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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What’s Up Next?

What’s up everyone? I hope y’all enjoyed the April Free Fiction month. I wanted to pop on here for a minute and say hello and tell y’all what’s coming up. 

coming-soon-2550190_1280Over the next two weeks I will posts the story Because I Can in a four part series. They will be posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting tomorrow. 

Because I Can is a longer short story based on one man’s need for vengeance. There’s a little twist, however: violence makes him sick. How is a man to get revenge on someone if he can’t stomach it? Find out starting tomorrow. It will appear here, on Type AJ Negative on May 5th, 7th, 12th and 14th. Stick around and enjoy the story. 

Also, please comment on it. Let me know what you think. 

I hope y’all have a good day and I hope y’all look forward to Because I Can.

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

A.J.

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I Want To Go Home (Free Fiction)

I Want to Go Home

A.J. Brown

I want to go home, away from here where the ghosts talk to me, whisper my name, smile their dead smiles, and wink their dead eyes, as if they know something I don’t. 

I want to go home, away from these sterile white walls and white tiled floors, mopped every other night by a balding guy with only three teeth left in his ancient mouth, and skin as dark as mahogany. His jaundiced eyes glow on the backdrop of his dark skin, and he coughs the cough of a dying man, one with lung cancer or tuberculosis or some other respiratory illness. I think his name is James.

Mary, in room eight, calls him a ‘lunger.’ Mary’s a spiteful old bitty with grey hair verging on blue and a hump on her back that makes her look like a camel. She shuffles up and down the halls at odd hours of the night, her slippers whisking with each short step she takes. She doesn’t like the balding guy with the dark skin and jaundiced eyes. 

She laughs when she passes my room. 

I saw her peek in once, her grey eyes sitting deep in their sockets, wrinkles pulling on the corners of her face. She laughed, deep and throaty. Startled at the odd grin and loud booming cackle, I spent the rest of the night sitting up, eyes focused on the doorway, heart hurting with each thump thump. Sometimes I hear her whisking feet, her impish cackles, her mean words to James—at least, I think that’s his name.

I want to go home, far from the uninterested doctors and nurses who parade in and out of my hospital room, wearing white coats to make themselves feel important. Even the pretty little blonde intern carries herself like she is far better than those she’s charged with taking care of. Sometimes I wet the bed on purpose, just so she would crinkle her nose and mumble under her breath how pathetic I am. Imagine that: me, pathetic. Never thought those words would come out of someone’s mouth about me. Other times I wet the bed, but not on purpose. It’s during those moments when she says I’m pathetic that I look away, my head down, and think she is right.

This place wouldn’t be so bad if everything wasn’t as bright—so bright it’s almost drab, if that makes any sense. The television screen has a glare on it, put there by the overhead light (or the sun, if the curtains are open during the day). What possessed any sane man to put a television in there is beyond me. I leave it off most of the time—there really isn’t anything on worth watching now that Bob Barker has left The Price is Right and the soap operas and court shows have taken over the afternoon programming. 

The curtains themselves are a light brown, the color of dry chocolate. They’re nothing more than window dressing. The sun peeks through during the day, the moon says hello in the evenings. 

The moon is hiding tonight, playing behind the clouds, or maybe even taking the night off to rest its weary head. The splat-swish of the mop is louder than usual. James is close by. The aroma of an old tobacco pipe hangs in the air well after he moves down the hall. He usually pokes his head in, nods at me and keeps going. Tonight he lingers, his yellowed eyes peering at me beneath half-open lids. A sizeable knot sits just above his right brow, stretching up to the top of his skull.

“Eldridge,” he says, his voice strong, his lips barely moving.

“Yeah,” I say. “Can I help you?” 

I should laugh at that question. I can’t help myself with this battered body, so how am I going to help the janitor, a man older than me, who can still mop a floor with no effort at all, his back bent over, arms pushing out, pulling in, pushing out again. 

“Not much longer,” he says and nods. A cut opens up from eyebrow to skullcap. A trickle of blood drips down his face. He leaves the room and drops the mop head to the floor. It splats then swishes, but there is no water left behind, no swirl of dirt or shine left by a swabbing done right. James moves on down the hall, the sounds becoming fainter, splat-swish splat-swish. There’s no bucket behind him.

With nerves dancing along my skin, I settle down in the bed, tuck the covers to my chin and close my eyes. I’m tired tonight, more so than usual. A deep breath fills my lungs and it’s like cold milk going down my throat, cooling my insides after the heat of a hard day. 

I think I’ll sleep for a while.

Mary’s cackle wakes me. My hands and legs jerk reflexively and my heart skips. I lay still until my head clears and I know for certain it is her and not some vile creature I may have dreamed of and forgotten. I turn my head to the door. She stands in the entrance, her hands clutching a walker, her grey hair sticking out on top of her head. Her eyes bore into me and she’s smiling a smile of pure insanity, her brows forming an arrow above her nose and the sides of her lips point up toward her skin-tight cheekbones. All she’s missing is the white paint and she’d look like a saggy-breasted clown in an old blue housedress and pink slippers.

“Eldridge,” she whispers then giggles. “The lunger is dead. Fell down the steps, he did. Busted his skull right open.”

I say nothing as the fear of what I saw earlier and what I just heard collide. I try to hide the revulsion spreading across my face, but I’m not certain I succeed. I wait for the old bitty to walk away, her slippers whisking with each arthritic step. She lingers a moment longer, then throws her head back, a roar of laughter echoing in the room. She’s so loud my ears hurt and I try to cover them, but my shaking hands make it impossible. I close my eyes and sink further down into my bed, pulling the pillow over my head.

“Not much longer,” she says, and cackles again. The laughter fades but I don’t hear her shuffle up the hall. 

My heart speeds up. It hurts to breathe. I can’t move, can’t lift my hand to touch the call button on my bed. A surge of pain leaves me weak as it trails into my shoulder and down to my elbow. My jaw hurts. 

