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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Courage (Free Fiction)

Beneath the Sycamore Tree

A.J. Brown

I told Cassie I loved her as I pushed her on the swing that hung down from the tall sycamore at the edge of the field behind my parents’ house. There was a pond not too far away where fishing was good and swimming in the summertime was a rite of passage. It was the perfect scene for any kid growing up in the south.

“What?” she asked and brought the swing to an abrupt stop, her feet kicking up dust as they dragged the ground beneath her. She looked at me with her crystal blue eyes, her head cocked slightly to the side, her light brown ponytail dangling. “What did you say?”

A lump caught in my throat, my palms began to sweat, and tears formed in my eyes. My chest swelled with fear. “I said I love you.”

She nodded as if satisfied, turned around, and placed both hands on the ropes of the swing. “Okay. You can push me again.”

I stood there for a moment, not sure what to do; not sure I liked or disliked her reaction. I had expected more. Like maybe Cassie hopping off the swing, hugging me, and saying she loved me. Leaning forward, I placed my hands on the small of her back and pushed.

I was eight. It was the first—and only—time in my life I knew love and how strong it could be.

She left my house that afternoon, skipping the way she always did, her ponytail swishing from side to side. At the end of the driveway, she turned, cupped her hands to her mouth. “I love you, too, Joshua Turner.”

It was the single greatest moment of my life.

Three days later Cassie was dead, her mangled body found on the other side of our property, not far from Grover’s Pond. Momma told me someone had done something bad to her but didn’t go into details. The truth is—and I found this out some time later—some pervert grabbed her on the way home from Mr. Hartnell’s grocery store the day after our conversation and raped her. He couldn’t leave it at that—violating her and taking her innocence away. He stabbed her sixteen times. I won’t go into the details of where several of the wounds were. You can figure it out on your own.

Cassie—my Cassie—was gone forever.

So, I thought.

I sat at the base of the sycamore the morning after her funeral, head in my hands, tears streaming down my face, heart broken into a million tiny pieces. A picture of her lay between my feet—I stole it off a collage her parents had made for the funeral. She smiled big in the photo, her eyes shining, her hair pulled back in the ponytail she so loved. The sun beat down on the world, promising another hot summer day. My eyes were puffy, and I wiped away a snot runner. I kept hearing her voice in my head.

I love you, too, Joshua Turner.

I guess as far as last words to hear from someone, those were the best types.

Taking a deep breath, I looked up. The swing swayed forward, hung in the air for a second, swayed back. My skin swam with goose bumps and a cold chill came over me. The swing repeated the process.

Before you say it was just the wind, which I’m sure some folks believe, there was no wind. It was as dry and still as any day could be.

I stood. My legs were weak and threatened to collapse beneath me. My hands shook. The swing pushed forward again, then stopped. The branch that held it creaked. Then the swing turned sideways, as if someone were sitting on it and looking back at me.

I inched away, each step taking me further from the tree. The swing dropped back to its normal position. I turned to run and only made it a few steps before I heard her voice.

Don’t leave.

Remember, I was eight. I was terrified. I knew what I heard and who it sounded like, but it was impossible. Still, her voice stopped me, and I couldn’t have run away if the devil were standing in front of me.

“Who’s there?” My voice cracked.

Don’t leave me, Joshua.

My bladder felt heavy. “Cassie?”

Joshua.

My mouth became dry. “Where are you, Cassie?”

I don’t know. I’m scared, Joshua.

sycamore-tree-4704744_1920I shook my head and pinched my arm, hoping to wake from the nightmare. I winced at the sharp pain. 

“Cassie, can you see me?”

Yes. Can you see me?

“No.”

Silence followed.

She had to be thinking. I could almost see her head cocked to the side, her ponytail dangling, her blue eyes clouded by thought. Why couldn’t I see her? She could see me. She said as much. So why couldn’t I see her? She had to be wondering the same thing.

“Cassie,” I hesitated. “You’re dead.”

Who knew ghosts could cry? Her sobs echoed all around me. The sycamore tree’s branches shook. Some of the leaves pulled free and fell to the ground as if they were green stars dropping from high in the sky. The water in the pond rippled away from the shoreline. I pictured her dropping to her knees, her face covered by her hands, shoulders heaving up and down.

“Cassie?”

I went to the swing, my legs still weak and my insides buzzing. It was much cooler by the swing. I reached for the rope, slid my hand down to where I thought her hand might be. Fingers. I felt her fingers gripping tight to the rope. In that instant I saw her. She faced me, her legs bent in at the knees. One of her shoes was missing. I saw the many stab wounds, her torn dress and bruised face; her split lip; the tears in her eyes. She released the rope, took my hand, and opened her mouth to speak, but said nothing. Instead, she stood and embraced me, putting her head on my chest. I shivered, and my teeth clacked together as her cold body clung to mine. Then I was pulled into her world, her final few minutes of life. She barely saw the man who grabbed her, catching only a glimpse of jeans and old brown work boots before a potato sack was shoved over her head. He dragged her down to Grover’s Pond, Cassie kicking and screaming until he leveled a heavy hand to the side of her head. The rest, the pain, the fear, the very life bleeding from her, I endured as well. I couldn’t pull free and I couldn’t scream. I could only feel.

