Learning, Training, Practicing–Say What?

I talk about writing a LOT. I talk to anyone who will listen. However, I usually don’t talk about my work, my stories, what I am working on unless I am asked. Most people don’t want to hear about it, so no need to bore them with the things I find exciting in my work. Unless you are my wife, my editor or my publisher, you won’t hear me start a conversation about my writing.

Writing has brought me a lot of joy over the years. It’s been therapeutic. I’ve been able to express my sadness, anger, jealousy and resentment in stories. I’ve also been able to express my happiness, love and humor. I’ve been able to creep people out, make them cry, make them smile, make them feel. Having someone feel something after reading one of my stories is one of those things that drives me to get better, to learn how to write better with each story I tell.

Learning. That’s the ticket, as my old friend, Chris, would say. 

The entire sentence is important, but that one word … that one word makes the sentence and, for lack of a better term, the story. 

Learning is one of the most important aspects of life, and not just as a child, but as an adult as well. 

As a child, you learn how to roll over and get onto your stomach. Then you learn how to crawl. Eventually, you learn how to pull yourself up to a standing position. This is followed by many attempts to walk the way you see your parents or older siblings or anybody else in the world who, well, walks. You learn the most important word of your childhood by hearing your mother repeat, “Say Mommy.” Interestingly enough, saying Mommy or Da-da is like a competition for the parents, with each one hoping their child will say their moniker for parent first.

You learn by watching what others do, by listening to what they say. I find it interesting that as children under the age of two, we are/were at our most attentive, listening, seeing and learning selves. Little ones soak up everything you say, everything you do. Then they try these things, like walking and talking. It’s amazing. Don’t believe me? Cuss one time in front of your child and see what happens. At such a young age, we train ourselves to do things we see others do. Yes, I said train. I’ll come back to this in a second, so stick with me for the next couple to few paragraphs.

At some point, most children want to learn how to ride a bike. Most first bikes come with training wheels. They’re called training wheels for a reason: they help you stay upright on a bike as you learn to peddle and steer, as you train. You get on the bike and Mom or Dad gives you a gentle push, maybe even walking right alongside you as you first put foot to peddle and make the bike go. By doing this, you, the bike rider, are both learning and training yourself on how to do something. The learning is mental. The training is physical. Your brain tells you, push down on the peddle with this foot, then push down on the peddle with the other foot. With conscious effort, you put your foot on the peddle and push down. The peddle turns the gears with the bike chain wrapped around them. The bike goes forward. 

The effort is the training. When you actually physically do what your brain tells you to do, you are training your body how to do it and your brain how to remember it. In this case, your brain tells you how to peddle and you physically attempt it. You’ve seen someone do it, so you are already learning what you are supposed to do. The first few times are usually awkward and difficult, but eventually, the muscles in your legs and feet and hips all work together and you begin to ride the bike with less difficulty.

Then the training wheels come off and you get that push or that parent running alongside you and the front wheel wobbles as you try to steer while looking down at your feet, at the peddles that don’t want to do what you want them to do. You probably crashed a few times as you trained your legs to peddle and your body to balance and your hands to steer the handlebar straight so you don’t tip over or crash into something. 

Eventually, though … eventually, what you learned in your mind, you trained your body to do and you rode that bike. You got excited and probably screamed at the top of your lungs in happiness and exhilaration because, by God, you rode the bike. And you probably crashed. But for a moment, you rode that bike and you were the king of the world as Jack said in Titanic. 

You learned, mentally, what to do. You trained, physically, to be able to do what you learned. 

So far: learning is mental and intellectual, and training is the continued attempts to do what you learned. 

Life isn’t only about learning things and training is not just physical. It’s also about training your mind and your body to do things. 

Early in life, I was not all that great at math. Two plus two equaled four like it is supposed to, but multiplication and division and algebra were struggles to learn. Being told four multiplied by four is sixteen is great but being shown was better. Being shown was great but given problems to solve was better. I also hated it. The higher the numbers got, the more difficult it was for me to learn their totals. You want me to multiply eight by nine? Are you serious? Are you some sort of math psycho who relishes the struggles of us non-mathites? 


I also found math boring. 

Then I started watching sports. Sports is all about math. The scores are done in numbers. The statistics are all numbers. The records are numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. 

In order to understand statistics, I sat down in my room with a pencil and paper and wrote out the multiplication table, starting with one and going to twelve. I struggled with it until I realized that each number was simply added by the number of its multiplier (something the teacher could have explained and I probably would have understood a lot quicker). For example: six multiplied by seven is six added up seven times. 6+6+6+6+6+6+6= 42. I then wrote out every problem as I did in that example in the last sentence. I added them as if they were simple addition problems. 

By doing it that way, I trained my brain to add quickly. So, if someone said, ‘Hey, add this up for me,’ then tossed out a few numbers, I was/am able to tell them the answer fairly quickly. 

Learning the multiplication table wasn’t difficult, but it took training my brain to process those numbers for me to learn math. Now, math is second nature to me, and I can usually spout the answers off without much thought. 

Training is mental as well as physical. 

As we get older, learning and training become more difficult, not because it is, but because we make it difficult. I’m too old to learn new things. We make excuses as to why we can’t do something. For most of us the truth is we don’t want to learn something new, we don’t want to train our brains or our bodies to do something new. And that’s where we fail, not just in learning, but in becoming better at something … anything. It’s arrogance. It’s ignorance. It’s laziness. 

Are you still with me? I hope so.

I have a friend. Yes, just one. His name is Dameion. We both write and we both have our own viewpoints about writing and storytelling. (For the record, Dameion is one of those writers I am envious of. His words just spill off the paper.) He’s like a brother to me, one I never see, but talk to when we are both available. We were talking recently about writing. You learn how to write in school—or at least you used to. You learn basic sentence structure and punctuation but that’s pretty much it. Most of this stuff you forget. Why? Because you are told about it, not shown how to do it. When you are shown, you’re only given a handful of assignments or opportunities to actually practice it. You take a test, pass or fail, then move on to something else, so it doesn’t stick. 

What sticks is when you physically do something. By physically doing something repeatedly, you train your brain and your body to remember how to do those things. It becomes muscle memory and you do it without thinking once you’ve practiced it. For example: they say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. You might get rusty, but if you learned how to ride a bike at six and you stopped riding a bike at sixteen, at fifty-three you will be able to get on a bike and ride it. Muscle memory.

Telling a story, orally, is easy. If you’ve ever told a good joke, then you have told a story. Why did the chicken cross the road doesn’t count. Okay, fine, we’ll let it count, but only if you told it to someone who had never heard the joke. Good luck with that.

When you verbally tell a story, you get into it. You add little things to show the person (or people) listening something about where you were or what was going on. You can become animated with hand gestures and tone of voice and facial expressions. By doing all of this, you show your listener(s) the story. If you are really good at it, you can be a comedian. 

You learned how to tell a story by listening to others tell stories. If they were good at it (as my grandfather was), then you will pick up some good pointers by watching them. If they were bad at it, then the lessons you pick up will not be the ones that help you tell a good story. When you’ve seen someone who can speak, either in public or private, it doesn’t mean you can become a great speaker. It just means you have seen someone else do it right. It is up to you to gleam what you can from it and practice what you learned. The practice aspect is part of the training. It’s where you train your mind to think, your voice to have tone, your facial expressions and hand gestures to be coordinated with your words.

Writing is the same. A lot of your learning comes from reading. You learn neat turns of phrases, styles, descriptors, pacing, dialogue, and plenty more from reading. The trick is to not just learn these things, but to practice them. 

