The Voices Inside and Out (Free Fiction)

The Voices Inside and Out

A.J. Brown

Sometimes I get tired of all the voices talking to me, telling me to do and say things. Mom said they are all in my head, just my imagination running wild. Maybe she’s right, but I don’t think so. Here is why:

The voices—the ones that really are in my head—they always sound like me. Sure, one may be higher pitched than others. One may be deeper. One may sound like a kid, but it is me when I was that kid. One may even be a happy sounding, gayer version of me, but it is still me. One is grumpy and mean-spirited, and I swear one of them is a drunk. Those voices, the ones that whisper for me to do things I probably shouldn’t do, they are all me in some way or other. And I recognize them as me. I guess that is why when I do things—bad things—I know the devil didn’t make me do it, or even the voices in my head. They are all me. I did the things I told me to do. 

Here is another reason, and it is the reason why I have to do what I am about to do:

These other voices are male and female. They are young and old, though I don’t believe any of them are children. And they don’t tell me to do things. They just scream and cry and beg me to set them free. Set them free? Like I can do that?

There’s one other reason:

I’ve only heard them since coming to this hotel. Isn’t that odd? 

elevatorI work here, doing simple janitorial crap, like changing the toilet paper in the bathrooms or wiping down the tables in the hotel restaurant. It’s a lousy job but it puts a roof over my head and it pays me enough so I can eat and go to the movies, and occasionally, visit the street corner ladies down on Market Street. (This I find funny in and of itself—I can choose the woman I want to have a night with on Market Street. Sometimes I think of it as Meat Market Street, but I don’t tell them that—can you imagine how they would take it if I told them they were nothing more than meat to me? That’s beside the point, though.) It’s not much of a living, but it’s better than what I had before. 

Still, I don’t care much for most of the tenants. The ones that come daily are needy and arrogant and somewhat entitled since they pay ‘good money’ to sleep, shower, or get laid here. They want clean sheets and a clean room, and I get that. I do, too, but that is housekeeping, and I don’t do that. I fix sinks and toilets and drill holes in walls so I can watch some of the activities. Three floors of this place and when the right person gets in the right room, well, that’s free entertainment right there.

But I guess some of the tenants don’t care much for that—the lady in 218 who caught me peeking in at her while she showered. She sure had a fit. She tried to get me fired, but my manager—his name is Horace, but I just call him Pudge—couldn’t do it. Well, he tried, but one of those voices—one of my voices—told me I couldn’t let him do that. So, I didn’t.

It took a little bit of persuading for me to get him to the elevator and out of my hair. There’s no actual elevator, but the shaft is there and a drop from the first floor down to the basement didn’t kill him, but it hurt him pretty good. The woman in 218 went down there with him. Come to think of it, a good many of the long term folks have found their way to the elevator shaft. I heard the lady from 218 say Mr. Williams from 311 was dead. He apparently landed awkwardly and broke his neck. 

“Fresh meat,” I yelled back. I laughed—she did not. Humorless tramp.

Now, you see, the voices I’ve been hearing lately aren’t in my head. No, they are in the elevator shaft. Every time I toss someone else in, I look down into the darkness. Hands reach up out of the dark, as if they are coming right out of the shadows. They are women and men, young and old, and they complain and whine and moan and cry and scream so much. It’s driving me nuts.

So here I am, the elevator shaft open, a gas can in hand. They are screaming down there. I guess they don’t like the smell of gas. Whatever, the real voice in my head—the one that is solely me—is tired of competing with them. I light a match and drop it. I see their hands reaching. I hear their screams. And the voices in my head—all of them—scream with them.

__________

I often joke about the voices in my head, all 27 of them. They are young and old, male, and yes, there are a couple of females in there. They are not in control. They are never in control and they usually don’t like it.

The squirrels are in control. However, they usually only last a day at a time. Each day a new squirrel takes over when I wake in the morning. By the end of the day, the squirrel usually dies of exhaustion. Seriously, keeping up with my mind is difficult. The voices laugh and cheer when a squirrel dies. They are sick.

I kid you not when I say that is where this story came from. Seriously. No kidding.

I hope you enjoyed The Voices Inside and Out. Please share, like and comment. I greatly appreciate it.

A.J.

Voices, The Interviews: Stephanie (Part 2 of 2)

If you have not read the first part of this interview with a book character, then please follow this LINK to catch up. Please, keep in mind, this interview contains spoilers, so if you have not read Voices, a collection of short stories, please consider doing so before continuing. You can find Voices HERE.

Lisa had known as well, but …

“Did you plan what you were going to do or …”

“I planned the entire thing. I planned it right down to me dying. If it went wrong, at least I would be dead … and free. If it went right, we both would be dead. It went partially right. He died. I …” Stephanie holds up her arms, shows Lisa the long scars that run from wrists to elbow. “… didn’t.”

She had guts to do something about her situation, Lisa.

Scary GIrl KnifeThe voice of Mr. Worrywort is back, but this time the dripping malice it had before is gone. In this voice is the childish taunt of a scared school yard bully, one that knows when he gets home, his dad is going to do so much worse to him than he could ever do to a third grader with a lisp or who wore glasses or, Heaven forbid, who came from a poor family who couldn’t afford to by him decent clothing and he had to wear the same jeans multiple times a week. 

Lisa pulls her legs up the best she can, but the pain in them and in her hip and her back are too much. One of her knees feels loose, as if it will pop out of place. She lets her legs slide down, but this time not crossing them, afraid her ankles might dislocate if she did so. Her shoulders shake and her chest heaves as a sob tears from her.

“I couldn’t do it,” Lisa says. “I couldn’t do what you did. I wanted to, but I …”

And the realization comes to her, furious in its intent. “I still want … I still want to kill him, but …”

But he is already dead and has been for nearly two decades. In the darkest part of her heart, she hopes he suffered and he died a miserable, lonely and hurting man. She hopes he is suffering now in whatever afterlife there is, be it Hell or something else. If it is Hell, she hopes there is a special place for men who rape helpless little children. In her mind she sees him, bent over a smoldering rock as a line of demons takes their turns with him, doing to him what he did to her. This makes her smile, but it doesn’t take away the truth that she wished she had killed him. That would have been more satisfying for her. 

“I admire your conviction,” she says as she thinks about the light fading, fading, fading from her step father’s eyes, until, finally, it winked out all together. She never got to see that, never got to experience the unadulterated joy of watching the very man who ruined everything about her life die. It angers her. It makes her clench her hands into tight fists. Heat runs up her chest, into her neck, then high on her cheeks. 

“How did it feel, Stephanie?” she says suddenly. “How did it feel to end his life? To end his miserable, worthless existence? How did it feel!?” Her teeth are clenched now and she is not asking a question, but demanding an answer. This is no longer about Stephanie. She thinks it is no longer about any of the characters of a freaking book. It’s been about her the entire time. It’s always been about her. But … but … but …

Stephanie smiles. It is something so haunting and full of despair, Lisa believes the answer will not be what she hopes it will be. “It felt like rebirth,” Stephanie says. “It felt like I was cleansed of … of him.”

Lisa feels her own smile forming. It is something she believes looks similar to Stephanie’s, but now she can feel it, now she understands why Stephanie did it. And she longs to have been able to do to her stepfather what Stephanie did to Carson. 

Maybe I can, she thinks. Maybe …

Go ahead, Mr. Worrywort says in that smooth used car salesman voice. Go ahead and invite him into your head. 

“I think I will,” she responds. “I think I will!”

Even if it’s dangerous?

“Especially because it’s dangerous.”

You won’t do it. You can’t do it. The taunt brings with it laughter.

“Shut up!” she screams and turns on her bottom. A sharp pain races up her hip and into her spine but she pays it no attention at all. She looks at the shadow along the wall, at the thing taunting her this entire time. “Shut your stinking mouth!”

Then she looks back at Stephanie, her eyes burning with anger and full of a lust she has never felt before. “Did it help? Did it help at all?” There is desperation in her voice. 