Then, as if she knew I couldn’t take anymore, she released me.

I fell to my knees. Freezing and scared, I crawled a few feet away, then vomited. Dropping onto my back, I tried to regain some sense of where I was, who I was. Cassie knelt beside me. Her body was a mutilated mass of flesh and torn clothing, but her eyes—even the one swollen badly from a punch to the face, the same punch that had split her lip and broken her nose—held the beauty I had fallen in love with before she died.

I tried to sit up but couldn’t. After several minutes of a silence between us that felt too heavy to bear, I managed to roll over and get to my knees.

“Do you know who killed you?” I asked between deep breaths.

No.

“I’m going to find out.”

How?

“I don’t know.”

It was the truth. I had no clue how I would find her killer, just that I had to, that no one else would be able to.

The next few weeks I spent looking at people’s feet, hoping to catch a glimpse of badly scuffed brown work boots. When I wasn’t searching for her killer, I spent as much time by the sycamore tree as I could. Cassie sat on the swing and I watched it sway forward then back. A couple of times I asked her to take me there, to take me to her last moments again. I felt bad for asking her to do this—she had to relive it so I could be there, so I could try and see something different, or so I could remember those boots. Each time I threw up after revisiting the horror, after seeing the girl I loved raped and murdered.

And each time she pulled away a little more, as if I were killing her all over again.

Almost a year into my investigation, I found her killer. Tommy Tillman—the deputy sheriff. He was young, not even in his thirties at the time.

I found out by accident.

Back then our little town had donation drives for the police department. It was nothing more than canvassing neighborhoods, Jehovah Witness style, but instead of tracts about their religion, the adults received donation cards, and sticker badges were given to the kids. Sometimes they came around in their uniforms, but more often than not, they showed up in normal, everyday clothes. This was done to give the impression the cops in our town were normal, everyday folks, like you and me and Mom and Dad and Grandma across the river and Uncle Earl down at the bar. If people believed the police were no different than anyone else, then they would be willing to give more. It was a trick that worked. Heck, one year Bobbie Joe down on the farm not too far from us cracked open her piggy bank and gave them every penny she had saved up that year.

Tommy Tillman and one of the other deputies—I forget his name—knocked on our door one Saturday morning. Cartoons were on and Dad had let me skirt my chores until later that day. I don’t really remember what I had been doing or thinking, but I remember Momma saying ‘hello’ in her most polite way possible. I got up and walked to the door. She didn’t try to block my view when I stuck my head between her arm and waist. Officer Tillman was there with his best salesman smile on. And that other guy was right there with him, pitching their ‘give to the police of your town’ spill in his best ‘awe shucks’ manner.

I don’t know why I looked down at their feet. They were the law—I had no reason to suspect them of anything. They were supposed to protect us, not hurt us. I glanced down and saw those brown scuffed boots at the end of a pair of blue jean cuffs. Right then there was nothing else in the world. Momma was gone. The house was gone. The other cop was gone. The coming summer was a myth, and I swear, the world could have ended right then and I wouldn’t have known it. I looked up, following the blue jean pants and white T-shirt up to Tillman’s toothy smiling face.

“What’s wrong, kid?” he asked, that salesman voice still trying to make the politician’s pitch. “You look like you saw a ghost or something?”

I shook my head, pulled free of Momma’s arm and backed away. I stumbled, caught myself. I tried not to run, but by the time I was at the bottom of the steps leading to the second floor, I was in full sprint.

I went to bed early that night, telling Momma I wasn’t feeling so good. She checked my temperature, said I felt cold to her. Of course, I did—I had found Cassie’s murderer and there was nothing I could do about it. Contacting the police would do no good. Telling my parents? I thought about it. They wouldn’t have believed me. How many adults actually believe their kids about these types of things? Back then, not many. Instead, I kept an eye on Tillman, watching to see if he would strike again. During that time he didn’t, and Cassie’s death appeared like a random murder. That’s probably how Tillman wanted it to appear.

Dad died two years after Cassie. Mom moved us away, closer to her family in Nebraska. Years passed and seven other little girls, around the ages of eight to twelve, disappeared from around my hometown in the south. None of them were found. I knew who had taken these girls, and more importantly, I knew they were all probably dead. I didn’t find all of this out until I left home at eighteen and headed for a small college in South Carolina—less than a hundred miles from where I had spent the first eleven years of my life.

We still owned the old house and farm, but time and the elements had worn it down. Windows were broken, and a wino had moved in. The inside was a wreck.

Down at the sycamore tree, the rope that had once held the swing was frayed and the swing itself was missing. I got on my hands and knees, searched through the decaying leaves and found it not too far from the base of the tree itself. It was wet, but still solid enough to hold in my hands without it crumbling, to hold close to my heart.

“Cassie?”

I waited, repeated her name and listened. My heart sank. That familiar broken feeling crept into my chest. I had been away too long. She was gone.

Joshua?

