April 14th of 2018 put Cate and I at the Soiree on State/Cayce Festival of the Arts. The joint effort by the city of Cayce and the Cayce Avenues Neighborhood Association began at noon and ended a little after eight that evening. There were many vendors, food trucks and live music. 

VOICES with TypewriterThis festival was held the day after my short story collection, Voices, came out. It was the first stop on the In My Head Tour 2018. Tour? Yes, tour. You see, we are looking at each event as a stop on the Voices promotion tour. Though we didn’t have the books for this event, we had a proof copy and pamphlets we had made up about Voices. At the end of the day, many people were interested in getting the print edition when it comes in.

[[As a side note, you can find Voices on Amazon, by going here.]]

To say things got off to a little bit of a rocky start is a slight exaggeration, but still things didn’t go smoothly at first. When we arrived to check in, we were not on the list of vendors. Seriously. We weren’t. I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t a little concerned. After a few minutes of them trying to locate our spot, they finally found a place for us.

“We’re going to put you in spot 52.”

After driving the length of the vendor section once, we doubled back and finally found the spot, pulled off the road and unloaded. We went to set up the tables and … I forgot to pack the back flap to the tent and the tablecloths. 

Blink Blink

After hurrying to the house and getting behind every slow moving vehicle on the entire planet, I arrived home, found these things and headed back. Yeah, you know what happened. I got behind every slow moving vehicle on the way back. I parked in the designated spot grabbed everything, including  Cate’s Starbucks she left in the car (this alone could have been disastrous) and walked the two blocks to our booth. Yes, I carried her Starbucks coffee like a true man: down at my side so it looked like it was just another cup.

Upon getting everything set up, we still had about half an hour or so before the event started. This gave me time to walk around and check out some of the neat things other vendors had. After perusing for a few minutes, I made my way back to our tent and sat with Cate until people began to show up. Then, I guess you could say it was showtime, though I don’t know what type of show we put on—we were just ourselves. 

Cayce Setup 2There were quite a few positives throughout the day. First, there was a ton of foot traffic. Second, we had seventy or so people stop by and talk. Third, I got to see my niece, Emmy. She is like a good luck charm or something. She is only three, but she has been to all four of the Cayce Festivals. Yes, it is possible. She was born in January and the festivals have all been in April.

A few quick things:

  • Wanda, an old friend of mine from all the way back in first grade showed up with a friend. We joked and talked about school. Then they walked off, came back later and bought a couple of books. I went to autograph Wanda’s friend’s book and realized they had not told me her name. I asked and they looked at each other, laughed and told me her name.

    “Or you can just sign it to Wanda’s Friend,” she said. I laughed, and signed it to Wanda’s Friend (yes, I did add her name in there. I’m not heartless, after all).

  • I met a woman who said she’s great at watching television. The man with her said, “She has a black belt in watching tv.” Well, that was a first.
  • We were invited to two events for authors in the fall. 
  • We sold some books. 
  • Though I didn’t get to hear much of her singing, Jessica Skinner, one half of Prettier Than Matt, played for a little over an hour. 
  • The Kinda Cheezy Food Trailer was the bomb, and not expensive, at that.
  • We sold some books. Did I say that already?
  • The police officers at the event had a long day, but they seemed to enjoy themselves. At one point they were passing by our booth dancing and having a good time. 

Cayce Setup 4One of the best things that came out of the day was being contacted on my author page by someone who had stopped by our booth and talked about books. She bought a book and took a Brown Bag Story with her. She posted on my page about meeting us  and how she enjoyed the TBBS she got. One of the great things about writing is hearing back from someone who enjoyed something you wrote.

(Just for the record, when you tell someone to reach into the coffin and grab something and they still contact you later, you did something right.)

All in all, it wasn’t a bad day. But it was exhausting. You might not think standing at a booth talking to people and selling books would be too taxing, but it wears you out. it was warm and breezy and we were on concrete. 

And we sold some books …

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

A.J.