When I wanted to become a better writer, I picked the brains of other writers. I asked questions and read stories that were suggested to me. If I wanted to know about dialogue, I asked questions about it, then I wrote stories that were dialogue heavy to see if I could move the story along using conversations. If I wanted to learn descriptions, I asked questions about it, then wrote stories heavy on descriptions, then flipped the script and wrote stories light on descriptions in order to try and find the sweet spot for descriptions. The talking to writers and gathering information was the learning part. The putting words to paper and writing was the training part. 

Then came the practicing.

Are you still with me? Hang on a little longer. We’re nearing an end to this (probably) confusing topic.

Practice is honing what you have learned and trained yourself to do. 

I was a good basketball player. When I was a kid I loved Len Bias, who played for the University of Maryland. He was smooth and fascinating to watch. He was, in my opinion, the greatest basketball player to never play in the NBA (he died of a drug overdose the day after being drafted by the Boston Celtics—I cried). Though I wasn’t a fan of the University of Maryland, I watched their games when they came on television just so I could see Bias play. I paid close attention to the way he shot the ball, the way he played defense, the way he moved up and down the court. Then I would go outside and try to teach myself what I saw him do. After a while, I moved on to other players who did things that interested me. Jeff Lebo played for the University of North Carolina and was a great outside shooter. Michael Jordan (come on, do I need to say who he played for?) was a phenomenal defender and a better passer than most people give him credit for. 

I watched them to learn what they did. I trained myself by trying different ways of doing what they did. I practiced daily.

Practicing something you have learned and trained on will only make you better. 

All of this points to one thing in particular: training your brain. When you train your brain, it becomes muscle memory after your body is trained to do it. All of us have something we are good at, but we didn’t get good at just by saying we were going to be good at it. We became good at it after we learned, trained,  and practiced. All of that starts with your brain, with a thought your brain has, with you putting forth the effort to learn, then applying what you learned. 

The bottom line to the previous 2300 words is this: if you ever want to be good at something (you know, like writing), you need to learn it, train yourself to do it, then practice at it. Hmm … I probably could have just said that to start with …

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


A.J.

At The Top of the Hill

Getting older is a process. We all experience it every day of our lives. We either get older or we stop aging. 

I turned 50 last week. It was just like any other day, any other birthday. But it wasn’t. It was a big deal. In sports the number 50 is a big deal. You hit that many home runs or throw that many touchdown passes or score that many points in a basketball game or score that many goals in a season and you have had a monster year. It is celebrated and often rewarded. In sales, 50 is a big deal. You reach 50 in a given time period and you’ve done well for yourself.

When I turned 50 there were a lot of jokes made about being old or over the hill. A couple of ‘Hey, you qualify for AARP now,’ comments were made. It was in good fun, but it is also telling of how we see that number in relation to age. I joked with someone when they said I was over the hill that “I’m not over the hill. I just reached the top of it and now I’m holding on to the tree up there to keep from tumbling down it.”

Go ahead. Picture that. I’ll wait.

Are you done laughing?

Here’s the thing about 50 as an age: it should be celebrated (and mine certainly was), but not for ‘getting old,’ but for the possibilities that are ahead of you when you turn that age. If you make it to 50, then you have lived and experienced things. You have, hopefully, become wiser and smarter and learned from your mistakes. You’ve also had the opportunity to earn a living and possibly been successful at a few things. 

Life doesn’t end at 50. It is a chapter—just like the other 49 you went through—and it should be experienced with the same wonder and excitement as ages 7, 13, 16 and 21. Don’t buy into the belief that you are over the hill. Buy into something more important: that great things were achieved by people over the age of 50. Here are some examples:

Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing the Little House books at age 65. Harland Sanders (better known as Colonel) had developed his fried chicken recipe and sold his Kentucky Fried Chicken around the country at the age of 65. Grandma Moses started painting at age 77. Jack Cover created the taser after he turned 50. Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t published until after he turned 50, and let’s be honest here: how many people know of him beyond Dracula?

Here I am at that age where folks believe you are over the hill, that you should begin your ride off into the sunset. I’ve climbed the hill and I’ve had a rocky go at it over the years. But I’m not done. And neither should you be. Life doesn’t end at this age. For some, it is just the beginning. 

I’ve tried making my way in the writing world. I’ve garnered a handful of fans along the way. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Maybe I’ve not found my stride. Maybe I should focus on doing something different. Whatever I choose to do, it will be done after having lived five decades. I don’t know what will happen, but I know I’ve got a lot of miles left on me, and I’m not holding onto a tree at the top of the hill. I don’t need to, and I think I will enjoy the view up here for a while. 

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

A.J.

An Author’s Gift

Recently, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine. He’s a tremendous person with tons of talent when it comes to both music and the written word. He is humble and engaging. I enjoy our conversations. However, he struggles with confidence when it comes to writing. Man, do I get that? Yes, yes I do.

During the course of our conversation, I made a statement that has stuck with me. It was two sentences and I’m going to give you them one at a time, then put them together.

First: Writing is a gift to yourself.

For many people, writing is an outlet, a hobby, something they do because they feel the words. Sometimes, writing is used as therapy. Writing is also a profession that many, many people attempt to succeed at. 

gift-1420830_1920Whether or not you write for yourself or for publication, writing is an art form. It is like music and painting and sculpting and woodworking and any number of other things out there. Most people don’t pick up a pen, a brush or a guitar and right away know how to use those various instruments to create something good, great or magnificent. For most, our first attempts (and even our hundredth) aren’t all that good and are far from magnificent. Simply put, it takes time to develop the necessary skills to create art.

Like with any other learned skill, it can be frustrating, and so often we give up before we get started because we get discouraged that we can’t do what others do. Let me quote Theodore Roosevelt here:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

If you know me at all, you have probably heard that statement. I, for the longest time, struggled with comparing myself to other writers. I struggled with comparing myself with their successes and the lack of my own. I struggled with wondering how in the world can someone who isn’t that good of a story teller sell so many books or have so many fans and I couldn’t do or have those things. I struggled with comparing myself to others instead of enjoying what I do and how I do it. It made it difficult to write because I would get so angry that I would rant and rave to my wife (who has always been so patient with me) about my failures and others’ successes. She always said, “You will get there one day,” and little by little, I have.

Back to the point. I learned how much I enjoyed creating stories when I stopped worrying about what others were doing and comparing myself to them. I didn’t say writing stories. I said creating stories. Creating is art, and I create art. But I don’t do it for you, the readers. I have to make that clear, not to you, but to me. I write stories for me. I create art for me. It is the one gift I can give myself every single day.

As of this writing, I have created over 2000 short stories, twelve novels, dozens and dozens of songs, a handful of poems and quite a few haiku.  I have created this art from my brain, my heart and through my fingertips. I have given myself these gifts over the years, and I have kept every single one of them. 

Part of this gift to myself is seeing growth in my abilities. I can go back and say, Man, I wasn’t all that good in 2004, but look at where I was in 2008, then where I was in 2010 and where I am, here and now. I can see growth in everything I write, everything I create. And it excites me and makes me want to create better works with words. That excitement is such a gift. 

Another part of this gift to myself is when I complete a story, when I see it through from beginning to end, I get to see the finished product. I get the self-satisfaction that I succeeded in creating something out of nothing. I get the joy of completion. These are gifts that others can’t give me. I can only give them to myself.

Second: Sharing your writing is a gift to the world.

