper in under ten minutes. At ten dollars a car, she was raking in a bunch of money for the cause.

Thirty-seven minutes after Pastor O’Donnell arrived, Tabitha finally got to his car. He watched her work, trying not to look impatient. As soon as she was done, he handed her ten dollars and hopped behind the wheel. “You might want to let that dry,” Tabitha suggested.

“No time,” O’Donnell replied. He hit the gas. As the car pulled away, it splashed through a puddle, spraying Henrietta’s car with mud. Joe sighed. Henrietta had finally declared him finished moments before. He went to get a new rag.

As O’Donnell sped down the street, he passed a man on a riding mower trimming a school lawn. It was windy, and a cloud of grass clippings wafted away from the mower and across the street. The pastor was unable to avoid driving straight through it. Hundreds of little green blades stuck to the wet car.

O’Donnell circled the block and pulled back into the car wash. “You were right,” He told Tabitha, “I should’ve let it dry. Can you hose it off again?”

“Sure,” she said. She got the hose and sprayed the car clean. “That’ll be ten bucks.” The pastor opened his mouth to protest that a simple hose down wasn’t worth full price, but before he could speak, Tabitha added, “You know, for the Ugandan kids.”

The pastor forced a smile as he dug out his wallet.

Two hours later they closed the car wash. Tabitha, Joe and Becky cleaned up the buckets and rags while Katie helped Michelle count the money. They were just finishing up when Pastor O’Donnell pulled back in, his car covered in dust. As he got out, an exhausted Tabitha looked at him with one eyebrow raised. “Can you wash it one more time?” he asked. “They were doing construction by the golf course.” He held up a ten dollar bill. “Please?”

Tabitha sighed and refilled her bucket with soapy water.

She was about done when Katie called, “Hurry up, Tabitha! We want to take a group picture.”

Tabitha clenched her teeth and wiped down the pastor’s car with exaggerated care. Katie fixed her with an impatient stare, but that only made Tabitha move slower. Finally she strolled over to join the others.

“About time,” Katie snapped. “How’s my hair?”

Tabitha studied Katie through the wild, muddy strands of her own bangs. “Perfect. Nobody would ever know you spent the whole day working at a car wash.”

“Good,” Katie said. “Boy, I’m beat. It’s hard jumping around with a sign and smiling for so long.”

As they were getting in position for the photo, Tabitha asked Pastor Michelle how much money they’d raised. “Three hundred and twenty dollars,” she replied. “I’m very proud of you kids.”

Katie beamed. “It’s so rewarding to do something good for the world, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Tabitha admitted. She realized that she was in a surprisingly happy mood despite her sore muscles and drenched, dirty clothes.

But it didn’t stop her from holding up her fingers like rabbit ears behind Katie’s head when Pastor Michelle snapped the photo.


I've published a new Little Church Stories book!  It's called L.O.L.: Little Old Ladies and collects eighteen stories from the blog about Henrietta Miggins, Ceila Simmons and Betsy Davis.  You can order it in hard copy or as an e-book at