Mickie’s Stars

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

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

A.J. 

MICKIE’S STARS

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

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

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

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

“Now get out of my sight.”

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

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

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

“Are you afraid?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not?”

She shook her head.

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

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

Mickie nodded. “Is that your mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My name is Allison.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s the reason?”

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

“Unique?”

“Different. Not like anybody else.”

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

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

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

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

“How deep do you want it?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“He got mad about that?”

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

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

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

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

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

“Mickie, your stars are glowing.”

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

“Why?”

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

She got up and walked over to Momma.

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

“Can I go get my doll box?”

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do as I said,” his mother snapped.

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

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

“That sucks,” Mickie said.

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

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

“Whatever.”

“Here,” Mickie offered up the stick figure.

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

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

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

“It’s yours. I made it for you.”

“You don’t even know me, you freak.”

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

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

She took the doll back and started away.

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

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

With no hesitation, “Break his arm.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

“You just can’t.”

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

“Feel better?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

“Here’s your flip-flop,” Mickie said.

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

“It’s my doll box.”

“Doll box?”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

“Can I help?” Allison asked.

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

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

“Not too long—this stuff dries fast.”

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

“Your stars are shining,” Allison said.

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

Allison scrunched up her nose. “Why him?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Just because.”

“You sound like Mommy.”

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

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

“Allison!”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, sir, I—”

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

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

“Are you listening to me?” he yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Impressive act,” he said and walked away.

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

“Nothing,” she responded.

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

“I can’t.”

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

“Because I’m not afraid of him.”

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

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

Momma shook her head. “Let’s go.”

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

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

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

Southern Bones

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

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Courage (Free Fiction)

Beneath the Sycamore Tree

A.J. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the single greatest moment of my life.

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

Cassie—my Cassie—was gone forever.

So, I thought.

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

I love you, too, Joshua Turner.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t leave.

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

“Who’s there?” My voice cracked.

Don’t leave me, Joshua.

My bladder felt heavy. “Cassie?”

Joshua.

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

I don’t know. I’m scared, Joshua.

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

“Cassie, can you see me?”

Yes. Can you see me?

“No.”

Silence followed.

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

“Cassie,” I hesitated. “You’re dead.”

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

“Cassie?”

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

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

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

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

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

No.

“I’m going to find out.”

How?

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

I found out by accident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cassie?”

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

Joshua?

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

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

My heart lifted.

“Cassie?”

You came back.

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

I’ve missed you, Joshua.

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

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

You do?

“Yes—and its time he got punished.”

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

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

“What’s all this about, Mister …?”

“There’s a bum inside my house.”

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

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

“When was the last time anyone lived here?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I reckon not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Where?”

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

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

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

“Recognize her?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!

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

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

Somehow, love did protect me.

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

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

That was nearly four years ago.

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

__________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“D’yah know where he’s at?”

Cassidy shrugged her bony shoulders.

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

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When Pop gets home. Whatever.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, is he, little retard girl?”

“No,” Cassidy said.

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

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

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

“That would have been Sunday.”

Cassidy nodded. “Then Sunday it was.”

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

“I didn’t say that.”

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

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

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

“Does it matter?”

“Why wouldn’t it matter?”

“Why would it?”

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

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

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

“What?”

“You wanna visit my graveyard?”

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

“Bye.”

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

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

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

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

“Okay. Okay.”

Cassidy opened the door.  

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

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

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

“You wanna visit my graveyard?”

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

Cassidy stood silent, unblinking as Maggie Sue ranted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow and Steady Gets the Book Published

I’m sure we’ve all heard the story of The Tortoise and the Hare. You know the story I’m talking about. If not, let me give you the Brown Notes version:

There was this rabbit, you see. And this rabbit was really, really fast. He was also somewhat of a braggart. You know the type, right? Those who think they are the best at everything and have no problem letting you know. Well this rabbit, he decided to pick on the tortoise.

Before we go much further, let’s give these two animals names. We’re going to name the rabbit Dennis. Why? There was this fellow I knew when I was growing up who liked to brag about all the things he could do, and Dennis was his name. For the tortoise, we’re just going to name him George. No reason. I just like the name. (I guess that’s a reason, eh?) Is that okay with you all?

Dennis constantly bragged to the tortoise about how fast he was and that no one–and Dennis meant NO ONE–could beat him in a race. But there’s more. You see, Dennis didn’t just brag to George about how great he was, he went so far as to put down George for being so slow of foot.

Now George was a kindly sort and he just shrugged off a lot of Dennis’s antics. But even George had his limits, and one day he grew tired of Dennis’s constant yip-yapping about The Great Hare Who Can’t Be Beaten.

“Dennis, even a great creature such as yourself can lose a race,” George said in his slow southern drawl–yeah, I imagine George to be a southerner, a country boy to the end.

“By who?” Dennis asked in jest.

“Well, by me.”

Whether or not George was bluffing Dennis will never be known because Dennis laughed out loud while holding his furry belly. I bet he went so far as to falling on the ground, and rolling about as tears streamed down his furry face. “You? You? Beat me? Well, why don’t you just try?”

