Cramps–A Sneak Peek (A Hank Walker Story)

If you follow my work, you know who Hank Walker is. You’ve probably read Dredging Up Memories and possibly Interrogations. He’s a southern man trying to survive in the world of the dead, a world where most people he has come across have lost their minds. You also know there is a third book in the works, Eradication. 

Recently, I realized that over half of the third book in the Hank Walker saga needed to be scrapped. It was a deflating moment for me. However, I’ve been able to save quite a bit of words, including the ones below. This is, potentially, chapter 10 of Eradication. Do I think it will change between now and when the book is completed and when it actually goes to publication? Absolutely. Having said that, I think it gives a hint at a crucial element of Eradication and the arc of Hank Walker’s storyline. Can you figure out what that is?

If you are reading this on the day that I posted it, you may be wondering, why two posts in one day? Well, this is as much for me as it is for you. This is my kick in the behind to get this story finished so you, the readers, can see where Hank Walker is going.

I hope you enjoy this sneak peek into Eradication. 

__________

DUM NEW COVERHis stomach grumbled. Hank thought little of it. The feeling had come and gone plenty of times in the year since the world fell to the dead. When it came again, a gnawing pain came with it. Hank grimaced. Instinctively he hunched over. His face near the steering wheel, his eyes barely on the road, the truck swerved from one lane to the other. 

When the pain subsided, Hank eased back into the right lane. He didn’t think it mattered which side of the road he drove on. There weren’t many people left and the dead wouldn’t be driving. An absurd image popped in his head. It was of the seven biters walking along the highway a few days before. They were all piled in a dusty blue station wagon from the eighties. One of the four men was driving, while one of the women was in the front seat. Between them was the lone child—possibly a teenager. In the backseat, the other four adults scrunched together, with the lone woman almost sitting on the lap of one of the men. In the image he could see a hand between the knees of Lap Lady. It wasn’t sexual in nature, just dangling there, a place to be with no intent at all. 

The Dead Seven sang Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall, all of them off key. The girl laughed as young people would. The car swerved from side to side and the image changed. Instead of the Dead Seven riding along, merrily going about their business, Hank had the rifle trained on the driver’s head. He squeezed the trigger. Less than a second later, the bullet shattered the windshield and struck the driver in his left eye. The bullet exited his skull and struck the hand between the woman’s legs in the backseat.

“You got you a two-fer, Hank.”

Hank froze. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t look to his right where the voice came from. He knew the voice and the tone. He knew the excitement in it. He knew it didn’t sound quite right. 

The car swerved and the Dead Seven, now the Dead Six, screamed. The driver had tipped to the side, his head on the young girl’s shoulder. Her empty white eyes bulged and her mouth was open as wide as it could possibly go. The groan coming from it was loud and scared.

The car sped along the grass, the tires bumpety bumping along. Then the car hit a dip. The front end dug into the ground as the back end tipped up, then fell back down on its top. The windows exploded and the car flipped again, this time sideways. The woman in the backseat appeared in one of the side windows, her body halfway out of the car. She disappeared beneath the vehicle when it flipped again. The next time Hank saw her, she lay on the ground, nothing more than a squashed bug on concrete.

The girl in the front was no longer in her seat, but her head was plastered against the windshield. The three men in the backseat flopped around as the car flipped, end over end, several more times before it came to a stop on its wheels almost a hundred feet from the road. 

The Dead Seven were permanently dead, no longer roaming the world in search of fresh meals. 

“Hmm … looks like you got yourself a seven-fer, Hank,” the voice to his right said again. 

He didn’t want to look, but was helpless to stop himself. The scenery slowly changed from the smoking station wagon, to the interstate (where skid marks stretched thirty or so feet along the road just before the car hit grass), to the trees lining the other side of the interstate, to the edge of the overpass he stood on to the dead and sunken in features of his oldest brother, Lee. He smiled and a centipede crawled from between his rotting lips. 

Hank screamed and woke up. His knee struck the steering wheel of the truck. The horn gave a little beep when his hand hit it. He looked to his right, still believing Lee would be there, staring at him, a centipede crawling down his chin. But Lee wasn’t there. Only the dark of night surrounded him. He had pulled off the road and down a dirt path. Though he didn’t believe anyone else would be traveling that way, he didn’t want to take a chance of being discovered in the middle of the night. Not with all the crazies he ran into. And not while he slept.

A few drops of rain pattered the windshield. When was the last time it had rained? Hank couldn’t recall. The last time there was any precipitation of any kind was when it snowed and that was long in the past, faded like most memories. Yet, here he sat, watching as rain struck the windshield and listening as it pelted the truck’s top and hood and the bed.

Interrogations New Front Cover“Everything in the bed is going to be soaked,” he said and thought about getting out and trying to put as much in the cab as he could. Instead, he sat, watching as the rain came down harder.

His stomach grumbled. Hank turned the overhead light on and searched the cab for food. He found several bags of chips, a can of chili with a pop top and half a dozen bottles of water. He popped the top on the chili. The heavy aroma coming from it churned his stomach. In the past, he wouldn’t have thought about eating anything that made him almost gag just from the smell of it. But times were lean and food was at a premium. 

“Just a few bites,” he said and stuck his fingers into the cold chili. He barely had it to his mouth when his stomach cramped. He forgot about the food and pitched forward, his shoulder striking the steering wheel. The pain reminded him of his dream, of how sharp the pain had been in it and how quickly it shifted to the Dead Seven. The pain grew worse, cramping and pinching at his insides. He let out a moan as he clutched his stomach with both hands, the chili having fallen into his lap, the can having fell between his legs and rolled onto the floorboard. 

