Church Bells Contest Entry

Currently over at Stitched Smile Publications Magazine’s website, there is a contest going on. There are 5 stories so far, and yes, I wrote one. So, go check them out. Make sure and like and comment on your favorite stories (those count as votes, and no, you do not have to vote for mine) Seriously, like and comment on them. We apprecaite it.

One Step Forward …

Good morning, y’all.

On my Patreon page, One Step Forward, three new posts are up: Part 7 of One Step Forward. Part 7 of the serialized novel, Unbroken Crayons, and Part 1 of a new short story. If you’re a Patreon member, head over, check them out. If you are not a Patreon member, head over, check out the page–there are some posts that are available to nonmembers–and maybe consider joining.

https://www.patreon.com/onestepforward

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

A.J.

Reviews, Reviews, Reviews

If you’ve been following this page for the last 10 years (yes, it has been almost 10 years!), then you know I’m a story teller. I’ve posted a LOT of stories on here over the years. Before I continue, if you have been following this page, even for a day, thank you. I honestly wasn’t sure this page would go that long, and I’m happy it has. 

If you’re a lurker, thank you. If you’re someone who comments, thank you. Just the fact that you are here, is awesome. Now, let’s get down to business.

I’m seeking reviews for my books. Yes, I know, I’m always seeking reviews. What writer isn’t? Over the next few months, I’m going to give away 10 free ebooks of each of my books to 10 people. No, I’m not giving them away all at once. It will be one book at a time, every 2 to 4 weeks. The catch? You have to review the book, and no, not a year from now, but preferably within 6 weeks of receiving the ebook. 

Yes, I am trying to garner some reviews for some of my books that don’t have many. And, yes, I am trying to garner some reviews for my books that also have over 20.

You get a book for free. I get a review. 

If you want to review more than one book, great. Read one. Review it. Request another one. 

Also, the review can go on a personal blog or Goodreads or Amazon, or even here on this site as a comment on the page the book is on (or all of the above). 

I’m thinking of starting with The Forgetful Man’s Disease, one of my favorite stories that a lot of folks haven’t read (but more details on that in the next couple of days).

If you are interested, please comment below and leave me your email address. Again, thank you for being here and your interest in my works.

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

A.J. 

My Oh My

There’s a lot of people struggling these days. Some folks put on that “I got it together” front, but they don’t. They are being strong, if not for themselves, then for someone else. We all know people like that. You may be that person. Others don’t deal with things so stoically and it is so very clear they are struggling. That’s okay. 

I’m reminded of a song that came out, I guess in 1983—I think, so don’t quote me on the date. It was by a band named Slade, and the song was ‘My Oh My.’ Some of you may know a song of theirs made far more popular here in the U.S. by a different band, Quiet Riot and the song was ‘Come on Feel the Noise’ (yes, I know that is not the correct spelling. I changed it on purpose, so no need to point that out). 

Anyway … when I was a kid, maybe 12 or 13, MTV had become a thing. When my brother and I were home with no parents around, we pretty much kept it on MTV. That is where I heard ‘My Oh My’ the first time. I remember thinking how terribly sad it sounded. When that song would come on, I would stop what I was doing and watch the video. I remember the singer walking and singing and looking so lonely. I never wanted to be in that place.

Sadly, like most people, I found myself in that place multiple times, walking down a street, hands shoved into my pockets, head down, dejected, sad, lonely or maybe angry and full of rage. There were a lot of those days. But not a lot of people knew that. 

Back to Slade. I watched the video for ‘My Oh My’ this morning on Youtube. The lyrics, though the same as always, kind of struck me different. 

We all need lovin’, my oh my …

We all need someone to talk to, my oh my …

Those lyrics still strike me as sad. Other lyrics push the bigger meaning of the song, which is you don’t have to do things alone. You don’t have to be strong and stoic. You can ask for help:

You need a shoulder to cry on

Call me, I’ll be standing by.

I can lend a helping hand,

If you ain’t got nothing planned. 

One other thing this song gives: hope. But it’s not just some hope for things to get better. It’s hope with one simple condition:

We can ride the stormy weather

If we ALL get out and try

So let’s all pull together, my oh my.

We need one another, now more than ever. If we want a better future for ourselves, for our children, for our world, then we have to pull together. We can ride the stormy weather if we ALL get out and try. So, today, tomorrow, next week, next year, if you see someone struggling, don’t be quick to judge them, or criticize them. They may be doing the very best they can. They may just need a lending hand, or someone to talk to, or a shoulder to cry on, my oh my.