Like the first time I heard her voice after her death, I almost ran away, not believing what I heard. At the same time, I thought it was just my desire to see her, to believe she was still there. My emotions ramped up.

Then it came again, soft and hollow, like an echo. Joshua.

My heart lifted.

“Cassie?”

You came back.

“Of course, I did—I never wanted to leave.”

I’ve missed you, Joshua.

The frayed rope swung slightly. I reached out, grabbed it. I saw her. She was still eight, still had that shredded dress on and all those stab wounds. I hadn’t expected that. To be honest, I don’t know what I expected. She died when she was eight. It’s not like she could have aged as a ghost, but part of me thought she would have been the same age as me. It was a ridiculous notion. The dead don’t age a day after they die.

“I’ve missed you too, Cassie,” I said, paused and then blurted out the only thing I knew to say. “I know who killed you.”

You do?

“Yes—and its time he got punished.”

We talked for a while, me and the ghost of the girl I still loved. Then I went back up to the house. The interior was wrecked worse than I thought it was and the remnants of where the bum had slept at one time remained in the corner near the back door. I searched the house, found it empty.

Instead of waiting for the homeless person to come back, I called the police from my cell phone, told them I wanted to speak to the sheriff. Turns out the sheriff was Tillman. An hour later, he met me on the front porch of my childhood home.

“What’s all this about, Mister …?”

“There’s a bum inside my house.”

“This is your home?” Tillman raised an eyebrow. He had changed some during the eight years since I had last seen him. His hair was still dark, but he wasn’t as lean as he had been—good eating had filled his body out. He didn’t wear his sheriff’s badge prominently on his shirt like I thought he would, and he certainly didn’t flash that car salesman’s smile.

“It belongs to my family,” I said. “I want the bum gone.”

“When was the last time anyone lived here?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I reckon not.”

Tillman walked inside, his thumbs tucked in his belt loops as if he were going to just stroll on in there and have a word of peace with some drunk and that would be that.

“There’s no one here,” he said after searching the house.

“Maybe he went out the backdoor when he heard you pull up.”

He gave me a curious look, a suspicious look. “You said he was in the house.”

“He was, but he might have gone around back.”

Tillman made his way outside and down the steps. He turned around in a half circle, scanning the yard or maybe just appearing like he was. His hands went into the air and he was about to say something when I yelled.

“Over there. He ran behind the sycamore tree.”

“What? Where?”

“The sycamore tree. He ran behind it. I just saw him.”

Some things in life I’ve never been good at: Math. I hated the subject growing up and barely passed every math class I was ever in. Social gatherings. I’ve always been somewhat of a loner. Affection. I’ve only told one person other than my mom that I loved her, and she was dead. Lying. I’m just not good at it. And I think Sheriff Tillman saw right through my attempt at getting him out to the sycamore tree.

If he knew, he didn’t completely let on. He walked slowly out that way, through the tall grass and unleveled ground. He neared the sycamore tree where a picture had been nailed to it. He yanked the photo free.

“Recognize her?” I asked.

He glanced toward me as I swung at him. I caught him below the left ear. He fell to the ground, rolled onto his feet and into a crouch. He drew his revolver, aimed at me. “What do you think you’re doing, boy?”

“Her name was Cassie. You murdered her eleven years ago.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, punk, but you’re under arrest for assaulting a police officer.” He spoke the typical cop words in the typical attempt at intimidating me. 

“The other girls—you murdered them, too, didn’t you?”

Full recognition dawned on Tillman’s face. His eyes grew slightly bigger than normal, and then he squinted. A smile—yes, the same smile he used on women to get them to donate money to the police department—appeared on his face. He laughed. “You think you’re smart, kid?”

I shrugged. I don’t know what I was thinking not having a weapon with me. Maybe I thought love would protect me. Maybe I thought I was tougher than I really was. Tillman pointed his gun at me, pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through my shoulder socket, shattering bone and coming out my back. I fell to the ground, blood seeping into the hot earth. Tillman’s shadow loomed over me, the sun behind him. Shading my eyes I saw the revolver a couple of feet from my head. I was going to die, and I was okay with that. Then I could be with Cassie again. For a brief second, I hoped I would be eight as a ghost and not eighteen.

No!

Startled, Tillman spun around. I didn’t see her as clearly as I had before, but Cassie was there, a blur of gray and white. She rushed at him, sinking both of her ghostly hands into his ribs. Tillman fired several times, the bullets striking the ground near his feet but doing no damage to Cassie. His mouth dropped open and his eyes—full of amusement earlier—grew wide in fear. I hope it was the same fear Cassie had felt as he raped and then stabbed her to death.

She held him there as his body shook. Another round was fired from his gun. I think he tried to scream, but nothing came out. Cassie did scream, her voice the same hollow sound, but so much louder, as if there was a microphone to her mouth. Her hands stayed buried in his ribs until his face turned blue and he collapsed, dead at her feet.

Somehow, love did protect me.

I dropped my head to the ground and closed my eyes. I welcomed a death that never came. Instead, I heard Cassie crying for several seconds before the sound faded. I opened my eyes and caught a glimpse of tears in her eyes before she vanished.

