Communion, A Short Story

My dad sat on a tree stump every day before dinner. It was about three feet tall and stood near the back fence. Dad looked more like he was leaning when he sat on it. Usually both hands dangled between his legs and he stared off beyond our yard toward the trees that ran along the backside of the neighborhood. If you walked through the trees, you could only go about ninety or so feet before you came to a stream that split the center of the wooded area. 

It didn’t matter how hot or cold or rainy it was, he went to the tree stump, sat for a few minutes, then came inside. On some days—mostly in early fall—he would sit a little longer, sometimes with his head bowed as if he were asleep or maybe praying. Dad wasn’t the religious type, so I doubt he ever prayed.

I guess I was four or five the first time I noticed him go outside and to the stump. I went to go after him, maybe so he would play with me, but probably out of curiosity more than anything. 

“No, Heath,” Mom said from where she stood at the counter, cutting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half for me. 

I looked back at her. “I wanna go outside,” I said—or I think I said. Time has a funny way of playing with memories. 

“Not right now.”

“Why?”

“Your dad’s having communion.”

“What’s com-u-non?” I asked. 

“It’s what your dad is doing right now.” She set my sandwich on the table. “Now sit down and eat. Your daddy will be inside when he is done.”

I didn’t sit and eat. Not at first anyway. I went to the back door. It was open and the screen door was shut. I could see Dad from there. His shoulders were slouched like he was tired. His head was down. I thought he just might have fallen asleep. Then I saw his shoulders go up then down a couple of times. His head bobbed in sync with them.

“Sit down, Heath,” Mom said and steered me away from the door with both her hands. She closed the door gently.

I ate my sandwich and set my plate on the counter. Dad came in as I was leaving the kitchen to take a bath. He looked so tired. His eyes were rimmed red and there were angry red squiggly lines in them. The tip of his nose was pink. He wiped it as he went by me and to the bathroom where he washed up. He didn’t say anything to me as he passed, just went by without even glancing in my direction. I remember how bad it felt. He walked by me as if I were invisible. Maybe I was.

“Get ready for your bath,” Mom said when she saw me standing at the foot of the hall looking toward the bathroom where Dad went. She sounded irritated. That was her default setting.

“Dad’s in there.”

“He won’t be for long, so do what I said to do.”

I went to my room and gathered my night clothes, then took a towel from the hall closet. I waited outside the bathroom door until it opened, and Dad walked out. His eyes were no longer red, and he didn’t look as tired. 

“Hey there, Heath,” he said with a smile. He bent down and picked me up, then gave me a big hug. His hugs always made me feel safe, like everything would be okay. He set me down and all was right again. He didn’t look worn or weighted down at all. He didn’t look sad. 

Every day for the next six years, I stood at my window, watching Dad out on the tree stump. After the first time I was shooed away from the  back door, I didn’t think Mom would take too kindly to me going and watching him as he had communion. 

I still didn’t know what that meant.

***

I was eleven when Mom died. She wasn’t really the loving type. She was stern and rarely gave hugs, kisses or said ‘I love you.’ I should have felt more, but I didn’t. I think I felt more ashamed that I wasn’t as sad as I thought I should be. It didn’t help that we had argued before I left for school. I wanted to go to Jerry’s house before coming home. 

“Not with your grades, Heath. You come straight home and do your studies.”

I guess it wasn’t much of an argument after all. I left for school, angry at her for the umpteenth time in my life. 

Mom died while I was at school and Dad was at work. It wasn’t anything terribly tragic like the house caught on fire and she couldn’t get out or she was in a car accident, or even someone broke into the house and murdered her. No, it was nothing like that. Mom choked on a piece of toast. 

I found her when I got home from school. She lay on the kitchen floor, faced down. She was still in her bath robe and nightclothes and her face was a shade of purple that bordered on black. I stared down at her. And I didn’t feel anything, at least not right then.

I called Dad, then I called 9-1-1. Then I sat on the front porch and looked out on the road in front of our house. 

The ambulance made it there before Dad did, but not by much. They were inside tending to her body when Dad pulled up in his old truck. He was out of it in a hurry. He forgot to close the door before he ran across the yard to me. His face was red, as were his eyes. I had seen that look every day for the last six years of my life. 

I stood.

Dad reached me and put his arms around me. Just like when I was little and he would pick me up, I felt safe. I know it sounds crazy, but even with Mom in the house dead and the emergency people inside the house doing what they do, I felt safe in Dad’s arms. Everything would be okay.

Dad released me and went inside. I walked over to his truck and gently closed the door.

For me, everything was fine. Like I said, Mom wasn’t very loving, and we never really got along. But for Dad, nothing would ever be the same again. 

One thing didn’t change, though. Like every night since I could remember, Dad went out the back door to the tree stump. He sat, stared off into the woods, but this time I could tell he was crying. I stepped away from the window and sat on my bed. And I cried. too.

***

Dad did the best he could. He was a widower and he and Mom had been together since they were kids. They were high school sweethearts and married right after graduation. 

For the better part of my life since her death I’ve regretted not being closer, not trying, though she never really tried either. Guilt is a funny thing. You don’t realize you’ll feel it until you do.

***

I was sixteen when I finally worked up the nerve to ask my dad why he went outside every day before supper. He was already out there with his coat on and his hands between his knees. His head was down, and I could see his lips moving when I approached him.

