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.

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. 

Halloween, O Halloween

Good morning Type AJ Negativites. Negativites? Really? That’s the best you can do, Mr. Writer Dude? Yeah, it’s lame. 

This is going to be a short post. 

There are two things on the agenda today: Five Deaths and a poll.

First, after months of pushing back the release of my latest novel, Five Deaths, we are going to go forward with the release on January 12th, 2021. More to come in the near future. Stay tuned.

Second, we all know why y’all come here. For the free beer. What? We don’t serve beer here? Really? Hmmm … that might be why attendance is down. How about for the stories? Y’all come here for stories, right? With it being October, I wanted to do a little poll. Who wants a Halloween story this year on Type AJ Negative? Click a response on the poll below. I will leave it up until October 20th. 

That’s all I have for today. See, I told you it would be short. Seriously. That’s it. Stop scrolling. The post is done. Go vote. Seriously.

Until we meet again, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

Stop scrolling … vote on the poll. Seriously, this is the end of the post.

19

Mike sits in the dark. He always does on this day. It doesn’t matter hlong its been or how long it will continue to be. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed—19 as of today—the pain is still there, like a fresh wound, always open and no amount of bandages or medication can help it heal. He knows. He’s tried several remedies since that Tuesday morning 19 years ago. Alcohol didn’t work. Neither did cocaine. All those did was cause him to lose his job for a brief period of time, at least until he got out of rehab clean and sober.

On the television a plane crashes into the South Tower in lower Manhattan. He’s seen this image a thousand—no, a million—times. It’s 9:02 by his watch. He pauses the video, wipes his nose with the back of one hand. In his lap is an old cell phone, one he can’t bare to let go of. 

Mike closes his eyes to the still image of glass shattering and a fireball erupting in that once tall building. He takes several deep breaths as he stares into the darkness behind his eyelids. 

So often people say, I remember where I was when the towers were struck by planes, or I remember where I was when the towers collapsed. Like everyone else, he remembers in clear detail where he was, but not when the towers collapsed. He knew exactly where he was when he received the voicemail on his phone, though he didn’t have his phone on him. It was sitting in his car, accidentally left behind on the passenger’s seat. He, however, was underneath a car in the shop he worked at, having just got off vacation the day before. 

He slid out from under an old Buick with a leaky transmission and looked around. The garage, though full of cars that needed work done, was empty of mechanics. Earlier, the place was full of men chattering about the game the previous night. He even hard Hal McDaniels mention to Jim Brookings that one of “those Broncos receivers broke his leg.”

Where’s everyone? he wondered as he grabbed a rag from his shop rack and wiped his hands of transmission fluid. He had found the problem and the owner wasn’t going to be too thrilled. He was certain of this. He reached into his back pocket for his cell phone and frowned. It wasn’t there. Mike looked around his bay and on the floor and didn’t find it. 

“I must have left it in the car.”

Mike headed for the office, a little unnerved by the silence of the usually busy, loud shop. He rounded the corner and left the garage. It was 9:49 when he entered the shop’s office. Where’s everyone turned out to be in the office around a flat screen television mounted on the wall. 

The room was a silence so loud it was deafening.

“What’s going on?” he asked Jim.

“A couple planes crashed.”

“What?”

“Yup.”

“Shhh …” Brock Charmine gave the universal get quiet gesture of his finger to his lips. 

“I’m going to get my cell phone out of my car, okay?”

Jim nodded but didn’t look back. It was 9:51.

From the office to his car and back took him seven minutes. Seven ho hum minutes that he—and no one—would ever get back. He didn’t know why the phone was off when he plucked it from the seat. He pressed the button on the side and walked back to the office as the phone booted up. 

He clicked on the voice message icon and pressed play. As Kimberly’s voice came through the phone, he looked at the television. 

“Is that the World Trade Towers?” he asked aloud, not meaning to.

“Yeah,” Jim said without turning around. 

Over the phone, the message played Kimberly’s calm voice.

Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.

