Free Fiction Friday–Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

“Grandpa, why are we stopping?”

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

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

“We’re here,” he said.

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are we doing, Grandpa?”

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

“Is that it?”

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

“Wait for what?”

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

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

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

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

“No, Sir, it isn’t.”

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

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

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

“A rite of passage?”

“Yup.”

“What is that?”

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

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

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

“Grandpa, can we go?”

“Not yet, Camden.”

“I’m bored.”

“I’m sure you are, but …”

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

“It’s not time to go, yet.”

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

“Camden, sit back down.”

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Cam …”

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

“There,” he all but shouted and pointed.

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

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

“Grandpa …”

“It’s okay, Camden. Just watch.”

And they did.

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

“Grandpa, who are those people?”

“They are who we’ve been waiting on.”

“There’s something wrong with them.”

“What is that?”

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

“They most certainly are, Camden.”

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

“Just watch.”

The ghostly procession neared the interstate. 

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

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

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

“It’s okay, Cam,” he said. 

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

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

“Yes, it did. I saw it.”

“You saw the truck go through him.”

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

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

“Ghosts?” 

“Yes. Ghosts.”

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

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

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

“My ancestors?”

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” His voice quivered.

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

“Grandpa …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grandpa, are you okay?”

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

“You’re crying.”

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

“Like now?”

“Yes, like now.”

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

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

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

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

“Grandpa?”

“Yes, Camden?”

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

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

“What did he mean by not much longer?”

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

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

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

“I love you, Grandpa.”

“I love you, too, Camden.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reflections On the Year Gone By Part 3

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

If you missed Part 2, you can read it HERE. 

In January, a review appeared on Amazon for my book, The Forgetful Man’s Disease. The individual who posted the review was a man named Draven Ames. I knew Draven from our mutual dealings with Stitched Smile Publications. He was new to the family that is SSP. We developed a friendship and cultivated it through social media, emails and private messages. He left this review for The Forgetful Man’s Disease:

“Just finished The Forgetful Man’s Disease, a novella by AJ Brown. This isn’t the first story by him that I have read. Each time I read his work, the voice of his characters grab me. This story is about a man who is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, reliving his past as ghosts torment him. It is a story about love and loss, about grief and sadness, but, most of all, about letting go.

There were twists and turns, sure, but the real power of the story comes in the very real characters AJ Brown brings to life, the emotional journey we go through as we watch a man struggle with confusion and the loss of his memories. At the end of the novella, AJ Brown talks about how this town is based off a SC town he lived in, and the realism is easily seen in his writing.

I’m very happy I picked up this novella and read it. Will be sharing this one with my wife.

As a side note, the love between the MC and his wife was very beautiful and touching. 5/5.”

Fast forward to the first week of April. I’m on vacation and sitting at a local restaurant and pub with Cate. My favorite local band, Prettier Than Matt, is playing. It’s a Wednesday evening. I’ve had my cell phone for maybe a month and it was still new to me. It buzzes and makes its little text message sound. Not really thinking much of it, I don’t look at the phone. I’m on a date with Cate and watching PTM. The text can wait. Then the phone buzzes and dings again. And again. And again.

“You might want to check that,” Cate said.

I picked up the phone. As I did so, it buzzed and dinged again. I clicked on the message and stopped breathing. 

“What’s wrong?” Cate asked. I turned the phone toward her, too stunned to speak. The message simply said, Draven’s gone.

Most of you who read that line just now understood that didn’t mean he got up and walked out of the room and out of the house and rode off into the sunset. You understood immediately that Draven, my friend and fellow author, had died. I knew Draven struggled with PTSD and depression, but all of my interactions leading up to his death gave me no indication he was struggling. The night before I had spent three hours chatting with him about his novel and working on ways to make it better. We had planned to chat again that weekend to look at some issues within the story he was working on. We said our goodbyes and that was the last time I interacted with him. 

Draven’s death reminded me (and in return, I now remind you) that life is fleeting. There are many people out there dealing with things. We may not know what they are or how serious they are, but they are there. And sometimes those things become overwhelming and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or so it is perceived. The only option for some—really, many—is to take their own life, just as my friend had. I think about his death often, and wonder if there was anything I could have done to help him.

I want to leave this section with the national crisis hotline: 1-800-273-8255. This line is answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you feel like there is no hope and no way out, please call this number. You are not alone, even if it feels like you are.

***

Before Draven passed away, he mentioned The Forgetful Man’s Disease to a Twitter follower of his. The day after his passing, I noticed a post on Twitter that I was tagged in. I clicked on the notification and read the tweet. It said something to the effect of: In honor of Draven Ames, I am going to read The Forgetful Man’s Disease by @ajbrown36. 

I remember sitting outside a little restaurant in downtown Columbia called Michael’s, Cate sitting across from me and Prettier Than Matt was about to play again, when I read the tweet. Even in death, Draven had done something nice for someone. What does that tell you about his character? Yeah. He was a great person. 

I contacted the individual and we talked quite a bit over the next few days to weeks. His name is George Ranson and we struck up a solid connection from the very start. I talk to him from time to time through Twitter and I follow his goings on in the Twitterverse. He’s a truly good guy and a voracious reader. 

George let me know he was finished with The Forgetful Man’s Disease and he wrote a review for it:

“If you enjoy intelligent, well-written horror stories filled with rich, complex characters then A.J. Brown is the author for you. And The Forgetful Man’s Disease is a perfect introduction to this extremely talented writer. This novella is a short enough to be read in a couple of sittings but packs the punch of a full-length novel & will leave you thinking about what you’ve read long after you’ve finished reading it.

The story centers around Homer Grigsby, an elderly widower who’s final days are fast approaching. As Homer deals with the frustrations common with advanced age, most notably his increasingly untrustworthy memory, he is also continually confronted by things that are decidedly less common: the ghosts of long dead friends, neighbors & loved ones. The story unfolds in frequent transitions between two points in time, the nightmare-like present and a period from decades earlier during which a tragic event would have a painful and enduring effect upon Homer’s life. These shifts in time are done seamlessly and add to a sense of foreboding that builds continually from the first page to the last. The story is beautifully written with a conclusion that is as emotional as it is stunning.

The brilliance in A.J.’s writing is in the way he effortlessly blends the inhuman aspects of horror that readers of the genre crave (the spirits of the dead in this case) and the simple human emotion that readers of ANY genre crave.

In a nutshell…If you’re a fan of horror or simply a fan of beautifully told stories you will LOVE The Forgetful Man’s Disease.”

HORROR WITH HEART BLACK LOGO FINALThat’s a cool review, but it was what he said in a conversation that described my writing in a way I never could. George called it horror with heart. Horror. With. Heart. I thought about that a lot, discussed it with Cate and then asked George if I could use his words as my new hashtag for social media. With his blessing #horrorwithheart was born.

But what exactly is horror with heart? I will answer it like this: 

In today’s world, horror is all about shock and blood and guts. No one is trying to tug on the readers’ (or viewers’) heartstrings. The goal to Horror With Heart is to touch you emotionally, to make you feel something besides disgust. I want you to hurt when my characters hurt. I want you to be in love when my characters are in love. I want to shatter you when I shatter my characters. It’s all about feelings instead of shock and gore.

My thanks goes to Draven for sharing one of my books with someone in his social media circle. It also goes to George for the encouragement and the kind words and, of course, the hashtag. 

***

I might do something drastic in 2019. No, not might, but will. My relationship with the behemoth, Amazon, is on shaky ground. She is not a nice companion and she certainly isn’t a good business partner. She reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge before he gets visited by all the ghosts of Christmases gone wrong. 

Over the last year I’ve seen nearly thirty reviews, most of which were verified purchases, removed from my books. When I realized this was happening, I went to Amazon and copied all of the reviews remaining and posted them on my website. I also contacted them and didn’t receive a satisfactory reason as to why the reviews were pulled. 

I’ve also had quite a few issues since Amazon decided that print books needed to go through KDP instead of Createspace. One of those issues is how long it takes to get books from Amazon and that they take the print cost of the books out of the author’s royalties. 

amazonThere are other issues with Amazon that I won’t go into here. At the end of the day, I’m tired of dealing with them and their lousy customer service. If I can work it out—and I’ve been researching this—I will sell all of my self-published books directly from my website. I wanted to pull all the books from Amazon. I didn’t want them to have any of my books, but as it was pointed out to me by another author, many readers equate Amazon with a writer’s credibility. Essentially, if your books are on Amazon, readers take you more seriously.

With that in mind, I posed this question on my Facebook page and in a Facebook group: Do you purchase books on Amazon? If so, how often?

Every person who responded purchases books off of Amazon (mostly digital). Every. Single. Person. And most of those folks purchase their books from Amazon only. 

