August Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Sigh~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J. 

My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert … Finally Gets Released

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

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

***

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

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

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

CHAPTER 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Summer Vacation, by Jimmy Lambert.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Get your copy on June 1st!

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

A.J. 

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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Because I Can (Part 3 of 4)

“Stop it! Stop it, man! Stop hitting my little brother!”

Eight. That’s how many times Uncle Lou punched Reggie. The younger brother’s face was meat by the time he finished. One eye was completely swollen shut, his other one may as well have been, his nose was broken, his lips were fat and split and the blood … his face and clothes and the wall and the floor were covered in it.

And my stomach danced the dance of Earl and Ralph, but nothing came up. 

I looked at Dequan. He looked from me to Lou and Reggie, his head moving back and forth as if he were at a tennis match. 

“Why are you doing this, man?”

I wanted to laugh but held back. “Because we can. Isn’t that what you said when I asked you why you hurt people? Because I can?”

Ahh … the defiance surfaced on his face again, but only briefly. “I’m sorry, dog,” he said, trying to sound apologetic. “I shouldn’t have said that. Just stop, man.”

“Sorry isn’t good enough, DOG. And if you want us to stop, well, you’re just going to have to hurt someone else. You know, since you can.”

“What? Who? You made your point, man. I get it. I hurt people, so you hurt me and …”

“No, that’s not the point, man. That’s not the point, dog. That’s not the point at all. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t do well with hurting people.” I looked at my uncle. I could see that twinkle in his eyes and Johnny was there again telling me to drown the kitten, drown him and you’re in. He wanted to hit Reggie again. Part of me felt the horrible head of revolt surface, but then it faded as fast as it arrived. I pointed at him and spoke, “That guy, though. He likes hurting people.”

With that said, he punched Reggie again, this time in the side of the head. Reggie’s head jerked to the side violently, striking the wall. Blood seeped from his ear and his head sagged to his chest.

“Stop, man! Just stop, man!”

My stomach clenched, but it wasn’t a feeling of nausea, but a legitimate pain that felt like something gnawing at my insides. I turned away from Dequan and grimaced. I wasn’t sure I would be able to go through with this. Just watching Lou use Reggie as a punching bag made me sick. But there was something else there, something that pushed the sick feeling aside and kept me on track to finish the deed. It was excitement. I could feel it in my chest, in the way it made the muscles on my face twitch into a sadistic smile, the way it made me feel cold inside. Is this how it is for people who commit crimes of murder and rape and muggings and stealing and who knew what else?  Is this what ‘because I can’ feels like? It scared me but exhilarated me as well. 

“He’s out cold,” Lou said and shook his fist. There was blood on it.

“Please, man. Whatever you want me to do … I’ll do it, man. Just stop. Please, just stop.”

“Whatever?”

“Anything, man. Anything. Just stop hurting him.”

“Your brother … you love him, Dequan?”

He nodded, but I could see he didn’t want to actually say it. Yeah, keep that tough guy persona. That’s not what I wanted right then. I needed him to do one thing, one more act of violence, just because he could. But I needed to break him a little more.

“Is that the best you can do? A nod? That’s your brother. If it were my brother, I could say I love him. You can’t say that, can’t you?”

“I can say it.”

“Okay, let’s hear it. Do you love your brother?”

Again, I could see the thug in him wanted to come out, wanted to reach out and punch me as hard as Lou punched his brother. This is a man who was raised to be tough. Big boys don’t cry and all that crap. Then his face softened just a little. “Yeah, I love my brother, man.”

“Good. Because if you love him like I think you do, then you have the opportunity to save his life.”

“What? How?” His eyes grew wide. I had him. I knew it and so did he.

That pain in my stomach subsided. Deep down it was still there, but not so bad. No nausea, and that gnawing pain was fading. 

“Uncle Lou, do you have that picture I asked you to get?”

“Yeah. Let me go get it.”

Lou went up the steps, his boots thudding heavy with each one he took. The door opened and closed and for several minutes it was just me and Dequan.

“Man, please, man. Just let us go.”

“Dequan, do you remember a couple days ago when I said you had no problems killing someone? Remember that? You said that, right?”

“I was bluffing, man. I ain’t never killed anyone.”

“You’re wrong, Dequan. You killed someone.”

“You’re lying, white boy.”

“Am I?”

I went upstairs. I was only gone long enough to go to my bedroom and reach into the top drawer of my desk where a newspaper sat, a constant reminder of just who Dequan had killed. I saw Lou near the back door having a smoke. That was okay with me. It gave me a little more time to talk to Dequan. Back into the basement I went and sat back in my chair. I unfolded the newsprint, then opened it up to a story on the third page, one about an old man who had died after spending three days in the hospital.

***

He slapped the old man. That’s what Dequan did to my grandpa. After he punched him and after Grandpa had hit his head, not once, but twice, that punk slapped my grandpa across the face. 

That’s when I threw up again. 

Officer Sam stopped the tape. I wiped my mouth and motioned for him to keep going. That’s when good old Dequan reached into Grandpa’s pant pocket and pulled out his wallet. There wasn’t much money in it, but he took what there was and threw the wallet across the street. 

Then he slapped Grandpa again. Then he punched Grandpa square in the face. I threw up again. After that I left the police department and Officer Sam. 

Let me say this about the police in my town. Other than good old Officer Sam, they suck. There was enough evidence on that video to arrest at least two of the men involved, including Dequan Jackson, the one who had completed the Knock Out Game the way it was intended: knock out the victim with one punch. But he didn’t just win at the game, he then stole the money out of my grandpa’s wallet, then hit him in the face again. They had the evidence. Any of those blows could have been the one that put Grandpa in a coma. Any of them.

Then there’s the matter of the wallet and the fingerprints that they could have lifted off it. It’s not like Dequan didn’t have a few arrests under his belt, one of which had him on probation already.

Guess what? They did nothing. Nothing.

Nothing …

***

The image on page three of the newspaper was of an old man with a smile on his face and a VFW hat on his head. There were enough wrinkles around his nose and mouth to give him a bulldog look. The collar of his button-down shirt could be seen. The picture had been taken three weeks prior to his death. I provided it to the paper when I thought that both them and the police were going to do something about the crime that claimed Grandpa’s life after three days in a coma. 

Daquan stared at it.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“My father,” Uncle Lou said. 

I spun around to look at him. I didn’t hear him open the door or come down the steps in his heavy boots. 

“The man you killed when you decided to play that game you thugs play. What’s it called again?”

“The Knock Out Game,” I said.

“Yeah. That’s it. The Knock Out Game.”

“I ain’t never seen that man.”

I didn’t have enough time to react before Lou lashed out, smacking Dequan so hard one of his teeth came out and landed on the floor a couple feet away.

“You lying sack of crap,” Lou said. “I’ve seen the video. I saw you hit him, then take his money, then hit him again while he was out cold on the sidewalk. You did that and guess what? You’re going to do it again.”

“What? What’s he talking about?”

“You’re going to—“

“Stop,” I said. I stood in front of Lou, my hands out, palms up. “Please, stop for just a minute. If he doesn’t do what we want him to, you can do whatever you want to him. But let me do this. Okay?”

Lou nodded reluctantly. His hands went to his hips and he glared at Dequan.

“Do you have the picture?”

Another nod and he reached into his shirt pocket, then handed it over.

I looked at it for a minute. She was an older woman, her hair streaked with white. She wore a yellow housedress and a pair of white canvass shoes. A pair of glasses were perched on the bridge of her nose. She was smiling. Beside her was a young man, one that may have been seventeen or eighteen at the time it was taken.

I flipped it over and held it between two fingers and my thumb. Turning it to Dequan, I showed it to him.

“Recognize this woman?”

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Because I Can (Part 2 of 4)

I was eight. There were some older boys down the road from me. Johnny Jenkins and Dale McMurtry and Paul Whateverhislastnamewas. They were almost teenagers, and they hung out at the park, near the swings, smoking their Marlboros and swearing their swears and talking about girls and skipping school and how much they hated their parents. They were tough. Sometimes they got in fights, but I never saw any of them. I only heard them talking about it, about how Paul swiped at this Ricky kid and broke his nose, and how Dale punched that same Ricky kid and blackened his eye. But Johnny had them beat. He had knocked a tooth out of Ricky’s mouth and split his lip—with one hit.

Yeah, they were tough, and I wasn’t. I wanted to be, so I approached them one day. It was summer, and it was still early in the morning before the sun was high and the heat was unbearable. Independence Day had passed a couple weeks prior and school was still well over six weeks away. They were smoking their cigarettes and Paul had just flipped a butt away.

I guess they thought I wanted to swing on the playset, because Paul crinkled up his nose and called to me, “You wanna swing?” His dark hair was down to his shoulders and neatly combed for the most part. My dad said only girls wear their hair long, but Paul Whateverhislastnamewas didn’t look like a girl to me. He looked mean, and his stare scared me. 

I didn’t turn and run, like I probably should have. Instead, I stood stock-still and shook my head when he asked his question.

“Then what do ya want?”

“I want to join your group.”

The three of them laughed. Dale had been sitting on one of the swings, slowly rocking back and forth when I spoke. He laughed so hard he fell right out of the swing and onto his knees.

I didn’t laugh. Sure, my stomach quivered, and my chest heaved, but I tried to stay under control. 

“You want to join our group?” Paul asked. 

“Yes,” I said, my voice strong. 

True facts:

1-I was a wimp.

2-I wanted to be tougher.

3-They were the toughest, meanest kids I knew.

4-Before that day, I had no problems with wanting to swear and call people names and whatever. I could even make bad jokes about some of the kids my age.

