Angels–Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

“What do you see?” I asked.

“Angels,” she said.

Dreams of a Poor Child

I was once asked where story ideas come from. Well, it didn’t happen just once, but many times. I always say, ‘they come from everywhere and everything.’ Yeah, it sounds lame, but it is true. Story ideas really come from anything I see, anything I hear, anything someone says.

Today, we took a road trip out to Hartsville. It was just a little day trip to get out of the house. On the way home, we drove through Bishopville and did a bit of exploring. We came upon an old baseball field…and the story you are about to read is directly inspired from it. Enjoy.

Dreams of a Poor Child

Picture this:

A long country road, cotton fields on one side, separated by slat board houses, open fields on the other side for as far as the eye can see. Cotton may have grown on that side as well, but now it’s mostly weeds and trash tossed from cars passing by (mostly bottles and cans and faded chip wrappers). Not too far away and left behind in the rearview mirror sits a prison, big, impressive and as out of place in that space of country just between two little towns. The prison isn’t important for this story, but it is part of the area, and now it is an afterthought.

What does matter for this story is on the left hand side of the road (as you go away from the prison and head south). There’s a park, complete with a large playground that has several slides, ladders and monkey bars. There are swings, both for able-bodied kids and the disabled ones. There are benches for the attentive (or unattentive) parents or adults that aren’t parents at all or maybe the teenagers who begrudgingly take their siblings there. It’s a respite for them; an opportunity for peace from the whining and nagging rug rats their parents don’t want to take care of.

A kid is on the playground. He’s maybe eight and his red shirt has a hole in it, as does both the knees in his faded blue jeans. He’s swinging, swinging, swinging and dreaming of jumping out and flying away from there.

Like the prison, the playground isn’t all that important either, but it’s part of the scenery in this low-income part of the world. What is important sits just beyond the playground. It’s a place where dreams are formed, but so few of them come to fruition.

The ballfield is closed in with cyclone fencing that has rust spots throughout its length and on all sides. It forms a cone around the field. The dugouts are to the left and right of where a cracked home plate is forever embedded into the ground. Each dugout holds a wooden bench, which at one time had been smooth wood painted blue, but now is bare of any paint and splintered throughout its length. The outside of the dugout is nothing more than painted plywood that has warped over the years, Mother Nature having done a number on the untreated lumber.

An opening where a gate should have been at the dugout’s entrance leads to the field, which had once been taken good care of. Now, after the unusually wet fall and early winter, the infield is an orange clay mud pit. The bases, which were never soft to begin with, are hard as rock. Stepping on one of those the wrong way could lead to a broken ankle or worse. Yes, there are worse things than a broken ankle.

The outfield grass had long since encroached upon the infield, covering the base path with what amounts to thick patches of moss. The outfield, itself, is deep to center and left, but shallow out to the right. The outfield fence stands eight feet high, a black rubber pad along the top having begun to crumble beneath Mother Nature’s watchful eye—yes, Mother Nature and her vengeful eye had her way with that part of the field as well. There’s a gate in left center. One would assume it was there to make it easy to retrieve balls hit out of the park. Or maybe it was a shortcut to a neighborhood that once existed nearby.

Beyond the ballpark is a football field, minus the goal posts, and a basketball court with no goals and a cracked concrete surface. Like the prison and the playground, none of those things matter. Neither does the wooden bleachers on either side of the baseball field or the concession stand with its boarded windows that is near a dirt road that leads to the parking lot.

Pay attention here. You can’t see this, and even if you can, just listen.

That’s the sound of young boys and girls on the field, playing baseball or softball. It doesn’t matter which. You can hear them screaming from the dugouts, we need a pitcher, not a belly itcher. That’s the sound of a wooden bat on the rawhide of a baseball, a thwack that is distinct and easily recognized.

Keep listening. A young boy just called out, ‘I got it,’ or ‘mine, mine,’ the universal language for I’ll catch it. Someone calls the out. One. Two. Three. Change sides. Batters head to the field. Fielders head to the dugouts.

Still, listen. Is that the sound of a ball slapping a mitt? Is that a called strike? Maybe it was a ball, just a little off the plate.

Strike three, you’re out!

Ball four, son, take your base.

In this impoverished area where stomach grumble after a meal of half a bowl of rice and no water to wash it down, where shoes so tight feet are cramped and blistered and damaged for life, where gloves are stitched together with shoe laces or wire or maybe there’s no gloves at all, but a milk carton tied to a hand to protect the palms from the sting of a hot shot from a bat; yeah, in this place the game—the dream—is the escape. And it’s the dream that often goes unrealized once life invades and washes away the innocence.

But if you listen carefully you can hear the game being played by those young boys (and girls, let’s not forget them). Close your eyes and listen.

Just listen. Open your mind. Open your heart. Listen.

And when you do open your eyes, look to the field, to its dilapidated dugouts and mud caked field. And what do you see? Yeah, there’s a little boy—the same one who earlier had been swinging on the playground dreaming of some place besides there. He stands on the pitcher’s mound, the rubber long gone. He is slightly hunched over, one hand behind his back, an imaginary ball spinning with the movement of his fingers. He stares in at a batter who is only there in his mind.

He straightens. Both hands come out in front of him, coming together in front of his chest as if he is in prayer (and he just may be).

His arm goes back.

His front leg kicks out in front of him.

And he fires the ball toward home plate…

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

 

 

Meeting Mr. Washington

On Friday I posted about this chain letter I had received. Interestingly enough, I received one comment, which I think is spam, berating me for the subject and misinformation. If the comment wasn’t spam, I would like to declare (since clearly it was missed by the individual while reading it) that the e-mail was sent to me. I thought the meaning of the e-mail was the important thing.