Love and peace y’all. 

Hi

Hi.

It’s me, A.J. Brown.

I just wanted to pop on here and say hello and give a, hopefully, quick update on things. This shouldn’t take too long.

Type AJ Negative is in it’s tenth year, which absolutely blows my mind. I started this blog/website in June of 2012 as a way to promote my work, get my name out there and connect with readers. There have been times where I have kept the site updated regularly and times where I didn’t. So is the ebb and flow of life and writing. 

I took a six or so month break last year to reevaluate more than just writing, but life in and of itself. Around that time, I really looked at me, at my head space, at what I wanted in life. You could say I was going through a midlife crisis if you want, but I think it was more of learning how to prioritize, well, me. I started a workout program and dropped thirty pounds of fat and found a confidence in myself that had been sorely lacking for years. I felt better and I was able to run again for the first time in twenty years. That was monumental for me.

I got rid of Twitter, which I found to be the most toxic form of social media. I also culled my friend’s list on Facebook from nearly 3800 to about 700 people. Suddenly, a lot of toxicity was gone from my feeds. I removed in person people from my life and had long conversations with other people I did not want to remove. 

And I wrote, but differently than before. I wrote for me, for my enjoyment, without the pressure of needing to get my work published. I wrote some of the best stories in years. I wrote a course on story telling (so if you know someone who might want to learn hot to tell a story … ). Then, after I reached a place where I was happier, I set out into the publishing world again. I put out Five Deaths in September of last year, then GRIM in February of this year. I’ve written an amazing love story and have three books that are interconnected around the theme of love. Talk about stepping outside of your comfort zone.

One thing I had to look at was holding myself accountable. The biggest of those is not making excuses for not doing things, or why I can’t do things. I think most people are in the habit of making excuses. I had to cut that out. I’m still working on it, but for the most part, it’s a habit I have broken.

I also had to look at RIGHT NOW. There is no tomorrow. It is always today because once you reach tomorrow, well, it’s still today. I know, confusing, but the point is don’t put off until tomorrow because tomorrow never arrives and you only have so much time in this world. Do what you want to do in life RIGHT NOW. 

Before I go, I want to talk about Type AJ Negative. I am currently revamping the site. Please, check out the menus and the links, check out the book pages. I’m adding purchase buttons to each book page, so if you’re interested, check back soon and you should be able to purchase directly from my site. If you’ve read my work, comment on those pages, please. I will be adding my social media links, probably in a menu tab as well as a sidebar menu. I’ll also add my Patreon page on here, which I hope you will give it a visit, and maybe subscribe to it. More on that at a later date. 

I am going back to promoting my books and stories and maybe some other writers as well. I’ve been thinking about a WHO AM I kind of thing where I invite other authors on here to talk about themselves and their works. I know some fabulous people in this business. I will still post stories from time to time, but maybe not as much as before. I hope to post more inspirational things as well. 

I hope, even more than all of that, you will stick around for this. 

I have 370 followers. To each one of you, I want to say Thank you. I know, in reality, it’s probably more like thirty people who follow this site regularly. To each of you, a big thank you. If I’m able to bring one person some entertainment and joy into their life with this site, then I’ve done what I set out to do. 

Okay, so this is important. If you follow this site, if you have read this post, can you do me a favor? Yes, please like the post, but more than that, can you leave a comment? Let me know who you are or say hi. If you’ve read my work, tell me about it, tell me if you liked it, hated it, used it to balance a table. 

I’m done for now. I have a lot of work to do, but it is work I am happy to do. I look forward to hearing from you and thank you for reading. Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

Losing …

We lose people in life. Every day, we lose people. Sometimes they leave our lives by moving away, getting other jobs, getting mad and cutting us off. Sometimes … we lose them in death. 

Sometimes people lose us. It happens. We move or get another job or get angry. Or maybe we just lose contact. We mean to get together, say we will, but never do. 

We lose people. It’s the way of life. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it brings a sense of relief. 

We lose people. 

In the end everyone loses everyone else. Again, that’s life.

Sometimes … sometimes we lose ourselves. And that’s the real tragedy. Sometimes we change to fit the needs or desires of others, not because we want to change, but because we want other people to like us and to accept us. We trade our individuality for acceptance. We trade who we are for who someone wants us to be. 