Hank got the door open, fell to the wet ground and vomited. The rain beat down on him, cooling his suddenly hot body. Spots filled his vision and he threw up a second time. When he was sure he wouldn’t throw up again, he dropped onto his side, his legs pulled up to his chest, not caring about the muddy ground he lay on, only relishing the icy cold rain. He closed his eyes and waited for the cramps to subside enough for him to stand. One hand went over his face. He felt weak and fear pushed into his mind. 

You need to get up, Hank, it whispered. You need to get up and get back in the truck.

“I can’t,” he said. Several rain drops landed in his mouth. It was like honey off the comb, sweet to the taste.

He lay there a while longer, his hand to his face, his body weak, stomach cramping. Before he realized it, Hank faded off to sleep. 

A.J.

 

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Interrogations Is Up For Preorder

Good evening my faithful Readers. I have great news for you. My novella, Interrogations, is slated to be released in ebook format this Friday, August 2nd, coinciding with Scares That Cares’ opening day. However, you can pre-order that ebook now. Just follow this LINK and check it out. 

For those of you who may not know, Interrogations is the continuation of Dredging Up Memories and will lead to another story, tentatively titled, Eradication. Hank Walker’s story is clearly not through and he has plenty of life left. 

1 DUM COVERIf you haven’t read Dredging Up Memories, you can do so by following this LINK. 

Here is the synopsis for Dredging Up Memories:

In the best of times, loneliness is difficult. At the end of time it can be deadly. 

Hank Walker is alone and struggling, not just with the undead, but with depression that threatens to swallow him. Searching for the family he sent away at the beginning of the rise of the dead, Hank is left to deal with loneliness, desperation, and his own memories that haunt him. 

The dead are everywhere. The few people still alive are scattered, and the ones Hank comes across may be more dangerous than the biters. 

With an unlikely traveling companion, Hank’s search takes him across the state of South Carolina and to the depths of darkness like nothing he has ever experienced before. Can Hank find his family and survive the biters? Or does he completely unravel in the world of the dead?

Curious? Keep reading.

Interrogations picks up where Dredging Up Memories left off. Here is the synopsis for the new novella:

Interrogations CoverHank Walker woke up in a bed in a survivor camp. He should have been dead, and a short time after that, he should have risen and joined the ranks of the shambling biters—those who have died and come back seeking the flesh of the living. Instead, he woke up alive and in a safe place.

Or is it truly safe?

Ruled by Harrison Avis, a militaristic leader, Hank realizes quickly Fort Survivor S.C. #3 might not be so safe after all, especially for those who do not find favor with Avis.

When a member of the camp is exiled to the outside world, Hank launches a plan to expose Avis as corrupt. It’s a plan with possible grave consequences for all involved. Though he knows the dangers of failing, Hank is willing to take the risk to protect what remains of his family, if not from Harrison Avis, then from himself.

Excited? I hope so. I am. 

If you would like to preorder the ebook of Interrogations, follow this LINK. I thank you, as does my publisher. 

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

A.J. 

Coming Soon: Interrogations

Good morning Faithful Readers,

I’m happy to announce my novella, Interrogations, is almost ready to see the world. Stitched Smile Publications and I have worked hard on this new Hank Walker novella and we believe you’re going to love the direction we have taken the storyline.

Interrogations bridges the two full length novels, Dredging Up Memories and Eradication (working title). If you haven’t read Dredging Up Memories, I encourage you to do so before you read Interrogations, though it is not necessary.

Here is the synopsis for Interrogations:

Interrogations Cover.pngHank Walker woke up in a bed in a survivor camp. He should have been dead, and a short time after that, he should have risen and joined the ranks of the shambling biters—those who had died and come back seeking the flesh of the living. Instead, he woke up alive and in a safe place.

Or is it truly safe?

Ruled by Harrison Avis, a militaristic leader, Hank realizes quickly Fort Survivor S.C. #3 might not be so safe after all, especially for those who do not find favor with its leader.

When a member of the camp is exiled to the outside world, Hank launches a plan to expose Avis as corrupt. It’s a plan with possible grave consequences for all involved. Though he knows the dangers of failing, Hank is willing to take the risk to protect what remains of his family, if not from Harrison Avis, then from himself.

Yes, that last line is important. 

Though I don’t have an exact release date, the final touches are being put into place as I write this. I hope you are as excited as I am. Stick around for more information coming soon.

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

A.J.

 

Please … A Short Story

PLEASE

Marcy stood over Tim’s body shortly after his death. The gun in her hand felt too large. The tears spilling down her face felt too few. The shards of her broken heart tinkling onto the floor of her soul felt too quiet. The two scene act of his death felt too unreal, as if the world had forgotten there were still people living, surviving. 

“Please,” he had said seconds before his death, seconds before his eyes closed and he took his last breath. 

Please? He had begged. She will always remember that. He had begged. After everything that had happened, in the end he had begged. 

Everything … After they had left their home, running away like scared rats on a sinking ship. After the world had cornered them and after he had put bullets in the heads of all three of his children to keep them from turning on him. After ending the existence of so many people. At first she tried to remember the amount, but even that got to be too daunting in a world where they couldn’t trust anyone, not even their own loved ones. 

He had begged, and Marcy hated herself for not being able to help him. 

I let him die, she thought as she looked down at him. He lay on the floor in the garage of a small abandoned house, a jacket beneath his head like a pillow. The stubble on his face seemed amplified as the color slowly drained from his cheeks. The bags under his eyes looked bruised. His hands still clutched at the wound in his side, the wound that ultimately doomed him to death. Blood had seeped through his fingers and she couldn’t help but stare at it, at how bright the red was. 