5-After that day, well … vomit happens.

Paul and Dale exchanged looks. In that exchange I could see they thought I was crazy. They were probably right. Johnny smiled and I should have known I would regret walking up to them thinking I could be cool and tough and smoke Marlboros and talk about what girls looked like without any clothes on and beat up other kids. I should have known better. 

Johnny pushed himself off the pole he leaned against. He blew out the last puff of smoke from his cigarette before tossing it aside. It flipped through the air, end over end until landing on the ground, the hot cherry sparking off in several directions, tendrils of smoke still wafting up from the burnt end.

“You want to join our group?”

“Yes.” I think I moved a little, maybe shuffled my feet or something. I’m certain I was tense and terrified, but unwavering even as heat filled me.

Johnny nodded, his upper lip somewhat curled. There was a shine in his eyes, and I knew that was a bad thing. “If you can pass the initiation, you’re in.”

Dale and Paul shot glances at Johnny, but they were smiling, too. 

Fast-forward about two hours to a rundown house on South Street a few blocks from the park. “Be there at three,” Johnny had said. I arrived a full ten minutes early. They were already there. Paul and Dale sat on the crumbling top step to the house. Yeah, they were smoking their cigarettes and looking cool as always. I had my first doubts about everything right then. My stomach knotted, and my mouth had become dry somewhere between home and there. 

What am I doing here? I thought. Grandpa would be so mad at me if he knew what I was up to. 

Then the thoughts were gone. Simply, I didn’t know what I was about to do, so how could I truly think Grandpa would be mad at me? It was the way little kids (and yes, adults, more so) rationalize things.

“You ready?” Paul asked.

“Sure.” Yeah, right. I was about as ready as a terrified virgin in a jail cell full of men who hadn’t seen a woman in a long time.

They stood, walked across the crumbling wooden porch to the gaping doorway of the house. From where I stood I couldn’t see any further inside than where the sun shone. Up the steps I went and across rickety boards that felt like sponges beneath my feet, not bothering to pause at the doorway because I was tough, and I would show them how tough I was. 

It wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be inside. The sun penetrated through the dust-caked windows, casting a dim light through each room. I followed them to a back room where Johnny sat in a folding metal chair. A five-gallon bucket sat in front of him, along with a brown box, the lid closed on it.

“I have to admit, I didn’t think you would show.”

“I’m here,” I said, not really knowing what else to say.

“Are you ready for your initiation?”

“Yes.” 

(NO! NO! NO!)

Even in the gray of the room I saw the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes. He motioned me over. On lead legs I went to him. 

“Open the box.”

I did, trying to keep my hands from shaking. Inside was a kitten, an orange and white tabby with pointy ears and bright greenish yellow eyes. It meowed loudly, its mouth wide, tongue as pink as any I had ever seen before or even after.

“Drown it,” Johnny said.

“What?” I faltered.

“Drown the kitten and you’re in.”

I stared at Johnny for the longest time. It felt like the seconds had slowed to hours. I looked down at the bucket to see the water within. Somewhere far away I heard the kitten’s constant meowing. Johnny was smiling like the fool he was, that twinkle in his eyes, and behind it the knowing that I wouldn’t go through with it.

I picked the kitten up. It was soft, and it weighed so little, maybe not even a pound. It meowed and clawed at my hand as I shoved it into the bucket of water. Slivers of pain tore at my hand as the kitten fought for its very young life. 

Laughter. 

That’s what stopped me. I heard Paul laughing and it was maniacal and terrifying. Then he said, “He’s actually doing it. What a nut job.”

I heard it as clearly as I’ve ever heard anything.

Then I pulled the kitten out. Blood mixed with water spilled off my hand. The kitten still clawed at me, its meows frantic and terrified. I clutched it tight to my chest, taking its claws through my shirt and into my skin as I ran through the house and out the door and down the steps. All the while, they laughed and yelled for me to come back little wuss boy.

As I ran I could hear Grandpa scolding me for such a horrible thing as to try and kill an animal for any reason at all. I cried, and the kitten meowed and I ran all the way home where I lied to Grandpa about saving the kitten and … and I threw up.

That was the beginning of me never being able to say or do anything bad to anyone.

***

The video played out. The older gentleman, a VFW hat on his head, the two paper bags, one in each arm and the gentle stroll of a man who had lived life the best he could. 

I threw up several times before reaching the end of it. Sam—good, patient Sam—rewound it each time, knowing the torture I put myself through. 

***

“As you can imagine, Dequan, I’m not very good at violence. It makes me squeamish. I couldn’t kill the kitten, and it became a pet—Mr. Pouncer—but I guess I already told you that”

“So, what? What do you want from me?”  

What did I want from me? Truthfully, something I can’t have back. I shook my head and just looked at him. I knew his facial features, the scar on his left cheek, the dark brown color of his eyes, the corn rolls along his skull, the gold front tooth—the right one, not the left—the thickness of his nose and the bulge in the bridge where it had surely been broken before. I knew all these features. I had seen them so often in the past year or so to know them as if they were my own. 

“You’ll know soon enough,” I said and stood. I slid the chair all the way against the wall and started up the steps.

“Where are you going?” he yelled.

“Out for a while. Sit tight. I’ll be back.”

“I need to piss, man.”

I wanted to laugh, but if I would have my stomach would have rolled on me. Instead, I spoke calmly, “Go ahead.”

***

I made a phone call. It was quick and the answer I received for my request was better than I thought it would be.

“When?” I asked.

“Tonight,” came my uncle’s voice.

My stomach quivered with excitement and trepidation. 

“Okay,” I said. “Tonight will be great.”

I was smiling. My plan was coming together easier than I thought it would. Still, I was nervous. What if I couldn’t handle tonight? What if my nerves and stomach got the best of me? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out. I wanted to see this through, even if I vomited up my intestines. It was important and important things are better done than not, as my grandpa used to say.

***

fist-4112964_1920Uncle Lou arrived around midnight. He parked in the back where there were no lights and the privacy fence blocked all view of the yard. It didn’t matter much. We lived out in the country, away from most folks, and those that were out here with us were a good mile or so away in any direction. The back hatch of his SUV came open, but no light came on. He rounded the vehicle, reached in and pulled something out. It was long, but not rigid, and he slung it over his shoulder.

“Close the hatch, Charles,” he said and made his way up the steps. I shut the hatch and opened the back door. We both went inside, Lou first. I closed and locked the door behind us.

I didn’t need to ask what was wrapped in the tattered green army blanket. I saw the feet sticking out the bottom and knew he had delivered a valuable piece of the puzzle. 

“You want him downstairs with the other guy?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind.”

“Lead the way,”

We made our way down into the basement, the light coming on with a quick pull of the chord. The bulb bobbed up and down and from side to side for a few seconds before settling into a slow seesaw motion.

Dequan looked up as we made our way down the steps. He looked like he had been asleep and had been startled awake. His eyes narrowed when he saw Lou.

“Set him down there,” I said and pointed to the wall opposite Dequan.

“What’s going on, man? What’s that in …”  His words trailed off when he saw the shoes with a familiar mark on them, the mark of his gang.

Lou set the package on the floor and unrolled the army blanket. What happened next thrilled and sickened me at the same time. Realization swept over Dequan when he saw his little brother’s unconscious body unwrapped from the blanket. He pulled at his restraints and tried to kick his legs at us, all the while yelling all sorts of pleasantries.

-What the —- have you done to my little brother?

-I’m going to kill you mother—-ers.

-I’m going to kill both you mother—-ers.

-Reggie, wake up, man. 

-I’m going to kick you’re a—es when I get out of here.

-You’re dead meat, mother—-ers.

I think he likes that one word a lot. But Lou doesn’t. As a matter of fact, Lou doesn’t like many swear words.

“Shut-up, punk,” Lou said and pulled Reggie toward the wall where another set of chains and shackles were. Only these were higher up. 

Dequan yelled on, throwing his threats and curses out at us. 

“Hold on a second,” Lou said and walked over to Dequan. To him he said, “You got one chance to shut-up. You got that?”

Defiance was heavy at work when he spat into Lou’s face. He started to say something, but his lip was split and the back of his head hit the wall before he could get anything out. His body sagged and his head lulled on his shoulders. My stomach flipped, and I felt supper try to come back up. I held my hand over my mouth, forcing it back the best I could, even as cold sweat peppered my face.

Lou came back to where I stood next to Reggie. He was wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt. He said nothing as he hoisted Reggie to a standing position.

***

Let’s fast-forward again, this time about six hours. 

Uncle Lou and I had finished restraining Reggie a little after one that morning and agreed to set things into motion the next day, and what a long day it would be.

We woke—I slept very little, though Lou seemed to sleep like a baby—had a cup of coffee and some toast, grits and eggs, and made our way downstairs.

The brothers were asleep. I’ll be honest here: I wasn’t sure Dequan was still alive. Lou had smashed his head hard into the wall the night before. For all I knew, he had killed him. That would have been bad if it would have been true. The last year would have been wasted and then what? I didn’t know.

Lou walked over to Dequan and kicked his leg. Dequan woke with a startled scream that made me smile a little. No, my stomach didn’t shake or rock or roll—the last year or so I worked on trying to control it, but honestly, I hadn’t succeeded very often. But I was getting better at it.

“Wake up, scumbag,” he said and kicked Dequan’s leg again,

“I’m awake. I’m awake, man.” The defiance that had been in his voice and on his face the night before was gone, replaced with that dog’s been kicked too many times look.

Again, I smiled.

Then Lou walked over to Reggie, the younger of the two brothers who hung from his arms, his legs slightly buckled beneath him. 