Folks around here say Tillman up and left. Turns out another cop had the same suspicions I did and had gathered enough evidence to prove the things he had done. It was enough in the eyes of the townspeople to believe he was guilty even though they haven’t seen him since.

That was nearly four years ago.

I have since moved back into the old family home and have been renovating it the best I can. I hung the swing from the same branch it used to be on. Each day I walk out to the sycamore tree and sit in the shade. I call for Cassie, but she’s gone, this time probably forever. I hope I’m wrong. I hope one day the swing will sway again; that I’ll hear her voice, and maybe, she’ll tell me she loves me one more time.

__________

A prompt-based contest story. The original version was much shorter than the one here. Sadly, I can’t recall what the prompt was, but I can say with certainty the story won that particular challenge.

It originally appeared on the now defunct House of Horrors website back in November of 2009. It can also be found in the short story collection, Southern Bones.

If you enjoyed Beneath the Sycamore Tree, please share this post to your social media pages and help me spread my stories to the world. Thank you, in advance!

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.”

Flash Fiction Friday: Cassidy and Owen’s Cemetery For Almost Dead Things

Nobody noticed when Pop Callahan disappeared. At least not until Maggie Sue came calling and he didn’t answer the door.

Maggie Sue lived down the road in a dilapidated singlewide trailer with streaks of rust running along its sides. She was a trashy little woman who thought an unbuttoned blouse and a pile of makeup was attractive. On that day the extra thick blush and eye shadow did little to conceal the shiner she had been given a few days earlier.

Cassidy answered the door on the third knock. Her golden hair was dirty and pulled back into pigtails. She had chocolate smeared on one side of her ten-year-old face and her pink dress was caked with dirt and spaghetti sauce—the lone staple in the Callahan house.

“Hey, Cassidy,” Maggie Sue said with a fake smile and a finger twirling in a lock of dirty blond hair. “Is Pop home?”

“No,” Cassidy responded. If there was one person in the neighborhood she disliked, it was Maggie Sue.

“D’yah know where he’s at?”

Cassidy shrugged her bony shoulders.

Maggie Sue gave a slight nod. “Can you tell him to come visit me when he gets home?”

“I guess.”

boy-1854107_1920Anger flared on Maggie Sue’s face in the form of creased brows and turned down lips. A storm brewed in her blue eyes. When she spoke again, her voice was less pleasant and held a demanding tone. “It would be nice if you would do that for me. Can you remember that, retard?”

Cassidy took a deep breath and held it. She forced back the words she wanted to say, then shrugged again. “I guess so.”  

Maggie Sue made it down the first couple of steps before Cassidy spoke again.

“Hey, lady, you wanna visit my graveyard?” A small grin traced across her lips.

Cassidy was known in Briar’s Ridge as a little off-center, special in the most special of ways. Questions like that were normal for her. But for Maggie Sue and her suddenly wide eyes and O-shaped mouth, it had sounded bizarre, even coming from Cassidy, the waif of a girl Pop had taken in when she was three, along with her little brother Ollie—short for Oliver, Cassidy told anyone who would listen. Truth be told, Callahan didn’t so much take them in as he took them from a prostitute who owed him money. The plan was to return the children when he was paid. The woman, a drug-addled whore named Harriett, died a few days later, killed by a john or maybe even herself. When the cleaning lady at the local ho-tel no-tel found Harriett swinging from a light fixture, her face blackened and one eye dangling from the socket, Callahan was stuck.

Maggie Sue stared up at Cassidy from the bottom step. She cocked her head to one side, shook it slowly, as if doing so helped her make a decision. “I don’t think so, little girl.” She stepped off the final step. “Let Pop know I came by, okay?”

Cassidy gave a half-hearted shrug, barely raised a hand to chest level and waved once before dropping it. She closed the door and rolled her eyes.  

“When Pop gets home. Whatever.”

Two days passed before Maggie Sue returned. Cassidy considered making her knock for a while, but answered on the fifth rap.

Cassidy stood in the doorway, the same pink dress on, the chocolate smears gone from her face, replaced by a red Kool-Aid moustache. Her blond hair was no longer in pigtails. A clump of hair on the left side of her head looked as if it was tangled in a broken rubber band.

Maggie Sue’s shiner had gone from purple and black to an ugly green and brown. Her hands shook and her eyes darted about, as if someone followed her. 

“Is Pop home?” Maggie Sue asked, her voice shaky.

Cassidy gave a shrug, a maybe/maybe not gesture.

“Well, is he, little retard girl?”

“No,” Cassidy said.

Maggie Sue shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “When did yah last see him?”

Cassidy put one finger to her chin, the nail thick with dirt beneath it. “When did he give you the colored eye?”

Even through the heavy make-up, Cassidy saw the red blossoms form on Maggie Sue’s face. The woman said nothing at first, only stared at her shoes. When she turned her eyes back to Cassidy, they were rimmed with tears. 

“That would have been Sunday.”

Cassidy nodded. “Then Sunday it was.”

