Communion, A Short Story

My dad sat on a tree stump every day before dinner. It was about three feet tall and stood near the back fence. Dad looked more like he was leaning when he sat on it. Usually both hands dangled between his legs and he stared off beyond our yard toward the trees that ran along the backside of the neighborhood. If you walked through the trees, you could only go about ninety or so feet before you came to a stream that split the center of the wooded area. 

It didn’t matter how hot or cold or rainy it was, he went to the tree stump, sat for a few minutes, then came inside. On some days—mostly in early fall—he would sit a little longer, sometimes with his head bowed as if he were asleep or maybe praying. Dad wasn’t the religious type, so I doubt he ever prayed.

I guess I was four or five the first time I noticed him go outside and to the stump. I went to go after him, maybe so he would play with me, but probably out of curiosity more than anything. 

“No, Heath,” Mom said from where she stood at the counter, cutting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half for me. 

I looked back at her. “I wanna go outside,” I said—or I think I said. Time has a funny way of playing with memories. 

“Not right now.”

“Why?”

“Your dad’s having communion.”

“What’s com-u-non?” I asked. 

“It’s what your dad is doing right now.” She set my sandwich on the table. “Now sit down and eat. Your daddy will be inside when he is done.”

I didn’t sit and eat. Not at first anyway. I went to the back door. It was open and the screen door was shut. I could see Dad from there. His shoulders were slouched like he was tired. His head was down. I thought he just might have fallen asleep. Then I saw his shoulders go up then down a couple of times. His head bobbed in sync with them.

“Sit down, Heath,” Mom said and steered me away from the door with both her hands. She closed the door gently.

I ate my sandwich and set my plate on the counter. Dad came in as I was leaving the kitchen to take a bath. He looked so tired. His eyes were rimmed red and there were angry red squiggly lines in them. The tip of his nose was pink. He wiped it as he went by me and to the bathroom where he washed up. He didn’t say anything to me as he passed, just went by without even glancing in my direction. I remember how bad it felt. He walked by me as if I were invisible. Maybe I was.

“Get ready for your bath,” Mom said when she saw me standing at the foot of the hall looking toward the bathroom where Dad went. She sounded irritated. That was her default setting.

“Dad’s in there.”

“He won’t be for long, so do what I said to do.”

I went to my room and gathered my night clothes, then took a towel from the hall closet. I waited outside the bathroom door until it opened, and Dad walked out. His eyes were no longer red, and he didn’t look as tired. 

“Hey there, Heath,” he said with a smile. He bent down and picked me up, then gave me a big hug. His hugs always made me feel safe, like everything would be okay. He set me down and all was right again. He didn’t look worn or weighted down at all. He didn’t look sad. 

Every day for the next six years, I stood at my window, watching Dad out on the tree stump. After the first time I was shooed away from the  back door, I didn’t think Mom would take too kindly to me going and watching him as he had communion. 

I still didn’t know what that meant.

***

I was eleven when Mom died. She wasn’t really the loving type. She was stern and rarely gave hugs, kisses or said ‘I love you.’ I should have felt more, but I didn’t. I think I felt more ashamed that I wasn’t as sad as I thought I should be. It didn’t help that we had argued before I left for school. I wanted to go to Jerry’s house before coming home. 

“Not with your grades, Heath. You come straight home and do your studies.”

I guess it wasn’t much of an argument after all. I left for school, angry at her for the umpteenth time in my life. 

Mom died while I was at school and Dad was at work. It wasn’t anything terribly tragic like the house caught on fire and she couldn’t get out or she was in a car accident, or even someone broke into the house and murdered her. No, it was nothing like that. Mom choked on a piece of toast. 

I found her when I got home from school. She lay on the kitchen floor, faced down. She was still in her bath robe and nightclothes and her face was a shade of purple that bordered on black. I stared down at her. And I didn’t feel anything, at least not right then.

I called Dad, then I called 9-1-1. Then I sat on the front porch and looked out on the road in front of our house. 

The ambulance made it there before Dad did, but not by much. They were inside tending to her body when Dad pulled up in his old truck. He was out of it in a hurry. He forgot to close the door before he ran across the yard to me. His face was red, as were his eyes. I had seen that look every day for the last six years of my life. 

I stood.

Dad reached me and put his arms around me. Just like when I was little and he would pick me up, I felt safe. I know it sounds crazy, but even with Mom in the house dead and the emergency people inside the house doing what they do, I felt safe in Dad’s arms. Everything would be okay.