“Wake up, Sunshine,” Lou said and patted the side of Reggie’s face. The younger brother stirred, his eyes fluttered, then he was awake and the blank look of confusion filled his face.

“Where … where am I?” 

“Hell,” Lou said. I flinched. My stomach woke up and the muscles twitched. 

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay, bro?”

“Be quiet, Dequan,” I said.

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay?”

Lou’s jaw flexed and he yelled “Shut-up!” 

“I just want to know—“

Lou leveled a punch to Reggie’s gut. The air rushed out of him and he tried to pull his legs up but couldn’t quite muster the strength. He struggled for air, his mouth gaping open and his eyes clinched shut, tears trickling from the corners of them.

“Why’d you do that?” Dequan yelled and pulled on his chains. He winced. I guessed his muscles were stiff from being stuck in the same position for a couple days. 

I pulled my chair from the center of the room and placed it about ten feet from Dequan and sat down. 

“Listen up, Dequan. This is very important. That man over there is very angry. This man, sitting here in this chair, is not very happy either. You see, you owe us some pain …”

My stomach gurgled when I said that. I bit back the vomit and swallowed. I continued.

“That man is going to get that pain one way or the other, either from you or your brother.”  

I nodded to Lou.

He punched Reggie in the jaw. The younger brother’s head snapped to one side. His lip split, bled and immediately began to swell.

Dequan turned his head as soon as Lou struck his brother. 

“Oh no, Dequan,” I said, “you need to watch this.”

“Why are you doing this? We ain’t never done nothing to you.”

“That’s not true,” I said and nodded to Lou. Another punch, this one to the eye. Reggie let out a small yelp of pain. My stomach lurched.

“What did we do? I ain’t never even seen you before, man. What did we do to you?”

I looked at him. His left eye was swollen mostly shut, his lip busted. Blood had crusted on his shirt. 

“What did you do?” I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question, but I didn’t. Instead, I spoke softly. “You hurt people because you can. That’s enough for me.”

I nodded and waved a hand at Lou. He turned to Reggie, a glimmer in his eyes—one like what I saw in Johnny’s eyes when I was a kid—and punched him and punched him and punched him …

***

“Play it again,”

“I think you’ve had enough, Mr. Hanson.”

“No! Just one more time. Please.”

“Why? Why are you doing this to yourself?”

“I have to.”

Officer Sam played the footage. Again, the older man rounded the corner, the camera’s angle catching it from almost a block away. He carried the two paper grocery bags, the VFW hat sat on his head. He wore thick glasses—coke bottle thick, my mom would call them. Nothing changed. He was still minding his own business. 

Then it happened. Six men appeared on the screen going the opposite direction. They were just ordinary men, until they reached the old guy. They were about to pass each other. That’s the way it should have been. The old guy passing the group of six. And if it would have stayed that way …

One of The Six turned his head to the side as they passed each other. Just as the One passed the old man, he turned back, his hand in a fist and swung for the old man’s face. 

The gist of the rest of the video:

-The fist connected.

-The old man’s head whipped to the side.

-That head hit the brick wall beside him.

-The grocery’s fell from the old man’s arms. It’s clear there was a jug of milk in one of the bags.

-The old man fell and hit his head on the edge of the sidewalk.

-The Six laughed.

-The One knelt and slapped the unconscious old man.

And I threw up.

To be continued on Tuesday, May 12th …

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$2.00

Because I Can (Part 1 of 4)

Because I Can (Part 1)

By A.J. Brown

I watched the video several times. The first time I felt sick to my stomach—literally. The cop in the room with me paused the video when I stood, my hand over my stomach, and turned to leave. I didn’t make it very far. One hand went on the wall—it was cool to the touch. I grew hot. Sweat beaded my forehead. My stomach turned over, grumbled, and I heaved, though nothing came out. My ribs hurt afterward. 

“You okay?”

He wasn’t gruff, and he didn’t have a raspy movie-cop’s voice. No, this guy talked like a normal person with normal feelings and normal thoughts. Still, he was tough. You could see it in his eyes, the way they appeared hard, as if staring in them too long would be like staring at two polished stones the color of onyx. 

“Give me a sec, okay?”

“You don’t have to watch it again.”

I put a hand in the air. The heat of my face had receded, the sweat began to dry. I could breathe again, but my mouth tasted like a well-worn shoe. Don’t ask me how I know what that tastes like. You won’t get an answer that will satisfy the question. 

I pushed myself back to a standing position. My stomach still hurt, but the cramped nausea I had felt moments earlier was gone.

“Play it again, Sam.”

No, his name wasn’t Sam, but that’s what I called him. He didn’t seem to mind.

revenge 3He clicked the mouse back to the beginning of the black and white surveillance video. An old man rounded the corner of a brick building. He moved slowly, the way most old men do, and he carried a couple of grocery bags—paper, not plastic. He was minding his own business. My stomach grumbled, then quivered. The backflow works kicked into gear. I tried to force the vomit back down, but in the end, it won, I lost, and the floor was splattered with what was left of lunch.

“Really, we don’t have to do this.”

I looked back at the cop through tear-blurred eyes. 

“Yes, we do,” I said, got back to my feet and staggered to the seat.

We watched the video again and again and again, until I saw all I needed to.

###

“Welcome,” I said.

The basement was dimly lit, the single sixty-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling. It was the old-style rope-pull type, with a chord leading from the light’s chain to the ceiling and through several eye loops, ending at the wall by the door with a loop on the end. The sheetrock walls covered the cinderblocks behind them and were painted a flat green back in the seventies. The trim work was six inch baseboards at the bottom and, interestingly enough, at the top. There were twelve steps that led to the first floor of my grandpa’s old house. Grandpa was dead, so what was happening—or going to happen—didn’t matter to him. It wasn’t like he would ever find out. There were no windows, and yeah, the room was a bit dusty. Other than the chair I sat in, there was no other furniture or boxes or bags or anything else in the room.

Well, that’s if you don’t include the dirt bag on the floor. 

The dirt bag mentioned just now probably didn’t think he was one, but he was. I watched him long enough to know he was a dirt bag extraordinaire. 

Extraordinaire.

“Where am I?”

He struggled to sit up but couldn’t get much further than where he sat against the wall, slouched back and looking like a sagging bag of deer corn. His arms were held to the wall by thick chains; twelve-inch bolts had been screwed into the walls, through the sheetrock and right into the cinder blocks. Reinforced metal plates held the chains and Mr. Dirt Bag in place. He squinted, but probably not from the light—like I said, it was dim, a sixty-watt bulb, the old type, not one of those new corkscrew type that burn forever and a day. From my understanding, he had a great fall and bumped his crown. He had some help.

“You’re here,” I said from my seat in front of him. I did a grand wave of my hands, like one of Barker’s Girls from The Price is Right.

He tried to push himself to a better sitting position with his bound feet. They scraped across the floor as if he were shuffling around, and he slid back to his former slouched over position. I watched this with great interest. His struggle with the chains and not being able to use his hands to push off on the floor or even to steady himself brought a sort of satisfaction I wasn’t terribly used to. His face contorted, and he grunted several times before looking up at his arms.

“What’s going on? You need to let me go, white boy.”

White boy? Yeah, I guess you could say I’m white—really I’m more transparent than anything else. The sun touches my skin and I burn to several shades of lobster. 

“I don’t think you’re in any position to tell me what to do.”

“What? Do you know who I am, white boy? Do you know what I can do to you?”

“Yes, and yes, but neither of those matter right now.”

Finally, Dirt Bag looked long at his arms, at the shackles that held him in place. No, I didn’t go for handcuffs—they were just too thin, and the chains weren’t all that strong. Someone angry enough just might be able to break the small chains that bound one wrist to the other. That’s a chance I didn’t want to take. He bent his wrists and used them to pull himself against the wall, but that was as far as he could go—I made sure of that. Before I had the chains put in I researched the average wingspan for a man that stood four inches over six feet. My guess was he eighty to eighty-four inches. I added an extra two inches to that higher total. Do the math—his arms could only go so far before he could sit up no further, and there was no way he was standing, not with his feet all bundled up in ropes and duct tape.

“Let me go,” he said.

“No,” I replied.

I had one leg crossed over the other at the knee. Both hands rested on that leg, folded one on top of the other. I probably looked like a statue or a mannequin sitting there, barely moving.

He yelled at me, called me names I won’t use here—I don’t use that type of language, thank you very much. He threatened me, cursed me. He spat at me once, but most of it dribbled down his chin or landed on his saggy-bottomed pants. He pulled against the chains. 

And I watched it all.

“When you’re done, let me know.”

“You just wait until I get out of these chains.”

I stood from my chair—it wasn’t anything fancy, just something I grabbed from the kitchen before bringing Mr. Dirt Bag into my grandpa’s home—and walked over to him. I knelt about ten feet in front of him. 

“Your name is Dequan Jackson. You’re twenty-two years old and have one brother who is younger than you. His name is Darrell. You live in an apartment on James Schofield Road with any number of whores you call girlfriends. Many of those women are strung out on crack or heroin that you gave them in return for sexual favors. You think you’re a gangbanger. You might be—I haven’t figured that out yet. If you ask me, you’re just another wannabe thug, trying to make a name with drugs and fear. For the most part that seems to work.”

I eyed him for a minute, waiting for a response that never came. 

“Your mother is sixty-two, meaning she had you when she was either in her very very late thirties or forty. Your brother just had a birthday. He is nineteen. You once joked that you had no problems with killing someone.”

I paused for a moment, stared him hard in the eyes. He stared back just as hard, but there was something inside of him that was different now. I had done my homework on him and his family and his ‘posse’ and it was dawning on him that I wasn’t playing around, that his abduction had been planned out by this crazy white boy and he might just be in a world of trouble.