“So, he hasn’t been back since Sunday?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You said you haven’t seen him since—”

“I haven’t seen him. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been here.” Cassidy rolled her eyes.  

“Where do you think he went and ran off to?”

“Does it matter?”

“Why wouldn’t it matter?”

“Why would it?”

They stared at each other until Maggie Sue wavered and looked back toward the red clay road that ran past Pop’s rundown shack and into town where the rest of the houses were as decrepit as the trailer she lived in.  

“Just tell Pop I came by. I need to see him. Really bad.”

“I’m sure,” Cassidy said and closed the door. She opened it to see Maggie Sue still standing on the porch, her eyes still searching, but probably not really seeing anything at all. Maggie Sue ran a brittle-nailed finger up one arm, drawing pink lines on her near white skin. “Hey, lady,” Cassidy said, snapping her from her thoughts.

“What?”

“You wanna visit my graveyard?”

“Umm …  no.” Maggie backed away, almost fell off the steps when her foot slid from the porch landing. “I gotta go.” 

“Bye.”

Cassidy closed the door and looked at Ollie. He stood just inside, his back against the wall. “She’ll be back,” Cassidy said.  

Maggie Sue did come back. The next day. Her eyes held gray and purple bags beneath them and she hugged herself with both arms as if she were cold. Her blond hair was a tangle of knots and her lips were chapped and bordering on white.

Cassidy stood at the door, listening to the many knocks, a smile on her face. “Should we make her come back later, Ollie?”

Ollie stood by the wall. A frown creased his seven-year-old face. He shook his head quickly.

“Okay. Okay.”

Cassidy opened the door.  

Maggie Sue’s voice shook when she spoke and it came out as a whine. “Has Pop come home yet?”

“You look like crap,” Cassidy said, ignoring the question.

“Shut up, retard. I need to see Pop.” Her eyes were larger than Cassidy recalled them being. She dug her nails into her arms, leaving red crescent moons in their wake.

“You wanna visit my graveyard?”

Maggie Sue’s shoulders sagged, then she stood straight. Her eyes became narrow and her nostrils flared as she took a deep breath. “What is it with you, kid?” she yelled. “Why do you want me to see a graveyard so bad? What would you have in it anyway? Did you bury your kitty cat or something? Maybe a pet goldfish or a dog?”

Cassidy stood silent, unblinking as Maggie Sue ranted.

“Oh, I know. I bet you have a collection of dead bugs back there. Each one with their own little graves and markers? Is that it? You’re not a regular retard, are you? You’re some sort of sick-o retard, right? Huh? Is that it?”

Cassidy stepped back from the entryway and turned around. She walked down the short hall, leaving the door open. “If you want to see Pop, he’s this way.”

Maggie Sue’s tirade ended as quickly as it had begun. “‘Bout time, little girl.”

Cassidy stopped in the hall, looked back, her eyes slits on her dirty face. “Ollie,” she said and gave a nod.

“Ollie?” Maggie Sue asked. One side of her top lip lifted up in confusion.  

The clang of a shovel on the back of Maggie Sue’s head sent her forward, her hands out in front of her as she crashed to the floor. Cassidy leaned down. “I’m not a retard, whore.”

They waited patiently for Maggie Sue to wake up. When she did, Ollie was smiling, his teeth brown and rotting. They had bound Maggie Sue’s arms and legs to a wooden kitchen chair. Duct tape covered her mouth.

“Ahh, you’re awake,” Cassidy said. “Now, are you ready to see my graveyard? It don’t matter none. We’ll show you anyway. Okay? So you know, this is a regular tour, not a grand tour. A grand tour is where you get to touch the things in the graveyard, maybe even be allowed to dig up one of the things buried here. But this isn’t a grand tour.”

Maggie Sue’s eyes grew wide as Cassidy waved her arm behind her. “Welcome to the Cassidy and Owen Cemetery for Almost Dead Things.”

The yard was littered with small markers made of boards and plastic and bricks placed at the heads of mounds of dirt.  

“Over here we have Pippy.” She glared back at Maggie Sue. “Yes, my kitty is buried here.” She turned back to the graveyard, waved a hand past Pippy’s grave. “Over there is where I buried the head of Bruce, the dog that killed Pippy. Beside his head are his legs.”

She continued on, waving a hand like a game-show girl showing off the next prize if the price was right. “Around the small azalea bush are the remains of birds that have fallen out of trees or that were killed by Pippy. That one,” she pointed to a small headstone painted blue, “is where Barney is buried. He was a duck.

“I guess you really didn’t come here to see the animals, right? You wanted to see Pop.  Well, there’s one of his hands.” 

Ollie stepped over to a fresh grave, a paper plate with a stick pushed through, marking it. On the plate was a crude drawing of a hand in red crayon. 

“His other hand is over there. And one of his legs is by the fence over yonder.”

Maggie’s scream was muffled behind the tape, a sound caught in her throat, forever to remain there.

“Over there is his upper body, and right there, right in the center of the Pop Callahan Memorial section of our graveyard, is his head.”