“Dad?”

He didn’t jerk in surprise of my presence. His head didn’t swivel on his neck and he didn’t look irritated to see me standing there, my hands jammed into my coat pockets, vapor pluming from between my lips.

“Everything okay, Heath?” His voice was shaky.

I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, everything is okay. I just …”

“You just what?”

I shrugged. “Dad, why do you come out here and sit on this stump every day?”

He looked away from me, back in the direction of the woods. By then, some of the land had been sold and some of the trees further down from our place had been removed. The frame of a house stood like a silhouette in the dying sunlight. When he looked back at me, he had tears in his eyes. He wiped at them and looked away.

“My Daddy died cutting this tree down.” He patted the side of the stump with one hand. “I was a little older than you, eighteen, I think. He had a heart attack and died where he fell. I come out here to be near him. It’s like he never left. I can feel his presence.”

Dad looked back at me again. His eyes shimmered with tears. “I know it sounds crazy but sitting here makes me feel like he’s still around and not dead and in some box in the ground in Meacham Cemetery. I come out here and talk to him. Then I listen for his voice. I reckon you can say I come to have communion with him.”

I never bothered him while he was out there again. I still looked out the window from time to time, but I never bothered him. It was sacred for him.

Now, I understand why.

***

Barely two years later, Dad passed away. I just turned eighteen, and yes, I see the foreshadowing in our lone conversation about his visits to the stump. He died before supper, and yes, he was sitting on the stump.

He had aged so much in the seven years since Mom passed. He looked older than his fifty-four years. If you do the math, you can figure out my parents had me when they were in their mid-thirties, but Dad looked like he was in his mid-seventies that last time he walked into the back yard to the stump to have communion with his father. 

I stood at the back door, something I hadn’t done since that first time when Mom shooed me away. He sat gingerly on the stump. As always, he looked out to where the woods used to be, but now they were all gone. Houses now sat where trees once stood. His head dipped, his chin touching his chest. Then he leaned to one side and fell.

“Dad,” I yelled and ran from the house. I vaguely heard the clatter of the screen door as it slammed shut. Dad was gone by the time I reached him. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell. Much like when Mom died, I dialed 9-1-1. This time I didn’t wait on the front porch, my elbows on my knees and my head down. No, this time I waited in the back yard, Dad’s head on my lap. 

***

It’s been two days since his funeral. The coroner said he died of a massive heart attack. He was dead before he hit the ground. I can still see him toppling off the stump. I can still hear me yelling for him. 

Tonight, just before I sat at the table by myself for the first time in my life, I walked out to the stump where my dad died, and where his dad died. I sat down on the stump with my hands between my legs. Tears spilled down my face.

“I miss you, Dad.”

Then, like so many times as a child, I felt his arms around me, and I knew I would be okay.

AJB

10/15/2020

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

14 Days …

Fourteen Days

Quarantine was only supposed to last fourteen days. Fourteen. 

The world went on lockdown on June 17th. The virus, worse than any ever seen before, had spread quickly in the previous twenty or so days, starting somewhere not here, with an incubation period of fourteen days at most, three at the least. Symptoms are basic sniffles and sore throat at first. No real cough or sneezing. Then … then the headaches start, the eyes swell and muscles cramp. Finally, the Infected, as they have been dubbed by some jerk on CNN, become violent. 

The only cure right now … well, there is no cure other than ending the life of an Infected, either before or after they reach the violent stage.

At the beginning, Kaycee and I had plenty of supplies—she saw it coming, having watched her town and world get disrupted a few years ago, thanks to another infectious disease no one knew much about. We played board games and binge watched some of our favorite shows. We had sex a few times—I never knew boredom could lead to that, but I took what I could in times such as these.

Through three days, we both felt fine. No symptoms. Not even a hint of one. On the fourth day, Kaycee woke with the sniffles. 

“It’s just allergies,” she told me as she wiped her nose of the steady faucet drip. 

My first mistake was believing her. Why wouldn’t I? She had allergies more in the summer when things are dryer than in the spring months when the pollen is everywhere. Knowing that, what reason did I have to disbelieve her? She took her allergy medicine and we thought nothing else about it. 

That’s not entirely true. I did think about it, especially when she kissed me and … other things. I thought about it even more on the sixth day when she woke, not just with a bad case of the running nose, but also with a voice that sounded like she gargled with a handful of razors. 

“Kaycee, are you okay?”

She sniffled, shook her head and swallowed hard. Her throat seemed to expand and she grimaced. It was hard to watch. “I don’t feel too good, Cole,” she said. Her eyes held tears in them. I think we both knew what was happening, but neither of us wanted to admit it, at least not out loud. 

Kaycee laid down on the couch and turned the television on. She clutched herself in a tight hug as she shivered uncontrollably. I covered her in a blanket and went to the kitchen. With tears in my eyes, I stood at the counter, knowing it was only a matter of time—a little more than a week, or a little less—before … The deep breath I took rumbled in my chest. I wiped my eyes and made her an old fashioned hot toddy, heavy on the whiskey. By the time I got it back to her, she had fallen asleep on the couch.

The next two days, Kaycee mostly slept. Occasionally she would wake and I would give her medicine I knew would do no good. Then she slept again. I sat on the love seat across from her, my knees pulled up to my chin, my arms wrapped around my shins. I rocked as I sat, alone, though Kaycee was no more than fifteen feet from me. 