We all have our favorite authors. They are like the relatives that give us the best gifts at Christmas or for birthdays. They are the aunts or uncles you go to when you need a pick-me-up. They are the people you can rely on to make a gloomy day better. You sit, you open one of their books and you begin to read. Pretty soon, you become engrossed in their words, mesmerized by their stories, and for a few minutes, an hour or two, the world is a little better because you aren’t dwelling in it. You get enjoyment from their stories. You feel because of something they wrote. For a while, you are alive in someone else’s world.

It’s an amazing gift you get to keep forever, either on your bookshelf or on a digital device (or both), but most importantly, in your memories. 

women-4465904_1920I see where people post pictures on social media with the caption, Making Memories. You see pictures of people at the beach and captioned or hashtagged with it is Making Memories (#makingmemories). You see pictures of people out to dinner and you see those words. You see pictures of people on vacation and there are those words, making memories. It’s like pictures we take out of a box from our childhood. If it’s a Polaroid (if y’all don’t know about Polaroids, Google is your friend) there is usually something written in the white space beneath the image. 1982, Tony, Buddy, Me. If it’s a photo that was developed at any fine establishment such as CVS, Walmart, Eckard’s or any other place like those, then most of the time there will be writing on the back of the image. The only difference is we made memories without saying, Making Memories and sharing all those photos with the world. #I’mreallygladwedidn’thavesocialmediawhenIwasakid. 

These pictures are all memories of the past, of when things were better or maybe worse. They’re memories. Some of those memories are the most beautiful gifts you can have. To be fair, some of those memories are like having bad hair on picture day at school. You want to forget that happened, but the picture is there to taunt you for the rest of your life.

Stories are the same. 

When an author shares their work with you, they are giving you a part of their gift to themselves. They are saying, hey, I want to share my gift with you. I want you to partake in my excitement, in my art … in a piece of me. 

Let’s look at that last part for a minute: hey, I want you to have a piece of me. Our stories are our babies. We’ve been with them from conception (the idea), to birth (the writing), to adulthood (completion). We’ve watched them develop and change, sometimes struggling to raise them (use the right words) and correct them (rewrites and edits). Then we let them go and we hope we’ve done our best. Sometimes, before we let them go out into the world, we hug them a little tighter (go over the story one more time), then we say, ‘Okay, child, it’s time for me to let you go.’

Sometimes, it’s terrifying. 

But we’re also ready for that story to go out into the world, to earn a living. They are our children, and by an author saying, hey, here’s my story, he or she is giving you the gift that is a piece of their hearts, their souls, their lives. And those authors want their stories to be accepted, to be loved, to be read and remembered in a positive light. 

My friend and I are both huge Pearl Jam fans. Back in August of 2019, my friend stood in a pub in Wilmington, Virginia, and belted out Once, By Pearl Jam. He dedicated the song to me. I still have the video on my phone. It was a gift to me, a memory I will always have (#makingmemories). It’s also a memory I cherish because it was so much a part of himself that he offered, not only to me, but to everyone there who witnessed it. 

If you’re an author, writing is a gift to yourself. It is a wonderful, beautiful thing to treasure, to look back on, like an old picture. It’s a gift you get to keep to yourself and you’re not being selfish by doing so. It is something nobody can ever take away from you. But if you choose to share your writing, then you are giving the world a piece of that gift, a piece of you and who you are. 

If you’re a reader, you can give a gift back to your favorite author(s). You can buy their books, you can write reviews and you can let the author know you appreciate the gifts they give you with the words they write.

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

A.J.

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Thank You

Now that April has passed and May is here, I wanted to take a minute (or five) to thank y’all for stopping by during the past month of stories. It means a lot to me that you all came by, checked out my website, read my stories and subscribed, liked, commented and shared my work with others. 

Reading 1At the end of last year, Cate and I sat down and figured out a game plan for 2020. We discussed events, signings, book clubs, speaking engagements and new releases. In order to really do well at any of those events, we needed new books to promote. We planned to release five books in 2020, two of them in March, one in April, one in June and one in October. Well, here it is, May 1st, and none of the books have been officially released.

That was completely my decision. 

With the current state of affairs in the world today, I just didn’t feel good about releasing books at a time when people are losing jobs and money is tight for so many. My moral side said, “Don’t do it, A.J.” My business side said, “Release those books.” Morality won out, for the most part. 

At the time this pandemic began to spread in America, We were days away from releasing My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert. Books were purchased and we had been promoting it through social media in anticipation of its release the next weekend. Two days earlier, we had participated in a book club discussion of my first novel, Cory’s Way. We didn’t know then that all the events we had scheduled for March, April and May would be cancelled.

As things progressively got worse around the country, I was sent home for a week because of possible exposure to the virus. Fortunately, I didn’t get sick and I went back to work. However, during that time of quarantine, I thought more and more about the releases that didn’t happen and that were not going to happen. 

Instead of releasing a new book, I decided on a cheaper alternative for you, the readers. I set my mind to putting out one story a day for the month of April on my website. All of them free. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I wanted to give folks who were at home during this time something they could read without shelling money out of their pockets. 

Reading HeartI hope you enjoyed the month of April. I enjoyed bringing you these stories and I hope they brightened your day, week, month a little. There will be more stories in May, including a four part story titled, Because I Can. 

I will also be promoting more of my books in the coming weeks, because the truth is, I’m an author and with all of the events that have been cancelled, book sales are way down.   I’ve added a purchase tab on the website (you can find it in the upper right hand corner) that has information about purchasing autographed print books. I’ve also added a donation button at the bottom of every post, so if you just want to throw a little love to your friendly neighborhood author, he would greatly appreciate it.

I would like to thank you all once more for a wonderful April. I look forward to the coming months and I hope you will stick around, like the posts, share them and comment on them. I would love to hear from you all. Also, if you have any suggestions on what you would like to see, drop me a line.

For now, I hope you have a wonderful day, night, weekend and life. Be safe, and until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

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Our Once Upon A Time (Free Fiction)

Our Once Upon A Time

By A.J. Brown

Once upon a time …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found myself in tears, heart aching and breathless. 

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

“I have to.”

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

“He’ll come looking for me.”

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

“Then run away. I’ll go with you.”

“No. No. He’ll kill you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once upon a time seems so long ago.  

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

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

__________

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

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

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

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

A.J.

 

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The Path Not Taken (Free Fiction)

The Path Not Taken

By A.J. Brown

Why couldn’t Myra give in just this once? It’s always her way. My way or the highway, as she liked to say. Sometimes that’s not such a good idea.  

Myra, my one true love and my biggest pain in the butt all rolled up into one person; always telling me what to do, when to eat and even when to go to bed. I always did as she said. I didn’t really care for the way she gets when she doesn’t get things her way.  Little did she know I would get up in the middle of the night after she had gone to bed and eat what I didn’t from the night before or stroll around the house, seeing what I could get into, just to defy her a bit.

“Let’s go this way,” she said and began down a not so worn path in the woods.

I didn’t want to go in that direction. I had a funny feeling something was wrong and those feelings were usually accurate. One time a storm was brewing way off in the distance. I tried to warn her but she wouldn’t listen. She never did.

“There ain’t a cloud in the sky,” she said, even looked up for emphasis. “Quit your whining and come on. It ain’t gonna do anything.” She was wrong and we both liked to drown when that storm hit, and the pond rose too fast and swept our feet out from under us. 

This time I tried to get her to go in the other direction, on a path that was a little well-worn and easily identifiable. It was a path I had been along many times with Rhett.