By the end of the call she was crying and the South Tower collapsed on the television screen. 

“No,” he whispers. “No.” Tears form in his eyes. He swallows a lump in his throat and stares at the television. Other mechanics speak or cry out in horror and sadness, but he doesn’t see them or hear them or feel anything in the world but the certainty his wife just died and he wasn’t there for her. He wasn’t even there when she called him and … and she died alone without him with her or without hearing his voice. 

Mike Johnson sits in the dark. From the bedroom comes the sound of his alarm clock. It is 9:58. He picks up the old cell phone and clicks the voicemail icon. He puts the phone to his ear and listens to his wife of nine days, the woman he had just come home from a honeymoon with, the woman he kissed goodbye that morning and whispered I love you in her ear before heading in. 

“Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

On the television is the still image of the South Tower right after the plane struck it. 

Mike feels his heart break all over again. In the dark, he weeps. 

AJB

9/11/2020

Everything I Am (Free Fiction)

Everything I Am

By A. J. Brown

“What can I give you that you don’t already have?” William asked. He stood in the white glow of a streetlamp. His body cast a black shadow at his feet that copied his arms out in frustration gesture. 

She stood in the darkness, outside the circle surrounding him. “Your heart,” she whispered, her voice a soft breeze in his ears. 

“My heart?”

“It’s all I ask.”

“It’s everything I am.”

“Then I want everything you are.”

His shoulders slumped. The shoulders of the shadow at his feet does the same thing. “Someone else already has it.”

“Yes,” she said, “The one who left you?”

William looked down at the shadow trailing from his feet. He nodded as tears slipped from his eyes. Then he turned and walked away. A moment later, the streetlamp winked out.

***

“Love is a treacherous thing,” William said into the empty glass in front of him. A scrim of froth clung to the bottom of it.

“What are you on about?” the bartender asked. He took the glass and replaced it with a full one.

William looked at the older man. He had a bald head, and gray hair in his ears. A dirty dishrag was slung over his shoulder. His white shirt had a stain just below the left breast pocket. It could have been ketchup from a burger eaten years earlier. It could have been blood.

“Love,” William said. “That’s what I’m on about.”

“A sticky subject there,” the old man said. He pulled the towel from his shoulder and wiped the bar between them.

“I guess so.”

“Broken hearted tonight?”

broken-154196_1280William shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Your girl leave you?”

William took a deep breath. Tears formed in his eyes. He swallowed the knot in his throat. “No. I mean, yes.”

The bartender slipped the dishrag onto his shoulder and put his hands on his wide hips. “Did she or didn’t she?”

William licked his lips, then wiped them. “It’s been months since she left.”

The bartender nodded. William picked up the glass and took several deep swallows. It was cold, but not refreshing.

“You need to move on, Mister,” the bartender said. “You only have one shot at this life. Mourning the loss of a relationship will only bring you down. Find another person to give your heart to.”

William laughed, a sound with no joy in it. “That’s the sad thing about all this.”

“What’s that?”

“I did find someone else.”

The old man smiled, showing he was missing one of his lower front teeth. “Then why are you here, drowning yourself in booze and not out with her?”

William ran a finger along the top of the glass several times before answering. “She wants my heart.”

“Everyone wants someone’s heart.”

“You ever give your heart away?” William asked, his finger still running the edge of the glass. 

“Once or twice, I reckon.”

“How’d it work out for you?”

The bartender shrugged, a simple up and down of the shoulders. “The first time, not so well. The second, well, we’re still together, so I guess that one turned out okay.”

“Second time was a charm?”

“You could say that.”

“I should probably leave now and go find her—the second woman, not the first—and give her what she wants?”

“What do you have to lose?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then, what are you waiting for? Give it to her. It’s not like it will kill you to do so.”

William stood and placed a ten on the bar. “Thanks for the ear, man.”

***

William heard her calling even before he made it to Itsover Lane. 

William, why won’t you come to me?

