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 …’

Who Is Your Favorite Character?

Today, we tackle Question Number 2 in the Ask An Author series. Christina Eleanor asks, Of all of your books, who is your favorite character and why?

Before I go into this, Jack Ketcham once answered the question ‘What is your favorite book that you have written?’ with the response of, like our children, writers should not have a favorite book. I can honestly say I do have a favorite book, but my favorite character is not from that book.

This is a great question. I have received similar questions to this in the past, and have had an instant answer. That answer constantly flip flopped between two characters. However, I think I’ve always, secretly loved another character more. Check out the video for my response.

Did I surprise you with my answer? If so, let me know. 

Thank you, Christina, for this question, and if you have any questions you would like answered, drop a comment below and we will answer them, either in a blog like this one or a video, or both (probably both).

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

A.J.

Is There Nonfiction in Your Work?

6/02/2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out the answer by watching the video. 

Is there nonfiction in your stories?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert

A.J. Brown's new novel.

$15.00

And the Winner Is …

Good evening, everyone. It is June 1st and I want to thank you all for your participation in our Ask an Author a Question contest during the last week of May. We got some great questions and we look forward to answering them. 

However, there was this little deal of someone winning a T-shirt. We received 18 questions from 14 people. Not too shabby for less than a week. I want to thank everyone who submitted questions. The first of those questions will be answered tomorrow, here on Type AJ Negative and my social media pages. I hope you will tune in.

So, without further delay, let’s watch the video to see who gets an Everything is Life, Everything is a Story T-shirt. And the winner is … (fake drum roll, please)

Check back tomorrow for the first question.

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

A.J.

My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert … Finally Gets Released

Coming to you, live from wherever you are on June 1st, My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert, a novel by A.J. Brown. 

Starring Jimmy Lambert, Doctor William English, Robert Mahler, Paul Bissette, John Warner and Sarah Tucker. With guest appearances from Mrs. Robinson, Jack Lambert (not the football player), Denise Lambert, Rita Horton, and a host of others. 

***

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

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

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

CHAPTER 1

Jimmy Lambert stood in front of a classroom full of kids. There might have been a couple who were a year older, but mostly, they were his age. It was the third day of seventh grade and none of the students really wanted to be there. They were still in summer vacation mode, still coming down from whatever high, low or in between they experienced since the last day of the previous school year. Most of them had normal, even boring summers, which made the summer assignment just as normal or boring. 

Every kid knew the assignment before they left school on the last day of sixth grade: Write a paper about your summer vacation. It wasn’t like it was a big surprise they would have to stand in front of the class and read the paper out loud—they had been doing this very thing for the last two years and probably would again next year, when eighth grade rolled around.

Though he should have been nervous, Jimmy found he wasn’t. Not even close. He had no sweats and his heartrate didn’t increase when his teacher—a short, round black lady by the name of Mrs. Robinson, with more chest out front than up and down height—called his name. His hands should have been cold and there should have been butterflies in his stomach. Still, he stood from his desk slowly, putting both hands on it and pushing himself up. His warmups were too big for him and cinched in front with a drawstring. On his right leg was a brace that ran from ankle to mid-thigh. It was covered by the warmups. The shoe on his right foot was two sizes too big, while the one on the right foot was a normal sneaker, sized eight in boys. 

After a few seconds, he took half a dozen hobbled steps forward. Then he turned and faced the class, a group of twenty-seven students besides himself. They all looked at him as if he had something interesting to say. Of course, they did. He had been on the news multiple times since the last school year. Some of them probably had questions, ones they might hope he will answer with his report. He didn’t know if they would consider his summer vacation as interesting as the news reported, but he knew without a single doubt, none of them had one quite like it. 

Jimmy held his report in both hands, thankful it was bound by a blue folder, something the other kids didn’t think, or care, to do with the annual rite of passage. He looked around the classroom, saw mostly familiar faces, though a couple were clearly new to the school. His eyes fell on the pretty blonde with the green eyes and wearing a light blue skirt and top. He could see her knees and legs. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her eyes were wide and staring directly at him. If that didn’t make a young boy nervous, then nothing will. 

Jimmy glanced at the binder to see he had opened it to the first page. It simply said, My Summer vacation by Jimmy Lambert. He had put thought into his paper. A lot of thought. Plenty had happened since the last school term ended and before the new one began. Most of those events he left out of his report. Some things were too graphic to write about. Still, it wasn’t a generic rehash of boredom the other kids over the previous two days had given. It had some of the things they probably wondered about in it, but without all the sordid details. Who wants to hear those, anyway?

