Mickie’s Stars

The following story is called Mickie’s Stars. It is one of eleven that appears in my short story collection, Southern Bones. It is also one of my wife’s favorite stories. If you like Mickie’s Stars and would like to read more of Southern Bones, you can get an autographed print copy by clicking on the link at the end of the story. If you have any questions, please leave a comment at the end of the story and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Thank you for reading Mickie’s Stars. I hope you enjoy it.

A.J. 

MICKIE’S STARS

Mickie looked up from her sandcastle, the archway almost complete, two pieces of broken twigs from the parking area holding it up.

Across the way, a little girl cringed as an adult yelled at her. The man had dark hair and an angry face, his eyes like black marbles surrounded by splashes of red and white. He yelled something Mickie couldn’t quite understand. But the tone … the tone she understood all too well. He wagged a finger at the little blond-haired girl with pigtails dangling to either side of her head. She wore a one-piece bathing suit, pinks and purples with dots of yellow. One foot was clad in a similarly colored flip-flop; the other one was bare. The girl looked as if she wanted to crawl inside herself and hide; just disappear from the world altogether, especially from the man with the angered face and thick pointing finger.

Mickie stared, not meaning to, but doing it just the same—instinctive, her mom would say. Others would argue she was rude and the proper thing to do was to look away, to go back to whatever she was doing (in this case, playing in the wet sand on the edge of the ocean, building castles the tide would wipe away by evening). Staring was something Mickie was used to. So many others—children and adults alike—gawked at her brilliant white skin littered with stars of many colors. Yellows, blues, greens, reds, oranges all clung to her flesh in shapes with many points—not just five like the hand drawn stars kids learned how to trace when they are in pre-school, but circles with tiny points jutting out in all angles. Real stars.

The man pulled one of the girl’s pigtails hard enough to jerk her head to the side. She toppled to the ground and landed on her hip. Mickie heard her scream and saw tears streaking from her reddening face. The man reached down and grabbed the girl’s foot, yanked off the lone flip-flop and stomped over to a trashcan. He tossed it in, and then glared at the little girl.

“Now get out of my sight.”

Mickie glanced around the beach. Several people watched the events unfold, but none of them intervened. A few of them shook their heads and whispered to one another, but when all was said and done, they turned away, some of them moving their blankets or chairs further down the beach. Mickie stood and went to her mother, a brown haired woman with tanned skin and tattoos lining her body, very much in the same manner Mickie’s stars did.

“Momma,” she said. “Why isn’t anyone helping that little girl?”

Momma looked up from her book—one of vampires and romances Daddy found to be nauseating. She lowered her sunglasses, showing Mickie her brown eyes—motherly, caring eyes. “They’re afraid, sweetie,” she said, her voice soft and smooth. “And when people are afraid they often do nothing.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Sometimes,” Momma said, lifted her sunglasses to cover her eyes and went back to her vampire novel.

Mickie nodded, then walked back to her sandcastle. She drew lines on the arch and began to dig the mote that would surround it. A mote in medieval times were said to keep dragons and ogres and giants at bay. And armies wishing to conquer the kingdom of the good king and queen and all of their royal subjects. She read that somewhere, or maybe it was read to her, but she remembered the stories, and the mote was important to the survival of the kingdom (even though Mother Nature was going to wipe them out anyway). It was the barrier, the invisible force field, as her younger brother would say. “You have to have an invisible force field It keeps the bad guys away.”

She glanced up every once in a while, pulling herself from the construction of her doomed castle. The girl stood by herself, staring out at the ocean. Mickie wondered what she thought, if she hated the man who had yanked her pigtail and tossed her flip-flop in the trash. The girl looked her way, and quickly diverted her eyes.

Mickie stood, walked over to the girl. “Hi,” she said. “Do you wanna play with me?”

The girl looked up, her face still red and tear-stained. She shrugged.

“It’s okay,” Mickie said. “I know I look different, but I’m not going to hurt you like your dad did.”

The girl’s brow furrowed and her frown deepened. “He’s not my dad,” she said in a whisper.

“He’s not?”

She shook her head.

“Who is he, then?” She had always been curious about things. Those same people who would say she was rude for staring would say she was nosy, as well. Mickie searched the beach, looking for the man the girl came with. She spotted him talking to a young brunette in an orange bikini, her breasts barely able to fit within the top. The woman laughed and touched the man’s arm.

“He’s my mom’s boyfriend,” the girl said.

Mickie nodded. “Is that your mom?”

The girl turned, shook her head from side to side.

“So, do you wanna play with me? I’m building a sandcastle.”

“I don’t know,” the girl said and looked at her bare feet. “Brent might get mad at me if he sees …”

Mickie knew that pause, the awkward silence as someone tried to pick and choose her words.

“It’s okay,” Mickie said. She watched the mother’s boyfriend flirt with the brunette. His hand rested on her back now, touching skin Mickie had a feeling he shouldn’t be touching. “I’m not a freak. I just look different. And, really, I don’t think Brent is worried too much about you right now.”

The girl nodded, shrugged again. “Okay,” she said.

Mickie smiled. Her teeth were as bright as her skin. “I’m Michelle, but everyone calls me Mickie.”

“My name is Allison.”

They walked to the sandcastle, sat in the wet sand. “I’m digging a mote around the castle,” Mickie said. “You start over there and we’ll meet in the middle.”

And they dug, two girls, a couple of years apart in age, one barefoot with pigtails, the other an oddity even to her mother.

“What’s wrong with your skin?” Allison asked.

Mickie looked up to see Allison staring at her. It was a typical question, to which she gave her typical answer. “I don’t know—it’s always been this way. Since I was a baby. Mom says I’m special, that the stars are there for a reason.”

“What’s the reason?”

It was Mickie’s turn to shrug. “I don’t know, but I like them. It makes me …” she paused, unlike the awkward breaks in sentences people gave her, but a thoughtful one where she was looking for the right word to describe herself. “It makes me unique.”

“Unique?”

“Different. Not like anybody else.”

Allison smiled. “I wish I had stars on my skin.”

“Do you think it would make Brent like you?”

Allison looked down, then at the ocean. Birds swooped from the sky, chatting with each other before flying up again. The tide was coming in. Another couple of hours and the water would be at their feet; another hour after that and the castle would be only a memory.

“So, how deep should we dig this mote?” Mickie asked.

“How deep do you want it?”

Mickie put one hand up, held her thumb and first finger as far apart as they would go. “This deep.”

“Okay.”

Allison drove a yellow plastic spade into the ground, placed the sand into one of the pails. They did this for a short while, working their way around the mote, the minutes becoming an hour before they knew it. Mickie looked up. Allison’s face was a mask of determination. Though her tears had dried, there were still tracks on her dirty skin.

“So,” she said, “why was Brent so mad at you?”

The girl stopped digging, and looked up at Mickie, one side of her mouth turned down. She shrugged. Mickie thought the girl probably shrugged a lot, unsure of what to say more often than not. “I lost my flip-flop.”

“He got mad about that?”

Allison nodded, scooped out another spade full of sand. “He gets mad about a lot of stuff. He’s not very nice.”

“Are you going to tell your mom what he did?”

Allison looked up from the mote, her eyes large. Her bottom lip trembled slightly. She suddenly stood out against the backdrop of the world around her, a three-dimensional image on a flat surface. “Oh no,” she said. “That would be bad. Besides, Mom is scared of him—he hits her when he’s mad.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

It was Mickie’s turn to look out toward the ocean, her thoughts dashing in and out of her mind in colorful blurs.

“Mickie, your stars are glowing.”

“Yeah, they do that,” Mickie responded, but failed to add they only did it when she was thinking about how to handle something; how to deal with a judgmental world where the strong dominated the weak. She had seen it so many times. Bullies beating up smaller kids, their parents just as belligerent and angry as their offspring. The gawkers who didn’t know how to take the odd little girl with the light red hair and impossibly white skin … and the stars—the countless stars along her body. They often acted out of ignorance or fear (mostly fear as Momma had told her many times before, though it contradicted her statement of people doing nothing when scared. For Mickie, she thought it was the other way around: they react more violently out of fear than when all was right in their world).

“Why?”

Mickie thought for a moment, then simply said, “I don’t know. I’ll be right back.”

She got up and walked over to Momma.

Momma looked up from her book when Mickie tapped her on the foot. “Yes, Mickie?”

“Can I go get my doll box?”

Momma lowered her sunglasses again, her light brown eyebrows lifted. “Why?”

Mickie pointed to Allison. “I want to make her a doll.”

“Why?”

“Allison doesn’t have any friends. I want to make her a special doll.”

Momma gave her a small smile. “I don’t see why not.” She handed over the car keys and lifted her sunglasses over her eyes. “Make sure and lock the door back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mickie hurried to the car, unlocked the front door. She reached in, grabbed the pink box—a caboodle, Momma called it. She flipped the lock button on the door and slammed it shut. Mickie started to run back to the beach, but stopped when she saw a purple and pink flip-flop lying near a car. She knelt down, picked it up and smiled.

“Hey, Allison,” she yelled as she reached the beach. Absently, she dropped the keys in Momma’s lap and continued running to the sandcastle and the little blonde girl digging the mote. “Look what I found.” She held the flip-flop up and watched as Allison’s eyes grew and a smile stretched her face—something Mickie was certain she didn’t do often.

“My flip-flop,” Allison said and stood. She took it and slid it on her foot. “Where was it?”

“In the parking lot,” Mickie said. “Let’s go get the other one.”

Allison shook her head, “If I leave the beach and Brent finds out, he’ll whip me.”

Mickie’s shoulders sagged. The excitement of finding the lost flip-flop faded as fast as it had arrived. “I’ll go get it,” she said, keeping the enthusiasm in her voice. She went to the trashcan near the changing booths. Kids played in the outdoor showers, rinsing off saltwater and sand. One of them whined, “Jeffery got water in my eyes.”

The flip-flop was in the trashcan, a white Styrofoam cup on top of it, ice and soda spilled out from its open lid. With thumb and first finger she lifted the flip-flop from the trashcan and held it at arms length. At the showers, she pressed a chrome button with the word PUSH on it. Water sprayed from a nozzle above her. As she rinsed off the flip-flop, the boy she assumed was Jeffery sat on a bench, his arms crossed, bottom lip jutting out. His mother fussed at him for being mean to his little brother. Behind her back, the little brother stuck his tongue out at Jeffery.

“Now you tell Dennis you’re sorry,” she said.

“But I didn’t do anything,” Jeffery argued.

The slap to his leg brought tears from the older child. Dennis smiled in what could only pass as satisfaction.

“Do as I said,” his mother snapped.

Jeffery stood, apologized and rubbed the angry red handprint on his leg. His mother turned and comforted the little boy, his deception rewarded. An indigo star glowed on Mickie’s left arm. It pulsed, sending shivers down into her fingertips.

Mickie knelt down, opened the pink caboodle and flipped through various pieces of thread and cloth, Popsicle sticks, buttons and markers until she came to a clear box. Inside sat several stick figures made from colored toothpicks. Their heads were small beads glued on. She lifted out a yellow stick figure and a black marker. On the brown head she wrote the letter D. She closed the caboodle and walked up to Jeffery, who sat on the bench as his mother and Dennis went inside a changing booth.