Cassidy’s eyes narrowed. She walked over to Maggie Sue, grabbed her face with both of her small hands. “Did you know Pop called me a retard? I betcha didn’t know that, did ya? That was right before he hit me for the last time. I reckon he wasn’t done when he beat you up, so he came home and started on me.”

Maggie Sue grew quiet, her eyes big, the blue showing in the mass of white around them. 

“I betcha didn’t know he called Ollie a dumb retard all the time. And all ’cause Ollie can’t talk.”

Cassidy stepped away and motioned for Ollie. He came into Maggie Sue’s view. In his hand was a hatchet—one really too small for a man to use, but just the right size for a small child.  

“I betcha didn’t know I hate being called a retard, did ya? You know what else?” She paused, waiting for any sort of reply. “Ollie really hates it when someone calls me that.  Don’tcha, Ollie?”

The little boy smiled, brushed aside a heavy lock of dirty brown hair. He gave a nod.  

“I’ll dig the holes,” Cassidy said and turned back to Maggie Sue. “Welcome to the Cassidy and Owen Cemetery for Almost Dead Things. I hope yah enjoy your stay.”

She turned away, grabbed the shovel from beside the house. When she looked back, Ollie was bringing the hatchet down onto Maggie Sue’s right foot.

(Cassidy and Owen’s Cemetery For Almost Dead Things originally appeared in the short story collection, Southern Bones, which you can find here. Or you can get the print copy of Southern Bones directly from me by sending me an email at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com)

Reflections On the Year Gone By Part 2

If you missed Part 1, you can read it HERE.

Two things happened in my little acre of the writing world this past year. In March I sat in on my first panel. It was about Indie authors and the struggles of being one. I can honestly say it was interesting and informative. I made a few friends who I have stayed in contact with. There is a video somewhere out there of it. 

In September, I stood in front of a crowd of people as the guest speaker for Chris Maw’s Words and Wine event. I was nervous for all of fifteen seconds. In the video you can see I flub over a couple of my words, but once I got my bearing and the train began to roll forward, I feel I entertained the group (even getting a few laughs here and there). I took questions and gave answers. I had a blast. I want to do it again. I want to speak in front of people again. That was as thrilling to me as a roller coaster ride or bungee jumping or sky diving might be for others.  You can see the video below.

 

So, if you want a Southern Gothic, horror story telling, rebel with somewhat of a cause to speak at an event, drop me a line at ajbrown36@bellsouth.net. 

Did I really just plug that? I guess I did.

***

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This year Cate and I made several long road trips—more than we have any other time in our marriage. Actually, we made more instate and out of state road trips than we ever had in our over twenty years of marriage.

We took the kids to St. Augustine, Florida at the beginning of April. I’m not entirely sure the kids had a great time, but Cate and I did. It was our first trip to Florida together and the first time in a while that we got a hotel. Cate and I even rode an outdoor carousel, though the kids didn’t get on it. I think they were embarrassed by our actions.

In August we went to Virginia for Scares That Care. We left on a Thursday and arrived back home the following Monday. It was a blast and a half, one of the single best weekends of my life. More on that later.

At the end of October, we made a trip to Bradford, Pennsylvania, to see our two friends, Tara and Larissa. Oh my goodness, the donuts at The Cider Mill were amazing, as they were at the Amish house we visited. In Pennsylvania they have this place called Tim Horton’s. I hear this is a Canadian alternative to Starbucks. And I will say they are far better than Starbucks … and cheaper. We need one down here in South Carolina. Do you hear that Tim Horton’s? Come down south. I’ll love you forever.

Florida was great fun with the kids. Pennsylvania was great fun with two terrific people. Virginia … Virginia was an entirely different ball game. 

Let me tell you about Williamsburg, Virginia and Scares That Care. This trip would not have been possible without Lisa Vasquez and Stitched Smile Publications. I’m not going to go into the why of it, but Lisa is a great and generous individual. The planning for this trip began before the calendar turned to 2018. When August rolled around, Cate and I left our little home in South Carolina and drove the seven hours to Williamsburg, stopping only to eat lunch and gas up the car.

We arrived at this beautiful gated complex and were greeted in the parking lot of the place we would spend the next four days and nights by Larissa and Tara. For the next three hours we sat in the living room talking. During those three hours, the four of us became instant friends. It turned out we had a lot in common including where our relationships were concerned. The similarities were eerie.

Night would come and the rest of the group hadn’t arrived yet, and wouldn’t until the next morning. We crashed and the next morning the four of us greeted Lisa, Donelle, Chris and Veronica to the house. Later in the day one of the most upbeat and enjoyable to be around people arrived: James. 

That afternoon we made our way to the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel to where the Scares That Care convention was held. The Stitched Smile Publications booth was right next to the All Things Zombie booth, ran by Jeffrey Clare, which was a treat in and of itself. Friday evening, all day Saturday and Sunday morning to early afternoon, we took turns manning the booth, selling books, meeting people and having an all around great time. 

Saturday evening, after the convention ended for the day, we were treated to the wedding of Jeffrey Clare and Shannon Walters. It wasn’t just any wedding, though. It was a zombie themed wedding. It was awesome.

