Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

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

SESSION 6

Lisa takes a deep breath. She has taken quite a few of them through these interviews. She glances down at her notepad and realizes she is only a third of the way through them. She flips the page. The heading at the top simply says “B” in her looping script. The questions are straight forward, but when she turns to her right she sees the young blonde with the wavy hair and blue eyes. She doesn’t appear nervous or even sad like everyone else in the room. She is not angry and Lisa believes if this young lady smiles it will light the room up. 

“Hello, B,” she says.

She is right. The young blonde smiles. It’s not much, but it is radiant. “Hi.”

“Is it just B or would you care to share your name?”

“I go by B only with my boyfriend. It’s kind of our thing. My real name is Becka, as in Rebecca. I really don’t like Rebecca, so Becka to my friends and B to my love.”

“Can I call you Becka?”

“Sure.”

She’s confident, Lisa thinks. More than I thought she would be. This relaxes Lisa a little. After the previous discussion with Jeddy and Mr. Worrywort’s appearance she is still a little shaken. 

“Should we get into this?”

“Sure.”

“You lost a friend.”

“A couple, actually. Dorian and Robert.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMBecka tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. Though she still seems confident and at ease, Lisa sees the slight change in how she sits. Her shoulders slump and she rubs her hands on her jeans.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Becka says. “It’s not your fault.”

“I’ve lost friends myself, so I won’t presume upon your grief.  But … I would like it if you told me about the guilt.”

Now Becka’s demeanor changes a little more. She leans forward in her seat, puts her feet on the bar beneath it as if she is a bird perched on a limb. She rubs her hands together and then looks at the palm of her left hand. 

“Dorian was my best friend.” She smiles. Her eyes hold the distant stare of remembrance. “I met her when I was knee high to a grasshopper, as my grandfather would put it.” She holds her hand down around her ankles as a visual. “We did everything together. You know, thick as thieves. That’s another thing my grandfather said about us. ‘Y’all are thick as thieves.’”

A tear trickles from one eye. She wipes it away, sniffles and continues. 

“I guess I thought we would grow old together. Not just me and H, but Dorian and Robert. We were going to get houses in the same town and we were going to hang out on the weekends and we would be parents together, them watching our little ones and us watching theirs.” 

The breath she releases holds all the sadness her demeanor didn’t show minutes before. 

“We would have been the little old ladies in the knee high socks sitting around playing bingo on Friday nights in one of those parlors where old fogies mingle and compete for a handful of dollars.”

She laughs, wipes away more tears.

“I guess … I guess being there when Dorian died …” her breath hitches and she swallows it down. “And then, you know, Robert … Robert … doing what he did. I guess the guilt was worse for him. He loved her so much. I can’t imagine losing H and trying to carry on with life. I guess that’s why he did what he did.”

She’s nodding as if she is finished with the answer. Lisa waits a couple of seconds. Becka wipes a few more tears from her face.

“You aren’t responsible for what happened.” Lisa hears the words come from her lips and almost shakes her head. She knows how Becka feels—at least she has a very good idea. Experience gives you a clue on the grief life throws at others. She pushes the thought aside. then realizes she knows the answer to the next question. She asks it anyway. “What makes you feel guilt over something you didn’t do?”

She shrugs. Her hands are now between her knees, clasped together like a little girl who has lost her favorite doll. “I was there. We had been drinking. We were all underage. If we weren’t drinking, Dorian doesn’t die and Robert doesn’t kill himself. I participated in my best friend’s death. I might not have held her head under the water, but I didn’t say no to drinking at the river and I didn’t stop her when I saw she was drinking way too much. H tried to intervene, but Robert got mad. I keep thinking if I would have just taken Dorian’s hand and said ‘no more alcohol for you, young lady,’ then she would still be alive and Robert would be too and life would have been hunky dory.”

Lisa looks down at the yellow notepad in her lap. The next question holds her attention. She goes to ask it, then stops. Her heart sinks into her stomach. Hazy memories of friends who have passed on, either by natural causes, accident or their own hands, surface. She can still see their faces, still hear their voices, still see things they did. She feels the tears form in her eyes. 

You don’t want to ask that question, Lisa.

I have to.

Oh come on. You know you don’t have to do anything.

I have to.

No one is holding a gun to your head … or holding your head under the water.

There is something in the voice that makes her sit up. She looks directly at Becka and she knows immediately Mr. Worrywort is there again. This time she feels the anger rise up faster than before. Or holding your head under the water … It’s a dig he couldn’t resist. The devil on her shoulder smirks. She wants to smirk back, but isn’t sure she can. The sadness tugs harder on her heart and she wants to cry, not for herself, but for her lost friends. She believes that is probably how Becka felt—feels—about her lost friends.

She hears a soft laugh. Mr. Worrywort is enjoying himself. She thinks her heart will explode if she holds this next question in. 

It’s best to talk, she thinks. One of the reasons so many people don’t come out of depression is they don’t think they can talk about things. 

She looks at Becka and feels the need to ask the question grow stronger, even as Mr. Worrywort laughs at her, believing she can’t, or won’t, ask it.

“Becka, did you ever think about suicide? Like Robert?”

She looks up from her hands and shakes her head from side to side. “No. Never.”

“Never?”

“Never. I’ve seen what it does to the people left behind. I can’t speak for other people, but for me, that’s not the solution to the problem. I’m not even sure the problem would be how I feel about what happened with Dorian and Robert. I think my sadness was a symptom of the problem. If you only treat the symptom without trying to pull the root from the ground, then it just keeps rolling. It’s a cycle. Dorian died. Robert killed himself because he never allowed himself to truly grieve. He blamed himself for her death just like I did and and just like H did when Robert died. If I would have committed suicide when Dorian died, what would that have done to H? Would that have sent him into a worse depression than he experienced, especially after Robert did that very thing? What about my parents or my baby sister? What would me doing that do to them? I’d much rather not think about those possibilities.”

Lisa tilts her head. Mr. Worryrwort’s laughter ceases. She can feel him sulking. She knows now that he is there, in her, just as Jeddy said earlier. But for now, Becka has quieted him. She looks down at the last question on the notepad and smiles.

“Your remembrance ceremony for Dorian and Robert was beautiful. Your idea?”

“Oh no. That was all H’s. He is a viking at heart and thought a funeral pyre would be a fitting tribute to his best friend. You know, send him out in a blaze of glory.”

Lisa nods. There is a smile on her face. She likes Becka and she can see why H would as well. She says, ?I’m very sorry for your loss,” and moves on to the next page in her notepad. 

To be continued …

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SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

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

SESSION 5

He sits in the seat next to where Spencer sat earlier. One leg is stretched out in front of him, while the other one is bent at the knee and bouncing up and down. He wears a pair of biballs that has seen better days. The white shirt beneath the biballs has a brown stain on it that might have been red at one time, possibly spaghetti sauce or chili. His hair is thinning and it appears to Lisa that life might have been rough on him when he was younger. 

“Jed …” she says.

The man looks up. His eyes are brown and his lips are thin. 

“Or do you prefer Jeddy?”

“It’s Jeddy, ma’am,” he says.

“Hello, Jeddy. How are you today?”

“I reckon I’m all right, Ma’am. I hope you are, too.”

“I am, thank you.”

Troy Black StormsJeddy nods. His long fingers are folded neatly in his lap, even as the one leg bobs up and down nervously. He licks his lips, sniffles, licks his lips again. 

“I’m going to ask you a few questions, Jeddy. Is that okay?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I reckon so.”