“Fred, we’re going this way,” she insisted. “Don’t fight me on this.”

I let out a deep breath and shook my head slightly. This is not going to be good. I could smell something terrible about to happen. I held my ground and refused to budge. I even backed away a little.

“Fred, come on,” she all but growled. “It’s about to rain and we’re going to get soaked if you don’t get a move on.”

I looked toward the sky. Gray clouds gave way to black ones. This was not good. Not good at all. The first rain drops hit me and my hair stood on end. I hate storms. I hate them, hate them, hate them. Then came streaks of lightening and loud thunder claps.

“Fred, let’s go.”

With the rain pouring down I still refused to go with her. I looked back in the direction I thought was safe. She was going to have to drag me or carry me if she wanted me to go with her.

path“Fine,” she snapped. “Stay here, then. Don’t bother coming to the door and begging to be let in. It’s not going to happen.”

Myra turned and stomped off in the mud. I took a couple of steps forward as if I was going to follow. I stopped and listened to the rain pelt the trees and ground around me; to the thunder above me; to the wind whipping around me; to the sudden scream of terror that echoed from the path not too far away from me.

“Fred!” she yelled for me. “Please, help me. Fred!”

My name was the last word from her lips.  

I took a few cautious steps along the path. When I saw the large grizzly bear snapping Myra’s body from side to side like it was a rag doll I stopped. Then I ran along the path I had wanted to take until I came to an opening. In the distance I could see the house.  When I got to it, Rhett was sitting on the porch, smoking his pipe.

“Fred, where’s Myra?” he asked.

I turned and looked back to where I had come. I ran a few steps in that direction and stopped. 

Rhett’s eyes grew large with the sudden realization that something was terribly wrong.  He was off the porch in no time, following me.

There wasn’t much left of Myra when we found her and the bear was gone.  

Now, I sit on the porch, looking toward those same trees where I had ventured so many times when I was younger. I miss Myra, even with her stubborn ways. Rhett does too.  Occasionally, he pats me on the head with a warm hand.

“You’re a good dog, Fred,” he says. “A good dog.”

_________

This story was written for a prompt in a writing group dedicated to flash fiction. The way it worked was a prompt was posted on Mondays. You could not open the prompt message until you have one hour to write. That’s all you got. One hour. You also were not allowed to go over 1000 words, not including the title of the story. You spent your hour writing and editing if you had time, then you submitted the story to the group. Next you had to read the stories of the other participants and vote for your top three stories. The winner would choose the prompt for the next week. I loved doing them and I got a lot of cool ideas from writing in this group.

The prompt for this story was simple: you are either an animal or its owner and there is danger ahead. That’s it. I chose the animal.

I hope you enjoyed The Path Not Taken. I also hope you will like this post, comment on it and share it to your social media pages. 

A.J. 

S.A.M.M (Free Fiction)

S.A.M.M.

A.J. Brown

It was an odd sight, one I didn’t expect to see when I ran into the woods, the bullies on my heels, their calls of ‘You’re going to get it when we catch you,’ still loud in my ears. I believed them, too. I wasn’t like everyone else. I wasn’t popular and I didn’t come from the best family, with the best clothes and three cars in the driveway and a nice house with all the bells and whistles. We weren’t the nuclear family with a mom and dad and 2.5 kids.

No, we lived on the other side of the tracks in a small house in a rough neighborhood where gunshots weren’t uncommon at two in the morning. I rode the bus to and from school and we hung our clothes out on a clothesline after we brought them home from the laundromat. Yeah, we couldn’t afford to dry the clothes, just wash them. I wore hand-me-downs from Aunt Rosalyn’s neighbors, and most of those clothes were too big for me. 

I was different. Daddy was white and Momma was black in a time that type of relationship was still frowned upon. My skin was the wrong tint of white and the wrong shade of black. I guess, having to deal with that, I saw things differently. I still do, but back then, when I was a young girl trying to find my way in a mean world, seeing things differently was just as bad as being a ‘gray baby.’ And I think that is why I came across SAMM. Yes, SAMM, with two M’s–It stands for Sand And Mud Man.

The bullies–Jack Olson, Mickey Darbey, and Knollwood Herring–had chased me from school that afternoon (like so many others). And, like so many others, I ran as fast as I could, hoping and praying those three white boys wouldn’t catch me. If they did …

I made it to the woods and ran right through the branches of some smaller trees, creating my own pathway and stumbling along as I went. They stopped at the edge of the woods, as if they were afraid to follow. I did not stop. I ran until I reached the stream that split the woods in half. By then I could no longer hear their taunts. I dropped to the ground, my knees sinking into the soft mud of the stream’s embankment. I put my face in my hands and cried. I pulled my hands away and looked at the right one. There was blood on the palm. I wiped at my cheek. At some point, a branch must have sliced skin because when I pulled my fingers away bright blood was on the tips. 

Staring at the blood, my mind slowed to a crawl and asked a question. How was I going to survive another day with those jerks around, much less the remainder of the school year? 

I slid onto my bottom and scooted back against one of the cypress trees, wedging myself between the upraised roots in order to get comfortable. I didn’t care about the mud on my pants–again, hand-me-downs, a size two big, a pair I just wanted to chunk anyway. Mom might be mad, and I would have to explain to her why they were so dirty. What was I going to say? What was I going to do? 

And the tears flowed. A snot runner escaped my nose and I wiped it away with the back of one hand. 

Then I saw It. It stood on the other side of the stream, a dirty, gray stone creature that looked as if it had been chiseled right out of the wall of a mountainside. Its features were rough, and its arms came almost down to its feet like a rocky gorilla, but it stood straight, not hunched over. Its face was square and its jaw jutted out, a mouth carved into it, complete with three teeth. Its eyes were hollowed out holes that held darkness in them—something so deep it made me shiver to look at. Though it seemed like someone had just dropped it into the woods without a care, the large, thick vines that were tethered to its wrists and ankles told me this creature, this thing, had been placed there intentional. Whatever it was, this thing was dangerous.

I stood, my heart pounding harder than it had when I fled a beating I was sure to get later. I stared up at the thing. It couldn’t have been much more than a statue someone no longer wanted, an art project gone terribly wrong, maybe. I didn’t know, but it fascinated and terrified me all at once.

Stream 2Carefully, I approached it, tip-toeing as if to keep it from hearing me. A twig snapped under foot and I was startled as if someone had fired a gun. My hands went over my head and I dropped to the ground. I think I screamed. When it didn’t move, I cautiously stood and continued toward it. I reached the edge of the stream and stepped into the icy water. Chills raced up my legs and tailbone and right into my spine. The water soaked through my sneakers and holy socks, but I didn’t care. Seconds later, the cuffs of my oversized jeans were wet all the way up to my shins. 

On that side of the stream I could see it better. The stone of the sunken into the ground feet was covered in green moss that travelled up its legs and just passed both knees. The stone was also weathered and cracked and chipped. There were grooves where rain had worn away pieces of it. The knees and elbows were hinged, and the shoulders and wrists were ball sockets. The vines that held it in place were more like branches, thick and brown and green, leaves clinging to it. 

But it was its chest that caught my attention and held it for the longest time. The stone had been smashed in and the edges of the hole were a much darker gray, as if

(it had a heart, Meghan)

it had bled, but that was impossible. It was nothing but rock. Rocks don’t bleed.

I reached up and let my fingers trace along the ridges of the hole. It was rough, and some of the edges were dull, but a few of them were sharp like glass. 

