Human Touch: A Sneak Peek

It’s truth time. At the beginning of the year, I considered no longer writing. I don’t want to say I considered quitting, but I did. This consideration has happened more and more over the last couple of years, which is alarming. I love writing. I love creating characters and putting them in tough situations. I love hearing from the readers. I love the experience of writing and events and panels and podcasts and speaking engagements. So, to have these thoughts as often as I have had them completely bothered me. 

I contacted my editor, Larissa, and for a couple of hours we chatted through PMs until we got to the root cause of everything. I won’t go into all the details here, but it has a lot to do with why I write. I write because I love the process, and I had fallen out of love with it. That is the bottom line. Yes, there is a LOT more to it, but that is what it boils down to. My marriage with words was on the rocks and I had to figure out a way to fix it, and if I couldn’t, then it would be over. 

So, Larissa and I came up with this idea. I told her about a story concept I had that was completely out of my comfort zone. She said, “You should write it.”

I didn’t want to. I made a few excuses as to why I shouldn’t write it. When I say it is out of my comfort zone, I mean it is waaaaaaay out of my comfort zone. However, it was the reasoning behind writing the story that made me finally break down and say, “okay, I’ll give it a shot.” What was that reasoning: Write a story I have no intentions of getting published. Write it because I want to. Write it in hopes of rekindling that flame. 

I started writing it on January 29th of this year. It was slow going at first, but then it started to build up steam and I began looking forward to getting back to the story of Charlie Massingale and Dani Overton. It currently sits at a little over thirty-two thousand words with plenty of story left to go.

So, today, I thought I would give you, my faithful readers, a little peek at the first couple of pages of the story that kept me from no longer writing. It is called Human Touch, and boy, is it outside of my comfort zone. I hope you enjoy. If you do, please consider liking and commenting on this post, and sharing it. Oh, and this is completely unedited, so I am aware there are probably some mistakes in here. 

Here we go:

The coffee shop was quiet. The few people talking did so in whispers as if they were in a library and the librarian was an ancient old bitty with blue hair, triangle lensed glasses and a mallet behind her back. Talk too loudly and get a smack to the head that you might not wake up from. Charlie liked it that way. 

It wasn’t like the Starbucks down the street that garnered most of the coffee drinking public who were willing to spend their money on their favorite caffeinated drink. No, this was a little mom and pop place, not owned by a mom or a pop, but a woman in her mid-thirties who married, divorced, and had no children that he was aware of. She spent her mornings and most afternoons behind the counter of the Coffee Dee-Light serving the regulars, like Charlie, with a smile and a bottom line price that should have competed with Starbucks, but somehow didn’t. 

“Hey, William,” she said as she wiped her hands on a green apron tied around her waist. On her blue shirt were words in a dull yellow cursive script that read, But First Coffee. Her blonde hair was pulled away from her face and held in place by a rubber band. It’s not that she had a lot of hair—she always kept it shoulder length or shorter—it’s just she wanted the hair out of her face and didn’t want any loose strands ending up in the coffees she made. “What’ll you have today?”

“Oh, I guess I’ll have the usual, Dee.”

“A large black coffee with two creams on the side coming right up.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said, set a five on the counter and scoped the shop for a place to sit. He was in luck. His usual spot in the corner under a fake sconce that lit that area in an off white glow sat empty. The table beside the flower cushioned chair was just large enough for his coffee and a book. He walked over and set the pack on his shoulder in the seat, the universal sign the seat was now occupied, then returned to the counter where his coffee and two cream packets awaited him, along with just under three dollars in change.  Charlie picked up the coffee and creams, but left the change.

He glanced back once as he walked back to his seat. Dee shook her head, then scooped up the change and placed it in the cash register. Charlie nodded, but a smile fell just short of appearing beneath his thick beard. He removed his bag, set it by the chair, then sat. The coffee went onto the little table, along with the two creams. One by one, he poured the cream into the coffee, let the black turn a dark brown, but didn’t bother with stirring it in. He took a sip, smacked his lips and nodded.