Dad released me and went inside. I walked over to his truck and gently closed the door.

For me, everything was fine. Like I said, Mom wasn’t very loving, and we never really got along. But for Dad, nothing would ever be the same again. 

One thing didn’t change, though. Like every night since I could remember, Dad went out the back door to the tree stump. He sat, stared off into the woods, but this time I could tell he was crying. I stepped away from the window and sat on my bed. And I cried. too.

***

Dad did the best he could. He was a widower and he and Mom had been together since they were kids. They were high school sweethearts and married right after graduation. 

For the better part of my life since her death I’ve regretted not being closer, not trying, though she never really tried either. Guilt is a funny thing. You don’t realize you’ll feel it until you do.

***

I was sixteen when I finally worked up the nerve to ask my dad why he went outside every day before supper. He was already out there with his coat on and his hands between his knees. His head was down, and I could see his lips moving when I approached him.

“Dad?”

He didn’t jerk in surprise of my presence. His head didn’t swivel on his neck and he didn’t look irritated to see me standing there, my hands jammed into my coat pockets, vapor pluming from between my lips.

“Everything okay, Heath?” His voice was shaky.

I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, everything is okay. I just …”

“You just what?”

I shrugged. “Dad, why do you come out here and sit on this stump every day?”

He looked away from me, back in the direction of the woods. By then, some of the land had been sold and some of the trees further down from our place had been removed. The frame of a house stood like a silhouette in the dying sunlight. When he looked back at me, he had tears in his eyes. He wiped at them and looked away.

“My Daddy died cutting this tree down.” He patted the side of the stump with one hand. “I was a little older than you, eighteen, I think. He had a heart attack and died where he fell. I come out here to be near him. It’s like he never left. I can feel his presence.”

Dad looked back at me again. His eyes shimmered with tears. “I know it sounds crazy but sitting here makes me feel like he’s still around and not dead and in some box in the ground in Meacham Cemetery. I come out here and talk to him. Then I listen for his voice. I reckon you can say I come to have communion with him.”

I never bothered him while he was out there again. I still looked out the window from time to time, but I never bothered him. It was sacred for him.

Now, I understand why.

***

Barely two years later, Dad passed away. I just turned eighteen, and yes, I see the foreshadowing in our lone conversation about his visits to the stump. He died before supper, and yes, he was sitting on the stump.

He had aged so much in the seven years since Mom passed. He looked older than his fifty-four years. If you do the math, you can figure out my parents had me when they were in their mid-thirties, but Dad looked like he was in his mid-seventies that last time he walked into the back yard to the stump to have communion with his father. 

I stood at the back door, something I hadn’t done since that first time when Mom shooed me away. He sat gingerly on the stump. As always, he looked out to where the woods used to be, but now they were all gone. Houses now sat where trees once stood. His head dipped, his chin touching his chest. Then he leaned to one side and fell.

“Dad,” I yelled and ran from the house. I vaguely heard the clatter of the screen door as it slammed shut. Dad was gone by the time I reached him. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell. Much like when Mom died, I dialed 9-1-1. This time I didn’t wait on the front porch, my elbows on my knees and my head down. No, this time I waited in the back yard, Dad’s head on my lap. 

***

It’s been two days since his funeral. The coroner said he died of a massive heart attack. He was dead before he hit the ground. I can still see him toppling off the stump. I can still hear me yelling for him. 

Tonight, just before I sat at the table by myself for the first time in my life, I walked out to the stump where my dad died, and where his dad died. I sat down on the stump with my hands between my legs. Tears spilled down my face.

“I miss you, Dad.”

Then, like so many times as a child, I felt his arms around me, and I knew I would be okay.

AJB

10/15/2020

Summer Jumpers (Free Fiction)

Summer Jumpers

A.J. Brown

Down below us children play.
Old men go about their days.
—Todd Mathis
American Gun
Nature Vs Man (From the album The Means and the Machine)

__________

It’s hot out.

~###~

It’s always hot. There are no winters to temper the summer heat—it’s summer year round. Some months are hotter. Rain only makes it worse—steam spills off concrete in white vapors that make it hard to breathe as the heat evaporates the water when it hits the ground—if it hits at all. Scientists say the hole in the ozone caused all this. I don’t know about that. What I do know is one day we’ll all be gone. We’ll all be jumpers before it’s over with. 