It moved.

I pulled my hand away with a scream in my throat. A sharp pain ripped through two fingers. I stumbled backward, my foot slipping in the mud. I tripped on a rock and landed in the water. My scream was cut off by the shocked inhalation of chilly air as the water spilled over me. I scrambled to turn around, fell back in, this time face first. I swallowed gritty stream water before I was able to get my hands beneath me and shove myself up. I stood, soaked from head to toe, and hurried out of the water. 

On dry ground, I ran to the tree I had sat at when I noticed the thing, and hid behind it.

My breaths were loud, a wheeze coming from my chest. I whispered silently, “Please don’t hurt me. Please, don’t hurt me. Please, don’t hurt me,” all while my mind screamed Run!

It spoke two words, its voice deep and, for a lack of better term, gravelly. 

“Help me.”

I wasn’t sure I heard it correctly, so I remained with my back firmly planted against the cypress tree and my feet on two of the roots jutting up from the ground. Then it came again, and this time I heard the sadness in its voice. Or maybe it was pain.

“Help me.”

It didn’t matter if it was sad or in pain, or even if it was scary, I heard something in its voice that said, ‘I am here and I am alive and I need help.’

I turned around and placed my stomach to the tree. Slowly I eased my head from behind it so I could see the creature. Its head was down and moving slowly from side to side as if looking at the vines that bound it to the ground like chains. 

With each movement of its head came the rumble of stone on stone. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it was crying and the sound wasn’t the rubbing of two rocks together, but the sound of its voice as it bawled like a little baby.

I stepped from behind the tree, and eased a few feet off to the side. When I did, it looked up. What could only be tears spilled from its hollow eye sockets, creating black streaks along its gray face. Its jaw looked as if it were trembling. It cocked its head to the side and lifted its arms as high as they would go, which wasn’t much further than his thighs.

“Help me.”

“How?” I asked. I wasn’t scared. That’s the thing. I wasn’t scared, though I should have been. This creature made of rocks should have terrified me, but in that moment, with everything I had been through over the previous couple of years, I felt a connection with it. “How can I help you?”

It cocked its head to the side again, something I immediately found endearing, and then it looked down at its wrists and the vines that held him.

(You have to set him free, Meghan)

He raised his arms again, this time pulling the vines as tight as they would go. 

“I can’t break those,” I said.

Without realizing, I had approached it. My toes were on the edge of the stream when I became aware of how close I was to it. Water gently lapped against my shoes. For a few seconds we stood looking at each other.

“Please.”

How can you say no to some … thing that says ‘please?’

I crossed the stream and stepped onto the other side. At first I tried to pull the vines from the ground. What was I thinking? If it couldn’t pull them free, how did I expect myself to pull them free? Still, I strained for about two minutes, my face growing hot and my arms and legs tugging for all I was worth. My hands slid up the vine, pulling the skin away from my fingers. I looked at one hand and saw the slices in the two fingers and blood spilling from them. 

“Wow, that’s deep,” I said, then up to the creature, I spoke, “I can’t pull them from the ground. Do you have any suggestions?”

Honestly, I didn’t expect anything, but it did have a suggestion. “Cut.”

“Cut? Do you mean cut the vine?”

His neck rumbled as he nodded.

“I don’t have a knife.”

He craned the round ball that was his neck toward the water. 

“Rock.”

I looked at the water. It was the first time I actually heard the sound of it babbling along, flowing over the rocks and along the embankments. The peacefulness of it relaxed my muscles and cleared my mind. I don’t know how long I stood there staring down into the stream, looking at the many rocks there without seeing them. The stone on stone grind shook me from the nothingness that had swept over me. In the water was a rock, about the size of my hand and flat. It looked like it could have been apart of an old Native American tomahawk. I reached down, the water like ice to my skin, and worked my fingers beneath the edge of the rock and the sand that held it. Silt washed away with the roll of the stream and the rock came free.

The rock was the same gray as the creature, and it no longer looked like it could have been part of a tomahawk, but something else a heart, maybe. 

“Please,” it repeated.

“Okay.”

I stepped out of the water and knelt down on the ground next to one of the vines. 

“Can you pull it tight?”

It lifted its arm as far as it would go and the vine stiffened. I ran my hand along it, snatching leaves from their anchors as I did so. Then I lifted the rock above my head and brought it down as hard as I could. The tip tore a small chunk from the vine and the creature bellowed, a sound like it was in a pain so horrible it would crumble and collapse to the ground or face first into the stream.

“What? What’s wrong?” I stood, backed away and looked up at it.

The tears were back and streaming down its face and dripping off of its chiseled chin. One of his fingers pointed at the rock in my hand. I looked down and almost dropped it. It had been wet earlier, but it had been gray. Now, it held a dusty purple tint to it. At first I thought it may have been smudges of blood from my sliced fingers, but then I rolled it over in my hands and realized it was pulsing, as if it was a beating heart.

I know my eyes became wide. I don’t know how I didn’t drop the rock to the ground or back into the stream. 

“Is this your heart?”

A rumbling nod came from it. “Put back.”

“Put back? You mean, back into the water?”

A shake of the head was followed by, “No. Put back.” Though its arm was tethered with the vine, it turned its hand over and pointed the best it could to the hole in its chest.

“Put it back there?” 

He nodded again.

I stepped in front of him and stood on the tips of my toes. I held its heart in my one hand and stretched as far as I could. Even then I couldn’t get the heart back into the hole. I was too short. 

“I can’t reach,” I said and rocked back on my heels. “Can you …”

“Well, well, well. Look what we have here, boys. It’s the mix breed.”

Startled, two things happened all at once. First, I lunged upward and pushed the rock into the hole of its chest. Second, I spun, tipping myself off balance and pitching forward in the wet mud. I almost righted myself, but my momentum splashed me into the stream, again face first. For a second or two my head was under the water and in that brief amount of time I had never been more afraid of anything. A thought, fleeting but very possible, darted through my mind: what if they pounced on me as I lay in the water? 

Get up! Get up, Meghan!

They would drown me.

My heart leapt into my throat and the very real fear of dying pounced on me, just as I expected Jack Olson, Mickey Darbey, and Knollwood Herring to do. As I pulled my head from the water, that is exactly what they were about to do. They spilled from the trees, each one carrying their own brand of nastiness. My mind screamed, Surely they wouldn’t beat up a girl, but the part of me who had always dealt with people like them, both young and old, knew that is exactly what they intended to do.

I tried to stand, but slipped on the rocks and fell back into the stream. 

They laughed and it sounded like the cackles of hungry hyenas. I pushed myself up to see Knollwood splashing into the water and reaching for me, his big hands on the ends of tree trunk sized arms, a lock of his dark hair dangling in front of his dull brown eyes. I tried to turn, to run away, but he wasn’t going to let that happen again.

“Hey, gray girl,” he said and grabbed me around my waist, lifting me up out of the water. “We’re going to have some fun with you.”

My mind screamed. My voice followed. Their laughter grew louder.

I didn’t think, so much as acted. I swung an elbow back, connecting with the side of Knollwood’s head. He cursed and flung me to the other side of the stream where both Mickey and Jack waited. I landed on my hip. The pain tore down one leg and up into my back. I cried out with the new found soreness in my lower body. 

“You’re going to pay for that, gray girl,” Knollwood said. He held his ear and stomped from the water. He gave a nod and one of the other two boys grabbed a handful of my hair.