“I’m having a heart attack.” Did I say that aloud or only think it? I’m not sure, but a moment later, the light switches on and the pretty blonde is pulling the pillow from over my head, her blue eyes actually full with concern.

OLD MAN“Eldridge,” she says, her voice slightly high pitched. “Are you okay?” She holds a needle in one hand while glancing at my monitors, the heart rate a steady beepbeepbeepbeep, probably too fast for her liking—certainly too fast for mine. Seconds pass and she has the needle in the IV, pushing a clear liquid into my veins. A few more seconds and my heart rate slows, my breathing restored to its simplistic in and out rhythm. I relax. 

My eyes are heavy, but I try to hold them open. They slide shut, and then snap open at the fetid smell of a dead skunk wafting in the air. 

Mary is inches from my face, her mouth open, rotting teeth several shades of brown. “Eldridge,” she whispers and the dead skunk strikes me across the face. Tears well up in my eyes. “Not much longer,” she says. “Oh, not much longer at all.”

Gagging, I try to push her away so I can sit up, but she holds me down. She is stronger than I ever thought she would be. My stomach lurches and I vomit all over the front of my bed shirt and sheets. I swallow some of it. I gag again, try to catch my breath, but find it has left and doesn’t seem to want to come back.

“Eldridge,” the pretty nurse says, her hands out to her sides, a terrible look of worry and disgust on her face. I can see evening spaghetti drenched on the front of her clothes. I think she is angry. I shake my head, confusion tickling my brain, telling me everything is all wrong, telling me Mary was never here and James had stopped mopping a long time ago.

My head hurts.

The nurse’s eyes are wide. She presses the red button by my arm several times. I look at her in confusion, open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Doctors and nurses rush in, their shouts a muddled cacophony in my ears, each word echoing, then falling away. Nothing makes sense. 

I close my eyes. Maybe if I go to sleep they’ll leave me alone. Maybe I should tell them about the ghosts … how they haunt me nightly. But what good would that do? I’m a senile old man with bladder issues, dying from the disease they call age. They’d never believe me.

My eyes open, but not because I want them to. They just do.

Blurry figures race around, their white coats flapping like wings on giant birds. Their words make no sense. A beeping noise echoes from somewhere in the distance. But it’s not really beeping at all. It’s a long, drawn out wail from a phone or a television or a monitor. 

As they dart about I think of home, of being far away from Mary in room eight and James with his eternal mopping and cancerous cough. I long to be home where the sun can warm my cold skin and I can sleep in my bed, the one I shared with my Louisa for all those years before she died. I want to go home, where my television sits in the perfect spot, where no glare from the overhead light or the sun or even the winking moon can hit it, and where Bob Barker still hosts The Price is Right.

I want to go home, where there are no nurses to call me pathetic, no doctors to fake interest in me, no needles or heart monitors … 

Brushing the multitude of hands away, I struggle to stand, fighting against their collective strength. I push myself to my feet, the cold of the tile floor sending slivers of ice through my legs and up my spine, touching the back of my skull with a shiver. I back away from the doctors and nurses, their mouths moving but nothing coming out, their eyes full of a determination I haven’t seen since coming to this place … this place where I’m supposed to die.

I take a couple of steps back, ease around the frantic hospital workers, and walk out the door. They don’t seem to notice. They are hunched over my bed, their words panicked. The light from the hall is a deep yellow, no glare to sting the eyes. The floor is clean and the walls are as white as the ones in my room. Another doctor brushes by and runs into my room. I shrug and walk up the hall, peeking into room eight when I get to it. 

Mary is long gone. In her place is another lady, probably younger than I am, her hair still clinging to some of the dark color it once used to boast. She glances at me and her eyes are as blue as the clear sky. Her bottom lip trembles and the monitor near her bed beepbeepbeeps, it’s pace quickening as her eyes grow wider. 

Cocking my head to one side, I realize I know her name. “Rachel,” I say. “Not much longer.” A chuckle escapes my throat. I wave to her before heading up the hall. The elevators are just around the corner. Maybe I can get out of here before the doctors realize I’m gone. Maybe I can go home, where a man can die in peace …

_____

Some stories have more meaning than others. Some stories I just write because the story tells me to write it. Yeah, crazy. I know. But when the voices speak (no, not like that) I tend to listen to them. This story has meaning.

Let me explain, if I can—honestly, I’m not sure I can.

Years ago, when my grandfather was dying he was stuck in a hospital. He didn’t want to be there. He wanted to leave and be done with the place. He wanted to go home.

One afternoon my dad paid a visit to my grandfather at the hospital. It was just the two of them.

“Larry, give me a hand here,” my grandfather said.

“What do you need, Rex?”

“I’m getting out of here. Come on, let’s go before the nurse comes back.”

I imagine it was hard for my dad to tell him “no, Rex, we can’t leave.”  

Dad told me this story one day shortly before my grandfather passed away. In that spot in my brain where all creativity lives, a clear picture formed of my grandfather ducking out of his room and hurrying down the hallway to the elevators, his hospital gown open in the back and flapping as he went. He didn’t have much hair on his head, and he probably had his glasses on.  

In that image, my grandfather is smiling, as if he knows he just got one over on the hospital staff. A couple weeks later, he passed away, not in his home where a man can die in peace, but in that hospital room.  

That image has stuck with me for years. It is also the basis of I Want to Go Home. It is what my grandfather wanted to do. Though he couldn’t have it in life, I wanted to give it to him in this story.

Earlier this month, I posted a piece titled, Home. In that story, the young man got his father out of the nursing home he was in and took him to his real home to die. I imagine if my dad thought he could have done the same thing for my grandfather, he would have.

I hope you enjoyed this final story of April. I also hope you will like it, share it and comment on it. Thank you for coming along for this ride. Come back tomorrow, and I will explain why I did this. Have a great day.