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In 1972 The Statler Brothers came out with a song called Class of 57. I was two at the time. I can honestly say this is the first song I remember hearing as a child, though probably not when I was two. Sure there were probably others. Jesus Loves Me comes to mind, but it and most songs geared toward kids didn’t stick until years later. 

Class of 57 has an innocent sound about it, one that is tragic at the same time. The song is a recounting of the kids who graduated from high school and where they were now that they were grown ups. They sing of the places some of them work: the mill, driving a truck, fixing nails, a grocery store and so on. Innocent enough, right?

After the first chorus things get a little darker. One person was in an insane ward, another one was on wellfare. One of them breaks up a marriage and takes the guy’s wife, and well, the guy left behind commits suicide. At the time I didn’t understand what the song was about. I just know it stuck with me. Growing older and living life is hard. Things don’t always turn out the way we envision them. It’s kind of ominous, you know?

I have come to the conclusion that one of the reasons I like songs with tragic lyrics in them is because of The Statler Brothers’ Class of 57. The one verse I remember, even now, is the one where ‘Freddie took his life.’ The chorus is just as tragic. ‘Living life day to day is never like it seems’ and ‘things get complicated when you get past eighteen.’

I’ve always been drawn to those types of songs. 

One such song that comes to mind is A Day in the Life, by the Beatles. The very distinct sound of this lyric painted a picture in my head: He blew his mind out in a car.  I always pictured a guy in a nice black suit in a nice box-like car sitting at a red light with a gun in his hand. Every time I hear this song, and this lyric in particular, that image comes back to me. Only now it is a little more graphic in nature.

Fast forward to the 1980’s and Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles. Just the title did it for me. Then the accusatory lyrics of ‘What did you tell them?’ solidified my love for the song.

Two years later another song came out that I fell in love with, not because of a tragic event in the lyrics, but because I misheard the lyrics and thought the song was about someone dying. The lyric: ‘A little ditty about Jack and Diane.’ What I heard: ‘A little ditty about Jackie dying.’ I thought a kid named Jackie was dying and at the end when Mellencamp sings about two American kids doing the best the can, I thought Jackie had died and the two kids had not been able to save him. I pictured a teenaged girl sitting on the ground by a tree and Jackie lying beside her, his head in her lap. She stroked his hair as he faded from life. 

The End, by the Doors and Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen have equal standing in songs with tragic lyrics, though the deaths in those songs came across as intentional. 

The Offspring’s The Kids Aren’t Alright has stuck with me since the first time I heard it. The tragedy is though Jenny had a chance (you know she really did), she ended up taking her own life, much like Freddie did in Class of 57, though for different reasons. Both songs are similar in that the singer is looking back on childhood and dreams of a splendid life full of hopeful success. Yet, success didn’t happen for some. 

I could go on for pages and pages about this, but there is one more I want to mention. I’m not particularly an Ed Sheeran fan, but the song Castle on the Hill struck a chord with me the first time I heard the end of it. I almost switched the channel in the car, but when The Boy said he liked the song I left it on. Then the last verse happened and someone’s brother overdosed. I was hooked. 

Morbid, I know.

The thing I find to be common denominators in most of these songs is how life can be cruel. It can be tough. It can be heart wrenching. It can lead us down paths we never thought we would take. Things are complicated. It’s that simple. I related to these songs and many more like them because they speak about life, and they are honest by saying life is not always easy and sometimes it is tragic.

I guess that’s why I write darker stories. Horror is nothing more than a mirror of the real world outside our doors. There is tragedy in every life. I explore those tragedies, with as much tact and care as I can, just as The Statler brothers did in Class of 57. 

Thank you for reading, and as always, until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

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

The Five:

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

The Three:

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

Bonus question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Recently, I had to ask myself a few questions. Before I get to those questions (and the subsequent answers), let me state a couple of things.