“That sucks,” Mickie said.

Jeffery looked up, said nothing at first, then spoke, “What do you want?”

“I saw what your brother did. It’s not fair you got into trouble like that.”

“Whatever.”

“Here,” Mickie offered up the stick figure.

“I don’t want that,” he said. “Only girls play with dolls.”

“It’s special,” Mickie said. “I made it just for you.”

Jeffery took the doll, looked at it. “I don’t want it,” he said and tried to hand it back.

“It’s yours. I made it for you.”

“You don’t even know me, you freak.”

And it was out. Freak. The word used to describe her most of her life. She took a deep breath and bit back the rising anger. The boy was mad, as well, but not at her. He was just lashing out. That’s what she told herself, at least.

“I’m not a freak,” she said. “I just wanted to help you.”

She took the doll back and started away.

Jeffery caught up to her and grabbed her arm. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just mad I got in trouble, again. for doing nothing. Sometimes I hate him.”

“Hate him? Really?” A smile creased her face. “If this were your brother, what would you do?”

With no hesitation, “Break his arm.”

“Do it, then,” Mickie coaxed. “Break his arm.”

“What? Are you crazy? I can’t do that. I’ll get me in more trouble than I’ve ever been in.”

Mickie shook her head. “No, Jeffery,” she said. “Break the doll’s arm. It might make you feel better.”

This time his lips stretched up, his brows lowered. He took the doll from Mickie and stared at it. He started to break it in half, but Mickie stopped him.

“No,” she said. “Only break one arm. You can’t break the rest of it.”

“Why not?”

“You just can’t.”

“Okay, whatever.” With no effort, he snapped the right toothpick arm in half.

“Feel better?” she asked.

“Yeah, I do. Can I break the other arm?”

“No,” Mickie said and put out her hand. The indigo stars dazzled along her skin. Jeffery’s eyes grew distant, as if he stared beyond her and out into the ocean. “Now, give it back.”

Jeffery handed the doll back to Mickie, broken toothpick and all. Mickie turned, put it back in her caboodle and left him standing there, confusion in his eyes.

Mickie went back to the beach, the indigo star no longer shimmering. She sat down beside Allison and set the flip-flop on the ground. Allison had finished the mote and had begun working on outside towers in the shapes of pails.

“Here’s your flip-flop,” Mickie said.

“Thank you,” Allison responded, slid the flip-flop on her foot and wiggled her toes. “What’s that?” she then asked.

“It’s my doll box.”

“Doll box?”

“Uh huh. I make dolls. Would you like me to make you one?”

“Yeah.” Enthusiasm, strong and real, showed in Allison’s eyes, in her smile, the way she nodded her head like a puppy waiting for a treat, tail wagging hard enough to shake its butt from side to side.

“I get to choose the type of doll, okay?” Mickie said.

“Okay.”

Mickie gazed out at the ocean, at the way the waves crashed onto the beach. The afternoon was waning and the water grew closer and closer to the sandcastle. Her stars began to glow, soft at first and then brightly.

“The waves are coming in. Soon, the castle will be destroyed.”

Allison screwed up her face, her jaw hanging slightly. “Huh?”

Mickie opened her caboodle. She pulled out several Popsicle sticks and markers and a small Styrofoam ball for the head. A bottle of glue followed and she began to put the parts together. As she pieced the legs to the torso, the water began to lap at the edges of the mote.

“Can I help?” Allison asked.

“Sure. Hold these two pieces so I can glue them in place.” Allison held the two Popsicle sticks apart and Mickie picked up the small glue bottle. She put one clear dot in the center and helped Allison put the legs together, forming a V.

“How long do I have to hold this?” Allison asked.

“Not too long—this stuff dries fast.”

Mickie put another dot on the torso, handed it to Allison who put it on top of the V, making it look like an upside down Y. The arms followed. Mickie reached into the caboodle, rummaged around until she found one of Daddy’s nail punches—a small instrument that looked like a pen made of steel. She drove it into the Styrofoam ball and then set it on the Popsicle figure’s neck. 

“Your stars are shining,” Allison said.

Mickie glanced at her skin. They were glowing brighter than before, the tips sparkling, the centers almost completely white. She said nothing at first. Instead, she pulled out a marker, handed it to Allison. “Draw a face—Brent’s face.”

Allison scrunched up her nose. “Why him?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Just because.”

“You sound like Mommy.”

The water began to wash over the mote, pushing against the castle’s walls. When the tide went out, it pulled beach sand with it.

Allison drew an upside down U for a mouth. She had one dot in place for an eye when the growl came.

“Allison!”  

Mickie looked up just as Brent reached them. His eyes were two pieces of hot coal set deep in their sockets.

“What are you doing with this freak?” Brent grabbed one of Allison’s arms. She screamed and dropped both the doll and pen.

Mickie’s stars glistened in the sunlight, the colors nearly completely gone from them. “I’m not a freak,” she snapped, her eyes narrowed.

“Watch how you talk to me, freak girl. I’ll smack you into next week.”

“Do it,” Mickie said, her lips a thin line dividing her face.

Brent stared long at her, but Mickie held her ground. After a moment, he turned his attention back to Allison. “Why are you wearing those flip-flops?”

“They’re mine,” Allison said, her voice almost a whisper. Tears had begun to fall down her face again.

“I threw one of them away. Did you dig it out of the trash?”

“No, sir, I—”

Brent’s hand connected with Allison’s face, a quick slap that clearly caught her off guard. A stinging red mark appeared where his fingers had struck. “Your momma’s on the way to pick you up. You just wait until I tell her you’ve been rummaging in the garbage like a street person. You’re a filthy, nasty little girl.”

“And you’re a mean old man,” Mickie said. She picked up the doll and the pen. She finished the eye as Brent yelled at her about minding her own business and kids like her ended up in jail or worse—dead.

“Are you listening to me?” he yelled.

“No,” Mickie said flatly and wrote his name on the Popsicle stick that made up his torso.

Brent released Allison and knelt down beside Mickie. He grabbed her by the top of the head, lifting her eyes to meet his. “I should knock your teeth down your throat, you little brat.”

Mickie smiled. The stars on her body turned pink, then red. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she dropped the doll into the courtyard of her sandcastle. The waves tickled her toes and ran over the tops of her feet as the stars changed color again, going from red to purple to blue. She closed her eyes and then opened them. Brilliant green irises stared out at Brent, and then she was falling. She landed at the back of the sandcastle, crushing one of the mighty walls she had built. But, the mote remained intact.

Her eyes cleared and Brent towered over Momma. Her face was a mask of rage, a finger poked out at him. She yelled. He yelled back. Behind them, Allison scooted through the sand on her bottom.

A woman ran from the parking area, brown-haired and tanned, not so much like Momma, but enough to have a light brown hue to her skin. She called for Allison and the little girl with the pigtails and pink and purple flip-flops with yellow dots on them, stood and ran for the woman. She was crying and saying something about Brent being mean.

Mickie scooped a handful of sand from the ruined castle wall and packed it around the Brent-doll’s legs. Brent—the man—growled and slapped Momma across the face. The crack of hand on cheek sent her to the ground. Several people watched as the altercation took place. Scared, Mickie thought. And when someone is scared, they often do nothing.

She stood and ran to Brent. He towered over Momma with his hands balled into fists. Momma rubbed her jaw. A trickle of red slid from her swelling lip. Mickie’s stars popped and crackled like electricity burning her skin. She slapped his back with both hands. Heat from the stars ran down her arms and into her fingertips. 

Brent’s back arched. He screamed, a loud, piercing sound of pain and surprise. His knuckles turned white as his fists grew tighter. Bones popped and smoke poured from his skin.

“Mickie!” Momma screamed. “Let go of him!”

She held on for a few seconds longer before removing her fingers from his singed shirt, leaving behind two smoldering black handprints. Brent stumbled backward; fell onto the castle, crushing two of its high turrets—where the archers would have been in medieval times.

The tide came in, crashing further and further up the beach. What remained of the destroyed kingdom began to wash away, pulled into the ocean by the undertow.

Brent got to his knees as seawater splashed over his legs. He cupped his hands against his chest. Blood dripped from ruined fingers. “You’re going to pay for this, kid,” he said and tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. They shook and dropped him back to his knees. When he finally managed to get to his feet he took one step forward and stopped, his face smacking into an invisible wall, or a force field, as Mickie’s younger brother would say. He reached his hands out, placing his palms against nothing and something all the same. Brent went in a circle, his hands up, appearing to pat the air around him like a frantic mime—one with broken and bloody fingers. He screamed for help, but the onlookers only backed away. Some of them snickered at him, while others whispered about the crazy man without enough sense to get out of the rising tide, how his mouth opened in a silent cry for help, a sound that never came from his throat. One man tossed a quarter at Brent’s feet.

“Impressive act,” he said and walked away.

Mickie stared, unblinking, at the fear in Brent’s face. Momma took her by the arms and leaned down so her lips were to Mickie’s ear. “What have you done?”

“Nothing,” she responded.

“Mickie, let him go. Let him go, now.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?” Momma asked, her bottom lip bleeding.

“Because I’m not afraid of him.”

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

“They are.” She pointed to Allison and her mother. They were hurrying away from the beach, the mother all but carrying the little girl. “Besides, the doll’s in there with him. There’s nothing I can do.”

Momma shook her head. “Let’s go.”

“Okay,” Mickie responded and closed her caboodle, snapping it shut. She picked it up and started for the parking area.

On the long wood deck that led to the parking lot, they passed Jeffery. He sat on a bench, his chin in his hands. Dennis ran around in the shower area, taunting and teasing his older brother. Mickie passed them and nodded. “Have a good day, Jeffery,” she said. A moment later, Dennis slipped in the water, landing on his arm. His screams were loud. Momma started to go to him, but Mickie held her hand firm. “No, Momma, his mother is coming.”

Mickie turned back to the beach. From where she stood, she could see Brent thigh-high in the ocean. His lips moved, but nothing came out. In maybe an hour the tide would wash him out to sea. Mickie turned and walked to the parking lot with her mother. 

Southern Bones

A.J. Brown's first short story collection, comprised of 11 short stories. Price is for U.S. residents and includes shipping. If you are outside of the U.S., let me know and we'll work something out.

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Because I Can (Part 4 of 4)

“There’s just not enough evidence to indict any of them.” The D.A. said that as I stood in his office, a cozy place with a nice rug, a big desk with a lot of paper on it, a chair in front and behind it, a state flag in one corner and the American flag in the other. It struck me as a typical big lawyer’s office. And like a typical big lawyer, he didn’t look me in the eye when he said there wasn’t enough evidence. He looked away, as if he couldn’t bear to tell a grieving grandson the murderers of his grandfather would go free. Or maybe he could bear with it but didn’t want to see the dirty deed all the way through, as if by looking away and not seeing the pain and disbelief etched on my face kept him from being just as guilty as those thugs.

