Broken Shells

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Broken Shells (2013)

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

Still, Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach.

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to look for shells.”

“Shells?”

“Yes. Seashells.”

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

“We can add them to your collection.”

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

“You’ll be cold,” I said.

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

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

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

“We shouldn’t stay out long,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“There is no beauty in broken things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no beauty in broken things.

I was wrong. 

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

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

Forever Broken, Forever Beautiful (2021)

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

I can only shake my head at that. 

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

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

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

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that it?” Kimberly asks.

“Yes.”

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

“Are you okay?” 

I’m not. “Yes,” I lie. She knows. 

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

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

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

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

And I haven’t been the same since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s okay.

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

“Thank you,” I whisper. 

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

“Are you okay?” she asks.

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

WHY?

I wrote a letter at the end of 2020 that I eventually sent to my publisher, editors, proofer and select friends. It is titled, Why I’m Getting Out of the Publishing Business. When I wrote this letter, my resolve to leave the publishing business was so strong I almost sent it without letting it sit, without letting my strong emotions run its course before making such a decision. Instead, I sat on the letter for nearly a month longer, watching things play out, seeing if I would have a change of heart. 

I did not.

One of the biggest reasons for my desire to leave the business of publishing is I feel the system is broken. I feel there are too many small presses with the right ideas but without the funding and/or the understanding of how to make those ideas work for both them and the authors. I feel there are small press publishers who steal the ideas of others to benefit themselves within the writing and publishing communities. I feel there are so many writers out there who don’t care about the readers and will throw anything together to make a buck. 

I feel the business model in publishing is broken. Authors submit their works to agents or directly to publishers, who, if accepted, make more money off the authors’ hard work than the actual authors make. But the business of editing, creating cover art, marketing and so on is why the publisher makes X percent of the royalties and the author makes x percent. Please, understand something important that has been lost throughout the years: without authors, there are no publishers. 

There are rights—so many rights—to published works that authors lose for either a period of time or forever when they sign certain contracts. But those authors get advances, you say. Only with certain publishing houses, but if the book doesn’t sell well enough to meet the advance amount that puts the authors in a precarious position. Sometimes part or all of that advance has to be paid back if the book doesn’t meet the publisher’s expectations. To go with that, sometimes authors have to fight to get the rights to their work back, even after a publishing company has folded. 

That’s not the worst of it. I once had a publisher tell me he would give me the rights to my book back if I paid him five hundred dollars for what he paid out on the book. I asked for receipts and he sent me a bill. I asked for proof work had been done on a book I had not seen edits for though the book was scheduled to be released in less than two weeks. I had not seen cover art, either. The publisher had not done anything he said he would in the contract, and I pointed that out. We had a bitter back and forth until I finally told him he can talk to my lawyer from that point forward. I had already been in touch with an attorney and he had found the contract was null and void and that I could sue the publishing company if I wanted. I did not want to do that. I just wanted the rights to my book back. In the end, I was lucky. The publishing company’s contract provided an out that they didn’t realize was in there. A lot of authors aren’t so fortunate.

Then there is Amazon. I loathe Amazon. There is a mindset among some readers that if your books are not on Amazon, then you must not be that good of a writer. That’s a bogus mindset. Amazon is not a publisher. It is a provider. It provides people who want to publish their books with an avenue to do so. It also provides a means for readers to get those books. It is, in no way, an actual publisher. They don’t edit, they don’t proof. Don’t try to get them to market. They just provide. 

What it boils down to is a story is an author’s intellectual property. It is also an art form—yes, even bad stories are artistic in some way. More than those things, a story is the brainchild of the author. It is a part of them, one the author cherishes. At the end of the day, publishers should respect the authors under their imprint. They should treat them like customers they long to get and keep. A writer is not a dollar sign, and yes, I know the business of publishing is about money. Or is it? Rather, should it be? Maybe it should be about entertaining the readers and giving them the best bang for their buck. I honestly feel doing that will lead to more dollars down the road.

The thing is, it’s not just the publishers doing this. It’s the authors. I work hard on crafting atmospheric and emotional stories. I work hard on putting stories out that move readers. I work hard to give the readers an experience. I work hard on the logic of the stories I tell. I don’t just write some words on a screen and call it good and publish it to make money off readers. That would be tantamount to screwing them. But many authors do. Sadly, readers eat those writers up, hang on their every misspelled word or poorly constructed sentence. 

The art of telling a story is dying and we’ve watched it happen. Sadly, authors have allowed it to happen. It makes their job easier. They don’t have to invest time and energy and heart and soul into crafting something memorable or something that moves you. Just give the readers a beginning, middle and somewhat of an ending and call it a day. Smoke your cigarette. Drink your wine and smile your yellow-stained teeth smile.

I can’t do that. For every story I’ve published, there are at least ten stories I have not. If you do that math, only nine percent of the stories I have written I feel are worthy of seeing the light of day. Nine. Percent.

I’ve always done things my own way. I question things. I question rules. One of my favorite questions is simply, Why? If I’m given an answer I feel is satisfactory, then great, if not, I ask again. Why? The biggest of those questions is why is it done this way? Because it always has been is not a good answer.

So, I left the business for about six months. I wrote more in that six-month period than I did in the previous two years. I cleared my mind. I didn’t watch the business. 

When I decided to step back in, I went with a book I had released in January, then pulled before it could get a head of steam. It’s a good book, one of my favorites. I also went about it differently. I focused on the fun side of the business, which has always been about creating. In September of 2021, nearly seven months after leaving publishing, I rereleased Five Deaths, and I was excited to do so. I was excited to talk about it. I was excited to promote it. I was excited to get it in people’s hands. What a glorious feeling.

That leads us to here, to Patreon. Why? Why Patreon? Patreon is a platform for artist, and as I stated before, writing is an art, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes it can be amazing. Patreon allows the artist to offer you, the fans of such an art as writing, the opportunity to get content no one else can get through a subscription. It allows fans to help artists continue to create. It allows the artist more control over the content you receive. It allows the artist to actually make a little money off their work. 

I’ve been in this business a long time. I’ve seen how writing organizations treat those who are not members and it is shameful. I’ve witnessed biasness firsthand. I was once told by a publisher who rejected one of my stories that he would have taken the story if a more well-known author hadn’t sent him one for consideration. Someone had to get booted so the well-known author could have a spot. He went for name recognition over quality of story. Sadly, that happens a lot in this business. 

Admittedly, I see things differently. I feel this business fails its readers more than it should. I won’t kiss butts to get further in this business. I won’t lie to a reader. If I feel my work is not a good fit, I tell the reader. It might cost me a sell, but if it’s not for that person, what are the chances that person will read it to the end? And what are the chances they will ever buy from me again?

I stated earlier without writers there are no publishers. There’s one other thing that goes with that: without readers, there is no reason to write and be published. The most valuable person to a writer is not the publisher, editor, proofer, cover artist, or beta readers. It’s the book buying reader. You are the most important thing to me, as a writer. Without you, then I’m not writing this. 

So, what do you get by subscribing to my Patreon page? Depending on the tier you subscribe to, you get exclusive stories, either in a series format or as stand-alone pieces, once a month. You get first looks at new books, you’re the first to know about new releases and you are the first to see cover art. You get a quarterly print booklet, much like my original Brown Bag Stories or Southern Darkness booklets, mailed to you in February, May, August, and November. You get an exclusive first look at my novel Unbroken Crayons—once a month (over a twelve-month period) a new portion will be posted, and you get it all before it is released. There is a 25% discount on print books. You also get what I call ONE STEP FORWARD—one writer’s journey in this business of writing. You also get a birthday shoutout video from me and your name goes in the Great Big Page of Appreciation at the end of my books. Again, all that depends on what tier you subscribe to. I absolutely must stress that. It’s not free. 

So, if you are here, I thank you. You’ve taken time out of your life, from your daily activities, to come here and read my words. Thank you for your support, here on my Facebook page, and hopefully, over at Patreon.

