Raven’s Brew (Free Fiction)

Raven’s Brew

A.J. Brown

R is for Richie Consuella Rodriguez. He was the first to see the shadow loom large overhead. The man-child with the I.Q. of a five-year-old sat in the sand box his pa had made for him years earlier. Long after Pa’s death, Richie still played in the old box, the sand replaced year after year by locals who felt sorry for him. He played cowboys and Indians with little plastic figures bought from a Five and Dime by his mother, she who now lay in her bed unable to do anything more than piss herself and spit grits down the front of her night dress. Sixteen years of dying and somehow, she held on. 

The fort sat on one end of the sand box, nothing more than sticks poked into the dirt; the Indian Reservation on the other end, with leaves stabbed through by twigs to form teepees. The many plastic men battled in the center of the box, the Indians woo-wooing and the cowboys cursing the red men with the hatchets, bows and spears. 

Richie stopped playing when the shadow passed overhead. For the briefest of moments, the sun had been blocked from the play area and a cool breeze tickled his bare arms. He craned his neck up, saw nothing and went back to destroying the pale men in the fort. 

A breeze began and the sound of something flapping with it caught his attention. He glanced up. A scream froze in Richie Consuella Rodriguez’s throat as he was lifted from the ground. His feet struck the fort and cowboys scattered throughout the sandbox. The only figures left standing were two Native Americans: a warrior with a spear, and the medicine man with his arms held up. On one shoulder sat a black bird.

A is for Alexia Garcia. She was not a man-child. Not even a man. With the kids in school and a couple of hours to herself, the cleaning and keeping of the house was at hand. With the wash done, she tended to hanging clothes. Her hum was a lullaby, her voice smooth. She snapped the clothes out, a crisp POP each time, then one by one placed them on the line; two pins per garment. When she was done there would be three lines filled with pants, shirts, socks, undergarments, linens, rags and towels. 

With two lines full, she worked on the final one. A shadow, like a cloud in front of the sun, passed over her. She paid it little thought and continued her work, a hum on her lips. The clothes fluttered with an up tick in the wind and Alexia fought against the towel in her hands. She placed the first of two pins on one creased corner. Before she could attach the other one, her feet left the ground and her world became a haze of black and purple.

One end of the clothesline tore from the post and cut into her palm. Blood spilled from her hand as four fingers fell to the earth. 

V is for Valena Montoya. She sat in the grass outside the cottage that was her parents’ home. Her three years of life had seen nothing considered out of the ordinary. Her soggy bottom soaked the grass beneath her, but she paid no attention to it. Later it would chafe her behind a deep shade of red, but at that time, she was content to stare at the ants making their way through the jungle of grass. 

sunset-2247726_1920.pngThose ants, bright red and large, formed two lines, one to and one from the food not too far from where Valena sat. They bit off portions of it and went along their way, oblivious to the giant in their midst. 

Valena picked up the brown piece of food the ants had been taking from. She shook them off the best she could and placed it in her mouth. A moment later she screamed, as the food hung from her mouth and an ant slipped from between her small lips. 

E is for Elizabeth Montoya. She set the last of the dishes in the drainer and peered out the kitchen window. Her heart skipped a beat, then a second one at the sound that came from outside. She couldn’t make out what Valena had in her mouth, but she could hear the garbled scream. 

She pushed the door open and ran across the yard to her daughter. Elizabeth stopped just short of Valena and one hand went to her own mouth. She lunged forward and knocked the finger from Valena’s gaping mouth. Her stomach knotted and gave way to vomiting. 

N is for Natalia Perez. It was Natalia who discovered the broken clothesline and blood on the ground near where Alexia disappeared. She found two of Alexia’s remaining three severed fingers. Her hysterics echoed in the twilight and the villagers ran to see what was wrong.

They clamored about; their calls for Alexia rang out but they would not find her. 

Natalia sat on her bed, her face tear stained. Her youngest sister gone, she cried her laments and spoke her prayers. In anguish she left from the small hut and set out into the night. Her curses rose to the sky and blackness like none other covered the moon. With sadness still in her heart and on her lips, she was lifted in claws like steel. One talon ripped through her midsection and organs spilled from her eviscerated body. 

With her blood sprinkling the village below, she was carried through the night, her body limp and growing cold. Somewhere in the darkness, she was dropped.

S is for Santavia Alvarez. He, like many others, combed the village well into the night in search of Alexia. Though he would not find her, he felt rain sprinkle from the heavens. He wiped his face and stared at the red staining his fingers. 

Santavia fled beneath a tree and knelt in prayer. The words that came from him were coherent to only him and the one he prayed to. Others around him fell to their knees and prayed as well.

Two more would be taken as they held their heads and hands to the grounds. 

Santavia stood next to the tall tree and watched the sky as Ramon Luiz-Guiterrez was carried off. Santavia fell to the earth again, his body prostrate, and begged for mercy for he and his people.

B is for Benita Alvarez. Santavia told her of the giant bird that swooped down from the sky and took Ramon Luiz-Guiterrez from the ground and how Ramon never screamed as he was carried off.

Benita left her rundown shack and made her way to the chief of the village. 

“We are frowned upon and the great birds have come to take us away.”

“We must make sacrifices,” the chief said.

“We must kill the bird,” Benita countered. 

She left the chief in his bed robes, his head shaking, arms uplifted toward the sky, his words lifted to the gods.

R is for Ramon Luiz-Guiterrez. They found his head near the base of Raven’s Mountain. It was as they feared. It was in that area that the men camped and watched as the giant bird flew to and from, each time carrying another of their number in its giant claws or its monstrous beak. Arrows did nothing to stop it and their spears were too slow.

They bowed and cried out to the gods of their ancestors and begged for mercy and guidance. Morning came, and the four men made their way up the hillside. 

E is for Eduardo Ruiz. He was plucked from the group of four along the mountainside. The bird dove in, its wings silent. It caught Eduardo with its beak and lifted him high in the air before it bit him in half. Eduardo’s body plummeted from the sky. The lower half of his body crumpled into a mass of pulp and splintered bones. The upper half crushed Leo DeLacruz.

