A Conversation With Pete Molnar

Writing horror is not easy. Sure, it sounds like it should be, but good horror is difficult. It’s not about shock and gore and gimmicks. It’s not about grossing people out with a million different ways to kill someone. True horror, at its core, is not even about monsters that go bump in the night. It’s about making people feel something. Something like dread, fear or uneasiness about what they are reading. Its the squirming sensation you get when you think of getting a shot at the doctor’s office or when a bug crawls onto your foot.It’s the heebee jeebies, baby.

PeteI guess you could say life, in and of itself, is horror. After all, some of the things people do to each other is far worse than anything a writer can conjure up. One such story is Broken Birds, by Pete Molnar. In his debut novel, Molnar delivers punch after punch in a story that feels all too real. 

I had a chance to meet Pete at Scares That Cares 6 over the first weekend in August. He is too humble and often doesn’t give himself the credit he deserves. I also got to listen to him do a reading from Broken Birds. That reading was powerful, engaging and cringe-worthy in all the right ways. 

I sat down to talk with Pete recently. Here is what he had to say.

A.J.: First things first: why horror?

Pete: I read Pet Sematary when I was twelve while on vacation in Disneyworld with my family. The book scared me so much I don’t remember much of the trip because I was so preoccupied with holding myself together. Mickey Mouse didn’t phase me, but reading that book changed the trajectory of my life. I knew I wanted to evoke the same kind of fear and terror in another person with something I’d write and I’ve been striving towards that ever since. Then, there is the fact I have been battling depression and social anxiety for much of my adult life. I greatly fear death and dread losing the ones I love, almost on an irrational level. Confronting my own fears and phobias (and they are Legion) through writing horror stories is therapeutic and when its is going well, quite cathartic.

A.J.: Pete, when you set out to write Broken Birds, did you know exactly where the story was going or did you say a prayer and wing it?

1438845475Pete: I started out writing as a “pantser” because I had read Stephen King writes that way. It was a mistake to have stuck to that approach for so long and for such a simplistic reason. Then I signed up for James Patterson’s Masterclass. Drafting a “flexible outline” had confounded me for the longest time, until Patterson laid it out in plain language and broke it down into something less intimidating for me. I am now a sworn “plotter” after having written three previous novels the other way, and Broken Birds was the first novel I wrote using an outline. I used to think using an outline would rob the writer of the magical experience of telling the story to themselves. Now, I swear by this approach, because even with an outline, characters are still going to do whatever they want and they’re going to surprise you no matter what.

A.J.: Some people love animals more than they love people (understandably so). Are you one of these people? If so, did that make writing certain scenes in Broken Birds difficult?

Pete: At first, I was really concerned that the treatment of animals in Broken Birds would turn readers off. Not to mention, the scenes that feature animal abuse were very difficult to write and I almost abandoned the project as a result. Then I realized I was not merely writing a novel about hurting animals, as much as I was writing a testament to the bond between humans and their pets. Will Bentley sacrifices everything to save his dog, Alberta. This is a guy who demonstrates how much his pet means to him, so much so he is willing to put his own life in danger and turn his seemingly idyllic existence upside down to save his dog from the clutches of two twisted, sociopathic people.  

A.J.: Are any of the characters based (loosely or solely) on people you have met?

Pete: I can tell you Will’s girlfriend, Mina, as she is described, is my wife. Dark hair. Light eyes. A book-lover and a deep-thinker. Karl Tarlick is a composite of Charles Manson and Gary Heidnik, a serial killer who created a “real-life” House of Horrors in his Philadelphia rowhome. Will Bentley is modeled after Tim O’Brien, who wrote the critically-acclaimed war memoir The Things They Carried. I’m thankful I’ve never met a woman like Stella or Jack Post, but they are both sides of the Battered Woman-Battering Man coin. I conducted hours of research on this disconcerting and baffling relationship, as well as the phenomenons of agoraphobia and borderline-disorder to flesh out Stella especially.   

A.J.: After writing Broken Birds, did you intend to get it published or did you have help deciding it was worth the shot?

