Because I Can (Part 4 of 4)

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

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

“Can we?”

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

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

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

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

“He’s lying.”

“We don’t know that.”

“But—“

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

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

Well … that’s not entirely true.

***

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

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

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

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

Nah, I didn’t think so.

***

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

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

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

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

Again, he nodded. 

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

Another nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I do have to do this.”

“Why? Why, man?”

“Because I can.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Momma?” he whispered, his voice cracking.

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

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

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

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

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

I threw up.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the great lie:

1-That I would let them go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Reggie! Reggie!”

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

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

“Whoa! Whoa! Reg—“

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

“Now what?” Lou asked. 

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

“We finish it,” I said.

“You want me to …”

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

“He’s got a gun, Charles.”

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

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

‘Why?” he asked.

“Because I can.”

AJB

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Because I Can (Part 3 of 4)

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

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

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

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

“Why are you doing this, man?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop, man! Just stop, man!”

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

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

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

“Whatever?”

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

“Your brother … you love him, Dequan?”

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

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

“I can say it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Let me go get it.”

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

“Man, please, man. Just let us go.”

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

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

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

“You’re lying, white boy.”

“Am I?”

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

***

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

That’s when I threw up again. 

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

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

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

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

Guess what? They did nothing. Nothing.

Nothing …

***

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

Daquan stared at it.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“My father,” Uncle Lou said. 

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

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

“The Knock Out Game,” I said.

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

“I ain’t never seen that man.”

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

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

“What? What’s he talking about?”

“You’re going to—“

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

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

“Do you have the picture?”

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

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

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

“Recognize this woman?”

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Because I Can (Part 2 of 4)

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

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

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

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

“Then what do ya want?”

“I want to join your group.”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said, my voice strong. 

True facts:

1-I was a wimp.

2-I wanted to be tougher.

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

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

5-After that day, well … vomit happens.

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

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

“You want to join our group?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You ready?” Paul asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready for your initiation?”

“Yes.” 

(NO! NO! NO!)

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

“Open the box.”

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

“Drown it,” Johnny said.

“What?” I faltered.

“Drown the kitten and you’re in.”

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

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

Laughter. 

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” he yelled.

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

“I need to piss, man.”

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

***

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

“When?” I asked.

“Tonight,” came my uncle’s voice.

My stomach quivered with excitement and trepidation. 

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

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

***

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

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

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

“You want him downstairs with the other guy?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind.”

“Lead the way,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

-I’m going to kill you mother—-ers.

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

-Reggie, wake up, man. 

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

-You’re dead meat, mother—-ers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, I smiled.

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

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

“Where … where am I?” 

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

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay, bro?”

“Be quiet, Dequan,” I said.

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay?”

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

“I just want to know—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded to Lou.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Play it again,”

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

“No! Just one more time. Please.”

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

“I have to.”

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

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

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

The gist of the rest of the video:

-The fist connected.

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

-That head hit the brick wall beside him.

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

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

-The Six laughed.

-The One knelt and slapped the unconscious old man.

And I threw up.

To be continued on Tuesday, May 12th …

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Because I Can (Part 1 of 4)

Because I Can (Part 1)

By A.J. Brown

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

“You okay?”

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

“Give me a sec, okay?”

“You don’t have to watch it again.”

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

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

“Play it again, Sam.”

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

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

“Really, we don’t have to do this.”

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

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

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

###

“Welcome,” I said.

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

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

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

Extraordinaire.

“Where am I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me go,” he said.

“No,” I replied.

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

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

And I watched it all.

“When you’re done, let me know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I ain’t never killed no one.”

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

“We’ll see about that.”

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

“I know what you’ve done.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

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

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

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

Again, he said nothing. Stubborn, for sure. 

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

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

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

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

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

“Why do you do it?”

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

“Why do you hurt people?”

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

“Cause I can.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Let me go right now, you ****head—

–I’ll kill you, mutha******–

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

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

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

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

“I changed my mind.”

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

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

You betcha.

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

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

Four things:

1-That was the last party I ever attended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I said. My stomach gurgled.

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

“I want to tell you a story.”

“Seriously, man?”

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

He shook his head, rolled his eyes.

I could still let him go.

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

“You know someone named Mr. Pouncer?”

“No. I knew a cat named Mr. Pouncer.”

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

To be continued …

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Torn (Free Fiction)

Torn

A.J. Brown

I found her on the streets, worn by the world and her spirit broken. She offered me sex for a few dollars, just enough for a meal and a place to stay. Maybe that was so; maybe she really wanted a meal and a hotel for the night. I think she wanted enough money to buy some white dust so she could escape the reality of her world for a little while. It doesn’t matter what she wanted or needed cash for. The ‘why?’—now that’s the important part.

Her name was Poppy, and she sat at the edge of an alley, her head down, dirty hair meeting me. She barely had enough energy to lift it up, let alone give me sex like she offered. I helped her to the car, lifting her off her feet and carrying her as if she were my bride. She couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. I set her in the front seat, buckled her in and let her sleep as I drove the few miles home. Every few minutes I stole a glance at her, especially when the car passed under a streetlight bright enough to shine on her once beautiful features. Her blond hair was dirty, her skin marked with scars, bruises and tracks from heroin use.

Compassion washed over me, followed by anger. Anger at the world for allowing people to fall off the face of society because of money, drugs, sex or just plain hard times. Heat welled up inside and my face flushed. My heart cracked a little and I had to force myself not to look at her.