Change is good and bad. For the right reasons, it is good. For the wrong ones, well … you get the picture, right? I don’t have to paint it here for you, right? 

If you make changes for your own betterment, then you’ve either figured out a few things in life or you are on your way to figuring it out, to figuring out who you are as an individual. If these changes are going to make you a happy person, a better version of who you are, then good for you, rock the casbah and all that jazz. But if those changes aren’t going to make you happy, aren’t going to improve your life in some way, and are only because you want to impress or get noticed by others, in the long run, you’re going to be miserable. That’s when you lose yourself. 

Don’t lose yourself—it’s all you truly have in life; who you are, who you want to be, who you will become, and how you will be remembered when the world loses you.

Momentum

I’ve often thought life is about momentum.  Think about it. If you roll a ball down a hill,  it gains speed, it picks up momentum. If it picks up enough speed,  enough momentum,  then when it reaches the bottom of the hill and starts up the next hill,  it can make it to the top of that hill. 

The problem is so often we build momentum in the wrong direction.  Something doesn’t work out for some reason and we’re ready to give up. Life throws us a curve ball and we swing and miss. Enough of those swings and misses and we start getting down on ourselves.  We start questioning our self worth, we start questioning our dreams … we start giving up,  not just on our dreams but on ourselves. There’s no worse feeling than giving up on yourself. 

You might be at the bottom of a hill right now and looking up at an impossible mountain to climb.  You might feel defeated right now.  Your self worth might have taken such a beating from life, from people,  from yourself that you have either given up on YOU or are close to it. 

I’ve often talked about small goals,  attainable goals and how reaching a big goal is like taking baby steps.  You have to roll over to get on all fours. Then you have to put one hand in front of you,  move one leg forward.  Eventually, you’ll be crawling,  building momentum so you can, eventually,  walk,  then run. You have to take that first step before you can do anything. 

Whatever is hindering you right now has momentum in your life.  You have to reverse that negative momentum and create positive momentum for yourself. But this didn’t work out before.  But I  can’t afford to.  But I  don’t know how.  But I can’t … 

Stop making excuses for why you can’t do something . When you make excuses you don’t even give yourself a chance to gain momentum and put yourself in a better position. 

But what will people think? Who cares? In order to gain momentum,  you have to prioritize YOU. Anyone who tells you not to chase your goals and dreams or belittles you for trying doesn’t have your best interests in mind,  and probably shouldn’t be part of your life. 

You’ve all heard me say this before but you have one shot at this life. Don’t regret not trying. Get off your back,  roll over,  start creating momentum,  one small goal at a time. Climb that hill. 

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

A.J.

The Rainbow Bridge

She takes a rose with her each time she crosses the bridge that separates one part of the world with another. Today it is bright red, the petals full and thick, its fragrance like Heaven to the senses. She holds a purple umbrella over her head. The clouds are grey, verging on black, threatening stormy weather. The breeze fluffs her brown hair, carrying the promise the clouds have made to her. Her dress billows up and falls back around her legs. 

The toes of her shoes touch the edge of the bridge. She stares ahead at the arched bridge, at the way the stones that construct it shine like black glass. The odd white light that passes through the gray clouds twinkle like stars in a night sky on the stones, reflecting back a prism of bright colors. The rails are wrought iron and black and smooth like marble. There is no flaking paint, no dirt on the stones, nothing to mark a passage of time. 

Here, she slips out of her shoes. They are no more than old pair that has seen far better days, but she hates the click and clack of the heels on the hard stone. She steps onto the bridge, the rose in one hand, her umbrella over her head. The rains will come, but not for a while, not until she is done. At least, she hopes.

The stone is cool under her feet. Shivers run up her legs and into her tailbone. With her head held high, she crosses. With each passing step, the stones’ colors change, from black to reds, to indigos and purples, to greens and yellows and oranges, the colors of rainbows. Halfway to the other side, she stops near the railing to her right and looks out at a world that appears unblemished. Clear blue water flows below. On the bank are tall trees that seemed to stretch into the Heavens. 

A cool breeze blows through her, ruffling her hair and dress. Another shiver follows, this time it’s a full body experience. She steps back into the center of the bridge and continues. 


From where she is, she can see the other side. A dirt path leads from the bridge, bright green grass growing up on either side of it. Trees, not as tall as the ones by the river, stand tall, their leaves green, their bark healthy shades of brown. She’s always liked that side of the bridge, where the grass is truly greener and the world …

She shakes her head and continues on. 