Pete: This was the book I shared with Lisa Vasquez during my mentorship with her. She offered a great deal of encouragement and guidance during the novel’s early chapters. I really put my heart and soul into this book, because I didn’t want to see another full-length novel doomed to imprisonment on my hard drive. I wanted this one to see the light of day and I wanted it to be worthy of publication. Lisa must have seen something of merit in the early stages of the book because she invited me to become a VIP author at Stitched Smile Publications. Prayers answered!

A.J.: How did you find your publisher, Stitched Smile Publications?

Pete: I signed up for the Horror Writers Association Mentorship Program and Lisa Vasquez reached out to me shortly thereafter. She took me under her wing, teaching me the in’s and out’s of marketing and the business of writing. She also offered me invaluable advice and regular critiques of Broken Birds, chapter by chapter. Stitched Smile scooped me up at a time in my life when I had nearly come to terms with the prospect I would never land a publisher or an agent. I had queried roughly eighty agents to no avail for my previous novel The Clockwork Lazarus. It was a tough time, and SSP delivered me from what might have been a lifetime of regret.

A.J.: What was the publishing process like for you, the writer? On the same token, what was it like for you, the person?

Pete: As a writer, the publishing process was as exciting as it was an education. The editorial staff at Stitched Smile made numerous passes through the book and eliminated the weaknesses I had missed during my own three passes. Inconsistencies and grammar mistakes that I believe would have slipped through at many other presses. Their attention to detail was laser-focused. As a person, the journey from draft to finished, packaged novel was pretty magical, and to this day when I see my book lying on a dresser or see my wife reading it, I have to take a second look. It’s so surreal.    

A.J.: Did I hear correctly, that Broken Birds was not the original title?

Pete: That’s true. Originally, the book was titled Moonshadow after the Cat Stevens song. When I imagined how Karl Tarlick, the main antagonist in the book, would look, for some reason Cat Stevens just popped into my head. Long, black hair in thick ringlets that frame and nearly close over his face like curtains. Then, I researched the lyrics to some of Cat Stevens’ songs and stumbled across the lyrics to Moonshadow. When I read them, they seemed to fit the context of who Karl Tarlick is way too perfectly. The lyrics bore a sinister tone, like the song was written by a stalker. 

A.J.: Why did you change the title?

Pete: As I kept writing, I realized the title should be changed to Broken Birds. This was for  two reasons. The first being the psychological phenomenon of “broken bird syndrome” is front and center in the novel’s plot line. But also, I noticed a symbolic thread running through the story itself. That all the main characters are broken in some way. Psychologically damaged and dealing with it as only they know how. In a productive way, or, well, not so productive. I’ll say that. 

A.J.: You went to Scares That Cares 6 this year. What was that experience like for you?

Pete: My first night there, my head was on a swivel. One minute, I’m walking past Sid Haig, and the next I see Josh Malerman a few feet away signing books. Paul Tremblay. Jonathan Maberry. Then there was the fact I was finally able to meet my Stitched family in person. Up until that event, I’d only ever communicated with Lisa, Donelle, Larissa, Deanna, Tara, and yourself through group chat, DM, or Hangouts. I was so thrilled to meet everyone in person and the click was immediate.  

A.J.: If I’m correct, you sold out of your books. How did that make you feel?

Pete: Pleasantly surprised doesn’t even cover it. I had expected to be bringing many of them home with me to sell around my neck of the woods. But Sunday rolled around and they just went and I couldn’t believe it. So cool! 

A.J.: What was it like to sign that first book?

Pete: Another unreal experience. I felt like I’d finally come full circle. My 8th grade yearbook had a section in it where all the students were asked where they saw themselves in ten years. I wrote “Autographing my novel or touring the nation.” I wanted to be a writer or a rockstar. But really, writing was always my first love. Took longer than ten years to get there. It took thirty years, but there it was. Dream fulfilled!

A.J.: You did a reading at Scares That Cares 6. Being there to witness it, I think you knocked it out of the park. Were you nervous at all before reading?

Pete: Not at all. Being an English teacher, I read entire novels to my classes. And if I really want to hold the attention of a bunch of fifteen-year-old kids in 2019, a dramatic reading is required. Voices. Acting out Shakespeare. Playing Macbeth. Otherwise, the words are dead on the page for them. I have no problem making a fool out of myself or stepping out of a comfort zone in order to evoke emotion through live reading. Also, having been a singer in bands for fifteen years, I’m quite at home in front of an audience. It’s a lot of fun!

