Best Foot Forward?

One thing I’ve learned in life is to always try and put your best foot forward. That can be a problem for someone like me, who can’t seem to figure out which of his feet is the best one.

Hmm… tough audience tonight.

Back in January, my book, Along the Splintered Path, was released in e-book format. It is a collection of three short stories (yeah, short is in the eye of the reader, and in this case, the stories aren’t all that short) released by Dark Continents Press. It’s a good book. No, I’m not patting myself on the back or anything like that, and no, I’m not vain enough to think that it is the be all of horror fiction. I believe the book is good. I would feel that way if someone else had written it.

The sells have been mediocre, at best, but the reviews have been great. Even the lone three star review really had nothing negative to say.

At the time of release, I was sick. Very sick. I had pneumonia and went through the editing phase coughing and throwing up and not being able to sit at my desk for too long at any given time. The medicine I was on made me hyperactive and made everything taste like the bottom of Big Foot’s foot. Don’t ask me how I know what that tastes like—I don’t. I just think I do. I had to take another type of medicine to counter the vomiting that made me sleepy, but only for about half an hour at a time. In essence, I was a sick malnourished insomniac and life sucked when I was trying to get ATSP ready to be published.

When ATSP finally came out, I was excited (although sickly). I felt it was the best thing I could put out, and at the time, it was. It may still be. I guess that means I put my best foot forward. I still have no clue which foot that was.

Fast forward to the end of February. Someone mentioned that, ‘hey man, you have a book out there, but what else do you have?’

‘Well, I have a slew of short stories at various places.’

‘Are they any good?”

‘Well, duh. Of course they are.’

‘Do you own the rights to them?’

‘Most of ‘em.’

‘Then why don’t you put another collection out consisting of previously published stories? Or maybe you can put out one of those novels you have sitting on your hard drive.’

‘Why?’

I knew the answer to that question long before it was answered, but I asked anyway.

‘If folks like your work, then they’ll look for other things that you’ve written. It will keep you in their minds, especially if the work is any good.’

Yup, that’s what I was thinking, too.

At the end of February, I started looking at all the previously published stories I have out there. I was saddened by what I found. Yes, there were some good ones out there. But the more I looked at those stories, the more I realized, no, not all of them are good. Really, not even half of them are ‘good.’

I admit, I was disheartened. Why? Because I didn’t put my best foot forward. I wanted to be published and I jumped at the opportunity early on. Maybe not the best move to make, but it’s been made and I can see now that my best foot was not put forward early on in my writing ‘career.’

Here’s the thing:

I had good ideas, not so good execution on some of them. Actually, having a few of those stories executed right now sounds like a good idea.

Wow. Really tough crowd tonight.

I had no real voice. Some of the stories didn’t go anywhere. A lot of them were all kill, kill, kill. It was sad. It really was. I got discouraged, both inwardly and outwardly.

I put the project down and worked on a novel for a very talented young lady, Belinda Frisch. While working on this novel, I came to realize that if I want to erase those bad stories, then I have to make folks forget about them.

In early April I started working on Southern Bones, only stop abruptly when I found out I would be losing my job at the beginning of June. There was a silver lining to this—the company coming in to take our jobs wanted to keep us on board, so when June came, I signed on with them and, thankfully, me and most of my co-workers still have jobs.

I’m not going to say it hasn’t been tough. It has. Any unwilling transition is difficult. However, I’m getting settled in and have resumed the efforts to put out a second collection.

Just tonight I picked the final story to go in. That is subject to change between now and when it gets formatted for an e-book, but as it stands, here is the list, in no particular order:

Chet and Kay’s Not So Marvelous Adventure
Mickie’s Stars
Not Like You
Liza’s Redemption
A Family Affair
The Burning Children (Title subject to change)
The Man at the Window
The Prophet
The Woman Who Loved the Red Stucco House
Wild Horses
The White
The Cassidy and Owen Cemetery For Almost Dead Things
Ain’t No Heroes ‘Round Here

Interestingly enough, during a huge chunk of selecting the stories for Southern Bones, I was in the midst of the personal struggle of adjusting to my new employers while still doing the same work for the same folks that I have been working for in some capacity or other for the last 20 years.

Neither Along the Splintered Path or Southern Bones has been easy. I don’t imagine the editing phase is going to be easy for SB. I honestly don’t imagine any of it is going to be easy from here out.

What I do see is putting a better foot forward. Instead of picking all previously published stories, I chose only to pick four such pieces. The other nine are all unpublished originals.

But wait, there’s more. There really is. I have a promotional already in the works. I have thoughts for a teaser at the end of the collection.

And I think you all will like it. No, not because I wrote it, but because I really think you all will like it. Most of the stories are written in that conversational style I have adapted. I’m going to be honest with you, if you want all action, all the time, this is not the collection for you. I don’t write that way. I’m staying true to myself.

I have a dilemma, though. After re-reading and rewriting all of these stories, I can honestly say I’m not sure if they qualify as horror. Sure, they have horrific elements in them, but is that enough to classify the collection as horror? I don’t know. It’s something I will have to think about over the next few weeks as I try to figure out how to place this, as far as genre goes.

In the beginning, I made a few mistakes. I thought I had put some good works out there, but I can see now that a good chunk of them weren’t all that great. In January I started on the road to get that best foot forward and I hope to continue that with Southern Bones, and then with my novel, Cory’s Way later in the year.