“You witnessed something extraordinary. I would like to talk about it with you if that’s alright?”

“What was extra-or-dinar … extra-or-dinar …” He shakes his head in clear frustration. “What is it, Ma’am?”

“Extraordinary. It means something out of this world, something most people don’t ever get to see.”

“You mean like that thing that took Mary Marie away from me?”

Lisa smiles, but she feels no joy in the expression. She knows this could be a touchy subject for him, just like each of the other characters have their touchy subjects. But she also knows—well, maybe not knows, but believes—he will answer her questions anyway.

“Yes, like the thing that took Mary Marie. You saw something …”

“I saw the devil, Ma’am. That’s what that thing was. That thing … that thing that took Mary Marie, it took Momma, too, and who knows how many other people?”

“Speaking of your Momma, why didn’t you tell anyone that your mother and Aunt Louisa had passed away?”

“They didn’t pass away, Ma’am.”

“They didn’t?”

“No, Ma’am. They didn’t.”

“Then what happened to them?”

Jeddy shakes his head demonstratively, showing disgust in Lisa’s not understanding, or his perception of her not understanding.

“They were taken, Ma’am. Taken … by that thing. That demon.”

Tread carefully, Lisa, she thinks. Jeddy has the aggravated sound of a toddler wanting candy and a politically obsessive individual raving about the most recent candidate for garbage collector. The edge in his voice might still hold enough respect with the ‘ma’am,’ but Lisa knows sometimes that respect is as false as that politician’s promises to get all the garbage out of our county. To go with the edgy respect is this man is a  country bumpkin with, what Lisa believes, a more obsessive religious point of view. She takes a shallow breath, releases it.

“Jeddy, is it possible that thing was an angel and your momma and Aunt Louisa and Mary Marie were just taken up into Heaven?”

The color drains from Jeddy’s face. Though it is already long and thin it seems to stretch further. His mouth drops open, exposing the edges of three teeth on the bottom and possibly four or five on the top. His eyes don’t change—she’s not even sure he can get them any wider than they are with his hooded eyelids and the one eye that seems to droop as if looking at her bosom unintentionally (or maybe intentionally, she thinks).

“Listen here, missy,” he says in his country drawl. He points one of his long fingers at her. There is dirt beneath it. She wonders if it got there while digging the graves of his momma or aunt. “Ain’t no angel looks like that except maybe the Angel of Death. I saw that thing—that demon—swoop on down and land on Mary Marie’s chest. I saw it grab her eyes and rip them from her face. I saw it fly away, it’s demon wings lifting up, higher and higher into the sky. And right out of the holes where her eyes had been flowed her soul. I saw that white smoky mist leave her body and float up into the air, and when I looked back at Mary Marie, she wasn’t nothing but a blackened husk on the ground. Now, you think you’re gonna tell me that thing was an angel from on high? No disrespect, Ma’am, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Lisa shrugs. During his rant, Jeddy had waved his arms madly. His one leg stayed extended out while the other foot tap-tapped the floor. Spittle had flown from his mouth and landed somewhere on the floor between them. Now, his arms are crossed over his chest and the one foot that had bobbed up and down is still. He glares at her and she can see the righteous indignation on his face, the ‘how dare you?’ stare of the insulted.

“You’re right. I probably don’t know what I am talking about. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see this creature and I didn’t witness what it did. Can I ask you about Mary Marie?”

Jeddy’s shoulders slump. The grip on his elbows loosens until his hands fall away and drop into his lap. 

“Did you love Mary Marie?”

He barely nods and the simple yes he gives is a croak she barely hears. 

“So, you were sweet on her?”

Again, he nods, but this time there is a grayness on his face that wasn’t there before. She thinks she knows where the shadow came from. She thinks if she stares hard enough, she will see Mr. Worrywort behind Jeddy and he will be whispering in one ear the lies it tells people.

Then the shadow fades. Jeddy’s face is no longer ashen gray, but the country white reappears. His eyes, which she thought earlier could get no bigger than they are because of the heavy lids covering them, actually do get wider. 

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMThe shadow that had been over Jeddy now stands over her. The air around her is suddenly thick and moist and it is becoming increasingly harder to breathe. Lisa feels a panic come over her, something she hasn’t felt in years. 

Tread lightly, a voice hisses in her ear. It is as wet as the suddenly humid air around her. 

Lisa closes her eyes. The breath in her lungs freezes midway up into her chest. It holds there, threatening to strangle her just as a chilly finger runs along her right cheek. She tries to swallow the breath down, to free the airwaves so she can breathe again. Her thoughts—her true inner self—are silent now as this other … voice … tip toes into her psyche like a silent thief in the night, one there to rob her of her confidence and freedom. She knows it to be Mr. Worrywort, but she is too paralyzed to say or do anything to stop him. 

He will kill you if you continue on, the voice whispers. He will kill you and take your eyes and your own soul will seep from your sockets. You will never know rest. You will never know peace and your very soul will scream for eternity.

The voice drips malice on her shoulder, a dribble of icy fear that holds her close. Its hand covers her eyes, enveloping her in a terrifying darkness. Her head begins to hurt, as does her chest and stomach. Her lips feel as if they are sealed shut. Lisa realizes if she doesn’t open her mouth she will suffocate right there in that meeting hall with the characters of a collection of stories sitting around her. In the darkness beneath its hand, she saw herself passing out and sliding from the chair with the unconcerned and disinterested faces of those characters staring at her, none of them standing and hurrying over to help her.

You don’t need to be here. You don’t want to be here, Lisa. You want to get up and walk—no, RUN!—from here and never come back. 

Yes, she thinks. I want to run away and never come back. I want to get away from here. 

Her chest hurts as panic sets in. Her head is swimming with the breath stuck in her lungs. 

Get up. Leave. Ru—

Breathe, Lisa thinks. Breathe!

You will never be able to breathe again if you don’t leave … right … now.

Breathe!

Run away, Lisa. Run away.

Breathe! Breathe!

Tears spill from her eyes. She hears Mr. Worrywort’s laugh. It is the sound of joyful victory. He has her in his grip and he knows the fight is almost over.  It is this laugh that angers her. 

Lisa doesn’t move her head or her arms and she doesn’t try to force his hand from her eyes. She concentrates solely on her mouth, on her lips pinched tightly together. 

Open, she tells them. Open. Open. OPEN! OPEN!

Her lips unclench with an audible POP and the air in her lungs rushes up and out. The grayness in her vision fades and Mr. Worrywort’s hand vanishes from over her eyes. The cold, thick wetness in the air around her dissipates and the throbbing in her head lets go. The meeting room comes back to her. The shapes of the characters comes back into view. Their faces show shock and worry, but like in her vision, none of them has moved to help her. None of them asks if she is okay, not even Jeddy, the man who has seen a demon rip the soul from the woman he loved.

A minute passes. Two minutes. Three minutes. Five minutes. Though she doesn’t quite feel right, she feels better, she feels as if she can continue. 

Do you want to, though? she asks herself. It’s a seed of doubt that hadn’t been there earlier. As if to show she is not afraid of what has just happened, she smiles inwardly at the voice she knows is not hers and says, I’m not running.

Lisa levels her gaze back to Jeddy. She takes a deep breath—a feeling like Heaven to her—and speaks calmly, like nothing has happened. “You’re a Christian man, aren’t you?”

Jeddy hesitates, then answers, “Yes, Ma’am. Of course I am.”