George gave a nod and said, “Okay, Dennis. Tomorrow morning we’ll race from here to yonder (yonder being over there a hundred yards or so away where the apple trees were ripe with fruit) and I’m going to win.”

The very next morning they set out to race. All the other animals sat along the race route in their fold out chairs or on their pic-nic blankets. The kids ran around playing tag or Duck, Duck, Goose (a game the ducks and geese didn’t care much for). They had the media there, most of which were mocking birds, with their microphones and cameras, reporting on the big race. Odds were laid out by the bookies–hyenas with not much to laugh about except for the handful of animals who wagered the tortoise would win.

Then the race started. There was a pretty little cat named Sasha at the starting line in her cut off shorts and a T-shirt waving a green fig leaf flag, signaling for the competitors to take off.

And they kind of, maybe, sort of just stood there. George took a step and then another and another and had moved all of half an inch. Dennis, he didn’t move at all. He just looked at his watch and yawned and said, ‘You go right on ahead and get started. I’m going to take a nap.”

And that’s just what Dennis did. He found him a cozy little spot in the sun on the grass and fell right asleep.

George continued taking his slow steps and travelling not much more than a couple feet an hour.

When Dennis woke, he noticed George was only a few yards away, so he decided to run down to the all you can eat buffet and grab him some breakfast. He ate until his belly was full and his eyelids where heavy. Then he mosied on down to the start line again to see George wasn’t even halfway through the race. Dennis, being full and content from the buffet, decided to take himself another nap, and when he was done, he would jog to the finish line and be there in time for dinner and a midnight snack before George arrived.

That nap ran long and by the time old Dennis woke, George was almost to the finish line.

“Oh my,” Dennis said (well, he probably said something else that rhymed with duck or pit or ram, but that’s not really appropriate for this blog) and he took off running.

But it was too late. You see, George crossed the finish line by a hair in front of, well, the hare.

It’s been said George uttered the words, “Slow and steady wins the race,” when interviewed by the mocking birds later on.

You may be asking yourself, ‘why did he just tell us this story?’

I’m glad you asked.

I wrote a novel back in 2008, titled Cory’s Way. I’ve been working on it off and on ever since. Why so long? Well, I had the computer crash of 2013 that wiped out the edits I had completed. Then there were other projects I have worked on. Then there was the issue of confidence. I had never put a book out until January, 2012, and that was a short story collection. Put out a novel? How daunting. Then there was all the work–did I really want to put so much work into one story? Honestly, I didn’t.

Now, here we are, and for the last ten months I have worked on Cory’s Way, editing, rewriting, searching for cover art, trying to figure out a marketing strategy, talking to folks on how to do stuff I didn’t know how to do (and I’m still not so sure I know how to do some of them), having the cover created, editing some more, finding proofers, letting an agent read the story, building confidence and a bunch of other stuff. The release of Cory’s Way is getting closer and closer. However, personal goals for putting it out have came and went. I wanted to release it in July–on my birthday, to be specific. That didn’t happen. Then I shot for Cate’s birthday, which is in the middle of August. Yeah, you can guess that didn’t happen either. Now, I’m looking at a mid-November release, and, well, I’m not sure that is going to happen either.

But why? Why not in November?

Simple: it’s not ready.

The cover art has been created. The cover itself is done. The story has been edited eight times and proofed twice. Three separate rewrites have taken place. The forward has been written. The author’s notes and acknowledgments have been written. The bonus story at the end of the novel has been edited, rewritten, edited again. The book blurb has been written. The bio is done–but that may change before all is said and done. The entire book is completely put together. Formatting still needs to be done, and ARCs need to be sent out. And a release date–a concrete one–needs to be set.

With all of that done, why is Cory’s Way still possibly not coming out in November as planned?

Because, slow and steady wins the race, and I’m not sure the book is ready.

I can hear some of my friends whispering or even yelling, ‘If you keep going over it, then you will never put it out.’

I’ve heard that a few times, not with Cory’s Way, but with Southern Bones. It took me nine months to prepare Southern Bones, for publication, and another couple months before I was comfortable enough to put it out. But I eventually put it out. I eventually felt it was ready.

Here’s the thing: I know a few writers who are like Dennis. They are so ready to get their work out there that they rush through things and put it out, even though the books were not ready. Then they wonder why people are blasting the books or why they aren’t selling more. ‘It’s the greatest novel ever written,’ after all. They were in a hurry and that was reflected in the product.

I’m not one of those writers. I want Cory’s Way to be the best it can be. So what does that mean? That probably means I’ll read through it one last time. That probably means when I am done formatting it, I will probably go over every single thing to make sure it is right. I’ll probably go through every digital page, checking and making sure that all italics are there, that the fonts are the right size (and the right type). I want it to be right. Why? Well, first off, I want to put out a professional quality novel, but I also want the readers to be submersed in the story and have nothing taking them away from it–at least nothing I can control. I want the experience for the readers to be an enjoyable one. Because if its not, then the chances of the readers coming back and reading other works I have written, are going to be slim to none.

Slow and steady, folks. Slow and steady. I promise, I’m not like Dennis, but more like George, and in the end, I think the extra time spent on getting things right will make Cory’s Way that much better. And isn’t that what you want?