Screen-Shot-2012-10-30-at-4.07.29-PMThere was no car in the garage, but there were tools on one wall, hanging from pegs on a long board. She noted the axe, something she knew she would have to use at some point, and the shovel. Yeah, another tool she needed to use, sooner rather than later. Until that time came, she backed away from Tim’s body, her eyes fixed on him as if she was afraid of him. Truthfully, she was. 

Marcy tucked the gun in her waistband and searched the garage. Other than the tools on the wall, there were several boxes filled with items the previous owners wished to keep or give to charity at some point, but never got around to doing it. 

Isn’t that the way it is? she thought. You make plans and think there is always time to do it, then you never get around to it. Time just … runs out. 

Her shoulders slumped and tears formed in her eyes. Marcy wiped at them with the ball of one hand and looked back to Tim.

Still dead. What else would he be?

Next to the wall where the tools hung, sat a cinder block. She walked over and sat down. It wasn’t all that comfortable, but she didn’t think she would be there much longer. If anything, just getting off her feet for a few minutes before she …

Marcy shook her head. She didn’t want to think about the task at hand. The death of her kids was hard enough. Burying them almost killed her. But …

The tears came in a tidal surge that shook her shoulders and rocked her back on the cinder block. She put her face in her hands and wept. Marcy wiped her eyes, blew her nose on the front of her shirt and looked at Tim through wet, blurry eyes. She was tired, so very tired, not just of running, but everything. 

I could end it all, now, she thought and touched the butt of the gun still in her waistband. 

She frowned, wiped her eyes again, and sniffled back a runner of snot. She swallowed hard when she saw his foot twitch.

Marcy stood, her nerves suddenly dancing. Her heart sped up. She was no longer tired. Though she knew what was coming and she knew what needed to be done, she was scared, not of the deed, but of what would happen if she didn’t follow through, if she didn’t do the one thing Tim asked her—begged her—to do.

Please, he had said, his eyes leaking tears, the shine fading from them even before he died. 

Don’t make me do this, she said. She shook her head from side to side. I don’t know if I can. 

Please. I did the kids so you wouldn’t have to. I took care of you the best I could, Marcy. 

But …

Please. 

She couldn’t say yes to him. She only nodded several times as she looked down at the gaping wound in his side. With that act, Tim rested his head on his coat and closed his eyes. He breathed his last and was gone. 

Now she stood, not quite over him like she had when he died, her finger on the trigger, the gun pointed at Tim’s forehead. She didn’t pull the trigger then and wished she had.

Please. A finger spasmed.

Please. His neck jerked, making his head move sharply to the side. 

Please. Tim’s jaw moved, his teeth clacked together. 

Please. The twitch of the foot became a tap tap on the floor, as if an electrical jolt had been sent through his body. 

Please. His elbow struck the floor. His fingers bunched into a fist. Released.

Please. A sound, like a groan mixed with a growl, came from Tim.

Please. His eyes opened. They were still green, but dull, with no life in them at all. 

His hands went to the floor and pushed up. Though he struggled to do so, Tim managed to sit up. His head lulled on his shoulder as if he were drunk. He swayed from side to side, unsteady after being dead for less than twenty minutes. 

“No,” Marcy said. The tears fell down her face again. She pulled the gun from her waistband and pointed it at him. She shook her head as he started to stand. “No. No. No.”

Please. Tim stood. He staggered backward and bumped the wall. Then he moved forward, a moan in his throat, his mouth open.

Please. Tim reached a hand out to her. His legs didn’t seem to work right. He stumbled forward. The moan grew louder.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 4.52.16 PM“Please,” Marcy said. She didn’t want to shoot him, not her husband, not like he did their children. But he had turned. Tim didn’t let his kids turn. Once death claimed them, he put a bullet in their heads. Marcy hadn’t done the same for her husband, the man she loved, the man she thought would be with her forever. He had died. The biter that attacked him took a sizable piece of flesh from his stomach and the virus took him quicker than it had the children. 

Please, he had begged before he died. Now it was her turn to say please over and over as he approached her. Tim was still several feet away, staggering, growling and gnashing his teeth. 

“Please.” The sound of the gun as she pulled the trigger deafened her for several seconds. She staggered back with the recoil. As Tim fell backward from the gunshot to the head, Marcy did the same from tripping over the cinder block she had been sitting on. She landed on her side on the concrete floor. A sliver of pain ran from her hip into her thigh. 

From where she lay on the floor, Marcy saw Tim less than ten feet from her. The hole in his head wasn’t a neat circle, but a crater that took out the top left part of his skull. Marcy dropped the gun beside her and stared off at the shadows on the dark ceiling above her. As she lay there, she cried and said the same word over and over. “Please.”

(You can find “Please,” and ten other short stories in the collection, Zombies. You can pick  this collection up HERE.)

 

Words and Soul

Le_Penseur_de_Rodin_à_Saint-DiéI think too much. I know I do, but I can’t help it. Even when I try to switch my brain off and do something mindless like watch NBA basketball, listen to the news or sleep, my brain is always moving in eighty-two different directions. There is usually a song playing in the background of my mind as I sit and try to do nothing, but fail. Currently, that song is Any Way You Want It by Journey. When there should be nothing going on in my head, there are voices whispering about my job, my marriage, my kids, story ideas, failure, the fear of failing, frustration at not being where I would like to be at this point in my life, all at the same time. It’s a true cacophony of noise. It’s like a real life Babble-onia. 