Kaycee woke with a headache on the ninth day. She clutched the sides of her head as if her hands were clamps. She cried and snot ran from her nose. Hot compresses did nothing to soothe the pain. Neither did the bit of high dose drugs I still had from the surgery on my back seven months earlier. 

On the tenth day, her eyes bulged. Her eyelids had swollen and when she opened them, her eyes looked as if they would pop right out of their sockets. It was then that she made her request.

“Kill me, Cole.” 

She shielded her eyes from me when she said this, as if she didn’t want me to see her with blood dripping from her sockets. I shook my head. 

“Kaycee …”

“If you love me, you will not let me suffer through this.”

“Kaycee …”

“Don’t you understand?” she yelled. She moved her hands from her face. Her once green eyes had become darker and tinted red. They pulled at their lids as if they were too big to be contained behind them. Blood trickle from the corners where skin had torn. The most beautiful person I had ever known was now one of the Infected and she was asking me to kill her. “I’m going to die, Cole. I’m going to die, but before I do, I’m going to get worse, and I am going to try to kill you in the process. People get violent from this. They lose themselves, Cole. They lose themselves.”

Kaycee plopped onto the sofa and put her face in her hands. She looked up at me a minute later. Tears, mingled with blood, fell down her face. “I don’t want to lose myself.”

I nodded. “Okay.” There was nothing more I could say.

She took a deep breath and tried to smile, but it came out as a sneer that I wish I could forget. 

“Take some of your sleeping pills,” I said. “When you’re asleep …”

Kaycee nodded, stood and walked over to me. She put her arms around me and cried into my shoulder. She said ‘thank you,’ and kissed my cheek. I said nothing when she walked away. Half an hour later, she lay in bed, sleep about to claim her one last time. 

“I love you, Cole,” she said.

“I love you, too, Baby,” I responded and held her in my arms until she fell asleep.

I left the room and went into the living room. I pulled the curtain aside and peered out the window trying to work up the nerve to kill my girlfriend, my best friend, my lover. What I saw made my heart sink. What I saw …

A man ran down the street. He wore a pair of dark blue warmup bottoms and nothing else. He was bare foot and shirtless and his eyes were so huge they wobbled with each step he took. His feet were bloody, as were his arms and hands and mouth. He looked like a man who had just ripped the flesh from a person’s body with his teeth. His hair was disheveled and he didn’t seem to focus on anything or run in any direction. He zigged and zagged and stumbled along until he crashed into a parked car not more than forty feet from our house. His head hit the back window. His legs snapped at his knees and he fell to the ground, leaving a smear of blood on the trunk. I wasn’t positive but I believed he was dead. 

This man had lost himself. Kaycee would do the same soon. 

On the morning of the eleventh day, I went into our bedroom. It was still dark out and would be for several more hours. Kaycee lay on her side, her eyelids barely closed because of the swelling of her eyes. I looked at her, my heart broken. In one hand I held a pistol. In the other, a pillow from the couch. I thought I would hesitate, maybe even turn around and walk away, unable to end her misery. 

I didn’t.

I put the pillow over her head and pulled the trigger. The sound of the gun made me jump. I left the pillow in place and walked out of the room. I closed the door, locking it from the inside.

The last two days—numbers twelve and thirteen for me—I’ve stood at the window, staring out at the dead man who had crashed into the car. Flies buzz around him. I can’t help but wish I could go close his eyes, but that is impossible. They stare blankly at the sky day and night. 

Day fourteen, the last day of quarantine if you have shown no symptoms. I woke to a runny nose. I wiped at it with my hand. The smear of snot doesn’t scare me like I thought it would. It could just be a cold. Maybe it’s allergies. Maybe I’m one of the Infected now. 

Outside the front window, no more than forty feet from my house, a man lay dead, one of the Infected who lost himself. 

I don’t want to lose myself. I don’t want to be like him. I don’t want to go that way. I guess … I guess there is only one thing left for me to do …

AJB

3/23-3/24/2020

I wrote this at the beginning of the Covid 19 mess we are all currently dealing with. I now realize it could be so much larger, but I’m not sure that is a story I want to tackle.

Is There Nonfiction in Your Work?

6/02/2020

This is going to be a two part blog, since I have two things I want to talk about. 

First: I’m usually sure of myself when talking to people about anything. Ask anyone who knows me, I have no problems talking. It’s a gift … and a curse. I’m also opinionated and my filter is usually in serious need of repair. 

However, doing videos, recording myself talking, has always been difficult and awkward feeling. It doesn’t feel natural to me. That is why doing the video series that starts today is important. 

Let me explain, then we will get to the first video. 

I would like to, eventually, do public speaking, whether it is at a book club or in a library or at festivals and conventions. I want to share my thoughts with folks—some of them are too deep for the voices in my head and they scatter when I talk about certain topics. In order to do that, one of the things I have to do is conquer the awkwardness of doing videos. I’m not even talking about live videos—just prerecorded sessions. 

A couple of years ago, we did a similar Q&A set of videos. We had to do multiple takes on each one because I didn’t like the way I sounded or how my answers came out. Sometimes there would be background noise and I wouldn’t like that. I was trying to stage my videos, and as I mentioned before, I couldn’t escape the awkward feeling of them. I wanted them to be perfect, high quality pieces of art, when all we had was a cell phone and whatever backdrop we decided to film at.