While I have you here, why don’t I give you the blurb for Cory’s Way? Here it is:

After his father leaves in the middle of the night, Cory Maddox and his mom, Gina, are forced to start over. Left alone while Gina tries to work her way out of debt, Cory deals with life as the new kid in school. Fleeing from the school bullies, Cory ends up under an overpass where an old homeless man lives. After being saved from the bullies, Cory and the homeless man, Mr. Washington, become friends.

But things don’t get easier for Cory. Children are disappearing from around the state, and the bullies haven’t forgotten his escape the first time they went after him. And there is something wrong with Mr. Washington…something horribly wrong.

Accompanied by his only two friends and the unlikeliest of allies, Cory sets out to keep a promise to the ailing homeless man. Will Cory and his friends find a way to keep the promise, or will the journey prove too difficult for them?

Intrigued? I hope so.

As always, thank you for reading. Until we meet again, my friends…

And here’s a sneak peek at the cover:

CorysWayFullCover

 

 

 

The Goings On ‘Round Here

Faithful Readers,

I’ve been a busy boy, folks.

Since my last post, The Ever Changing Momentum, back in June—yeah, that long ago—a lot has happened.

Let me see if I can recite this as short and as concise as possible.

I finished up the edits on Cory’s Way, my novel. It now sits in the hands of the proofreader. Troy Rider, the artist who provided the cover art for Southern Bones, is currently working on the image for Cory’s Way. I’ve seen the framework for it. Yes, I’m excited. The talented Paula Ray wrote the introduction and I couldn’t be happier with it. It’s getting closer to being complete.

Okay, before you ask who is publishing Cory’s Way, let me go ahead and say, I am.

What?

You idiot. You’re not serious are you?

Yes. Yes, I’m serious.

I see it like this: No one cares about my writing the way I do. No one. I probably take longer to put these things out than a publisher would. I go over my work multiple times and even then I go over it again. I’m extremely hard on myself. Not that a publisher wouldn’t be—they probably would—but I know what I want to do.

I know a publisher has more resources. And I bet a few of you are thinking I’m taking the easy way out. Ummm…no. Doing this by myself is far from easy. I’ve had a book put out through a publisher (Along the Splintered Path). It was much easier to do it that way. I’ve also put out a book on my own. It took me almost a year to put out Southern Bones once I started working on it.

A year? Yes, a year.

That’s nothing. I’ve been working on Cory’s Way since 2008. It’s been a long journey.

I hope you all will pick up a copy when it’s released. I think it’s a good book, but then again, I was the story’s first reader (as Stephen King puts it) and I so enjoyed it.

Before Cory’s Way sees the light of day, my novella, The Forgetful Man’s Disease, will come out. It’s the story of Homer Grigsby, a man who outlived all of his friends and his wife; a man the ghosts of his past like to pay a visit to on occasion when the hard wiring in his brain begins to short out. And sometimes the ghosts know more than the living do.

Then there is The Brown Bag Stories.

What is that, you ask?

Why, it’s none other than a booklet I created to give away to people and coffee shops and libraries and anywhere else that will allow me to place them in their venues. Each booklet contains one short story, some of them previously published, while others have never been published. The booklets are really, really expensive.

How expensive?

They are absolutely FREE. That’s right. They are all of zero dollars and zero cents. I don’t know how anyone can afford them.

If you want a copy of the latest edition (or even the back issues) leave me a comment in the comments section or e-mail me at ajbrown36@bellsouth.net and I’ll get your home address and send them out to you. And, yes, the shipping is FREE.

Here’s the deal. Like Cory’s Way and The Forgetful Man’s Disease and Southern Bones, I’m doing the work. It’s not easy. It’s time consuming. It’s sometimes a headache. I do the formatting. I have the copies made and I do the folding and stapling as well. It’s not easy. It may be cliché, but it’s a labor of love, from me to you, Faithful Readers.

Last, but not least, I’m working on two novels right now. One of them is still untitled. The other is a piece titled, I’m Still Standing, it may be the most brutal and difficult thing I have ever written. In the end, it just may be the most satisfying story when all is said and done.

So, since the last post, the momentum has picked up. I’m excited. I hope you are, as well.

Before I go, I want to leave you with a touch of humor. I tell a lot of stories here about The Boy. He is a staple for comedy, being funny and not even realizing it. This time I want to tell you about something that happened recently at Target, and The Boy was not the star of the show this time. Yes, he was involved, but his sister stole the show.

We were in line to check out. In order, it was The Wife, The Girl, The Boy and The Me. The kids had their own money and were paying for their stuff. The Boy tried to cut in front of The Girl, the way kids would do.

The Girl: I was in front of you.
The Boy: No, you weren’t.
The Me: Yes, she was. Get back behind her.
The Boy: (Pokes his lip out and gets behind The Girl. He then pokes me in the stomach.)
The Me: Stop.
The Boy: (Giggles and pokes me in the stomach. Hey, this isn’t Facebook and I don’t like being poked)
The Me: Stop.
The Boy: (Giggles again and pokes me in the stomach, yet again.)
The Me: I’m going to thump you in the nose if you don’t stop.
The Boy: That won’t hurt.
The Me: Yes it will. It will make your nose bleed.
The Boy: So. I broke your nose…twice.
[SIDE NOTE: Yes, he broke my nose twice while we were playing. Long story.]
The Me: By accident.
The Girl: Yeah, that’s what you tell your friends.
The Family: LAUGHTER

Yes, she got the sarcastic gene.