Stephanie hasn’t moved from her spot on the floor. She looks at Lisa with what can be considered pity. “Yes and …”

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMLisa doesn’t hear the ‘no.’ She only hears the ‘yes,’ and then she grits her teeth tightly together. Some of the characters she interviewed had gone through such terrible things. They all had something in common, something Lisa didn’t have: Revenge. Spencer made a deal with the shadow people and they took Sarah and her boyfriend instead of him. They had picked on him and taunted him, and even tricked him, but in the end, he had gotten the last laugh. Nothing carved his father up with a broken beer bottle, using the very thing his father had thrown at him when he was little. It had shattered and given Nothing his first scar. Sweet Claire shot her dad to death at the biggest awards show of the year. She had acted out the very things she had gone through at his hands, and somehow, she won an award for it. Dane took it a little further than that when she killed her uncle who abused her and then killed every head doctor who came her way, every person who tried to reach her. And poor Brian, who was big for his age and whose father neglected him and his siblings. No, Brian was nothing like his father. Lewis got revenge as well, though not against someone who directly caused him pain. No, he only murdered the man his Michelle had married after she divorced him while he was in prison. It wasn’t jealousy that made him do it, but Michelle’s busted face. Then there was Cody, whose brother Jake, knew the truth about their mother, though with his scrambled brain, he could never really say what that truth was. But it wasn’t their mother Cody got revenge for. It was little Jenny Harris, who died outside of her apartment door, thanks to the brutal rape their father had committed on her. 

And, of course, there was Stephanie, who had been raped by her best friend, a guy she loved, but hadn’t been able to tell at that point. She killed him. She had been courageous and killed him, and she felt good about it. Lisa believes if she asks the young lady if she regrets murdering Carson, the answer will be ‘no.’

What if someone would have stopped each of these people when they first started? What if Nothing’s mom would have left her husband after the beer bottle incident? She wouldn’t have died and Nothing wouldn’t have suffered the way he did. What if Jenny Harris’s mother hadn’t rented the poor child out to one of the drug dealers that first time? Maybe Jenny wouldn’t have died so horribly and alone. What if Michelle didn’t give into her father’s demands to divorce Lewis after he went to prison? Would things have been different? Of course they would have. What if Brian’s father … What if? What if? 

What if you would have killed John when you were old enough to do so? Mr. Worrywort asked, his voice holding the condescending tone of a prosecuting attorney with the defendant on the stand. He wouldn’t have met the other woman. You know, the one with the young daughter? You know you weren’t the only one. Oh no, that man had the lust in him and only little girls could quell it. 

Lisa’s heart sinks as she thinks of that little girl. She never stood a chance. She looks to the door, the one she entered through what feels like ten years ago. She wills it to open. She wills it to do so with a burning hatred in her heart. She wills it, not only to open, but for the very man who started the vicious cycle of rapes and sexual assaults to come strolling through, even though he has been dead nearly two decades. 

Come on, Lisa. Do it. Go kill old dead John.

John! That’s right. All this time she had tried to visualize him, to make him as real as the other characters currently in her head. His name was John and he wasn’t a big guy, but still a giant to a little girl who hadn’t reached first grade yet. 

You can’t do it, Mr. Worrywort laughs. You can’t do it, just like before. You can’t kill him. You’re too scared of him. You’re nothing but a coward.

Something inside of Lisa snaps. “I can and I will,” she growls. Though it hurts her to do so, she rolls onto her knees. The left one wobbles, but she doesn’t wait for it to dislocate or hyperextend. She grabs hold of her seat and pushes up, praying her elbows or wrists don’t buckle with the added pressure. Her arms shake as she does this. Her legs tremble with the effort of standing after being seated on a hard floor for the last few minutes. She gets to her feet and stares hard at the door, even as her body trembles with pain. 

“Walk through the door,” she growls. 

The doorknob clicks and the door opens. In steps a man who hasn’t aged a day, much less one who has died and whose body has probably rotted down to bones with skin like parchment wrapped around them. He is somehow shorter than she recalled. His glasses are thick black plastic with thick lenses that make his blue eyes appear almost as black as his hair. 

She will never be able to recall where the broken bottle came from, but it is there, in her hand. Lisa lets out a hateful scream and runs toward John, the man who has tormented her her entire life. He tries to back away, to turn and run back out the door, but it slams shut. Though her legs and hips and arms feel like they are going to come apart at any moment, she doesn’t let it stop her. The growl tearing from her throat matches the anger in her heart, mind and soul. 

Lisa reaches him as he lets go of the knob. He turns and his eyes are wide and there is no blue to be seen in them behind the thick lenses. She drives the broken bottle downward. John raises an arm to protect himself and the jagged glass rips through his blue uniform shirt, gashing his arm and drawing a crimson spray that splatters against the light yellow wall behind him. 

John backs away, his face no longer that of a predatory monster, but of a scared man, one who knows his bad deeds have caught up with him. Lisa slashes at him again, this time connecting with an outstretched hand. Three of his fingers open up and tip backward. Lisa sees none of this and drives the bottle at him again, this time catching him in the shoulder. John stumbles backward, strikes the wall and falls, leaving a swath of his blood behind.

Lisa, feeling young and spry and moving like a woman in her late teens with no pains in her joints, drops onto John. She slams the bottle down, striking him over and over in his chest, shoulder, stomach, anywhere his arms aren’t trying to block. She doesn’t hear his screams or his pleading. Her brain blocks out all noises. She doesn’t need that nightmare playing over and over in her head. The bottle strikes John’s face. A piece of green glass breaks off in his cheek. 

John tries to shove her away, but manages only to doom himself. Lisa lifts the bottle high above her head and brings it down into the side of his neck. The bottle rips through the vulnerable skin and tissue there, spraying blood on her body and face. He coughs several times. A fine mist of blood and saliva fills the air around them, then falls to the floor like red rain. His shredded hands fall away and his body relaxes against the floor. 

Broken HeartHer breaths are hard and painful. A million pins poke at her legs, hips, back, shoulders, elbows and even her fingers. She stands, slips in the blood, but catches herself on the wall. Any other time and that slip would have sent her to the floor, with one or more dislocations in her hips and legs. Her chest heaves up and down and the look on her face is nothing shy of insanity. It is a look she feels and she likes it.

“Walk through the door,” she says again. The world that was is now gone. She feels heat boiling up from the depths of the Hell parts of her her life has been. 

The door clicks and opens again and a tall man. clean shaven and wearing the bewildered expression of someone who has been in a coma and has just woken. His hair is brown and she knows him right away as Claire Edgecomb’s father. The front of his dress shirt is a blossom of red and his face holds the pale, pale skin of someone who has lost a lot of blood. 

She lifts her hands and in them are guns. She points them at him. 

“No.”

Lisa turns. Standing at her chair is Claire and she is shaking her head. 

“He is mine,” Claire says and lifts her own gun. It is something she has held before and it belongs in her hand. She pulls the trigger. The blast is loud and the center of her father’s chest opens up again. He spins in a macabre pirouette and strikes the wall near where John lays dead. He bounces off the wall and falls to the floor.

Claire lower the gun, and from somewhere else in the room comes the words, “Walk through the door.” 

Like before, the door opens and in walks Cody and Jake’s Dad, but there is no Cody or Jake. Instead, there is Jenny Harris and her torn and broken body. She clutches a huge knife in her little hands. She appears behind him and brings the knife across the backs of his knees. Face first, he falls and clutches at his legs, his screams are loud at first, but end quickly when Jenny brings the knife down on his back.

Again, the words, “Walk through the door,” comes and Nothing’s Dad enters the room. Then comes Dane’s tormentor, her uncle who thought little girls were his playground. Followed by him are the duo of Sarah and Bobby, there bodies mangled masses of flesh, their faces ripped and torn. Brian’s dad appears next, limping, his face sagging on his busted skull. 

Brian walks toward him, a bloodied hammer in hand. He cocks his head but doesn’t raise the hammer. He only stares at the man who had been his father once upon a time on the pages of a book, one where violence seemed to rule each story. 

“No, son,” Lewis says. He steps up beside Brian and takes his hand. “You’ve done your deed. No need to repeat it.”

Brian gives a simple nod, then drops the hammer. It clatters on the floor, one that had vanished while Lisa exacted a measure of revenge on the man who first touched her in a way he should have never done. 

