The Story of Orville Hammonds

The old man was tired. He walked up the road with a limp and slightly hunched over. It felt like it had been years since he sat at the table with a sandwich in front of him, though it had only been less than five hours. 

The old man’s name was Orville Hammonds and before that night he didn’t feel old. He considered himself a youthful sixty-three. But right then, he felt like a used up eighty-one, with aches and pains he didn’t normally feel on a daily basis.

I’ll be feeling this tomorrow, he thought and continued his slow trek up West Lincoln Drive, a road he never considered a drive at all, more like a Street—a dead end street. To his left is where the Taylor’s lived. On the right is where the widow Lawson lived, she of ninety plus years who still got along like she was his age and not almost thirty years his senior. 

He looked up the road and he remembered.

Orville arrived home from work that evening a little after six, having made a stop at Jerry’s Deli on West End Street. He got the Jerry Special, complete with ham, turkey, chicken and sliced pepper jack. Jerry tossed on lettuce, tomato and a homemade mustard that was better than anything Orville could get from a store. A bag of chips and a sweet tea came with the special, as well as a cookie—chocolate chip for Orville. 

He didn’t bother with changing his clothes or even taking the heavy work boots off. Though he no longer did much construction, he still oversaw half a dozen projects for Mr. McGuinn and still wore steel toed boots and carried a sharp knife in his back pocket. Orville sat at the table, a small pinch alive in the right side of his back, thanks to a seventeen foot drop off a scaffolding six years earlier. The broken back was bad, but the spinal cord wasn’t damaged. Four surgeries and hours of physical therapy later and he went back to work, just not climbing ladders or scaffolds. 

Orville set his cell phone by the sandwich, took the top off his tea, and set it aside before taking a long swallow from the cup. The tea was good—not too sweet the way Alice made it when she lived here. He started to unwrap the sandwich when a knock came at the door. He looked at his watch. It was nearing seven and he rarely had company. Still, he stood, went to the door, and opened it just as the person on the other side went to knock again. 

He started to say something like, ‘Can I help you?’ but stopped when he saw the gun. He glanced up. The person on his porch had an Iron Main mask on.

“Halloween’s not for another two months, Mister.”

Iron Man held the gun up, pointing it at Orville’s face. “Get inside.”

Orville raised his hands in a surrender gesture and stepped from the door. Iron Man entered the house and closed the door behind him. 

“I don’t know what you want, but—”

Iron Man swung the gun. It struck Orville in the left cheek. A flair of pain erupted. The skin split and blood spilled from the wound, Orville’s head jerked to the right and he spun on his heel before losing his balance and falling to the floor. He raised his hand to touch the wound. He could already feel swelling below his eye. Another explosion of pain came, this time near his right ear. 

Orville collapsed and his world ran away from him.

He woke with a headache and his left eye swollen nearly shut. He could feel wetness on his cheek and jaw and soaked through the shoulder of his shirt. His head was down, chin on his chest, as if he had bowed to pray. He tried to move his arms, but they were bound behind his back. His right ear had a low ringing in it that hurt as much as his head and cheek did, if not more. Orville blinked his right eye several times trying to blink away the fog and confusion in his head.

“About time you woke up,” someone said.

Orville lifted his head slowly and winced as a fresh pain blossomed in his neck and the back of his skull. He closed his good eye, lowered his head again and waited for the pain to ease off. 

“I thought I killed you back there.”

The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it with the ringing in his ear.

How did I get here? he thought and tried to recall the last thing he could. It was still hazy, but he knew it had something to do with Halloween and some superhero. 

A hand grabbed Orville’s chin and lifted his face. The man half kneeling in front of him wasn’t wearing a mask.

He was Iron Man, Orville thought. He was Iron Man and now he’s not even Tony Stark.

“Hey, old man. Did I scramble your brains or are you with me here?”

He recognized the face. It was thin, as if the man in front of him had missed a few meals. His nose was too big for his face and pointy at the end. His eyes were as thin as his face and body was. Sparse hairs clung to his upper lip, chin and along his jawline. He looked like a weasel in human skin. His left arm had needle marks in it.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yeah.” 

Orville sounded weak, like someone so much older than he was. 

“Good,” the man said and released Orville’s face but not without giving it a good shove to the side. 

White dots filled Orville’s vision as the throbbing in the back of his head increased. His stomach did a somersault, then quivered. Orville swallowed hard, hoping to keep what little he had in his stomach from coming up. He took a deep breath, licked his dry lips, and forced himself to look up.

“I know you,” he said. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say, but it came out anyway.

“Or course you do, old man.”

“You’re Crawford.” Orville shook his head slightly. That was wrong. “Your last name is Crawford. Your dad used to work for the county.”

“He used to. He’s dead now.”

Orville blinked several times. The vision in his right eye had begun to clear and he knew where he was: the dining room in Gary Crawford’s house at the end of the road. The wood dining table sat in front of him, covered in papers and various odds and ends, including a laptop that sat closed, a ledger, a penholder with various pens and a letter opener sitting inside of it. Orville didn’t sit quite behind the table but slightly off to the side. His hands were loosely bound between his back and the chair. He could see the doorway that led to the kitchen and the bright white light coming from it. If what Crawford’s son said was true, then Gary was dead, and Orville probably was as good as dead.

“What?” Crawford asked. “You’re not going to ask how he died?”

Orville gave a short shake of the head. “No.”

“Suit yourself, old man.”

“What do you want?” His voice was getting stronger. His head was clearing with each passing minute.

“What do I want? You want to know what I want, old man?”

“That’s what I asked.”

He could see Crawford fine now. He looked more like a weasel than he could ever recall. He guessed that was because this kid—what was his name?—had always been some kind of trouble. Gary had told him as much over the years. ‘That kid’s got problems. He’s going to be a handful when he’s older.’ And he had been, getting in trouble with the law on many occasions, the least of which was DUI and reckless driving. There had been a drug arrest as well and sitting there in Gary Crawford’s kitchen, his hands bound behind his back, he had a feeling drugs might have played a part in his actions that night.

Orville, moved his wrist, trying to keep his shoulders still but not certain he did a good job of it. The rope was looser than he thought, and he believed he could eventually work one hand free. If he could do that …

Then what? What are you going to do? The kid has a gun.

I don’t see it.

You saw it earlier, when you opened the door like an idiot.

He conceded to that rationale. 

“An old man like you,” Crawford began, “I bet you have a nice little savings, don’t you?”