“Do you believe God called you to intervene and save Mary Marie from the … umm … attentions of the preacher?”

Jeddy rocks in his chair, though the one leg stays out in front of him. “If’n Preacher Harry can get into Heaven, the devil can. That’s what Momma always said.” He pauses, but his eyes don’t leave Lisa’s. “He was the devil and the devil wanted Mary Marie. I don’t know if I was sent to stop him from doing what I think he meant to do, but maybe if’n I wasn’t there and I didn’t try and get her away from him, she might still be alive and her soul might not be …” He waves his hand in the air and looks at the ceiling. “ … floating around out there.”

“So, you think it is your fault Mary Marie is dead?”

Another long pause follows. “Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. But she’s gone and … she’s just gone.”

“Jeddy, may I ask you something personal?”

“I reckon so. I don’t know if you can ask anything more personal than my feelings for Mary Marie.”

“You spoke of Fear like it was … an invisible companion, or maybe … an inner voice?  And you spoke of being of two minds on more than one occasion. Do you have an inner voice, too?”

“Every one has an inner voice, Ma’am. Everyone has a good side and a bad side. Momma told me that many times. That’s why she believed Preacher Harry might could get into Heaven. If his good side could run out his bad side, he could get through the pearly gates. I guess it’s like the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. They are always talking, always in your head. Momma used to say don’t let the demons get you, Jeddy. Don’t let them get you. I never did. I always did right. I never did anything to hurt no one. The voices never got to me. Not like they did some of the other people here. Not like he tried to get you just now.”

“Excuse me?” Lisa asks.

“I saw him, Ma’am. I saw the devil behind you. He was there. He’s still here.”

Lisa turns and looks behind her. Mr. Worrywort is not there. There are no shadows near her. Outside the dark corners of the room, there are no shadows at all. She looks back at Jeddy Sanford, but he has now put his arms back across his chest. His interview is over and Lisa knows it is. Though she doesn’t expect an answer, she asks, “Where is he?”

To her surprise, Jeddy does respond. “Momma used to say the devil is in all of us, Ma’am.”

“In all of us?”

“Yes, Ma’am. In all of us.”

To be continued …

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

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

SESSION 4

She knows this one, at least that she is fragile in many ways. She is pretty, but not in a movie starlet way. It doesn’t matter that she won a big time award on a big time show. Nothing has changed about her. Her clothes are conservative, not showing off any skin, other than her hands, face and neck. She wears blue slacks and black flats. Her shirt is a long-sleeved pullover a shade lighter than her slacks. Her dark hair hangs down the sides of her face, covering the front of her shirt. 

Intentional, Lisa thinks.

“Hello, Claire.”

Claire doesn’t look away. Lisa finds this only slightly odd. Normally, those who have gone through what Claire has are usually withdrawn and shy, not wanting to discuss anything about the … assaults (yeah, that is pretty much what they are, right?), but the vibe Lisa gets from the teenager is one of desire. Desire to talk, to get it off her chest. 

“Hello, Ma’am.”

Manners, Lisa thinks. She wonders if Mom taught her those before … she shakes her head and focuses on Claire.

finalOscar“Thank you for speaking with me today. Are you nervous?”

“Maybe a little. I’ve never talked about … Dad … in a group this large.”

“Really? You’ve talked in a group before?”

“Well, the police and investigators and all the psychiatrists were in groups of at least two and sometimes six. The court room … I didn’t say anything in the courtroom. The attorneys told me not to.”

“I don’t think you had anything to worry about in court. The evidence came out about these terrible things he did to you.”

She nods, but doesn’t smile. Instead, she frowns, takes a deep breath and speaks evenly. “Well, maybe so, but the attorneys thought it best I didn’t take the stand at the trial.”

“Is it okay if I ask you some questions now?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And your attorneys are okay with this?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask them. It doesn’t matter anyway. I want to talk to someone. I need to talk.”

“Okay, Claire, let’s start with this: did you even enjoy acting?”

“I wouldn’t call what I did acting. I just did what came natural, so acting, I didn’t really act.”

“I’m sorry, Claire … I mean, did you have fun when you were working on movie sets?”

“Sometimes.”

“Sometimes?”

“Well, the scenes where the father would do the things he did were not fun. The ending wasn’t all that satisfying. I mean, she leaves home with the boy of her dreams, but she never got to exact any measure of revenge for what her father did to her.”

She has gone from timid a couple of minutes earlier to aggressive now. Lisa hears her words, hears what she doesn’t say and she wonders if it was revenge Claire was after or resolution. 

“So, if the acting wasn’t all that enjoyable, what was it like to play the role of Josie, a little girl who was abused, after what your father did to you?”

“It was no different than the life I led. You know?”

Lisa believes maybe she does know. She feels sorry for this pretty little girl—no, young lady—in front of her. 

“I apologize Claire.”

“For what? You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“For asking about the role of Josie.”

“It’s okay. Really, it is.”

“But … well, didn’t it just make you relive it in your head?”

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PM“Yes. The role made me realize how bad things were, how bad my father was.” Claire pauses. She looks away, wipes her hands on her slacks and then rubs her fingers together. “He was a very bad man.”

“Can I ask you another, more personal question?”

“Sure.”

“Claire … when did you decide to kill your daddy?”

“My dad … I’m no longer a little girl and I no longer see him as a daddy. He was my father and I associate that term as not one of endearment, but as one of being despised … and I despise him.”

Lisa nods. “Fair enough, Claire. When did you decide to kill your father?”

Claire shakes her head. “I don’t know if I ever really decided so much as I knew where he kept his gun and I knew he was the reason my mom was gone—did you know she is dead?”

“Excuse me?” This is not what she expects. 

“He killed my mom.”

“How do you know this?”

“I just do.”

“There is no just do, Claire. How do you know this?”

Claire looks at her with the sadness of a child who has lost everything she ever had. Her face is long, her brows are arches above her eyes. She shakes her head. “He said she left him for another man. She needed a different life. That is what he said.”

Lisa listens intently, her heart breaking for the young woman in front of her. She will never be the same, not because she killed her dad—no, her father—on national television, but because whatever she tells Lisa is going to be the truth, not how she sees it, how it really is.

“If Momma had left, then she would have taken her license with her. Her cellphone. Her wallet. She took none of those things.”

“How do you know?” She feels like a recording on a loop, asking the same question over and over.

“I found her stuff in a box in the cellar a few days before the awards show.”

“In the cellar?” What were you doing in the cellar, young lady? the voice in her head whispered. It doesn’t sound like her at all. It sounds like an accusation, one she thinks Claire may not be able to handle.

“Yes. I … “

Before Claire can answer, a shadow comes over her. It’s not much, but it is there. Lisa sees it and she knows Claire feels it. The young woman looks over her left shoulder, then over her right, as if someone is talking to her. 

“Claire, look at me,” Lisa says. “Look at me.”

She does, but only briefly. She shifts in her chair as if pulling away from someone. When she does, Lisa sees the shadow lean down and put its head near Claire’s ear. 

“Get away from her,” Lisa yells. She stands, but doesn’t walk toward Claire and the shadow. Part of her wants to grab the teen and pull her away. The other part wants no part of the shadow. Fear holds her for several seconds. “I said get away from her.” This time she does take a step forward. 

The shadow shimmers, then pulls away. It solidifies for fifteen or so seconds and Lisa sees it is Mr. Worrywort and he is smiling. 

“Get away from her.”

Mr. Worrywort’s smile is hideous, dangerously electric. He puts a hand on Claire’s shoulder as if claiming her for himself.