This time around, we just went with it. We’re not trying to be perfect. There are going to be mistakes in some of these going forward, at least until we get our footing. We’re going to forget things. On the first video, we actually forgot my contact information. We’re going to experiment with a couple of things. As of this writing, I have developed an idea that might make things a little more natural feeling for me. We’ll see.

A couple of quick notes: the questions are randomly chosen. All of them were written down on index cards and shuffled several times before the first one was selected. We also shuffle them before each question is asked. I do not know which question I am going to answer until it is asked. None of these videos are rehearsed—they are completely by the seats of our pants. 

The first question comes from J.J. Marcum, from here in Columbia, South Carolina. We shot the video at Granby Gardens Park in Cayce, South Carolina, where Cate and I grew up. J.J. asked: “Is there any nonfiction in your stories? In other words, are they inspired by true life events or just your creativity?”

Check out the answer by watching the video. 

Is there nonfiction in your stories?

I would have liked to have been a little more eloquent in my answer, but I loved the question. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. 

The second thing I want to mention here is my novel, My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert released yesterday. You can find it on Amazon if you want a digital copy. However, if you want a print copy, please get it directly from me. You will get it signed by me and the price of the book includes shipping, which you will pay more through Amazon. The synopsis is as follows:

On the third day of summer vacation in 1979, three boys walked along the side of a road, laughing, talking about baseball cards, swimming at Booger’s Pond and Sarah Tucker, the prettiest girl in school. How could they know a few minutes later one of them would be dead, one crippled and one about to face the worse summer of his life? 

Wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Jimmy Lambert is sent to The Mannassah Hall Institute for Boys. On his first day there, Doctor William English strikes him. It would be the first of many Jimmy would suffer at the hands of guards and inmates. Fighting back is an option, but could it have dire consequences?

As Jimmy loses hope, two unlikely people come to his aid. Will they be in time to save him from the bullies at The Mannassah Hall Institute for Boys? Or will they be too late?

If you have enjoyed my work, I hope you will consider purchasing a copy of My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert. You can get the digital version on Amazon here and the print version through me by clicking on the link below. 

Thank you for reading, watching the video and coming along with me through this road trip called writing and story telling. Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert

A.J. Brown's new novel.

$15.00

Out of Sight

So often when a new year begins we reflect on the one that has passed. We take a moment to highlight the goods and some of the bads that transpired over the previous 365 days. It’s a bit of reminiscing, but quite often it is more regret than anything. I’m not doing that this year. There are two things I want to state in this piece, both of which have to do with my writing. 

Media Booklet Butterflies and BookFirst, I know I haven’t posted much in the last three or so months. I realized something last year, something I did for a long time because, well, honestly I didn’t want to lose the few readers I have here on Type AJ Negative. Sometimes I posted things just to post them, just to keep my name in your minds and on your lips. 

The way social media works is a simple concept I think we all understand: out of sight, out of mind. The belief of many people in the business of business is if you are not constantly putting out content you will become irrelevant and disappear from the view of customers. With that in mind, I wrote blogs and posted them, sometimes a few times a week, in hopes that you, the reader, will not forget me, the writer with the handful of followers. It’s almost like panicking. ‘If I don’t put out content now I will lose readers. Put it out. Put it out. PUT IT OUT!!’

It gets to the point where putting out content is not fun. One of the reasons I write blogs and books and funny things on social media is because I want to have fun doing it. I want to enjoy the process of growing a fan base. But when I put pressure on myself, what I put out isn’t all that great. That includes blog posts.

When I realized some of the content I was putting out was meaningless, I got aggravated with myself. That is not what I set out to do. I set out to inform and entertain, not to put out mindless drivel. So, I stopped writing blogs for a while, putting out only one, I think, in the last ten weeks, and that one was important to me. That’s why I wrote it and shared it with you.

Here is the deal: I’m not going to put out things that don’t matter or that don’t inform or entertain you in some way. I want to reach you, the reader, but I don’t want to do so out of worry that if I don’t write one or two pieces each week you will leave. I will write my blogs when I have something to say. Yes, I know that means my numbers will go down. It is what it is. For those of you who stay, I thank you.

Now, the second thing is much better than the first. Though I haven’t written many blogs in the last few months, I have been writing and I have been editing and I have been working on quite a few projects. That means real content will be coming to y’all in the form of books this year. Here are a few things coming your way in the next year or so:

Interrogations, a Hank Walker novella, is in the process of going to print. It should be ready to put in your hands any day now. 

Five Deaths, a novel about ghosts, revenge and love. Oh yeah, this is one you’re going to want to get your hands on.

The One Left Behind, a novella about love, death and determination. I’m starting to see a theme here.

My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert. This is another novel, not put out by Jimmy Lambert, but by me. The story is about Jimmy Lambert, a twelve-year-old boy who should have enjoyed his summer with two good friends, only to have his entire world pulled out from under him by a drunk driver, a crooked legal system and Doctor William English, the head of a boys institute who takes an instant dislike to our hero, Jimmy. Recently, I asked someone to read it. She sent me back a note stating: This story broke my heart.

Other possibilities for 2020:

Simply Put, my thoughts on telling stories and the business of it. No, this is not a how to book, but kind of an anti-how to book. It has quite a few of my philosophies, not on writing, but on storytelling, including what I call The Primary Colors of Writing. Oh, and this book has quite a few short stories laced throughout its pages.

