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

 

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The Cedar, A Short Story

“I’m scared, Mrs. Lilla Mae,” Rosalie said as she crawled into the bed. Her eyes were wide blue orbs on the backdrop of her pale skin. Her light blonde hair smelled of a flowery shampoo. A flannel top and bottom covered her body. Some would say she was too old to be scared at bedtime, being thirteen and already blossoming into a pretty young woman. But they would be wrong. Bedtime is when the monster came out; a monster that looked like a man that could have been her father. 

Mrs. Lilla Mae sat on the bed, her small frame barely causing the mattress to sag under her weight. She had been plump in her younger years, but as time caught up with her, the extra pounds she carried as a young woman had worn away, cutting her into half the woman she had been. She brushed a strand of hair from Rosalie’s forehead and tucked it behind her ear. “Oh, child, don’ be afraid. Mrs. Lilla Mae won’ let an’thin’ happen to you.”

“But he’s out there. He’s waiting, Mrs. Lilla Mae.”

“Maybe, child, bu’ he ain’ go’ nothin’ for you. He ain’ never goin’ have nothin’ for you again.”

Rosalie shook her head from side to side. She didn’t think Mrs. Lilla Mae understood. The old woman rarely stayed overnight. She was the day maid, someone her mom needed to help tend the house while she was out of town on business; someone to tend to her dad, who suffered the disability of alcohol and laziness, but claimed an injured back kept him from working. Mom believed him and worried, not about his physical disability—her job more than paid the bills and allowed them a life far better than most of her peers had it—but his emotional disability. It came with a price, though. When Mom wasn’t home, neither was Dad, or at least not the Dad Rosalie knew and loved when she was a little girl with bouncing pigtails and little pink dresses and white shoes that tap tapped when she walked.When Mom wasn’t home, Rosalie was terrified, not of the dark, but of what night brought.

“But, Mrs. Lilla Mae, Mom’s gone and that’s when …”

The ancient woman with mahogany skin put one neatly manicured finger to Rosalie’s lips. It smelled of sweet tobacco.

“You gonna have to believe me, child. Ev’ry thing will be okay.”

“But …”

“No buts, child. Mrs. Lilla Mae is gonna take care of you. You jus’ trus’ me, okay?”

Rosalie nodded, but she really didn’t believe everything would be okay. Mrs. Lilla Mae was as old as Time itself. How was she going to protect her with her slow gait and brittle bones?

“Now, we gonna do somethin’ ya momma ain’ done before.”

“What’s that, Ma’am?”

Mrs. Lilla Mae smiled, showing hints of yellow teeth behind her upper lip. “We gonna smudge ya.”

She frowned. Her brows crinkled. “What’s that?”

“Stay right her, child. I’ll be right back.”

Mrs. Lilla Mae shuffled off, her feet whisking across the scuffed hardwood floor. She left the room, leaving behind her tobacco smell, something Rosalie loved. A few minutes later, she came back. In her hands was a bundle of leaves held by brown twine. She set it on the bed, pulled the knot on the twine, releasing it. The leaves separated and unfolded, revealing what looked like green and brown sticks bound in white thread. 

“What’s that?”

Mrs. Lilla Mae picked it up. Beneath it was a box of strike matches. “This be a cedar stick.”

“What’s it for?”

“Prote’sion.”

“Protection?”

“Oh yes, child. You ain’ gonna have no trouble with the monster tonight.”

CedarSmudgeSticksnew-product_2x-1548268550She set the cedar down and picked up the box of matches. She opened it, pulled out a match and closed the box. She struck the match on the sandpaper side of the box. A flame appeared with a chuffing sound and an acrid smell. Mrs. Lilla Mae set the box back on the bed of leaves, then picked up the cedar. She held it up and set the flame to the bottom of it. After several seconds, the cedar began to smoke. Mrs. Lilla Mae shook the match out and dropped it to the leaves as well. 

Mrs. Lilla Mae lifted the cedar to her face and blew on it. She brushed the smoke toward Rosalie with the back of one hand. It smelled faintly of pencil shavings and fresh urine. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t all that great either. 

“Yuck,” Rosalie said and pinched her nose. “That stinks.”

“Hush, child,” Mrs. Lilla Mae said. “This ain’ for ya. It’s for the monster.”

Mrs. Lilla Mae ran the cedar along the bottom of the bed, then shuffled her way to the closet. She opened the door, ran it along the floor there and up the door jamb. She made her way back to the bed, set the still smoldering cedar on the bed of leaves. Slowly, she rolled the leaves around the cedar and then retied the twine. Again, she went to the open closet, set the cedar on the floor. 