“I get your seal of approval today?” Dee yelled from the counter. 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Charlie pulled a book from his pack, an obscure thing most people probably hadn’t heard of. He put a finger where the bookmark was and then opened it to the page he stopped on the night before. He began reading about the capers of a boy whose father had left him and his mom in the middle of the night, like a thief, taking all they had, and the struggles they went through. So far, he liked the book. He liked it quite a lot. He wondered, not for the first time, why the author of that particular story couldn’t manage to get noticed by one of the bigger presses. 

Cates Coffee CupHe was ten pages further along and half a cup of coffee gone when the person walked up and stopped directly in front of him. He didn’t have to look up to see it was a young woman. The green dress and bit of legs he could see while not looking away from the book told him as much. 

“Excuse me, sir,” the woman said. She sounded tentative, unsure of herself, as if she might be trying to talk herself out of doing something stupid, but possibly exhilarating. 

Charlie looked up. The woman who stood before him wasn’t tall, but she wasn’t short either, maybe six inches shy of six feet. Long brown hair fell down her shoulders and her green eyes sparkled as if she were in awe of something magnificent. Though her smile was tentative, Charlie had a feeling that when she felt confident, it was probably radiant.

“Can I help you?” Charlie asked, lowered the book, but held it open. It was his way of saying I’ll humor you for a couple of seconds, but after that it’s back to reading.

“Are you …” she hesitated. Yeah, she thought herself silly for being there. Charlie could see this easy enough in the way her lips pinched together and the way she shuffled from foot to foot as if she needed to pee. “Are you Charlie Massingale?”

“Who?” 

“Charlie Massingale?”

He shook his head. “I’m not familiar with the name.”

“Really? You’ve never heard of Charlie Massingale?”

Oh, he had heard of him, all right. As a matter of fact, he knew him quite well. “Is that a bad thing?”

“Well, if you like good stories and great writing, yes.”

“So, he’s an author?”

“Yes, Sir,” the young woman said. 

“I’m no author,” Charlie said and started to lift the book. He didn’t know if she would get the hint, but he hoped she would. These days being anonymous and unknown is how he liked it. Having someone recognize him came as a surprise. Since growing the beard out, no one recognized him, not even an old friend, who he had walked by one afternoon when he went home for a weekend—completely unintentional. Though he did a double take after he passed her, she hadn’t flinched or gave any clue that she recognized him. He had smiled then. He wasn’t smiling behind his beard now.

Her shoulders slumped, “I guess not,” she said. “I just … I could have sworn you were him.”

“What would give you the impression that I’m this Charlie whatever his name is?”

“Massingale,” she said and slid a purple book bag from her shoulder. She unzipped the middle pouch, reached inside and pulled a book from it, then slipped the bag back onto her shoulder. She opened the book to the back cover dust jacket. Beneath the author’s name and bio was a picture of a man with brilliant blue eyes and short, dark hair. He was holding a book in his hands and sitting in what looked to be a comfortable cushioned high back chair, much like the one Charlie sat in right then. His right leg was crossed over his left and instead of looking at the book, he looked directly into the camera. The photographer took the picture, even though the man wasn’t smiling.

Charlie remembered the day it was taken. It was a promo picture for Diane’s Story, his seventh novel. He had been twenty-eight when that picture was taken and he had already released the seven novels (with another one on the way) and half a dozen short story collections.

“Everything about this picture screams you,” she said, closed the book and held it to her chest with both arms wrapped around it. 

Advertisements

The Scarring, An Excerpt

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

The Scarring (an excerpt)

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

“Yes.”

###

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

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

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

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

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

Flash Fiction Friday: Cassidy and Owen’s Cemetery For Almost Dead Things

Nobody noticed when Pop Callahan disappeared. At least not until Maggie Sue came calling and he didn’t answer the door.