On January 1st, I will share the link to the Patreon page. Why not now? It’s not quite ready yet, and it won’t be launched until January 1st. I hope you will consider checking it out, and subscribing to one of the four tiers. And please spread the word. Help me build this Patreon page. 

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

A.J.

Coming Soon: Five Deaths

Andrew Colson never intended to kill anyone. The dead that haunted his childhood had other plans.

The first ghost to appear to him was Billy Jumper, a four-year-old special needs child murdered by his stepfather in a drunken fit. Billy was followed by Sarah Lockingham and Janie Whiteside, then the one person who he loved most, his father. 

After the death of a close friend, Andrew learns what the ghosts want from him and sets out to fulfill their needs. In doing so, Andrew discovers a devastating truth that may push him beyond setting things right for the dead. It might lead him to revenge.  

Coming to an e-reader in your hands or get your hard copy on September 13th.

Spread the news. It’s coming.

It Gets the Death Off

4/09/2021

Richard pulled into the driveway and shut off the van. It was an old Ford Econoline that had seen better days, but still ran like a champ. He got out, gave a wave to the three hispanic kids on their bikes in the yard next to his. None of them waved back. One, a small boy named Guillermo, straddled his bike and stared at him. Well, he stared at Richard’s hands, which were stained red all the way to the forearms. 

He unlocked the door and stepped inside, closing it behind him. A few minutes passed before the door opened again. Richard stepped onto the porch with two plastic bottles of clear liquid, and an old sock. He sat on the top step. It hurt to do so—his legs were tired, as were his arms. His lower back held a pinch of pain that nagged at him. Still, he sat just as Mr. Hannahan had all those years ago when he was, maybe, Guillermo’s age.

He glanced to his left. Two of the children were gone, but Guillermo remained. His lower lip had been busted recently and his left eye was bruised and swollen, not quite shut, but enough to probably make it difficult to see. Richard gave a wave. Guillermo didn’t wave back. Richard took a deep breath. He knew where the boy had gotten the damage to his lip and eye and he was willing to bet a year’s paycheck there were other marks in places covered by clothing. How often had he heard the screams coming from next door since the family moved in a year earlier? How many times had he heard the mother begging for mercy in Spanish? How often had the young boy appeared the next day with a black eye, busted lip or even a broken arm (as had been the case about six months earlier)? He shook his head and looked down at his hands and he thought of the old man who lived across the street from him when he was a child.

Mr. Hannahan had been much older than Richard the day the boy finally worked up enough nerve to talk to him. He always wore the same black boots, blue jeans and blue denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. That day was no different. Grooves lined the sides of his nose and mouth and deep crow’s feet seemed to cut into the skin at the corners of his eyes. Gray bags sagged beneath those pale blue peepers. Though his face could have been as old as Father Time, his hands looked strong and he didn’t move like someone at the tail end of life. 

Richard, all of eight-years-old when he worked up the nerve to approach Hannahan had seen him on many occasions come home on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon with an animal in the bed of his beat-up truck. Sometimes, there would be a deer or two, or a raccoon or a wolf. Once, there had been a bear that made the back end of the truck droop. Hannahan managed to get that one out of the truck and around to the back shed with two large hooks, a tarp and a chain, and he did so with relative ease.

The old man sat, not on the top step of his porch, but in a wooden rocker that groaned when he sat down in it. A small, wooden table sat next to the step. On it was a metal can with the words Ginn’s Paint Thinner in red lettering. He held a rag in one hand—it had probably been white when it was first made, but had become a grayish pink color. He tipped the opening of the paint thinner onto the rag quickly, then set it back on the small table. Then he began to wash one hand with it, carefully cleaning each finger, each nail, his wrist and forearm. He flipped the rag over and tipped the paint thinner again. 

That’s when Richard left his yard, looking both ways before crossing the street. He had never stepped foot on Mr. Hannahan’s property, but his fascination had gotten him that day.

“Excuse me, Sir,” Richard said, his voice shaky with nerves.

Hannahan didn’t lift his head, but his eyes shifted from his hands to Richard. He said nothing, but those cool blue eyes said leave me alone

“I’m sorry,” Richard said, believing he had bothered the old man just by being there and even more so by talking to him. He turned to leave, got a few steps away before Hannahan spoke in his deep gruff voice. 

“What is it you want, fellah?”

Richard stopped, his heart suddenly in his throat. He turned to see Hannahan looking straight at him, the rag dangling from his left hand—the clean one. The other hand still mostly red.

“Well?”

Richard swallowed. “Why do you clean your hands with paint thinner?”

Hannahan looked at the metal canister, then at his hands, then back to Richard. “It gets the death off.”

Richard’s heart no longer beat hard in his chest. For several seconds, it didn’t feel like it beat at all. Mr. Hannahan must have seen the look of fear on his face. He smiled, showing hints of old yellow teeth. 

“I hunt, fellah. Every weekend. I gut and skin the animals—nothing goes to waste, ‘cept maybe some of the bones. Thinner gets the blood off better than anything else, including soap and bleach. It doesn’t smell all that bad, either, the way bleach does.”

Though he explained things, Richard didn’t get past It gets the death off. It was the only conversation the two had, but it was still as fresh in his memory as if it had happened yesterday.

That was then. In the hear and now, he opened the paint thinner, tipped the container over so it could soak a portion of the torn sock. He set the thinner on the step and began wiping his left hand. The blood came away easily enough, turning the sock a grayish pink color. He scrubbed around his fingernails. Some blood had gotten under one of the nails and he thought he would have to trim that one. He did the same with the other hand, carefully scrubbing until it was no longer red or pink, but the light tan color of the rest of his arms and neck and face. 

When he was done, he capped the thinner and opened the other bottle—the one with the yellow label that read Alcohol on it in blue letters. Mr. Hannahan had said the thinner smelled better than bleach, but Richard disagreed. The alcohol would help get rid of that smell. Washing his hands with soap and hot water would further get rid of it. It’s what he planned to do when he was done. 

Richard glanced to his left. Guillermo was gone, but his bike lay on its side in the yard. His father’s truck was gone, as well—had been since the night before after his drunken battery of his family. He had half expected the boy to walk over and ask Richard about the thinner, about the red on his hands, but he didn’t. If he would have, Richard would have answered, simply, “It gets the death off.”

AJB

4/09/2021

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy?

(This is a rather long post, one where I talk about some of my writing and how I feel about some of those things. However, this isn’t just about writing. It’s about everything you do in life that brings you joy, which leads to happiness.)

I wrote a book a couple of years ago titled, Simply Put. It’s my thoughts on writing, on the craft, on telling stories, and on the things they don’t tell you coming into this business. They are, simply put, my opinions. It is not a how to book. Sure, there are some tips about writing, things I’ve learned along the way, but it’s not a book that teaches writing stories. I’m not a professor at a college who teaches writing and all its little nuances, so I don’t really feel I am qualified to say, ‘hey, do it this way or it’s wrong.’ Besides, I don’t believe in ‘do it this way or it’s wrong.’

Simply Put was set to come out mid-2020, but when the world went into shutdown mode, I decided to push it, and three other books back to 2021. As I sit here today typing this, I’m not so certain Simply Put is ready to be released. Don’t get me wrong. It’s been edited sixteen times. It’s gone through massive overhauls and rewrites. I’ve even taken a lot of snark out because I don’t think the sarcasm and snark are warranted in many places or will serve a purpose. 

Though a year ago I believed Simply Put was ready, now … now I don’t know if it will ever be ready. I’m not sure how I am going to explain this but let me try.

When I decided to get published—or attempted to—I thought I was a good writer. I was wrong. I had several people tell me I was. They were wrong. Those same people said, ‘you should try to get published.’ They meant well and they stroked my ego by suggesting that. Before I continue, I want you to understand something about writing: don’t listen to people you trust when it comes to publishing. Most of those people say you are a good writer because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. They are lying to you, just as they lied to me. They suggest things like ‘you should get published’ knowing fully you probably won’t pursue that avenue. Unless, of course, you do, and by then it’s too late for them to say, ‘oh, by the way, you really suck.’