“Get up.” It was Mickey. He pulled me to my feet by that handful of hair. I tried not to scream but I was scared and cornered and there was nothing I could do. Three against one and I would be destroyed.

Knollwood approached me, hands in tight fists, that angry sneer on his face. I didn’t expect the first thing that happened. The second one, I did. Knollwood spat in my face. That was the unexpected thing. The punch to my jaw was the expected one. it was hard and jarring and my head snapped to one side. Blood filled my mouth where my teeth caught the inside of it. 

I couldn’t help the tears that fell. At that moment I not only hated my three tormentors, I hated myself. I had been bullied my whole life because I was different, because my parents were different colors and my skin was not quite brown, but not quite white. It was that natural tan most teenage girls want. Momma always said, ‘Some people God bakes a little slower and they turn out white. Some people God bakes a little longer and they turn out black. You, Meggie, you God baked just long enough and you turned out perfect.’

I didn’t feel so perfect right then. Truthfully, I never felt perfect, not even around my family. 

A slap came to the back of my head, a heavy, stinging sensation. That was followed by a fist around the same spot. My ears began to ring and pain exploded inside my head. My stomach rolled and I suddenly felt like I would throw up. Before I did I glanced up. Everything was hazy. Knollwood was a blur of white flesh that moved in jerky motions. Their voices were now echoes in my humming head. The world around me ran together. Before the punch to my stomach sent me to my knees and Mickey let go of me, something moved behind Knollwood. It wasn’t the wind in the trees or an animal. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, just that it was on the other side of the stream.

Then came that last, gut rending punch. The air flushed from my lungs and I was falling. I landed in the water, again, face first. The pain in my midsection was dull, but intense and the rush of the stream played in my ears like a song I would hate my entire life. I pushed myself from the water to try and take a breath, but no air reentered my lungs. A snot bubble rolled out of my nose and my mouth hung open.

Then came my death. Okay, what I thought would be my death. My mind was scrambled and I couldn’t breathe and I heard this weird laughter and taunts from the boys and this other sound … this sound like stones rolling down a hill. A hand grabbed me by the back of my neck and shoved my face into the water. My forehead struck one of the rocks, but that pain didn’t matter. What mattered was I was going to drown right there in a stream barely a foot deep because I was different. At least the sound of the water was in my head and not their hateful voices. At least that would be the last thing I heard.

Spots formed beneath my closed eyelids as water rushed into my mouth and filled my nose. My head thumped. There was a train on the tracks of my skull and it’s horn was loud. My ears popped and my stomach begged for air it would not get.

Then, just as suddenly as the attack had begun, it ended. The weight holding my head in the water was gone, but I was weak and could barely push myself up. The muscles in my arms gave out the first time. The edges of my life were closing in on me. The locomotive in my skull was bearing down and about to crush my head. The water in my lungs …

You’re going to die if you don’t get out of the water, Megan!

And I was out of the water. I don’t know how I got my arms beneath me, but I did. I crawled to the edge of the stream and collapsed onto the muddy embankment. From somewhere in the world, I heard screams and those rolling stones tumbling down a mountain. I coughed several times and water spilled from my mouth. I rolled onto my side, my hand ending up in the water. The locomotive in my head was still there, but its horn was now off in the distance. I tried to open my eyes, but the only thing I wanted to do right then was lay still, not move and pray wherever the three bullies had gone, they would not be back. Eventually, the pain in my lungs and chest and stomach and head subsided and I dozed off into the black land I thought was death. Honestly, I welcomed it.

I didn’t die. That’s obvious, based on this writing. I woke up on the embankment still on my side. My body ached and my head still thumped its angry tune. My hair was matted to my face and my jaw was swollen. The residual bitter tastes of blood lingered on my tongue. 

I opened my eyes, my vision blurry at first. Slowly, it cleared and my heart almost stopped. Hunched over in the stream next to me was the stone creature. It stared at me with its darkened eye sockets. I tried to scream, but nothing more than a whisper came out. If he meant to finish the job Knollwood, Jack and Mickey started, here was his chance and I couldn’t fight it. I was tired of it all, tired of being different and of being bullied because of it; tired of being looked at like I was a freak show. 

It reached down with one stone finger and stroked my face. It was cold to the touch. 

“Okay?”

It took a few seconds to realize he had spoken and it wasn’t a word of hate, but one of concern. He repeated it.

“Okay?”

I sat up. My stomach rumbled and I barely got my head turned before I threw up grimy, gritty water, mixed with blood. My face was hot and sweat spilled off my forehead. My stomach lurched a second time, but nothing came out. I wiped my mouth, turned to the creature.

“I’m sorry.”

It shook his head several times, as if to say not to be.

I looked around. The world was back to normal. The trees were brown and green, the water of the stream was mostly clear, the rocks appearing to wave with the ripples of the water as it rolled on by. The embankment I sat on was wet and muddy. And there were foot prints in them, most of them clustered around where I sat. 

“Where are they?” I asked, fear leaping up into my chest. I got on my knees quickly. My head swam and black dots clouded my vision. Dropping to my hands, I took several deep breaths until everything came back and the edges of my vision was normal again. 

“Gone,” it said.

“Gone?”

It nodded. “Gone.”

“Where’d they go?”

It lifted its hand and pointed behind him. 

I started to move so I could see, but decided not to. A strong realization swept over me right then. That rolling stone sound I had heard when they were trying to drown me, that odd movement I had seen before they shoved my head under the water had been the creature that sat beside me. 

“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t need to look for them. I also didn’t need to know they would never bother me, or anyone else, ever again.

“Thank you,” he repeated back. It wasn’t a question, as if he was asking why I said that, but it was more something he was saying back to me. I didn’t get it at first. When I looked up at him, I saw the hole in his chest was no longer there. Instead, it was closed up, though there were cracks and creases in the stone. 

The rock I had found in the water had been his heart. Before, I wasn’t sure, but right then I knew. I also knew, his thank you was just as much for me saving him as mine had been for him saving me.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

His head rolled to the side, rumbling as it did so. Though the dark sockets didn’t change, there was something quizzical in them.

“Name?”

I nodded. “What do they call you?”

He tapped his chest with one finger and shook his head slowly. “No name.”

“You don’t have a name?”

Again, he shook his head from side to side.

For several seconds I sat, staring at him. I looked at the ground. One of my hands had sunk into the mud. I looked back at him. “SAMM.”

Again, his head cocked to the side. “SAMM?”

“That is your name. SAMM—Sand and Mud Man.”

He—because it was a he—nodded at this. “SAMM.”

I stood, my muscles ached and my body hurt. The sun was setting, casting an orange and purple hue on the world. Soon the sky would turn gray and that would be swallowed up by the early darkness of night. I was not going to get home before any of that happened, but I didn’t have to worry about being chased and beaten and drowned by hateful people. My worry was Momma and Daddy and them being angry that I was late from school, by several hours. I would have to explain where I had been and what had happened to me. I wasn’t sure what I would say, but I hoped once I told them what had happened, they would believe me. 

“I have to go,” I said. “But I’ll come back. I promise.”

“Go?”

“Yeah. I have to leave. I have to go home. My parents are probably really worried about me and …”

“Home?”

“Yeah. Home. The place where I live.”

SAMM stood. The ground shook beneath me when he did so. He craned his neck back and looked off into the trees. “Home.”

My heart hurt for him. I didn’t know how long he had been out there, tethered to the ground. I also know I would have been dead if not for him. But the reality of where I was and what had happened started to sink in and I knew I had to leave; I had to get home. I also knew I would return, the next day if I wasn’t in so much trouble. 

