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.

I Want To Go Home (Free Fiction)

I Want to Go Home

A.J. Brown

I want to go home, away from here where the ghosts talk to me, whisper my name, smile their dead smiles, and wink their dead eyes, as if they know something I don’t. 

I want to go home, away from these sterile white walls and white tiled floors, mopped every other night by a balding guy with only three teeth left in his ancient mouth, and skin as dark as mahogany. His jaundiced eyes glow on the backdrop of his dark skin, and he coughs the cough of a dying man, one with lung cancer or tuberculosis or some other respiratory illness. I think his name is James.

Mary, in room eight, calls him a ‘lunger.’ Mary’s a spiteful old bitty with grey hair verging on blue and a hump on her back that makes her look like a camel. She shuffles up and down the halls at odd hours of the night, her slippers whisking with each short step she takes. She doesn’t like the balding guy with the dark skin and jaundiced eyes. 

She laughs when she passes my room. 

I saw her peek in once, her grey eyes sitting deep in their sockets, wrinkles pulling on the corners of her face. She laughed, deep and throaty. Startled at the odd grin and loud booming cackle, I spent the rest of the night sitting up, eyes focused on the doorway, heart hurting with each thump thump. Sometimes I hear her whisking feet, her impish cackles, her mean words to James—at least, I think that’s his name.

I want to go home, far from the uninterested doctors and nurses who parade in and out of my hospital room, wearing white coats to make themselves feel important. Even the pretty little blonde intern carries herself like she is far better than those she’s charged with taking care of. Sometimes I wet the bed on purpose, just so she would crinkle her nose and mumble under her breath how pathetic I am. Imagine that: me, pathetic. Never thought those words would come out of someone’s mouth about me. Other times I wet the bed, but not on purpose. It’s during those moments when she says I’m pathetic that I look away, my head down, and think she is right.

This place wouldn’t be so bad if everything wasn’t as bright—so bright it’s almost drab, if that makes any sense. The television screen has a glare on it, put there by the overhead light (or the sun, if the curtains are open during the day). What possessed any sane man to put a television in there is beyond me. I leave it off most of the time—there really isn’t anything on worth watching now that Bob Barker has left The Price is Right and the soap operas and court shows have taken over the afternoon programming. 

The curtains themselves are a light brown, the color of dry chocolate. They’re nothing more than window dressing. The sun peeks through during the day, the moon says hello in the evenings. 

The moon is hiding tonight, playing behind the clouds, or maybe even taking the night off to rest its weary head. The splat-swish of the mop is louder than usual. James is close by. The aroma of an old tobacco pipe hangs in the air well after he moves down the hall. He usually pokes his head in, nods at me and keeps going. Tonight he lingers, his yellowed eyes peering at me beneath half-open lids. A sizeable knot sits just above his right brow, stretching up to the top of his skull.

“Eldridge,” he says, his voice strong, his lips barely moving.

“Yeah,” I say. “Can I help you?” 

I should laugh at that question. I can’t help myself with this battered body, so how am I going to help the janitor, a man older than me, who can still mop a floor with no effort at all, his back bent over, arms pushing out, pulling in, pushing out again. 

“Not much longer,” he says and nods. A cut opens up from eyebrow to skullcap. A trickle of blood drips down his face. He leaves the room and drops the mop head to the floor. It splats then swishes, but there is no water left behind, no swirl of dirt or shine left by a swabbing done right. James moves on down the hall, the sounds becoming fainter, splat-swish splat-swish. There’s no bucket behind him.

With nerves dancing along my skin, I settle down in the bed, tuck the covers to my chin and close my eyes. I’m tired tonight, more so than usual. A deep breath fills my lungs and it’s like cold milk going down my throat, cooling my insides after the heat of a hard day. 

I think I’ll sleep for a while.

Mary’s cackle wakes me. My hands and legs jerk reflexively and my heart skips. I lay still until my head clears and I know for certain it is her and not some vile creature I may have dreamed of and forgotten. I turn my head to the door. She stands in the entrance, her hands clutching a walker, her grey hair sticking out on top of her head. Her eyes bore into me and she’s smiling a smile of pure insanity, her brows forming an arrow above her nose and the sides of her lips point up toward her skin-tight cheekbones. All she’s missing is the white paint and she’d look like a saggy-breasted clown in an old blue housedress and pink slippers.

