Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy?

(This is a rather long post, one where I talk about some of my writing and how I feel about some of those things. However, this isn’t just about writing. It’s about everything you do in life that brings you joy, which leads to happiness.)

I wrote a book a couple of years ago titled, Simply Put. It’s my thoughts on writing, on the craft, on telling stories, and on the things they don’t tell you coming into this business. They are, simply put, my opinions. It is not a how to book. Sure, there are some tips about writing, things I’ve learned along the way, but it’s not a book that teaches writing stories. I’m not a professor at a college who teaches writing and all its little nuances, so I don’t really feel I am qualified to say, ‘hey, do it this way or it’s wrong.’ Besides, I don’t believe in ‘do it this way or it’s wrong.’

Simply Put was set to come out mid-2020, but when the world went into shutdown mode, I decided to push it, and three other books back to 2021. As I sit here today typing this, I’m not so certain Simply Put is ready to be released. Don’t get me wrong. It’s been edited sixteen times. It’s gone through massive overhauls and rewrites. I’ve even taken a lot of snark out because I don’t think the sarcasm and snark are warranted in many places or will serve a purpose. 

Though a year ago I believed Simply Put was ready, now … now I don’t know if it will ever be ready. I’m not sure how I am going to explain this but let me try.

When I decided to get published—or attempted to—I thought I was a good writer. I was wrong. I had several people tell me I was. They were wrong. Those same people said, ‘you should try to get published.’ They meant well and they stroked my ego by suggesting that. Before I continue, I want you to understand something about writing: don’t listen to people you trust when it comes to publishing. Most of those people say you are a good writer because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. They are lying to you, just as they lied to me. They suggest things like ‘you should get published’ knowing fully you probably won’t pursue that avenue. Unless, of course, you do, and by then it’s too late for them to say, ‘oh, by the way, you really suck.’

Though I was wrong about being a good writer, I wasn’t wrong about being a good storyteller. That I have always been good at. When I really want to tell a story, I can do so with flare and humor and I don’t need the written word to do it. I could have been a comedian and told funny stories to crowds of eight or fewer at open mic night at whatever local bar was open at the time. I could have entertained with the oral word (get your minds out of the gutter …).

I may not have been an even halfway decent writer when I started out—I don’t think anyone is—but one element about it was also what pushed me to try and get published. I enjoyed it. The act of writing was fun and exciting. I could visualize things on the silver screen in my head as I typed or handwrote the words. I could watch events unfold for the first time and have the excitement of it all play out before me. Reaching the end of the story and signing my initials and dating the story always brought me great satisfaction. The accomplishment made me happy, but the process of writing brought me joy.

Publishing was the logical next step, even if others hadn’t suggested it. Again, I believed I was good enough to get published. For the record, you should never be ‘good enough.’ Never. Ever. You should always be good, great, awesome, amazing, brilliant, but not ‘enough.’ Enough is like being second place in a two person contest. I know that sounds harsh, but ‘enough’ is not really good. It’s barely getting by, it’s meeting the minimum to not fail. So, first lesson to this post: Never be just ‘enough.’ Never be average when you can be amazing. Oh, and don’t ask ‘what’s wrong with average?’ or say ‘this is who I am.’ Those are excuses to not try. 

So, I was an average writer wanting to be an above average author who really didn’t know what I was doing and who didn’t take the time to or put in the effort to become a better writer. I was just good enough.

For several years I couldn’t get published. I was rejected time and time again until a now defunct webzine published one of my stories. It was called, Diane’s A Whore and Simeon’s Payback. It was truly atrocious. The title alone makes me cringe now. Ah, but getting that story published made me happy, got me excited. It was like a drug and I wanted more of that euphoric high. 

I wrote more bad stories and got published by more bad webzines looking for content they didn’t have to pay much for. Each time I received an acceptance it fed my addiction to get published again and again and again. Hearing someone wanted to publish one of my stories, then seeing it on the computer screen on a webzine intensified that euphoria.

I continued to write, but this time, I didn’t just write a handful of stories a year. For those who didn’t know me in the early 2000s you might find this hard to believe but From 2006-2009 I wrote an average of 126 short stories a year. That’s not including poems, haiku, songs, limericks, novels, blog posts and all the things I didn’t finish. That’s just short stories. Of those 504 stories, maybe a hundred were good. Maybe half that number were good enough. The rest? Slop. 

Though probably 350 or so of those stories weren’t that great, the process of writing and writing so much in such a short period of time was immensely satisfying. I found great joy in the process of creating characters and putting them in crappy situations to see how they managed to survive if they survived. 

I want you to remember one word in that last paragraph for just a little later. JOY. Forget everything else. Okay, well, don’t forget everything else. Just remember JOY.

In 2010, I changed my entire concept—the very idea—of how I was writing. I wrote less stories, but they were longer and fleshed out and the characters were believable. My enJOYment of writing grew, even as I wrote fewer pieces. 

In January of 2012, my first book, Along the Splintered Path, was published by Dark Continents Publishing. I was excited. I was ecstatic. A publisher wanted to put out a book written by me. Sign me up, buttercup. 

In November and December of 2011 and on into early 2012, I had a serious bout of pneumonia. It was bad. Really, really bad. Though I was so sick I would cough until I threw up, and I couldn’t lay down in my bed for nearly two months, I worked on the edits to ATSP and got them back to my editor as quickly as I could. 

The book came out, the reviews were good, the sales were decent, and I was happy. I did interviews to promote the book and things were looking up. Then someone asked me if I planned to put out anything else. More importantly, they said, ‘In order to stay relevant in this business, you need to constantly have new books for the readers to get their hands on.’

What? Relevant? You mean one very good book isn’t going to catapult me to fame and fortune? 

In October of 2012, I released Southern Bones, a collection of 11 short stories. It was the first time I put out a book myself. The process of putting the stories together, editing and getting cover art and learning to format and upload the ebook, then the print version was exhilarating. I was excited and happy with what I had done. With my second book out there, I thought, ‘hey, I’ll get more readers and things will be even better than they are right now.’

That didn’t happen. I did a handful of interviews, but the book didn’t do that well in either sells or reviews. My happiness waned. ‘It’s a good book,’ I lamented. ‘Why aren’t people buying it?’

‘You need a novel,’ someone answered. 

‘Yeah, that’s the ticket,’ I thought. I already had several novels written, but one in particular, stood out. Cory’s Way came out in December of 2014, just in time for Christmas. It did well. It still does well. It is our best-selling book to date. 

I have put out quite a few books since then, some of which you may have read. Each time a book went out, I was happy. Happy. Happy. 

Happy is a fleeting feeling. You accomplish something and you become happy for a minute, then you have to accomplish something else to keep that happiness. You say to yourself, ‘If I only had more money or a better job or a spouse, I will be happy.’ Then you get a better job and it pays you more money and you meet the man or woman of your dreams while working there and get married. You’re happy for a while. Then it wanes. You don’t like the job as much as you used to, you want a raise, and maybe the things you overlooked while dating the man or woman of your dreams you have a hard time overlooking now. Happiness is such a fleeting feeling. 

Do you remember that word I mentioned a few paragraphs up? If not, scroll up and you will find it. I will wait.

Do you have the word? Okay. Say it with me: JOY.

Joy and being Happy are similar but are two different things. 

Happy is feeling or showing pleasure, contentment, according to the Oxford Languages dictionary. A lot of times happy comes after getting something you want or accomplishing something or even marrying someone. It is also fleeting.

Joy is slightly different: A feeling of pleasure and happiness. What brings you joy? Your job? What is it about your job that brings you that joy? Money? What is it about money that brings you that joy? Your spouse? What is it about your spouse that brings you joy? 

Do you follow me so far? Okay, let’s take this a step further.

Enjoyment is the state or process in taking pleasure in something. Right smack dab in the middle of the word enjoyment is the word JOY. Joy is active during the process of doing something. It is called enjoyment for a reason. What do you enjoy doing? What is it that brings you joy?

For me, for the longest time, it was writing and telling stories. The act of telling a story still excites me. However … let’s go back to another thing I said earlier. ‘In order to stay relevant in this business, you need to constantly have new books for the readers to get their hands on.’

Talk about putting pressure on yourself. I took that to heart when it was told to me. I would get antsy if I went too long without a new release. I got frustrated when the books weren’t selling, or the reviews weren’t coming. I kept asking ‘why?’ and not having any logical answers. I promoted the works and even started promoting months in advance. I checked my Amazon numbers obsessively. I checked to see if there were new reviews daily. I questioned myself on whether the books I released were any good. I revamped my social media pages and turned my blog into a full-blown website, all in hopes of driving people to my various pages and upping the sells of books. 

The happiness of a new release was no longer there. It was replaced with ‘I hope this one does better.’ The addictive euphoria was gone. Still, one thing hadn’t really changed: the joy of the process of writing a new story and creating a new book. It waned some and there was a time or six I thought it had died. It didn’t, but it was on life support.

Happiness is fleeting, but joy is always there, even if we don’t realize it, even if we push it out the way because our pursuits and our goals changed.

I put pressure on myself to create stories people would want to read, to put out books that would be good and do well. I put pressure on myself to get readers and reviews and create posts about books on social media and create marketing materials. A lot of writers do. A lot of writers buy into being relevant. A lot of writers buy into the idea of publishing, so much so, they lose the enjoyment of why they write in the first place. 

Why? Why do we do this? My only answers are money, success and … validation. Yes, validation. Writers need publishers and readers and reviews to validate that they are worth a damn at putting words together. It’s not enough to know we are good at this. We need to be told. And that’s the most damning thing of it all. Validation outside of our own minds is the driving force behind so many writers. 

I love writing. I love telling stories. I love the process of putting word after word after word to create sentences that form paragraphs that lead to worlds being opened in my mind and characters being created. I love the act of writing, the process of writing. It is what I enjoy doing. That never fails for me. 

I do not love publishing. I do not love marketing. I do not enjoy the obsession of reviews and hoping readers will find me. 

Creating … creating brings me massive enjoyment. No, it’s not a euphoric high like publishing used to be for me. But it brings me such satisfaction that I want the world to read my stories. 

Recently on Facebook I posted part of a review for my dark collection of stories, Voices. The review was from Scream Magazine and it was extremely good—one of the best reviews I have ever received. Yet sells and more than a handful of reviews didn’t happen for Voices. I was frustrated that one of the best collections I’ve put together had done so poorly. It took the words of a long-time friend and someone I admire to set my mind where it needed to be, to make me think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Here is what my friend, Frank, said:

‘I say that is an excellent review and you shouldn’t overthink it. Unless, of course, what you lust after most in your authorial life is to write for “everyone.”’ And then, ‘Provided you’re content with the quality of what you’ve done … The review you posted flat out confirms you were right about the collection, no ifs ands or buts. The rest is just a crapshoot outside of your control.’

The idea of publishing is grand, and everyone now has the capability of doing it themselves if they choose not to go through a publisher. The idea of publishing so often leads to the need of validation from publishers, readers and other authors who can give us blurbs and help us push our books. The idea of publishing has also ruined the dreams of many writers. Outside of the actual writing and publishing, everything is a crapshoot outside of your control. As writers we overthink things and so many of us small press writers are left scratching our heads and asking ‘why?’