A.J. 

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Dim (Free Fiction)

Dim

A.J. Brown

Cap was six the first time Death showed itself to him. He played marbles with some friends out in front of a rundown church. Girls skipped rope near the dirt road. A car careened out of control as it rounded the curve, going entirely too fast for the area. Gravel and dirt kicked up behind it; Betty Michaels went air born, her jump rope twisting and turning like a snake in flight. Betty twisted and turned, as well, but she looked nothing like a snake flying through the air.

Cap watched in frozen awe, his mouth ajar, a marble still in his hand. Betty Michaels landed on her stomach in the middle of the road, limbs a tangle of broken bones and torn flesh. Blood splattered when her head hit the ground, her feettouched the back of her head and her spine snapped. She came to rest facing Cap, her eyes still open.  He thought he saw her blink.

***

She wasn’t good enough to be Cap’s girlfriend. Not when they were both only 10 years old and he didn’t care much for girls. Mary gave him plenty of attention, something most boys ate up at that age. Cap pushed her away, wishing she would leave him alone.

“Why don’t you like me?” she asked him at recess one day.

He looked up from where he sat against the tall oak near the center of the playground. His breath hitched. It was the first time he actually saw her. “You have pretty eyes.”  

She blushed.

***

Grandma lay on the bed, her body frail from the Cancer that ate at it. She raised a hand and pointed to the nightstand. “Cap, can I have some water, please?”

He filled a small Dixie cup and put it to her mouth. She sipped, licked her lips and let out a breath that rattled in her chest. “Thank you.”

He took the cup and set it on the small table next to her bed. Grandma’s eyes were half opened; the once shining blue had faded to a dull gray. She hiccupped, her eyes widened. She grimaced and clutched her chest with both hands. A strangled groan escaped her throat and one hand grabbed hold of Cap’s arm. She mouthed the words, “Call an ambulance.”

Cap only looked at her, into her eyes, at the fear in them; the knowing that she had reached the end of life. For a minute, maybe two, she struggled to breathe, to sit up in the bed and get her own help. Her grip loosened and Cap slid his arm from her hand. She settled onto the pillow, her hand dropping to her side.  

As her life faded, Cap gazed into her eyes.  

***

eye-2555760_1920“You ever see the light dim in someone’s eyes?”

“What?”

Mary sat on the blanket next to Cap, sunglasses covering her eyes.  

“The light dim from someone’s eyes—have you ever seen it happen?”

“I can’t say I have. Why?”

Cap shrugged and stared out at the sun hanging high above the mountains. “It’s like a sunset.  During the day, the sun is hot and blazing, the day is bright. But, as it sets—the day dims, becomes gray and continues to fade until it is dark. Dimming eyes are the same. They are bright, glossy. But, as someone dies, it fades until there is nothing left except maybe a reflection.”

***

He held the woman’s head under the water, her nails scratching his arms, reaching for his face.  Fear filled her eyes and then fled with her life, leaving only vacant orbs staring back at Cap. It wasn’t the first life he had taken. It wouldn’t be the last.

His breath came in short bursts and his body shook from adrenaline and excitement. He dried his hands and jotted notes in a little black book.

***

Mary slept. Cap watched her. He switched the light on. She flinched, rolled over and pulled the pillow over her head.

“No, no, Dear,” he said and tossed the pillow to the floor. He straddled her stomach, putting both knees on either side of her body, pinning her arms down. “I need to see your eyes.”

“What are you doing?” she asked, anger and fear in her voice.

“I need your help.”

“For what?” She tried to sit up but the weight of his body held her down.

“What does a loved ones’ eyes look like as they die by the hand of the one they trust the most?”

Recognition swept across Mary’s face. She started to speak but the words ceased when he put his hands around her throat and squeezed. Her eyes bulged and she fought against him, trying to use her legs and hips to buck him off. Snot spilled from her nose and red veins appeared in the whites of her eyes. Cap stared into the gateways of her soul as tears spilled from them. Blood seeped from her nose and her body finally went limp. He held his hands in place another couple of minutes as the light from her eyes grew faint. His heart pounded hard and he let out a breath he had held.

Cap rolled off the bed and went to his desk across the room. He made notes in his book, then collapsed to the floor.  

Cap cried.

***

The carnival came to town. Cap waited until the gates closed and the lights went out before leaving his car. He scaled the fence and made his way through the maze of rides and funhouses; concession stands and games until he found the Hall of Mirrors. A black cloth covered the opening. He pushed through it and stepped into the black corridor.  

Movements caught his attention. He flicked the flashlight on. Distorted versions of himself mocked his every move.  

With mirrors all around him, Cap sat on the floor, opened his notebook to a blank page and set it in his lap. A pencil sat in its crease, waiting for him to write again. From his pocket, he produced a flat razor. Cap raked it across and up his left wrists to the crook of his elbow. He almost cried out in pain. Blood rushed from the wound, but he paid it no attention.  

Cap stared into the mirror, into his own eyes. He thought of Betty Michaels, of how she was possibly still alive for a few minutes after she had been struck by the car. He thought of the others—the subjects he used for research. He thought of Mary, how fear swept over her and turned into disbelief as her life drained away.  

Blood spilled onto his notebook but he made no attempt to grab the pencil and make what little notes he could. Breathing slowed and the edges of the world swam around him. The distorted image in the mirror stared at him, its eyes closing and opening, closing and opening. His shoulders slumped, his body sagged, and he fell to one side. The notepad fell to the ground, the pencil with it.

Cap blinked several times, trying to force his eyes to stay open. Before he faded completely, he saw people standing in the mirrors, their dead eyes dull and staring at him. Mary knelt beside him, her lifeless eyes like two dull marbles. Her hands wrapped around his throat. 

Isn’t that appropriate? he thought as she squeezed.  