The remaining two carried on, their hearts high in their throats and silent prayers whispered from frightened lips. They dashed from tree to tree to stay out of open spaces. Near the top of the mountain, the giant bird swooped down. A loud caw echoed through the hillside and Jose Beltran disappeared in a mass of claws and dark feathers. 

Carlos Guiterrez scrambled along the path. The raven dipped and dove down on him. Carlos ran through the trees for safety as he made his way up the mountain. Refuge was a hillside cave where Carlos ran as far in as he could. The bird flew away.

Night came, and Carlos continued up. With the quarter moon high in the sky, he found himself near the top of the mountain. He peeked out of the woods and toward the open mountain cap. He listened for the bird—the giant raven—but heard nothing. Carlos ran across the opening. 

A hard gust picked up and Carlos heard flapping wings. His screams reverberated all around him and he looked to the sky for the beast that had stalked his people. He saw nothing and then fell headlong. 

Carlos’s eyes snapped open at the sound of wings. He tried to roll over but could get no further than onto his side. He let out a moan as pain ripped through his leg. He felt the heat of something wet seep along his back. 

Carlos looked to the sky. The moon still hung high, its brothers and sisters, the stars, there with him. 

Another sharp pain, this one in his hip, caused Carlos to let out a yelp of pain. He looked toward his legs and a scream that never came stuck in his throat. A baby bird pecked down on his hip and tore a piece of wounded flesh away from his body. All around the bird were bones and torn flesh of the people from his village.

He tried to scramble away.

The bird leaned in, its beak near Carlos’ face. Its head snapped forward and one eye exploded in a burst of pain. Carlos screamed the scream of the dying.

W is for Wilfredo Cruz, the chief of the once quiet village. He spoke again of offering sacrifices, but none would hear him out. The villagers waited for the men who would never come back down the mountain. Their courage and hope waned with each passing minute. Until Santavia Alvarez spoke up. 

Knife in hand, he approached the chief, the leader of their village, his body frail, his mind slipping. And they followed him as he dragged the chief to the edge of the mountain, strapped him to a tree void of limbs. 

Wilfredo begged them to rethink things, but Santavia reminded him, “A sacrifice is needed.”  The knife slid through the chiefs skin, pared the muscle of one arm. They hid back among the trees, spears and arrows in hand. They would wait, and they would have the raven when he came.

Up above, in a nest of branches and mud and leaves and filled with the bones and flesh of the dead, the baby bird ate its meal, and the raven watched and waited.

_________

There’s really not much to tell about this story, except it was based on a prompt, and one I don’t remember. I had also been on bird kick at the time, thanks to another writer, Michael Louis Dixon. At the time, Dixon was part of +The Horror Library+ and he occasionally wrote for the THL Blogorama. He did a handful of posts about fear, but birds had been part of the theme. 

After reading through them, many of us who knew Michael grew concerned about his mental state. The way he wrote them was fascinating, because many of us believed something was wrong with him. We checked up on him, fearing he may have been suicidal. It turned out, they were all fiction posts he wrote. 

We took a collective sigh.

I guess there was more to this than I originally believed. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed Raven’s Brew, and please, like, comment and share. Thank you.

A.J. 

 

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Jerry Died (Free Fiction)

Jerry Died

A.J. Brown

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

A horn blared from somewhere. 

“Lay off the horn …”

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

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

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

It turned out, it was him.

***

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

He lowered the glove but held tight to the ball. 

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

He took a deep breath and looked up.

***

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

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

He did hear people yelling:

Call 9-1-1.

We have to get them out.

Oh my God!

Help! Help! Someone help them!

But he didn’t hear Jerry at all. 

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

Man Who Killed Child in DUI Accident Released From Prison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come in,” he said and stepped aside.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Jay cried.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Water it is.”

***

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

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

***

Water it was. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You killed my son and my wife.”

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

***

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

As always, he woke with a scream.

*** 

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

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

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

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

***

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

__________

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

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

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

A.J.

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Our Once Upon A Time (Free Fiction)

Our Once Upon A Time

By A.J. Brown

Once upon a time …

That’s a funny little phrase, but I guess it could be used for everyone, couldn’t it?

Once upon a time she loved me. It was all she knew, all I knew. Our love for one another … But that was so long ago, back when we were young; back during a time where life had already become overwhelming and the only thing that mattered was love.  Real, unadulterated, honest love.  

There used to be wind chimes on the old house in the woods where we escaped to when her Papa was drunk and ornery and in want of a young body to warm himself with. It’s pipe-like bars used to clang together when the breeze blew in off the lake. It made an awful racket, but it was her favorite thing about the shack I still call home. It comforted her while she slept, far away from the worries of her Papa and his ways; far away from the cries of her Mother that could be heard in their house years after her passing.  

Once upon a time, I didn’t know her very well, my little Rose, with her auburn hair and brilliant green eyes. I had seen her in school, her face downcasts and a distant, sad look in her eyes. All I knew is I loved her, from the very first time I saw her walk into Miss Griemold’s class when were in second grade. There was an air about her that lit my heart’s flames and scared me all at once. For weeks and months, I watched her, hoping to get up enough nerve to talk to her. Instead, I kept my distance, far enough so she couldn’t see my heart break each time I saw her.

Once upon a time she cried while sitting on a bench near the playground. Behind her were swings with plastic seats and metal chains, and a metal slide that burned your legs in the summer time if you wore shorts. Her shoulders were slouched, and her hands were in her lap, one of them clutching to a piece of tissue that looked soaked through. 

I approached her, tentatively. I leaned down a little and spoke, “Are you okay, Rose?”

She looked up at me, her eyelids puffy and pink, a bead of snot beneath her nose. She wiped at it with the wet tissue and gave me the best smile she could right then. She nodded but didn’t speak. Deep down inside, I didn’t believe her. I also couldn’t believe myself. I finally managed to talk to her and I couldn’t think of anything better to say other than ‘are you okay’ and it was killing me.  

I turned to leave. That’s when she took my hand and told me to sit with her. My heart skipped several beats and I sat, suddenly feeling like I was in a dream.  

The dream became a nightmare as she told me of her Papa and the things he had done to her. My Rose, my little flower, the center of my universe, had been crushed by one of her own parents. 