After writing the last 2600 words I no longer believe Simply Put is ready to be released. There needs to be an understanding that you should never let publishing a book or lack of sells and reviews hinder the enjoyment of writing and telling the story. But this isn’t just about writing. It’s about life. Don’t let anything hinder what you enjoy doing. Joy is an active thing. You can actively be joyful and when you are, happiness follows and tends to last longer. And isn’t that what we all want in life? Joy and happiness?

I am writing some of the best stories I have ever written. That joy of writing had been on life support, but now it’s off the respirator and getting its strength back. The joy of creating a book is back and there are several in the works with titles such as The Color of Sorrow and Grim as well as a possible three book set down the road. I still enjoy the process—I’m probably more excited than I have been in a while to create books, then release them. I think you’re going to like what’s coming, starting with Five Deaths on January 12th. I also think everything outside of writing the story is a crapshoot. 

If you’re doing something you used to love and you now longer love it, then you, like me, have probably altered your plans and goals and have forgotten what brings you joy. Be joyful in what you do. It leads to the happiness we all desire, but it also shows in your work. Readers and fans of any type of art can tell when something is forced and when the love of it is gone.

This has been one of the longest post I’ve written, and if you are still here, thank you for indulging me. 

Until we meet again my friends, be joyful, kind and happy.

A.J. 

They Seemed Okay

In April of 2018, I was sitting at a table on Main Street here in Columbia. I was eating a meal with my wife and listening to our favorite local band. The text tone on my phone went off. I didn’t check it. I have this pet peeve where I hate having dinner with someone and that person is constantly answering their texts or phone calls. So, the phone sat on the table, face down at I ate and Prettier Than Matt performed.

The text ring chimed again. And again. And again.

Finally, Cate said to me, “You might want to check that. It could be important.”

I flipped the phone over, typed in my password and checked the text. Cate had been right. It was important. 

I sat staring at my phone and shaking my head. I think I put one hand to my forehead and rubbed. 

“Everything okay?” Cate asked.

I shook my head. “No. (Name that shall not be mentioned) committed suicide last night.”

I wiped my mouth and responded to the multiple texts that I had received about the death of a friend. Just the night before I had talked to him—less than 24 hours earlier and he ‘seemed okay.’ 

Fast forward almost a year later. It’s now April 1st, 2019. I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed when I see an announcement that stopped my scrolling. A friend of mine’s son had posted on his mother’s page that she had died in her sleep. I thought it was a bad April Fool’s Day joke and I sent my friend a PM. 

It wasn’t a joke. She didn’t respond and by the time her mom responded a month later, her death had been confirmed by multiple people. It had been speculated she didn’t just go to sleep and not wake up. 

My friend had depression issues. She and I had talked about it on more than a handful of occasions. A few days before we had talked. Plans were being made for projects we were working on, for things she wanted to work on. She ‘seemed okay.’

In the last couple of years, four of my friends committed suicide. 

I’m going to pause here and let that sink in.

Fast forward to just a few days before Christmas of one of the toughest years ever, 2020. A friend of mine posted about his daughter’s sudden passing. I saw it, but said nothing right away. I thought my friend from my teen years probably needed his space, needed to grieve. 

The Monday after Christmas, I sent him a message. I’m going to be honest here: I was worried about him and I didn’t expect him to answer so quickly. Within two minutes, he responded and it shocked me to the point of nausea and speechlessness. His sweet, teenaged daughter had committed suicide. 

It brought tears to my eyes. His daughter was the same age as my son. My stomach knotted and I could only shake my head in shock and disbelief.

I’m still shocked.

I don’t know the situation behind my friend’s daughter’s suicide, but the two people I mentioned and the two I did not all had depression and anxiety issues. One of them suffered from PTSD and injuries he received while serving in the military overseas. My four friends all dealt with some form of mental illness, whether it was depression, anxiety or PTSD. Two of them didn’t think they measured up to the world’s standards. One of them was lonely and raising kids by herself. Her depression was debilitating, as was my military friend’s.

Listen to me for a moment. All of you who read this, all of you who follow this page, please listen to me. Mental illness is no joke. Depression is no joke. Anxiety is no joke. It’s as serious as Cancer and heart disease and any other sickness that can be deadly. 

Sadly, there is a stigma surrounding these things. You hear things like, that person is just seeking attention, or it’s not that bad, just a little sadness, or it’s all in their head, or, worse still, it’s just an excuse for whatever that person doesn’t want to do or deal with.

So often people who suffer from any form of mental or emotional illness are told to get over it, to rub some dirt on it, or any other way of saying this is a nonissue and they’re making more out of it than it is. I don’t cuss much on my website, but I’m just going to say this: that’s bullshit. People who deal with these issues can’t just get over it, can’t just move on or rub some dirt on it or man up. It’s a big issue for them. Sometimes it’s so difficult they can’t bring themselves to get out of bed or to go out around people. Sometimes the cloud of gray they are surrounded in is so thick and all encompassing that they see only one way out. They don’t see any sunshine on the other side of those clouds. For some—for many—there is only damp, cold and rainy days.

I’m not going to sit here and say I understand suicide. I don’t. I’ve never gotten why people choose to end their lives instead of seeking help. [[Let me clarify one thing before I continue: I think I do understand when someone is suffering from a terminal illness or who is losing their mental facilities thanks to illnesses like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.]] Here’s the thing: where are you going to get help from these days? It’s such a stigma that talking about it to others sometimes makes things worse in the fact that those people sometimes look at you differently once you air your depression or anxieties out. Sometimes reaching out can make things worse if you reach out to the wrong person. How wrong is that?

“They have issues.”

Don’t we all? Don’t we all have something that touches us in a way that hurts us on a whole different level? Don’t we all have our own demons we have to deal with? Just because someone can get over something doesn’t mean the next person can. Each person is different. 

We can medicate, but that’s not treating the issue, it’s treating the symptom. If you want to get to the cure or even to the ability to maintain this, you have to treat the root. You can snip the leaves all you want, but until the root is treated, the plant will keep growing. That’s not to say some people don’t need medication—they most certainly do, but that’s not always the cure. 

We can seek counsel from a therapist. That’s a start. Even that isn’t always going to help. 

What I think—and please understand these are my thoughts and how I feel about this and nothing more—is until we start taking the different forms of mental illness serious, it’s going to get worse. Until we start educating ourselves, our children and our leaders, about mental illnesses, it’s going to continue to get worse. We need to look at mental illnesses, not as a stigma or as something to be ashamed of, but as something that can be talked about, that can be openly discussed without being ridiculed or treated differently. Until we accept that many people can’t just ‘deal with things’ we’re never going to get hold of this.

And, again, listen. This is important. I mentioned ‘get over it’ earlier. Don’t say that. Ever. Just don’t do it.

She’s probably going to kill me for this, but my daughter has anxiety problems. Every feeling she has is amplified. She feels things on a much deeper level than I do. When she has a panic attack it’s a big deal. For the longest time, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand she couldn’t control them or when they happened or how long they lasted. For me it was as simple as ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ Essentially, that is just a lousy way to say an even lousier ‘get over it.’

I want to say this and I want to be clear about this: I. Was. Wrong. It should have never been ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ It should have been, ‘talk to me, tell me what’s going on, help me understand so I can help you.’ Don’t get me wrong, my default setting wasn’t get over it. It was to try and help, but when I couldn’t help, get over it became that default setting. That was shitty of me. I hate that I couldn’t help, but I hate even more my eventual reaction. It was wrong and it could have led to far worse things. I know this now and I’m thankful my daughter has learned the warning signs for when a panic attack is coming and that she can put herself in a place, mentally, to handle it—not to deal with it, but handle it. 

A panic attack can be as debilitating as any longterm pain. It’s a heightened form of anxiety that grabs hold of you like an angry dog to a bone, and it doesn’t let go so easily. Depression is the same way.

I wasn’t raised to understand depression, anxiety, panic attacks or any other form of mental illness. If I was sad then that’s all it was. If I feared something, then it was me being irrational. If I was unhappy, I had to ‘get over it.’ It took me a long time to understand that this is something that can crush a person and lead them to make decisions that I still don’t understand. 

Life is precious and the minutes are so few. I always thought from the time you take your first breath you begin dying, so why speed the process up? I don’t understand suicide. I don’t understand the mindset you have to be in to make that decisions. I’ve written about suicide in some of my fiction and I’ve tried to understand the pain and sadness of someone on the verge of ending his or her life. It’s a dark space to go as a writer. I imagine it is so much darker as someone struggling with depression and any other mental illness.

So, where does all this rambling leave us? It leaves us with me saying—no, begging—please, world, stop frowning on those who struggle with the various forms of depression and mental illnesses. Please, take their hand and help them. Please, don’t just listen to them talk, but actually hear them. You don’t always have to have the solution, but have the empathy to be a friend, and for Heaven’s sake, love them. Love them in a way that leaves them feeling loved, in a way they believe they are loved. Don’t be critical and rude and don’t tell them to ‘get over it.’ 

We all need to know someone cares—All. Of. Us.—so be that person who cares. Reach out, even if your friend or family member ‘seems okay.’ My two friends at the beginning of this ‘seemed okay’ when I talked to them last. They weren’t.

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

A.J.

The Story of Orville Hammonds

The old man was tired. He walked up the road with a limp and slightly hunched over. It felt like it had been years since he sat at the table with a sandwich in front of him, though it had only been less than five hours. 

The old man’s name was Orville Hammonds and before that night he didn’t feel old. He considered himself a youthful sixty-three. But right then, he felt like a used up eighty-one, with aches and pains he didn’t normally feel on a daily basis.

I’ll be feeling this tomorrow, he thought and continued his slow trek up West Lincoln Drive, a road he never considered a drive at all, more like a Street—a dead end street. To his left is where the Taylor’s lived. On the right is where the widow Lawson lived, she of ninety plus years who still got along like she was his age and not almost thirty years his senior. 

He looked up the road and he remembered.

Orville arrived home from work that evening a little after six, having made a stop at Jerry’s Deli on West End Street. He got the Jerry Special, complete with ham, turkey, chicken and sliced pepper jack. Jerry tossed on lettuce, tomato and a homemade mustard that was better than anything Orville could get from a store. A bag of chips and a sweet tea came with the special, as well as a cookie—chocolate chip for Orville. 

He didn’t bother with changing his clothes or even taking the heavy work boots off. Though he no longer did much construction, he still oversaw half a dozen projects for Mr. McGuinn and still wore steel toed boots and carried a sharp knife in his back pocket. Orville sat at the table, a small pinch alive in the right side of his back, thanks to a seventeen foot drop off a scaffolding six years earlier. The broken back was bad, but the spinal cord wasn’t damaged. Four surgeries and hours of physical therapy later and he went back to work, just not climbing ladders or scaffolds. 