Sometimes, one voice will be the loudest and will say, ‘hey, y’all shut it, so I can talk to the man here.’ Usually most of the other voices quiet down, with one piping up every once in a while with something like, ‘who died and made you the boss?’ That voice gets sushed quickly by the other voices and gets a mean eat crap and die glare from the main voice of unreasonable thoughts. When this voice finally has its say, it tells me things that frustrate me, most of them about my writing abilities or the lack of readership. That voice is a real jerk. I’ll call this voice Manny because it is so close to the childhood whining complaint, Meanie. 

There is another voice, the main competitor for time in my brain with the other one. This voice is all philosophical and serious in a manner different from the first one. I will call this guy Phil. 

So, Manny is the blowhard jerk who likes to tell me I’m crap. Phil is the thoughtful one, always with something to say about the world I reside in (both mentally and physically). Of these two guys, which would you say would be the one who irritates me the most? Go ahead. Think about it for a moment. I’ll wait.

Okay. What’s your guess? How many of you said Manny? Come on, be honest. Raise your hand or leave a comment below (I can’t see you raise your hand, but I can read your comments, so please feel free to leave one). Why did you say Manny? I can give you the reason I would have said Manny if I were in your place, reading this instead of writing it. Manny is a jerk. He is negative and somewhat of a bully, always putting you down and telling you that you suck. Honestly, that’s pretty accurate in many cases. 

Though Manny is everything you think he is, he is not the one that irritates me the most. Phil is. Yes, that’s right. Phil is my thinking voice. He is the one who wakes me in the wee hours of the morning asking me questions I have no answers for. He is also the one who incites my temper and aggravations, points out the things I dislike about aspects of my life. He is as negative as Manny, but he actually points things out; he actually tells me exactly what’s wrong with the things I dislike in this world and why. He is, after all, a philosopher. He philosophizes. Is that even a real word?

Though more often than not, Phil angers me and puts me in a state of deep thought, he also opens my eyes to new ideas and a different way of seeing things. Some of his long winded thoughts have lead me to some of my best stories and characters. Hank Walker is one of those characters. Homer Grigsby is another. If you have read the stories those two characters are from, I hope you will agree that they are smashingly good.

The other night while in the shower, Phil popped his head in, silencing the other voices, though they all let out groans before going quiet. Even Manny grumbled about his appearance in my brain because he knows that once Phil begins to talk, I will listen to him before I listen to the others, including the Voice of Reason, or as I call her VORonica. 

8f0565ba80e0e1ced7ccbea99c01603fPhil stood up on his soapbox and lifted a finger in the air and began to lecture in a Scottish accent, bringing up some of my favorite terms: Word Whores, Paragraph Pimps, Wordgasm. He showed me how wrong I was about the definition of the first two terms and how, as a story teller I should strive to give every reader a wordgasm. Don’t ask what the first two mean. It’s quite complicated. However, the third term is exactly as it sounds: a wordgasm is what a reader should feel after reading a particularly good book or even just a particularly good portion of a book. It is the feeling you get after reading a story by someone that makes you say, “I really want something else by this author, and I’m willing to pay for it.” (It really is like having amazing sex. When it is over, you lay in bed next to your butt naked partner and say, ‘yeah, that is how sex should be every single time. You know it won’t be that way, but that is what you want it to be like.) You should want a cigarette after reading a book so good it gave you a wordgasm. 

That’s not the most important thing Phil said as I showered myself clean. He said to me, “Stop worrying about those who don’t put any soul in their work. You do you and you keep putting your heart and your soul and your mind into your words and you’ll be okay.” 

He paused as I rinsed the shampoo from my hair. I imagine he took a sip of whiskey, smacked his lips, then wiped them with the back of his hand. Then he spoke again.

“So many stories these days have no soul, have no heart, have no feelings. They are just words placed one after another and they mean nothing. They are zombies—shells of what they could be, put on paper. When they are read, they are forgotten. They mean nothing.”

Words like zombies. When he said that I pictured a person struggling to read a book, turning each page slowly, hoping for something to grab their attention, hold it and then squeeze their heart and suck the breath from their lungs; anything to give them a reason to continue on. I could see the eyelids dipping, dipping, closing, the sockets like hollows on the face; mouth open and a dribble of sludge falling from the corner of the mouth in boredom. Empty words with cracks and wrinkles and holes where there shouldn’t be any. 

It reminds me so much of the song Words, by Missing Person that was released in the early eighties. One of the lyrics is as follows:

“It’s like the feeling at the end of the page

When you realize you don’t know what you just read.”

As a story teller, that is probably the worst thing a reader can say about your work. Not only did the words do nothing for you emotionally, you don’t even know—or remember—what you just read. 

This is what Phil was telling me. And this is what I am going to tell you. If you are a writer, an artist, a singer, or whatever creative endeavor you take on, boldly put your heart and your soul into your work. Own your work as if it is the most important thing in your life. Own it as if it is oxygen and without it you can’t live. Whatever you do, don’t settle. Don’t do what everyone else does. Be you. Why? Because you don’t want anyone coming away from your work wondering what they just read, saw or heard. 

My oath to every reader who picks up my books is to give you my best, my heart, my soul … to give you a part of me. As readers, if I ever give you a story you feel has no heart or no soul, you let me know. Contact me at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com and let me know. Don’t be a jerk about it. I don’t respond to that type of behavior. On the flip side of that coin, if one of my stories or anything I write touches you, makes you think or feel, you can also contact me at that same address. 

There is too little soul in stories these days. I won’t settle for that. I can’t. VORonica and all the other voices won’t let me. 