Until we meet again, my friends…

The Zombie Run, Writing and Enthusiasm

Today, The Wife, The Boy, The Girl, and I went to the Columbia Zombie Run at the Columbia River Park. At first we were a little disappointed. There was no one running and there were no zombies chasing. We walked…and walked…and walked. Still no people running from the walking dead. We saw some folks dressed as zombies, but they were just strolling along. This was supposed to be a zombie run. I wanted to see the dead chasing the living, maybe even to the point of the zombies running like they did in Zombieland.

Well, we didn’t really get to see much of that in the three or so hours we were there. However, they did have a zombie makeover booth, and The Girl was zombiefied:

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The Girl made a pretty cool looking zombie. They could have done a little more to make her appear more realistic, but The Boy was having nothing to do with the peeling skin and dripping blood.

While we walked the route, hoping to see the dead roaming about, one of the zombies walked up and gave me a knuckle bump. Yeah, a knuckle bump. Then she and the two Zs they were with posed for a picture:

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This dude scared the crap out of The Boy:

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The best thing about this event was the zombies and the women doing the makeup. They were awesome and extremely nice. They explained all the makeup they were using and even gave The Girl all sorts of options as to how gruesome she wanted to be.

Oh, and there was a little girl there dressed up as a zombie Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. All in all, it was a day right up my alley.

On the way out we passed the vendor booth for Scratch N Spin, a local music/comic shop. There were plenty of Walking Dead books and memorabilia there. I stopped and the lady womanning the booth gave me a free copy of The Walking Dead comic, which was cool in and of itself. But then we started talking about comics and the local music scene. She mentioned Scratch N Spin and did her promotional thing, which is what she was supposed to do, right?

Here’s the thing about these little festival-type events: Sometimes you meet some neat folks, and sometimes those neat folks point you in a direction or offer some advice that makes you say, ‘I never thought of that.’ This lady, her name was Becka, mentioned her brother, Eric, the owner of Scratch N Spin, at one time had a small press. Though he was no longer in the business of publishing books, she said I should talk to him.

So I did.

The Wife and I went to Scratch N Spin and to meet him. Turns out Becka had mentioned us to him before we got there.

Eric and I had a discussion, and he gave me a few ideas, all of them things I can do that won’t break the bank. Things I never thought of. I left the Scratch N Spin with a renewed enthusiasm for this business we call writing. It is something that has been missing for a long, long while.

I’ve made notes tonight, based on the conversation we had. You see, Eric explained to me a fundamental truth: you have to really work your way up in your region before you can work your way up anywhere else. He said it’s like being in a band. Little known bands tend to tour their local bars, pubs, festivals and other venues they can find. They create a circuit, and for the most part, they play within that circuit, developing fans and a following. Then, as the following grows, they expand to other regions, basically building their name, their brand. It’s a lot of work, but consistency is the key. Being consistent in where they play and making sure they play well for the crowds that show up for their concerts/gigs.

Writers, bands, artists want to be recognized, and not just locally. We get stars in our eyes when we think that someone across the world might see, read or hear our work. Sometimes we forget to take care of our own backyard. We want the entire world before building credibility. And there, my friends, is another key to it all: credibility.

Think about your favorite author or band or television/movie star. Why do you like them? They entertained you in some way or other and they became credible in your mind. They earned that credibility and they earned your time, money and love. More than likely, though, it didn’t happen overnight. It took some time, some consistency.

It’s time to earn some credibility.

###

Okay, I’ve said before that I don’t like asking folks to sell my books for me. Still, I’m not going to do that. But if you’ve read one of my two books, would you mind leaving a review on Amazon? It would help me and I would greatly—did I say GREATLY?—appreciate it.

###

Words from my latest WIP:

They pulled onto the exit ramp and Cole brought the car to a stop at the sign. He turned right onto the two-lane road. There wasn’t much to see for about a mile. Just trees and grass and litter on the ground. Then they came to the store. It, like the road they traveled, wasn’t much to see. A white building with a white door. The parking lot was dirt and gravel, and the building itself was butted up against the trees. There was a beat-up gray Bondo bucket of a truck sitting out front.

In the reflection of the glass, Sheila could see Cole smiling. His eyes dazzled the way they used to back when… She shook her head and looked away.

Cole pulled up to the side of the store, bypassing the front. He parked, turned the engine off and started to get out. The door was open and one foot on the ground before he looked back to her. “You coming?”

This time she didn’t let her reflection do the looking. She turned to him, frowned and gave a quick shake of her head. “No.”

Cole swallowed hard, nodded, and then shrugged. He closed the door behind him, not gently, but with a hard slam. Sheila’s shoulders jumped. She watched as he walked away, his head down, not held high like it used to. In that moment, Sheila’s heart cracked a little.