Yes, putting your best foot forward is important, but sometimes you have to be able to take a few well-placed steps when your best isn’t good enough or even really your best. It happens. It’s how you adjust to those mistakes that matter.

Until we meet again…

Horror Writers… We’re Just Like You

In 2010 I wrote the Forward to Kevin Wallis’s book, Beneath the Surface of Things. I started off by saying something I like to say in both stories and non-fiction: Picture this. It’s my way of trying to get the readers ready, get their minds set for the images I hope they see from my words.

The next couple of paragraphs to that introduction read:

He looks like any other person, hair a dirty brown, eyes of blue, maybe a Texas Longhorns cap on his head, some shadowed whiskers on his chin. He may even look like the guy next door or that Kiefer Sutherland fellow, but without the intense stare. He sits at a table on the patio of some barbecue joint or coffee house, beverage of choice in front of him (I’m willing to bet it’s the barbecue joint, and the beverage of choice is an ale called Arrogant Bastard, which is somewhat of a contradiction if you know him).

A lady sits across from him, dark-haired, olive-complexioned, eyes a soft brown. They chit and chat about life, the day behind them and the one before them, kids and animals and work and money and probably the Astros. Craig Biggio may come up in the conversation. Yeah, if he were still with the Astros then just maybe…

They look like the average couple in America. And they are.

Go back and read that again. They look like the average couple in America. This is vital for you to understand.

Why?

Because Kevin Wallis writes horror and Kevin Wallis is a great guy.

This isn’t about Wallis. It may appear to be, but really, it’s about every horror writer out there.

Did you know:

They’re teachers of children of all ages from K-5 on up through college. Yeah, that’s right. Horror writers (romance writers, as well) are great teachers and a good many of them work in our public school systems.

They work in the health care industry. Nurses. Doctors. Pediatricians. Physical Therapists. Anesthesiologists. Heart Specialists. They drive ambulances. Yeah, they take care of us when we’re sick.

They work in the retail business.

They’re construction workers.

They’re in the military. That’s right. They serve our country and fight for our freedom.

They work in the legal profession, however, I’ve never met an attorney that’s a horror writer. Paralegals and Project Assistants and Administrative Assistants, most certainly.

They work in places like General Motors, John Deere, Texas Instruments, big companies.

They’re security guards and cops.

They work in public libraries, which is probably the most perfect world for a writer, in a place with a lot of books. Many of them work in or own small bookstores.

They’re volunteers at the mission or as firefighters.

They’re mechanics.

They work in our grocery stores and dollar stores and department stores.

They’re waiters and waitresses, hostesses and cooks.

They’re parents. Y’all didn’t know they let them breed, did you?

They’re brothers and sisters and sons and daughters, aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews.

They’re our best friends.

They watch television during the week, just like you and… oh, wait a minute. I’m one of them. I’ve worked in a restaurant and a school. I’ve ran a copy shop and work at a law firm. I’ve worked at video store and I saved a kid from committing suicide.

I taught my sister how to drive and took my baby brother to get his license. I taught Sunday School in a church and I’ve coached both baseball and basketball.

I, like many folks, have helped older folks move.

I play video games.

I have migraines and lost both my grandparents on my mom’s side to some form of Cancer or other. My best friend is black, my boss is younger than me and as I get older, I noticed I’ve gotten shorter.

My favorite book is Where the Wild Things Are. My favorite drink is either milk or strawberry Kool-Aid. I like pizza. I’m having it for lunch today.

I hate shaving and love sports. Red Wings hockey, anyone?

I get sick, just like everyone else out there.

I worry about my children and my wife and I feel pain and sadness and joy and love and regret and guilt and any other emotion you can come up with.

I never got to say goodbye to my grandfather and that haunts me, even today, though he’s been dead for well over a decade.

I have my good traits and my bad traits and I sometimes doubt myself.

I want to succeed. I want people to like my stories.

I’m just like you. All of us are. Horror writers, we aren’t such bad people.

Before you ask a horror writer, ‘where do you get your ideas from’ or ‘why do you write what you do’ or ‘did you have a bad childhood’, just remember, we’re people, just like you. Before you look down your nose at us, just remember, we’re people. There’s nothing wrong with us. Before you judge us, get to know us. Because the cover on our books may not reflect the cover on our lives.

We’re just like you and we’re not mentally disturbed. Well, most of us aren’t…

True story: I drew a picture some years ago of a vampire walking out of the darkness, fangs bared. One of the girls in art class asked, “Why are you so evil?”

“I’m not,” I responded.

And we’re not.

Until we meet again, my friends…

The Reason Why

In an interview I did recently a question was asked, something I don’t think anyone has ever asked me. I had to think about it for a few minutes before answering.

What’s the question, you ask?

Why should people read your work?

You may not think so, but that’s a heavy question.

So, why should they? Why should you, the reader, read my work?

I could get all complicated here and give you a long drawn out reason, but the truth is, because I think you will like the stories. No, that’s not right. I believe you will like the stories.

There is a chance you won’t. There’s always that chance, but I think more folks than not will enjoy not only my recent collection, but other stories as well.

I could say that making money and popularity is secondary in nature and that would be the absolute truth. Many folks won’t believe it, but it is the truth. I’m a writer. I want people to read my work.

That is the bottom line.

I believe that if you are a writer and you are not interested in your readers and that you only want to publish books to make money, get the chicks (or dudes) and live the dream, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

For me, writing is about two things:

The story and the reader.

