The Witnesses

Edward Belfar

David Mellin was his real name, but we all called him Melon Head.  Junior had hung that cartoonish moniker upon him on the very first day of camp for good reason, in our view.  With a massive ovular head resting uneasily atop a chubby little torso, Melon Head looked like a cartoon character.  He had pale, almost translucent skin, with a smattering of freckles around his cheekbones, and yellowed, misaligned teeth, the upper incisors protruding  from behind his lip.  His allergies kept his nose running constantly.  Having fallen victim early on to a spate of towel-snapping attacks, he avoided the shower as much as possible, and he smelled like a hamper full of dirty laundry.  His red hair had a greasy sheen, and his neck was ringed with grime.  His voice, which had yet to break, would rise to a squeak when he became excited, and a white froth would appear at the corners of his mouth.

Even if Junior had not made a point of telling us, we would likely have guessed that Melon Head was one of the several charity cases whom Junior’s father, Big John Beam, the owner of the Hope Valley Christian Ranch and Camp, allowed to attend for free.  The frayed hand-me-downs that Melon Head wore hung on him like sacks.  His sneakers had broken laces and sometimes flew off his feet when he ran.  Melon Head’s father, Junior told us, was a deadbeat alcoholic who had vanished some years before and left the family with nothing.

No one wanted Melon Head around, but when, during our occasional free time, we would wander up and down Salvation Street, the camp’s main drag, we would always see him waddling along a few steps behind us.  He had to calibrate his pace just so, for if he caught up and tried to insinuate himself into our midst, he would almost certainly get a kick or a blow from Junior, the maker and enforcer of all our rules.  One day, Junior picked him up and stuffed him into a trash can.

Salvation Street was a broad dirt road bounded by plank sidewalks and single-story wood-fronted structures with hand-painted signs in front, a place where we could picture ourselves facing down a gang of outlaws, as Marshal Dillon of Gunsmoke would have done.  In those surroundings, the sight of Melon Head peeking out from the trash can where Junior had deposited him made us howl with laughter.  Even little Bobby Pfeifer, who had on occasion—usually not in Junior’s presence—shown Melon Head a bit of ordinary kindness, joined in the merriment.  In our bunkhouse that night, after lights-out, we were chortling still, while Melon Head hid himself beneath his blanket.  His muffled sobbing, though, would keep some of us awake.

Now and then, someone would mutter about Junior having gone “too far,” but we never dared say so to his face.  While Big John was our bunk’s nominal “Shepherd,” or counselor, he did not lodge with us as the other Sheperds did with their charges, and in practice, he left the task of keeping us on the strait and narrow to Junior.  At thirteen, a year older than most of us, Junior stood nearly six feet tall, and he could have tossed anyone who angered him enough from one end of our bunkhouse to the other.  He had a long, angular face with a complexion like porcelain and eyes of a glacial blue, and his stiff bearing and brush cut gave him a military presence.  Whether on horseback or foot, he could easily outrace all of us, could hit a softball twice as far, and swim laps around us in the pool.  In archery, he alone could hit the bull’s-eye with any consistency.  He loved to talk about the collection of bows, crossbows, shotguns, and deer rifles he had at home and the 12-point buck he had bagged the previous December in the Tri-Valley Wildlife Area.  Owing to his father’s acquaintanceship with the Cincinnati Reds’ equipment manager, Junior had gained entry to the team’s clubhouse, and a framed, autographed photograph of the pennant-winning 1972 squad hung on the wall above his bunk.  What he kept hidden beneath his mattress—a stash of tattered Playboy and Penthouse magazines—impressed us even more.  After lights-out, he would sometimes allow us glimpses by flashlight at the forbidden pictures, charging us a dime per view.  Melon Head, however, never got a look, even on those rare occasions when he had a dime to spare.

“Sorry, I don’t have any Playgirls for you,” Junior would snicker.

Junior made us swear never to speak of the matter outside the bunkhouse, for his dad, he said, would kill him if he ever found out.  Excited as much by the secrecy and the oath-taking as the glossy images, we willingly parted with our dimes.

#

Among us, however, there must have been a Judas—or so we thought at the time.  In retrospect, it seems just as likely that Big John may have learned of the forbidden magazines another way.  A ubiquitous presence throughout the camp, he scarcely bothered to conceal his eavesdropping, and he had staff keeping tabs on us as well.  Sometimes, we would return to the bunkhouse to find our belongings in disarray.