###

I leave you now with the word of the day. It is from my son: Deliciosity. It means delicious. As in, “This pizza is so deliciosity.”

Yes, my son makes up words the way Mike Tyson does.

Thank you for reading, and until we meet again, my friends…

No Need To Say Thank You? Bah…

Occasionally, I get asked to play manager at work. Yeah, I know. Who would trust me to tell others what to do? On these occasions I usually get a lot of help from my coworkers. Most of the time they listen to me. I appreciate that. And I let them know.

I think it’s important to tell my coworkers ‘thank you’ when they do something I ask them to do, and then again after they have completed the task. I want them to know how much I appreciate their cooperation. It’s important.

Earlier this week one of the workers said to me, ‘Hey man, you don’t have to thank me for doing my job.’

He wasn’t being mean. He was just stating it is his job, it is what he gets paid to do, so no need to show my appreciation.

While I respect my coworker, I disagree.

Sure, I don’t have to say thank you, but it is always good to hear, always good to know that someone appreciates something you’ve done. Thank you can go a long way to getting help in the future. It shows respect and it gains respect as well.

Thank you is something that so many folks have forgotten how to say. It’s something we should say more often.

That doesn’t just go for work, though. That goes for at home and out in public when someone holds a door for you. It also goes for writers. We do appreciate when you, the readers, purchase our books, or tell us about whether or not you like our work or not, or when you spread the word to others, or leave reviews for us.

So, I say this to you readers: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Without you, well, who would we write for? Sure, we say we write for ourselves, and there is some truth to that, but in reality, we write to be read. If no one is reading, well, there is no need to write.

So, thank you.

For anyone who has read my series, Dredging Up Memories, thank you.

For anyone who has read Along the Splintered Path, thank you.

For anyone who has read Southern Bones, thank you.

And for those who will read any of my work in the future, thank you.

Some may say there is no need to show appreciation. I disagree. I truly appreciate those readers who have read my work, and those writers and friends and family who have supported me over the years.

To all of you, Thank YOU.

Until we meet again, my friends…

Relevancy

Do you ever play the numbers game? If you’re a writer, then the answer to that is probably yes. I don’t do it often, but I have done it.

Let’s throw out some numbers (as of this writing):

• Southern Bones Amazon rank for Kindle e-books: 489,115 in paid sales.
• Southern Bones Amazon rank for paperback books: 3,164,534 in paid sales.
• Reviews of Southern Bones on Amazon: 3
• Along the Splintered Path Amazon rank for Kindle e-books: 536,637 in paid sales.
• Along the Splintered Path Amazon rank for paperback books: 3,401,363 in paid sales.
• Reviews of Along the Splintered Path on Amazon: 21
• 10,962 views of my blog since June of 2011 (The math for that is 10,962 divided by 29, for a total of 378 views a month).

I noticed when checking the numbers at Amazon, which I do probably once a week, usually on Monday, that there is a question right below the ranking. It is: Did we miss any relevant features for this product? Tell us what we missed.

Yes, Amazon, there is something missing, but not necessarily from the product, but from and for the writer of those books. The thing? Well, Amazon, you said it in the fifth word of that question: Relevant.

The thing missing is relevance. Of what relevance are my books and myself to the reading population? Clearly, I’m not Stephen King, so the relevance is, oh I don’t know, maybe not the size of a mountain like his is. But is it bigger than the tip of a needle?

I am not one of those folks who trumpet out my numbers on Facebook, and, as far as I can recall, this is the first time I have ever disclosed my numbers on how my books or blog are doing. To me, the numbers shouldn’t be important. But they are. They are as important as the covers to the books are.

What? You think I’m crazy? Well, so do a lot of folks, but that has never deterred me from writing or really most things (though it is fair to say I have mellowed over the years).

This is what I believe:

Book covers are important. But reviews and ranking are as important, if not more so.

Why do I say this? It’s simple, really:

How many folks have gone to the book store and picked up a book, then put it back because of the cover? I think most people are guilty of it. It happens.

Now, how many people have decided not to download a book based on the thumbnail size cover on Amazon or Nook or wherever? Probably not as many as with the print books, but some have probably done this.

How many of you out there have decided to purchase or not purchase an e-book based on their Amazon ranking? Come on, it’s okay. You can raise your hand. No one will know. It’s not like I have a camera secretly embedded into the blog that will show me how many folks raise their hands.

Okay, how many of you have decided to purchase or not purchase an e-book based on how many reviews they have received? Oh, those hands should go up a lot quicker now.

Here’s the thing about relevancy: it is the reader who makes a writer or a book relevant. Sure, we can market the books in various places to try and catch the attention of readers, but ultimately, it is not in the writer’s hands to determine how well a book does on the market.

Don’t get me wrong. The writer has to do his/her share of the work. The writer has to write the story, and they had best make it a good story, too. The writer has to put themselves out there and then market their work. The writer has to be willing to take criticism and learn how to be gracious. Even with all that, the readers decided the relevancy of writers.

How do you know if you are relevant, though? Well, a growth in book sales for one. A growth in reviews. A lower number on your Amazon ranking, meaning lower (100 as opposed to 1250) is better in this case.