Why? They go hand in hand. If you write a story then you need someone to read it and if you’re not concerned about the reader, well, they won’t stay concerned about the story.

I try to write stories that I would enjoy. That means I try to get into the heads of my characters and I try to develop a mood and scenery and stories that people would enjoy. The key word there is ‘try.’ I don’t write all action, all the time. Those stories bore me. Most of them have little to no character development and scenery takes a back seat and is rarely used, even when it is necessary.

I’m a writer… and I need you, the readers.

It’s that simple. Without you, we are nothing. If any writer says that he/she doesn’t care about the readers, well, they are either too arrogant to see that they are totally wrong or they are lying. The readers make the writers. They can also wreck the writers.

I believe that writers and readers depend on each other. It’s up to us, the writers, to pen stories that folks will like. It’s up to you, the readers, to read and either like or dislike our tales. You want good books and we want to write them for you. The burden is on both of us; the writer needs to tell as good of a story as he or she possibly can; the reader needs to let folks know if they liked something someone wrote, to let others experience what they experienced. Word of mouth goes a long way in this world. How do you think the most famous writers became famous? That’s right, by one person telling someone about a book they read and that person telling two other people and those two people telling two other people and so on.

We need each other.

So, if you’re willing, take my hand, let me take you on a journey into my world of make believe, in the world of Ever Never. I’ll do my best to guide you along and I’ll hold your hand all the while, not letting go as long as you are with me.

The question was asked:

Why should people read your work?

Because I need you to. I want you to. And I believe you’ll enjoy what you read. Without you, the readers, I am nothing and my words are meaningless.

That’s why.

Until we meet again, my friends…

The Creeping Crud

~Sniffle sniffle, ah-choo, cough, hack, wheeze, sniffle sniffle~

This has been my life the last couple weeks.

I call it the Creeping Crud. Or the Lucas Pederson. (Sorry, inside joke to one of my friends. He’ll know what I’m talking about and probably get a good laugh out of it.)

This cold, allergy or whatever it is came at both a lousy time and a somewhat good time. Yeah, contradicting, I know. But, hear me out.

Wait, before I go there, let me give you a little back story to this.

The weekend before Thanksgiving we came home after my son’s final flag football game to find a little kitten in our yard. It took off running and got itself stuck between our privacy fence and the neighbor’s fence. We tried to entice it out with a bit of food–it was scrawny and looked like it hadn’t eaten in a very long time (even though the kitten couldn’t have been much over six weeks old, if that).

Throughout the day, my kids kept watch for the thing, fretting over it all the while. Then later that night it ended up in our house. This, after me saying, ‘No, we will not have another cat.’

Yeah, we know who won that little battle, don’t we?

My wife fell in love with it and the rest is history. So, now we have a new pet–a little kitten named Mia.

However, since that day I have been sick. I blame the kitten. I say I am allergic to the little thing (which, by the way, I have dubbed Hellspawn). My wife says for me to get over it. I’m not winning this battle and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

[[Side note: I grew up around cats. I have one appropriately named Pouncer. He’s eleven or twelve now. I’ve never been allergic to cats. However, the Hellspawn must have some special dander or maybe it’s Cat Scratch Fever, since the demon scratched me when I tried to pick it up. End side note.]]

Now that I have you completely sympathetic to my plight (yeah, right) I will get on to the real story at hand. This Creeping Crud (or Lucas Pederson. Take your choice.), complete with the sniffles, sneezing, coughing, heavy chest, headache, watery eyes and just overall blahness, has stuck with me now for 13 days. I hate it. One minute I feel okay, the next minute I want to stick a hot poker up my nose. It truly sucks.

Sleeping in bed is next to impossible, so the recliner has become my friend–oh, yes, it has. I have sneezed so many different ways that I can’t even begin to count them. My ribs hurt from all of the ah-choo’s and hacking I’ve done. I am tired of wiping my *^%$ nose. Thankfully, it’s not the other end running…

So, the timing sucks with Thanksgiving and my son’s birthday and my daughter’s drama group’s performance coming up and the parade and… oh yeah, work… But, it’s also kind of beneficial that it happened when it did. You see, I’ve been working on this series of stories titled Dredging Up Memories.

[[Side note: Shameless plug. You can find Dredging Up Memories at Tales of the Zombie Wars. Just follow the link and enjoy. End Side note.]]

In the current installment, my main character gets sick and thinks he is dying. He fears he will become one of the zombies that have plagued the world. I’m not going to tell you what happens, but being sick has helped me write some of the symptoms for my main character. It has helped me to write a more believable sickness into the story.

And that’s really what this blog is about.

To be good writers, we have to draw on life. To tell good stories, we have to make them as believable as possible–even stories with zombies in them. By drawing from the Creeping Crud that has kicked my tail end the last two weeks gives my main character’s sickness more depth. It makes it more believable.

That’s what we writers need to do with all of our characters: draw off of real life and put them in situations that the readers can believe. Rich characters with depth to them make for great stories, believable stories; stories you like or hate because of the main character was either loveable or detestable.

So, while I have suffered from this sickness, I have also paid a lot of attention to how my body feels. That way I can get it right on paper when I write about it.

To go with this, the little Hellspawn has, well, spawned a story idea as well, so I guess that’s one thing good about the kitten that my family loves.