If he were to tell the truth, Orville didn’t really have a nice little savings. When Alice filed for divorce shortly after the accident, she took a lot of his money and assets with him. He got the house, but only because she didn’t want it. Ellen, their daughter had been angry with her mom.

‘You’re abandoning Dad when he needs you most.’

‘This was a long time coming, Ellie,’

‘His back is broken, What is he going to do?’

He heard the argument while laying in the hospital bed, having been there all of eleven days at that point. They thought he had been asleep. 

‘I’ll be fine,’ he said.

Both women turned to him. Ellen’s eyes were wet with tears. Alice had a shocked drop-jaw look on her face. Then she clamped her mouth shut and left the room. It was the last time Orville saw her outside of a courtroom. 

“I have a little,” he said. “Is that what this is about? Money?”

“Isn’t that what everything’s about?”

“No.”

“Really, old man?”

“I wish you’d stop calling me old man.”

“That’s what you are, an old, washed up man. You couldn’t even keep your wife. At least my mom died, and my dad didn’t lose her the way you did.”

Orville said nothing to this.

“Didn’t like that, eh, old man?”

“Not particularly.”

Crawford laughed, his head tipping. As suddenly as he began laughing, he stopped, approached Orville with a sneer on his face. “It’s not about money, old man,” he said before swinging a fist at him. The chair tipped back. For the second time that night, Orville was on the floor unconscious.

***

When Ellen was thirteen, she began showing signs of the woman she would become. Some of the young boys in her class noticed. One of the older boys did as well. This boy was seventeen and had taking a shine to Ellen. Alice thought it was cute, said, ‘It’s just puppy love.’

‘Puppy love is what kids get. That boy is no kid.’

‘He’s harmless.’

‘He’s almost an adult.’

It was one of those arguments where there was no winner and no loser, but it was one of many wedges that would drive Alice and Orville apart, even if they stayed married longer than they should have. 

Still, Orville had an uneasy feeling about the boy, about the way he looked at her. He knew that look and he knew it wasn’t puppy love. It was only a matter of time before something would happen. This much he was positive of. And he had been right.

Ellen woke one night to someone peeking into her window. She was too afraid to yell. Instead, she crawled out of bed and slowly left the room as if she needed to pee. She had closed the door and ran up the hall to their bedroom. She didn’t turn the lights on, and she didn’t scream. She only said, ‘Dad, there’s someone outside my window.’

Orville got out of bed, put on a pair of pants and said, ‘Go get in bed. Act like you don’t know he’s there. I’ll take care of it.’

He put on his boots and grabbed a small baseball bat he got at a minor league baseball game in Columbia. It wasn’t much longer than a foot, but it was solid and when he caught the boy outside her window, it only took one swing to the back for him to go down. 

That boy was Brady Crawford.

***

Orville was only unconscious for a few minutes before he woke. He was on the floor where he had fallen, the chair to his side and his hands still behind his back. He remembered the boy’s name now. Brady Crawford. He also knew why he was there. No, it wasn’t about money, though he supposed in some way it was. If not, Brady wouldn’t have brought it up before knocking him out again. This was also about revenge for being caught outside Ellen’s window nearly twenty years earlier. 

Some people have long memories.

Orville looked around the dining room and saw no one, at least not from where he was. He rolled onto his back, winced when he got onto his other hip. No one was there. Orville tried to sit up but that did no good. Instead, he rolled back onto his other side off his bad hip and leg and started working his wrists from side to side, hoping the rope would loosen even more than it was. 

The rope burned against his skin as he pulled at it until finally one wrist tore free. He pushed up to a sitting position. His shoulders hurt. His wrists bled. His left elbow was swollen where he had fallen from the chair. 

Get up. Get out of here.

Orville got onto his knees. He reached for the table with one hand and began to pull himself up. He was halfway to standing when his back seized up on him. Orville let out a cry of pain and dropped back to his hands and knees. Without being able to stand, he didn’t think there was any way he would make it out of there. Not in the pain he was in. 

I have to try.

He tried to remember the layout of the house. It had been a long time since he had been there and that had been when Gary’s wife, Janet, died. 

I’m in the dining room. The kitchen is straight ahead. There is a doorway off to the right, no, the left. The living room is there. To the right is a hallway? I can’t remember but that doesn’t matter—the front door is across from the doorway to the kitchen. I need to get there.

If he were able to stand and walk, he could be there in half a minute at most. But there would be no walking. Not right now.

Orville turned toward the kitchen door and began to crawl. It was slow going. Every time he moved his right leg, his back and hip screamed with a fresh, sharp pain that almost took his breath away. 

Thirty seconds had come and gone several times over when he reached the entrance to the kitchen. The overhead light washed the room in a yellow hue. The refrigerator stood directly to his right and the stove was across from it. He didn’t look around to see what else was in there, or if someone were hiding. He crawled across the gray tiled floor until he reached the doorway leading to the living room. 

The light was off, but he could make out the couch along the far wall, the television to his left, the hallway to his right and the recliner near the front door. His heart sped up. Someone sat in the recliner, his head tilted toward him. He didn’t think it was Brady—the person in the chair was too big. 

He remained in the doorway for a minute, maybe longer, waiting for the person in the recliner to move, to say something, to get up and attack him but none of that happened. 

He must be asleep.

Orville eased out of the kitchen and into the living room. He crawled slowly toward the door, his eyes on the person in the recliner, his heart trip hammering in his chest and sweat beading across his forehead. He held his breath for as long as possible, then let it out in what he hoped was a silent stream. He was halfway across the room by the time his eyes adjusted to the light and he was able to make out Gary Crawford in the recliner. He wasn’t asleep and he wasn’t looking at Orville. One eye was open, but the other one was missing. What looked like blood caked the right side of his face. Gary Crawford was dead, just like Brady said he was. 

Orville crawled again, a little faster than before, even with the incessant pain running along the right side of his body. He reached the door and grabbed the knob. It turned easily enough but the door didn’t open. He pulled on it again with no luck. He looked up. There was a bolt lock near the top of the door.

Oh boy.

Orville put his left hand on the wall and his right on the doorknob, He pulled himself up enough to get his right leg under him, then he pushed up. He grimaced. The pain increased and his stomach began to hurt. Orville hugged the door and wall in front of him, both hands up, his face against the cool wood of the door. Then he reached up, slid the bolt to the right. It let out a loud click that made him flinch. He grabbed the knob and turned it.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

He heard Brady before he felt the pain in his lower back. He let out a yell and clutched the small of his back before his legs buckled and dropped him to the floor again. He rolled onto his side, his eyes clenched shut, his lips peeled back, showing his yellowing teeth. 