He focused on his own eyes as the light faded from them. In them he saw Death one last time. 

__________

I was watching a movie, or maybe it was a television show, one night. It doesn’t really matter which it was. What matters is a scene in the show where a man is choking a woman to death. The woman struggled until a few seconds after he began choking her, she began to have a ‘distant’ look in her eyes, as if she saw something far away and was focused on it. Her face when slack and her eyes dimmed. It is that dimming that I remember more than anything about the movie or show, which I can’t remember the name of. 

I can’t honestly say I remember much else about the program. My mind was suddenly fixated on the way the woman’s eyes dimmed. I even wondered if she was still alive or if she actually died and I had just watched a real life murder in a fictional show. 

Then I thought about the murderer. How did this make him feel? Did he enjoy seeing her life fade from her eyes? Did he ‘get off’ on it? Did it haunt him? Well, I just had to write about it. Like so many of my short stories, when I finished this one I wondered if I should make it longer. Maybe one day, and maybe if I put it in a collection, but for now, the story I wrote the day after watching the scene play out that inspired it is just a short piece. 

I hope you enjoyed Dim, and please, like this post, comment on it and share with your friends.

A.J.

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Befallen(Free Fiction)

Befallen

A.J. Brown

The fall from the heavens are a mighty rush, air pulling and tearing, bits and pieces of droplets sheering away as the gray mass tumbles to the ground. Water pellets shaped like tear drops spill from crying clouds, an exhilaration coursing through them as the world grows nearer.  

The first few thousand are silent in descent.  t is the spattering against earth that sends their cries back up to the sky, to the ears of the angels and clouds and stars and their brothers and sisters that fall along with them.  

To bursts on hardtop or leaves or to blend into the ocean, ponds, rivers and lakes is their destiny—an accepted fate of a doomed creation. But, the screams … the screams of the befallen, their pained impact, rattles those still in descent, sending fear into unseen hearts, unnerving unknown bravado. Cries of ‘no, no, no’ echo among their number but there is no way to stop the free fall.

rain-455124_1920The world awaits, absorbs the pelting as each drop shatters on contact, soaking into the ground or mixing with dead rain pellets. Cold bodies on human skin, wiped away into nothingness. Oxygen uses their remains to form rust on metallic surfaces. Some of them cling to limbs and bars and bumpers, their lives almost over.

When the sun comes out the mourning begins. Steaming souls rise with hisses, their broken remains falling up instead of down, back to the heavens where another downpour will send them to another collision with an unforgiving world. Those left behind soak into dirt or evaporate off of leaves and other hard surfaces or are tamped down by towels, lives forever extinguished. And in the heavens the clouds and angels and stars all cry … and the rain falls again.

Listen closely to the roar of the rains, to the fear in their hearts as they tremble in flight and die in violence, some to rise again while others are forever gone, souls of the dead never to be remembered, banished from the heavens to the earth below.

__________

Have you ever listened to the rain? Sure, you hear it when it strikes the ground or trees or the roof, but have you listened? When it storms, the rain sounds like a stampede. When it drizzles it’s the rat-a-tat of a drummer in a marching band. It’s not a splat or a plop. It’s louder. like a scream silenced suddenly. That’s what this story is: a scream silenced suddenly. 

I wrote this one evening after sitting on the porch during a storm. I sat in the chair from beginning to end, from the first drop that hit the ground to the last one. It was an odd symphony of sounds, one I likened to screams and bodies breaking.

I hope you enjoyed Befallen, and please, like, share and comment. I appreciate it.

A.J. 

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The Path Not Taken (Free Fiction)

The Path Not Taken

By A.J. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fred, let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

My name was the last word from her lips.  

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

“Fred, where’s Myra?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

_________

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

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

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

A.J. 

My Storybook Life (Free Fiction)

My Storybook Life

A.J. Brown

I had never seen the guy before. Not once on the streets or by chance at the mall or a fast food joint where he took my order, or maybe, placed an order beside me. For the life of me, I can’t even remember what he looked like. Was he young or old? Ugly or attractive? Did he have hair on his head (and if he didn’t, did he have hair on his face)? I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to.

What I can tell you about is what he did for me.  

Like I said, I’d never seen the guy, so when he walked up to me and held out the box I was caught off guard. Maybe I looked at him with an expression of shock or maybe I took a step back and regarded him with suspicion. Yeah, I think that’s how I looked at him, with slightly squinted eyes and lips stretched into a tight line.  The backward step was more revulsion than reaction—yeah, sad to say, but it’s true.  

As I sit here now, thinking about it, I believe the guy was homeless. I think he wore a tattered long coat and black shoes that probably had holes in the soles (and maybe he had a hole in his soul—or was it me?) and gloves missing the fingers. And if my mind keeps imagining things, then the guy had more hair on his face than on his head and that hair was dirty gray and black. His face was gaunt, as if he had lost a lot of weight too quick for his own good.

In those gloved hands he held a rectangular box, like something a shirt would come in at Christmas time or a birthday. He held it out to me, his ancient, colorless eyes begging me to take it.

“No, thank you,” I said and tried to go around him.

He sidestepped with me, the box still held out.  “Please,” he said. “You need this more than I do.”

I laughed. Do you understand that? I laughed at a homeless man. Listen to me.  My mind may have imagined his looks and probably the stench wafting off him or even what color he was, because in truth, like I said earlier, I can’t remember any of the finger details of his appearance. But I can tell you this for certain, I laughed at a homeless man, right in his ancient, dirty, face.

“I need something more than you do?” I asked, the laugh still in my voice. “I doubt it.”

I think he smiled beneath his beard (again, the old imagination told me that’s what he did). Still, he held the box out to me.  

“Take it,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

I don’t know why I reached out, but I did, and I took the box. I looked at it hard. It was, indeed, nothing more than a shirt box. YOUR LIFE was scrawled on it in black marker in a childish script that could have been drawn by a three-year-old.