Sigh. Instead of pulling all of my books from Amazon, I am going to leave them on the site, but I am also going to put them on my website (yes, both digital and print). I honestly didn’t want to stay with Amazon. It’s like being in a bad relationship and sticking around because you have nothing better in store. But she is a necessary evil. 

For the record, I’m not taking on Amazon. They are a juggernaut who can do whatever they want. I’m just tired of them changing the rules every year or so, but still making a crap load of money off of the authors. I’ve always been one to do things my way, so I guess this will be another step in that direction with my writing. If what I’m planning to do works, I will spread the news everywhere I can. Stay tuned and let’s see what happens.

***

I’m also making a change to Type AJ Negative. In March or early April, I will convert my blog into a full blown website. I will stick with WordPress because I enjoy the user friendly controls and I’ve never had a bad experience with their customer service.

Don’t worry. The blog will remain, but it will get a massive upgrade and I will add a lot of things to it that are not on there now, like BUY buttons, videos, pictures, schedule of events, new short stories, all of the book reviews, maybe even a facelift in its appearance as well. Like converting the book files to digital and reformatting for print files, setting up the website will take time, but I’m determined to give you all a better landing page and make it easier to find my work. I also want to get back to more of the humorous posts I used to put on here. I hope you will like it and come back on a regular basis.

***

I met a dinosaur at the park at the beginning of the year. I got her to take a picture with one of my books.

Dinosaur

***

I leave 2018 behind with this thought.

You can be passive and watch life pass you by. Or you can be aggressive and go after life and live it. 

Yesterday I was ten and learning how to play baseball for the first time with my dad throwing Nolan Ryan fastballs to me. Twenty hours ago I was seventeen and walking across the stage during graduation from high school. fifteen hours ago I was twenty-seven and getting married. twelve hours ago I was in the delivery room with Cate as she gave birth to The Girl. Ten hours ago, I was in another delivery room as Cate gave birth to The Boy. Five hours ago I turned forty. Three hours from now, I’ll be fifty …

Do you see what I am getting at. Time waits for no one. You have to live your life or you will wonder what happened to it when you get older. Then you will wish you had done more. Don’t wish. Go live. 

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Reflections On the Year Gone By Part 1

I don’t usually do a year in review type of thing. I leave that to others because sometimes reflecting can be good, while other times it can be a nightmare or a heart wrenching episode that makes you want to crawl in a hole and hide from the rest of the world. Maybe the point of reflection is so you see things the way they truly were, in perspective to how you thought they were when they were happening. Maybe some events were happier than you originally thought. Maybe they were worse than you originally thought. Maybe, just maybe, they weren’t anything near what you thought they were. 

 

I guess that’s the point of this post. Reflecting on the past year, just as I would if I looked in the mirror and saw the age creeping up in my hair and around my eyes and lips. Sometimes objects in the mirror in front of you are closer than they appear.

Where do I begin? With the good? The bad? The ugly? Okay, maybe not the ugly—you can call me pretty. Go ahead. Do it. It’s not like I will hear you. Do I start with January and work my way through the year chronologically? Do I bounce, bounce, bounce around, touching on this point or that point or those points? I don’t know, but I think the next sentence will give me some direction.

In December of 2017, I got sick one Friday evening. It carried over into Saturday. Cate and I and the kids

were heading to Rock Hill that morning for Christmasville in Rock Hill. I had been looking forward to it for a couple of months, but when we left, I had a slight fever, hadn’t slept much the night before and a blister had formed on the roof of my mouth. By lunchtime, I told Cate, “Babe, we need to go home.” I was hurting. My throat was on fire. My mouth hurt. I had a fever and the chills and my body ached. I remember getting in the back seat of the car and vaguely laying on the couch when we got home. The one thing I was aware of through it all was the blister on the roof of my mouth had tripled in size. 

I woke the next morning feeling better. The blister was mostly gone, as was the fever and the chills, though the aches still remained. 

A couple of days passed and the blister and all of the sickness was gone. However, I noticed a knot in my mouth. After a couple of weeks of it being there, I went to the doctor. 

“I’m going to send you to a specialist,” she said.

“What for?” I asked.

“I think it’s cancer.”

Wha … what?

The following week, I

Before

went to see the specialist, but not before spending the duration between doctor visits in stunned wakefulness—I slept very little. Oral cancer. Two people I knew had died of the very thing in the previous year. 

I was asked the typical questions: Do you smoke or have you ever smoked? Do you chew tobacco or have you ever chewed tobacco? Do you drink or have you ever drank? I answered ‘no’ to all of those questions. 

The doctor visit came and went. “You have a tumor,” the specialist said. “It’s rare that it is in the hard palette of the mouth, but it is there.”

The good thing is it was operable. 

Cate and I kept quiet for the most part. I only told a couple of people at work and neither of us told our families about it until the week before the surgery was to happen. Sure, our friends and family could have showed support for us, but we didn’t want them worrying, especially our kids or my father, who had his own health issues (and I didn’t want to add stress to his life).

The operation was set for March 9th. I will not lie and say I wasn’t nervous and somewhat scared as we made our way to the facility where the surgery would take place. When I got there, all the nerves faded and the fear left me. I was ready to have this thing out of my mouth and to start recovery (hopefully with no cancerous lumps anywhere in my mouth).

I got mostly naked and put on their napkin thin gown and crawled up on the gurney they would take me back to the operating room on. The nurses did their thing and poked me with needles. The anesthesiologist came in and said he wasn’t sure what type of anesthesia I was supposed to get (you know, the one that knocks me completely out or the one that puts me under but only far enough not to feel anything) and he would wait for the doctor to inform him before he doped me up.

The doctor came in and started feeling around in my mouth. 

“Hmmm,” he said and left the room. 

I looked at Cate. She looked at me. The worry and nerves that had gone away earlier came back in all of its hated glory. 

A couple of minutes later, the surgeon came back into the room with a coal miner’s light on his head. He flicked it on—yes, it was bright—and shone it into my mouth. He felt around some more, looked again, then flicked off his light. He stood straight, pulled the gloves off his hands and said, “I guess I won’t be buying that Jaguar today.”

Cate and I looked at him with what had to be obvious confusion on our faces.

“I hate when my patients heal themselves.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“The tumor is gone,” he said.

“What?”

“It’s gone. It’s no longer there. You don’t need surgery.”

“Are you serious?”

After“Yup. It’s gone. There’s not even a mark where it had been.” There had been a purple lesion where the tumor had been and from December until the night before the surgery was to take place, I could feel it with my tongue. I ran my tongue along the top of my mouth and … I couldn’t feel it. 

They discharged me and I left the hospital floating about three feet off the ground and with happy tears in my eyes. 

I thank the Lord for the major miracle He had worked. Then my wife made me get a cell phone. Yeah, I know they aren’t connected, but they really are. I had resisted cell phones for the most part during my 48 years of life. But after dealing with the doctors on her phone, she thought it best for me to have my own. To recap: there was no surgery on March 9th, but there was the purchase of a cell phone.

That afternoon, I posted on social media about it for the first time along with two pictures Cate had taken: one before I was to go into surgery and the other after we found out there would be none. 

***

Going into 2018, Cate and I decided we wanted to do more book related events, meaning more festivals and conventions. We went into 2018 treating my writing more like a business than a hobby. 

One of our two goals for the year was to break even with the amount of money we started with, or do better. We didn’t want to go into 2019 in the hole. If we were losing money then that would make putting out books an expensive hobby instead of something more sustainable. I can honestly say we did better than break even by $128. I’ll take it. That means we sold more than we spent. 

Cayce Setup 2The second goal was to do at least twelve events. We surpassed that easily, appearing at 24 events on the year (even though we had none in January, February, July or December). It was exhausting, but we learned a lot. We met a lot of good people and made some great connections. We also heard this more than we thought we would: “I don’t read.”

I don’t read. 

This is sad. I’ve said for the last several years, the reading populace is dwindling and the pieces of the pie (readership) are getting smaller and smaller. Still, hearing so many people say they don’t read is bothersome. I had one woman lament for about ten minutes how people should read more and that it is a shame that they don’t. Then when I said, “Well, can I interest you in one of the books on the table?” There were eleven books on our table that day. She promptly said, “Oh, well, I don’t read.”

I could only stare at her in disbelief as she walked away.

ReadingThis is the world authors live in today. Its not like it was fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago before the internet exploded and smart phones gave you access to everything around the world in your back pocket and at your fingertips. People do actually read, they just don’t read books anymore. They read on tablets and from websites and through apps, but many of those people aren’t reading books on those devices. Twenty years ago, or maybe even ten years ago, the world still liked its printed stories. 

This also leads me to believe that without a huge following, you can’t make a living in this business. That is terribly sad. 

I don’t read. It’s a mantra I will surely hear in this upcoming year, but I hope less and less so.