“Ya do your job, now, an’ protec’ this youngin’.”

Mrs. Lilla Mae partially closed the door, leaving it open a good half foot. 

“You’re not closing the closet door?”

“Oh no, child. It nee’s to be open.”

Mrs. Lilla Mae grabbed the ends of the sheet and blanket and pulled it over Rosalie’s legs. “Lay on down.”

Rosalie did as she was told and Mrs. Lilla Mae pulled the linens all the way to her shoulders. “Ya gonna be okay, child. I vowed to ya momma, and I keep my vows.” She leaned down and kissed Rosalie on the cheek. The smell of sweet tobacco was stronger and Rosalie smiled. Her world started to dim along the edges and she wavered just outside of sleep. 

“Go on and sleep, child. Ya gonna be safe.”

Rosalie felt herself falling into the grayness of sleep. But there was something in that sleep with her, something green and scaly and feathery, and somehow, very cold to the touch. Then, she was under completely.

***

48944832_10218167673244386_2427968716353306624_nShe woke. Something … some sound had roused her from the world of dreams and her dream had been one where she slept, tucked beneath the sheet and blanket, a smile on her face and no worries in her heart. In her dream, a large creature like a skeletal bird, its wings not quite bare of feathers, its backbone exposed, sat on her bed. It was green and it smelled roughly of pencil shavings and fresh urine. And it stared at her with a mother’s love. 

But the noise had woke her and the creature vanished, leaving behind its somewhat bitter scent. Her eyes opened and she tried to focus them in the gray darkness of the room. Something was in there with her. She couldn’t see it, but it was there. Rosalie blinked several times, hoping her eyes would adjust, and hoping she was wrong about something being in there with her.

The noise came again. Heavy footfalls, not quite dragging or shuffling the way Mrs. Lilla Mae did, but heavy and plodding; the sound of boots. Rosalie’s heart stopped, as did her breath. She lay on her back and stared toward the bedroom door. Though it was closed and no light shone in beneath it from the hall, she knew that was the direction the noise came from. And she knew what the noise was.

The monster was in there with her, the one with her dad’s face and hands, but it wasn’t her dad. No, it was the other Dad, the one who liked the bottle and to do things with her  when Mom wasn’t around. He took a couple of steps forward, then stopped. Rosalie could see an outline of him now, the way he wavered from side to side, his hands down at his sides. He stared at her with his monster eyes. If the light was on, she would probably see drool trickling from one side of his mouth. She shuddered at the image in her head. 

Tears formed in her soft blue eyes. Heat filled her face as fear—not of the dark, no, never of the dark—swelled behind her budding breasts. She tried to keep her breaths even, tried to pretend she was asleep. Maybe if he thought she was, then …

“Rosalie?”

She tensed. His voice was rough and he had slurred the S in her name. Her breath stuck in her throat. It was loud in her own ears and she was certain he heard it. 

“Rosalie?” His hand touched her leg, just above her ankle.

She wanted to jerk her leg away and curl into a ball, one so tight he couldn’t pry her legs open once he ripped her pajamas free, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. Moving was impossible. She clutched tight to the blanket as tears spilled down the sides of her face. She wanted to scream for Mrs. Lilla Mae to come save her, to protect her like she said she would, but her voice was as paralyzed as the rest of her body. 

His hand moved up to her knee, then beyond it until it came to rest near the top of her thigh. He leaned down, patted her leg several times and whispered her name. The stench of alcohol overrode the pencil shaving and urine smell, and Rosalie gagged. She couldn’t help it. 

The monster roared and tore the linens from her hands, ripping off one of her fingernails in the process. He grabbed at her pajamas and Rosalie screamed. One hand lashed out, catching him on the arm. A growl tore from the monster with her dad’s face and suddenly her head snapped to the side. The left side of her face stung and the buzzing in her ear was loud. Even through the ringing she could hear her own screams off in the distance.

“You stop screaming, Rosalie. You stop screaming or I’ll make you stop.”

His hands went around her throat. Her windpipe closed and suddenly she couldn’t breath. She felt his weight on top of her, his legs straddling her hips and his hands squeezing harder and harder. Her eyes bulged and her tongue jutted from her open mouth. She struck his arms with her hands. White dots appeared in her vision and pressure built in her face. It felt as if her head would explode.