Maggie Sue lived down the road in a dilapidated singlewide trailer with streaks of rust running along its sides. She was a trashy little woman who thought an unbuttoned blouse and a pile of makeup was attractive. On that day the extra thick blush and eye shadow did little to conceal the shiner she had been given a few days earlier.

Cassidy answered the door on the third knock. Her golden hair was dirty and pulled back into pigtails. She had chocolate smeared on one side of her ten-year-old face and her pink dress was caked with dirt and spaghetti sauce—the lone staple in the Callahan house.

“Hey, Cassidy,” Maggie Sue said with a fake smile and a finger twirling in a lock of dirty blond hair. “Is Pop home?”

“No,” Cassidy responded. If there was one person in the neighborhood she disliked, it was Maggie Sue.

“D’yah know where he’s at?”

Cassidy shrugged her bony shoulders.

Maggie Sue gave a slight nod. “Can you tell him to come visit me when he gets home?”

“I guess.”

boy-1854107_1920Anger flared on Maggie Sue’s face in the form of creased brows and turned down lips. A storm brewed in her blue eyes. When she spoke again, her voice was less pleasant and held a demanding tone. “It would be nice if you would do that for me. Can you remember that, retard?”

Cassidy took a deep breath and held it. She forced back the words she wanted to say, then shrugged again. “I guess so.”  

Maggie Sue made it down the first couple of steps before Cassidy spoke again.

“Hey, lady, you wanna visit my graveyard?” A small grin traced across her lips.

Cassidy was known in Briar’s Ridge as a little off-center, special in the most special of ways. Questions like that were normal for her. But for Maggie Sue and her suddenly wide eyes and O-shaped mouth, it had sounded bizarre, even coming from Cassidy, the waif of a girl Pop had taken in when she was three, along with her little brother Ollie—short for Oliver, Cassidy told anyone who would listen. Truth be told, Callahan didn’t so much take them in as he took them from a prostitute who owed him money. The plan was to return the children when he was paid. The woman, a drug-addled whore named Harriett, died a few days later, killed by a john or maybe even herself. When the cleaning lady at the local ho-tel no-tel found Harriett swinging from a light fixture, her face blackened and one eye dangling from the socket, Callahan was stuck.

Maggie Sue stared up at Cassidy from the bottom step. She cocked her head to one side, shook it slowly, as if doing so helped her make a decision. “I don’t think so, little girl.” She stepped off the final step. “Let Pop know I came by, okay?”

Cassidy gave a half-hearted shrug, barely raised a hand to chest level and waved once before dropping it. She closed the door and rolled her eyes.  

“When Pop gets home. Whatever.”

Two days passed before Maggie Sue returned. Cassidy considered making her knock for a while, but answered on the fifth rap.

Cassidy stood in the doorway, the same pink dress on, the chocolate smears gone from her face, replaced by a red Kool-Aid moustache. Her blond hair was no longer in pigtails. A clump of hair on the left side of her head looked as if it was tangled in a broken rubber band.

Maggie Sue’s shiner had gone from purple and black to an ugly green and brown. Her hands shook and her eyes darted about, as if someone followed her. 

“Is Pop home?” Maggie Sue asked, her voice shaky.

Cassidy gave a shrug, a maybe/maybe not gesture.

“Well, is he, little retard girl?”

“No,” Cassidy said.

Maggie Sue shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “When did yah last see him?”

Cassidy put one finger to her chin, the nail thick with dirt beneath it. “When did he give you the colored eye?”

Even through the heavy make-up, Cassidy saw the red blossoms form on Maggie Sue’s face. The woman said nothing at first, only stared at her shoes. When she turned her eyes back to Cassidy, they were rimmed with tears. 

“That would have been Sunday.”

Cassidy nodded. “Then Sunday it was.”

“So, he hasn’t been back since Sunday?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You said you haven’t seen him since—”

“I haven’t seen him. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been here.” Cassidy rolled her eyes.  