To be continued …

Voices, The Interviews: Jeddy

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 5

He sits in the seat next to where Spencer sat earlier. One leg is stretched out in front of him, while the other one is bent at the knee and bouncing up and down. He wears a pair of biballs that has seen better days. The white shirt beneath the biballs has a brown stain on it that might have been red at one time, possibly spaghetti sauce or chili. His hair is thinning and it appears to Lisa that life might have been rough on him when he was younger. 

“Jed …” she says.

The man looks up. His eyes are brown and his lips are thin. 

“Or do you prefer Jeddy?”

“It’s Jeddy, ma’am,” he says.

“Hello, Jeddy. How are you today?”

“I reckon I’m all right, Ma’am. I hope you are, too.”

“I am, thank you.”

Troy Black StormsJeddy nods. His long fingers are folded neatly in his lap, even as the one leg bobs up and down nervously. He licks his lips, sniffles, licks his lips again. 

“I’m going to ask you a few questions, Jeddy. Is that okay?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I reckon so.”

“You witnessed something extraordinary. I would like to talk about it with you if that’s alright?”

“What was extra-or-dinar … extra-or-dinar …” He shakes his head in clear frustration. “What is it, Ma’am?”

“Extraordinary. It means something out of this world, something most people don’t ever get to see.”

“You mean like that thing that took Mary Marie away from me?”

Lisa smiles, but she feels no joy in the expression. She knows this could be a touchy subject for him, just like each of the other characters have their touchy subjects. But she also knows—well, maybe not knows, but believes—he will answer her questions anyway.

“Yes, like the thing that took Mary Marie. You saw something …”

“I saw the devil, Ma’am. That’s what that thing was. That thing … that thing that took Mary Marie, it took Momma, too, and who knows how many other people?”

“Speaking of your Momma, why didn’t you tell anyone that your mother and Aunt Louisa had passed away?”

“They didn’t pass away, Ma’am.”

“They didn’t?”

“No, Ma’am. They didn’t.”

“Then what happened to them?”

Jeddy shakes his head demonstratively, showing disgust in Lisa’s not understanding, or his perception of her not understanding.

“They were taken, Ma’am. Taken … by that thing. That demon.”

Tread carefully, Lisa, she thinks. Jeddy has the aggravated sound of a toddler wanting candy and a politically obsessive individual raving about the most recent candidate for garbage collector. The edge in his voice might still hold enough respect with the ‘ma’am,’ but Lisa knows sometimes that respect is as false as that politician’s promises to get all the garbage out of our county. To go with the edgy respect is this man is a  country bumpkin with, what Lisa believes, a more obsessive religious point of view. She takes a shallow breath, releases it.

“Jeddy, is it possible that thing was an angel and your momma and Aunt Louisa and Mary Marie were just taken up into Heaven?”

The color drains from Jeddy’s face. Though it is already long and thin it seems to stretch further. His mouth drops open, exposing the edges of three teeth on the bottom and possibly four or five on the top. His eyes don’t change—she’s not even sure he can get them any wider than they are with his hooded eyelids and the one eye that seems to droop as if looking at her bosom unintentionally (or maybe intentionally, she thinks).

“Listen here, missy,” he says in his country drawl. He points one of his long fingers at her. There is dirt beneath it. She wonders if it got there while digging the graves of his momma or aunt. “Ain’t no angel looks like that except maybe the Angel of Death. I saw that thing—that demon—swoop on down and land on Mary Marie’s chest. I saw it grab her eyes and rip them from her face. I saw it fly away, it’s demon wings lifting up, higher and higher into the sky. And right out of the holes where her eyes had been flowed her soul. I saw that white smoky mist leave her body and float up into the air, and when I looked back at Mary Marie, she wasn’t nothing but a blackened husk on the ground. Now, you think you’re gonna tell me that thing was an angel from on high? No disrespect, Ma’am, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Lisa shrugs. During his rant, Jeddy had waved his arms madly. His one leg stayed extended out while the other foot tap-tapped the floor. Spittle had flown from his mouth and landed somewhere on the floor between them. Now, his arms are crossed over his chest and the one foot that had bobbed up and down is still. He glares at her and she can see the righteous indignation on his face, the ‘how dare you?’ stare of the insulted.

“You’re right. I probably don’t know what I am talking about. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see this creature and I didn’t witness what it did. Can I ask you about Mary Marie?”

Jeddy’s shoulders slump. The grip on his elbows loosens until his hands fall away and drop into his lap. 

“Did you love Mary Marie?”

He barely nods and the simple yes he gives is a croak she barely hears. 

“So, you were sweet on her?”

Again, he nods, but this time there is a grayness on his face that wasn’t there before. She thinks she knows where the shadow came from. She thinks if she stares hard enough, she will see Mr. Worrywort behind Jeddy and he will be whispering in one ear the lies it tells people.

Then the shadow fades. Jeddy’s face is no longer ashen gray, but the country white reappears. His eyes, which she thought earlier could get no bigger than they are because of the heavy lids covering them, actually do get wider. 

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMThe shadow that had been over Jeddy now stands over her. The air around her is suddenly thick and moist and it is becoming increasingly harder to breathe. Lisa feels a panic come over her, something she hasn’t felt in years. 

Tread lightly, a voice hisses in her ear. It is as wet as the suddenly humid air around her. 

Lisa closes her eyes. The breath in her lungs freezes midway up into her chest. It holds there, threatening to strangle her just as a chilly finger runs along her right cheek. She tries to swallow the breath down, to free the airwaves so she can breathe again. Her thoughts—her true inner self—are silent now as this other … voice … tip toes into her psyche like a silent thief in the night, one there to rob her of her confidence and freedom. She knows it to be Mr. Worrywort, but she is too paralyzed to say or do anything to stop him. 

He will kill you if you continue on, the voice whispers. He will kill you and take your eyes and your own soul will seep from your sockets. You will never know rest. You will never know peace and your very soul will scream for eternity.

The voice drips malice on her shoulder, a dribble of icy fear that holds her close. Its hand covers her eyes, enveloping her in a terrifying darkness. Her head begins to hurt, as does her chest and stomach. Her lips feel as if they are sealed shut. Lisa realizes if she doesn’t open her mouth she will suffocate right there in that meeting hall with the characters of a collection of stories sitting around her. In the darkness beneath its hand, she saw herself passing out and sliding from the chair with the unconcerned and disinterested faces of those characters staring at her, none of them standing and hurrying over to help her.

You don’t need to be here. You don’t want to be here, Lisa. You want to get up and walk—no, RUN!—from here and never come back. 

Yes, she thinks. I want to run away and never come back. I want to get away from here. 

Her chest hurts as panic sets in. Her head is swimming with the breath stuck in her lungs. 

Get up. Leave. Ru—

Breathe, Lisa thinks. Breathe!

You will never be able to breathe again if you don’t leave … right … now.

Breathe!

Run away, Lisa. Run away.

Breathe! Breathe!

Tears spill from her eyes. She hears Mr. Worrywort’s laugh. It is the sound of joyful victory. He has her in his grip and he knows the fight is almost over.  It is this laugh that angers her. 

Lisa doesn’t move her head or her arms and she doesn’t try to force his hand from her eyes. She concentrates solely on her mouth, on her lips pinched tightly together. 

Open, she tells them. Open. Open. OPEN! OPEN!

Her lips unclench with an audible POP and the air in her lungs rushes up and out. The grayness in her vision fades and Mr. Worrywort’s hand vanishes from over her eyes. The cold, thick wetness in the air around her dissipates and the throbbing in her head lets go. The meeting room comes back to her. The shapes of the characters comes back into view. Their faces show shock and worry, but like in her vision, none of them has moved to help her. None of them asks if she is okay, not even Jeddy, the man who has seen a demon rip the soul from the woman he loved.

A minute passes. Two minutes. Three minutes. Five minutes. Though she doesn’t quite feel right, she feels better, she feels as if she can continue. 

Do you want to, though? she asks herself. It’s a seed of doubt that hadn’t been there earlier. As if to show she is not afraid of what has just happened, she smiles inwardly at the voice she knows is not hers and says, I’m not running.

Lisa levels her gaze back to Jeddy. She takes a deep breath—a feeling like Heaven to her—and speaks calmly, like nothing has happened. “You’re a Christian man, aren’t you?”

Jeddy hesitates, then answers, “Yes, Ma’am. Of course I am.”

“Do you believe God called you to intervene and save Mary Marie from the … umm … attentions of the preacher?”

Jeddy rocks in his chair, though the one leg stays out in front of him. “If’n Preacher Harry can get into Heaven, the devil can. That’s what Momma always said.” He pauses, but his eyes don’t leave Lisa’s. “He was the devil and the devil wanted Mary Marie. I don’t know if I was sent to stop him from doing what I think he meant to do, but maybe if’n I wasn’t there and I didn’t try and get her away from him, she might still be alive and her soul might not be …” He waves his hand in the air and looks at the ceiling. “ … floating around out there.”