“It wasn’t too long ago that you proved that to your buddies—killing, it’s just a thang to you.”

“I ain’t never killed no one.”

His eyes were crazy wide, like a rabbit trapped down the hole with nowhere to go and not enough time to dig further down. 

“We’ll see about that.”

He started to speak, then clamped his mouth shut. His eyes grew wide for just a second—a second, I tell you. That’s all. Then they went back to their normal almost slits on his dark skin. I could still see a little of the whites, but beyond that, the color was washed away beneath his eyelids. Still, I saw recognition in his face, in his eyes.

“I know what you’ve done.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“Really? You didn’t hear anything I said a minute ago? You know, your brother, your mom, your whores? You didn’t get any of that?”

He said nothing. He got it, but he was too stubborn to say so.

“Look, Dequan, I’m going to give you one chance to walk out of here, completely unharmed. You feel me? One chance. That’s the term, right? You feel me?”

Again, he said nothing. Stubborn, for sure. 

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

I stood, paced the floor a couple times, my arms wrapped around my suddenly gurgling stomach. I was nervous. I held the cards and Mr. Dirt Bag could do nothing but sit chained to the wall. Still, I was scared and felt like my stomach was about to revolt. 

(You can stop, you know?  Just blindfold Dirt Bag and haul him away, drop him off in some back alley and say, hey you’ve been warned. Turn your life around and fly straight, or I’ll be back. Yeah, you can go all Batman on him and …)

That was a pipe dream. There was no turning back. He had seen my face. I wasn’t sure if he had seen Uncle Lou’s face, but it didn’t really matter. I was smart enough to figure most of the plan out, but not so smart enough to remember to wear a mask like the dude in Saw or like Jason or Michael or a host of other horror movie villains. And if I let him go he would remember what I looked like, and yeah, you better believe he would come after me, posse in tow. I’m not stupid—I just forgot one little, but holy cow important, detail.

I stopped pacing and knelt back down. I looked him in the eyes and all I saw was contempt. 

“Why do you do it?”

He scrunched up his face, as if he were confused. “Why do I do what?”

“Why do you hurt people?”

He was quiet for a few seconds. I don’t know if he pondered his answer or just sat staring at me, anger burning on his face, but he answered with a smile that showed off one gold tooth. 

“Cause I can.”

It was my turn to get quiet. I didn’t really expect him to answer, and I certainly didn’t expect an answer so … honest. I was stunned. He was defiant. 

“I gave you an answer, now you let me go.”

I stood, put my hands on my hips. I wanted to kick him. I wanted to punch him as hard as I could right in the temple, just like … I wanted him to see stars and feel pain.

But I couldn’t. The thought of hitting Mr. Dirt Bag, of causing him even a fraction of the pain he had caused others, made my stomach sour. I wanted to vomit but held back. Instead of letting my anger get to me, I backed away and sat back down in the chair.

“Let me go. You asked your question, I gave you an answer, now let me go.”

“I said I would give you one chance to walk out of here unharmed. I didn’t say when you would get that chance.”

His upper lip curled, and he growled deep in his throat. A second later, he was cussing me for all I was worth. This is what he said, minus all the swear words:

–What type of ******* game you playin’?–

–Let me go right now, you ****head—

–I’ll kill you, mutha******–

–When I get free, you’ll wish your punk*** was dead—

“I’d like to tell you a story,” I said calmly.

Instead, I stood, walked to the stairs and started up them.

“Hey,” Mr. Dirt Bag called, “I thought you were going to tell me a story.”

“I changed my mind.”

I left the room, turned the light off and closed the door behind me. From outside the room I locked the bolts—all six of them—and slid the three boards in to the homemade latches I had made. If Dirt Bag managed to get out of the shackles, he would have to figure out the six locks, and even then, he would not be able to open the door from that side. I unlocked two of the locks—why make it easy on him?  

My stomach hurt, and I sat down at the kitchen table, a place I had spent many mornings while growing up, listening to Grandpa talk of the war—no, he wasn’t all shell-shocked like many others were. He had no problems talking about what war was and why they fought and just what the heck was wrong with it. My hands shook as I sat, elbows on the table, head down, eyes staring at the yellow Formica-topped table. Had I really wanted to hit the guy? Had I really wanted to hurt him?

You betcha.

I wanted to do all sorts of bad things to that thug wannabe. My stomach rolled again. I didn’t eat too much that morning on purpose, knowing what I planned to do, knowing the man in the basement wasn’t going to walk out of there or even be carried out alive, and it would be all on my head. 

As I sat there, I reflected on my life. I’ve never been able to hurt someone, or something. The thought of insulting someone out of anger made my stomach hurt. The thought of insulting someone as a joke wasn’t too intolerable but was still enough to make my stomach rumble. One time, at a party when I was a teenager (a party I probably shouldn’t have been at) I threw up on Maggie Igliana’s shoes because I laughed at someone jokingly saying Mike Halford’s mom would spread for half the football team. Up went dinner and the nastiness that was half digested beans and franks. It splattered the floor and Maggie Igliana. She screamed. I bolted. Out in the front yard I threw up a second time. I was sixteen. Rumors at school had me being totally drunk and hitting on Maggie. They said I asked if she would spread for the football team. The first time I heard it I vomited in the boys’ bathroom. 

Four things:

1-That was the last party I ever attended.

2-I’ve never told a dirty joke or made a joking comment or laughed at one about someone since.

3-I’ve never been drunk, but that doesn’t matter when you’re a teenager.

4-Maggie never talked to me again, which is a shame—I really liked her.

Yet, there I sat, wanting to kill a man I didn’t even know. The thought had me standing and running to the sink, where the last remnants of breakfast ended. I swished water around in my mouth, spat it out, and wiped my lips with the back of my hand. I washed the vomit down the sink, making sure none of it was left behind.

I could let him go. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I really, really wanted to do.

My legs shook as I went back to the door and unlocked it. I slid the boards from their places and opened the door. Three steps down, I pulled the rope, turning the light back on. I went down the steps. 

“You ready to let me go?” Dequan asked.

“No,” I said. My stomach gurgled.

I sat down in my chair and stared at him, hoping I didn’t look as uneasy as I felt.

“I want to tell you a story.”

“Seriously, man?”

“It’s not like you’re going anywhere, so, yeah, seriously.”

He shook his head, rolled his eyes.

I could still let him go.

“I want to tell you a story about Mr. Pouncer.”

“You know someone named Mr. Pouncer?”

“No. I knew a cat named Mr. Pouncer.”

Again, he rolled his eyes. I leaned forward in my chair, elbows on my knees. I rubbed my hands together nervously and began my story.

To be continued …

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Torn (Free Fiction)

Torn

A.J. Brown

I found her on the streets, worn by the world and her spirit broken. She offered me sex for a few dollars, just enough for a meal and a place to stay. Maybe that was so; maybe she really wanted a meal and a hotel for the night. I think she wanted enough money to buy some white dust so she could escape the reality of her world for a little while. It doesn’t matter what she wanted or needed cash for. The ‘why?’—now that’s the important part.

Her name was Poppy, and she sat at the edge of an alley, her head down, dirty hair meeting me. She barely had enough energy to lift it up, let alone give me sex like she offered. I helped her to the car, lifting her off her feet and carrying her as if she were my bride. She couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. I set her in the front seat, buckled her in and let her sleep as I drove the few miles home. Every few minutes I stole a glance at her, especially when the car passed under a streetlight bright enough to shine on her once beautiful features. Her blond hair was dirty, her skin marked with scars, bruises and tracks from heroin use.

Compassion washed over me, followed by anger. Anger at the world for allowing people to fall off the face of society because of money, drugs, sex or just plain hard times. Heat welled up inside and my face flushed. My heart cracked a little and I had to force myself not to look at her.

Home greeted me with the cool of the air conditioner. I took her inside, her arms around my neck, though I don’t think she realized it. I hoped a warm bath would rouse her, would bring her back to this world. As gentle as I could I slipped her clothes off, dropped them in the trash can and set her in the water. Her eyes fluttered, showing hints of blue behind purple lids.  

addict-2713598_1920Soap, water and a rag washed away the grime a life on the streets left behind. There were teeth marks on her small breasts and thighs. My jaw clenched. My heart cracked a little more. Visions ran through my head of mean lovers or abusing pimps and johns who wanted all sorts of perversities from her. My stomach turned and I tried to block the images with other ones. A little girl picking flowers for her mommy; a teen preparing for her first dance; a graduating young lady, smiling bright, wearing a blue and yellow cap and gown.

She stirred, a moan escaping her. Her eyes opened. She shielded them with one boney hand showing cracked and yellowed fingernails.  

“Who are you?” Her voice was weak. She shook, out of fear I believe.

I said nothing. My mouth opened but words failed me; my throat constricted and the vocal cords froze. 

She dropped her hand and gazed through her drug induced haze. The light went on and her cheeks bloomed with two rosy splotches. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Maybe even a bit of anger crossed her young face. I said nothing of her state and handed her a towel and a robe.  

The lights were down in the kitchen. My head ached, as did my saddened heart. She walked in, smelling of coconut cream instead of filth. The aroma was sweet, and I couldn’t help but smile a little. She sat down to a bowl of cereal and a hot cup of coffee. We didn’t speak while she ate but I watched her as only someone who loved her could.    

“Tell me,” I said.

She did. And my heart cracked a little more. I felt it breaking, pulling apart with very little chance of it ever being whole again. When she was done, I led her to a room. I closed the door when I walked out, my shoulders slumped and tears in my eyes.  