First, I suck at promoting myself. Second, I suck at promoting my books. Third, I suck.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the question and the why behind it. So, let’s start again:

Recently, I had to ask myself a few questions. The first question is: Have I done everything in my power to get my work into the hands of readers? The answer is NO. Question number two: Have I done everything I can to promote my books? The answer, again, is NO. Question number three: Why the heck not? I’ll answer this one later.

CiPvrIyWEAAv-gJGoing into 2018, these are questions I had to ask myself. Up until recently, I chose not to answer them. It’s like that thing you ignore in hopes that it will go away. Instead of going away, it gets bigger or worse or it learns how to talk and you can’t ignore it anymore. It is at that point where you have to face your fears (and the thing you have been ignoring). You brace yourself, hoping you can handle the situation. Then you find out there was no reason to worry and the issue is easily resolved. If you would have just faced the thing you were hoping would go away, you wouldn’t have had sleepless nights, and you wouldn’t have worried yourself into a corner with your thumb stuck in your mouth.

Being stuck in a corner, I decided to answer the questions and face the music. I hoped it was punk music I would hear in return. So, I asked myself the first question and sat back and thought about it. Have I done everything in my power to get my work in the hands of readers? I scratched my head and rubbed my chin. I even had a few false starts, telling myself excuses as reasons to why I can’t do everything in my power to get my work in the hands of readers. Not all readers will want to read your work. You don’t have enough books (or money to purchase those books) to put them in everyone’s hands.

“Fair enough,” I said and moved onto the second question: Have I done everything I can to promote my books? Again, I responded, Come on, A.J., you don’t have the money to market your books. You don’t have the network to market your books. You don’t know how to market your books. You don’t know how to use social media to promote your books as well as you would like. You don’t have the time to market your books the way they need to be marketed in order to do it right.

“Fair enough,” I repeated. The two questions I needed to answer had been answered and I was satisfied with them.

Here is TRUTH #1: All of that is bogus. They are excuses I told myself so I could sleep at night. They are excuses I told myself so I would be satisfied with where I’m at. They are excuses I told myself so I could say, hey, you’ve done everything you can. The problem is I wasn’t sleeping at night and I wasn’t satisfied with where I am as an author, and I certainly haven’t done everything I can.

Here is TRUTH #2: If I truly (and I mean truly) want to get my books in front of people, then I will do it. If I truly want my books to sell and do well, then I will do it. I’ve said similar things to other folks in the past: if you want it, you will do everything you can to achieve it.

This led to three more questions: Have I worked for it? Well, yes, I have. But have I worked hard for it? Umm … yes. Have I worked as hard as I can for it? Umm … not really?

This leads me back to my original third question; WHY THE HECK NOT? There are two answers to this question. The first being confidence. The second is quite simply, fear. Both of those things lead to self-doubt, and self-doubt can be crippling.

Let’s break down the excuses I told myself. Have I done everything in my power to get my work in the hands of readers? Excuse #1: Not all readers will want to read your work. To this I say, “So what?” Does it really matter if everyone wants to read my work? Of course not. Different strokes for different folks and all that jazz. Excuse #2: You don’t have enough books (or money to purchase those books) to put them in everyone’s hands. This is really not an excuse. I don’t have enough money to purchase enough books to put them in everyone’s hands. But should that stop me from getting as many Brown Bag Stories into the readers hands? No. The more of those I can get in readers hands, the better. They are like business cards, with all the proper information in them, and a story to boot.

[[Side Note: In case you don’t know what The Brown Bag Stories are, they are booklets I put together each month. Each booklet contains a story, author’s notes on what inspired the story, and information about some of my books you can purchase. This year there is a little something extra in them. Do you want to know what that is? Well, I guess you’ll just have to subscribe to the newsletter to find out. You can do that by going here: http://eepurl.com/cDEh9v. End Side Note.]]