He looked around the class one final time. None of the other kids looked bored. They all sat at their desk, their reports in front of them. He took a breath, released it, then started.

“My Summer Vacation, by Jimmy Lambert.”

He glanced up, not sure he really needed the paper in front of him to tell the story. 

Jimmy licked his lips, now feeling the butterflies in his stomach. The rapt attention of his classmates was not the same ‘meh’ attention others had received to that point. The nerves came slowly, not because he stood in front of the class about to give an oral report, but because he was about to tell his story, in part at least, to a group of people who might already have preconceived ideas about what really happened between school years. Even so, that wasn’t so scary, all things considered.

“Before I tell you about my summer vacation, I need to tell you about something that happened at the end of the last school year so everything will make sense to you.”

His jaw already felt tired, though he had only stood in front of the class for thirty seconds and said only a mouthful of words.

“Though summer vacation was only a couple of weeks away, my whole life changed one day as I ran from a bully, right through these halls.” He pointed to the closed door with a sliver of glass in the center that acted like a window. He turned back to his classmates. Some of them whispered among each other, surely speculating on who the bully could have been. Jimmy could give them three guesses with the first two being wrong and they would still probably get the right answer. Others sat in their seats, their eyes wide with anticipation in them. 

He looked down at his paper, at the words there, written in his not so neat print, the letters big and easy to read. They were words with no real oomph to them, no real impact. They were boring. He wrote it that way on purpose, hoping to just get up, be quick about it and leave out all the mess that happened shortly after school let out, not ending until just under five weeks before school was back in. But he knew that wouldn’t work. Again, the news had painted a picture for the other students. Now was his opportunity to give his side of the story.

Jimmy turned to Mrs. Robinson. She sat behind her desk, thick, overly large glasses perched on her wide nose, her short arms propped on the shelf that were her breasts. He closed the folder and set it on her desk, then turned back to the classroom of boys and girls. He glanced at the pretty blonde. She smiled, then nodded.

“I don’t need this to tell you about my summer vacation.”

Jimmy took a deep breath. He never thought he would tell this story to anyone besides close family and a friend or two, but there he was, staring at the class as they stared back at him. Now the nerves began in earnest, the butterflies fluttering in his stomach, his palms sweating.

“My name is Jimmy Lambert and I was twelve at the end of last year, just as I am today. I was old enough to hang out with my friends without Mom or Dad holding my hand or looming over me like vultures over the kill. I was also young enough to still be considered a child and still naïve to the world’s venom.” He took another breath, released it, and continued. “I didn’t know time stalked me, its steely claws always reaching, always mere inches away from snatching me up and tossing me into an all too real Hell.”

Some of the boys snickered at the mention of Hell. Though they laughed thinking Jimmy swore and the teacher would tan his hide right in front of them, Jimmy knew better. So did Mrs. Robinson. 

“Quiet down back there,” she snapped, her voice scratchy, “or I’ll give you something to make noise about.”

The snickers stopped and the boys straightened in their seats. Mrs. Robinson gave a backhanded wave to Jimmy. “Continue, Mr. Lambert.”

He nodded, looked at the class and shoved his hands into his pockets. He felt small right then and the classroom looked so much larger. It was intimidating, and the butterflies in his stomach grew a little more intense. Instead of retreating into a shell, Jimmy began his story.

“A couple of weeks before the end of school last year …”

***

Originally, My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert was scheduled to release in early March. Then people started losing their jobs because of shutdowns and lockdowns. I could not, in good conscious, asks people to purchase a book, especially if they had recently lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. Instead, I spent a month giving away free stories on Type AJ Negative. I believed that was the right thing to do. 

So, why now? Why put a book out now? Like many people who write and publish books, I still need to earn a living. Yes, I have a full-time job, but selling books helps keep us afloat. Simple as that. I hope you will consider purchasing My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert. If you would like a print version, you can get it directly from me and I’ll sign it.

Get your copy on June 1st!

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

A.J. 