Then, as suddenly as he was on top of her, choking her, his hands released and his weight disappeared. She heard the loud sound of something crashing into the wall, but she could only roll onto her side and clutch her throat. She took big gulping breaths, trying to get oxygen into her air-starved lungs. 

The monster with her dad’s face screamed, and this time he sounded like Dad. She shook her head, trying to force away the throbbing in her skull but only made it worse. 

The monster screamed again, but there was something else mingled in with it. Was that the smell of something burning. She sat up, sniffed the air. The earlier smells of pencil shavings and fresh urine were stronger now, almost to the point of reeking. 

“The cedar,” she said and stood from her bed. Her head swooned and she almost fell to her knees. Instead, she braced herself on the bedpost until the wave of dizziness passed. 

The monster screamed, but now she could see him. His clothes were on fire, as was his hair and arms. He swung balled fists at something large and … bird-like; something skeletal that still had a few feathers on its wings. Its beak was like a large talon and it jabbed at the monster.

The bedroom door swung open, the knob striking the wall hard enough to produce a hole and get stuck in the sheetrock. The light came on, flooding the room in a yellow glow. Mrs. Lilla Mae stood in the doorway, the blue top and long gray skirt she wore the day before still on. She didn’t look as if she had been asleep or even laying down. She also didn’t look surprised to see the monster on the floor and the wall bashed in where his body had been slammed into it; his hair burned completely off. She didn’t look surprised to see his skin smoldering, and acrid smoke billowing up from him. She didn’t look surprised to see the odd green and brown skeletal creature that could have been a bird or a lizard with smoking fingers, and its beak nibbling down on the monster. No, she didn’t look surprised at all. The small smile on her face was one of delight and satisfaction.

Rosalie gave the monster with her dad’s face and the other creature a wide berth as she ran to Mrs. Lilla Mae. She hugged the old lady tight, burying her head in her bosom. “What is that … that thing?”

“Nothin’ but the cedar, child. Nothin’ but the cedar.”

“But it’s …”

The ancient woman put her arms around Rosalie, stroked her hair and whispered, “Hush, child. Let the cedar do its job.”

As Rosalie listened to the sound of the monster’s body burning away, and the cedar eating its skin, she could no longer smell the heavy odor of pencil shaving and urine of the cedar. No. It was drowned out with the aroma of sweet tobacco …

AJB

(The image up above of the little girl sleeping and the creature on her bed is the inspiration for this piece. It was written for the Stitched Saturday prompt at the end of 2018.)

 

The Definition of You

Dear Women,

Come in a little closer. I want to talk to you. You men can read this as well, and maybe you should.

For every single woman out there, I want to say: don’t let any man or any standard define you. Yes, that is a two part statement and I will explain. If you have a moment to give me, please continue on.

First, don’t let a man define you. YOU are a person. You don’t need a man to make you whole. You need to believe in you, who you are, what you look like, and what you can achieve. YOUR value is not in the opposite sex. YOUR value is in how you view yourself. YOUR value should never be determined by someone else. 

Female outlines with different figuresWhen you look in the mirror, don’t think about what a man wants you to be. Think about what you want to be. Think about what you can do to make you feel great about yourself. Here’s the thing: if you can’t love yourself when it is just you, then how are you going to love yourself if you get with someone and then they leave?

Some men can make you a better person by building you up when you are down, complimenting you when you need one, and pushing you to be a better person, to take care of who you are. But let’s be honest, a lot of men aren’t going to do that. A lot of men aren’t going to put your needs and your feelings before theirs. (Please note: I said a lot of men, not all men, so for you fellas getting all bent out of shape right now, cool your jets. It will be okay.)

On the same coin, but the opposite side, some men can make you a far worse person because they will tear you down and insult you; some will even beat you down and do horrible things to you. They don’t have a gentle touch and their end goal is to control you. Don’t be with that man. Please, don’t be with that man. If you are with that man, leave him. Yes, I said leave him. You don’t need that in your life.

Second, don’t let a standard define you. Don’t let the standard Hollywood and beauty magazines have set be what defines you. You don’t have to look like any of those models in any of those magazines to love yourself. You don’t have to look like a Barbie doll to be beautiful. The Barbie figure is not attractive at all, in my opinion. You don’t have to be a Kardashian or Jennifer Lopez or Ashley Judd to be beautiful. You have to be you, and you have to love you and you have to have confidence in who you are.