Orville set his cell phone by the sandwich, took the top off his tea, and set it aside before taking a long swallow from the cup. The tea was good—not too sweet the way Alice made it when she lived here. He started to unwrap the sandwich when a knock came at the door. He looked at his watch. It was nearing seven and he rarely had company. Still, he stood, went to the door, and opened it just as the person on the other side went to knock again. 

He started to say something like, ‘Can I help you?’ but stopped when he saw the gun. He glanced up. The person on his porch had an Iron Main mask on.

“Halloween’s not for another two months, Mister.”

Iron Man held the gun up, pointing it at Orville’s face. “Get inside.”

Orville raised his hands in a surrender gesture and stepped from the door. Iron Man entered the house and closed the door behind him. 

“I don’t know what you want, but—”

Iron Man swung the gun. It struck Orville in the left cheek. A flair of pain erupted. The skin split and blood spilled from the wound, Orville’s head jerked to the right and he spun on his heel before losing his balance and falling to the floor. He raised his hand to touch the wound. He could already feel swelling below his eye. Another explosion of pain came, this time near his right ear. 

Orville collapsed and his world ran away from him.

He woke with a headache and his left eye swollen nearly shut. He could feel wetness on his cheek and jaw and soaked through the shoulder of his shirt. His head was down, chin on his chest, as if he had bowed to pray. He tried to move his arms, but they were bound behind his back. His right ear had a low ringing in it that hurt as much as his head and cheek did, if not more. Orville blinked his right eye several times trying to blink away the fog and confusion in his head.

“About time you woke up,” someone said.

Orville lifted his head slowly and winced as a fresh pain blossomed in his neck and the back of his skull. He closed his good eye, lowered his head again and waited for the pain to ease off. 

“I thought I killed you back there.”

The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it with the ringing in his ear.

How did I get here? he thought and tried to recall the last thing he could. It was still hazy, but he knew it had something to do with Halloween and some superhero. 

A hand grabbed Orville’s chin and lifted his face. The man half kneeling in front of him wasn’t wearing a mask.

He was Iron Man, Orville thought. He was Iron Man and now he’s not even Tony Stark.

“Hey, old man. Did I scramble your brains or are you with me here?”

He recognized the face. It was thin, as if the man in front of him had missed a few meals. His nose was too big for his face and pointy at the end. His eyes were as thin as his face and body was. Sparse hairs clung to his upper lip, chin and along his jawline. He looked like a weasel in human skin. His left arm had needle marks in it.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yeah.” 

Orville sounded weak, like someone so much older than he was. 

“Good,” the man said and released Orville’s face but not without giving it a good shove to the side. 

White dots filled Orville’s vision as the throbbing in the back of his head increased. His stomach did a somersault, then quivered. Orville swallowed hard, hoping to keep what little he had in his stomach from coming up. He took a deep breath, licked his dry lips, and forced himself to look up.

“I know you,” he said. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say, but it came out anyway.

“Or course you do, old man.”

“You’re Crawford.” Orville shook his head slightly. That was wrong. “Your last name is Crawford. Your dad used to work for the county.”

“He used to. He’s dead now.”

Orville blinked several times. The vision in his right eye had begun to clear and he knew where he was: the dining room in Gary Crawford’s house at the end of the road. The wood dining table sat in front of him, covered in papers and various odds and ends, including a laptop that sat closed, a ledger, a penholder with various pens and a letter opener sitting inside of it. Orville didn’t sit quite behind the table but slightly off to the side. His hands were loosely bound between his back and the chair. He could see the doorway that led to the kitchen and the bright white light coming from it. If what Crawford’s son said was true, then Gary was dead, and Orville probably was as good as dead.

“What?” Crawford asked. “You’re not going to ask how he died?”

Orville gave a short shake of the head. “No.”

“Suit yourself, old man.”

“What do you want?” His voice was getting stronger. His head was clearing with each passing minute.

“What do I want? You want to know what I want, old man?”

“That’s what I asked.”

He could see Crawford fine now. He looked more like a weasel than he could ever recall. He guessed that was because this kid—what was his name?—had always been some kind of trouble. Gary had told him as much over the years. ‘That kid’s got problems. He’s going to be a handful when he’s older.’ And he had been, getting in trouble with the law on many occasions, the least of which was DUI and reckless driving. There had been a drug arrest as well and sitting there in Gary Crawford’s kitchen, his hands bound behind his back, he had a feeling drugs might have played a part in his actions that night.

Orville, moved his wrist, trying to keep his shoulders still but not certain he did a good job of it. The rope was looser than he thought, and he believed he could eventually work one hand free. If he could do that …

Then what? What are you going to do? The kid has a gun.

I don’t see it.

You saw it earlier, when you opened the door like an idiot.

He conceded to that rationale. 

“An old man like you,” Crawford began, “I bet you have a nice little savings, don’t you?”

If he were to tell the truth, Orville didn’t really have a nice little savings. When Alice filed for divorce shortly after the accident, she took a lot of his money and assets with him. He got the house, but only because she didn’t want it. Ellen, their daughter had been angry with her mom.

‘You’re abandoning Dad when he needs you most.’

‘This was a long time coming, Ellie,’

‘His back is broken, What is he going to do?’

He heard the argument while laying in the hospital bed, having been there all of eleven days at that point. They thought he had been asleep. 

‘I’ll be fine,’ he said.

Both women turned to him. Ellen’s eyes were wet with tears. Alice had a shocked drop-jaw look on her face. Then she clamped her mouth shut and left the room. It was the last time Orville saw her outside of a courtroom. 

“I have a little,” he said. “Is that what this is about? Money?”

“Isn’t that what everything’s about?”

“No.”

“Really, old man?”

“I wish you’d stop calling me old man.”

“That’s what you are, an old, washed up man. You couldn’t even keep your wife. At least my mom died, and my dad didn’t lose her the way you did.”

Orville said nothing to this.

“Didn’t like that, eh, old man?”

“Not particularly.”

Crawford laughed, his head tipping. As suddenly as he began laughing, he stopped, approached Orville with a sneer on his face. “It’s not about money, old man,” he said before swinging a fist at him. The chair tipped back. For the second time that night, Orville was on the floor unconscious.

***

When Ellen was thirteen, she began showing signs of the woman she would become. Some of the young boys in her class noticed. One of the older boys did as well. This boy was seventeen and had taking a shine to Ellen. Alice thought it was cute, said, ‘It’s just puppy love.’

‘Puppy love is what kids get. That boy is no kid.’

‘He’s harmless.’

‘He’s almost an adult.’

It was one of those arguments where there was no winner and no loser, but it was one of many wedges that would drive Alice and Orville apart, even if they stayed married longer than they should have. 

Still, Orville had an uneasy feeling about the boy, about the way he looked at her. He knew that look and he knew it wasn’t puppy love. It was only a matter of time before something would happen. This much he was positive of. And he had been right.

Ellen woke one night to someone peeking into her window. She was too afraid to yell. Instead, she crawled out of bed and slowly left the room as if she needed to pee. She had closed the door and ran up the hall to their bedroom. She didn’t turn the lights on, and she didn’t scream. She only said, ‘Dad, there’s someone outside my window.’

Orville got out of bed, put on a pair of pants and said, ‘Go get in bed. Act like you don’t know he’s there. I’ll take care of it.’

He put on his boots and grabbed a small baseball bat he got at a minor league baseball game in Columbia. It wasn’t much longer than a foot, but it was solid and when he caught the boy outside her window, it only took one swing to the back for him to go down. 

That boy was Brady Crawford.

***

Orville was only unconscious for a few minutes before he woke. He was on the floor where he had fallen, the chair to his side and his hands still behind his back. He remembered the boy’s name now. Brady Crawford. He also knew why he was there. No, it wasn’t about money, though he supposed in some way it was. If not, Brady wouldn’t have brought it up before knocking him out again. This was also about revenge for being caught outside Ellen’s window nearly twenty years earlier. 

Some people have long memories.

Orville looked around the dining room and saw no one, at least not from where he was. He rolled onto his back, winced when he got onto his other hip. No one was there. Orville tried to sit up but that did no good. Instead, he rolled back onto his other side off his bad hip and leg and started working his wrists from side to side, hoping the rope would loosen even more than it was. 

The rope burned against his skin as he pulled at it until finally one wrist tore free. He pushed up to a sitting position. His shoulders hurt. His wrists bled. His left elbow was swollen where he had fallen from the chair. 

Get up. Get out of here.

Orville got onto his knees. He reached for the table with one hand and began to pull himself up. He was halfway to standing when his back seized up on him. Orville let out a cry of pain and dropped back to his hands and knees. Without being able to stand, he didn’t think there was any way he would make it out of there. Not in the pain he was in. 

I have to try.

He tried to remember the layout of the house. It had been a long time since he had been there and that had been when Gary’s wife, Janet, died. 

I’m in the dining room. The kitchen is straight ahead. There is a doorway off to the right, no, the left. The living room is there. To the right is a hallway? I can’t remember but that doesn’t matter—the front door is across from the doorway to the kitchen. I need to get there.

If he were able to stand and walk, he could be there in half a minute at most. But there would be no walking. Not right now.

Orville turned toward the kitchen door and began to crawl. It was slow going. Every time he moved his right leg, his back and hip screamed with a fresh, sharp pain that almost took his breath away. 

Thirty seconds had come and gone several times over when he reached the entrance to the kitchen. The overhead light washed the room in a yellow hue. The refrigerator stood directly to his right and the stove was across from it. He didn’t look around to see what else was in there, or if someone were hiding. He crawled across the gray tiled floor until he reached the doorway leading to the living room. 

The light was off, but he could make out the couch along the far wall, the television to his left, the hallway to his right and the recliner near the front door. His heart sped up. Someone sat in the recliner, his head tilted toward him. He didn’t think it was Brady—the person in the chair was too big. 

He remained in the doorway for a minute, maybe longer, waiting for the person in the recliner to move, to say something, to get up and attack him but none of that happened. 

He must be asleep.

Orville eased out of the kitchen and into the living room. He crawled slowly toward the door, his eyes on the person in the recliner, his heart trip hammering in his chest and sweat beading across his forehead. He held his breath for as long as possible, then let it out in what he hoped was a silent stream. He was halfway across the room by the time his eyes adjusted to the light and he was able to make out Gary Crawford in the recliner. He wasn’t asleep and he wasn’t looking at Orville. One eye was open, but the other one was missing. What looked like blood caked the right side of his face. Gary Crawford was dead, just like Brady said he was. 

Orville crawled again, a little faster than before, even with the incessant pain running along the right side of his body. He reached the door and grabbed the knob. It turned easily enough but the door didn’t open. He pulled on it again with no luck. He looked up. There was a bolt lock near the top of the door.

Oh boy.

Orville put his left hand on the wall and his right on the doorknob, He pulled himself up enough to get his right leg under him, then he pushed up. He grimaced. The pain increased and his stomach began to hurt. Orville hugged the door and wall in front of him, both hands up, his face against the cool wood of the door. Then he reached up, slid the bolt to the right. It let out a loud click that made him flinch. He grabbed the knob and turned it.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

He heard Brady before he felt the pain in his lower back. He let out a yell and clutched the small of his back before his legs buckled and dropped him to the floor again. He rolled onto his side, his eyes clenched shut, his lips peeled back, showing his yellowing teeth. 

