Mickie’s Stars

The following story is called Mickie’s Stars. It is one of eleven that appears in my short story collection, Southern Bones. It is also one of my wife’s favorite stories. If you like Mickie’s Stars and would like to read more of Southern Bones, you can get an autographed print copy by clicking on the link at the end of the story. If you have any questions, please leave a comment at the end of the story and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Thank you for reading Mickie’s Stars. I hope you enjoy it.

A.J. 

MICKIE’S STARS

Mickie looked up from her sandcastle, the archway almost complete, two pieces of broken twigs from the parking area holding it up.

Across the way, a little girl cringed as an adult yelled at her. The man had dark hair and an angry face, his eyes like black marbles surrounded by splashes of red and white. He yelled something Mickie couldn’t quite understand. But the tone … the tone she understood all too well. He wagged a finger at the little blond-haired girl with pigtails dangling to either side of her head. She wore a one-piece bathing suit, pinks and purples with dots of yellow. One foot was clad in a similarly colored flip-flop; the other one was bare. The girl looked as if she wanted to crawl inside herself and hide; just disappear from the world altogether, especially from the man with the angered face and thick pointing finger.

Mickie stared, not meaning to, but doing it just the same—instinctive, her mom would say. Others would argue she was rude and the proper thing to do was to look away, to go back to whatever she was doing (in this case, playing in the wet sand on the edge of the ocean, building castles the tide would wipe away by evening). Staring was something Mickie was used to. So many others—children and adults alike—gawked at her brilliant white skin littered with stars of many colors. Yellows, blues, greens, reds, oranges all clung to her flesh in shapes with many points—not just five like the hand drawn stars kids learned how to trace when they are in pre-school, but circles with tiny points jutting out in all angles. Real stars.

The man pulled one of the girl’s pigtails hard enough to jerk her head to the side. She toppled to the ground and landed on her hip. Mickie heard her scream and saw tears streaking from her reddening face. The man reached down and grabbed the girl’s foot, yanked off the lone flip-flop and stomped over to a trashcan. He tossed it in, and then glared at the little girl.

“Now get out of my sight.”

Mickie glanced around the beach. Several people watched the events unfold, but none of them intervened. A few of them shook their heads and whispered to one another, but when all was said and done, they turned away, some of them moving their blankets or chairs further down the beach. Mickie stood and went to her mother, a brown haired woman with tanned skin and tattoos lining her body, very much in the same manner Mickie’s stars did.

“Momma,” she said. “Why isn’t anyone helping that little girl?”

Momma looked up from her book—one of vampires and romances Daddy found to be nauseating. She lowered her sunglasses, showing Mickie her brown eyes—motherly, caring eyes. “They’re afraid, sweetie,” she said, her voice soft and smooth. “And when people are afraid they often do nothing.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Sometimes,” Momma said, lifted her sunglasses to cover her eyes and went back to her vampire novel.

Mickie nodded, then walked back to her sandcastle. She drew lines on the arch and began to dig the mote that would surround it. A mote in medieval times were said to keep dragons and ogres and giants at bay. And armies wishing to conquer the kingdom of the good king and queen and all of their royal subjects. She read that somewhere, or maybe it was read to her, but she remembered the stories, and the mote was important to the survival of the kingdom (even though Mother Nature was going to wipe them out anyway). It was the barrier, the invisible force field, as her younger brother would say. “You have to have an invisible force field It keeps the bad guys away.”

She glanced up every once in a while, pulling herself from the construction of her doomed castle. The girl stood by herself, staring out at the ocean. Mickie wondered what she thought, if she hated the man who had yanked her pigtail and tossed her flip-flop in the trash. The girl looked her way, and quickly diverted her eyes.

Mickie stood, walked over to the girl. “Hi,” she said. “Do you wanna play with me?”

The girl looked up, her face still red and tear-stained. She shrugged.

“It’s okay,” Mickie said. “I know I look different, but I’m not going to hurt you like your dad did.”

The girl’s brow furrowed and her frown deepened. “He’s not my dad,” she said in a whisper.

“He’s not?”

She shook her head.

“Who is he, then?” She had always been curious about things. Those same people who would say she was rude for staring would say she was nosy, as well. Mickie searched the beach, looking for the man the girl came with. She spotted him talking to a young brunette in an orange bikini, her breasts barely able to fit within the top. The woman laughed and touched the man’s arm.

“He’s my mom’s boyfriend,” the girl said.

Mickie nodded. “Is that your mom?”

The girl turned, shook her head from side to side.

“So, do you wanna play with me? I’m building a sandcastle.”

“I don’t know,” the girl said and looked at her bare feet. “Brent might get mad at me if he sees …”

Mickie knew that pause, the awkward silence as someone tried to pick and choose her words.

“It’s okay,” Mickie said. She watched the mother’s boyfriend flirt with the brunette. His hand rested on her back now, touching skin Mickie had a feeling he shouldn’t be touching. “I’m not a freak. I just look different. And, really, I don’t think Brent is worried too much about you right now.”

The girl nodded, shrugged again. “Okay,” she said.

Mickie smiled. Her teeth were as bright as her skin. “I’m Michelle, but everyone calls me Mickie.”

“My name is Allison.”

They walked to the sandcastle, sat in the wet sand. “I’m digging a mote around the castle,” Mickie said. “You start over there and we’ll meet in the middle.”

And they dug, two girls, a couple of years apart in age, one barefoot with pigtails, the other an oddity even to her mother.

“What’s wrong with your skin?” Allison asked.

Mickie looked up to see Allison staring at her. It was a typical question, to which she gave her typical answer. “I don’t know—it’s always been this way. Since I was a baby. Mom says I’m special, that the stars are there for a reason.”

“What’s the reason?”

It was Mickie’s turn to shrug. “I don’t know, but I like them. It makes me …” she paused, unlike the awkward breaks in sentences people gave her, but a thoughtful one where she was looking for the right word to describe herself. “It makes me unique.”

“Unique?”

“Different. Not like anybody else.”

Allison smiled. “I wish I had stars on my skin.”

“Do you think it would make Brent like you?”

Allison looked down, then at the ocean. Birds swooped from the sky, chatting with each other before flying up again. The tide was coming in. Another couple of hours and the water would be at their feet; another hour after that and the castle would be only a memory.

“So, how deep should we dig this mote?” Mickie asked.

“How deep do you want it?”

Mickie put one hand up, held her thumb and first finger as far apart as they would go. “This deep.”

“Okay.”

Allison drove a yellow plastic spade into the ground, placed the sand into one of the pails. They did this for a short while, working their way around the mote, the minutes becoming an hour before they knew it. Mickie looked up. Allison’s face was a mask of determination. Though her tears had dried, there were still tracks on her dirty skin.

“So,” she said, “why was Brent so mad at you?”

The girl stopped digging, and looked up at Mickie, one side of her mouth turned down. She shrugged. Mickie thought the girl probably shrugged a lot, unsure of what to say more often than not. “I lost my flip-flop.”

“He got mad about that?”

Allison nodded, scooped out another spade full of sand. “He gets mad about a lot of stuff. He’s not very nice.”

“Are you going to tell your mom what he did?”

Allison looked up from the mote, her eyes large. Her bottom lip trembled slightly. She suddenly stood out against the backdrop of the world around her, a three-dimensional image on a flat surface. “Oh no,” she said. “That would be bad. Besides, Mom is scared of him—he hits her when he’s mad.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

It was Mickie’s turn to look out toward the ocean, her thoughts dashing in and out of her mind in colorful blurs.

“Mickie, your stars are glowing.”

“Yeah, they do that,” Mickie responded, but failed to add they only did it when she was thinking about how to handle something; how to deal with a judgmental world where the strong dominated the weak. She had seen it so many times. Bullies beating up smaller kids, their parents just as belligerent and angry as their offspring. The gawkers who didn’t know how to take the odd little girl with the light red hair and impossibly white skin … and the stars—the countless stars along her body. They often acted out of ignorance or fear (mostly fear as Momma had told her many times before, though it contradicted her statement of people doing nothing when scared. For Mickie, she thought it was the other way around: they react more violently out of fear than when all was right in their world).

“Why?”

Mickie thought for a moment, then simply said, “I don’t know. I’ll be right back.”

She got up and walked over to Momma.

Momma looked up from her book when Mickie tapped her on the foot. “Yes, Mickie?”

“Can I go get my doll box?”

Momma lowered her sunglasses again, her light brown eyebrows lifted. “Why?”

Mickie pointed to Allison. “I want to make her a doll.”

“Why?”

“Allison doesn’t have any friends. I want to make her a special doll.”

Momma gave her a small smile. “I don’t see why not.” She handed over the car keys and lifted her sunglasses over her eyes. “Make sure and lock the door back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mickie hurried to the car, unlocked the front door. She reached in, grabbed the pink box—a caboodle, Momma called it. She flipped the lock button on the door and slammed it shut. Mickie started to run back to the beach, but stopped when she saw a purple and pink flip-flop lying near a car. She knelt down, picked it up and smiled.

“Hey, Allison,” she yelled as she reached the beach. Absently, she dropped the keys in Momma’s lap and continued running to the sandcastle and the little blonde girl digging the mote. “Look what I found.” She held the flip-flop up and watched as Allison’s eyes grew and a smile stretched her face—something Mickie was certain she didn’t do often.