“I bet that hurt, didn’t it, old man?”

Orville opened his good eye to see Brady towering over him. In his hand was a familiar object. It was the same bat Orville had struck Brady with all those years ago as he stood outside Ellen’s window, groping himself and no doubt fantasizing about the things he wanted to do to her. 

Brady smacked his open hand with the barrel of the bat. It made a meaty THWACK sound each time he did so. 

“Oh, look what I found at your house.” Brady held up the bat, waving it near his head before bringing it back down on his open palm again. “Bet you didn’t expect that, did you, old man?”

Orville said nothing. He had a feeling that would not be the only time Brady would strike him with the bat and the next time it may not be in the back. He stared at Brady as he slipped his right hand behind his back and into the back pocket of his jeans. 

“I see you found Dad.”

“What did you do to him?” He didn’t think it mattered. He could see what had happened, but maybe getting Brady to talk could buy him time. 

“Are you blind? I killed him. Shot him in the eye with his own gun. You know, kind of like I hit you in your back with your bat. Talk about turn about is fair play.”

Orville gripped the knife in his right hand and slowly pulled it free from his pocket. He turned it over in his palm until it was in his hand correctly and his thumb was on the blade assist button that would spring the knife open, not unlike a switchblade. 

Brady tapped his hand again, then without warning, brought the bat across the side of Orville’s left leg. It struck just above the knee in the fatty part of the thigh. Orville screamed again and grabbed for his leg. He saw Brady’s arm go back again and moved his hand just before the bat struck his leg again, this time a little further up. 

Orville tried to move but could only manage to squirm a few inches. Again, he saw Brady’s arm go back. He swung again for the thigh, striking it in the same place as the last time. Orville tried not to scream but still did, even as he grabbed the bat’s barrel and yanked. 

Brady tipped off balance with a sentence that was clipped off when he landed on the floor beside Orville. “What the …”

Orville brought the knife from behind his back and drove it into Brady’s side. It sank between two ribs.

This time, Brady screamed. It was loud and painful sounding, like a dog that had its tail snipped off. Brady rolled to the side. He dropped the bat and grabbed at the wound. 

“You … you stabbed me.”

Orville said nothing. His leg and back and hip hurt, and the pain was almost blinding. 

“You stabbed me.”

Orville sat up the best he could and scooted away from him, pushing with his right leg as the useless left one dragged along. His back struck the door. From there he could see Brady was also sitting up. One hand held his ribs. Blood seeped between the fingers. 

“I’m going to kill you, old man, and it’s going to hurt.”

Brady started to stand but stopped. He looked around until he found what he was looking for. He smiled and picked up the bat. 

Orville scooted to his right and put one hand on the recliner. By the time he had the other one on the recliner—on Gary Crawford’s cold, dead arm—Brady was to his feet. 

Brady shook his head as he smiled at Orville. He held the bat in both hands and raised it over his head. 

Oh crap.

Orville lifted his left arm, his hand out in front of him. He swung his right hand forward as the bat struck three fingers. Orville howled as two of the fingers broke. Brady screamed as the knife struck him in the crotch. Brady dropped to his knees then fell onto his side. The bat clattered against the floor. Both of Brady’s hands went to his crotch and he rolled from side to side, his legs pulled to his chest. 

Orville still held the knife in his hand. Blood dripped from its blade, but it was the bat he wanted. He wiped the blood from the blade and closed it with his one good hand and slipped it into his back pocket. Carefully, he bent down, his lips pulled back from his teeth as bolts of pain coursed through his back, hip, thigh and knee. He crawled the few feet to where Brady rolled around holding his privates as blood spilled between his fingers.

***

On the night Brady peeked through Ellen’s window, probably not for the first time but certainly the last, Orville wanted to kill him. He had warned Alice about the boy, but she thought he was overreacting. He didn’t kill him. No, he only struck him the one time in the lower back. It was enough to send Brady to the ground, screaming and crying. 

What Orville did after that was call the police. He didn’t know if it would matter, but he hoped it would deter Brady from ever peeping into a female’s window again. More than that, he hoped it broke him of possibly becoming a sexual predator. 

Gary Crawford came down a few days later to apologize.

‘He’s going to spend a few weeks at The Mannassah Hall Institute for Boys.’

‘I hate that it came to this.’

‘Me, too, and I really am sorry.’

It was the last conversation Gary and Orville would have until Janet died. He hoped the boy would turn the corner and do better, if not for himself, then for his parents. 

He was wrong.

***

On the evening Brady Crawford killed his dad with his own gun and kidnapped Orville with plans to do something similar, Orville Hammond brought the foot long souvenir bat down on Brady’s head and arms, until both arms were broken and Brady was both still and silent. He tossed the bat aside and dropped to the floor. He lay there for several minutes, his eyes closed. He felt himself fading toward sleep. 

“No.”

Orville struggled to stand, but he managed by using the armrest of the recliner and the wall for leverage. He looked back at Brady and shook his head. Then he opened the front door and slowly shambled outside. He stood on the porch looking up at the night sky. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen. Stars hung like ornaments on the black backdrop. The moon wasn’t quite full, and it looked like a giant spotlight in the sky. He didn’t think he would see another night and maybe he won’t after this one, but the moon and stars were beautiful. It was as if he saw them for the first time. 

It took him several minutes to get down the steps, then several more to make it to the end of the sidewalk and into the road. 

Orville turned to his right. His house was twelve houses away. He took a deep breath, released it and started for home. He limped along, slightly hunched over trying to alleviate the pain in his back any way possible but failing miserably. He reached his house sometime after midnight, but he would swear more than five hours had passed since he sat to eat a sandwich from Jerry’s Deli.

It was a struggle to get up the steps but not get inside. The door had been unlocked and the lights left on. The living room had been ransacked and he bet if he searched the house, the other rooms would have been just as turned upside down. 

Orville went into the small room that served as both den and dining room. His tea, sandwich and cellphone sat where he left them. The top to the cup lay beside the cellphone. Orville sat at the table, picked up his phone and dialed 9-1-1. He gave the dispatcher—a woman who sounded like she gargled with razor blades on more than one occasion—the information on two dead bodies as well as his address. He figured the cops would want to talk to him about what happened, and he was okay with that. He might even get in trouble for what he had done to Brady. He guessed he wasn’t so okay with that one. 

As he sat at the table, he carefully unwrapped the sandwich, the broken fingers making it difficult. He heard sirens off in the distance as he took the first bite.