Lisa is breathing much too hard for her liking and there are no longer guns in her hand, but the broken bottle she used on John. The adrenaline that had coursed through her blood earlier is now gone and the pain, true and raw, inches its way along the nerves of her body. She stumbles, weak and exhausted, hoping to get to her seat before she collapses to the floor and suffers the very real possibility of broken bones. 

I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to make it.

Her hands go out in front of her. Not that they will do much good. A fall on this hard floor would surely break bones in her hands and wrists, at the very least. She tilts forward and braces herself for the pain she is about to be in.

It is Stephanie who catches her and keeps her from the devastation of the fall. She holds her up, balances her the best she can, then helps Lisa to her seat. Her muscles ache and she lets out weak breath after weak breath. She closes her eyes. She wants to be done with this. The interviews have opened so many memories and let out so many … voices. She shakes her head and wishes herself back to the room where the writer waits for her return. When she opens her eyes, the room is still there. Lisa lets out a laughing sob. 

“I can’t leave until it is finished,” she says. Her voice sounds so far away, as if it belongs to someone else and she is not in this broken body, but outside of it, watching, watching, watching. 

“Until what’s finished?” Stephanie asks. 

Lisa turns to the young woman who looks at her with a frown that holds more sorrow in it than before they began talking. “This,” she says and lifts her aching arms as if to say, ‘look around you.’

She realizes then that she has one more question for Stephanie. She sits up in her seat the best she can.

“Stephanie, did you learn to trust men again?”

Stephanie doesn’t answer the question. Instead, she poses one of her own. “Did you?”

Lisa laughs. “Did I?”

“Yes. Did you learn to trust men again?”

Lisa gives a slow shake of her head. It’s an easy question to answer, but one burdened by the truth and sadness of it all. “Not completely, no.”

“Then maybe I can help.”

Lisa and Stephanie both look to the young man—well, younger than Lisa, but older than Stephanie. He has a sheepish smile on his face, one that says ‘you can trust me,’ though Lisa doubts that very much.

“How can you help me?”

“I know a place and I know a person.”

Voices: The Interviews: Stephanie (Part 1 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

Before reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our little project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum. 

No, this is not your typical interview session. What I want to do is make each interview like a story, one that continues until we reach the end. Some of these are going to be short. Some of them might be long. I don’t know. Like you, I will find out just how long each interview is based on the questions Lisa provides me. I don’t know the questions ahead of time and neither do the characters.

Since this is an interview, I will go ahead and say up front there are spoilers in each session. If you have not read Voices, I urge you to do so before continuing (you can pick up a copy here). If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers. 

One more thing before reading: if you have read Voices and would like to ask a question of today’s character, leave a comment at the end, and I will see about getting an answer from the character for you. Don’t be shy, ask your questions. You may get an interesting response.

SESSION 14 

Part 1

She is breathless and heartbroken. The little girl never had a chance in life. How she made it as long as she did before her death is nothing short of a miracle in Lisa’s eyes. But it hurt. Yes, it hurt Lisa to talk to this little girl the way she did. A part of Lisa—a part so deep down inside it made her soul ache—hated how she had to pull the answers from Jenny. Another part, the part of her that was not just deep down inside, but a part she keeps hidden from most people who know her, realizes Jenny was like her when she was a child: sweet and innocent until ….

Until it was taken from me.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMHer heart shatters and she leans forward in her chair. Her arms go around her stomach. Nausea swims in her belly and pushes upward toward her throat. Tears form again in her rimmed red eyes. She feels like she has been crying for more than a couple of hours. 

It’s been days, weeks, months and years … so many years. 

Remembering life as that little girl, first with the innocence of life and the future, then … then with the pain and the skewed view of self worth (or a lack there of) made her ache worse for this poor child. Without warning, Lisa suddenly hates the writer, the one who asked her to do these interviews, to talk to the ones whose voices controlled them until they either conquered or gave in. She rocks in her seat, not caring if any of these … these … ghosts see her. Though she knows they are not truly ghosts but people from the Land of Make Believe; that they came from the pages and will return when they are finished, she absolutely knows in her heart they are spirits, and each one of them experienced their own form of torture, their own Hell. She hates the writer for peeking into her heart and into the spaces where so few have gone and where her innocence died. She hates him as strongly right then as she ever hated anyone. 

That’s irrational, she thinks as she rocks in her creaking chair, as she clutches her stomach and prays no vomit will come. But is it? Is it irrational to hate someone who only wrote a book about people and the bad things they do or that happen to them? Is it rational to hate someone who asked a question that led to another one and another one? Is it irrational to hate someone who didn’t make her relive the painful events of her past, but yet somehow she did? Is it? Is it? Is it?!

She doesn’t believe so, even as the hate subsides a little, even as the pain in her heart that fills her very body and soul tells her it is okay to hate him. That has to be directed at someone or it will eat her up. 

It’s not his fault. She fully believes this. He didn’t do anything to her. He didn’t twist her arm. He didn’t do … what others had. 

The hate falters and she sags in her chair. She wants nothing more than to close her eyes and …

No! No! Nononono! I have to see this through. I have to. If not for me, then for her. 

Her? 

Yes, her. 

As if she had spoken her name, the young lady is there, sitting, not on her chair like the others, but on the floor. Her head is down and she wears a pair of gray jogging pants and a plain white T-shirt. It could have been her dad’s or a 

(best friend’s)

boyfriend’s. Lisa knows better. She wouldn’t wear a man’s shirt—not one that belonged to a man anyway. Not after …

Lisa takes a deep breath. She is going to do something she knows she will pay for dearly later. She scoots to the edge of her seat. The thought of kneeling onto the floor makes her joints hurt. The act of doing it is far worse. She eases herself down to the floor. It is cool on her bottom and she knows that might be the only time for the remainder of the day, and maybe even days to come, that she feels anything other than pain. Still, she sees the young lady and hopes it will be worth it.

No pain, no gain, she thinks. Her inner self shakes her head and rolls her eyes. Behind her Mr. Worrywort chuckles. She tunes him out the best she can and gets onto her hands and knees. The first crawling step forward sends slivers of pain into her left knee, thigh and hip. The next one does the same to her right leg. By the time she reaches the young lady sitting on the floor, her head still down, her hair dangling and covering her face, the lower part of Lisa’s body is on fire. Joints and muscles scream their indignities at her, and when she lets herself fall onto her bottom, she lets out the first of many long, agonized  breaths. 

It takes a couple of minutes for her to compose herself, but when she does, she looks to the young lady she now sits beside. She reaches a hand out, then stops. She drops it back down. 

“Stephanie,” she says in her best motherly voice. “Stephanie, are you in there?”

Of course she’s in there, Lisa. She just might not want to come out and socialize. 

She knows this to be true. She’s been where Stephanie is now—in her own head, replaying the events that led her to do what she did. She not only feels violated by what happened to her and by who was involved, she also feels guilty for what she did. Once upon a time, Lisa was in that head space, and sometimes, she believes she still is. But the strength to kill someone, to seek out and take full revenge on someone who had hurt her, Lisa doesn’t know completely. Sure, she played out multiple scenarios in her head, but she could never go through with the act. For that, she feels weak and maybe even unworthy to talk to Stephanie.

Lisa reaches her hand up again. This time she touches the young woman’s hair. It is in need of washing and it doesn’t sit on her fingers like it should. She pulls a few locks of hair away from Stephanie’s face and tucks it behind her ear. “Stephanie. My name is Lisa, and I’ve been where you are. I know what you are feeling.”

Stephanie doesn’t move at first. She only stairs down at her hands.

“Stephanie, I have a secret I want to tell you.”

Lisa swallows. She closes her eyes and lets the moment flow through her. She leans in, places her lips near Stephanie’s ears and whispers, “I was raped, too. Several times.”

Stephanie slowly looks from her hands to out in front of her. Then, she turns her head and stares directly at Lisa. Her green eyes aren’t dull like Lisa thought they would be. They glisten with tears in them. 

“Hello, Stephanie.”

“You were raped?” Her voice sounds weak, or maybe it had been asleep and had only woken seconds earlier. 

“Yes. Several times by men I trusted.”

 “I’m sorry.”

“Me too, but I can’t change what happened to me. I couldn’t do what you did. You’re very brave. I admire what … admire your … Um … I admire your strength.”

“I wasn’t strong.”

“Oh, but you were. You are.”