“Where do you think he went and ran off to?”

“Does it matter?”

“Why wouldn’t it matter?”

“Why would it?”

They stared at each other until Maggie Sue wavered and looked back toward the red clay road that ran past Pop’s rundown shack and into town where the rest of the houses were as decrepit as the trailer she lived in.  

“Just tell Pop I came by. I need to see him. Really bad.”

“I’m sure,” Cassidy said and closed the door. She opened it to see Maggie Sue still standing on the porch, her eyes still searching, but probably not really seeing anything at all. Maggie Sue ran a brittle-nailed finger up one arm, drawing pink lines on her near white skin. “Hey, lady,” Cassidy said, snapping her from her thoughts.

“What?”

“You wanna visit my graveyard?”

“Umm …  no.” Maggie backed away, almost fell off the steps when her foot slid from the porch landing. “I gotta go.” 

“Bye.”

Cassidy closed the door and looked at Ollie. He stood just inside, his back against the wall. “She’ll be back,” Cassidy said.  

Maggie Sue did come back. The next day. Her eyes held gray and purple bags beneath them and she hugged herself with both arms as if she were cold. Her blond hair was a tangle of knots and her lips were chapped and bordering on white.

Cassidy stood at the door, listening to the many knocks, a smile on her face. “Should we make her come back later, Ollie?”

Ollie stood by the wall. A frown creased his seven-year-old face. He shook his head quickly.

“Okay. Okay.”

Cassidy opened the door.  

Maggie Sue’s voice shook when she spoke and it came out as a whine. “Has Pop come home yet?”

“You look like crap,” Cassidy said, ignoring the question.

“Shut up, retard. I need to see Pop.” Her eyes were larger than Cassidy recalled them being. She dug her nails into her arms, leaving red crescent moons in their wake.

“You wanna visit my graveyard?”

Maggie Sue’s shoulders sagged, then she stood straight. Her eyes became narrow and her nostrils flared as she took a deep breath. “What is it with you, kid?” she yelled. “Why do you want me to see a graveyard so bad? What would you have in it anyway? Did you bury your kitty cat or something? Maybe a pet goldfish or a dog?”

Cassidy stood silent, unblinking as Maggie Sue ranted.

“Oh, I know. I bet you have a collection of dead bugs back there. Each one with their own little graves and markers? Is that it? You’re not a regular retard, are you? You’re some sort of sick-o retard, right? Huh? Is that it?”

Cassidy stepped back from the entryway and turned around. She walked down the short hall, leaving the door open. “If you want to see Pop, he’s this way.”

Maggie Sue’s tirade ended as quickly as it had begun. “‘Bout time, little girl.”

Cassidy stopped in the hall, looked back, her eyes slits on her dirty face. “Ollie,” she said and gave a nod.

“Ollie?” Maggie Sue asked. One side of her top lip lifted up in confusion.  

The clang of a shovel on the back of Maggie Sue’s head sent her forward, her hands out in front of her as she crashed to the floor. Cassidy leaned down. “I’m not a retard, whore.”

They waited patiently for Maggie Sue to wake up. When she did, Ollie was smiling, his teeth brown and rotting. They had bound Maggie Sue’s arms and legs to a wooden kitchen chair. Duct tape covered her mouth.

“Ahh, you’re awake,” Cassidy said. “Now, are you ready to see my graveyard? It don’t matter none. We’ll show you anyway. Okay? So you know, this is a regular tour, not a grand tour. A grand tour is where you get to touch the things in the graveyard, maybe even be allowed to dig up one of the things buried here. But this isn’t a grand tour.”

Maggie Sue’s eyes grew wide as Cassidy waved her arm behind her. “Welcome to the Cassidy and Owen Cemetery for Almost Dead Things.”

The yard was littered with small markers made of boards and plastic and bricks placed at the heads of mounds of dirt.  