AJB

BLINK, A Short Story

BLINK

There’s a girl walking on the side of a country road. Her back is to the traffic. She can’t be much older than eleven, maybe thirteen. She wears faded blue jeans and a white shirt. Her hair is blonde, and it flows down to her shoulder blades—not too long, not too short. In her left arm is a brown paper bag. 

It is 1982.

BLINK

A half mile down the road is a convenience store, a block building painted yellow years before. A glass door at the front of the store is the only way in and the only way out. A small cowbell dangles above it, letting out a hollow CLUNK each time the door opens and closes. Most people don’t notice it. 

The store sells everything a small country town could need. 

Jim Baker sits behind a wooden counter. He’s a year passed sixty and looks like he could be older. His hair is thin and unkempt, his eyebrows bushy. He’s slightly overweight and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. 

A cash register with small round number buttons and a fatter button used to make the drawer open sits atop the counter. There is eighty-four dollars in the drawer, mostly ones and fives, but at least one ten dollar bill. The rest of the money is in a lockbox under the counter, next to a shotgun he keeps loaded. He has never had to use it and he hopes to never have to.

BLINK

Betty sits on a couch. It’s frame is wooden, the cushions orange and brown. She bought it in 1978 when the style was still popular, but she doesn’t chase bad purchases with good money. No, not since her husband died and left her and the daughter he fathered with little to nothing in money. 

She’s too big to get a job. Her hair was once long and blonde and kinky with curls, but over the last three years she has kept it short, barely on the shoulders, and with no curls. She wears too much makeup, though she never leaves the house. Blue eye shadow, rosy rouged cheeks, and the lipstick color of the day. 

She sits on the couch most days from sun up to sun down, watching her shows. Game shows (her favorite has always been The Price is Right with Bob Barker) and her soap operas, though there is never any singing, and as far as she knew, never any soap. Still, she loves them, and she hasn’t missed an episode of Days of Our Lives in over nine years. 

They live off of Social Security benefits.

She reaches for her cigarettes only to see the pack is empty.

BLINK

Carl Yelder drifts from town to town, mostly doing odd jobs for a few dollars here and there. He doesn’t carry much with him, a change of clothes in a bag, some deodorant, and that’s about all. He’s not much to look at and most people, if asked, wouldn’t remember him. Brown hair and brown eyes, a scraggly beard that wasn’t really a beard at all, but just some hairs on his face gone awry. His not big and he’s not little. He’s average in every way, shape and form, right down to his average jeans, average t-shirt and average sneakers. 

Currently, Carl stands on the road, his bag in hand, and stares at a convenience store that has no name. He walks across the dirt parking lot and enters the store. A cowbell above the door CLUNKS his arrival twice. He glanced up at it. It wasn’t a big cowbell, but it did its job.

The big guy behind the counter eyes him suspiciously. Carl takes no offense to it—most people who work in small places like this eyeball him, expecting him to use his five finger discount to lift something from the store without paying. 

Carl nods. The big guy doesn’t. 

BLINK

The young girl’s name is Alecia. She is a shade over eleven, but not quite thirteen—she is twelve and life has never been carefree for her. With no father—killed by a gunshot wound to the head that was ruled a suicide—and a mother too obese to do much more than sit on a couch all day, Alecia has had to grow up a lot faster than the few friends she has. 

As if having to act like an adult instead of a kid isn’t bad enough, her body is changing. Where there were no curves three or four months ago there are now. Her period arrived two months ago and what used to be a flat chest had begun to develop breasts. The boys who never noticed her before all notice her now. 

She hates it. She hates all of it. 

At the convenience store, she grabs a half gallon of milk. 

The sound of the cowbell grabs her attention away from the aisle with the snack cakes on them. A man enters. She glances at him, then looks back to the snack cakes. She picks out a pack of chocolate iced, vanilla cream filled Zingers. They are her favorite.

At the counter, she asks for a pack of Virginia Slims.

“You’re kind of young to be smoking,” Jim Baker says with a smile. He knows who the cigarettes are for. Then he asks about her mother. 

“She’s fine,” Alecia says. 

Jim punches in the prices of the few items she has. “That will be Five dollars and nineteen cents, Alecia.” He says this, then his eyes drift down to her chest for a second. He looks back at her face, but she saw his eyes, she saw how he looked at her. 

Alecia hands him two fives, waits for her change, then she says, “See you next time.”

Jim nods. “You be careful out there, Alecia.”

She turns away, nods and smiles at the stranger, then leaves the convenience store. She doesn’t think the guy checked her out the way Jim did, but it doesn’t matter. She feels dirty and all she wants to do is get away from them. 

BLINK

Betty stands, not without significant effort. She’s not quite out of breath when she gets upright, but close enough. She walks across the room to the front window. She opens the curtain and looks out at the front yard. The lawn is in dire need of cutting. A car sits in the cracked driveway, the front driver’s side wheel flat, dirt and grime caking the windows. It hasn’t been driven in years. 

Across the street is Sue Ellen Jacobs. She has no kids, and her husband is still alive. She stands at the mailbox going over the few pieces in her hands.

“Enjoy it while you can,” Betty says and places her face to the window. She tries to see up the road, but barely sees beyond her yard. She lets out a heavy sigh and heads back to her couch. The commercials only last so long and she doesn’t want to miss anything juicy. 

BLINK

Carl goes to the glass drink coolers against the wall. He grabs a Coke, then walks back toward the checkout counter.

The young girl is there. She hands the guy behind the counter two fives. They chat for a second, he asking how her mom was doing, she replying her mom is well. There is a see you next time and be careful out there exchanged, then the girl leaves. She glances at Carl and smiles. It’s nothing flirty or anything, just her being courteous.

Carl nods. 

He sets his drink on the counter and waits as the guy looks at him.

“Is that all?” the man asks.

Carl nods. “Unless you have work I can do, then yes.”

The man doesn’t really consider his comment before saying, “I have no work for you and the Coke is forty cents. Do you have that much?”

Carl does.

BLINK

Alecia shakes her head. She’s annoyed with herself. She forgot the matches for her mother’s cigarettes. She turns around, bag tucked under her left arm and goes back to the convenience store.

BLINK

Jim watches the young man leave, Coke in hand and his head down. The cowbell above the door makes its hollow sound as he exits. For a few seconds more, Jim stares at the door, not certain if, but believing the man might return. He doesn’t believe the man wanted work, but more likely he wanted a freebie. And what if Jim had work for him? He thought the guy would get in good, maybe work a few days, then take off with all the money in the cash register.