Stephanie shakes her head. The hair Lisa had tucked behind her ear falls away and drops to the side of her face. “I wasn’t brave.”

“But you …”

“The dead helped me.”

“The dead helped you?”

“Susannah. She told me I wasn’t dead, yet.”

“Susannah?”

“Yes.”

“The dead girl?”

“Yes.”

“So, Stephanie, um, how did you find Susannah’s grave?”

“I went to die,” Stephanie said. “I wanted to be over the pain and guilt and the feeling of being nothing but meat to someone.” She laughed a mournful laugh. “I guess I deserved it, you know. I brought this on myself and … and … I … I guess she found me there.”

“Susannah found you?”

“When I was walking through the cemetery. She … she called me.”

“Called you?”

“Called me.”

Lisa understands this. She lives in a house near a graveyard and often feels the need—not the want, but the actual need, as if the very threads of her sanity depends on it—to walk through it, touch some of the headstones, have conversations with those who no longer have family to visit them. She understands the calling Stephanie speaks of, and she is jealous of the young lady. Where was the dead when she needed them all those years ago? Where are the dead now?

Broken Heart.jpg“A lot of people are afraid of graveyards,” Lisa says. “They find them … spooky. Scary. You and I know they … they are not so scary. But you are not afraid of them. Of cemeteries. Why not?”

“The dead can’t hurt me,” Stephanie responds. “Only the living can.”

So true. So very true.

Lisa realizes right then that her notepad is laying on the floor by her seat. All the questions she meant to ask Stephanie were on a page with the young lady’s name at the top of it. The notepad is facedown and several of the pages are skewed. It’s the notepad that makes her change the subject to something she is curious about. She thinks of Dane, the girl with the fear of numbers. A male head doctor played a prominent role in her story. He had a yellow notepad similar to Lisa’s. Stephanie’s therapist …

“I can’t help but wonder: how did you get stuck with a male therapist? That had to be … to be …” She pauses for several seconds, then continues. “How did that happen?”

Stephanie shrugs. “They didn’t think a woman would understand what happened to me? Or maybe she couldn’t be, I don’t know, unbiased because she was a woman? Or maybe they thought I was dangerous? I don’t know.”

“Are you dangerous”

Stephanie says three words in a voice so firm and resolute that Lisa completely believes her: “Not to women.”

Lisa thinks back to after she had been attacked, assaulted … whatever people want to call it these days. To her, it was, and always will be, rape. It had been an unwelcome and unwanted violation of her body. And it didn’t happen just once. She had been like a magnet for bad men, starting at an age far earlier than most. She tries to block out the bad things done to her before she turned six. She doesn’t try to block out her friends, what a few of them had done to her one night when it was her and a bunch of the boys and the boys wanted what she had but didn’t offer to them. She doesn’t block out her ex-husband, a man she loved at one point and who she thought loved her. She feels every touch, every insult, every violation and the anger she felt years before (and even sometimes now when she thinks on it like she is right then), comes rushing back. 

“They should have never put you with a male therapist,” she growls.

Another shrug, but this time Stephanie doesn’t say anything.

“It was unfair to you. I bet he didn’t get it, did he?”

Stephanie looks at her with big doe eyes. It’s as if she sees something in Lisa she hadn’t just moments before. “He was a man.”

Lisa is shaking her head now, almost furiously. Her bottom lip is tucked under her top teeth. Her nostrils flair. “Did he ever get to where he understood?”

“No.” Stephanie is looking down at her hands, at the crescent moon scars her own nails left behind after so many times of digging them into her own palms.

“Of course not,” Lisa snaps, then stops. Stephanie’s eyes are wider now. Lisa’s voice is softer when she speaks next. “Sorry. I guess I knew the answer to that question already. And the truth is how could he? How could he  ever understand? Unless he was raped, he wouldn’t. No man would.”

She closes her eyes and tries to focus on Stephanie, to push her own sorrows and anger aside and asks the tough questions, questions she might already know the answers to.

“Stephanie, I don’t want to sound like an insensitive shrink, but please, if you can, tell me, how did you feel when you realized it was him? Carlton? Your friend! How did you feel when you knew you’d been betrayed by someone you trusted? How did you feel about that? That initial feeling when you knew, you knew …” Lisa realizes her questions came rushing out of her and with that same vehemence as the hate in her own heart. Behind her—no, all around her—she hears the gleeful laughter of Mr. Worrywort. He is no longer just some shadow on the wall or a figment of one man’s imagination. He is very real and very much in her head. He is getting to her and … and … she is not in the least bit concerned about getting him out of her head.

Deep breath, Lisa. Deep breath.

(Take all the deep breaths you want. It’s not going to help.)

Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep breath.

I’m sorry. Um, Stephanie, how did you feel initially? When you remembered your rapist was your friend?”

Stephanie’s head shakes, as does her hands. She clenches them into fists and Lisa knows if the young woman had fingernails they would be sunk down to the quick into her palms and the crescent moon scars would have been reopened. Her jaw clenches and her breaths are quick and shallow.

“Stephanie?”

“I broke,” she says and looks at Lisa. Her eyes are puffy from crying. Her face is stained with tears. “I broke. My heart. My soul. My … my entire world died. He wasn’t just my best friend, but I … I … loved him. I mean, I loved him.” She’s crying hard now. Snot trickles from her nose. Her face is pulled down and her eyes are almost completely closed.“I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t think he loved me. I thought we were just going to be friends, and I was okay if that was what he wanted. But … but … he wanted something else. He wanted it and he took it and … and … and …” 

The next words she speaks are illegible and she sniffs up the snot on the edge of her lip. She wipes her nose and mouth with the back of one hand and then rubs it on her jogging pants. She inhales, releases it, inhales again. She does this several times until she is composed enough to continue. 

“He beat me. He didn’t just rape me. He beat me. Me! His best friend. He beat me like he never had any feelings for me, like I was a stranger and he knew nothing about me, my dreams, what I wanted out of life. It was like he never knew how much I truly cared about him.”

She wipes her eyes with the balls of her palms. “I hate him, now. I hate him so much.”

Lisa nods. She understands this all too well. Though she had been raped several times, she only truly hated one of the men who did the deed: her stepfather. He was the one who first touched her when she was a child, long before she developed anything that remotely looked feminine, other than the area between her legs. It was that area he wanted, that area he took. 

It wasn’t until later, after the other rapes, after her ex-husband took what he wanted while she slept, that she sought one on one therapy. The women’s group she had attended did little for her except maybe make her feel less like a survivor and more like a victim, something she tried hard to not be, not to become. Yet, she had become that very thing. 

“It’s the victim mentality,” the therapist said. She was a mousy woman, slight of build with short gray hair and glasses that hung off the tip of her nose. She held a yellow pad in her lap as she sat behind a desk, not in a chair, cross-legged with hose coming up to her knees. “You are still with your husband because you have a victim’s mentality. Your only worth is in being a victim. You don’t want to escape your situation. Without it, you are, essentially, nothing in your mind. Until you change that, Lisa, you will always be a victim and never be a survivor.”

She wanted to change. She wanted to no longer be the victim, but …

“All of this stems from being raped as a little girl. If that doesn’t happen …” the shrink looked down at her, over her glasses like a professor about to give a troubled student a flunking grade. “… you probably never get raped by anyone. But what happened to you when you were a little girl defined you, who you were, who you are and who you will be.”

Her mind is racing now. Heat feels her body and that horrid nausea is back. After that visit to the therapist, she quit going. All the years leading up to that, she had treated the symptoms, but never got to the root cause of the problem. Now she knew where it had its roots and all she wanted to do was …

“When did you decide to end him?” Lisa asks. 

Stephanie gives Lisa a look of stunned amazement. It is clear she didn’t expect the question, but it was out there and Lisa hopes she will answer it. 

“The very moment I realized he raped me. I knew I would kill him.”

Lisa had known as well, but …

To be continued.

The Scarring, An Excerpt

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMThe following is an excerpt from The Scarring, one of fifteen stories in the collection, Voices. You can find Voices on Amazon here, or you can contact A.J. Brown directly at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com if you would like an autographed print version of the collection.

The Scarring (an excerpt)

On the bed lay the drunken man, his eyes wide and bloodshot. They darted from side to side. His mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water, but he only managed a few strangled croaks. His arms and legs were bound to the bedposts with ropes. He was as naked as the day he came into the world.
“Do you hate?”