Though I was wrong about being a good writer, I wasn’t wrong about being a good storyteller. That I have always been good at. When I really want to tell a story, I can do so with flare and humor and I don’t need the written word to do it. I could have been a comedian and told funny stories to crowds of eight or fewer at open mic night at whatever local bar was open at the time. I could have entertained with the oral word (get your minds out of the gutter …).

I may not have been an even halfway decent writer when I started out—I don’t think anyone is—but one element about it was also what pushed me to try and get published. I enjoyed it. The act of writing was fun and exciting. I could visualize things on the silver screen in my head as I typed or handwrote the words. I could watch events unfold for the first time and have the excitement of it all play out before me. Reaching the end of the story and signing my initials and dating the story always brought me great satisfaction. The accomplishment made me happy, but the process of writing brought me joy.

Publishing was the logical next step, even if others hadn’t suggested it. Again, I believed I was good enough to get published. For the record, you should never be ‘good enough.’ Never. Ever. You should always be good, great, awesome, amazing, brilliant, but not ‘enough.’ Enough is like being second place in a two person contest. I know that sounds harsh, but ‘enough’ is not really good. It’s barely getting by, it’s meeting the minimum to not fail. So, first lesson to this post: Never be just ‘enough.’ Never be average when you can be amazing. Oh, and don’t ask ‘what’s wrong with average?’ or say ‘this is who I am.’ Those are excuses to not try. 

So, I was an average writer wanting to be an above average author who really didn’t know what I was doing and who didn’t take the time to or put in the effort to become a better writer. I was just good enough.

For several years I couldn’t get published. I was rejected time and time again until a now defunct webzine published one of my stories. It was called, Diane’s A Whore and Simeon’s Payback. It was truly atrocious. The title alone makes me cringe now. Ah, but getting that story published made me happy, got me excited. It was like a drug and I wanted more of that euphoric high. 

I wrote more bad stories and got published by more bad webzines looking for content they didn’t have to pay much for. Each time I received an acceptance it fed my addiction to get published again and again and again. Hearing someone wanted to publish one of my stories, then seeing it on the computer screen on a webzine intensified that euphoria.

I continued to write, but this time, I didn’t just write a handful of stories a year. For those who didn’t know me in the early 2000s you might find this hard to believe but From 2006-2009 I wrote an average of 126 short stories a year. That’s not including poems, haiku, songs, limericks, novels, blog posts and all the things I didn’t finish. That’s just short stories. Of those 504 stories, maybe a hundred were good. Maybe half that number were good enough. The rest? Slop. 

Though probably 350 or so of those stories weren’t that great, the process of writing and writing so much in such a short period of time was immensely satisfying. I found great joy in the process of creating characters and putting them in crappy situations to see how they managed to survive if they survived. 

I want you to remember one word in that last paragraph for just a little later. JOY. Forget everything else. Okay, well, don’t forget everything else. Just remember JOY.

In 2010, I changed my entire concept—the very idea—of how I was writing. I wrote less stories, but they were longer and fleshed out and the characters were believable. My enJOYment of writing grew, even as I wrote fewer pieces. 

In January of 2012, my first book, Along the Splintered Path, was published by Dark Continents Publishing. I was excited. I was ecstatic. A publisher wanted to put out a book written by me. Sign me up, buttercup. 

In November and December of 2011 and on into early 2012, I had a serious bout of pneumonia. It was bad. Really, really bad. Though I was so sick I would cough until I threw up, and I couldn’t lay down in my bed for nearly two months, I worked on the edits to ATSP and got them back to my editor as quickly as I could. 

The book came out, the reviews were good, the sales were decent, and I was happy. I did interviews to promote the book and things were looking up. Then someone asked me if I planned to put out anything else. More importantly, they said, ‘In order to stay relevant in this business, you need to constantly have new books for the readers to get their hands on.’

What? Relevant? You mean one very good book isn’t going to catapult me to fame and fortune? 

In October of 2012, I released Southern Bones, a collection of 11 short stories. It was the first time I put out a book myself. The process of putting the stories together, editing and getting cover art and learning to format and upload the ebook, then the print version was exhilarating. I was excited and happy with what I had done. With my second book out there, I thought, ‘hey, I’ll get more readers and things will be even better than they are right now.’

That didn’t happen. I did a handful of interviews, but the book didn’t do that well in either sells or reviews. My happiness waned. ‘It’s a good book,’ I lamented. ‘Why aren’t people buying it?’

‘You need a novel,’ someone answered. 

‘Yeah, that’s the ticket,’ I thought. I already had several novels written, but one in particular, stood out. Cory’s Way came out in December of 2014, just in time for Christmas. It did well. It still does well. It is our best-selling book to date. 

I have put out quite a few books since then, some of which you may have read. Each time a book went out, I was happy. Happy. Happy. 

Happy is a fleeting feeling. You accomplish something and you become happy for a minute, then you have to accomplish something else to keep that happiness. You say to yourself, ‘If I only had more money or a better job or a spouse, I will be happy.’ Then you get a better job and it pays you more money and you meet the man or woman of your dreams while working there and get married. You’re happy for a while. Then it wanes. You don’t like the job as much as you used to, you want a raise, and maybe the things you overlooked while dating the man or woman of your dreams you have a hard time overlooking now. Happiness is such a fleeting feeling. 

Do you remember that word I mentioned a few paragraphs up? If not, scroll up and you will find it. I will wait.

Do you have the word? Okay. Say it with me: JOY.

Joy and being Happy are similar but are two different things. 

Happy is feeling or showing pleasure, contentment, according to the Oxford Languages dictionary. A lot of times happy comes after getting something you want or accomplishing something or even marrying someone. It is also fleeting.

Joy is slightly different: A feeling of pleasure and happiness. What brings you joy? Your job? What is it about your job that brings you that joy? Money? What is it about money that brings you that joy? Your spouse? What is it about your spouse that brings you joy? 

Do you follow me so far? Okay, let’s take this a step further.

Enjoyment is the state or process in taking pleasure in something. Right smack dab in the middle of the word enjoyment is the word JOY. Joy is active during the process of doing something. It is called enjoyment for a reason. What do you enjoy doing? What is it that brings you joy?

For me, for the longest time, it was writing and telling stories. The act of telling a story still excites me. However … let’s go back to another thing I said earlier. ‘In order to stay relevant in this business, you need to constantly have new books for the readers to get their hands on.’

Talk about putting pressure on yourself. I took that to heart when it was told to me. I would get antsy if I went too long without a new release. I got frustrated when the books weren’t selling, or the reviews weren’t coming. I kept asking ‘why?’ and not having any logical answers. I promoted the works and even started promoting months in advance. I checked my Amazon numbers obsessively. I checked to see if there were new reviews daily. I questioned myself on whether the books I released were any good. I revamped my social media pages and turned my blog into a full-blown website, all in hopes of driving people to my various pages and upping the sells of books. 

The happiness of a new release was no longer there. It was replaced with ‘I hope this one does better.’ The addictive euphoria was gone. Still, one thing hadn’t really changed: the joy of the process of writing a new story and creating a new book. It waned some and there was a time or six I thought it had died. It didn’t, but it was on life support.

Happiness is fleeting, but joy is always there, even if we don’t realize it, even if we push it out the way because our pursuits and our goals changed.

I put pressure on myself to create stories people would want to read, to put out books that would be good and do well. I put pressure on myself to get readers and reviews and create posts about books on social media and create marketing materials. A lot of writers do. A lot of writers buy into being relevant. A lot of writers buy into the idea of publishing, so much so, they lose the enjoyment of why they write in the first place. 

Why? Why do we do this? My only answers are money, success and … validation. Yes, validation. Writers need publishers and readers and reviews to validate that they are worth a damn at putting words together. It’s not enough to know we are good at this. We need to be told. And that’s the most damning thing of it all. Validation outside of our own minds is the driving force behind so many writers. 