“Your life?” I chuckled. “Why would I want a book about your life?” I looked up at him, but he was gone … just gone.

An eerie chill swept over me and my skin danced as if I had been jolted by a current of electricity. I scanned the street, the cars that lined it, the buildings, the benches near bus stops and street lamps that would soon shine yellow light down in cones along the sidewalk. I thought, maybe, I would see him hurrying away, cackling like one of the wicked witches. I didn’t see him. Just like he appeared in front of me, he vanished without me really noticing.

Slowly, I walked off, the box held out in front of me as if it were a snake and I was terrified it might strike me at any moment. I almost tossed the box in the trash but stopped short of doing that. I’ve never been all that superstitious, but I was scared to get rid of it. 

Back home, I set the box on the table—it was nothing more than a card table I had picked up off the side of the road one day—and went to the kitchen sink.  I filled a glass with water and drank it down, then I reached into the refrigerator where a case of beer sat on the bottom shelf with nothing else around it. The box had been torn open at the top and my hand slid into it, found a one of the cans and pulled it free of its prison. I popped the top and drank it down, stopping only to wipe my chin. I crumpled the can and tossed it at the trashcan near the stove, missing it altogether. It clattered on the floor and the sound felt too loud. I looked at the box, expecting it to scold me for making such a racket. 

I reached back into the refrigerator, grabbed a second beer. Another one followed it.  

Three. I stopped after the third beer and walked over to my fold up table. I sat in the lone chair. It groaned beneath my weight, and for a brief second, I thought it would give way and spill me to the floor.

With breath held, I touched the top of the box, traced my fingers along the words YOUR LIFE. I could almost feel the letters beneath my fingertips. I laughed nervously as I thought of the man who gave it to me. Was he dressed in a suit and tie? Maybe he was a skateboarder with tattoos and wearing Converse shoes and a shirt that said Dookie on it. Maybe he was a she? I can’t remember. I don’t think I really wanted to.

Open it, my mind whispered.

“No,” I whispered back.

It’s a gift, Stewart.

“Is it?” I wasn’t so certain it was. What if it was a trick, a joke? What if there was a snake in the box?

Just open it.

My hands shook as I flipped it over, expecting to see tape holding it closed, but there was none. I flipped the box back over and lifted the top off. Even with shaking hands it came off easier than I expected. There, in some old shirt box some bum found on the street, was a book. It wasn’t a fancy leather-bound thing, just a regular book, with a hard cover and no dust jacket. On the front of it, written in that same three-year-old’s script were the words: The Story of My Life.

book-657630_1920I shook my head. All my fears of what could be in the box and the strange person who gave it to me were suddenly unfounded. The man—if that is what he was—had given me a book about his life. I shook my head and pulled the book free. I tossed the box on the floor among beer cans and take out food wrappers and dirty clothes. Since he had me worked up, I figured I would, at least, look at the book and see what all the urgency was about. Then I would throw the book in the trash, or maybe burn it, and be done with it.

I almost screamed when I opened the book and the front page simply read: The Story of My Life, by Lawrence Stewart Anderson. My chest tightened. For a few long moments I lost the ability to breathe. My mouth became dry and my head was light.  

I closed my eyes, focused on breathing and regained my composure. When I opened them and looked down at the book, the page had been turned and I stared at a picture of me when I was a baby. I sat in a diaper, no shirt or shoes and probably no service either, a chocolate Easter bunny in one hand, its head shoved into my mouth.  

I can’t say I lingered on that photo for a long while or a short while, but it was a while before I turned the page to see a picture of me in first grade, a cow lick Alfalfa would have been proud of jutting from the top of my head. The next page was from third grade and I was missing a tooth on the bottom row. The page after was fourth grade and I wore the same shirt as the year before, but I was no longer missing a tooth. I flipped through the book, the years passing by. That was when I was eleven and playing for the rec league basketball team. There was one when I was fifteen and on crutches and another one that was taken on the day I graduated high school and that one was when I … when I got married and … and that one was the anniversary in the mountains and …

The pictures flipped by until there was one left. Me, my eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed, hair a mess, five day stubble on my chin, skin waxen and sweaty. It had been taken on the day I had been arrested for DUI, and no, the redness of the lids wasn’t because of the alcohol, but because of the accident I had caused and the injuries that resulted.

My head fell into my hands as tears flowed down my cheeks. Images of my wife in the car, her face bleeding, eyes closed; images of the police as they hauled me away and as I screamed for them to help her; images of my wife in the hospital bed, her face and body battered; images of lawyers—criminal and divorce—laying out my options; images of me leaving a home, a marriage, a job … a life I had made for myself … and ruined. 

I wiped the tears away and looked down at the book. There was one more page. I must have missed it. I frowned. There was no picture on it. I looked around my shabby apartment, the trash that littered the floor, the clothes all over the place, dirty dishes in the sink. Back down at the page and it looked the same except …

At the bottom of the page were these words, written in that childish script: turn the page. It reminded me of a book from my childhood, The Monster at the End of This Book, starring Grover from Sesame Street. I had loved that book as a kid, but right then, thinking on it, I found I couldn’t turn the page. As much as Grover tried to keep the reader from turning pages and reaching the end of the book, all while using ropes and bricks and nails, the reader always made it to the end and the monster at the end was always Grover, but he didn’t know that. No, Grover didn’t know that and his fear (in my childhood memory) was as palpable as mine was then.

My lips were dry and I that tightness was back in my chest. My hands trembled as I sat looking at the page in front of me, at the words that kept me from getting to the end. I laughed, this time out of nervousness. Then the irony hit me. The guy in the tuxedo and top hat had said I needed the book more than he did and I had thought him an idiot. Who was the real idiot? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.