Thirty feet from the end of the bridge, a little girl appears. Her blonde hair is in pigtails, each one dangling by the sides of her head. She has a broad smile on her face that reveals a missing front tooth. Dimples accentuate each cheek and her eyes are a dazzling blue. She wears a pink dress that has pockets on either side of her small hips, but no socks or shoes. 

There are no clouds here, no threatening storms and no breeze to lift her hair or skirt or even pull on her umbrella. There is the sun and there is warmth.

“Good day,” the little girl says and curtsies. 

“Good day,” she repeats back, then extends the rose.

The little girl takes it. “Just the one?”

She nods. “Yes, thankfully.” Or, maybe not. It just depends on how you see things. For her, this could be good, but so often, in so many other cases, it is not. She usually only brings two or three roses, but sometimes she brings half a dozen. Only once has she brought more than ten. On that day her heart hurt as if it had been cut out. That feeling stayed with her all the way until she reached this point, this spot on the bridge. After she would smile, knowing the worst was over, but … 

“Okay.” The girl said. “One it is. He or she?”

“He.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s coming. He’s a bit older than most.”

“A natural?”

“Yes.” She was thankful for this. She didn’t have very many naturals these days.

The girl sets the rose on the ground, it’s red somehow more vibrant on that side of the bridge, somehow more alive. She reaches into one of the pockets and pulls out a brown object, shaped like a bone. “This is for him.”

“I’m sure he will like it,” she says and takes the bone. She turns, her smile somewhat forced. “Here, Boy,” she calls, kneels and holds the bone out at arm’s length, and she waits.

Half a minute passes before she sees him, a tan lab with floppy ears. He’s thinner than he should be for an animal almost twenty in age. His fur is thinner than it was when he was younger. He walks with a limping gate. It’s painful to watch, but not the way some of the others are, those who were struck by cars or killed by their owners or by other dogs. Those are the ones that hurt her heart the most, that make this part so painful. This one, this sweet lab who lived a good life, one where he didn’t fear his owner, but loved him, one where there were no fights or a car that rolled up over him, one where death came naturally as he lay his head in his owner’s lap, his head being petted, this one doesn’t hurt her as much.

His nails click clack on the surface of the stones, much like a pair of heels would a hard floor or concrete. He stops in front of her, his head up, his tail still. He looks exhausted from the walk.

“Here you go,” she says. The dog takes the bone in his mouth but doesn’t chomp down on it. “Good boy.” She pets his fur, feeling the bones beneath.

“Come,” the little girl says. 


The dog looks up at the woman who brought him here, then he steps slowly off the bridge and over the rose lying on the ground. The rose’s bright red petals and green leaves slowly wither until the stem is a dark brown and the petals and leaves are brittle and black. The dog’s pelt grows thick. Meat forms on bones and the limp he had crossing the bridge is no longer there. He sits at the girl’s feet. She pets him and his tail strikes the ground hard.

The girl looks up at the woman. “It’s time to go.”

“I know.” She let’s out a deep breath. “If you don’t mind, I would like to stay a while longer.”

“I don’t mind.”

The little girl turns. She taps her leg with her right hand, “Come,” she says to the dog.

The dog stands, falls in line beside the girl and they begin to walk up the path away from the bridge. 

“Bye,” the woman says.

As if he heard her, the dog stops and looks back. His tail wags fast. 

She waves and the dog turns around to follow the little girl. They disappear into the trees, leaving her on the edge of the bridge by herself. She fights back tears.

It takes a minute, but she finally turns and begins her trek back to the other side of the rainbow bridge. There are other puppies and dogs that need safe travel to the afterlife, others far less fortunate than the one she just walked across with. 

Halfway across the bridge, a breeze cuts through her and she shivers. The clouds are darker than before. She sees the world on the other side. It’s trees are bent and branches lay on the ground. The grass is gray and high, and the path is lined with rocks and roots. It’s a dangerous world, one she wishes not to go back to. A mournful howl beckons her on. Her shoulders slump. She fears this one isn’t so fortunate. With tears in her eyes, she hurries across the bridge.

As she slips on her shoes, it begins to rain. She lifts her umbrella over her head and steps back into the world of the living.

____________________

I started this story in November of 2018. I wrote two paragraphs, maybe a little over a hundred words and had no clue where this story was meant to go. I saved the document with the title, UNTITLED 4. A little while later, I moved the story to a folder titled, UNFINISHED STORIES. I don’t delete any story I start. Ever. I save them and if I don’t end up working on them, I moved them to that folder in hopes of one day coming back, seeing the words and thinking it would be great if I finished it. 