On to the next question and its excuses: Have I done everything I can to promote my books? Excuse #1: You don’t have the money to market your books. So? You don’t always need a lot of money to market. You just have to have a cost effective plan. Excuse #2: You don’t have the network to market your books. Maybe not, but you will never have the network if you don’t try to build it. Excuse #3: You don’t know how to market your books. That is somewhat true, but still, you have to learn. Research is your friend. Excuse #4: You don’t know how to use social media to promote your books as well as you would like. Hey, Self, see the answer to Excuse #3 above. Excuse #5 (and this one is a doozie): You don’t have the time to market your books the way they need to be marketed in order to do it right. Really? You have time to watch a basketball game, right? How about do some marketing during commercials and at half time? What about Facecrack? You have time to be on it, right? If you’re not using it to market yourself, then hop off and, I don’t know, market yourself.

Lack of confidence and fear often lead to excuses. I’ll be honest here and say it isn’t so much a lack of confidence—I have plenty of that when it involves my ability to tell a story. That is one area I do not lack in.

Fear, on the other hand … I think we all have a touch of fear in us. I was once told the definition of fear is: False Evidence Appearing Real. Our minds conjure up false evidence and then tells us it is real. Kind of like our media outlets and their news reports.

Fact: if I stick a knife into a live electrical socket, it will shock me. There is no fear of doing it. There is only knowledge and that knowledge is enough to keep me from being an idiot and sticking a knife into a live electrical socket. So, I need not to fear doing it. I just need to be smart.

Fear: I’m not going to be any good at this. I can’t do this. I don’t know where to start, so why try?

Again, let’s pick this apart. Fear #1: I’m not going to be any good at this. Really? You never know until you actually try. Fear #2: I can’t do this. See Fear #1, and with that mentality, of course you can’t do it. Fear #3: I don’t know where to start, so why try? Why not try? There is always some place to start.

Here is the point to all of this: In order to do anything you have to believe you can, you have to be willing to have a dream and then chase it. In order to chase the dream, you have to put a LOT of effort into it (and not some half-hearted try, either). In order to catch that dream, you have to work harder than you ever have before. In order to live that dream, you have to want it. And anything worth wanting is worth working hard for.

I’ve been bad about keeping up my blog (a form of marketing) and my website (another form of marketing) and posting on social media (yet, another form of marketing). I know, I suck. I make no excuses—I think I’ve made enough of those already. What I do want to say is stick around. There is news on the horizon and there is effort …. lots and lots of effort.

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

A.J.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to work with a lot of great writers who are also great people. I’ve done hundreds of interviews over the last fifteen years, many of which were very fun and informative. Yes, I have my favorites, both types of interviews and people I’ve interviewed.

One of the things I want to do in 2018 is more of those interviews. The first of these you will read shortly, but for now, let me say, The 5 and 3 is dedicated to authors under the Stitched Smile Publications umbrella. There will be others outside of The 5 and 3, but I want to dedicate an entire series to the wonderful authors at SSP.

Here is what the 5 and 3 is: Five writing/publishing related questions, three non-business related questions and one bonus question. Unlike many of my interviews where I tailer the questions to the individual, these interviews will have the same questions for each author. Yes, it sounds generic, but the answers are always so different, sometimes startlingly so.

You are in for a treat with the first 5 and 3. Briana Robertson is a young, up and coming author. Her words drip emotions. Her recent collection, Reaper, was released in December by Stitched Smile Publications, and I can tell you, it is an emotional, white-knuckle rollercoaster ride you won’t soon forget.

To go with being a great writer, Briana is also a terrific person with a huge, huge heart.

I hope you enjoy the first of many 5 and 3 interviews. Here is Briana Robertson.

IN HER OWN WORDS:

BrianaBriana Robertson excels at taking the natural darkness of reality and bringing it to life on the page. Heavily influenced by her personal experience with depression, anxiety, and the chronic pain of fibromyalgia, Robertson’s dark fiction delves into the emotional and psychological experiences of characters in whom readers will recognize themselves. Her stories horrify while also tugging at heartstrings, muddying the lines of black and white, and staining the genre in multiple shades of grey.