A deep breath later and I did as the words told me to, and what greeted me on the next page? A mostly blank page. At the top were the words THE PAST IS THE PAST, TIME FOR A NEW BEGINNING. It wasn’t written in that childish script, but in handwriting I knew all too well: my ex-wife’s beautiful looping cursive script.  

I stood from the chair. There was no chance my ex would want to see me. And for the first time in years, I was okay with that. But I still needed to see her. If anything, I wanted to apologize for screwing up, for hurting her so badly. I picked up the book, looked around my apartment. It was nasty. Disgusting. Not what I envisioned for myself. I left the apartment, not bothering to lock, or even close the door behind me. I wouldn’t be back. I knew that then as I know it now. I will go see my ex, and after that, I’ll check myself into a clinic. But along the way, I hope to find the angel who gave me the book.

__________

Occasionally, social media can provide the right inspiration at the right time. Back in 2014, Chuck Wendig posted to his Facebook page where he said: *Hands you a box* I GIVE YOU A GIFT. YOU TELL ME WHAT THE GIFT IS THAT I HAVE GIVEN YOU. That led to My Storybook Life. 

I hope you enjoyed this story. Please like, share and comment on the post. Thank you.

AJB

Voices, The Interviews: Danny

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: HERE). If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers. 

One more thing before the first session: 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 12

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMShe had not been ready for the final words Lewis said to her before looking down at his leathery hands and seeing tear drops strike the floor between his feet. He takes a deep breath and leans back in his chair. He gives a dismissive wave and shakes his head. He doesn’t have the heart to go any further.

Lisa’s mouth hangs open and she shakes her head from side to side, not knowing what to say. She wants to get up from her seat and give him a hug, but that won’t happen. 

Laughter comes from her right. Mr. Worrywart bends down beside her, his shadowy face just inches from hers. She can smell his fetid breath, feel the heat from it on her cheek and neck. “Way to go there, Lady,” he says in his smooth, sinister voice. “You’ve done went and made him cry.”

Lisa swallows hard. Though she disagrees with him, she also thinks he is right. Lewis was bound to cry at some point between his story and his interview. He doesn’t feel guilt about anything he’s done. He is lonely and had been since he found out his Michelle divorced him while he was in prison. Her questions—her final question—and his answers—his final one, specifically—was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It cracked the dam and tears were bound to flood his face as he thought about being alone for the rest of what was left of his life.

“I didn’t cause this,” she says.

Mr. Worrywort laughs again. “Sure, you didn’t.”

“I didn’t.”

“You didn’t what, Ma’am?”

Lisa turns at the sound of someone else’s voice. The man kneeling in front of her has kind eyes and dark hair, peppered with white streaks. Though his face doesn’t hold a lot of wrinkles, making him appear younger than he probably is, his eyes hold an age and wisdom in them that is unmistakeable. A half smile is on his lips, and Lisa knows instantly he can be a charmer when he wants to be.

“I … umm … I don’t know,” she says. The world around her shrinks a little. Her face grows hot. 

“You look a little upset,” the man says. He glances at Lewis, who has his hands between his knees and his eyes to the floor. “I guess I understand. The old man got a little emotional there.” 

“Yeah, he did.”

“It’s okay, Ma’am. We all have those moments where someone else’s life affects us.”

Lisa smiles, takes a deep breath, smiles and says, “Hello, Danny.”

“Hello.”

“Do you prefer Danny or Coach?”

“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. All the kids called me ‘Coach,’ but no one outside of baseball ever has.”

“Then Danny it is, if that is okay with you?”

“Absolutely.” Danny stands straight, walks to his chair, picks it up by the metal back, and sets it in front of Lisa. He sits down, crosses one ankle over his knee, and places both hands on that ankle. He smiles and nods to her. “Do you have some questions for me, Ma’am?”

“I do.”

Lisa looks down at her notepad, turns the page and reads the one word at the top: COACH. She looks up at Danny and asks the first question. “Being dubbed ‘Coach’ is a respected honor where I’m from. You must have done great things with those kids.”

DSCN1640Danny shrugs in an aww-shucks manner. “I wouldn’t say I did anything great. I just listened to them, their words, their body language. Kids are fairly transparent when they are young so reading them is easy. It’s when they become teens that you really  have to pay attention to what they are saying. Being a coach isn’t about winning. It’s about teaching; it’s about showing these young people how to become young adults and then young men and women and how to respect themselves and others. Show them respect, and they are bound to respect you back.”

“Well, if we can get right to it, how old were you the first time you saw The White?”

Danny rubs his hands together as if he is cold. His brows crinkle as he thinks. “I guess I was in my early teens the first time it happened. I got really sick—bad headache, an odd dazzle in my eyes that were similar to the washed-out spots on old film reels. I was sitting in the dugout. My dad was the head coach of that team. It was the championship game. I remember that easily enough. I had a hit on three at bats and made an error in the top of the inning that got me benched for a defensive replacement. I was pissed. I couldn’t believe my own dad would take me out of the game because I made an error.”

“There was this kid on the other team—his name was Scott Hall—and he was the team’s star. He struck out to end the game. I’ll never forget the look on his face—or the half look, I saw mostly white where the left side of his face should have been. I remember the intense pain bloom behind my eyes. I remember sitting on the dugout’s concrete floor, my head in my hands and crying like a baby. My dad thought I was upset that he benched me. I was, but that wasn’t why I was crying. One look at my eyes and they knew something was wrong.

“We won the game. While everyone else went out for pizza and ice cream, Dad’s treat, I went home and went to bed. Six days later, Scott Hall came up missing. A few years passed, and some kid named Reed Baker decided to dig a hole at the ball park. He found Scott’s body.

“So, I would say that was the first time the White came on. I just didn’t know it.”

“You mentioned thinking it was a migraine. Do you get migraines often?  More specifically, have you been diagnosed with migraines by a doctor?”