I said all that in hopes of impressing upon you the importance of paying attention to your surroundings, your body, the weather, the way the world is, people and so on. If you know about the world, if you know about people and if you know about feelings, then you should be able to write an engaging tale. It’s our jobs, as writers, to tell stories in a way that makes our readers feel something. That’s the goal: make the readers feel… anything. Love. Happiness. Sadness. Disgust. Hate for a character. Anything at all. Give them something to feel and you give them something to remember.

For now, I’m A.J. and I’m out.

~Sniffle sniffle, ah-choo~

Closing the Wound Part IV

The sun was going into hiding for the night. The moon seemed to rise earlier than normal. I guess she didn’t want to miss anything. She probably got her eyeful the night before when she watched the events unfold in a single wide trailer in Starmount.

Steve pulled up in his pick-up truck. He was the youth leader at that time and one thing you could bank on is he really cared about those kids. I know–he told me so on many occasions. If there was ever a fault in that guy it was how much he worried about stuff and those teens were chief among those worries. We were close friends–at least at that time we were–and I could tell you how much he talked about the various problems they had, how much he tried to figure out how to help each one of those youths.

I sat on the steps outside the pastor’s study, which was part of the Children’s Wing. Steve got out and I stood. He rounded the front of the truck, his keys in hand and gave me a curious look. “Jeff, I got a call to be here early tonight. Earls said it’s important.”

I nodded. What was I thinking when I said I would tell him? I wasn’t prepared for this.

“Do you know what’s going on?”

I hesitated. “Yeah.”

“What?”

“Steve–”

“Does it involve any of the kids in the youth group?”

It’s an honest question, one that rightfully was asked. There were a few troubled kids in the group, most of them girls, and being the youth leader, it was a legitimate question with a legitimate concern.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Who?”

“Steve–”

“Who?” I think he knew before I said it.

“It’s Chris.” My voice felt so small I wasn’t sure I had spoken.

“What about him? What about Chris?”

I looked at him. Could he see it in my eyes? Could he see it in the way my lips were turned down? Could he see it in the way I stood?

“Steve.”

“Jeff, what’s wrong with Chris?”

And it came out. Two words, so simply stated and carrying all the weight in the world and wielding all the impact of a hammer to a nail. “He’s dead.”

I saw that hammer strike that nail right on the head. Steve’s face screwed up tight as the words reached his brain and the realization hit home. He turned, slung his keys toward the pastor’s study and walked a few feet away.

I looked away. Part of me felt like the meanest person in the world for telling him. I spotted his keys on the ground. It may not have meant anything to anyone else, but those keys became important to me. With what had happened, with the loss of a teenager to a senseless crime, those keys couldn’t be lost. I walked over, picked them up and held them tight in my fist. They were hot. Or maybe it was just me.

***

That Wednesday night service was nothing like it normally was. I guess that goes without saying. There was no singing and there was no message. The youth didn’t meet in the youth room. The only thing that seemed semi-normal was the nursery had kids in it.

We sat in the sanctuary on light colored pews with green cushions that matched the carpet. No one did much talking. For those who knew about Chris, they sat or stood in shock. I sat a few pews behind Steve and next to the girl I would marry one day.

Pastor Earls stood. His face, a study in grief and pale, his eyes rimmed red as if he had been asleep or crying. I believe it was the latter of those two things. He straightened his blazer, cleared his throat and began to speak. His voice was strong, without the first quiver.

I don’t remember everything he said, but the gist of it remains. He spoke of Chris’s death without going into any details–details most of us would find out over the next few days as things began to unfold.

Then the quiver came right along with the tears that followed. With the exception of people crying quietly in their pews, no one spoke.

The weight of a young life, gone way too soon, now sat squarely on each of our shoulders.

***

“How did… umm… how did Laura take it?”

“Who cares how she took it?”

He frowned, confused. “She was his girlfri—“

“No, she wasn’t.” I was a little too sharp in my tone.

“She said she was.”

“She lied. Chris was nuts about her. Absolutely nuts about her. He worshipped the ground she walked on. He would have done anything for her. Anything.”

I could feel the heat rising. My face was probably flushed red. I talked through gritted teeth.

“And you know what she did? She ignored him. He followed her like a lost puppy and she wouldn’t give him the time of day. He bought stuff for her and she took it, said thank you or maybe not and then had nothing to do with him.”

“But, I thought she loved him.”

Bullshit.

That’s the first word that came to my mind. I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.

“You know,” I said and picked up my drink. I took a big gulp, swished the somewhat watered down soda around in my mouth before swallowing. “She never loved him. She toyed with him. Played him like a fool. It really pissed me off to hear her say how much she loved him after he died and to go on and on about how her boyfriend was murdered–you know he was murdered, right?” I probably shouldn’t have mocked her at that point, but damn I was angry.

I looked down at the table.

Deep breaths, man. Deep breaths.

Back up at him, I could see his eyes were a little wider behind his glasses.

“Chad, she wanted a pity party. Oh, poor Laura lost the love of her life. She wanted the attention. I think she liked it. The truth is it wasn’t true. She didn’t love him at all, and if she did, she had a funny way of showing it.”

He fidgeted with his cup for a moment, then changed the subject. I don’t blame him. If I were him I would have tried to do the same thing.

“How was the funeral?”

“It was nice,” I said. Totally the truth there. It was nice, even if it left me feeling a bit like the way Laura acted did.