In 2016, Robertson joined the ranks of Stitched Smile Publications. Her solo anthology, “Reaper,” which explores the concept of death being both inevitable and non-discriminatory, debuted in 2017. She also has stories included in several anthologies.

She is currently serving as Head of Dark Persuasions, the dark erotic branch of Stitched Smile Publications.

Robertson is the wife of one, mother of four, and unashamed lover of all things feline. She currently resides on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, with a backyard view of the Saint Louis skyline, and is a member of the Saint Louis Writers Guild.

THE FIVE:

A.J.: How do you go from idea to finished story?

BR: Ideas usually come to me in one of two ways: they are born from actual personal experience or from the potential emotional response a character would have to a set of given stimuli. For example, the story Lucy, included in my collection, “Reaper,” started as an idea after my own daughter, who was three at the time, suffered a head injury and had to be rushed to the hospital. Luckily, she turned out to be completely fine. But Lucy evolved as I imagined the worst-case scenario; as I asked myself “What if?” and then followed that line of thinking.

On the other hand, Capitulation, also included in “Reaper,” emerged from a huge surge of anger I initially felt. And as Yoda has always told us, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side. In that story, the protagonist’s anger ultimately leads to despair, guilt, self-hatred, and a not-so-happy ending. I simply let the emotion translate into action and followed the actions as they led to an unavoidable outcome.

Reaper CoverA.J.: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

BR: Worrying that my stories will become repetitive. So much of my fiction is inspired by my own experiences, my own emotions, my own psyche, that I tend to doubt whether each story will continue to ring true. Will they all start sounding the same? Will my readers start wanting something different? Will they start hankering for monsters and villains that live outside the main characters’ heads, rather than constantly reading about an inner struggle?

Simply put, self-doubt.

A.J. How do people react when you tell them you’re a writer, specifically a horror writer?

BR: There’s usually an immediate, “Oh, wow! Really? That’s cool.” About half the time it’s followed up with something along the lines of “I always wanted to write a book.” Then there’s usually a question or two about where I come up with ideas, or why do I write what I write. Occasionally I get a request for where they can buy my book.

To be completely honest, I’m an extreme introvert with four kids. I don’t go out much. Most of my socializing is done online, and when I am out in public, I tend to avoid conversing with people at all costs. And when I do converse with them, it’s usually because they’ve made some comment about how cute my kids are—which they are, extremely so. So, I don’t have this experience all that often.

A.J.: If you could meet one of your characters, who would it be and why?

BR: Thana, from the title story, Reaper, of my collection. One, because she’s the Grim-f*cking-Reaper. And secondly, because she’s not based off me. A lot of my characters are, at least in part. They have personality traits or quirks that come directly from me (and no, I’m not going to point out which of those they are). Thana is completely her own character, and I think she’d be fascinating to meet.

Baby Grand CoverA.J.: What qualities make up your ideal readers?

BR: My stories—I like to think—require the reader to be open to an emotional response. They’re not gory horror, they’re not extreme horror, they’re not the kind of horror that makes you jump at shadows. They epitomize the everyday horrors that can catch you completely off-guard and shatter your life, your everyday well-being.

So, my ideal reader has to be willing to experience their worst nightmare. They have to be willing to acknowledge they have a dark side as well, and then be willing to face themselves in the mirror. They have to realize that they themselves may be their worst nightmare.

My ideal reader is intelligent, non-judgmental, and openminded.

THE THREE:

A.J.: If you ruled a country and could make one change that couldn’t be revoked, what would it be?

BR: I would abolish exemptions for Congress members from the laws they pass for us common folks.

A.J.: Do you have a guilty pleasure? If so, what is it?

BR: Oh, so many. Binge-watching shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Dance Academy. Musicals. Belting songs from musicals at the top of my lungs while driving. Animals. Gushing over animals I’ve seen a million times at the zoo. Crazy socks. Disney movies. Belting Disney songs at the top of my lungs while driving. Click-bait. Hollywood award shows.