“Yes.”

###

The first scar came at the age of eleven, courtesy of an angry father and a bottle of whiskey. He had ducked when the old man threw the bottle. It shattered against the wall, slivers of glass spraying back at him, along with the remainder of the caramel-colored liquid.

Voices Promo 1 The ScarringHe probably wouldn’t have been scarred if only small pieces of glass had pricked his skin. If not for the old man’s follow-up to the bottle toss, he would have been just fine. But the old man chased the broken glass like a beer at a drinking party, and the smack to the back of the head was unseen. He—Nothing was his name—went sprawling backward, hands out behind him, a heavy sting on the side of his face. A gash appeared from mid-forearm to elbow when he landed among the shattered glass.

Nothing bled. He cried, and as he did so, his father wailed on him, telling him to “clam it up, boy, or I’ll clam it up for you.”

Mom stitched him up with a sewing needle and thread as thick as fishing line. Nothing wasn’t sure which was worse, the initial slice of skin by glass or the constant poke of the needle and tug of thread.

The skin puckered over time, leaving a pink welt of flesh that grew as he grew, never shrinking, and a constant reminder …

Voices, The Interviews: Jenny

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

Before reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our little project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum. 

No, this is not your typical interview session. What I want to do is make each interview like a story, one that continues until we reach the end. Some of these are going to be short. Some of them might be long. I don’t know. Like you, I will find out just how long each interview is based on the questions Lisa provides me. I don’t know the questions ahead of time and neither do the characters.

Since this is an interview, I will go ahead and say up front there are spoilers in each session. If you have not read Voices, I urge you to do so before continuing (you can pick up a copy here. If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers. 

One more thing before the first session: if you have read Voices and would like to ask a question of today’s character, leave a comment at the end, and I will see about getting an answer from the character for you. Don’t be shy, ask your questions. You may get an interesting response.

SESSION 13: JENNY

… With that said, Danny stands, picks up his chair, and takes it back to where he originally was. He sits, and Lisa turns her attention to the notepad once again. She flips the page, and her breath vanishes. The name at the top of the sheet makes her stomach turn. Angry moths flutter about inside, and she suddenly wants to throw up. Lisa stares at it and realizes she is getting very close to the end of the interviews. There are just three people left, two of which she knows could be the most difficult of them all. 

As she sits, staring at the name at the top of the page, written in her hand, she knows when she looks up, the interviewee will be in sight, just as all the rest of them have been. 

“Go ahead,” the silky wet voice comes from beside her left ear. A cold finger traces down her arm, leaving a white line in its wake, until it runs out of skin and touches the paper. The finger tapping it is charcoal black with a long pail nail on its end. “Go ahead, Lisa. Look up. Have a chat with little Jenny Harris, the dead girl.”

She shakes her head. This is too much. This is way more than she bargained for. There is too much … too much …

“Too much what?” Mr. Worrywort whispers. His tongue slithers from his mouth and licks the side of her face. Though it is as dry as sandpaper, she imagines it leaving a slimy residue behind. 

“Too much pain in this room.”

Mr. Worrywort lets out a whistle. It is not shrill and high-pitched, but low and as mournful as the sound of a train in the middle of a cold night. It’s haunting, and her body jerks from the shock of it. He laughs, a throaty sound that scares her. And that is something she wishes she could control: her fear. It is also something she doesn’t believe she is going to be able to get hold of right away. The shock of Mr. Worrywort’s gleeful voice shakes her badly. “Not enough pain,” he says, his voice like dry leaves rubbing together.

Not enough? she thinks. You’ve got to be kidding.

“Look, Lisa. Look at …” he pauses, as if he doesn’t know what he wishes to say. “Look at herrrrrr.”

Mr. Worrywort taps the pad on Lisa’s lap. She glances at it: Jenny.

Lisa looks up. There, in one of the chairs is the waif of a child, too thin to be healthy, her clothes dirty and her eyes sitting in the deep hollows of her sockets. Her bottom lip is chapped and cracked, and her skin is like ivory. A skirt covers her thighs, but Lisa can see her knees are bruised, and is that blood along the inner parts of her calves? The little girl looks down at her hands, turns them over. Her fingers are brittle sticks, the fingernails cracked and dirty.

Lisa opens her mouth to speak, but finds she can’t. Her mouth is dry, and her tongue feels much too large. The girl looks up, and Lisa’s tongue almost shrinks to the back of her throat. The eyes are void of any shine and hold the glazed over look of someone who is no longer among the living. 

Lisa lets out a long breath and forces herself to speak. “Hello … hello, Jenny.”

The little girl says nothing. 

“No one will hurt you here,” Lisa coaxes. “I won’t let them.”

Still, Jenny doesn’t speak. She doesn’t move. She doesn’t blink. She is as still as a … as a corpse. She imagines if she was to touch Jenny’s skin it would be cold and stiff.

“Can we talk, Jenny? Is that okay?”

Jenny finally moves her head, slightly cocking it to the side.

 

“I want you to be okay with it. I’m not going to force you to do anything. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Lisa barely hears Jenny’s voice. It is not more than a whisper and sounds like it hurts for her to speak. 

“Are you sure you want to talk to me?”

She nods, a simple dip of her head, down, then up. “Yes.”

“Okay, Jenny.” Lisa looks down at the notepad. Her stomach rumbles and she truly believes she is going to throw up right there, just let it all out onto the floor between herself and Jenny. When she doesn’t vomit, she proceeds. “Remember when you were nine, and those boys saw your momma give you to the bad men? Was that the first time?”

Her head moves slowly to the left, then the right, then back to center. “No.”

Lisa’s heart sinks into her stomach, joining the angry black moths and the sour milk threatening to come up.

“So, there were other times?”

Jenny nods.

“Do you know how many times she gave you away like that?”

Again, left, right, center. “No.”

Lisa licks her lips. “Do you know how many times there were after the time the boys saw you? Do you remember?”

“No.”

“She’s not going to talk to you, Lisa.” Mr. Worrywort says. He is still standing behind her. His hands settle on her shoulders.

Lisa stiffens. She doesn’t take her eyes off of Jenny, who is now looking, not at Lisa, but beyond her, behind her, to the shadow of a man standing over her. 

“Jenny, are you going to talk to me? You said you would, but so far, you don’t seem to want to.”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Mr. Worrywort’s hands falls away from Lisa’s shoulders. 

“Okay.” Lisa swallows the nothing in her mouth. “Did your momma ever tell you why?”

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PM“Why what?”

“Why she gave you to those men?”

Jenny shrugs. The breath she takes is visibly deep and when she releases it, something in her rattles. Tears form in her dead eyes.

“It’s okay, Jenny. You don’t have to say. You don’t—“

“Momma likes men. She doesn’t like me.”

“Then why didn’t she give herself to the men if she liked them so much?”

“They don’t like her.”

“But they like you?”

One side of Jenny’s lips inch up in a sad, haunting smile. She doesn’t answer the question. She doesn’t need to. The sour milk and angry moths begin to give way to a hot anger of her own. 

What is wrong with some people?

  

Lisa licks her lips. “How did your momma treat you other than that? Other than giving you to the bad men?”

The terrible smile remains and the dead stare seems to grow more distant, something Lisa doesn’t believe, even though she sees it. 

“The men weren’t the bad ones. Momma was the bad person. She gave me to them for her powder.”

“Her powder?”

Jenny nods. “She sniffed it on the kitchen table.”

“Oh … her powder.” Lisa’s eyes are wide. She had a feeling that is what Jenny meant, but it didn’t register, not right away. Once it did, that anger boils up like lava in a volcano threatening to erupt.

“Quite the wretch, her momma,” Mr. Worrywort says. The cheer in his voice makes Lisa want to stand and punch him as hard as she can. To do that would mean she would have to look at him, face to face, woman to … whatever he is. She isn’t quite ready for that, but she has a feeling if she wants to get out of here with her sanity after the interviews are over, she is going to have to look him in his 

(dead)

eyes. She shudders at the thought and turns all of her attention back to Jenny. She notices the little girl’s skin has changed. The pale white has given way to a tinge of gray. The blood she thought she saw on Jenny’s inner calves is more visible on the hem of her dress, and has it dripped onto the floor beneath her feet?