The first jumper plummeted to his end when I was a child. Six years old with a head full of dreams. That was the summer things came undone for the world. The sun had inched closer, notching up the heat—108 degrees on the last day of May in Michigan. The stock market had crashed and a new flu had surfaced, taking with it only a handful of people, but the media painted a picture of pandemic proportions. Many people took it as gospel. The jumpers soon followed. It’s like the entire planet lost its mind. 

Some say it is the heat that finally gets to them, drives them insane. Others say it is hopelessness and despair. I think it’s a little of both.

Harry Taylor started the exodus. Good looks, rich, trophy wife, lots of women to keep him company on those ‘business’ trips. He lost it all, money, home, cars, business and wife. It was 114 degrees outside when he climbed to the top of the Fordham building—a 27 floor high rise—spread his arms and tried to fly. He didn’t scream as he fell. He landed on top of a passing car. The impact shattered the windows and crumpled the roof of the vehicle. One tire blew out. Taylor and three passengers in the car died.

A child lived, a young boy.

~###~

The whispers call to me. 

I sit on the dusty ground. Bodies lay all about. Shattered. People walk by as if they aren’t there, or if they are just part of the everyday scenery. Children play among the bones, using them as drumsticks or anything else they can think of. Some of the kids stick the bones in their mouths.

The rats and snakes have long since cleared out. Either the stench or the glutton of food finally ceased their scavenging ways. Flies and bugs still buzz about, nestled in corpses to raise families by the thousands. 

My eyes are to the sky, focusing on the person on the ledge of the once great Fordham building. No one is going to try and coax him down—they gave that up a long time ago.

He jumps.

And I hear the whispers.

~###~

Many people followed Taylor. At first only one or two a week, then upwards to three or four a day. A handful of people jumped together, their arms intertwined. Even with the blood, broken bones and split bodies, their arms remained hooked together after they hit the concrete, like a flesh pretzel. From there it got worse.

The police tried to stop them, but what could they do? Dying is dying and whether it’s by a bullet or from landing on baking hot concrete doesn’t matter to those who want to end it all. Bodies began to pile up. The cops bowed out. Not even the military could stop the jumpers. How could they? They were jumping, too.

The high rises closed off exit doors to their roofs, but that didn’t stop the truly desperate; those who had lost everything, including hopes and dreams; those whose brains had fried with the increasing heat, whose skin had become as red as a Maine lobster. Windows break easily enough when a bullet strikes it. Or a person crashes through. Not only did bodies fall from the sky, but large shards of glass rained down as well. Some onlookers were cut up. Others died right along with the jumpers.

Some cities resorted to digging pits just outside town limits and burying the corpses by the masses. Others piled them like kindling and set them afire. That didn’t last long—the smell of cooking flesh drove folks even crazier and the extra heat didn’t help things. Eventually, they stopped removing the bodies.

It was almost as if the world spoke and its words were, “Everyone else is doing it, why not us?” The stupid rationale that was carried from the beginning of time to now, the end of it.

~###~

The body crashes down less than six feet from where I sit. Blood splatters from its ruptured skull. I flinch away, a little too late to keep some of it from getting on me. It drips down the side of my face. 

I sit and stare, not bothering to wipe the blood from my skin as it mixes with dirt and sweat. 

One of the man’s eyes lies on the ground, its socket crushed from impact and its optic nerves holding it to the pulp that was once his head. It is blue. It stares at me … and I hear the whispers.

I turn from him and look toward the entrance of the long abandoned Fordham building. There is a line of hundreds making their way inside.

Another body explodes on the sidewalk just past the man. The woman wears a dress. It has bunched up around her waist, exposing her creamy white legs and red panties. A wet spot soaks her crotch.

I stand, the whispers urging me on, and step my way through the corpses. I walk by the man. His eyeball pops under my boot.

I need to get in from the heat. My brain hurts and the whispers keep telling me the summer, the heat, the whole mess will never go away.

Maybe they’re right.

~###~

There was this one guy. He haunts me to this day. Black clothes and a chain for a belt; earrings and piercings and odd tattoos donned his body. His brown, unkempt hair and pale skin didn’t seem to fit his clothing, his image. He had taken a running start and jumped out as far as he could. He screamed all the way to the ground and landed feet first. 

JUMPER 2
Bones shattered and blood exploded from torn skin. From the hips down was a ruptured mass of flesh. He survived the jump. His eyes met mine and held my gaze while he lay broken on the concrete. The odd angles of his legs and arms jitterbugged as exposed nerves screamed right along with him. He begged me to kill him; to end his self-inflicted pain. But I couldn’t move. For nearly seven hours he screamed and I watched as his life faded, his eyes became dim and body parts ceased their twitching. 