Suzie Bantum’s Death, a novella about a woman who committed suicide by jumping into a swollen river. What caused her to take her life this way? One man sets out to find answers and he may have bitten off more than he bargained for.

Southern Darkness, The Collection. This one I’m not sure about yet. Last year I did a subscription similar to The Brown Bag Stories. There are four editions, meaning four stories. Folks paid for the subscription and I have sent out the stories on a quarterly basis. However, I’m thinking of adding one or two stories to the original four and putting out a collection. If I do this, the readers who did the subscription will get a significant discount if they purchase the print book with the extra stories in it. This is one I still haven’t decided on yet.

Okay, I guess I have said all I have to say for now. No need to drag it out, right?

Oh, one more thing: if you have read any of my books and you have not written a review for them, would you mind doing so? I would greatly appreciate it.

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

A.J. 

#everythingislifeeverythingisastory

#horrorwithheart

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

Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Book Reviews

Here on Type AJ Negative, I often talk about things other than my books and writing. I like to tell stories about life. I talk about things that mean something to me and that I hope can mean something to you. 

I deal in words and in the importance of using them to tell stories. Sometimes, however, other folks deal in words and say good things about my work. Though I have a page here dedicated to book reviews, what I want to do is start posting those reviews here on the main page. 

Is this a way for me to interest you in purchasing one of my books? Well, yes, it is. I have a saying: Bet on me. Bet on my writing. You won’t regret it. I hope you will consider purchasing one of my books, either from me directly (for print books and I will sign each one) or through Amazon for digital books. Also, if you’ve read one of my books, will you consider leaving a review if you haven’t already done so? Or, drop me a note here, on my page or at my email, 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you.

The following are reviews that were recently left on some of my books. 

From Amazon, a review of Interrogations:

Interrogations CoverYet another emotionally charged, character driven story from the mind of A.J. Brown. This author writes characters that you feel you know and you worry about them. Hank Walker wakes up in a survivor camp that is not what it seems. The leader should not be in charge and Hank makes it his mission to let the other survivors realize this. Hank is going through changes and he knows he must leave. I won’t say more except you must read Brown’s books if you love amazing stories with down to earth characters.

From Dark Bites, a review of Closing the Wound:

Closing the Wound is a story about ghosts, both living and long since deceased. It’s a story about the type of scars which, while faded over time, remain a stark reminder of what’s been lost and what may never be fully understood. It acts as a brief history of sadness about a life cut far too short and the kind of questions which can only be answered by those no longer here.

coverClosing the Wound doesn’t come across so much as a coming of age story as it does a coming to terms story. The story clearly provides a cathartic path on which the author has set himself upon while simultaneously creating a outlet for honoring a childhood friend murdered on Halloween night several years past. This story seems to be for both the writer, and his lost friend and is sure to hit several emotional chords for readers along the way.

A.J. Brown recalls the painful memories of his past in the same vein as any classic ghost story best told around a campfire long after the kids have gone to sleep when scary monsters get to play with our conscience mind a while. Except, in this case, the monsters are as real as the story told and everything you’re about to read happened as recollected by the author in a bare-bones, journalistic style.

As much as this story of about 15,000 words was written as a method for healing, it’s hard not to relate with at least some of the author’s mournful experiences which speak volumes to anyone who’s ever lost something they cared deeply for at some point in their life. As the author warns up front, don’t expect a happy ending. Happy endings don’t often belong in the real world.

While Closing the Wound may leave readers with more questions than answers, I feel it will also imbed within its readers a sense that it’s okay to not understand everything we think we need to no matter how desperate that need may so often feel. If A.J.’s book has taught at least this reader anything, it’s to remember that while it seems ideal to find answers as a way of closure, it may be important to find a way to accept what little we’re willing and able to remember – and understand – of a painful experience from even the most haunting moments of our lives.

And with that I urge you to do yourself a favour and grab a copy of Closing the Wound for yourself and put aside a few hours of reflective reading. You’ll be glad you did because there’s a lot more where that came from.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 4.52.16 PMFrom Amazon, a review of Zombie:

I love anthologies! Being busy, they give you a chance to actually finish a story in a short period of time. Zombie gives you 14 well written shorts with that A. J. Brown twist and emotional pull. I love that Hank and Humphrey, from Dredging Up Memories, make an appearance in Bonobo. I would have to say, French Dressing was my favorite. It’s great when a story can make you LOL. Thank you again, A. J., for another wonderful book.

From Amazon, a review of Dredging Up Memories:

A.J. Brown has done with his zombie apocalypse novel “Dredging Up Memories” what Shakespeare always strived to do with his plays and characters, to hold a mirror up to nature. Brown, in achieving this, has breathed new life into an often overdone premise. 1 DUM COVERMore often than not, the zombies in such horror novels are mindless drones that serve as nothing more than bullet cushions or slow-moving targets. Brown’s protagonist, Hank Walker, displays his human nature through trying time and time again in the novel to perceive or draw out some hint of human residue in the zombies he encounters. Who they were in life? He takes no pleasure in killing and apologizes to those he is forced to put down. He buries his dead. This, to me, is how I truly believe a good man would react to such a situation as a zombie apocalypse. He is a complex character and one worth following and sympathizing with throughout this powerful novel. Brown has written an intricately-crafted novel and his voice is authentic as it is familiar. We all know the people in Brown’s novel. And Hank Walker could be the guy on the barstool next to yours. I loved this book and didn’t want it to end. And when a book gives me this kind of charge and evokes this type of emotion, I want to read everything by that author. 12 ASOM CoverBrown is such an author. Great, great read!