“Jenny, did your momma know Jake and Cody’s dad had you?”

The smile falters. “Yes.”

“Did she give you to him, too?”

Jenny nods.

“Some people will do anything, Lissssaaa.” 

She ignores the hateful voice behind her the best she can, even as her skin crawls and the hairs on the back of her neck stand on ends. “Can you tell me what happened? You don’t have to, but I would like it if you could.”

“He hurt me. He … hurt me.” 

Jenny’s hands are trembling. The nails on her fingers have become a light purple and her skin has grown a darker shade of gray, almost like the color of ash in a fire pit.

“Oh, you’re going to make her suffer, aren’t you? I’m going to enjoy this.”

Lisa’s hands clench into fists as the heat on her face intensifies. She relaxes them, tries to remain calm, and stares at Jenny. She can see the torture in the poor child’s eyes, even if they are void of any other emotion. Death has a way of showing people the last visages of life before it fades out, and what Lisa sees on Jenny’s face is fear mixed with the pain of being ripped open in her soft spots by a horrible man and allowed to do so by an even more horrible woman. 

“It’s okay,” Lisa blurts out. “You don’t have to say what happened. I have a feeling I know already.”

Jenny opens her mouth to speak and the tendons in her jaw creak. Both sides of her lips where bottom meets top cracks, but no blood spills from the wounds. Lisa closes her eyes, opens them and is staring at the notepad. She looks back up at the now decaying little girl and tries to hold herself together in hopes of getting through the last couple of questions. She’s not sure she’ll be able to without going absolutely mad with heartache.

“Your … your spirit got trapped after …” Lisa can’t keep a clear thought in her head. Everything runs together. “… it got trapped after … after what happened after … after it was over …”

Mr. Worrywort laughs, high-pitched and full of joy. He has fallen away from her, but still close by. Lisa feels desperation rising in her heart. Not only is her skin humming, her stomach quivers and both of the heels of her feet bounce up and down, her toes feeling numb from the pressure on them.

“Do you remember that, Jenny? Do you remember being trapped?”  

“Trapped?”

“Yes! Trapped! Do you remember being trapped after you died?!”

Mr. Worrywort’s laughter suddenly ceases. Lisa can feel him staring at the back of her head. He—like herself—probably didn’t expect her to tell Jenny she had died, but she had, and now all she can do is watch the little girl and hope she will respond.

“I remember pain and crying and his nasty breath as he did … things … to me. I remember screaming for him to stop. I remember being slapped and …” her voice grows louder and her words begin to come out faster as she speaks, even as she stares at her no longer shaking hands. “I remember the burn of a cigarette on my stomach. I remember the pillow on my face. I remember wet and sticky and sweat and …” Still, her words grow faster and the center of her bottom lip cracks and the skin around the edges of the sides of her lips begins to tear. “I remember walking through the apartment and reachingforthedoorknobandleaving. Irememberfallingasleepagainstthewallanddreamingeverythingoverandoveragainandwantingtowakeup …”

Lisa’s face is streaked with tears and her lips are pulled down in a frown so sad and so long, she fears she will never be able to smile again. Behind her, Mr. Worrywort is clapping his hands and shouting like a mad preacher giving the gospel of hellfire and brimstone and all the bad little boys and girls are going to go to Ha-yell!

Jenny stops. As suddenly as she started, she stops. She looks at Lisa with her now white-filmed eyes. “I couldn’t wake up,” she whispers.

Then there is silence. Jenny’s body sags, as if all the life that had ever been in her is now truly gone. Mr. Worrywort’s clapping stops, but he is still there. She can feel him. Lisa’s sobs end with a sniffle and a deep breath. 

“But Jake set you free … remember? When … when he killed his dad.”

Jenny’s face holds the tattered ruins of innocence lost. Her head lulls on her shoulders for several seconds before her neck seems to gather strength. She looks up at Lisa and her lips are no longer cracked and splintered. Her skin is not ashen, but back to a light shade of gray, almost as if she is reverting back to the way she was when she first appeared.

Lisa is careful when she asks the next question, but she feels it is necessary. “Jenny, do you hate your mother?”

The once sad smile became wide, showing glints of grayed teeth. She doesn’t respond, but Lisa knows the answer. She supposes she always knew.

“What would you say to her if you could?”

Jenny’s dead, glossed over eyes stare straight at Lisa and she says one word. “Nothing.”

Voices, The Interviews: Danny

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

Before reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our little project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum. 

No, this is not your typical interview session. What I want to do is make each interview like a story, one that continues until we reach the end. Some of these are going to be short. Some of them might be long. I don’t know. Like you, I will find out just how long each interview is based on the questions Lisa provides me. I don’t know the questions ahead of time and neither do the characters.

Since this is an interview, I will go ahead and say up front there are spoilers in each session. If you have not read Voices, I urge you to do so before continuing (you can pick up a copy here: HERE). If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers. 

One more thing before the first session: if you have read Voices and would like to ask a question of today’s character, leave a comment at the end, and I will see about getting an answer from the character for you. Don’t be shy, ask your questions. You may get an interesting response.

SESSION 12

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t cause this,” she says.

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

“I didn’t.”

“You didn’t what, Ma’am?”

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

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

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

“Yeah, he did.”

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

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

“Hello.”

“Do you prefer Danny or Coach?”

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That makes sense. Does it frighten you?”

“Every time.”

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

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

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

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

“Can you see him?” Lisa asks. 

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED …

Reflections On the Year Gone By Part 2

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

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

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

 

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Scream Horror Magazine reviewed Voices and said:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Part 1: Spencer from In the Shadows They Hide       

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

Part 3: Lena and Nothing from The Scarring        

Part 4: Claire from Claire, The Movie         

Part 5: Jeddy from Black Storms      

Part 6: B from Anymore    

Part 7: Dave from Crisp Sounds      

Part 8: Dane from  Numbers                

Part 9: The Angel from To Bleed     

Part 10: Brian from Not Like You  

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued …

Voices, The Interviews: Lewis

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

Before reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our little project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum. 

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMNo, this is not your typical interview session. What I want to do is make each interview like a story, one that continues until we reach the end. Some of these are going to be short. Some of them might be long. I don’t know. Like you, I will find out just how long each interview is based on the questions Lisa provides me. I don’t know the questions ahead of time and neither do the characters.

Since this is an interview, I will go ahead and say up front there are spoilers in each session. If you have not read Voices, I urge you to do so before continuing (you can pick up a copy here: If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers. 

One more thing before the first session: if you have read Voices and would like to ask a question of today’s character, leave a comment at the end, and I will see about getting an answer from the character for you. Don’t be shy, ask your questions. You may get an interesting response.

SESSION 11

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

“Hello, Lewis,” Lisa says.

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

“How are you today?”

“I’m fine, Ma’am. You?”

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

Lewis nods. “That be fine, Ma’am.”

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

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

“Candid?”

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

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

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

“Love?”

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

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

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

“You endured a lot in prison, Lewis.”

He shrugs. “Yes, Ma’am.”

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

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

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

“It’s the only way in prison, Ma’am.”

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

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

“You obviously loved your wife very much.”

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

  

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

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

“What about when you killed the other man?”

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED …

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

Voices, The Interviews: Brian

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

Before reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our little project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum. 

No, this is not your typical interview session. What I want to do is make each interview like a story, one that continues until we reach the end. Some of these are going to be short. Some of them might be long. I don’t know. Like you, I will find out just how long each interview is based on the questions Lisa provides me. I don’t know the questions ahead of time and neither do the characters.

Since this is an interview, I will go ahead and say up front there are spoilers in each session. If you have not read Voices, I urge you to do so before continuing (you can pick up a copy here. If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers. 

One more thing before the first session: if you have read Voices and would like to ask a question of today’s character, leave a comment at the end, and I will see about getting an answer from the character for you. Don’t be shy, ask your questions. You may get an interesting response.

SESSION 10

She is tired. Her body sags. Her legs are weak. Lisa wants to take a nap, to go home and be done with these interviews. Yes, she knows it’s not time to be done, but some of these conversations have been intense and that tension has worn on her body, on her mind, and maybe even on her soul.