“So, you think it is your fault Mary Marie is dead?”

Another long pause follows. “Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. But she’s gone and … she’s just gone.”

“Jeddy, may I ask you something personal?”

“I reckon so. I don’t know if you can ask anything more personal than my feelings for Mary Marie.”

“You spoke of Fear like it was … an invisible companion, or maybe … an inner voice?  And you spoke of being of two minds on more than one occasion. Do you have an inner voice, too?”

“Every one has an inner voice, Ma’am. Everyone has a good side and a bad side. Momma told me that many times. That’s why she believed Preacher Harry might could get into Heaven. If his good side could run out his bad side, he could get through the pearly gates. I guess it’s like the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. They are always talking, always in your head. Momma used to say don’t let the demons get you, Jeddy. Don’t let them get you. I never did. I always did right. I never did anything to hurt no one. The voices never got to me. Not like they did some of the other people here. Not like he tried to get you just now.”

“Excuse me?” Lisa asks.

“I saw him, Ma’am. I saw the devil behind you. He was there. He’s still here.”

Lisa turns and looks behind her. Mr. Worrywort is not there. There are no shadows near her. Outside the dark corners of the room, there are no shadows at all. She looks back at Jeddy Sanford, but he has now put his arms back across his chest. His interview is over and Lisa knows it is. Though she doesn’t expect an answer, she asks, “Where is he?”

To her surprise, Jeddy does respond. “Momma used to say the devil is in all of us, Ma’am.”

“In all of us?”

“Yes, Ma’am. In all of us.”

To be continued …

Voices, The Interviews: Claire

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 4

She knows this one, at least that she is fragile in many ways. She is pretty, but not in a movie starlet way. It doesn’t matter that she won a big time award on a big time show. Nothing has changed about her. Her clothes are conservative, not showing off any skin, other than her hands, face and neck. She wears blue slacks and black flats. Her shirt is a long-sleeved pullover a shade lighter than her slacks. Her dark hair hangs down the sides of her face, covering the front of her shirt. 

Intentional, Lisa thinks.

“Hello, Claire.”

Claire doesn’t look away. Lisa finds this only slightly odd. Normally, those who have gone through what Claire has are usually withdrawn and shy, not wanting to discuss anything about the … assaults (yeah, that is pretty much what they are, right?), but the vibe Lisa gets from the teenager is one of desire. Desire to talk, to get it off her chest. 

“Hello, Ma’am.”

Manners, Lisa thinks. She wonders if Mom taught her those before … she shakes her head and focuses on Claire.

finalOscar“Thank you for speaking with me today. Are you nervous?”

“Maybe a little. I’ve never talked about … Dad … in a group this large.”

“Really? You’ve talked in a group before?”

“Well, the police and investigators and all the psychiatrists were in groups of at least two and sometimes six. The court room … I didn’t say anything in the courtroom. The attorneys told me not to.”

“I don’t think you had anything to worry about in court. The evidence came out about these terrible things he did to you.”

She nods, but doesn’t smile. Instead, she frowns, takes a deep breath and speaks evenly. “Well, maybe so, but the attorneys thought it best I didn’t take the stand at the trial.”

“Is it okay if I ask you some questions now?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And your attorneys are okay with this?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask them. It doesn’t matter anyway. I want to talk to someone. I need to talk.”

“Okay, Claire, let’s start with this: did you even enjoy acting?”

“I wouldn’t call what I did acting. I just did what came natural, so acting, I didn’t really act.”

“I’m sorry, Claire … I mean, did you have fun when you were working on movie sets?”

“Sometimes.”

“Sometimes?”

“Well, the scenes where the father would do the things he did were not fun. The ending wasn’t all that satisfying. I mean, she leaves home with the boy of her dreams, but she never got to exact any measure of revenge for what her father did to her.”

She has gone from timid a couple of minutes earlier to aggressive now. Lisa hears her words, hears what she doesn’t say and she wonders if it was revenge Claire was after or resolution. 

“So, if the acting wasn’t all that enjoyable, what was it like to play the role of Josie, a little girl who was abused, after what your father did to you?”

“It was no different than the life I led. You know?”

Lisa believes maybe she does know. She feels sorry for this pretty little girl—no, young lady—in front of her. 

“I apologize Claire.”

“For what? You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“For asking about the role of Josie.”

“It’s okay. Really, it is.”

“But … well, didn’t it just make you relive it in your head?”

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PM“Yes. The role made me realize how bad things were, how bad my father was.” Claire pauses. She looks away, wipes her hands on her slacks and then rubs her fingers together. “He was a very bad man.”

“Can I ask you another, more personal question?”

“Sure.”

“Claire … when did you decide to kill your daddy?”

“My dad … I’m no longer a little girl and I no longer see him as a daddy. He was my father and I associate that term as not one of endearment, but as one of being despised … and I despise him.”

Lisa nods. “Fair enough, Claire. When did you decide to kill your father?”

Claire shakes her head. “I don’t know if I ever really decided so much as I knew where he kept his gun and I knew he was the reason my mom was gone—did you know she is dead?”

“Excuse me?” This is not what she expects. 

“He killed my mom.”

“How do you know this?”

“I just do.”

“There is no just do, Claire. How do you know this?”

Claire looks at her with the sadness of a child who has lost everything she ever had. Her face is long, her brows are arches above her eyes. She shakes her head. “He said she left him for another man. She needed a different life. That is what he said.”

Lisa listens intently, her heart breaking for the young woman in front of her. She will never be the same, not because she killed her dad—no, her father—on national television, but because whatever she tells Lisa is going to be the truth, not how she sees it, how it really is.

“If Momma had left, then she would have taken her license with her. Her cellphone. Her wallet. She took none of those things.”

“How do you know?” She feels like a recording on a loop, asking the same question over and over.

“I found her stuff in a box in the cellar a few days before the awards show.”

“In the cellar?” What were you doing in the cellar, young lady? the voice in her head whispered. It doesn’t sound like her at all. It sounds like an accusation, one she thinks Claire may not be able to handle.

“Yes. I … “

Before Claire can answer, a shadow comes over her. It’s not much, but it is there. Lisa sees it and she knows Claire feels it. The young woman looks over her left shoulder, then over her right, as if someone is talking to her. 

“Claire, look at me,” Lisa says. “Look at me.”

She does, but only briefly. She shifts in her chair as if pulling away from someone. When she does, Lisa sees the shadow lean down and put its head near Claire’s ear. 

“Get away from her,” Lisa yells. She stands, but doesn’t walk toward Claire and the shadow. Part of her wants to grab the teen and pull her away. The other part wants no part of the shadow. Fear holds her for several seconds. “I said get away from her.” This time she does take a step forward. 

The shadow shimmers, then pulls away. It solidifies for fifteen or so seconds and Lisa sees it is Mr. Worrywort and he is smiling. 

“Get away from her.”

Mr. Worrywort’s smile is hideous, dangerously electric. He puts a hand on Claire’s shoulder as if claiming her for himself.

The fear in Claire’s eyes is sudden. They grow wide and her mouth pinches shut. Her chest heaves and she holds the breath.

“Tell him to leave, Claire,” Lisa says. 

Mr. Worrywort whispers in her ear. She lets the breath go and closes her eyes.

“Are you going to send me to jail?” Claire asks.

Lisa’s nose crinkles up at this. At first she doesn’t understand the question. She won’t go to jail. She knows she won’t. The legal system did  its job for once and … No. It’s him. Mr. Worrywort. He is doing this …

“Claire, no one is sending you to jail. You’ve paid your price for what you did.”

Mr. Worrywort leans down again. Claire shakes her head.

“Claire, don’t listen to him. He’s not on your side.”

“Are you?” she asks.

“Very much so, but I can’t help you if you don’t tell him to get away from you, to leave you alone.”

Help? I’m not here to help. I’m here for answers. What is …

You must help her. She looks around, searching for the voices, though knowing they are in her head or on her shoulders or just out of view like all voices tend to be. One came through stronger than the other. Help her!

It comes to her what she needs to do. Lisa walks over to Claire and puts her hand out. “If you will just trust me, he will go away.”

Claire stares at the hand as if it is a snake, as if it is about to strike her and sink its long fangs into her hand.

Lisa extends her arm further. “He can’t hurt you if you don’t let him. All he does is whisper lies into your ears.”

Claire visibly swallows, glances over her shoulder. Though Mr. Worrywort is no more than a shadow again, he is still there, his venom-like voice in Claire’s ears. Tears trickle down her face. 

“Claire, the voice in your head, the thing over your shoulder … it is your father.”

The young woman jerks as if she had stuck her tongue to a battery. Her hand goes out in front of her, gripping Lisa’s tightly. When this happens, Mr. Worrywort growls in anger. His shadow flees back to the corner as if being banished. 