“I bet that hurt, didn’t it, old man?”

Orville opened his good eye to see Brady towering over him. In his hand was a familiar object. It was the same bat Orville had struck Brady with all those years ago as he stood outside Ellen’s window, groping himself and no doubt fantasizing about the things he wanted to do to her. 

Brady smacked his open hand with the barrel of the bat. It made a meaty THWACK sound each time he did so. 

“Oh, look what I found at your house.” Brady held up the bat, waving it near his head before bringing it back down on his open palm again. “Bet you didn’t expect that, did you, old man?”

Orville said nothing. He had a feeling that would not be the only time Brady would strike him with the bat and the next time it may not be in the back. He stared at Brady as he slipped his right hand behind his back and into the back pocket of his jeans. 

“I see you found Dad.”

“What did you do to him?” He didn’t think it mattered. He could see what had happened, but maybe getting Brady to talk could buy him time. 

“Are you blind? I killed him. Shot him in the eye with his own gun. You know, kind of like I hit you in your back with your bat. Talk about turn about is fair play.”

Orville gripped the knife in his right hand and slowly pulled it free from his pocket. He turned it over in his palm until it was in his hand correctly and his thumb was on the blade assist button that would spring the knife open, not unlike a switchblade. 

Brady tapped his hand again, then without warning, brought the bat across the side of Orville’s left leg. It struck just above the knee in the fatty part of the thigh. Orville screamed again and grabbed for his leg. He saw Brady’s arm go back again and moved his hand just before the bat struck his leg again, this time a little further up. 

Orville tried to move but could only manage to squirm a few inches. Again, he saw Brady’s arm go back. He swung again for the thigh, striking it in the same place as the last time. Orville tried not to scream but still did, even as he grabbed the bat’s barrel and yanked. 

Brady tipped off balance with a sentence that was clipped off when he landed on the floor beside Orville. “What the …”

Orville brought the knife from behind his back and drove it into Brady’s side. It sank between two ribs.

This time, Brady screamed. It was loud and painful sounding, like a dog that had its tail snipped off. Brady rolled to the side. He dropped the bat and grabbed at the wound. 

“You … you stabbed me.”

Orville said nothing. His leg and back and hip hurt, and the pain was almost blinding. 

“You stabbed me.”

Orville sat up the best he could and scooted away from him, pushing with his right leg as the useless left one dragged along. His back struck the door. From there he could see Brady was also sitting up. One hand held his ribs. Blood seeped between the fingers. 

“I’m going to kill you, old man, and it’s going to hurt.”

Brady started to stand but stopped. He looked around until he found what he was looking for. He smiled and picked up the bat. 

Orville scooted to his right and put one hand on the recliner. By the time he had the other one on the recliner—on Gary Crawford’s cold, dead arm—Brady was to his feet. 

Brady shook his head as he smiled at Orville. He held the bat in both hands and raised it over his head. 

Oh crap.

Orville lifted his left arm, his hand out in front of him. He swung his right hand forward as the bat struck three fingers. Orville howled as two of the fingers broke. Brady screamed as the knife struck him in the crotch. Brady dropped to his knees then fell onto his side. The bat clattered against the floor. Both of Brady’s hands went to his crotch and he rolled from side to side, his legs pulled to his chest. 

Orville still held the knife in his hand. Blood dripped from its blade, but it was the bat he wanted. He wiped the blood from the blade and closed it with his one good hand and slipped it into his back pocket. Carefully, he bent down, his lips pulled back from his teeth as bolts of pain coursed through his back, hip, thigh and knee. He crawled the few feet to where Brady rolled around holding his privates as blood spilled between his fingers.

***

On the night Brady peeked through Ellen’s window, probably not for the first time but certainly the last, Orville wanted to kill him. He had warned Alice about the boy, but she thought he was overreacting. He didn’t kill him. No, he only struck him the one time in the lower back. It was enough to send Brady to the ground, screaming and crying. 

What Orville did after that was call the police. He didn’t know if it would matter, but he hoped it would deter Brady from ever peeping into a female’s window again. More than that, he hoped it broke him of possibly becoming a sexual predator. 

Gary Crawford came down a few days later to apologize.

‘He’s going to spend a few weeks at The Mannassah Hall Institute for Boys.’

‘I hate that it came to this.’

‘Me, too, and I really am sorry.’

It was the last conversation Gary and Orville would have until Janet died. He hoped the boy would turn the corner and do better, if not for himself, then for his parents. 

He was wrong.

***

On the evening Brady Crawford killed his dad with his own gun and kidnapped Orville with plans to do something similar, Orville Hammond brought the foot long souvenir bat down on Brady’s head and arms, until both arms were broken and Brady was both still and silent. He tossed the bat aside and dropped to the floor. He lay there for several minutes, his eyes closed. He felt himself fading toward sleep. 

“No.”

Orville struggled to stand, but he managed by using the armrest of the recliner and the wall for leverage. He looked back at Brady and shook his head. Then he opened the front door and slowly shambled outside. He stood on the porch looking up at the night sky. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen. Stars hung like ornaments on the black backdrop. The moon wasn’t quite full, and it looked like a giant spotlight in the sky. He didn’t think he would see another night and maybe he won’t after this one, but the moon and stars were beautiful. It was as if he saw them for the first time. 

It took him several minutes to get down the steps, then several more to make it to the end of the sidewalk and into the road. 

Orville turned to his right. His house was twelve houses away. He took a deep breath, released it and started for home. He limped along, slightly hunched over trying to alleviate the pain in his back any way possible but failing miserably. He reached his house sometime after midnight, but he would swear more than five hours had passed since he sat to eat a sandwich from Jerry’s Deli.

It was a struggle to get up the steps but not get inside. The door had been unlocked and the lights left on. The living room had been ransacked and he bet if he searched the house, the other rooms would have been just as turned upside down. 

Orville went into the small room that served as both den and dining room. His tea, sandwich and cellphone sat where he left them. The top to the cup lay beside the cellphone. Orville sat at the table, picked up his phone and dialed 9-1-1. He gave the dispatcher—a woman who sounded like she gargled with razor blades on more than one occasion—the information on two dead bodies as well as his address. He figured the cops would want to talk to him about what happened, and he was okay with that. He might even get in trouble for what he had done to Brady. He guessed he wasn’t so okay with that one. 

As he sat at the table, he carefully unwrapped the sandwich, the broken fingers making it difficult. He heard sirens off in the distance as he took the first bite.

AJB

BLINK, A Short Story

BLINK

There’s a girl walking on the side of a country road. Her back is to the traffic. She can’t be much older than eleven, maybe thirteen. She wears faded blue jeans and a white shirt. Her hair is blonde, and it flows down to her shoulder blades—not too long, not too short. In her left arm is a brown paper bag. 

It is 1982.

BLINK

A half mile down the road is a convenience store, a block building painted yellow years before. A glass door at the front of the store is the only way in and the only way out. A small cowbell dangles above it, letting out a hollow CLUNK each time the door opens and closes. Most people don’t notice it. 

The store sells everything a small country town could need. 

Jim Baker sits behind a wooden counter. He’s a year passed sixty and looks like he could be older. His hair is thin and unkempt, his eyebrows bushy. He’s slightly overweight and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. 

A cash register with small round number buttons and a fatter button used to make the drawer open sits atop the counter. There is eighty-four dollars in the drawer, mostly ones and fives, but at least one ten dollar bill. The rest of the money is in a lockbox under the counter, next to a shotgun he keeps loaded. He has never had to use it and he hopes to never have to.

BLINK

Betty sits on a couch. It’s frame is wooden, the cushions orange and brown. She bought it in 1978 when the style was still popular, but she doesn’t chase bad purchases with good money. No, not since her husband died and left her and the daughter he fathered with little to nothing in money. 

She’s too big to get a job. Her hair was once long and blonde and kinky with curls, but over the last three years she has kept it short, barely on the shoulders, and with no curls. She wears too much makeup, though she never leaves the house. Blue eye shadow, rosy rouged cheeks, and the lipstick color of the day. 

She sits on the couch most days from sun up to sun down, watching her shows. Game shows (her favorite has always been The Price is Right with Bob Barker) and her soap operas, though there is never any singing, and as far as she knew, never any soap. Still, she loves them, and she hasn’t missed an episode of Days of Our Lives in over nine years. 

They live off of Social Security benefits.

She reaches for her cigarettes only to see the pack is empty.

BLINK

Carl Yelder drifts from town to town, mostly doing odd jobs for a few dollars here and there. He doesn’t carry much with him, a change of clothes in a bag, some deodorant, and that’s about all. He’s not much to look at and most people, if asked, wouldn’t remember him. Brown hair and brown eyes, a scraggly beard that wasn’t really a beard at all, but just some hairs on his face gone awry. His not big and he’s not little. He’s average in every way, shape and form, right down to his average jeans, average t-shirt and average sneakers. 

Currently, Carl stands on the road, his bag in hand, and stares at a convenience store that has no name. He walks across the dirt parking lot and enters the store. A cowbell above the door CLUNKS his arrival twice. He glanced up at it. It wasn’t a big cowbell, but it did its job.

The big guy behind the counter eyes him suspiciously. Carl takes no offense to it—most people who work in small places like this eyeball him, expecting him to use his five finger discount to lift something from the store without paying. 

Carl nods. The big guy doesn’t. 

BLINK

The young girl’s name is Alecia. She is a shade over eleven, but not quite thirteen—she is twelve and life has never been carefree for her. With no father—killed by a gunshot wound to the head that was ruled a suicide—and a mother too obese to do much more than sit on a couch all day, Alecia has had to grow up a lot faster than the few friends she has. 

As if having to act like an adult instead of a kid isn’t bad enough, her body is changing. Where there were no curves three or four months ago there are now. Her period arrived two months ago and what used to be a flat chest had begun to develop breasts. The boys who never noticed her before all notice her now. 

She hates it. She hates all of it. 

At the convenience store, she grabs a half gallon of milk. 

The sound of the cowbell grabs her attention away from the aisle with the snack cakes on them. A man enters. She glances at him, then looks back to the snack cakes. She picks out a pack of chocolate iced, vanilla cream filled Zingers. They are her favorite.

At the counter, she asks for a pack of Virginia Slims.

“You’re kind of young to be smoking,” Jim Baker says with a smile. He knows who the cigarettes are for. Then he asks about her mother. 

“She’s fine,” Alecia says. 

Jim punches in the prices of the few items she has. “That will be Five dollars and nineteen cents, Alecia.” He says this, then his eyes drift down to her chest for a second. He looks back at her face, but she saw his eyes, she saw how he looked at her. 

Alecia hands him two fives, waits for her change, then she says, “See you next time.”

Jim nods. “You be careful out there, Alecia.”

She turns away, nods and smiles at the stranger, then leaves the convenience store. She doesn’t think the guy checked her out the way Jim did, but it doesn’t matter. She feels dirty and all she wants to do is get away from them. 

