Angels–Short Story

Occasionally, I will see something on social media that makes me want to write. It is usually something along the lines of: Tell me how we met, but lie. I love these probably a little more than I should. Today’s story is a direct result of one of those social media posts. Enjoy ‘Angels.’

She lay at the bottom of the hill, her hands folded behind her head, her feet crossed at the ankles. She looked to be staring at the sky. 

I stood at the top of the hill, some fifty yards above her. I looked up to the sky. White clouds hung in a backdrop of blue like delicate cotton balls, as if pasted there by a child’s hand. They were jumbled and close together, trying to crowd out the blue. 

I looked back at her. She still lay in the same spot. 

“What does she see?” I asked myself, then began the slow trek down the hillside. 

I leaned back, hoping not to tumble and break a bone or five or six, or maybe my skull. Occasionally my foot would slip on slick grass or stumble on loose gravel and I would slide a foot or two. At one point, I fell to my bottom and had to grab hold of a bush that had seen better days before death claimed it. 

Halfway down I glanced at her. She wore white shorts and a blue blouse.

The ground beneath me began to level out the closer I got to the bottom of the hill and I no longer had to keep my arms out at the sides and my body leaning in case I fell. 

Thirty feet from her and I could see her shorts were denim and her blouse was loose with a bow at one hip. She went for comfort. 

Twenty feet away and the picture became clearer. She didn’t lay on the ground, but on a blue and white blanket, maybe a towel. Flip flops sat neatly on the ground beside her. A book lay faced down and open on the ground beside the flip flops. I wasn’t sure, but I thought she was smiling, but she might have been asleep. 

Ten feet away and I could read the title of the book: Stolen Angels. Her toenails were painted pink. She glanced at me and smiled. 

“Hi,” she said and looked back to the sky.

“Hi,” I said. “Can I sit with you for a while?”

“Sure.”

I sat beside her, then lay on the ground. A rock gnawed into my right shoulder blade until I moved a foot or so to my right. My hands went behind my head the way she had hers but I didn’t cross my feet at my ankles. I stared at the sky, at the clouds that looked like cotton balls glued on the backdrop of blue by a child’s hand.

“What do you see?” I asked.

“Angels,” she said.

Our Once Upon A Time (Free Fiction)

Our Once Upon A Time

By A.J. Brown

Once upon a time …

That’s a funny little phrase, but I guess it could be used for everyone, couldn’t it?

Once upon a time she loved me. It was all she knew, all I knew. Our love for one another … But that was so long ago, back when we were young; back during a time where life had already become overwhelming and the only thing that mattered was love.  Real, unadulterated, honest love.  

There used to be wind chimes on the old house in the woods where we escaped to when her Papa was drunk and ornery and in want of a young body to warm himself with. It’s pipe-like bars used to clang together when the breeze blew in off the lake. It made an awful racket, but it was her favorite thing about the shack I still call home. It comforted her while she slept, far away from the worries of her Papa and his ways; far away from the cries of her Mother that could be heard in their house years after her passing.  

Once upon a time, I didn’t know her very well, my little Rose, with her auburn hair and brilliant green eyes. I had seen her in school, her face downcasts and a distant, sad look in her eyes. All I knew is I loved her, from the very first time I saw her walk into Miss Griemold’s class when were in second grade. There was an air about her that lit my heart’s flames and scared me all at once. For weeks and months, I watched her, hoping to get up enough nerve to talk to her. Instead, I kept my distance, far enough so she couldn’t see my heart break each time I saw her.

Once upon a time she cried while sitting on a bench near the playground. Behind her were swings with plastic seats and metal chains, and a metal slide that burned your legs in the summer time if you wore shorts. Her shoulders were slouched, and her hands were in her lap, one of them clutching to a piece of tissue that looked soaked through. 

I approached her, tentatively. I leaned down a little and spoke, “Are you okay, Rose?”

She looked up at me, her eyelids puffy and pink, a bead of snot beneath her nose. She wiped at it with the wet tissue and gave me the best smile she could right then. She nodded but didn’t speak. Deep down inside, I didn’t believe her. I also couldn’t believe myself. I finally managed to talk to her and I couldn’t think of anything better to say other than ‘are you okay’ and it was killing me.  

I turned to leave. That’s when she took my hand and told me to sit with her. My heart skipped several beats and I sat, suddenly feeling like I was in a dream.  

The dream became a nightmare as she told me of her Papa and the things he had done to her. My Rose, my little flower, the center of my universe, had been crushed by one of her own parents. 

I found myself in tears, heart aching and breathless. 

“Don’t go home,” I said, practically begged.

“I have to.”

“No. No, you don’t. If you go home, he’s just going to … to … do those things again.”

“He’ll come looking for me.”

I stared at her. Both of us had tears in her eyes. I think she knew right then that I loved her. 

“Then run away. I’ll go with you.”

“No. No. He’ll kill you.”

“I know a place. It’s a cabin near the lake. We can go there and you’ll never have to see him again.”

people-2562102_1920Once upon a time I hung a wind chime on the eave of the house and Rose smiled—a genuinely happy expression—for the first time since I had seen her walk into class when we were little. It had been less than a month after I spoke to her the first time.  My heart fluttered with excitement and joy.  We both quit school and went to the old shack that my father used to live in before he died.  My mother owned it and said when I was older I could have it.  I was older then, or so I thought, and that shack became our home; Rose’s home.  

Once upon a time a man came to the house. He was big and burly and hair covered his arms and face. His eyes were muddy brown, and he had a thick nose. He was searching for his daughter and had managed to track her to our shack. With shotgun in hand he broke down the door. I tried to stop him by pressing my back to the door, but he got it open, knocking me to the ground as he did. I barely got to my feet before he struck me in the face with the barrel of the shotgun. There was alcohol on his breath and murder in his eyes. He dropped the gun and beat me like the young man I was. At some point during the beating, I passed out. I remember reaching up, trying to grab his leg before darkness took hold and everything was gone.

When I woke, Rose sat on the bed we still had not shared, a damp cloth in her hand, rubbing my battered face. Tears were in her green eyes. I tried to talk but she placed one of her perfect fingers on my lips and she shook her head.

“Rest, my knight,” she said. “He’s gone, and he won’t be back.”

She was right. He was gone, but his shotgun remained and there was only one shell in it. There was a dark stain on the wooden floor of the cabin not too far from where I had fallen and taken the beating her father put on me.

Once upon a time we fell in love, a beautiful flower and her knight. 

Once upon a time seems so long ago.  

Once upon a time I stood next to an old Weeping Willow, thinking about our fairy tale came true. I knelt and kissed the wooden cross I made for her grave. Death came and claimed my Rose after all these years together, plucking her from the garden of life. In my hand I held her favorite wind chime, the one that always comforted her and helped her sleep; the one I hung on the eave of our old house when we moved in. I hung it on a nail I had hammered into one of the limbs of the Weeping Willow.