“What do you mean there’s not enough evidence? I’ve watched that video a thousand times. You can clearly see the face of the man who threw the punch that killed my grandfather.”

“Can we?”

“Yes. It’s clear to me who it is and—“

“It doesn’t matter if it’s clear to you. It matters if it’s clear to me and clear to a grand jury. Clear to you means nothing. You’re not a witness who can testify you saw it happen, and no, watching it on video isn’t the same as seeing it in person.”

“What about the wallet? What about his fingerprints on the wallet?”

“He said he picked the wallet up when he saw it lying on the street.”

“He’s lying.”

“We don’t know that.”

“But—“

“Like I said, there’s not enough evidence to get an indictment.”

The coward. I walked out of there sick to my stomach, but not because I was angry and had thoughts of hurting Mr. No Balls District Attorney, but because there would be no justice for my grandpa.

Well … that’s not entirely true.

***

He tried to escape. Yeah, you would think he wouldn’t have with everything on the line, including the life of his little brother, but he did.

He had been in cuffs, his arms probably like lead weights after hanging in the same position for several days. I guess that’s where we made our only real mistake. We underestimated his strength and instead of cuffing his hands behind his back, we bound them in front. As soon as the tape and ropes came off his ankles, he struck. The blow to Lou’s head startled him and he stumbled backward. I don’t know how he got to his feet as quickly as he did, but he landed a double-handed punch to my face. I stumbled backward.

Dequan made for the door, tripping on the way up the steps and catching himself the best he could. He was halfway up when Lou caught his ankle.

Do I really need to say what happened next? How Lou pulled his legs and Dequan hit his face on the steps? How Lou dragged him down the stairs and then kicked him hard in the ribs? How Dequan tried to suck in air with his eyes wide open? How Lou smacked Dequan so hard it dazed him and eventually he passed out?

Nah, I didn’t think so.

***

“You tell anyone, your little brother dies. Got it?”

Daquan was in handcuffs—this time with his hands behind his back. Duct tape covered his mouth. What choice did he have? We had him between a rock and a hard place and either way, someone he loved was going to get hurt and hurt bad. He gave a reluctant nod.

My stomach hurt, but for the first time in years, I felt like I could handle what was about to happen. Sure, I may not have been the one doing the deed, but I set it up, planned it out, executed it. My stomach cramped, and I let out a small whine from the pain, but that was it. Nothing more.

“You do as we say, and all will be okay for Reggie. Do you understand?”

Again, he nodded. 

“We have a camera on you … and a gun. If you try to run, you’ll be shot down right where you stand. Do you understand so far?”

Another nod.

Truthfully, we did have a camera on him and it was set up right where it needed to be, along a stretch of road Dequan’s mom walked every night after leaving her sister’s house. It was only three blocks from one home to another, but that was enough. That was more than enough. There was no gun, not on him. We reserved that for Reggie. 

“You do the deed. You get around the corner and we’ll be waiting for you. If you do anything other than what we told you to, you, your mom and Reggie … well, you know.”

My stomach did a somersault. I think if I would have finished the sentence I would have thrown up. Still, I felt the vomit in the back of my throat and burning my esophagus. 

“Anything you want to say before you guys leave?”

Once again, he nodded. Lou pulled the tape from his mouth. Just the sound of it coming free of skin made me flinch. Dequan let out a yell and then licked his lips. 

“You don’t have to do this, man,” he said quickly. “Look, I’ll turn myself in to the cops, confess everything. I’ll give them the names of everyone involved, just don’t do this, man. You don’t have to do this.”

There were tears in his eyes. Dequan was serious. Either that or he was really good at bluffing. I felt bad for him. I just felt bad. I had never done anything like this. I couldn’t. Either because I feared disappointing Grandpa or because I truly never developed a stomach for doing bad things to people. Either way, I wanted to give in. I wanted to just let him go and run to Reggie and hug him and let them both leave and …

“Yeah, I do have to do this.”

“Why? Why, man?”

“Because I can.”

Lou left, taking Dequan with him. There was a moment where I almost called him back, almost told him to call it off. This isn’t what Grandpa would want. Almost. But Grandpa was dead. He couldn’t be disappointed in me any longer.

***

The video was grainy. By the time it came on, I had moved Reggie from the wall to the floor where Dequan had been shackled. He was lighter than I thought he would be, but weak, too weak to do anything but lay against the wall while I chained him. His eyes slid closed. 

“Wake up,” I said and lightly tapped him on the face. “The show’s about to start.”

The video showed an alley that ran along the backs of a neighborhood. Fences lined the small road, gates for entry on most of them. Street lamps stood twenty or so feet apart, every other one on the opposite side of the street. There were plenty of dark spots for someone to hide and wait. 

She appeared. Sweet Momma Jackson. Her hair was all bouncy curls and she wore a light overcoat to keep warm during the early fall evening. In her hands was a plate of some food or other. It was covered with tin foil. Glasses sat on her nose and a black purse hung from one arm. 

I looked over to Reggie. Only one eye was open. The other one was completely swollen shut. I suddenly felt bad. I could see something on his face. Confusion?  Yeah, I think that is what it was. Confusion. The entire time we had him down in that basement he had only spoken once. Not that he had been awake all that long, and when he was Lou worked him over until he passed out again. He hadn’t had anything to eat in four days and he was watching a video of …

“Momma?” he whispered, his voice cracking.

“Yeah, Reggie, that’s your momma, but hold on, man. This is about to get real. Is that how you would put it? Real as in bad?”

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 8.50.59 PMHis bottom lip was swollen so bad he couldn’t completely close his mouth. Or maybe that was from the busted jaw. I don’t know, but either way, he didn’t seem to pay me much attention. He watched the screen as his momma walked down the back road behind the houses on her way to hers. He watched the vicious cycle of life and hate and selfishness all play out in front of him. He watched as his world turned in on itself. 

Momma Jackson approached her yard, which was just inside the view of the closest street lamp. Her head turned to her left, to the man approaching her. His arm went back and there was no hesitation as he swung his fist as hard as he could into her face. Her glasses snapped in two across the bridge of her nose, the plate flipped out of her hands and landed on the ground, the tin foil shifting mid-air and spilling green beans from it. Her arms went out to her sides, much like Grandpa’s did and she fell to the ground, striking a fence post and rolling over, face down on the crumbling blacktop of the alleyway. 

The man on the screen? He stared at her. He started to bend down and that is when we saw his face. Dequan Jackson had done it again. Why? Because he could and killing a person was nothing to him.

I looked to Reggie. His lone good eye was as wide as it would go. Tears were streaming from it and he constantly repeated one word: “Momma.”

I threw up.

***

There is this little thing called a lie. Lies can be beneficial to some. Destructive to others. In this instance, it was a little bit of both. Beneficial to me. Destructive for Dequan.

When Lou arrived back at Grandpa’s, I was waiting at the kitchen table. By then my hands had stopped shaking and my stomach had settled. He brought Dequan in the back—it really didn’t matter much, I guess. There weren’t that many people out where we lived. Dequan’s blindfold was soaked, and his lips were downturned in a deep frown. Every few seconds he sniffled as if he had a cold.

We walked him down the hall to the basement door and took the blindfold off. 

“You said you’d let us go, man. I did what you said to do, now you do what you said you would do.”

“I’m going to. Go on down there. Get your brother. In a couple of minutes, we’ll take you both out of here. I promise. I’m going to untie your hands. When you step into the room there is a rail to your left. Hold onto it as you go down the steps. On the third step down, reach up to your right and grab the chain. It will turn on the light. Reggie’s waiting for you. He knows you’re coming.”

I opened the door. Dequan stepped in. I closed it.

Here’s the great lie:

1-That I would let them go.

That’s pretty much it. But there were a couple others, well placed words I had written long before the lie played out.

1-Dequan hit his mom because he was angry with her. Something about drug money. Lie.

2-That Dequan had put us up to this whole thing and Reggie would die at the hands of his brother when he got back. Lie.

3-If Reggie wanted to live, then he would have to kill Dequan. Lie … well … yeah, a lie.

4-Well, there is no four, but there was another video camera. It was nothing more than a hand-held thing in the corner. It sat on a tripod with cables that ran into a relay that ran into the computer upstairs. I had turned it on shortly before Lou and Dequan arrived. 

We stood at the computer. Yeah, it was black and white, but we didn’t need color to see what would happen. It could go two ways, depending on Reggie and if he believed what I had told him and if he believed the video I replayed for him several times as I waited for Lou to arrive home. But if he believed his brother …

The light to the basement came on. The chain and bulb swung back and forth. Dequan ran down the stairs. I could see Reggie, still sitting on the floor, but one of his arms was not shackled. No, it was free and in his hand was a gun. 

“Reggie! Reggie!”

It’s amazing how someone’s fear can also sound like their anger. 

Reggie looked up, his one eye open. He lifted the gun.

“Whoa! Whoa! Reg—“

The boom was loud. Dequan’s head snapped back. A spray of blood streaked the air as he fell. Reggie lowered his hand, dropping the gun on the floor.

“Now what?” Lou asked. 

My stomach knotted, but there was no nausea, no need to run to the sink or the bathroom or just splatter its contents all over the floor. There was nothing. I finally understood. To do the things Dequan and so many others do to others, you can’t care. You can’t give a rat’s behind what others think of you. You can’t care if you hurt someone. You can’t let it bother you. Why? Because, at the end of the day, you have to live with your own actions and if you can sleep at night, then what’s to stop you from doing anything to anyone? 

“We finish it,” I said.

“You want me to …”

“No,” I said. “I’ll take care of him.”

“He’s got a gun, Charles.”

“It only had one bullet in it. Can I have the other gun?”

Pistol in hand, I went downstairs. I stepped over Dequan and around the blood spatter as best I could. Reggie looked up at me and shook his head from side to side, a slow-motion thing, as if he tried to understand what had happened.

‘Why?” he asked.

“Because I can.”

AJB

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Because I Can (Part 3 of 4)

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

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

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

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

“Why are you doing this, man?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop, man! Just stop, man!”

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

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

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

“Whatever?”

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

“Your brother … you love him, Dequan?”

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

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

“I can say it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Let me go get it.”

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

“Man, please, man. Just let us go.”

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

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

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

“You’re lying, white boy.”

“Am I?”

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

***

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

That’s when I threw up again. 

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

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

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

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

Guess what? They did nothing. Nothing.

Nothing …

***

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

Daquan stared at it.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“My father,” Uncle Lou said. 

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

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

“The Knock Out Game,” I said.

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

“I ain’t never seen that man.”

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

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

“What? What’s he talking about?”

“You’re going to—“

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

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

“Do you have the picture?”

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

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

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

“Recognize this woman?”

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Because I Can (Part 2 of 4)

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

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

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

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

“Then what do ya want?”

“I want to join your group.”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said, my voice strong. 

True facts:

1-I was a wimp.

2-I wanted to be tougher.

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

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

5-After that day, well … vomit happens.

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

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

“You want to join our group?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You ready?” Paul asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready for your initiation?”

“Yes.” 

(NO! NO! NO!)