As always, until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

The 5 and 3 with M.F. Wahl

Back at the beginning of March, MF Wahl rereleased her novel, Disease, through Stitched Smile Publications. It was a long wait, but one well worth it. I had the opportunity to participate in her online release party as well as do The 5 and 3 with her. So, here we go.

The Five:

  1. We always hear the question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” What I want to know is how do you go from idea to finished story?  Mostly, I just plant my ass at my computer and write. Is there another way to do it?
  2. What is the hardest part of writing for you? Probably the planting my ass at my computer to write part. Life is demanding, and more often than not, it’s not demanding that I make time for myself to pull the words out of my head and slap them on paper … err … screen …
  3. Outside of the writing/publishing circle, when you tell someone you are a writer how do people react? How do they react when you say you are a horror writer? The vast majority of people will tell me they’re not really into horror. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Others are fans of the genre though, and that’s always nice.
  4. If you could meet a character from one of your stories, who would it be and why? My character Alex from my novel Disease. He’s pretty quiet, but I’m positive he has a lot going on inside his head. I think it would be interesting to discover all those things.
  5. What qualities make up your ideal reader? If someone reads they are my ideal reader. They don’t need to read my stuff, and if they do, they don’t even need to like it. Reading opens worlds and allows us to glean knowledge from just about anyone and anytime in history or future. It allows us to live other lives and partake in experiences that we would otherwise be closed off from, both real and imagined. Through it we can explore the human condition. In addition, reading fiction is proven to increase empathy, and learning to read earlier in childhood is a leading indicator of intelligence later in life. Reading is incredibly important and such a boon to human civilization. If someone reads, they are my ideal reader. Period.

The Three:

  1. If you were ruler of your country for one day and you could make one change that DISEASEbyMFWahl_Cover_Thumbnailcould not be revoked, what would it be? Any change that could be made is wrought with consequences, both good and bad, and any policy change that could never be revoked would make for bad policy. Take education, something I feel strongly about, something I feel is on the “need” list if we want a viable society. But, say we were to be invaded by aliens and required all resources for one year to go toward surviving the invasion as a country rather than education. If a policy of universal free education couldn’t be revoked temporarily we might perish at the hands of the tentacled invaders. Beyond that, every policy must be made with an idea of how to fund, implement, and sustain it at its highest ideal. I don’t think I’m qualified to make such decisions. So, I suppose I would veer away from an individual sweeping reform policy, despite the fact there are many issues I feel strongly about. Instead, perhaps I would try to install a diverse, flexible, and highly intelligent council that operated outside the influence of politics and money and that could help create policies with the public’s input for society’s good. Of course, now we’re essentially speaking about the total destruction of our current and corrupt, money motivated political system, and such an overhaul is bound also to have unforeseen consequences, although they may be preferable to the abomination we currently kowtow to. It would also likely be met with vehement opposition by those who benefit from the status quo and be susceptible to corruption in of itself. Which, I suppose would lead me to deciding that the one change made that couldn’t be revoked be that I was the ruler of my country for ever and ever, past my one day with the stipulation that I would step down from my position once I installed an new and fair system. But now, don’t I sound like a wondrous dictator?
  2. Do you have a guilty pleasure? If so, what is it? Nope. I feel no guilt about my pleasures.
  3. Can you give us one memory from your childhood that helped to shape you into the person you are now? My mother used to read to my siblings and me every night. I think that had a large impact on me and helped lead to my love of reading and eventually to writing.

Bonus question:

How does your significant other/spouse feel about your writing? Does he/she support your pursuit of writing/publishing? Of course. I couldn’t get along without the support and encouragement I receive.

You can find M.F. Wahl at her website HERE.

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 …”

 

No Saving Grace–A Hank Walker Short Story

For those of you who enjoyed the struggles of Hank Walker in Dredging Up Memories, I give you this short story.

[[SPOILER ALERT: The next part of this introduction may contain a spoiler about Dredging Up Memories. If you plan on reading it, I would skip this introduction. If you have read it, then continue on. END SPOILER ALERT]]

This piece takes place during one of the moments of Dredging Up Memories where Hank has been drinking. This is after he finds out Jeanette has died and he has lost Humphrey. This also takes place before he meets Hetch, during one of the many black out moments where Hank loses time and all memory of what happened.

I do ask two favors: if you know someone who would like this addition to Hank’s story, please share it with them. Second, please leave me a comment and let me know if you would like more of these ‘forgotten moments’ of Hank’s life.

Enough talk. I hope you enjoy No Saving Grace.

No Saving Grace

Ay A.J. Brown

He wanted to save them. He wanted to save all of them. In the end, he couldn’t even save himself.

***

They approached in a stumbling heap of rotting bodies, their groans like cries of pain. They appeared listless, as if following some unseen force, drawing them up the dirt path and toward the man standing in the opening at the mouth of that path. Hank had his weapons of choice, a machete slung on his back and a Smith & Wesson .357 in his hand. It held eight shots. It wasn’t enough, but that’s what the machete was for. He also had a bottle of whiskey in the van. Right then, he wished he had taken a swig before he left stepped out of the vehicle, but he hadn’t. His mouth was dry, as if he had been chewing on cotton balls for a few days.

The sun was just coming up in the horizon, painting the world with purples, pinks and oranges. He could see it peeking out from behind the dead. He thought it fortunate he could see them through the encroaching daylight. If he wasn’t able to see them, the chances of taking them out slimmed greatly. It was somewhat oddly beautiful, the way the bodies seemed to have an orange aura around them. If they didn’t mean to eat him, he could have stood there until the sun was fully in the sky and enjoyed the odd beauty of the dead in its rising glory.