I love writing. I love telling stories. I love the process of putting word after word after word to create sentences that form paragraphs that lead to worlds being opened in my mind and characters being created. I love the act of writing, the process of writing. It is what I enjoy doing. That never fails for me. 

I do not love publishing. I do not love marketing. I do not enjoy the obsession of reviews and hoping readers will find me. 

Creating … creating brings me massive enjoyment. No, it’s not a euphoric high like publishing used to be for me. But it brings me such satisfaction that I want the world to read my stories. 

Recently on Facebook I posted part of a review for my dark collection of stories, Voices. The review was from Scream Magazine and it was extremely good—one of the best reviews I have ever received. Yet sells and more than a handful of reviews didn’t happen for Voices. I was frustrated that one of the best collections I’ve put together had done so poorly. It took the words of a long-time friend and someone I admire to set my mind where it needed to be, to make me think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Here is what my friend, Frank, said:

‘I say that is an excellent review and you shouldn’t overthink it. Unless, of course, what you lust after most in your authorial life is to write for “everyone.”’ And then, ‘Provided you’re content with the quality of what you’ve done … The review you posted flat out confirms you were right about the collection, no ifs ands or buts. The rest is just a crapshoot outside of your control.’

The idea of publishing is grand, and everyone now has the capability of doing it themselves if they choose not to go through a publisher. The idea of publishing so often leads to the need of validation from publishers, readers and other authors who can give us blurbs and help us push our books. The idea of publishing has also ruined the dreams of many writers. Outside of the actual writing and publishing, everything is a crapshoot outside of your control. As writers we overthink things and so many of us small press writers are left scratching our heads and asking ‘why?’

After writing the last 2600 words I no longer believe Simply Put is ready to be released. There needs to be an understanding that you should never let publishing a book or lack of sells and reviews hinder the enjoyment of writing and telling the story. But this isn’t just about writing. It’s about life. Don’t let anything hinder what you enjoy doing. Joy is an active thing. You can actively be joyful and when you are, happiness follows and tends to last longer. And isn’t that what we all want in life? Joy and happiness?

I am writing some of the best stories I have ever written. That joy of writing had been on life support, but now it’s off the respirator and getting its strength back. The joy of creating a book is back and there are several in the works with titles such as The Color of Sorrow and Grim as well as a possible three book set down the road. I still enjoy the process—I’m probably more excited than I have been in a while to create books, then release them. I think you’re going to like what’s coming, starting with Five Deaths on January 12th. I also think everything outside of writing the story is a crapshoot. 

If you’re doing something you used to love and you now longer love it, then you, like me, have probably altered your plans and goals and have forgotten what brings you joy. Be joyful in what you do. It leads to the happiness we all desire, but it also shows in your work. Readers and fans of any type of art can tell when something is forced and when the love of it is gone.

This has been one of the longest post I’ve written, and if you are still here, thank you for indulging me. 

Until we meet again my friends, be joyful, kind and happy.

A.J. 

The Story of Orville Hammonds

The old man was tired. He walked up the road with a limp and slightly hunched over. It felt like it had been years since he sat at the table with a sandwich in front of him, though it had only been less than five hours. 

The old man’s name was Orville Hammonds and before that night he didn’t feel old. He considered himself a youthful sixty-three. But right then, he felt like a used up eighty-one, with aches and pains he didn’t normally feel on a daily basis.

I’ll be feeling this tomorrow, he thought and continued his slow trek up West Lincoln Drive, a road he never considered a drive at all, more like a Street—a dead end street. To his left is where the Taylor’s lived. On the right is where the widow Lawson lived, she of ninety plus years who still got along like she was his age and not almost thirty years his senior. 

He looked up the road and he remembered.

Orville arrived home from work that evening a little after six, having made a stop at Jerry’s Deli on West End Street. He got the Jerry Special, complete with ham, turkey, chicken and sliced pepper jack. Jerry tossed on lettuce, tomato and a homemade mustard that was better than anything Orville could get from a store. A bag of chips and a sweet tea came with the special, as well as a cookie—chocolate chip for Orville. 

He didn’t bother with changing his clothes or even taking the heavy work boots off. Though he no longer did much construction, he still oversaw half a dozen projects for Mr. McGuinn and still wore steel toed boots and carried a sharp knife in his back pocket. Orville sat at the table, a small pinch alive in the right side of his back, thanks to a seventeen foot drop off a scaffolding six years earlier. The broken back was bad, but the spinal cord wasn’t damaged. Four surgeries and hours of physical therapy later and he went back to work, just not climbing ladders or scaffolds. 

Orville set his cell phone by the sandwich, took the top off his tea, and set it aside before taking a long swallow from the cup. The tea was good—not too sweet the way Alice made it when she lived here. He started to unwrap the sandwich when a knock came at the door. He looked at his watch. It was nearing seven and he rarely had company. Still, he stood, went to the door, and opened it just as the person on the other side went to knock again. 

He started to say something like, ‘Can I help you?’ but stopped when he saw the gun. He glanced up. The person on his porch had an Iron Main mask on.

“Halloween’s not for another two months, Mister.”

Iron Man held the gun up, pointing it at Orville’s face. “Get inside.”

Orville raised his hands in a surrender gesture and stepped from the door. Iron Man entered the house and closed the door behind him. 

“I don’t know what you want, but—”

Iron Man swung the gun. It struck Orville in the left cheek. A flair of pain erupted. The skin split and blood spilled from the wound, Orville’s head jerked to the right and he spun on his heel before losing his balance and falling to the floor. He raised his hand to touch the wound. He could already feel swelling below his eye. Another explosion of pain came, this time near his right ear. 

Orville collapsed and his world ran away from him.

He woke with a headache and his left eye swollen nearly shut. He could feel wetness on his cheek and jaw and soaked through the shoulder of his shirt. His head was down, chin on his chest, as if he had bowed to pray. He tried to move his arms, but they were bound behind his back. His right ear had a low ringing in it that hurt as much as his head and cheek did, if not more. Orville blinked his right eye several times trying to blink away the fog and confusion in his head.

“About time you woke up,” someone said.

Orville lifted his head slowly and winced as a fresh pain blossomed in his neck and the back of his skull. He closed his good eye, lowered his head again and waited for the pain to ease off. 

“I thought I killed you back there.”

The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it with the ringing in his ear.

How did I get here? he thought and tried to recall the last thing he could. It was still hazy, but he knew it had something to do with Halloween and some superhero. 

A hand grabbed Orville’s chin and lifted his face. The man half kneeling in front of him wasn’t wearing a mask.

He was Iron Man, Orville thought. He was Iron Man and now he’s not even Tony Stark.

“Hey, old man. Did I scramble your brains or are you with me here?”

He recognized the face. It was thin, as if the man in front of him had missed a few meals. His nose was too big for his face and pointy at the end. His eyes were as thin as his face and body was. Sparse hairs clung to his upper lip, chin and along his jawline. He looked like a weasel in human skin. His left arm had needle marks in it.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yeah.” 

Orville sounded weak, like someone so much older than he was. 

“Good,” the man said and released Orville’s face but not without giving it a good shove to the side. 

White dots filled Orville’s vision as the throbbing in the back of his head increased. His stomach did a somersault, then quivered. Orville swallowed hard, hoping to keep what little he had in his stomach from coming up. He took a deep breath, licked his dry lips, and forced himself to look up.

“I know you,” he said. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say, but it came out anyway.

“Or course you do, old man.”

“You’re Crawford.” Orville shook his head slightly. That was wrong. “Your last name is Crawford. Your dad used to work for the county.”

“He used to. He’s dead now.”

Orville blinked several times. The vision in his right eye had begun to clear and he knew where he was: the dining room in Gary Crawford’s house at the end of the road. The wood dining table sat in front of him, covered in papers and various odds and ends, including a laptop that sat closed, a ledger, a penholder with various pens and a letter opener sitting inside of it. Orville didn’t sit quite behind the table but slightly off to the side. His hands were loosely bound between his back and the chair. He could see the doorway that led to the kitchen and the bright white light coming from it. If what Crawford’s son said was true, then Gary was dead, and Orville probably was as good as dead.