A.J.: How did you feel after you finished the reading?

Pete: It was exhilarating. But I was a little worried about alienating the audience with the particular scene I had chosen to read. That’s why I did a little disclaimer beforehand. It turned out to be okay after all. I think people enjoyed it. 

A.J.: Writing is such a solitary endeavor and authors often spend hundreds of hours alone with the characters in the worlds they create. But who would you like to thank—someone outside of your head—for helping you along the way?

Pete: My wife, Dana, and my daughter, Ani, gave me the time and the space I needed to do the work. Writing takes you away from your family for periods of time each day, but they both were extremely supportive and understanding. They continue to be, and I’m grateful for their love and for believing in this guy. 

A.J.: Before I let you go, Broken Birds is a great debut novel, but is there more from Pete Molnar? What can we expect from you in the future?

Pete: I’ve got a few irons in the fire as far as short stories go. A short story called Swipe-right about a twenty-something girl who stumbles across a different kind of dating site where if she swipes left on a guy’s picture she doesn’t like, the poor guy just winks out of existence. The guys she swipes right on become obsessed with her to the point of becoming dangerous, sociopathic stalkers. Having a good time writing that one! Then there’s my novel-in-progress titled Undiscovered Countries, which centers around a phenomenon known as “coffin-birth” where a dead woman’s body can be scientifically manipulated into birthing a viable child. This one I’m really excited about. It’s already mapped out and outlined. And it’s going to take on a lot more than just the horrific scenario of a “coffin-birth.” It’s going to tackle the twenty-four hour news cycle, religious fundamentalist groups, as well as the persistent scourges of hate, intolerance, and bias in this country. I really think it’s going to be something special for my readers.  

A.J.: Any final words, Pete?

Pete: A.J., this has been a lot of fun! Thank you so much! For my readers, present and future, I extend the deepest gratitude to all of you. Thanks for taking a chance on a new writer!

For those of you who have not heard of Pete Molnar, get ready to. Broken Birds is just the beginning for this talented writer. Beyond the writing, Pete is also a good guy with a big heart and great pipes for singing. Check Pete out at the following links.

www.petermolnarauthor.com

www.facebook.com/petermolnarauthor

@PMolnarAuthor

http://www.instagram.com/petermolnarauthor

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A Note About Closing The Wound

If you’ve read my book, Closing the Wound, then you know several things right off the bat. First, this story would not have happened if not for a friend calling me early one Saturday morning and asking this question: What happened that night? You also know I went and had breakfast with this friend and we talked for a long time while sitting at a Denny’s. You also know Closing the Wound is a true story, at least as true as my memory recalled it. 

coverIt had been a while since I had seen that friend. His name is Chad and we were (and still are, though we don’t see each other often enough) good friends.I ran into Chad at my daughter’s graduation. He was there for another student, but he got to see my girl walk across that stage, too. Afterwards, we talked, as friends tend to do. We said, ‘Hey, we need to keep in touch,’ as friends tend to do, though often they don’t. 

Before we went our separate ways, I told him about Closing the Wound and his part in the story. A couple of days later, he purchased the digital book. When he finished reading the story, he didn’t leave me a review. Instead, he sent me an email. After reading it, I asked him if I could share it with the world. With his permission, I give you Chad’s letter to me.

Dear Jeff,

It is just passed midnight and I read “Closing The Wound”.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it from your perspective.  Like you, I have somewhat boxed those memories away to be opened only one time a year, Halloween.  The book itself is very well written, it’s what’s between the front and back (that) really mattered to me.  It did dredge up a lot of memories.  I am still a bit hazy on our conversation that day, I do recall us talking about that night just can’t quite piece it all together.  It has been 24 years ago and after reading the book, a lot of those forgotten details and memories have crept back into my mind, which is a good thing.  I never want to forget those days no matter how horrific they were at times.  Each piece is somewhat of a building block of who we have become. Back to the book, you have a gift Jeff, you are a master story teller and writer.  I do not use those terms lightly either.  When I was writing, I had a similar style, but I can’t focus long enough to eat a sandwich let alone write a book!   LOL!  You have always had that gift, you can say you’re a natural at it. 

