by Kathryn O. Umbarger
"Maybe you’d like to post this for me, Sarah?" Mrs. Tennyson said as she held out the list of cast members for the Easter play.
Sarah bounced so high on her toes, I thought she’d tip over as she grabbed the paper and buried her face in it.
"Yes!" she squealed. "Yes, yes, yes! Mary Magdalene. Thank you, Mrs. Tennyson."
But Mrs. Tennyson was gone.
"So?" we begged. "What about us?"
The Easter play was a very big deal. Besides one final hymn, it took up the entire sunrise service. So there we were—Courtney, Jenna, Sarah, and me, Becky—four sixth-grade girls waiting for Mrs. Tennyson to announce the cast.
Sarah held the list close and scanned it again. "Becky . . . Becky and Jenna—angels at the tomb. Oh, Philip is Jesus. Roman guards: Russell, Kevin and Adam. Courtney, here you are—in the choir of disciples and citizens, along with Carol, Alicia, Paul, Kyle and . . . Marianthi Mekas! Oh, no!" She groaned. "Not Mekas Freakas again!"
I cringed, hoping nobody heard. Marianthi was Mrs. Tennyson’s 10-year-old granddaughter. Mrs. Tennyson was not only the church pianist and play director, but she was also my neighbor. Marianthi visited often. My mother explained that Marianthi was one of those special children who would always be a child.
Sarah clenched her teeth. "If that girl messes me up—"
"Hey," Courtney interrupted, "nothing could be as bad as the Christmas pageant."
She took the list from Sarah and tacked it on the bulletin board.
"Poor Courtney," Jenna sympathized. "You finally got to be Mary, and your baby brother was the perfect Jesus. Then old, floppy-eared sheep Marianthi—"
"Almost grabbed him right out of the manger!" Courtney finished, looking straight at me. "You were her shepherd. You were supposed to hang onto her!"
I looked at the floor. I thought about how sweet Marianthi was. She was never mean, but all I said was: "She only wanted to touch him. She thought he really was the Baby Jesus. Marianthi is just different."
"She causes problems," Sarah insisted. "Like shouting, ‘What about the cow?’ all through the little kids’ song."
My face burned as Jenna added, "They better have a grown-up in charge of her this time. How come her mother doesn’t help?"
I’d heard my mom and Mrs. Tennyson talking lots of times and knew that was a real sad spot for Mrs. Tennyson. Marianthi’s mom didn’t go to church anymore, but I didn’t say it.
We built the sets in the Tennysons’ garage. Jenna and I worked on a giant piece of cardboard for the tomb. Mr. Tennyson cut huge tabs around it. We bent them back and taped them for the cave’s sides, and hung a black cloth at the entrance to hide Jenna and me until our scene.
Mr. Tennyson designed a handle for Jenna to pull to roll the stone back and forth across the entrance. My job was to remove the cloth and switch on a light to show the radiance from the angels. Philip’s dad painted the cardboard so it looked 3-D.
The boys repaired the cross from last year. It had a step for Philip to stand on. Then they practiced putting Philip on it, swinging it upright on its industrial-size hinge and getting him down again.
During rehearsals, Sarah, Jenna and I saw little of the choir, since our scene was the resurrection and they took part in the court and crucifixion scenes. But Sarah didn’t stop worrying about Marianthi.
So when Marianthi missed final dress rehearsal Saturday afternoon, Sarah was delighted. "If she’s sick today, she won’t be able to come tomorrow."
I wanted to say it was sad because Marianthi loved to sing, but I didn’t. Sarah strutted off, pretending to weep as she recited, "Who will roll away the stone for us?"
A chilly rain fell Easter morning, but the church was a flurry of costumes, last-minute instructions and people asking, "Where’s Mrs. Tennyson?"
My mom rounded up the choir kids to warm up their voices. Philip’s dad checked the microphones, speakers and props.
Jenna’s mom stationed two kids at the doors with programs, and Philip and Russell got the other guards and Pilate into their places. Kevin’s mom closed her cell phone, saying, "There’s no answer, so Mrs. Tennyson must be on the way."
