2nd Place – October 2019

Forest Avenue Ascension

by

Gary Christenson

I concluded my radio interview exposing a dishonest televangelist. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the ugly truth. There was no miracle, healing, or enlightenment. What you heard was nothing more than old-fashioned greed, lies, sleight-of-hand, and lighting tricks. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. This is your skeptical debunker, Adam Hamilton, signing off from station KXYZ in St. Louis.” I clicked the microphone switch and smiled. Another charlatan exposed.
I enjoy writing articles and doing radio shows that debunk Elvis sightings, phony miracles, and hundreds of other stupid things Americans believe.
***
At home, arthritis forced me to massage pain relief cream into my deformed fingers and enlarged knuckles. Agony in my knees reminded me I needed more pills. The doc had warned me rheumatoid arthritis was a life sentence. I popped double the recommended dosage, but still lived with constant pain.
My phone rang. The caller ID showed my friend, Daniel McComber. “Hey Dan, what’s new?”
“I’ve got a good one for you, Adam. This’ll get your juices flowing. Interested?”
“Yes, tell me. No, let me guess. Blue skinned aliens beamed down from their mother ship and marched into the White House. Or, a welfare mom gave birth to quintuplets and refused to make millions from the television rights. A researcher proved smoking cigarettes cures lung cancer. Am I getting warm?”
 “Adam, you’re an asshole. Drop the cynicism and be happy for a change. Now, do you want to listen, or continue your rant?”
“Sorry. Arthritis is a bitch. Anyway, what’s your story?”
“Fancy a trip to Detroit?”
“Nobody goes to Detroit willingly. What’s the deal?”
“In one of the poorer sections of Detroit, the Virgin Mary appears every night in a parking lot. Locals sell tickets. A Detroit newspaper ran the story. You should jump on it before the networks grab the headlines.”
“The Virgin Mary, huh? Let me guess, good costuming and bad lighting?” My skepticism alarms flashed bright red.
Daniel said, “Nope. According to the story, and I’ll email it to you, she descends from the clouds, speaks to the audience, and then ascends. The article quotes people who claim she cured diseases, alcoholics turned sober, smokers quit smoking, and she changed lives.”
Never pass up a good story. “Let’s go to Detroit and get the goods on this scam. I’ll pay your expenses if you help me.”
“Deal. I hear Detroit is nice this time of year.”
“Cut the crap and send me the link. I’ll book tickets and we’ll fly out day after tomorrow.” I hung up, and paced, one painful step after another, thinking I might promote this into a national byline.
My computer beeped. I read, ‘The nightly attraction on Forest Avenue isn’t the drug dealers, panhandlers, or car-jackers. Instead the Virgin Mary descends into a fenced parking lot and speaks to the faithful. Yes, you’re suspicious, as you should be in today’s fake news world. But this reporter paid his twenty bucks, attended a Mary session, as the locals call them, and left a wiser man. I expected a scam. Instead, she sent chills up my spine and communicated wisdom. Maybe it was hypnosis, but I left convinced I had experienced a miraculous event. Go see for yourself.’
Well, maybe. I researched apparitions, holograms, Mary sightings, and religious miracles. Then I gathered equipment and booked two tickets.
***
I asked the cabbie driving us to the hotel what he thought about the appearances.
“I ain’t seen the Virgin Mary, but my sister-in-law went last Tuesday. She told me it was amazing. I asked for specifics and she clammed up. Whatever happened, she wouldn’t talk about it.”
I asked, “You plan to go yourself?”
“Nope. Don’t like churches. The suckers who believe in that nonsense can spend their money there.”
I solicited opinions from waitresses, bellhops, and the bartender in our hotel. They agreed, “I’m not going into that neighborhood and besides, I don’t believe in miracles.”
Over an early dinner Daniel and I discussed plans and took an Uber to the parking lot where Mary appeared. We wandered around, chatted up the locals, watched the entrance, and prepared for the nightly scam.
At eight that evening, we stood in line at the gate. The bald scary monster collecting money had a broken nose and huge muscles.  I held up a twenty and asked, “Where’s the best viewing?”
He glared at me, snatched my twenty, and said, “Anywhere you want to see a miracle. Next.”
Daniel stood five people behind me, paid his money, and sauntered to the other side of the lot. An old lady with black skin and white hair sat on a folding chair in my row and smiled at me. A flabby Hispanic woman kept two children under tight control. Others glared at me, an outsider. The audience was predominantly women. Three men sat rigidly in the back. I picked them for undercover FBI agents.
I carried a sensitive meter that detected energy changes when ghosts are present. Several infrared and visible light cameras would record the show. Daniel activated radio-frequency instruments. We sat on folding chairs and waited, expecting a flashy con job.
Half an hour later visitors filled every chair, and another hundred stood in the back. A hush fell over the crowd, the air turned dark and turbulent, and something emerged from the chaos. Seconds later the shape clarified into a stunning 3D image of what others claimed was the Virgin Mary adorned in a long white robe. A blue sash cinched her waist. Her sandals matched the sash.
“Be still my children. Tonight, I offer you peace and serenity. Life is difficult, but if you open your hearts to universal love, you can live in harmony with both God and man.” Her luminous eyes gazed at us. She stood eight feet tall and hovered above the concrete. The surrounding air shimmered. Her flowing robe swayed in the night air. I thought her face showed kindness and girl-next-door beauty.
“Many of you dwell in bitterness and cynicism. You do yourself a disservice. Expect miracles. The world is mysterious and amazing. Faith in God is essential if you want to live a satisfying life.”
Her voice was honey-smooth, and her eyes stared deep into my heart. The pounding in my head left me weak.
Breaking eye contact, I scanned the parking lot. Fifteen feet above the concrete on a wooden electric pole I saw a device that might be a holographic projector. I zoomed in and snapped pictures of it. I scanned the lot for evidence the Mary appearance was a scam.
She spoke for another 20 minutes. Several hundred people in the lot listened, entranced. No one whispered, lit a cigarette or took a drink.
To my surprise, I felt elated as she floated upward and disappeared. The crowd filed out in total silence.
***
A day later, after examining the video, infrared, and radio frequency data at our hotel, I couldn’t prove the Virgin Mary appearance was a scam.
Daniel and I returned for another performance. As before, Mary descended into the parking lot and floated in front of us. I don’t remember most of her words, but she spoke directly to me. Her presence electrified the air.
I listened. My heart hurt from the pain of ancient bitterness while my gut churned, full of anger and denial. When she finished speaking and ascended into the night sky, I sighed and felt both exhausted and spiritually transformed.
***
Back home in St. Louis, I wrote the article describing our data and explained how a holographic projector could have created the Virgin Mary image in the Detroit parking lot.
It was a good article, but I delayed sending it to my editor.
***
A week later I still held it. Unanswered questions nagged at me. What if she was the real deal? How does she heal people’s lives? Does it matter if the Virgin Mary arrives via hologram or descends from clouds like at Fatima a hundred years ago?
I stewed on the problem, but several days later I understood.
My hands were no longer deformed, fingers pointed straight, and my knees didn’t burn with every step. I hadn’t gobbled a pain pill in five days. Somehow the Mary sessions healed my rheumatoid arthritis and my spirit. Gratitude filled my heart for the first time in decades.
I rewrote the article and smiled. The Virgin Mary who descended into the Detroit parking lot revealed a beautiful truth and changed my life. I flexed my pain free hands and knew I was a child of God.

Writers’ workshop and writing group