“My flip-flop,” Allison said and stood. She took it and slid it on her foot. “Where was it?”

“In the parking lot,” Mickie said. “Let’s go get the other one.”

Allison shook her head, “If I leave the beach and Brent finds out, he’ll whip me.”

Mickie’s shoulders sagged. The excitement of finding the lost flip-flop faded as fast as it had arrived. “I’ll go get it,” she said, keeping the enthusiasm in her voice. She went to the trashcan near the changing booths. Kids played in the outdoor showers, rinsing off saltwater and sand. One of them whined, “Jeffery got water in my eyes.”

The flip-flop was in the trashcan, a white Styrofoam cup on top of it, ice and soda spilled out from its open lid. With thumb and first finger she lifted the flip-flop from the trashcan and held it at arms length. At the showers, she pressed a chrome button with the word PUSH on it. Water sprayed from a nozzle above her. As she rinsed off the flip-flop, the boy she assumed was Jeffery sat on a bench, his arms crossed, bottom lip jutting out. His mother fussed at him for being mean to his little brother. Behind her back, the little brother stuck his tongue out at Jeffery.

“Now you tell Dennis you’re sorry,” she said.

“But I didn’t do anything,” Jeffery argued.

The slap to his leg brought tears from the older child. Dennis smiled in what could only pass as satisfaction.

“Do as I said,” his mother snapped.

Jeffery stood, apologized and rubbed the angry red handprint on his leg. His mother turned and comforted the little boy, his deception rewarded. An indigo star glowed on Mickie’s left arm. It pulsed, sending shivers down into her fingertips.

Mickie knelt down, opened the pink caboodle and flipped through various pieces of thread and cloth, Popsicle sticks, buttons and markers until she came to a clear box. Inside sat several stick figures made from colored toothpicks. Their heads were small beads glued on. She lifted out a yellow stick figure and a black marker. On the brown head she wrote the letter D. She closed the caboodle and walked up to Jeffery, who sat on the bench as his mother and Dennis went inside a changing booth.

“That sucks,” Mickie said.

Jeffery looked up, said nothing at first, then spoke, “What do you want?”

“I saw what your brother did. It’s not fair you got into trouble like that.”

“Whatever.”

“Here,” Mickie offered up the stick figure.

“I don’t want that,” he said. “Only girls play with dolls.”

“It’s special,” Mickie said. “I made it just for you.”

Jeffery took the doll, looked at it. “I don’t want it,” he said and tried to hand it back.

“It’s yours. I made it for you.”

“You don’t even know me, you freak.”

And it was out. Freak. The word used to describe her most of her life. She took a deep breath and bit back the rising anger. The boy was mad, as well, but not at her. He was just lashing out. That’s what she told herself, at least.

“I’m not a freak,” she said. “I just wanted to help you.”

She took the doll back and started away.

Jeffery caught up to her and grabbed her arm. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just mad I got in trouble, again. for doing nothing. Sometimes I hate him.”

“Hate him? Really?” A smile creased her face. “If this were your brother, what would you do?”

With no hesitation, “Break his arm.”

“Do it, then,” Mickie coaxed. “Break his arm.”

“What? Are you crazy? I can’t do that. I’ll get me in more trouble than I’ve ever been in.”

Mickie shook her head. “No, Jeffery,” she said. “Break the doll’s arm. It might make you feel better.”

This time his lips stretched up, his brows lowered. He took the doll from Mickie and stared at it. He started to break it in half, but Mickie stopped him.

“No,” she said. “Only break one arm. You can’t break the rest of it.”

“Why not?”

“You just can’t.”

“Okay, whatever.” With no effort, he snapped the right toothpick arm in half.

“Feel better?” she asked.

“Yeah, I do. Can I break the other arm?”

“No,” Mickie said and put out her hand. The indigo stars dazzled along her skin. Jeffery’s eyes grew distant, as if he stared beyond her and out into the ocean. “Now, give it back.”

Jeffery handed the doll back to Mickie, broken toothpick and all. Mickie turned, put it back in her caboodle and left him standing there, confusion in his eyes.

Mickie went back to the beach, the indigo star no longer shimmering. She sat down beside Allison and set the flip-flop on the ground. Allison had finished the mote and had begun working on outside towers in the shapes of pails.

“Here’s your flip-flop,” Mickie said.

“Thank you,” Allison responded, slid the flip-flop on her foot and wiggled her toes. “What’s that?” she then asked.

“It’s my doll box.”

“Doll box?”

“Uh huh. I make dolls. Would you like me to make you one?”

“Yeah.” Enthusiasm, strong and real, showed in Allison’s eyes, in her smile, the way she nodded her head like a puppy waiting for a treat, tail wagging hard enough to shake its butt from side to side.

“I get to choose the type of doll, okay?” Mickie said.

“Okay.”

Mickie gazed out at the ocean, at the way the waves crashed onto the beach. The afternoon was waning and the water grew closer and closer to the sandcastle. Her stars began to glow, soft at first and then brightly.

“The waves are coming in. Soon, the castle will be destroyed.”

Allison screwed up her face, her jaw hanging slightly. “Huh?”

Mickie opened her caboodle. She pulled out several Popsicle sticks and markers and a small Styrofoam ball for the head. A bottle of glue followed and she began to put the parts together. As she pieced the legs to the torso, the water began to lap at the edges of the mote.

“Can I help?” Allison asked.

“Sure. Hold these two pieces so I can glue them in place.” Allison held the two Popsicle sticks apart and Mickie picked up the small glue bottle. She put one clear dot in the center and helped Allison put the legs together, forming a V.

“How long do I have to hold this?” Allison asked.

“Not too long—this stuff dries fast.”

Mickie put another dot on the torso, handed it to Allison who put it on top of the V, making it look like an upside down Y. The arms followed. Mickie reached into the caboodle, rummaged around until she found one of Daddy’s nail punches—a small instrument that looked like a pen made of steel. She drove it into the Styrofoam ball and then set it on the Popsicle figure’s neck. 

“Your stars are shining,” Allison said.

Mickie glanced at her skin. They were glowing brighter than before, the tips sparkling, the centers almost completely white. She said nothing at first. Instead, she pulled out a marker, handed it to Allison. “Draw a face—Brent’s face.”

Allison scrunched up her nose. “Why him?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Just because.”

“You sound like Mommy.”

The water began to wash over the mote, pushing against the castle’s walls. When the tide went out, it pulled beach sand with it.

Allison drew an upside down U for a mouth. She had one dot in place for an eye when the growl came.

“Allison!”  

Mickie looked up just as Brent reached them. His eyes were two pieces of hot coal set deep in their sockets.

“What are you doing with this freak?” Brent grabbed one of Allison’s arms. She screamed and dropped both the doll and pen.

Mickie’s stars glistened in the sunlight, the colors nearly completely gone from them. “I’m not a freak,” she snapped, her eyes narrowed.

“Watch how you talk to me, freak girl. I’ll smack you into next week.”

“Do it,” Mickie said, her lips a thin line dividing her face.

Brent stared long at her, but Mickie held her ground. After a moment, he turned his attention back to Allison. “Why are you wearing those flip-flops?”

“They’re mine,” Allison said, her voice almost a whisper. Tears had begun to fall down her face again.

“I threw one of them away. Did you dig it out of the trash?”

“No, sir, I—”

Brent’s hand connected with Allison’s face, a quick slap that clearly caught her off guard. A stinging red mark appeared where his fingers had struck. “Your momma’s on the way to pick you up. You just wait until I tell her you’ve been rummaging in the garbage like a street person. You’re a filthy, nasty little girl.”

“And you’re a mean old man,” Mickie said. She picked up the doll and the pen. She finished the eye as Brent yelled at her about minding her own business and kids like her ended up in jail or worse—dead.

“Are you listening to me?” he yelled.

“No,” Mickie said flatly and wrote his name on the Popsicle stick that made up his torso.

Brent released Allison and knelt down beside Mickie. He grabbed her by the top of the head, lifting her eyes to meet his. “I should knock your teeth down your throat, you little brat.”

Mickie smiled. The stars on her body turned pink, then red. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she dropped the doll into the courtyard of her sandcastle. The waves tickled her toes and ran over the tops of her feet as the stars changed color again, going from red to purple to blue. She closed her eyes and then opened them. Brilliant green irises stared out at Brent, and then she was falling. She landed at the back of the sandcastle, crushing one of the mighty walls she had built. But, the mote remained intact.

Her eyes cleared and Brent towered over Momma. Her face was a mask of rage, a finger poked out at him. She yelled. He yelled back. Behind them, Allison scooted through the sand on her bottom.

A woman ran from the parking area, brown-haired and tanned, not so much like Momma, but enough to have a light brown hue to her skin. She called for Allison and the little girl with the pigtails and pink and purple flip-flops with yellow dots on them, stood and ran for the woman. She was crying and saying something about Brent being mean.

Mickie scooped a handful of sand from the ruined castle wall and packed it around the Brent-doll’s legs. Brent—the man—growled and slapped Momma across the face. The crack of hand on cheek sent her to the ground. Several people watched as the altercation took place. Scared, Mickie thought. And when someone is scared, they often do nothing.

She stood and ran to Brent. He towered over Momma with his hands balled into fists. Momma rubbed her jaw. A trickle of red slid from her swelling lip. Mickie’s stars popped and crackled like electricity burning her skin. She slapped his back with both hands. Heat from the stars ran down her arms and into her fingertips. 