A.J.: Can you give us one memory from your childhood that helped to shape you into the person you are now?

Unleashing Briana CoverBR: When I was twelve, a close friend of the same age committed suicide. He attended the public school, and I attended a parochial school in the next town over, so we only saw each other after school or on weekends. We got to be close because neither of us had too many friends at our respective schools; we were both teased and picked on fairly relentlessly. The difference was, I had supportive parents who paid attention. His dad was an alcoholic, and his mom had eyes only for his little sister. So, one day, when the teasing had been especially bad, he took a final ride around the neighborhood on his skateboard, and then went home and hanged himself in the garage.

I saw him that day. He came by to see me while he was riding around town. Two hours later he was dead. I had known something was wrong, but I was way too young to understand the signs I was seeing, or to know what they might lead to. He didn’t want to talk about it, and I did all I knew how to do. I gave him a hug, told him the other kids weren’t worth it, and I’d see him that weekend.

When I found out he was gone, I swore even at that young age, that I would 1) make an effort to not be purposely cruel to other kids (I haven’t always succeeded) and 2) I would try like hell to always be attentive to my kids, that I would pay attention and know when there was a problem, so that, God forbid, any of them ever decided to take their own life, I wouldn’t stand there afterward, like his mom had, and say “I didn’t know anything was wrong.”

BONUS QUESTION:

A.J.: How does your spouse feel about your writing? Does he support your pursuit of writing/publishing?

BR: I’m going to be completely uncooperative here and refuse to speak for him. My writing, just like his job, our kids, housecleaning, etc., is a drain on time we get to spend together, and it, just like the others, can sometimes garner negativity. But that’s an issue between him and me; it’s one we’ve discussed at length between ourselves, and it’s nobody else’s business.

That being said, he tells me often how proud he is of me and my writing. That’s enough for me.

You can find Briana at:

Her Website

On Facebook

On Twitter:  @Briana_R_Author

On Amazon

On Instagram: @wyfnmmarbrtsn

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Merry Christmas, lady.”

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

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

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

 

What It’s All About …

Posted: October 24, 2017 by ajbrown in Writing
Tags: , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have failed miserably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

 

So often I feel like writing is a waste of time for me. I do it every day, sometimes very late at night when I can’t sleep or early in the morning when everyone is still in bed. Most days when I sit to write, it feels like an obligation, like something I am required to do—like homework when I was in school. To who am I obligated? To the readers? To the fictional voices in my head who love my work? To the characters, themselves, who wish to have their stories told? To myself?

Maybe it is none of those things. Maybe I am obligated to the words, or to nothing at all. Still, writing often feels like an obligation for me. And I don’t know why.

392550_412747505422764_855367895_nWith that obligation comes the feeling that I am an ancient typewriter, one that is missing all the vowel keys, and with every word I type, I have to go in and hand write in all the missing A’s, E’s, I’s, O’s, and U’s (and sometimes Y’s—let’s not forget the Y’s). The feeling is the keys are sticking and each time the type bar goes up, it does so slower than it should and it strikes the platen weakly, leaving only a faint gray letter on the paper.

It is during those times that writing can be a struggle. The words don’t come out right. The sentences sound off or awkward or just plain weird. That is when the same word gets used over and over and when an hour can pass with only 32 words having been written—do the math, that is one word for almost every two minutes. Though it is a struggle, I continue to write on. After all, bad writing is better than no writing (because, you know, at least I’m writing).

Yes, that is the obligation speaking. Any writing is better than no writing, even if the words I pen are mere shadows of stories I’ve written in the past.

Still, I don’t know what the obligation is or where it came from or why I feel so strongly about it.