Mickie’s Stars

The following story is called Mickie’s Stars. It is one of eleven that appears in my short story collection, Southern Bones. It is also one of my wife’s favorite stories. If you like Mickie’s Stars and would like to read more of Southern Bones, you can get an autographed print copy by clicking on the link at the end of the story. If you have any questions, please leave a comment at the end of the story and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Thank you for reading Mickie’s Stars. I hope you enjoy it.

A.J. 

MICKIE’S STARS

Mickie looked up from her sandcastle, the archway almost complete, two pieces of broken twigs from the parking area holding it up.

Across the way, a little girl cringed as an adult yelled at her. The man had dark hair and an angry face, his eyes like black marbles surrounded by splashes of red and white. He yelled something Mickie couldn’t quite understand. But the tone … the tone she understood all too well. He wagged a finger at the little blond-haired girl with pigtails dangling to either side of her head. She wore a one-piece bathing suit, pinks and purples with dots of yellow. One foot was clad in a similarly colored flip-flop; the other one was bare. The girl looked as if she wanted to crawl inside herself and hide; just disappear from the world altogether, especially from the man with the angered face and thick pointing finger.

Mickie stared, not meaning to, but doing it just the same—instinctive, her mom would say. Others would argue she was rude and the proper thing to do was to look away, to go back to whatever she was doing (in this case, playing in the wet sand on the edge of the ocean, building castles the tide would wipe away by evening). Staring was something Mickie was used to. So many others—children and adults alike—gawked at her brilliant white skin littered with stars of many colors. Yellows, blues, greens, reds, oranges all clung to her flesh in shapes with many points—not just five like the hand drawn stars kids learned how to trace when they are in pre-school, but circles with tiny points jutting out in all angles. Real stars.

The man pulled one of the girl’s pigtails hard enough to jerk her head to the side. She toppled to the ground and landed on her hip. Mickie heard her scream and saw tears streaking from her reddening face. The man reached down and grabbed the girl’s foot, yanked off the lone flip-flop and stomped over to a trashcan. He tossed it in, and then glared at the little girl.

“Now get out of my sight.”

Mickie glanced around the beach. Several people watched the events unfold, but none of them intervened. A few of them shook their heads and whispered to one another, but when all was said and done, they turned away, some of them moving their blankets or chairs further down the beach. Mickie stood and went to her mother, a brown haired woman with tanned skin and tattoos lining her body, very much in the same manner Mickie’s stars did.

“Momma,” she said. “Why isn’t anyone helping that little girl?”

Momma looked up from her book—one of vampires and romances Daddy found to be nauseating. She lowered her sunglasses, showing Mickie her brown eyes—motherly, caring eyes. “They’re afraid, sweetie,” she said, her voice soft and smooth. “And when people are afraid they often do nothing.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Sometimes,” Momma said, lifted her sunglasses to cover her eyes and went back to her vampire novel.

Mickie nodded, then walked back to her sandcastle. She drew lines on the arch and began to dig the mote that would surround it. A mote in medieval times were said to keep dragons and ogres and giants at bay. And armies wishing to conquer the kingdom of the good king and queen and all of their royal subjects. She read that somewhere, or maybe it was read to her, but she remembered the stories, and the mote was important to the survival of the kingdom (even though Mother Nature was going to wipe them out anyway). It was the barrier, the invisible force field, as her younger brother would say. “You have to have an invisible force field It keeps the bad guys away.”

She glanced up every once in a while, pulling herself from the construction of her doomed castle. The girl stood by herself, staring out at the ocean. Mickie wondered what she thought, if she hated the man who had yanked her pigtail and tossed her flip-flop in the trash. The girl looked her way, and quickly diverted her eyes.

Mickie stood, walked over to the girl. “Hi,” she said. “Do you wanna play with me?”

The girl looked up, her face still red and tear-stained. She shrugged.

“It’s okay,” Mickie said. “I know I look different, but I’m not going to hurt you like your dad did.”

The girl’s brow furrowed and her frown deepened. “He’s not my dad,” she said in a whisper.

“He’s not?”

She shook her head.

“Who is he, then?” She had always been curious about things. Those same people who would say she was rude for staring would say she was nosy, as well. Mickie searched the beach, looking for the man the girl came with. She spotted him talking to a young brunette in an orange bikini, her breasts barely able to fit within the top. The woman laughed and touched the man’s arm.

“He’s my mom’s boyfriend,” the girl said.

Mickie nodded. “Is that your mom?”

The girl turned, shook her head from side to side.