Home greeted me with the cool of the air conditioner. I took her inside, her arms around my neck, though I don’t think she realized it. I hoped a warm bath would rouse her, would bring her back to this world. As gentle as I could I slipped her clothes off, dropped them in the trash can and set her in the water. Her eyes fluttered, showing hints of blue behind purple lids.  

addict-2713598_1920Soap, water and a rag washed away the grime a life on the streets left behind. There were teeth marks on her small breasts and thighs. My jaw clenched. My heart cracked a little more. Visions ran through my head of mean lovers or abusing pimps and johns who wanted all sorts of perversities from her. My stomach turned and I tried to block the images with other ones. A little girl picking flowers for her mommy; a teen preparing for her first dance; a graduating young lady, smiling bright, wearing a blue and yellow cap and gown.

She stirred, a moan escaping her. Her eyes opened. She shielded them with one boney hand showing cracked and yellowed fingernails.  

“Who are you?” Her voice was weak. She shook, out of fear I believe.

I said nothing. My mouth opened but words failed me; my throat constricted and the vocal cords froze. 

She dropped her hand and gazed through her drug induced haze. The light went on and her cheeks bloomed with two rosy splotches. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Maybe even a bit of anger crossed her young face. I said nothing of her state and handed her a towel and a robe.  

The lights were down in the kitchen. My head ached, as did my saddened heart. She walked in, smelling of coconut cream instead of filth. The aroma was sweet, and I couldn’t help but smile a little. She sat down to a bowl of cereal and a hot cup of coffee. We didn’t speak while she ate but I watched her as only someone who loved her could.    

“Tell me,” I said.

She did. And my heart cracked a little more. I felt it breaking, pulling apart with very little chance of it ever being whole again. When she was done, I led her to a room. I closed the door when I walked out, my shoulders slumped and tears in my eyes.  

Alone in the dark in the front room I prayed for forgiveness, though I had done nothing wrong. I went to the kitchen, the light still dim, and made a list. I recounted everything Poppy had told me.  

Some time during the night I dozed.  

I don’t know when she left but when I woke, she was gone.  Her clothes were gone from the trash can and the cash in my wallet was as well. My heart cracked a little more, a piece chipping off and falling away forever. I looked for her in all the places she had mentioned. She wasn’t at any of them, though many of the people I spoke with knew her. I took mental images of their faces.

That was four months ago, and I hadn’t seen Poppy since the evening I found her on the streets.  Five days ago, a homeless man found her body in a dumpster behind a burger joint, beaten and broken, stabbed to death. My heart broke and tears fell, more so than any other time in my life, even more than when her mother died. Her funeral was this morning. My little girl now lies in a casket six feet into the ground next to her mother, never to be harmed by this world again.  

But, I’m still here, hurting for the girl I watched grow up, become a young woman, then disappear to the streets. This evening I prayed again for forgiveness. Until now, I had done nothing wrong.  

I hear the screams of the people in the drug house at the end of the street. They had boarded the windows up some time ago and even put condemned signs on the lawn. I guess that was to make it look as if no one ever went there. Poppy told me differently that last time I saw her alive. Flames reach to the sky, licking the air, pushing ash up with it. There’s no escaping—the lone door out has been nailed shut. It’s amazing how little you notice when you’re high; things like a hammer nailing boards in place, trapping everyone inside.  

This is only the beginning. I will bury them all under the weight of my torn heart …

__________

I have to admit that I am not a big fan of this story. No, it’s not that the story isn’t good. It is. It’s also very short, which means I could go back and build it a little more. I find I don’t want to do that. The reason I am not a fan of this piece is I have a daughter, one who I worry a lot about. I worry something will happen to her, that someone will hurt her. I worry a lot. 

When I wrote this piece, the image of the father carrying the young woman into his house, her body emaciated and dirty, her arms riddled with needle tracks was the first image I saw. Him sitting in his chair, hands to his forehead and praying for forgiveness because of the grief and anger he felt was the second image. The third was a gravesite burial. That’s a bad image to have when you fear something like this playing out in anyone’s life.

I hope you enjoyed Torn and please, like this post, comment on it and tell your friends about it. The more readers, the better. Thank you for reading.

A.J.

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Righteous Justice (Free Fiction)

Righteous Justice

A.J. Brown

I walk into the Sheriff’s office, Bible in hand, gun belt around my waist. I take my hat off and nod to Deputy Bill. He’s a lanky fellow with unkempt hair and a deep tan. His feet are propped on the scarred desk where his hat sits.

“Yah hear to see the prisoner off, huh, Pastor Michaels?”

Bill stands from the rickety chair that groans and grumbles as it moves. He comes over to me and claps me on the shoulder and smiles. 

“Yes, Son,” I say. “Each man should be given a chance to make their peace.”

“Even that old sack of crap in there?”

Bill thumbs in the direction of the two cells that take up the far end of the building. 

“Yes, son. Even Mr. Harris should be allowed to make his peace before meeting his Maker.”

I set my hat on the deputy’s desk, right next to his, and unsnap my gun belt. If there is one thing I have learned when it comes to dealing with the condemned, it is to never take a gun into a desperate man’s cell … unless you intend to use it. I made that mistake once. It almost cost me my life when James Reese managed to get the pistol out of my holster. I was young and naïve then, thinking no criminal would possibly attack a man of the cloth. If not for the smarts of the Sheriff, then I would be dead, and the outlaw would have gone free.