***

I thought I got their early enough. Not so. I arrived at the church nearly an hour before the ceremony. The parking lot sat packed with vehicles. I only recall a couple times when the lot was packed like that and, sadly enough, they were all for funerals.

I went around to the front of the building like everyone else. I guess I could have gone in the back way, but no need making the entrance where folks paying attention would notice. At the door stood the ushers, members of the church who I knew well. I thought back to that blue teeth incident and forced a smile as the ushers greeted me and handed over one of the bulletins that held the order of service in it. On the front of the single folded page was a school picture of Chris, taken the year before. He smiled happily.

Teenagers filed in, most of them dressed nicely, some of them looking as if they belonged in a fashion show instead of at a funeral. As I watched the many youths enter the church I began to wonder… Admittedly, it’s something that probably should have never crossed my mind, but it did and if I’m going to be honest with you all, I have to tell you what that thing was. If you’ve paid attention throughout this, you would remember that I said Chris was a follower, someone always searching for people to fit in with. He’s the polar opposite of me. What do I mean? I’ve never cared if people like me. If they do, great. If not, well, their loss. Chris, however, did care if people liked him. He wanted his peers to like him. In some way I think he needed people to like him.

As teenager after teenager packed the small Nazarene church in Cayce, I couldn’t help but think, just how many of the well over a hundred kids there were actually friends with Chris and how many of them just wanted a day off from school or just wanted to say ‘hey, I knew him and he was a friend of mine and I went to his funeral and…’ You get what I’m saying? We all know those people. We all know them quite well; those people who use someone else’s tragedy to bring attention to themselves. People like Laura…

I met Catherine and we took a seat near the front of the church. The casket sat closed in front of the pulpit.

Closed.

That’s pretty final.

Catherine sniffled and we talked in hushed tones. I had the hardest time taking my eyes off that closed casket. Goodbye came to mind. You know, goodbye? That thing you say when you don’t ever plan on seeing someone again. That goodbye has lingered with me for years, even when I think Chris is in the rearview mirror a long way off.

[[~…and there was so much left to dream…~]]

The next part of that lyric is ‘and so much time to make it real.’ Time ran out on Chris. Whatever dreams he or anyone had for him died on Halloween night of 1995.

I think about that goodbye and part of what Christopher later said when being interrogated by the police made a lot of sense as to why he said that. I’ll get to that later…

But, it’s still there. I can still see his face, hear his voice. I can still see it in his eyes–I would never see him again and I believe he knew. That feeling that crawled all over me when he said that… I should have gotten out the car, walked over to where he went and pulled him away from there. At the risk of him being pissed at me for doing so, I should have stuck my nose in his business right then and there…

…but I didn’t.

No, I don’t blame myself. Like so many others, when someone dies, we wonder if there were anything we could have done to prevent it. Maybe. Maybe not. We often kick ourselves or worry ourselves over what we could have done. The past is the past and no matter what, you have to move on. You have to live or you just die with the person who left already.

Pastor Earls gave his message that day and Michael W. Smith’s Friends played over the P.A. system. I think it was at that point that most of the tears fell. Catherine wept on my shoulder…

To be continued…

Closing the Wound Part II

I said earlier Chris was a good kid, but a follower. In the summer of 1995 he had met this other kid. His name was Chris as well, but for the sake of this story, we’ll call him Christopher. Okay? Good.

Christopher wasn’t really a leader or a follower. He was one of those middle of the pack kids who dabbled in drugs and liked to talk big, even though he was thin like a rail and looked like a damn weasel. He looked like he could be mean and controlling and Chris was just the person he needed to associate with, someone he could push around, someone he could control.

They became friends. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. During the time period from late July to Halloween, Chris took a decided step backward. I think Chris knew better, but who was I? Just someone he knew from Church and Christopher wasn’t about church. Christopher was about Christopher.

Chris stopped coming to services and in the months that followed he went from a smiling, seemingly happy teen to a brooding, frowning, grump.

Talking to him did no good. It just pushed him further away and made him hang out with Christopher more. I know. I tried. Maybe he thought Christopher was the only person who ‘understood’ him. Maybe he felt like he ‘belonged’ while hanging out with Christopher. Maybe he was just trying to be friends with the new kid in town. Why not? It makes sense to me. Chris had been the new kid at once and I don’t think he ever felt fully accepted among his peers.

A couple weeks before Halloween, Chris came back to church. He brought Christopher with him. Could he have been trying to sway Christopher to a different path? Could he have realized something was terribly wrong with the way things had gone? I don’t know…

They were both dressed in jeans and t-shirts and their clothes weren’t clean. That really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but what it showed was significant. For Chris, it was a far cry from how he would normally dress for church. Or, really for anything. Sure, he wore jeans from time to time, but he always wore a nice shirt and occasionally a full on suit. He wanted to look his best for the girl of his dream, a former girlfriend who had dumped him long before he met Christopher. He also wanted to be accepted by those in the youth group and possibly by the adults at the church.

[[Sidebar: I can relate to the brooding personality–I am one.

I can also relate to the need to be understood. Maybe not necessarily accepted, but understood. I was once the new kid at a church where none of the other kids were like me. They all came from mostly well off families and they all spoke alike and their humor was different than mine and they were all… joyful. What a contrast for me, a brooding thinker by nature.

The need to be understood went so far as to one evening at the church I went to when I was a teen having the kids sit in front of the congregation and answer questions from the adults. It was daunting and most of us sat quietly.