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

“Open the box.”

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

“Drown it,” Johnny said.

“What?” I faltered.

“Drown the kitten and you’re in.”

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

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

Laughter. 

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” he yelled.

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

“I need to piss, man.”

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

***

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

“When?” I asked.

“Tonight,” came my uncle’s voice.

My stomach quivered with excitement and trepidation. 

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

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

***

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

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

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

“You want him downstairs with the other guy?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind.”

“Lead the way,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

-I’m going to kill you mother—-ers.

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

-Reggie, wake up, man. 

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

-You’re dead meat, mother—-ers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, I smiled.

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

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

“Where … where am I?” 

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

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay, bro?”

“Be quiet, Dequan,” I said.

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay?”

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

“I just want to know—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded to Lou.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Play it again,”

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

“No! Just one more time. Please.”

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

“I have to.”

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

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

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

The gist of the rest of the video:

-The fist connected.

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

-That head hit the brick wall beside him.

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

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

-The Six laughed.

-The One knelt and slapped the unconscious old man.

And I threw up.

To be continued on Tuesday, May 12th …

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Because I Can (Part 1 of 4)

Because I Can (Part 1)

By A.J. Brown

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

“You okay?”

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

“Give me a sec, okay?”

“You don’t have to watch it again.”

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

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

“Play it again, Sam.”

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

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

“Really, we don’t have to do this.”

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

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

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

###

“Welcome,” I said.

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

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

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

Extraordinaire.

“Where am I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me go,” he said.

“No,” I replied.

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

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

And I watched it all.

“When you’re done, let me know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I ain’t never killed no one.”

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

“We’ll see about that.”

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

“I know what you’ve done.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

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

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

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

Again, he said nothing. Stubborn, for sure. 

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

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

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

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

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

“Why do you do it?”

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

“Why do you hurt people?”

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

“Cause I can.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Let me go right now, you ****head—

–I’ll kill you, mutha******–

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

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

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

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

“I changed my mind.”

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

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

You betcha.

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

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

Four things:

1-That was the last party I ever attended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I said. My stomach gurgled.

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

“I want to tell you a story.”

“Seriously, man?”

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

He shook his head, rolled his eyes.

I could still let him go.

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

“You know someone named Mr. Pouncer?”

“No. I knew a cat named Mr. Pouncer.”

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

To be continued …

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Jerry Died (Free Fiction)

Jerry Died

A.J. Brown

Jerry died when he was eight. A car accident claimed his life. They were on the way home from a minor league baseball game, something both Jerry (who was a junior) and his dad, who went by Jay instead of his given name, enjoyed. It hadn’t been all that late when they got on the road, just a little passed nine. Jerry had been talking about the game (the home team won, 2-0) and how well the starting pitcher threw the ball. He wondered aloud if he would ever be able to throw like that. They were barely a mile down the road when the car in the oncoming lane veered into theirs and hit them head on. 

***

He stood on the mound, an older guy with scars running the length of both legs and his left arm. The scar on his forehead was puckered and purple and he absent-mindedly rubbed at it with the forefinger of his left hand. His blue eyes had grayed along with his hair—though his hair had grayed somewhat prematurely many years before. A bucket of baseballs sat beside him, all of them gathered over the years as he went to ballparks after games were over and scavenged the ones left behind.

The ballpark he stood in was old, run down. Kids rarely played there anymore. The infield was hard clay with patches of weeds and grass here and there. The outfield held the same weeds and grass, just much more of it. In some spots, there were crystalline spider webs on the ground. When the sun shone down on early mornings, the dew glistened off them, making the webs appear as if they were ice. 

The outfield fence had collapsed in sections, the wood panels crumbled and rotted out. The home team dugout was nothing more than a concrete bench (cinder blocks held together by mortar), while the visiting side’s dugout still had a rusted metal fence separating it from the field of play.

***

Jay slammed on the breaks when he saw the car crossing the line toward them. He tried to swerve out of the way, jerking his wheel to the right toward the shoulder. He would say later, as he laid in the hospital bed after his fourth or fifth surgery, “The guy never slowed down. He never hit his breaks.”

The metal on metal was nothing more than the sound of aluminum cans crumpling beneath the weight of a boot. The airbags deployed, front and sides. He felt the burn of the steering wheel’s bag strike him in the face. His nose exploded, his right cheekbone shattered, and he swallowed more than a couple of teeth. The airbag in the door hit him in the shoulder, breaking his arm just above the elbow. 

The car spun to the right, the tires on that side digging into the grass, catching dirt. Then it went onto its side, followed by its top. The car flipped three times before coming to rest on its crumpled top.

***

He slipped the old glove on his left hand. He hadn’t worn it since a warm night at a minor league game fourteen years earlier. It was tight around the fingers that were slightly chubbier than that night. He opened and closed his hand, the glove doing the same thing.

He was unaware that as he flexed his hand in the glove, the grip on the baseball in his other hand grew tighter. The knuckles on all his fingers, except for his pinky, were white. 

His breath hitched as he stared at the glove, the opening and closing of it reminding him of a fish out of water, gasping for breath … or maybe a person who can’t breathe, who had something pressed against his throat, his windpipe crushed.

***

12734126_10208347032850778_986475889973690833_nJay was dazed. Blood ran into his eyes and dripped onto the car’s ceiling. His face hurt and he felt like he was drowning. His seatbelt held him in place. The pull of it against his chest and stomach felt like a knife trying to cut through bone. His left arm hung over his head, the angle backwards. The bone jutted through muscle and skin.

A horn blared from somewhere. 

“Lay off the horn …”

The words that came out sounded nothing like him. They were as broken as he felt. 

Occasionally, the light tinkle of glass came as shards of window fell away and landed on the concrete. 

Jay wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard feet pounding the ground. He thought he heard people screaming.

It turned out, it was him.

***

Sweat beaded along his forehead. Wet circles had blossomed beneath his arms and what looked like a dark cone had soaked through the back of his shirt. He swallowed the lump in his throat, but it seemed to stay put. His shoulders sagged and all the energy seemed to race down his legs and out of his body. 

He lowered the glove but held tight to the ball. 

On the ground was the cracked pitcher’s rubber at the center of what used to be a pitcher’s mound. He toed it like he did when he was a teenager and pitching in high school. For the longest time, he stared down at his sneaker covered foot. The laces were still in good shape for shoes that were over fourteen years old. The white exterior had grayed over time, but the shoes fit and were still comfortable. 

He took a deep breath and looked up.

***

His head thumped. It became hard to breathe. Dots formed in his vision. His eyes began to shut. Jay was dying. He knew this as well as he knew his son wanted to be a baseball player when grew up.

Jay’s eyes snapped open. Though it hurt him to move, he tried to look into the backseat.  HIs neck screamed. His arm protested. His ribs begged for him not to make any sudden movements. But he couldn’t help it. Through the rush of blood in his ears and the approaching feet, he had not heard his son speak, scream or cry. 

He did hear people yelling:

Call 9-1-1.

We have to get them out.

Oh my God!

Help! Help! Someone help them!

But he didn’t hear Jerry at all. 

Jay craned his neck the best he could. The image of his son in the backseat, the top of the ceiling crushed in, the frame of the window bent so the bar was at Jerry’s throat. His eyes were open and he still held his glove in his hand, a ball still in it.

He yelled, loud and long and hard, until, finally, he passed out.

***

dscn1683When he was in high school, he had been the third pitcher in a three deep starting lineup. He had an okay change up, but those weren’t the rage back then. He also had a good fast ball. It was better than average, but not even the fourth or fifth best on the team. The pitch he loved the most was a curve ball that could drop right off the plate as a batter flailed away at it. Even the good batters seemed to chase it when it was eyeball high halfway to the plate, only to miss as the full arc and break of the ball came into play. 

He didn’t think he could throw that curve ball now—his hand hasn’t been the same since the accident that claimed the use of the pinky. He gripped it the best he could, but knew without that pinky, he would never be able to get it to break right. It might cross the plate but hit the ground before it did so. Or maybe it would end up shooting off to the right or left and not break at all. 

He changed the grip, holding the ball with the middle two fingers on the seams, pointer finger and pinky on either side of the ball, completely on the rawhide, the thumb at the bottom, opposite the middle two fingers. He might could throw the pitch and have it move a little. The spin of the ball would be mostly off though without the aid of the pinky, which hugged the ball, but nothing else. 

He took a deep breath and switched the grip again, this time allowing the index and middle fingers to slide over the top the seams. His thumb went under the ball, opposite the other two. His ring finger and pinky sat beside each other. The only finger not touching the ball was the pinky. It sat, almost limply, by the ring finger. This grip felt right. He thought he could throw that pitch if needed.

“Two seamer it is,” he said and looked in at the batter’s box.

***

There were sirens. Jay heard them, though he had no clue where they came from. Someone kept telling him, “Stay with me, buddy.” He didn’t know who that was or who he was talking to. Jay thought it was a dream, or maybe someone else’s life.

The sirens gave way to bright lights. Stay With Me Buddy Guy was no longer there. In his place were several other voices, mostly men, but a woman (maybe two) was in the mix.

He opened an eye—the right one. Everything was blurry and bright. The faces around him all ran together. Their eyes seemed too large, their mouths too wide. The words coming from them were too loud. Everything was just … too much.

Then he was gone again, the voices and sights gone with him.

***

He had seen the headline. Well, it hadn’t really been a headline. It was more like a small heading with a six paragraph article beneath it. 

Man Who Killed Child in DUI Accident Released From Prison

He trembled when he saw it. He threw up after reading it. He threw up again after reading it a second time. There was a small image of the man to the left of the column. Prison life had not been good for him. He had aged poorly. In the image he wore a green jumper and his hair had thinned considerably. Whiskers stubbled his chin and his eyes held the thousand-yard stare of someone who had gone through a tragedy and still hasn’t come out the other side.

“How could they let him go?” he asked. His words didn’t come out quite right. Though his teeth had been replaced and the bones in his cheek reconstructed, his jaw was never the same. Surgery did no good. It was almost as if he talked with a mouth full of those broken teeth he swallowed. 

It wouldn’t have been hard to find the man—he could only go so far without a job, and his parents’ residence had come up during the trial. But Jay didn’t even have to go searching at all. The man—Collin Pickens—came to him.

The knock startled him. He limped to the door, opened it and almost slammed it shut. The two men stood looking at each other, Collin with the hopeful eyes of a guilty man seeking forgiveness, Jay, father of Jerry, now dead fourteen years, stunned and fighting the urge to punch the man across from him. 

“Mr. Hiller,” Collin said, “How do you do?”

Jay said nothing at first. He didn’t know what to say. How do you do? That’s the first words out of the mouth of the man who killed his son? How do you do? Finally, he spoke. “I’ve been better.”

dscn1703Collin nodded. His hair had thinned. He was smaller than Jay remembered from the trials. His eyes darted about, as if he were a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. “I’m sure,” he said.

“What do you want?” Jay asked, getting down to business. 

“I’m sorry, Sir,” Collin said. “I just want you to know that.”