 I know we haven’t kept in touch over the years and meeting at the graduation was very refreshing to say the least.  I like how you write in the book to not live in the past.  There are somethings that I have been apart of where I too, ask could I have done something differently to alter the outcome.  I suppose we can all agonize over those questions, but questions don’t change events concerning the past.  I have struggled with Chris’ death, well at least once a year, yes it still haunts me.  I know he was tormented and I understood his struggles to a degree.  I truly believe he is in Heaven and no longer has those feelings of loneliness, depression and the desire to belong.  I still see his face when he was with all of us.  He admired you so much because you were such a good friend to him.  Like me, you helped alter some of his life Jeff.  His life ended at a very young age, but perhaps that’s how it was meant to be.  We can ask questions of “what ifs”, but I remember the best days with him was when we were all together hanging out.  Those are the days that I remember the most.  Yes, I remember that picture of us at the rest area off of I-77 in between the snack machine bars.  I had so much fun back in those days! 

 I leave you with this my friend.  After reading the book, I couldn’t help but to go back 25 years ago and think how you have helped so many people.  I know you are a little rough around the edges but that’s ok, sometimes it takes course sandpaper to get the splinters off of some of us knuckleheads!  But seriously, as time rapidly marches forward and our own families grow before us, take stock in your life and the people you have influenced.  I know for me, my family may not be here if it weren’t for you.  God uses us in different ways and He used you and a number of others from that church to save me from myself.  I suppose some emotions have been awaken from 25 years ago, but I just remember how happy Chris was with us, in a way we were his family besides his aunt and sister.  This Halloween let’s start a tradition at go and visit him and remind ourselves of the good days. 

BoyThank you for all you have done for me Jeff!  You are and will always be one of my best friends. 

 Keep in touch buddy! 

 PS: Do you remember his sister’s name or know of her whereabouts? 

 Chad *********

After reading this, I sat back for a while, just staring at the words, not really thinking in clear thoughts, but in pictures. Pictures, like the first time I met Chris at a church work day; like the time I saw him at the South Carolina State Fair just weeks before his death; like the hundreds of teens in a standing room memorial service; like finding his grave for the first time after not visiting for so long; at learning my sister’s husband new Chris and has his own theories of what happened that night. All of them were snapshots into the memories that I—that we—dredged up.  

Chad said some nice things to me, but the one that keeps coming back is this: He admired you so much because you were such a good friend to him.  Like me, you helped alter some of his life …

I wish I would have done more, been a better friend (despite what Chad said, I always think I could have done more), knocked the block off the punk who influenced him in the direction that ultimately cost him his life. 

Here’s my questions to all of you: Do you know someone who might need someone to talk to? Do you know someone who might be heading down a path of destruction? Is there someone you care about who is doing something you think maybe he or she shouldn’t, but you are afraid to mention it because you think it will hurt their feelings?

Here’s one more question: Does saving a life mean more than hurting someone’s feelings to do so? 

The story of my friend, Chris, in Closing the Wound, is just the tip of the iceberg. The story goes so much deeper and cuts down to the bone when I think about his life and death. I honestly don’t know if there is more I could have done, and that brings me guilt from time to time. Even so, I did some good in his life, and clearly, in Chad’s life. 

Sometimes our guilt overrides everything else. It torments us to the point of forgetting all about the good in our life, the good we have done. Chad is one of those good things. He reminded me of that. Now, I remind you: think about someone you have helped in some way. How is their life better because of you? Yes, take credit for that in your heart. Say, I did something great for someone and I helped someone and that person is in a better place because of me. Don’t let guilt ruin you. 

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

A.J.

If you would like to pick up a copy of Closing the Wound, you can find the digital version on Amazon, or you can get the print version directly from me (signed of course) by contacting me at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com.

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. 

Humphrey …

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Dredging Up Memories original cover by Lisa Vasquez

A few years ago, I started a story about a guy named Hank. He was alone in the dead world and searching for his friends and family in hopes of finding some of them alive. That story turned into a novel titled, Dredging Up Memories, and it follows Hank’s story into a downward spiral of … well, I can’t really give you all that information, now can I? Doing that would spoil the book for you.

One thing I can do is tell you about one of the main characters from Dredging Up Memories. Her name is Humphrey and she is a teddy bear. I know, right? Who names a female teddy bear a boy’s name? Anyway, she became like Wilson to Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. She also became one of the most beloved characters of the Hank Walker universe. 