Speaking of confidence: Confidence is the sexiest thing a person can have. When a person is confident, she holds her head high, she smiles, she is not afraid to make eye contact with the opposite sex (or the same sex if that is what she is attracted to). When a person is confident, she wears clothes that make her feel good. And here’s the thing about confidence: you don’t have to be five foot four and weigh a hundred and ten pounds to be confident. You can be six foot ten or four foot ten and three quarters, or weigh three hundred pounds. It doesn’t matter. Confidence is sexy.

Girls, young ladies and women, please don’t look at the magazines or Hollywood actresses and say ‘I wish I looked like that.’ Don’t do it. When you say that, you put yourself down. When you say that, you demean yourself. Don’t do it. Love you. Love every inch of who you are. Love every smooth or blemished part of you. Don’t put yourself down by comparing yourself to someone else. Don’t be someone else. Be you. Love you. Respect you.

I have a beautiful wife, both physically and in personality. She is smart and caring. She is sarcastic and loving. She is attractive and sexy. She is determined and stubborn. She is everything I want and more in a woman. And she doesn’t need me. She doesn’t. She can do everything I can and in many cases, she does them better than I do. 

Over the last six weeks, she has been working hard to lose weight. During that time period, I have watched her confidence in herself grow, and that has nothing to do with me. She wanted to do something for her own benefit. She wanted to do something good for herself. Again, that has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with her loving herself. I listen to her when she talks about what she is doing. It makes me happy to see her happy, so I listen and ask questions. Her confidence is sexy to me. Her confidence makes me smile. It also makes her smile. And that is what matters. 

She doesn’t need me. I’m fortunate she wants me. My point is you don’t need another person to make you love you. You have to love yourself. You have to believe in yourself. You have to have confidence in who you are. It doesn’t matter how tall or short, thin or big you are, what color your hair, your eyes or your skin is. You have to define who you are. No one else can define you unless you let them. Please, love, love, LOVE yourself. 

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

A.J. 

Please … A Short Story

PLEASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still dead. What else would he be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But …

Please. 

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

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

Please. A finger spasmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Final Run-A Short Story

The Final Run

“You’re toast, Jack.” 

____________________

“You wanna run?” the small voice called out. Squinted eyes sat above a perk nose, his lips in a tight line below it.

“Do you ever give up, Lee?”

“Nope,” Lee said, sniffled back nonexistent snot. “So, do you wanna run?”

***

Oh, man, this isn’t good. 

Crashman Jack had seen the lid of the box come off and the two large faces peer in. They were mostly shadows with the light of the hanging sun behind them. He knew what those two faces meant. A run was about to happen. Then he tumbled, head over heels, until he landed on the floor amongst all the other Lego blocks, plenty of them covering him. He tried to push the pieces away, to free himself from beneath the rubble of plastic, but couldn’t.

The least they could have done was put my helmet on.

***

Crashman Jack“I’ve got Crashman,” Lee said and shifted through the brightly colored bricks until he found the Lego figure. He plucked Crashman—a character he had made from Lego figures from other sets—from the pile, and then frowned. “Where’s his helmet?”

“Right here,” Jimmy said, holding it in his palm. 

“Give it to me,” Lee said and reached for it.

Jimmy, the older boy by a couple of years, closed his hand before Lee could get the plastic black helmet. “No. You got to pick the driver. I get to pick the helmet.”

“But that’s Crashman Jack’s helmet.”

“Not this time. I’m giving it to the Terminator.”

***

The Terminator? You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s racing the Terminator?

Crashman turned his head slightly, trying to see the two brothers. He had a good view from where he stood on the floor. Fortunately, Lee, who always chose Crashman, stood him up facing the blocks. The Terminator stood across the room, right next to where Jimmy sat building another monster dragster. He was a “two-block” taller than Crashman, thanks to the added piece to his midsection. Jimmy had also colored his face purple with a marker and drew blood running from his mouth. The Terminator wore Crashman’s helmet.

“You’re toast, Jack,” the Terminator yelled.

Crashman said nothing, but his black line smile creased downward. He turned his head and looked on in horror at the dragster Lee was building. Long thin pieces were connected by other thin pieces. Bricks of fours and eights hung off the frame. Wimpy, small wheels adorned both front and back; there was no tail fin to make the car go straight and no bumper to protect the front of the makeshift dragster. One hit from anything Jimmy built, and the car would explode.

I’m doomed.

Laughter came from across the room. Crashman looked at his opponent. The Terminator’s purple face held a crooked smile; his eyes slits. One black hand was raised near his head.

“Thanks for the helmet, Crashman,” he said. “Not that you’re ever going to need it again. Not after this run.”