I don’t remember the question that was asked of us, but I remember responding to it. After no one spoke up for a few seconds I finally did and what I said was that, as teens, we needed the adults to understand us. Not to just write us off as teenagers who don’t know anything. To understand that we are smart and that if we were given a chance by the adults that we could be counted on for more than showing up for the youth group and playing games.

At the time I was sweet on one of the girls there and the comments were aimed more at her father–who was not fond of me at all and with good reason–than anyone else. Sadly, the comments went over his head.

I can relate. I bet many of you can as well. End Sidebar]]

The two youths sat on the back pew and they reeked of what many of us thought was marijuana. But, there was something else. They smelled like crap and that’s not a metaphor or an analogy. They smelled like crap. Not to try to sound funny (or punny), but it raised one hell of a stink with several members of the congregation.

They were confronted by a few folks. I’m not sure those folks were in the right or the wrong, but I know Christopher was indignant to the whole affair, even smiling about it as if he did it on purpose, as if he meant to cause a ruckus among those holy rollers who spoke of God. Maybe Christopher was trying to make a point to Chris, that the church members didn’t care about people who weren’t like them, who didn’t dress nice and give their tithes and sing in the choir and… Hmmm… all the things that Chris had done. Maybe he wanted to show them to be hypocrites.

Maybe he succeeded.

Chris would only come back to the church once after that.

The day before Halloween fell on a Sunday, much like this year. I headed down to the Sunday School wing to do a head count while services were taking place. There were kids in children’s church and the nursery still was not accounted for. I did this every Sunday. Just the normal routine. I opened the door to head into the Children’s Wing and stopped.

Chris stood in the small breezeway between the two buildings. I closed the door and stood in front of him, a little shocked to see him there, especially after what had happened a couple weeks before. He was dressed nicely in clean jeans and a button down shirt. He had a tie on. He didn’t reek of dope or… well, you know. He looked sad, terribly sad.

“Hey, Chris,” I said.

He gave his hello and it was as if he were the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He looked down at his feet, then out toward the road, behind him to the Children’s Wing; anywhere but up at me. His hands were shoved as far as they would go into his front pockets. I think he wished they could have gone further and maybe taken the rest of him with them.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

A nod followed and then that shrug–that simple gesture of the shoulders that said he didn’t know just how things were going. He confirmed it with his answer. “I don’t know.” His voice was small. It cracked a little. He still didn’t look at me.

I looked passed him, beyond the steps and sidewalk behind him to the blue pick-up truck that belonged to Steve, who also served as the youth pastor. The road ran along that side of the church, ending at the main road that ran along the front. I scanned what little bit of area I could see. From where I stood it was about ten feet to where the sidewalk T-boned. If you went right, you headed toward the front of the church and the main road. If you hooked a left, you went toward the parking lot and the Fellowship Hall. I couldn’t see much more beyond the walls of the building and that blue pick-up.

With Chris standing there all sheepish acting, I wasn’t sure what was going on myself. Part of me wanted to step down the steps and look around the sides of the building. The other part of me–that cautious bastard who I normally toss aside like any other stupid male–said it would be wiser if I stayed put. For once in my life I listened to the cautious side.

“Where’s Christopher?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said and looked up at me. His eyes were the color of bruises, not that they were blackened by a punch, but more that shade because of exhaustion or maybe drugs. “I’m done with him.”

I couldn’t help but lift my eyebrows at this; maybe I cocked my head to the side. “You’re done with him?”

A nod. A shrug. “Yeah.”

“What’s that mean? ‘Yeah?'”

“I’m done with him. He’s into drugs and he scares me and I don’t want to be around him anymore.”

It was my turn to nod.

“I’m sorry,” he said. I believe he was sincere. It’s hard enough being an adult and saying you’re sorry, but being a teenager faced with the reality of things that you’ve done wrong… that’s tough.

“You’re sorry?”

“Yeah. I want to make things right. I want to apologize to everyone. I want to get right with God and with everyone here.”

[[Sidebar: This last part I had to think about a little. In my head I recall this conversation clearly. It was a Sunday morning and we were in the breezeway between the two buildings. That part is correct. However, I was wrong in my earlier recollection that it was the day before Halloween. The day before Halloween didn’t fall on a Sunday in 1995. It fell on a Monday. I called my wife at home as I sat and pondered this. She even said Halloween fell on a Monday that year.

Not satisfied with both her and I thinking the same thing, I looked it up, that’s right on the world wide spider’s web. I went to the Almanac and lo and behold, Halloween fell on a Tuesday that year. That would put the conversation Chris and I had on Sunday, the 29th of October.

It’s funny how trying to remember the past sometimes escapes you. The finer details have a way of fading out in the wash and leaving only the major part of the story to be told. It’s kind of like having a pair of socks and both of them go in the wash and then the dryer, but only one of them comes out when everything is said and done.

“You know we’re having the harvest festival on Halloween. It’ll give you a chance to talk to some people, you know? If you want to come, I can pick you up and bring you.”

“I don’t know. My sister might be here and if she is she’ll want to go trick or treating and–”

“We can bring her along, too. Then afterward we can take her trick or treating. I know I’m taking my sister and Catherine’s taking hers, so you guys are welcome to come along.”

I should have known by the slow nod, by the way he had that trapped look on his face, the one that said I have other plans that I don’t want to tell you about. I should have known. In hindsight, I guess I really wanted to believe he was done with the other Chris, that he wanted to make amends and get things right… to straighten his young life out. Maybe he did, but he hadn’t worked up the courage to tell Christopher yet.