But, that was a long time ago. Since then, I have changed and the way I approach each of the men I pray over has changed, as well.

“Luke Harris, stand away from the bars and face the wall.” The deputy’s voice is somewhat monotone but forceful in the same rite. He’s not your typical sheriff’s right-hand man, but he’s not one to let others manhandle him. Bill’s just a good old boy trying to keep the peace in a town that really doesn’t believe in peace.

Harris, a hardened outlaw who once killed his own wife for cooking his eggs the wrong way, stands, moves to the back of the cell and faces the gray wall. The deputy opens the door and I walk in. The sound of steel on steel, clanging together behind me always leaves me unsettled, and it is no different on this day.

“Preacher-man, I’ll be right here watching everything if he tries anything funny.”

I nod and set my Bible on the old cot that has been the final sleeping quarters for many men before their deaths.  

“Mr. Harris, I am Pastor Michaels and—”

“I don’t need your prayers, Preacher. Just let me be until they string me up.”

“Mr. Harris, I don’t think that is the attitude one wishes to take into the afterlife.”

Harris turns to me. His eyes are slits and his mouth is bent scowl. He’s taller than I am and his dark hair is greasy. A black beard peppered with gray covers the lower part of his face. I can feel the anger and hate spilling from him and I know that this is a lost cause. However, it is my duty to my Lord to try and talk to him, to make him understand the afterlife and what awaits him if he doesn’t repent.

“Preacher man, you need to mosie on out of here as fast as you can.”

“I can’t, Mr. Harris. I am here to see you, and I am offering you penance for your sins.”

“Unless you can keep them from stringing me up, then we have nothing to talk about.”

“This is about forgiveness, Son.”

Harris steps forward, his arms reaching out for me. He takes me by my lapels and pushes me against the bars. “I don’t need your forgiveness, Preacher. Do you understand?”

“Let go of him,” Deputy Bill yells from behind me. I hear the hammer cock on his six shooter. “Let go of him, now or you won’t make it to the gallows.”

I grip the bars behind me, preparing to hold myself up just in case he strikes me as the look on his face says he wishes to. Instead, he releases me and turns back toward the small window. I peer around him and see the gallows he will swing from soon. Though I am not privy to his thoughts I feel the need to talk to him.

“Even the thief who hung on the cross was offered forgiveness.”

He says nothing.

“He wishes for none of His children to perish, but have—”

“Eternal life?” Harris interrupts me. “Eternal life? Who wants to live forever, Preacher man?”

“Eternal life in Heaven, Son.”

“I don’t want your Heaven. I don’t believe in your Heaven. So, you can take your Bible and be going now.”

I nod and pick up my Bible. “Mr. Harris, do you have any last words before you go to the gallows?”

“Yeah, tell the executioner I want him to look into my eyes before he pulls that lever. I want him to remember me for the rest of his life. Tell him he will have to live with murdering another man. And I’m sure no amount of forgiveness will get him into heaven.”

***

I stand and watch as Sheriff Loadholt leads Mr. Harris from the cell and into the dusty streets. The crowd that has gathered parts. Several of them make obscene remarks to him. I tell myself to pray for them, for their souls. But as I watch, the only prayer I can offer up is the one for Mr. Harris.

“Have mercy on him.”

It is simple, but sometimes the simplest prayers are the best. 

winters-gibbet-4089464_1920Harris still wears his dark pants and dirty shirt. I can see the nervousness and fear in his face even though he looks straight ahead to the gallows. I think about his parting words and I am saddened by his lack of desire to know salvation, to know that he is going to a better place.

Deputy Bill holds his rifle on Harris as they make their way up the steps to the platform. They lead him to where the trap door will soon open and slide the noose over his head and around his neck. Sheriff Loadholt tightens it and steps aside. 

“Luke Harris, for the crimes of murder, cattle thieving and bank robbery, you have been sentenced to death. You will hang by rope from your neck until such time as you are dead. Your body shall remain hanging for a period of three days as a warning to those who would come to Turner’s Mill and commit these crimes.”

I think about the cross and the three days that passed from death to resurrection.

“Any last words?” Loadholt asks.

“Yes, just one thing.”

“Speak.”

Harris turns to the executioner and sneers. “Look at me. Look in my eyes. My death, my blood is on your hands. You can rot just like I will and maybe the preacher can pray over you on your deathbed.”

When he is done the Sheriff nods. I look down, saddened by the task before me. I lift the hood from my head and stare into Harris’ scared eyes. “I have been forgiven.” I pull the lever and the bottom falls out from beneath Harris. I hear the pop of his neck as his skull dislocates from his spine.

He spins and kicks his legs though I am certain he is already dead. Minutes pass, and finally, he is still, other than the swaying of his body from the rope.

***

I lie here in bed. My thoughts center on Harris, his eyes and the fear in them when I revealed myself to him before I pulled the lever. I am left here to wonder if he repented in that second or two before his life rushed from him. I hope so, but I don’t honestly believe he did. 

***

Another town, another day. I pass the saloon on my way to the Sheriff’s office. Another member of the condemned legion of men await me. This one is an older man, one who shot and killed a lawman in another town. They didn’t want to wait for me to arrive, but they had no choice. My charges are many and my time is precious. 

__________

I’m not big into westerns. Sure, I liked Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, as movies, but I’ve never been a old west fan. However, I do have a handful of stories based on the dirt and dust and ruthlessness of the wild, wild west. Righteous Justice is just one of those stories. 

