Looking back on it, Daniel should have realized that the ad was purposefully misleading.
It was a small but well-placed ad, in the lower right hand corner of page one of the Sunday entertainment section of Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
It read “Hell or the Fiery Embrace: The Choice is Yours.” The font was bold, and almost looked like it was dripping blood. “Today. 11 am. Laemmle’s Claremont 5” was written in smaller print below a picture of what looked like the evil doll from the Chucky movies.
Later he found out the picture wasn’t Chucky at all, but Jesus on the cross. What Daniel had mistaken for Chucky’s blood scars, was in fact Christ’s crown of thorns.
Daniel was eating his usual breakfast, in his usual booth at the Denny’s on West Foothill Boulevard. He set down his Moon Over My Hammy, pushed his orange juice glass to the side and took a closer look at the ad.
He considered himself a connoisseur of horror films. From classics like Psycho through the Nightmare on Elm Street movies to all seven installments of Saw, Daniel was an expert on gore-filled, blood-soaked films.
But he had never heard of “Hell or the Fiery Embrace.”
He glanced at his watch. It was all ready ten thirty, but Laemmie’s was only a ten minute drive from the Denny’s. Since he had the day off from Payless with nothing better to do, Daniel paid his waitress, Lola, for his breakfast and headed to the theater.
There were only three cars in the parking lot when Daniel pulled in at 10:45. He got out of his Honda Civic and started hesitantly towards the theater.
The front doors were held open with large, cross-shaped doorstops. As he stepped inside the lobby, he noticed the banner draped over the snack counter. It read “The Fiery Embrace of Christ’s Love Ministry. All Welcome!”
It was only then that Daniel realized that the Fiery Embrace was a church, not an obscure horror movie.
As he turned and quickly walked toward the parking lot, a voice rang out.
“Welcome to The Fiery Embrace, my friend!”
Daniel came to a sudden stop beside a life-sized cardboard cutout of Jesus Christ. His heart was pounding as he turned around.
A tall man with long dark hair and a beard was walking toward him. In fact, Daniel noticed, the man looked an awful lot like the cardboard Christ standing next to Daniel, minus the robe and sandals. And cardboard Jesus wasn’t holding a pack of cigarettes.
“Welcome!” the man repeated when he got closer. “We’re so happy to see you.”
Daniel took a small step backwards, inching closer to the open door.
The man stuck his hand out and smiled. “I’m Pastor Sebastian.”
Daniel reluctantly shook his hand.”Daniel Collins,” he said to the tacky red carpet.
“It’s wonderful to meet you, Daniel.” Pastor Sebastian removed a cigarette from the box and put it in his mouth. He held the open package out to Daniel. Daniel shook his head and the Pastor put the cigarettes in his shirt pocket.
“It’s an awful habit, I know,” he said as he pulled a lighter engraved with the Christian fish symbol out of his pants pocket. “I’m trying to quit, but I get nervous before a service. The nicotine calms me down.”
The pastor lit his cigarette, took a long drag then pointed towards one of the theaters with the glowing tip. “The service is in Theater Three. We thought that was appropriate…you know, for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
Daniel just blinked. He wanted to run.
He hadn’t been to church since his mother had dragged him at age fourteen to an Evangelical revival held in the parking lot of the bowling alley near their house. The traveling minister had set up folding chairs in front of his ice cream truck turned church-on-wheels. The side of the truck where you would have ordered your ice cream sandwich or cone had been converted into a fold out stage, complete with a pulpit.
Daniel and his mother had sat in the back row. The minister, a short man with long stringy hair the color of an old pair of socks, had pounded his fists and yelled at his congregation for over three hours. A bored looking, dumpy woman sat behind him, underscoring the minister’s passionate discourse with sound effects from an electric keyboard set to mimic an organ.
About halfway through the service, people began to rise up in their seats, waving their hands and crying out nonsense words. Daniel’s own mother had clamored over him into the aisle, only to fall down on her knees and pray on the thin plastic tarp that covered the pavement.
When the minister wrapped up his sermon and walked off into the bowling alley for a beer, the congregation slowly calmed down and looked around them, like they were waking up from a dream. The women straightened their skirts and the men retrieved their baseball caps from under the chairs. They disappeared into the night, like the revival had never happened.
Only Daniel’s mother remained on the ground, on her knees waiting for Christ to come and stand before her.
It had taken Daniel another hour to get his mother on her feet and back to their house. He had never attended a church service again.
Pastor Sebastian blew smoke toward the front door and Daniel watched longingly as it floated out into the parking lot. “Go right on in. I’m sure the rest of the congregation would love to meet you before the service.”
Daniel started to tell the pastor that he had no intention of staying, that it was all a misunderstanding, but then Pastor Sebastian patted him kindly on the shoulder. With that one gesture, Daniel was acutely aware of just how lonely he really was and suddenly he didn’t want to return to his empty apartment.
Instead he walked across the lobby and opened the door to Theater Three.