Claire’s face shows relief. She shivers and then laughs. “How did you know?”

Lisa shrugs. “I didn’t.”

After a minute goes by, Lisa asks, “Are you ready to continue?”

Claire gives a nod. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Why were you in the cellar, Claire?”

“I was looking for the cleaner—my father never kept it in the living rooms of the house, only in the cellar. When I didn’t find it on the shelf where it normally was, I looked for it, and came across the box at the bottom of a shelf unit.”

“At the bottom of a shelf unit?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“You didn’t believe your mom had ever left home, did you? After all, what loving mother would leave their child, right?”

“Right. And I was right. She never left. What person, when leaving forever and ever and ever, wouldn’t take their cell phone, wallet and i.d.?”

”One who never left.”

Claire nods. Her lips are a thin line across her face. 

“Claire, did killing your father really make you feel better?”

She doesn’t smile, this teenager. She only looks up at Lisa and says, “Yes. Yes, it did.”

“How?  I mean, in what way? Umm… what about it made you feel the way you do?”

“I felt relief,” she says. “And like I had gotten some justice for my mom. He killed her. I killed him. If I hadn’t, he would have killed me.”

“One more question, Claire, if you don’t mind?”

“I don’t mind at all.”

“Was it the right thing to do?”

Claire and Lisa stare at each other for a minute, then two. Finally, Claire speaks, “No. The right thing to do would have been to tell someone, let the police arrest him and have him thrown in jail. But that wasn’t what felt right. Killing him felt right. It was the only thing I could have done.”

“I understand,” Lisa says, and she does. She thinks hundreds of thousands of young girls have gone through what Claire has and many of them remained scarred for their lives because of it. But Claire had faced the monster who scarred her and had vanquished it. She doesn’t feel sorry for Claire. Instead, she feels great pride and respect for her. 

“Thank you, Claire.”

“You’re welcome.”

Lisa turns in her chair, takes a deep breath and begins her next line of questions for the next character on her list.

To Be Continued …

Two Young Ladies and a Dinosaur

I want to talk today about not worrying about what people think of you and or what you do. No, I’m not going to preach. I’m going to tell you a short story.

Today my wife, kids and myself went to a park here in Columbia. The kids wanted to climb on the rocks that spanned part of the stream that runs through the park. My wife and I wanted to get the kids to take pictures holding one of my books for promotional purposes.

We let the kids do their climbing, and yes, The Boy slipped and got his shoes wet in the water. We saw that coming and had prepared for it by making him wear an old pair of sneakers. When it came time to take a picture of the kids holding a book, neither of them wanted to. We had a feeling that would be the case as well—it is what it is.

Here is where I want to talk about not worrying about what people think. When we asked the kids to sit at a table and hold a book so Cate could get a quick picture, they both looked around, checking to see if there was anyone else around. There was, but not the way you would think. More on that in a minute. One of the children took the book and hid behind it with the cover facing out. I say ‘children,’ but you have to understand both of my kids are in their teens. My wife took the picture, then tried to get him or her to lower the book to make it look less like she or he was hiding behind it. (Yes, I am conveniently not saying which child it was.)

Both of our children seemed embarrassed by their mom wanting to take a picture with them holding a book. I get it.

Earlier I stated my children looked around to see if anyone was in the vicinity. There was. Walking toward us were three individuals, two young ladies and a dinosaur. Yes, I said dinosaur. Stick with me and I will explain.

DinosaurRight about the time my wife tried to get pictures of my children, these three individuals walked by us. I glanced to my left and saw them. The two young ladies were in their late teens or very early twenties. They had their phones out and were talking to the dinosaur. When the dinosaur responded, I realized the dinosaur was female. None of them looked our way. They went about their business as if we weren’t around. I looked to my wife, extended my hand for one of my books and took off after them. I’m not quite sure what my kids said, but I got the distinct impression they were embarrassed that I would go talk to these total strangers.

I hit the path they were on and came up on them close to the short bridge that crosses a stream. The dinosaur stood, posing next to the bridge.

“That is so awesome,” I said when I walked up to them. I was still a good fifteen feet away when I stopped.

The girl in the dinosaur suit said, “Thank you,” and smiled. “I wanted to be a dinosaur.”

“What made you want to be a dinosaur?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I just wanted to be a dinosaur, so I went online and today I am a dinosaur.””
“That is awesome,” I said again, then added. “Can you do me a favor? I’m an author. Would you mind taking a picture holding my book?”

Her eyes widened, as did her smile. “Sure. I can do that.”

I handed her Cory’s Way. She turned slightly so her face wouldn’t be in the image. Cate took the picture and we both told her thank you. We talked for a moment longer and then the two young ladies and the female dinosaur went on their way.

A few minutes later we walked along the trail, heading toward the car. We ran into the two young women plus one. The dinosaur had taken off her fake skin and was now a regular young lady. I thanked her again and said she was awesome for being a dinosaur. I started to walk away, then I stopped. I turned around and asked the three young women if they liked to read. It turns out, they do. I got one of their emails and will be sending them free copies of a couple of my books as a thank you for the three minutes of their time they gave me to take a picture.

Here is my point. The dinosaur girl didn’t care what anyone thought about her. She bought a plastic dinosaur suit, put it on and went to a very popular park in downtown Lexington, South Carolina. She walked around where many kids and adults were and didn’t bat an eye. She took a picture for a total stranger and it didn’t phase her. She wanted to be a dinosaur, so she became a dinosaur. To heck with what anyone thought. This is what she wanted and she went after it. She was secure enough in who she is to do something most people wouldn’t because they would be too concerned about what people might say or think.

I wish I could be that carefree. I wish I could just throw on a dinosaur suit and be a dinosaur. I wish my kids could be dinosaurs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all could just love the life we have and not worry about what others think of us or what we do? It’s something worth thinking about.

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Oh Come All Ye …

They’re all dead. The whole town. Not a living person to be found.

Hank leaned against the truck, a cigarette between his lips. He wasn’t much of a smoker, but he might not see another day, so why not? The first cigarette he had ever smoked made him lightheaded. It gave him one hell of a coughing fit, as well. The second wasn’t much better, but at least it didn’t take his breath away.

Strike that off the bucket list, he thought and flicked the cigarette away. It tumbled end over end and landed in the snow with a hiss and a light plume of gray smoke and white steam.

He coughed again, but not from smoking. No, this was from the infection. He was sweating from the fever and his eyes watered. Scratches were on his arms, neck and face. Blood had dried on a few of the deeper wounds. His leg throbbed, but at that point, he no longer cared. What he did care about was taking out the biters shambling along the dirt road.

They didn’t seem to notice him. He blamed the infection for that. If he weren’t dying, not being noticed by the dead would be a good thing, but now, as his body threatened to shut down and turn him into one of those creatures, he wanted to be noticed by them. He wanted them to see him coming.

A biter lurched passed him, her grayed hair disheveled, skin sagging from either old age or decay … or both. What Jeanette would have called a housedress barely hung from her shoulders, the flower print speckled with crusted blood.

“Hey lady,” Hank said and reached for the axe next to someone else’s truck he had been leaning against. She turned, not just her head, but her entire body, and seemed to look through Hank. If she would have actually noticed him, she would have seen the stocking cap on his head, the fuzzy white ball hanging from it. She may have even wondered why he wore such a thing if it wasn’t Christmas. Hank didn’t know if it was actually Christmas. Again, he didn’t care.

He hefted the axe in both hands and took a few quick, almost lunging steps. He swung it as hard as his weakening muscles allowed. The top of the woman’s head shattered beneath the blade and she crumpled to the ground. A halo of brownish red blood formed beneath what remained of her head.

“Merry Christmas, lady.”

Hank wiped a spatter of thick blood from his face and then reached into the pick-up truck. He mashed the horn and held it for several seconds. The biters along the streets and in the yards of the small community where he thought he would die turned and began their awkward trundle toward him.

Hank coughed hard, the action tearing at his chest. His stomach cramped and released and then he spat out a string of yellow phlegm, streaked red with blood. It was time and he was tired. Beyond that, he was pissed. He tapped the front fender with the bloodied blade and gave a sickly smile. As the first of the dead approached him, he raised the axe and began to sing.

“Oh come all you biters, come and get your head split …”

 

What It’s All About …

Two things; Growing up I hated the act of writing. On the opposite end of that spectrum, I loved the act of telling a story. Some say they are one and the same. They are not. I present to you my reasoning:

In order to write a story, you must have  a story to tell and the means to tell it (type writer, computer, paper, tissue, yellow sticky notes, etc …). In order to tell a story all you need is the story, a mouth and oxygen. A captive audience helps in both instances, but you don’t need to be able to write in order to tell a story, even a bad one. 