“Over here we have Pippy.” She glared back at Maggie Sue. “Yes, my kitty is buried here.” She turned back to the graveyard, waved a hand past Pippy’s grave. “Over there is where I buried the head of Bruce, the dog that killed Pippy. Beside his head are his legs.”

She continued on, waving a hand like a game-show girl showing off the next prize if the price was right. “Around the small azalea bush are the remains of birds that have fallen out of trees or that were killed by Pippy. That one,” she pointed to a small headstone painted blue, “is where Barney is buried. He was a duck.

“I guess you really didn’t come here to see the animals, right? You wanted to see Pop.  Well, there’s one of his hands.” 

Ollie stepped over to a fresh grave, a paper plate with a stick pushed through, marking it. On the plate was a crude drawing of a hand in red crayon. 

“His other hand is over there. And one of his legs is by the fence over yonder.”

Maggie’s scream was muffled behind the tape, a sound caught in her throat, forever to remain there.

“Over there is his upper body, and right there, right in the center of the Pop Callahan Memorial section of our graveyard, is his head.”

Cassidy’s eyes narrowed. She walked over to Maggie Sue, grabbed her face with both of her small hands. “Did you know Pop called me a retard? I betcha didn’t know that, did ya? That was right before he hit me for the last time. I reckon he wasn’t done when he beat you up, so he came home and started on me.”

Maggie Sue grew quiet, her eyes big, the blue showing in the mass of white around them. 

“I betcha didn’t know he called Ollie a dumb retard all the time. And all ’cause Ollie can’t talk.”

Cassidy stepped away and motioned for Ollie. He came into Maggie Sue’s view. In his hand was a hatchet—one really too small for a man to use, but just the right size for a small child.  

“I betcha didn’t know I hate being called a retard, did ya? You know what else?” She paused, waiting for any sort of reply. “Ollie really hates it when someone calls me that.  Don’tcha, Ollie?”

The little boy smiled, brushed aside a heavy lock of dirty brown hair. He gave a nod.  

“I’ll dig the holes,” Cassidy said and turned back to Maggie Sue. “Welcome to the Cassidy and Owen Cemetery for Almost Dead Things. I hope yah enjoy your stay.”

She turned away, grabbed the shovel from beside the house. When she looked back, Ollie was bringing the hatchet down onto Maggie Sue’s right foot.

(Cassidy and Owen’s Cemetery For Almost Dead Things originally appeared in the short story collection, Southern Bones, which you can find here. Or you can get the print copy of Southern Bones directly from me by sending me an email at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com)

Voices, The Interviews: Jenny

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

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

SESSION 13: JENNY

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

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

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

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

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

“Too much pain in this room.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little girl says nothing. 

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

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

“Can we talk, Jenny? Is that okay?”

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

 

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, there were other times?”

Jenny nods.

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

Again, left, right, center. “No.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Why she gave you to those men?”

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

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

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

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

“They don’t like her.”

“But they like you?”

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

What is wrong with some people?

  

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

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

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

“Her powder?”

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

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

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

(dead)

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

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

The smile falters. “Yes.”

“Did she give you to him, too?”

Jenny nods.

“Some people will do anything, Lissssaaa.” 

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

“He hurt me. He … hurt me.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trapped?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing But A Ghost–Free Fiction Friday

“Nothing but a ghost,” Bobby said as he looked from the ground where rails were covered in mud and weeds to the rusted out locomotive jutting out of the water.

“It’s a steam engine,” Hannah said and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She wiped snot on her pants, sniffled and dug both hands into her pockets. She didn’t care much for most boy clothes—she wore hand me downs she got from her older brother, Tucker, and hated them—but she liked those pants. The pockets were deep and she could stick her hands all the way in (unlike all of the ‘girl’ jeans her friends had).

“How do yah no?”

“Look at it.”

“I am looking at it. It’s nothing but a rusty locomotive.”

“But it’s more than that, Bobby-O.”