The fear in Claire’s eyes is sudden. They grow wide and her mouth pinches shut. Her chest heaves and she holds the breath.

“Tell him to leave, Claire,” Lisa says. 

Mr. Worrywort whispers in her ear. She lets the breath go and closes her eyes.

“Are you going to send me to jail?” Claire asks.

Lisa’s nose crinkles up at this. At first she doesn’t understand the question. She won’t go to jail. She knows she won’t. The legal system did  its job for once and … No. It’s him. Mr. Worrywort. He is doing this …

“Claire, no one is sending you to jail. You’ve paid your price for what you did.”

Mr. Worrywort leans down again. Claire shakes her head.

“Claire, don’t listen to him. He’s not on your side.”

“Are you?” she asks.

“Very much so, but I can’t help you if you don’t tell him to get away from you, to leave you alone.”

Help? I’m not here to help. I’m here for answers. What is …

You must help her. She looks around, searching for the voices, though knowing they are in her head or on her shoulders or just out of view like all voices tend to be. One came through stronger than the other. Help her!

It comes to her what she needs to do. Lisa walks over to Claire and puts her hand out. “If you will just trust me, he will go away.”

Claire stares at the hand as if it is a snake, as if it is about to strike her and sink its long fangs into her hand.

Lisa extends her arm further. “He can’t hurt you if you don’t let him. All he does is whisper lies into your ears.”

Claire visibly swallows, glances over her shoulder. Though Mr. Worrywort is no more than a shadow again, he is still there, his venom-like voice in Claire’s ears. Tears trickle down her face. 

“Claire, the voice in your head, the thing over your shoulder … it is your father.”

The young woman jerks as if she had stuck her tongue to a battery. Her hand goes out in front of her, gripping Lisa’s tightly. When this happens, Mr. Worrywort growls in anger. His shadow flees back to the corner as if being banished. 

Claire’s face shows relief. She shivers and then laughs. “How did you know?”

Lisa shrugs. “I didn’t.”

After a minute goes by, Lisa asks, “Are you ready to continue?”

Claire gives a nod. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Why were you in the cellar, Claire?”

“I was looking for the cleaner—my father never kept it in the living rooms of the house, only in the cellar. When I didn’t find it on the shelf where it normally was, I looked for it, and came across the box at the bottom of a shelf unit.”

“At the bottom of a shelf unit?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“You didn’t believe your mom had ever left home, did you? After all, what loving mother would leave their child, right?”

“Right. And I was right. She never left. What person, when leaving forever and ever and ever, wouldn’t take their cell phone, wallet and i.d.?”

”One who never left.”

Claire nods. Her lips are a thin line across her face. 

“Claire, did killing your father really make you feel better?”

She doesn’t smile, this teenager. She only looks up at Lisa and says, “Yes. Yes, it did.”

“How?  I mean, in what way? Umm… what about it made you feel the way you do?”

“I felt relief,” she says. “And like I had gotten some justice for my mom. He killed her. I killed him. If I hadn’t, he would have killed me.”

“One more question, Claire, if you don’t mind?”

“I don’t mind at all.”

“Was it the right thing to do?”

Claire and Lisa stare at each other for a minute, then two. Finally, Claire speaks, “No. The right thing to do would have been to tell someone, let the police arrest him and have him thrown in jail. But that wasn’t what felt right. Killing him felt right. It was the only thing I could have done.”

“I understand,” Lisa says, and she does. She thinks hundreds of thousands of young girls have gone through what Claire has and many of them remained scarred for their lives because of it. But Claire had faced the monster who scarred her and had vanquished it. She doesn’t feel sorry for Claire. Instead, she feels great pride and respect for her. 

“Thank you, Claire.”

“You’re welcome.”

Lisa turns in her chair, takes a deep breath and begins her next line of questions for the next character on her list.

To Be Continued …

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: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BJ73QP9). 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 2: Mr. Worrywort

Lisa takes a deep breath. She didn’t expect the defiant tone in Spencer’s voice. She didn’t expect him to sound as if he enjoyed what happened to Sarah and Bobby. She wonders, very briefly, if Spencer knows Sarah didn’t die. Oh, Bobby had and he had suffered greatly before doing so, but Sarah still lives and is currently housed in the Century Falls Mental Institute, a place surrounded by brick walls that span twenty feet from the ground. One could try to climb it, but with no foot or hand holds and the top laced with razor wire, no one is getting in or out that way without paying a painful price. 

She releases the breath and looks around the horseshoe shaped chairs. Fourteen are occupied. The one where Spencer had sat seems, to her, to have never had anyone occupying it. The cushioned yellow seat appears bland compared to the others. The brown of the metal legs are lighter than the others. Lisa shakes her head. 

It’s all in my head.

The faces of the other fourteen individuals in the room are turned in every direction except toward her. One of them … one of them looks different. She cocks her head to the side and stares at him. She doesn’t recognize him from the character sheet she had been given before arriving. 

“You,” she says. 

The man she speaks to flinches, but doesn’t look up.

“Excuse me. Who are you?”

“That is Mr. Worrywort, Ma’am.” 

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PMTo her right a man whose skin is like mahogany sits forward in his seat. His elbows rest on his knees and his hands are clasped together as if he is about to pray. He looks as if he has worn life on his shoulders and the weight is pulling him down. 

“Mr. Worrywort?”

“Yes’m.”

“How do you know that, Sir?”

The old man smiles. His teeth are yellow and there is only a twinkle of hope in them. “We all has a bit of Mr. Worrywort in us, Ma’am. It’s our thinker.”

Chet! her mind screams. The sudden realization strikes her and she knows the questions she needs to ask.

“Mr. Worrywort?” she asks. 

This time the man looks at her. His features are plain, almost nonexistent. She studies him for a few seconds. She sees his eyes and nose and even his lips, but she can’t make any of them out. She knows that later when she tries to recall anything about him, she won’t remember. 

Sometimes, remembrances are not good, she thinks, then wonders if the voice in her head is her Mr. Worrywort, or in this case, a Mrs. Worrywort. She licks her lips and speaks again. 

“Are you still willing to speak with me?

He nods. 

“Thank you. I will keep this short. Okay?”

Another nod.

“You are the inner voice of Chet, right?”

This time he shrugs, then nods. “I suppose so.” His voice is monotone, flat, a voice she won’t remember. 

“Is ‘inner voice’ the correct title for you, or do you prefer something else?”

She hears him take a deep breath. When he releases it, his words come with it and there is a touch of resignation in them. “That’s what some people call us. Others say we’re this thing called a conscience.” He makes invisible quote marks in the air, using two fingers on both hands to do so. “Some people see us as a devil or an angel who resides on their shoulders. However, most people call us demons, and use us as excuses for why they do bad things or do nothing at all. Chet calls me Mr. Worrywort because I try to warn him when he is about to make a bad decision.”

“I’m getting the feeling you don’t care much for Chet.”

He smiles. This she sees. It is plain … nothing worth remembering. “I care quite a bit for him. After all, without him, I do not exist. I’m like a rudder on a boat meant to steer the vessel on its course and out of trouble. Some people’s rudders are broken. They are tired or even lazy. They’ve given up on their vessel, so they let them float in the waters, near the rocks, into storms. I … I don’t do that. I do my best to steer him clear of bad actions.”

Lisa’s lips purse for a second, maybe two. “Do you feel like Chet listens to you more or ignores you more?”

“He …” Mr. Worrywort pauses. “He used to.”