As I walked away the wind picked up and I heard the hollow racket of the wind chime. A smile crossed my face as I thought, again, of our once upon a time and our happily ever after.

__________

Some stories are sad. Some stories have those moments that make you weep inside. I feel this one has a couple of those moments. But this story wasn’t meant to be sad. It was meant to be happy. The main character in this piece—his name is Robert, though he never mentions it—fell in love when he was in the second grade, at eight or maybe nine years of age. He loved one woman his entire life, and he spent that life with her. That’s a happy thing. That’s a joyous thing. 

The wind chimes at the end, though sad in one respect, is a happy thing for Robert. He hung it in the tree above Rose’s grave, and as he walked away after hanging it, he heard the wind rattle the pipes together. It made him smile. It made him think about how they triumphed, how she had saved his life after he tried to save hers.

This story is another of those prompt based pieces. The prompt was simply: Once upon a time … and go. So, I went and I wrote, and this story is the result.

I hope you enjoyed Our Once Upon A Time. I also hope you will take a minute to like this post, share it to your social media sites and comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

A.J.

 

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A Note About Closing The Wound

If you’ve read my book, Closing the Wound, then you know several things right off the bat. First, this story would not have happened if not for a friend calling me early one Saturday morning and asking this question: What happened that night? You also know I went and had breakfast with this friend and we talked for a long time while sitting at a Denny’s. You also know Closing the Wound is a true story, at least as true as my memory recalled it. 

coverIt had been a while since I had seen that friend. His name is Chad and we were (and still are, though we don’t see each other often enough) good friends.I ran into Chad at my daughter’s graduation. He was there for another student, but he got to see my girl walk across that stage, too. Afterwards, we talked, as friends tend to do. We said, ‘Hey, we need to keep in touch,’ as friends tend to do, though often they don’t. 

Before we went our separate ways, I told him about Closing the Wound and his part in the story. A couple of days later, he purchased the digital book. When he finished reading the story, he didn’t leave me a review. Instead, he sent me an email. After reading it, I asked him if I could share it with the world. With his permission, I give you Chad’s letter to me.

Dear Jeff,

It is just passed midnight and I read “Closing The Wound”.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it from your perspective.  Like you, I have somewhat boxed those memories away to be opened only one time a year, Halloween.  The book itself is very well written, it’s what’s between the front and back (that) really mattered to me.  It did dredge up a lot of memories.  I am still a bit hazy on our conversation that day, I do recall us talking about that night just can’t quite piece it all together.  It has been 24 years ago and after reading the book, a lot of those forgotten details and memories have crept back into my mind, which is a good thing.  I never want to forget those days no matter how horrific they were at times.  Each piece is somewhat of a building block of who we have become. Back to the book, you have a gift Jeff, you are a master story teller and writer.  I do not use those terms lightly either.  When I was writing, I had a similar style, but I can’t focus long enough to eat a sandwich let alone write a book!   LOL!  You have always had that gift, you can say you’re a natural at it. 

 I know we haven’t kept in touch over the years and meeting at the graduation was very refreshing to say the least.  I like how you write in the book to not live in the past.  There are somethings that I have been apart of where I too, ask could I have done something differently to alter the outcome.  I suppose we can all agonize over those questions, but questions don’t change events concerning the past.  I have struggled with Chris’ death, well at least once a year, yes it still haunts me.  I know he was tormented and I understood his struggles to a degree.  I truly believe he is in Heaven and no longer has those feelings of loneliness, depression and the desire to belong.  I still see his face when he was with all of us.  He admired you so much because you were such a good friend to him.  Like me, you helped alter some of his life Jeff.  His life ended at a very young age, but perhaps that’s how it was meant to be.  We can ask questions of “what ifs”, but I remember the best days with him was when we were all together hanging out.  Those are the days that I remember the most.  Yes, I remember that picture of us at the rest area off of I-77 in between the snack machine bars.  I had so much fun back in those days! 

 I leave you with this my friend.  After reading the book, I couldn’t help but to go back 25 years ago and think how you have helped so many people.  I know you are a little rough around the edges but that’s ok, sometimes it takes course sandpaper to get the splinters off of some of us knuckleheads!  But seriously, as time rapidly marches forward and our own families grow before us, take stock in your life and the people you have influenced.  I know for me, my family may not be here if it weren’t for you.  God uses us in different ways and He used you and a number of others from that church to save me from myself.  I suppose some emotions have been awaken from 25 years ago, but I just remember how happy Chris was with us, in a way we were his family besides his aunt and sister.  This Halloween let’s start a tradition at go and visit him and remind ourselves of the good days. 

BoyThank you for all you have done for me Jeff!  You are and will always be one of my best friends. 

 Keep in touch buddy! 

 PS: Do you remember his sister’s name or know of her whereabouts? 

 Chad *********

After reading this, I sat back for a while, just staring at the words, not really thinking in clear thoughts, but in pictures. Pictures, like the first time I met Chris at a church work day; like the time I saw him at the South Carolina State Fair just weeks before his death; like the hundreds of teens in a standing room memorial service; like finding his grave for the first time after not visiting for so long; at learning my sister’s husband new Chris and has his own theories of what happened that night. All of them were snapshots into the memories that I—that we—dredged up.  

Chad said some nice things to me, but the one that keeps coming back is this: He admired you so much because you were such a good friend to him.  Like me, you helped alter some of his life …

I wish I would have done more, been a better friend (despite what Chad said, I always think I could have done more), knocked the block off the punk who influenced him in the direction that ultimately cost him his life. 

Here’s my questions to all of you: Do you know someone who might need someone to talk to? Do you know someone who might be heading down a path of destruction? Is there someone you care about who is doing something you think maybe he or she shouldn’t, but you are afraid to mention it because you think it will hurt their feelings?

Here’s one more question: Does saving a life mean more than hurting someone’s feelings to do so? 

The story of my friend, Chris, in Closing the Wound, is just the tip of the iceberg. The story goes so much deeper and cuts down to the bone when I think about his life and death. I honestly don’t know if there is more I could have done, and that brings me guilt from time to time. Even so, I did some good in his life, and clearly, in Chad’s life. 

Sometimes our guilt overrides everything else. It torments us to the point of forgetting all about the good in our life, the good we have done. Chad is one of those good things. He reminded me of that. Now, I remind you: think about someone you have helped in some way. How is their life better because of you? Yes, take credit for that in your heart. Say, I did something great for someone and I helped someone and that person is in a better place because of me. Don’t let guilt ruin you. 

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

A.J.

If you would like to pick up a copy of Closing the Wound, you can find the digital version on Amazon, or you can get the print version directly from me (signed of course) by contacting me at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com.

Free (Zombie) Fiction: When We Were Kids

“Remember when we were young and we used to walk on the stones in the stream?”

Brandon had asked that question as they walked along the very stream he spoke of. They were no longer kids and walking outside at any time during the day was more dangerous than ever before. Colby found that thought ironic, considering the state of the world before. 

“Yeah, I remember,” he said. “And when we got tired of walking on the stones, we tried to catch crawdads.”