Here is a truth as I know it: If I’m not writing, I feel like I am wasting my time. It is a damned if I do, damned if I don’t situation. Again, that obligation to put words to paper or on the screen comes heavily into play. It’s a constant battle of what I should be doing other than writing, and what I should be writing. Here is an example to illustrate things a little better:

I have several books written, but they need to be edited. Editing is not writing. It is part of the process of putting a book out, but it is not the actual act of writing. It needs to be done, but when I am editing, the voices in my head are yelling at me, YOU SHOULD BE WRITING! Unfortunately for me, when the voices start bickering, I can’t cover my ears and walk away. It’s impossible to get away from yourself and what is in your head.

But then when I am writing, some of the other voices (and in many cases, the same ones who bickered at me for not writing) yell, YOU SHOULD BE EDITING THIS STORY! IT’S NOT GOING TO EDIT ITSELF!

AHHHHHHHH!!!!

You see, I can’t win at this, but there is this obligation, this overwhelming feeling that I need to write. And maybe that is the problem. The need to write is so strong, it is almost an obsession. Or maybe it is an obsession.

I’m ripe with things to say. 

The words rot and fall away.

—Blink 182

Stay Together for the Kids

rusty-typewriterThose are powerful lyrics to a powerful song. Those lyrics, quite often, are how I feel when I wake in the morning or before I go to bed. I have all these words spinning around up in my head. They are alive and hungry and waiting for me to send them out through my fingertips. If I don’t write them down they will die and decay and be lost to me forever. It’s like losing thousands of friends a day. Most of them might not be all that close and might just be acquaintances, but some of them … some of them are like extensions of my family, parts of me that I love and cherish and … dammit, I don’t want to lose them all!

At this point it is easy to say, ‘hey, you’re losing it, bro.’ Maybe so. It’s also easy to say, ‘you are your obligation.’ Again, maybe so. Probably so.

I honestly think the obligation is tied to fear. Fear is a horrible feeling. Fear of losing a loved one, a job or getting hurt by someone or killed or whatever. Maybe your fear is of picking up kitty cats. Hey, it could be a real thing. Don’t judge! The fear is something so simple, so easy to see and dismiss, but so real: what if I take a break from writing—a week, two tops—and when I return to it, I won’t be able to write?

Sounds crazy, I know, but I think that is the problem I have when it comes to writing. I have tried to take breaks from time to time. The longest such break in the last couple of years has been four days. At the end of that four days, I had the hardest time sitting down and putting two words together, much less two hundred or two thousand. My fingers itched to put anything on the screen. When that didn’t work, I pulled out a notepad and pen and dated the top of the page (as I always do), but nothing came out. Nothing came out.

I forced myself to write on a story I knew I would never finish, but I still wrote some words—all of about three hundred of them. They sucked. We’re talking being stuck in a sewage drain up to your chest and you just dropped your phone and you need to retrieve it in order to save yourself suckage. It took another three days before I felt really comfortable with the words I wrote. That was after just four days of not writing.

I thought my head would explode from the frustration. Obligation fueled by fear.

But there is another fear that goes with it. It is something I was concerned with when I stopped putting The Brown Bags out in print form: if readers don’t see my words, they lose interest in me. If I don’t market, readers lose interest in me. If I am not constantly out there, readers lose interest in me. It’s just reality. Out of sight, out of mind. Obligation is still there.

Then there is this happy little contradiction: sometimes my mind screams in all of its many voices, WHAT ARE YOU WRITING FOR WHEN NO ONE IS READING YOUR WORDS? 

Okay, I may be able to count on both hands and maybe one of someone else’s hands, how many fans I really have out there, but there are still folks reading my words. It is hard to know who the fans are or if folks are reading your work. I can honestly say that these (non-writer) folks follow my work regularly: Joan Macleod and Mary Cooper and Frank Knox and Greg Crump. I didn’t count my wife in there, but with her and possibly my brother-in-law, Stephen, that puts my straight up, legit fan base at six people. (If you are a straight up, legit fan and I am not aware of this, drop me a note in the comments, just don’t throw a brick at my head. The brick will break and I will not get the hint.)