Whatever the case, one sultry afternoon, while we, the Witnesses, battled the Disciples, our arch-rivals, in a softball match, Big John came barreling down the grassy slope behind home plate and onto the field.  Junior froze mid-windup atop the pitcher’s mound, his torso bent forward and his pitching arm extended behind him.  A wiry, bow-legged man with a square head and a face as tanned and weathered as his cowboy boots, Big John stood at least half-a-foot shorter than his son.  But Junior seemed to shrink as he backed off of the mound, while Big John, now standing atop it with his shoulders raised, his neck bulging, and his chin jutting forward, looked to us like a colossus.  When Big John whacked him twice across the face with an open hand, Junior meekly hung his head.  He stumbled forward as Big John yanked at his t-shirt and began to drag him away.  By the time father and son had reached the top of the slope, the t-shirt was halfway off.

The next time we saw Junior, at dinner, he had a red blotch across the left side of his face and a nascent black eye.  We pretended not to notice.  To acknowledge his humiliation, even with a show of sympathy, we sensed, would amount to an offense that he would not likely forgive.

Most evenings, except Sundays, Big John led Bible study classes after dinner, either in the dining hall or, on occasion, by a campfire.  He had small group sessions throughout the week and a mass gathering on Friday nights.  That day was a Friday, but when dinner concluded, Big John announced, “Bible study for the Witnesses only.”

As Big John approached our table, Junior vacated his customary place at the head and slunk down to the other end, seating himself directly opposite Melon head.  Big John sat down and opened his Bible, a tan, faux-leather King James with a large cross embossed on the front cover.

He began solemnly: “1 Corinthians 6:18. ‘Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.’”

Setting the Bible down on the table, he asked, “Now what does that mean?  Do any of you know?”

We shook our heads, averted our eyes.

“Well, it can be a little confusing.  So what we have to do is look to the next verse, 6:19.  Do you remember that one?  We talked about it a couple of weeks ago.  In 6:19, we see the body described as a temple, the temple of the Holy Ghost.  So taken together, what are those verses telling us about fornication?  Anyone?  No?  They’re telling us that when you fornicate, you desecrate that temple.  You sin not just against yourself but against God.  Do you understand now?”

With nods and murmurs, we sought to signify that we did, though few if any of us had ever heard the word fornication before.

“DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!!”

The sound of Big John’s massive fist crashing down upon the tabletop nearly dislodged us from our chairs.

We would learn much about the consequences of fornication that night—though not the actual definition—for the Bible has many verses on the subject, and Big John seemed determined to explicate all of them for us.  He shouted, pleaded, windmilled his arms, stood up and paced, then dropped to his knees and clasped his hands in front of him.  By the end of the first hour, our initial terror had given way to boredom, and we, too, were praying, albeit in silence, that he would release us, for the dining hall felt like an oven that night and reeked of sour milk.  While the rest of us fidgeted, Junior sat rigidly in his chair, glowering at Melon Head, who did not dare meet his gaze.

Typically, Junior dominated the nighttime conversation in the bunkhouse.  That night, though, he lay silently in his bed, his rapidly swelling left eye buried in his pillow.  All attempts at conversation faltered, until Ronald Stupe, who occupied the bunk beneath Junior’s and usually sat by his right hand at mealtimes, said, “How about those Reds?  Seven in a row.”

Relieved to have something to talk about on which we could all agree, we tried to outdo one another with our praise of the Reds.

“They’re going back to the World Series this year for sure.”

“And this time, they’re gonna win it.”

“In four straight.”

When Melon Head chimed in, though, Junior cut him short: “Whoever snitched on me is dead meat.”

The words could have applied to any of us, but Junior’s eyes, fixed upon Melon Head, had already pronounced the gruesome sentence that he would carry out on the bridle path the very next morning.

#

The thud we heard when Melon Head fell from his horse and hit the trail face-first had some of us struggling to keep down our breakfasts.  We all dismounted.  The first to reach him was Bobby Pfeifer.  Bobby tried to help him to his feet, but he drew back when Melon Head struck out at him.

“Leave me alone!” Melon Head screamed, and in his turbid, clouded eyes, we saw an accusation.  “I hate you.  I hate you all!”