Her voice was haunting and hypnotizing, and was that desire he heard? He wasn’t sure—he hadn’t heard that tone from a woman in what felt like years. Still, he listened to the pull of her voice, to the seductive promise in it.

We can be together, forever, William. Just give me your heart.

William stepped into the road. Just as he did, the streetlamp came on, lighting up the spot where he stood. His shadow appeared at his feet.

“I’m here,” he said, a quiver in his voice.

You came back.

He nodded. 

Are you going to give me your heart, William?

“Yes,” he said and slipped the gun from his waistband. 

Just take my hand and I’ll take care of the rest, she whispered and stepped from the shadows. She wore a black robe with a hood that concealed her face. She stretched out a thin hand.

Tears fell from William’s eyes. His chest was heavy, and he was suddenly very tired. 

Do you give me your heart, William?

“Yes,” he said and took her hand. As he did so, he saw the blade in her hand … 

… and the gun went off.

A moment later, the streetlamp winked out.

________

So often my stories come from singular thoughts I have. In this case, an image of a man with his head down and tears in his eyes popped into my head. It was a black and white picture in my mind. He stood in a white circle, his shadow hooked to his heels. All around him the world was black. Reaching from the darkness was a thin female hand. It was like a comic strip image. Above his head was a thought bubble that simply read, What do you want from me? Another thought bubble appeared, and it read, Everything.

My brain spoke up with a question of its own. What is everything? Well, his heart, his love … his life. 

I sat and wrote Everything I Am that night. After I finished writing it, I realized the story wasn’t so much about love, but about desperation. So often love makes us do desperate things, things we wouldn’t normally do. In the case of William, there wasn’t another woman. He was still heartbroken because of the one who had left him. The other ‘woman’ who lurked in the shadows and had a thin, white hand and a black robe was the only way he believed he could get out of the depression and heartbreak: death. 

It’s a painful story. It’s a painful reminder of the power of love, and the ruin it can bring if things end in something other than happily ever after. 

I hope you enjoyed Everything I Am. If you did, please like the post and leave a comment letting me know you liked it. Also, please share this to your social media pages and help me get my stories out to other readers. Thank you for reading.

A.J.

A Toast To A Friend

If you’ve read my novella, Closing the Wound, then you know it is about the real events of the death of a teenage boy on Halloween night in 1995 here in South Carolina. Our friend, Chris, loved Halloween. It was his favorite day of the year. 

So, in honor of our friend, on Halloween, Cate and I will go visit his grave. We will take candy bars with us and we will toast his life and his love for Halloween, then we will eat the candy. It’s our way of paying tribute to a young man who died far too soon. It’s our way of remembering him. 

Cate and I went for coffee this evening and as we sat and drank our drinks at an awesome place in Cayce called Piecewise (it’s on State Street, down the road from B.C. High School if you want to pay them a visit), we talked about Chris and something we would like to do, or rather, something we would like you to do. At some point during the month of October, please take a couple of hours and visit the grave of a family member or a friend (or even a stranger). Take with you some candy, toast that person, talk about that person, eat your candy. 

So often when someone dies, we go to the funeral, maybe go to the burial, then … we forget about them. Life is too precious to forget someone that was a part of our lives. Instead of forgetting them, let them live on in our lives. Remember them by taking a moment, here in October, the month of Halloween, my friend’s favorite day of the year, and celebrate them. 

Yes, I am probably going to post this here and there and everywhere over the next few weeks as Halloween grows closer. Yes, you will also see more posts about Closing the Wound this month than before. I think his story is one that should be told, should be read. It was my way to cope with his death and a way for him to live on through the written word. 

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

Happy Halloween.

A.J.

18

A young man walks along a path in a small town cemetery. In his right hand is a paper bag, the open end folded shut. He wears a pare of black Converse sneakers with his initials printed on the heel end, and blue jeans, ones with holes that run up and down both legs. His hair is a little long and there is stubble on his face. It’s young stubble, the type that only males in that in-between stage of life of being a kid and becoming an adult can grow. He is seventeen and he has made this same walk every year since he can remember.