BLINK

Betty stands, not without significant effort. She’s not quite out of breath when she gets upright, but close enough. She walks across the room to the front window. She opens the curtain and looks out at the front yard. The lawn is in dire need of cutting. A car sits in the cracked driveway, the front driver’s side wheel flat, dirt and grime caking the windows. It hasn’t been driven in years. 

Across the street is Sue Ellen Jacobs. She has no kids, and her husband is still alive. She stands at the mailbox going over the few pieces in her hands.

“Enjoy it while you can,” Betty says and places her face to the window. She tries to see up the road, but barely sees beyond her yard. She lets out a heavy sigh and heads back to her couch. The commercials only last so long and she doesn’t want to miss anything juicy. 

BLINK

Carl goes to the glass drink coolers against the wall. He grabs a Coke, then walks back toward the checkout counter.

The young girl is there. She hands the guy behind the counter two fives. They chat for a second, he asking how her mom was doing, she replying her mom is well. There is a see you next time and be careful out there exchanged, then the girl leaves. She glances at Carl and smiles. It’s nothing flirty or anything, just her being courteous.

Carl nods. 

He sets his drink on the counter and waits as the guy looks at him.

“Is that all?” the man asks.

Carl nods. “Unless you have work I can do, then yes.”

The man doesn’t really consider his comment before saying, “I have no work for you and the Coke is forty cents. Do you have that much?”

Carl does.

BLINK

Alecia shakes her head. She’s annoyed with herself. She forgot the matches for her mother’s cigarettes. She turns around, bag tucked under her left arm and goes back to the convenience store.

BLINK

Jim watches the young man leave, Coke in hand and his head down. The cowbell above the door makes its hollow sound as he exits. For a few seconds more, Jim stares at the door, not certain if, but believing the man might return. He doesn’t believe the man wanted work, but more likely he wanted a freebie. And what if Jim had work for him? He thought the guy would get in good, maybe work a few days, then take off with all the money in the cash register.

“Not happening,” he says and reaches down, feeling for the shotgun that brings him instant security. 

When the door opens the next time, he glances up. He smiles the best he can. “Back so soon?”

BLINK

Days of Our Lives ends on its usual daily cliffhanger. Betty looks at the clock on the wall near the door between the living room and kitchen. It’s now three in the afternoon.

“Where’s that girl?” she asks the air. “She should have been back by now.”

Betty smacks her lips together. She can go for a cigarette right about now. She usually has one when Days goes off. But not today. No, not today, all because Alecia hasn’t arrived back from the store. 

It’s not that far away, she thinks. 

It is further than she thinks, at almost three miles from here to there. For Alecia it takes an hour there and an hour back and a few minutes in between for the shopping for of the items Betty sent her for. 

Like earlier, she struggles to stand and is out of breath when she gets to her feet. When she goes to the window this time there is no Sue Ellen Jacobs and her carefree world. There is also no Alecia.

“Hmmph.”

Betty turns from the window and shuffles from the living room and down the hallway to her bedroom. The room has a musty smell, like sweat and armpits, but she doesn’t notice the very scent she wears. She goes to a small end table near the bed and opens it. She frowns. The pack of cigarettes she keeps there is gone. 

And so is something else, the gun her husband used to kill himself with.

BLINK

Carl leaves the store with no name with his Coke in hand. Even though he has been treated with the same suspicious eyes for as long as he has been on the road, it still bothers him. He is a good person who hasn’t given anyone a reason to treat him poorly. That’s the way of the travelling man, he supposes. 

He crosses the dirt lot and steps into the road. He turns to the left and starts back the way he came. He’s probably half a mile up the road before he realizes he is walking in the opposite direction he means to go. 

“I must have gotten shook up a little.”

He turns around and heads back toward the store. He has no plans to stop in, not with the warm reception he received the first time.

From where he is he can see the store. Someone walks out but that person is too far off in the distance for him to make out any features. He barely makes out what could be jeans and a t-shirt but could also be slacks and a pullover. He honestly can’t tell. 

As he approaches the store, his stomach grumbles.

BLINK

“I forgot the matches,” Alecia says and walks up to the register.

She can see Jim’s eyes roam down to her chest, then back up to her face. Color forms in his cheeks when their eyes meet. She shakes her head.

“Can I have the matches, please.”

“Umm … yeah, yeah. Sure, Alecia.”

He plucks a box from the left of the register and holds them out to her. She looks at the box but doesn’t take it.

“Can you set them on the counter, please?”

She’s young but not dumb. She’s seen that look before. She reaches behind her.

“Oh no, it’s on the house,” Jim says. 

“Does that mean free?”

“Yes. Yes, it’s free.”

“Thank you,” she says and brings her hand from behind her back.

Alecia smiles.

Jim’s eyes grow wide.

BLINK

Betty paces the room. She doesn’t like that Alecia hasn’t returned from the store. She should have by now.

What if something happened to her?

It’s a natural thought for a mother to have when her child has been gone longer than she should have been. Then came the next thought, the true nature of her concern.

You better hope nothing has happened to her. Without her there is no Social Security check.

The true nature of her concern comes out in that moment. She licks her lips. They feel dry. Her hands and armpits are sweaty. She smells rotten onions on her skin, a sure sign she is nervous. She looks out the window, but sees no one, especially not Alecia. She steps onto the porch to get a better look but doesn’t see her daughter walking back up the street toward her. 

“Where are you?” she growls and stomps back inside. She slams the door behind her and goes to her chair. She has lost all interest in the television. She wants her cigarettes. She tells herself she needs them. Her hands shake and sweat breaks out along her forehead.

“Just wait until you get home, Alecia.”

BLINK

Carl stands in front of the store with no name again. He doesn’t want to go inside, but he is hungry, and hunger trumps the lack of desire to go somewhere he isn’t necessarily wanted. He takes a deep breath and walks across the parking lot. 

He enters the store. The cowbell clunks its two times. There is no one standing behind the counter. He stands there for a minute. Something feels off. 

“Hello?” he calls out. “I’m back.” 

He waits. When he hears nothing, he takes a tentative step, then another. 

“Hello? I’m just going to get a bag of chips or something. Maybe a pack of cookies. Anyone? Hello?”

Carl walks down the aisle where the snacks are. He grabs a bag of chips, then walks a little further and picks out a pack of chocolate chip cookies. He makes his way to the counter, listening and looking for the old man. He goes to set his snacks on the counter, then stops. There is a spatter of red that looks like …

That’s blood, Carl.

On the floor behind the counter is the old man. He is on his side, but Carl doesn’t need to ask him if he is okay. The amount of blood that has pooled around his head tells him, oh no, the man is not okay.

Carl runs from the store, his snacks forgotten. The cowbell clunks and he runs out to the road. Then he stops. He had seen someone leaving earlier. 

What if that person saw something? Then, he thought, What if that person did something?

Carl Yelder has had his fair share of troubles in his life, but he doesn’t want to add murder—especially one he didn’t commit—to the list and be framed for it. He runs. He runs with his Coke still in his left hand and the snacks back on the counter of the store with no name. 

He runs until he sees someone off in the distance walking.

BLINK

A young girl walks along the side of the road with a brown paper bag in her hand.

From behind her comes footsteps and someone shouting.

BLINK

She’s mad. She’s madder than she’s been in years. She thought she was mad when her Pete went and killed himself, but that’s nothing compared to how she feels right now. 

That girl, she thinks. She’s done stole my gun and stole my money and ran away.

She would call the police if she had a phone, but that was one of the first things to go when the bills came due and she didn’t have the money to pay for it. She could go to a neighbor’s house and use the phone, but that means going down those steps and she isn’t sure if she could, first get down them, then second get back up them.

Maybe I misplaced the gun.

Yeah, that’s it. Maybe she misplaced the gun. Betty goes back to the bedroom, huffing and puffing like an old train trying to get up a steep hill. She searches the room, tearing it apart, pulling clothes from the dresser and the closet, flinging things around the room in anger and frustration. 

She doesn’t find the gun.

BLINK

There are a few seconds where Carl doesn’t believe he is running after the right person. The person not too far from him now is the girl from the store, but when she left, the old man was still alive. Still, he calls for her as he runs. 

A stitch formed in his side a few minutes earlier and now it crosses his stomach and cramps the other side as well.

“Hey!” he yells. “Hey, little girl.”

BLINK

She hears him. She knows it’s the man from the store. He wasn’t in there the second time she went in. She also knows he must have gone back. That’s the only thing that makes sense to her. 

“Hey! Hey, little girl!”

He’s close. Too close for her liking.

She turns, lifts her right arm, and aims the gun at him. 

His eyes grow wide, but he doesn’t stop running.

She pulls the trigger when he is only a few feet from her.

BLINK

Carl sees the gun, but it is too late to stop. 

He has time enough to think, she’s going to shoot me.

He lunges. She pulls the trigger.

BLINK

On the edge of the road is a brown paper bag. It is wet and split open at the bottom and its contents lay on the ground, both in and out of the torn bag. The half gallon jug of milk has ruptured and soaks into the ground. A pack of cigarettes—Virginia Slims—peeks out the corner of the torn bag. A pack of chocolate frosted, vanilla cream filled Zingers has been crushed. 

Near the torn, wet bag and ruined items is a crumpled Coke can and a puddle of blood.

BLINK

Alecia falls to the ground with the weight of the stranger’s body. She lands hard beside the road but isn’t hurt. Sure, she has a scratch on her arm, but that’s nothing compared to the bullet the stranger just took to the chest. 

He rolls away and is groaning. 

Alecia stands, picks the gun up from off the ground and points it at him. 

“No, please,” he says and backs away. She doesn’t pull the trigger as he backs away slowly. His shirt is soaked red. There is even a trickle of blood spilling from one side of his mouth.

She looks down at the bag she had been carrying. It’s contents are ruined. Well, most of its contents are. Alecia bends down and picks up the hard pack of cigarettes. She puts them in one of her back pockets and walks away.

BLINK

Carl Yelder reaches the edge of the woods before he collapses. He’s seen some bad things in his life. This is the worst.

BLINK

“What took you so long?” Betty yells from her seat on the couch. Her face is red, but not from the rouge she smudged on earlier in the day. 

“You’re not going to ask what happened to me?”

“What happened to you?” Betty asks. She doesn’t care. She just wants her cigarettes.

“Nothing.”

BLINK

Alecia pulls the trigger of her mom’s gun for the last time. She had placed it against the woman’s temple, smiled, then put her lights out for good, just like she did her lustful, molesting father. She places the gun in Betty’s limp hand, then takes a shower. 

BLINK

There’s a girl walking on the side of a country road. Her back is to the traffic. She can’t be much older than eleven, maybe thirteen. She wears a pair of dark blue jeans and a pink shirt. Her hair is blonde, and it flows down to her shoulder blades—not too long, not too short. 

She is smiling. Off in the distance come the sounds of sirens.

AJB

A Talk With Rhapsody In Red Author, Pete Molnar

On December 17th of this glorious year, my good friend, Pete Molnar, released his second book, Rhapsody in Red. It’s a two novella collection that is sure to keep you up at night. Having read some of Pete’s work, I’m really excited to get my hands on a copy.