Again, Jay said nothing right away. He stared at the man, his mind working hard and trying not to bog down. The very bane of Jay’s existence stood three feet from him. What was he to do if he wasn’t going to punch him or slam the door in his face?

“Come in,” he said and stepped aside.

It was Collin’s turn to be hesitant. Then, as if he believed he had been forgiven for his crimes against the Hiller family, he stepped through the threshold. Jay closed the door behind him.

***

The light hurt his right eye. There was no sense of feeling in the other, but the cheek and jaw ached bad. The beep beep of a monitor told him his heart still beat, which meant he was still alive. His head thumped and there was a ringing in his left ear that tried to drown out the heart monitor. 

Jay shook his head and immediately wished he hadn’t. His stomach rumbled and he didn’t get his head turned before he vomited down the front of his hospital gown and the sheet that covered him. 

“Take it easy, Jay.” The voice of his wife was strained. Her hand was cold and clammy. He could hardly make her out through the haze in his mind.

“Where’s Jerry?” he asked. It came out as “Bare’s Derbee.”

It was a long while before she answered and when she did, there were tears in her words. Though they didn’t sound like much, he knew what she had said. “He’s dead.”

Jay cried.

***

On the mantle in the living room stood a picture of Jay, Jerry and Heather. It had been taken about a month before Jerry’s untimely death. They were happy then, a family of three with everything they could want in the growing stages of their lives together. Two years after the death of Jerry, Heather followed, but not by accident or even by natural causes. She went into the night by her own hand and a bottle full of pills. Jay stood by the fireplace, just to the left of the picture. He didn’t realize he had done this.

“I appreciate you seeing me, Mr. Hiller,” Collin said as he sat on the couch opposite the mantle. His eyes were fixed on the image Jay stood next to.

“We … uh … things happen,” Jay said, though he didn’t believe the words coming from his mouth. He looked at the picture of his family. They were all smiling. Jerry had a cap on his head backward, just like his dad. Heather’s hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her green eyes shining the way they always did before her son’s death dulled them with the tears she cried. 

“I guess so,” Collin said and looked away.

“You … umm .. you want a drink or something?”

“Water would be nice,” Collin said with a nod.

“Water it is.”

***

The nightmares kept him awake. His son in the back seat, glove on his hand, ball still tucked in it. The bar of the window on his throat, his windpipe crushed and his eyes open in a begging expression that said, you were supposed to keep me safe, Daddy.

He always woke in a cold sweat, even in the dead of summer with air blowing from the window unit by the bed. He screamed until his throat hurt each time. Then he sat up in the bed, breath labored, blood pumping too fast through his veins, heart breaking all over again.

***

Water it was. 

Jay left the room and made his way through the kitchen to the room he had slept in for the last twelve years of his life. It was nothing more than his old study. The desk hadn’t been used for more than a takeout container catch all (not catching them all since some were on the floor around it). A sheet and pillow were crumpled on the couch and a clock sat on the end table next to it. 

At the desk, he opened a drawer and rummaged through it. Then the second one was opened and the third—and last—followed. It was in this third one where he found the pistol he had bought to use on himself after Heather’s death. He wanted to follow in her footsteps, just give up the living so he could give up the grieving. It was something he never followed through on. He opened the cylinder. Five .38s sat ready to be used. He closed the cylinder back and walked out of the room, stopping for a bottle of water from the refrigerator before going into the living room.

“Here you go,” he said when he entered the room. Collin had been looking at the floor. His hands were clasped together, and his eyes were wet with tears.

“Thank you,” he said and reached for the water. His hand stopped in mid reach and his eyes locked in on the gun in Jay’s right hand. 

“My son is dead because of you,” Jay said. “My wife killed herself two years later because her son was dead, so that means my wife is dead because of you. You see this gun? I bought it so I could join them, but I’m still here. And so are you.”

Collin put both hands in the air, started to say something. Before he could, Jay turn the gun around and brought it down on his forehead.

***

Jay visited the grave. He ran his fingers along his son’s name Jerry Thomas Hiller II. There were words there, something Heather wanted on the stone. Jay had no clue what they were. He never got passed his son’s name.

***

Now he stood on the pitcher’s mound. He gripped tight to the ball. A two-seamer for certain. He stared in at the batter’s box and just beyond it. The metal fence behind it had rusted over the years, but it served the purpose Jay needed it to. Bound to the fence by rope and plenty of duct tape was Collin Pickens. His arms were pulled out to his sides, strapped tight to the fence so he couldn’t move them. Tape wrapped around his forehead, keeping him facing toward Jay. His mouth was taped shut. 

It wasn’t terribly hard to get Collin there and bound to the fence—being unconscious for part of it made things so much easier. When Collin finally came to, all Jay needed to do was put the gun to Collin’s head and he stilled. Jay knew that was the worse thing Collin could have done. That just made it easier for Jay to do what he needed to do.

On the pitcher’s mound he stared in. His pinky twitched as if it were itching to throw the ball as hard as he could. 

“My son wanted to be a pitcher,” Jay said. “I bet you didn’t know that. He was eight years old when you killed him. He would be twenty-two now.”

Jay cocked his arm back and slung the ball as hard as he could. He felt the tinge in his shoulder as soon as he released it. The ball sailed to the right, striking the fence almost three full feet over Collin’s head. That didn’t keep Collin from letting out a muffled scream. 

Jay took the glove off and rubbed his throwing shoulder. “I’m a little rusty,” he said, not necessarily to Jay. “Let’s try this again.” Jay reached into the bucket, plucked out one of the many balls he had pilfered from little league fields all around the state. There was a smudge of orange between the two top seams. He put the ball behind his back and rolled it around in his hand until the fingers found the seams and his grip tightened. Jay looked at second base, just as he would have when he was back in school. Then he turned to Collin Pickens and threw the ball.

***

“He’s not getting away with this, son,” Jay said as he rubbed his fingers along the headstone with his eyes closed. “I’m not going to let him. I promise you that.”

He left Jerry’s grave for the last time the day after Collin Pickens was released from prison and the morning he read the news. There wasn’t much left to say to his son, except, “I love you,” which he did before standing and leaving.

***

dscn1707The ball struck Collin Pickens in the right shoulder with a sickening thud. He screamed his muffled scream. Tears formed in his eyes. If he hadn’t been wearing a shirt, Jay would have been able to see an impression of the seams of the ball on Collin’s shoulder. 

“A little high,” Jay said and reached into the bucket for another ball. One of the seams had snapped on this one. He slipped it behind his back, rolled it over in his hand until his fingers found the seam. Then he threw it.

The ball hit Collin in the stomach. He tried to lift his legs, but his bonds held him in check.

“My son wanted to be a pitcher,” Jay said, “just like his old man.”

He fired another ball in. This one striking Collin in the left knee. A loud pop echoed in the air and the ball bounced off the knee cap. It came to a stop in the dip of the batter’s box where feet had dug it out years ago. Another pained and muffled howl came from Collin. Tears streamed down his face.

Jay took another ball from the bucket, tossed it in the air in front of his face. He caught it and put it behind his back as he looked in at Collin—at the strike zone that was his body.  

“My wife killed herself, did you know that?”

Jay shook his head and laughed. “Of course, you didn’t. How could you?” He paused. “Two years after we buried my boy, I buried my wife—almost to the day. She couldn’t live another day without her son. She … umm … downed a bottle of pain killers—my pain killers—and she just … went to sleep.”

Tears had formed in his eyes by then. He wiped at them with his gloved hand. 

“You killed my son and my wife.”

Jay fired the ball at Collin. It struck him in the left side of his ribs. Collin squeezed his eyes shut just before impact. The sound was thick and sickening. Collin leaned slightly forward, but could go no further, his bonds holding him to the fence.

***

The nightmares never changed. They talk in the car after the game. The headlights from the other car comes into view. His son asks his dad if he would ever throw as good as the pitcher did that night. Then the sound of twisting metal and glass. It is always followed by Jay turning in his seat to see his son’s haunting eyes, the accusatory stare in them. 

As always, he woke with a scream.

*** 

Another ball came from the bucket and was quickly zipped at Collin. As did another and another and another. The balls hit him in the leg and torso and arm. One struck him in the crotch, prompting a moment of vomit that couldn’t get through the tape on his mouth, but that partially came out his nose instead. Jay only missed on two throws. The fence rattled both times that happened.

One last time he reached into the bucket. He kicked it as hard as he could. It tumbled toward third base, stopping just on the infield dirt. Sweat poured off his face and arms and beneath his armpits and down his back into his pants. By then he was tired. His face was red and that twinge in his arm was more of a not so subtle throb. It was a pain he had felt when he tore the rotator cuff in his junior year of college. He didn’t care. He had one last pitch … one last strike to throw.

He said nothing as he stared in at Collin Pickens. The man hanging on the fence was bruised and battered. Some of his bones had broken with the impact of the balls. Blood and vomit spilled from his nose. Tears fell from his eyes. His body sagged, and his arms pulled on their restraints. He shook his head weakly from side to side, as if begging Jay not to throw another ball at him.

Jay went into his wind up and threw the ball harder than he ever had. There was a pop in his elbow, and he knew immediately he had blown it out. The pain was sudden, but he didn’t drop to his knees or grab his elbow. He watched the ball as it struck home in the center of Collin’s face.

***

He slept, the man with no child and no wife and no grudge to hold to any longer. He slept with the aid of a bottle of pain meds, just as his wife had. And the nightmare came no longer.

__________

If you know anything about me, you know I love baseball. Especially little league baseball. You also know I like writing about baseball, but rarely in that nice little let’s get a long and play well together mentality. I like exploring the darker sides of everything, including a game I love. 

I wrote this story over a few days after the family went to a minor league baseball gam here in South Carolina. The game was fun and the home team won 2-0. On our way home that night, no car swerved and almost hit us. However, my mind had already started writing a story when we left the parking lot.

If you enjoyed Jerry Died (or any of the other stories I have posted), please share them with your friends on social media, like this post and comment. I would like to know what you think.

A.J.

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Skipping Stones (Free Fiction)

Skipping Stones

A.J. Brown

“Flat stones, Cadence.  You have to use flat stones.”

Remy ran his hand through the sediment just beneath the water’s surface. Sand washed away with the current of the river as he pulled his hand out. Five black rocks sat in the palm of his hand, four of them smooth and flat. He tossed the one rounded rock back into the water

He looked out over the narrow neck of the river. Tree branches stretched across the water from both sides. Thick moss hung down like heavy strands of hair on a hag’s head. Remy had tied the target to one of the thicker branches so it would dangle a few inches above the water.

Remy turned to his daughter, took in the eyes that were odd: one wide and one like a slit across her face. He took in the way one side of her lip pulled down, the scars on her face and arms where flames had licked her skin. His heart cracked and he clinched his teeth to bite back the anger welling up in his chest. He closed his eyes, released a long breath, tried to relax his suddenly tense muscles and opened his eyes.