“What?” Crawford asked. “You’re not going to ask how he died?”

Orville gave a short shake of the head. “No.”

“Suit yourself, old man.”

“What do you want?” His voice was getting stronger. His head was clearing with each passing minute.

“What do I want? You want to know what I want, old man?”

“That’s what I asked.”

He could see Crawford fine now. He looked more like a weasel than he could ever recall. He guessed that was because this kid—what was his name?—had always been some kind of trouble. Gary had told him as much over the years. ‘That kid’s got problems. He’s going to be a handful when he’s older.’ And he had been, getting in trouble with the law on many occasions, the least of which was DUI and reckless driving. There had been a drug arrest as well and sitting there in Gary Crawford’s kitchen, his hands bound behind his back, he had a feeling drugs might have played a part in his actions that night.

Orville, moved his wrist, trying to keep his shoulders still but not certain he did a good job of it. The rope was looser than he thought, and he believed he could eventually work one hand free. If he could do that …

Then what? What are you going to do? The kid has a gun.

I don’t see it.

You saw it earlier, when you opened the door like an idiot.

He conceded to that rationale. 

“An old man like you,” Crawford began, “I bet you have a nice little savings, don’t you?”

If he were to tell the truth, Orville didn’t really have a nice little savings. When Alice filed for divorce shortly after the accident, she took a lot of his money and assets with him. He got the house, but only because she didn’t want it. Ellen, their daughter had been angry with her mom.

‘You’re abandoning Dad when he needs you most.’

‘This was a long time coming, Ellie,’

‘His back is broken, What is he going to do?’

He heard the argument while laying in the hospital bed, having been there all of eleven days at that point. They thought he had been asleep. 

‘I’ll be fine,’ he said.

Both women turned to him. Ellen’s eyes were wet with tears. Alice had a shocked drop-jaw look on her face. Then she clamped her mouth shut and left the room. It was the last time Orville saw her outside of a courtroom. 

“I have a little,” he said. “Is that what this is about? Money?”

“Isn’t that what everything’s about?”

“No.”

“Really, old man?”

“I wish you’d stop calling me old man.”

“That’s what you are, an old, washed up man. You couldn’t even keep your wife. At least my mom died, and my dad didn’t lose her the way you did.”

Orville said nothing to this.

“Didn’t like that, eh, old man?”

“Not particularly.”

Crawford laughed, his head tipping. As suddenly as he began laughing, he stopped, approached Orville with a sneer on his face. “It’s not about money, old man,” he said before swinging a fist at him. The chair tipped back. For the second time that night, Orville was on the floor unconscious.

***

When Ellen was thirteen, she began showing signs of the woman she would become. Some of the young boys in her class noticed. One of the older boys did as well. This boy was seventeen and had taking a shine to Ellen. Alice thought it was cute, said, ‘It’s just puppy love.’

‘Puppy love is what kids get. That boy is no kid.’

‘He’s harmless.’

‘He’s almost an adult.’

It was one of those arguments where there was no winner and no loser, but it was one of many wedges that would drive Alice and Orville apart, even if they stayed married longer than they should have. 

Still, Orville had an uneasy feeling about the boy, about the way he looked at her. He knew that look and he knew it wasn’t puppy love. It was only a matter of time before something would happen. This much he was positive of. And he had been right.

Ellen woke one night to someone peeking into her window. She was too afraid to yell. Instead, she crawled out of bed and slowly left the room as if she needed to pee. She had closed the door and ran up the hall to their bedroom. She didn’t turn the lights on, and she didn’t scream. She only said, ‘Dad, there’s someone outside my window.’

Orville got out of bed, put on a pair of pants and said, ‘Go get in bed. Act like you don’t know he’s there. I’ll take care of it.’

He put on his boots and grabbed a small baseball bat he got at a minor league baseball game in Columbia. It wasn’t much longer than a foot, but it was solid and when he caught the boy outside her window, it only took one swing to the back for him to go down. 

That boy was Brady Crawford.

***

Orville was only unconscious for a few minutes before he woke. He was on the floor where he had fallen, the chair to his side and his hands still behind his back. He remembered the boy’s name now. Brady Crawford. He also knew why he was there. No, it wasn’t about money, though he supposed in some way it was. If not, Brady wouldn’t have brought it up before knocking him out again. This was also about revenge for being caught outside Ellen’s window nearly twenty years earlier. 

Some people have long memories.

Orville looked around the dining room and saw no one, at least not from where he was. He rolled onto his back, winced when he got onto his other hip. No one was there. Orville tried to sit up but that did no good. Instead, he rolled back onto his other side off his bad hip and leg and started working his wrists from side to side, hoping the rope would loosen even more than it was. 

The rope burned against his skin as he pulled at it until finally one wrist tore free. He pushed up to a sitting position. His shoulders hurt. His wrists bled. His left elbow was swollen where he had fallen from the chair. 

Get up. Get out of here.

Orville got onto his knees. He reached for the table with one hand and began to pull himself up. He was halfway to standing when his back seized up on him. Orville let out a cry of pain and dropped back to his hands and knees. Without being able to stand, he didn’t think there was any way he would make it out of there. Not in the pain he was in. 

I have to try.

He tried to remember the layout of the house. It had been a long time since he had been there and that had been when Gary’s wife, Janet, died. 

I’m in the dining room. The kitchen is straight ahead. There is a doorway off to the right, no, the left. The living room is there. To the right is a hallway? I can’t remember but that doesn’t matter—the front door is across from the doorway to the kitchen. I need to get there.

If he were able to stand and walk, he could be there in half a minute at most. But there would be no walking. Not right now.

Orville turned toward the kitchen door and began to crawl. It was slow going. Every time he moved his right leg, his back and hip screamed with a fresh, sharp pain that almost took his breath away. 

Thirty seconds had come and gone several times over when he reached the entrance to the kitchen. The overhead light washed the room in a yellow hue. The refrigerator stood directly to his right and the stove was across from it. He didn’t look around to see what else was in there, or if someone were hiding. He crawled across the gray tiled floor until he reached the doorway leading to the living room. 

The light was off, but he could make out the couch along the far wall, the television to his left, the hallway to his right and the recliner near the front door. His heart sped up. Someone sat in the recliner, his head tilted toward him. He didn’t think it was Brady—the person in the chair was too big. 

He remained in the doorway for a minute, maybe longer, waiting for the person in the recliner to move, to say something, to get up and attack him but none of that happened. 

He must be asleep.

Orville eased out of the kitchen and into the living room. He crawled slowly toward the door, his eyes on the person in the recliner, his heart trip hammering in his chest and sweat beading across his forehead. He held his breath for as long as possible, then let it out in what he hoped was a silent stream. He was halfway across the room by the time his eyes adjusted to the light and he was able to make out Gary Crawford in the recliner. He wasn’t asleep and he wasn’t looking at Orville. One eye was open, but the other one was missing. What looked like blood caked the right side of his face. Gary Crawford was dead, just like Brady said he was. 

Orville crawled again, a little faster than before, even with the incessant pain running along the right side of his body. He reached the door and grabbed the knob. It turned easily enough but the door didn’t open. He pulled on it again with no luck. He looked up. There was a bolt lock near the top of the door.

Oh boy.

Orville put his left hand on the wall and his right on the doorknob, He pulled himself up enough to get his right leg under him, then he pushed up. He grimaced. The pain increased and his stomach began to hurt. Orville hugged the door and wall in front of him, both hands up, his face against the cool wood of the door. Then he reached up, slid the bolt to the right. It let out a loud click that made him flinch. He grabbed the knob and turned it.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

He heard Brady before he felt the pain in his lower back. He let out a yell and clutched the small of his back before his legs buckled and dropped him to the floor again. He rolled onto his side, his eyes clenched shut, his lips peeled back, showing his yellowing teeth. 

“I bet that hurt, didn’t it, old man?”