Here’s the thing about Pete: he is a true lover of horror and one hell of a nice guy. I got to meet him a couple of years ago at Scares That Care and the time I spent with him and his wife was one of the highlights of the event. I couldn’t think of a better person to support than Pete.

Shortly after the release of Rhapsody in Red, Pete and I had a chat through PM’s on social media. The following is our conversation, in it’s entirety.

A.J.: So, Pete, talk to me about your new book, Rhapsody in Red.

PETE: Well, it started out with just one novella I had been working on about a second Civil War sparked by a pair of Undead Confederate vampires. Then I started a second novella and it just so happened to center around the same vampire theme, only it came from a very different place. 

I’m always listening to the news and following stories and the subject of gun rights and the school shooting epidemic just wouldn’t leave me be. Just as the first novella was sparked by the ongoing tragedy of systemic racism, the second was sparked by another social crisis. My mind married both issues to a sanguinarian plot line and the result is Rhapsody in Red

I’m deeply concerned with societal ills and this is how I process them, so as not to wallow in hopelessness when it comes to some sort of divine reckoning or soothing of the masses. Basically, I worry about the world just as much as I dread what’s underneath the bed, so to speak.

A.J.: I’m curious, what role do the vampires play in these societal ills?

PETE: They take advantage of our weaknesses as human beings as well as manipulate our vices and tragic flaws.

A.J.: That makes sense. 

You state something intriguing in your first response: Basically, I worry about the world just as much as I dread what’s underneath the bed, so to speak.

With this in mind, could the world itself be considered the boogeyman or the monster beneath the bed or in the closet?

PETE: Absolutely. I liken that to the main theme of one of my favorite books, Lord of the Flies. The boys on the island think the island is evil and there is a monster stalking them. In reality, they fail to realize the monster is within each and every one of them. That hits me hard.

A.J.: In Lord of the Flies, Piggy’s death is what I feel is a turning point for the story. Though Roger was responsible for his death, the events leading up to that point all build up to the moment where Piggy dies. In this way, the evil is kind of a creeping up type of thing. Do the events of the two stories in Rhapsody in Red have that same build up where the reader possibly starts dreading turning the next page?

PETE: I think so. Each chapter of each novella is like another couple of steps in the downward spiral.

A.J.: Do the two novellas go together or are they standalone stories?

PETE: They are conjoined by the presence of The Familiar, an ageless vampire who has taken the form of The Tumor Deer. It watches and waits, sort of like a god.

A.J.: Nice. Do you feel like you are tackling subject matters that others might shy away from?

PETE: I used to write straight horror when I started out, but I started to realize that I had other things to say that were pressing to me. I realized I was kind of walling myself into a very specific far too stringent genre of writing, and I decided if I was going to keep writing horror then I wanted to do more with it than I was before. And I had to start grounding it in the real things and people that have always scared the sh*t out of me. I mean, sorry, but Cthulhu doesn’t quicken my pulse in the slightest. But a student walking the hallways with an AR-15, picking off anyone that moves, well, that’s something I could find outside my classroom one day.

And that’s horror.

A.J.: That is, indeed, horror—a real horror.

When writing the two stories for Rhapsody in Red, did you find yourself rooting for any characters in particular or did you know where the stories were going and knew the fates of the characters already?

PETE: I always know the ending, but the journey towards that end is almost always a surprise in how it plays out. And the heroines in both novellas have been living their lives under perpetually black clouds of bad luck and hardship. To watch them both grapple with evil and rise above their own difficult circumstances made me feel really good and it kept me writing because I wanted to get them to the finish line!

A.J.: Did those characters surprise you in how they overcame their circumstances?

PETE: Yes, and they made me very proud of them.

A.J.: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Rhapsody in Red?

PETE: I think we covered everything.

If you’re looking for your horror grounded in both myth and reality, then Pete is your guy. If you’re looking to support a small press author who won’t disappoint you, again, Pete is your guy. If you’re looking to support someone I support, for the third time, Pete is your guy. I love this guy like a brother, and y’all know me, y’all know I’m all about quality work and good people. Give my buddy a try. You can do so on his website where he has several stories posted to whet your appetite, and by purchasing his books, Broken Birds and Rhapsody in Red. 

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

A.J.

Visit Pete at his Amazon author page and his website.

Space Available

I live in South Carolina. I have worked in downtown Columbia since May of 1990. It’s nuts to see that thirty years have passed since May 29th of that year. A lot has changed. I’ve gotten older, gotten married, raised two kids, released fourteen books and had over 200 stories published in various online and print publications. I’ve blown out my knee, had pneumonia, had a heart scare and a few other things that could be considered life altering events. I’ve lost many friends and some relatives to the eternal sleep. I’ve had some good times and I’ve had some bad times. That is the way of life.

On that Tuesday in 1990, my boss at the time, a young woman named Sheri who was not much older than my twenty years, told me, and I quote: “Go across the street and tell them you want a short, sweet blonde.”

I smiled because, in truth, I really did want a short, sweet blonde. Or, really, any blonde. But that is besides the point.

I left the office, went across the street and stepped into the little mom and pop cafe known as The Lunch Box (established in 1980). When I walked in, I saw two small tables with two chairs each, one directly to the left of the door and one directly in front of me along the wall. A glass refrigerator stood behind the table in front of me. Inside were various salads, banana pudding, and boiled eggs. To the left of the refrigerator was the entrance to the cooking area. That opening wasn’t but maybe thirty inches wide. A counter spanned from there and formed an L that ran the entire left side of the area just beyond the table directly to my left. 

Behind the counter was a short, round woman. Her name was Vickie. She was pleasant and funny, but also a no-nonsense woman. Making sandwiches was another woman, Eleanor. It turned out, they were sisters and they were the owners of The Lunch Box. Next to her was a young man named, Todd. 

I walked up to the counter. There was a young woman in front of me who had just ordered her food. Two people walked in after me and stood in line behind me. 

“Can I help you?” Vicki asked.

“I hope so,” I said. “I need a short, sweet blonde.”

The girl who ordered before me smiled, almost embarrassingly, for me. Vickie also smiled in amusement. I probably should have phrased my request differently. 

“A small coffee, with cream and sugar,” Vickie said and rung up my order. She gave me the coffee shortly after, and she was still smiling when she did so.

That was the first time I had stepped foot in The Lunch Box. Over the next twenty-nine years of my life, I would go there quite often for my breakfasts and lunches. I loved their chili cheeseburgers before switching to their hotdogs with chili and cheese and mustard, no onions, please. 

I got to know Eleanor and one of her sons. I became friends with Vickie and was even treated to her one of a kind creation, The Vickie Special. 

For almost forty years, The Lunch Box had been a mainstay on Lady Street in downtown Columbia. During that time period, Vickie passed away from cancer but Eleanor remained, running the place with a welcoming smile and a conversation. 

In early April of this year, as places all across the world were closing their doors temporarily due to the coronavirus, The Lunch Box did the same. I must admit, I was concerned that the doors would remained closed. 

Today, I walked to the post office on Marion Street. On the way back, I walked down Lady Street and went right by The Lunch Box. The front door had been busted out during the race riots in May. There was a piece of board where the glass had been. On the window to the left was a sign that simply said, Space Available.

I stood there for about thirty seconds looking at the sign. I shook my head, saddened by the absolute realization that The Lunch Box would not be coming back. I last ate a couple of hotdogs from there about a week before they closed the doors. This was a sad moment for me, and I’m sure many people in the area will be as saddened.

I think back to Vickie’s amused smile when I told her I was looking for a short, sweet blonde and I can’t help but feel a piece of my life—one thirty years in size—is now gone forever. I think about Eleanor and her asking how I was doing, then how my marriage was going, then how my kids were doing, then how my writing is going. I’m going to miss that place, it’s friendly atmosphere and people.

To Eleanor, to Vickie, to Todd, to all of those who have worked there and brought us good food that wasn’t expensive, as well as smiles and real conversations, thank you for all the great years you gave us. God bless you all. I’m sure I can speak for all of downtown Columbia, you will be missed greatly.

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

A.J. 

Right Now: Harris and Hunter

Life is about change, Everything in life changes from birth to death. Change is important … Hmmm … I have a feeling I might use those three sentences again real soon.

I start this off with that first sentence for a reason. Most of you know me as A.J. Brown. That is not a pen name. Those are my initials and that is my real last name. However, when I started writing, I didn’t write under my initials. I wrote under the name given to me at birth, shortened to what most folks call me: Jeff. 

My first thirty-nine publications all came under the name Jeff Brown. It’s not the coolest name and there is even a punk song with my name as the title by Mi6. It’s not very flattering. And, no, the song is not about me. 

Back in 2004, I submitted a story titled, The Woodshed, to a publication called The Butchershop Quartet. It was an anthology of four stories put out by Boyd Harris and Cutting Block Press. I wanted so bad to get into this publication.

I didn’t make it in. I honestly don’t believe I came close to making the cut. However, when Harris sent the rejection notice, he didn’t send the dreaded form reject. He wrote me a little letter. I can’t remember it word for word, but here is the gist of it:

“I think you have good ideas, but you don’t have the skills to pull them off.”

No, that is not an insult. That is just honesty. And it wasn’t worded quite like that. Harris was nicer in his assessment. Looking back now, he was right. But he didn’t just make a critical point about my writing. He invited me to an online writers’ group called Zoetrope Virtual Studios. It was my first foray into social media, but it was in a web forum style. The name of the group was +The Horror Library+.

I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t sure about it. I wanted to become a better writer, but I didn’t know Harris. For all I knew he could have been some psychopathic serial killer. Thankfully, he wasn’t. 

I joined Zoetrope under the name of A. Jefferson Brown. Sounds kind of distinguished, but that wasn’t what I was going for. To this day, I still don’t know why I chose that username, but it wasn’t to sound distinguished. Once I joined THL, I sat in the shadows and read a lot of posts from writers who were way better than me. I was thoroughly intimidated. I was out of my league.

It was eye opening. 

These writers did something I thought was crazy. They posted rough drafts of their stories and had other writers and editors tear them apart. What type of sorcery is this? After a while I was encouraged by a couple of writers to post something I wrote and let them read it. It was then that I realized I wasn’t that good of a writer. I didn’t have the confidence in my words to submit one of my stories for others to criticize. I had thin skin and I only wanted people to praise my stories. 

I had been pretending up to that point. I wasn’t a writer. I wanted to be, but I couldn’t say I was a writer. Not after realizing how little confidence I had in my work. But I made it a point to get better. In making that decision, I chose a story I had written called Black Cancer. They tore that story up so bad it should have been considered a crime scene. 

Over the next couple of years, I submitted more stories, participated in contests, asked these better writers questions about how to do things, and I worked, worked, worked on the craft of writing. From 2005-2008, I wrote nearly 500 short stories and two novels. Over half of those stories were experiments in writing. 

During that time, I became friends with some great people. Boyd Harris was just one of them. There was Fran Friel, who is like a big sister to me. Chris Perridas, who my wife and I hung out with at Waverly Hills Sanitorium in Kentucky. Petra Miller, John Mantooth, Michael Dixon, Erik Smetena, Dameion Becknell, who might be might twin in theological beliefs, Steve Sommerville, Michelle Garren Flye, Jamie Sunshine, C.J. Hurt, John Lovero, Frank Hutton, all of whom pointed me in one direction or other (even if they don’t know it).