Jenna and I concealed ourselves in the tomb and waited. I could see the left half of the room and most of the stage.
Pastor Jim waited, restless like everybody else, craning his neck as if looking at the door would make Mrs. Tennyson appear.
At last the back doors swung wide and in strode Mrs. Tennyson, followed by—I almost bonked my head on the tomb—Marianthi’s mom! And Marianthi.
I wondered how Sarah would react, then remembered she was in the side room, waiting her cue to enter with JoHelen, the other Mary. Sarah wouldn’t even know Marianthi was here.
Marianthi took her place with the disciples, without her costume, and the play began.
Pilate read his lines perfectly; the citizens sang an angry-sounding "Crucify Him" song; the disciples sang a sad song; and Jesus was led to the cross.
The soldiers bound him to the cross and lifted it up.
Jesus said his last words, "It is finished." As lights dimmed and Jesus’ head drooped, nobody moved. I felt tears in my eyes. I’d never been so close to it all.
When the soldiers lowered the cross, a single low moan arose in the audience, a sad sound like I’d never heard before.
Russell whispered nervously, "Hurry up and untie him, Kevin."
Philip climbed off the cross, and they pretended to carry him to the tomb. I pulled off the curtain, Philip crawled through and Jenna rolled the stone shut. Philip escaped out the back as the narrator said, "The Sabbath passed, and it was the first day of the week."
The forlorn cry rose, sadder. The lights came up like the dawn, and I saw who it was. Marianthi had risen to her feet. Her hands covered her mouth. Her face was stricken.
I barely breathed. "Jenna, Marianthi thinks it’s real."
Jenna whispered back, "Here come Sarah and JoHelen. Uh, oh. Sarah just saw her. She stopped. JoHelen’s poking her."
After a long pause, Sarah began, "Who will roll . . . ?"
But her line was lost in the rolling boom of the bass drum as the sound of the earthquake came too soon.
Terrified by the noise, Marianthi stumbled forward onto the stage, where she stood, bewildered and sobbing.
"Where is Jesus?" she cried. She went to the cross and stroked it. Her voice squeaked in agony, "Where is my friend Jesus?"
She came toward the tomb. I couldn’t see her now, but the whole cave shook as she tried to pry away the cardboard stone.
Jenna realized that she had missed her cue to roll away the stone and cranked the handle as the drum boomed again. Marianthi screamed and dropped to the floor, covering her head with her arms.
"Becky! The light!" Jenna commanded. I switched it on. Light shown out of the tomb onto Marianthi.
I couldn’t stand her misery any longer. I walked out of the cave and knelt beside her. "Marianthi, it’s okay." She looked up, her eyes swollen and red. She didn’t recognize me.
"Beautiful angel," she pleaded. "What did they do to my friend Jesus?"
"They killed Him on the cross," I explained as gently as I could. "And they put Him in the tomb. But, Marianthi, He’s not dead anymore."
Jenna came out, too. On our knees, we showed her the tomb. Jenna put her hand on Marianthi’s shoulder and went right into her lines. "Don’t be afraid. We know you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified."
"He is not here," I continued. "For He has risen, as He said."
"Go now, quickly, and tell everyone," Jenna added.
Marianthi was unsure. "He’s not dead anymore?"
I shook my head. "He’s alive."
Marianthi looked all around. I was suddenly aware of the microphone, the speakers and the congregation watching us. Even the babies were still.
Marianthi’s small voice sounded clearly through the sanctuary. "Then where is He?"
"Here," I pointed. "In your heart."
"In my heart." Marianthi smiled through her tears. Then she scrambled to her feet, threw up her hands and whooped, "He’s alive!"
She danced down the aisle to her mother.
The congregation erupted in applause. Mrs. Tennyson’s fingers ran all over the keyboard as we sang the final hymn.
I caught Sarah’s eye and she gave me a double thumbs-up. Then she and JoHelen came on stage, followed by Philip and the other boys, the stage crew and choir to take our final bow.