That Saturday night we all sat around the table and many of us bared our souls. We learned a lot about each other. We laughed. We laughed so hard some of us cried. And a bond was created that feels as strong as any from any other group I’ve been associated with. It was a magical weekend, one of the best.

***

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMLet’s talk books for a minute here. My collection, Voices, came out on Friday, April 13th. It is dark, disturbing and awesome. The book contains 15 short stories that deal with the darker and very real subjects of life, such as cutting, neglect, sexual assault, prison, murder, loneliness, love gone awry, demons, bullying and betrayal. It’s not a book for the squeamish. 

Bibliophilia Templum had this to say about Voices:  “These stories darkly and boldly illustrate the harsh realities of life when there are no safe places, not even in your own head.”

Scream Horror Magazine reviewed Voices and said:

“Few things are as terrifying or powerful as the human mind. It’s where our darkest secrets, phobias and most troubling thoughts reside, which could spell harm to ourselves or others if they’re allowed to fester for too long, unattended. While the mind motivates us to achieve our goals and form our greatest ideas, it’s also capable of inspiring dark deeds and taking advantage of our paranoias and fears when we’re at our most vulnerable. Every horrible atrocity in human history started with a sister thought or an impulse stemming from a damaged psyche after all. As such, the complexities of the mind has always lent itself perfectly to horror tales.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 9.48.14 PMA.J. Brown’s latest. Voices, is a collection of short stories rooted in psychological torment and the horrors that can unfold as a result. Each story is rooted in the darkest elements of humanity that, when broken down, don’t seem too far fetched at all. These tales are inspired by domestic, sexual and mental abuse, as well as neglect, bullying, death, sorrow and the harm the can cause. It’s not a light collection by any means, but it’s certainly effective and deserves your attention if you’re willing to confront horror rooted in reality.

 The first story, “In the Shadows They Hide” taps into a socially awkward teenager’s fear of shadows, coupled with the anxieties that arise from being bullied and unable to fit in with your peer group.

 “The Scarring”, meanwhile, is concerned with child abuse and the harrowing effects which follows in its wake. “A Memory Best Left Alone” is about a woman who self-harms … you get the idea of the type of subject matter Brown is fascinated with. This isn’t poolside reading. 

 That said, the author handles each story with sensitivity and respect to difficult topics and themes while simultaneously mining the real horror humanity experiences to craft bold and devastating scare fare. In lesser hands, this anthology could be exploitative or schlocky, but Brown’s exploration is nuanced and all the better for it. By no means will this book be for everyone, but those who dare open its pages may find it rewarding.”

 

But there is more to Voices than just the book. Over the last eight months, the characters of the stories have been interviewed by Lisa Lee Tone of Bibliophilia Templum. Those interviews can be seen by following the links below. Also, when the series of interviews are complete, they will be compiled into a companion book for Voices. That book will also have an interview with Lisa Lee Tone and a couple of extra things that will only appear in that book.

(To read the interviews to date, click on the name of the character.)

Part 1: Spencer from In the Shadows They Hide       

Part 2: Mr. Worrywort from Chet and Kay’s Not So Marvelous Adventure      

Part 3: Lena and Nothing from The Scarring        

Part 4: Claire from Claire, The Movie         

Part 5: Jeddy from Black Storms      

Part 6: B from Anymore    

Part 7: Dave from Crisp Sounds      

Part 8: Dane from  Numbers                

Part 9: The Angel from To Bleed     

Part 10: Brian from Not Like You  

Part 11: Lewis from The Sad Woes of the Trash Man  

A couple of other books were put out, as well. The first of these is titled, ZOMBIE, and yes, it is a collection of stories involving the rotting corpses we have all come to love or loathe. There is a touch of humor in this book, and a collaboration with my good friend, Justin Dunne, titled, Bonobo.

The second of these books is titled, Beautiful Minds, a collection of 61 short stories that encompasses the four years The Brown Bag Stories were in existence. What were The Brown Bag Stories, you ask? Good question. 

The Brown Bag Stories was a monthly booklet Cate and I put out, starting in May of 2014. Each booklet had a short story in it (yes, a different story in every one), a dedication, a cover, the letter to you, my Faithful Readers, and advertisements for my other books. In the four years TBBS existed, we put out 64 total stories. As I stated, 61 of those appear in Beautiful Minds, with the only ones not in the massive book being two stories that are also in Voices and one story I hope to publish with a pro paying magazine  in 2019. 

I admit a simple truth here: I was saddened to bring The Brown Bag Stories to an end, but to be completely honest, it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. I wanted it to generate potential readers for my books. It might have generated a handful of readers, and I am grateful for that, but at the end of the day, all the work and costs going into putting them out just wasn’t generating sells for my books. I hate putting it that way, but that is the truth. 

There is one more book that I put out, but not to the general public. It was a Christmas present for my sister-in-law and it’s titled, Closing the Wound. It is based on the true events of the death of a sixteen-year-old young man on Halloween night of 1995. Amazon and I went ten rounds in our arguments over their service with the delivery of this book, but it finally showed up in the nick of time. Seeing the expression on my sister-in-law’s face made all the effort well worth it.