Alone in the dark in the front room I prayed for forgiveness, though I had done nothing wrong. I went to the kitchen, the light still dim, and made a list. I recounted everything Poppy had told me.  

Some time during the night I dozed.  

I don’t know when she left but when I woke, she was gone.  Her clothes were gone from the trash can and the cash in my wallet was as well. My heart cracked a little more, a piece chipping off and falling away forever. I looked for her in all the places she had mentioned. She wasn’t at any of them, though many of the people I spoke with knew her. I took mental images of their faces.

That was four months ago, and I hadn’t seen Poppy since the evening I found her on the streets.  Five days ago, a homeless man found her body in a dumpster behind a burger joint, beaten and broken, stabbed to death. My heart broke and tears fell, more so than any other time in my life, even more than when her mother died. Her funeral was this morning. My little girl now lies in a casket six feet into the ground next to her mother, never to be harmed by this world again.  

But, I’m still here, hurting for the girl I watched grow up, become a young woman, then disappear to the streets. This evening I prayed again for forgiveness. Until now, I had done nothing wrong.  

I hear the screams of the people in the drug house at the end of the street. They had boarded the windows up some time ago and even put condemned signs on the lawn. I guess that was to make it look as if no one ever went there. Poppy told me differently that last time I saw her alive. Flames reach to the sky, licking the air, pushing ash up with it. There’s no escaping—the lone door out has been nailed shut. It’s amazing how little you notice when you’re high; things like a hammer nailing boards in place, trapping everyone inside.  

This is only the beginning. I will bury them all under the weight of my torn heart …

__________

I have to admit that I am not a big fan of this story. No, it’s not that the story isn’t good. It is. It’s also very short, which means I could go back and build it a little more. I find I don’t want to do that. The reason I am not a fan of this piece is I have a daughter, one who I worry a lot about. I worry something will happen to her, that someone will hurt her. I worry a lot. 

When I wrote this piece, the image of the father carrying the young woman into his house, her body emaciated and dirty, her arms riddled with needle tracks was the first image I saw. Him sitting in his chair, hands to his forehead and praying for forgiveness because of the grief and anger he felt was the second image. The third was a gravesite burial. That’s a bad image to have when you fear something like this playing out in anyone’s life.

I hope you enjoyed Torn and please, like this post, comment on it and tell your friends about it. The more readers, the better. Thank you for reading.

A.J.

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Courage (Free Fiction)

Courage

A.J. Brown

Carrie rounded the corner and came to an abrupt stop. Several kids—older than her, she thought—ran toward and by her, most of them looking back. She didn’t need to ask what was going on or why everyone was running. She could see.

Patrick Mason held his lunch box in front of him as a shield, Spongebob on the lid. His green eyes were big ovals full of tears. His bottom lip trembled, and a whine came from his throat. His back was pressed into the corner, his left shoulder taking a poking from one of Marty Hatfield’s meaty fingers. The big bully towered over him, his long brown hair hanging along the sides of his face. His shirt and pants were a matching black and a chain ran from his back pocket to a belt loop on his hip. 

“You watch where you’re going, wimp,” Marty growled. He leaned down until his nose was inches from Patrick’s. “Do you understand me or are you too dumb for that?”

Patrick didn’t move. Neither did Carrie. She stared at the bully and the victim, her eyes as big as Patrick’s, her hands clutching tight to the straps of the little pink book bag on her back. Her heart pounded. She wanted to turn, to hurry around the corner in hopes that Marty wouldn’t see her.

That hope fled when Patrick’s eyes shifted from the bully to her. Marty turned in her direction. His brown eyes were slits, and his lips pulled down in an angry frown.

“What are you looking at, pigeon toes?” he yelled. Spittle flew from his mouth.

Though Patrick didn’t speak, his eyes begged, Please help!

“Nothing,” Carrie said, shaking her head quickly. She’d seen this type of thing layout before. Angry monster and weak victim. Family life had showed her that scenario all too often. Interfering with the monster meant attracting it’s wrath. 

“That’s right, little girl. You haven’t seen a thing. Get out of here.”

Carrie shook her head and retreated the way she came. She half hobbled, half ran, her feet pointed in, as they always had. She rounded the corner and continue along the hall, her heart in her throat, fear tapping her on the shoulder until she reached the exit and pushed on the door. It opened with a loud, metallic clank and she burst through it and started down the steps, her legs carrying her as fast as they would go. Halfway down, she stopped. Her breaths came in labored gasps, her heart thump thumped, and tears fell down her cheeks. She leaned over, her hands clutching tight to her knees.

“I’m safe,” she said between breaths. “I’m safe. He didn’t … he didn’t …”

Carrie looked back at the door so suddenly she almost pitched sideways. That would have been bad. With at least seven more steps to the bottom, the fall would have been painful and worse, she believed, than Marty Hatfield smacking her once or twice. The door was closed. There was no Marty there. He hadn’t had second thoughts about the little girl who saw him beating up the special needs kid who didn’t bother anyone.

“I’m safe,” she said and took a deep breath.

What about Patrick?

She shook her head. “He’s not my problem.” 

Carrie made her way down to the sidewalk, got a few feet onto the lawn before she stopped again.

She recalled his wide eyes, the message in them: Please help. He was scared, and she left him with Marty Hatfield. “I can’t help him. Marty’s much bigger than me, and he is mean. I’m not mean. I’m just … me.”

But Patrick is little and … and …

Carrie looked back at the school. Its red brick structure looked uninviting. The steps looked like a long white tongue; the doors like a giant mouth, hungry for little girl flesh. She thought the halls were the monster’s throat and Marty waited in its belly to finish off what the teeth of the giant beast didn’t. A shiver traced up her spine, sending chill bumps along her arms, legs and neck.

“There’s nothing I can do.”

lockersCarrie looked down at her feet, ashamed for leaving the kid behind, but terrified of the bully who had everyone else running, too. Her toes pointed inward. Her shoes were heavy clod hoppers, the insoles soft foam pads to support her high arches. She hated that she had been born with ‘defected’ ankles and legs. She was a  ‘pigeon toed brat’ as her dad put it once when he was in an alcohol fueled grumpy mood.

Defected. 

Pigeon toed.

She frowned. If the only thing wrong with her were a couple of turned in feet and she got picked on for it, how much worse was it for Patrick, who was small for his age, frail in some eyes, painfully shy and who often found it difficult to talk?

Can’t someone help him?

With that thought came a second, more powerful one. You’re someone.

“But … but …”

Carrie’s shoulders sagged. Her conscious was right. No one else would help Patrick. Everyone ran. But she had seen him cornered by Marty, had seen that fat finger poking into Patrick’s shoulder, had seen those sad green eyes begging for her to help him.

She looked up to the sky as tears tugged at her eyes. White tufts of cotton hung in the canvas of blue. An  airplane flew by high enough she couldn’t hear it. “I’m only ten,” she said. Her eyes remained on the sky, on the airplane that quickly faded from view, as if waiting on something from high above to tell her ‘it’s okay, Carrie, don’t worry about Patrick, he’ll be all right.’ No voice came, and deep inside she knew Patrick wasn’t going to be all right.

“Okay. Okay.”

Carrie took a deep breath, let it out and wiped at her eyes. She started back toward the school. At the steps, she looked up into the mouth of the beast, never minding she was already on its tongue. She took the steps one at a time, reached the landing and then the door. The handle was cool in her sweaty palm.

Another breath.

I can’t do this, her mind screamed. Her father would have left Patrick to his own devices. He would have called him a little wimp who needs a good beating to right his ship. She hated her dad. He had been a bully, just like Marty.

“I have to,” she said. “No one else will.”

She opened the door and took several steps up the hall, her shoes clopping hard on the floor. Carrie looked down at the black and white shoes, the heavy soles and toes made it impossible to walk quietly. She sat down, unlaced them and pulled them free. With a shoe in each hand, she hobbled up the hall, her toes pointed in, her hips and shoulders swaying with each step.

She heard crying, even before she reached the corner. No doubt Marty had hit Patrick by now. Her heart sank into her stomach. Her skin felt cold. Her breaths were sharp and quick.

The sound of a hand on skin stopped her short of the corner. Her heart stopped right along with her feet. More crying came, and one strangled word was mixed in there, “Please.”

“Please what!?” Marty yelled.

“Please.”

“Please what?!” Another slap came. 

“Please.”

“Please what?” Marty yelled again.

Her breath came back to her and she forced herself to round the corner. When she did, her stomach knotted and she thought she would throw up.

Marty stood over Patrick, his hands clutched into fists. Patrick’s lunch box lay open on the floor, its contents spilled out. Patrick lay in the fetal position, his hands over his head, but not doing a good job of covering it. His bottom lip bled and there was a red hand print on the side of his face.

“Please,” Patrick said.

“Please what!?” Marty raised his fist.

“Please stop!” Carrie yelled.

Marty turned. His face was red, but Carrie didn’t think he was embarrassed. Maybe surprised, but not embarrassed. She thought he looked joyful, like her father had when he beat her mom. “Look at you,” he snarled. “Little pigeon-toed girl coming to save the special needs kid?”

Anger raced through her veins. Heat filled her face and ran into her neck. Her heart sped up. The look of fear she saw on Patrick’s face was the same as the one on her mom’s before … before she fought back, before she finally did something about the monster terrorizing them. “Leave him alone,” she growled.

Marty stepped over Patrick and glared at Carrie. His hands were still clutched into tight fists. “What if I don’t?”