The cut on Lisa’s arm isn’t too deep. It bleeds, but not like it could have. She sees the blood that spilled down her arm and is dismayed by how bright the red is, or rather, how much of it there is.

“Excuse me, Ma’am,”

She turns her eyes to the young boy standing in front of her, his arm extended, a white kerchief in it. He is a big boy, probably quite big for his age. His eyes hold a distant stare in them, though he looks directly at her. 

“You’re bleeding.”

“Thank you,” Lisa says and takes the handkerchief. 

The boy nods, turns and lumbers back to his seat. She is amazed at how soft and gentle his voice is, especially being such a big boy. No, he’s not fat, just big and tall with sweet eyes that seem too innocent for any wrong doing, especially … Lisa shakes her head. She knows who he is, just as she has known most of the characters.

“Hello Brian.”

“Hi,” he responds. 

“Can we talk? Is that okay?”

“Sure.”

“First, let’s talk about your grandparents.”

“Okay.”

“You love your grandparents, don’t you?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“How long have you lived with them?”

Brian looks up at the ceiling. Lisa does, too, and she stares at where Dane’s family once tried to come through.

“Well, I’m ten now, and I’ve been with them since I was four. So that’s …” He holds up his fingers, then counts backwards silently, until six fingers remain. “Six years.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMThat’s a long time, Lisa thinks. “Do you like living with them?”

He nods. It’s a quick jerk of the head. “Yeah. Their place is clean.”

“Clean?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s no bugs, and they don’t smoke, so the house doesn’t stink.”

An image appears in Lisa’s mind. It’s of a boy lying in bed in the middle of the night. On the bed is a large roach. It crawls along the cover and then onto the exposed skin of the young boy. She shivers, pushes the thought away.

“Do you like going to church with grandparents?”

“Yeah.”

Simple, quick answers. As Lisa looks at him, she sees there is no need for him to think up an answer. He’s as honest as they come, and the responses he gives her are genuine.

“Do you get along with your brother and sister?”

“My sister is cool, but my little brother is a butthead.”

Lisa smiles at this. So matter of fact. Brian seems to be okay with the conversation and she doesn’t want to turn it toward something he might not like, but what’s the point of interviewing someone if you can’t ask a tough question or two?

“Brian, tell me about your daddy.”

His expression doesn’t change. The look in his eyes doesn’t waver. No gray cloud comes over him. He speaks as he has for all the other questions.

“He’s my dad.”

“Is there anything about him you wish to talk about?”

“No. He’s just my dad.”

“The pastor at your grandparents’ church said the things your daddy did were … evil. Was your daddy a bad man?”

He shrugs. “He was lazy.”

“Did your daddy do other things that were … bad?”

“I guess. The people came and said we had to leave the house and live with Grandmomma and Granddaddy. Aunt Norry said they don’t do that unless there is a problem.”

“Was there a problem?”

“I don’t know. I guess.”

“Sweetie, where’s your momma?”

“She sleeps a lot. She’s always asleep.”

Lisa doesn’t know what that means, but she hopes it doesn’t mean she had passed away.

“Brian … do you think you were doing God’s work when you … when you killed your daddy?”

“I didn’t kill him. He was already dead.”

This strikes her as profound. The boy in front of her doesn’t believe his father was even alive when he took the hammer to him. He was lazy, so he was dead. Or maybe he died when Ben and his siblings were taken from him and his wife. 

“Brian, are you anything like your daddy?”

Again, no change in his expression. “No, not really. Do you think I’m like him?”

“No, I don’t think you’re like your daddy at all.”

Brian nods again.

“Thank you, Brian.”

“You’re welcome.”

To be continued …

 

Voices, The Interviews: The Angel

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

Before reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our continuing project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum. 

No, this is not your typical interview session. What I want to do is make each interview like a story, one that continues until we reach the end. Some of these are going to be short. Some of them might be long. I don’t know. Like you, I will find out just how long each interview is based on the questions Lisa provides me. I don’t know the questions ahead of time and neither do the characters.

Since this is an interview, I will go ahead and say up front there are spoilers in each session. If you have not read Voices, I urge you to do so before continuing (you can pick up a copy here. If you haven’t read the collection, you have been made aware of possible spoilers. 

One more thing: if you have read Voices and would like to ask a question of today’s character, leave a comment at the end, and I will see about getting an answer from the character for you. Don’t be shy, ask your questions. You may get an interesting response.

SESSION 9

Lisa releases Dane. It was an embrace akin to a mother and a daughter. It’s one she had experienced many times raising her own kids, but this one had been different. Dane had needed her touch, her reassurance—she ventures to believe she still will, maybe even always will. 

Dane takes a deep breath, goes back to her chair, and sits down. Lisa does the same. She picks up her pad from the floor where she dropped it. She flips through the pages until she comes to the next name on the list: Kimberly. She recalls the young lady whose boyfriend broke up with her before they could get married. She recalls the house, the room she knelt in. 

An eerie feeling crawls up her legs and into her spine. The room feels damp. The walls are somehow moldy, the ceiling sagging. Though the floor is intact, there are dips in it. More importantly, there is blood in the center of the room and there are images on the walls. Lisa tries to recall if they were there when she first arrived. She believes they were, but now, with Kimberly in front of her, the graffiti on the walls looks more real, as if at any moment they can come alive. 

The prophets holding Bibles wear black suits and their eyes are punched out holes—something she feels is different from before, but somehow the same. Graffiti gangsters hold boom boxes and music notes rise up from them in whites, blues, yellows and oranges. A knight in dull armor sits on a hobby horse, the lance he once probably used in jousting competitions splintered at one end. A snake slithers along the baseboard, but the image that holds her attention is the angel with black wings, like a demon’s, leathery and too short to actually carry him on the wind; blue eyes like bright lights that mesmerize, and shockingly white hair that covers his ears and flows down his back. It is this creature she feels uneasy about.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMNonsense, she thinks. Kimberly is the one here to talk to you. She is right there, directly to your left.

And she is. Though she doesn’t bear the scars of the young woman who died in the story, her arms and clothes are covered in blood, as is her long blonde hair. She, however, doesn’t look at Lisa. She looks beyond her, to the wall where the angel hangs, painted there by an artist probably named K. Kwik (or something like that) with spray paint that is neither expensive nor cheap, but somewhere in the middle. 

“Kimberly,” Lisa whispers.

The young lady doesn’t react. She doesn’t blink, but her head slowly tilts to one side, as if she sees something no one else can. Lisa now knows it is quite possible she does. After all, so many of these characters have seen things she hasn’t, but she has seen things they haven’t either.

Lisa reaches over and touches the young woman’s leg. “Kimberly.”

Kimberly looks at her, her eyes focusing for a couple of seconds, then growing distant quickly. “To know me is to feel me.”

“But to feel me is to know …” Another voice says.

“Pain,” Kimberly finishes.

Lisa’s body jerks with the new voice, one she is afraid of. She looks to her right, to the wall of graffiti art. The angel’s head is free of its sheetrock home. His cartoon features have faded from his face. His white hair somehow flows behind him, as if there is a wind blowing through the millions of strands. His body doesn’t tear from the wall. It peels, like a sticker …

Like a Fathead, Lisa thinks.

… and he is much bigger than she had thought he was when reading the story of Kimberly’s demise.

He doesn’t walk, but glides across the floor; his legs are shrouded in gray clouds. He is beside them quicker than he should be. His leathery wings are not black, but brown and Lisa can see the many bones that make up its forearm-like wings. Unlike a bat or bird, she doesn’t think the angel’s wings could help him fly and she doesn’t believe they are anything like homologous structures, handed down from an ancestry of flying creatures. Heat radiates off him, and from the short distance between them, she feels as if she sits next to a hot furnace.

“What are you?” Lisa asks.

He smiles, though it isn’t radiant. There is something inherently creepy about him, and it’s not just because one minute ago he was firmly attached to a wall fifty feet away from them. 

“I am an angel, young lady.”

“Young lady? That’s cute. Flattery will get you nowhere. Neither will lies. What are you really?”

The angel’s smile doesn’t falter, but there is a twinkle in his eyes. Lisa believes he is about to try and deceive her. When he speaks again, she knows that is what his intention is.