Brandon laughed at that. It was a sound Colby hadn’t heard in a long while. He had heard screams and yells and crying from people as they died, ran, or ran then died or suffered from that thing called mourning when someone—or everyone—they loved was dead. Colby looked at his longtime friend and couldn’t help but smile. 

“What?” Brandon asked.

“You laughed. I haven’t heard laughter since …”

“Since Micah died,” Brandon finished.

“Yeah.”

They were silent for a few minutes as they walked the stream, coming up on the wide section a short footbridge spanned across. On the other side of the bridge was a path that led through a length of trees and then opened up into a park where no kids played anymore. Micah died at least a month earlier, but Colby could have never told you exactly when—time wasn’t measured in days and nights anymore, but in minute by minute. He closed his eyes, shook off the thought his only other friend who survived for longer than a couple of weeks when the world went to Hell. Boys

Brandon stopped. Colby looked back at his friend, at the deeply tanned skin, the hair much longer than it had ever been and in need of washing (like the rest of his body), his clothes covered in dirt, blood and who knew what else. He looked, as Colby thought everyone who was still alive probably looked, like the homeless of before. “What’s wrong, Brandon?”

“I wish we were kids again.” He stared at the water, at the stones they had walked across in another life. 

“Yeah. Me too.”

“Life was so much easier back then.”

“Everyone was still alive back then.”

“Yeah, that too.”

More silence followed, then ended when Brandon started for the water.

“What are you doing, man?”

“We can’t be kids again,” Brandon said. His green eyes seem to shine as he looked back at Colby. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to have a little fun. Heaven knows we could use some.”

With that said, he dropped his pack to the ground, his baseball bat landing beside it. He stepped from dry land onto one of the stones. It wobbled under his foot and Brandon shifted his weight to remain upright. His arms went out, his hands extended, making him look like a stationary airplane. His other foot went onto a flat stone that barely stuck out of the water. Brandon looked back at Colby with a smile that could have belonged to a six-year-old. “You coming?”

Though he knew it was dangerous—anything other than paying attention to one’s surroundings was these days—but Brandon was right. They needed some fun, needed something to make them feel less like the world was ending and more like they had a reason to continue living. 

Colby went to the edge of the stream, dropped his pack and the crowbar he kept in hand. The water was murky and brown and not like it was when they were kids, when you could see the bottom of the stream, the sediment, the rocks, water plants, minnows, and yes, crawdads. The water was cloudy. Though he could see the stones and the mud on them, he didn’t like that he couldn’t see much more than that. Still, he stepped on one of the rocks, pushed on it for good measure to make sure it was sturdy, then put all of his weight onto it. He found another stone, this one with a touch of green moss growing along the edges that stuck out of the water. Then he was stepping from that one to another one, his arms out very much like Brandon’s.

For a few minutes, Colby and Brandon, friends since the first grade, and possibly the last two people alive in their world, were kids again. They laughed. Their feet slipped from time to time, getting submerged in the water before they could get back on the stones. For a few minutes the world was right. 

Colby turned around when he heard the startled ‘whoa,’ from Brandon. He saw his friend’s arms pinwheeling, his eyes wide, as he tipped backward, his left foot slipping out from under him. He landed in the stream with a loud crash, water splashing up and coming back down. Then Brandon laughed. 

“DId you see that?” Brandon asked, still laughing. 

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, man. Nothing like being a kid ag—“

Brandon’s laughter came to a sudden stop. His mouth opened but he didn’t scream. From out of the water came his arm. 

Colby saw the blood before he heard Brandon finally scream. His forearm was missing a chunk of flesh and blood gushed from the wound. Behind Brandon came the corpse that had been hidden by the murky water. It’s bloated head lulled on it’s shoulders. The rest of its upper torso was waterlogged and the same shade of brown as the muddy stream water. It made no noises—the dead’s vocal chords died right along with their bodies. But it bit down on Brandon’s shoulder, sinking its sharp teeth through the wet shirt and pulling it’s head back, ripping cloth and flesh away. 

“No, no, no, no!” Colby yelled and forgot all about trying to stay on the stones. He ran and splashed his way to dry ground, scrambled up the embankment to where Brandon’s pack was. He picked up the aluminum baseball bat with the dented barrel and ran back to the stream. He waded in as Brandon tried to shove the corpse away, but shock and the sudden loss of a lot of blood made him sluggish and unable to pull free. 

A second corpse appeared from the woods. It wore a long sleeve work shirt and what Colby thought was a green pair of pants and heavy workbooks that didn’t seem to fit it’s withered feet. It didn’t so much as walk as it dragged it’s feet across the ground. Somehow, it didn’t fall. 

“No,” Colby whispered to himself as he ran into the water, the bat raised above his head. He brought the barrel down on the muddy corpse. Its head split open with a sickening pop. It fell back into the water, but didn’t sink right away. Colby turned to Mr. Work Clothes, knowing if he stopped to pull Brandon from the stream, he was as good as dead as well. 

Colby met the corpse near the edge of the water. He swung the bat at its knees and Mr. Work Clothes fell onto it’s side. The bat went above Colby’s head again and came down with all the force he could muster. The skull ruptured with a similar gross crack. One eyeball shot from its socket and landed in the water with a plop. Colby swung the bat down several times, screaming as he did so.

The bat slid from his hands when he turned back to the stream to see Brandon floating in the water, his face to the sky, eyes open and blank. Tears filled his eyes and the strength left him. Colby’s legs gave way and he crumpled to the ground, landing on the soft grass of the embankment. 

Colby cried for several minutes, his last friend in the world now dead and soon to be one of the walking corpses that had killed everyone in the world. 

Then, as if a sudden realization swept over him, Colby rolled onto his knees. He grabbed the bat and stood. “I can’t let him change.” His voice was hoarse from crying and his eyes were blurry and the lids puffy from the tears. He looked at the bat and shook his head. 

Colby didn’t cross the stream by hopping from stone to stone. He went to the bridge, crossed over the water and went to his pack. In the front pouch was the .22 and it was fully loaded. He dropped the bat, took the gun from the pack and took the slow and somehow very long walk (though it was only fifteen or so yards from where he stood to where Brandon floated) to the edge of the stream. 

He didn’t want to step back into the water. As he had feared, they didn’t pay attention to their surroundings and one of them ended up dead, and soon to be undead if Colby didn’t hurry. 

No other corpses came out of the water when Brandon fell in or when I splashed around.

The thought should have been reassuring, but it did little to calm his nerves or set his mind at ease as he stood on the embankment, staring. 

If you don’t hurry, he’s going to change and then you’ll really have issues, won’t you?

Issues was a nice way to put it. The freshly dead were faster, stronger and more limber than the stiffs that teetered on falling with each step they took. They were harder to put down—their skulls seemed harder, at least. No knife will do for the fresh ones. 

“Okay. I’m going.”