“Come on,” he whispered as they came.

Though the Smith & Wesson held eight shots, it only had seven bullets. He had fired one off into the pack to get their attention moments earlier.

Their attention?

Sure. There was only one reason a bunch of deadbeats surrounded anything these days: a living person (or people, if the dead were so lucky, which they often were). He had heard the screams. Whoever was in the car was still alive, but may not have been for long—the dead, they had a way of piling on to the point of windows shattering inward. The constant pressure of weight on glass was like a boiler—eventually things would blow and the living in the vehicle would be dead soon enough, become food for the biters.

He waited, his gun held tight, one hand over the other.

And they grew closer and closer by the second. From where he stood, he watched them lurch forward. Their moans became louder. He squinted, focusing in on the closest of the dead. At that moment he didn’t see them in the color of life. The brilliance of the sun faded and he saw them in gritty grays and whites and blacks, the blood on their skin and clothes like dark shadows. The circles beneath their eyes were like black hollows. The hair on their heads were various shades of grays with the blondes being the lightest. He thought maybe the rising sun aided in the gray tones, but that was probably just in his head. The same as he wished this whole mess was just in his head and he would wake up in the morning and everything would be okay.

Everything would be okay.

His family wouldn’t be dead. His friends wouldn’t be dead. His neighborhood wouldn’t be … wouldn’t be what? Overrun by the dead?

“That’s not going to happen,” he whispered. “This is real life.”

He steadied the gun.

Seven shots. That’s all you have before it’s machete time.

A deep breath taken and released slowly through slightly parted lips. The nod was imperceivable, but it steadied his nerves.

“You want to see the sun rise,” he said and pulled the trigger. The boom of the .357 was loud, the kickback powerful. The face of the biter closest to him exploded—a woman at one time, probably in her early thirties. He could have been wrong. The dead decomposed faster than people aged and she could have been in her twenties or maybe in her sixties, though he doubted that. The back of her head blew out. The force of the bullet sent her backwards, her feet coming off the ground and her hands flying up as she fell.

At the beginning of The End Times, Hank Walker would have probably felt guilty for what he had just done. He may have even apologized. He certainly would have taken the time to bury the dead after ending their ‘second lives.’ Not anymore. Not now. Not after everything that had happened. Now, he took aim at another biter, this one another woman of indiscernible age. Her head disappeared with the blast. She spun around, striking a tree just off the path before falling to the ground.

He took the next four shots, one right after the other, each one finding its home splitting open the skulls of the dead. He slid the gun into the back of his pants. The barrel was hot. He felt that heat through his underwear, but he didn’t pull the gun free. There was only one bullet left … just in case …

Hank pulled the machete free and started down the path to the few remaining biters. He swung the machete at their gray, gaunt faces, severing their heads and splintering their skulls. As he did so, he thought of his wife and son and brothers and father and his best friend. And he swung the machete harder, slicing through bone and skin and brains, his anger rising with each of the dead he took down.

Until they were no more.

He spun in a slow circle, his arms weakened, his legs tired, his breath labored, his chest heaving. There were tears in his eyes as he looked at the bodies on the ground. The dead … he shook his head.

“No.” Hank closed his eyes, opened them to his dead family littering the path, missing most of their skulls. Over there was Davey Blaylock. Down the center of the path was Lee. By the tree was Karen. The two bodies lying together, one on top of the other were Pop and Bobby. Jake was not too far from them, his hand missing three fingers, as if he had tried to ward off the machete. At the beginning of the slew of bodies was Jeanette, her head turned into a canoe, her long blonde hair stained with dark blood verging on brown and bits of brain and skull. There were others—so many others—but they didn’t matter.

Hank’s head spun. His stomach churned. He dropped the machete and fell to his hands and knees. Though there was little in his stomach, he vomited it up. It spattered on the ground in front of him and onto his hands. Some of it splashed back onto his face. Sweat spilled off of him. His face and neck were flushed red with heat. Hank coughed and closed his eyes. He shook his head, almost violently as the tears spilled from beneath his eyelids. He dropped onto his bottom and scooted away from the dead. HIs back struck a tree. He sat there for several long minutes, his heart shattered, his mind confused, his chest hurting. He could use a drink—maybe even the entire bottle back in the van.

When he looked up, his eyes were blurry. He wiped the tears away and reluctantly looked back at the bodies. He frowned, the confusion sinking its claws in deeper. The dead were still there, but they were no longer his family. They were no-name corpses that had one time been someone’s brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children. Though that should have relieved him from the guilt of feeling like he had killed his entire family, it didn’t. It did nothing to alleviate the fact that he was all that was left of the Walker clan.

He used the tree to pull himself up from the ground. It was rough, but it was real. It was tangible. Once standing, he held onto the tree, feeling its bark beneath his hands. It grounded him, bringing him back to the reality of his world.

Hank took the few steps to his machete and picked it up. He was thankful it hadn’t landed in the vomit. He slid it back into the sheath hanging on his back. Then he remembered what he had been there for: to save whoever was in the car from the biters.

He turned around and headed up the path.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he called. “The coast is clear. The biters are dead.”

He reached the side of the car and looked in. Three of the windows had been busted out, either from the weight of the dead pushing in or the car already had broken windows. A biter leaned half in, the car, but it didn’t move. There was a hole in its back. Hank pulled the biter from the broken window and dropped it to the ground. A piece of hanger wire jutted from one eye socket. Blood had ran onto it from the ruptured eye.

He looked back at the car. The door had a hole in it—one created by a Smith & Wesson .357. His shoulder sagged. The man that had been screaming inside the car was dead. Blood oozed from between fingers that had clutched at the wound in his chest.