Then there is Bailey Hunter. Bailey allowed me to be myself within the group. She was funny and had no problems letting me asks her questions. She’s smart and the owner of Dark Recesses Press, who I always wanted to put a book out with. Maybe one day I will. She was also the web admin for +The Horror Library.Net+. She was a member of the Terrible Twelve. She encouraged me more than everyone except for Fran. 

Bailey is also responsible for A.J. Brown.

In 2006, two of my stories were accepted for publication with THL.Net (A Bone White Hand in March, and Drainers in June). In June, I became a contributor to THL.Net. That meant I got my name on the site. Bailey input the information and after my story had been workshopped with the Terrible Twelve members, it went up. That story was Bone Yard

When Bone Yard went live, I went to the website to check it out. In the place where my name was supposed to be was A.J. Brown. I smiled. I have always wanted to go by my initials. One of my favorite football players when I was a kid was A.J. Duhe, a middle linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. I still don’t know why she put my initials up, but I contacted her and asked her about it. She apologized and said she would change it. I think I yelled, NO! out loud. I didn’t yell it in my message to her. I just said, no, leave it.

From that day on, I have written under the name of A.J. Brown. 

I’ve lost touch with a lot of the writers I learned from in the early 2000’s, but Bailey and I still keep in contact, thanks to social media. As of this writing, she is getting married soon. I wish her a ton of happiness in that marriage. 

Though I haven’t heard from Boyd in a long time, I can point to me submitting to his anthology and his rejection letter as the cornerstone for me being the writer you guys love. Or, at least, I hope you love. I can point to Bone Yard and the name attributed to the story as the beginning of A.J. Brown. It was the thing that gave me confidence in my words. After that, I’ve had no problems showing people my stories. 

Boyd Harris, wherever you are, thank you. You put me on the path I follow to this day. To Bailey Hunter, thank you for mistakenly putting A.J. Brown on that first story. It stuck and that’s a good thing.

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

A.J.

Treats at the Aver Residence

If you are wondering, yes, this story has appeared here before. It’s been rewritten half a dozen times and it is still one of my favorite holiday stories.

I want to tell you something real quick before you read on, especially if you have never read this piece before. The character of Cade Aver is the creation of S. Copperstone. When she created it I was actually miffed that I didn’t come up with it. I mean, Cadaver, really? I asked her if I could use the character for a story. She said, ‘yes,’ and she was extremely gracious about it.

Every once in a while it will get republished, or as was the case a couple weeks ago, I did a live reading of it. I always check with her and she is always cool about it.

I hope you enjoy Treats at the Aver Residence, and to S. Copperstone, thank you again.

1

“They’re going to love this year’s treat,” Cade said, giddily. He moved around the large steel table with a carving knife in hand.  His milky eyes dazzled in the yellow glow of the overhead lights. 

“What do you think, Mr. Mason?”

On the table lay Mr. Mason, covered by a sheet up to his chin. The man squirmed. His arms and legs pulled on the restraints that held him. His eyes were wide orbs, glassy and full of fear, a bruise beneath the left one. His dark hair was ruffled.

Cade lifted one eyebrow. His face loomed over Mason’s. “What? No response?” He shook his head, the joy of the time of year—the very day—coursed through his veins.“ Brighten up, Mr. Mason. It’s Halloween—the greatest day of the year.”

He checked the I.V. line running into Mason’s arm. The steady drip told him Mr. Mason would be flying high soon enough, but not too high. Mr. Mason certainly didn’t want to miss out on the festivities.

“All those years of being a surgeon come in handy this time of year, don’t you think?”

Cade looked down into Mason’s green eyes. The man blinked, and a stray tear fell down the side of his face. He let out a groan, not one of pain, but fear. Cade was certain if the white cloth shoved into his mouth wasn’t there, Mason would scream for all he was worth—and at that moment, he may not have been worth much more than a cheap bottle of wine to any drunk on the side of the road, but he was worth all the candy in the world to Cade.

“Don’t worry—you will only feel a moderate amount of pain, and for only a few seconds, maybe a minute, and then you’ll pass out.” He stroked Mason’s sweaty cheek, lovingly, as if he cared for the man before him. Cade’s eyes grew tender, his smile softened. “Then you won’t feel anything at all. At least until the children arrive.”

Mason shook his head, his eyes filling with tears. He strained to move. The veins on his forehead and along his throat, bulged against his skin.

“Stick around, Mr. Mason,” Cade almost sung, then patted Mason’s face. “It’s going to be a wonderful Halloween.”

2

In their homes, children sang and danced. Their mothers painted their off colored skin whatever shade of pale, brown or black they chose. Halloween shows like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Monster House, played on the television, and those who were finished with their dinners sat and watched until the sun began to set.  

The anticipation made some of them bounce in their seats. Toes tapped. Fingers drummed. Betsy Wallabanger’s teeth fell out twice, and each time she put them back in she had to adjust her lipstick. Excitement hung in the air like a thick fog on an early fall morning.

3

“Would you like a smiley face or a frown? Or maybe a really scary face?” 

Mason shook his head and moaned.

“Hmm … none of those? I have templates this year—got them cheap at the WalGreens in town. They practically gave them to me.” Cade rubbed the blade of his knife against the side of his head.  A small flap of skin peeled back, and a few strands of dirty brittle hair flaked to the floor. Blood spilled down the side of his face. “Wow, that’s sharp—I guess I should be careful where I put it.”

Cade pulled the sheet away like a magician putting on a show. A pair of red underwear covered Mason’s privates. Other than that he was nude.  His belly was plump, the signs of a man who liked to eat well.  

“I hope you don’t mind, but I shaved your body while you were asleep. You had a lot of hair, and you know how kids are—most of them just don’t like hair on their treats. But I didn’t shave your head. Some of them like to keep scalps for souvenirs these days. I wouldn’t want to disappoint the few traditionalists still out there.”

Mason shook his head and let out a yell that was muffled by the cloth. He chewed on the rag as if trying to eat it so he could cry for help.

“I’m sorry you don’t approve, but you needed the shave. What’s done is done—you’ll just have to get over it.”  

Cade set the knife on a counter behind him and rifled through the templates. “Frankenstein? Oh, how about Shrek—he used to be popular with the kids.” 

After going through all the patterns, he set them down, and picked up a black marker. “None of those will do. Not for you, Mr. Mason. I’ll just have to come up with something on my own.”

He stood over Mason’s ample belly and drew an odd oval just below the ribs. He drew a second oval, then a triangle around Mason’s belly button. Cade tapped his temple with the marker and looked up at the ceiling. Many images ran through his head. Then the right one came to mind.  A smile creased his face.  

“Oh, you are going to love this.”

He drew the large squiggly line below the triangle, then brought it down close to his waistband of his underwear. Cade picked up the knife and looked at Mason. “Are you ready for this?”

Mason screamed as Cade plunged the knife into his stomach.

4

“Come on, let’s get into your costumes.”  

Children squealed with joy when the mothers beckoned them to get ready for the festivities. They hurried to their rooms and donned their outfits. They were vampires and werewolves, neither of which sparkled or walked around shirtless. They were witches with warts on their noses and brooms by their sides. They were zombies—oh so many of them were zombies. Betsy Wallabanger dressed up as a corpse bride, her hair jutting this way and that way, her outfit a natural dirty shade, complete with stains across the front. Her mother had worn that very costume when she was Betsy’s age. There were no princesses or Batmans or video game stars. There were no cute little lions, tigers or bears, oh my. There was an Alice and she carried a bucket shaped like the tardy rabbit’s head that dripped blood every few steps she took.

They practiced the chants they learned from Halloweens past. Their voices rang up to the ceilings and none were off key.

“Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.”

Some of the older kids added extra verses. “If you don’t, I won’t cry. I’ll slit your throat and then you’ll die.”

Mothers gave approving looks and fathers ruffled the enthusiastic heads of the extra verse singers.

There were no idle threats of ‘behave or else.’ Those were reserved for parents in towns where Halloween was more of a burden than a rite of passage. Besides, the kids in Dreads Hollow knew the parents would never stick to their threats of no haunting the neighborhood if they behaved—it was just as much fun for the adults as it was for the children. Then there was always the one house at the end of Corpse Avenue that did something different each year. If anything, the parents wanted to see how Mr. Aver had decorated. If there were no haunts for the kids, there was no visiting the Aver residence for the adults.

5

Cade pulled away part of the flesh of Mason’s stomach. He bit down on a piece of it, chewed and nodded. “Tasty,” he said. Blood dripped down his chin. He wiped at it absently.

He looked inside Mason’s stomach.  He had deadened the nerves and cauterized the flesh where he had carved away the precious meat. Blood still flowed from the chest cavity and Mason still breathed, though shallow as it was. The carved face was gruesome, but Cade hadn’t finished. He left a long slit beneath the reamed out mouth. A mesh was sewn in place, holding Mason’s intestines in.

Cade looked down at the man who had once said, ‘Halloween is for the devil’s children.’ He wanted to correct him—oh Halloween was so much more than for the offspring of Satan, it was for everyone, young and old, tall and small. The day didn’t so much matter, but the spirit of Halloween, that’s what drove Cade and every other person who loved the day so much to celebrate it. He slapped Mr. Mason’s face gently with a bloodied glove, leaving four red imprints on his face. “Stay with me, Mr. Mason. Your moment is coming soon, and you won’t want to miss it.”

Cade carefully moved Mason’s body onto a gurney he had procured from one of the medical catalogues he still received, though he hadn’t practiced his once chosen profession in well over seventy years. Mason moaned and opened his eyes. Gray bags clung beneath them and he seemed to stare off at the ceiling, not noticing Cade at all. A few seconds later, his eyes slid shut and he was unconscious to the world around him. Cade pushed the gurney through the house and onto the front porch.  

Out in the fresh autumn air, Cade took a deep breath. The cool air filled his throat but burned his ancient lungs. 

“I love this time of year.”  

He worked like a cautious burglar, careful not to set any alarms off and give himself away. In Cade’s case, he was careful not to jar Mason’s body and have his efforts ruined by an act of clumsiness. He slid his arms under Mason’s legs and back and carried him down the steps. Cade sat him on a sturdy lawn chair, not bothering to brush off the leaves that had fallen on it or the spider web that hung between one armrest and the seat. The spider on the web crawled from one sticky line to another until it sat on Mason’s forearm. 

Back inside, Cade grabbed the accessories, chip wrappers and empty beer cans. He littered the area around Mason with the garbage and placed one of the cans in the man’s hand.

Cade stepped back and looked at his creation. The backdrop of his old house with its warped steps, shuttered windows and flaking paint would give anyone from outside of Dreads Hollow the creeps. Those people would cautiously walk away, their eyes not wavering from the sight before them, or they would run as if their hair was on fire. Cade smiled and shook with something akin to lust. His body tingled. His heart raced with excitement.