This story stemmed from one of those flash fiction writing prompts I mentioned a few stories ago. The prompt was to write a story about an executioner. This was my attempt at it.

I hope you enjoyed Righteous Justice, and please like this post, comment on it and let your friends know about it. The more folks share this, the more my words can get out to others. Thank y’all and have a great day.

A.J. 

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Dim (Free Fiction)

Dim

A.J. Brown

Cap was six the first time Death showed itself to him. He played marbles with some friends out in front of a rundown church. Girls skipped rope near the dirt road. A car careened out of control as it rounded the curve, going entirely too fast for the area. Gravel and dirt kicked up behind it; Betty Michaels went air born, her jump rope twisting and turning like a snake in flight. Betty twisted and turned, as well, but she looked nothing like a snake flying through the air.

Cap watched in frozen awe, his mouth ajar, a marble still in his hand. Betty Michaels landed on her stomach in the middle of the road, limbs a tangle of broken bones and torn flesh. Blood splattered when her head hit the ground, her feettouched the back of her head and her spine snapped. She came to rest facing Cap, her eyes still open.  He thought he saw her blink.

***

She wasn’t good enough to be Cap’s girlfriend. Not when they were both only 10 years old and he didn’t care much for girls. Mary gave him plenty of attention, something most boys ate up at that age. Cap pushed her away, wishing she would leave him alone.

“Why don’t you like me?” she asked him at recess one day.

He looked up from where he sat against the tall oak near the center of the playground. His breath hitched. It was the first time he actually saw her. “You have pretty eyes.”  

She blushed.

***

Grandma lay on the bed, her body frail from the Cancer that ate at it. She raised a hand and pointed to the nightstand. “Cap, can I have some water, please?”

He filled a small Dixie cup and put it to her mouth. She sipped, licked her lips and let out a breath that rattled in her chest. “Thank you.”

He took the cup and set it on the small table next to her bed. Grandma’s eyes were half opened; the once shining blue had faded to a dull gray. She hiccupped, her eyes widened. She grimaced and clutched her chest with both hands. A strangled groan escaped her throat and one hand grabbed hold of Cap’s arm. She mouthed the words, “Call an ambulance.”

Cap only looked at her, into her eyes, at the fear in them; the knowing that she had reached the end of life. For a minute, maybe two, she struggled to breathe, to sit up in the bed and get her own help. Her grip loosened and Cap slid his arm from her hand. She settled onto the pillow, her hand dropping to her side.  

As her life faded, Cap gazed into her eyes.  

***

eye-2555760_1920“You ever see the light dim in someone’s eyes?”

“What?”

Mary sat on the blanket next to Cap, sunglasses covering her eyes.  

“The light dim from someone’s eyes—have you ever seen it happen?”

“I can’t say I have. Why?”

Cap shrugged and stared out at the sun hanging high above the mountains. “It’s like a sunset.  During the day, the sun is hot and blazing, the day is bright. But, as it sets—the day dims, becomes gray and continues to fade until it is dark. Dimming eyes are the same. They are bright, glossy. But, as someone dies, it fades until there is nothing left except maybe a reflection.”

***

He held the woman’s head under the water, her nails scratching his arms, reaching for his face.  Fear filled her eyes and then fled with her life, leaving only vacant orbs staring back at Cap. It wasn’t the first life he had taken. It wouldn’t be the last.

His breath came in short bursts and his body shook from adrenaline and excitement. He dried his hands and jotted notes in a little black book.

***

Mary slept. Cap watched her. He switched the light on. She flinched, rolled over and pulled the pillow over her head.

“No, no, Dear,” he said and tossed the pillow to the floor. He straddled her stomach, putting both knees on either side of her body, pinning her arms down. “I need to see your eyes.”

“What are you doing?” she asked, anger and fear in her voice.

“I need your help.”

“For what?” She tried to sit up but the weight of his body held her down.

“What does a loved ones’ eyes look like as they die by the hand of the one they trust the most?”

Recognition swept across Mary’s face. She started to speak but the words ceased when he put his hands around her throat and squeezed. Her eyes bulged and she fought against him, trying to use her legs and hips to buck him off. Snot spilled from her nose and red veins appeared in the whites of her eyes. Cap stared into the gateways of her soul as tears spilled from them. Blood seeped from her nose and her body finally went limp. He held his hands in place another couple of minutes as the light from her eyes grew faint. His heart pounded hard and he let out a breath he had held.

Cap rolled off the bed and went to his desk across the room. He made notes in his book, then collapsed to the floor.  

Cap cried.

***

The carnival came to town. Cap waited until the gates closed and the lights went out before leaving his car. He scaled the fence and made his way through the maze of rides and funhouses; concession stands and games until he found the Hall of Mirrors. A black cloth covered the opening. He pushed through it and stepped into the black corridor.  

Movements caught his attention. He flicked the flashlight on. Distorted versions of himself mocked his every move.  

With mirrors all around him, Cap sat on the floor, opened his notebook to a blank page and set it in his lap. A pencil sat in its crease, waiting for him to write again. From his pocket, he produced a flat razor. Cap raked it across and up his left wrists to the crook of his elbow. He almost cried out in pain. Blood rushed from the wound, but he paid it no attention.  

Cap stared into the mirror, into his own eyes. He thought of Betty Michaels, of how she was possibly still alive for a few minutes after she had been struck by the car. He thought of the others—the subjects he used for research. He thought of Mary, how fear swept over her and turned into disbelief as her life drained away.  