I must have hit him when I …

He shook his head again. The man in the car was dead. He had been young, probably not even thirty. He had been young …

A finger twitched.

Young or not didn’t matter then. Hank wasn’t sure if he even saw the finger spasm, but part of him believed he had. He watched, concentrating on the fingers of the man’s right hand. He realized with an almost certainty that the man shouldn’t turn if he hadn’t been bit. But did he truly know this? Had he seen someone who hadn’t been bitten or sick become a biter?

The index finger moved again. Then his hand jerked, followed by his arm. His eyes opened and his head moved from side to side, as if trying to figure out where he was. Hank believed he was doing just that, trying to figure out where he was, what had happened to him.

A moan came from the man and he seemed to sniff the air. He turned his head toward Hank and bared his teeth. He tried to sit up in his seat.

Hank pulled out the gun. He check the chamber. Yup, one left.

“I’m sorry,” Hank said and put the gun through the window. He pulled the trigger. The sound was deafening. The kickback caused his hand to jerk hard enough it struck a piece of broken glass. Blood instantly spilled from a wound that was deeper than he realized at first. But Hank didn’t really notice it—he stared at the dead man in the car, a good chunk of the top of his head missing. Splattered against the interior of the car were his brains, some hair and a lot of blood. But more than that, he saw the wound on his hand—a clear piece of flesh was missing between his thumb and first finger on the opposite hand that had twitched earlier.

Hank thought to pull the guy from the car, to bury him right beside it, maybe along the path where that car had stopped. It was the least he could do. Hank rounded the car, but stopped at the driver’s side door.

“What does it matter?” he asked. “He’s dead—he’ll never know he wasn’t buried.”

Besides, he thought, he was dead anyway. I just put him out of his misery.

He turned and walked away from the car. His heart sank as he went up the path. It opened to a cottage where three of the dead stumbled around. He didn’t bother being quiet. He unsheathed the machete and split the skulls of the two men and one boy near the open door. Then he stepped inside.

Hank looked around the cottage. He found a few cans of beans and a half empty bottle of water. He also found the bodies of one woman and a baby. They were in a bed and a crib. A bullet to the head ended their lives. On the end table next to the bed where the woman lay dead, was a picture. The couple had been happy. The baby had been asleep in the woman’s arms.

The man had been the guy from the car.

Hank’s shoulders slumped. He wiped his dry lips with the back of one shaking hand. He stared at the picture for what seemed like minutes, but had really been over an hour. When he finally set the picture down, he left the cottage and went back up the path. There was a biter near the car, standing at the front of it as if waiting to see if the man was going to try and run. Any movement would send the biter into motion. Hank didn’t give the old man a chance—he brought the machete down on the top of his gray and dirty head. The biter collapsed to the ground.

It took him a few minutes to get the man from the car and over his shoulder, and it took him over an hour to get back to the cottage. In the house, he laid the man’s body next to what he assumed was his wife. He went to the crib and gently lifted the dead baby from it. He placed the child between Mom and Dad and pulled the sheet up over their heads.

Hank Walker left the house, locking and closing the door behind him. He took with him the beans and the water, and slowly made his way back up the path again. He passed the car on the path and the biters he had slaughtered. Eventually, he came to his van, crawled in and closed the door. He didn’t turn the key in the ignition right away. Instead, he stared out the dirty windshield.

The baby had been a boy. The woman had been a blonde. The man had dark hair, and at one point blue eyes. The house had been nice, but not too big for a family of three. It had been practical. All of it reminded him of his own family, of his own home. But all that was gone. Jeanette was dead. Bobby … he had no clue if he were alive.

Hank reached over to the passenger’s seat. He plucked up the bottle of whiskey, took the cap off and took a deep drink. The alcohol burned his throat and warmed his chest and stomach. He looked at the bottle. It still had over two thirds of the light brown liquid in it.

I shouldn’t drink this, he said. I’ve drank too much lately already.

In the end, he turned the bottle up again, forgetting what he shouldn’t do and doing what he thought he would regret. He wanted to save them. He wanted to save them all. In the end, he couldn’t even save himself.

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.

Fleshing It Out With Lisa Vasquez

For the better part of the last seventeen months I’ve gotten to work with Lisa Vasquez, owner of Stitched Smile Publications, graphic designer and author. She’s witty and funny and believes in shenanigans. She is also hard working, dedicated and determined. I think this is why we get along, even though our personalities should clash.

Back in January, Lisa released her novel, The Unfleshed. Recently, I sat down to talk with Lisa about the new novel, among other things.

AJ: Before we get into the nitty gritty, tell us a little bit about Lisa Vasquez, the person.

LV: That’s the question I dread the most when doing interviews. I often put myself into separate boxes.

Lisa, the author, has been writing since she was in the 4th grade. My debut book, The Unsaintly, was released a few years ago and is my favorite work because it was my first published accomplishment. I just released my new novel, The Unfleshed this year and I’m currently working on my next novel as well as a few short stories.

Lisa, the book cover designer, has been doing covers for three years and it’s one of my favorite hobbies-turned-professions.

Lisa, the publisher, began her company in January of 2016 and is proud to say we have doubled our growth since then. We have amazing staff and authors. I love what the company stands for and how we support indie authors and help them learn to improve their craft and build their business.

AJ: That is a lot of Lisa! I would actually like to talk about Lisa, the author, for now. You said you started writing in the fourth grade? How did that come about?