After completing the novel, getting it published by Stitched Smile Publications, and then writing a handful of shorter pieces involving Walker, I approached a friend of mine about interviewing the characters of Dredging Up Memories. This young man—his name is Frank—went home and wrote out twenty-seven pages worth of questions he came up with for those characters. 

What you are about to read are the first twenty-five hundred or so words of Humphrey’s interview. I know, it’s kind of mean not giving you all thirty-nine pages of it, but as I said above, I can’t give you all the information, now can I?

I hope you enjoy the following excerpt from The Hank Walker Interviews. 

HUMPHREY 

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Just hangin’ round.

There is a room in an old school in the lower state of South Carolina. The school used to be known as Century Falls High School. It is now Fort Survivor #3. Half a block away is what is left of the middle school of the same name (minus the High, adding the Middle). Directly out the front gates are the remnants of the town that used to be Century Falls. Remnants that consist of burned out cars, and buildings that are little more than husks. If one were to pay close attention he or she would see the occasional dead corpse shambling around the debris and other corpses that are truly dead. If one was listening, then he or she would hear the occasional gun shot, putting that walking corpse down, joining its brethren on the ground among that debris.

This room is on the second floor on a long hall with double doors at each end. One set of doors leads down the steps and to the outside world. For the most part, these doors stay locked from the inside. The other set of doors leads down another hall that t-bones before reaching a set of stairs on either side of that t-bone. There’s no real need to get into where those halls lead.

The room number is 209, and it used to be Mrs. Willoughby’s math class. Most kids hated having Mrs. Willoughby, due to her always angry demeanor and her penchant for giving out zeroes and detention notes. That’s not a problem here now. Mrs. Willoughby is among the permanently deceased. The room, however, has been turned into a bedroom for children who have survived the End Times. Currently there is no one staying in the room and it is as dark in here as night is these days.

A creak rings through the room and down the hall as the door opens. A switch to the left of the doorway is flipped up and the glow of lights spill across the room, forcing the dark into the corners and beneath furniture. Speaking of the furniture, the room is nice. It is painted pink and white on opposite walls. There are a row of four beds directly ahead, foot lockers at the foot of each one. End tables are to the right of the beds, each one with a lamp sitting atop it. On the opposite wall is the exact same set up: four beds, four foot lockers and four end tables with lamps on them. It is clear to anyone who enters that this is a room set up as a basic dorm for little girls who … well, who may have lost everyone except for themselves. On the wall to the right, the same wall the door is on, is a long bookcase filled with books. 

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I’m in this book! I’m going to be a superstar.

Sitting in the center of this room is a table with two chairs. This is not normal. The table is round and the chairs are simple wooden dinner table seats. There is a vase sitting on it with a single daffodil in it, its yellow star-like petals and tea cup bud brighter than the overheads that light up the room. Next to the vase are two bottles of water. They are already open, though the tops are still screwed on.

There is one other thing that is out of place in this room: a video camera. It stands between two of the beds on a tripod, its lens pointing directly at the table.

Two men walk into the room, one of them in his early forties, stubble chinned and a book bag over his shoulder. He reaches into the bag and unzips the front pocket. Jutting from it is a teddy bear in bunny pajamas. The man, known to many readers as Hank, sets the bear on one of the chairs. He doesn’t like the way the bear’s head barely comes to the bottom of the table. Hank goes to the bookcase and snags several of the hardbacks. At the table he sets the books in the seat, sits the teddy bear in it, and then scoots the chair up to the table. 

The second man is younger, but not by much. His hair is sandy brown. Wire rimmed glasses are perched on his nose; his hair is long and is pulled into a ponytail that runs down his back. He walks over to the camera and presses a button on its side. The camera comes on. Accompanying it is a faint hum that is barely noticeable if you aren’t standing right next to it. He fiddles with it a few seconds more, pressing the red record button. He looks in the digital view finder and sees the red REC blinking, nods and walks away.

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Dredging Up Memories re-issued cover by Lisa Vasquez

“Morning, Frank.”

“Good morning, Mr. Walker.”

To the teddy bear Hank says “Humphrey, this is Frank. He is going to do your interview, okay.”

Humphrey says nothing.

“Come on, Humphrey. Don’t be shy.”