Blood spilled onto his notebook but he made no attempt to grab the pencil and make what little notes he could. Breathing slowed and the edges of the world swam around him. The distorted image in the mirror stared at him, its eyes closing and opening, closing and opening. His shoulders slumped, his body sagged, and he fell to one side. The notepad fell to the ground, the pencil with it.

Cap blinked several times, trying to force his eyes to stay open. Before he faded completely, he saw people standing in the mirrors, their dead eyes dull and staring at him. Mary knelt beside him, her lifeless eyes like two dull marbles. Her hands wrapped around his throat. 

Isn’t that appropriate? he thought as she squeezed.  

He focused on his own eyes as the light faded from them. In them he saw Death one last time. 

__________

I was watching a movie, or maybe it was a television show, one night. It doesn’t really matter which it was. What matters is a scene in the show where a man is choking a woman to death. The woman struggled until a few seconds after he began choking her, she began to have a ‘distant’ look in her eyes, as if she saw something far away and was focused on it. Her face when slack and her eyes dimmed. It is that dimming that I remember more than anything about the movie or show, which I can’t remember the name of. 

I can’t honestly say I remember much else about the program. My mind was suddenly fixated on the way the woman’s eyes dimmed. I even wondered if she was still alive or if she actually died and I had just watched a real life murder in a fictional show. 

Then I thought about the murderer. How did this make him feel? Did he enjoy seeing her life fade from her eyes? Did he ‘get off’ on it? Did it haunt him? Well, I just had to write about it. Like so many of my short stories, when I finished this one I wondered if I should make it longer. Maybe one day, and maybe if I put it in a collection, but for now, the story I wrote the day after watching the scene play out that inspired it is just a short piece. 

I hope you enjoyed Dim, and please, like this post, comment on it and share with your friends.

A.J.

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Raven’s Brew (Free Fiction)

Raven’s Brew

A.J. Brown

R is for Richie Consuella Rodriguez. He was the first to see the shadow loom large overhead. The man-child with the I.Q. of a five-year-old sat in the sand box his pa had made for him years earlier. Long after Pa’s death, Richie still played in the old box, the sand replaced year after year by locals who felt sorry for him. He played cowboys and Indians with little plastic figures bought from a Five and Dime by his mother, she who now lay in her bed unable to do anything more than piss herself and spit grits down the front of her night dress. Sixteen years of dying and somehow, she held on. 

The fort sat on one end of the sand box, nothing more than sticks poked into the dirt; the Indian Reservation on the other end, with leaves stabbed through by twigs to form teepees. The many plastic men battled in the center of the box, the Indians woo-wooing and the cowboys cursing the red men with the hatchets, bows and spears. 

Richie stopped playing when the shadow passed overhead. For the briefest of moments, the sun had been blocked from the play area and a cool breeze tickled his bare arms. He craned his neck up, saw nothing and went back to destroying the pale men in the fort. 

A breeze began and the sound of something flapping with it caught his attention. He glanced up. A scream froze in Richie Consuella Rodriguez’s throat as he was lifted from the ground. His feet struck the fort and cowboys scattered throughout the sandbox. The only figures left standing were two Native Americans: a warrior with a spear, and the medicine man with his arms held up. On one shoulder sat a black bird.

A is for Alexia Garcia. She was not a man-child. Not even a man. With the kids in school and a couple of hours to herself, the cleaning and keeping of the house was at hand. With the wash done, she tended to hanging clothes. Her hum was a lullaby, her voice smooth. She snapped the clothes out, a crisp POP each time, then one by one placed them on the line; two pins per garment. When she was done there would be three lines filled with pants, shirts, socks, undergarments, linens, rags and towels. 

With two lines full, she worked on the final one. A shadow, like a cloud in front of the sun, passed over her. She paid it little thought and continued her work, a hum on her lips. The clothes fluttered with an up tick in the wind and Alexia fought against the towel in her hands. She placed the first of two pins on one creased corner. Before she could attach the other one, her feet left the ground and her world became a haze of black and purple.

One end of the clothesline tore from the post and cut into her palm. Blood spilled from her hand as four fingers fell to the earth. 

V is for Valena Montoya. She sat in the grass outside the cottage that was her parents’ home. Her three years of life had seen nothing considered out of the ordinary. Her soggy bottom soaked the grass beneath her, but she paid no attention to it. Later it would chafe her behind a deep shade of red, but at that time, she was content to stare at the ants making their way through the jungle of grass. 

sunset-2247726_1920.pngThose ants, bright red and large, formed two lines, one to and one from the food not too far from where Valena sat. They bit off portions of it and went along their way, oblivious to the giant in their midst. 

Valena picked up the brown piece of food the ants had been taking from. She shook them off the best she could and placed it in her mouth. A moment later she screamed, as the food hung from her mouth and an ant slipped from between her small lips. 

E is for Elizabeth Montoya. She set the last of the dishes in the drainer and peered out the kitchen window. Her heart skipped a beat, then a second one at the sound that came from outside. She couldn’t make out what Valena had in her mouth, but she could hear the garbled scream. 

She pushed the door open and ran across the yard to her daughter. Elizabeth stopped just short of Valena and one hand went to her own mouth. She lunged forward and knocked the finger from Valena’s gaping mouth. Her stomach knotted and gave way to vomiting. 