I found myself in tears, heart aching and breathless. 

“Don’t go home,” I said, practically begged.

“I have to.”

“No. No, you don’t. If you go home, he’s just going to … to … do those things again.”

“He’ll come looking for me.”

I stared at her. Both of us had tears in her eyes. I think she knew right then that I loved her. 

“Then run away. I’ll go with you.”

“No. No. He’ll kill you.”

“I know a place. It’s a cabin near the lake. We can go there and you’ll never have to see him again.”

people-2562102_1920Once upon a time I hung a wind chime on the eave of the house and Rose smiled—a genuinely happy expression—for the first time since I had seen her walk into class when we were little. It had been less than a month after I spoke to her the first time.  My heart fluttered with excitement and joy.  We both quit school and went to the old shack that my father used to live in before he died.  My mother owned it and said when I was older I could have it.  I was older then, or so I thought, and that shack became our home; Rose’s home.  

Once upon a time a man came to the house. He was big and burly and hair covered his arms and face. His eyes were muddy brown, and he had a thick nose. He was searching for his daughter and had managed to track her to our shack. With shotgun in hand he broke down the door. I tried to stop him by pressing my back to the door, but he got it open, knocking me to the ground as he did. I barely got to my feet before he struck me in the face with the barrel of the shotgun. There was alcohol on his breath and murder in his eyes. He dropped the gun and beat me like the young man I was. At some point during the beating, I passed out. I remember reaching up, trying to grab his leg before darkness took hold and everything was gone.

When I woke, Rose sat on the bed we still had not shared, a damp cloth in her hand, rubbing my battered face. Tears were in her green eyes. I tried to talk but she placed one of her perfect fingers on my lips and she shook her head.

“Rest, my knight,” she said. “He’s gone, and he won’t be back.”

She was right. He was gone, but his shotgun remained and there was only one shell in it. There was a dark stain on the wooden floor of the cabin not too far from where I had fallen and taken the beating her father put on me.

Once upon a time we fell in love, a beautiful flower and her knight. 

Once upon a time seems so long ago.  

Once upon a time I stood next to an old Weeping Willow, thinking about our fairy tale came true. I knelt and kissed the wooden cross I made for her grave. Death came and claimed my Rose after all these years together, plucking her from the garden of life. In my hand I held her favorite wind chime, the one that always comforted her and helped her sleep; the one I hung on the eave of our old house when we moved in. I hung it on a nail I had hammered into one of the limbs of the Weeping Willow.

As I walked away the wind picked up and I heard the hollow racket of the wind chime. A smile crossed my face as I thought, again, of our once upon a time and our happily ever after.

__________

Some stories are sad. Some stories have those moments that make you weep inside. I feel this one has a couple of those moments. But this story wasn’t meant to be sad. It was meant to be happy. The main character in this piece—his name is Robert, though he never mentions it—fell in love when he was in the second grade, at eight or maybe nine years of age. He loved one woman his entire life, and he spent that life with her. That’s a happy thing. That’s a joyous thing. 

The wind chimes at the end, though sad in one respect, is a happy thing for Robert. He hung it in the tree above Rose’s grave, and as he walked away after hanging it, he heard the wind rattle the pipes together. It made him smile. It made him think about how they triumphed, how she had saved his life after he tried to save hers.

This story is another of those prompt based pieces. The prompt was simply: Once upon a time … and go. So, I went and I wrote, and this story is the result.

I hope you enjoyed Our Once Upon A Time. I also hope you will take a minute to like this post, share it to your social media sites and comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

A.J.

 

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His Undoing (Free Fiction)

His Undoing

By A.J. Brown

“Aye, it’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it.”  

The words rolled off Ivan’s lips as if he had spoken them hundreds of times. He ran the blade across the grindstone, dipped it in water and repeated the process, making sure the blade slid across the gray stone at a slight angle. He held the axe up, then shook his head when the sun’s rays winked off the shiny steel.

“That should do fine.”

He leaned the axe against the stone house and looked over to Joseph. The young man’s face was a study in worry. The tips of his brows bunched above his nose, his lips pulled down into a thoughtful frown, his eyes focused on the dirt at his feet.

“Lad, what seems to be bothering yah?”

Joseph’s skin was pale white. His hands trembled. He looked like he would run away at any moment.

“This doesn’t bother you?” Joseph asked, his voice shaking.

“Oh, no, my boy. It’s a handy work not many appreciate, ‘cept for those with an odd tastes and a sick humor.”

Ivan picked up the axe and slung it over his shoulder. “Follow me, Joseph, and I’ll show you how it’s done.”

Joseph hesitated and gave his uncle a weary look. 

“Come, boy. Don’t dally.”

Joseph stood and fell in line behind Ivan. They made their way through town and across the Old London Bridge.  

“Where are we going, Ivan?”

“To the Stone Gateway.”

Joseph stopped in his tracks. An icy finger traced its way along his spine.

“But, Ivan, that is where—”

“Aye, lad, it is.”

“But, then you would be the—”

Ivan stopped, turned to face Joseph and lowered the axe to the ground. “Joseph, yah need not be concerned with what I am—yah need to be moving along and keeping up with me. The king despises tardiness. Especially, when his subjects are present.”

“I thought you just …”

“I just … what, lad?”

Joseph swallowed hard and shook his head. “I thought you only sharpened the blade.”

Ivan let out a laugh that sounded more like a roar. “I do not hone the blade for the executioner. What joy would there be in that? Now, come.”

Again Joseph followed Ivan toward the Stone Gateway. As they neared the entrance, Joseph’s stomach began to curdle. They passed lines of peasants and semi-royalty.  The stone structures on either side of them loomed high in the air, casting shadows on the ancient bridge. The king sat near the foot of the bridge, raised high on a platform.  On the ground beneath him was what looked like a stake, head and arm restraints and a chopping block stained with the blood of those executed before this day. Four men rolled out a large black cauldron on a stone slab with wheels attached to it.

Joseph’s breath caught in his throat for a moment when he saw the many severed heads on stakes lining the road and the fields near the castle. Most of them looked old but had somehow survived the elements and time.  