“Bye SAMM,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Okay?”

“Bye,” he repeated and gave a little wave. 

With tears tugging at the corners of my eyes, I went back through the trees, the same ones I and three bullies had come through earlier in the day. I came out where I had went in and I hurried home as darkness settled in. As I neared my house I thought about how ridiculous my story would sound. There was no way they would believe me. But I didn’t have anything else and I didn’t have the time to make up a lie, or a series of them.

I walked up the sidewalk that led to our small house. Daddy sat on the porch stoop, a cigarette in hand. Momma sat in the rocker. She didn’t have a smoke, but she looked like she could use one.

“Where have you been, Meghan?” he asked.

I crossed the front lawn to the steps. I didn’t need to answer Daddy’s question, but the one Momma asked next.

“What happened to you?”

She stood and went down the steps, pushing by Daddy as she did so. Her hand was warm on my face as she turned my head, first one way then the other. 

“It was some boys who don’t like me much.”

“They roughed you up pretty good,” she said.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Who were they?”

“Knollwood Herring, Jack Owens and Mickey Darbey.”

“I’ll be having a talk with the school tomorrow about them, but for now, tell us what happened.”

My heart sped up. Sweat formed on my face and in my arm pits and down the center of my still damp bra. “You’re not going to believe me.”

“Try us,” Momma said and went back up the steps. She sat in her chair and they both waited for my story. I told them everything, but when I reached the part about finding SAMM I saw Momma’s eyes brighten up.

“He was made out of stone, wasn’t he?” she asked.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And he was near the stream?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“What did you name him?”

This stopped me. I didn’t know how to answer her question. I was certain she thought I was lying and was now playing along and when I was done, one of them would take me inside and lay Daddy’s belt to my behind. 

“SAMM,” I said.

Momma smiled. “I called him Martin.”

“What?”

“I called him Martin,” she repeated. “After Martin Luther King.”

My eyes must have become wide and I know my mouth dropped open. “You believe me?”

She laughed. “Oh yes. He saved me one time before, too. Or maybe it was someone like your SAMM.”

“You’re not mad at me?”

“We were worried about you,” Daddy said and snuffed out his cigarette on the concrete step. “Now that we know you are safe and why you were late, there is no need to be mad at you.”

“And there is no reason for me to go to the school and talk to the principal about those three boys.”

“Why is that?” I thought I knew why, but I wanted—needed—to hear it from her.

“They’re not going to find those boys, at least not alive.”

She didn’t need to say anything else. She would go on to tell me the story of how she came across SAMM—Martin, to her—when she was a teen, in the midst of racism. 

“And Meghan, there’s no need to go back to see him. He won’t be there.”

“But I told him I would go back.”

“He won’t be there, Meghan.”

I guess this is the end of my story, but there are a couple of things you need to know. First, they eventually found Knollwood, Jack and Mickey in those woods. They appeared to have been stoned to death, at least that is how the papers put it. Who did it? They don’t know. 

Second, I went back to those woods the next day, on my way home from school. I wasn’t scared, as I had been the day before. I went in at the same spot and I followed the same path, most of which were broken branches and trampled down grass—the path I made when I ran from the bullies. I made my way to the stream. The foot prints were still there from the day before. I crossed the water, not trying to keep from getting wet. There was a wider swath in the foliage. I followed it until it ended abruptly. 

I called for SAMM, but I never found him. I didn’t find Knollwood or Jack or Mickey, either. All I know is SAMM was gone, and Momma had been right. It made me sad that I didn’t get to see him again, but I understood, as I hope you do, now, that each and every decision we make in our lives has a consequence, good or bad. I was different from most kids back then, and because I was different, SAMM found me. I didn’t find him. Those boys chased me into the woods and SAMM was there, but he wasn’t there to save me, but to test me, to see if I would do something for him. By finding his heart—which is really the soul of a person—and giving it back to him, I freed him from his bonds. By saving me from those bullies, he freed me from my bonds. That day changed my life, as I’m sure, my little girl, it will change yours.

Love,

Your mom

__________

Some stories are easy to write. This was one of them. I saw a picture on social media one morning, drawn by a young girl—I believe she had been thirteen when she drew it. It was of a stone creature with vines holding its arms and legs in place. I saved the image and later printed it out. That image became the basis to S.A.M.M. It also hangs on my wall at work, right next to my desk. I don’t know the little girl, who is probably a young woman now, so I won’t post the image with the story. I also won’t post her name.

What I will say is thank you to her for drawing the picture. It made my mind run and this story is the result. 

I hope you enjoyed S.A.M.M. If you did, please like the post, comment and share it to your social media pages and help me get my work out to the world. Thank you.

A.J. 

A Moment In Life

It’s just a scene in life.

He sits on what they call the top step. It’s really the porch, and like the two steps that lead up to it, it is made of concrete. His feet are on that first step at the bottom. Well, that’s not quite accurate. The right foot is on the step while the left one is planted on the ground beside it where a blueberry bush was once planted but never bloomed. Now it’s just weeds and grass. There are two pillars, one on either side of him, that hold up the roof and ceiling of the covered up section of porch. They, like most of the house, are made of cinder blocks, only these are painted white, while the rest of the house is an odd gray color that was supposed to be blue. 

He wears a pair of ratty black jeans, the left leg with a tear that runs from knee to a couple of inches above the cuff. His shoes are beat up and dirty, having seen better days years ago, but he still wears them when doing odd jobs (or big ones, for that matter) around the house. His shirt is an old white tee with words on the front that are so faded they are no longer legible. If you were to ask him what the shirt said, he will say he honestly can’t remember. Spattered and smeared on his shirt, jeans and arms is white paint. 

He had a hard day. Nothing went according to plan. As he sits there, he realizes the painting of the bathroom had been the easy part of his day, even if his right hand tingled a couple of times—he believes that is from a pinched nerve in his neck. He leans slightly to his right, his head almost on Her shoulder. 

She sits to his right, both her feet firmly placed on the second step—or the middle one if you count the porch landing they both sit on as a step. She is looking at her phone and giggling. Every couple of minutes, she shows him a funny video. Sometimes he laughs. Other times he doesn’t. Her pants are light blue and fit her mostly the way she likes it. She thinks she is overweight. He thinks she is perfect the way she is. There are holes in both knees of her jeans and she wears a pair of sandals that are clearly not flip flops, if you know the difference. He, apparently, does not know the difference. Her shirt is gray and white and not as worn out as his, but it is one of her old shirts so wearing it to do yard work doesn’t bother her. 

Couple SittingHe closes his eyes and knows he can’t keep them that way. If he does, he will fall asleep on her shoulder. Not that she will mind—at least, he hopes she won’t. Yes, he is tired. Yes, the last two days have been difficult and busy, the night before going to almost eleven to finish one necessary project. His body aches and places hurt that he didn’t know could be sore. 

He lifts one paint stained hand and places it on her knee. It’s a movement that takes a lot more effort today than it should. As they sit there, neither one really talking much, he thinks of an old song by John Cougar Mellencamp (just John Cougar when the song came out, though). It is ‘Jack and Diane,’ a little ditty about two American kids growing up in the heart land. He thinks of the last lyric, how Jack and Diane did the best they could. At this moment, as the cool breeze chills their skin and the sun is starting to set off in the distance, he thinks of that song, on those two American kids. And he wonders if Jack ever worked so hard at something, put every ounce of energy into something and still not knew if things were better or worse for his efforts. 