I heard the whisper for the first time just before his right thumb stopped moving. It came from him—I’m almost certain. 

Join us. Join us. Join us.

I walked away, found a seat in the doorway of an old department store that closed down when the jumpers began their leaps of death. For the last few years it has been where I sit during the days and well into the evenings. It has been my watching perch, my haven in the insanity that has become our world.

By then they had been leaving the bodies in the streets to rot, maybe even hoping to deter other people from jumping. Yeah, that really worked, didn’t it?

Each day chain boy’s body decayed a little more. Rats dined on him. They gave way to bugs. Time and the elements wore away what flesh remained; leaving only bones among shredded clothes and a chain around a waist that was no more. And every day after that I heard the whispers.

Join us. Join us. Join us.

~###~

My head hurts. It always has. I run a finger along the scar on the right side of my skull. It throbs with my heartbeat. I’ve noticed over the last couple of years, as it gets hotter my head hurts worse. My right cheekbone hums as if there is a bee tucked underneath the skin. It’s maddening. I wish it would go away. 

I follow the procession inside the Fordham building where the heat is so much worse than outside. My lungs constrict and the dry air burns my mouth and throat. Sweat soaks my body, and the stench of the living mixes with the decay all around us. 

I make my way up the stairs, each step tearing at the muscles in my legs. By the eleventh floor I slow down and take several deep breaths, trying to suck in enough air to continue. I struggle upward, the whispers pushing me on. A skeletal hand crushes under foot, its bones turning to dust. 

Weary and weak I continue upward, the throngs of people pushing me further. 

The whispers grow louder as we ascend. Thousands of voices sing a chorus line over and over: Join us. Join us. Join us.

I don’t want to join them. I don’t want to jump. Fear overtakes me and I struggle to turn back, to run down the stairs and go to my seat outside. But I can’t. The people push me upward. I stumble as I fight against the flow of the crowd, but I can only go up. I fear I’m going to fall and get trampled under thousands of feet. I swing a fist; connect with someone’s head. There is no sound of pain, no cry of anger. Only the continuous surge pushing me forward.

They prod me up the steps. Their eyes are vacant; their mouths slack; their skin pale, as if they were already dead and drained of blood. 

I am not like them. I am not cold to the touch or wasting away with time. I am not like them at all. But I am. I know the truth. I have never been any different from any of those before me or those who will come after me. 

Join us. Join us. Join us.

As I reach the door to the roof I see it is propped open by a cinder block. The line of people continues forward, shortening as people drop from the building’s ledge. More and more join us at the top. As one person drops off, another takes his or her place. A never-ending cycle.

My head thumps and vomit fills my mouth.

~###~

At the edge I look down. I see the bodies scattered about the street. The once small hills are now masses of arms, legs, torsos and heads. Thousands of bones lay about, broken and shattered; blood runs through the streets. The stench of decay is worse up here. I wonder if enough people jump will the mounds of flesh rise as tall as the Fordham Building itself. 

Children play within the death below. Men and women—gaunt figures of living tissue—go about their day as if nothing is wrong. Across from me people are jumping from the Seth Building. A child is crushed underneath a hurdling body.

Join us.

My father calls to me. I can almost see him on the street, his body crumpled, glass from a shattered windshield still in his eyes. 

Join us.

Mother’s arm dangles from the window of the car, nearly cut in half from the steel roof’s collapse with the impact of the jumper’s fall. 

Join us.

My older brother, James. His head ended up in my lap; his eyes staring up at me. Not much different from his face and that of the teenage punk star with the chain for a belt. They both looked as if they wanted help; release from a pain far too great to bear. 

They whisper to me, calling me every day, every night. 

Join us. Join us.

It’s so hot out. My head thumps with each heartbeat, the fractured skull forever indented by a metal bar that once held the roof of a car up. The sun creeps closer each day, melting my spirit away with its intense heat. There are many people behind me. Their eyes and souls as vacant as mine feel. I raise my hands to my sides and close my eyes. I’m tired of the heat, tired of this world. 

I’m ready to fly …

__________

Music. It is the universal language. It doesn’t matter if you understand it, simply because it makes you feel it. And if you feel it, you can enjoy it. Music is also a vast source of inspiration. A countless number of my stories have been inspired by a base beat or a guitar riff or a couple of lyrics here or there. Sometimes an entire song can be so powerful it makes the mind explode with images.