“So, do you wanna play with me? I’m building a sandcastle.”

“I don’t know,” the girl said and looked at her bare feet. “Brent might get mad at me if he sees …”

Mickie knew that pause, the awkward silence as someone tried to pick and choose her words.

“It’s okay,” Mickie said. She watched the mother’s boyfriend flirt with the brunette. His hand rested on her back now, touching skin Mickie had a feeling he shouldn’t be touching. “I’m not a freak. I just look different. And, really, I don’t think Brent is worried too much about you right now.”

The girl nodded, shrugged again. “Okay,” she said.

Mickie smiled. Her teeth were as bright as her skin. “I’m Michelle, but everyone calls me Mickie.”

“My name is Allison.”

They walked to the sandcastle, sat in the wet sand. “I’m digging a mote around the castle,” Mickie said. “You start over there and we’ll meet in the middle.”

And they dug, two girls, a couple of years apart in age, one barefoot with pigtails, the other an oddity even to her mother.

“What’s wrong with your skin?” Allison asked.

Mickie looked up to see Allison staring at her. It was a typical question, to which she gave her typical answer. “I don’t know—it’s always been this way. Since I was a baby. Mom says I’m special, that the stars are there for a reason.”

“What’s the reason?”

It was Mickie’s turn to shrug. “I don’t know, but I like them. It makes me …” she paused, unlike the awkward breaks in sentences people gave her, but a thoughtful one where she was looking for the right word to describe herself. “It makes me unique.”

“Unique?”

“Different. Not like anybody else.”

Allison smiled. “I wish I had stars on my skin.”

“Do you think it would make Brent like you?”

Allison looked down, then at the ocean. Birds swooped from the sky, chatting with each other before flying up again. The tide was coming in. Another couple of hours and the water would be at their feet; another hour after that and the castle would be only a memory.

“So, how deep should we dig this mote?” Mickie asked.

“How deep do you want it?”

Mickie put one hand up, held her thumb and first finger as far apart as they would go. “This deep.”

“Okay.”

Allison drove a yellow plastic spade into the ground, placed the sand into one of the pails. They did this for a short while, working their way around the mote, the minutes becoming an hour before they knew it. Mickie looked up. Allison’s face was a mask of determination. Though her tears had dried, there were still tracks on her dirty skin.

“So,” she said, “why was Brent so mad at you?”

The girl stopped digging, and looked up at Mickie, one side of her mouth turned down. She shrugged. Mickie thought the girl probably shrugged a lot, unsure of what to say more often than not. “I lost my flip-flop.”

“He got mad about that?”

Allison nodded, scooped out another spade full of sand. “He gets mad about a lot of stuff. He’s not very nice.”

“Are you going to tell your mom what he did?”

Allison looked up from the mote, her eyes large. Her bottom lip trembled slightly. She suddenly stood out against the backdrop of the world around her, a three-dimensional image on a flat surface. “Oh no,” she said. “That would be bad. Besides, Mom is scared of him—he hits her when he’s mad.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

It was Mickie’s turn to look out toward the ocean, her thoughts dashing in and out of her mind in colorful blurs.

“Mickie, your stars are glowing.”

“Yeah, they do that,” Mickie responded, but failed to add they only did it when she was thinking about how to handle something; how to deal with a judgmental world where the strong dominated the weak. She had seen it so many times. Bullies beating up smaller kids, their parents just as belligerent and angry as their offspring. The gawkers who didn’t know how to take the odd little girl with the light red hair and impossibly white skin … and the stars—the countless stars along her body. They often acted out of ignorance or fear (mostly fear as Momma had told her many times before, though it contradicted her statement of people doing nothing when scared. For Mickie, she thought it was the other way around: they react more violently out of fear than when all was right in their world).

“Why?”

Mickie thought for a moment, then simply said, “I don’t know. I’ll be right back.”

She got up and walked over to Momma.

Momma looked up from her book when Mickie tapped her on the foot. “Yes, Mickie?”

“Can I go get my doll box?”

Momma lowered her sunglasses again, her light brown eyebrows lifted. “Why?”

Mickie pointed to Allison. “I want to make her a doll.”

“Why?”

“Allison doesn’t have any friends. I want to make her a special doll.”