She didn’t know how to answer that question. She just knew to act, and she did. With all the strength she could muster, she slung one of her heavy shoes at Marty. This time surprise bordering on shock appeared on his face. The heavy heel of the shoe struck him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him. He stumbled backward. His feet bumped into one of Patrick’s legs. His arms pinwheeled as he tried to keep his balance. He fell, landing hard on his bottom. His head struck the wall. Both hands went up to the back of his skull.

“Get up, Patrick,” she said and tottered over to him. She held one hand out. He took it and stood. He looked down at Marty, who still lay on the floor holding his head. “It’s okay, Patrick. He’s not going to hurt you anymore.” To Marty she said, “Are you?”

“I’ll get you for this,” Marty said. All of the intimidation he exuded seconds earlier was now gone.

Carrie thought of her dad, of her mom and the fear she experienced because of him. She knew Marty meant what he said and he could be even more dangerous now. But he had been bested, by a girl at that. He would threaten her, but that was all he would do. She knew this as surely as she knew her dad would never lay another hand on her mom. 

“No, you won’t,” she said and took Patrick’s hand. “You’re going to leave me alone, and you’re going to leave him alone. You’re going to leave everyone alone. ‘Cause if you don’t, they won’t find you, just like they won’t find my dad.”

Marty’s eyes grew large. There was now fear in them. His jaw hung open and one hand still rubbed the back of his head. 

“Do you understand?”

Marty shook his head slowly. 

“Let’s go, Patrick,” Carrie said. 

The two rounded the corner and left the building without looking back. Outside, she wiped his mouth with the sleeve of her shirt.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice soft. It was the first time she had heard him talk.

Carrie smiled, shrugged her shoulders and tussled his brown hair. “You’re welcome.”

Like her mom, Patrick no longer looked scared.

__________

This story was based on a simple prompt: Courage. It was a contest entry, one of several thousand entered for one monetary prize. Sadly, this piece didn’t win the story, but that is okay. I got a cool story about a bully being stopped in the act of terrorizing a smaller kid. 

If you enjoyed Courage, please like, share and comment. I truly appreciate it.

HOME (Free Fiction)

Home

By A.J. Brown

Connor sat forward in his father’s recliner. The arms had the wrinkles of usage and time, much like his father did, much like he was well on his way to having. The dark brown had faded to a light mud color and when he leaned back to sit, the foot rest automatically shot up, it’s locking mechanism no longer working. If you weren’t prepared for it, the seat would rocket you to a laying position, and if you were lucky, you remained in the chair and didn’t end up on the floor. 

His hands covered his face, and if someone would have walked into the room right then, that person might think Connor was praying or crying … or both. He or she wouldn’t have been too far off. Connor had done his crying and he was certain there would be more to come. He had done his praying and he wasn’t too certain there would be much more of that to come, at least not for a short while. His peace had been spoken, though little peace was there to be had. 

Ten minutes earlier, he pressed the red button on his cell phone, ending the call from his father’s doctor. 

“He doesn’t have much time left, Mr. Barwick. You may want to call the family in for one last visit.”

“Okay,” Connor had said. “I will, and thank you.”

He set the phone on the magazine table next to his father’s chair and stared at it for a full sixty seconds as memories of beer cans and bottles and coffee cups sitting on it rushed back. Dinner trays with empty plates on them; the newspaper, turned to the ‘funnies’ as his father called them, a pencil with a knife sharpened tip lying next to it, use for the crossword puzzles; Louis L’Amour westerns faced down or dog-eared so not to lose its place. How many times did Connor come in there to say goodnight to his ‘old man,’ who had truly grown old in the blink of an eye, and found him asleep, the paper or magazine on his chest? How many times did he cover him up with the blanket Mom kept on the back of the sofa instead of waking the man up who didn’t sleep all that well?

He cried, but only for a couple of minutes. Time was short and if he was going to get to the hospital and … and what? Say goodbye? Or call a family that, after today, he will be the only remaining member of? Just what was he going to do? The thought of seeing his dad, a tough, rugged mountain man with tree trunk legs and forearms bigger than Connor’s thighs, less of the man he knew as a child scared him. He had watched him wither away, becoming half the man he had been, but still somewhat aware and with all of his faculties.

Connor stood on shaking legs, grabbed his phone and keys and left the house he had shared with his father for the last sixteen years, ever since Mom passed and Emily left him for another man. They had helped each other through that difficult time, leaning heavily on each other’s shoulders, but who would help Connor when Dad was gone? Whose shoulder would he cry on?

The drive was short. Connor didn’t want to be too far from his father in case something happened, or the doctors thought he was on his last legs, taking his last breaths. No, Connor didn’t want his dad to be alone during those last hours. He arrived at the nursing home—the Jerry-Atric Community, his father always called it—and took a deep breath. His legs still shook when he stood from the car and as he walked to the building and went inside.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Barwick,” the young lady behind the receptionist desk said. She had big green eyes and her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Her smile seemed genuine and inviting and if he were younger and if things were different, he might have gotten up the nerve to ask her out, though she probably would have said no or she had a boyfriend, both of which were likely. 

“Hey, Vanessa,” he said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. “I’m … umm … here to see my dad.”

The smile on her face remained but her eyes gave the story away. She knew this was the last time he would be there, at least to visit James Barwick. “Certainly, Mr. Barwick,” she said, her voice amazingly chipper despite knowing one of their residents would no longer be there after today. She stood, something she had never done in all the visits James had made over the last year or so. “Do you want someone to go with you?”

It was a nice gesture, one he thought was sincere. “No … ummm … thank you, Vanessa, but I’d like to be alone with my dad for a little while.” At this, he fought back the tears tugging on the corners of his eyes.

“Okay, Mr. Barwick,” she said and sat down. Normally, she would have said something like, ‘enjoy your visit,’ but today, she said nothing else. When Connor looked back just before he walked through the double doors that led to the detainment units (yeah, that was another of his father’s sayings about the place), he glanced back to see her looking at him with concern in her big eyes.

He pushed through the door and made his way down the hallway with its beige walls and white tile floor. There were pictures spaced apart every ten or so feet of lakes and oceans and flowers and rainbows, ‘all the things old folks are interested in,’ his father had barked one day as they went to his room after an outing to Vic’s Diner and the movies—a Clint Eastwood flick Connor couldn’t remember the name of. 

A left, a right, and then another left and Connor came to Room number 19. On it was a false chrome and gold placard that simply read: BARWICK in bold letters. He reached for the handle, stopped just short of it and lowered his hand. He closed his eyes, took several deep breaths and then proceeded inside, his heart hammering, fearing what he might find. His father had been losing himself over the last year, sometimes fading from this world to visit other one. Connor didn’t know if his father knew when it happened, but Connor did, and seeing him with that far off stare in his eyes hurt his heart more than seeing him as a withered old man. 

What he found was his father sitting in a wheelchair, his brown slippers on his feet, his blue robe draped over his shoulders and his reading glasses on. The wheelchair had been parked in front of the large plate glass window that looked out onto the Butterfly Garden. 

“Dad?”

James Barwick craned his neck to his right. Connor saw heavy, bruised bags beneath his eyes. There was a thick, red liver spot near his temple and his skin seemed pulled tight over his skull. 

“Connor?” he whispered, his voice like sandpaper. 

“Yes, Sir,” he said and stepped all the way into the room. The door whisked shut with a soft hiss. 

“How are you, son?” James asked and reached a shaking hand out to him. 

Connor hurried across the cool room, took his father’s hand. It wasn’t rough and calloused as it had been when Connor was a kid, but soft and weak, the bones beneath the skin brittle and the slightest squeeze would break a dozen of them. Connor sat on the edge of a seventies style chair with wooden arm rests and an ugly green cushion in the seat. “I’m okay, Dad.” The next thing out of his mouth felt lame, but it was what you asked people after answering the same question. “How are you?”

James looked up at him. His blue eyes had dulled over the years. “I don’t know, Connor. I’m dying. I know that much, but other than that, I can’t seem to remember much.”

Connor sat silently on the edge of the chair, his father’s fragile hand in one of his. He didn’t know what to say to that and couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t sound like a load of horse manure. Yeah, you guessed it, that was a James Barwick favorite. ‘Don’t give me a load of horse manure.’

His father took a deep breath. It rattled in his chest and when he exhaled it sounded like leaves rustling in the trees. “Connor, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure, Dad. Anything.”

James pulled his hand free of Connor’s and pointed a yellow-nailed finger toward a rolling table next to the bed his father spent all of his nights in over the last year. “Can you go get my book for me?”

Connor stood and went over to the other side of the bed. He reached for the book that sat open, pages down on the table. It had a white cover and Louis L’Amour’s name in a dull green font at the top. Several images formed a collage in the center of the book: the picture of a young man on a boat holding the circular float with the S.S. Steel Worker at the top and New York at the bottom; several keys from an old typewriter faded into a bridge which faded into the leaf of a tree Connor didn’t know the type of. Below the collage, in the same green and same font as the author’s name was the word YONDERING, and beneath it in a much smaller font that could have been a light brown or beige color was the word STORIES. 

“Louis L’Amour,” Connor said when he handed the book to James.

His dad nodded. “Always was my favorite. He could write a great western.”

“I suppose so,” Connor said, having never read a Louis L’Amour book before. 

“You should give him a read, son.”

“I just might do that.”

James flipped through the pages of the book, stopped when he found a white piece of paper folded between two pages.

“Is that your bookmark?” Connor asked.

James looked at it for a second, then nodded. “I suppose so.” He held the paper out to Connor. “Here. Take it.”

He did as he was told, unfolded it and read the words written in his father’s quivering print. 

“When I am old and grey, and I have lost who I am and who I was, take me to my mountains, for there I shall find peace for my soul, and I will remember …”

Lisa D Walker

“Who is this Lisa D. Walker?”