That was the case for this UNTITLED 4. 

I wasn’t looking for this particular story, but something else, a story I thought I might know how to complete. I couldn’t remember what I called it, so I started going through files. Near the bottom of the UNFINISHED STORIES folder are all the untitled pieces. I opened the first three, didn’t find what I was looking for, then opened UNTITLED 4. I read the two paragraphs and thought, Where was I going with this piece? I honestly, have no clue where the story was supposed to go, but I liked the girl with the umbrella and rose and I wanted to know why she kicked her shoes off. 

I moved the story to my desktop and the next day, I opened it, read the two paragraphs half a dozen times. There had to be some significance to four things in the first two paragraphs. They are:

Why was she carrying a rose? What is it’s purpose?

Why was she carrying an umbrella?

There had to be a reason the bridge was pristine. What is that reason?

Finally, why does she take her shoes off? I believed there had to be an emotional connection to that final question. It turns out, there really was.

As I reread the words, my brain started clicking. The stones shimmer with the sunlight. What if … what if the sunlight created a prism of colors that shone off the stones? Then, my brain latched onto the thought of a rainbow bridge. And I knew the story. I still didn’t know the purpose of the rose, but I knew immediately the woman was a sort of grim reaper for dogs and she was ushering one or many dogs into the afterlife, to a place where they can run in the sun with no fears of an angry owner, no cars to hit them and no age to make wither them away. 

I’m normally a fairly fast writer, but this story, though less than 1400 words in length, went painstakingly slow. It’s as if the story wanted me to feel the pain of losing an animal. That brings me to the tan lab. When I met my wife, she had a tan lab named, Sugar. He was smart and sweet. A few years passed and Sugar grew sick. If I remember correctly, he had Cancer and Cate’s brother made one of the toughest, most heartbreaking decisions of his life. In January of 2009, Sugar was, mercifully, put to rest. My brother-in-law was with him to the end. That evening I helped him bury Sugar. He cried. I cried. I wrote a story titled, Farewell Old Friend, the day after we buried Sugar. It was one of the more difficult pieces I have ever written. I might post it here one day. 

This is what I thought about as I wrote about the dog crossing the bridge. For me, this is what I hope happens for dogs as they cross the Rainbow Bridge, they become whole again. 

The rose was the key to becoming whole again. When the dog steps over the rose, he absorbed whatever life had been in it and it restored him to his healthiest. That is why the rose withered and died.

That brings me to the ending of this piece, with her crossing back the way she came. The scenery on the side where the dog was ushered to is a paradise, a dream, a Heaven. But on the other side, the world is gray and dismal and dangerous … and stormy. It is a sad place, a place she never wants to return to but has to. And she puts her shoes back on, the shoes that remind her of paw nails tapping on the stone bridge, and she steps into the gray, bleak world of the living, and into rain. 

I hope you enjoyed this piece, if you can call it ‘enjoyed.’ I hope it moved you and I hope you will take a minute and let me know and share it with others. 

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

A.J.

GRIM Cover Reveal

I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of amazing people in this business. One of those people is Lisa Vasquez, writer, publisher, cover artist. She’s a do it all type of person. She’s also a close friend. 

When I started putting together my latest collection, I went to her and asked if she would create the cover. After she agreed to do it, we both started looking for images. I found one, then another, then a third. Then I saw the image that would become the cover and I knew it was the one. It wasn’t quite love at first sight, but it was definitely an ‘Oh my,” moment. 


A funny thing happened. Lisa came across the same image and sent it to me. I actually laughed out loud. Is it fate? I don’t know, but what are the odds both of us would pick the same image for the cover? Okay, so it’s fate.

Here it is, the cover for GRIM, my new short story collection centered around the Grim Reaper, slated for a late February release.

This cover has quickly became my favorite of any of my books. I absolutely love the way Lisa blended the title with the colors of the image. She also added From the author of Cory’s Way and Dredging Up Memories. It’s a nice touch.

I’ll have more information later this week, but for now, thank you for stopping by and allowing me to share the cover with you. I hope you’re as intrigued and excited as I am.

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

A.J.