Brent’s back arched. He screamed, a loud, piercing sound of pain and surprise. His knuckles turned white as his fists grew tighter. Bones popped and smoke poured from his skin.

“Mickie!” Momma screamed. “Let go of him!”

She held on for a few seconds longer before removing her fingers from his singed shirt, leaving behind two smoldering black handprints. Brent stumbled backward; fell onto the castle, crushing two of its high turrets—where the archers would have been in medieval times.

The tide came in, crashing further and further up the beach. What remained of the destroyed kingdom began to wash away, pulled into the ocean by the undertow.

Brent got to his knees as seawater splashed over his legs. He cupped his hands against his chest. Blood dripped from ruined fingers. “You’re going to pay for this, kid,” he said and tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. They shook and dropped him back to his knees. When he finally managed to get to his feet he took one step forward and stopped, his face smacking into an invisible wall, or a force field, as Mickie’s younger brother would say. He reached his hands out, placing his palms against nothing and something all the same. Brent went in a circle, his hands up, appearing to pat the air around him like a frantic mime—one with broken and bloody fingers. He screamed for help, but the onlookers only backed away. Some of them snickered at him, while others whispered about the crazy man without enough sense to get out of the rising tide, how his mouth opened in a silent cry for help, a sound that never came from his throat. One man tossed a quarter at Brent’s feet.

“Impressive act,” he said and walked away.

Mickie stared, unblinking, at the fear in Brent’s face. Momma took her by the arms and leaned down so her lips were to Mickie’s ear. “What have you done?”

“Nothing,” she responded.

“Mickie, let him go. Let him go, now.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?” Momma asked, her bottom lip bleeding.

“Because I’m not afraid of him.”

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

“They are.” She pointed to Allison and her mother. They were hurrying away from the beach, the mother all but carrying the little girl. “Besides, the doll’s in there with him. There’s nothing I can do.”

Momma shook her head. “Let’s go.”

“Okay,” Mickie responded and closed her caboodle, snapping it shut. She picked it up and started for the parking area.

On the long wood deck that led to the parking lot, they passed Jeffery. He sat on a bench, his chin in his hands. Dennis ran around in the shower area, taunting and teasing his older brother. Mickie passed them and nodded. “Have a good day, Jeffery,” she said. A moment later, Dennis slipped in the water, landing on his arm. His screams were loud. Momma started to go to him, but Mickie held her hand firm. “No, Momma, his mother is coming.”

Mickie turned back to the beach. From where she stood, she could see Brent thigh-high in the ocean. His lips moved, but nothing came out. In maybe an hour the tide would wash him out to sea. Mickie turned and walked to the parking lot with her mother. 

Southern Bones

A.J. Brown's first short story collection, comprised of 11 short stories. Price is for U.S. residents and includes shipping. If you are outside of the U.S., let me know and we'll work something out.

$15.00

An Author’s Gift

Recently, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine. He’s a tremendous person with tons of talent when it comes to both music and the written word. He is humble and engaging. I enjoy our conversations. However, he struggles with confidence when it comes to writing. Man, do I get that? Yes, yes I do.

During the course of our conversation, I made a statement that has stuck with me. It was two sentences and I’m going to give you them one at a time, then put them together.

First: Writing is a gift to yourself.

For many people, writing is an outlet, a hobby, something they do because they feel the words. Sometimes, writing is used as therapy. Writing is also a profession that many, many people attempt to succeed at. 

gift-1420830_1920Whether or not you write for yourself or for publication, writing is an art form. It is like music and painting and sculpting and woodworking and any number of other things out there. Most people don’t pick up a pen, a brush or a guitar and right away know how to use those various instruments to create something good, great or magnificent. For most, our first attempts (and even our hundredth) aren’t all that good and are far from magnificent. Simply put, it takes time to develop the necessary skills to create art.

Like with any other learned skill, it can be frustrating, and so often we give up before we get started because we get discouraged that we can’t do what others do. Let me quote Theodore Roosevelt here:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

If you know me at all, you have probably heard that statement. I, for the longest time, struggled with comparing myself to other writers. I struggled with comparing myself with their successes and the lack of my own. I struggled with wondering how in the world can someone who isn’t that good of a story teller sell so many books or have so many fans and I couldn’t do or have those things. I struggled with comparing myself to others instead of enjoying what I do and how I do it. It made it difficult to write because I would get so angry that I would rant and rave to my wife (who has always been so patient with me) about my failures and others’ successes. She always said, “You will get there one day,” and little by little, I have.

Back to the point. I learned how much I enjoyed creating stories when I stopped worrying about what others were doing and comparing myself to them. I didn’t say writing stories. I said creating stories. Creating is art, and I create art. But I don’t do it for you, the readers. I have to make that clear, not to you, but to me. I write stories for me. I create art for me. It is the one gift I can give myself every single day.

As of this writing, I have created over 2000 short stories, twelve novels, dozens and dozens of songs, a handful of poems and quite a few haiku.  I have created this art from my brain, my heart and through my fingertips. I have given myself these gifts over the years, and I have kept every single one of them. 

Part of this gift to myself is seeing growth in my abilities. I can go back and say, Man, I wasn’t all that good in 2004, but look at where I was in 2008, then where I was in 2010 and where I am, here and now. I can see growth in everything I write, everything I create. And it excites me and makes me want to create better works with words. That excitement is such a gift. 

Another part of this gift to myself is when I complete a story, when I see it through from beginning to end, I get to see the finished product. I get the self-satisfaction that I succeeded in creating something out of nothing. I get the joy of completion. These are gifts that others can’t give me. I can only give them to myself.

Second: Sharing your writing is a gift to the world.

We all have our favorite authors. They are like the relatives that give us the best gifts at Christmas or for birthdays. They are the aunts or uncles you go to when you need a pick-me-up. They are the people you can rely on to make a gloomy day better. You sit, you open one of their books and you begin to read. Pretty soon, you become engrossed in their words, mesmerized by their stories, and for a few minutes, an hour or two, the world is a little better because you aren’t dwelling in it. You get enjoyment from their stories. You feel because of something they wrote. For a while, you are alive in someone else’s world.

It’s an amazing gift you get to keep forever, either on your bookshelf or on a digital device (or both), but most importantly, in your memories. 

women-4465904_1920I see where people post pictures on social media with the caption, Making Memories. You see pictures of people at the beach and captioned or hashtagged with it is Making Memories (#makingmemories). You see pictures of people out to dinner and you see those words. You see pictures of people on vacation and there are those words, making memories. It’s like pictures we take out of a box from our childhood. If it’s a Polaroid (if y’all don’t know about Polaroids, Google is your friend) there is usually something written in the white space beneath the image. 1982, Tony, Buddy, Me. If it’s a photo that was developed at any fine establishment such as CVS, Walmart, Eckard’s or any other place like those, then most of the time there will be writing on the back of the image. The only difference is we made memories without saying, Making Memories and sharing all those photos with the world. #I’mreallygladwedidn’thavesocialmediawhenIwasakid. 

These pictures are all memories of the past, of when things were better or maybe worse. They’re memories. Some of those memories are the most beautiful gifts you can have. To be fair, some of those memories are like having bad hair on picture day at school. You want to forget that happened, but the picture is there to taunt you for the rest of your life.

Stories are the same. 

When an author shares their work with you, they are giving you a part of their gift to themselves. They are saying, hey, I want to share my gift with you. I want you to partake in my excitement, in my art … in a piece of me. 

Let’s look at that last part for a minute: hey, I want you to have a piece of me. Our stories are our babies. We’ve been with them from conception (the idea), to birth (the writing), to adulthood (completion). We’ve watched them develop and change, sometimes struggling to raise them (use the right words) and correct them (rewrites and edits). Then we let them go and we hope we’ve done our best. Sometimes, before we let them go out into the world, we hug them a little tighter (go over the story one more time), then we say, ‘Okay, child, it’s time for me to let you go.’

Sometimes, it’s terrifying. 

But we’re also ready for that story to go out into the world, to earn a living. They are our children, and by an author saying, hey, here’s my story, he or she is giving you the gift that is a piece of their hearts, their souls, their lives. And those authors want their stories to be accepted, to be loved, to be read and remembered in a positive light. 

My friend and I are both huge Pearl Jam fans. Back in August of 2019, my friend stood in a pub in Wilmington, Virginia, and belted out Once, By Pearl Jam. He dedicated the song to me. I still have the video on my phone. It was a gift to me, a memory I will always have (#makingmemories). It’s also a memory I cherish because it was so much a part of himself that he offered, not only to me, but to everyone there who witnessed it. 

If you’re an author, writing is a gift to yourself. It is a wonderful, beautiful thing to treasure, to look back on, like an old picture. It’s a gift you get to keep to yourself and you’re not being selfish by doing so. It is something nobody can ever take away from you. But if you choose to share your writing, then you are giving the world a piece of that gift, a piece of you and who you are. 

If you’re a reader, you can give a gift back to your favorite author(s). You can buy their books, you can write reviews and you can let the author know you appreciate the gifts they give you with the words they write.