He parked his car outside the rusted steel gates of the graveyard, preferring to walk the distance to the marker he intends to visit. It’s that walk that allows him to prepare him for his emotions, the ones surely to come on this day. 

The young man veers off the path and across the lush green lawn. In some places, the grass hasn’t been cut and it grows higher than in others. But where he walks today, the lawn may not be freshly cut, but someone had gone over it in the last week or two. Though the morning was a little warmer than most for this time of year, there is still a little dew left on the grass that hasn’t burned off with the rise of the sun, or in this case, the hiding of the sun behind tinted gray clouds. 

He lifts his arm and looks at the watch on his wrist. 

10:20.

He nods and continues along the headstones of the deceased, paying no attention to the names or the years of life etched in them, or the epitaphs so eloquently written by loved ones who no longer visit those they wish to never forget. There is a lump in his throat and every breath he takes is a little shaky and getting shakier as he goes. 

No, he’s not sick or afraid or running from anything. This young man is going forward, running toward something, facing a truth. 

A bird lands on the ground fifteen feet in front of him, cocks its head to the side and looks at him with its curiously beady black eyes. It flaps its wings once, twice, then flies away. He continues forward, the lump in his throat seemingly getting larger, his breaths harder to take. He looks back at his watch.

10:24.

Then the young man stops in front of a headstone that is nothing special in shape or size or expense, but it is everything special to him, for who it belongs to. He opens the bag and pulls out a Mountain Dew and a Snickers candy bar. He set the bag down and reaches into his back pocket for the folded piece of paper there.

His watch now reads 10:26.

The young man sits down in front of the stone. He reads the name there, reads the date of birth, and more importantly, the date of death: 9-11-2001. The lump in his throat is a heavy rock and the tears he had held back now begin to flow. His breaths are raspy and his hands shake as he unfolds the paper and sets it on the ground in front of him. He then opens one end of the candy bar and follows that by popping the top on his soda and sets them both on the ground. 

He glances at his watch one final time.

10:28.

He picks up the letter. It is short and written in his stick-like scrawl. With the grief of a child who lost a parent, he reads the words he wrote.

Dear Dad,

Eighteen years ago today you died. You never got to hold me. You never even got to meet me. Mom gave birth to me three days later as she mourned you—as the nation mourned. 

He takes a deep breath, releases it and tries hard not to think about the truth his mother told him about his father, that he’s not buried there, that his body is not in the ground where he sits, that only one shoe—a black Converse with his initials on the back—was ever found in the rubble of the collapsed building he had been in that day.

He swallows hard, trying to get the lump in his throat to go away, then reads more of his letter.

I never got to throw a baseball with you. We never got to have father and son time. You never got to tell me dirty jokes and I’ll never be able to ask you for advice about women. 

He wipes his eyes with the palm of one hand, then continues.

Though I never knew you, I love you. Mom has told me a lot about you and I know you would have been a great father, just as you were a great husband to her. I hope I can be half the man you were, and I hope, wherever you are, you are proud of me. 

As tears stream down his face, the young man, soon to be eighteen years of age, says the final words of his letter.

I love you, Dad. I love you. 

  

I love you.

The young man sets the letter on the ground and puts his face in his hands. He sobs, letting the grief of a love never felt from a man he never met, flow from him. After several minutes, he wipes his eyes again, then his nose. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, lets it go and picks up the candy bar—his dad’s favorite—pulls the wrapper completely off and takes a bite of it. Then he raises the Mountain Dew—his dad’s favorite drink—to the air and taps the headstone with it. He only drinks a couple of sips, then sets the drink and the half eaten candy bar on his father’s headstone.

Heart broken, the young man picks up the paper bag and the candy wrapper and stands. He walks away, leaving the letter by the marker, his head down. Tomorrow will be better, but today … today will always be difficult.