“Eldridge,” she whispers then giggles. “The lunger is dead. Fell down the steps, he did. Busted his skull right open.”

I say nothing as the fear of what I saw earlier and what I just heard collide. I try to hide the revulsion spreading across my face, but I’m not certain I succeed. I wait for the old bitty to walk away, her slippers whisking with each arthritic step. She lingers a moment longer, then throws her head back, a roar of laughter echoing in the room. She’s so loud my ears hurt and I try to cover them, but my shaking hands make it impossible. I close my eyes and sink further down into my bed, pulling the pillow over my head.

“Not much longer,” she says, and cackles again. The laughter fades but I don’t hear her shuffle up the hall. 

My heart speeds up. It hurts to breathe. I can’t move, can’t lift my hand to touch the call button on my bed. A surge of pain leaves me weak as it trails into my shoulder and down to my elbow. My jaw hurts. 

“I’m having a heart attack.” Did I say that aloud or only think it? I’m not sure, but a moment later, the light switches on and the pretty blonde is pulling the pillow from over my head, her blue eyes actually full with concern.

OLD MAN“Eldridge,” she says, her voice slightly high pitched. “Are you okay?” She holds a needle in one hand while glancing at my monitors, the heart rate a steady beepbeepbeepbeep, probably too fast for her liking—certainly too fast for mine. Seconds pass and she has the needle in the IV, pushing a clear liquid into my veins. A few more seconds and my heart rate slows, my breathing restored to its simplistic in and out rhythm. I relax. 

My eyes are heavy, but I try to hold them open. They slide shut, and then snap open at the fetid smell of a dead skunk wafting in the air. 

Mary is inches from my face, her mouth open, rotting teeth several shades of brown. “Eldridge,” she whispers and the dead skunk strikes me across the face. Tears well up in my eyes. “Not much longer,” she says. “Oh, not much longer at all.”

Gagging, I try to push her away so I can sit up, but she holds me down. She is stronger than I ever thought she would be. My stomach lurches and I vomit all over the front of my bed shirt and sheets. I swallow some of it. I gag again, try to catch my breath, but find it has left and doesn’t seem to want to come back.

“Eldridge,” the pretty nurse says, her hands out to her sides, a terrible look of worry and disgust on her face. I can see evening spaghetti drenched on the front of her clothes. I think she is angry. I shake my head, confusion tickling my brain, telling me everything is all wrong, telling me Mary was never here and James had stopped mopping a long time ago.

My head hurts.

The nurse’s eyes are wide. She presses the red button by my arm several times. I look at her in confusion, open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Doctors and nurses rush in, their shouts a muddled cacophony in my ears, each word echoing, then falling away. Nothing makes sense. 

I close my eyes. Maybe if I go to sleep they’ll leave me alone. Maybe I should tell them about the ghosts … how they haunt me nightly. But what good would that do? I’m a senile old man with bladder issues, dying from the disease they call age. They’d never believe me.

My eyes open, but not because I want them to. They just do.

Blurry figures race around, their white coats flapping like wings on giant birds. Their words make no sense. A beeping noise echoes from somewhere in the distance. But it’s not really beeping at all. It’s a long, drawn out wail from a phone or a television or a monitor. 

As they dart about I think of home, of being far away from Mary in room eight and James with his eternal mopping and cancerous cough. I long to be home where the sun can warm my cold skin and I can sleep in my bed, the one I shared with my Louisa for all those years before she died. I want to go home, where my television sits in the perfect spot, where no glare from the overhead light or the sun or even the winking moon can hit it, and where Bob Barker still hosts The Price is Right.

I want to go home, where there are no nurses to call me pathetic, no doctors to fake interest in me, no needles or heart monitors … 

Brushing the multitude of hands away, I struggle to stand, fighting against their collective strength. I push myself to my feet, the cold of the tile floor sending slivers of ice through my legs and up my spine, touching the back of my skull with a shiver. I back away from the doctors and nurses, their mouths moving but nothing coming out, their eyes full of a determination I haven’t seen since coming to this place … this place where I’m supposed to die.

I take a couple of steps back, ease around the frantic hospital workers, and walk out the door. They don’t seem to notice. They are hunched over my bed, their words panicked. The light from the hall is a deep yellow, no glare to sting the eyes. The floor is clean and the walls are as white as the ones in my room. Another doctor brushes by and runs into my room. I shrug and walk up the hall, peeking into room eight when I get to it. 