On wobbly legs, he rose without anyone’s help.  Blood poured from his nose and mouth, and a crimson stain spread over the front of his white t-shirt.  His right sleeve was shredded, and so, too, was the skin up and down his arm.  He staggered off down the trail, and we stood and watched until we could no longer see him.  Junior shrugged and reached for the reins of his horse.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Bobby said to him.

“What are you talking about?  I didn’t do anything to him.”

“You yanked him right off his horse.”

“You little liar.  I never touched him.”

“It looked like the horse stumbled,” said Ronald Stupe.

“Maybe it stepped in a rut or something,” added Junior.  “I don’t know.  It’s not my fault if he can’t control his horse.”

“Bullshit,” muttered Bobby, and he spat in the dirt.

“Oh, so you’re calling me a liar?” said Junior, cocking his fist.

“I know what I saw,” replied Bobby, but the quaver in his voice suggested that that certainty would not endure.  “Everybody else saw it, too.”

The August air, buzzing with gnats, had become thick enough to choke us.  We fidgeted, kicked at the dirt, looked away.  Nobody said a word.

Junior climbed back onto his horse.  Ronald Stupe then mounted his, and in short order, we resumed our ride as if it were just another morning on the bridle trail.

When Big John questioned us that evening, Junior and Ronald again pinned the blame on Melon Head’s horse and horsemanship.  Holed up in the infirmary, Melon Head could not speak on his own behalf, and by that time, nobody could say for sure quite what had happened.  Even Bobby now conceded that Melon Head’s fall had happened too quickly to afford him a clear view, though his face flushed as he spoke.

Whether or not Big John believed us, he said no more on that subject.  He still had much to tell us about fornication, though—another two-and-a-half-hour’s worth.  Weary and sweaty, we slumped in our chairs—except for Junior, who again sat at rigid attention—and when called upon by Big John to read or respond, we did so mechanically.

By the following morning, the turbid flesh around Junior’s left eye had turned a lurid purple, and his mood had become uglier still.  During a pickup basketball game on the concrete outdoor court, he twisted his ankle after grabbing a rebound and fell hard onto his side.  Spurning the hand up offered him by Ronald Stupe, he rose under his own power, picked up the basketball and fired it at Bobby Pfeifer, who was standing some distance off and facing the opposite way.  The ball stuck Bobby on the back of the right thigh and nearly knocked him over.

“That’s what you get for tripping me.”

To everyone’s shock, Bobby flung the basketball right back at him.  It hit Junior in the gut, and he doubled over.  Still stung by the memory of our cowardice the previous day, we quickly formed a protective cordon around Bobby.  For a moment, Junior looked ready to charge anyway, but then he picked up the ball and stomped off toward the basket at the far end of the court, where he began shooting foul shots.  Ronald Stupe soon joined him.

All memory of that unpleasantness would be expunged, however, less than twenty-four hours later.  We were two runs behind the Disciples and down to our last out, when Junior belted a prodigious three-run home run to deliver us a victory.  As he crossed home plate, we swarmed him, locked him in a team embrace, basked in his reflected glory.  He was our Shepherd once more.

When Melon Head returned from the infirmary, he had a bandage covering much of his chin and another on his right elbow.  His nose and right arm looked as though someone had given him a going over with coarse sandpaper, and his crusted upper lip resembled an overinflated balloon.  No longer did he follow us around when we went wandering on Salvation Street during our free time.  Instead, he shrunk back when approached, avoided eye contact, and spoke to us, if at all, in monosyllables.  On occasion, we would see him down by the tool shed at the far end of Salvation Street, the domain of the singing handyman, landscaper, and jack-of-all trades whom we knew only as Alvin.

“He better hope my dad doesn’t see him there,” muttered Junior.

Earlier in the summer, we had often gravitated to the tool shed ourselves, drawn by Alvin’s wistful tenor voice and the frisson of the forbidden.  The tool shed was our weekday church, and Alvin’s unaccompanied rendering of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” could move us more than any hymn that we sang in church on Sunday.

One day, though, Junior had said to us, “My dad doesn’t want us going down to the tool shed anymore.”

Nobody had thought to ask why.

Melon Head was absent at the start of our first small-group Bible study session after his return from the infirmary.  Three times—with steadily increasing volume—Big John called his name.

“Where is that kid?  Did he forget there was Bible study tonight?”

“He’s probably down by the tool shed with Alvin,” volunteered Junior.

“He goes there a lot,” added Ronald Stupe.