Ivan looked back with a smile on his face.

“Yah ‘aven’t been to this side of the bridge before, ‘ave yah?”

Joseph shook his head.

london-4115740_1920“Over there. Yah see that ‘ead?” Ivan asked. “That’s William Wallace’s ‘ead. It’s been there for 237 years.”

The head sat on a stake, its eyes missing, and its mouth frozen in an eternal scream.  There was still skin and hair and teeth on it; its tongue still resided behind its teeth.

“This is absurd,” Joseph said in protest. “This is not right, Ivan. We must stop this.”

Ivan looked at Joseph in astonishment. “Don’t let the king ‘ear you, lad. Or you’ll be one of them.” He pointed to the head closest to the king. “That’s Thomas Cromwell. He’s the newest one—only been up for a little over two years now.”

“But …”

A scream arose from the crowd as guards hauled a young man through the people, his hands in shackles. He fought for all he was worth but the guards held him firmly.

“Oy, here we go. Watch and learn, Joseph.”

A man with a shock of white hair on his head and dressed in a long blue coat and pants, stood. He unrolled a scroll and held it in front of him. “Louis Waddle, you have been sentenced to death for crimes against your king and your fellow man. You shall die by the blade and—”

“I did nothing,” Louis yelled.

“Liar.”

Louis gave one guard an elbow to the ribs and kicked a second one. The third one tried to grab him but missed. Louis ran through the crowd to the edge of the bridge, his chains rattling. When he reached an open ledge he jumped, plummeting into the Thames.

“This is an outrage,” Joseph said. “That man was clearly innocent of his crimes.”

“Joseph, close your mouth.”

“No, Ivan,” he said then toward the king he yelled. “This is wrong. It is a sin.”

The king levied a stern look to Ivan, then nodded without speaking. Ivan turned to Joseph, his only nephew, and frowned.

“I’m sorry, Joseph,” he said.

“What do you—”

Ivan struck Joseph with a balled fist, sending him to the ground. The guards grabbed him and carried him to the chopping block. His hands were put in restraints and he was lowered to the ground.

“I’ve committed no crime,” Joseph yelled in protest. 

Two of the guards held his shoulders, keeping his neck against the stone block.

“Ye should ‘ave kept your mouth closed, Joseph,” Ivan said and swung the axe down.

Joseph’s head fell into the basket at the base of the block. Blood sprayed from his neck.  His body twitched several times and his eyes blinked as if in disbelief.  

Ivan picked up the head as one of the guards lifted the stake from the ground. It pained him to place his nephew’s head upon it, but it was what had to be done. With Ivan’s help, the guard lowered the stake and Joseph’s head into the cauldron. They lifted it up and tar dripped off the head.  

Ivan nodded to the guard and several others came over to help him place the stake in the ground.  

“Well done, Sir Ivan,” the king said and clapped loudly. The crowd joined in, their cheers echoing along the bridge.

Ivan looked up at the head of his nephew. Tar dripped down the spike. His mouth was opened in a scream. One eye was open, the socket empty. The other one was closed. His hair clung to his skull, never to blow in the wind. Ivan nodded to the king. 

“Aye, it’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it.”

__________

Like the previous story, this one was written in the Flash Challenge group. The topic was to write a story of an executioner in old England. I took a few liberties with history but tried to keep it accurate as well. Most of us have heard the name William Wallace thanks to the movie Braveheart. Wallace was executed at the Old London Bridge and he was beheaded. His head was dipped in tar and placed on a spike atop the London Bridge. The amount of time his head sat on the spike and on top of the bridge isn’t accurate. 

Thomas Cromwell also died by beheading and his head was tarred and placed on top of the London Bridge, some 200+ years after Wallace’s. 

Obviously, I took a few liberties with dialogue and dialect. 

I hope you enjoyed this His Undoing and that you won’t give me too much grief for making a few changes to history. If you have a minute or two, please like, share and comment on this post. Thank you.

A.J.

 

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Eating Dirt (Free Fiction)

Eating Dirt

A.J. Brown

The ground ate Ronald today.  He jumped from the tree we had climbed, landed on both feet and kept from tumbling to the ground by putting a hand on it to steady himself. 

“Your turn, Gordie,” he yelled up at me. 

I shook my head, not so certain jumping was a good idea. If I landed wrong, I could blow out my knee, break an ankle, or worse, smash my skull. 

“I … I can’t, Ronald. It’s too high, man.”

He laughed. “You’re kidding right, Gordie?”

I shook my head again. “No. It’s really high. I don’t think I can …

He gave me a boo-hoo and pretended to rub his eyes with his hands, “Quit your crying and jump, man.”

“I can’t.” I hated the whine in my voice. I hated feeling like a wimp. But that didn’t stop me from staying put where I was at in the tree, my butt perched against a thick limb, one hand hugging to the trunk.

“Don’t be a chicken, Gordie,” he yelled, as he craned his neck to look up at me. He clucked and strutted in a circle, fingers tucked in his armpits, elbows out and flapping. “Gordie is a chicken. Gordie is a chicken.”

Heat filled my face, shame filled my heart. “Am not.”

“Are too.”

autumn-351489_1920I started down, one foot on the branch beneath me, both arms holding the one I had been sitting on.

“Chickens don’t jump,” he yelled.

I tried not to listen, but he was right. It took all my courage to climb that high in the first place—heights and I never got along, but I had been afraid Ronald would pick on me, or maybe even beat me up if I didn’t climb the tree. He was mean like that. 

Looking down, my head swooned. I thought I would fall, strike a few limbs on the way down and break my head open. My heart fluttered and my stomach rolled. I grabbed a branch with one hand and wrapped my other arm around it.

“I’m not a chicken,” I yelled back, my voice shaky. “I’m just scared.”

“You’re a big, fat chicken,” Ronald yelled back as I lowered myself to the bottom limb. I was about to lower myself further so I could sit on it and drop to the ground from there. Still, breaking an ankle was possible even from only about six feet up. 

Then the ground shifted beneath him. It was like the earth moved under his feet. His eyes grew wide and he looked down. The grass parted and the ground opened up, sucking Ronald in to just below the knees. The ground closed just as quickly, like a teeth biting down on a piece of meat.