6

They walked the streets of the neighborhood, clothed in their homemade outfits and masks. Each child’s eyes beamed with excitement as they went from door to door. The welcome lights shone brightly at each house, luring the kids to knock and speak their chants. Neighbors opened doors, smiled and played along. They oohhed and ahhed at the costumes; they told the children how scary and terrifying, and even how sickening they were; they gave them treats of lady fingers and animal eyes, of hair necklaces and cooked tongues.

“I got a rock,” one kid said when he left each house.  

Tunes of Trick or Treat rang throughout the night until they reached the Aver residence at the end of Corpse Avenue. A dim bulb hung from the porch’s ceiling. It cast shadows that looked like pointy fingers stretching across the ground. Cade stood on the porch, his face covered by a mask made from the skin of Mason’s stomach.  

Children approached the house. Their bodies hummed with anticipation and their eyes darted about the yard. Mason sat in the shadows near the porch, one hand wrapped around the beer can. He moaned weakly. The children stopped. Some of the parents leaned into get a better look. 

“I call this Drunk Man,” Cade said and flipped a switch that lit up the yard.  

Loud gasps echoed through the night as parents and children alike took in Cade’s work.  Mason’s stomach had been carved out as if it were a normal pumpkin face, the lining of his insides burned black. A trickle of blood still washed down into the man’s briefs.  Mason’s eyes had been sewn open and crusted blood clung to his face. His intestines, which had been held in by the mesh earlier, now dangled on Mason’s lap. It appeared as if they had been vomited out of the wide mouth of his belly. The cloth that had been in his mouth earlier was gone. Mason’s bottom lip trembled.

Betsy Wallabanger—six past a hundred years of age—approached the creation, cautiously. “He’s still alive,” she said with wide blue eyes that held childish excitement in them. She reached forward with one hand, then pulled it back quickly, uncertainty stretching across her face.

“Go ahead. It’s okay, he can’t move,” Cade said.

Betsy set her pillowcase bag on the ground and leaned down. She sunk her teeth into one of Mason’s thighs. A scream came from his throat as she worked her jaw from side to side. She ripped off a piece of flesh, her teeth coming out slightly. She shoved them back in place and chewed. After she swallowed, she smiled. “Delicious.”  

Cade clapped his hands like the young child he no longer was. He motioned with his hands. “Come, little ones. Enjoy this year’s treat from the Aver residence.”

Children squealed as they lit in on Mason. His screams filled the night, much to Cade’s satisfaction. The parents looked on with a happiness reserved for their offspring.

“You really outdid yourself this year, Aver,” one of the fathers said before he walked away with his little boy. Blood soaked the front of the boy’s costume and he licked his fingers clean of the blood that had been on them.

7

Cade sat on the porch in an ancient rocker that squealed like a wounded rat as it went back and forth. The sounds of singing, happy children had long since faded. What remained of Mason lay scattered on the lawn. There were bones here and there, a clump of hair by the sidewalk—the scalp had not been taken this year. One of the kids had bit off his privates. Or was it one of the moms? Cade didn’t know, and honestly, it didn’t matter. The birds and bugs would come and clean up the mess, leaving only bones behind. 

On his lap sat a skull. Part of it was still pink from blood and meat. He pulled a piece of flesh off the cheekbone and plopped it into his mouth. He chewed, then swallowed.

“Hmm … Delicious.”

AJB

Right Now: Grasshopper

So …

Here we are, you and me, me and you. Where do I begin?

Okay, how about from the beginning.

Stick with me a few minutes. I’m not sure how this is going to work out.

Eddie Van Halen died. Most, if not everyone, knows that. Then the best friend of someone I am close to at work passed away. Here it is a little more than a week after that and someone I know passed away. 

Please, don’t leave yet. This is not going to be all doom and gloom. Sure, the first part will be, but I promise I will try to pull it back, try to be positive at the end of this. Okay? Stick with me a little longer?

When Eddie Van Halen died, I saw a lot of comments on websites and blogs where people wished they would have been able to tell him how much of an impact he had on their lives. He had an impact on a ton of musicians, and so many of them wish they could have told him that. Here’s the thing: they could have. In today’s world of social media and websites, it’s so easy to contact sometone through their various pages. Would they see it? Maybe not. Someone else might read these things and Van Halen may have never seen the first ‘hey, thank you for what you did.’ Would he respond? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. However, you said your peace, you sent him the message and that effort is what matters. You could have told him. You could have. Now you can’t. 

Those last few sentences seem harsh, but they are not meant to be. They are meant to show you a way to actually attempt to tell someone what they mean to you. 

Okay, one more thing before I continue, one more link to Eddie Van Halen. The song Right Now came out in 1992. I was twenty-one at the time and angry at the world, which was kind of my default setting. The song is about living in the moment, not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. It’s about not being afraid. We only have right now. The past is gone. The future is never obtainable. We have right now. That is it. Right Now.

Fast forward to a post I saw on Facebook. Another author tagged me in it. I read it, smiled and realized, though this was the author’s way of showing how he got to where he is today, it was also his way of saying ‘thanks for what you’ve done for me.’ This was his Right Now moment.

Let me be upfront about something before I continue on: I’m horrible with praise. I’m uncomfortable when I get praised. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. I just don’t know how to take it. It’s such an oxymoron.

The author said I took him under my wing, that I challenged him to be the best he could. I say this: that is true. I did take him under my wing, and I challenged him, but there were times I was an utter jerk about it. There were times where I would fuss at him and point out minor things when he was starting to get the big picture. I was so frickin’ hard on him when it came to his social presence and how he presented himself on social media. The words he said in some of his posts drove me nuts, or some of the argumentative stances he took were bad looks. 

We had a lot of good conversations about writing and life and life and writing. I called him Grasshopper. He didn’t seem to mind.

But I fussed at him so frickin’ much when it came to writing. I was hard on him. 

When I was a kid, my dad taught me about discipline. I got in trouble one time and he didn’t yell at me, he didn’t spank me or smack me around. He didn’t do anything until Saturday morning when I wanted to sit down and watch School House Rock and the Saturday morning cartoons. 

“Boy, come on outside,” he said to me.

“But …”

“Come on outside.”

I went outside and my dad said, “You see those boards and bricks?”

“Yes, Sir.” (It was always yes or no Sir. Always.)

“I want you to move them over to that corner of the yard,” he said and pointed to the opposite corner—the furthest possible spot from where the pile was. “But before you do, you need to clean that corner up so it’s not a mess when you get finished.”

For the next four hours I cleaned the corner of the yard he wanted the boards and bricks, then moved them, and stacked them neatly.

“I’m done,” I told him. By then School House Rock was over and the Saturday morning cartoons had given way to whatever movies played that day. 

My dad looked at the pile, then back where they had been. He shook his head. “I don’t like them there. Move ‘em back, but before you do, clean that corner up.”

I can’t remember what I did, but I’m certain I never did it again.

This was how I was disciplined. This is how I was raised. This is how I treated the young author. My dad wasn’t being a jerk. He was teaching what not to do in life. I didn’t feel like I was being a jerk but teaching this author about things in writing others wouldn’t. 

I saw promise in this young man. I also saw a steady influence of comic books and action hero movies in his writing. That’s great for, I don’t know, comic books and action hero movies, but not necessarily for fiction. 

We did a couple of competitions, which he didn’t win. But I saw effort, and effort is important. Effort shows you want something, and you will work to get it.

Then he challenged me to a one on one competition. The subject was Switchblade monkeys, whatever that is. We both wrote and posted the stories in the online group we were part of. He won. The story was good, and he deserved to win. I didn’t like losing, but his story was better.

I don’t know if he believed he had arrived at that point by beating me—I didn’t lose many competitions back then—but that’s when I saw the effort wane. Or maybe that’s when I realized he could do better than the effort he put into it. 

I rode him harder after that. I didn’t feel like he was giving his best in every story he wrote. I felt he phoned in a couple of the ones I read. I ripped them apart, pointed out issues, things he knew better than to do. 

But what the heck? He kept coming back. He kept asking questions, like the annoying little mouse in the Warner Brothers cartoons. It wasn’t that he was annoying, I just felt like he wasn’t getting it. But he was. That’s the thing, he was. 

I saw improvements, but there was always something that wasn’t right. It’s as if I was a dad saying to his son, “You came in second place, that just means you’re the first loser.” He was a better writer than when I met him, but I still rode him like Bobby Knight in an Indiana basketball practice.

Then we had a falling out. It was part his fault, part mine. We didn’t talk for a while. The details aren’t all that important. 

Out of the blue he sends me a link to an interview he did. I didn’t look at the interview for a couple of weeks. He sent me a message, asking if I read it. I didn’t respond. Then I read it. He mentioned me in glowing terms. In. Glowing. Terms. That’s the first time he said I had helped him, that part of the reason he was the writer he was is because of my help. 

I responded with something that wasn’t a thank you or a thanks for the shout out. It was my normal “You came in second place, that just means you’re the first loser,” type response. I was still angry. He had extended an olive branch and I wanted nothing to do with it.

A year or so later, I went to Amazon and looked him up. He had several books out, some of them good, some of them okay. I contacted him about a couple of the reviews, focusing on the negative ones. “What about these?” I asked him. “Are you good with this?”

Still. Riding. His. Ass.

We may not have talked too often, but I still followed what he was doing, who he was signing with, what books he was putting out and how he acted in social media realms. Some would say that is stalking. My daughter calls it Intensive Research. I call it checking on someone who had so much potential. I realized something by stal … umm … checking in on him. He had listened. All those years of me riding him, he had listened. Something got through and he had listened. He had taken a little bit of this and a little bit of that and mixed it with a little bit of him and created his voice and his style of writing. 

He not only listened, but he learned. 

Not too long ago, I contacted him. We had been on again off again in our friendship/relationship/whateveryouwanttocallitship. It could be the Good Ship Lollipop. I don’t know. I said something to him I never said before: “I’m proud of you.”

And I am proud of him. 

I see writing differently than most. I’m not a traditionalist. I’m not someone who follows all the rules. I believe you should always be learning, and you should always try to improve how you write. I also believe stories should come from a desire to put together something amazing. I believe you should experiment with your words. I don’t believe in action, action, action, swearing, swearing, swearing, sex, sex, sex. I believe a good story doesn’t rely on crutches. And I don’t get bothered by other writers who think I do things wrong. Each person has their own belief on how it is done. And that is the key. 

This author has his own belief on the way to write that fits him. He’s no longer the writer who sees things with a comic book and action hero movie influence. He can put together a story, in his own way, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

Did I ride him hard? Yes. Did I ride him too hard? Sometimes. Was I jerk? On multiple occasions. Do I regret the way I was with how I taught him? Let me see: He’s grown into a fine writer. He’s matured in how he presents himself to the world. And I’m proud of him as if he was my own son. No, I don’t regret it. 

I’ve gone on for a long time here. Lots of words have been spilled on this subject. Except for two, the name of the author. His name is Lucas Pederson. He is a horror author and I’m proud of him.

This is my Right Now for today. I just wanted to take this time to say, “You’re not the first loser, Grasshopper.”

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

A.J.