“Not happening,” he says and reaches down, feeling for the shotgun that brings him instant security. 

When the door opens the next time, he glances up. He smiles the best he can. “Back so soon?”

BLINK

Days of Our Lives ends on its usual daily cliffhanger. Betty looks at the clock on the wall near the door between the living room and kitchen. It’s now three in the afternoon.

“Where’s that girl?” she asks the air. “She should have been back by now.”

Betty smacks her lips together. She can go for a cigarette right about now. She usually has one when Days goes off. But not today. No, not today, all because Alecia hasn’t arrived back from the store. 

It’s not that far away, she thinks. 

It is further than she thinks, at almost three miles from here to there. For Alecia it takes an hour there and an hour back and a few minutes in between for the shopping for of the items Betty sent her for. 

Like earlier, she struggles to stand and is out of breath when she gets to her feet. When she goes to the window this time there is no Sue Ellen Jacobs and her carefree world. There is also no Alecia.

“Hmmph.”

Betty turns from the window and shuffles from the living room and down the hallway to her bedroom. The room has a musty smell, like sweat and armpits, but she doesn’t notice the very scent she wears. She goes to a small end table near the bed and opens it. She frowns. The pack of cigarettes she keeps there is gone. 

And so is something else, the gun her husband used to kill himself with.

BLINK

Carl leaves the store with no name with his Coke in hand. Even though he has been treated with the same suspicious eyes for as long as he has been on the road, it still bothers him. He is a good person who hasn’t given anyone a reason to treat him poorly. That’s the way of the travelling man, he supposes. 

He crosses the dirt lot and steps into the road. He turns to the left and starts back the way he came. He’s probably half a mile up the road before he realizes he is walking in the opposite direction he means to go. 

“I must have gotten shook up a little.”

He turns around and heads back toward the store. He has no plans to stop in, not with the warm reception he received the first time.

From where he is he can see the store. Someone walks out but that person is too far off in the distance for him to make out any features. He barely makes out what could be jeans and a t-shirt but could also be slacks and a pullover. He honestly can’t tell. 

As he approaches the store, his stomach grumbles.

BLINK

“I forgot the matches,” Alecia says and walks up to the register.

She can see Jim’s eyes roam down to her chest, then back up to her face. Color forms in his cheeks when their eyes meet. She shakes her head.

“Can I have the matches, please.”

“Umm … yeah, yeah. Sure, Alecia.”

He plucks a box from the left of the register and holds them out to her. She looks at the box but doesn’t take it.

“Can you set them on the counter, please?”

She’s young but not dumb. She’s seen that look before. She reaches behind her.

“Oh no, it’s on the house,” Jim says. 

“Does that mean free?”

“Yes. Yes, it’s free.”

“Thank you,” she says and brings her hand from behind her back.

Alecia smiles.

Jim’s eyes grow wide.

BLINK

Betty paces the room. She doesn’t like that Alecia hasn’t returned from the store. She should have by now.

What if something happened to her?

It’s a natural thought for a mother to have when her child has been gone longer than she should have been. Then came the next thought, the true nature of her concern.

You better hope nothing has happened to her. Without her there is no Social Security check.

The true nature of her concern comes out in that moment. She licks her lips. They feel dry. Her hands and armpits are sweaty. She smells rotten onions on her skin, a sure sign she is nervous. She looks out the window, but sees no one, especially not Alecia. She steps onto the porch to get a better look but doesn’t see her daughter walking back up the street toward her. 

“Where are you?” she growls and stomps back inside. She slams the door behind her and goes to her chair. She has lost all interest in the television. She wants her cigarettes. She tells herself she needs them. Her hands shake and sweat breaks out along her forehead.

“Just wait until you get home, Alecia.”

BLINK

Carl stands in front of the store with no name again. He doesn’t want to go inside, but he is hungry, and hunger trumps the lack of desire to go somewhere he isn’t necessarily wanted. He takes a deep breath and walks across the parking lot. 

He enters the store. The cowbell clunks its two times. There is no one standing behind the counter. He stands there for a minute. Something feels off. 

“Hello?” he calls out. “I’m back.” 

He waits. When he hears nothing, he takes a tentative step, then another. 

“Hello? I’m just going to get a bag of chips or something. Maybe a pack of cookies. Anyone? Hello?”

Carl walks down the aisle where the snacks are. He grabs a bag of chips, then walks a little further and picks out a pack of chocolate chip cookies. He makes his way to the counter, listening and looking for the old man. He goes to set his snacks on the counter, then stops. There is a spatter of red that looks like …

That’s blood, Carl.

On the floor behind the counter is the old man. He is on his side, but Carl doesn’t need to ask him if he is okay. The amount of blood that has pooled around his head tells him, oh no, the man is not okay.

Carl runs from the store, his snacks forgotten. The cowbell clunks and he runs out to the road. Then he stops. He had seen someone leaving earlier. 

What if that person saw something? Then, he thought, What if that person did something?

Carl Yelder has had his fair share of troubles in his life, but he doesn’t want to add murder—especially one he didn’t commit—to the list and be framed for it. He runs. He runs with his Coke still in his left hand and the snacks back on the counter of the store with no name. 

He runs until he sees someone off in the distance walking.

BLINK

A young girl walks along the side of the road with a brown paper bag in her hand.

From behind her comes footsteps and someone shouting.

BLINK

She’s mad. She’s madder than she’s been in years. She thought she was mad when her Pete went and killed himself, but that’s nothing compared to how she feels right now. 

That girl, she thinks. She’s done stole my gun and stole my money and ran away.

She would call the police if she had a phone, but that was one of the first things to go when the bills came due and she didn’t have the money to pay for it. She could go to a neighbor’s house and use the phone, but that means going down those steps and she isn’t sure if she could, first get down them, then second get back up them.

Maybe I misplaced the gun.

Yeah, that’s it. Maybe she misplaced the gun. Betty goes back to the bedroom, huffing and puffing like an old train trying to get up a steep hill. She searches the room, tearing it apart, pulling clothes from the dresser and the closet, flinging things around the room in anger and frustration. 

She doesn’t find the gun.

BLINK

There are a few seconds where Carl doesn’t believe he is running after the right person. The person not too far from him now is the girl from the store, but when she left, the old man was still alive. Still, he calls for her as he runs. 

A stitch formed in his side a few minutes earlier and now it crosses his stomach and cramps the other side as well.

“Hey!” he yells. “Hey, little girl.”