As always, until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

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Because I Can (Part 4 of 4)

“There’s just not enough evidence to indict any of them.” The D.A. said that as I stood in his office, a cozy place with a nice rug, a big desk with a lot of paper on it, a chair in front and behind it, a state flag in one corner and the American flag in the other. It struck me as a typical big lawyer’s office. And like a typical big lawyer, he didn’t look me in the eye when he said there wasn’t enough evidence. He looked away, as if he couldn’t bear to tell a grieving grandson the murderers of his grandfather would go free. Or maybe he could bear with it but didn’t want to see the dirty deed all the way through, as if by looking away and not seeing the pain and disbelief etched on my face kept him from being just as guilty as those thugs.

“What do you mean there’s not enough evidence? I’ve watched that video a thousand times. You can clearly see the face of the man who threw the punch that killed my grandfather.”

“Can we?”

“Yes. It’s clear to me who it is and—“

“It doesn’t matter if it’s clear to you. It matters if it’s clear to me and clear to a grand jury. Clear to you means nothing. You’re not a witness who can testify you saw it happen, and no, watching it on video isn’t the same as seeing it in person.”

“What about the wallet? What about his fingerprints on the wallet?”

“He said he picked the wallet up when he saw it lying on the street.”

“He’s lying.”

“We don’t know that.”

“But—“

“Like I said, there’s not enough evidence to get an indictment.”

The coward. I walked out of there sick to my stomach, but not because I was angry and had thoughts of hurting Mr. No Balls District Attorney, but because there would be no justice for my grandpa.

Well … that’s not entirely true.

***

He tried to escape. Yeah, you would think he wouldn’t have with everything on the line, including the life of his little brother, but he did.

He had been in cuffs, his arms probably like lead weights after hanging in the same position for several days. I guess that’s where we made our only real mistake. We underestimated his strength and instead of cuffing his hands behind his back, we bound them in front. As soon as the tape and ropes came off his ankles, he struck. The blow to Lou’s head startled him and he stumbled backward. I don’t know how he got to his feet as quickly as he did, but he landed a double-handed punch to my face. I stumbled backward.

Dequan made for the door, tripping on the way up the steps and catching himself the best he could. He was halfway up when Lou caught his ankle.

Do I really need to say what happened next? How Lou pulled his legs and Dequan hit his face on the steps? How Lou dragged him down the stairs and then kicked him hard in the ribs? How Dequan tried to suck in air with his eyes wide open? How Lou smacked Dequan so hard it dazed him and eventually he passed out?

Nah, I didn’t think so.

***

“You tell anyone, your little brother dies. Got it?”

Daquan was in handcuffs—this time with his hands behind his back. Duct tape covered his mouth. What choice did he have? We had him between a rock and a hard place and either way, someone he loved was going to get hurt and hurt bad. He gave a reluctant nod.

My stomach hurt, but for the first time in years, I felt like I could handle what was about to happen. Sure, I may not have been the one doing the deed, but I set it up, planned it out, executed it. My stomach cramped, and I let out a small whine from the pain, but that was it. Nothing more.

“You do as we say, and all will be okay for Reggie. Do you understand?”

Again, he nodded. 

“We have a camera on you … and a gun. If you try to run, you’ll be shot down right where you stand. Do you understand so far?”

Another nod.

Truthfully, we did have a camera on him and it was set up right where it needed to be, along a stretch of road Dequan’s mom walked every night after leaving her sister’s house. It was only three blocks from one home to another, but that was enough. That was more than enough. There was no gun, not on him. We reserved that for Reggie. 

“You do the deed. You get around the corner and we’ll be waiting for you. If you do anything other than what we told you to, you, your mom and Reggie … well, you know.”

My stomach did a somersault. I think if I would have finished the sentence I would have thrown up. Still, I felt the vomit in the back of my throat and burning my esophagus. 

“Anything you want to say before you guys leave?”

Once again, he nodded. Lou pulled the tape from his mouth. Just the sound of it coming free of skin made me flinch. Dequan let out a yell and then licked his lips. 

“You don’t have to do this, man,” he said quickly. “Look, I’ll turn myself in to the cops, confess everything. I’ll give them the names of everyone involved, just don’t do this, man. You don’t have to do this.”

There were tears in his eyes. Dequan was serious. Either that or he was really good at bluffing. I felt bad for him. I just felt bad. I had never done anything like this. I couldn’t. Either because I feared disappointing Grandpa or because I truly never developed a stomach for doing bad things to people. Either way, I wanted to give in. I wanted to just let him go and run to Reggie and hug him and let them both leave and …

“Yeah, I do have to do this.”

“Why? Why, man?”

“Because I can.”

Lou left, taking Dequan with him. There was a moment where I almost called him back, almost told him to call it off. This isn’t what Grandpa would want. Almost. But Grandpa was dead. He couldn’t be disappointed in me any longer.

***

The video was grainy. By the time it came on, I had moved Reggie from the wall to the floor where Dequan had been shackled. He was lighter than I thought he would be, but weak, too weak to do anything but lay against the wall while I chained him. His eyes slid closed. 

“Wake up,” I said and lightly tapped him on the face. “The show’s about to start.”

The video showed an alley that ran along the backs of a neighborhood. Fences lined the small road, gates for entry on most of them. Street lamps stood twenty or so feet apart, every other one on the opposite side of the street. There were plenty of dark spots for someone to hide and wait. 

She appeared. Sweet Momma Jackson. Her hair was all bouncy curls and she wore a light overcoat to keep warm during the early fall evening. In her hands was a plate of some food or other. It was covered with tin foil. Glasses sat on her nose and a black purse hung from one arm. 

I looked over to Reggie. Only one eye was open. The other one was completely swollen shut. I suddenly felt bad. I could see something on his face. Confusion?  Yeah, I think that is what it was. Confusion. The entire time we had him down in that basement he had only spoken once. Not that he had been awake all that long, and when he was Lou worked him over until he passed out again. He hadn’t had anything to eat in four days and he was watching a video of …

“Momma?” he whispered, his voice cracking.

“Yeah, Reggie, that’s your momma, but hold on, man. This is about to get real. Is that how you would put it? Real as in bad?”

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 8.50.59 PMHis bottom lip was swollen so bad he couldn’t completely close his mouth. Or maybe that was from the busted jaw. I don’t know, but either way, he didn’t seem to pay me much attention. He watched the screen as his momma walked down the back road behind the houses on her way to hers. He watched the vicious cycle of life and hate and selfishness all play out in front of him. He watched as his world turned in on itself. 

Momma Jackson approached her yard, which was just inside the view of the closest street lamp. Her head turned to her left, to the man approaching her. His arm went back and there was no hesitation as he swung his fist as hard as he could into her face. Her glasses snapped in two across the bridge of her nose, the plate flipped out of her hands and landed on the ground, the tin foil shifting mid-air and spilling green beans from it. Her arms went out to her sides, much like Grandpa’s did and she fell to the ground, striking a fence post and rolling over, face down on the crumbling blacktop of the alleyway. 

The man on the screen? He stared at her. He started to bend down and that is when we saw his face. Dequan Jackson had done it again. Why? Because he could and killing a person was nothing to him.

I looked to Reggie. His lone good eye was as wide as it would go. Tears were streaming from it and he constantly repeated one word: “Momma.”

I threw up.

***

There is this little thing called a lie. Lies can be beneficial to some. Destructive to others. In this instance, it was a little bit of both. Beneficial to me. Destructive for Dequan.

When Lou arrived back at Grandpa’s, I was waiting at the kitchen table. By then my hands had stopped shaking and my stomach had settled. He brought Dequan in the back—it really didn’t matter much, I guess. There weren’t that many people out where we lived. Dequan’s blindfold was soaked, and his lips were downturned in a deep frown. Every few seconds he sniffled as if he had a cold.

We walked him down the hall to the basement door and took the blindfold off. 

“You said you’d let us go, man. I did what you said to do, now you do what you said you would do.”

“I’m going to. Go on down there. Get your brother. In a couple of minutes, we’ll take you both out of here. I promise. I’m going to untie your hands. When you step into the room there is a rail to your left. Hold onto it as you go down the steps. On the third step down, reach up to your right and grab the chain. It will turn on the light. Reggie’s waiting for you. He knows you’re coming.”

I opened the door. Dequan stepped in. I closed it.

Here’s the great lie:

1-That I would let them go.

That’s pretty much it. But there were a couple others, well placed words I had written long before the lie played out.

1-Dequan hit his mom because he was angry with her. Something about drug money. Lie.

2-That Dequan had put us up to this whole thing and Reggie would die at the hands of his brother when he got back. Lie.

3-If Reggie wanted to live, then he would have to kill Dequan. Lie … well … yeah, a lie.

4-Well, there is no four, but there was another video camera. It was nothing more than a hand-held thing in the corner. It sat on a tripod with cables that ran into a relay that ran into the computer upstairs. I had turned it on shortly before Lou and Dequan arrived. 

We stood at the computer. Yeah, it was black and white, but we didn’t need color to see what would happen. It could go two ways, depending on Reggie and if he believed what I had told him and if he believed the video I replayed for him several times as I waited for Lou to arrive home. But if he believed his brother …

The light to the basement came on. The chain and bulb swung back and forth. Dequan ran down the stairs. I could see Reggie, still sitting on the floor, but one of his arms was not shackled. No, it was free and in his hand was a gun. 

“Reggie! Reggie!”

It’s amazing how someone’s fear can also sound like their anger. 