As a kid, I hated the act of writing. It wasn’t so much I hated writing, as a whole, but the fact that at least four times a school year I had to do term papers (like all other kids at my school and probably in countless schools around the state and country). Being forced to write on subjects I didn’t care about soured me on the whole writing ‘thing.’

Only once, in seventh grade, did I actually enjoy writing papers. That was in Mr. Hayes’s English class. Mr. Hayes wasn’t all that old at the time, maybe my age now (mid-forties). Thinking on it now, he reminds me of Rowan Atkinson from the British comedy, Mr. Bean, that aired in the nineties and ran for all of fifteen episodes. He was short and wore brown pants quite often and button down shirts. The one outfit I remember distinctly was the brown pants and the light yellow button down. He wore black rimmed glasses and his dark black hair was thinning.

He may have been a precursor to Mr. Bean as I know him, but he was a good teacher, and the only one who even remotely got me to enjoy the mandatory writing assignments we had to do. Let me see if I can explain this:

Each week he passed out cue cards. They were nothing more than half a sheet of laminated paper with story prompts on them. He would start at the head of each row of students, count out the cards and hand it to the first person on the row. That person would take a card and then pass them to the next person, who would do the same thing. He did this with each row until everyone in the room had a cue card. All the prompts on the cards were different. (If you ended up with a prompt you had already done, then you just raised your hand and he would give you a different one.)

The goal on each Monday was to write a story that was no less than two paragraphs short and no more than a page long. At the end of class, we turned our papers in with only the date and the prompt number on it. That is right, we didn’t put our names on it (at least not until we received the stories back on Friday). The next day Mr. Hayes passed out the stories and the students read them out loud in class. If you got your own story, you still read it. On Friday, he passed the papers back out, but before he did that, he polled the students to see who they thought wrote each story. That was fun and funny, in and of itself, especially given the reaction of the students. Then he called out the numbers of each paper and the authors raised their hands and received their paper back.

We did this the entire year. And I enjoyed it. At the end of the year, we were allowed to take our papers home. Like I said, it was the only time while I was in school that I enjoyed the act of writing. I still have those stories. Well, most of them.

Other than that, I hated writing. I loathed the thought of writing term papers and researching encyclopedias and books with, at best, vague information. With the exception of Mr. Hayes’s seventh grade English class, I did no creative writing the rest of my school career. Not like I did that year.

On the polar opposite side of hate, I enjoyed telling stories. The act of verbalizing a story to someone or a bunch of people thrilled me. I could see their faces and I knew immediately if they were into the story or not. I could be animated, wave my hands like a maniac, run around the room, make noises and faces and sit down and squat and gyrate my hips if I wanted to. I could be quite the clown. The only thing that confined me from telling a good story is the lack of knowledge about some things, but I didn’t tend to tell stories that I had not either experienced or seen first hand.

If you have followed my blog for any length of time, you have probably seen me mention my grandfather and his made story telling skills. He captivated people with his voice, with the inflection in it, with the way he smiled and the gestures he made. He was always in control and every time he told a story, I was on the edge of my seat, rapt with interest. I watched how he moved, his facial expressions, everything about him. Then I tried to tell stories like him.

I have failed miserably.

No one can tell a story the way he did. Well, maybe Morgan Freeman, but that’s it. No one else.

Here, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road: before I ever began writing, I could tell a story. I had a good teacher. My grandfather passed away before I really took to writing. He never got to see me get a story published. He never got to hold one of my books in his hands.

I said all of that because I believe in order to be a good writer you have to be a good storyteller first. I tell you all of that because I believe there is no right or wrong way to write. Sure, there is a way to write, but the act of writing a story is the same as creating a painting or sculpting a statue or any other creative endeavor: for the most part it is personal and solitary, and each person has their ideas on what works and what doesn’t work.

As I mentioned a second ago, telling a story is personal, even if the story itself is not. A writer gives you part of him or herself when they put something out there. It is terrifying. It can be an ego crush. But it can also be exhilarating. Getting a story published is like a drug, and the high is high and the come down from it is difficult. It is addicting. And there is nothing like it.

I’ve done a lot of thinking lately, and the conclusion I have come to is simple and not even remotely close to an epiphany. In order to be a good—no, a great!—writer, you must enjoy what you are doing. When I was a kid, I hated writing. I did not enjoy it at all. So, I did it as little as possible.

When I got older, I started enjoying it. I can’t explain why that happened, but it did. And that is a wonderful thing. I think it is much like the way my grandfather enjoyed telling stories. I think that is why he was so good at it.

If I would have had a chance to ask him what I needed to do to be a good writer, he would probably say, tell a good story. That, Faithful Readers, is what it is all about. And that is why I work so hard to tell you great stories—I have big shoes to fill. Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

 

Conversing With Pembroke Sinclair

Recently, Stitched Smile Publications put out a novel by the talented Pembroke Sinclair. The novel, Humanity’s Hope, is about seventeen year old Caleb, who survived the zombie apocalypse and his struggles there after. I had an opportunity to sit down with Pembroke and talk to her about writing, Humanity’s Hope and where her totally cool pen name came from. Please, sit back, grab a beverage and join me in my conversation with Pembroke Sinclair.

A.J.: Let’s just jump in here. Tell me, who is Pembroke Sinclair?

PS: Well, there are several answers I could give you. The funny “I’m an editor by day, zombie killer by night” response. Or the incredibly long response that explains why I started writing and how I came up with my pen name. Or I could tell you there is no Pembroke, only Zoul.

A.J.: I think I would like to hear the longer version. Why did you start writing?

PS: I’ve always been a writer. I remember as early as 3rd grade I wrote a story about a horse named Charlie that my teacher laminated. When we went back to Iowa every summer, my grandma had an electric typewriter that I would create stories on. None of those were laminated, and they should probably be completely forgotten. When I was in high school, I had a spiral notebook I wrote stories in, but I made sure it looked like I was taking notes. When I got to college, things got a little weird, and I had some professors who tore down my self-confidence and made it so I didn’t write for a very long time. I picked it up again after grad school while working at an environmental consulting firm. One of my friends convinced me it was worth trying again, so I started with a few short stories. I got addicted to getting published, but decided I didn’t like short stories, so I worked on novels.

A.J.: It never fails. Someone will tear down another person, and usually because they can, but I am glad you started writing again.

Since you bring up that tearing down and losing confidence, what was that like?

Pembroke SinclairPS: It was tough, especially considering I was taking a writing class and they were supposed to be helping me get better at writing.  Instead, they found every opportunity to inform me (and probably other students) that they would never amount to anything. One professor was a literary writer, and since I was a genre writer, she said she wouldn’t be able to fairly critique my writing. Isn’t good writing good writing no matter what genre? Either way, it cut deep.

Years later, I found out these professors (one in particular) had a habit of tearing down writers’ self-confidence—perhaps because they viewed us as competition. I don’t know. But it did give me a good view into what the publishing world would be like, and after getting over my initial hurt feelings, it helped me grow some thick skin.

I’m no longer angry at the professors for what they did. Was it mean spirited and ridiculous? Of course. But me still being angry won’t change anything. The only thing I can do is move forward and write.

A.J.: Pembroke, how did you move forward?

PS: Having encouragement from a friend really helped, and then getting some stories published really pushed that along. To be honest, getting a lot of rejections throughout my career helped, too, because I’m one of those people who loves to show others that I CAN do what you say I can’t, and I’ll prove it.

A.J.: You sound like me—I say the same thing. One thing I have learned is those who have been told can’t—or shouldn’t—do this business, are the ones who want it more and try the hardest.

PS: I think it’s because we think we have something to prove.  I absolutely question my ability to write every single day, but at the same time, I’m not going to let anyone tell me I shouldn’t be doing it.  That’s my choice, not theirs.

A.J.: You said you got addicted to publishing. Can you explain what you mean by that?

PS: If you’re an author, and you’ve ever received a slew of “NO’s” for your submissions, you know that it only takes one “YES!” to completely turn everything around. I love getting yeses—I think it goes back to my desire to prove I can and should be writing. And it’s just an amazing feeling to know my work is going to be available for people to read.

A.J.: I get that, completely. I, literally, received 100 rejections before my first acceptance, including one where the editor said I should never write another story again.

PS: I received a rejection for a YA story I wrote because a reviewer gave me a mediocre review on one of my middle grade books. I wasn’t even pitching anything to do with that particular story.

A.J.: You absolutely have to hate it when that happens.

PS: I was pissed. I did the thing you’re not supposed to do: I replied to the agent (I’m pretty sure it was an agent) and asked him what the hell he was talking about. He never responded.

A.J.: Oh my—I understand your anger, but you are right, never respond in that manner. In this day of social media, that is akin to literary suicide.

PS: I phrased it nicely, but that was the gist of it.

A.J.: Earlier, you mentioned possibly telling me where you got your pen name. Do you mind telling me now?

PS: When I was first setting out to get published, I knew I couldn’t use my real name because it’s pretty common and when you Google it, a country singer shows up. I needed a pen name so I could be found.

