Right Now: Harris and Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was eye opening. 

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

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

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

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

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

Bailey is also responsible for A.J. Brown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Treats at the Aver Residence

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

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

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

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

1

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

“What do you think, Mr. Mason?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

3

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

Mason shook his head and moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, you are going to love this.”

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

Mason screamed as Cade plunged the knife into his stomach.

4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5

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

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

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

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

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

“I love this time of year.”  

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7

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

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

“Hmm … Delicious.”

AJB

Communion, A Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

“Not right now.”

“Why?”

“Your dad’s having communion.”

“What’s com-u-non?” I asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Dad’s in there.”

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

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

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

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

I still didn’t know what that meant.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stood.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

“Dad?”

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

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

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

“You just what?”

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

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

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

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

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

Now, I understand why.

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“I miss you, Dad.”

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

AJB

10/15/2020

Halloween, O Halloween

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

This is going to be a short post. 

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

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

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

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

Until we meet again, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

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

August Blues

Happy September to everyone out there in TAJN land. For those who are wondering, yes, I took a month off from the website. Yes, it was intentional. I will briefly explain. 

Going into the year, we had a plan to release five books to the masses. We had it scheduled out and spaced so a new book would come out every eight weeks starting at the beginning of March. Each year my wife and I set up events (festivals, conventions, book clubs) where I can promote my books in person. I find I do better face to face or in a group setting than I do through online connections. Personally, I hate promoting through the various social medias. It feels like I am screaming into the void and no one hears me because everyone else is screaming, too. But face to face, I get to meet you, see your personality, hear your voice and you get to see me, learn my personality (which is humorous and sometimes intelligent) and hear my voice. Face to face is, in my opinion, a better way to connect to you, the readers. 

Back in March, we did a book club, signed books, had a fun time with about a dozen women who enjoyed Cory’s Way, my first novel. The day before the book signing, we released My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert, my fourth novel. I was excited to see how people received it. The next week the world began shutting down, people started getting sick. By the beginning of April, stores and businesses began shutting down. One by one, the events for April were cancelled. I was still hopeful we would get in the two we had schedule for May. Nope. By mid-April, they had been cancelled. 

During that month of April I kept myself busy with several writing projects and I made sure to post stories daily on TAJN for the duration of the month. I updated the blog and turned it into the website you are currently visiting. (Have a look around. There are many stories you can read, book links, reviews and other stuff.)

As the months rolled by with no end in sight to this pandemic more and more events were cancelled. We pushed back the book releases, dropping them from five this year to four to three to two … to just the one. I know I could have released the books anyway and stayed on schedule, but without events to go to and only social media to promote, it didn’t strike me as cost effective. In order to purchase books to sell to y’all, I had to be able to sell the ones I already had. I don’t make money in online purchases—Amazon gets almost all of that cash. I make money face to face. The revenue wasn’t there, so the books didn’t get published. 

At the end of July, I received a phone call from one of my favorite events. It was scheduled for October. They were cancelling the event and were letting their vendors know by phone call instead of email or social media.

~Sigh~

This is where I got disheartened. I like being behind a vendor table or in front of a group of people discussing books or answering questions. With nowhere to really go and nowhere to really meet new readers and socialize with them, I sunk into a kind of mini depression. I couldn’t write. The very thought of writing frustrated me. I got angry and I couldn’t sleep. I talked to my wife and my editor, both of whom usually can help me get out of my funk. Nothing helped.

So, I decided to take a break to try and recharge the batteries. I don’t think I needed a break, but inspiration. One of the things Cate and I did a lot of before the pandemic set in were day trips, even ones that were only half an hour or an hour away just so we could get out of the house. I didn’t realize how important those little trips were for us, and especially my writing, 

In late August, we took a drive to North Carolina to try and find a waterfall that wasn’t all that popular among touristy types. We eventually found it after hiking through the woods, going down the wrong trail and almost giving up. It was fun and hot and we were tired when we finished, but it was good to be out and about and in my element—seriously, I love wooded areas and mountains. 

On the way home I sat with my notepad on my lap as Cate drove and I began penning a story in purple ink (don’t judge—that pen is smooth). For the first time in several months I knew where a story could go. I only wrote five pages before stopping—the bumpetty bump of the car on South Carolina roads makes it difficult to write. I will share with you the first couple of paragraphs:

Kane Linthrop died on a Wednesday in late summer in the south. He was beaten to death by Eddie Strohm for a piece of meat from a rabbit Kane had killed. Food was scarce and fresh meat was a luxury many couldn’t attain.