This has got to stop.

***

Lee heard something. A whisper, maybe? At first he just shook his head, not sure he heard anything at all. He picked up a flat piece, flipped it over and stopped. The voice came again.

Lee, listen to me, Crashman said. Take apart your car and start over. You’ll never win with that thing. You’ll be wiped out and the Terminator will win … again. He wanted to add, ‘and I’ll lose my head,’ but bit back the words.

Lee shook his head and glanced around the room. Jimmy sat cross-legged near the door, his back to Lee, head down. Lee opened his mouth, clamped it shut. Jimmy wouldn’t have spoken to him—at least not nicely. He never did when they were going to run. Too much was on the line: Legos, helmets, mini-figures and sometimes allowances. No, Jimmy hadn’t spoken, at least not to Lee.

Shaking his head, he looked down at the fragile dragster in front of him. That’s not going to work. I can’t beat Jimmy with a stick dragster. Thoughts of how to build a better car spun in his head.

60053-0000-xx-12-1Bigger wheels for the front; even larger ones for the back; a bumper made of four-block pieces and reinforced by a long flat strip on the front; a cab for Crashman to sit in; a tail fin made with a jet tail; a stronger frame made from a wider flat piece, four spaces across and at least twelve spaces to the rear.

Lee stood, walked over to a shelf and grabbed a second box. 

“What are you doing?” Jimmy asked.

“I need some extra parts,” Lee answered and sat back down with his back to Jimmy. After dumping the spare Legos on the floor, he sorted through them, found what he needed and began to build. After several minutes of agonizing and scrutinizing his creation, Lee picked Crashman up and set him in the seat. 

“We’re not losing this time, Crashman,” he said.

***

I have a steering wheel.

Crashman smiled at his new ride. Never had Lee built anything so sturdy. The front wheels were large, the back ones wide. There were Lego plates criss-crossed along the bottom and top that held larger plates together. The front had a bumper made of black bricks, a smooth flat piece stretching its width. The white jet tail had been placed at the back just in front of two yellow cylinders that Crashman thought were boosters. Along the middle section of the dragster were blocks and cylinders put together to form a motor. He sat in a gray seat, a windshield in front of him. 

And he had a steering wheel.

***

“You ready?” Jimmy asked.

Lee turned and nodded. “Let’s run.”

Jimmy set the timer on the old stove clock his mother had given them. It was their go signal. At the sound of the long beep the boys would release the cars, rolling them to their destination, smashing them into each other. The first car to lose a wheel or a driver was the loser. Lee had never won.

They swept the remaining Legos out of the way and went to either side of the room. They both made car engine noises, Jimmy being much louder than Lee, as always.

Inside the cab of his new car, Crashman peered over the steering wheel, his thin line eyes creased into arrows of determination; a scowl covered his face. He wore no helmet.

Across the way he could see the Terminator, his smug expression replaced with concern.

Raise the stakes, Crashman whispered.

“Winner takes both cars,” Lee said without hesitation. The moment he said it he wanted to take it back. He clamped a hand over his mouth, his eyes wide.

“That’s fine,” Jimmy said. “I need more Legos, anyway.”

The clock beeped and both boys rolled their cars as hard as they could toward each other. 

Crashman held his steering wheel tight as his car propelled forward. Normally, his ride was bumpy, the front tires not high enough off the ground to keep the front end from dragging. This time, the tall wheels left plenty of clearance and the drive was smooth and straight—no chance of Crashman going sideways and getting T-boned. The wind whipped by him, the windshield keeping it mostly out of his face. The collision was violent, probably the most brutal one he had ever been involved in. His car rocked as a piece of the bumper snapped off and he went sideways. The car spun, then flipped over. Several more pieces of Legos popped off, sent soaring through the air. The dragster landed on its side, one back wheel still spinning.

***

Lee let out a scream as he looked down at the car he had created. He had been certain he would win with this one. It was almost as if Crashman had willed this car to him, for him to build … and it had failed. 

***

Crashman lay on the floor, not moving, not blinking. A slight pain danced where his shoulders and head would have been connected. In his plastic Lego back and running through to the front, another pain pulsed. His midsection had broken in half, the legs severed from the torso. Crashman’s eyes focused on his body, on the two broken pieces he could see.

His thin painted eyes focused in on the wreckage of the two cars. Just beyond the carnage lay the severed head of the Terminator. His helmet—Crashman’s helmet—had popped off and lay only inches from the two shattered cars. The Terminator’s scarred head faced him, his mouth a black line, his eyes twin ex’s.