“Yeah, clinically the types of migraines I get are called ocular migraines. They start in the eyes and within twenty minutes or so, if I don’t take any medicine, they become full blown explosions in by head. It sucks, and when one comes on, I can never tell if it is the White or just a normal migraine, at least until I see the white wash over someone’s body. Then I know.”

“Can we talk about Coach Davis for a minute?”

“Sure.”

“To be blunt, Coach Davis did not seem like a nice man or a good person. Tell me about why you were so driven to try to save him when you knew trying to save people had not worked in the past.”

DSCN1668“There’s always a first time for everything, right?” Danny pauses. “Peter wasn’t such a bad person. He was just a bad coach. He wanted to win more than anything else. He was a lot like the guy who coached Scott Hall. His name was Barry Windstrom. I don’t remember much about him—I never played for him—but what I do remember is he yelled a lot on the field, but off of it, he was supposedly a kind man, wouldn’t harm anyone. Turns out, he was the person who killed Scott Hall. 

“There was good in Windstrom. There was good in Peter. Most people just didn’t get to see it because they saw his on field antics, specifically on the day he died, and that is what they remember about him. 

“Besides, if I didn’t try, I would have to live with the ‘what if I would have tried to help him?’ thoughts running in my head. Guilt is a horrible thing, and I didn’t want any unnecessary guilt.”

“You were shot for your trouble. You could have been killed. How do you feel about that?”

“How do I feel? Well, it told me to stop waiting around for life to happen. I had spent the majority of my kids’ lives coaching them. My wife divorced me, and I went into a small bout of depression. When I came out the other side of it, I told myself I wouldn’t ever date again. That was a mistake. I let one thing, one person, change how I viewed an important aspect of my life. When I got out of the hospital, I went back to the ball field and sought out an old friend, a team mom, and I stopped wasting time wishing I had married her instead of the woman I chose to be the mother of my children. It gave me an appreciation for life.

“On the other end of that, a good man went to jail. I’m not happy about that.”

“I can’t help but wonder why this manifests as White when other people who report similar, um, abilities describe it differently.  Where do you think this ability to see when people are near death comes from?”

“Head trauma,” Danny says matter-of-factly. “At least for me. A couple of days before I saw Scott Hall, I had been hit by a pitch.” He touches a spot above his left ear. “Right here. I walked it off. That’s what we did back then. Right after the championship game, my parents took me to the doctor. There’s a dent in my skull where the ball hit. The doctor claimed that is where the migraine came from, and I chalk it up as the reason I still have them and why I see the White.”

“That makes sense. Does it frighten you?”

“Every time.”

“So, how do you think you will handle it going forward?”

“The same way I always have. If there is a chance I can help them, maybe alter the course of their life so they don’t die, then I’ll do what I can. It’s a burden, but I have to try, right?”

“I guess so, Coach,” Lisa says. “Thank you for your time.”

“And, Lisa, whatever is there, that voice you are hearing right now, it can’t harm you. It won’t. I think it is scared of you. I think it knows the only way to get to you is to taunt you.”

“Can you see him?” Lisa asks. 

“Oh yeah. But he can’t see you—not the real you. It only sees what you allow it to see.”

With that said, Danny stands, picks up his chair, and takes it back to where he originally sat. He sits, and Lisa turns her attention to the notepad once again.

TO BE CONTINUED …

Voices, The Interviews: Lewis

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. 

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMNo, 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 the first session: 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 11

“That be a good child,” said the old black man sitting almost directly across from Lisa. He’s hunched forward, elbows on his knees. In his hands is an old cap, folded almost in half. His fingernails are yellow and his hands look like those of a man who had done hard labor his entire life. In truth, he had, and sometimes still does, even though he is well into his seventies. 

“Hello, Lewis,” Lisa says.

“Hello, Ma’am.” He nods appropriately. His voice is deep and holds a rasp in it. 

“How are you today?”

“I’m fine, Ma’am. You?”

“I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know when we’re done here. How’s that?”

Lewis nods. “That be fine, Ma’am.”

“Lewis, I would like to be candid for a moment, if that is okay?”

Sad Woes of the Trashman“Yes, Ma’am. I ain’t got nothin’ to hide, so you go on ahead and be … what’s that word you said?”

“Candid?”

“Yes, Ma’am. You go on ahead and be candid.”

“You seem like a really good man.  A hard worker.  A caring person. So … Why …? What made you think it was acceptable to steal another person’s car?”

“Umm … I ain’t never said it was accep’ble. It ain’t. I just, well, I wanted my Michelle to be happy. You know, not regret marryin’ a man of my color. You know her pappy wasn’t all too keen on us gettin’ together.” Lewis takes a breath, lets it out in a long, sad sigh. “I reckon I was scared she would leave me, so I stole the car for some money. I didn’t do it out of malice or spite. I reckon I went and took it out of love.”

“Love?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He shakes his head. His hands twist the cap a little. “Love makes you do some bad things. Stupid things.”

Lisa nods. “Yes, I suppose it does.” She pauses, then says, “It must have been degrading to be called ‘boy’ and, um, other things by the policemen.”

“I reckon so, Ma’am, but back then that’s just the way things were. Boy was the least insultin’ thing I was called by any white man back then.”

“You endured a lot in prison, Lewis.”

He shrugs. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“How did you keep your composure when they killed Marvin Jackson?”

Lewis shakes his head and twist the cap some more. “It ain’t all that hard when you want to stay alive. I was ‘fraid they was goin’ to kill me, too, so I just did what I hads to do to stay on this side of the ground.”

“That’s a smart way of looking at things.”

“It’s the only way in prison, Ma’am.”

“And you went to prison because of your wife, right?”

“Oh no, Ma’am. I went to prison ‘cause I was stupid and wanted to impress my Michelle. If I had just been me …” he shrugs again. “things might’ve been diff’rent.” 

“You obviously loved your wife very much.”