N is for Natalia Perez. It was Natalia who discovered the broken clothesline and blood on the ground near where Alexia disappeared. She found two of Alexia’s remaining three severed fingers. Her hysterics echoed in the twilight and the villagers ran to see what was wrong.

They clamored about; their calls for Alexia rang out but they would not find her. 

Natalia sat on her bed, her face tear stained. Her youngest sister gone, she cried her laments and spoke her prayers. In anguish she left from the small hut and set out into the night. Her curses rose to the sky and blackness like none other covered the moon. With sadness still in her heart and on her lips, she was lifted in claws like steel. One talon ripped through her midsection and organs spilled from her eviscerated body. 

With her blood sprinkling the village below, she was carried through the night, her body limp and growing cold. Somewhere in the darkness, she was dropped.

S is for Santavia Alvarez. He, like many others, combed the village well into the night in search of Alexia. Though he would not find her, he felt rain sprinkle from the heavens. He wiped his face and stared at the red staining his fingers. 

Santavia fled beneath a tree and knelt in prayer. The words that came from him were coherent to only him and the one he prayed to. Others around him fell to their knees and prayed as well.

Two more would be taken as they held their heads and hands to the grounds. 

Santavia stood next to the tall tree and watched the sky as Ramon Luiz-Guiterrez was carried off. Santavia fell to the earth again, his body prostrate, and begged for mercy for he and his people.

B is for Benita Alvarez. Santavia told her of the giant bird that swooped down from the sky and took Ramon Luiz-Guiterrez from the ground and how Ramon never screamed as he was carried off.

Benita left her rundown shack and made her way to the chief of the village. 

“We are frowned upon and the great birds have come to take us away.”

“We must make sacrifices,” the chief said.

“We must kill the bird,” Benita countered. 

She left the chief in his bed robes, his head shaking, arms uplifted toward the sky, his words lifted to the gods.

R is for Ramon Luiz-Guiterrez. They found his head near the base of Raven’s Mountain. It was as they feared. It was in that area that the men camped and watched as the giant bird flew to and from, each time carrying another of their number in its giant claws or its monstrous beak. Arrows did nothing to stop it and their spears were too slow.

They bowed and cried out to the gods of their ancestors and begged for mercy and guidance. Morning came, and the four men made their way up the hillside. 

E is for Eduardo Ruiz. He was plucked from the group of four along the mountainside. The bird dove in, its wings silent. It caught Eduardo with its beak and lifted him high in the air before it bit him in half. Eduardo’s body plummeted from the sky. The lower half of his body crumpled into a mass of pulp and splintered bones. The upper half crushed Leo DeLacruz.

The remaining two carried on, their hearts high in their throats and silent prayers whispered from frightened lips. They dashed from tree to tree to stay out of open spaces. Near the top of the mountain, the giant bird swooped down. A loud caw echoed through the hillside and Jose Beltran disappeared in a mass of claws and dark feathers. 

Carlos Guiterrez scrambled along the path. The raven dipped and dove down on him. Carlos ran through the trees for safety as he made his way up the mountain. Refuge was a hillside cave where Carlos ran as far in as he could. The bird flew away.

Night came, and Carlos continued up. With the quarter moon high in the sky, he found himself near the top of the mountain. He peeked out of the woods and toward the open mountain cap. He listened for the bird—the giant raven—but heard nothing. Carlos ran across the opening. 

A hard gust picked up and Carlos heard flapping wings. His screams reverberated all around him and he looked to the sky for the beast that had stalked his people. He saw nothing and then fell headlong. 

Carlos’s eyes snapped open at the sound of wings. He tried to roll over but could get no further than onto his side. He let out a moan as pain ripped through his leg. He felt the heat of something wet seep along his back. 

Carlos looked to the sky. The moon still hung high, its brothers and sisters, the stars, there with him. 

Another sharp pain, this one in his hip, caused Carlos to let out a yelp of pain. He looked toward his legs and a scream that never came stuck in his throat. A baby bird pecked down on his hip and tore a piece of wounded flesh away from his body. All around the bird were bones and torn flesh of the people from his village.

He tried to scramble away.

The bird leaned in, its beak near Carlos’ face. Its head snapped forward and one eye exploded in a burst of pain. Carlos screamed the scream of the dying.

W is for Wilfredo Cruz, the chief of the once quiet village. He spoke again of offering sacrifices, but none would hear him out. The villagers waited for the men who would never come back down the mountain. Their courage and hope waned with each passing minute. Until Santavia Alvarez spoke up. 

Knife in hand, he approached the chief, the leader of their village, his body frail, his mind slipping. And they followed him as he dragged the chief to the edge of the mountain, strapped him to a tree void of limbs. 

Wilfredo begged them to rethink things, but Santavia reminded him, “A sacrifice is needed.”  The knife slid through the chiefs skin, pared the muscle of one arm. They hid back among the trees, spears and arrows in hand. They would wait, and they would have the raven when he came.

Up above, in a nest of branches and mud and leaves and filled with the bones and flesh of the dead, the baby bird ate its meal, and the raven watched and waited.

_________

There’s really not much to tell about this story, except it was based on a prompt, and one I don’t remember. I had also been on bird kick at the time, thanks to another writer, Michael Louis Dixon. At the time, Dixon was part of +The Horror Library+ and he occasionally wrote for the THL Blogorama. He did a handful of posts about fear, but birds had been part of the theme. 