“Yeah, I guess so, Hannah. By the way do you know what a locomotive is?”

loco-178092_1920.jpgHannah rolled her big hazel eyes, not trying to hide it from Bobby. “It’s a train.”

“Nah. That’s not what it is.”

“Then what is it?”

“Crazy motion. That’s all. Crazy motion.”

Again, she rolled her eyes and shook her head to go along with it. Hannah stepped into the muddy water. Her shoes and ankles were suddenly cold, but she wouldn’t turn around. No, once she got something in her head, she followed through and she aimed to get a better look at the train in front of them. 

“What are yah doing, Hannah?”

“Checking it out.”

A few steps in and her right foot slid, almost sending her to the muck she now waded in. She corrected, regained her balance and looked back.

“Yah trying to take a spill?” Bobby asked with a snicker. “Yah almost went face first right into the river.”

“But I didn’t, so stop your laughing.” 

Hannah put her arms out at her sides and waded through the deepening water. She reached the front of the engine and put one of her hands on it. The heavy rust that covered it felt like chalky nubs of glass, not quite sharp enough to slice skin if she was careful, but if she wasn’t, oh the gashes it could cause. She put one foot onto the side rod. Water fell from her pants and sloshed out of her shoe as she reached up, grabbed hold of another rod and pulled herself up and out of the river. 

“Yah see anything?” Bobby called from the bank.

“Hold your horses and let me look.”

She shook her head, a little in disgust, a little in annoyance. Bobby was two years older and about six inches taller, but a hundred percent more chicken than she had ever been. Yup, his yellow streak ran from the back of his skull all the way down to his oversized tailbone. 

Hannah eased along the rod, and slid her hand on the side of the locomotive until she reached the cab. She leaned just enough to peak inside the open window. Sludge and weeds covered what she could see of the floor. There was a bench seat, rusted and corroded springs jutting from the ruined upholstery. Sitting on the bench were the skeletal remains of the engineer. Though his clothes were mostly tattered rags, a striped  conductor’s hat still remained on his fleshless skull. 

“What the …?”

She stared, her eyes big, her mouth open. Then the skeleton moved, its head shifting on its boney shoulders. It seemed to look at her with its blackened sockets and its forever grin. Hannah’s hands slid away from the locomotive, her left foot slipped from the rod and she tumbled backward. A second later, she landed in the brown water of a river that was once a lake and that one day, maybe even one day soon, would be a pond, then a stream, then nothing but a memory. She went under the surface for a moment, then popped up, took a deep breath and gathered her legs under her. 

Hannah stood, looked at the locomotive for another five seconds, then she turned back toward the bank. She said nothing until she reached a very dry Bobby.

“What d’yah see?” he asked.

“Nothing but a ghost,” she said and walked by him, water dripping from her clothes, her feet sloshing in her shoes.

Free Fiction Friday–Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

“Grandpa, why are we stopping?”

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

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

“We’re here,” he said.

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are we doing, Grandpa?”

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

“Is that it?”

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

“Wait for what?”

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

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

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

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

“No, Sir, it isn’t.”

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

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

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

“A rite of passage?”

“Yup.”

“What is that?”

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

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

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

“Grandpa, can we go?”

“Not yet, Camden.”

“I’m bored.”

“I’m sure you are, but …”

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

“It’s not time to go, yet.”

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

“Camden, sit back down.”

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Cam …”

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

“There,” he all but shouted and pointed.

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

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

“Grandpa …”

“It’s okay, Camden. Just watch.”

And they did.

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

“Grandpa, who are those people?”

“They are who we’ve been waiting on.”

“There’s something wrong with them.”

“What is that?”

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

“They most certainly are, Camden.”

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

“Just watch.”

The ghostly procession neared the interstate. 

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

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

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

“It’s okay, Cam,” he said. 

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

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

“Yes, it did. I saw it.”

“You saw the truck go through him.”