“You do it like this,” he said and held his arm out to his side and at an angle. With a flick of his wrists he let the rock go. It skipped across the water, went into the air, skipped again but sailed just to the right of the target. “Dang it, I missed.” He shook his head.  “But, you get the picture, right?”

black rocks 2Cadence nodded, her once curly blond locks were short, barely there and clung tight to her skull.  The one good blue eye shimmered with excitement as she took a stone from Remy, held her arm at an angle and tossed the rock. It plopped into the water and sank.  

“Ah man,” she said, lowered her head. It came out “ah bant.”

“Try again.”

The second rock sank as well.

Remy held the last rock out for her.  “One more, kiddo.”

Cadence took the final rock, one a little bigger than the others. Remy stepped behind her, took her elbow and steadied her arm. “Close your eyes, child. See the target in your mind, feel it in your soul as if it were pain. We don’t like pain, now do we?”

”No sir.” It came out “Doe thir.” She did as she was told. Her eyes closed, her lips a crooked line across her face, one puckered with scars.

He stepped back. “Go on ahead now. Hit the target. You can do this, Cadence.”

Cadence took a deep breath, opened her eyes and stared down the target with her one good one. She stepped out with her left foot and flicked her wrist. The rock skimmed the water’s surface three times before striking the woman dangling upside down from the overhanging tree limb.  She let out a yelp of pain as she swayed from side to side. Blood spilled from the wound above her eye and flowed into her brown hair. 

“Bulls eye,” Remy cheered.

The child’s eyes grew wide, a smile stretched across her young face.

“Do you want to try again?” 

“Yes,” she said, clapped her scarred hands together.

He rummaged through the sediment, came back up with several smooth rocks. The woman cried, her nostrils flaring, her mouth held shut with duct tape, muffling her screams. 

“Aim for the middle of the target next time. She’s still much too pretty. Remember how she looked at you? Remember what she said to you? Remember how it made you feel?”

Cadence nodded, took another rock and closed her eyes and remembered …

__________

This piece was written when my son was five years old. The family had gone to the river walk in Cayce, South Carolina. The river was low and I told a couple of stories how my brother and I would cross the water when it was low enough to. We also used to have stone skipping contests. My brother, older by a year and a half, was always better than me at most things until I got into my early teen years. Skipping stones was one of those things he made look easy. 

My son asked me to show him how to skip stones. For half an hour or so I rummaged around in the water looking for smooth rocks, which there were plenty of. I showed him several times how to hold the rock between thumb and first finger with the middle finger like a resting spot for the rock itself. I showed him how to hold his arm sideways (much like a sidearm pitcher would). I showed him how to flip the rock, allowing your wrist to snap and your first finger to release the rock so that it sailed even with the water, striking it and bouncing up in the air. It took him a couple dozen attempts, but he finally skipped one three times across the top of the water. He jumped up, pumped his fist and yelled, “I did it.”

We walked away a few minutes later, him happy and me proud and my mind turning over thoughts. The first line to the story is almost word for word what I told my son, but I had used his name and not the fictional burn victim, Cadence’s. As we walked the path to the car, the story had somewhat developed into a father showing his child, one with bad scars all over her body, how to skip rocks and take revenge on someone who had looked at her in the wrong way and insulted her. I won’t lie and say I didn’t have a little fun writing this piece.

Hey, while I have you here, did you like Skipping Stones (or any of the other stories posted so far this month)? If so, would you mind leaving a comment, liking the post (and following the blog if you want notifications of future posts) and sharing it to your social media pages? It would help me get these stories out to others. Thank you for reading, commenting, liking, sharing. 

A.J.

Voices, The Interviews: Stephanie (Part 2 of 2)

If you have not read the first part of this interview with a book character, then please follow this LINK to catch up. Please, keep in mind, this interview contains spoilers, so if you have not read Voices, a collection of short stories, please consider doing so before continuing. You can find Voices HERE.

Lisa had known as well, but …

“Did you plan what you were going to do or …”

“I planned the entire thing. I planned it right down to me dying. If it went wrong, at least I would be dead … and free. If it went right, we both would be dead. It went partially right. He died. I …” Stephanie holds up her arms, shows Lisa the long scars that run from wrists to elbow. “… didn’t.”

She had guts to do something about her situation, Lisa.

Scary GIrl KnifeThe voice of Mr. Worrywort is back, but this time the dripping malice it had before is gone. In this voice is the childish taunt of a scared school yard bully, one that knows when he gets home, his dad is going to do so much worse to him than he could ever do to a third grader with a lisp or who wore glasses or, Heaven forbid, who came from a poor family who couldn’t afford to by him decent clothing and he had to wear the same jeans multiple times a week. 

Lisa pulls her legs up the best she can, but the pain in them and in her hip and her back are too much. One of her knees feels loose, as if it will pop out of place. She lets her legs slide down, but this time not crossing them, afraid her ankles might dislocate if she did so. Her shoulders shake and her chest heaves as a sob tears from her.

“I couldn’t do it,” Lisa says. “I couldn’t do what you did. I wanted to, but I …”

And the realization comes to her, furious in its intent. “I still want … I still want to kill him, but …”

But he is already dead and has been for nearly two decades. In the darkest part of her heart, she hopes he suffered and he died a miserable, lonely and hurting man. She hopes he is suffering now in whatever afterlife there is, be it Hell or something else. If it is Hell, she hopes there is a special place for men who rape helpless little children. In her mind she sees him, bent over a smoldering rock as a line of demons takes their turns with him, doing to him what he did to her. This makes her smile, but it doesn’t take away the truth that she wished she had killed him. That would have been more satisfying for her. 

“I admire your conviction,” she says as she thinks about the light fading, fading, fading from her step father’s eyes, until, finally, it winked out all together. She never got to see that, never got to experience the unadulterated joy of watching the very man who ruined everything about her life die. It angers her. It makes her clench her hands into tight fists. Heat runs up her chest, into her neck, then high on her cheeks. 

“How did it feel, Stephanie?” she says suddenly. “How did it feel to end his life? To end his miserable, worthless existence? How did it feel!?” Her teeth are clenched now and she is not asking a question, but demanding an answer. This is no longer about Stephanie. She thinks it is no longer about any of the characters of a freaking book. It’s been about her the entire time. It’s always been about her. But … but … but …

Stephanie smiles. It is something so haunting and full of despair, Lisa believes the answer will not be what she hopes it will be. “It felt like rebirth,” Stephanie says. “It felt like I was cleansed of … of him.”

Lisa feels her own smile forming. It is something she believes looks similar to Stephanie’s, but now she can feel it, now she understands why Stephanie did it. And she longs to have been able to do to her stepfather what Stephanie did to Carson. 

Maybe I can, she thinks. Maybe …

Go ahead, Mr. Worrywort says in that smooth used car salesman voice. Go ahead and invite him into your head. 

“I think I will,” she responds. “I think I will!”

Even if it’s dangerous?

“Especially because it’s dangerous.”

You won’t do it. You can’t do it. The taunt brings with it laughter.

“Shut up!” she screams and turns on her bottom. A sharp pain races up her hip and into her spine but she pays it no attention at all. She looks at the shadow along the wall, at the thing taunting her this entire time. “Shut your stinking mouth!”

Then she looks back at Stephanie, her eyes burning with anger and full of a lust she has never felt before. “Did it help? Did it help at all?” There is desperation in her voice. 

Stephanie hasn’t moved from her spot on the floor. She looks at Lisa with what can be considered pity. “Yes and …”

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMLisa doesn’t hear the ‘no.’ She only hears the ‘yes,’ and then she grits her teeth tightly together. Some of the characters she interviewed had gone through such terrible things. They all had something in common, something Lisa didn’t have: Revenge. Spencer made a deal with the shadow people and they took Sarah and her boyfriend instead of him. They had picked on him and taunted him, and even tricked him, but in the end, he had gotten the last laugh. Nothing carved his father up with a broken beer bottle, using the very thing his father had thrown at him when he was little. It had shattered and given Nothing his first scar. Sweet Claire shot her dad to death at the biggest awards show of the year. She had acted out the very things she had gone through at his hands, and somehow, she won an award for it. Dane took it a little further than that when she killed her uncle who abused her and then killed every head doctor who came her way, every person who tried to reach her. And poor Brian, who was big for his age and whose father neglected him and his siblings. No, Brian was nothing like his father. Lewis got revenge as well, though not against someone who directly caused him pain. No, he only murdered the man his Michelle had married after she divorced him while he was in prison. It wasn’t jealousy that made him do it, but Michelle’s busted face. Then there was Cody, whose brother Jake, knew the truth about their mother, though with his scrambled brain, he could never really say what that truth was. But it wasn’t their mother Cody got revenge for. It was little Jenny Harris, who died outside of her apartment door, thanks to the brutal rape their father had committed on her. 

And, of course, there was Stephanie, who had been raped by her best friend, a guy she loved, but hadn’t been able to tell at that point. She killed him. She had been courageous and killed him, and she felt good about it. Lisa believes if she asks the young lady if she regrets murdering Carson, the answer will be ‘no.’

What if someone would have stopped each of these people when they first started? What if Nothing’s mom would have left her husband after the beer bottle incident? She wouldn’t have died and Nothing wouldn’t have suffered the way he did. What if Jenny Harris’s mother hadn’t rented the poor child out to one of the drug dealers that first time? Maybe Jenny wouldn’t have died so horribly and alone. What if Michelle didn’t give into her father’s demands to divorce Lewis after he went to prison? Would things have been different? Of course they would have. What if Brian’s father … What if? What if? 

What if you would have killed John when you were old enough to do so? Mr. Worrywort asked, his voice holding the condescending tone of a prosecuting attorney with the defendant on the stand. He wouldn’t have met the other woman. You know, the one with the young daughter? You know you weren’t the only one. Oh no, that man had the lust in him and only little girls could quell it. 

Lisa’s heart sinks as she thinks of that little girl. She never stood a chance. She looks to the door, the one she entered through what feels like ten years ago. She wills it to open. She wills it to do so with a burning hatred in her heart. She wills it, not only to open, but for the very man who started the vicious cycle of rapes and sexual assaults to come strolling through, even though he has been dead nearly two decades. 

Come on, Lisa. Do it. Go kill old dead John.

John! That’s right. All this time she had tried to visualize him, to make him as real as the other characters currently in her head. His name was John and he wasn’t a big guy, but still a giant to a little girl who hadn’t reached first grade yet. 

You can’t do it, Mr. Worrywort laughs. You can’t do it, just like before. You can’t kill him. You’re too scared of him. You’re nothing but a coward.

Something inside of Lisa snaps. “I can and I will,” she growls. Though it hurts her to do so, she rolls onto her knees. The left one wobbles, but she doesn’t wait for it to dislocate or hyperextend. She grabs hold of her seat and pushes up, praying her elbows or wrists don’t buckle with the added pressure. Her arms shake as she does this. Her legs tremble with the effort of standing after being seated on a hard floor for the last few minutes. She gets to her feet and stares hard at the door, even as her body trembles with pain. 

“Walk through the door,” she growls. 

The doorknob clicks and the door opens. In steps a man who hasn’t aged a day, much less one who has died and whose body has probably rotted down to bones with skin like parchment wrapped around them. He is somehow shorter than she recalled. His glasses are thick black plastic with thick lenses that make his blue eyes appear almost as black as his hair. 