Colby stepped into the water, his nerves on edge, his head moving from side to side as he searched the water for anything that might move. At one point, his foot struck a submerged stick, dislodging it. It floated to the surface and Colby screamed, fired two shots at where he thought a head should be. When he saw it was a stick, he laughed nervously as his heart beat rapidly in his chest. 

“Get it together,” he said and waded through the stream. He reached into the water, grabbed the back of Brandon’s shirt and started back for dry ground. Once there, he started to slide his hands beneath Brandon’s armpits, then stopped. “All he would have to do is turn his head and then you’re as good as dead.”

Colby looked at the gun in his right hand, then down at his friend. He put the barrel to Brandon’s temple. “I’m sorry, buddy,” he said, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. The bang sounded like an old party favor they would get as kids—a simple cork-like pop that seemed to echo in a world where noise had become almost obsolete. It was followed by the sound of something striking the water; the bullet, he thought. Brain and skull, as well.

Colby tucked the gun in the back of his belt and grabbed Brandon beneath the armpits. He pulled him to dry ground, then sat beside him.

“Hey, Brandon,” he said. “Do you remember when we dug that grave for Micah?” He nodded, knowing that Brandon didn’t remember. As a matter of fact, he didn’t remember anything at all, and he never would again. “Yeah, well, I’m going to dig another one, so, you know, don’t go anywhere. Okay?” Absentmindedly, he patted Brandon’s leg.

The crowbar was all he had to dig with. He used the claw end to loosen the ground and pulled the clumps out by hand. After what felt like hours, though it had been not even forty minutes, he had a shallow grave dug out right next to the stream, a place of their childhood, one that, at least Colby hoped, Brandon had found some joy and fun at before death claimed him. He pulled his friend’s body to the hole, careful to step into it and drag him along before setting him down gently. 

Covering the hole was easier and took far less time to finish. Colby covered his friend’s body from feet up, ending with his head. He stood, took the baseball bat and drove the barrel into the dirt near where Brandon’s chest was. 

“Rest in peace, my friend. I’ll never forget you.”

Colby took one last look at the grave before grabbing both his and Brandon’s packs and his crowbar and walking away from the stream toward the town they had avoided by following the water. As day gave way to night, Colby sought out refuge in the back of a car that would have been considered old in the before. The owner was long gone, but whoever it had been had left a blanket behind. Colby covered up and used the two packs as pillows. 

Colby closed his eyes, but before falling asleep he said, “Hey, Brandon, remember when we were teens and we took our girls to the old drive in movies in Monetta? Yeah, me too.”

AJB

2/25/2019

2/26/2019

A Smile, A Laugh and A Fist Bump

I want to tell you a short story. It may not mean anything to anyone, but I think it is important. 

keep-smiling_o_1675883There is this guy at work. He is 61 years old and has the most pleasant disposition. He believes in hard work and smiling. He always smiles and says hello to everyone he sees. I don’t think he knows a stranger. Every time I see him, he says in the most happiest of tones, “There’s my buddy!” He then gives me a fist bump and we talk for usually no more than 30 seconds. Then he goes his way and I go mine. We could see each other a dozen times in the course of a day and he always smiles, always says “There’s my buddy,” and always gives me a fist bump. 

Always.

Let’s just call this man Burt.  

Burt never has anything bad to say. He never gripes or complains. He just does his job and smiles and laughs and makes those who come in contact with him have a brighter day. If there is ever anyone I wish I could be like when it comes to being positive, it is Burt. I never come away from talking with him without a smile on my face. 

Late last year I ran into him and he wasn’t really smiling. Sure, he forced one when he saw me, but the usual exuberance in his voice wasn’t there.

“Are you okay?” I asked. Yes, I was concerned for Burt.

He said, “Do you have a minute to talk?”

“Sure,” I said. “I have as many minutes as you need.”

“I consider you a friend, and I just need to tell someone about my wife. She’s sick …”

I’m not going to go into the rest of the conversation, but I will say he had tears clinging to his eyes. We talked and we prayed and we talked some more. We even hugged. And when he walked away from me, he smiled, gave me a fist bump and said, “Thank you, my buddy.”

I watched him walk away. For the first time since I have known him, I wasn’t smiling after talking to him. I was sad and worried for him. Later that day when I saw him, he was smiling his big smile and he seemed more like himself. You see, Burt just needed to get his feelings off his chest. He needed someone to listen to him, to hear his words and to let him hurt for a few minutes. 

Since then, his wife has gotten better and he gives me reports on her when I ask (which is quite frequently). He smiles, gives me fist bumps and still says, “There goes my buddy.”

A long time ago, after maybe a couple of months of knowing Burt, I said to him, “It’s great to see someone who has such a great attitude.”

He nodded and he got real serious with me. He leaned in as if we were about to have a private conversation. “I don’t see a need to be any different.”

I don’t either.

So, what’s the point? Well, this is two fold, I guess. First, you never know what is going on in someone’s life. Maybe an act of kindness is all someone needs in order to get through the day. Maybe that person needs to talk to someone—anyone who will actually listen—in order to make it through a hard time. Second, a smile, a laugh, a joyful fist bump might just be the cure society needs. My buddy, Burt, always smiles, always laughs and is always positive, even during some of his darkest moments. He doesn’t show the world what hurts him. He doesn’t complain that life is not fair. He doesn’t say, “I wish someone else would do my job so I can sit down.” He smiles. He laughs. 

Burt enjoys life and he makes those around him better for it. The world needs more Burts. The world needs more people who will smile and laugh (not at people, but with them) and uplift others. 

There is so much in life to be thankful for, but we are too busy looking at all of the negative things. We are blind to the good things around us, but Burt’s not. 

Do me a favor. Take a minute and look at the world around you. I’m sure there is something good in it, even if it seems like there is not. I’m sure there is someone you know who might need a smile, a laugh, a fist bump, a ‘there’s my buddy.’ Take a minute and be Burt. I guarantee one thing: after smiling and laughing with someone else, you will walk away better for it. 

As always, thank you for reading, and until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Life Is…

Life is… umm… funny sometimes.

Really, it is.

Ask my son as he stood at the coffee maker this morning, eyeballing it as the coffee filled the pot. For me, watching that pot would have been the same as watching grass grow or paint dry. For Logan it was anticipation, exciting, the build up before the reward.

He ran into my room and said, “Daddy, the coffee is over the ‘six line.’ What does that mean?”

The six line? You know, the line on the coffee pot that shows it has brewed passed the six cup level. I generally make a seven cup pot in the morning. It’s a little more than I need, but then there are those days, like today, when my son wakes early.

I answered his question with, “It means it’s over the six line.”

“I know that,” he replied.

I smiled and asked. “Do you want a cup of coffee?”

“Umm… Yeeaaahhhhh.”

If you have children then you know how long that yeah was and you know there was a look of sarcasm on his face, his arms out to his side. You can change that yeah to a duh and you would know what it meant just as well.

I laughed.

The boy got his cup of coffee.

It was funny.

But life also has a way of sneaking up on you.