To Be Continued …

A Reality Check and A New Plan

Hmmm…

Writers. We get stars in our eyes from time to time. We see what others are doing and we think, ‘hey, why can’t I do that?’ or ‘hey, why can’t I have that type of success?’

I don’t think that applies only to writers, but people in general. However, for writers, this business is tough and it’s easy to believe that if someone else can do it, why can’t we? Sure, it has become easier to get published, with the Internet and E-books and Web-Zines. The process is so much simpler than what it was even ten years ago. We don’t need big publishers or editors to tell us whether we’re good enough or whether readers will like our work. We can do it ourselves with self publishing now.

Readers have access to all sorts of books, just by turning on their computer and browsing from the comforts of their own homes. If they have an e-reader, then they can browse pretty much anywhere there is a wireless connection. Readers don’t even have to read anymore. They can listen to audio books while driving or working out or just sitting on their couch with their eyes closed.

Yes, the world of publishing has changed. Those changes are good and bad, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Just for the record, I’m in a relatively good mood. I’ve been listening to Third Day all morning and I’ve been developing a plan for a new e-book collection.

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me back up.

Last night, I was a little down. I’m not going to lie. I was down because the sells of my e-book collection, Along the Splintered Path weren’t all that great for the first quarter. The free download period was great–1400 downloads in that five day period. The sells, not so great. The negative to this is the sells were, as I’ve mentioned twice and this will be the third time, not what I thought they would be. But there are at least 1400 people who now have Along the Splintered Path on their Kindle or computer. That’s a positive in my… err… book. No pun intended.

The way I see it (and believe me, I struggled yesterday seeing it this way) is that the e-book has the potential to garner at least 1400 new readers. And I’ve always said I want readers. Sells would be nice, but without readers, you don’t end up with sells.

It’s a pretty simple equation really: Book + Readers = Sells.

Before I go any further, I would like to thank those people who bought Along the Splintered Path. I would also like to thank those folks who downloaded it during the free promotional week. It’s not lost on me that over 1400 people thought enough of my book, to purchase or download it. Thank you. Sincerely, from the top of my heart.

[[Side Note: I’ve never understood the whole bottom of my heart thing. I would think the most gratitude and love would come from the top of the heart. What’s left over was at the bottom, kind of like backwash in a cup. Yeah, yucky. I know. End Side Note]]

Here’s the real problem: I’m relatively unknown. Very few folks know about me and if that’s the case, then the readers aren’t going to be there and if those readers aren’t there, then neither are the sells.

1 Book + 0 Readers = 0 Sells

So, being down a little, I talked to Tracie McBride (a wonderful writer and really nice gal). We chatted about the business and she stated something I had thought and even read a few times at various web sites and forums: If you have a book out and people like it, then they might look for other things you’ve put out. That’s not how she said it, but I can’t remember it word for word. What it boils down to is if you want to try and get your name out there, then one e-book isn’t going to necessarily do it for you. You have to have a slew of things out there, places where readers can find your work.

You know, she’s right.

When you’re a virtual unknown, even in today’s world of e-books, you have to make your mark and for genre writers, such as myself, you have to really put yourself out there.

So…

Today I have begun the process of putting out a new book.

What? For real and for true?

Absolutely.

But, A.J., your sells haven’t been all that great.

Yes, you are correct. However, as a writer, I have to develop a fan base, no matter how small or large it is. If one reader out there likes my work and wants more of it, then I am obligated to that one reader. I hope it’s more than one, but if it’s not, then I want to entertain that individual.

I’ve said before that I wish to put out a collection titled, Southern Bones, and starting today I will be perusing my stories, both published and unpublished to find between eight and ten pieces to put together in an e-book.

I’ve already talked to a very talented artist about creating the cover. Just watching the way his eyes seemed to dazzle when I told him what I wanted made the blood flow a little faster. It got me excited, the way a new book by my favorite author does. Or the upcoming Lord of the Rings LEGOs.

There are a couple of other things up my sleeve, which is funny, since I rarely ever where long sleeves. But I’ll save those for when Southern Bones is closer to being released.

For the record, the stories that have been previously published that end up in Southern Bones will be reworked and probably overhauled before appearing in the e-book. In some cases, that complete rewriting will lead to much better stories.

Stay tuned. More updates as I go through the process of selecting stories and putting the collection together.

For now, I’m going to remind folks about Along the Splintered Path. This three story e-collection was released in January by Dark Continents Publishing and can be found at Amazon here.

Pick up a copy, give it a read. If you have, please leave a review. It is much appreciated by me and all the voices in my head, including Herbie.

Right now there are no stars in my eyes. Only reality. There are things I want to accomplish in this business. In order to do so I have to think reasonably and I have to get more work out there. I’ve always told folks, the only way to get better at something is to work at it. The same goes with sells of anything. If you want it to do well, you have to put it out there.

That’s part of the plan, at least for now.

Until we meet again, my friends…

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