James shrugged. “I don’t know. I saw the quote somewhere and wrote it down. I didn’t want to forget to give it to you.”

“Give it to me?”

James looked up at Connor. The younger man could see the life leaving his father’s eyes even as they stared at each other. James took a deep breath, his chest rattling, and when he released it, the sound of rustling leaves came with it.

“Son, I’m dying,” James said.

“Dad—“

“Don’t give me a load of horse manure, Son,” James interrupted, his eyes holding a hint of Connor’s old father in them. “I know I’m not longer for this world, so I need you to listen carefully. Can you do that?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I’m dying. There’s no denying that. Worse than that is I’m losing myself, Connor. I don’t remember things. One minute I’m watching the news in the morning and the next minute, it’s night outside and I’ve lost a whole day. I don’t remember much about my childhood and I can barely remember your mother. I remember you, but I think that’s because you visit me from time to time.”

Connor wanted to say, ‘Every day. I visit you every day.’ He didn’t say that. He just listened.

James licked his lips and looked out at the world beyond the window. When he turned back to Connor, his eyes were wet and what little hope Connor had of him staying in his right mind for much longer faded. “I want to go back to the mountains, Son. Before I lose all of me, before I die.”

“Dad—“

“Do you remember the little place up in Hendersonville where we used to take you when you were a little boy?”

“Yes, Sir. Uncle Waylon’s place.”

“It’s still there, Connor. It’s still belongs to the family. Take me there. Will you do that for your old man?”

“Dad, that’s a three hour trip.”

“I can hold on that long if you will take me.”

The tears no longer touched the corners of his eyes. They fell down the sides of his face and made his eyes look like glass. 

“Dad—“

“And don’t give me any horse manure about they won’t let you take me. You have power of attorney and I voluntarily moved into this prison. You can sign me out right now. Please, son. I don’t want to die here. I want to die in peace. I want to die in my home in the mountains where I was raised.”

Connor was going to tell him that very thing, that he couldn’t sign him out, not with him so close to death. But hearing his father’s scratchy voice pleading with him, seeing his eyes begging him, Connor couldn’t say ‘no’ even if it got him in trouble. 

“Okay, Dad,” he said and handed back the piece of paper. James took it, placed it in the book and closed it. 

It took Connor close to fifteen minutes to help his father get dressed. By then, James was more than winded, his breaths rattling harder and harder in his chest, as if he could hardly get air in his lungs. 

“Let’s go, Dad,” he said and opened the door. 

“Don’t forget my book, Son,” James said.
Connor went back to the table by the bed and picked it up. He handed it to James. got behind the wheelchair and slowly pushed him up the hall, making a right, a left and another right before coming to the long straight away that led back to where Vanessa sat, and beyond her, the door’s to his father’s freedom. 

Connor hit a button to his right before reaching the final door that led to the reception area. A loud click came and the door hummed as it opened. He pushed his father out of the hall and stopped at Vanessa’s desk. 

“I’m going to take Dad for one last ride,” he said.

Vanessa smiled sweetly, her eyes still touched with the sadness of knowing. “Okay, Mr. Barwick. Sign out, state your reason for signing him out. The time is one-fourteen.”

Rocking Chair“Thank you, Vanessa,” he said, signed the log, though taking a little longer than usual to do so. When he was done, he set the pen down, gave her the best smile he could muster and pushed the wheelchair across the receptionist area to the automatic doors and out into the still warm afternoon. 

By the time he got James into the car, his father was already zoning out, going off to that world he often did as his mind slowly died. He hoped he would come back once they arrived in the mountains. 

The drive took almost four hours instead of three, the entire time with Connor checking his rearview mirror for police as a sense of paranoia sat on his shoulders and whispered bad things to him. He wasn’t breaking any laws, but he felt like he was. He felt like an arrest would happen and he would spend time in jail after his father died, due to suspicious circumstances. 

He glanced at his father several times along the way, only to see him staring noncommittingly out the passenger’s window. He pulled off the interstate and drove along a main road until coming to a set of twists and turns that would lead them up the mountain. Halfway up, James stirred. When Connor looked at him, a shadow of a smile traced across his lips. At this, Connor smiled as well.

I don’t care if I go to jail, he thought. Seeing that smile makes it worth it.

Another twenty minutes passed before Connor pulled his truck up to a log cabin that had been built sometime in the nineteenth century. It wasn’t big, but from the outside it looked huge. The logs that formed its outer walls had blackened over the years and the windows held grey grime on them. The porch held a scrum of dust and leaves, as well as several old rocking chairs and a black as coal spittoon Uncle Waylon used to spit into. Brown, orange, red and yellow leaves covered the ground, thanks to the cooler fall in the mountains. The drive wound its way along the side of the cabin, where Connor brought the truck to a stop.

“We’re here, Dad.”

“Here?” James asked. His eyes weren’t quite focused, but they weren’t as far away as they had been. He wasn’t gone, and maybe, just maybe he was coming back. 

“We’re home, Dad. Where you grew up.”

“Where I grew up?”

“Yes, Dad. Where you grew up.”

James looked at Connor with a quizzical expression on his face, his eyes like slits, his brow furrowed down. “Is Waylon here?”

“No, Dad. It’s just you and me.”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Connor frowned. He didn’t want to answer the question, but this was no time for horse manure. “Yes, Dad. He’s been dead for a long time.”

James nodded. “So he has.”

“Dad, are you ready to get out?”

“I suppose so, Son.”

In that instant, his father was completely back. His eyes had cleared and the unfocused, distant gaze was gone. With him back, came the realization.

“Dad?”

“Yes, Son?”

“Are you okay?”

The in and out rattle of leaves came several times. “Never been better,” he said and reached over. His cold hand touched Connor’s and James gave him the most sincere, heart warming (and heart sinking) smile. It was the same smile of knowing Vanessa had on her face earlier that day. “Can you help me get out? I’d like to sit in one of the rockers on the porch.”

“Yes, I can help you, Dad.”

Connor got out of the truck. The cold here had more bite and he wasn’t expecting the sudden ‘take your breath away’ chill. He rounded the car, worried the cold would get to his father before he had a chance to get him to the porch. The worry was unfounded. James Barwick stood from the truck and took a deep breath. When he exhaled, there was no sound of leaves with it. 

“Smells like home,” James said. “It smells like my childhood.

“Yes, it does.”

It was less than twenty steps from the truck to the stairs, and only three full steps up to the porch. Connor held his father’s arm as they made their way slowly from the truck and up the steps. By the time they reached the landing, James had all of his weight on Connor. 

“Let’s get you in the rocking chair,” Connor said. He helped James turn, then lowered him into the rocker. It creaked and groaned beneath his weight and he let out a loud sigh once he was seated. 

“Connor, pull up one of the other rockers. Have a seat beside me.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The rocker scraped across the wooden floor as Connor pulled it up next to James. He sat, but didn’t rock and both his hands sat on the arm rests. 

“Connor, you need to read Louis L’Amour.”

“I will, Dad.”

“I know. You can start with this book—start with where the paper is.”

James held the book out to him. Connor took it and set it in his lap. James reached over and placed a hand on Connor’s. He squeezed it, but it wasn’t very hard. 

“Thank you, Son,” he said, the papery sound of his voice weak. 

“You’re welcome, Dad.”

They sat, quietly, Son and Dad, for the last time together. Dad rocked gently back and forth, back and forth, the floor creaking with it. Connor listened as his father’s breaths grew shallow and the steady groan of the floor lessened until both of them ceased all together. His father’s hand fell away from his and dangled by the side of his seat. 

Connor didn’t look at James, at least not right away. His vision blurred with cold tears. After several minutes, he wiped his eyes and took a deep breath. He picked up the book in his lap, flipped it over in his hands and looked at the cover. He wasn’t much of a reader. His father had known that. He opened the book, flipping through it until he came to where the sheet of paper rested between two pages. He pulled it free and looked at the title of the story on the facing page. Show Me the Way To Go Home. 

Connor smiled.

AJB

__________

My dad is a fan of Louis L’Amour, the great western story teller. But that isn’t where the story originated. It actually came from the quote by Lisa D Walker:

“When I am old and grey, and I have lost who I am and who I was, take me to my mountains, for there I shall find peace for my soul, and I will remember …”

I saw this quote and, seeing how my dad is from the mountains, I saw me going home with him–to his home, not mine. I will not lie and say this was an easy story to write. It wasn’t. It was one of the most difficult stories for me to pen, simply because of the content and the face that I know one day, in part, this story will play out for everyone.

(If you enjoyed ‘Home,’ please comment and share this post on social media. Thank you for helping me spread my stories to the world.)

 

A Conversation With Pete Molnar

Writing horror is not easy. Sure, it sounds like it should be, but good horror is difficult. It’s not about shock and gore and gimmicks. It’s not about grossing people out with a million different ways to kill someone. True horror, at its core, is not even about monsters that go bump in the night. It’s about making people feel something. Something like dread, fear or uneasiness about what they are reading. Its the squirming sensation you get when you think of getting a shot at the doctor’s office or when a bug crawls onto your foot.It’s the heebee jeebies, baby.

PeteI guess you could say life, in and of itself, is horror. After all, some of the things people do to each other is far worse than anything a writer can conjure up. One such story is Broken Birds, by Pete Molnar. In his debut novel, Molnar delivers punch after punch in a story that feels all too real. 

I had a chance to meet Pete at Scares That Cares 6 over the first weekend in August. He is too humble and often doesn’t give himself the credit he deserves. I also got to listen to him do a reading from Broken Birds. That reading was powerful, engaging and cringe-worthy in all the right ways. 