Orville opened his good eye to see Brady towering over him. In his hand was a familiar object. It was the same bat Orville had struck Brady with all those years ago as he stood outside Ellen’s window, groping himself and no doubt fantasizing about the things he wanted to do to her. 

Brady smacked his open hand with the barrel of the bat. It made a meaty THWACK sound each time he did so. 

“Oh, look what I found at your house.” Brady held up the bat, waving it near his head before bringing it back down on his open palm again. “Bet you didn’t expect that, did you, old man?”

Orville said nothing. He had a feeling that would not be the only time Brady would strike him with the bat and the next time it may not be in the back. He stared at Brady as he slipped his right hand behind his back and into the back pocket of his jeans. 

“I see you found Dad.”

“What did you do to him?” He didn’t think it mattered. He could see what had happened, but maybe getting Brady to talk could buy him time. 

“Are you blind? I killed him. Shot him in the eye with his own gun. You know, kind of like I hit you in your back with your bat. Talk about turn about is fair play.”

Orville gripped the knife in his right hand and slowly pulled it free from his pocket. He turned it over in his palm until it was in his hand correctly and his thumb was on the blade assist button that would spring the knife open, not unlike a switchblade. 

Brady tapped his hand again, then without warning, brought the bat across the side of Orville’s left leg. It struck just above the knee in the fatty part of the thigh. Orville screamed again and grabbed for his leg. He saw Brady’s arm go back again and moved his hand just before the bat struck his leg again, this time a little further up. 

Orville tried to move but could only manage to squirm a few inches. Again, he saw Brady’s arm go back. He swung again for the thigh, striking it in the same place as the last time. Orville tried not to scream but still did, even as he grabbed the bat’s barrel and yanked. 

Brady tipped off balance with a sentence that was clipped off when he landed on the floor beside Orville. “What the …”

Orville brought the knife from behind his back and drove it into Brady’s side. It sank between two ribs.

This time, Brady screamed. It was loud and painful sounding, like a dog that had its tail snipped off. Brady rolled to the side. He dropped the bat and grabbed at the wound. 

“You … you stabbed me.”

Orville said nothing. His leg and back and hip hurt, and the pain was almost blinding. 

“You stabbed me.”

Orville sat up the best he could and scooted away from him, pushing with his right leg as the useless left one dragged along. His back struck the door. From there he could see Brady was also sitting up. One hand held his ribs. Blood seeped between the fingers. 

“I’m going to kill you, old man, and it’s going to hurt.”

Brady started to stand but stopped. He looked around until he found what he was looking for. He smiled and picked up the bat. 

Orville scooted to his right and put one hand on the recliner. By the time he had the other one on the recliner—on Gary Crawford’s cold, dead arm—Brady was to his feet. 

Brady shook his head as he smiled at Orville. He held the bat in both hands and raised it over his head. 

Oh crap.

Orville lifted his left arm, his hand out in front of him. He swung his right hand forward as the bat struck three fingers. Orville howled as two of the fingers broke. Brady screamed as the knife struck him in the crotch. Brady dropped to his knees then fell onto his side. The bat clattered against the floor. Both of Brady’s hands went to his crotch and he rolled from side to side, his legs pulled to his chest. 

Orville still held the knife in his hand. Blood dripped from its blade, but it was the bat he wanted. He wiped the blood from the blade and closed it with his one good hand and slipped it into his back pocket. Carefully, he bent down, his lips pulled back from his teeth as bolts of pain coursed through his back, hip, thigh and knee. He crawled the few feet to where Brady rolled around holding his privates as blood spilled between his fingers.

***

On the night Brady peeked through Ellen’s window, probably not for the first time but certainly the last, Orville wanted to kill him. He had warned Alice about the boy, but she thought he was overreacting. He didn’t kill him. No, he only struck him the one time in the lower back. It was enough to send Brady to the ground, screaming and crying. 

What Orville did after that was call the police. He didn’t know if it would matter, but he hoped it would deter Brady from ever peeping into a female’s window again. More than that, he hoped it broke him of possibly becoming a sexual predator. 

Gary Crawford came down a few days later to apologize.

‘He’s going to spend a few weeks at The Mannassah Hall Institute for Boys.’

‘I hate that it came to this.’

‘Me, too, and I really am sorry.’

It was the last conversation Gary and Orville would have until Janet died. He hoped the boy would turn the corner and do better, if not for himself, then for his parents. 

He was wrong.

***

On the evening Brady Crawford killed his dad with his own gun and kidnapped Orville with plans to do something similar, Orville Hammond brought the foot long souvenir bat down on Brady’s head and arms, until both arms were broken and Brady was both still and silent. He tossed the bat aside and dropped to the floor. He lay there for several minutes, his eyes closed. He felt himself fading toward sleep. 

“No.”

Orville struggled to stand, but he managed by using the armrest of the recliner and the wall for leverage. He looked back at Brady and shook his head. Then he opened the front door and slowly shambled outside. He stood on the porch looking up at the night sky. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen. Stars hung like ornaments on the black backdrop. The moon wasn’t quite full, and it looked like a giant spotlight in the sky. He didn’t think he would see another night and maybe he won’t after this one, but the moon and stars were beautiful. It was as if he saw them for the first time. 

It took him several minutes to get down the steps, then several more to make it to the end of the sidewalk and into the road. 

Orville turned to his right. His house was twelve houses away. He took a deep breath, released it and started for home. He limped along, slightly hunched over trying to alleviate the pain in his back any way possible but failing miserably. He reached his house sometime after midnight, but he would swear more than five hours had passed since he sat to eat a sandwich from Jerry’s Deli.

It was a struggle to get up the steps but not get inside. The door had been unlocked and the lights left on. The living room had been ransacked and he bet if he searched the house, the other rooms would have been just as turned upside down. 

Orville went into the small room that served as both den and dining room. His tea, sandwich and cellphone sat where he left them. The top to the cup lay beside the cellphone. Orville sat at the table, picked up his phone and dialed 9-1-1. He gave the dispatcher—a woman who sounded like she gargled with razor blades on more than one occasion—the information on two dead bodies as well as his address. He figured the cops would want to talk to him about what happened, and he was okay with that. He might even get in trouble for what he had done to Brady. He guessed he wasn’t so okay with that one. 

As he sat at the table, he carefully unwrapped the sandwich, the broken fingers making it difficult. He heard sirens off in the distance as he took the first bite.

AJB

Right Now: Harris and Hunter

Life is about change, Everything in life changes from birth to death. Change is important … Hmmm … I have a feeling I might use those three sentences again real soon.

I start this off with that first sentence for a reason. Most of you know me as A.J. Brown. That is not a pen name. Those are my initials and that is my real last name. However, when I started writing, I didn’t write under my initials. I wrote under the name given to me at birth, shortened to what most folks call me: Jeff. 

My first thirty-nine publications all came under the name Jeff Brown. It’s not the coolest name and there is even a punk song with my name as the title by Mi6. It’s not very flattering. And, no, the song is not about me. 

Back in 2004, I submitted a story titled, The Woodshed, to a publication called The Butchershop Quartet. It was an anthology of four stories put out by Boyd Harris and Cutting Block Press. I wanted so bad to get into this publication.

I didn’t make it in. I honestly don’t believe I came close to making the cut. However, when Harris sent the rejection notice, he didn’t send the dreaded form reject. He wrote me a little letter. I can’t remember it word for word, but here is the gist of it:

“I think you have good ideas, but you don’t have the skills to pull them off.”

No, that is not an insult. That is just honesty. And it wasn’t worded quite like that. Harris was nicer in his assessment. Looking back now, he was right. But he didn’t just make a critical point about my writing. He invited me to an online writers’ group called Zoetrope Virtual Studios. It was my first foray into social media, but it was in a web forum style. The name of the group was +The Horror Library+.

I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t sure about it. I wanted to become a better writer, but I didn’t know Harris. For all I knew he could have been some psychopathic serial killer. Thankfully, he wasn’t. 