I was pregnant with my first child at the time, and we were looking for names for him. I thought, “Pembroke Sinclair Robinson. That kid would be destined to be a writer.” When I suggested it to my husband, his response was, “You want our kid to get beat up on the playground, don’t you?” My friend suggested I take it for myself, so I did.

Side note, Pembroke’s middle name is Alloicious.

A.J.: That is a great story—and your first child probably thanks you for not naming him that.

PS: He’s never really said …

A.J.: Let’s go back a little here. I want to touch on two things. First, why genre fiction.

PS: I’ve always been a huge fan of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I’m an English major, so I’ve read my fair share of literary—and I don’t think anything is wrong with literary—but I don’t enjoy writing it. I’ve tried, and it feels weird to me. I have a much easier time imagining myself in another world or surrounded by monsters, and I prefer to be in those worlds. Writing is an escape from reality for me, and I want to get as far away as I can.

A.J.: Before I go to the second part of this, what do you consider literary fiction?

PS: I would say literary fiction are the classics you read that are based in reality. The ones that focus on craft and language, such as Toni Morrison, Faulkner (although I would argue some of his stuff is fantasy), Hemingway, etc. Does that help?

No, wait, Faulkner is literary. I was thinking Vonnegut Jr.!

A.J.: It does help, but literary fiction is still considered, by many, to be real writing, where as genre fiction is considered for hacks. What do you feel is the difference? Or is there a difference?

PS: Oh, I’m fully aware of the distinctions between literary and genre and how literary is soooooo much better. I think the distinction comes from how people want to be labeled. If they want to seem “smarter” and more high brow, they will be “literary.” If they want to appeal to the masses, they’ll be genre. Personally, both can be incredibly intelligent and complicated (have you read Dune or the Foundation series?) and, conversely, both genres can have their crap. It’s all in what a person wants to read/write.

A.J.: Great thoughts in there, Pembroke. I agree. You seem to have some strong feelings on literary fiction—just as I do. I can totally appreciate that. Is that, maybe because of the way those who write literary fiction frown on those who write genre?

PS: Absolutely. And of course, it’s not all of them. There are always those authors who support and encourage other authors and those who are just poops–in all mediums of writing. Again, I’m an English major so I enjoy literary works. I just don’t like writing them.

A.J.: I don’t like writing them either.

Let’s switch gears. You recently had a book released. Humanity’s Hope. Can you tell me about this?

PS: I’m a huge zombie fan. I love zombies in all their mediums, and I really enjoy writing about how people survive the apocalypse—especially teens.

In most zombie stories, the heroes have no quarrels about filling the role of savior and fighting for what’s left of the world.  But when writing Humanity’s Hope, I wanted to look at a character who was reluctant about that role; who didn’t want to be in that position and who has a lot of issues with surviving when others have died.

While I truly believe there will be those people who fight hard to defeat an undead threat, I also believe there will be those who only survive.  But I don’t believe any of us will come out of the zombie apocalypse unscathed.

On top of that, I also wanted to give my main character something to set him even further apart from his fellow humans, so he’s immune from becoming a zombie.

A.J.: I’m not going to ask how he is immune—that is for you to reveal in your work. I will say I love the zombie sub-genre as well. But I also find that so many people have written the same things over and over and there is little variation. What sets Humanity’s Hope apart from other books?

PS: Of course the same things have been written over and over. The same can be said about films. That’s what works and makes money!

You know, I was typing how Hope is different from other stories, and it’s not really. There are certain elements that exist in stories, and they are portrayed through different characters and settings, but they are always there.

I guess I can say it’ s not the same because I have zombies that are different. Other than that, it’s a story about someone trying to come to terms with losing his friends and family and struggling through his day to day exist with PTSD while the living dead roam the earth.

A.J.: Fair enough. Do you mind sharing an excerpt with the readers at the end of this interview?

PS: Not at all.

A.J.: Awesome. Okay, if you have a few more minutes, I would like to ask a couple more questions. What do you enjoy most about writing and publishing?

PS: I enjoy being able to escape. I enjoy exploring the question of what it means to be human (I haven’t found an answer yet). I enjoy sharing my stories with others and seeing readers enjoy them.

A.J.: Okay, on the flip side, what do you dislike about writing and publishing?

PS: The length of time it takes me to get a story on the page. It would be so much easier if I could plug the computer into my head and THINK my story onto the page. When it comes to publishing, I wish there could be more camaraderie and support among authors. We’re all in this together. Let’s build each other up instead of tearing each other down. Not that everyone does this, but those that do need to stop.

A.J.: I absolutely agree, we are in this together. I’ve always viewed this as a family, even though there are some family members we want to just stay away.

Now, other than Humanity’s Hope, you have some other works out, correct?

PS: I do. Several fiction stories and nonfiction works.

I write the nonfiction under my real name. Just to make it nice and confusing.

A.J.: Okay, treat me like a writer just starting out. What would you tell me?

PS: Have fun. Publishing is full of rejection and others who want to see you fail, but if you write because you enjoy writing and have fun creating your stories, you’ve already shown the world you can be successful.

A.J.: I like that. I like that a lot. Sound advice.

Okay, before I let you go, is there anything else you would like to say to the readers?

PS: Thank you for reading my work.  Without you, there’d be no reason to do what I do.

A.J.: One more thing: where can readers find you?

PS: You can find me on Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon.

A.J.: Pembroke Sinclair, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to chat with me. It was nice to get to know you.

PS: Thank you!  I appreciate you taking the time also!

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Pembroke Sinclair. Now, here is a sneak peak at Humanity’s Hope:

1906894769Caleb sprinted across the dirt road. His leg muscles burned. He was barely able to get his feet off the ground. The backpack slammed into his lower back with every step—the straps dug into his shoulders. As he approached the low wall, he slid into a crouch, turning so his back would contact the stones first. The pressure of the backpack pressed into his ribcage—squeezing the air out of his lungs. He pressed his lips together and let the stream flow out of his nose. He tried his best to keep it silent—a task that proved difficult with every pant. His lungs screamed for air. He wanted to draw in large, gasping breaths, but they would be too loud and attract unwanted attention. The undead were just on the other side of the wall, unaware of his presence, and he intended to keep it that way.

Caleb’s gaze drifted back to the road and fell on his sister, Nina, and Len, his chemistry partner from school. They ran toward him as fast as they could with their heavy backpacks that hunched them over. Or perhaps it was an attempt to make themselves smaller so they were less noticeable—Caleb couldn’t tell. They slid up to the wall on either side of Caleb and attempted to control their breathing.

This was a terrible place to hide—they all knew it. It was too open, too exposed, but there weren’t any other choices. The squat wall was right at the edge of a fallow field, across the dirt road they had been traversing in the hopes of finding civilization. They found the wall in a vast, rural landscape. The three of them were lucky there was something. They had come around a bend in the road and up a small hill, and there they were—zombies—shuffling aimlessly through the countryside. Caleb had to suppress his shocked gasp. They came out here because the urban areas had become too dangerous. There were too many zombies. The supplies had either been pillaged or were too difficult to get to. The country was supposed to be their hope, their salvation. So far, it wasn’t. The farmhouse was still ways away, about 50 yards. At least that was what Caleb assumed. He was horrible at judging distances. It didn’t matter anyway. With the zombies in front of them, the house was as accessible as another planet. But they couldn’t stay out in the open, either.

The look on Len’s face reflected the turmoil Caleb felt inside. His eyes were wide, his face red from exertion. His head was cocked to the side, his jaw muscles tight. The look asked: “What do we do now?” Caleb had no answer.

When they set out that morning to look for food, they had told themselves the zombies had been confined to the cities. Why? Because they had to believe something. They had to think there was still a chance.

Caleb lowered his gaze to the ground. There was no way to respond to Len’s silent question. They just had to wait it out—make their move when they got the opportunity. Caleb glanced over his shoulder at his sister. She slumped against the wall, her legs sprawled out in front of her, her chin resting on her chest. His stomach tightened as he took in her pose. She wasn’t going to be able to move quickly from that position. She needed to be ready. Yet, he felt for her. What was the point of being ready if it meant they had to keep running? His legs shook underneath him as he held his crouch. It would have been such a relief to plop onto his butt and take the weight off his legs. He could’ve placed his arms around Nina’s shoulders and pulled her close. They could have relaxed in their misery. Instead, he gently backhanded her arm. When she looked at him, he thrust his thumb into the air. With an eye roll and deliberate movements, Nina moved into a crouch, removing the gun from the back of her waistband.

Caleb focused on the weapon in his hands. It was there so often, it was like an appendage. He rarely noticed it anymore. But neither of the guns would do them much good; there weren’t enough bullets to take out the threat. Even if they fired their remaining rounds, all it would do was draw more zombies to their location.