“I am an angel. That is true,” he says. “But what I am an angel of does not concern you. It only concerns those … I visit.”

“Oh boy, I’ve got the evil version of the Riddler here,” she says, then adds, “Why have you chosen the image of an angel?”

“Because I bring release.”

“Angels bring the Word of God. You bring blood and death to the innocent.”

“The innocent?” The angel doesn’t quite laugh, but she can see humor in his eyes. She can feel the laughter spilling from the heat of his body. “No one is innocent. Everyone has sinned, young lady. Everyone. I only bring to the desperate what they long for.”

From behind his back, the angel produces a long knife, one with the blackened handle of ancient bone. The blade curves in the center, giving it a decided hook at the end. He holds it out to her. 

Lisa looks at it. A rainbow appears in the blade, shimmers, vanishes, then reappears. It’s mesmerizing.

“What are you?” Lisa asks again. Her voice is dreamy and distant.

“I am pain.”

The notepad slips from her hands but remains on her lap. Her right hand reaches up, hesitant at first.

“To know me is to feel me.”

A female voice comes from her left, soft and sweet and hypnotic. “To feel him is to hurt.”

“To hurt is to bleed,” the angel whispers. He turns the knife in his hand so the blade is on his palm and the handle facing away from him.

Lisa’s arm extends further. The blade glistens with its rainbows and the voices of Kimberly and the angel are a harmony in her ears that doesn’t scare her, but entices. Her fingers stretch, touching the cold bone handle. 

“To bleed is to live.” they say in unison.

Lisa takes the blade and holds it inches from her face. She can see a reflection in the rainbow of colors, but it is not hers, at least not the her of the here and now. The image staring back at her is younger. Her hair is darker, the lines on her face are barely there. Her eyes still hold the vibrancy of a little girl. 

“To know me is to feel me,” the duo says. “To feel me is to hurt.”

The image changes. The young girl is gone. Replacing her is a teenager, maybe even someone who she was in her early twenties. The vibrancy in her eyes, though still there, has dulled. And in her hand she holds a knife, just as Lisa does now. The young woman holds the knife to her wrist, as if she is going to bring the blade straight across it. Then she turns the knife, the point touching the base of her palm. If she pulls it straight up, it will flay the skin from palm to elbow and …

“To bleed is to live,” the duo chants.

She repeats it back. The tip digs into her palm. She feels pain as it breaks skin. A drop of blood squeezes from the small wound and slides down into her palm. Her breath catches.

“To live is to die.”

She grips the knife tight. Her mind screams, No. No. No. NO! but she can’t release the blade. Her other arm comes up. She watches as the blade moves toward it, almost in slow motion, but still entirely too fast for her liking.

He killed her! Lisa’s mind screams.

And now he is going to kill you. Mr. Worrywort says from his corner. He is not near. She knows this. She feels this. He is afraid of the angel or whatever it is.

She turns to Kimberly. She is holding her hand out in front of her, much like Lisa is, though there is no knife gripped in her fingers. “He killed you,” Lisa says.

The young woman looks at her. There are tears in her eyes.

Then a hand is on her wrists, one that holds scars on the fingers. Lisa looks at the hand, then up the scarred arm to the young man in front of her. Nothing takes the hand that holds the knife in it and pulls it away from her palm. There is a hint of blood on the blade, but nothing like it could be. Though he is clearly a strong man, he can’t remove the knife from Lisa’s hand.

Nothing looks at Kimberly. One of her hands is clenched into a fist, as if she holds a knife in it. Her other arm is up the way Lisa’s is. 

“Let her go,” Nothing says.

Kimberly blinks. Behind her, Mr. Worrywort appears. His face is nothing but a shadow, but the grin in the darkness is outlined in white, the teeth within yellow. A hand settles on her shoulder and her eyes widen, her lips become an O. 

“She can’t,” Mr. Worrywort says.

“I wasn’t talking to her,” Nothing says. Both of his hands hold the knife from Lisa’s arm. “I’m talking to you.”

Mr. Worrywort’s face changes. He doesn’t look as defiant now as he did seconds earlier. Then the smile returns and he laughs. “Make me.”

Nothing squeezes Lisa’s hand. The pain is sharp and intense and her fingers straighten involuntarily. The knife slides into his hand, and before Lisa realizes it, he lets go of her and slings the knife toward Kimberly. The knife doesn’t have to travel far, so the chances of him hitting her is high. It zips by her head and strikes Mr. Worrywort’s shoulder. He spins away from Kimberly, releasing her as he does so. 

Kimberly’s arms drop, her hand unclenches from a fist to an open palm. Lisa’s arms drop. She rubs the bleeding palm on her pants

“How did you do that?” the angel asks.

“I’m not weak,” Nothing said. “Suicide is a sin. You feed on the hopeless. You create monsters who feed on the blood and suffering of the living. You create them from the living.”  

“Why?” Lisa asks. “Why do you do this?”

The angel and Nothing and everyone else turn back to her. 

“Because I can,” the angel says. “You understand that, don’t you?”

“No, I don’t understand.”

“I think you do.”

“No, I don’t.  I don’t.”

“Everyone does things because they can. Everyone.” The angel stares down at her, his eyes like angry embers.

“Not everyone,” Lisa responds.

“Everyone.”  

“Even you?” Lisa asks. She knows what he is. She even thinks she knows why he is, but those two things could be different. “What are you?”

“I am Death, young lady, and I come for everyone.” 

“No, you’re not,” Nothing says. He steps between the angel and Lisa. “Death is indiscriminate. He favors no one and he doesn’t choose when someone’s time has come. He certainly doesn’t help someone kill herself.” He looks toward Kimberly. Her head is down. Tears fall from her eyes and land on her bare legs. “You are opportunity. You weed out the weak, one at a time. Those who are hurting are your prey, your victims. You are a bottom feeder, at best. And by that token, you are nothing, like me.”

“I can kill you.”

“No. You can’t. I’ve faced my demon and I conquered him. I have the scars to prove it. You exist on fear and if no one is afraid of you, then you … don’t exist.”

The angel steps back, not voluntarily, but as if he is pulled backward. He reaches for Nothing, his hand catching only air. “You fool.”

“Maybe once upon a time,” Nothing responds. “Not anymore. Go away. You are not welcome here.”

“You have no sway over me.”

“Not true. You have no sway over me. Go away. Be gone. No one here fears you.”

The angel looks to Lisa. “She does.”

Lisa stands, straightens her back and steps beside Nothing. “I’m not afraid of you,” she says, her voice strong. “I’m not afraid of the demons in the ceiling or Mr. Worrywort, who keeps trying to get into my head. You are nothing to me.” She looks to the young man beside her, “No offense meant.”

Nothing laughs. 

“She is,” the angel yells, his voice booming and bouncing off the walls in vibrating echoes. He points at Kimberly. “She is terrified of me.”

“She’s not,” Nothing says. “Are you?”

Kimberly looks up. The tears in her eyes aren’t from fear, but pain. “I don’t fear death—not anymore. I fear being alone, dying without ever being loved. But I don’t fear him.”

The prophets on the wall pull free. They tuck their Bibles under their arms and approach the angel. They grab him by his arms.

“No! You can’t touch me!”

They say nothing as they pull him away from the circle, away from the group of characters assembled for their interviews. 

“Let me go!”

One of the prophets howls when they reach the wall. He grips the sheetrock with one hand, the angel with the other. The prophet’s face distorts into a grotesque grimace, his jaw dropping to his chest, his eyes melting as he pulls, first himself, then the angel into the wall. The angel’s white hair bursts into flames; his blue eyes explode; his flowing robe smolders, then gets swallowed into the fire, consuming him. The other prophets follow the first one into the wall, but they don’t melt away like the first one, like the angel. They reattach themselves to the sheetrock, their eyes fixed on the smoldering creature on the artistic floor at their feet; at the angel’s hand reaching from the ashes of its body, its hand still smoking. Then they are all frozen in place and once again become nothing but drawings.

Nothing stands beside Lisa. At some point, he had taken her hand. He releases it now. 

“What just happened?” Lisa asks.

“An opportunity lost, I think,” Nothing says.

“What was he?”

Again, the young man laughs. “It doesn’t matter. He is nothing now.”

To be continued …