By John Thomas Tuft

(In my current work in progress, THE NIGHTCROSSER, our hero Josh Sparrow, after a SWAT sniper shooting gone tragically wrong, is on the run with Jodie, the pregnant wife of a mobster, and they find refuge in a small mountain town where Josh must pass for the new minister of the community church. Early on he finds himself sitting by a campfire with the enigmatic Billy, who has some wisdom to share with Josh):

The night sounds of the woods composed a chorale of insect songs, small animals rustling, tree frogs harmonizing, gently carried on a breeze off the lake. The campfire burned on the rocky beach, the cool mountain air quickly drying our soaked clothing. “What were you thinking?” asked Billy, shaking his head at the recollection of getting my foot unjammed from the rocks as the cloudburst caught me in the open in a dry creek bed. “I thought I could jump over it,” I shrugged. “Thanks, by the way.” “Couldn’t let the new preacher drown like a rat, now could I?” Billy flashed his easy smile. “I don’t know anything about the faith,” I confessed. “What’s there to know?” replied Billy. “It’s the God Cult. You don’t need faith to run a church, you need to be a prop master.”

“The God Cult?” I wondered whose absurd idea it was to bring me here. “Yeah,” he said. “Cults have a superhero, somebody at the top. You’re supposed to worship him, listen, do everything that makes him happy and prosperous, right?” I shrugged, “I suppose.” He continued, “Is that all written down somewhere?” His eyes reflected the sparks from the fire. I reached into the Preacher Bag Jodie gave me as a joke earlier that day. I pulled out a Bible. “Prop number one,” Billy declared. “You can hold it over your head, wave it around, thump on it, open it and point to magic words to back up the cult, and so on and so on. They’ll love you for that.” He pulled out a flaming stick from the fire and pointed with it to the book. “Or” and he waved the stick toward the flames. “It’s just an object.” I ran my hand over the cover, took a deep breath, and heaved it into the fire.

He studied me with unwavering eyes. “What else you got in your preacher kit?” I rummaged around and pulled out a small wooden box. It opened to reveal a small plate, little glass bottle and a few small cups. “Ah,” mused Billy, “the 3 in 1 Oil of the God Cult. “ He stopped to chuckle at his own joke. “Memories and spirits and ghosts and invisible prayers, all live inside that little box. Made to look like breadcrumbs and fermented fruit. For the God Cult you have to be able to look very serious and be a good actor. Can you pull that off, Preacher? Make the invisible visible? Corral the furthest reaches of the imagination into a vaudeville act? Tall tales told well to the perishables in the pews? Big, big job.” I snapped the box shut and pitched it into the fire.

“Keep going,” he urged. I reached in and extracted a small wooden stand. In the middle a cross was fixed, gleaming with polish. To one side was a tiny American flag and on the other the flag of the God Cult. “Well, isn’t that just precious!” Billy scoffed. “Preacher, let me tell you. I was the sniper in a Marine Scout platoon. We went rockin’ and rollin’ through Iraq. I have 43 confirmed, if you catch my drift.” He nodded toward the set and his voice went soft. “I was protecting my buddies, my kind. God and Country. Sacrifice and service.” He took the set and held it up to examine it closer. “Your Dear Leader’s boy got himself killed. Now every clubhouse has one of those or it can’t be in the God Cult. They’re all props.” And into the fire it all went.

We sat for the longest time in silence after that, watching and listening. I heard him heave a deep sigh. “What now?” I whispered. As he got to his feet, he said, “One of the strangest things about the cult is that they all are convinced God gets furious and then disappointed if He doesn’t hear from them at least once a week about how great He is. That they have to tell Him every day how they would never make it without Him, or what? His feelings get hurt? He’s that much of a narcissistic bore?” I reached into the preacher kit and took out the shiny worship songbook and into the flames it flew. “Lookie there,” Billy cried. “Now, that’s a fire!”

The night settled in around us. The fire died down to a few glowing embers. “Now what?” I asked. Billy came and stood before me, his eyes inches from mine. “What do you have left?” I picked up the bag and shook it. “Nothing. It’s empty.” Something funny happened in his eyes. I’ve never been real sure just what, but it happened as he said, “Check again.” Reluctantly I undid the tie and searched around inside in the darkness. Something cool and hard touched my hand. I pulled it out. In my hand was a small mirror. “It’s enough,” chuckled Billy as he turned to go. Then again, over his shoulder, “It is enough. Try to keep up.”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.