But we can scrap all of that if we want to. The best way to know you’re relevant is when a reader tells you something good about your work. Or when someone who admires you lets you know. Relevancy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Do I want to sell my books? Of course. Would I like to make money at this business? You bet. Do I want people to enjoy my stories and take them with them long after they are done reading? More than most anything. Do I want to be relevant in this business? That would be nice, but more importantly, I want to be relevant to the reader–to you–and if I can do that, then I have done my job.

***

One thing I stopped doing at Type AJ Negative is talking about my kids. I feel that is a huge mistake. My kids are so much a part of me and have inspired so many of my stories (two of them are in the collection, Southern Bones).

So, today I will end with a short story about my children.

I took my son and his friend who is a girl (no, not a girl who is a friend–I made the mistake of saying that before) skating for school skate night last Thursday. He is normally a very good skater for an eight-year-old, but on this night, there were girls there and they were all around him. He, like most boys, showed off and looked silly for doing so.

In the process he managed to bruise his knees and one hand pretty good. After dropping off the friend who is a girl and taking him home, he took a shower. Then he came into my bedroom where my wife and I were talking.

“Can one of you give me a massage?”

“What needs massaging?” I asked.

“My legs. My feet. My back. My arms. My butt.”

“Not me,” I said quickly.

“You’re on your own when it comes to massaging your butt,” The Wife said.

The Boy frowned. “Okay.”

“Hop on the bed,” The Wife then says. “I’ll massage your legs for you.”

The Boy is very ticklish and his laughter could be heard all over the house. Then he got quiet and lay back on the bed. The Wife had reached a spot on his foot that apparently hurt.

The Boy, after several seconds of this foot rub sighs, and then says, “I feel so aliiiiiiiive.”

With that, I bid you farewell, until we meet again, my friends.

It’s My Job, Not Yours

I remember as a child getting comic books from a little book store out on Edmund Highway toward the small town of South Congaree (if one could call it that at the time). My dad would take my brother and I to this book store on a lazy Saturday afternoon and we would peruse boxes and boxes of comics at the back of the store, while Dad perused shelves and shelves of books at the front of it. For some reason I keep thinking that we went on Sundays, but I’m not totally sure of that. None-the-less, Larry and I were comic book junkies. He was all superheroes and I was all Dracula and Frankenstein and Conan the Barbarian.

We would get these books, take them home and spend all afternoon reading them. I often read mine several times in the course of the week. Rarely did we miss an opportunity to go get comics. It’s one of those memories I cherish from my childhood. We would take the comics back (or most of them, anyway) and get a store credit. Mrs. Laura and Mr. Al were great about making sure we were able to get new comics when we came in. Dad was, too.

Let me stop here for a second.

We would take the comics back and get a store credit.

Keep that in mind for later.

We didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid, so these little trips that my dad would make with us were like birthday or Christmas moments to us. I knew that they were special and that Dad was doing something kind and generous because he loved his boys and he wanted us to enjoy one of his great passions: reading. Store credit was important. Larry and I would look at the piece of paper Mrs. Laura filled out with a dollar amount, and then we would choose our comics based on that number. It was the ultimate in getting the most for your money.

Back then we got books any way we could: going to the book store on Edmund Highway, yard sales and flea markets. Occasionally a book would be given to us.

I was an avid reader as a kid, but very slow about it. I’m still very slow in reading today, but not because it takes me a while to comprehend, but because I take in each sentence, each paragraph, and I picture the story as it unfolds.

Fast Forward a little now.

I’m much older and Mrs. Laura and Mr. Al are gone, as is the bookstore we frequented so often as children. I don’t read comics like I used to. Instead I read other books, mostly novels and short story collections.

I am also a writer. I’m not a mid-lister or even a low-lister. I’m just a writer who wants to see my work published and who wants to see my stories in the hands of readers. If that means my stories need to be e-pubbed, then I’ll go with that. If that means they need to be in print format, I’ll go with that. If that means both, then so be it. My goal is to entertain readers, to find that happy medium of writing enjoyment and fulfillment, as well as giving readers something they want to read and something they will remember.

The publishing world is constantly changing. Thirty years ago, e-books were an unfathomable concept. Today, print books seem almost prehistoric. Thirty years ago, there were no e-zines or websites where you could submit short stories or novellas or even novels. There were physical addresses, not e-mails, and you had to print your manuscript out, put it in a big envelope or box and mail it out to agents, editors and publishers. It was a lot harder to get noticed back then.

Today, getting published is easier. You can do it all yourself with the e-pub world (and the print world for that matter). Many call it vanity or self publishing. I lean toward the self publishing term, because that is really what it is. We can call it Indie, meaning Independent publishing. I’m good with that as well.

With Indie or self publishing, or even traditional publishing, it comes down to one thing for the writer: how much are you willing to work at it. Writing is work. Writing is hard work. Don’t be fooled by some of the success stories out there:

I’ve never written anything before and this just popped in my head so I wrote it and now I’m a bagillionaire and am loved by the masses.