Eddie came across Kane, not entirely by accident, but he would play it as if he had. He first noticed the smoke from as far away as the riverside where a concrete path had been laid, presumably in place of a natural one that had been worn in by feet—both by men and animal. Eddie had chased a rat into the tall brush and cursed the day for being long when the rodent escaped. His stomach grumbled and he placed a hand to it, hoping to silence it and hold the hunger pangs at bay. It didn’t work. 

 It’s kind of rough, but it’s a start. When we got home that night I started writing on another piece—typing this one. A couple of days later, the story was done. Finally, I had written my first new story since April. It was a relief more than anything. I’ve started several other stories and have worked quite a bit on the handwritten one—yes, still writing it in purple ink. I’m not entirely sure I am over the hump, but I think I am on my way. That’s a good thing.

I’ve started developing a plan for 2021, both for pandemic and non pandemic situations. I hope to release five books next year, maybe even six, since the plan was to do five this year and four next year. I don’t know yet, but I know it feels good to have written something and to be able to update all of you. I didn’t need a break. I needed inspiration. 

Thank you for following along and not leaving me during this break. As always, until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

14 Days …

Fourteen Days

Quarantine was only supposed to last fourteen days. Fourteen. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kaycee, are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Kill me, Cole.” 

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

“Kaycee …”

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

“Kaycee …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you, Cole,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

AJB

3/23-3/24/2020

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

Ava (Free Fiction)

She was on her last legs, my beautiful Ava. The steady clop clop of her hooves had been a constant companion in the silence of the dead world around us. It was the rhythm of my heart, clop, clop, thump, thump, and it slowed more and more as we travelled.

“Just a little longer, girl,” I said. I hadn’t heard my own voice in so long it sounded odd in my ears, weak. I leaned forward and patted her neck. She whinnied and jerked her head away from my hand. “I understand, Ava.”

And I did. 

Other than the ghouls, we hadn’t come across anything living in weeks, maybe months. I didn’t know. Time ceased to exist a while back. Though my hand should have been a comfort to her, all it did was make her uneasy. I thank the ghouls for that—Ava knew to be touched by one of them would bring the end to animal and man alike. 

Still, we road on, me on her back for the most part, but sometimes walking beside her, holding the reigns and guiding her along the trickier trails where thorns hid in mud puddles … and sometimes the ghouls would be there, too. This is where my blade came in handy. It wasn’t much, just an axe blade bolted to an old shovel handle. 

We only had one setback and it came as we crossed one of those muddy rivers. The thorns, thistles and weeds were like hands that groped at us and tried to pull us under. Ava trudged on, me beside her in the waist high muck. We had reached the upslope toward dry land when Ava’s front legs rose up. She let out a shrill shriek and brought her hooves down on the emaciated ghoul. It had come up out of the mud, its hands grabbing for her leg, long nails on each finger that were like rusty needles. 

I slapped Ava on her hind quarters and she bolted for dry ground. Then I drove my blade into the creature with white skin and pale blue eyes and a body void of any hair. It opened its mouth in a howl that echoed in the valley. From the sludge I stood in, rose a dozen more of the dead creatures. 

“Oh crap!”

They surrounded me. I swung my blade, striking as many as I could. At some point a pain formed in my shoulder, sharp and dull all at the same time. I struck another ghoul, one that had tried to sneak up on me, and drove my blade through its throat. Then I trudged through the mud, feeling like I was getting nowhere until my feet found solid ground. I ran. Ava hadn’t waited for me. I didn’t blame her. I looked back. The ghouls crawled to the edge of the mud pit. There were more than just the handful I thought I had seen. I ran through the trees until I came upon Ava. She stood in an open area, her head down, sniffing at her front leg. 

“Hey girl,” I said, put my hand out to her. Cautiously, I inched my way up closer. She snorted a couple of times and backed away from me. Eventually, she stilled and let me run my hand along her neck. I whispered lies to her, even as I stood beside her, trying to get her to relax. “It’s okay, Ava. It’s okay. They’re gone. You’re okay.”

It’s the last part that was a lie. She was not okay. The wound on her left leg was big and already scabbing over. It would close within half an hour and all the infection of the wound would start coursing through her body.