From Amazon, a review of A Stitch of Madness

I’m 63 years old and I’ve been a horror fan all my life. It takes a LOT to creep me out, anymore. I can’t wait to read another book by this author. In the meantime, I’m going to read this one again.

From Amazon, a review of Beautiful Minds:

A.J. Brown truly has a beautiful mind. His way with words in these 61 stories captivates you as they remind of us what it is to be human, to have feelings and emotions. The stories pull you in as he takes true to life events that make you recall bits and pieces of your own life, with a twist. He makes you feel pain and sorrow, wonder and awe, and fear at what would happen if … At times you will laugh out loud as I did. He has a way with words that make you feel at times you are living within the story, feeling and seeing as the character(s) do. Do I have favorites in the book? Most definitely. Did I mark each on the contents page? I did, and I encourage other readers to do so. You will find, as I did, a row of stars which I will reread again, like other favorite books on my shelves. Thank you, A.J., for giving your audience another purely captivating book to treasure.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 4.50.55 PM***

Well, that’s all for now. As always, thank you for spending your time with me. I hope we can build on this and I hope to hear from you in the future.

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

A.J.

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

Interrogations Is Up For Preorder

Good evening my faithful Readers. I have great news for you. My novella, Interrogations, is slated to be released in ebook format this Friday, August 2nd, coinciding with Scares That Cares’ opening day. However, you can pre-order that ebook now. Just follow this LINK and check it out. 

For those of you who may not know, Interrogations is the continuation of Dredging Up Memories and will lead to another story, tentatively titled, Eradication. Hank Walker’s story is clearly not through and he has plenty of life left. 

1 DUM COVERIf you haven’t read Dredging Up Memories, you can do so by following this LINK. 

Here is the synopsis for Dredging Up Memories:

In the best of times, loneliness is difficult. At the end of time it can be deadly. 

Hank Walker is alone and struggling, not just with the undead, but with depression that threatens to swallow him. Searching for the family he sent away at the beginning of the rise of the dead, Hank is left to deal with loneliness, desperation, and his own memories that haunt him. 

The dead are everywhere. The few people still alive are scattered, and the ones Hank comes across may be more dangerous than the biters. 

With an unlikely traveling companion, Hank’s search takes him across the state of South Carolina and to the depths of darkness like nothing he has ever experienced before. Can Hank find his family and survive the biters? Or does he completely unravel in the world of the dead?

Curious? Keep reading.

Interrogations picks up where Dredging Up Memories left off. Here is the synopsis for the new novella:

Interrogations CoverHank Walker woke up in a bed in a survivor camp. He should have been dead, and a short time after that, he should have risen and joined the ranks of the shambling biters—those who have died and come back seeking the flesh of the living. Instead, he woke up alive and in a safe place.

Or is it truly safe?

Ruled by Harrison Avis, a militaristic leader, Hank realizes quickly Fort Survivor S.C. #3 might not be so safe after all, especially for those who do not find favor with Avis.

When a member of the camp is exiled to the outside world, Hank launches a plan to expose Avis as corrupt. It’s a plan with possible grave consequences for all involved. Though he knows the dangers of failing, Hank is willing to take the risk to protect what remains of his family, if not from Harrison Avis, then from himself.

Excited? I hope so. I am. 

If you would like to preorder the ebook of Interrogations, follow this LINK. I thank you, as does my publisher. 

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

A.J. 

Humphrey …

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Dredging Up Memories original cover by Lisa Vasquez

A few years ago, I started a story about a guy named Hank. He was alone in the dead world and searching for his friends and family in hopes of finding some of them alive. That story turned into a novel titled, Dredging Up Memories, and it follows Hank’s story into a downward spiral of … well, I can’t really give you all that information, now can I? Doing that would spoil the book for you.

One thing I can do is tell you about one of the main characters from Dredging Up Memories. Her name is Humphrey and she is a teddy bear. I know, right? Who names a female teddy bear a boy’s name? Anyway, she became like Wilson to Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. She also became one of the most beloved characters of the Hank Walker universe. 

After completing the novel, getting it published by Stitched Smile Publications, and then writing a handful of shorter pieces involving Walker, I approached a friend of mine about interviewing the characters of Dredging Up Memories. This young man—his name is Frank—went home and wrote out twenty-seven pages worth of questions he came up with for those characters. 

What you are about to read are the first twenty-five hundred or so words of Humphrey’s interview. I know, it’s kind of mean not giving you all thirty-nine pages of it, but as I said above, I can’t give you all the information, now can I?

I hope you enjoy the following excerpt from The Hank Walker Interviews. 

HUMPHREY 

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Just hangin’ round.

There is a room in an old school in the lower state of South Carolina. The school used to be known as Century Falls High School. It is now Fort Survivor #3. Half a block away is what is left of the middle school of the same name (minus the High, adding the Middle). Directly out the front gates are the remnants of the town that used to be Century Falls. Remnants that consist of burned out cars, and buildings that are little more than husks. If one were to pay close attention he or she would see the occasional dead corpse shambling around the debris and other corpses that are truly dead. If one was listening, then he or she would hear the occasional gun shot, putting that walking corpse down, joining its brethren on the ground among that debris.