Momma gave her a small smile. “I don’t see why not.” She handed over the car keys and lifted her sunglasses over her eyes. “Make sure and lock the door back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mickie hurried to the car, unlocked the front door. She reached in, grabbed the pink box—a caboodle, Momma called it. She flipped the lock button on the door and slammed it shut. Mickie started to run back to the beach, but stopped when she saw a purple and pink flip-flop lying near a car. She knelt down, picked it up and smiled.

“Hey, Allison,” she yelled as she reached the beach. Absently, she dropped the keys in Momma’s lap and continued running to the sandcastle and the little blonde girl digging the mote. “Look what I found.” She held the flip-flop up and watched as Allison’s eyes grew and a smile stretched her face—something Mickie was certain she didn’t do often.

“My flip-flop,” Allison said and stood. She took it and slid it on her foot. “Where was it?”

“In the parking lot,” Mickie said. “Let’s go get the other one.”

Allison shook her head, “If I leave the beach and Brent finds out, he’ll whip me.”

Mickie’s shoulders sagged. The excitement of finding the lost flip-flop faded as fast as it had arrived. “I’ll go get it,” she said, keeping the enthusiasm in her voice. She went to the trashcan near the changing booths. Kids played in the outdoor showers, rinsing off saltwater and sand. One of them whined, “Jeffery got water in my eyes.”

The flip-flop was in the trashcan, a white Styrofoam cup on top of it, ice and soda spilled out from its open lid. With thumb and first finger she lifted the flip-flop from the trashcan and held it at arms length. At the showers, she pressed a chrome button with the word PUSH on it. Water sprayed from a nozzle above her. As she rinsed off the flip-flop, the boy she assumed was Jeffery sat on a bench, his arms crossed, bottom lip jutting out. His mother fussed at him for being mean to his little brother. Behind her back, the little brother stuck his tongue out at Jeffery.

“Now you tell Dennis you’re sorry,” she said.

“But I didn’t do anything,” Jeffery argued.

The slap to his leg brought tears from the older child. Dennis smiled in what could only pass as satisfaction.

“Do as I said,” his mother snapped.

Jeffery stood, apologized and rubbed the angry red handprint on his leg. His mother turned and comforted the little boy, his deception rewarded. An indigo star glowed on Mickie’s left arm. It pulsed, sending shivers down into her fingertips.

Mickie knelt down, opened the pink caboodle and flipped through various pieces of thread and cloth, Popsicle sticks, buttons and markers until she came to a clear box. Inside sat several stick figures made from colored toothpicks. Their heads were small beads glued on. She lifted out a yellow stick figure and a black marker. On the brown head she wrote the letter D. She closed the caboodle and walked up to Jeffery, who sat on the bench as his mother and Dennis went inside a changing booth.

“That sucks,” Mickie said.

Jeffery looked up, said nothing at first, then spoke, “What do you want?”

“I saw what your brother did. It’s not fair you got into trouble like that.”

“Whatever.”

“Here,” Mickie offered up the stick figure.

“I don’t want that,” he said. “Only girls play with dolls.”

“It’s special,” Mickie said. “I made it just for you.”

Jeffery took the doll, looked at it. “I don’t want it,” he said and tried to hand it back.

“It’s yours. I made it for you.”

“You don’t even know me, you freak.”

And it was out. Freak. The word used to describe her most of her life. She took a deep breath and bit back the rising anger. The boy was mad, as well, but not at her. He was just lashing out. That’s what she told herself, at least.

“I’m not a freak,” she said. “I just wanted to help you.”

She took the doll back and started away.

Jeffery caught up to her and grabbed her arm. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just mad I got in trouble, again. for doing nothing. Sometimes I hate him.”

“Hate him? Really?” A smile creased her face. “If this were your brother, what would you do?”

With no hesitation, “Break his arm.”

“Do it, then,” Mickie coaxed. “Break his arm.”

“What? Are you crazy? I can’t do that. I’ll get me in more trouble than I’ve ever been in.”

Mickie shook her head. “No, Jeffery,” she said. “Break the doll’s arm. It might make you feel better.”

This time his lips stretched up, his brows lowered. He took the doll from Mickie and stared at it. He started to break it in half, but Mickie stopped him.

“No,” she said. “Only break one arm. You can’t break the rest of it.”

“Why not?”

“You just can’t.”

“Okay, whatever.” With no effort, he snapped the right toothpick arm in half.

“Feel better?” she asked.

“Yeah, I do. Can I break the other arm?”