BLINK

She hears him. She knows it’s the man from the store. He wasn’t in there the second time she went in. She also knows he must have gone back. That’s the only thing that makes sense to her. 

“Hey! Hey, little girl!”

He’s close. Too close for her liking.

She turns, lifts her right arm, and aims the gun at him. 

His eyes grow wide, but he doesn’t stop running.

She pulls the trigger when he is only a few feet from her.

BLINK

Carl sees the gun, but it is too late to stop. 

He has time enough to think, she’s going to shoot me.

He lunges. She pulls the trigger.

BLINK

On the edge of the road is a brown paper bag. It is wet and split open at the bottom and its contents lay on the ground, both in and out of the torn bag. The half gallon jug of milk has ruptured and soaks into the ground. A pack of cigarettes—Virginia Slims—peeks out the corner of the torn bag. A pack of chocolate frosted, vanilla cream filled Zingers has been crushed. 

Near the torn, wet bag and ruined items is a crumpled Coke can and a puddle of blood.

BLINK

Alecia falls to the ground with the weight of the stranger’s body. She lands hard beside the road but isn’t hurt. Sure, she has a scratch on her arm, but that’s nothing compared to the bullet the stranger just took to the chest. 

He rolls away and is groaning. 

Alecia stands, picks the gun up from off the ground and points it at him. 

“No, please,” he says and backs away. She doesn’t pull the trigger as he backs away slowly. His shirt is soaked red. There is even a trickle of blood spilling from one side of his mouth.

She looks down at the bag she had been carrying. It’s contents are ruined. Well, most of its contents are. Alecia bends down and picks up the hard pack of cigarettes. She puts them in one of her back pockets and walks away.

BLINK

Carl Yelder reaches the edge of the woods before he collapses. He’s seen some bad things in his life. This is the worst.

BLINK

“What took you so long?” Betty yells from her seat on the couch. Her face is red, but not from the rouge she smudged on earlier in the day. 

“You’re not going to ask what happened to me?”

“What happened to you?” Betty asks. She doesn’t care. She just wants her cigarettes.

“Nothing.”

BLINK

Alecia pulls the trigger of her mom’s gun for the last time. She had placed it against the woman’s temple, smiled, then put her lights out for good, just like she did her lustful, molesting father. She places the gun in Betty’s limp hand, then takes a shower. 

BLINK

There’s a girl walking on the side of a country road. Her back is to the traffic. She can’t be much older than eleven, maybe thirteen. She wears a pair of dark blue jeans and a pink shirt. Her hair is blonde, and it flows down to her shoulder blades—not too long, not too short. 

She is smiling. Off in the distance come the sounds of sirens.

AJB

A Talk With Rhapsody In Red Author, Pete Molnar

On December 17th of this glorious year, my good friend, Pete Molnar, released his second book, Rhapsody in Red. It’s a two novella collection that is sure to keep you up at night. Having read some of Pete’s work, I’m really excited to get my hands on a copy.

Here’s the thing about Pete: he is a true lover of horror and one hell of a nice guy. I got to meet him a couple of years ago at Scares That Care and the time I spent with him and his wife was one of the highlights of the event. I couldn’t think of a better person to support than Pete.

Shortly after the release of Rhapsody in Red, Pete and I had a chat through PM’s on social media. The following is our conversation, in it’s entirety.

A.J.: So, Pete, talk to me about your new book, Rhapsody in Red.

PETE: Well, it started out with just one novella I had been working on about a second Civil War sparked by a pair of Undead Confederate vampires. Then I started a second novella and it just so happened to center around the same vampire theme, only it came from a very different place. 

I’m always listening to the news and following stories and the subject of gun rights and the school shooting epidemic just wouldn’t leave me be. Just as the first novella was sparked by the ongoing tragedy of systemic racism, the second was sparked by another social crisis. My mind married both issues to a sanguinarian plot line and the result is Rhapsody in Red

I’m deeply concerned with societal ills and this is how I process them, so as not to wallow in hopelessness when it comes to some sort of divine reckoning or soothing of the masses. Basically, I worry about the world just as much as I dread what’s underneath the bed, so to speak.

A.J.: I’m curious, what role do the vampires play in these societal ills?

PETE: They take advantage of our weaknesses as human beings as well as manipulate our vices and tragic flaws.

A.J.: That makes sense. 

You state something intriguing in your first response: Basically, I worry about the world just as much as I dread what’s underneath the bed, so to speak.

With this in mind, could the world itself be considered the boogeyman or the monster beneath the bed or in the closet?

PETE: Absolutely. I liken that to the main theme of one of my favorite books, Lord of the Flies. The boys on the island think the island is evil and there is a monster stalking them. In reality, they fail to realize the monster is within each and every one of them. That hits me hard.

A.J.: In Lord of the Flies, Piggy’s death is what I feel is a turning point for the story. Though Roger was responsible for his death, the events leading up to that point all build up to the moment where Piggy dies. In this way, the evil is kind of a creeping up type of thing. Do the events of the two stories in Rhapsody in Red have that same build up where the reader possibly starts dreading turning the next page?

PETE: I think so. Each chapter of each novella is like another couple of steps in the downward spiral.

A.J.: Do the two novellas go together or are they standalone stories?

PETE: They are conjoined by the presence of The Familiar, an ageless vampire who has taken the form of The Tumor Deer. It watches and waits, sort of like a god.

A.J.: Nice. Do you feel like you are tackling subject matters that others might shy away from?

PETE: I used to write straight horror when I started out, but I started to realize that I had other things to say that were pressing to me. I realized I was kind of walling myself into a very specific far too stringent genre of writing, and I decided if I was going to keep writing horror then I wanted to do more with it than I was before. And I had to start grounding it in the real things and people that have always scared the sh*t out of me. I mean, sorry, but Cthulhu doesn’t quicken my pulse in the slightest. But a student walking the hallways with an AR-15, picking off anyone that moves, well, that’s something I could find outside my classroom one day.

And that’s horror.

A.J.: That is, indeed, horror—a real horror.

When writing the two stories for Rhapsody in Red, did you find yourself rooting for any characters in particular or did you know where the stories were going and knew the fates of the characters already?

PETE: I always know the ending, but the journey towards that end is almost always a surprise in how it plays out. And the heroines in both novellas have been living their lives under perpetually black clouds of bad luck and hardship. To watch them both grapple with evil and rise above their own difficult circumstances made me feel really good and it kept me writing because I wanted to get them to the finish line!