I joined Zoetrope under the name of A. Jefferson Brown. Sounds kind of distinguished, but that wasn’t what I was going for. To this day, I still don’t know why I chose that username, but it wasn’t to sound distinguished. Once I joined THL, I sat in the shadows and read a lot of posts from writers who were way better than me. I was thoroughly intimidated. I was out of my league.

It was eye opening. 

These writers did something I thought was crazy. They posted rough drafts of their stories and had other writers and editors tear them apart. What type of sorcery is this? After a while I was encouraged by a couple of writers to post something I wrote and let them read it. It was then that I realized I wasn’t that good of a writer. I didn’t have the confidence in my words to submit one of my stories for others to criticize. I had thin skin and I only wanted people to praise my stories. 

I had been pretending up to that point. I wasn’t a writer. I wanted to be, but I couldn’t say I was a writer. Not after realizing how little confidence I had in my work. But I made it a point to get better. In making that decision, I chose a story I had written called Black Cancer. They tore that story up so bad it should have been considered a crime scene. 

Over the next couple of years, I submitted more stories, participated in contests, asked these better writers questions about how to do things, and I worked, worked, worked on the craft of writing. From 2005-2008, I wrote nearly 500 short stories and two novels. Over half of those stories were experiments in writing. 

During that time, I became friends with some great people. Boyd Harris was just one of them. There was Fran Friel, who is like a big sister to me. Chris Perridas, who my wife and I hung out with at Waverly Hills Sanitorium in Kentucky. Petra Miller, John Mantooth, Michael Dixon, Erik Smetena, Dameion Becknell, who might be might twin in theological beliefs, Steve Sommerville, Michelle Garren Flye, Jamie Sunshine, C.J. Hurt, John Lovero, Frank Hutton, all of whom pointed me in one direction or other (even if they don’t know it).

Then there is Bailey Hunter. Bailey allowed me to be myself within the group. She was funny and had no problems letting me asks her questions. She’s smart and the owner of Dark Recesses Press, who I always wanted to put a book out with. Maybe one day I will. She was also the web admin for +The Horror Library.Net+. She was a member of the Terrible Twelve. She encouraged me more than everyone except for Fran. 

Bailey is also responsible for A.J. Brown.

In 2006, two of my stories were accepted for publication with THL.Net (A Bone White Hand in March, and Drainers in June). In June, I became a contributor to THL.Net. That meant I got my name on the site. Bailey input the information and after my story had been workshopped with the Terrible Twelve members, it went up. That story was Bone Yard

When Bone Yard went live, I went to the website to check it out. In the place where my name was supposed to be was A.J. Brown. I smiled. I have always wanted to go by my initials. One of my favorite football players when I was a kid was A.J. Duhe, a middle linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. I still don’t know why she put my initials up, but I contacted her and asked her about it. She apologized and said she would change it. I think I yelled, NO! out loud. I didn’t yell it in my message to her. I just said, no, leave it.

From that day on, I have written under the name of A.J. Brown. 

I’ve lost touch with a lot of the writers I learned from in the early 2000’s, but Bailey and I still keep in contact, thanks to social media. As of this writing, she is getting married soon. I wish her a ton of happiness in that marriage. 

Though I haven’t heard from Boyd in a long time, I can point to me submitting to his anthology and his rejection letter as the cornerstone for me being the writer you guys love. Or, at least, I hope you love. I can point to Bone Yard and the name attributed to the story as the beginning of A.J. Brown. It was the thing that gave me confidence in my words. After that, I’ve had no problems showing people my stories. 

Boyd Harris, wherever you are, thank you. You put me on the path I follow to this day. To Bailey Hunter, thank you for mistakenly putting A.J. Brown on that first story. It stuck and that’s a good thing.

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

A.J.

Treats at the Aver Residence

If you are wondering, yes, this story has appeared here before. It’s been rewritten half a dozen times and it is still one of my favorite holiday stories.

I want to tell you something real quick before you read on, especially if you have never read this piece before. The character of Cade Aver is the creation of S. Copperstone. When she created it I was actually miffed that I didn’t come up with it. I mean, Cadaver, really? I asked her if I could use the character for a story. She said, ‘yes,’ and she was extremely gracious about it.

Every once in a while it will get republished, or as was the case a couple weeks ago, I did a live reading of it. I always check with her and she is always cool about it.

I hope you enjoy Treats at the Aver Residence, and to S. Copperstone, thank you again.

1

“They’re going to love this year’s treat,” Cade said, giddily. He moved around the large steel table with a carving knife in hand.  His milky eyes dazzled in the yellow glow of the overhead lights. 

“What do you think, Mr. Mason?”

On the table lay Mr. Mason, covered by a sheet up to his chin. The man squirmed. His arms and legs pulled on the restraints that held him. His eyes were wide orbs, glassy and full of fear, a bruise beneath the left one. His dark hair was ruffled.

Cade lifted one eyebrow. His face loomed over Mason’s. “What? No response?” He shook his head, the joy of the time of year—the very day—coursed through his veins.“ Brighten up, Mr. Mason. It’s Halloween—the greatest day of the year.”

He checked the I.V. line running into Mason’s arm. The steady drip told him Mr. Mason would be flying high soon enough, but not too high. Mr. Mason certainly didn’t want to miss out on the festivities.

“All those years of being a surgeon come in handy this time of year, don’t you think?”

Cade looked down into Mason’s green eyes. The man blinked, and a stray tear fell down the side of his face. He let out a groan, not one of pain, but fear. Cade was certain if the white cloth shoved into his mouth wasn’t there, Mason would scream for all he was worth—and at that moment, he may not have been worth much more than a cheap bottle of wine to any drunk on the side of the road, but he was worth all the candy in the world to Cade.

“Don’t worry—you will only feel a moderate amount of pain, and for only a few seconds, maybe a minute, and then you’ll pass out.” He stroked Mason’s sweaty cheek, lovingly, as if he cared for the man before him. Cade’s eyes grew tender, his smile softened. “Then you won’t feel anything at all. At least until the children arrive.”

Mason shook his head, his eyes filling with tears. He strained to move. The veins on his forehead and along his throat, bulged against his skin.

“Stick around, Mr. Mason,” Cade almost sung, then patted Mason’s face. “It’s going to be a wonderful Halloween.”

2

In their homes, children sang and danced. Their mothers painted their off colored skin whatever shade of pale, brown or black they chose. Halloween shows like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Monster House, played on the television, and those who were finished with their dinners sat and watched until the sun began to set.  

The anticipation made some of them bounce in their seats. Toes tapped. Fingers drummed. Betsy Wallabanger’s teeth fell out twice, and each time she put them back in she had to adjust her lipstick. Excitement hung in the air like a thick fog on an early fall morning.

3

“Would you like a smiley face or a frown? Or maybe a really scary face?” 

Mason shook his head and moaned.

“Hmm … none of those? I have templates this year—got them cheap at the WalGreens in town. They practically gave them to me.” Cade rubbed the blade of his knife against the side of his head.  A small flap of skin peeled back, and a few strands of dirty brittle hair flaked to the floor. Blood spilled down the side of his face. “Wow, that’s sharp—I guess I should be careful where I put it.”

Cade pulled the sheet away like a magician putting on a show. A pair of red underwear covered Mason’s privates. Other than that he was nude.  His belly was plump, the signs of a man who liked to eat well.  

“I hope you don’t mind, but I shaved your body while you were asleep. You had a lot of hair, and you know how kids are—most of them just don’t like hair on their treats. But I didn’t shave your head. Some of them like to keep scalps for souvenirs these days. I wouldn’t want to disappoint the few traditionalists still out there.”

Mason shook his head and let out a yell that was muffled by the cloth. He chewed on the rag as if trying to eat it so he could cry for help.

“I’m sorry you don’t approve, but you needed the shave. What’s done is done—you’ll just have to get over it.”  

Cade set the knife on a counter behind him and rifled through the templates. “Frankenstein? Oh, how about Shrek—he used to be popular with the kids.” 