Big John’s voice rumbled through the mostly empty dining hall: “What?  Who gave him permission?  What’s wrong with that boy?  He’s been nothing but trouble since the day he arrived.  Johnny, you go bring him back here.  This instant!”

Junior dashed for the door.  About twenty minutes later, he returned with Melon Head and Alvin in tow.

A stocky, salt-and-pepper-haired man of indeterminate age, his light-brown skin rough and mottled like that of a potato, Alvin had a droopy right eye and a mouth that tilted downward to the right.  When he walked, his right leg dragged behind him.  As far as we could tell, he owned but one article of clothing: a pair of grime-covered blue overalls that he wore without a shirt, no matter the weather.

“It seems that one of your flock got lost, Mr. Beam,” said Alvin, grinning.

He gave Melon Head an affectionate pat on the shoulder.

“Lost, huh?  Was he down by the tool shed with you?”

Big John’s question sounded like an accusation.

Melon Head gazed at the floor.

“Just for a little while.  I said to him, ‘Shouldn’t you be at your Bible study or dinner or someplace?’  We were already on our way up here when we run into your son.”

“I told the boys not to bother you when you’re working, but sometimes, telling them isn’t enough.”

“He don’t bother me at all.  He just sits quiet while I do my work.”

“Well, the tool shed is not where he belongs.  And the next time you see him heading down your way, you ask him where he does belong, and you take him there.  Is that clear?”

“Got ya, boss.”

“Did you re-caulk around the showers yet in the Bethlehem bunkhouse?  It’s a mess in there.”

“Right, boss.  First thing tomorrow morning, boss.”

“And check the showers in Jericho, too.  This place is falling apart.  I don’t know what I’m paying you for.”

“You ain’t hardly paying me nothing at all,” Alvin muttered, as he shuffled toward the door.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, boss.  Just thinking out loud.”

“Thinking is my job.  Yours is to do as you’re told.”

Big John pointed a pointing a gnarly index finger at Melon Head.

“And you.  You grab a chair and sit down, and you don’t get up again until I say you can.  I need to have a talk with you when we’re finished here.”

As the rest of us filed out onto Salvation Street, Junior said, “I bet he’s in for it now.  My dad’s gonna tear his head off.”

He sounded almost giddy at the thought, but then his face darkened.

“And when he’s done with Melon Head, he should fire Alvin.  That lame-ass never does a lick of work.  Who does he think he is complaining about his pay?”

Though to all appearances, Alvin worked ceaselessly, day and night, none of us saw fit to argue the point.  All the way back to the bunkhouse, Junior dragged his right foot in the dirt, in a crude imitation of Alvin’s labored gait that only Ronald Stupe found amusing.

The next evening, Big John kept us after dinner for another small-group Bible study session, though it would normally have been the turn of the Good Samaritans.  Melon Head sat glumly by the wall, at some distance from the rest of us.  When Big John beckoned him to move closer, he pretended not to see, and when called upon to read, he remained mute.

“Did you hear me, son?  I asked you to read.”

“I don’t want to,” Melon Head replied sullenly.  “I don’t believe in God anymore.”

Jaws dropped all around the table.  Big John had gone red in the face.  His neck bulged as it had on the day when he had slapped Junior around, and his right cheek began to twitch.  He drew in a breath, held it for several seconds, and then slowly let it out.  The exhalation seemed to carry his anger off with it.  He looked sorrowfully at Melon Head.

“You don’t mean that, son.  I know you don’t.  Is it Alvin who’s been filling your head with that nonsense?”

“No.  I made up my own mind.  Alvin still believes in God, just not the same…”

“Not the same what, son?”

Melon Head did not answer.

“Not the same what?”

Big John’s neck began to expand again.

“Son, I was like you once.  I had a defiant spirit.  When I was bad, my daddy would send me out to the yard to bring him a switch to punish me with.  One day, I thought I would be smart. I brought him a little three-inch twig.  He just smiled.  Didn’t say a word.  Went out into the yard and came back with the biggest, nastiest switch I ever saw.  When he finished with me, I couldn’t sit down for three days.  After that, when he told me to bring him a switch, I brought him a switch.”

Closing his Bible, Big John dismissed all of us except Melon Head.

“This time, he’s really in for it,” said Junior.  “He’s gonna get the belt.”

We were already settling into bed for the night when Melon Head entered the bunkhouse.  His eyes looked as if he had been crying, and his shambling gait was that of an old man—or of a boy who had had the fear of God beaten back into him.