Mary is long gone. In her place is another lady, probably younger than I am, her hair still clinging to some of the dark color it once used to boast. She glances at me and her eyes are as blue as the clear sky. Her bottom lip trembles and the monitor near her bed beepbeepbeeps, it’s pace quickening as her eyes grow wider. 

Cocking my head to one side, I realize I know her name. “Rachel,” I say. “Not much longer.” A chuckle escapes my throat. I wave to her before heading up the hall. The elevators are just around the corner. Maybe I can get out of here before the doctors realize I’m gone. Maybe I can go home, where a man can die in peace …

_____

Some stories have more meaning than others. Some stories I just write because the story tells me to write it. Yeah, crazy. I know. But when the voices speak (no, not like that) I tend to listen to them. This story has meaning.

Let me explain, if I can—honestly, I’m not sure I can.

Years ago, when my grandfather was dying he was stuck in a hospital. He didn’t want to be there. He wanted to leave and be done with the place. He wanted to go home.

One afternoon my dad paid a visit to my grandfather at the hospital. It was just the two of them.

“Larry, give me a hand here,” my grandfather said.

“What do you need, Rex?”

“I’m getting out of here. Come on, let’s go before the nurse comes back.”

I imagine it was hard for my dad to tell him “no, Rex, we can’t leave.”  

Dad told me this story one day shortly before my grandfather passed away. In that spot in my brain where all creativity lives, a clear picture formed of my grandfather ducking out of his room and hurrying down the hallway to the elevators, his hospital gown open in the back and flapping as he went. He didn’t have much hair on his head, and he probably had his glasses on.  

In that image, my grandfather is smiling, as if he knows he just got one over on the hospital staff. A couple weeks later, he passed away, not in his home where a man can die in peace, but in that hospital room.  

That image has stuck with me for years. It is also the basis of I Want to Go Home. It is what my grandfather wanted to do. Though he couldn’t have it in life, I wanted to give it to him in this story.

Earlier this month, I posted a piece titled, Home. In that story, the young man got his father out of the nursing home he was in and took him to his real home to die. I imagine if my dad thought he could have done the same thing for my grandfather, he would have.

I hope you enjoyed this final story of April. I also hope you will like it, share it and comment on it. Thank you for coming along for this ride. Come back tomorrow, and I will explain why I did this. Have a great day.

A.J. 

Dim (Free Fiction)

Dim

A.J. Brown

Cap was six the first time Death showed itself to him. He played marbles with some friends out in front of a rundown church. Girls skipped rope near the dirt road. A car careened out of control as it rounded the curve, going entirely too fast for the area. Gravel and dirt kicked up behind it; Betty Michaels went air born, her jump rope twisting and turning like a snake in flight. Betty twisted and turned, as well, but she looked nothing like a snake flying through the air.

Cap watched in frozen awe, his mouth ajar, a marble still in his hand. Betty Michaels landed on her stomach in the middle of the road, limbs a tangle of broken bones and torn flesh. Blood splattered when her head hit the ground, her feettouched the back of her head and her spine snapped. She came to rest facing Cap, her eyes still open.  He thought he saw her blink.

***

She wasn’t good enough to be Cap’s girlfriend. Not when they were both only 10 years old and he didn’t care much for girls. Mary gave him plenty of attention, something most boys ate up at that age. Cap pushed her away, wishing she would leave him alone.

“Why don’t you like me?” she asked him at recess one day.

He looked up from where he sat against the tall oak near the center of the playground. His breath hitched. It was the first time he actually saw her. “You have pretty eyes.”  

She blushed.

***

Grandma lay on the bed, her body frail from the Cancer that ate at it. She raised a hand and pointed to the nightstand. “Cap, can I have some water, please?”

He filled a small Dixie cup and put it to her mouth. She sipped, licked her lips and let out a breath that rattled in her chest. “Thank you.”

He took the cup and set it on the small table next to her bed. Grandma’s eyes were half opened; the once shining blue had faded to a dull gray. She hiccupped, her eyes widened. She grimaced and clutched her chest with both hands. A strangled groan escaped her throat and one hand grabbed hold of Cap’s arm. She mouthed the words, “Call an ambulance.”