Ronald screamed.  

I screamed. 

From where I was in the tree it looked like Ronald had been pulled into the ground by some invisible mouth. I scampered back up the tree, one branch, a second one, third and fourth, until I was back up as high as I had ever been, gawking down as the ground ate Ronald.  By then, he was thigh deep in the shifting dirt and trying to grab a hold of anything to pull himself up.

“Gordie, help me!”

Too terrified to move, I could only watch. Blood appeared in the sand around his thighs and spread outward.

“Gordie, help me, please!”

Waist deep, Ronald reached out as far as he could, clawed at the ground. His hand sunk into the earth, followed by his arm up to his elbow. I climbed higher into the tree, height and I no longer bitter enemies. I closed my eyes and clutched tight to the tree with both arms as I stood on a branch I hoped would hold me.

Ronald’s screams echoed in my ears for several seconds. Then he went silent. I glanced down. Ronald was gone. A moment later, the ground burped. It’s the only thing that makes sense—an earthly burp. One of Ronald’s shoes popped up from the dirt and grass, the shoelace still knotted, a bloody sock lying limp inside it.

Now I sit high in this tree, the ground beneath me; Ronald’s shoe and sock taunting me. I know if I jump down and try to run, the earth will get me too, maybe not as quickly as it ate Ronald—it’s had a dog and two squirrels since then. Occasionally, it burps, the ground shakes and a bone or some fur pop out of the dirt. Then it settles down and waits.

I think I’ll stay here a while. Maybe the ground will go to sleep. Maybe I really am a chicken.

__________

Back in 2010 there was an anthology titled, The Elements of Horror. As the title suggest, all the stories had to be based on an element: Earth, air, fire, water and space. When I saw the call for submissions, I wanted to write a story based on each element. I thought it was plausible seeing how the word count was under 750 words per story. I ended up writing four pieces with the only element missing being space. Two of those pieces were published in the anthology, Eating Dirt being one of them.

I’ve since rewritten a couple of the stories, including the one you read here today. It’s short and simple and I hope you enjoyed Eating Dirt. Also, please comment on the post, like and share it to social media for me. I thank you from the top of my heart.

AJB

Everything I Am (Free Fiction)

Everything I Am

By A. J. Brown

“What can I give you that you don’t already have?” William asked. He stood in the white glow of a streetlamp. His body cast a black shadow at his feet that copied his arms out in frustration gesture. 

She stood in the darkness, outside the circle surrounding him. “Your heart,” she whispered, her voice a soft breeze in his ears. 

“My heart?”

“It’s all I ask.”

“It’s everything I am.”

“Then I want everything you are.”

His shoulders slumped. The shoulders of the shadow at his feet does the same thing. “Someone else already has it.”

“Yes,” she said, “The one who left you?”

William looked down at the shadow trailing from his feet. He nodded as tears slipped from his eyes. Then he turned and walked away. A moment later, the streetlamp winked out.

***

“Love is a treacherous thing,” William said into the empty glass in front of him. A scrim of froth clung to the bottom of it.

“What are you on about?” the bartender asked. He took the glass and replaced it with a full one.

William looked at the older man. He had a bald head, and gray hair in his ears. A dirty dishrag was slung over his shoulder. His white shirt had a stain just below the left breast pocket. It could have been ketchup from a burger eaten years earlier. It could have been blood.

“Love,” William said. “That’s what I’m on about.”

“A sticky subject there,” the old man said. He pulled the towel from his shoulder and wiped the bar between them.

“I guess so.”

“Broken hearted tonight?”

broken-154196_1280William shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Your girl leave you?”

William took a deep breath. Tears formed in his eyes. He swallowed the knot in his throat. “No. I mean, yes.”

The bartender slipped the dishrag onto his shoulder and put his hands on his wide hips. “Did she or didn’t she?”

William licked his lips, then wiped them. “It’s been months since she left.”

The bartender nodded. William picked up the glass and took several deep swallows. It was cold, but not refreshing.

“You need to move on, Mister,” the bartender said. “You only have one shot at this life. Mourning the loss of a relationship will only bring you down. Find another person to give your heart to.”

William laughed, a sound with no joy in it. “That’s the sad thing about all this.”

“What’s that?”

“I did find someone else.”

The old man smiled, showing he was missing one of his lower front teeth. “Then why are you here, drowning yourself in booze and not out with her?”

William ran a finger along the top of the glass several times before answering. “She wants my heart.”

“Everyone wants someone’s heart.”

“You ever give your heart away?” William asked, his finger still running the edge of the glass. 

“Once or twice, I reckon.”

“How’d it work out for you?”

The bartender shrugged, a simple up and down of the shoulders. “The first time, not so well. The second, well, we’re still together, so I guess that one turned out okay.”

“Second time was a charm?”

“You could say that.”

“I should probably leave now and go find her—the second woman, not the first—and give her what she wants?”

“What do you have to lose?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then, what are you waiting for? Give it to her. It’s not like it will kill you to do so.”

William stood and placed a ten on the bar. “Thanks for the ear, man.”

***

William heard her calling even before he made it to Itsover Lane. 

William, why won’t you come to me?

Her voice was haunting and hypnotizing, and was that desire he heard? He wasn’t sure—he hadn’t heard that tone from a woman in what felt like years. Still, he listened to the pull of her voice, to the seductive promise in it.

We can be together, forever, William. Just give me your heart.

William stepped into the road. Just as he did, the streetlamp came on, lighting up the spot where he stood. His shadow appeared at his feet.

“I’m here,” he said, a quiver in his voice.

You came back.

He nodded. 

Are you going to give me your heart, William?

“Yes,” he said and slipped the gun from his waistband. 

Just take my hand and I’ll take care of the rest, she whispered and stepped from the shadows. She wore a black robe with a hood that concealed her face. She stretched out a thin hand.

Tears fell from William’s eyes. His chest was heavy, and he was suddenly very tired. 

Do you give me your heart, William?

“Yes,” he said and took her hand. As he did so, he saw the blade in her hand … 

… and the gun went off.

A moment later, the streetlamp winked out.