“Used to?”

“Yes, before he married that woman.” There is anger in his voice, a true emotion, though some might say it’s not a real feeling at all, but a secondary one, something easily controlled and is never truly felt. 

“You mean Kay?”

“Yes, she is who I’m talking about.”

“Interesting.”

absolutely-ideas-hercules-folding-chairs-i-have-destroyed-scribblings-in-the-dark“It’s not interesting!” he yells. The room shakes. The characters in the other chairs are all looking at him now. Some of them look fearful, while others look bored or amused. “She’s going to get us killed one day. She’s almost gotten us killed a couple of times, but the last time … the last time was the worst. ‘Let’s take a trip,’ she said. ‘It will be fun,’ she said. ‘If it snows I’m sure we can find something to do.’ She said that all flirty-like, knowing Chet wouldn’t—couldn’t!—resist her. It was snowing! I hate driving in the snow. But Chet wouldn’t listen, you see. Chet was all, ‘okay, Babe,’ and she almost got us killed.”

“I don’t see how she almost got you killed, Mr. Worrywort. Chet made a decision—it was his choice.”

“He ignored me because of her! If not for her, we wouldn’t have been in that situation.”

“I see. So, since he married Kay, he ignores you more and more. Is that what you are saying?”

His arms are crossed over his chest now. His legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. “Yes, that’s what I said. If he would have just listened to me when his friend offered to ‘hook them up’ we would never have to deal with the things she does and the danger she puts us in.”

She nods and shifts the conversation slightly away from Kay. “How do you feel when he ignores you?”

Mr. Worrywort laughs. It is much like Spencer’s and something she feels is a sign of a deteriorating conversation. His chair creaks when he sits up. There is a frown on his face that appears to have been carved into his nonexistent features. “How do you feel when someone ignores you?”

Her first thought is, I ask the questions. She doesn’t say that. Instead, she answers him. “I don’t like it.”

“You don’t like it?” Another of those angered laughs comes out. “I hate it. I loathe it. How can you ignore someone who is always right?”

“But, are you really always right?” It is out before she processes it. Again, she wonders if her inner voice came up with that one.

Mr. Worrywort says nothing right away. He appears to be thinking on it, or maybe stewing about the truth. 

“When it comes to Chet, I am always right. Always.”

“I think Chet would beg to differ with you there.”

A black cloud of anger hovers on Mr. Worrywort’s face. His breaths are loud, in/out, in/out, the sound of a freight train chugging along the tracks. 

“What do you know? What do you know about me or Chet or anything for that matter?”

Lisa smiles at this. Though she doesn’t want conflict she thought there could be some before arriving there that morning. The subjects are touchy and the characters have been through more in a span of four to twenty thousand words than the average person goes through in a week. But this guy … she knows exactly what this guy is. She has come across his type many times in her life.

“I know you are manipulative. I know you get angry when you don’t get it your way. And I know you are selfish and self serving and don’t have Chet’s best interests in mind.”

“His interest is the only thing I have in mind!”

“No, Sir. Your interests are what you have in mind. You are afraid to live. Kay is not and she has shown Chet not to be afraid to live, to laugh, to love and to care. Maybe you should take a lesson from her inner voice, or maybe your own.”

“I don’t have an inner voice! None of those like me do.”

“Maybe that’s your problem. Maybe you need one.”

“I’m done here,” Mr. Worrywort says. He stands up in a hurry. The chair pushes back, tilts on its back legs and falls over, folding in on itself. Mr. Worrywort turns, shoves the fallen chair with one foot. It scrapes across the tiled floor. He doesn’t go to the door. Instead, he hurries to one darkened corner and fades into the shadows.

Lisa stares to where he went. One thought enters her mind. I can see why he might be called a demon …

To be continued …

SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 2.26.45 PM.pngBefore reading today’s post, I want to tell you about our little project. In the coming months one character from each story in my collection, Voices, will be interviewed by Lisa Lee with Bibliophilia Templum. 

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

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

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

SESSION 1

The doorknob is cold to the touch. Lisa let her palm linger as she takes a deep breath. She closes her eyes and gathers her thoughts. Beyond the door are the people she was sent to talk to, to interview. 

“You can do this,” she says and takes another deep breath. Forcing a smile, she turns the knob and opens the door. 

A room with gray walls and dirty white tiles greets her. The lights overhead are fluorescents and casts dim shadows into the corners where she imagines cobwebs cling to the ceiling and spiders caress the carcasses of dead bugs before eating them. There’s not much in the room. A brown piano along the right wall, its ivory keys yellow and its ebony ones having lost their luster. A table sits to her left, complete with clear plastic cups containing water and various juices. There are no snacks to be seen. 

In the center of the room are sixteen folding chairs, each one upholstered with cushions a shade of yellow out of the seventies. Stuck to the backs of each chair is a sticker that says Holly’s Mortuary. Fifteen of them form the shape of a U and are occupied. One of them—the one in the center—is not. 

Lisa doesn’t focus on any one of the fifteen people waiting for her, each one in their own little world, recalling the stories of their lives, possibly in vivid details, possibly through hazy clouds of the thing we call forgetfulness. Women. Men. Children. They all turn and look at her when the door closes with a click that is too loud in her ears. Her smile falters, but not for long. She forces it back in place, straightens her shirt and walks toward what she calls The Fifteen. She reaches her chair, turns and sits down. 

Scanning the room, she takes in the blank stares, resentful faces, some even with a touch of sadness filling their eyes. She settles on one individual, a young boy in his mid-teens and a pimple on the side of his face. She considers him for a moment. He is not fat, but he is not thin either. Most would call him chubby, something she knows bothers him. He stares at the floor, at his shoes. One of them is untied, the loose ends frayed

“Spencer,” she says and waits for him to look up. When he does, she sees the circle of gray beneath his eyes. “Hi.”

He says nothing, but he does frown, an expression that reminds her of Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh cartoons. “I understand you are a good student. Is that right?”

He looks at her with those sad eyes.

“Well? Are you a good student?”

Spencer nods. It’s a jerky sort of motion. “Yes … yes, ma’am.”

Lisa smiles. It’s a start. “Good to hear, Spencer. So, what do you do for fun? Any hobbies? Extracurricular activities?”

Spencer shrugs. “I … I don’t know. I umm … There is this place I hang out at sometimes. It’s called The Game Room and it’s … it’s where my friends and I play games. You know like Munchkin and Magic, the Gathering.”

“Interesting.” She stares at the boy. She wants to go easy on him, lob some painless questions his way so he can hit them out of the park. She doesn’t want to scare him, to make him any more nervous than he already is. 

You’re not here to be his mother, she thinks. Time to take the kid gloves off.

“Spencer, what scares you?”

photo-1504401774599-1b5378bfaae3His head jerks up. His eyes are wide. His bottom lip quivers. Lisa suddenly feels sorry for him, but she knows she can’t turn back now.

“Umm … what?”

“What are you afraid of?”

He licks his lips and then wipes his nose. He takes several deep breaths. “Umm …”

“It’s okay, Spencer. This isn’t the outside world. No one’s going to judge you here.”

“I’m scared of shadows.”

“Shadows?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Lisa points to one of the darkened corners behind him. “Like those shadows?”

He shrugs. 

“Is there something in the shadows, Spencer?”

He nods. His eyes focus on the corner closest to the door. 

“Are the shadows … bad?”

He looks back at her. His lip no longer trembles and his voice is soft. “Sometimes.”