I sat down to talk with Pete recently. Here is what he had to say.

A.J.: First things first: why horror?

Pete: I read Pet Sematary when I was twelve while on vacation in Disneyworld with my family. The book scared me so much I don’t remember much of the trip because I was so preoccupied with holding myself together. Mickey Mouse didn’t phase me, but reading that book changed the trajectory of my life. I knew I wanted to evoke the same kind of fear and terror in another person with something I’d write and I’ve been striving towards that ever since. Then, there is the fact I have been battling depression and social anxiety for much of my adult life. I greatly fear death and dread losing the ones I love, almost on an irrational level. Confronting my own fears and phobias (and they are Legion) through writing horror stories is therapeutic and when its is going well, quite cathartic.

A.J.: Pete, when you set out to write Broken Birds, did you know exactly where the story was going or did you say a prayer and wing it?

1438845475Pete: I started out writing as a “pantser” because I had read Stephen King writes that way. It was a mistake to have stuck to that approach for so long and for such a simplistic reason. Then I signed up for James Patterson’s Masterclass. Drafting a “flexible outline” had confounded me for the longest time, until Patterson laid it out in plain language and broke it down into something less intimidating for me. I am now a sworn “plotter” after having written three previous novels the other way, and Broken Birds was the first novel I wrote using an outline. I used to think using an outline would rob the writer of the magical experience of telling the story to themselves. Now, I swear by this approach, because even with an outline, characters are still going to do whatever they want and they’re going to surprise you no matter what.

A.J.: Some people love animals more than they love people (understandably so). Are you one of these people? If so, did that make writing certain scenes in Broken Birds difficult?

Pete: At first, I was really concerned that the treatment of animals in Broken Birds would turn readers off. Not to mention, the scenes that feature animal abuse were very difficult to write and I almost abandoned the project as a result. Then I realized I was not merely writing a novel about hurting animals, as much as I was writing a testament to the bond between humans and their pets. Will Bentley sacrifices everything to save his dog, Alberta. This is a guy who demonstrates how much his pet means to him, so much so he is willing to put his own life in danger and turn his seemingly idyllic existence upside down to save his dog from the clutches of two twisted, sociopathic people.  

A.J.: Are any of the characters based (loosely or solely) on people you have met?

Pete: I can tell you Will’s girlfriend, Mina, as she is described, is my wife. Dark hair. Light eyes. A book-lover and a deep-thinker. Karl Tarlick is a composite of Charles Manson and Gary Heidnik, a serial killer who created a “real-life” House of Horrors in his Philadelphia rowhome. Will Bentley is modeled after Tim O’Brien, who wrote the critically-acclaimed war memoir The Things They Carried. I’m thankful I’ve never met a woman like Stella or Jack Post, but they are both sides of the Battered Woman-Battering Man coin. I conducted hours of research on this disconcerting and baffling relationship, as well as the phenomenons of agoraphobia and borderline-disorder to flesh out Stella especially.   

A.J.: After writing Broken Birds, did you intend to get it published or did you have help deciding it was worth the shot?

Pete: This was the book I shared with Lisa Vasquez during my mentorship with her. She offered a great deal of encouragement and guidance during the novel’s early chapters. I really put my heart and soul into this book, because I didn’t want to see another full-length novel doomed to imprisonment on my hard drive. I wanted this one to see the light of day and I wanted it to be worthy of publication. Lisa must have seen something of merit in the early stages of the book because she invited me to become a VIP author at Stitched Smile Publications. Prayers answered!

A.J.: How did you find your publisher, Stitched Smile Publications?

Pete: I signed up for the Horror Writers Association Mentorship Program and Lisa Vasquez reached out to me shortly thereafter. She took me under her wing, teaching me the in’s and out’s of marketing and the business of writing. She also offered me invaluable advice and regular critiques of Broken Birds, chapter by chapter. Stitched Smile scooped me up at a time in my life when I had nearly come to terms with the prospect I would never land a publisher or an agent. I had queried roughly eighty agents to no avail for my previous novel The Clockwork Lazarus. It was a tough time, and SSP delivered me from what might have been a lifetime of regret.

A.J.: What was the publishing process like for you, the writer? On the same token, what was it like for you, the person?

Pete: As a writer, the publishing process was as exciting as it was an education. The editorial staff at Stitched Smile made numerous passes through the book and eliminated the weaknesses I had missed during my own three passes. Inconsistencies and grammar mistakes that I believe would have slipped through at many other presses. Their attention to detail was laser-focused. As a person, the journey from draft to finished, packaged novel was pretty magical, and to this day when I see my book lying on a dresser or see my wife reading it, I have to take a second look. It’s so surreal.    

A.J.: Did I hear correctly, that Broken Birds was not the original title?

Pete: That’s true. Originally, the book was titled Moonshadow after the Cat Stevens song. When I imagined how Karl Tarlick, the main antagonist in the book, would look, for some reason Cat Stevens just popped into my head. Long, black hair in thick ringlets that frame and nearly close over his face like curtains. Then, I researched the lyrics to some of Cat Stevens’ songs and stumbled across the lyrics to Moonshadow. When I read them, they seemed to fit the context of who Karl Tarlick is way too perfectly. The lyrics bore a sinister tone, like the song was written by a stalker. 

A.J.: Why did you change the title?

Pete: As I kept writing, I realized the title should be changed to Broken Birds. This was for  two reasons. The first being the psychological phenomenon of “broken bird syndrome” is front and center in the novel’s plot line. But also, I noticed a symbolic thread running through the story itself. That all the main characters are broken in some way. Psychologically damaged and dealing with it as only they know how. In a productive way, or, well, not so productive. I’ll say that. 

A.J.: You went to Scares That Cares 6 this year. What was that experience like for you?

Pete: My first night there, my head was on a swivel. One minute, I’m walking past Sid Haig, and the next I see Josh Malerman a few feet away signing books. Paul Tremblay. Jonathan Maberry. Then there was the fact I was finally able to meet my Stitched family in person. Up until that event, I’d only ever communicated with Lisa, Donelle, Larissa, Deanna, Tara, and yourself through group chat, DM, or Hangouts. I was so thrilled to meet everyone in person and the click was immediate.  

A.J.: If I’m correct, you sold out of your books. How did that make you feel?

Pete: Pleasantly surprised doesn’t even cover it. I had expected to be bringing many of them home with me to sell around my neck of the woods. But Sunday rolled around and they just went and I couldn’t believe it. So cool! 

A.J.: What was it like to sign that first book?

Pete: Another unreal experience. I felt like I’d finally come full circle. My 8th grade yearbook had a section in it where all the students were asked where they saw themselves in ten years. I wrote “Autographing my novel or touring the nation.” I wanted to be a writer or a rockstar. But really, writing was always my first love. Took longer than ten years to get there. It took thirty years, but there it was. Dream fulfilled!

A.J.: You did a reading at Scares That Cares 6. Being there to witness it, I think you knocked it out of the park. Were you nervous at all before reading?

Pete: Not at all. Being an English teacher, I read entire novels to my classes. And if I really want to hold the attention of a bunch of fifteen-year-old kids in 2019, a dramatic reading is required. Voices. Acting out Shakespeare. Playing Macbeth. Otherwise, the words are dead on the page for them. I have no problem making a fool out of myself or stepping out of a comfort zone in order to evoke emotion through live reading. Also, having been a singer in bands for fifteen years, I’m quite at home in front of an audience. It’s a lot of fun!

A.J.: How did you feel after you finished the reading?

Pete: It was exhilarating. But I was a little worried about alienating the audience with the particular scene I had chosen to read. That’s why I did a little disclaimer beforehand. It turned out to be okay after all. I think people enjoyed it. 

A.J.: Writing is such a solitary endeavor and authors often spend hundreds of hours alone with the characters in the worlds they create. But who would you like to thank—someone outside of your head—for helping you along the way?

Pete: My wife, Dana, and my daughter, Ani, gave me the time and the space I needed to do the work. Writing takes you away from your family for periods of time each day, but they both were extremely supportive and understanding. They continue to be, and I’m grateful for their love and for believing in this guy. 

A.J.: Before I let you go, Broken Birds is a great debut novel, but is there more from Pete Molnar? What can we expect from you in the future?

Pete: I’ve got a few irons in the fire as far as short stories go. A short story called Swipe-right about a twenty-something girl who stumbles across a different kind of dating site where if she swipes left on a guy’s picture she doesn’t like, the poor guy just winks out of existence. The guys she swipes right on become obsessed with her to the point of becoming dangerous, sociopathic stalkers. Having a good time writing that one! Then there’s my novel-in-progress titled Undiscovered Countries, which centers around a phenomenon known as “coffin-birth” where a dead woman’s body can be scientifically manipulated into birthing a viable child. This one I’m really excited about. It’s already mapped out and outlined. And it’s going to take on a lot more than just the horrific scenario of a “coffin-birth.” It’s going to tackle the twenty-four hour news cycle, religious fundamentalist groups, as well as the persistent scourges of hate, intolerance, and bias in this country. I really think it’s going to be something special for my readers.  

A.J.: Any final words, Pete?

Pete: A.J., this has been a lot of fun! Thank you so much! For my readers, present and future, I extend the deepest gratitude to all of you. Thanks for taking a chance on a new writer!

For those of you who have not heard of Pete Molnar, get ready to. Broken Birds is just the beginning for this talented writer. Beyond the writing, Pete is also a good guy with a big heart and great pipes for singing. Check Pete out at the following links.

www.petermolnarauthor.com

www.facebook.com/petermolnarauthor

@PMolnarAuthor

http://www.instagram.com/petermolnarauthor