This room is on the second floor on a long hall with double doors at each end. One set of doors leads down the steps and to the outside world. For the most part, these doors stay locked from the inside. The other set of doors leads down another hall that t-bones before reaching a set of stairs on either side of that t-bone. There’s no real need to get into where those halls lead.

The room number is 209, and it used to be Mrs. Willoughby’s math class. Most kids hated having Mrs. Willoughby, due to her always angry demeanor and her penchant for giving out zeroes and detention notes. That’s not a problem here now. Mrs. Willoughby is among the permanently deceased. The room, however, has been turned into a bedroom for children who have survived the End Times. Currently there is no one staying in the room and it is as dark in here as night is these days.

A creak rings through the room and down the hall as the door opens. A switch to the left of the doorway is flipped up and the glow of lights spill across the room, forcing the dark into the corners and beneath furniture. Speaking of the furniture, the room is nice. It is painted pink and white on opposite walls. There are a row of four beds directly ahead, foot lockers at the foot of each one. End tables are to the right of the beds, each one with a lamp sitting atop it. On the opposite wall is the exact same set up: four beds, four foot lockers and four end tables with lamps on them. It is clear to anyone who enters that this is a room set up as a basic dorm for little girls who … well, who may have lost everyone except for themselves. On the wall to the right, the same wall the door is on, is a long bookcase filled with books. 

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I’m in this book! I’m going to be a superstar.

Sitting in the center of this room is a table with two chairs. This is not normal. The table is round and the chairs are simple wooden dinner table seats. There is a vase sitting on it with a single daffodil in it, its yellow star-like petals and tea cup bud brighter than the overheads that light up the room. Next to the vase are two bottles of water. They are already open, though the tops are still screwed on.

There is one other thing that is out of place in this room: a video camera. It stands between two of the beds on a tripod, its lens pointing directly at the table.

Two men walk into the room, one of them in his early forties, stubble chinned and a book bag over his shoulder. He reaches into the bag and unzips the front pocket. Jutting from it is a teddy bear in bunny pajamas. The man, known to many readers as Hank, sets the bear on one of the chairs. He doesn’t like the way the bear’s head barely comes to the bottom of the table. Hank goes to the bookcase and snags several of the hardbacks. At the table he sets the books in the seat, sits the teddy bear in it, and then scoots the chair up to the table. 

The second man is younger, but not by much. His hair is sandy brown. Wire rimmed glasses are perched on his nose; his hair is long and is pulled into a ponytail that runs down his back. He walks over to the camera and presses a button on its side. The camera comes on. Accompanying it is a faint hum that is barely noticeable if you aren’t standing right next to it. He fiddles with it a few seconds more, pressing the red record button. He looks in the digital view finder and sees the red REC blinking, nods and walks away.

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Dredging Up Memories re-issued cover by Lisa Vasquez

“Morning, Frank.”

“Good morning, Mr. Walker.”

To the teddy bear Hank says “Humphrey, this is Frank. He is going to do your interview, okay.”

Humphrey says nothing.

“Come on, Humphrey. Don’t be shy.”

Still, the teddy bear says nothing. Really, why would it? How would it? It is just a teddy bear, right?

“Humphrey, Frank is a good guy. You have to trust me. Can you do that?”

The teddy bear’s head seems to move slightly. 

“Please?”

“Okay.” 

The bear’s voice is soft, not much more than a whisper. But it is enough to startle Frank. His eyes are wide behind the lenses of his glasses. A lump has formed in his throat. If there is one thing Frank did not expect it is that the teddy bear would actually speak. He really did believe he would sit there at the table with the teddy bear, who had been Hank Walker’s traveling companion for several months at the beginning of the End Times, and field answers from Walker, himself. Not some inanimate object.

“Did … did Humphrey just speak?”

Hank laughs, rubs Humphrey on the head. “Yes, she did.”

“She? Yes, that is right. Humphrey is a she.”

“That’s right. A lot of folks wonder about that, why anyone would name  a female teddy bear Humphrey?”

“It is a fair thought. Why would someone give a stuffed toy that is clearly a female a boy’s name?”

“Why do guys give their cars girl names?” Hank responds. “Who knows?”

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Pelican Snowball anyone?

“Good point.”

“Okay, I’m going to leave you guys alone for a while. I’ll come back later and see how you are doing. Humphrey, Frank is not going to hurt you. I promise. He and I have already done this. You’re in good hands. Okay?”

Humphrey doesn’t look up, but she gives a small nod and whispers, “Okay.”

With that said, Walker turns and leaves, closing the door behind him. 

The room is quiet for several long seconds. Frank has been in similar situations, with the silence being so loud you can hear it. He doesn’t like that feeling. It is awkward and thick. He is determined to fill the silence quickly. He picks up his notepad and flips it open. He turns the pages until he finds the first page marked in his scratchy handwriting as, Humphrey’s Interview. He looks at the first question and starts to ask it, then stops. He looks at the glassy eyes of the stuffed toy in front of him. This is a moment right out of a little girl’s childhood, where the stuffed toy is her best friend and they are having tea and crumpets with their pinkies out and slurping away at the nothing in the cups. He could almost see a girl with her favorite white and pink dress on and her hair pulled back into pig tails, her voice very much like the teddy bear’s in front of him. There is a moment of pure joy as he sees the little girl is blonde and her eyes are blue and she has dimples and freckles across her nose. 