“I tell you what, I’ll call you before I get off work and you let me know. If you want to go, then I’ll pick you up.”

“Okay.”

I find it interesting and sad that I don’t remember anything else of that day. I don’t recall if he went into the church or if he turned around and walked away. Did we go out to eat after church? Did he stick around long enough to make those amends he claimed to want to make? I have no clue. I’m willing to bet not many people remember things that don’t seem to matter at the time before a tragedy. Little things that are said or actions that are done are forgotten as soon as they have occurred.

The next thing I remember is Halloween morning.

To be continued…

Closing the Wound Part I

It’s almost Halloween–my favortie day of the year. Sixteen years ago on Halloween night I lost a young friend. So, in remembrance of him, I wrote this piece. It’s long and it will take several blogs to cover the entire story (at least what I wish to tell of it).

***

Take a deep breath.

That’s what I tell myself before talking about this–or in this case, writing about it.

Take a deep breath.

No matter how long it’s been it still bugs me, still bothers me. I guess you could say it haunts me a little.

So, I’ll take that deep breath, thank you very much and if I could drink, that breath would be on the rocks with something harder than strawberry Kool-aid. But, I don’t drink and that’s probably a good thing. I’d be one mean as hell drunk.

A few years ago, Meat Loaf sang a song titled Objects In the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are. That’s a long winded title, isn’t it? Just for the record, the song was written by Jim Steinman and released in 1994 off the Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell album. I had to look that last part up for clarity’s sake. The song is kind of ironic in and of itself. The story I’m about to tell you is about a kid who died in 1995, the year after the song was released and the song… the song is so appropriate for such a story as this, where the past seems so much closer than it really is.

I’ve told this story a few times, but it keeps coming back and each time it does, I leave something out. Some of it is probably not important to the reader, but all of it is relevant to me, to those involved.

If you have a few moments, sit back and read on. If you’d like, grab your beverage of choice and come down this memory lane with me. Watch your step, though. The cobblestones are a little loose and there seems to be more dirt on this road than there ever was before.

Catherine and I had been married nearly five years and Chloe, my little girl, was almost two. It was the beginning of February and the world wasn’t as cold outside as it should have been. We had just closed on our house the day before and spent our first night there. Our mattress lay on the floor in the living room, boxes all around us. It felt good to have our own home, but it was exhausting. On that night I slept—and slept well—which was something of a rarity back then.

The phone rang. I opened both eyes and lifted my head. The alarm clock sat on the floor, its bright red digital display telling me it was barely after eight o’clock. I thought the clock was laughing at me. If it weren’t maybe the phone was. Maybe it was all in my head. I didn’t care. All I knew is that the phone was ringing and there was no answering machine set up at the time and there was a one year old that I wanted to keep asleep for a little while longer.

I crawled from the bed—literally–and found the phone. It was a green hand held and it lit up every time it rang. I’m not sure, but I think I gave a weak ‘hello.’

The voice on the other end sounded tired. “Are you awake?” he asked.

It was Chad, a good friend, younger by a few years.

His teenage years weren’t what most folks would care to recall later on in life. Some of it may even have been a haze, brought on by anti-depressants and maybe a substance or two that didn’t quite mesh with those meds. Chad had always been like a little brother to me, one troubled by the world and people around him. But, he was a good person, had a good heart and life had changed for him–in very much a positive way.

“I am now,” I said. I’m sure I didn’t sound like Mary Poppins, all cheerful and singing about Supercalifragi… whatever that song is. I probably sounded more like the Grinch with his heart two sizes too small.

“Sorry, man, but I’ve been up all night.”

“So, you decided to call me and wake me up?”

Understand something: I’ve never been a good sleeper. I considered four hours a good night for me, but often, like 28 out of 30 days, sleep didn’t make it to four hours. I had been sleeping well and I’m somewhat of a bear when I get woke up prematurely.

“You’re the only one I know who can answer my questions,” he said.

Great. A question and answer session. Again, the Grinch in me had come along when I woke.

I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs, pushed aside a few boxes and placed my elbows on the table. I rubbed my eyes with one hand. “What questions, Chad?”

“What happened that night?”

This could have drawn my normal sarcasm. A little more specific please? Are you talking about the night Catherine and I got married? I hope you would know what happened that night. Which night? Last night? We moved into our house. Which night, dude?

No sarcasm came. Just a simple, “When?”

I wasn’t prepared for his answer.

“You know, the night Chris died.”

Talk about a gut shot. If I hadn’t been fully awake before, I was then. Those groggy, sleep induced cobwebs faded quick, as if they were never there to start with. It had been a couple years since I had talked about Chris, about his death. And in that moment it all came rushing back, kind of like those objects in the rearview mirror. Try passing a few cars out on the interstate and then slam on the breaks. Watch how fast those cars catch up to you. That’s what it was like, slamming on the breaks and watching…

[[~There are times I think I see him peeling out of the dark
I think he’s right behind me now and he’s gaining ground~]]

“You know what happened, Chad,” I said. I’m not going to lie. I wanted to avoid the subject.

“Jeff, I was on meds during that time period. Things are fuzzy. I don’t remember a lot of what happened.” He paused, then added, “Did I go to his funeral?”

“No.”