She will never be able to recall where the broken bottle came from, but it is there, in her hand. Lisa lets out a hateful scream and runs toward John, the man who has tormented her her entire life. He tries to back away, to turn and run back out the door, but it slams shut. Though her legs and hips and arms feel like they are going to come apart at any moment, she doesn’t let it stop her. The growl tearing from her throat matches the anger in her heart, mind and soul. 

Lisa reaches him as he lets go of the knob. He turns and his eyes are wide and there is no blue to be seen in them behind the thick lenses. She drives the broken bottle downward. John raises an arm to protect himself and the jagged glass rips through his blue uniform shirt, gashing his arm and drawing a crimson spray that splatters against the light yellow wall behind him. 

John backs away, his face no longer that of a predatory monster, but of a scared man, one who knows his bad deeds have caught up with him. Lisa slashes at him again, this time connecting with an outstretched hand. Three of his fingers open up and tip backward. Lisa sees none of this and drives the bottle at him again, this time catching him in the shoulder. John stumbles backward, strikes the wall and falls, leaving a swath of his blood behind.

Lisa, feeling young and spry and moving like a woman in her late teens with no pains in her joints, drops onto John. She slams the bottle down, striking him over and over in his chest, shoulder, stomach, anywhere his arms aren’t trying to block. She doesn’t hear his screams or his pleading. Her brain blocks out all noises. She doesn’t need that nightmare playing over and over in her head. The bottle strikes John’s face. A piece of green glass breaks off in his cheek. 

John tries to shove her away, but manages only to doom himself. Lisa lifts the bottle high above her head and brings it down into the side of his neck. The bottle rips through the vulnerable skin and tissue there, spraying blood on her body and face. He coughs several times. A fine mist of blood and saliva fills the air around them, then falls to the floor like red rain. His shredded hands fall away and his body relaxes against the floor. 

Broken HeartHer breaths are hard and painful. A million pins poke at her legs, hips, back, shoulders, elbows and even her fingers. She stands, slips in the blood, but catches herself on the wall. Any other time and that slip would have sent her to the floor, with one or more dislocations in her hips and legs. Her chest heaves up and down and the look on her face is nothing shy of insanity. It is a look she feels and she likes it.

“Walk through the door,” she says again. The world that was is now gone. She feels heat boiling up from the depths of the Hell parts of her her life has been. 

The door clicks and opens again and a tall man. clean shaven and wearing the bewildered expression of someone who has been in a coma and has just woken. His hair is brown and she knows him right away as Claire Edgecomb’s father. The front of his dress shirt is a blossom of red and his face holds the pale, pale skin of someone who has lost a lot of blood. 

She lifts her hands and in them are guns. She points them at him. 

“No.”

Lisa turns. Standing at her chair is Claire and she is shaking her head. 

“He is mine,” Claire says and lifts her own gun. It is something she has held before and it belongs in her hand. She pulls the trigger. The blast is loud and the center of her father’s chest opens up again. He spins in a macabre pirouette and strikes the wall near where John lays dead. He bounces off the wall and falls to the floor.

Claire lower the gun, and from somewhere else in the room comes the words, “Walk through the door.” 

Like before, the door opens and in walks Cody and Jake’s Dad, but there is no Cody or Jake. Instead, there is Jenny Harris and her torn and broken body. She clutches a huge knife in her little hands. She appears behind him and brings the knife across the backs of his knees. Face first, he falls and clutches at his legs, his screams are loud at first, but end quickly when Jenny brings the knife down on his back.

Again, the words, “Walk through the door,” comes and Nothing’s Dad enters the room. Then comes Dane’s tormentor, her uncle who thought little girls were his playground. Followed by him are the duo of Sarah and Bobby, there bodies mangled masses of flesh, their faces ripped and torn. Brian’s dad appears next, limping, his face sagging on his busted skull. 

Brian walks toward him, a bloodied hammer in hand. He cocks his head but doesn’t raise the hammer. He only stares at the man who had been his father once upon a time on the pages of a book, one where violence seemed to rule each story. 

“No, son,” Lewis says. He steps up beside Brian and takes his hand. “You’ve done your deed. No need to repeat it.”

Brian gives a simple nod, then drops the hammer. It clatters on the floor, one that had vanished while Lisa exacted a measure of revenge on the man who first touched her in a way he should have never done. 

Lisa is breathing much too hard for her liking and there are no longer guns in her hand, but the broken bottle she used on John. The adrenaline that had coursed through her blood earlier is now gone and the pain, true and raw, inches its way along the nerves of her body. She stumbles, weak and exhausted, hoping to get to her seat before she collapses to the floor and suffers the very real possibility of broken bones. 

I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to make it.

Her hands go out in front of her. Not that they will do much good. A fall on this hard floor would surely break bones in her hands and wrists, at the very least. She tilts forward and braces herself for the pain she is about to be in.

It is Stephanie who catches her and keeps her from the devastation of the fall. She holds her up, balances her the best she can, then helps Lisa to her seat. Her muscles ache and she lets out weak breath after weak breath. She closes her eyes. She wants to be done with this. The interviews have opened so many memories and let out so many … voices. She shakes her head and wishes herself back to the room where the writer waits for her return. When she opens her eyes, the room is still there. Lisa lets out a laughing sob. 

“I can’t leave until it is finished,” she says. Her voice sounds so far away, as if it belongs to someone else and she is not in this broken body, but outside of it, watching, watching, watching. 

“Until what’s finished?” Stephanie asks. 

Lisa turns to the young woman who looks at her with a frown that holds more sorrow in it than before they began talking. “This,” she says and lifts her aching arms as if to say, ‘look around you.’

She realizes then that she has one more question for Stephanie. She sits up in her seat the best she can.

“Stephanie, did you learn to trust men again?”

Stephanie doesn’t answer the question. Instead, she poses one of her own. “Did you?”

Lisa laughs. “Did I?”

“Yes. Did you learn to trust men again?”

Lisa gives a slow shake of her head. It’s an easy question to answer, but one burdened by the truth and sadness of it all. “Not completely, no.”

“Then maybe I can help.”

Lisa and Stephanie both look to the young man—well, younger than Lisa, but older than Stephanie. He has a sheepish smile on his face, one that says ‘you can trust me,’ though Lisa doubts that very much.

“How can you help me?”

“I know a place and I know a person.”

Voices: The Interviews: Stephanie (Part 1 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

Before reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our little project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum. 

No, this is not your typical interview session. What I want to do is make each interview like a story, one that continues until we reach the end. Some of these are going to be short. Some of them might be long. I don’t know. Like you, I will find out just how long each interview is based on the questions Lisa provides me. I don’t know the questions ahead of time and neither do the characters.

Since this is an interview, I will go ahead and say up front there are spoilers in each session. If you have not read Voices, I urge you to do so before continuing (you can pick up a copy here). If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers. 

One more thing before reading: if you have read Voices and would like to ask a question of today’s character, leave a comment at the end, and I will see about getting an answer from the character for you. Don’t be shy, ask your questions. You may get an interesting response.

SESSION 14 

Part 1

She is breathless and heartbroken. The little girl never had a chance in life. How she made it as long as she did before her death is nothing short of a miracle in Lisa’s eyes. But it hurt. Yes, it hurt Lisa to talk to this little girl the way she did. A part of Lisa—a part so deep down inside it made her soul ache—hated how she had to pull the answers from Jenny. Another part, the part of her that was not just deep down inside, but a part she keeps hidden from most people who know her, realizes Jenny was like her when she was a child: sweet and innocent until ….

Until it was taken from me.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMHer heart shatters and she leans forward in her chair. Her arms go around her stomach. Nausea swims in her belly and pushes upward toward her throat. Tears form again in her rimmed red eyes. She feels like she has been crying for more than a couple of hours. 

It’s been days, weeks, months and years … so many years. 

Remembering life as that little girl, first with the innocence of life and the future, then … then with the pain and the skewed view of self worth (or a lack there of) made her ache worse for this poor child. Without warning, Lisa suddenly hates the writer, the one who asked her to do these interviews, to talk to the ones whose voices controlled them until they either conquered or gave in. She rocks in her seat, not caring if any of these … these … ghosts see her. Though she knows they are not truly ghosts but people from the Land of Make Believe; that they came from the pages and will return when they are finished, she absolutely knows in her heart they are spirits, and each one of them experienced their own form of torture, their own Hell. She hates the writer for peeking into her heart and into the spaces where so few have gone and where her innocence died. She hates him as strongly right then as she ever hated anyone. 

That’s irrational, she thinks as she rocks in her creaking chair, as she clutches her stomach and prays no vomit will come. But is it? Is it irrational to hate someone who only wrote a book about people and the bad things they do or that happen to them? Is it rational to hate someone who asked a question that led to another one and another one? Is it irrational to hate someone who didn’t make her relive the painful events of her past, but yet somehow she did? Is it? Is it? Is it?!

She doesn’t believe so, even as the hate subsides a little, even as the pain in her heart that fills her very body and soul tells her it is okay to hate him. That has to be directed at someone or it will eat her up. 

It’s not his fault. She fully believes this. He didn’t do anything to her. He didn’t twist her arm. He didn’t do … what others had. 

The hate falters and she sags in her chair. She wants nothing more than to close her eyes and …

No! No! Nononono! I have to see this through. I have to. If not for me, then for her. 

Her? 

Yes, her. 

As if she had spoken her name, the young lady is there, sitting, not on her chair like the others, but on the floor. Her head is down and she wears a pair of gray jogging pants and a plain white T-shirt. It could have been her dad’s or a 

(best friend’s)

boyfriend’s. Lisa knows better. She wouldn’t wear a man’s shirt—not one that belonged to a man anyway. Not after …

Lisa takes a deep breath. She is going to do something she knows she will pay for dearly later. She scoots to the edge of her seat. The thought of kneeling onto the floor makes her joints hurt. The act of doing it is far worse. She eases herself down to the floor. It is cool on her bottom and she knows that might be the only time for the remainder of the day, and maybe even days to come, that she feels anything other than pain. Still, she sees the young lady and hopes it will be worth it.

No pain, no gain, she thinks. Her inner self shakes her head and rolls her eyes. Behind her Mr. Worrywort chuckles. She tunes him out the best she can and gets onto her hands and knees. The first crawling step forward sends slivers of pain into her left knee, thigh and hip. The next one does the same to her right leg. By the time she reaches the young lady sitting on the floor, her head still down, her hair dangling and covering her face, the lower part of Lisa’s body is on fire. Joints and muscles scream their indignities at her, and when she lets herself fall onto her bottom, she lets out the first of many long, agonized  breaths. 

It takes a couple of minutes for her to compose herself, but when she does, she looks to the young lady she now sits beside. She reaches a hand out, then stops. She drops it back down. 

“Stephanie,” she says in her best motherly voice. “Stephanie, are you in there?”

Of course she’s in there, Lisa. She just might not want to come out and socialize. 