It’s Lisa’s turn to nod. Her gut tells her she isn’t going to get much more out of him about the shadows. She switches gears. “What about pretty girls? Are they bad?”

“Sometimes.”

“What about pretty girls named Sarah?” 

Spencer stiffens. He looks down at his hands, then back up at Lisa. “Yes.”

“You fell for the pretty girl trap, didn’t you?”

His frown deepens. He gives a nod, but says nothing.

Lisa shakes her head. “What makes teenage boys fall for the pretty girl trap?”

“I didn’t know it was a trap. She was … was so pretty and she needed help with one of her classes and she invited me over. I just wanted to help her out.”  

“Did you really think it was a study invitation?”

Ten seconds pass and he says nothing. Another fifteen follows. “I thought she liked me. I hoped she liked me. No girl has ever liked me before. No girl has ever shown me any attention before, and she … she acted like she liked me.” His voice holds agitation in it, an edge that Lisa didn’t think she could get from him. She reverses gears this time.

“So, the shadows …”

“They’re not just shadows,” he snaps. “They are shadow people and they don’t like humans. They kill. They eat. They don’t like me.”

“But they didn’t kill you?”

He laughs. “No, they didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Well, they killed Bobby.”

“And Sarah?”

He shrugs. 

“Did you let the shadow people harm Bobby and Sarah?”

The corners of Spencer’s mouth turn up slightly. “I didn’t let them harm Bobby and Sarah. I just let them take them. It’s Bobby and Sarah’s fault they got hurt.”

“Okay. How do you feel about letting the shadow people take Bobby and Sarah?”

Another shrug. “I don’t feel anything.”

“Do you think they deserved it?”

Spencer smiles fully now. It is a haunting expression. His eyes become darker. He isn’t looking at his hands now. He is looking straight at Lisa and his face is glowing. He laughs, a sound that is disturbing to hear. “Oh, yes. They deserved it. I just wish I hadn’t been too scared to watch.”

He sits back in his chair, puts his hands on his knees. “Is that all, Ma’am?”

“Yes,” Lisa says. 

“Can I go now?”

“Yes. You can return to the page now.”

Spencer stands, nods at Lisa. He doesn’t look at any of the others in the room. A moment later he stands at the door and glances back. His eyes are sad again. “Come,” he says and motions toward one of the corners untouched by light. A shadow pulls itself from the darkness and creeps along the top of the wall, staying in the unlit areas until it reaches the door. Spencer opens it. The shadow passes over the door jamb with an angry hiss and disappears before Spencer steps through and closes the door behind him.

To be continued …

 

I want to tell you a short story. It may not mean anything to anyone, but I think it is important. 

keep-smiling_o_1675883There is this guy at work. He is 61 years old and has the most pleasant disposition. He believes in hard work and smiling. He always smiles and says hello to everyone he sees. I don’t think he knows a stranger. Every time I see him, he says in the most happiest of tones, “There’s my buddy!” He then gives me a fist bump and we talk for usually no more than 30 seconds. Then he goes his way and I go mine. We could see each other a dozen times in the course of a day and he always smiles, always says “There’s my buddy,” and always gives me a fist bump. 

Always.

Let’s just call this man Burt.  

Burt never has anything bad to say. He never gripes or complains. He just does his job and smiles and laughs and makes those who come in contact with him have a brighter day. If there is ever anyone I wish I could be like when it comes to being positive, it is Burt. I never come away from talking with him without a smile on my face. 

Late last year I ran into him and he wasn’t really smiling. Sure, he forced one when he saw me, but the usual exuberance in his voice wasn’t there.

“Are you okay?” I asked. Yes, I was concerned for Burt.

He said, “Do you have a minute to talk?”

“Sure,” I said. “I have as many minutes as you need.”

“I consider you a friend, and I just need to tell someone about my wife. She’s sick …”

I’m not going to go into the rest of the conversation, but I will say he had tears clinging to his eyes. We talked and we prayed and we talked some more. We even hugged. And when he walked away from me, he smiled, gave me a fist bump and said, “Thank you, my buddy.”

I watched him walk away. For the first time since I have known him, I wasn’t smiling after talking to him. I was sad and worried for him. Later that day when I saw him, he was smiling his big smile and he seemed more like himself. You see, Burt just needed to get his feelings off his chest. He needed someone to listen to him, to hear his words and to let him hurt for a few minutes. 

Since then, his wife has gotten better and he gives me reports on her when I ask (which is quite frequently). He smiles, gives me fist bumps and still says, “There goes my buddy.”

A long time ago, after maybe a couple of months of knowing Burt, I said to him, “It’s great to see someone who has such a great attitude.”

He nodded and he got real serious with me. He leaned in as if we were about to have a private conversation. “I don’t see a need to be any different.”

I don’t either.

So, what’s the point? Well, this is two fold, I guess. First, you never know what is going on in someone’s life. Maybe an act of kindness is all someone needs in order to get through the day. Maybe that person needs to talk to someone—anyone who will actually listen—in order to make it through a hard time. Second, a smile, a laugh, a joyful fist bump might just be the cure society needs. My buddy, Burt, always smiles, always laughs and is always positive, even during some of his darkest moments. He doesn’t show the world what hurts him. He doesn’t complain that life is not fair. He doesn’t say, “I wish someone else would do my job so I can sit down.” He smiles. He laughs. 

Burt enjoys life and he makes those around him better for it. The world needs more Burts. The world needs more people who will smile and laugh (not at people, but with them) and uplift others. 

There is so much in life to be thankful for, but we are too busy looking at all of the negative things. We are blind to the good things around us, but Burt’s not. 

Do me a favor. Take a minute and look at the world around you. I’m sure there is something good in it, even if it seems like there is not. I’m sure there is someone you know who might need a smile, a laugh, a fist bump, a ‘there’s my buddy.’ Take a minute and be Burt. I guarantee one thing: after smiling and laughing with someone else, you will walk away better for it. 

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

A.J.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN HER OWN WORDS:

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

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

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

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

THE FIVE:

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

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

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

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

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

Simply put, self-doubt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE THREE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BONUS QUESTION:

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

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

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

You can find Briana at:

Her Website

On Facebook

On Twitter:  @Briana_R_Author

On Amazon

On Instagram: @wyfnmmarbrtsn

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Merry Christmas, lady.”

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

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

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

 

Recently, Stitched Smile Publications put out a novel by the talented Pembroke Sinclair. The novel, Humanity’s Hope, is about seventeen year old Caleb, who survived the zombie apocalypse and his struggles there after. I had an opportunity to sit down with Pembroke and talk to her about writing, Humanity’s Hope and where her totally cool pen name came from. Please, sit back, grab a beverage and join me in my conversation with Pembroke Sinclair.

A.J.: Let’s just jump in here. Tell me, who is Pembroke Sinclair?

PS: Well, there are several answers I could give you. The funny “I’m an editor by day, zombie killer by night” response. Or the incredibly long response that explains why I started writing and how I came up with my pen name. Or I could tell you there is no Pembroke, only Zoul.

A.J.: I think I would like to hear the longer version. Why did you start writing?

PS: I’ve always been a writer. I remember as early as 3rd grade I wrote a story about a horse named Charlie that my teacher laminated. When we went back to Iowa every summer, my grandma had an electric typewriter that I would create stories on. None of those were laminated, and they should probably be completely forgotten. When I was in high school, I had a spiral notebook I wrote stories in, but I made sure it looked like I was taking notes. When I got to college, things got a little weird, and I had some professors who tore down my self-confidence and made it so I didn’t write for a very long time. I picked it up again after grad school while working at an environmental consulting firm. One of my friends convinced me it was worth trying again, so I started with a few short stories. I got addicted to getting published, but decided I didn’t like short stories, so I worked on novels.