________

So often my stories come from singular thoughts I have. In this case, an image of a man with his head down and tears in his eyes popped into my head. It was a black and white picture in my mind. He stood in a white circle, his shadow hooked to his heels. All around him the world was black. Reaching from the darkness was a thin female hand. It was like a comic strip image. Above his head was a thought bubble that simply read, What do you want from me? Another thought bubble appeared, and it read, Everything.

My brain spoke up with a question of its own. What is everything? Well, his heart, his love … his life. 

I sat and wrote Everything I Am that night. After I finished writing it, I realized the story wasn’t so much about love, but about desperation. So often love makes us do desperate things, things we wouldn’t normally do. In the case of William, there wasn’t another woman. He was still heartbroken because of the one who had left him. The other ‘woman’ who lurked in the shadows and had a thin, white hand and a black robe was the only way he believed he could get out of the depression and heartbreak: death. 

It’s a painful story. It’s a painful reminder of the power of love, and the ruin it can bring if things end in something other than happily ever after. 

I hope you enjoyed Everything I Am. If you did, please like the post and leave a comment letting me know you liked it. Also, please share this to your social media pages and help me get my stories out to other readers. Thank you for reading.

A.J.

Skipping Stones (Free Fiction)

Skipping Stones

A.J. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Try again.”

The second rock sank as well.

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

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

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

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

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

“Bulls eye,” Remy cheered.

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

“Do you want to try again?” 

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

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

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

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

__________

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Courage (Free Fiction)

Courage

A.J. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about Patrick?

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

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

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

But Patrick is little and … and …

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

“There’s nothing I can do.”

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

Defected. 

Pigeon toed.

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

Can’t someone help him?

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

“But … but …”

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

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

“Okay. Okay.”

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

Another breath.

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

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

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

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

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

“Please what!?” Marty yelled.

“Please.”

“Please what?!” Another slap came. 

“Please.”

“Please what?” Marty yelled again.

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

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

“Please,” Patrick said.

“Please what!?” Marty raised his fist.

“Please stop!” Carrie yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you understand?”

Marty shook his head slowly. 

“Let’s go, Patrick,” Carrie said. 

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

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

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

Like her mom, Patrick no longer looked scared.

__________

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

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

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.”

Free Fiction Friday–Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage

(The family and I took a trip one spring break to St. Augustine, Florida. It was a fun trip—at least I think it was. I don’t know what the kids thought. They might have a different definition of fun. You would have to ask them to find out if they enjoyed themselves or not.

We took I-26 toward Charleston and then I-95 toward Savannah, Georgia. I-95 took as all the way to St. Augustine. Shortly after we crossed into Florida, Cate saw a man sitting in a lawn chair by the interstate. He had a drink in one hand and seemed to be staring off at nothing. She pointed the man out to me.

Over the next few minutes, I jotted down a few notes, mostly about the man’s appearance. Then I wrote the word ‘Why?’ Why was he there? Why was he sitting in a lawn chair with a drink in his hand? What was he staring at? Well, he’s staring at ghosts,A.J., my mind chirped. Of course, he was. Over the course of the next couple of days I wrote Rite of Passage, mostly at night when everyone was going to bed in the hotel we stayed at.

Some stories you just fall in love with. For me, this is one of them. The reality for Jake Eberly is he was not long for this world and he knew the parade of ghosts was an omen of death, in this case, his own. He faced his mortality and he was ready to move on, to join the rag tag band of journey folk. But not before letting his grandson see the rite of passage.)

____________________

The truck slowed almost a full two hundred yards before it needed to. Jake Eberly held the steering wheel tight, his old hands hurting, the knuckles white. They would be sore later. His arthritis would flair up worse than it ever had. He licked his lips and his breath hitched. Jake swallowed dryness. He pulled off the road, coasted to a stop, and killed the motor.

“Grandpa, why are we stopping?”

Jake looked to the passenger’s side where his oldest grandchild, Camden, sat. He wasn’t an Eberly like him, not in name at least. His mother was Jake’s only child. She married a Hartnett. The bloodline might carry on, but in time it will be nothing more than an infinitesimal amount and the Eberly name will be no more. 

Staring up at him was a good looking kid. Hazel eyes stood out against his creamy white skin; his hair blond and his lips very much like his mother’s. At ten, he was older than Jake was when he was brought here, to the place he now parked.

“We’re here,” he said.

“Where?”

Jake looked out the windshield, then out both side windows. “Here. Now, help me get the chairs out the back.”

Jake opened the door as a semi went by and rocked the truck on its tires. He got out and held back a grimace as the raw pain of Cancer punched him in the gut. He didn’t think he had much time left. Maybe the end of the day. Maybe tomorrow. He was weak and tired and the pain that stabbed at his stomach constantly made him want to throw up. After today, after getting the boy home, he thought he might just lie down one last time and never get up. He looked over at Camden. “Come out this side, Son.”

Camden scooted across the seat, slid from it and closed the door behind him. They went to the back of the truck. Jake put the tailgate down. 

“Grab those, Camden,” he said and pointed at two folded lawn chairs. “I’ll get the table and the cooler.”

The table was nothing more than a square fold up card table, one that had sat in the basement of the old house on South Street since he, himself, was a young boy. Camden grabbed the two lawn chairs, one in each hand, and Jake grabbed the table. 

“Come,” Jake said and went to the front of the truck, his legs weak, and his insides being gnawed at by a disease only death would cure. He set up the card table, pushing down on it to make sure it wouldn’t topple over. With a nod of satisfaction, he looked to Camden. “Let me have one of those, if you don’t mind.”

Camden dropped one on the ground and unfolded the other. He set it down in front of his grandfather. Jake saw pride in his eyes. He couldn’t help but smile. The young boy set the other chair on the opposite side of the table, and then went back to the truck. A minute later he returned with a beat up red and white IGLOO cooler. He set it on the table. 

“Have a seat, young man,” Jake said, reached into the cooler and pulled out two sodas. He handed one to Camden, set the other on the table, then placed the cooler on the ground beneath it. He picked his soda up and sat down. His legs seemed to sigh in relief, but the biting in his stomach continued. He popped the top and took a long swig, letting the carbonated water both burn and chill his throat on the way down. 