LV: I had this teacher who was awesome. She engaged us and did all she could to spark a real love of reading. We did fun activities like completing stories when given the opening paragraph, doing stories from pictures (what’s going on here?) and then sometimes we did skits. I was in love with the whole process and in seeing what my fellow budding authors came up with.

So a shout out, if she ever sees it, to Mrs. Reese!

AJ: Do you remember the first story you wrote?

LV: Unfortunately, I don’t. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about.

AJ: Boy do I know that. I can’t recall the first story I wrote in school either, but that was because I hated writing back then. Now I wish I had been a better student.

Let’s talk The Unfleshed. What was the inspiration for this story?

51m6V9lTKQLLV: The Unfleshed was inspired by a few things. One of the important influences was Frankenstein (which led into Bride of Frankenstein). In the front of the book, I go into the story of how my father and I sat watching it after he had become ill with renal failure. They added him onto the transplant list and it suddenly became this dark blanket over our family.

Back then we had no internet so it was a time of reading thick medical books. We were pretty young at the time, I think I was about 13 (I’m the oldest).

My dad always used opportunities like this to talk to us about things. Comparing situations from movies or songs to real life scenarios. It was a cool way to open doors of discussion that might have been awkward or avoided otherwise. So we’re there and we’re watching, and he says, “Who would’ve thought when Mary Shelley wrote this, that one day taking body parts from people who died would give life to someone else? And that someday this wouldn’t be science fiction, but reality?” And it stayed with me every single day until today. It probably always will.

AJ: Parental lessons, especially given in this manner, always seem to stick the most. Having read The Unfleshed, I really want to know where Angus Wulfe came from.

LV: Angus came from a dark place. All my characters come from my head but this was me vs me. I tackled some heavy issues I won’t go into publicly. He also came from my love of Thomas Harris’ character, Hannibal Lecter. Somehow, this vile human was loved as much as he was hated. I wanted to be able to expose that in this story. The psychology of how we can empathize, even with monsters.

AJ: You put Angus through a hellacious childhood that we only get to see a glimpse of. I know this is part of character building, but at any point did you look at young Angus as a little boy and wonder, ‘why the heck am I doing this to him?’

LV: No, because that is reality. In order for the reader to relate, I have to make it real.

AJ: Oh absolutely. I have to ask this since you brought up Frankenstein: when The Unfleshed was published, did you scream, “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”?

LV: Damn right! haha!

AJ: Hahahahahaha. Did you enjoy the … umm … how do I put this … the scenes where Angus inflicted his doctorly will on his patients?

LV: Actually, I did. I have to admit there was a tiny, evil giggle during those scenes. I might have some issues. That’s between us, though.

AJ: Us and all the readers out there. My favorite character in the book was actually a secondary character. Marshall. Tell me a little about him and where he came from.

LV: Oh yes, poor Marshall. Marshall is the balance in the story. No one is “all bad” and no one is “all good” in life. Some may come close, but to me, I feel like life puts us in situations and really tests our moral compass. If Angus hadn’t gone through his childhood, he might be Marshall, and vice versa. I like having a complex but balanced story that explores human nature. Marshall is “the conscience” in the story.

AJ: Marshall reminded me of Renfield from Dracula, but a little more tragic.

LV: He does kind of remind me of him in a way.

AJ: How long did you work on The Unfleshed?

LV: Hmm … well I wrote The Unfleshed as a short story back in early 2000. It was much different then. I changed it around because I wanted to change up the “zombie” craze a little. I mean technically, Frankenstein could be a zombie! I liked the idea of it and ran with it. Instead of zombies walking around, we had Frankensteins. It took a year to rewrite and about a year to polish it up.

AJ: A lot of The Unfleshed is steeped in history and in the medical field. Is that a direct relation to what went on with your father during your childhood?

LV: It did, but it didn’t seem realistic to have like … say a baker bringing people back to life. It had to be something believable. Since it’s set back in the 1300’s, there wasn’t education like there is today. When you were old enough to walk, you were old enough to work. But having the experience of my dad being sick and having an education in the sciences, it directly influenced the story.

AJ: Speaking of the setting, why did you set it back in the 1300s?

LV: Well it was the time of the plague for one. And secondly, I love time pieces. I love anything medieval or historical. They’re very interesting times.

AJ: Speaking of historical, you have another book titled, Unsaintly, that is somewhat historical as well. Tell us a little about this one.

LV: Unsaintly is a book about good and evil and everything in between. It’s spiritual, fantastical, and horror altogether.

AJ: Now, that one took you a little longer to write than The Unfleshed, right?

LV: Unsaintly took me ten years to write! Haha, so yes, a little longer

AJ: Ten years? Wow, that is a long time.

LV: Most of it was self doubt. The other part consisted of research and computer crashes

AJ: Computer crashes suck. So, Lisa, tell me, if you can, what do you want the readers to come away with from The Unfleshed?

LV: I’d like them to love the characters and enjoy the story. I hope they understand the complexities of the characters while getting a good old fashioned horror story. And finally, I hope I gave readers who enjoy the classics (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.) something special.

AJ: Fair enough. Before I let you go, tell me what does the future hold for Lisa Vasquez, writer?

LV: More writing. As long as there is a story to be told I’ll be letting the demons out. I have a female assassin who’s getting antsy to be heard. She’s been in there longer than Unsaintly. And my Viking Werewolves are pacing their cages.

AJ: Very nice, Lisa. Very nice. I’m going to let you go now, but do you mind telling the readers where they can find you and your work?

LV: Sure!

Twitter: unsaintly

Instagram: unsaintly

Lisa Vasquez on Facebook

Unsaintly Website

And of course  Stitched Smile Publications Website

You can find The Unfleshed on Amazon here.