AJB

9/11/2019

18

A Conversation With Pete Molnar

Writing horror is not easy. Sure, it sounds like it should be, but good horror is difficult. It’s not about shock and gore and gimmicks. It’s not about grossing people out with a million different ways to kill someone. True horror, at its core, is not even about monsters that go bump in the night. It’s about making people feel something. Something like dread, fear or uneasiness about what they are reading. Its the squirming sensation you get when you think of getting a shot at the doctor’s office or when a bug crawls onto your foot.It’s the heebee jeebies, baby.

PeteI guess you could say life, in and of itself, is horror. After all, some of the things people do to each other is far worse than anything a writer can conjure up. One such story is Broken Birds, by Pete Molnar. In his debut novel, Molnar delivers punch after punch in a story that feels all too real. 

I had a chance to meet Pete at Scares That Cares 6 over the first weekend in August. He is too humble and often doesn’t give himself the credit he deserves. I also got to listen to him do a reading from Broken Birds. That reading was powerful, engaging and cringe-worthy in all the right ways. 

I sat down to talk with Pete recently. Here is what he had to say.

A.J.: First things first: why horror?

Pete: I read Pet Sematary when I was twelve while on vacation in Disneyworld with my family. The book scared me so much I don’t remember much of the trip because I was so preoccupied with holding myself together. Mickey Mouse didn’t phase me, but reading that book changed the trajectory of my life. I knew I wanted to evoke the same kind of fear and terror in another person with something I’d write and I’ve been striving towards that ever since. Then, there is the fact I have been battling depression and social anxiety for much of my adult life. I greatly fear death and dread losing the ones I love, almost on an irrational level. Confronting my own fears and phobias (and they are Legion) through writing horror stories is therapeutic and when its is going well, quite cathartic.

A.J.: Pete, when you set out to write Broken Birds, did you know exactly where the story was going or did you say a prayer and wing it?

1438845475Pete: I started out writing as a “pantser” because I had read Stephen King writes that way. It was a mistake to have stuck to that approach for so long and for such a simplistic reason. Then I signed up for James Patterson’s Masterclass. Drafting a “flexible outline” had confounded me for the longest time, until Patterson laid it out in plain language and broke it down into something less intimidating for me. I am now a sworn “plotter” after having written three previous novels the other way, and Broken Birds was the first novel I wrote using an outline. I used to think using an outline would rob the writer of the magical experience of telling the story to themselves. Now, I swear by this approach, because even with an outline, characters are still going to do whatever they want and they’re going to surprise you no matter what.

A.J.: Some people love animals more than they love people (understandably so). Are you one of these people? If so, did that make writing certain scenes in Broken Birds difficult?

Pete: At first, I was really concerned that the treatment of animals in Broken Birds would turn readers off. Not to mention, the scenes that feature animal abuse were very difficult to write and I almost abandoned the project as a result. Then I realized I was not merely writing a novel about hurting animals, as much as I was writing a testament to the bond between humans and their pets. Will Bentley sacrifices everything to save his dog, Alberta. This is a guy who demonstrates how much his pet means to him, so much so he is willing to put his own life in danger and turn his seemingly idyllic existence upside down to save his dog from the clutches of two twisted, sociopathic people.  

A.J.: Are any of the characters based (loosely or solely) on people you have met?

Pete: I can tell you Will’s girlfriend, Mina, as she is described, is my wife. Dark hair. Light eyes. A book-lover and a deep-thinker. Karl Tarlick is a composite of Charles Manson and Gary Heidnik, a serial killer who created a “real-life” House of Horrors in his Philadelphia rowhome. Will Bentley is modeled after Tim O’Brien, who wrote the critically-acclaimed war memoir The Things They Carried. I’m thankful I’ve never met a woman like Stella or Jack Post, but they are both sides of the Battered Woman-Battering Man coin. I conducted hours of research on this disconcerting and baffling relationship, as well as the phenomenons of agoraphobia and borderline-disorder to flesh out Stella especially.   

A.J.: After writing Broken Birds, did you intend to get it published or did you have help deciding it was worth the shot?