“What are we doing, Grandpa?”

The kid looked at him with the curiosity of any young child, something he gathered most kids had at that age, one he certainly had. “We’re sitting down, having a drink.”

“Is that it?”

Jake gave a small smile. He understood impatience quite well. “We’ll probably talk some, but mostly, we’ll wait.”

“Wait for what?”

Another smile was followed by Jake taking a swallow of his soda. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “You’ll know it when you see it.”

Camden shook his head. There was no smile on his face, but more of a disappointed frown. He picked up his soda, popped the top and drank from it. 

They sat in silence, grandfather and grandson, both in their own world of thoughts, both probably seeing things far differently than the other. Though Jake didn’t know what Camden was thinking, he had a good idea. He, too, had sat on the other side of the card table between them, when he was only eight. His grandfather, known to him as Gramps, had brought him here in his old Ford back in 1952. ‘We’re going for a ride,’ he had said, and that is what they did. They stopped on the side of the road, back before it became I-95. It was just another road back then, and only two lanes at that. There were more woodlands and less traffic. Sitting by the road with a jug of water between young Jake Eberly and Gramps was as boring as watching paint dry. He would have rather done the painting than sit and do nothing. He told Gramps as much. Gramps gave him a nod, placed his yellowing ivory pipe between his lips and puffed on it. Gramps was patient with him then, just as Jake would be patient with Camden now.

GHOSTSLike Gramps before him, Jake stared off across the busy roadway and spoke words he remembered as if he had just heard them. “I reckon this isn’t much fun.”

“No, Sir, it isn’t.”

“It wasn’t much fun when my grandpa brought me here either.”

Camden looked at him with his big hazel eyes. He was his momma’s boy for certain. “Then why are we here?”

“It’s a rite of passage, Cam,” Jake said.

“A rite of passage?”

“Yup.”

“What is that?”

Jake smiled again. It was a good question, one he didn’t think to ask when his time had come to be here. Even so, he knew the answer.

“My grandfather brought me here when I was a kid. His grandfather brought him before that and his grandfather did the same before that.” He took a deep breath. The explanation, he believed, only got harder from here. “A rite of passage is like a point in someone’s life, much like graduating high school or getting married. They’re important moments in life. Like birth. And death. This … this is one of those moments.”
“Sitting by the road drinking pop?”

Jake laughed at this, then took another swallow of his soda. He smacked his lips, said nothing and stared straight ahead. Cars, trucks, an occasional motorcycle and quite a few semis sped by, most of them doing well over eighty. Occasionally, Camden would let out an exasperated huff that Jake ignored.

“Grandpa, can we go?”

“Not yet, Camden.”

“I’m bored.”

“I’m sure you are, but …”

“I want to go,” Camden said firmly. His brows were creased downward, just as his lips were. His eyes held an angry storm in them. He stood and started for the truck. 

“It’s not time to go, yet.”

Camden turned around. His drink was still in one hand, but some of it had sloshed out of the can. “I don’t care, Grandpa. This is dumb. I could be at home, watching tv or playing video games, or I don’t know, doing anything but sitting here bored out of my mind, watching cars go by.”

“Camden, sit back down.”

“No. I want to go home. I thought we were going to do something fun, or just do something. We’re sitting here, doing nothing.”

“We’re slowing down, son,” Jake said. “We’re smelling the roses, so to speak.”

“The only thing I smell is smoke from the trucks going by. If I would have known this is what we were going to do, I wouldn’t have come.”

Jake set his drink on the table. With quite a bit of effort, he stood, even as his insides burned and grumbled. His shoulders slumped. Children weren’t what they were when he was a kid. They were more impatient and intolerant of things. They were less respectful and more argumentative. As he looked at his grandson, Jake realized something he hadn’t before. Maybe it isn’t the kids who are different. Maybe it is the adults who changed. He gave a simple nod. Yes, that’s it, he thought. And he, like so many others, had changed. 

“Okay, Cam …”

Then, as if time knew it was running out, across the road Jake saw what he came to see.

“There,” he all but shouted and pointed.

“What? Where?” Camden asked. “I don’t …”

Then they both grew quiet. The world around Jake Eberly didn’t matter at that moment. The rot in his gut that had grown worse over the last few months was nonexistent. His smile, something that had been forced a lot over the last year or so, was as real as it had ever been. 

“Grandpa …”

“It’s okay, Camden. Just watch.”

And they did.

From out of the woods came a young man. He wore a white button-down shirt and black pants held up by suspenders. His hair was brown, long and pulled back in a neat ponytail. He held one arm up above his head and slightly out in front of him. In his hand was a lit lantern that gave off no light at all. A rag tag processional of people followed, dressed in clothes Jake thought Camden had never seen outside of a movie, and maybe not even then. The women wore long dresses, and most of them had their hair up in some manner of a bun. The few children wore long pants, mostly browns and blacks, and button-down shirts tucked neatly into their waist bands. Some of the men wore long pants and long shirts; some of them carried muskets and wore floppy hats. 

“Grandpa, who are those people?”

“They are who we’ve been waiting on.”

“There’s something wrong with them.”

“What is that?”

“I don’t know, but …” Camden’s voice changed, as did the direction of his words. “Are they going to cross the street?” There was alarm in his words.

“They most certainly are, Camden.”

“But they’ll get hit by a car.” His voice rose with each word. 

“Just watch.”

The ghostly procession neared the interstate. 

“Hey!” Camden yelled. He stood beside the card table and waved one hand frantically, trying to get their attention. “Hey! Stop! Don’t cross the street!” 

The people neither looked left or right before the man with the lantern stepped off the grass and onto the shoulder and then into the road. 

Camden screamed as a semi rumbled by, going through the young man in the lead. Jake looked down at him to see his hands over his eyes and his back turned to the dead coming toward them. 

“It’s okay, Cam,” he said. 

“No! It’s not. That truck just hit that guy and …”

“It didn’t hit him,” Jake interrupted. 

“Yes, it did. I saw it.”

“You saw the truck go through him.”

“It hit him and …” His shoulders shook, and Jake heard the tears in his voice.