Did I win? he thought and closed his eyes.

When he awoke, he sat on a shelf near Lee’s bed. The room was dark except for a white night light. He turned his head, moved his hands and legs. Though he hurt, his body was in one piece again. And on his head sat his helmet. 

(You can find The Last Run along with 59 other short stories in the massive collection, Beautiful Minds by going here.)

Who Do You See?

On some mornings I go to the post office for my job. It is less than two blocks away and I walk; rain, shine, hot, cold. It’s what you do when your family has one car and you don’t drive to work. I usually get there a couple of minutes before the post office opens.

There are ten people who I would consider regulars at eight in the morning at the post office. They are: Six men. Four women. We all get our mail and go about our business. On the average day, these ten people spend less than five minutes around each other; most of the time, maybe two minutes, tops. 

DiversityI could leave it at six men and four women and it wouldn’t matter to you or really anyone else. But I’m not going to do that. Here is a breakdown of those regulars: three white men, three black men, one white woman, one Asian woman, two black women. No, race doesn’t matter, nor does their gender, but I’m going to try and make a point here. Now you know a little bit about the ten people who show up at the post office at the same time every morning. 

Let’s take it a step further. One of the white men is an older gentleman at almost seventy. He is former military and his voice is monotone. He always wears a VFW hat and he always says ‘good morning,’ and ‘have a great day.’ Another white man is probably around sixty, maybe a tad older and always parks his car in the wrong direction. His hair is jet black (probably dyed) and slicked back with hair gel. He is thin and tall and his shoes always clop hard against the tiled floor of the post office. He rarely speaks. The third white guy, well, that would be me. I guess I am middle-aged now at just under fifty.

The Asian woman is thin and short and wears long skirts and black boots. Occasionally, she wears a pair of black pleated slacks. Her hair is long and black and she is probably a little younger than I am. She is pretty when she smiles, plain when she doesn’t. 

One of the black women drives a white van and is nearing sixty. She has had shoulder surgery and heel surgery within the last year. She always says ‘God bless,’ and she always brings a little hand cart when she comes in. The other black woman is young and pretty and seems to be put together (as in her attitude and how she carries herself). She always wears red lipstick and her eyes are big and brown—one of her best features. She is polite. She also knows she is attractive, but she doesn’t flaunt it. 

The lone white woman is probably my age, maybe a tad younger. She is tall, has brown hair and frowns as if she probably wishes she were a little trimmer. She doesn’t smile often, but just in the last few weeks she has started saying ‘good morning’ to everyone.

One of the black men is slightly built and soft spoken. He is a Christian who always shakes my hand when we cross paths. The second black man works for the Supreme Court and drives a black SUV. He wears a gun on one hip and looks like he could have played defensive end for the Chicago Bears at one time. He always checks out the pretty black lady when she comes in. The last of the group is a black man in his late sixties who works part time in the building attached to the post office. He wears a blue uniform shirt and dark pants every day. He is missing most of his teeth and some folks might say his elevator doesn’t quite go all the way to the top. He always says ‘hey,’ and he laughs a lot. 

Does any of that really matter? Probably not to most people, because, let’s be honest, most people don’t care. Here’s a few questions for you: when you look at someone you don’t know, what do you see? Do you see the color of the person’s skin? The gender? Is your first impression based on the person’s appearance? Here’s an even bigger question: do you take the time to actually see the person? Not their skin color or their gender or the clothes they wear. Do you actually see their faces? Do you actually take the time to see the up or down turn of the lips? Do you see the eyes, if they dazzle or have been dulled by life’s burdens?

Do you see people. 

ALONE.jpgOne of the issues I feel we, as human beings, have, is we don’t see people outside of our own little world. Sure, we see someone, but we don’t take a second or two to consider that the person you see is someone’s child, maybe a brother or sister, mom or dad. That person has feelings and hopes and dreams. That person may be going through something terrible right then. That person may be thinking of someone he or she loves. That person might be just trying to get through a crappy day and all they want is to be home so they can rest. 

One thing I know is this: you can make or break someone’s day. How? Well, saying ‘hello,’ and giving someone a smile. That’s not obligating you to carry on a conversation, but showing someone that you see that person, that that person is not invisible, and so many of us feel invisible, like no one cares. 

You can break a person’s day by ignoring them if they say ‘hey,’ and smile at you, or by saying something bad about them (whether you know them or not). A mean word goes further than a good word. Negativity always overrides positivity. And yeah, it is easier to break someone down than to build someone up. 