After reading through them, many of us who knew Michael grew concerned about his mental state. The way he wrote them was fascinating, because many of us believed something was wrong with him. We checked up on him, fearing he may have been suicidal. It turned out, they were all fiction posts he wrote. 

We took a collective sigh.

I guess there was more to this than I originally believed. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed Raven’s Brew, and please, like, comment and share. Thank you.

A.J. 

 

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Summer Jumpers (Free Fiction)

Summer Jumpers

A.J. Brown

Down below us children play.
Old men go about their days.
—Todd Mathis
American Gun
Nature Vs Man (From the album The Means and the Machine)

__________

It’s hot out.

~###~

It’s always hot. There are no winters to temper the summer heat—it’s summer year round. Some months are hotter. Rain only makes it worse—steam spills off concrete in white vapors that make it hard to breathe as the heat evaporates the water when it hits the ground—if it hits at all. Scientists say the hole in the ozone caused all this. I don’t know about that. What I do know is one day we’ll all be gone. We’ll all be jumpers before it’s over with. 

The first jumper plummeted to his end when I was a child. Six years old with a head full of dreams. That was the summer things came undone for the world. The sun had inched closer, notching up the heat—108 degrees on the last day of May in Michigan. The stock market had crashed and a new flu had surfaced, taking with it only a handful of people, but the media painted a picture of pandemic proportions. Many people took it as gospel. The jumpers soon followed. It’s like the entire planet lost its mind. 

Some say it is the heat that finally gets to them, drives them insane. Others say it is hopelessness and despair. I think it’s a little of both.

Harry Taylor started the exodus. Good looks, rich, trophy wife, lots of women to keep him company on those ‘business’ trips. He lost it all, money, home, cars, business and wife. It was 114 degrees outside when he climbed to the top of the Fordham building—a 27 floor high rise—spread his arms and tried to fly. He didn’t scream as he fell. He landed on top of a passing car. The impact shattered the windows and crumpled the roof of the vehicle. One tire blew out. Taylor and three passengers in the car died.

A child lived, a young boy.

~###~

The whispers call to me. 

I sit on the dusty ground. Bodies lay all about. Shattered. People walk by as if they aren’t there, or if they are just part of the everyday scenery. Children play among the bones, using them as drumsticks or anything else they can think of. Some of the kids stick the bones in their mouths.

The rats and snakes have long since cleared out. Either the stench or the glutton of food finally ceased their scavenging ways. Flies and bugs still buzz about, nestled in corpses to raise families by the thousands. 

My eyes are to the sky, focusing on the person on the ledge of the once great Fordham building. No one is going to try and coax him down—they gave that up a long time ago.

He jumps.

And I hear the whispers.

~###~

Many people followed Taylor. At first only one or two a week, then upwards to three or four a day. A handful of people jumped together, their arms intertwined. Even with the blood, broken bones and split bodies, their arms remained hooked together after they hit the concrete, like a flesh pretzel. From there it got worse.

The police tried to stop them, but what could they do? Dying is dying and whether it’s by a bullet or from landing on baking hot concrete doesn’t matter to those who want to end it all. Bodies began to pile up. The cops bowed out. Not even the military could stop the jumpers. How could they? They were jumping, too.

The high rises closed off exit doors to their roofs, but that didn’t stop the truly desperate; those who had lost everything, including hopes and dreams; those whose brains had fried with the increasing heat, whose skin had become as red as a Maine lobster. Windows break easily enough when a bullet strikes it. Or a person crashes through. Not only did bodies fall from the sky, but large shards of glass rained down as well. Some onlookers were cut up. Others died right along with the jumpers.

Some cities resorted to digging pits just outside town limits and burying the corpses by the masses. Others piled them like kindling and set them afire. That didn’t last long—the smell of cooking flesh drove folks even crazier and the extra heat didn’t help things. Eventually, they stopped removing the bodies.

It was almost as if the world spoke and its words were, “Everyone else is doing it, why not us?” The stupid rationale that was carried from the beginning of time to now, the end of it.

~###~

The body crashes down less than six feet from where I sit. Blood splatters from its ruptured skull. I flinch away, a little too late to keep some of it from getting on me. It drips down the side of my face. 

I sit and stare, not bothering to wipe the blood from my skin as it mixes with dirt and sweat. 

One of the man’s eyes lies on the ground, its socket crushed from impact and its optic nerves holding it to the pulp that was once his head. It is blue. It stares at me … and I hear the whispers.

I turn from him and look toward the entrance of the long abandoned Fordham building. There is a line of hundreds making their way inside.

Another body explodes on the sidewalk just past the man. The woman wears a dress. It has bunched up around her waist, exposing her creamy white legs and red panties. A wet spot soaks her crotch.

I stand, the whispers urging me on, and step my way through the corpses. I walk by the man. His eyeball pops under my boot.

I need to get in from the heat. My brain hurts and the whispers keep telling me the summer, the heat, the whole mess will never go away.

Maybe they’re right.

~###~

There was this one guy. He haunts me to this day. Black clothes and a chain for a belt; earrings and piercings and odd tattoos donned his body. His brown, unkempt hair and pale skin didn’t seem to fit his clothing, his image. He had taken a running start and jumped out as far as he could. He screamed all the way to the ground and landed feet first. 