Cap only looked at her, into her eyes, at the fear in them; the knowing that she had reached the end of life. For a minute, maybe two, she struggled to breathe, to sit up in the bed and get her own help. Her grip loosened and Cap slid his arm from her hand. She settled onto the pillow, her hand dropping to her side.  

As her life faded, Cap gazed into her eyes.  

***

eye-2555760_1920“You ever see the light dim in someone’s eyes?”

“What?”

Mary sat on the blanket next to Cap, sunglasses covering her eyes.  

“The light dim from someone’s eyes—have you ever seen it happen?”

“I can’t say I have. Why?”

Cap shrugged and stared out at the sun hanging high above the mountains. “It’s like a sunset.  During the day, the sun is hot and blazing, the day is bright. But, as it sets—the day dims, becomes gray and continues to fade until it is dark. Dimming eyes are the same. They are bright, glossy. But, as someone dies, it fades until there is nothing left except maybe a reflection.”

***

He held the woman’s head under the water, her nails scratching his arms, reaching for his face.  Fear filled her eyes and then fled with her life, leaving only vacant orbs staring back at Cap. It wasn’t the first life he had taken. It wouldn’t be the last.

His breath came in short bursts and his body shook from adrenaline and excitement. He dried his hands and jotted notes in a little black book.

***

Mary slept. Cap watched her. He switched the light on. She flinched, rolled over and pulled the pillow over her head.

“No, no, Dear,” he said and tossed the pillow to the floor. He straddled her stomach, putting both knees on either side of her body, pinning her arms down. “I need to see your eyes.”

“What are you doing?” she asked, anger and fear in her voice.

“I need your help.”

“For what?” She tried to sit up but the weight of his body held her down.

“What does a loved ones’ eyes look like as they die by the hand of the one they trust the most?”

Recognition swept across Mary’s face. She started to speak but the words ceased when he put his hands around her throat and squeezed. Her eyes bulged and she fought against him, trying to use her legs and hips to buck him off. Snot spilled from her nose and red veins appeared in the whites of her eyes. Cap stared into the gateways of her soul as tears spilled from them. Blood seeped from her nose and her body finally went limp. He held his hands in place another couple of minutes as the light from her eyes grew faint. His heart pounded hard and he let out a breath he had held.

Cap rolled off the bed and went to his desk across the room. He made notes in his book, then collapsed to the floor.  

Cap cried.

***

The carnival came to town. Cap waited until the gates closed and the lights went out before leaving his car. He scaled the fence and made his way through the maze of rides and funhouses; concession stands and games until he found the Hall of Mirrors. A black cloth covered the opening. He pushed through it and stepped into the black corridor.  

Movements caught his attention. He flicked the flashlight on. Distorted versions of himself mocked his every move.  

With mirrors all around him, Cap sat on the floor, opened his notebook to a blank page and set it in his lap. A pencil sat in its crease, waiting for him to write again. From his pocket, he produced a flat razor. Cap raked it across and up his left wrists to the crook of his elbow. He almost cried out in pain. Blood rushed from the wound, but he paid it no attention.  

Cap stared into the mirror, into his own eyes. He thought of Betty Michaels, of how she was possibly still alive for a few minutes after she had been struck by the car. He thought of the others—the subjects he used for research. He thought of Mary, how fear swept over her and turned into disbelief as her life drained away.  

Blood spilled onto his notebook but he made no attempt to grab the pencil and make what little notes he could. Breathing slowed and the edges of the world swam around him. The distorted image in the mirror stared at him, its eyes closing and opening, closing and opening. His shoulders slumped, his body sagged, and he fell to one side. The notepad fell to the ground, the pencil with it.

Cap blinked several times, trying to force his eyes to stay open. Before he faded completely, he saw people standing in the mirrors, their dead eyes dull and staring at him. Mary knelt beside him, her lifeless eyes like two dull marbles. Her hands wrapped around his throat. 

Isn’t that appropriate? he thought as she squeezed.  

He focused on his own eyes as the light faded from them. In them he saw Death one last time. 

__________

I was watching a movie, or maybe it was a television show, one night. It doesn’t really matter which it was. What matters is a scene in the show where a man is choking a woman to death. The woman struggled until a few seconds after he began choking her, she began to have a ‘distant’ look in her eyes, as if she saw something far away and was focused on it. Her face when slack and her eyes dimmed. It is that dimming that I remember more than anything about the movie or show, which I can’t remember the name of. 