But what if I never had work published? Would I still feel this way? Would I still feel the obligation to write. I think so, but maybe it would be directed somewhere else. When I was a kid I had a need to constantly play or practice at basketball. As I got older, I began to draw and I had the need to constantly put a pencil to paper. But that was different. I didn’t feel I absolutely had to do those things. I didn’t feel that if I didn’t shoot five hundred free throws in a day I would forget how to do it, or if I didn’t draw a picture every day I would forget how to. I didn’t feel obligated to do it. And when I thought about quitting those things, they didn’t scare me.

With the exception of the last paragraph, I feel a lot of writers—probably far more than will admit—have the same issues. They have that obligation.  They have that need to write, that fear of not only not being able to write, but of failure, driving them to do so every day. They have a desire to be read, to know they are being read, and to know that  what they are writing is reaching people. They stress over writing time and having enough work out there. They stress over editing and marketing and putting themselves out there. Many of them also feel it is a waste of time, and quite a few of those folks quit all together.

Writers rarely reach superstar celebrity status like rock stars or movie stars do. Sure, we have Stephen King and James Patterson and J.K. Rowling, but the majority of writers (and I’m talking a fictional percentage such as 98%) don’t ever reach half of that climb to the top of Mt. Success.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if writers were treated like rock stars when it comes to our fan base? We could release a single (short story) and then another later on, and by George, if you like them, go get the entire collection at your favorite brick and mortar store or online. You could tell your friends how awesome the writer is that you are reading. I find this interesting: we listen to songs over and over, trying to learn all the lyrics (including those pesky background lyrics that are so hard to decipher sometimes) and we try to learn how to sing them and even play them, again, over and over. But when it comes to a story, we read it once and put it down. ‘I know how the story is going to end now.’ Yes, this is true, but don’t we know how the song is going to end, too?

I apologize for going slightly off the beaten path here. The point to that last part is writers don’t often reach very high heights. That can be frustrating, as well.

Musicwriter June 5 2014 031Still, there is obligation. As real or in our heads as it may be, writers, authors, storytellers, struggle with this obligation. Whether it is to the readers or themselves or some other weird issue, it is there. It is immense pressure, especially when the writers don’t know anyone is reading their words, when they feel like a rundown typewriter in a field, the letters of each type bar fading, fading, faded.

I know only a handful of people will read this, and I’m okay with that. But for you handful, this is what you can do: turn your favorite authors into rock stars. Talk about them the way you would your favorite television show or actor/actress or band. Buy their books, but don’t stop there. Actually read them. Still, don’t stop there. Leave a book review on Amazon or on a blog or Goodreads (or all of them). Look them up, contact them and say, ‘hey, you did good.’ Find them on social media and follow them (but not in that stalkerish kind of way). Tell your friends about them with the same enthusiasm you have about Grey’s Anatomy, The Walking Dead, or Game of Thrones. And, no, that is not an obligation you have.

Now, to close this longer than usual post. For me, the obligation comes, not only from fear, but from chasing a dream. I’ve been chasing the rabbit down the hole of words for a lot longer than I realized until recently (I started writing in 1993). That’s a long time to see only a tiny bit of that dream become reality. Still, I’m obligated, and that rabbit hole seems to be getting smaller while the obligation seems to be getting larger.

Do you want to know why the typewriter is so beat up now? The typewriter is really symbolic. It is our hearts and our souls and our struggles. It is our doubts and confidence, our dreams and our reality, and they aren’t meant to go through rabbit holes.

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

A.J.

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

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

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

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

Enough talk. I hope you enjoy No Saving Grace.

No Saving Grace

Ay A.J. Brown

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

***

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

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

“Come on,” he whispered as they came.

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

Their attention?

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

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

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

Everything would be okay.

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

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

He steadied the gun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until they were no more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He turned around and headed up the path.

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

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

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

I must have hit him when I …

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

A finger twitched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man had been the guy from the car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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