He had chosen not to go, not to be part of the circus of teens that may or may not have been Chris’s friends. He chose to mourn in his own way, even though Chris had been his friend, even though some others thought he was being selfish.

I heard the deep sigh through the phone.

“Meet me at Denny’s and we’ll talk,” I said.

A half hour later I sat in a booth across from a very tired looking Chad. His eyes held the type of sadness in them that I remember seeing when he was in his teens. We ordered coffee and some breakfast. I think we downed more coffee than we ate.

“I don’t remember anything,” he said. “What happened?”

Deep breaths. In and out.

I closed my eyes, rubbed the bridge of my nose and looked across the table at him.

***

Chris and Chad had one thing very much in common. Both of them lived with someone other than their parents, whether by their choice or their parents’ choice doesn’t matter. The fact is, they were kids whose struggles began when the parents didn’t seem to want them.

Chad lived with his grandfather, Chris with his aunt.

They had a bond, though at the time I don’t think either of them realized it.

The difference between the two of them is Chad was more of a loner. He had no issues with being alone and living inside his head. Chad could stand on his own two feet. Chris, on the other hand, wanted to be more popular. I hate saying this, but it’s pretty much the truth: Chris was a follower. Plain and simple. I think that trait, among other things, had a direct link to his death.

***

[[~The skies were pure and the fields were green,
and the sun was brighter than it’s ever been…~]]

I met Chris at church one Saturday. It was a church workday. Another man, Steve, and I were stripping the carpet off the front porch of the church. It was that indoor/outdoor stuff that so many people put on their porches back in the nineties and it was a real pain to get off. Chris walked up and asked if he could help. He had this goofy smile on his face, his hands tucked into his pockets.

“Sure,” one of us said and a friendship was born. That simple. He helped us that day with quite a few things and then in the coming couple years he constantly hung around, trying to play practical jokes or making smart remarks to us. He always seemed to get the worst end of those jokes.

There was this one time when Chris tried to play a joke on us. He was proud of himself. I don’t remember what the joke was, but Steve and I decided to up the ante a little. We went to a store called Spencers. It sat in the mall and they were one of those novelty type businesses. You know, the ones with the shot glasses, cheesy costumes, sex games and naughty cards and racy t-shirts. They also had gag gifts and we were there for one of those. We purchased a pack of chewing gum that turned your mouth blue.

The next morning, I opened a pack of gum, took out the stick and popped it into my mouth. Carefully, I wrapped a piece of the blue gum in the foil and slid it back into the sleeve the other piece came out of. Chris had a habit of asking me for gum and on that Sunday morning, he did just that. I slid the gag gum out and handed it to him. I also told him not to chew it until after we were done with the choir and ushering. See, I tried to show some sort of responsibility.

The boy didn’t listen all that well sometimes.

He popped that stick in his mouth just before we walked down the center aisle and picked up the offering plates. He chewed it all the way down and through the prayer. Chris looked at me, picked up the offering plate and smiled.

Uh oh…

His lips and gums were purple and his teeth were the color of Smurfs.

I turned away from him, doing my best to stifle laughter. When we finished we took the plates into the counting room. He had this confused look on his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He gave a shrug–the way only Chris could–and shook his head slightly. “Several people were laughing out there.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I wonder what’s so funny.”

I said nothing and walked out of the room, barely containing the giggles. After the service he popped into the bathroom. A scream came from behind the door. When he came out, his face was as dark red as his teeth were blue.

We had a good laugh over that one. Even Chris laughed once he realized what had happened.

“I’ll get you guys for this.”

He tried, but looking back, I don’t think he ever succeeded.

***

I had to answer Chad’s question, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I simply said in that crass way I’ve been known for, “He died.”

It wasn’t the answer Chad wanted and I could see it on his face; the way he frowned; the way he ran his fork over the tops of his pancakes without so much as actually cutting through them.

I relented.

“You really want to know what happened?”

[[Sidebar: Why do folks asks that question? Do you really want to know? Yes, people want to know what happened, even if they are only mildly curious. It’s been proven time and time again, especially in this day and age of the internet and all the bagillions of things out there on the World Wide Web (which I think is an appropriate name for it. The internet is like a spider’s web and how often do people get tangled up with misinformation they found on it? Damn spiders…). If you go to Yahoo’s homepage off to the right is the most popular searches and in the center of the page is what’s hot now.

People want to know about the stupidest things. Did you hear about the rabbit that bit the nipple off of a man? No? Look it up on the internet and its all there. You want to know who the losing pitcher was in game two of the World Series of 1922, look it up on the web and you’ll get thousands of responses. (For the record, that was a trick question. Game 2 of the 1922 World Series between the Giants and Yankees was suspended with the score tied at three. Why? Darkness. There was no losing or winning pitcher in that game.)

You get the picture and I have rambled away from my story. I’m sorry. I do that sometimes. End Sidebar]]

Chad simply said, “Yes,” to my question.

I stared at him for a long time as the memories trudged themselves out of the closets and boxes and bags I had stored them away in. A few of them came down from the attic while others hobbled up from the basement, pulling themselves along splintered rails until the reached the top. They dusted themselves off and made their way across the labyrinth that is the warehouse of remembrance inside my head. One by one they appeared, said hey and took a seat in chairs that weren’t there seconds earlier. Each one was there to give their voice to a story I don’t completely know the entire truth to.

“Okay,” I said and so I told the story the best I could.

To be continued…