Broken Shells

A few years ago, I wrote a story titled, Broken Shells. (Brief spoiler coming) In it a teenaged boy who recounts the last night he saw the girl he loved and how he believed it was his fault she died. It’s a terribly sad piece about how things are viewed as ugly or beautiful, how people are viewed in that same manner. 

I wrote the story one night around Thanksgiving of 2013. That year we went to Folly Beach for Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. It was insanely cold during the day and even colder at night. We went out one afternoon, braving the cold and the wind that whipped around us. As we walked, I did what I always do: look for shells. I came across this shell that was nothing more than a fragment. It’s edges were purple and faded into pink. I almost threw it back, then stopped. It wasn’t a full shell, but it was beautiful, probably one the prettiest shells I’ve ever seen.

That’s when the story began to take shape. You see, beauty can be found in anything if you look for it. It’s what the main character of the story didn’t know, but what Mazzy did. I tucked the shell into my coat pocket and wrote the story shortly after.

Fast forward to the end of 2021. Cate and I return to Folly Beach on a warm day shortly after Christmas. We walk the beach for a couple of hours. At one point, we pass these driftwood trees to our right. Cate had seen them on one of her prior trips earlier in the year and she wanted to show me. She takes me to this tree, one with all these half shells attached to it with twine or string or anything that people could find. Up a little high, as if it were the star on top of a Christmas tree, was a starfish with some words written on it. She took a few pictures and we left. But a seed had been planted. Now, all I had to do was water it.

That night, I sat at my laptop and wrote the story, Forever Broken, Forever Beautiful. It takes place five years after Broken Shells. It deals with the guilt of poorly chosen words and the perceived results of those words. Below are those two stories. I hope you enjoy them.

As always, until we meet again, be kind to one another and keep taking one step forward. It’s the only way you get anywhere.

A.J.

Broken Shells (2013)

Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach. I thought she was crazy. I’ve always thought she was a little nuts, but this time, she was taking it to a new level. It was bitter cold—twenty-six degrees—and it was well after noon, so the temperature wasn’t going to rise much, if any. The sun was as high in the sky as it would go before making its descent back the other way. The wind blew off the ocean, dropping the temperature another ten or so degrees. We had tried the beach before lunch, but the gust whipped her blond hair about her head. It cut through my coat and sweater and the T beneath it. It made my face hurt and my nose run and my body like ice. We gave up then after only a few minutes.

Still, Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach.

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to look for shells.”

“Shells?”

“Yes. Seashells.”

“I know what you mean. Why do you want to look for them now?”

“We can add them to your collection.”

With that, I donned my long shirt, my sweater and jacket. She pulled on only a thin coat, not enough to keep the chill from her skin, much less the wind off her bones.

“You’ll be cold,” I said.

She regarded me with pale blue eyes that hid a truth in them I didn’t see right away.

It didn’t take long to get to the beach. It was a block from the house her parents rented. My hands shoved deep into jean pockets, I still shivered, even with the layers I wore. Mazzy gave no indication she was cold at all.

Clouds rolled in, brought by the wind. A threat of sleet or ice hung in the air. 

“We shouldn’t stay out long,” I said.

“You can go back,” she remarked, knowing I wouldn’t leave her.

For the next two hours we picked up shells to add to a collection I had started years before, when I was only a child of six. I picked up one with frozen fingers, dropped it back to the sand, and plucked it up again. By then the sun was setting behind the darkened clouds, giving the clouds a purple hue. I stared at the shell for a moment, before flipping it into the incoming tide. 

“Why do you throw back the broken ones?” Mazzy asked. In her hand she held a curved piece of a conch shell—it was just a piece, and nothing more. 

“It’s broken—it’s not worth anything.”

Again, she regarded me with those pale blue eyes. They were sadder than I had ever seen. She held up her piece, turned it over in her hand. “Is that how you see them? Just broken pieces that have no meaning. Pieces so insignificant you can’t see the beauty in them?”

“There is no beauty in broken things.”

She frowned, looked down and whispered, “A shell is like a life—fragile and easily broken. Each one should be looked at for what it is: once something beautiful before the world destroyed it, before people destroyed it.” She dropped the broken shell and turned away from me.

I wanted to chase after her, but I couldn’t. Even if it had been a hot sunny day, my legs would not have moved, and my voice couldn’t be bothered to speak up when I needed it to most. 

I looked to the sand. The piece of shell was there. I bent, picked it up and had a hard time standing upright, thanks to the cold that had seeped into my bones. With the dying sun sinking further into the horizon, I caught a glimpse of the purple edge of the shell, the way it turned red, then pink. It was a beautiful fragment of something much larger. It was like Mazzy, and right then I understood her grief.