A.J.: Did those characters surprise you in how they overcame their circumstances?

PETE: Yes, and they made me very proud of them.

A.J.: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Rhapsody in Red?

PETE: I think we covered everything.

If you’re looking for your horror grounded in both myth and reality, then Pete is your guy. If you’re looking to support a small press author who won’t disappoint you, again, Pete is your guy. If you’re looking to support someone I support, for the third time, Pete is your guy. I love this guy like a brother, and y’all know me, y’all know I’m all about quality work and good people. Give my buddy a try. You can do so on his website where he has several stories posted to whet your appetite, and by purchasing his books, Broken Birds and Rhapsody in Red. 

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

A.J.

Visit Pete at his Amazon author page and his website.

Space Available

I live in South Carolina. I have worked in downtown Columbia since May of 1990. It’s nuts to see that thirty years have passed since May 29th of that year. A lot has changed. I’ve gotten older, gotten married, raised two kids, released fourteen books and had over 200 stories published in various online and print publications. I’ve blown out my knee, had pneumonia, had a heart scare and a few other things that could be considered life altering events. I’ve lost many friends and some relatives to the eternal sleep. I’ve had some good times and I’ve had some bad times. That is the way of life.

On that Tuesday in 1990, my boss at the time, a young woman named Sheri who was not much older than my twenty years, told me, and I quote: “Go across the street and tell them you want a short, sweet blonde.”

I smiled because, in truth, I really did want a short, sweet blonde. Or, really, any blonde. But that is besides the point.

I left the office, went across the street and stepped into the little mom and pop cafe known as The Lunch Box (established in 1980). When I walked in, I saw two small tables with two chairs each, one directly to the left of the door and one directly in front of me along the wall. A glass refrigerator stood behind the table in front of me. Inside were various salads, banana pudding, and boiled eggs. To the left of the refrigerator was the entrance to the cooking area. That opening wasn’t but maybe thirty inches wide. A counter spanned from there and formed an L that ran the entire left side of the area just beyond the table directly to my left. 

Behind the counter was a short, round woman. Her name was Vickie. She was pleasant and funny, but also a no-nonsense woman. Making sandwiches was another woman, Eleanor. It turned out, they were sisters and they were the owners of The Lunch Box. Next to her was a young man named, Todd. 

I walked up to the counter. There was a young woman in front of me who had just ordered her food. Two people walked in after me and stood in line behind me. 

“Can I help you?” Vicki asked.

“I hope so,” I said. “I need a short, sweet blonde.”

The girl who ordered before me smiled, almost embarrassingly, for me. Vickie also smiled in amusement. I probably should have phrased my request differently. 

“A small coffee, with cream and sugar,” Vickie said and rung up my order. She gave me the coffee shortly after, and she was still smiling when she did so.

That was the first time I had stepped foot in The Lunch Box. Over the next twenty-nine years of my life, I would go there quite often for my breakfasts and lunches. I loved their chili cheeseburgers before switching to their hotdogs with chili and cheese and mustard, no onions, please. 

I got to know Eleanor and one of her sons. I became friends with Vickie and was even treated to her one of a kind creation, The Vickie Special. 

For almost forty years, The Lunch Box had been a mainstay on Lady Street in downtown Columbia. During that time period, Vickie passed away from cancer but Eleanor remained, running the place with a welcoming smile and a conversation. 

In early April of this year, as places all across the world were closing their doors temporarily due to the coronavirus, The Lunch Box did the same. I must admit, I was concerned that the doors would remained closed. 

Today, I walked to the post office on Marion Street. On the way back, I walked down Lady Street and went right by The Lunch Box. The front door had been busted out during the race riots in May. There was a piece of board where the glass had been. On the window to the left was a sign that simply said, Space Available.

I stood there for about thirty seconds looking at the sign. I shook my head, saddened by the absolute realization that The Lunch Box would not be coming back. I last ate a couple of hotdogs from there about a week before they closed the doors. This was a sad moment for me, and I’m sure many people in the area will be as saddened.

I think back to Vickie’s amused smile when I told her I was looking for a short, sweet blonde and I can’t help but feel a piece of my life—one thirty years in size—is now gone forever. I think about Eleanor and her asking how I was doing, then how my marriage was going, then how my kids were doing, then how my writing is going. I’m going to miss that place, it’s friendly atmosphere and people.

To Eleanor, to Vickie, to Todd, to all of those who have worked there and brought us good food that wasn’t expensive, as well as smiles and real conversations, thank you for all the great years you gave us. God bless you all. I’m sure I can speak for all of downtown Columbia, you will be missed greatly.

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

A.J. 

Communion, A Short Story

My dad sat on a tree stump every day before dinner. It was about three feet tall and stood near the back fence. Dad looked more like he was leaning when he sat on it. Usually both hands dangled between his legs and he stared off beyond our yard toward the trees that ran along the backside of the neighborhood. If you walked through the trees, you could only go about ninety or so feet before you came to a stream that split the center of the wooded area. 

It didn’t matter how hot or cold or rainy it was, he went to the tree stump, sat for a few minutes, then came inside. On some days—mostly in early fall—he would sit a little longer, sometimes with his head bowed as if he were asleep or maybe praying. Dad wasn’t the religious type, so I doubt he ever prayed.

I guess I was four or five the first time I noticed him go outside and to the stump. I went to go after him, maybe so he would play with me, but probably out of curiosity more than anything. 

“No, Heath,” Mom said from where she stood at the counter, cutting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half for me. 

I looked back at her. “I wanna go outside,” I said—or I think I said. Time has a funny way of playing with memories. 

“Not right now.”

“Why?”

“Your dad’s having communion.”

“What’s com-u-non?” I asked. 

“It’s what your dad is doing right now.” She set my sandwich on the table. “Now sit down and eat. Your daddy will be inside when he is done.”

I didn’t sit and eat. Not at first anyway. I went to the back door. It was open and the screen door was shut. I could see Dad from there. His shoulders were slouched like he was tired. His head was down. I thought he just might have fallen asleep. Then I saw his shoulders go up then down a couple of times. His head bobbed in sync with them.

“Sit down, Heath,” Mom said and steered me away from the door with both her hands. She closed the door gently.

I ate my sandwich and set my plate on the counter. Dad came in as I was leaving the kitchen to take a bath. He looked so tired. His eyes were rimmed red and there were angry red squiggly lines in them. The tip of his nose was pink. He wiped it as he went by me and to the bathroom where he washed up. He didn’t say anything to me as he passed, just went by without even glancing in my direction. I remember how bad it felt. He walked by me as if I were invisible. Maybe I was.