He opens his eyes, lifts his head and stretches his neck. In a minute, he will ask her if she is ready to go inside. She will stand and offer to help him and he will accept. With a little effort, he will stand and they will go inside and the evening will go on like all evenings do for the living. But for right then, he looks at her and knows he is her Jack and she is his Diane, and, yes, they’ve done the best they can.

AJB

3/15/2020

February Roundup

2.1 A Thing About Life

I woke up this morning at 4:38. That might seem early. I’ve been somewhat of an insomniac for a huge chunk of my life, but I’ve been sleeping well since mid-January. I don’t know why, but I won’t complain about it. So, there I was, awake and thinking I would go back to sleep. I didn’t. I finally got up just before 5:30.

I let my dog out and started the coffee. As I waited, I sat on the couch and stared at the blank television. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I just sit, not focused on anything, my mind silent for several minutes. Eventually, the brain wakes up and I find myself, not thinking, but reflecting on life, on things I want to accomplish, on where I feel I should be at this point in my life. This morning was no different.

I thought about my dad, who is dealing with heart failure. I thought about my job, a place I haven’t been happy at in a long while. I thought about how sore I was from being under the house for most of the day before. I thought about writing and how much I wish I could afford to do this for a living. 

Then my mind shifted gears. I thought about how people hate each other. I thought about how politicians wage war on each other and divide our country. I thought about the little girl who was kidnapped and later found dead earlier this month—she was from my hometown and I know the area she lived and died in. I thought about the young man who had been found dead in the woods not far from where he was last seen four years ago. He had been a friend of my brother-in-law. My mind could have been the video for Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.

I don’t understand our country, our world. I don’t understand why we are so divisive. Opinions used to be just that: opinions. We used to be able to have them without others getting upset about it. Anger seems to be an issue with people these days—it’s everywhere you look. We’re an angry world, and I fear that will be the downfall of mankind. 

I write dark stories. Sometimes I write certain stories to understand the psychology behind motives and actions. I don’t write them to justify a means to what someone would do, but to understand why they would do these things. 

The first line of my soon to be released novel, Five Deaths, is quite telling of what the book is about and the mindset of the main character:

I’ve committed five murders in my life, all of them justifiable. 

The main character, Andrew Colson, goes onto to tell the story of those five murders. In his mind, all five are justified, but are they really? For me, it was a look into the mind of what could be considered a serial killer. Is he a serial killer? Well, I’ll let you figure that out for yourselves when the book comes out.

Back to my thoughts. I’ve learned its easy to be mean to people, to insult those different from us, to cheat and steal and care only about ourselves and those in our immediate circle. It’s easy to intimidate people and hurt people. We see it on the news every day from local events all the way up to our government and to events around the world. Sadly, it seems like kindness, humility and love are falling by the wayside. Can we reverse this trend? I hope so. I hope so.

2.2 My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert

My third novel, My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert, is slated for a mid-March release in print form. Yes, you read that right. I am releasing the print version of this novel first. In April, I will release the e-book version for those who prefer using e-readers, such as a Kindle. 

Screen Shot 2020-02-25 at 3.31.06 PMI hope to have a few book signings for My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert, mostly in the South Carolina area, but hopefully in Georgia and North Carolina, as well.

The following is the synopsis for the novel.

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?

I’m excited about the storyline and I will give y’all more details as the release date gets finalized.

2.3 Simply Put

Another book, Simply Put, is more of a theory on writing and rules and some of the things they don’t tell you about when you get into the business of publishing, is set to be released on March 31st. Though there are a few chapters about writing, this is not a how-to book on writing. A lot of the things in Simply Put are my observations in the publishing world. There are a handful of short stories throughout the book as well. 

I have put off releasing Simply Put for almost three years, unsure if I even wanted to put it out. Who wants to read a book about writing and storytelling and publishing from someone who is not a bigtime author? Maybe no one. But that is okay. 

Simply Put will not be released in e-book format. As of this writing, it will be a print book only deal.

One more thing about this and I will move on: I chose March 31st as the release date for Simply Put because my friend, Jennifer Miller, who wrote a piece for this book, passed away on that date in 2019. I miss her, our conversations about life and writing and dreams. I will release it on that day in honor of her.

2.4 For the Love of Coffee

My house on Valentine’s Day morning:

Cates Coffee CupI received a sweet card from Cate. The first line said, “I love you more than coffee.”

This was a red flag moment for me. I went to my wife and said, “I’m not so sure you love me more than coffee.”

She smiled. “I do love you more than coffee,” she said. “Well, maybe it’s a close tie.”

The Boy, having heard this conversation: “Dang, Dad, you lost to coffee.”

Yes, son, yes, I did.

2.5 Everything is Life, Everything is a Story

Go back to part 2.1 up above for a second. I mentioned Five Deaths, a novel that is slated for release later this year. This story is less about the supernatural and more about real life, about revenge and love and sadness. 

The inspiration for this story was partially based on a short story I wrote titled, Picket Fences. If you have read it, then you know it is about a man who builds picket fences around graves in honor of his deceased sister. There’s also a kernel of reality in the inspiration to Five Deaths. When I was a child, I read about a man who killed his autistic stepson in an eerily similar way Billie Jumper died in Five Deaths. I remember how horrible I felt after reading about it in the newspaper. What I don’t remember is what happened to the stepfather. My mind created a scenario for what could possibly happen and that scenario made it into Five Deaths. It was based in real life.

When I write, I try to make things as close to real to life as possible, even if it has supernatural or impossible elements to it. At the end of the day, everything is about life. Everything, good or bad, is about life, living and dying. And in that same vein, everything about life is also a story. Some of the best stories I have written over the years comes from the mundane, every day events of life. This is why our focus this year is on Everything is Life, Everything is a Story. #everythingislifeeverythingisastory. If you tag me in anything on social media, do you mind using this hashtag? 

2.6 Farewell

Thank you for reading today. I hope you enjoyed this post. Also, please share this post and leave comments. I appreciate it.

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

A.J. 

A Toast To A Friend

If you’ve read my novella, Closing the Wound, then you know it is about the real events of the death of a teenage boy on Halloween night in 1995 here in South Carolina. Our friend, Chris, loved Halloween. It was his favorite day of the year. 

So, in honor of our friend, on Halloween, Cate and I will go visit his grave. We will take candy bars with us and we will toast his life and his love for Halloween, then we will eat the candy. It’s our way of paying tribute to a young man who died far too soon. It’s our way of remembering him. 

Cate and I went for coffee this evening and as we sat and drank our drinks at an awesome place in Cayce called Piecewise (it’s on State Street, down the road from B.C. High School if you want to pay them a visit), we talked about Chris and something we would like to do, or rather, something we would like you to do. At some point during the month of October, please take a couple of hours and visit the grave of a family member or a friend (or even a stranger). Take with you some candy, toast that person, talk about that person, eat your candy. 

So often when someone dies, we go to the funeral, maybe go to the burial, then … we forget about them. Life is too precious to forget someone that was a part of our lives. Instead of forgetting them, let them live on in our lives. Remember them by taking a moment, here in October, the month of Halloween, my friend’s favorite day of the year, and celebrate them. 

Yes, I am probably going to post this here and there and everywhere over the next few weeks as Halloween grows closer. Yes, you will also see more posts about Closing the Wound this month than before. I think his story is one that should be told, should be read. It was my way to cope with his death and a way for him to live on through the written word. 

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

Happy Halloween.

A.J.