There are very few folks that can just sit down, pen a story and have it do phenomenally well, and that’s going the traditional route. It’s tougher going the Indie road, which is narrow and crowded with every other Indie writer out there. People shove and push and elbow their way along the streets of Storyville, peddling their wares on Facebook Avenue, Twitter Street, Pinterest Boulevard, Tumbler Road, Goodreads Circle, Blog Trail and a whole host of other places.

Readers have a ton of choices these days. The Big Six no longer really control the business. Sure, they still have a huge stake in it, but readers can go to Amazon or Smashwords or Pubit and a few other sources and browse items and titles until they find what they are looking for.

I’ve said these last 900 words or so in order to address something that is going on out there right now, and sadly, I am guilty of it.

Reading is not what it used to be. There are other things that are fighting for the consumers’ attention (especially children). Video games and the internet and television are easy distractions, and for children, probably a little more entertaining than when I grew up and books and an imagination were all you needed to escape the world for a while. Attention spans are shorter.

Reading needs to continue to be entertaining and not work. Which brings me to one of the trends of Indie publishing and traditionally published authors as well: making readers work.

Recently, one of the writers over at Book Riot wrote an article about what readers owe authors: Readers Don’t Owe Authors #%*!. I’ve read it, followed the links to other articles, and to be honest, I’m kind of sad right now. No, not with what the writer states, but because she is right.

As a writer, I want readers to read and enjoy my books. I would also like it if they told their friends about it (especially if they liked it), but they don’t have to. There is no obligation that they should have to ‘like’ my author page on Facebook or Amazon or Goodreads. There is no obligation for them to post a book review and give me however many stars they want to. There is no obligation for them to write poignant blogs based on their experience of reading my book: OMG, you need to pick this book up!

As writers, we ask so much of our readers. We ask them to choose and purchase our book among the millions of others out there. Many of us are unknown, making the risk of getting something substandard a lot higher (at least in the minds of the readers). We ask them to stick with a story long enough to get into it and then ask them to suspend disbelief that, yes, vampires do sparkle when sprayed with Unicorn dust and women can look at men through their lashes. We ask readers to trust us, to trust that we will not cheat them in the end and have them walk away from the experience of reading our books with a good taste in their mouths. We ask them to believe that our words are worth the price tag we put on them.

Let me say this: It is my job as the writer to engage you, the reader, and to hold your attention all the way until the end of the story (or collections). It is my job to give you something you will want to talk about, that you will want to share with others.

Understand something fellow writers, we do not pay the every day, average reader to read our books. Sure, we may pay professional review services to read and review the book and share their thoughts with the world, but we don’t say, ‘hey, Reader, here’s a hundred bucks. Read my book and tell everyone about it.’

At least, I don’t. I can’t afford to, even if I wanted to.

Readers read because they want to. Readers read for enjoyment. They don’t read with the idea of leaving book reviews, and posting all over social media sites and blogging about it. Readers read because they enjoy the experience. Readers are not our personal marketing department.

As a writer, I admit that there are times I have failed to market my books as well as I should. Whose fault is that? Mine. It’s not the readers’. If I want my work to sell more, I have to market my books better. Sure, if a reader wants to help by spreading the word or leaving a review or however they choose to help, then I will be more than happy to let them. If that’s what they want to do, then go for it. But, it’s not my place to tell them that I need help promoting my book and if they liked my book, then, by George, tell the world.

It takes time to promote our books, and not many of us like to do it. So, why ask our readers to do it for us?

Writing is work. It’s hard work. Marketing is work. It’s much harder work. That is my job.

So, with all that said, I would like to apologize for my part in the whole, ‘let’s get the readers to help market my work’ scenario. It’s not your job. It’s my job. If I don’t do it well enough, then my books don’t sell. I won’t say don’t help writers you like, but I won’t say, if you don’t buy my book and tell the world about it, then you are hurting us writers. That’s BS in it’s truest since.

A reader’s job is to read. That’s it. And even then, it’s not their job, but their desire, what they enjoy doing.

I go back to the comic books I read as a kid. I go back to all the writers out there who had to make it in the business without social media or the Internet or e-books and self-publishing. Sure, word of mouth helps, but I’m certain Stephen King didn’t say, ‘will you please help me sell my books to your friends by liking it and reviewing it and whatever else you can do would be awesome.’ I can’t imagine having the time to write reviews or post on social media about all the books/comics I read growing up.

I’m not going to tell any reader not to help, because, as a writer, I appreciate when someone does like my work and when someone does think enough of it to tell others or leave a review for it. That’s the general principal behind most marketing, to sell a product so good that people will just want to buy it and then tell their friends about it and use that word of mouth to help sell things. By all means, spread the word. But I’m not going to ask you to do any of the work. That’s my job, and that’s the job of every other writer out there. And I’m certainly not going to tell you, the readers, that if you don’t purchase my work, then you aren’t supporting me. Again, BS in a pure form.

There are those websites that say things like, 20 Ways You Can Help Your Favorite Writer or Support a Writer, Buy A Book. Whatever. There is one way that you can help your favorite writer, and it’s the only one that counts. Read their work. My books haven’t sold particularly well, but I know that those who have bought them have, for the most part, read them, and enjoyed them.