My shoulders slumped. I think she knew how sad I was—she nudged me with her nose, as if she was saying, ‘It will be okay, Jules.’

I think she knew her end was near.

Still, we continued on, me not riding her for a while. And somewhere behind us, came the shuffle of a thousand ghouls.

Three days ago, I saw the huge castle that loomed way off in the distance. With my eyes on that structure, we rode on, rider and horse, horse and rider. She stumbled a few times yesterday and I finally dismounted her for the last time. This morning I noticed the pale blue appear in her normally brown eyes.

The clopping of her hooves had slowed considerably, but the structure—it was never a castle after all—loomed not more than a hundred yards from us. The shamble of ghouls had disappeared at some point during the last three days. I wanted to believe they were gone, had maybe found someone else to stalk and trail, hoping for a kill and a meal.

“Come on, girl. We can make it, then we can get you some help.” I patted her neck, then ran my hand along her once flowing mane. Long strands came off in my hands in a large clump. I stared at the hair in dismay. Time wasn’t on her side. My heart crumbled and its steady beat slowed right along with Ava’s barely trundling gait. 

My shoulder hurt to move it. It had grown stiff since the sludge ghouls attacked us. I let it dangle by my side and tried to move it as little as possible.

What I had thought was a castle three days ago, then just a building earlier in the day turned out to be the remnants of an old train station, one Mother Nature had taken over since the fall of man. The tracks had rusted out and weeds and grass grew up along the wooden cross ties. Intermingled with the foliage were bones, mostly bleached gray by the beating sun. The entrance to the station had been closed off with a giant gate. In front of the gate stood two men, both holding axes, both staring me down. 

“Whoa, Ava,” I said and we stopped about thirty or so yards away. 

“Who are you?” one of the guards called.

“What do you want?” the other one asked.

“I need a place to stay. My horse is hurt and I don’t think she will make it much longer without medical attention.”

“How did your horse get hurt?” the first guard asked. He had a long black beard, speckled with gray. 

This was not a question I wanted to hear. Answering it could mean I don’t get in. Worse, it could mean they try to kill Ava and I don’t get in. Lying was out of the question. From that distance, they could probably see the wound tracing up her leg, the hardened scab, the splotches of skin where hair had fallen out. 

“Back in a mud pit a few days ago.”

“Were there ghouls?”

My heart crumbled a little more. “Yes.”

“What about you? Have you received any wounds from a ghoul?” 

“No. Nothing.”

Black Beard approached, taking long, purposeful strides, his axe in both hands. “Move away from the horse.”

I pulled my blade free and prepared for a fight. “No.”

“The horse is as good as dead.”

“She’s not, at least not yet.”

“The horse dies or you move along.”

I let out a long breath, one that rattled in my chest and sent slivers of pain into my shoulder. “Then I’ll move along. You keep your sanctuary.”

I pulled Ava’s reigns. Her head didn’t move. It had grown stiff, just as her legs had. She shed what little was left of her mane. 

“It’s okay, girl,” I whispered, even as tears filled my eyes.

Ava’s legs buckled beneath her and she collapsed to the ground. The pop of bones breaking made my skin crawl and my stomach turn. I knelt beside her and stroked her face. Her once brown eyes, now the pale blue of a ghoul, looked at me. 

“It’s okay,” I repeated. “You can let go now.”

Ava closed her eyes. The rise and fall of her ribs slowed, then ceased all together. I shook my head. My heart no longer crumbled. It had shattered completely. Somewhere in the distance I heard the sound of shuffling feet. The ghouls were coming. They had followed us, brought by the scent of a dying animal … and a wounded man. I rubbed the spot on my shoulder, felt the claw marks I knew had been there all along. I looked back at the guards. They held their axes in front of them, trying to look fierce and intimidating. I smiled. And the shuffling grew louder in my ears. 

AJB

Text–A Quick Story

My phone chimed its usual tone of three knocks on a door, letting me know I had received a text. I picked up my phone, not really expecting a text from anyone and thinking it might be some spammer trying to get me to buy something useless or steal my social security number and bank account information. I frowned when I saw the number was all sixes, like from one of those legal commercials you see on television during daytime programming. The preview message simply said, ‘picture.’ 

I opened the text and clicked on the image. My mouth dropped open and my eyes grew wide. The text beneath the photo of my beaten, bloodied and mutilated body read, ‘Shhh … try not to scream …’