[[Side Note: I know the world is a bad place these days and strangers can be dangerous. I’m not saying engage in conversations with strangers. I’m saying, don’t be mean. Don’t be rude. Don’t give a stranger a ride, either, but you can be a good person, a good samaritan, so to speak, by just being nice. End Side Note]]

If you think I am wrong about making and breaking someone’s day, then let me ask you two questions. You can feel free to answer them or not. Have you ever been in a great mood and someone did or said something negative that ruined your entire day? On the flip side, have you been sad or down or in a bad mood and someone did something or said something that cheered you up and brightened your day? 

YOU have the power to make a difference in people’s lives. All you have to do is actually see them. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, gender, sexual preference your they are—what matters is do you see them? I think—thinking here!—that if we, as human beings, would take the time to actually see others for what they are (other human beings), then maybe we’ll be slower to react negatively or say something derogatory or just be rude. Maybe, just maybe, the world can be a kinder place … if we would all just see each other.

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

A.J.

Voices, The Interviews: Danny

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: 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 12

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMShe had not been ready for the final words Lewis said to her before looking down at his leathery hands and seeing tear drops strike the floor between his feet. He takes a deep breath and leans back in his chair. He gives a dismissive wave and shakes his head. He doesn’t have the heart to go any further.

Lisa’s mouth hangs open and she shakes her head from side to side, not knowing what to say. She wants to get up from her seat and give him a hug, but that won’t happen. 

Laughter comes from her right. Mr. Worrywart bends down beside her, his shadowy face just inches from hers. She can smell his fetid breath, feel the heat from it on her cheek and neck. “Way to go there, Lady,” he says in his smooth, sinister voice. “You’ve done went and made him cry.”

Lisa swallows hard. Though she disagrees with him, she also thinks he is right. Lewis was bound to cry at some point between his story and his interview. He doesn’t feel guilt about anything he’s done. He is lonely and had been since he found out his Michelle divorced him while he was in prison. Her questions—her final question—and his answers—his final one, specifically—was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It cracked the dam and tears were bound to flood his face as he thought about being alone for the rest of what was left of his life.

“I didn’t cause this,” she says.

Mr. Worrywort laughs again. “Sure, you didn’t.”

“I didn’t.”

“You didn’t what, Ma’am?”

Lisa turns at the sound of someone else’s voice. The man kneeling in front of her has kind eyes and dark hair, peppered with white streaks. Though his face doesn’t hold a lot of wrinkles, making him appear younger than he probably is, his eyes hold an age and wisdom in them that is unmistakeable. A half smile is on his lips, and Lisa knows instantly he can be a charmer when he wants to be.

“I … umm … I don’t know,” she says. The world around her shrinks a little. Her face grows hot. 

“You look a little upset,” the man says. He glances at Lewis, who has his hands between his knees and his eyes to the floor. “I guess I understand. The old man got a little emotional there.” 

“Yeah, he did.”

“It’s okay, Ma’am. We all have those moments where someone else’s life affects us.”

Lisa smiles, takes a deep breath, smiles and says, “Hello, Danny.”

“Hello.”

“Do you prefer Danny or Coach?”

“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. All the kids called me ‘Coach,’ but no one outside of baseball ever has.”

“Then Danny it is, if that is okay with you?”

“Absolutely.” Danny stands straight, walks to his chair, picks it up by the metal back, and sets it in front of Lisa. He sits down, crosses one ankle over his knee, and places both hands on that ankle. He smiles and nods to her. “Do you have some questions for me, Ma’am?”

“I do.”

Lisa looks down at her notepad, turns the page and reads the one word at the top: COACH. She looks up at Danny and asks the first question. “Being dubbed ‘Coach’ is a respected honor where I’m from. You must have done great things with those kids.”

DSCN1640Danny shrugs in an aww-shucks manner. “I wouldn’t say I did anything great. I just listened to them, their words, their body language. Kids are fairly transparent when they are young so reading them is easy. It’s when they become teens that you really  have to pay attention to what they are saying. Being a coach isn’t about winning. It’s about teaching; it’s about showing these young people how to become young adults and then young men and women and how to respect themselves and others. Show them respect, and they are bound to respect you back.”

“Well, if we can get right to it, how old were you the first time you saw The White?”