It’s time and we can’t bottle it.

My son is seven and my daughter is ten about to turn eleven. My baby brother just turned thirty. My baby sister just got married last month.

Life. It sneaks up on you.

A friend of mine’s husband died this past Thursday. I went to the funeral yesterday (my best friend went, seeing how he was friends with the woman I speak of as well). It was, quite possibly, the most beautiful funeral I’ve ever attended. It was emotionally charged and there were points where–and no I’m not going to say I am super macho and it didn’t bother me in the least–I teared up.

What I took away from the funeral was something very basic, but something many of us miss: So often we don’t enjoy life. We go through the motions, the daily grind of working and cleaning and paying bills and taking care of our children and we let life sneak up on us. We don’t take the time to enjoy the life we are given. We complain and moan and groan to anyone who will listen because we have burdens. Oh yes we do. Many of those burdens are simply in our heads and not real at all.

We worry more about someone wronging us or cutting us off in traffic or if our favorite television show is going to be cancelled. We worry about things we have no control over.

We hold onto the past–something we can’t get back. I understand this all too well. The truth is life is built on memories. Each thing we have learned, each thing we have heard or said or done or witnessed all become part of our memories. Memories are good. Dwelling on past failures or mistakes are not so good. Some of us try to drown those mistakes in drinking or using drugs or just saying ‘I can’t do this anymore’ and giving up.

Life sneaks up on us.

Kansas once sang a song called Dust in the Wind. The opening lyric:

I close my eyes only for a moment, and the moment’s gone.

I say to you, Fair Readers, don’t let a moment pass you by that you’ll wish you had back later. Live. Understand what I’m saying here: Live. Don’t just go through the motions, but live your life. Enjoy your life. The young man who was laid to rest yesterday did just that: he lived life and I’m sure he had no regrets before passing on.

For me, this blog was more of a purging–a way for me to release what’s in my head, in my heart. I don’t know what it is for you, the readers. Hopefully, a little inspiring.

I’m going to stop here. In the coming weeks I have a couple of interviews that will be posted. Also, come back tomorrow when the topic of the day will be ‘What Constitutes a Horror Story?’ If you guys came by on Sunday, you will have noticed Crashman Jack. Yeah, he’ll be back later this week and in the coming weeks as well. He and the Deconstructioneers will be working on Logan’s RC car, rebuilding it thanks to the nasty crash he had–concrete just doesn’t budge when struck by plastic. And there is also new information about an upcoming publication that picked up one of my stories and updates on the collection I am working on. Stick around. It’s about to get busy around here again.

Thank you for reading and until we meet again, my friends…

Humbled

I wrote this piece the other day called, Damn It Jim, I’m a Write-A-Holic Not a Perfectionist. You can find that piece HERE. If you missed it, feel free to take the time to look at it. Just for the record, this blog won’t be even a third of that length (I hope, says the writer).

If you don’t want to read the piece, this will sadden me, but let me give you the gist of it: My friend John was attempting to write the perfect story. He wrote a long post about it to which I responded by sprinkling my thoughts throughout it.

Admittedly John and I are quite different, but we’re also the same in a couple of important aspects. He’s a lot more laid back than I am. I’m a little brasher than he is. He yells yippee and I don’t. He’s a visionary and I just have vision. John is probably loved more than I am (he’s a loveable guy).

We both believe in telling stories that not only entertain, but move people in some way or other. We both experiment a lot within our writing. We both have that free style writing speeding through our veins. We both have too many ideas than we will ever write.

John and I are friends and I think our friendship could be somewhere closer to brothers from different mothers.

We both believe writing shouldn’t be writing, but should be story telling and that stories shouldn’t be told in that same cookie cutter way that a lot of authors have chosen to write in. We both feel that it is not our right to… well, write. It’s a privilege for us to tell you, the readers, stories. We enjoy it.

My friend, John—JAM to those that know him—finished his perfect story today. He posted it in his private office for those of us that are members in it to read. It clocks in at around 6300 words. I haven’t read it yet, but I do have it printed out and I plan on reading it, hopefully, tonight.

Really, this is not about writing, but more about our friendship. And I’m not going to go into a lot of details.

You see dedications in books. This is dedicated to the one I love. This is dedicated to the person that cut me off in traffic. This is dedicated to a dead saint from the homeless shelter. Whatever the reason, folks dedicate books to other folks.

My friend, John, dedicated his perfect story to me.

Yeah, what’s wrong with him, right?

No, not so much. John’s a crazy guy, but in a good way. Ask Linda. She’ll tell you.

When I read his blurb before printing the story out, I was silenced. I was… humbled. It was a simple dedication:

I dedicate it to AJ Brown

See, not much at all. There was more before and after that, but those six words made me stop, reread it. Sure, the story has not been published (yet) but the fact that he thought to even write those words humbled me.

I hope that his thinking behind that is because I did something good, that I had some impact on him. I know John has had an impact on me and my writing and has helped me a lot over the last couple of years.

So, without going into a ton of details, I just want to thank my friend, John, for putting up with me. Holy cow I’m difficult sometimes. Thank you for being a good friend, even when I’ve lost my cool and have ranted like a drunken sailor out to sea.

And thank you for humbling me…

Until we meet again, my friends…

Closing the Wound, The Final Chapter

[[~…life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…~]]

If you’ve read this far, then I thank you, from the very top of my heart. I never understood why folks say ‘from the bottom of my heart’. To me it makes no sense. The bottom is where you bury things, where you hide the memories you don’t want to recall. The top… the top is where your thoughts and emotions truly lie.

And if you’ve come this far, take one step further with me. There’s one more order of business that needs to be taken care of.

[[~October 29th, 2011~]]

The afternoon was blustery with the wind blowing in. It had rained the night before, but by the time we made it out to the cemetery, the sun was up high and the day had warmed just a little, but not enough to keep the chill off the skin.

Chad was already there in his old Nissan pick-up. We pulled up on the same lane, got out of the car and looked around. It had been a few years since we had visited–too many, to be honest with you.

We had a bag with six tiny pumpkins in them. Catherine had two Ziplocs with a pumpkin in each. Those two had been carved out and a little light had been placed in each one. One of those lights was for Chris. The other one was for a little girl who died shortly after Catherine and I got married and before the conversation Chad and I had that led to this story.

“His grave is on a corner, near a tree,” Catherine said.

The cemetery is huge and finding someone’s grave in there without knowing exactly where it’s at is near impossible. The three of us walked in the wrong direction, looking at the markers in the ground. Somewhere along the line, Catherine turned back and went the other way. Turns out Chris’s grave was less than a hundred feet from where we parked, but in the opposite direction of the way we had originally walked.

Remember what I said about the memory being an interesting thing? Catherine thought his grave was one place and she was mostly right. It was on the corner and there was a tree just a couple feet from it.

[[Sidebar: When I was a teenager, there was a guy who resembled me. Or maybe I resembled him, since he was near two years older. We went to the same school and every once in a while I would get called to the office (and I assume he did as well) for something I had or had not done and/or something he had or had not done. I’m just going to call him J.W. for the sake of this story.