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

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

“Ghosts?” 

“Yes. Ghosts.”

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

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

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

“My ancestors?”

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” His voice quivered.

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

“Grandpa …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grandpa, are you okay?”

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

“You’re crying.”

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

“Like now?”

“Yes, like now.”

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

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

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

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

“Grandpa?”

“Yes, Camden?”

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

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

“What did he mean by not much longer?”

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

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

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

“I love you, Grandpa.”

“I love you, too, Camden.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Someone’s Sad On This Day–A Short Story

The first thing I saw out the window this morning was the gravedigger hard at work. I guess that’s not the best thing to see when one wakes. It was still dark in my room and a chill hung in the air. The furnace had not switched on in the night. I stood, grabbed my robe from the bedpost and wrapped it around me. It didn’t do much to warm my body—it had belonged to my grandmomma before it became mine and was mostly threadbare with holes in the elbows from years of wear and tear. Still, I cinched the sash and wished I had her old slippers on my feet as I crossed the room. 

At the window, I pulled the curtains back. The hangers rattled on the rod above me. 

The early morning sun peeked out over the horizon, promising clear skies. I looked out over the yard from the second floor of my grandparents’ home. Ancient trees stood, some tall and reaching for the sky, their branches like the waving arms of concertgoers or church parishioners rapt with their religion and swaying from side to side without care one. Other trees stood, not so tall, bent at what I think of as their waists, knotted and gnarled in what could only be an arthritic curse they suffer from. The grass was tall and gray, having not been cut in months and now the cooler temperatures of a southern fall wither them away to husks of their once vibrant blades. 

The cemetery sits beyond the yard, no real walls encircling it, but rocks and stones, cobbled together, stacked one atop the other in a helter skelter manner. I always thought they would topple over with a good gust of wind during one of our summer storms or during hurricane season in the fall, but they never have. From where I stood, I could see graves more ancient than the hundred year old house I now live in, their rounded tops chipped, the names of the dead and their epitaphs faded long before I came into this world. The mausoleum that house the once wealthy members of this small province stuck out against the fading purple background. 

house-2187170_1920And the gravedigger dug his hole, not with a backhoe like they use in the big cities and the well kept cemeteries, but with a pickaxe and a shovel and a strong back and arms. He wore his usual blue coveralls, one suspender strap dangling down around his knee. Heavy clod hoppers covered his feet, dirty from years of digging holes two yards deep, two yards long and a yard or so wide. An old straw hat covered his bald head, one that already had early signs of skin cancer splotching it in places. He drove the spade into the earth, stomped on it just to the left of the handle, shoving it further into the ground. Then, as if he wasn’t satisfied with what he had done, he lifted the shovel up, pulling with it a clump of dirt that he tossed onto a growing mound. 

I watched for several minutes, fascinated by the piston-like movements of his feet and arms and back. There was no slow down in his motions, no hesitation, no grabbing of his back from a twinge of pain. He shoveled, and if I would have stood there for another two hours, I would have seen him dig until the hole was deeper than he is tall. Then the shovel would fly from the hole and land on the mound. He would crawl out, grab the shovel and walk away as if he had been playing cards at a table with a bunch of old men like himself instead of doing the hard label of grave digging. 

But I didn’t stay there. I closed the curtains, not needing to see the sun continue its rise to its perch in the sky; not needing to see the grave digger preparing someone’s last bed. 

Someone somewhere is very sad today, but it is not me. 

I showered in the bathroom of the house I live in, the house my grandparents once owned, but now only one grandparent remained with me. Near the toilet was my grandmomma’s old slippers. They were once a light blue color and had been fuzzy, like the bear, but only was he? They, like the bear, were no longer fuzzy, and dirty as well; more gray than blue. I slipped them on and walked through the house in the threadbare robe that still had Grandmomma’s scent of arthritis cream and death. 