‘Is your tea good?’ the little girl asks.

‘Delicious,’ the teddy bear responds.

The little girl smiles wide, showing off her teeth, including the gap where one is missing.

Briefly Frank wonders if the Tooth Fairy visited her the night she lost that tooth. If so, how much money did he (or she) leave the little girl? A dollar? Two? Five? Maybe the Tooth Fairy was very well off and left her a ten spot or even twenty.

Frank shakes his head, smiles and then chuckles softly.

“What’s so funny?”

He is startled by this question. He’s the one who is supposed to asks the questions. The grin leaves his face and the chuckle dies off. “I … ummm … I just didn’t think you would talk to me.”

“Why is that?”

She is well-spoken for a young teddy bear who Frank imagines is around five or six.

“I just didn’t think you would, especially when Mr. Walker left.”

She seems to nod, but says nothing else.

“So, ummm … would you like to get started?”

“Okay.”

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A boy and a bear.

Frank glances down at his notes. The first question is short, but he imagines it is an okay question to ask. At least, he hopes

“Let’s start from the beginning. What was life like before Hank?”

The silence he so hates fills the room, but it’s not that same awkward thickness. It is more of an anticipatory silence, as if Frank is watching a game show on a television of the past, one where the show has gone on for weeks and weeks and now there were only two contestants left and the host is about to announce the winner. There should be some sort of dramatic music playing, and maybe there is in Frank’s mind. The host opens his mouth and says, ‘And the winner of who doesn’t get eaten by a biter today is …’ and the commercial break interrupts the tension, sending the audience into a series of groans and ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me’s’.

But the silence doesn’t last all that long. In fact, it doesn’t even last as long as a short commercial break.

“It was fun,” Humphrey says. Frank thinks he can see her pink string mouth turned up into a smile. And is that a shimmer in her eyes?

“It was fun?”

“Yes.”

“How so?”

Humphrey doesn’t say anything right away. When she does, several seconds have passed and it is not an answer, but a question: “How so?”

Though her face doesn’t change, Frank thinks it does all the same. Maybe it was a twinkle in the eye. Or maybe it was just a slight shift of the head, or the angle at which she is sitting, but something has changed and it is a physical thing he can’t figure out. What he does know is she looks confused, as any living, breathing person would be. Then the light bulb comes on and he realizes she doesn’t understand his question.

“Oh, umm … ’how so’ is another way of asking, how was it fun?”

“I see.”

“So that’s what I am asking: how was life fun before Hank?”

The creative mind is a place where thoughts conspire for either good or bad. It is also the center of imagination, and as Humphrey sits, stoically, in her seat, Frank’s mind begins imagining she iss moving, like a child would, maybe one of five or six years of age; maybe a little older. He can see her tapping her chin as if she is thinking. Her lips are twisted slightly, almost in a pucker. Then she smiles, her small pink thread lips turning up and her fuzzy fingerless hand pointing at him.

“Before Mr. Walker came I was alone in my girl’s room. They had left me when everything went bad.”

She is quiet, this time with her head dipped and her glassy black eyes staring down at the floor. One shoulder goes up in a shrug. Then she lets out a deep sigh.

“My girl’s dad died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” And Frank truly is sorry. 

“Me too. They thought he was dead and they were sad and scared and my girl—her name was Casey—she held me so close as she sat on her bed. She had taken a shower and I could smell her shampoo. She always smelled so clean after her showers. Her momma made her take one every night, and sometimes I got one too, but not in the tub. They put me in the wash machine with some clothes and I spun and swam and spun and swam, and then they put me in the dry machine and I tumble up and down until I am dry.”

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Just chillin’ by a wall, hoping for no biters to show up.

Frank smiles at this. The Humphrey in his imagination is opening up without realizing she is doing so. He remains quiet as she continues her story.

“Then they put my pajamas on and I was fresh like my girl.”

She pauses, as if thinking again. When she speaks, her voice is almost a whisper and Frank has to lean in to hear her. Though he misses the first part of what she says, he clearly gets the second part.

“… they were gone.”

Not for the first time he wonders what it would be like to have gone through the End Times, as Hank Walker calls it. Would he have lost everyone he cares about? Would he have even survived the initial outbreak, and if so, would he have lasted as long as some of the survivors in Fort Survivor #3?

In his imagination—a place he thinks he will spend a lot of time during this interview—he sees tears in Humphrey’s eyes. They are no longer glassy and black, but soft and blue, almost real eyes. His heart sinks into his stomach as he realizes Humphrey is remembering the events that took her girl, her Casey, from her and left her alone when everything went bad. She takes a deep breath, holds it for a second and then releases it. She looks up at Frank. Her smile is still there, but it is not a happy one. What he sees on her face right then is resignation.

“Her dad tried to kill them. Her mommy escaped and took my girl with her. They screamed a lot as they tried to get away from him, and then my girl screamed even more when her mommy grabbed her up and left me behind.”

“She tried to grab me, but knocked me on the floor instead. I landed on my back. She cried and screamed and then the door slammed shut. I heard the car doors and … they were gone.”

“I’m sorry,” Frank says. 

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