Danny rubs his hands together as if he is cold. His brows crinkle as he thinks. “I guess I was in my early teens the first time it happened. I got really sick—bad headache, an odd dazzle in my eyes that were similar to the washed-out spots on old film reels. I was sitting in the dugout. My dad was the head coach of that team. It was the championship game. I remember that easily enough. I had a hit on three at bats and made an error in the top of the inning that got me benched for a defensive replacement. I was pissed. I couldn’t believe my own dad would take me out of the game because I made an error.”

“There was this kid on the other team—his name was Scott Hall—and he was the team’s star. He struck out to end the game. I’ll never forget the look on his face—or the half look, I saw mostly white where the left side of his face should have been. I remember the intense pain bloom behind my eyes. I remember sitting on the dugout’s concrete floor, my head in my hands and crying like a baby. My dad thought I was upset that he benched me. I was, but that wasn’t why I was crying. One look at my eyes and they knew something was wrong.

“We won the game. While everyone else went out for pizza and ice cream, Dad’s treat, I went home and went to bed. Six days later, Scott Hall came up missing. A few years passed, and some kid named Reed Baker decided to dig a hole at the ball park. He found Scott’s body.

“So, I would say that was the first time the White came on. I just didn’t know it.”

“You mentioned thinking it was a migraine. Do you get migraines often?  More specifically, have you been diagnosed with migraines by a doctor?”

“Yeah, clinically the types of migraines I get are called ocular migraines. They start in the eyes and within twenty minutes or so, if I don’t take any medicine, they become full blown explosions in by head. It sucks, and when one comes on, I can never tell if it is the White or just a normal migraine, at least until I see the white wash over someone’s body. Then I know.”

“Can we talk about Coach Davis for a minute?”

“Sure.”

“To be blunt, Coach Davis did not seem like a nice man or a good person. Tell me about why you were so driven to try to save him when you knew trying to save people had not worked in the past.”

DSCN1668“There’s always a first time for everything, right?” Danny pauses. “Peter wasn’t such a bad person. He was just a bad coach. He wanted to win more than anything else. He was a lot like the guy who coached Scott Hall. His name was Barry Windstrom. I don’t remember much about him—I never played for him—but what I do remember is he yelled a lot on the field, but off of it, he was supposedly a kind man, wouldn’t harm anyone. Turns out, he was the person who killed Scott Hall. 

“There was good in Windstrom. There was good in Peter. Most people just didn’t get to see it because they saw his on field antics, specifically on the day he died, and that is what they remember about him. 

“Besides, if I didn’t try, I would have to live with the ‘what if I would have tried to help him?’ thoughts running in my head. Guilt is a horrible thing, and I didn’t want any unnecessary guilt.”

“You were shot for your trouble. You could have been killed. How do you feel about that?”

“How do I feel? Well, it told me to stop waiting around for life to happen. I had spent the majority of my kids’ lives coaching them. My wife divorced me, and I went into a small bout of depression. When I came out the other side of it, I told myself I wouldn’t ever date again. That was a mistake. I let one thing, one person, change how I viewed an important aspect of my life. When I got out of the hospital, I went back to the ball field and sought out an old friend, a team mom, and I stopped wasting time wishing I had married her instead of the woman I chose to be the mother of my children. It gave me an appreciation for life.

“On the other end of that, a good man went to jail. I’m not happy about that.”

“I can’t help but wonder why this manifests as White when other people who report similar, um, abilities describe it differently.  Where do you think this ability to see when people are near death comes from?”

“Head trauma,” Danny says matter-of-factly. “At least for me. A couple of days before I saw Scott Hall, I had been hit by a pitch.” He touches a spot above his left ear. “Right here. I walked it off. That’s what we did back then. Right after the championship game, my parents took me to the doctor. There’s a dent in my skull where the ball hit. The doctor claimed that is where the migraine came from, and I chalk it up as the reason I still have them and why I see the White.”

“That makes sense. Does it frighten you?”

“Every time.”

“So, how do you think you will handle it going forward?”

“The same way I always have. If there is a chance I can help them, maybe alter the course of their life so they don’t die, then I’ll do what I can. It’s a burden, but I have to try, right?”

“I guess so, Coach,” Lisa says. “Thank you for your time.”

“And, Lisa, whatever is there, that voice you are hearing right now, it can’t harm you. It won’t. I think it is scared of you. I think it knows the only way to get to you is to taunt you.”

“Can you see him?” Lisa asks. 

“Oh yeah. But he can’t see you—not the real you. It only sees what you allow it to see.”

With that said, Danny stands, picks up his chair, and takes it back to where he originally sat. He sits, and Lisa turns her attention to the notepad once again.

TO BE CONTINUED …