Reggie looked up, his one eye open. He lifted the gun.

“Whoa! Whoa! Reg—“

The boom was loud. Dequan’s head snapped back. A spray of blood streaked the air as he fell. Reggie lowered his hand, dropping the gun on the floor.

“Now what?” Lou asked. 

My stomach knotted, but there was no nausea, no need to run to the sink or the bathroom or just splatter its contents all over the floor. There was nothing. I finally understood. To do the things Dequan and so many others do to others, you can’t care. You can’t give a rat’s behind what others think of you. You can’t care if you hurt someone. You can’t let it bother you. Why? Because, at the end of the day, you have to live with your own actions and if you can sleep at night, then what’s to stop you from doing anything to anyone? 

“We finish it,” I said.

“You want me to …”

“No,” I said. “I’ll take care of him.”

“He’s got a gun, Charles.”

“It only had one bullet in it. Can I have the other gun?”

Pistol in hand, I went downstairs. I stepped over Dequan and around the blood spatter as best I could. Reggie looked up at me and shook his head from side to side, a slow-motion thing, as if he tried to understand what had happened.

‘Why?” he asked.

“Because I can.”

AJB

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Because I Can (Part 3 of 4)

“Stop it! Stop it, man! Stop hitting my little brother!”

Eight. That’s how many times Uncle Lou punched Reggie. The younger brother’s face was meat by the time he finished. One eye was completely swollen shut, his other one may as well have been, his nose was broken, his lips were fat and split and the blood … his face and clothes and the wall and the floor were covered in it.

And my stomach danced the dance of Earl and Ralph, but nothing came up. 

I looked at Dequan. He looked from me to Lou and Reggie, his head moving back and forth as if he were at a tennis match. 

“Why are you doing this, man?”

I wanted to laugh but held back. “Because we can. Isn’t that what you said when I asked you why you hurt people? Because I can?”

Ahh … the defiance surfaced on his face again, but only briefly. “I’m sorry, dog,” he said, trying to sound apologetic. “I shouldn’t have said that. Just stop, man.”

“Sorry isn’t good enough, DOG. And if you want us to stop, well, you’re just going to have to hurt someone else. You know, since you can.”

“What? Who? You made your point, man. I get it. I hurt people, so you hurt me and …”

“No, that’s not the point, man. That’s not the point, dog. That’s not the point at all. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t do well with hurting people.” I looked at my uncle. I could see that twinkle in his eyes and Johnny was there again telling me to drown the kitten, drown him and you’re in. He wanted to hit Reggie again. Part of me felt the horrible head of revolt surface, but then it faded as fast as it arrived. I pointed at him and spoke, “That guy, though. He likes hurting people.”

With that said, he punched Reggie again, this time in the side of the head. Reggie’s head jerked to the side violently, striking the wall. Blood seeped from his ear and his head sagged to his chest.

“Stop, man! Just stop, man!”

My stomach clenched, but it wasn’t a feeling of nausea, but a legitimate pain that felt like something gnawing at my insides. I turned away from Dequan and grimaced. I wasn’t sure I would be able to go through with this. Just watching Lou use Reggie as a punching bag made me sick. But there was something else there, something that pushed the sick feeling aside and kept me on track to finish the deed. It was excitement. I could feel it in my chest, in the way it made the muscles on my face twitch into a sadistic smile, the way it made me feel cold inside. Is this how it is for people who commit crimes of murder and rape and muggings and stealing and who knew what else?  Is this what ‘because I can’ feels like? It scared me but exhilarated me as well. 

“He’s out cold,” Lou said and shook his fist. There was blood on it.

“Please, man. Whatever you want me to do … I’ll do it, man. Just stop. Please, just stop.”

“Whatever?”

“Anything, man. Anything. Just stop hurting him.”

“Your brother … you love him, Dequan?”

He nodded, but I could see he didn’t want to actually say it. Yeah, keep that tough guy persona. That’s not what I wanted right then. I needed him to do one thing, one more act of violence, just because he could. But I needed to break him a little more.

“Is that the best you can do? A nod? That’s your brother. If it were my brother, I could say I love him. You can’t say that, can’t you?”

“I can say it.”

“Okay, let’s hear it. Do you love your brother?”

Again, I could see the thug in him wanted to come out, wanted to reach out and punch me as hard as Lou punched his brother. This is a man who was raised to be tough. Big boys don’t cry and all that crap. Then his face softened just a little. “Yeah, I love my brother, man.”

“Good. Because if you love him like I think you do, then you have the opportunity to save his life.”

“What? How?” His eyes grew wide. I had him. I knew it and so did he.

That pain in my stomach subsided. Deep down it was still there, but not so bad. No nausea, and that gnawing pain was fading. 

“Uncle Lou, do you have that picture I asked you to get?”

“Yeah. Let me go get it.”

Lou went up the steps, his boots thudding heavy with each one he took. The door opened and closed and for several minutes it was just me and Dequan.

“Man, please, man. Just let us go.”

“Dequan, do you remember a couple days ago when I said you had no problems killing someone? Remember that? You said that, right?”

“I was bluffing, man. I ain’t never killed anyone.”

“You’re wrong, Dequan. You killed someone.”

“You’re lying, white boy.”

“Am I?”

I went upstairs. I was only gone long enough to go to my bedroom and reach into the top drawer of my desk where a newspaper sat, a constant reminder of just who Dequan had killed. I saw Lou near the back door having a smoke. That was okay with me. It gave me a little more time to talk to Dequan. Back into the basement I went and sat back in my chair. I unfolded the newsprint, then opened it up to a story on the third page, one about an old man who had died after spending three days in the hospital.

***

He slapped the old man. That’s what Dequan did to my grandpa. After he punched him and after Grandpa had hit his head, not once, but twice, that punk slapped my grandpa across the face. 

That’s when I threw up again. 

Officer Sam stopped the tape. I wiped my mouth and motioned for him to keep going. That’s when good old Dequan reached into Grandpa’s pant pocket and pulled out his wallet. There wasn’t much money in it, but he took what there was and threw the wallet across the street. 

Then he slapped Grandpa again. Then he punched Grandpa square in the face. I threw up again. After that I left the police department and Officer Sam. 

Let me say this about the police in my town. Other than good old Officer Sam, they suck. There was enough evidence on that video to arrest at least two of the men involved, including Dequan Jackson, the one who had completed the Knock Out Game the way it was intended: knock out the victim with one punch. But he didn’t just win at the game, he then stole the money out of my grandpa’s wallet, then hit him in the face again. They had the evidence. Any of those blows could have been the one that put Grandpa in a coma. Any of them.

Then there’s the matter of the wallet and the fingerprints that they could have lifted off it. It’s not like Dequan didn’t have a few arrests under his belt, one of which had him on probation already.

Guess what? They did nothing. Nothing.

Nothing …

***

The image on page three of the newspaper was of an old man with a smile on his face and a VFW hat on his head. There were enough wrinkles around his nose and mouth to give him a bulldog look. The collar of his button-down shirt could be seen. The picture had been taken three weeks prior to his death. I provided it to the paper when I thought that both them and the police were going to do something about the crime that claimed Grandpa’s life after three days in a coma. 

Daquan stared at it.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“My father,” Uncle Lou said. 

I spun around to look at him. I didn’t hear him open the door or come down the steps in his heavy boots. 

“The man you killed when you decided to play that game you thugs play. What’s it called again?”

“The Knock Out Game,” I said.

“Yeah. That’s it. The Knock Out Game.”

“I ain’t never seen that man.”

I didn’t have enough time to react before Lou lashed out, smacking Dequan so hard one of his teeth came out and landed on the floor a couple feet away.

“You lying sack of crap,” Lou said. “I’ve seen the video. I saw you hit him, then take his money, then hit him again while he was out cold on the sidewalk. You did that and guess what? You’re going to do it again.”

“What? What’s he talking about?”

“You’re going to—“

“Stop,” I said. I stood in front of Lou, my hands out, palms up. “Please, stop for just a minute. If he doesn’t do what we want him to, you can do whatever you want to him. But let me do this. Okay?”

Lou nodded reluctantly. His hands went to his hips and he glared at Dequan.

“Do you have the picture?”

Another nod and he reached into his shirt pocket, then handed it over.

I looked at it for a minute. She was an older woman, her hair streaked with white. She wore a yellow housedress and a pair of white canvass shoes. A pair of glasses were perched on the bridge of her nose. She was smiling. Beside her was a young man, one that may have been seventeen or eighteen at the time it was taken.

I flipped it over and held it between two fingers and my thumb. Turning it to Dequan, I showed it to him.

“Recognize this woman?”

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Because I Can (Part 2 of 4)

I was eight. There were some older boys down the road from me. Johnny Jenkins and Dale McMurtry and Paul Whateverhislastnamewas. They were almost teenagers, and they hung out at the park, near the swings, smoking their Marlboros and swearing their swears and talking about girls and skipping school and how much they hated their parents. They were tough. Sometimes they got in fights, but I never saw any of them. I only heard them talking about it, about how Paul swiped at this Ricky kid and broke his nose, and how Dale punched that same Ricky kid and blackened his eye. But Johnny had them beat. He had knocked a tooth out of Ricky’s mouth and split his lip—with one hit.