“Get ready for your bath,” Mom said when she saw me standing at the foot of the hall looking toward the bathroom where Dad went. She sounded irritated. That was her default setting.

“Dad’s in there.”

“He won’t be for long, so do what I said to do.”

I went to my room and gathered my night clothes, then took a towel from the hall closet. I waited outside the bathroom door until it opened, and Dad walked out. His eyes were no longer red, and he didn’t look as tired. 

“Hey there, Heath,” he said with a smile. He bent down and picked me up, then gave me a big hug. His hugs always made me feel safe, like everything would be okay. He set me down and all was right again. He didn’t look worn or weighted down at all. He didn’t look sad. 

Every day for the next six years, I stood at my window, watching Dad out on the tree stump. After the first time I was shooed away from the  back door, I didn’t think Mom would take too kindly to me going and watching him as he had communion. 

I still didn’t know what that meant.

***

I was eleven when Mom died. She wasn’t really the loving type. She was stern and rarely gave hugs, kisses or said ‘I love you.’ I should have felt more, but I didn’t. I think I felt more ashamed that I wasn’t as sad as I thought I should be. It didn’t help that we had argued before I left for school. I wanted to go to Jerry’s house before coming home. 

“Not with your grades, Heath. You come straight home and do your studies.”

I guess it wasn’t much of an argument after all. I left for school, angry at her for the umpteenth time in my life. 

Mom died while I was at school and Dad was at work. It wasn’t anything terribly tragic like the house caught on fire and she couldn’t get out or she was in a car accident, or even someone broke into the house and murdered her. No, it was nothing like that. Mom choked on a piece of toast. 

I found her when I got home from school. She lay on the kitchen floor, faced down. She was still in her bath robe and nightclothes and her face was a shade of purple that bordered on black. I stared down at her. And I didn’t feel anything, at least not right then.

I called Dad, then I called 9-1-1. Then I sat on the front porch and looked out on the road in front of our house. 

The ambulance made it there before Dad did, but not by much. They were inside tending to her body when Dad pulled up in his old truck. He was out of it in a hurry. He forgot to close the door before he ran across the yard to me. His face was red, as were his eyes. I had seen that look every day for the last six years of my life. 

I stood.

Dad reached me and put his arms around me. Just like when I was little and he would pick me up, I felt safe. I know it sounds crazy, but even with Mom in the house dead and the emergency people inside the house doing what they do, I felt safe in Dad’s arms. Everything would be okay.

Dad released me and went inside. I walked over to his truck and gently closed the door.

For me, everything was fine. Like I said, Mom wasn’t very loving, and we never really got along. But for Dad, nothing would ever be the same again. 

One thing didn’t change, though. Like every night since I could remember, Dad went out the back door to the tree stump. He sat, stared off into the woods, but this time I could tell he was crying. I stepped away from the window and sat on my bed. And I cried. too.

***

Dad did the best he could. He was a widower and he and Mom had been together since they were kids. They were high school sweethearts and married right after graduation. 

For the better part of my life since her death I’ve regretted not being closer, not trying, though she never really tried either. Guilt is a funny thing. You don’t realize you’ll feel it until you do.

***

I was sixteen when I finally worked up the nerve to ask my dad why he went outside every day before supper. He was already out there with his coat on and his hands between his knees. His head was down, and I could see his lips moving when I approached him.

“Dad?”

He didn’t jerk in surprise of my presence. His head didn’t swivel on his neck and he didn’t look irritated to see me standing there, my hands jammed into my coat pockets, vapor pluming from between my lips.

“Everything okay, Heath?” His voice was shaky.

I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, everything is okay. I just …”

“You just what?”

I shrugged. “Dad, why do you come out here and sit on this stump every day?”

He looked away from me, back in the direction of the woods. By then, some of the land had been sold and some of the trees further down from our place had been removed. The frame of a house stood like a silhouette in the dying sunlight. When he looked back at me, he had tears in his eyes. He wiped at them and looked away.

“My Daddy died cutting this tree down.” He patted the side of the stump with one hand. “I was a little older than you, eighteen, I think. He had a heart attack and died where he fell. I come out here to be near him. It’s like he never left. I can feel his presence.”

Dad looked back at me again. His eyes shimmered with tears. “I know it sounds crazy but sitting here makes me feel like he’s still around and not dead and in some box in the ground in Meacham Cemetery. I come out here and talk to him. Then I listen for his voice. I reckon you can say I come to have communion with him.”

I never bothered him while he was out there again. I still looked out the window from time to time, but I never bothered him. It was sacred for him.

Now, I understand why.

***

Barely two years later, Dad passed away. I just turned eighteen, and yes, I see the foreshadowing in our lone conversation about his visits to the stump. He died before supper, and yes, he was sitting on the stump.

He had aged so much in the seven years since Mom passed. He looked older than his fifty-four years. If you do the math, you can figure out my parents had me when they were in their mid-thirties, but Dad looked like he was in his mid-seventies that last time he walked into the back yard to the stump to have communion with his father. 

I stood at the back door, something I hadn’t done since that first time when Mom shooed me away. He sat gingerly on the stump. As always, he looked out to where the woods used to be, but now they were all gone. Houses now sat where trees once stood. His head dipped, his chin touching his chest. Then he leaned to one side and fell.

“Dad,” I yelled and ran from the house. I vaguely heard the clatter of the screen door as it slammed shut. Dad was gone by the time I reached him. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell. Much like when Mom died, I dialed 9-1-1. This time I didn’t wait on the front porch, my elbows on my knees and my head down. No, this time I waited in the back yard, Dad’s head on my lap. 

***

It’s been two days since his funeral. The coroner said he died of a massive heart attack. He was dead before he hit the ground. I can still see him toppling off the stump. I can still hear me yelling for him. 

Tonight, just before I sat at the table by myself for the first time in my life, I walked out to the stump where my dad died, and where his dad died. I sat down on the stump with my hands between my legs. Tears spilled down my face.

“I miss you, Dad.”

Then, like so many times as a child, I felt his arms around me, and I knew I would be okay.

AJB

10/15/2020

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.

Donate

If you’d like to donate a couple of bucks to a working author, it would be greatly appreciated.

$2.00

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?”

Donate

If you’d like to donate a couple of bucks to a working author, it would be greatly appreciated.

$2.00

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 …

Donate

If you’d like to donate a couple of bucks to a working author, it would be greatly appreciated.

$2.00