“No,” Mickie said and put out her hand. The indigo stars dazzled along her skin. Jeffery’s eyes grew distant, as if he stared beyond her and out into the ocean. “Now, give it back.”

Jeffery handed the doll back to Mickie, broken toothpick and all. Mickie turned, put it back in her caboodle and left him standing there, confusion in his eyes.

Mickie went back to the beach, the indigo star no longer shimmering. She sat down beside Allison and set the flip-flop on the ground. Allison had finished the mote and had begun working on outside towers in the shapes of pails.

“Here’s your flip-flop,” Mickie said.

“Thank you,” Allison responded, slid the flip-flop on her foot and wiggled her toes. “What’s that?” she then asked.

“It’s my doll box.”

“Doll box?”

“Uh huh. I make dolls. Would you like me to make you one?”

“Yeah.” Enthusiasm, strong and real, showed in Allison’s eyes, in her smile, the way she nodded her head like a puppy waiting for a treat, tail wagging hard enough to shake its butt from side to side.

“I get to choose the type of doll, okay?” Mickie said.

“Okay.”

Mickie gazed out at the ocean, at the way the waves crashed onto the beach. The afternoon was waning and the water grew closer and closer to the sandcastle. Her stars began to glow, soft at first and then brightly.

“The waves are coming in. Soon, the castle will be destroyed.”

Allison screwed up her face, her jaw hanging slightly. “Huh?”

Mickie opened her caboodle. She pulled out several Popsicle sticks and markers and a small Styrofoam ball for the head. A bottle of glue followed and she began to put the parts together. As she pieced the legs to the torso, the water began to lap at the edges of the mote.

“Can I help?” Allison asked.

“Sure. Hold these two pieces so I can glue them in place.” Allison held the two Popsicle sticks apart and Mickie picked up the small glue bottle. She put one clear dot in the center and helped Allison put the legs together, forming a V.

“How long do I have to hold this?” Allison asked.

“Not too long—this stuff dries fast.”

Mickie put another dot on the torso, handed it to Allison who put it on top of the V, making it look like an upside down Y. The arms followed. Mickie reached into the caboodle, rummaged around until she found one of Daddy’s nail punches—a small instrument that looked like a pen made of steel. She drove it into the Styrofoam ball and then set it on the Popsicle figure’s neck. 

“Your stars are shining,” Allison said.

Mickie glanced at her skin. They were glowing brighter than before, the tips sparkling, the centers almost completely white. She said nothing at first. Instead, she pulled out a marker, handed it to Allison. “Draw a face—Brent’s face.”

Allison scrunched up her nose. “Why him?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Just because.”

“You sound like Mommy.”

The water began to wash over the mote, pushing against the castle’s walls. When the tide went out, it pulled beach sand with it.

Allison drew an upside down U for a mouth. She had one dot in place for an eye when the growl came.

“Allison!”  

Mickie looked up just as Brent reached them. His eyes were two pieces of hot coal set deep in their sockets.

“What are you doing with this freak?” Brent grabbed one of Allison’s arms. She screamed and dropped both the doll and pen.

Mickie’s stars glistened in the sunlight, the colors nearly completely gone from them. “I’m not a freak,” she snapped, her eyes narrowed.

“Watch how you talk to me, freak girl. I’ll smack you into next week.”

“Do it,” Mickie said, her lips a thin line dividing her face.

Brent stared long at her, but Mickie held her ground. After a moment, he turned his attention back to Allison. “Why are you wearing those flip-flops?”

“They’re mine,” Allison said, her voice almost a whisper. Tears had begun to fall down her face again.

“I threw one of them away. Did you dig it out of the trash?”

“No, sir, I—”

Brent’s hand connected with Allison’s face, a quick slap that clearly caught her off guard. A stinging red mark appeared where his fingers had struck. “Your momma’s on the way to pick you up. You just wait until I tell her you’ve been rummaging in the garbage like a street person. You’re a filthy, nasty little girl.”

“And you’re a mean old man,” Mickie said. She picked up the doll and the pen. She finished the eye as Brent yelled at her about minding her own business and kids like her ended up in jail or worse—dead.

“Are you listening to me?” he yelled.

“No,” Mickie said flatly and wrote his name on the Popsicle stick that made up his torso.

Brent released Allison and knelt down beside Mickie. He grabbed her by the top of the head, lifting her eyes to meet his. “I should knock your teeth down your throat, you little brat.”