I found out that not too long ago J.W. passed away. I can’t remember how, but I want to say a car accident. I say not too long ago, but as of today, it’s been six years since his death.

While searching for Chris’s grave and before Catherine let me know she found it, I came across J.W.’s marker. It was kind of surreal. There I stood, in a cemetery looking for one person, but finding another–one that could have been my twin if twins were separated by years instead of minutes.

I stood there for a while, not really thinking, just staring down at his name, at the dates of birth and death. Then I moved on, the search continuing for the person I originally came to find, however J.W. wasn’t far from my mind the rest of the time there. End Sidebar.]]

We stood around Chris’s grave. Someone had put flowers on it. His Aunt Barbara, who had cared for him before he died, was buried beside him, her death coming nearly fifteen years after his. For a few minutes we said little, just stood there.

“So, how are we going to do this?” Chad asked.

Honestly, I didn’t know.

“With the candy,” Catherine said. I pulled out a Three Musketeers, gave Chad a bag of M&M’s and handed Catherine her Butter Finger. We opened our candy. Not that it matters, but Catherine dropped half of hers to the ground.

“To Chris,” I said, lifted my Three Musketeers in the air. We touched them together like you would wine glasses and then ate our candy. Chris was fond of the Halloween treats, so what better way to honor him, than by toasting him with our favorites?

For the next few minutes we talked about the events, what happened to Chris. I told them about the goodbye–THE GOODBYE–Chris had given the last time I saw him. I told them my theory on how things went down. Catherine made a good statement, in that it could have been a drug deal gone bad, that Christopher could have been the supplier and Chris the buyer and that Chris may have owed him money. We all know how dealers don’t like not getting paid for their goods.

Yes, that could be the way it happened.

But, that doesn’t explain the goodbye, the way he sounded, the handshake, the lack of a shrug of his shoulders. It doesn’t explain my gut feelings and it doesn’t change my mind.

We talked about suicide, the way I think things unfolded… things became impassioned. That’s a good thing.

Chad left a few minutes later and Catherine and I stood there a moment longer. We placed one of the lighted pumpkins on Chris’s grave, turned the light on. On his Aunt Barbara’s grave we placed one of the six tiny pumpkins.

For the next half hour or so we searched for the little girl who had died after our marriage. We never found her. Or any of the other folks interred there that we hoped to find. So, we did what we always do when visiting the deceased: we left pumpkins on the graves of others, of folks we didn’t know.

Why did we do that? I like to think that for those who had no flowers on their graves, that by leaving some or, in this case, leaving a small pumpkin, they would feel loved, that they would know they were thought of, even if just for a minute.

[[Sidebar: Before we left, I went to one more grave, this time it was J.W.’s. I placed my last pumpkin above his name, gave a nod, then made my way back to the car. Not, that this has anything to do with Chris’s story, but it was like saying hello to an old friend. Then saying goodbye within the same breath. End Sidebar.]]

Our respects paid to Chris and his aunt–a woman who I was told never got over Chris’s death–my wife and I left the cemetery and headed home. The day was still moderately young and there were things to do. That is the way of life, isn’t it? Someone dies, you greave for a while, then the wound begins to heal. Occasionally, you have to go back and pick at the scabs in order to make them heal better. So often after someone dies we go to the funerals and then move on with our lives. It’s the nature of the human being. If we didn’t move on we would be in an eternal state of depression and that’s not living, folks. After a while, you have to move on. There are things to be done, a life to live…

As for Meatloaf and that song, objects in the rearview mirror are always closer than they appear, even if those objects belong in the past. Again, that’s just the way life is. The trick is to not dwell on that past, to not let it get you down and hurt your heart to the point of drowning.

Now, it’s time to let that deep breath out. Let it go. Let it go.

Goodbye holds such finality to it.

So, to you, the reader, I say farewell until we meet again.

To Chris, we all miss you greatly.

Goodbye, my friend…

Closing the Wound Part IV

The sun was going into hiding for the night. The moon seemed to rise earlier than normal. I guess she didn’t want to miss anything. She probably got her eyeful the night before when she watched the events unfold in a single wide trailer in Starmount.

Steve pulled up in his pick-up truck. He was the youth leader at that time and one thing you could bank on is he really cared about those kids. I know–he told me so on many occasions. If there was ever a fault in that guy it was how much he worried about stuff and those teens were chief among those worries. We were close friends–at least at that time we were–and I could tell you how much he talked about the various problems they had, how much he tried to figure out how to help each one of those youths.

I sat on the steps outside the pastor’s study, which was part of the Children’s Wing. Steve got out and I stood. He rounded the front of the truck, his keys in hand and gave me a curious look. “Jeff, I got a call to be here early tonight. Earls said it’s important.”

I nodded. What was I thinking when I said I would tell him? I wasn’t prepared for this.

“Do you know what’s going on?”

I hesitated. “Yeah.”

“What?”

“Steve–”

“Does it involve any of the kids in the youth group?”

It’s an honest question, one that rightfully was asked. There were a few troubled kids in the group, most of them girls, and being the youth leader, it was a legitimate question with a legitimate concern.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Who?”

“Steve–”

“Who?” I think he knew before I said it.

“It’s Chris.” My voice felt so small I wasn’t sure I had spoken.

“What about him? What about Chris?”

I looked at him. Could he see it in my eyes? Could he see it in the way my lips were turned down? Could he see it in the way I stood?

“Steve.”

“Jeff, what’s wrong with Chris?”

And it came out. Two words, so simply stated and carrying all the weight in the world and wielding all the impact of a hammer to a nail. “He’s dead.”

I saw that hammer strike that nail right on the head. Steve’s face screwed up tight as the words reached his brain and the realization hit home. He turned, slung his keys toward the pastor’s study and walked a few feet away.

I looked away. Part of me felt like the meanest person in the world for telling him. I spotted his keys on the ground. It may not have meant anything to anyone else, but those keys became important to me. With what had happened, with the loss of a teenager to a senseless crime, those keys couldn’t be lost. I walked over, picked them up and held them tight in my fist. They were hot. Or maybe it was just me.

***

That Wednesday night service was nothing like it normally was. I guess that goes without saying. There was no singing and there was no message. The youth didn’t meet in the youth room. The only thing that seemed semi-normal was the nursery had kids in it.

We sat in the sanctuary on light colored pews with green cushions that matched the carpet. No one did much talking. For those who knew about Chris, they sat or stood in shock. I sat a few pews behind Steve and next to the girl I would marry one day.

Pastor Earls stood. His face, a study in grief and pale, his eyes rimmed red as if he had been asleep or crying. I believe it was the latter of those two things. He straightened his blazer, cleared his throat and began to speak. His voice was strong, without the first quiver.

I don’t remember everything he said, but the gist of it remains. He spoke of Chris’s death without going into any details–details most of us would find out over the next few days as things began to unfold.