“I bet my dad gave you a good whipping,” said Junior.

For once, Melon Head looked him directly in the eye.

“He didn’t touch me.  He wouldn’t dare.  My mom would sue him if he ever laid a finger on me.  He’d go to jail.”

Junior’s mouth constricted, and we feared an explosion.  But then he cackled.

“Do you know how much lawyers cost, mama’s boy?  Your mom couldn’t afford one.”

“She would find a way.”

“How?  By walking the street?”

Some of us laughed raucously, some nervously, and a few, not at all. To Melon Head, though, we must all have sounded the same.  His body sagged like a deflating balloon.

At lunchtime the next day, Melon Head had just set his tray down on the table, when Junior, in passing, gave him a whack on the back of the head with an open hand.  The blow sent Melon Head tumbling forward, his face splashing down in his bowl of beef stew.

“Oops,” said Junior.  “I guess that’s another lawsuit.”

It was then, finally, that Melon Head snapped.  Grabbing the knife from his tray, he lunged at his tormentor.  Had Junior not taken a glance back over his shoulder or had he lacked the reflexes and hand-eye coordination that served him so well on the ballfield, the knife might well have pierced his neck instead of opening a gash across the back of his left hand.  Junior and Melon Head tumbled to the floor, upending the table and everyone seated around it.  Trays, cutlery, plates, and glasses flew every which way, splattering all in the vicinity with beef stew, fruit salad, juice, and chocolate milk.  Though bleeding badly, Junior had pried the knife from Melon Head’s hand and flipped the smaller boy onto his back.  He pummeled Melon Head mercilessly until Big John caught him in a bearhug and pulled him away.  Purple-faced and bug-eyed, Junior struggled mightily to tear himself free, but big John would not let him go.

“That’s enough, Johnny.  Let him be now.”

At last, Junior stopped struggling.  When Big John released him, he crumbled to the floor, wheezing.  A few feet away, Melon Head lay supine, his nose and mouth bloodied again, his t-shirt Hi-C red and beef-stew brown.

“I hate God.  I hate God.  I hate God,” he sobbed.

#

For a couple of days, our bunkhouse buzzed with expectation.

“It’s gonna be juvenile detention for Melon Head,” said Larry Lampson.  “I’m surprised the police haven’t come already.”

“That kid needs a straitjacket,” said Ronald Stupe.  “He’s not right in the head.”

“And if they ever let him out,” added Junior, “which they shouldn’t, they’ll probably put him in foster care.  That’s what they do with kids whose parents can’t raise them right.”

All that happened, though, was that Big John moved Melon Head to Gethsemane, the Disciples’ bunkhouse, where, according to Junior, he had to sleep on a cot in the passageway leading to the bathroom.  To us, Melon Head’s punishment seemed unaccountably mild.  But then, as Bobby pointed out, Junior had instigated the trouble, and Big John had not seen fit to punish him at all.  The whole matter confused and troubled us.  One afternoon, as we waited for the dining hall to open for dinner, several of us were shooting baskets on the outdoor court.  Casting a wary eye at Junior and Ronald, who were absorbed in a game of horseshoes some distance away, Bobby said, “Everything here is so twisted.  Up is down, and black is white.  here.  We don’t worship God or Jesus here.  We bow down to Big John and Junior.  I’m counting down the days till I can get out of here.”

He was not the only one.  A malaise spread among us.  With an injured and surly Junior reduced to the role of coach, we lost both games of a doubleheader to the Good Samaritans by identical 10-1 scores.

“You guys looked like you were running in wet cement,” Junior growled.

In the bunkhouse, two consecutive days of heavy rains had us sliding on the linoleum floor.  Water had begun to drip from the ceiling soon after the outset of the storm, and we no longer had Alvin to set things right, as he had throughout the summer.  Big John, Junior told us, had “let his lazy ass go” at 11:00 p.m. the night before the storm commenced, giving him a half-hour to gather his belongings and vacate the premises.  With the tool shed locked and Big John unable to locate a key, we could not even procure a bucket or a mop.

The rain ended, but neither the change in the weather nor the prospect of the summer’s final campfire could shake us from our lassitude.  The night that Big John had chosen for the fire was gray and starless, and the day’s heat still hung in the sodden air.  Led by Big John, we trudged out to the firepit beyond the softball fields, swatting vainly at the squadrons of mosquitoes that attacked us without mercy.  Much to our surprise, the recently banished Melon Head had rejoined us, though he hung back a few steps as he had throughout the summer.