Pete: This was the book I shared with Lisa Vasquez during my mentorship with her. She offered a great deal of encouragement and guidance during the novel’s early chapters. I really put my heart and soul into this book, because I didn’t want to see another full-length novel doomed to imprisonment on my hard drive. I wanted this one to see the light of day and I wanted it to be worthy of publication. Lisa must have seen something of merit in the early stages of the book because she invited me to become a VIP author at Stitched Smile Publications. Prayers answered!

A.J.: How did you find your publisher, Stitched Smile Publications?

Pete: I signed up for the Horror Writers Association Mentorship Program and Lisa Vasquez reached out to me shortly thereafter. She took me under her wing, teaching me the in’s and out’s of marketing and the business of writing. She also offered me invaluable advice and regular critiques of Broken Birds, chapter by chapter. Stitched Smile scooped me up at a time in my life when I had nearly come to terms with the prospect I would never land a publisher or an agent. I had queried roughly eighty agents to no avail for my previous novel The Clockwork Lazarus. It was a tough time, and SSP delivered me from what might have been a lifetime of regret.

A.J.: What was the publishing process like for you, the writer? On the same token, what was it like for you, the person?

Pete: As a writer, the publishing process was as exciting as it was an education. The editorial staff at Stitched Smile made numerous passes through the book and eliminated the weaknesses I had missed during my own three passes. Inconsistencies and grammar mistakes that I believe would have slipped through at many other presses. Their attention to detail was laser-focused. As a person, the journey from draft to finished, packaged novel was pretty magical, and to this day when I see my book lying on a dresser or see my wife reading it, I have to take a second look. It’s so surreal.    

A.J.: Did I hear correctly, that Broken Birds was not the original title?

Pete: That’s true. Originally, the book was titled Moonshadow after the Cat Stevens song. When I imagined how Karl Tarlick, the main antagonist in the book, would look, for some reason Cat Stevens just popped into my head. Long, black hair in thick ringlets that frame and nearly close over his face like curtains. Then, I researched the lyrics to some of Cat Stevens’ songs and stumbled across the lyrics to Moonshadow. When I read them, they seemed to fit the context of who Karl Tarlick is way too perfectly. The lyrics bore a sinister tone, like the song was written by a stalker. 

A.J.: Why did you change the title?

Pete: As I kept writing, I realized the title should be changed to Broken Birds. This was for  two reasons. The first being the psychological phenomenon of “broken bird syndrome” is front and center in the novel’s plot line. But also, I noticed a symbolic thread running through the story itself. That all the main characters are broken in some way. Psychologically damaged and dealing with it as only they know how. In a productive way, or, well, not so productive. I’ll say that. 

A.J.: You went to Scares That Cares 6 this year. What was that experience like for you?

Pete: My first night there, my head was on a swivel. One minute, I’m walking past Sid Haig, and the next I see Josh Malerman a few feet away signing books. Paul Tremblay. Jonathan Maberry. Then there was the fact I was finally able to meet my Stitched family in person. Up until that event, I’d only ever communicated with Lisa, Donelle, Larissa, Deanna, Tara, and yourself through group chat, DM, or Hangouts. I was so thrilled to meet everyone in person and the click was immediate.  

A.J.: If I’m correct, you sold out of your books. How did that make you feel?

Pete: Pleasantly surprised doesn’t even cover it. I had expected to be bringing many of them home with me to sell around my neck of the woods. But Sunday rolled around and they just went and I couldn’t believe it. So cool! 

A.J.: What was it like to sign that first book?

Pete: Another unreal experience. I felt like I’d finally come full circle. My 8th grade yearbook had a section in it where all the students were asked where they saw themselves in ten years. I wrote “Autographing my novel or touring the nation.” I wanted to be a writer or a rockstar. But really, writing was always my first love. Took longer than ten years to get there. It took thirty years, but there it was. Dream fulfilled!