Yeah, they were tough, and I wasn’t. I wanted to be, so I approached them one day. It was summer, and it was still early in the morning before the sun was high and the heat was unbearable. Independence Day had passed a couple weeks prior and school was still well over six weeks away. They were smoking their cigarettes and Paul had just flipped a butt away.

I guess they thought I wanted to swing on the playset, because Paul crinkled up his nose and called to me, “You wanna swing?” His dark hair was down to his shoulders and neatly combed for the most part. My dad said only girls wear their hair long, but Paul Whateverhislastnamewas didn’t look like a girl to me. He looked mean, and his stare scared me. 

I didn’t turn and run, like I probably should have. Instead, I stood stock-still and shook my head when he asked his question.

“Then what do ya want?”

“I want to join your group.”

The three of them laughed. Dale had been sitting on one of the swings, slowly rocking back and forth when I spoke. He laughed so hard he fell right out of the swing and onto his knees.

I didn’t laugh. Sure, my stomach quivered, and my chest heaved, but I tried to stay under control. 

“You want to join our group?” Paul asked. 

“Yes,” I said, my voice strong. 

True facts:

1-I was a wimp.

2-I wanted to be tougher.

3-They were the toughest, meanest kids I knew.

4-Before that day, I had no problems with wanting to swear and call people names and whatever. I could even make bad jokes about some of the kids my age.

5-After that day, well … vomit happens.

Paul and Dale exchanged looks. In that exchange I could see they thought I was crazy. They were probably right. Johnny smiled and I should have known I would regret walking up to them thinking I could be cool and tough and smoke Marlboros and talk about what girls looked like without any clothes on and beat up other kids. I should have known better. 

Johnny pushed himself off the pole he leaned against. He blew out the last puff of smoke from his cigarette before tossing it aside. It flipped through the air, end over end until landing on the ground, the hot cherry sparking off in several directions, tendrils of smoke still wafting up from the burnt end.

“You want to join our group?”

“Yes.” I think I moved a little, maybe shuffled my feet or something. I’m certain I was tense and terrified, but unwavering even as heat filled me.

Johnny nodded, his upper lip somewhat curled. There was a shine in his eyes, and I knew that was a bad thing. “If you can pass the initiation, you’re in.”

Dale and Paul shot glances at Johnny, but they were smiling, too. 

Fast-forward about two hours to a rundown house on South Street a few blocks from the park. “Be there at three,” Johnny had said. I arrived a full ten minutes early. They were already there. Paul and Dale sat on the crumbling top step to the house. Yeah, they were smoking their cigarettes and looking cool as always. I had my first doubts about everything right then. My stomach knotted, and my mouth had become dry somewhere between home and there. 

What am I doing here? I thought. Grandpa would be so mad at me if he knew what I was up to. 

Then the thoughts were gone. Simply, I didn’t know what I was about to do, so how could I truly think Grandpa would be mad at me? It was the way little kids (and yes, adults, more so) rationalize things.

“You ready?” Paul asked.

“Sure.” Yeah, right. I was about as ready as a terrified virgin in a jail cell full of men who hadn’t seen a woman in a long time.

They stood, walked across the crumbling wooden porch to the gaping doorway of the house. From where I stood I couldn’t see any further inside than where the sun shone. Up the steps I went and across rickety boards that felt like sponges beneath my feet, not bothering to pause at the doorway because I was tough, and I would show them how tough I was. 

It wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be inside. The sun penetrated through the dust-caked windows, casting a dim light through each room. I followed them to a back room where Johnny sat in a folding metal chair. A five-gallon bucket sat in front of him, along with a brown box, the lid closed on it.

“I have to admit, I didn’t think you would show.”

“I’m here,” I said, not really knowing what else to say.

“Are you ready for your initiation?”

“Yes.” 

(NO! NO! NO!)

Even in the gray of the room I saw the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes. He motioned me over. On lead legs I went to him. 

“Open the box.”

I did, trying to keep my hands from shaking. Inside was a kitten, an orange and white tabby with pointy ears and bright greenish yellow eyes. It meowed loudly, its mouth wide, tongue as pink as any I had ever seen before or even after.

“Drown it,” Johnny said.

“What?” I faltered.

“Drown the kitten and you’re in.”

I stared at Johnny for the longest time. It felt like the seconds had slowed to hours. I looked down at the bucket to see the water within. Somewhere far away I heard the kitten’s constant meowing. Johnny was smiling like the fool he was, that twinkle in his eyes, and behind it the knowing that I wouldn’t go through with it.

I picked the kitten up. It was soft, and it weighed so little, maybe not even a pound. It meowed and clawed at my hand as I shoved it into the bucket of water. Slivers of pain tore at my hand as the kitten fought for its very young life. 

Laughter. 

That’s what stopped me. I heard Paul laughing and it was maniacal and terrifying. Then he said, “He’s actually doing it. What a nut job.”

I heard it as clearly as I’ve ever heard anything.

Then I pulled the kitten out. Blood mixed with water spilled off my hand. The kitten still clawed at me, its meows frantic and terrified. I clutched it tight to my chest, taking its claws through my shirt and into my skin as I ran through the house and out the door and down the steps. All the while, they laughed and yelled for me to come back little wuss boy.

As I ran I could hear Grandpa scolding me for such a horrible thing as to try and kill an animal for any reason at all. I cried, and the kitten meowed and I ran all the way home where I lied to Grandpa about saving the kitten and … and I threw up.

That was the beginning of me never being able to say or do anything bad to anyone.

***

The video played out. The older gentleman, a VFW hat on his head, the two paper bags, one in each arm and the gentle stroll of a man who had lived life the best he could. 

I threw up several times before reaching the end of it. Sam—good, patient Sam—rewound it each time, knowing the torture I put myself through. 

***

“As you can imagine, Dequan, I’m not very good at violence. It makes me squeamish. I couldn’t kill the kitten, and it became a pet—Mr. Pouncer—but I guess I already told you that”

“So, what? What do you want from me?”  

What did I want from me? Truthfully, something I can’t have back. I shook my head and just looked at him. I knew his facial features, the scar on his left cheek, the dark brown color of his eyes, the corn rolls along his skull, the gold front tooth—the right one, not the left—the thickness of his nose and the bulge in the bridge where it had surely been broken before. I knew all these features. I had seen them so often in the past year or so to know them as if they were my own. 

“You’ll know soon enough,” I said and stood. I slid the chair all the way against the wall and started up the steps.

“Where are you going?” he yelled.

“Out for a while. Sit tight. I’ll be back.”

“I need to piss, man.”

I wanted to laugh, but if I would have my stomach would have rolled on me. Instead, I spoke calmly, “Go ahead.”

***

I made a phone call. It was quick and the answer I received for my request was better than I thought it would be.

“When?” I asked.

“Tonight,” came my uncle’s voice.

My stomach quivered with excitement and trepidation. 

“Okay,” I said. “Tonight will be great.”

I was smiling. My plan was coming together easier than I thought it would. Still, I was nervous. What if I couldn’t handle tonight? What if my nerves and stomach got the best of me? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out. I wanted to see this through, even if I vomited up my intestines. It was important and important things are better done than not, as my grandpa used to say.

***

fist-4112964_1920Uncle Lou arrived around midnight. He parked in the back where there were no lights and the privacy fence blocked all view of the yard. It didn’t matter much. We lived out in the country, away from most folks, and those that were out here with us were a good mile or so away in any direction. The back hatch of his SUV came open, but no light came on. He rounded the vehicle, reached in and pulled something out. It was long, but not rigid, and he slung it over his shoulder.

“Close the hatch, Charles,” he said and made his way up the steps. I shut the hatch and opened the back door. We both went inside, Lou first. I closed and locked the door behind us.

I didn’t need to ask what was wrapped in the tattered green army blanket. I saw the feet sticking out the bottom and knew he had delivered a valuable piece of the puzzle. 

“You want him downstairs with the other guy?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind.”

“Lead the way,”

We made our way down into the basement, the light coming on with a quick pull of the chord. The bulb bobbed up and down and from side to side for a few seconds before settling into a slow seesaw motion.

Dequan looked up as we made our way down the steps. He looked like he had been asleep and had been startled awake. His eyes narrowed when he saw Lou.

“Set him down there,” I said and pointed to the wall opposite Dequan.

“What’s going on, man? What’s that in …”  His words trailed off when he saw the shoes with a familiar mark on them, the mark of his gang.

Lou set the package on the floor and unrolled the army blanket. What happened next thrilled and sickened me at the same time. Realization swept over Dequan when he saw his little brother’s unconscious body unwrapped from the blanket. He pulled at his restraints and tried to kick his legs at us, all the while yelling all sorts of pleasantries.

-What the —- have you done to my little brother?

-I’m going to kill you mother—-ers.

-I’m going to kill both you mother—-ers.

-Reggie, wake up, man. 

-I’m going to kick you’re a—es when I get out of here.

-You’re dead meat, mother—-ers.

I think he likes that one word a lot. But Lou doesn’t. As a matter of fact, Lou doesn’t like many swear words.

“Shut-up, punk,” Lou said and pulled Reggie toward the wall where another set of chains and shackles were. Only these were higher up. 

Dequan yelled on, throwing his threats and curses out at us. 

“Hold on a second,” Lou said and walked over to Dequan. To him he said, “You got one chance to shut-up. You got that?”