For me, one such song is Nature Vs Man, written by Todd Mathis for the local band, American Gun. After hearing it the first time I went back and played it again, and again, and again. You get the picture. The song is great, but one lyric stood out among the rest. One lyric kicked my imagination into overdrive and sparked a story. 

‘Down below us children play.’ 

From it came the image of a young man looking down from the ledge of a tall building. He can see children playing in the street. Before jumping, he wonders if he would land on one of those kids. Summer Jumpers was born from that image, inspired by one simple lyric of a song. 

You might recognize the Seth Building. It appears in another post-apocalyptic story, Lost Art. That story takes place in the same world as Summer Jumpers, only years later, and with similar results.

I received permission to use the lyrics at the beginning of this story by Todd Mathis before I ever wrote Summer Jumpers. For that, I say thank you, Mr. Mathis.

A.J.

 

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On A Small House (Free … Poetry?)

On A Small House

A.J. Brown

The storm rages outside.
Lightning flashes,
Thunder rolls,
Rain pelts down on the small house.

Trees bend with the wind.
With candles in each room
Their flames flickering high
Casting shadows of dancing people along the walls,
The child lies in bed.
He stares at the window
With blanket tucked beneath his chin.
He holds the stuffed doggie tight to his chest
And the lightning flashes,
The thunder rolls,
Rain pelts down on the small house.

Shadows flicker in the room,
The tree outlined by the streaks in the sky,
He shivers as a cold finger tickles his spine.
A fan on the dresser
Blows the curtains about
They sway away from the window and lay back into place.
He clutches the doggie and whispers,
“It will go away.”
The lightning flashes,
And the thunder rolls,
The rain pelts down on the small house.

His eyes catch blinding streaks in the night sky
Through the light blue curtains.
Tree branches stretch like fingers
Reaching for him,
Grasping for him.
And the doggie is held tighter.
His eyes grow wide as the curtain lifts upward.
And the lightning flashes,
The thunder rolls,
Rain pelts down on the small house.

He stares at the window
Two eyes stare back.
The child stifles a scream,
Or it catches in his throat.
He pulls the blanket over his nose
Hiding all but his eyes.
The fan flips off as the power dies
And the curtain lays flat against the window.
The lightning flashes,
The thunder rolls,
Rain pelts down on the small house.

A head appears behind the curtain,
On the other side of the window.
A shadow, that’s all,
Is what he tells himself.
Then comes the scratching.
Scritch, scritch,
Scratch, scratch,

The boy’s heart skips a beat,
Then another.
And he watches the window
Waiting for
The lighting to crash
And the thunder to roll,
As the rain pelts down on the small house.
A sound, like glass tinkling on the floor
Fills the room.
The curtain billows inward
In front of the broken window.
Cool air enters the room
And the rain becomes loud.
He hears the steady
Clink, clink, clink
Of raindrops on a piece of broken glass.
The lightning flashes,
The thunder rolls,
Rain pelts down on the small house.

A hand reaches in
Boney and pale,
Fingers like knifes with sharp pointy tips.
He pulls his legs to his chest
And he screams.
“Go away!”
The hand retracts
As the lightning flashes
The thunder rolls,
And rain pelts down on the small house.

Daddy comes into the room.
His savior arrives.
He picks the little boy up
Holds him in his arms,
“All is okay, little one.”
The boy looks at the window
As the light flashes across the sky
The head slinks into the darkness
And the lightning quells,
The thunder quiets,
And the rain slowly ceases

The boy lies back in bed,
Grabs the doggie and holds it tight.
Daddy leaves and the boy smiles
“I told you he would go away.”
And somewhere in the distance
The lightning flashes
The thunder rolls
And rain pelts down on a small house.

__________

Poems are a fun way to make you think of your word usage. Each poem has its own meter, whether it rhymes or not. Your choice of words is crucial to a smooth, lyrical poem. So often when I wrote poetry, I had the most difficult time actually making it smooth, making it sing. So, when I succeed, I am usually ecstatic.

This poem is about every child’s fear, both of storms and of the dark. I wanted to capture the raw emotion of a young boy on a dark and stormy night after his imagination has gotten the best of him. Was there a shadow lurking outside his window? Was there a hand reaching through broken glass to get him? Was there even a broken window, or was it all the boy’s imagination. I’ll never tell because, at the end of the day, the ending will always be left to interpretation.

I hope this poem didn’t bore you and that you enjoyed it. If you did, will you, please, like this post, comment on it and share it to your social media. I greatly appreciate it.

A.J.

 

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