“I still do. Though she’s dead and all, I still love her.”

  

“Is it fair to say you loved her so much you have no remorse for killing her second husband?”

“That wasn’t no husband, Ma’am. He was a monster. I just saved her from the monster. That’s all.”

“What about when you killed the other man?”

“Well,  I reckon that was self-defense, Ma’am.”

“After everything you have been through, can you tell me why you decided to turn yourself in to the police?”

Lewis sits silent for a few seconds. Then a few more. He looks up with tears in his eyes. “When you ain’t got nothin’ you need somethin’ to hold onto. Somethin’ like structure. And prison has structure. Besides, I ain’t long for this world, Ma’am. Ain’t nothin’ worse than dyin’ alone.”

TO BE CONTINUED …

(The wonderful artwork for The Sad Woes of the Trash Man was provided by the amazing Troy Rider.)

Voices, The Interviews: Dave

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 the first session: 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 7

Lisa feels better about the interviews. B’s went well. The young lady had been honest and forthcoming. She had given Lisa hope that all of the interviews wouldn’t be filled with deception or anger or lies. She looks at B and smiles. As she does so, she has a feeling her interview is the only one that will go that well. 

On the pad in her hands is the name ‘Dave’ and the words Crisp Sounds. She looks off to her left, a slight smile still on her face. The guy sits not quite apart from the others, but the two people on either side of him have moved their chairs away from him, leaving gaps to his right and left. His hair is shaggy. His face is dirty and a rough beard covers the lower half. His clothes are filthy and there is an odor coming off of him. Beside his chair is a mangy teddy bear, one that looks like it had spent some time in a trash dump somewhere.

“Hello, Dave.”

“Hello, Ma’am,” he says and smiles. He doesn’t come across as nervous or scared. Both legs are bent. He looks like a man about to tell a story. Maybe he will.

“You’ve been through quite an ordeal, Dave.”

He nods. “I guess you could say that.” 

Lisa waits a few seconds before continuing. “Do you care to talk about how you ended up on the streets after losing your job?”

“Do I care to talk about it? Not really, but I will.”

“So, what happened, Dave? How did you end up on the street?”

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMDave smiles. It’s not a bad smile. Sure, his teeth are slightly yellow, but many people who are not homeless have yellow teeth. Smoking or coffee or not brushing can cause that. 

“I fell down a flight of steps at work one day, and well, they felt their money was better spent on someone with two good legs and no chronic pain.”

“That’s sad.”

“Yeah. I guess so. That is the way it is, though, you know? You are only worth the money if you can perform the job or until someone better and cheaper comes along.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Dave shrugs. “It is what it is.”

“What happened after that?”

“I couldn’t find a job. Not even fast food joints or grocery stores were willing to take a chance on a hobbled man.”

Lisa is shaking her head as she listens. She feels bad for Dave, for all the people out there like him, who did nothing wrong except get hurt on the job and then get dumped, not just by the job, but by …

“When you can’t get a job, you can’t pay the bills. When you can’t pay the bills, well, your lady doesn’t tend to stick around, and well, mine left me and went home to Mommy and Daddy.”

His face changes from someone just talking, shooting the breeze with another person, to an angry scowl. Lisa wonders if he is reliving the part of his life where his lady left him. 

Of course he is, a voice in her ear whispers. What else would he be thinking about?

She doesn’t want to imagine what that feels like, but part of her can’t help it. She feels a touch of sadness sink into her heart. As he continues his story she fights back tears, even as she imagines what it would be like if she had lost her job and her man had left her in pain and alone and without money. 

Whatever happened to death do you part? she wonders.

You believe in that crap? the voice asks. She knows who the voice belongs to, but she can’t help but answer it, even though it is only there to break her down.

Yes!

So did he.

“When Cammie left I had nowhere to go. I got evicted from my apartment and ended up on the street. I wanted to go home, but … but I just didn’t want to face my dad, I didn’t want him knowing I couldn’t make it out there, you know, on my own.”

“You don’t think your dad would have understood? I mean, you got hurt on the job. That’s not like it was your fault.”

Dave shrugs again. “I don’t know. Well, I didn’t know. I left home in a fit after we got into an argument.”

“Arguments can be forgiven,” Lisa says.

“It came to blows and he told me to leave, to get out of his home and don’t come back.”

“I see.”

“Instead of swallowing my pride, I went to the streets and stayed there until, well, until a cold night in the middle of the winter.”

Lisa nods. “I guess I can understand that.”

“It was stupid.”

His response surprises her. It also washes away the sadness in her heart, quieting the voice whispering in her ear.

“Dave, I would like to ask you something a bit more personal … if that’s okay?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“I understand that during your ordeal, you heard your dad’s voice in your head … like a conscience or, um, an angel-on-your-shoulder, so to speak. Is that right?”

“Well, he wasn’t the only one, but yes, I heard his voice several times. I always did. Sometimes I still do.”

“At one point you rejected the voice as not being your dad’s.”

“Yeah, I guess I did. That happens a lot, though. I’m sure everyone hears voices and argues with them. Sometimes, you just have to reject it to keep your sanity. You know?”

That statement makes so much sense to her. The voices can be controlling and demanding. “I do,” she says, then adds, “So, if the voice wasn’t your dad’s who was it?”

Dave rubs his chin and shakes his head from side to side. “When I reject the voice, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“Well, my grandma always said voices that tell you to do things that could hurt you belong to the devil. So, I guess that’s the voice that gets rejected—it’s the devil.”

“That makes sense, Dave.”

“I guess.”

“Can I ask you one last question?”

“Sure.”

“Dave, did you finally go back home?”

He smiles. His face turns a slight pink, but not because he is embarrassed. Lisa knows the answer before he says it.

“Yes.”

Lisa smiles. She doesn’t need to ask if his dad accepted him back. She knows he did.

To be continued …