Before long, Big John had the fire roaring, and we sat down in a circle with him in the center.  Already stifling, the heat soon became unbearable, but the fire did little to deter the mosquitos.  We scratched and clawed at ourselves, paying scant attention to the verses from the Gospel of Mark that Big John read to us.  After a while, he set the Bible down in his lap and beckoned Melon Head to join him in the middle of the circle.

Melon Head approached warily.

“Come on, son.  I don’t bite.  Good.  Now, have a seat, right here next to me.  You know, sometimes, my voice gets tired from reading the Bible out loud so much, and I think it would be nice to have someone else take over.  So how about it?  Right here.  Mark 11:25.”

This time, Melon Head did not refuse.  He still looked ill at ease, though, and he rushed through the verse: “’And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any.’”

“Slow down, son,” said Big John.  “There’s a whole lot packed into that little passage, but it all gets lost if you read it like that.  Let’s try it again.  And this time, say the words like you mean them.”

Melon Head’s second attempt, though less hurried than the first, suffered from a similar lack of expression.  Still, it earned him a pat on the back and a “much better” from Big John.

Father and son then exchanged a look, and Junior, his left hand wrapped in a bandage,  also came forward into the center of the circle.  Melon head looked alarmed to see Junior standing over him.

“Son,” Big John said to Melon Head, “this boy whom you hurt, whom you could have killed but for the grace of God…This boy whom you wronged so grievously has come to offer you not his fist but his hand, not revenge but forgiveness.  The greatest gift that one human being  can give another.  And nobody asked him to—not me, not you.  He told me, ‘Dad, I’m not angry at that boy anymore.  I’m worried about him.  I want to help him get right with God.’  Do you want to get right with God, son?”

Melon Head, hunched forward, stared at his shoes.

“Well, do you?  Or are you so hard-hearted that no one can reach you?”

“No.”

“Look at me, son.  Are you even sorry about what you did to him?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s a small step in the right direction, even if it’s like pulling teeth.  But I’m not the one you need to apologize to.  Let’s see you stand up like a man and tell the person you’ve wronged that you’re sorry.”

Melon Head rose slowly.  Junior held out his right hand, but we saw no forgiveness in the scowl on his face or in his cold, glinting eyes.  Melon Head reached out hesitantly.  He grimaced as Junior’s large and powerful hand closed around his much smaller one.  Only when Big John interposed himself between the two boys did Junior release his grip.  Junior and Melon Head exited the circle in opposite directions, the latter still grimacing and shaking out his right hand.

“When we think of miracles,” said Big John, his voice booming like thunder over the deserted ballfields, “we think of things that happened a long, long time ago.  Great things, amazing things.  We think of Moses parting the Red Sea.”

Big John spread his arms wide like Charton Heston in The Ten Commandments and closed his eyes for a moment.  His whole body seemed to vibrate.  Sweat poured down his cheeks.

“But there are other kinds of miracles that are not so big or so spectacular,” he continued, more softly now.  “The kinds that still happen today.  What you have witnessed tonight, right here in our little circle, is every bit as much of a miracle as the ones described in the Bible thousands of years ago.  It’s the miracle of forgiveness.  It’s the miracle of grace.  It’s the miracle of God’s love for all of us.”

When he resumed, his voice rose again to a shout.

“God’s love is the supreme love.  It’s the love that heals our wounds, that ends our strife, that lifts from us our burdens.  Do you feel those burdens lifting?  Do you?  Do you?”

Round the circle he went, posing the question to each of us.

“Yes,” we all answered.

Big John gazed heavenward and lifted his arms above his head.

“Feel that divine lightness, that warmth, that love.  Feel it!”

“I feel it,” cried Ronald Stupe, waving both his fists in the air.

All of us did.  In an instant, the gloom that had so oppressed us in recent days had vanished like a passing fog.

“Amen,” shouted Junior.

“Amen,” we echoed in unison.

Edward Belfar is the author of the novel A Very Innocent Man, published by Flexible Press in 2023, and a collection of short stories called Wanderers, which was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press in 2012. His fiction and essays have also appeared in numerous literary journals, including ShenandoahThe Baltimore ReviewConfrontationNatural Bridge, and Tampa