JUMPER 2
Bones shattered and blood exploded from torn skin. From the hips down was a ruptured mass of flesh. He survived the jump. His eyes met mine and held my gaze while he lay broken on the concrete. The odd angles of his legs and arms jitterbugged as exposed nerves screamed right along with him. He begged me to kill him; to end his self-inflicted pain. But I couldn’t move. For nearly seven hours he screamed and I watched as his life faded, his eyes became dim and body parts ceased their twitching. 

I heard the whisper for the first time just before his right thumb stopped moving. It came from him—I’m almost certain. 

Join us. Join us. Join us.

I walked away, found a seat in the doorway of an old department store that closed down when the jumpers began their leaps of death. For the last few years it has been where I sit during the days and well into the evenings. It has been my watching perch, my haven in the insanity that has become our world.

By then they had been leaving the bodies in the streets to rot, maybe even hoping to deter other people from jumping. Yeah, that really worked, didn’t it?

Each day chain boy’s body decayed a little more. Rats dined on him. They gave way to bugs. Time and the elements wore away what flesh remained; leaving only bones among shredded clothes and a chain around a waist that was no more. And every day after that I heard the whispers.

Join us. Join us. Join us.

~###~

My head hurts. It always has. I run a finger along the scar on the right side of my skull. It throbs with my heartbeat. I’ve noticed over the last couple of years, as it gets hotter my head hurts worse. My right cheekbone hums as if there is a bee tucked underneath the skin. It’s maddening. I wish it would go away. 

I follow the procession inside the Fordham building where the heat is so much worse than outside. My lungs constrict and the dry air burns my mouth and throat. Sweat soaks my body, and the stench of the living mixes with the decay all around us. 

I make my way up the stairs, each step tearing at the muscles in my legs. By the eleventh floor I slow down and take several deep breaths, trying to suck in enough air to continue. I struggle upward, the whispers pushing me on. A skeletal hand crushes under foot, its bones turning to dust. 

Weary and weak I continue upward, the throngs of people pushing me further. 

The whispers grow louder as we ascend. Thousands of voices sing a chorus line over and over: Join us. Join us. Join us.

I don’t want to join them. I don’t want to jump. Fear overtakes me and I struggle to turn back, to run down the stairs and go to my seat outside. But I can’t. The people push me upward. I stumble as I fight against the flow of the crowd, but I can only go up. I fear I’m going to fall and get trampled under thousands of feet. I swing a fist; connect with someone’s head. There is no sound of pain, no cry of anger. Only the continuous surge pushing me forward.

They prod me up the steps. Their eyes are vacant; their mouths slack; their skin pale, as if they were already dead and drained of blood. 

I am not like them. I am not cold to the touch or wasting away with time. I am not like them at all. But I am. I know the truth. I have never been any different from any of those before me or those who will come after me. 

Join us. Join us. Join us.

As I reach the door to the roof I see it is propped open by a cinder block. The line of people continues forward, shortening as people drop from the building’s ledge. More and more join us at the top. As one person drops off, another takes his or her place. A never-ending cycle.

My head thumps and vomit fills my mouth.

~###~

At the edge I look down. I see the bodies scattered about the street. The once small hills are now masses of arms, legs, torsos and heads. Thousands of bones lay about, broken and shattered; blood runs through the streets. The stench of decay is worse up here. I wonder if enough people jump will the mounds of flesh rise as tall as the Fordham Building itself. 

Children play within the death below. Men and women—gaunt figures of living tissue—go about their day as if nothing is wrong. Across from me people are jumping from the Seth Building. A child is crushed underneath a hurdling body.

Join us.

My father calls to me. I can almost see him on the street, his body crumpled, glass from a shattered windshield still in his eyes. 

Join us.

Mother’s arm dangles from the window of the car, nearly cut in half from the steel roof’s collapse with the impact of the jumper’s fall. 

Join us.

My older brother, James. His head ended up in my lap; his eyes staring up at me. Not much different from his face and that of the teenage punk star with the chain for a belt. They both looked as if they wanted help; release from a pain far too great to bear. 

They whisper to me, calling me every day, every night. 

Join us. Join us.

It’s so hot out. My head thumps with each heartbeat, the fractured skull forever indented by a metal bar that once held the roof of a car up. The sun creeps closer each day, melting my spirit away with its intense heat. There are many people behind me. Their eyes and souls as vacant as mine feel. I raise my hands to my sides and close my eyes. I’m tired of the heat, tired of this world. 

I’m ready to fly …

__________

Music. It is the universal language. It doesn’t matter if you understand it, simply because it makes you feel it. And if you feel it, you can enjoy it. Music is also a vast source of inspiration. A countless number of my stories have been inspired by a base beat or a guitar riff or a couple of lyrics here or there. Sometimes an entire song can be so powerful it makes the mind explode with images.

For me, one such song is Nature Vs Man, written by Todd Mathis for the local band, American Gun. After hearing it the first time I went back and played it again, and again, and again. You get the picture. The song is great, but one lyric stood out among the rest. One lyric kicked my imagination into overdrive and sparked a story. 

‘Down below us children play.’ 

From it came the image of a young man looking down from the ledge of a tall building. He can see children playing in the street. Before jumping, he wonders if he would land on one of those kids. Summer Jumpers was born from that image, inspired by one simple lyric of a song. 

You might recognize the Seth Building. It appears in another post-apocalyptic story, Lost Art. That story takes place in the same world as Summer Jumpers, only years later, and with similar results.

I received permission to use the lyrics at the beginning of this story by Todd Mathis before I ever wrote Summer Jumpers. For that, I say thank you, Mr. Mathis.

A.J.

 

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