At any rate, I said I would post something about my daughter on Saturday, but didn’t have a chance to. Now, here we are on Monday and I have a moment so I wanted to post the piece.

This originally appeared in The Horror Library Blog-O-Rama, back in 2007. I’ve gone through it and changed a few things, but kept the story the way it originally appeared.

Sit back, enjoy…

So we’re different colors
And we’re different creeds
And different people
Have different needs
It’s obvious you hate me
Though I’ve done nothing wrong
I’ve never even met you
So what could I have done
I can’t understand
What makes a man
Hate another man
Help me understand
People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully…

–Depeche Mode
People Are People

I’m going to go ahead and apologize for this article right now. Why? Well, it’s not really about horror and it’s also not about writing.

In light of the world around us and my ever watchful eye on my surroundings, I write, yet another blog on people. If you are bored with these types of things go ahead and hit the GO BACK key now. But, if not and you want a nice little story in the end, stick with me and read on.

In our world of terrorism, hate crimes, men murdering their wives and vice versa, school shootings, rapes; athletes doing things they shouldn’t do, young actresses and actors delving more into the drugs and sex and alcohol, all of which provides negative exposure for our children to see, it’s a struggle just to keep kids on the right track.

The glitz and the glamour are out there and, now more than ever, our children are faced with pressures that some of us can’t even fathom. A lot of kids think that money just magically appears out of thin air and they want everything. Children have cell phones and Facebook pages and access to things many of their parents didn’t have at the same age. The struggle to be in the “in crowd” is more prevalent these days. The bad boy image haunts us both in our boys and girls.

Our world is a mess.

And through all of this negativity we have to figure out how to teach our children the values of life; teach them morals. It’s hard when there are children under the age of six living next door to you using curse words that begin with F and end with K followed by a YOU, or an OFF. It’s hard when other children get what they want and pitch a holy fit until they get it and your child sees it. It’s hard when the world dictates something other than what you are preaching, especially where religion is concerned.

My best friend is a black man from Philadelphia. My family is of Cherokee background. My dad is a mountain boy. My next door neighbors to one side are Mexican and lovely people. I won’t go into the other side, simply because there’s not much positive to say, so I won’t go there.

People are people. Just as the song says. We all have feelings and opinions, whether some of us want to admit it or not.

With that in mind, I would like to tell you a brief story.

Every morning, my wife gets up and takes me to work—we have two vehicles, but these few minutes are really the only time during the day that we have alone. In the evenings she picks me up and the kids are with her. So, really, if you have kids, you understand that each alone minute is worth it’s weight in gold.

But that’s not what this is about.

When my daughter was six-years-old, we had one vehicle, so these morning trips to the office were accompanied by our two children. Chloe is a very observant girl–she always has been–and every morning for a while she would see this man on a street corner sitting on a bucket. He was an older black man with a gray beard. He looked like he may have been homeless. Every morning my daughter asked, “Daddy, who is that guy?”

“I don’t know,” I usually said.

One day the man wasn’t at the corner, sitting on his usual bucket. My daughter got worried and asked where he was and if he was okay.

“I don’t know,” was my response.

The following Monday he was back at his usual spot and my daughter was elated. So elated in fact, that she said, “Daddy, I want to make that man a card. Can I do that?”

“Sure, Sweets (that’s what I call my daughter), you can if you want to.”

When we got home that evening, she made the man a card using card stock my wife had, markers and stickers. On the inside she wrote: “I just wanted to make you this card. I hope you like it. Love, Chloe.” She put it in a red envelope and proceeded to decorate the envelope. On it she wrote: To you, From Me.

The next morning she got in the car, card in hand and told me she wanted to give it to him. We drove the same route as alwaysand, sure enough, there he was, sitting on his bucket, looking out at the world passing him by. I pulled over and parked the car by the road and turned to my daughter.

“Come on,” I said.

“I don’t want to get out, Daddy,” she said, her nerves getting to her. I was kind of glad—that means she’s listening when I told her not to talk to strangers unless Mommy and Daddy are present.

She asked me if I would take the card to him, so I did.

“Excuse me, Sir,” I said as I approached him. “Can I talk to you for just one second?”

He turned his brown eyes to me and I saw a kindness in them and I knew he wasn’t going to go crazy on me.

I explained to him about my daughter and how she saw him everyday and even got worried about him when he wasn’t there. I held out the card to him and said, “My daughter made this for you because she wanted you to know that someone cares for you.”

He took the card and I watched as tears welled up in his eyes. He opened it up and read it. I thought he was going to cry.

“You tell your daughter this is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.” I believe every word that came out of his mouth.

I shook his hand and talked to him for a few more minutes, never minding that I was going to be late to work.

“Can I ask you a question?” I said.

He nodded. “Sure.”

“Can you, please, tell me your name so I can tell my daughter.”

He smiled. “J.L. Washington.”

“Mr. Washington, it was nice to meet you.”

I turned to go and he said a few other things, not much but enough to know my daughter had really touched this man. “Thank you. May God bless you and your family. Thank you.”

In the Bible it says, “Do unto the least of these and you’ve done unto Me.”

Sometimes in our society of violence and sex and stupidity and greed, a six year old child speaks the loudest by an act of kindness, an act of love. As you go about your day, look at the children near you, and remember that, if we are to have any future, then we need to raise them up right with morals and humility.

And, one more thing: People are people. Different colors or beliefs shouldn’t matter. We’re all flesh and blood and one act of kindness really can go a long way to making the world a better place to live in and to raise children in.

Until we meet again, my friends…

[[Herbie’s Notes: This happened nearly five years ago. Since then, I have learned that Mr. Washington has passed away. The news of his death saddened me.

Also, Mr. Washington became a focal point in my (as yet unpublished) novel, Cory’s Way.]]