A.J.: It never fails. Someone will tear down another person, and usually because they can, but I am glad you started writing again.

Since you bring up that tearing down and losing confidence, what was that like?

Pembroke SinclairPS: It was tough, especially considering I was taking a writing class and they were supposed to be helping me get better at writing.  Instead, they found every opportunity to inform me (and probably other students) that they would never amount to anything. One professor was a literary writer, and since I was a genre writer, she said she wouldn’t be able to fairly critique my writing. Isn’t good writing good writing no matter what genre? Either way, it cut deep.

Years later, I found out these professors (one in particular) had a habit of tearing down writers’ self-confidence—perhaps because they viewed us as competition. I don’t know. But it did give me a good view into what the publishing world would be like, and after getting over my initial hurt feelings, it helped me grow some thick skin.

I’m no longer angry at the professors for what they did. Was it mean spirited and ridiculous? Of course. But me still being angry won’t change anything. The only thing I can do is move forward and write.

A.J.: Pembroke, how did you move forward?

PS: Having encouragement from a friend really helped, and then getting some stories published really pushed that along. To be honest, getting a lot of rejections throughout my career helped, too, because I’m one of those people who loves to show others that I CAN do what you say I can’t, and I’ll prove it.

A.J.: You sound like me—I say the same thing. One thing I have learned is those who have been told can’t—or shouldn’t—do this business, are the ones who want it more and try the hardest.

PS: I think it’s because we think we have something to prove.  I absolutely question my ability to write every single day, but at the same time, I’m not going to let anyone tell me I shouldn’t be doing it.  That’s my choice, not theirs.

A.J.: You said you got addicted to publishing. Can you explain what you mean by that?

PS: If you’re an author, and you’ve ever received a slew of “NO’s” for your submissions, you know that it only takes one “YES!” to completely turn everything around. I love getting yeses—I think it goes back to my desire to prove I can and should be writing. And it’s just an amazing feeling to know my work is going to be available for people to read.

A.J.: I get that, completely. I, literally, received 100 rejections before my first acceptance, including one where the editor said I should never write another story again.

PS: I received a rejection for a YA story I wrote because a reviewer gave me a mediocre review on one of my middle grade books. I wasn’t even pitching anything to do with that particular story.

A.J.: You absolutely have to hate it when that happens.

PS: I was pissed. I did the thing you’re not supposed to do: I replied to the agent (I’m pretty sure it was an agent) and asked him what the hell he was talking about. He never responded.

A.J.: Oh my—I understand your anger, but you are right, never respond in that manner. In this day of social media, that is akin to literary suicide.

PS: I phrased it nicely, but that was the gist of it.

A.J.: Earlier, you mentioned possibly telling me where you got your pen name. Do you mind telling me now?

PS: When I was first setting out to get published, I knew I couldn’t use my real name because it’s pretty common and when you Google it, a country singer shows up. I needed a pen name so I could be found.

I was pregnant with my first child at the time, and we were looking for names for him. I thought, “Pembroke Sinclair Robinson. That kid would be destined to be a writer.” When I suggested it to my husband, his response was, “You want our kid to get beat up on the playground, don’t you?” My friend suggested I take it for myself, so I did.

Side note, Pembroke’s middle name is Alloicious.

A.J.: That is a great story—and your first child probably thanks you for not naming him that.

PS: He’s never really said …

A.J.: Let’s go back a little here. I want to touch on two things. First, why genre fiction.

PS: I’ve always been a huge fan of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I’m an English major, so I’ve read my fair share of literary—and I don’t think anything is wrong with literary—but I don’t enjoy writing it. I’ve tried, and it feels weird to me. I have a much easier time imagining myself in another world or surrounded by monsters, and I prefer to be in those worlds. Writing is an escape from reality for me, and I want to get as far away as I can.

A.J.: Before I go to the second part of this, what do you consider literary fiction?

PS: I would say literary fiction are the classics you read that are based in reality. The ones that focus on craft and language, such as Toni Morrison, Faulkner (although I would argue some of his stuff is fantasy), Hemingway, etc. Does that help?

No, wait, Faulkner is literary. I was thinking Vonnegut Jr.!

A.J.: It does help, but literary fiction is still considered, by many, to be real writing, where as genre fiction is considered for hacks. What do you feel is the difference? Or is there a difference?

PS: Oh, I’m fully aware of the distinctions between literary and genre and how literary is soooooo much better. I think the distinction comes from how people want to be labeled. If they want to seem “smarter” and more high brow, they will be “literary.” If they want to appeal to the masses, they’ll be genre. Personally, both can be incredibly intelligent and complicated (have you read Dune or the Foundation series?) and, conversely, both genres can have their crap. It’s all in what a person wants to read/write.

A.J.: Great thoughts in there, Pembroke. I agree. You seem to have some strong feelings on literary fiction—just as I do. I can totally appreciate that. Is that, maybe because of the way those who write literary fiction frown on those who write genre?

PS: Absolutely. And of course, it’s not all of them. There are always those authors who support and encourage other authors and those who are just poops–in all mediums of writing. Again, I’m an English major so I enjoy literary works. I just don’t like writing them.

A.J.: I don’t like writing them either.

Let’s switch gears. You recently had a book released. Humanity’s Hope. Can you tell me about this?

PS: I’m a huge zombie fan. I love zombies in all their mediums, and I really enjoy writing about how people survive the apocalypse—especially teens.

In most zombie stories, the heroes have no quarrels about filling the role of savior and fighting for what’s left of the world.  But when writing Humanity’s Hope, I wanted to look at a character who was reluctant about that role; who didn’t want to be in that position and who has a lot of issues with surviving when others have died.

While I truly believe there will be those people who fight hard to defeat an undead threat, I also believe there will be those who only survive.  But I don’t believe any of us will come out of the zombie apocalypse unscathed.

On top of that, I also wanted to give my main character something to set him even further apart from his fellow humans, so he’s immune from becoming a zombie.

A.J.: I’m not going to ask how he is immune—that is for you to reveal in your work. I will say I love the zombie sub-genre as well. But I also find that so many people have written the same things over and over and there is little variation. What sets Humanity’s Hope apart from other books?

PS: Of course the same things have been written over and over. The same can be said about films. That’s what works and makes money!

You know, I was typing how Hope is different from other stories, and it’s not really. There are certain elements that exist in stories, and they are portrayed through different characters and settings, but they are always there.

I guess I can say it’ s not the same because I have zombies that are different. Other than that, it’s a story about someone trying to come to terms with losing his friends and family and struggling through his day to day exist with PTSD while the living dead roam the earth.

A.J.: Fair enough. Do you mind sharing an excerpt with the readers at the end of this interview?

PS: Not at all.

A.J.: Awesome. Okay, if you have a few more minutes, I would like to ask a couple more questions. What do you enjoy most about writing and publishing?

PS: I enjoy being able to escape. I enjoy exploring the question of what it means to be human (I haven’t found an answer yet). I enjoy sharing my stories with others and seeing readers enjoy them.

A.J.: Okay, on the flip side, what do you dislike about writing and publishing?