A.J.: You did a reading at Scares That Cares 6. Being there to witness it, I think you knocked it out of the park. Were you nervous at all before reading?

Pete: Not at all. Being an English teacher, I read entire novels to my classes. And if I really want to hold the attention of a bunch of fifteen-year-old kids in 2019, a dramatic reading is required. Voices. Acting out Shakespeare. Playing Macbeth. Otherwise, the words are dead on the page for them. I have no problem making a fool out of myself or stepping out of a comfort zone in order to evoke emotion through live reading. Also, having been a singer in bands for fifteen years, I’m quite at home in front of an audience. It’s a lot of fun!

A.J.: How did you feel after you finished the reading?

Pete: It was exhilarating. But I was a little worried about alienating the audience with the particular scene I had chosen to read. That’s why I did a little disclaimer beforehand. It turned out to be okay after all. I think people enjoyed it. 

A.J.: Writing is such a solitary endeavor and authors often spend hundreds of hours alone with the characters in the worlds they create. But who would you like to thank—someone outside of your head—for helping you along the way?

Pete: My wife, Dana, and my daughter, Ani, gave me the time and the space I needed to do the work. Writing takes you away from your family for periods of time each day, but they both were extremely supportive and understanding. They continue to be, and I’m grateful for their love and for believing in this guy. 

A.J.: Before I let you go, Broken Birds is a great debut novel, but is there more from Pete Molnar? What can we expect from you in the future?

Pete: I’ve got a few irons in the fire as far as short stories go. A short story called Swipe-right about a twenty-something girl who stumbles across a different kind of dating site where if she swipes left on a guy’s picture she doesn’t like, the poor guy just winks out of existence. The guys she swipes right on become obsessed with her to the point of becoming dangerous, sociopathic stalkers. Having a good time writing that one! Then there’s my novel-in-progress titled Undiscovered Countries, which centers around a phenomenon known as “coffin-birth” where a dead woman’s body can be scientifically manipulated into birthing a viable child. This one I’m really excited about. It’s already mapped out and outlined. And it’s going to take on a lot more than just the horrific scenario of a “coffin-birth.” It’s going to tackle the twenty-four hour news cycle, religious fundamentalist groups, as well as the persistent scourges of hate, intolerance, and bias in this country. I really think it’s going to be something special for my readers.  

A.J.: Any final words, Pete?

Pete: A.J., this has been a lot of fun! Thank you so much! For my readers, present and future, I extend the deepest gratitude to all of you. Thanks for taking a chance on a new writer!

For those of you who have not heard of Pete Molnar, get ready to. Broken Birds is just the beginning for this talented writer. Beyond the writing, Pete is also a good guy with a big heart and great pipes for singing. Check Pete out at the following links.

www.petermolnarauthor.com

www.facebook.com/petermolnarauthor

@PMolnarAuthor

http://www.instagram.com/petermolnarauthor

Who Do You See?

On some mornings I go to the post office for my job. It is less than two blocks away and I walk; rain, shine, hot, cold. It’s what you do when your family has one car and you don’t drive to work. I usually get there a couple of minutes before the post office opens.

There are ten people who I would consider regulars at eight in the morning at the post office. They are: Six men. Four women. We all get our mail and go about our business. On the average day, these ten people spend less than five minutes around each other; most of the time, maybe two minutes, tops. 

DiversityI could leave it at six men and four women and it wouldn’t matter to you or really anyone else. But I’m not going to do that. Here is a breakdown of those regulars: three white men, three black men, one white woman, one Asian woman, two black women. No, race doesn’t matter, nor does their gender, but I’m going to try and make a point here. Now you know a little bit about the ten people who show up at the post office at the same time every morning. 

Let’s take it a step further. One of the white men is an older gentleman at almost seventy. He is former military and his voice is monotone. He always wears a VFW hat and he always says ‘good morning,’ and ‘have a great day.’ Another white man is probably around sixty, maybe a tad older and always parks his car in the wrong direction. His hair is jet black (probably dyed) and slicked back with hair gel. He is thin and tall and his shoes always clop hard against the tiled floor of the post office. He rarely speaks. The third white guy, well, that would be me. I guess I am middle-aged now at just under fifty.