Mickie smiled. The stars on her body turned pink, then red. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she dropped the doll into the courtyard of her sandcastle. The waves tickled her toes and ran over the tops of her feet as the stars changed color again, going from red to purple to blue. She closed her eyes and then opened them. Brilliant green irises stared out at Brent, and then she was falling. She landed at the back of the sandcastle, crushing one of the mighty walls she had built. But, the mote remained intact.

Her eyes cleared and Brent towered over Momma. Her face was a mask of rage, a finger poked out at him. She yelled. He yelled back. Behind them, Allison scooted through the sand on her bottom.

A woman ran from the parking area, brown-haired and tanned, not so much like Momma, but enough to have a light brown hue to her skin. She called for Allison and the little girl with the pigtails and pink and purple flip-flops with yellow dots on them, stood and ran for the woman. She was crying and saying something about Brent being mean.

Mickie scooped a handful of sand from the ruined castle wall and packed it around the Brent-doll’s legs. Brent—the man—growled and slapped Momma across the face. The crack of hand on cheek sent her to the ground. Several people watched as the altercation took place. Scared, Mickie thought. And when someone is scared, they often do nothing.

She stood and ran to Brent. He towered over Momma with his hands balled into fists. Momma rubbed her jaw. A trickle of red slid from her swelling lip. Mickie’s stars popped and crackled like electricity burning her skin. She slapped his back with both hands. Heat from the stars ran down her arms and into her fingertips. 

Brent’s back arched. He screamed, a loud, piercing sound of pain and surprise. His knuckles turned white as his fists grew tighter. Bones popped and smoke poured from his skin.

“Mickie!” Momma screamed. “Let go of him!”

She held on for a few seconds longer before removing her fingers from his singed shirt, leaving behind two smoldering black handprints. Brent stumbled backward; fell onto the castle, crushing two of its high turrets—where the archers would have been in medieval times.

The tide came in, crashing further and further up the beach. What remained of the destroyed kingdom began to wash away, pulled into the ocean by the undertow.

Brent got to his knees as seawater splashed over his legs. He cupped his hands against his chest. Blood dripped from ruined fingers. “You’re going to pay for this, kid,” he said and tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. They shook and dropped him back to his knees. When he finally managed to get to his feet he took one step forward and stopped, his face smacking into an invisible wall, or a force field, as Mickie’s younger brother would say. He reached his hands out, placing his palms against nothing and something all the same. Brent went in a circle, his hands up, appearing to pat the air around him like a frantic mime—one with broken and bloody fingers. He screamed for help, but the onlookers only backed away. Some of them snickered at him, while others whispered about the crazy man without enough sense to get out of the rising tide, how his mouth opened in a silent cry for help, a sound that never came from his throat. One man tossed a quarter at Brent’s feet.

“Impressive act,” he said and walked away.

Mickie stared, unblinking, at the fear in Brent’s face. Momma took her by the arms and leaned down so her lips were to Mickie’s ear. “What have you done?”

“Nothing,” she responded.

“Mickie, let him go. Let him go, now.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?” Momma asked, her bottom lip bleeding.

“Because I’m not afraid of him.”

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

“They are.” She pointed to Allison and her mother. They were hurrying away from the beach, the mother all but carrying the little girl. “Besides, the doll’s in there with him. There’s nothing I can do.”

Momma shook her head. “Let’s go.”

“Okay,” Mickie responded and closed her caboodle, snapping it shut. She picked it up and started for the parking area.

On the long wood deck that led to the parking lot, they passed Jeffery. He sat on a bench, his chin in his hands. Dennis ran around in the shower area, taunting and teasing his older brother. Mickie passed them and nodded. “Have a good day, Jeffery,” she said. A moment later, Dennis slipped in the water, landing on his arm. His screams were loud. Momma started to go to him, but Mickie held her hand firm. “No, Momma, his mother is coming.”

Mickie turned back to the beach. From where she stood, she could see Brent thigh-high in the ocean. His lips moved, but nothing came out. In maybe an hour the tide would wash him out to sea. Mickie turned and walked to the parking lot with her mother. 

Southern Bones

A.J. Brown's first short story collection, comprised of 11 short stories. Price is for U.S. residents and includes shipping. If you are outside of the U.S., let me know and we'll work something out.

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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 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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