PS: The length of time it takes me to get a story on the page. It would be so much easier if I could plug the computer into my head and THINK my story onto the page. When it comes to publishing, I wish there could be more camaraderie and support among authors. We’re all in this together. Let’s build each other up instead of tearing each other down. Not that everyone does this, but those that do need to stop.

A.J.: I absolutely agree, we are in this together. I’ve always viewed this as a family, even though there are some family members we want to just stay away.

Now, other than Humanity’s Hope, you have some other works out, correct?

PS: I do. Several fiction stories and nonfiction works.

I write the nonfiction under my real name. Just to make it nice and confusing.

A.J.: Okay, treat me like a writer just starting out. What would you tell me?

PS: Have fun. Publishing is full of rejection and others who want to see you fail, but if you write because you enjoy writing and have fun creating your stories, you’ve already shown the world you can be successful.

A.J.: I like that. I like that a lot. Sound advice.

Okay, before I let you go, is there anything else you would like to say to the readers?

PS: Thank you for reading my work.  Without you, there’d be no reason to do what I do.

A.J.: One more thing: where can readers find you?

PS: You can find me on Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon.

A.J.: Pembroke Sinclair, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to chat with me. It was nice to get to know you.

PS: Thank you!  I appreciate you taking the time also!

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Pembroke Sinclair. Now, here is a sneak peak at Humanity’s Hope:

1906894769Caleb sprinted across the dirt road. His leg muscles burned. He was barely able to get his feet off the ground. The backpack slammed into his lower back with every step—the straps dug into his shoulders. As he approached the low wall, he slid into a crouch, turning so his back would contact the stones first. The pressure of the backpack pressed into his ribcage—squeezing the air out of his lungs. He pressed his lips together and let the stream flow out of his nose. He tried his best to keep it silent—a task that proved difficult with every pant. His lungs screamed for air. He wanted to draw in large, gasping breaths, but they would be too loud and attract unwanted attention. The undead were just on the other side of the wall, unaware of his presence, and he intended to keep it that way.

Caleb’s gaze drifted back to the road and fell on his sister, Nina, and Len, his chemistry partner from school. They ran toward him as fast as they could with their heavy backpacks that hunched them over. Or perhaps it was an attempt to make themselves smaller so they were less noticeable—Caleb couldn’t tell. They slid up to the wall on either side of Caleb and attempted to control their breathing.

This was a terrible place to hide—they all knew it. It was too open, too exposed, but there weren’t any other choices. The squat wall was right at the edge of a fallow field, across the dirt road they had been traversing in the hopes of finding civilization. They found the wall in a vast, rural landscape. The three of them were lucky there was something. They had come around a bend in the road and up a small hill, and there they were—zombies—shuffling aimlessly through the countryside. Caleb had to suppress his shocked gasp. They came out here because the urban areas had become too dangerous. There were too many zombies. The supplies had either been pillaged or were too difficult to get to. The country was supposed to be their hope, their salvation. So far, it wasn’t. The farmhouse was still ways away, about 50 yards. At least that was what Caleb assumed. He was horrible at judging distances. It didn’t matter anyway. With the zombies in front of them, the house was as accessible as another planet. But they couldn’t stay out in the open, either.

The look on Len’s face reflected the turmoil Caleb felt inside. His eyes were wide, his face red from exertion. His head was cocked to the side, his jaw muscles tight. The look asked: “What do we do now?” Caleb had no answer.

When they set out that morning to look for food, they had told themselves the zombies had been confined to the cities. Why? Because they had to believe something. They had to think there was still a chance.

Caleb lowered his gaze to the ground. There was no way to respond to Len’s silent question. They just had to wait it out—make their move when they got the opportunity. Caleb glanced over his shoulder at his sister. She slumped against the wall, her legs sprawled out in front of her, her chin resting on her chest. His stomach tightened as he took in her pose. She wasn’t going to be able to move quickly from that position. She needed to be ready. Yet, he felt for her. What was the point of being ready if it meant they had to keep running? His legs shook underneath him as he held his crouch. It would have been such a relief to plop onto his butt and take the weight off his legs. He could’ve placed his arms around Nina’s shoulders and pulled her close. They could have relaxed in their misery. Instead, he gently backhanded her arm. When she looked at him, he thrust his thumb into the air. With an eye roll and deliberate movements, Nina moved into a crouch, removing the gun from the back of her waistband.

Caleb focused on the weapon in his hands. It was there so often, it was like an appendage. He rarely noticed it anymore. But neither of the guns would do them much good; there weren’t enough bullets to take out the threat. Even if they fired their remaining rounds, all it would do was draw more zombies to their location.

Caleb turned his attention away from his gun and stretched up to look over the wall. As soon as his eyes broke the surface, he scanned the area before sinking back down. His heart pounded against his ribs, his throat tightened. An undead lumbered close to the wall—too close. One wrong move or sound and they were spotted. He licked his lips and felt the sweat slide down his spine. If they stayed quiet, the zombies would keep moving. They just had to wait it out.

A low, soft grumbling filled the air. At first, Caleb wasn’t convinced he’d heard it. It was so low, he could have imagined it. He had hoped he’d imagined it. But then Len wrapped his arms around his midsection and squeezed. The rumbling grew louder. It was hard to hide the sounds of hunger. Caleb’s eyes grew wide. He shifted his stance so he could explode onto his feet.

The rotted hand reached over the wall and swiped the air between Caleb and Len. There were no other options. All of them sprang to their feet. The crowd of rotting flesh was converging on their position. Caleb extended his arms and lined up his sights. The crack of the gun echoed loudly in the country air; the corpse slumped onto the wall. All three of them jumped over the wall and ran toward the house. The path took them directly toward the zombies; they had to be fast enough to get by them.

Caleb’s extremities tingled with adrenaline, his footsteps thumped rhythmically on the hard, dry ground. He sucked in long gasps of air, but his lungs still burned for oxygen. He caught glimpses of the other two out of the corner of his eyes. The undead drew nearer. Their arms outstretched, waiting to snag their prey. Caleb zig-zagged across the field. He ducked under a pair of arms, then shouldered a zombie out of the way. Its bones crunched against his shoulder, teeth gnashed close to his ear, driving him forward with more urgency. The house grew larger with every step he took. Almost there.

A short yip followed by a grunt sounded behind him. He risked a glance over his shoulder. Len stumbled then fell. Caleb’s heart leapt into his throat. He skidded to a stop, turning to help his friend. Caleb was about to step toward Len, but he was stopped in his tracks. The action caused him to lose his balance. His arms flailed through the air to keep Caleb from falling over. An incessant, strong tugging kept him from moving forward. He turned to see Nina jerking on his backpack. Her eyes were wide and glistening with tears. She bit her bottom lip and shook her head violently. Caleb glanced again at Len, who reached for Caleb, his mouth open in a silent plea, tears running down his cheeks. Caleb reached toward him. Len’s plea turned into a scream as a zombie bit into his calf. A dark ring of blood stained his jeans and grew larger. Another zombie latched onto the fingers of his extended hand. The crunch as it bit through his bones rattled in Caleb’s skull. He pulled his hand into his chest.

Caleb turned at that point. There was nothing more he could do. His sister grabbed his wrist, and they ran into the house. They took the stairs two at a time and headed into a bedroom on the right. After closing the door, they scanned the area, checking under the bed and in the closet. Clear. His sister collapsed face first onto the bed. From the way her body shook, Caleb could tell she was crying. He leaned back until his pack connected with the door. His legs gave out, and he slid to the floor. Pulling his knees to his chest, he wrapped his arms around his head and tried to disappear into himself.

And then there were two.