Life had been cruel to her, but she kept going, kept putting one foot in front of the other. At least until then. 

“Mazzy,” I called, but she was gone. I looked up the beach in the direction she had gone but didn’t see her. I saw shoe prints in the sand that led to the water. You can figure it out from there, right? I don’t need to go into all the details of how I called her name until I was hoarse, or how I ran into the water up to my knees, even as the tide rolled in harder and harder, pushed along by the bellowing wind, or how her body washed up on the shore three days later, bloated and blue and nipped at by hungry fish, or how I cried until no more tears would come, and still, my heart lay shattered in millions of tiny pieces. Or do I?

All that really matters is Mazzy is dead, and I can’t help but believe part of it is my fault. The words I said echo in my skull, haunting me daily, keeping me awake until the early hours of morning. 

There is no beauty in broken things.

I was wrong. 

Mazzy was a broken shell, but she was beautiful in her own special way.

I once had a collection of seashells. They were whole and carefully cleaned and sat in boxes in my closet. They were beautiful. They still sit in their boxes, but I haven’t added any to them since Mazzy left. Now, I walk the beach in search of the beauty of broken shells …

Forever Broken, Forever Beautiful (2021)

It’s warm today, even for mid-November. The last time I was here, it was bitterly cold, in the mid-twenties and with a wind coming off the ocean that made it feel like it was below freezing. That was five years ago. Five. Years. Ago.

I can only shake my head at that. 

I left my car in the gravel parking lot. Four years ago, this part of the beach had been wiped out thanks to Hurricane Andrew. The parking lot had been just a dirt road that dead ended at a small building with two changing rooms—one for women, one for men. A sandy path led from the building to the beach; a thin slat fence kept people from going onto the dunes. Now, there’s a building with four ramps leading up, up, up to changing rooms and bathrooms. There is even a deck area with nice wooden tables you can sit at and look out at the ocean. It’s a beautiful view from there. 

Mazzy would have thought it was neat, maybe interesting, but beautiful? I’m not so sure. 

The ramps lead to a long boardwalk that takes you right onto the beach. Real guard rails keep people off the dunes. 

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

I look to my right. Kimberly stands there. Her light brown hair moves with the slight breeze. There is concern in her hazel eyes and written all over her face. She holds a small paper bag with both hands in front of her. She’s a good person, my friend, my heart. She’s understanding, and in so many ways, I don’t deserve her. She knows Mazzy no longer had my heart, but a big part of me still missed her … still mourned her. She knows that, too.

“Not really,” I reply. “But I need to do this. I need to put this behind me. If not now, when?”

She nods. It’s a sweet gesture of pure understanding. She also knows this is as much for her as it is for me. We can’t go on until this is done. 

We walk, not quite side by side. She’s a little ahead of me, and I’m okay with that. She can’t see the anxiousness on my face that way. We go up the ramps and to the boardwalk, where the view is absolutely breathtaking. The tide is coming in and the whitecaps roll along the shore. There are a handful of people on the beach. We stand there for a few minutes, then walk down the boardwalk to the beach. There are three steps that lead to the sand. She goes down. I stop. 

“Are you okay?” she asks after taking a few steps and realizing I’m not there with her. 

I take a deep breath, swallow the nothing in my mouth and nod. I’m not okay, but I hope … I hope, soon, I will be.

Kimberly walks back to the steps and reaches out to me. Her nails are light purple and seem to shimmer in the sunlight. “I’ll be right beside you the whole way. Just take my hand.”

I take the three steps down to the sand and grab her hand. It’s warm and soft and everything I need to go forward.

To the left are a row of houses that span about a mile, then a hotel that seems to extend forever. Just beyond that is the pier loves stand on and grumpy men fish from. To the right is just beach. No houses. No hotels. Just beach. We go right. 

There are less people in this direction than the other, mostly out of towners from up north who probably didn’t expect it to be in the upper sixties down south this late in the year. What they don’t know is this is typical South Carolina weather. Today it’s upper sixties, tomorrow it might be lower thirties. Stick around a few days and you can experience all four seasons in less than a week. 

Neither of us speak as we walk along. I try not to look at the ground, at the broken seashells that dot the sand. To the right a few small trees have grown up on this side of the dunes. They look like nothing more than driftwood that sprouted roots and grew into the ground. 