Then the quiver came right along with the tears that followed. With the exception of people crying quietly in their pews, no one spoke.

The weight of a young life, gone way too soon, now sat squarely on each of our shoulders.

***

“How did… umm… how did Laura take it?”

“Who cares how she took it?”

He frowned, confused. “She was his girlfri—“

“No, she wasn’t.” I was a little too sharp in my tone.

“She said she was.”

“She lied. Chris was nuts about her. Absolutely nuts about her. He worshipped the ground she walked on. He would have done anything for her. Anything.”

I could feel the heat rising. My face was probably flushed red. I talked through gritted teeth.

“And you know what she did? She ignored him. He followed her like a lost puppy and she wouldn’t give him the time of day. He bought stuff for her and she took it, said thank you or maybe not and then had nothing to do with him.”

“But, I thought she loved him.”

Bullshit.

That’s the first word that came to my mind. I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.

“You know,” I said and picked up my drink. I took a big gulp, swished the somewhat watered down soda around in my mouth before swallowing. “She never loved him. She toyed with him. Played him like a fool. It really pissed me off to hear her say how much she loved him after he died and to go on and on about how her boyfriend was murdered–you know he was murdered, right?” I probably shouldn’t have mocked her at that point, but damn I was angry.

I looked down at the table.

Deep breaths, man. Deep breaths.

Back up at him, I could see his eyes were a little wider behind his glasses.

“Chad, she wanted a pity party. Oh, poor Laura lost the love of her life. She wanted the attention. I think she liked it. The truth is it wasn’t true. She didn’t love him at all, and if she did, she had a funny way of showing it.”

He fidgeted with his cup for a moment, then changed the subject. I don’t blame him. If I were him I would have tried to do the same thing.

“How was the funeral?”

“It was nice,” I said. Totally the truth there. It was nice, even if it left me feeling a bit like the way Laura acted did.

***

I thought I got their early enough. Not so. I arrived at the church nearly an hour before the ceremony. The parking lot sat packed with vehicles. I only recall a couple times when the lot was packed like that and, sadly enough, they were all for funerals.

I went around to the front of the building like everyone else. I guess I could have gone in the back way, but no need making the entrance where folks paying attention would notice. At the door stood the ushers, members of the church who I knew well. I thought back to that blue teeth incident and forced a smile as the ushers greeted me and handed over one of the bulletins that held the order of service in it. On the front of the single folded page was a school picture of Chris, taken the year before. He smiled happily.

Teenagers filed in, most of them dressed nicely, some of them looking as if they belonged in a fashion show instead of at a funeral. As I watched the many youths enter the church I began to wonder… Admittedly, it’s something that probably should have never crossed my mind, but it did and if I’m going to be honest with you all, I have to tell you what that thing was. If you’ve paid attention throughout this, you would remember that I said Chris was a follower, someone always searching for people to fit in with. He’s the polar opposite of me. What do I mean? I’ve never cared if people like me. If they do, great. If not, well, their loss. Chris, however, did care if people liked him. He wanted his peers to like him. In some way I think he needed people to like him.

As teenager after teenager packed the small Nazarene church in Cayce, I couldn’t help but think, just how many of the well over a hundred kids there were actually friends with Chris and how many of them just wanted a day off from school or just wanted to say ‘hey, I knew him and he was a friend of mine and I went to his funeral and…’ You get what I’m saying? We all know those people. We all know them quite well; those people who use someone else’s tragedy to bring attention to themselves. People like Laura…

I met Catherine and we took a seat near the front of the church. The casket sat closed in front of the pulpit.

Closed.

That’s pretty final.

Catherine sniffled and we talked in hushed tones. I had the hardest time taking my eyes off that closed casket. Goodbye came to mind. You know, goodbye? That thing you say when you don’t ever plan on seeing someone again. That goodbye has lingered with me for years, even when I think Chris is in the rearview mirror a long way off.

[[~…and there was so much left to dream…~]]

The next part of that lyric is ‘and so much time to make it real.’ Time ran out on Chris. Whatever dreams he or anyone had for him died on Halloween night of 1995.

I think about that goodbye and part of what Christopher later said when being interrogated by the police made a lot of sense as to why he said that. I’ll get to that later…

But, it’s still there. I can still see his face, hear his voice. I can still see it in his eyes–I would never see him again and I believe he knew. That feeling that crawled all over me when he said that… I should have gotten out the car, walked over to where he went and pulled him away from there. At the risk of him being pissed at me for doing so, I should have stuck my nose in his business right then and there…

…but I didn’t.

No, I don’t blame myself. Like so many others, when someone dies, we wonder if there were anything we could have done to prevent it. Maybe. Maybe not. We often kick ourselves or worry ourselves over what we could have done. The past is the past and no matter what, you have to move on. You have to live or you just die with the person who left already.

Pastor Earls gave his message that day and Michael W. Smith’s Friends played over the P.A. system. I think it was at that point that most of the tears fell. Catherine wept on my shoulder…

To be continued…

Closing the Wound Part III

“I picked you up. Remember?” I asked Chad and took a bite off a piece of bacon.

“Yeah, I do.”

“I dropped you off at the front of the school like always and you went inside… and Chris walked up to the car.”

“He did?”

Oh yeah, he did…

The sun was out. It was nearing eight in the morning. I picked Chad up in a little blue Escort. Yeah, I was cool. We drove to Brookland Cayce High School, home to the fighting Bearcats.

[[Sidebar: Like most small towns in the South, football is a religion and it was/is no different here. Though, really, it’s been a long time since the football team did much of anything on the field. Truth be told, the B.C. football team has only had three winning seasons in the last sixteen years including abysmal 0-10 seasons in 2007 and 2009. Thankfully, other sports have done well over the years. I’m rambling, aren’t I? End Sidebar]]

I dropped Chad off and went to leave. I stopped before I got started. Chris stood across the street in front of a building that used to be an old bait and tackle shop. Next to it was the barber shop–long gone now. Later that bait and tackle would become a coffee shop called The Pavilion. It’s no longer there anymore.

Chris saw me and I reckon he knew I saw him. He moseyed across the street, met me at that super cool Escort. We exchanged pleasantries, though I think they were a little strained, much like two guys who had been in a fight over a girl would exchange them, both knowing that fight was stupid, but neither being able to take back what was said or done. Especially since the girl chose someone else. He had that sheepish, kid with his hand in the cookie jar look again.

“So, are you going tonight?” I asked.

He didn’t shrug. Not in the least. He said, “Yeah.”

“Good. I’ll call you around four and we’ll figure out what time I need to pick you up.”

“Okay.”

Then Chris did something I don’t think he ever did, not even on the day I first met him. He stuck out his hand as if we had made a deal and a handshake sealed it. I took his hand, shook it once, maybe twice and let it go.

“I’ll talk to you later,” I said.

He replied with, “Goodbye.”

Goodbye? I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. How many people still say goodbye? Not many I would think. They say, see yah, bye, later dude, tata for now, ciao, and a whole host of other things, but goodbye?