I want readers to pick up one of my books and enjoy them. I don’t want them to feel like if they read my books then they have to write a review or like the Amazon page or blog about it. If they want to, go for it, but I don’t want them to feel obligated to do so—that takes the enjoyment out of reading, and we should never want to take that from them.

Readers don’t owe us a thing, but we owe them. Yes, we do. We owe them a big thank you for taking the time (and money in many cases) to read our work. Thank you to anyone who has picked up either Along the Splintered Path or Southern Bones.

The only thing I am going to ask of the readers is, please, don’t steal my work (or anyone else’s). Other than that, if you see my book at the library or a yard sale or the flea market, pick it up for that quarter or fifty cents. If someone gives you my book, just say thank you and don’t worry about whether or not I could have made money off of you purchasing the book. Readers read and that’s what I want them to do with my work. Anything else they want to do with my books after they’ve read them is really up to them. That includes going to an old bookstore on a stretch of road where a middle-aged couple sales used books and credits the kids when they return books. Maybe one of those kids will see my book and want to buy it, and maybe they would like it and decide to keep it instead of turning it back in for a store credit and a comic book.

Until we meet again my friends…

Goodbye 2012, Hello 2013

Star date, 1/1/2013, zero one zero four in the morning. The New Year is upon us and I aim to make it better than the one that just past.

I’m sorry, 2012, but you did not live up to my expectations. I mean, seriously. Having me take a pay cut and struggle significantly to make ends meet just to keep my job was a really crappy thing for you to do. I mean, really you didn’t start things off all that well when you picked up the baton that 2011 dropped and said, ‘hey, have pneumonia until February.’

I should have known then that you were going to kick my butt.

My writing took a beating. My mental and physical state of being took a beating. My confidence, yeah, that took a good old-fashioned blanket party throw down. It took a while to get that back.

Though you did see fit to let me get two short story collections out there, one of them through Dark Continents Publishing and the other one put out by me, the sales have been underwhelming, even with the good reviews they have both received. You would think, Dear 2012, that with reviews that state things like:

“AJ Brown’s debut novella presents three short stories of moralistic caution, human failings, and dark, unrelenting horror. He has a fresh, unique voice that brings the characters to life with a skill and experience that makes this a real page turner all the way to its deliciously macabre ending.”
–Starburst Magazine

And:

Along the Splintered Path has a more laid back pace but with plenty of meat on the bones, characters you actually care about and is steered with a confident hand. I can see big things for AJ Brown.
–Daniel Russell

And:

This book was a surprise, well written and a touch of Stephen King. Each story was quite different, and all were intriguing and at times disturbing.
–IamOneill

…that the books would have sold more, but for some reason the publishing gods have not seen fit to allow this.

Still, not all was terrible, though you seemed to temper little victories with equal or greater defeats.

Guess what, 2012? It’s time to move on out the way and let the New Year 2013 in the door. It’s not like you have much choice in the matter, is it? You can’t turn back time. Just ask Cher.

I have plans for this year. Goals, I say. Goals. Do you hear me, 2012?

So go ahead. Shuffle on out the door and don’t let it hit yah where your Momma split yah.

Now that he’s gone, Dear 2013, my name is A.J. I am your friend, and hopefully, you will be mine. You and I could do some wonderful things this year. Like maybe me getting back onto a regular writing schedule—a daily one like I used to have. I sure do miss those thousand words a day that the years 2006-2010 allowed me to have.

And what about submissions and publications? Your predecessor, 2012, just didn’t seem to have it in the cards for me to do much of either. You may not know this since you’re still new here, but way back in 2009 I submitted 155 stories, and 45 of them went on to get published. No, I’m not looking to submit that many stories this year, but how about a third of that total? Are you down with that?

It’s still early, my new friend, but I want you to know that you have the power to make this as good a year as you want it to be. So I’m going to head to bed in a few minutes and dream sweet dreams of the future and what you have in store for my family and I.

Just in case, Dear 2013, you want to take a look at my two collections and maybe help push them in the right direction, here are the links. I hope you enjoy them, and don’t worry, even if you don’t own a kindle, you can get them both in print.

Southern Bones

Along the Splintered Path

And hey, if you wouldn’t mind, spread the word, leave a review, maybe drop me a line and let me know if you enjoyed the books.

As I bade 2012 farewell, I gave a thanks to the readers out there on Facebook:

“I’m going to end 2012 with a thank you to everyone who picked up one of my two short story collections throughout this year. Also, a big thank you to anyone who reviewed either of the books as well. I hope you enjoyed them, and here’s to 2013.”

The ‘likes’ were cool, but the lone comment to the post made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, kind of like the Grinch when he discovered that Christmas didn’t come in boxes, packages and bags.

Thanks for writing them!

To everyone out there, you are welcome. And to Lindsey Beth Goddard, thank you for making my day with that comment.

I am going to head off to bed. I am finally tired enough to hopefully sleep more than a handful of hours. Before I go, I would like to leave you with my new favorite song, Mumford and Sons’ I Will Wait.

Have a wonderful New Year, and until we meet again, my friends…