I went down the main stairs, each step cracking and groaning like old bones in protest. I listened to the sounds, enjoying every pop. I used to go down on my bottom when I was younger, plopping from step to step to step, laughing as I went, but age caught up with me a while ago and my back and hips can no longer take such fun endeavors. 

In the kitchen I made a big bowl of cereal—Special K was what my grandparents ate, so it is what I ate. I sprinkled sugar on it—a lot more than Grandmomma would have approved of—and ate it with all the zest of a six-year-old in front of the television watching Saturday morning cartoons. I spilled the milk down my chin when I tip the bowl to drink the last of the sugar-made-sweet liquid. 

At the sink I saw from the kitchen window part of the graveyard. The trees block most of it from the view. From here I can always see some of the stone wall and the top of the mausoleum, but the headstones and the gravedigger are obscured by the wooden bones of the ancient trees, some of which are dying, either by age or disease … much like people do. I thought of the gravedigger and his gnarled hands and knotted fingers; his sagging jowls and pooch of a stomach, his thick nose that looks like a strawberry, reddened and ripe from years of tipping the bottle. He’s not a bad person, but a drunk who speaks few words.

I washed the bowl and went back upstairs. I needed to change into something more than a thin robe and worn out slippers. You can’t attend a burial in your bath clothes.

My closet is lined with dresses and slacks, blouses of different colors and coats pushed far to the back. I selected a black skirt that falls to below the knees and a light gray top, sensible in every way. Best to be respectful on a day of mourning, after all someone is sad today. Flats go on my feet and I didn’t put on any makeup, after all the dead don’t care about those things. Only the living, and the living didn’t matter this morning. 

In the kitchen I waited until I heard the back door open, the heavy sounds of boots on linoleum in the mudroom, and then the whisking sound of socks on the floor outside of it. The stairs creaked and groaned and I could almost picture them as people laying, belly down, mumbling and grumbling as weight was first put on their backs, then gone a second later.

Above me the shower turned on and water ran for a good twenty minutes. Then the tell tale signs followed of someone walking around upstairs slowly, as if the feet couldn’t be bothered to lift themselves off the floor and set themselves back down.

Another twenty minutes pass and the stairs protested again.

“It’s time.”

I looked up from the where I sat at the table, my hands folded in front of me. He no longer wears his overalls and the one suspender that always hung to his knee has been replaced by a belt. His boots were gone, replaced by a nice pair of Sunday shoes, and he wore a pair of dark pants, one fit for such a moment. His nose was still a strawberry in the center of his face, and his eyes blue and clear, like the sky in mid-July in the south—nothing clouding them at all; no cancer, no alcohol, no worry.

“Okay, Grandpa,” I said and stood.

“Ya look nice, Marjorie.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Ya ready?”

“I reckon so.”

We left the house and made our way across the yard to the cemetery. We passed through an opening in the cobbled together stone wall and weaved in and out of headstones too tired to hold themselves erect any longer. Soon they will all be lying on the ground like the dead beneath them.

At the hole we stopped. It was longer than the six feet the gravedigger normally made them. One end was sloped like a ramp, leading down into the hole. A freshly built pine box sat at the head of the sloped end. I could smell the strong scent of pine sap. The casket sat atop logs cleaned of all bark and made smooth. Two ropes were attached to the foot end of it, used to pull the casket across the logs so it would roll into the grave. 

“Ya have any words to say, Marjorie?”

“Yes, Sir.”

I walked over to the pine box and tapped on the head in.

“Grandmomma. Ya in there?”

The muffled scream came back to me and I smiled. She was in there and she wasn’t too happy. She beat on the inside lid, nailed down every three or so inches. 

I stepped back from the casket. “I changed my mind,” I said. “I got nothin’ to say.”

“A’right, then,” he said, bowed his head and closed his eyes. He prayed, said his amen and grabbed one rope. I grabbed the other. It was time to put Grandmomma to rest. Yeah, someone was sad on this day, but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t Grandpa either.

AJB