Caleb turned his attention away from his gun and stretched up to look over the wall. As soon as his eyes broke the surface, he scanned the area before sinking back down. His heart pounded against his ribs, his throat tightened. An undead lumbered close to the wall—too close. One wrong move or sound and they were spotted. He licked his lips and felt the sweat slide down his spine. If they stayed quiet, the zombies would keep moving. They just had to wait it out.

A low, soft grumbling filled the air. At first, Caleb wasn’t convinced he’d heard it. It was so low, he could have imagined it. He had hoped he’d imagined it. But then Len wrapped his arms around his midsection and squeezed. The rumbling grew louder. It was hard to hide the sounds of hunger. Caleb’s eyes grew wide. He shifted his stance so he could explode onto his feet.

The rotted hand reached over the wall and swiped the air between Caleb and Len. There were no other options. All of them sprang to their feet. The crowd of rotting flesh was converging on their position. Caleb extended his arms and lined up his sights. The crack of the gun echoed loudly in the country air; the corpse slumped onto the wall. All three of them jumped over the wall and ran toward the house. The path took them directly toward the zombies; they had to be fast enough to get by them.

Caleb’s extremities tingled with adrenaline, his footsteps thumped rhythmically on the hard, dry ground. He sucked in long gasps of air, but his lungs still burned for oxygen. He caught glimpses of the other two out of the corner of his eyes. The undead drew nearer. Their arms outstretched, waiting to snag their prey. Caleb zig-zagged across the field. He ducked under a pair of arms, then shouldered a zombie out of the way. Its bones crunched against his shoulder, teeth gnashed close to his ear, driving him forward with more urgency. The house grew larger with every step he took. Almost there.

A short yip followed by a grunt sounded behind him. He risked a glance over his shoulder. Len stumbled then fell. Caleb’s heart leapt into his throat. He skidded to a stop, turning to help his friend. Caleb was about to step toward Len, but he was stopped in his tracks. The action caused him to lose his balance. His arms flailed through the air to keep Caleb from falling over. An incessant, strong tugging kept him from moving forward. He turned to see Nina jerking on his backpack. Her eyes were wide and glistening with tears. She bit her bottom lip and shook her head violently. Caleb glanced again at Len, who reached for Caleb, his mouth open in a silent plea, tears running down his cheeks. Caleb reached toward him. Len’s plea turned into a scream as a zombie bit into his calf. A dark ring of blood stained his jeans and grew larger. Another zombie latched onto the fingers of his extended hand. The crunch as it bit through his bones rattled in Caleb’s skull. He pulled his hand into his chest.

Caleb turned at that point. There was nothing more he could do. His sister grabbed his wrist, and they ran into the house. They took the stairs two at a time and headed into a bedroom on the right. After closing the door, they scanned the area, checking under the bed and in the closet. Clear. His sister collapsed face first onto the bed. From the way her body shook, Caleb could tell she was crying. He leaned back until his pack connected with the door. His legs gave out, and he slid to the floor. Pulling his knees to his chest, he wrapped his arms around his head and tried to disappear into himself.

And then there were two.

Poor Dead Fred

I haven’t written anything in days. It’s not that I have had no ideas—I have plenty. I either haven’t felt well or have been tired or both. Then there is this little factor called time. I don’t always have time to put words on documents, and sometimes when I do, other things pop up. It is called life, and life often demands our attention and demands we stop our daydreaming and word-scaping. Oh the demands of reality sucketh dry the mind and energy it takes to sit and type. And don’t think sitting and typing is doing nothing. It is exhaustive work, even if it looks like it isn’t.

What I have a desire to do is tell the story my mind conjured up about a poor, ruined baseball, one that had clearly been ran over by a large lawn mower (and certainly not the push kind you walk behind).

The Girl and I sometimes go walking out at the baseball field behind the local middle school. I usually get this request to do so later in the evening, meaning we either can’t go for a walk because it is almost dark out or we can go for a walk, but a brief one. On Friday it conveniently rained and looked as if it would storm, dampening our chances of going for a walk.

A little after six, I knocked on The Girl’s bedroom door, opened it to see her sitting, cross-legged on her bed. I said, ‘Hey, do you want to go walking?’ That’s not entirely accurate. I said, ‘You wanna go walkin’?’

She shrugged and said, ‘Sure.’

‘It’s been raining,’ I said.

‘It’s just water,’ she responded.

Off we went.

Her assessment of it’s just water stayed that way and we ended up not needing the two towels I took with us, you know, just in case, it’s just water turned into it’s just a lot of water.

DSCN2605The baseball park was deserted, except for one black Grand Am sitting near the restrooms at the parking lot. We made our first lap around the track, talking about boys and other things, but mostly boys. It rained on us, but not much. Off in the distance, the clouds gave way to blue skies.

To give you a little ground work, the track we walk on is black and rubbery. I believe it to be one of those tracks made out of recycled tires. I could be wrong. In fact, I am probably wrong. The track itself circles the parking lot and the batting cages before passing through a stretch of trees. It opens up at the back end of the ballpark where the furthest of the five fields resides. It passes the Tee Ball field before entering another smaller stretch of trees, and then circles around the playground, before ending up back where we started. As you can see, it is an endless loop.

As we passed the furthest of the five fields, I looked toward the muddy ground, the grass soaked through. A trough of water ran just on this side of the fence, ending near the Tee Ball field. On the other side of this trough was a baseball. For those who don’t know, when I see an errant baseball on the ground, and there is no one there to claim it as theirs, I pick it up and add it to my collection. On this first time around the field, I left the baseball where it sat.

We made another lap around the track, this time talking about boys and other stuff, but mostly boys. The second time we passed the ball, I said, ‘Hold on a second.’ I hopped the watery trough. Thankfully, my foot did not slide and I didn’t sprawl on the ground, either landing on my butt in the pooled water, or face first in the wet grass. I plucked the ball from its spot on the ground. It was soaked through, as I thought it would be. What I hadn’t expected was to see where the strings had split and where the rawhide had been torn. Clearly, the baseball had been  struck by the sharp blades of a lawnmower.

I hopped back over the water trough. This time, my heel caught the soft part of the ground and almost sank in. I pulled my foot free, leaving behind a slight smudge of mud on the heel. Back on the track, The Girl and I continued our walk, me letting my fingers roll the ruined baseball over and over in my palm, she talking about boys and other things, but mostly boys. Every once in a while I would glance at the ball. Some of the twine had been torn loose when it had been struck by the lawnmower. The rawhide looked like puckered skin after a knife had sliced through it. In a way, I guess a knife had done its handy work on the ball.

We finished our walk and went back to the car. Fortunately for us we got back in when we did. It went from it’s just rain to someone opened the floodgates. I held the ball a little longer, looking at it. ‘Poor dead baseball,’ I said and set it in the cup holder in the center console. The Girl looked at me like I was nuts, but shouldn’t she be used to this by now?

It was a short trip home, one where we talked about boys, among other things, but mostly boys. Once home, I grabbed the ball, hurried to the front door not really trying to dodge rain drops, but not wanting to get soaked either. I unlocked the door and went inside. I looked at the ball one more time before setting it on the entertainment center right next to the DVR.

I sat to read, but my mind kept wondering back to the baseball I had found, to its flayed rawhide, split strings and ruined insides. Poor dead baseball, I told myself again.

As the night went on I kept going back to the ball, thinking of the many ways it had been used before it got shredded by the lawnmower. Then I thought of its horrific ending. He had probably been laying in the grass, minding his own business, maybe even basking in the sun, working on his tan. Or he may have been sleeping. Then he probably heard the heavy rumble of the riding lawnmower (because that is the type they use at the ballpark). The baseball probably tried to roll away, but found he couldn’t, not without the stimulus of someone picking him up and tossing him. I imagine there was a scream as the sunny world he had been laying in was suddenly dark, and then the blade struck him, shooting him out the side. He probably flew through the air at a high rate of speed, before landing near the fence where I found him. And there the ball lay unnoticed by the monster that had dispatched of him mercilessly. How many people passed him by? How many folks just thought he was a ruined baseball and not worthy of their time? How many kids walked by him, maybe even picked him up, thinking they had a ball to play with, just to see his ruin exterior and drop him back to the ground?

Poor dead baseball.

Two days have passed since we brought the tattered thing home. It has sat on the entertainment center, ‘drying out.’ That sounds so creepy, when you consider how my mind conjured up this inanimate object’s death.

Here I sit, typing these words, the baseball off to my right. I paused midway through this piece and grabbed a pencil. Taking the baseball in hand, I did what I felt came naturally. Then I grabbed Cate’s Sharpies and went to town.

I now call this baseball Dead Fred. I may also have a new hobby for my baseball collection. Time will tell.

Thank you all for reading. I hope you have a great day. Until we meet again, my friends, be kind on one another.

A.J.