You say goodbye to someone you don’t plan on seeing again. You say goodbye to a lover you broke up with. You say goodbye to a crappy boss when you quit a job. You say goodbye to someone moving away. You say goodbye to someone who’s dying. You don’t say goodbye to someone you plan on seeing later that afternoon… unless you don’t plan on seeing them.

I watched as Chris walked away, his shoulders somewhat slumped, hands deep in his jean pockets. He crossed the street and who stood at the corner of the old building that was once a bait and tackle shop? Christopher and a couple other teens I never met. Chris disappeared down the street that ran along the building.

I never saw him again…

***

At four o’clock I called Chris’s aunt’s house from the job. No answer. Fifteen minutes later I did the same thing. Again, no answer.

Since I’m trying to be as honest as I can here, I’ll tell you I got aggravated. I called twice more before I left the shop at five. You guessed it. No one answered.

When I got home, I tried again. And again. And again. At quarter of six I gave up. It crossed my mind that he was out with the weasel boy–yeah, that’s how I thought of him: one rat faced punk with the beginnings of a moustache that could have been his filament whiskers for all I cared. My jaw clenched tight at the thought of being stood up for weasel boy.

I went on to the church, we did our Harvest Festival. Chris never showed up. Neither did his sister. Before we left for trick or treating, I tried calling Chris one more time from the church. You know by now what the result was of that phone call.

My future wife, her sister, my sister and myself piled into my car and we made our way to our first trick or treat stop. On the way we were passed by several fire trucks, their sirens blaring.

Catherine looked back after they passed and said, “I hope everyone’s okay.”

If that’s not something right out of a movie, then I don’t know what is.

***

[[~But I can still recall the sting of all the tears when he was gone.
They said he crashed and burned I know I’ll never learned why any boy could die so young.~]]

“How did you find out?” Chad asked from across the table. Our plates were gone by then and our drinks sat in front of us. My coffee had grown cold and I nursed a soda for all it was worth.

“I got a phone call the next day.”

“Really? From who?”

“Maurice Applegate.”

“Really?”

Yeah, really.

The day had been one of those so-so days where work came in spurts. Normally November was a busy month right up until the day before Thanksgiving, but on that day we all just kind of hung out and did what little work came in for us.

The phone rang and someone answered it. A moment later I had the receiver to my ear and there were few pleasantries in the conversation that ensued.

“Jeff, this is Maurice. I need to ask you a question.”

I didn’t speak right away. Maurice was a cop at the time. He’s since retired, but at the time he was as active as they came. Why did he need to call me? And why call me at work? He didn’t have my work number. Where did he get it from? Red flags waved in the landscape of my mind.

I spoke, but cautiously. “Sure, Maurice. What is it?”

“Have you seen Chris?”

“Chris?”

“Yes. Have you seen him recently?”

“I saw him yesterday morning at B.C.”

“Do you remember what time it was?”

“Before eight.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“Briefly.”

“Do you mind telling me what you talked about?”

Interrogation. That’s what happened. I was being interrogated and that could only mean something bad happened. I remembered how I felt the day before, when he shook my hand and said goodbye, you know something you never say to someone you plan on seeing again.

“I asked him if he wanted to come to the Harvest Festival. He said he would go and I told him I would call him and let him know what time I would pick him up.”

“Was he with anyone?”

The truth was no. He wasn’t. Not while we talked. But, was it the complete truth? Chris walked away and met up with a few people across the street, remember?

“He met some people across the street.”

“Was Christopher one of those people?”

Well, damn. What was I going to do? Mike was in cop mode and I had a feeling the questions were official business. Lying could be bad. Lying could be detrimental.

“Yeah.”

He paused with the questions. In my head I saw him jotting down notes on a little pad that sat within a black leather hard cover. I could see him with his head cocked to the side, pressing the phone against his ear while he wrote.

“I appreciate your time, Jeff. If you hear from him, can you give me a call?”

“Maurice,” I said. A sudden desperation swept over me. I knew something was wrong and a huge part of me knew it was the worst possible thing in the world. “What’s going on?”

“Jeff, I can’t go into that right now.”

“Maurice, please.”

He was a cop and he had a job to do. But, more than that, he knew my family. He and my mom went way back to when they were both single. He probably shouldn’t have told me anything. “There was a fire last night in Starmount. A body was found. We can’t determine if it was Chris or Christopher and we can’t find the other one.”

There’s more to the conversation, but really, that’s all the detail I need to go into. I don’t remember a good chunk of the rest of it, anyway.

I hung up the phone and sat down on a case of paper beneath the counter. I stared at the copier in front of me, its beige and white sticking out much brighter than ever. The floor stood out, the dimensions like stacked blocks. Voices echoed in my ears and somewhere off in the distance the phone rang again.

“Hey man, you okay?” I looked up. Eric the Red (as we called him) stood above me. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth and his red goatee seemed to shine against his pale white face. His bald head glistened.

My face felt hot.

“I don’t know,” I said.

***

“Wow,” Chad said.

I looked at my watch. It wasn’t even nine-thirty yet, but it felt much later. I wondered if Catherine was awake and wondering where I went. I wondered if Chloe was awake. I wondered if I would even be awake if Chad hadn’t called me.

“What happened next?”

I shifted in the booth seat, putting my back to the wall and stretched one leg out on the cushion.

“We had church that night.”

***

The pastor was a good fellow, last name of Earls. He had been a chaplain in the military. Don’t ask me which branch–I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to. A couple years later he would preside over the wedding of me and my lovely bride, but that was still off in the future and troubles all their own would happen between those two points in time.

Pastor Earls gave me a call. I had been home only a couple minutes when the phone rang. I answered it and on the other end was Earls’ somehow very calm voice.

“Jeff,” he started, stopped, then picked back up again. “Is it possible for you to be at church a little earlier tonight? Something happened last night and I’d like to discuss it with a few folks before the service.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, then added, “This is about Chris, isn’t it?”

In my mind I could see him nodding, the pinched way his lips came together when he was in thought. I could also see sadness in his eyes. I heard it in his voice. “Yes,” he said, then it was his turn to add something. “I guess you’ve heard.”

“For the most part. Maurice called me at work.”

A deep sigh followed. “I just got off the phone with him as well.”

“Anything new?”

Silence can be so damn loud it says everything you could ever need to hear. It spanned the space between us. Another deep sigh followed. I wondered if Earls was struggling to stay composed.

“Well, they’ve confirmed the identity of the young man in the fire.”

He didn’t have to say who it was. I knew.

“So that means they’re looking for Christopher?”

“Yes.”

I squeezed the bridge of my nose. A headache was forming and I think it started somewhere in my chest with that confirmation.

“Does Steve know?”

“I don’t think so, but I’m going to tell him soon.”

“Don’t,” I said. “I’ll tell him.”

***

“You told Steve?”

I nodded, lips puckered. “Yeah. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

To be continued…