Still, the teddy bear says nothing. Really, why would it? How would it? It is just a teddy bear, right?

“Humphrey, Frank is a good guy. You have to trust me. Can you do that?”

The teddy bear’s head seems to move slightly. 

“Please?”

“Okay.” 

The bear’s voice is soft, not much more than a whisper. But it is enough to startle Frank. His eyes are wide behind the lenses of his glasses. A lump has formed in his throat. If there is one thing Frank did not expect it is that the teddy bear would actually speak. He really did believe he would sit there at the table with the teddy bear, who had been Hank Walker’s traveling companion for several months at the beginning of the End Times, and field answers from Walker, himself. Not some inanimate object.

“Did … did Humphrey just speak?”

Hank laughs, rubs Humphrey on the head. “Yes, she did.”

“She? Yes, that is right. Humphrey is a she.”

“That’s right. A lot of folks wonder about that, why anyone would name  a female teddy bear Humphrey?”

“It is a fair thought. Why would someone give a stuffed toy that is clearly a female a boy’s name?”

“Why do guys give their cars girl names?” Hank responds. “Who knows?”

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Pelican Snowball anyone?

“Good point.”

“Okay, I’m going to leave you guys alone for a while. I’ll come back later and see how you are doing. Humphrey, Frank is not going to hurt you. I promise. He and I have already done this. You’re in good hands. Okay?”

Humphrey doesn’t look up, but she gives a small nod and whispers, “Okay.”

With that said, Walker turns and leaves, closing the door behind him. 

The room is quiet for several long seconds. Frank has been in similar situations, with the silence being so loud you can hear it. He doesn’t like that feeling. It is awkward and thick. He is determined to fill the silence quickly. He picks up his notepad and flips it open. He turns the pages until he finds the first page marked in his scratchy handwriting as, Humphrey’s Interview. He looks at the first question and starts to ask it, then stops. He looks at the glassy eyes of the stuffed toy in front of him. This is a moment right out of a little girl’s childhood, where the stuffed toy is her best friend and they are having tea and crumpets with their pinkies out and slurping away at the nothing in the cups. He could almost see a girl with her favorite white and pink dress on and her hair pulled back into pig tails, her voice very much like the teddy bear’s in front of him. There is a moment of pure joy as he sees the little girl is blonde and her eyes are blue and she has dimples and freckles across her nose. 

‘Is your tea good?’ the little girl asks.

‘Delicious,’ the teddy bear responds.

The little girl smiles wide, showing off her teeth, including the gap where one is missing.

Briefly Frank wonders if the Tooth Fairy visited her the night she lost that tooth. If so, how much money did he (or she) leave the little girl? A dollar? Two? Five? Maybe the Tooth Fairy was very well off and left her a ten spot or even twenty.

Frank shakes his head, smiles and then chuckles softly.

“What’s so funny?”

He is startled by this question. He’s the one who is supposed to asks the questions. The grin leaves his face and the chuckle dies off. “I … ummm … I just didn’t think you would talk to me.”

“Why is that?”

She is well-spoken for a young teddy bear who Frank imagines is around five or six.

“I just didn’t think you would, especially when Mr. Walker left.”

She seems to nod, but says nothing else.

“So, ummm … would you like to get started?”

“Okay.”

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A boy and a bear.

Frank glances down at his notes. The first question is short, but he imagines it is an okay question to ask. At least, he hopes

“Let’s start from the beginning. What was life like before Hank?”

The silence he so hates fills the room, but it’s not that same awkward thickness. It is more of an anticipatory silence, as if Frank is watching a game show on a television of the past, one where the show has gone on for weeks and weeks and now there were only two contestants left and the host is about to announce the winner. There should be some sort of dramatic music playing, and maybe there is in Frank’s mind. The host opens his mouth and says, ‘And the winner of who doesn’t get eaten by a biter today is …’ and the commercial break interrupts the tension, sending the audience into a series of groans and ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me’s’.

But the silence doesn’t last all that long. In fact, it doesn’t even last as long as a short commercial break.

“It was fun,” Humphrey says. Frank thinks he can see her pink string mouth turned up into a smile. And is that a shimmer in her eyes?

“It was fun?”

“Yes.”

“How so?”

Humphrey doesn’t say anything right away. When she does, several seconds have passed and it is not an answer, but a question: “How so?”