“No, Camden. The truck went through him. Cars can’t hit ghosts.”

“Ghosts?” 

“Yes. Ghosts.”

By the time Camden looked back up, the young man leading the parade of dead had made it to the center of I-95. From that distance, Jake could see his face was ashen and his sockets were sunk in. He looked more like a corpse than a ghost. When he looked back at Camden, the young boy’s eyes were wider than he had ever seen them. Jake didn’t think he was scared, but maybe awestruck by what he saw.

“Are they really ghosts?” Camden asked, his voice dreamy, as if he had just awoken from a long nap. 

“Oh yes. They are the ghosts of your ancestors.”

“My ancestors?”

“Your family—all the members of the Eberly clan who have died are right there.”

The young man was now halfway across the lane closest to them. His hair was dark, and his bottom lip hung open. His eyes were distant, as if he didn’t see them. Several vehicles went through him as they went along their way to wherever they were going. The drivers didn’t seem to notice the ghosts as they sped by. 

Jake looked at his grandson. His eyes were still wide, and his mouth worked up and down as if he were trying to say something but couldn’t find the words. He looked like he wanted to run away. The hand holding the soda can shook badly. His breath came in sharp, terrified bursts. His shoulders still shook, and his cheeks were wet from the burst of tears a few seconds earlier.

“It’s okay, Camden. They won’t hurt you.”

“Are you sure?” His voice quivered.

“I’m as sure as you’re standing there right now.”

“Grandpa …”

Jake sidled over next to him, put one arm around him and rested the hand on his shoulder. Camden wrapped both arms around his grandfather’s waist and buried his face in his side.

“No, Camden. Don’t look away. You may never get to see this again, and if you do, it won’t be for a long time.”

He felt the boy’s face shift from in his side to toward the road, but the kid’s arms still latched tight around him. By then, the leader was in front of them. Jake pulled Camden to the side and let the procession of spirits pass by and through the card table. One by one, men, women and children walked by, their eyes forward, never slowing for the last of the Eberly’s and his grandson. 

As the final ghost made his way across the busy interstate, the strings on Jake’s heart gave a tug. With cane in hand, his grandfather made their way toward them. Hanging from his mouth was the old ivory pipe he used to smoke. Jake remembered his mother asking if anyone had seen it after Gramps died. No one had—and no one ever did after the day Jake and Gramps visited the side of the road.

Tears formed in Jake’s eyes as he recalled being here as a kid and not knowing that would be the last time he saw his grandfather alive. The next time Jake saw Gramps, the old man lay in a coffin in the foyer of the church his grandparents attended. If he would have known then what he knew now, he would have hugged his grandfather tighter that last time; he wouldn’t have complained about watching paint dry; he would have made sure to say, ‘I love you,’ even if it wasn’t the cool thing to do. 

“Gramps,” he said as the elder Eberly reached them. Like the others, he didn’t stop. Unlike the others, he turned his head just enough to look at Jake. 

Not much longer, Jake, he whispered. He puffed on the old pipe, nodded and continued through the table and into the trees behind them. 

Jake didn’t know how long he stared into the woods after the dead were gone, but it was Camden who pulled him free of the trance he had been in. 

“Grandpa, are you okay?”

Jake took a deep breath and let it out. His chest shuddered and the pain in his stomach had come back. He fought the urge to double over and grab his midsection. He nodded and said, “Yes, Camden, I’m okay.”

“You’re crying.”

Jake wiped his eyes and then his nose. “Sometimes it’s okay for a man to cry.”

“Like now?”

“Yes, like now.”

He took one last glance at the trees. The remnants of the dead were gone, but he knew that wouldn’t be the case forever. They would be back. And so would he, most likely on the other side of the road. He rubbed Camden’s head. “Let’s get you home,” he said. 

Camden grabbed the cooler and made his way to the back of the vehicle. Jake reached down for the soda he had been drinking. The can held icicles all around it. He picked it up, felt the freezing cold on his fingertips. He squeezed the can. It was hard like ice. He set the can on the ground by the road and folded up the card table. By the time he was finished, Camden was back and closing the chairs. 

With everything in the bed of the truck, they got in, both doing so from the driver’s side. Jake turned the key and the motor rolled over, caught and rumbled to life. He put it in gear, looked in the side mirror and eased onto the interstate. He glanced in the rearview mirror at the can he had left behind. It didn’t matter that it would be gone when he came back. Like all the grandfathers before him, he left a little piece of himself behind, a little piece of familiarity so when Camden came to watch the parade of ghosts in the later stages of his life, he would remember the day he came here as a young child. 

Jake Eberly took the first exit, circled back across the overpass and entered the interstate going in the opposite direction they had come. He didn’t look to the side of the road when they passed. With a tearing pain in his gut, he drove, hoping he would get the boy home before the pain grew too intense. 

“Grandpa?”

“Yes, Camden?”

“Was that your grandfather—the one who spoke to you?”

Jake licked his lips, nodded and said, “It was my Gramps.”

“What did he mean by not much longer?”

Jake let out a long breath. “You’ll understand soon enough. Let’s just leave it at that, okay?”

Camden didn’t respond. He just turned his attention to the world passing outside the truck. 

At Camden’s house, he let the young boy out and talked with his mother for a minute or two. They exchanged their goodbyes. When he started to get into the truck, Camden went to him. He put his arms around Jake’s midsection and squeezed. It was everything Jake could do not to grimace and let out a groan from the pain. 

“I love you, Grandpa.”

“I love you, too, Camden.”

The boy held on for a few more seconds, then let him go. When he looked down at Camden, there were tears in his eyes. 

“It will be all right, Camden,” Jake said and patted him on the shoulder. 

“I’ll come see you.” He wiped his eyes. “I’ll come see you.”

“I know you will,” Jake said, and then his grandson, with Eberly blood running through his veins, but not carrying the same name, stepped back. 

Jake got in the truck and smiled. A minute later he drove off. In the rearview mirror he saw the boy waving. He stuck his hand out the window and returned the wave. The boy held his soda can in the other hand.

(Rite of Passage appears in the mammoth collection, Beautiful Minds, which you can find HERE.)