The Asian woman is thin and short and wears long skirts and black boots. Occasionally, she wears a pair of black pleated slacks. Her hair is long and black and she is probably a little younger than I am. She is pretty when she smiles, plain when she doesn’t. 

One of the black women drives a white van and is nearing sixty. She has had shoulder surgery and heel surgery within the last year. She always says ‘God bless,’ and she always brings a little hand cart when she comes in. The other black woman is young and pretty and seems to be put together (as in her attitude and how she carries herself). She always wears red lipstick and her eyes are big and brown—one of her best features. She is polite. She also knows she is attractive, but she doesn’t flaunt it. 

The lone white woman is probably my age, maybe a tad younger. She is tall, has brown hair and frowns as if she probably wishes she were a little trimmer. She doesn’t smile often, but just in the last few weeks she has started saying ‘good morning’ to everyone.

One of the black men is slightly built and soft spoken. He is a Christian who always shakes my hand when we cross paths. The second black man works for the Supreme Court and drives a black SUV. He wears a gun on one hip and looks like he could have played defensive end for the Chicago Bears at one time. He always checks out the pretty black lady when she comes in. The last of the group is a black man in his late sixties who works part time in the building attached to the post office. He wears a blue uniform shirt and dark pants every day. He is missing most of his teeth and some folks might say his elevator doesn’t quite go all the way to the top. He always says ‘hey,’ and he laughs a lot. 

Does any of that really matter? Probably not to most people, because, let’s be honest, most people don’t care. Here’s a few questions for you: when you look at someone you don’t know, what do you see? Do you see the color of the person’s skin? The gender? Is your first impression based on the person’s appearance? Here’s an even bigger question: do you take the time to actually see the person? Not their skin color or their gender or the clothes they wear. Do you actually see their faces? Do you actually take the time to see the up or down turn of the lips? Do you see the eyes, if they dazzle or have been dulled by life’s burdens?

Do you see people. 

ALONE.jpgOne of the issues I feel we, as human beings, have, is we don’t see people outside of our own little world. Sure, we see someone, but we don’t take a second or two to consider that the person you see is someone’s child, maybe a brother or sister, mom or dad. That person has feelings and hopes and dreams. That person may be going through something terrible right then. That person may be thinking of someone he or she loves. That person might be just trying to get through a crappy day and all they want is to be home so they can rest. 

One thing I know is this: you can make or break someone’s day. How? Well, saying ‘hello,’ and giving someone a smile. That’s not obligating you to carry on a conversation, but showing someone that you see that person, that that person is not invisible, and so many of us feel invisible, like no one cares. 

You can break a person’s day by ignoring them if they say ‘hey,’ and smile at you, or by saying something bad about them (whether you know them or not). A mean word goes further than a good word. Negativity always overrides positivity. And yeah, it is easier to break someone down than to build someone up. 

[[Side Note: I know the world is a bad place these days and strangers can be dangerous. I’m not saying engage in conversations with strangers. I’m saying, don’t be mean. Don’t be rude. Don’t give a stranger a ride, either, but you can be a good person, a good samaritan, so to speak, by just being nice. End Side Note]]

If you think I am wrong about making and breaking someone’s day, then let me ask you two questions. You can feel free to answer them or not. Have you ever been in a great mood and someone did or said something negative that ruined your entire day? On the flip side, have you been sad or down or in a bad mood and someone did something or said something that cheered you up and brightened your day? 

YOU have the power to make a difference in people’s lives. All you have to do is actually see them. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, gender, sexual preference your they are—what matters is do you see them? I think—thinking here!—that if we, as human beings, would take the time to actually see others for what they are (other human beings), then maybe we’ll be slower to react negatively or say something derogatory or just be rude. Maybe, just maybe, the world can be a kinder place … if we would all just see each other.

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

A.J.