She knows this to be true. She’s been where Stephanie is now—in her own head, replaying the events that led her to do what she did. She not only feels violated by what happened to her and by who was involved, she also feels guilty for what she did. Once upon a time, Lisa was in that head space, and sometimes, she believes she still is. But the strength to kill someone, to seek out and take full revenge on someone who had hurt her, Lisa doesn’t know completely. Sure, she played out multiple scenarios in her head, but she could never go through with the act. For that, she feels weak and maybe even unworthy to talk to Stephanie.

Lisa reaches her hand up again. This time she touches the young woman’s hair. It is in need of washing and it doesn’t sit on her fingers like it should. She pulls a few locks of hair away from Stephanie’s face and tucks it behind her ear. “Stephanie. My name is Lisa, and I’ve been where you are. I know what you are feeling.”

Stephanie doesn’t move at first. She only stairs down at her hands.

“Stephanie, I have a secret I want to tell you.”

Lisa swallows. She closes her eyes and lets the moment flow through her. She leans in, places her lips near Stephanie’s ears and whispers, “I was raped, too. Several times.”

Stephanie slowly looks from her hands to out in front of her. Then, she turns her head and stares directly at Lisa. Her green eyes aren’t dull like Lisa thought they would be. They glisten with tears in them. 

“Hello, Stephanie.”

“You were raped?” Her voice sounds weak, or maybe it had been asleep and had only woken seconds earlier. 

“Yes. Several times by men I trusted.”

 “I’m sorry.”

“Me too, but I can’t change what happened to me. I couldn’t do what you did. You’re very brave. I admire what … admire your … Um … I admire your strength.”

“I wasn’t strong.”

“Oh, but you were. You are.”

Stephanie shakes her head. The hair Lisa had tucked behind her ear falls away and drops to the side of her face. “I wasn’t brave.”

“But you …”

“The dead helped me.”

“The dead helped you?”

“Susannah. She told me I wasn’t dead, yet.”

“Susannah?”

“Yes.”

“The dead girl?”

“Yes.”

“So, Stephanie, um, how did you find Susannah’s grave?”

“I went to die,” Stephanie said. “I wanted to be over the pain and guilt and the feeling of being nothing but meat to someone.” She laughed a mournful laugh. “I guess I deserved it, you know. I brought this on myself and … and … I … I guess she found me there.”

“Susannah found you?”

“When I was walking through the cemetery. She … she called me.”

“Called you?”

“Called me.”

Lisa understands this. She lives in a house near a graveyard and often feels the need—not the want, but the actual need, as if the very threads of her sanity depends on it—to walk through it, touch some of the headstones, have conversations with those who no longer have family to visit them. She understands the calling Stephanie speaks of, and she is jealous of the young lady. Where was the dead when she needed them all those years ago? Where are the dead now?

Broken Heart.jpg“A lot of people are afraid of graveyards,” Lisa says. “They find them … spooky. Scary. You and I know they … they are not so scary. But you are not afraid of them. Of cemeteries. Why not?”

“The dead can’t hurt me,” Stephanie responds. “Only the living can.”

So true. So very true.

Lisa realizes right then that her notepad is laying on the floor by her seat. All the questions she meant to ask Stephanie were on a page with the young lady’s name at the top of it. The notepad is facedown and several of the pages are skewed. It’s the notepad that makes her change the subject to something she is curious about. She thinks of Dane, the girl with the fear of numbers. A male head doctor played a prominent role in her story. He had a yellow notepad similar to Lisa’s. Stephanie’s therapist …

“I can’t help but wonder: how did you get stuck with a male therapist? That had to be … to be …” She pauses for several seconds, then continues. “How did that happen?”

Stephanie shrugs. “They didn’t think a woman would understand what happened to me? Or maybe she couldn’t be, I don’t know, unbiased because she was a woman? Or maybe they thought I was dangerous? I don’t know.”

“Are you dangerous”

Stephanie says three words in a voice so firm and resolute that Lisa completely believes her: “Not to women.”

Lisa thinks back to after she had been attacked, assaulted … whatever people want to call it these days. To her, it was, and always will be, rape. It had been an unwelcome and unwanted violation of her body. And it didn’t happen just once. She had been like a magnet for bad men, starting at an age far earlier than most. She tries to block out the bad things done to her before she turned six. She doesn’t try to block out her friends, what a few of them had done to her one night when it was her and a bunch of the boys and the boys wanted what she had but didn’t offer to them. She doesn’t block out her ex-husband, a man she loved at one point and who she thought loved her. She feels every touch, every insult, every violation and the anger she felt years before (and even sometimes now when she thinks on it like she is right then), comes rushing back. 

“They should have never put you with a male therapist,” she growls.

Another shrug, but this time Stephanie doesn’t say anything.

“It was unfair to you. I bet he didn’t get it, did he?”

Stephanie looks at her with big doe eyes. It’s as if she sees something in Lisa she hadn’t just moments before. “He was a man.”

Lisa is shaking her head now, almost furiously. Her bottom lip is tucked under her top teeth. Her nostrils flair. “Did he ever get to where he understood?”

“No.” Stephanie is looking down at her hands, at the crescent moon scars her own nails left behind after so many times of digging them into her own palms.

“Of course not,” Lisa snaps, then stops. Stephanie’s eyes are wider now. Lisa’s voice is softer when she speaks next. “Sorry. I guess I knew the answer to that question already. And the truth is how could he? How could he  ever understand? Unless he was raped, he wouldn’t. No man would.”

She closes her eyes and tries to focus on Stephanie, to push her own sorrows and anger aside and asks the tough questions, questions she might already know the answers to.

“Stephanie, I don’t want to sound like an insensitive shrink, but please, if you can, tell me, how did you feel when you realized it was him? Carlton? Your friend! How did you feel when you knew you’d been betrayed by someone you trusted? How did you feel about that? That initial feeling when you knew, you knew …” Lisa realizes her questions came rushing out of her and with that same vehemence as the hate in her own heart. Behind her—no, all around her—she hears the gleeful laughter of Mr. Worrywort. He is no longer just some shadow on the wall or a figment of one man’s imagination. He is very real and very much in her head. He is getting to her and … and … she is not in the least bit concerned about getting him out of her head.

Deep breath, Lisa. Deep breath.

(Take all the deep breaths you want. It’s not going to help.)

Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep breath.

I’m sorry. Um, Stephanie, how did you feel initially? When you remembered your rapist was your friend?”

Stephanie’s head shakes, as does her hands. She clenches them into fists and Lisa knows if the young woman had fingernails they would be sunk down to the quick into her palms and the crescent moon scars would have been reopened. Her jaw clenches and her breaths are quick and shallow.

“Stephanie?”

“I broke,” she says and looks at Lisa. Her eyes are puffy from crying. Her face is stained with tears. “I broke. My heart. My soul. My … my entire world died. He wasn’t just my best friend, but I … I … loved him. I mean, I loved him.” She’s crying hard now. Snot trickles from her nose. Her face is pulled down and her eyes are almost completely closed.“I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t think he loved me. I thought we were just going to be friends, and I was okay if that was what he wanted. But … but … he wanted something else. He wanted it and he took it and … and … and …” 

The next words she speaks are illegible and she sniffs up the snot on the edge of her lip. She wipes her nose and mouth with the back of one hand and then rubs it on her jogging pants. She inhales, releases it, inhales again. She does this several times until she is composed enough to continue. 

“He beat me. He didn’t just rape me. He beat me. Me! His best friend. He beat me like he never had any feelings for me, like I was a stranger and he knew nothing about me, my dreams, what I wanted out of life. It was like he never knew how much I truly cared about him.”

She wipes her eyes with the balls of her palms. “I hate him, now. I hate him so much.”

Lisa nods. She understands this all too well. Though she had been raped several times, she only truly hated one of the men who did the deed: her stepfather. He was the one who first touched her when she was a child, long before she developed anything that remotely looked feminine, other than the area between her legs. It was that area he wanted, that area he took. 

It wasn’t until later, after the other rapes, after her ex-husband took what he wanted while she slept, that she sought one on one therapy. The women’s group she had attended did little for her except maybe make her feel less like a survivor and more like a victim, something she tried hard to not be, not to become. Yet, she had become that very thing. 

“It’s the victim mentality,” the therapist said. She was a mousy woman, slight of build with short gray hair and glasses that hung off the tip of her nose. She held a yellow pad in her lap as she sat behind a desk, not in a chair, cross-legged with hose coming up to her knees. “You are still with your husband because you have a victim’s mentality. Your only worth is in being a victim. You don’t want to escape your situation. Without it, you are, essentially, nothing in your mind. Until you change that, Lisa, you will always be a victim and never be a survivor.”

She wanted to change. She wanted to no longer be the victim, but …

“All of this stems from being raped as a little girl. If that doesn’t happen …” the shrink looked down at her, over her glasses like a professor about to give a troubled student a flunking grade. “… you probably never get raped by anyone. But what happened to you when you were a little girl defined you, who you were, who you are and who you will be.”

Her mind is racing now. Heat feels her body and that horrid nausea is back. After that visit to the therapist, she quit going. All the years leading up to that, she had treated the symptoms, but never got to the root cause of the problem. Now she knew where it had its roots and all she wanted to do was …

“When did you decide to end him?” Lisa asks. 

Stephanie gives Lisa a look of stunned amazement. It is clear she didn’t expect the question, but it was out there and Lisa hopes she will answer it. 

“The very moment I realized he raped me. I knew I would kill him.”

Lisa had known as well, but …

To be continued.

The Scarring, An Excerpt

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMThe following is an excerpt from The Scarring, one of fifteen stories in the collection, Voices. You can find Voices on Amazon here, or you can contact A.J. Brown directly at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com if you would like an autographed print version of the collection.

The Scarring (an excerpt)

On the bed lay the drunken man, his eyes wide and bloodshot. They darted from side to side. His mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water, but he only managed a few strangled croaks. His arms and legs were bound to the bedposts with ropes. He was as naked as the day he came into the world.
“Do you hate?”

“Yes.”

###

The first scar came at the age of eleven, courtesy of an angry father and a bottle of whiskey. He had ducked when the old man threw the bottle. It shattered against the wall, slivers of glass spraying back at him, along with the remainder of the caramel-colored liquid.

Voices Promo 1 The ScarringHe probably wouldn’t have been scarred if only small pieces of glass had pricked his skin. If not for the old man’s follow-up to the bottle toss, he would have been just fine. But the old man chased the broken glass like a beer at a drinking party, and the smack to the back of the head was unseen. He—Nothing was his name—went sprawling backward, hands out behind him, a heavy sting on the side of his face. A gash appeared from mid-forearm to elbow when he landed among the shattered glass.

Nothing bled. He cried, and as he did so, his father wailed on him, telling him to “clam it up, boy, or I’ll clam it up for you.”

Mom stitched him up with a sewing needle and thread as thick as fishing line. Nothing wasn’t sure which was worse, the initial slice of skin by glass or the constant poke of the needle and tug of thread.

The skin puckered over time, leaving a pink welt of flesh that grew as he grew, never shrinking, and a constant reminder …