Then I see what I’m looking for. It’s still over fifty yards away. One of those driftwood trees stands by itself. It has no real branches and it looks like it could be a wooden person standing there with two arms extended out and a pointy head separating them. Part of me thought the tree would be gone, pulled into the ocean when Hurricane Andrew blew through, but there it stands. And what lies beyond it is our destination. 

I squeeze Kimberly’s hand. She squeezes mine back. 

We approach the tree. About ten yards from it, we stop. Just beyond the driftwood tree is another bank of smaller trees, these with dozens and dozens of limbs. One, in particular, calls to me.

“Is that it?” Kimberly asks.

“Yes.”

For at least a minute, maybe two, we stand there, staring at the tree.

“Are you okay?” 

I’m not. “Yes,” I lie. She knows. 

I release her hand and take a few tentative steps. I pass the driftwood tree that could be a wooden person and stop in front of one that could have been a bush at one time. Like the driftwood tree, I half hoped it had been swept away. Its branches have no leaves. It holds seashells, put there by people over the years, memories of loved ones or important moments. Most of the shells are gray or white, just boring things that, at one time, I would have thought were ugly and not all that special. I was wrong then. Each of those bland shells means something to someone.

“Here,” Kimberly says and holds out the small paper bag. 

“Thanks,” I say and take it. I open it. Inside is a piece of a shell—something I once thought was insignificant. I reach inside, pull out the shell. It’s the curved piece of a conch shell. It’s white and pink and when the light reflects off it, the pink looks purple. Once upon a time, I would have tossed it back—in fact, I had, five years before, on a frigid November night when the temperatures were anything but warm. Mazzy had picked it up and regarded it with terribly sad eyes. 

“There is no beauty in broken things,” I said that night. I’ve lived with the guilt of those seven words ever since. Mazzy considered herself broken, even at sixteen, with what should have been her entire life before her. She looked at the shell and spoke about broken things and humanity and dropped it back to the ground. Then, as I bent to pick it up, she walked into that icy ocean. Her body washed up on the shore three days later. It may have washed up sooner, but she wasn’t found until three days passed. 

And I haven’t been the same since.

Last night I drilled a hole in the thick end of the shell. I ran a zip tie through the hole and connected the two ends, creating a loop. I wrote on it in tiny print, Mazzy. Forever Broken. Forever Beautiful. Forever loved. This morning, Kimberly put it in the small bag. Now, I hold it in my hands. The sun shines off it, making the pink a beautiful purple. 

I lick my lips and swallow hard. My chest tightens and I struggle to breathe. Finally, I hand the bag to Kimberly and take the few steps to the tree. There is a shell on one branch that someone—either Rochelle or Augustus wrote the words: Rochelle and Augustus 4 Ever 11/02/2021. There’s a dried out starfish on the top someone wrote a bunch of words on that I can’t read it. I guess it represents the star on the top of a Christmas tree. Maybe.

I hold the shell up by the zip tie, turn it over and read what I wrote. Mazzy. Forever Broken. Forever Beautiful. Forever loved. 

I slip the ornament on a branch not too far below the starfish and pull the end of the zip tie, tightening the loop and securing the shell in place. 

“I’m sorry, Mazzy,” I say as tears fill my eyes. “I miss you.”

I lower my head, take a deep breath. The floodgate breaks and I can do nothing to keep from sobbing. A warm hand touches my back, then I turn. Kimberly’s arms go around me, pull me into her. One hand goes onto the back of my head when I lower it into her shoulder.

We stay like that for a while, until I have cried my tears out, until I have wet the shoulder of her shirt. Not once did she remove her arms from around me. Not once did she tell me I needed to grow up or get over it or anything else along those lines. I said I didn’t deserve her. I don’t. 

Then I hear it, a soft voice. Not Kimberly’s but Mazzy’s. Two words. That’s all.

It’s okay.

I look up. I pull away from Kimberly and turn around. The sun shines off Mazzy’s shell and I see that beautiful purple. A soft breeze blows through the branches and the sun catches the shell. The pink and purple and white glisten and seem to wink at me. I smile. It’s nothing much, but still a smile. 

“Thank you,” I whisper. 

I wipe my eyes and take a deep breath. For the first time in five years, I feel light; the weight of guilt lifted from my shoulders. I turn around. Kimberly stands in front of me, her eyes full of her own tears.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

I nod. “Yes.” It’s the truth this time. She knows it.