Defiance was heavy at work when he spat into Lou’s face. He started to say something, but his lip was split and the back of his head hit the wall before he could get anything out. His body sagged and his head lulled on his shoulders. My stomach flipped, and I felt supper try to come back up. I held my hand over my mouth, forcing it back the best I could, even as cold sweat peppered my face.

Lou came back to where I stood next to Reggie. He was wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt. He said nothing as he hoisted Reggie to a standing position.

***

Let’s fast-forward again, this time about six hours. 

Uncle Lou and I had finished restraining Reggie a little after one that morning and agreed to set things into motion the next day, and what a long day it would be.

We woke—I slept very little, though Lou seemed to sleep like a baby—had a cup of coffee and some toast, grits and eggs, and made our way downstairs.

The brothers were asleep. I’ll be honest here: I wasn’t sure Dequan was still alive. Lou had smashed his head hard into the wall the night before. For all I knew, he had killed him. That would have been bad if it would have been true. The last year would have been wasted and then what? I didn’t know.

Lou walked over to Dequan and kicked his leg. Dequan woke with a startled scream that made me smile a little. No, my stomach didn’t shake or rock or roll—the last year or so I worked on trying to control it, but honestly, I hadn’t succeeded very often. But I was getting better at it.

“Wake up, scumbag,” he said and kicked Dequan’s leg again,

“I’m awake. I’m awake, man.” The defiance that had been in his voice and on his face the night before was gone, replaced with that dog’s been kicked too many times look.

Again, I smiled.

Then Lou walked over to Reggie, the younger of the two brothers who hung from his arms, his legs slightly buckled beneath him. 

“Wake up, Sunshine,” Lou said and patted the side of Reggie’s face. The younger brother stirred, his eyes fluttered, then he was awake and the blank look of confusion filled his face.

“Where … where am I?” 

“Hell,” Lou said. I flinched. My stomach woke up and the muscles twitched. 

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay, bro?”

“Be quiet, Dequan,” I said.

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay?”

Lou’s jaw flexed and he yelled “Shut-up!” 

“I just want to know—“

Lou leveled a punch to Reggie’s gut. The air rushed out of him and he tried to pull his legs up but couldn’t quite muster the strength. He struggled for air, his mouth gaping open and his eyes clinched shut, tears trickling from the corners of them.

“Why’d you do that?” Dequan yelled and pulled on his chains. He winced. I guessed his muscles were stiff from being stuck in the same position for a couple days. 

I pulled my chair from the center of the room and placed it about ten feet from Dequan and sat down. 

“Listen up, Dequan. This is very important. That man over there is very angry. This man, sitting here in this chair, is not very happy either. You see, you owe us some pain …”

My stomach gurgled when I said that. I bit back the vomit and swallowed. I continued.

“That man is going to get that pain one way or the other, either from you or your brother.”  

I nodded to Lou.

He punched Reggie in the jaw. The younger brother’s head snapped to one side. His lip split, bled and immediately began to swell.

Dequan turned his head as soon as Lou struck his brother. 

“Oh no, Dequan,” I said, “you need to watch this.”

“Why are you doing this? We ain’t never done nothing to you.”

“That’s not true,” I said and nodded to Lou. Another punch, this one to the eye. Reggie let out a small yelp of pain. My stomach lurched.

“What did we do? I ain’t never even seen you before, man. What did we do to you?”

I looked at him. His left eye was swollen mostly shut, his lip busted. Blood had crusted on his shirt. 

“What did you do?” I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question, but I didn’t. Instead, I spoke softly. “You hurt people because you can. That’s enough for me.”

I nodded and waved a hand at Lou. He turned to Reggie, a glimmer in his eyes—one like what I saw in Johnny’s eyes when I was a kid—and punched him and punched him and punched him …

***

“Play it again,”

“I think you’ve had enough, Mr. Hanson.”

“No! Just one more time. Please.”

“Why? Why are you doing this to yourself?”

“I have to.”

Officer Sam played the footage. Again, the older man rounded the corner, the camera’s angle catching it from almost a block away. He carried the two paper grocery bags, the VFW hat sat on his head. He wore thick glasses—coke bottle thick, my mom would call them. Nothing changed. He was still minding his own business. 

Then it happened. Six men appeared on the screen going the opposite direction. They were just ordinary men, until they reached the old guy. They were about to pass each other. That’s the way it should have been. The old guy passing the group of six. And if it would have stayed that way …

One of The Six turned his head to the side as they passed each other. Just as the One passed the old man, he turned back, his hand in a fist and swung for the old man’s face. 

The gist of the rest of the video:

-The fist connected.

-The old man’s head whipped to the side.

-That head hit the brick wall beside him.

-The grocery’s fell from the old man’s arms. It’s clear there was a jug of milk in one of the bags.

-The old man fell and hit his head on the edge of the sidewalk.

-The Six laughed.

-The One knelt and slapped the unconscious old man.

And I threw up.

To be continued on Tuesday, May 12th …

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Because I Can (Part 1 of 4)

Because I Can (Part 1)

By A.J. Brown

I watched the video several times. The first time I felt sick to my stomach—literally. The cop in the room with me paused the video when I stood, my hand over my stomach, and turned to leave. I didn’t make it very far. One hand went on the wall—it was cool to the touch. I grew hot. Sweat beaded my forehead. My stomach turned over, grumbled, and I heaved, though nothing came out. My ribs hurt afterward. 

“You okay?”

He wasn’t gruff, and he didn’t have a raspy movie-cop’s voice. No, this guy talked like a normal person with normal feelings and normal thoughts. Still, he was tough. You could see it in his eyes, the way they appeared hard, as if staring in them too long would be like staring at two polished stones the color of onyx. 

“Give me a sec, okay?”

“You don’t have to watch it again.”

I put a hand in the air. The heat of my face had receded, the sweat began to dry. I could breathe again, but my mouth tasted like a well-worn shoe. Don’t ask me how I know what that tastes like. You won’t get an answer that will satisfy the question. 

I pushed myself back to a standing position. My stomach still hurt, but the cramped nausea I had felt moments earlier was gone.

“Play it again, Sam.”

No, his name wasn’t Sam, but that’s what I called him. He didn’t seem to mind.

revenge 3He clicked the mouse back to the beginning of the black and white surveillance video. An old man rounded the corner of a brick building. He moved slowly, the way most old men do, and he carried a couple of grocery bags—paper, not plastic. He was minding his own business. My stomach grumbled, then quivered. The backflow works kicked into gear. I tried to force the vomit back down, but in the end, it won, I lost, and the floor was splattered with what was left of lunch.

“Really, we don’t have to do this.”

I looked back at the cop through tear-blurred eyes. 

“Yes, we do,” I said, got back to my feet and staggered to the seat.

We watched the video again and again and again, until I saw all I needed to.

###

“Welcome,” I said.

The basement was dimly lit, the single sixty-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling. It was the old-style rope-pull type, with a chord leading from the light’s chain to the ceiling and through several eye loops, ending at the wall by the door with a loop on the end. The sheetrock walls covered the cinderblocks behind them and were painted a flat green back in the seventies. The trim work was six inch baseboards at the bottom and, interestingly enough, at the top. There were twelve steps that led to the first floor of my grandpa’s old house. Grandpa was dead, so what was happening—or going to happen—didn’t matter to him. It wasn’t like he would ever find out. There were no windows, and yeah, the room was a bit dusty. Other than the chair I sat in, there was no other furniture or boxes or bags or anything else in the room.

Well, that’s if you don’t include the dirt bag on the floor. 

The dirt bag mentioned just now probably didn’t think he was one, but he was. I watched him long enough to know he was a dirt bag extraordinaire. 

Extraordinaire.

“Where am I?”

He struggled to sit up but couldn’t get much further than where he sat against the wall, slouched back and looking like a sagging bag of deer corn. His arms were held to the wall by thick chains; twelve-inch bolts had been screwed into the walls, through the sheetrock and right into the cinder blocks. Reinforced metal plates held the chains and Mr. Dirt Bag in place. He squinted, but probably not from the light—like I said, it was dim, a sixty-watt bulb, the old type, not one of those new corkscrew type that burn forever and a day. From my understanding, he had a great fall and bumped his crown. He had some help.

“You’re here,” I said from my seat in front of him. I did a grand wave of my hands, like one of Barker’s Girls from The Price is Right.

He tried to push himself to a better sitting position with his bound feet. They scraped across the floor as if he were shuffling around, and he slid back to his former slouched over position. I watched this with great interest. His struggle with the chains and not being able to use his hands to push off on the floor or even to steady himself brought a sort of satisfaction I wasn’t terribly used to. His face contorted, and he grunted several times before looking up at his arms.

“What’s going on? You need to let me go, white boy.”

White boy? Yeah, I guess you could say I’m white—really I’m more transparent than anything else. The sun touches my skin and I burn to several shades of lobster. 

“I don’t think you’re in any position to tell me what to do.”

“What? Do you know who I am, white boy? Do you know what I can do to you?”

“Yes, and yes, but neither of those matter right now.”