After going through all the patterns, he set them down, and picked up a black marker. “None of those will do. Not for you, Mr. Mason. I’ll just have to come up with something on my own.”

He stood over Mason’s ample belly and drew an odd oval just below the ribs. He drew a second oval, then a triangle around Mason’s belly button. Cade tapped his temple with the marker and looked up at the ceiling. Many images ran through his head. Then the right one came to mind.  A smile creased his face.  

“Oh, you are going to love this.”

He drew the large squiggly line below the triangle, then brought it down close to his waistband of his underwear. Cade picked up the knife and looked at Mason. “Are you ready for this?”

Mason screamed as Cade plunged the knife into his stomach.

4

“Come on, let’s get into your costumes.”  

Children squealed with joy when the mothers beckoned them to get ready for the festivities. They hurried to their rooms and donned their outfits. They were vampires and werewolves, neither of which sparkled or walked around shirtless. They were witches with warts on their noses and brooms by their sides. They were zombies—oh so many of them were zombies. Betsy Wallabanger dressed up as a corpse bride, her hair jutting this way and that way, her outfit a natural dirty shade, complete with stains across the front. Her mother had worn that very costume when she was Betsy’s age. There were no princesses or Batmans or video game stars. There were no cute little lions, tigers or bears, oh my. There was an Alice and she carried a bucket shaped like the tardy rabbit’s head that dripped blood every few steps she took.

They practiced the chants they learned from Halloweens past. Their voices rang up to the ceilings and none were off key.

“Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.”

Some of the older kids added extra verses. “If you don’t, I won’t cry. I’ll slit your throat and then you’ll die.”

Mothers gave approving looks and fathers ruffled the enthusiastic heads of the extra verse singers.

There were no idle threats of ‘behave or else.’ Those were reserved for parents in towns where Halloween was more of a burden than a rite of passage. Besides, the kids in Dreads Hollow knew the parents would never stick to their threats of no haunting the neighborhood if they behaved—it was just as much fun for the adults as it was for the children. Then there was always the one house at the end of Corpse Avenue that did something different each year. If anything, the parents wanted to see how Mr. Aver had decorated. If there were no haunts for the kids, there was no visiting the Aver residence for the adults.

5

Cade pulled away part of the flesh of Mason’s stomach. He bit down on a piece of it, chewed and nodded. “Tasty,” he said. Blood dripped down his chin. He wiped at it absently.

He looked inside Mason’s stomach.  He had deadened the nerves and cauterized the flesh where he had carved away the precious meat. Blood still flowed from the chest cavity and Mason still breathed, though shallow as it was. The carved face was gruesome, but Cade hadn’t finished. He left a long slit beneath the reamed out mouth. A mesh was sewn in place, holding Mason’s intestines in.

Cade looked down at the man who had once said, ‘Halloween is for the devil’s children.’ He wanted to correct him—oh Halloween was so much more than for the offspring of Satan, it was for everyone, young and old, tall and small. The day didn’t so much matter, but the spirit of Halloween, that’s what drove Cade and every other person who loved the day so much to celebrate it. He slapped Mr. Mason’s face gently with a bloodied glove, leaving four red imprints on his face. “Stay with me, Mr. Mason. Your moment is coming soon, and you won’t want to miss it.”

Cade carefully moved Mason’s body onto a gurney he had procured from one of the medical catalogues he still received, though he hadn’t practiced his once chosen profession in well over seventy years. Mason moaned and opened his eyes. Gray bags clung beneath them and he seemed to stare off at the ceiling, not noticing Cade at all. A few seconds later, his eyes slid shut and he was unconscious to the world around him. Cade pushed the gurney through the house and onto the front porch.  

Out in the fresh autumn air, Cade took a deep breath. The cool air filled his throat but burned his ancient lungs. 

“I love this time of year.”  

He worked like a cautious burglar, careful not to set any alarms off and give himself away. In Cade’s case, he was careful not to jar Mason’s body and have his efforts ruined by an act of clumsiness. He slid his arms under Mason’s legs and back and carried him down the steps. Cade sat him on a sturdy lawn chair, not bothering to brush off the leaves that had fallen on it or the spider web that hung between one armrest and the seat. The spider on the web crawled from one sticky line to another until it sat on Mason’s forearm. 

Back inside, Cade grabbed the accessories, chip wrappers and empty beer cans. He littered the area around Mason with the garbage and placed one of the cans in the man’s hand.

Cade stepped back and looked at his creation. The backdrop of his old house with its warped steps, shuttered windows and flaking paint would give anyone from outside of Dreads Hollow the creeps. Those people would cautiously walk away, their eyes not wavering from the sight before them, or they would run as if their hair was on fire. Cade smiled and shook with something akin to lust. His body tingled. His heart raced with excitement.

6

They walked the streets of the neighborhood, clothed in their homemade outfits and masks. Each child’s eyes beamed with excitement as they went from door to door. The welcome lights shone brightly at each house, luring the kids to knock and speak their chants. Neighbors opened doors, smiled and played along. They oohhed and ahhed at the costumes; they told the children how scary and terrifying, and even how sickening they were; they gave them treats of lady fingers and animal eyes, of hair necklaces and cooked tongues.

“I got a rock,” one kid said when he left each house.  

Tunes of Trick or Treat rang throughout the night until they reached the Aver residence at the end of Corpse Avenue. A dim bulb hung from the porch’s ceiling. It cast shadows that looked like pointy fingers stretching across the ground. Cade stood on the porch, his face covered by a mask made from the skin of Mason’s stomach.  

Children approached the house. Their bodies hummed with anticipation and their eyes darted about the yard. Mason sat in the shadows near the porch, one hand wrapped around the beer can. He moaned weakly. The children stopped. Some of the parents leaned into get a better look. 

“I call this Drunk Man,” Cade said and flipped a switch that lit up the yard.  

Loud gasps echoed through the night as parents and children alike took in Cade’s work.  Mason’s stomach had been carved out as if it were a normal pumpkin face, the lining of his insides burned black. A trickle of blood still washed down into the man’s briefs.  Mason’s eyes had been sewn open and crusted blood clung to his face. His intestines, which had been held in by the mesh earlier, now dangled on Mason’s lap. It appeared as if they had been vomited out of the wide mouth of his belly. The cloth that had been in his mouth earlier was gone. Mason’s bottom lip trembled.

Betsy Wallabanger—six past a hundred years of age—approached the creation, cautiously. “He’s still alive,” she said with wide blue eyes that held childish excitement in them. She reached forward with one hand, then pulled it back quickly, uncertainty stretching across her face.

“Go ahead. It’s okay, he can’t move,” Cade said.

Betsy set her pillowcase bag on the ground and leaned down. She sunk her teeth into one of Mason’s thighs. A scream came from his throat as she worked her jaw from side to side. She ripped off a piece of flesh, her teeth coming out slightly. She shoved them back in place and chewed. After she swallowed, she smiled. “Delicious.”  

Cade clapped his hands like the young child he no longer was. He motioned with his hands. “Come, little ones. Enjoy this year’s treat from the Aver residence.”

Children squealed as they lit in on Mason. His screams filled the night, much to Cade’s satisfaction. The parents looked on with a happiness reserved for their offspring.

“You really outdid yourself this year, Aver,” one of the fathers said before he walked away with his little boy. Blood soaked the front of the boy’s costume and he licked his fingers clean of the blood that had been on them.

7

Cade sat on the porch in an ancient rocker that squealed like a wounded rat as it went back and forth. The sounds of singing, happy children had long since faded. What remained of Mason lay scattered on the lawn. There were bones here and there, a clump of hair by the sidewalk—the scalp had not been taken this year. One of the kids had bit off his privates. Or was it one of the moms? Cade didn’t know, and honestly, it didn’t matter. The birds and bugs would come and clean up the mess, leaving only bones behind. 

On his lap sat a skull. Part of it was still pink from blood and meat. He pulled a piece of flesh off the cheekbone and plopped it into his mouth. He chewed, then swallowed.

“Hmm … Delicious.”

AJB