Though her face doesn’t change, Frank thinks it does all the same. Maybe it was a twinkle in the eye. Or maybe it was just a slight shift of the head, or the angle at which she is sitting, but something has changed and it is a physical thing he can’t figure out. What he does know is she looks confused, as any living, breathing person would be. Then the light bulb comes on and he realizes she doesn’t understand his question.

“Oh, umm … ’how so’ is another way of asking, how was it fun?”

“I see.”

“So that’s what I am asking: how was life fun before Hank?”

The creative mind is a place where thoughts conspire for either good or bad. It is also the center of imagination, and as Humphrey sits, stoically, in her seat, Frank’s mind begins imagining she iss moving, like a child would, maybe one of five or six years of age; maybe a little older. He can see her tapping her chin as if she is thinking. Her lips are twisted slightly, almost in a pucker. Then she smiles, her small pink thread lips turning up and her fuzzy fingerless hand pointing at him.

“Before Mr. Walker came I was alone in my girl’s room. They had left me when everything went bad.”

She is quiet, this time with her head dipped and her glassy black eyes staring down at the floor. One shoulder goes up in a shrug. Then she lets out a deep sigh.

“My girl’s dad died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” And Frank truly is sorry. 

“Me too. They thought he was dead and they were sad and scared and my girl—her name was Casey—she held me so close as she sat on her bed. She had taken a shower and I could smell her shampoo. She always smelled so clean after her showers. Her momma made her take one every night, and sometimes I got one too, but not in the tub. They put me in the wash machine with some clothes and I spun and swam and spun and swam, and then they put me in the dry machine and I tumble up and down until I am dry.”

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Just chillin’ by a wall, hoping for no biters to show up.

Frank smiles at this. The Humphrey in his imagination is opening up without realizing she is doing so. He remains quiet as she continues her story.

“Then they put my pajamas on and I was fresh like my girl.”

She pauses, as if thinking again. When she speaks, her voice is almost a whisper and Frank has to lean in to hear her. Though he misses the first part of what she says, he clearly gets the second part.

“… they were gone.”

Not for the first time he wonders what it would be like to have gone through the End Times, as Hank Walker calls it. Would he have lost everyone he cares about? Would he have even survived the initial outbreak, and if so, would he have lasted as long as some of the survivors in Fort Survivor #3?

In his imagination—a place he thinks he will spend a lot of time during this interview—he sees tears in Humphrey’s eyes. They are no longer glassy and black, but soft and blue, almost real eyes. His heart sinks into his stomach as he realizes Humphrey is remembering the events that took her girl, her Casey, from her and left her alone when everything went bad. She takes a deep breath, holds it for a second and then releases it. She looks up at Frank. Her smile is still there, but it is not a happy one. What he sees on her face right then is resignation.

“Her dad tried to kill them. Her mommy escaped and took my girl with her. They screamed a lot as they tried to get away from him, and then my girl screamed even more when her mommy grabbed her up and left me behind.”

“She tried to grab me, but knocked me on the floor instead. I landed on my back. She cried and screamed and then the door slammed shut. I heard the car doors and … they were gone.”

“I’m sorry,” Frank says. 

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

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

Lisa had known as well, but …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I can, she thinks. Maybe …

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

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

Even if it’s dangerous?

“Especially because it’s dangerous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Walk through the door,” she growls. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Until what’s finished?” Stephanie asks. 

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

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

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

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

Lisa laughs. “Did I?”

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

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

“Then maybe I can help.”

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

“How can you help me?”

“I know a place and I know a person.”

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.

 

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

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

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

SESSION 14 

Part 1

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

Until it was taken from me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her? 

Yes, her. 

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

(best friend’s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Stephanie.”

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

“Yes. Several times by men I trusted.”

 “I’m sorry.”

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

“I wasn’t strong.”

“Oh, but you were. You are.”

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

“But you …”

“The dead helped me.”

“The dead helped you?”

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

“Susannah?”

“Yes.”

“The dead girl?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Susannah found you?”

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

“Called you?”

“Called me.”

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

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

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

So true. So very true.

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

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

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

“Are you dangerous”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breath, Lisa. Deep breath.

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

Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep breath.

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

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

“Stephanie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa had known as well, but …

To be continued.