Finally, Dirt Bag looked long at his arms, at the shackles that held him in place. No, I didn’t go for handcuffs—they were just too thin, and the chains weren’t all that strong. Someone angry enough just might be able to break the small chains that bound one wrist to the other. That’s a chance I didn’t want to take. He bent his wrists and used them to pull himself against the wall, but that was as far as he could go—I made sure of that. Before I had the chains put in I researched the average wingspan for a man that stood four inches over six feet. My guess was he eighty to eighty-four inches. I added an extra two inches to that higher total. Do the math—his arms could only go so far before he could sit up no further, and there was no way he was standing, not with his feet all bundled up in ropes and duct tape.

“Let me go,” he said.

“No,” I replied.

I had one leg crossed over the other at the knee. Both hands rested on that leg, folded one on top of the other. I probably looked like a statue or a mannequin sitting there, barely moving.

He yelled at me, called me names I won’t use here—I don’t use that type of language, thank you very much. He threatened me, cursed me. He spat at me once, but most of it dribbled down his chin or landed on his saggy-bottomed pants. He pulled against the chains. 

And I watched it all.

“When you’re done, let me know.”

“You just wait until I get out of these chains.”

I stood from my chair—it wasn’t anything fancy, just something I grabbed from the kitchen before bringing Mr. Dirt Bag into my grandpa’s home—and walked over to him. I knelt about ten feet in front of him. 

“Your name is Dequan Jackson. You’re twenty-two years old and have one brother who is younger than you. His name is Darrell. You live in an apartment on James Schofield Road with any number of whores you call girlfriends. Many of those women are strung out on crack or heroin that you gave them in return for sexual favors. You think you’re a gangbanger. You might be—I haven’t figured that out yet. If you ask me, you’re just another wannabe thug, trying to make a name with drugs and fear. For the most part that seems to work.”

I eyed him for a minute, waiting for a response that never came. 

“Your mother is sixty-two, meaning she had you when she was either in her very very late thirties or forty. Your brother just had a birthday. He is nineteen. You once joked that you had no problems with killing someone.”

I paused for a moment, stared him hard in the eyes. He stared back just as hard, but there was something inside of him that was different now. I had done my homework on him and his family and his ‘posse’ and it was dawning on him that I wasn’t playing around, that his abduction had been planned out by this crazy white boy and he might just be in a world of trouble.

“It wasn’t too long ago that you proved that to your buddies—killing, it’s just a thang to you.”

“I ain’t never killed no one.”

His eyes were crazy wide, like a rabbit trapped down the hole with nowhere to go and not enough time to dig further down. 

“We’ll see about that.”

He started to speak, then clamped his mouth shut. His eyes grew wide for just a second—a second, I tell you. That’s all. Then they went back to their normal almost slits on his dark skin. I could still see a little of the whites, but beyond that, the color was washed away beneath his eyelids. Still, I saw recognition in his face, in his eyes.

“I know what you’ve done.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“Really? You didn’t hear anything I said a minute ago? You know, your brother, your mom, your whores? You didn’t get any of that?”

He said nothing. He got it, but he was too stubborn to say so.

“Look, Dequan, I’m going to give you one chance to walk out of here, completely unharmed. You feel me? One chance. That’s the term, right? You feel me?”

Again, he said nothing. Stubborn, for sure. 

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

I stood, paced the floor a couple times, my arms wrapped around my suddenly gurgling stomach. I was nervous. I held the cards and Mr. Dirt Bag could do nothing but sit chained to the wall. Still, I was scared and felt like my stomach was about to revolt. 

(You can stop, you know?  Just blindfold Dirt Bag and haul him away, drop him off in some back alley and say, hey you’ve been warned. Turn your life around and fly straight, or I’ll be back. Yeah, you can go all Batman on him and …)

That was a pipe dream. There was no turning back. He had seen my face. I wasn’t sure if he had seen Uncle Lou’s face, but it didn’t really matter. I was smart enough to figure most of the plan out, but not so smart enough to remember to wear a mask like the dude in Saw or like Jason or Michael or a host of other horror movie villains. And if I let him go he would remember what I looked like, and yeah, you better believe he would come after me, posse in tow. I’m not stupid—I just forgot one little, but holy cow important, detail.

I stopped pacing and knelt back down. I looked him in the eyes and all I saw was contempt. 

“Why do you do it?”

He scrunched up his face, as if he were confused. “Why do I do what?”

“Why do you hurt people?”

He was quiet for a few seconds. I don’t know if he pondered his answer or just sat staring at me, anger burning on his face, but he answered with a smile that showed off one gold tooth. 

“Cause I can.”

It was my turn to get quiet. I didn’t really expect him to answer, and I certainly didn’t expect an answer so … honest. I was stunned. He was defiant. 

“I gave you an answer, now you let me go.”

I stood, put my hands on my hips. I wanted to kick him. I wanted to punch him as hard as I could right in the temple, just like … I wanted him to see stars and feel pain.

But I couldn’t. The thought of hitting Mr. Dirt Bag, of causing him even a fraction of the pain he had caused others, made my stomach sour. I wanted to vomit but held back. Instead of letting my anger get to me, I backed away and sat back down in the chair.

“Let me go. You asked your question, I gave you an answer, now let me go.”

“I said I would give you one chance to walk out of here unharmed. I didn’t say when you would get that chance.”

His upper lip curled, and he growled deep in his throat. A second later, he was cussing me for all I was worth. This is what he said, minus all the swear words:

–What type of ******* game you playin’?–

–Let me go right now, you ****head—

–I’ll kill you, mutha******–

–When I get free, you’ll wish your punk*** was dead—

“I’d like to tell you a story,” I said calmly.

Instead, I stood, walked to the stairs and started up them.

“Hey,” Mr. Dirt Bag called, “I thought you were going to tell me a story.”

“I changed my mind.”

I left the room, turned the light off and closed the door behind me. From outside the room I locked the bolts—all six of them—and slid the three boards in to the homemade latches I had made. If Dirt Bag managed to get out of the shackles, he would have to figure out the six locks, and even then, he would not be able to open the door from that side. I unlocked two of the locks—why make it easy on him?  

My stomach hurt, and I sat down at the kitchen table, a place I had spent many mornings while growing up, listening to Grandpa talk of the war—no, he wasn’t all shell-shocked like many others were. He had no problems talking about what war was and why they fought and just what the heck was wrong with it. My hands shook as I sat, elbows on the table, head down, eyes staring at the yellow Formica-topped table. Had I really wanted to hit the guy? Had I really wanted to hurt him?

You betcha.

I wanted to do all sorts of bad things to that thug wannabe. My stomach rolled again. I didn’t eat too much that morning on purpose, knowing what I planned to do, knowing the man in the basement wasn’t going to walk out of there or even be carried out alive, and it would be all on my head. 

As I sat there, I reflected on my life. I’ve never been able to hurt someone, or something. The thought of insulting someone out of anger made my stomach hurt. The thought of insulting someone as a joke wasn’t too intolerable but was still enough to make my stomach rumble. One time, at a party when I was a teenager (a party I probably shouldn’t have been at) I threw up on Maggie Igliana’s shoes because I laughed at someone jokingly saying Mike Halford’s mom would spread for half the football team. Up went dinner and the nastiness that was half digested beans and franks. It splattered the floor and Maggie Igliana. She screamed. I bolted. Out in the front yard I threw up a second time. I was sixteen. Rumors at school had me being totally drunk and hitting on Maggie. They said I asked if she would spread for the football team. The first time I heard it I vomited in the boys’ bathroom. 

Four things:

1-That was the last party I ever attended.

2-I’ve never told a dirty joke or made a joking comment or laughed at one about someone since.

3-I’ve never been drunk, but that doesn’t matter when you’re a teenager.

4-Maggie never talked to me again, which is a shame—I really liked her.

Yet, there I sat, wanting to kill a man I didn’t even know. The thought had me standing and running to the sink, where the last remnants of breakfast ended. I swished water around in my mouth, spat it out, and wiped my lips with the back of my hand. I washed the vomit down the sink, making sure none of it was left behind.

I could let him go. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I really, really wanted to do.

My legs shook as I went back to the door and unlocked it. I slid the boards from their places and opened the door. Three steps down, I pulled the rope, turning the light back on. I went down the steps. 

“You ready to let me go?” Dequan asked.

“No,” I said. My stomach gurgled.

I sat down in my chair and stared at him, hoping I didn’t look as uneasy as I felt.

“I want to tell you a story.”

“Seriously, man?”

“It’s not like you’re going anywhere, so, yeah, seriously.”

He shook his head, rolled his eyes.

I could still let him go.

“I want to tell you a story about Mr. Pouncer.”

“You know someone named Mr. Pouncer?”

“No. I knew a cat named Mr. Pouncer.”

Again, he rolled his eyes. I leaned forward in my chair, elbows on my knees. I rubbed my hands together nervously and began my story.

To be continued …

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What’s Up Next?

What’s up everyone? I hope y’all enjoyed the April Free Fiction month. I wanted to pop on here for a minute and say hello and tell y’all what’s coming up. 

coming-soon-2550190_1280Over the next two weeks I will posts the story Because I Can in a four part series. They will be posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting tomorrow. 

Because I Can is a longer short story based on one man’s need for vengeance. There’s a little twist, however: violence makes him sick. How is a man to get revenge on someone if he can’t stomach it? Find out starting tomorrow. It will appear here, on Type AJ Negative on May 5th, 7th, 12th and 14th. Stick around and enjoy the story. 

Also, please comment on it. Let me know what you think. 

I hope y’all have a good day and I hope y’all look forward to Because I Can.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

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