I can’t honestly say I remember much else about the program. My mind was suddenly fixated on the way the woman’s eyes dimmed. I even wondered if she was still alive or if she actually died and I had just watched a real life murder in a fictional show. 

Then I thought about the murderer. How did this make him feel? Did he enjoy seeing her life fade from her eyes? Did he ‘get off’ on it? Did it haunt him? Well, I just had to write about it. Like so many of my short stories, when I finished this one I wondered if I should make it longer. Maybe one day, and maybe if I put it in a collection, but for now, the story I wrote the day after watching the scene play out that inspired it is just a short piece. 

I hope you enjoyed Dim, and please, like this post, comment on it and share with your friends.

A.J.

Our Once Upon A Time (Free Fiction)

Our Once Upon A Time

By A.J. Brown

Once upon a time …

That’s a funny little phrase, but I guess it could be used for everyone, couldn’t it?

Once upon a time she loved me. It was all she knew, all I knew. Our love for one another … But that was so long ago, back when we were young; back during a time where life had already become overwhelming and the only thing that mattered was love.  Real, unadulterated, honest love.  

There used to be wind chimes on the old house in the woods where we escaped to when her Papa was drunk and ornery and in want of a young body to warm himself with. It’s pipe-like bars used to clang together when the breeze blew in off the lake. It made an awful racket, but it was her favorite thing about the shack I still call home. It comforted her while she slept, far away from the worries of her Papa and his ways; far away from the cries of her Mother that could be heard in their house years after her passing.  

Once upon a time, I didn’t know her very well, my little Rose, with her auburn hair and brilliant green eyes. I had seen her in school, her face downcasts and a distant, sad look in her eyes. All I knew is I loved her, from the very first time I saw her walk into Miss Griemold’s class when were in second grade. There was an air about her that lit my heart’s flames and scared me all at once. For weeks and months, I watched her, hoping to get up enough nerve to talk to her. Instead, I kept my distance, far enough so she couldn’t see my heart break each time I saw her.

Once upon a time she cried while sitting on a bench near the playground. Behind her were swings with plastic seats and metal chains, and a metal slide that burned your legs in the summer time if you wore shorts. Her shoulders were slouched, and her hands were in her lap, one of them clutching to a piece of tissue that looked soaked through. 

I approached her, tentatively. I leaned down a little and spoke, “Are you okay, Rose?”

She looked up at me, her eyelids puffy and pink, a bead of snot beneath her nose. She wiped at it with the wet tissue and gave me the best smile she could right then. She nodded but didn’t speak. Deep down inside, I didn’t believe her. I also couldn’t believe myself. I finally managed to talk to her and I couldn’t think of anything better to say other than ‘are you okay’ and it was killing me.  

I turned to leave. That’s when she took my hand and told me to sit with her. My heart skipped several beats and I sat, suddenly feeling like I was in a dream.  

The dream became a nightmare as she told me of her Papa and the things he had done to her. My Rose, my little flower, the center of my universe, had been crushed by one of her own parents. 

I found myself in tears, heart aching and breathless. 

“Don’t go home,” I said, practically begged.

“I have to.”

“No. No, you don’t. If you go home, he’s just going to … to … do those things again.”

“He’ll come looking for me.”

I stared at her. Both of us had tears in her eyes. I think she knew right then that I loved her. 

“Then run away. I’ll go with you.”

“No. No. He’ll kill you.”

“I know a place. It’s a cabin near the lake. We can go there and you’ll never have to see him again.”

people-2562102_1920Once upon a time I hung a wind chime on the eave of the house and Rose smiled—a genuinely happy expression—for the first time since I had seen her walk into class when we were little. It had been less than a month after I spoke to her the first time.  My heart fluttered with excitement and joy.  We both quit school and went to the old shack that my father used to live in before he died.  My mother owned it and said when I was older I could have it.  I was older then, or so I thought, and that shack became our home; Rose’s home.  

Once upon a time a man came to the house. He was big and burly and hair covered his arms and face. His eyes were muddy brown, and he had a thick nose. He was searching for his daughter and had managed to track her to our shack. With shotgun in hand he broke down the door. I tried to stop him by pressing my back to the door, but he got it open, knocking me to the ground as he did. I barely got to my feet before he struck me in the face with the barrel of the shotgun. There was alcohol on his breath and murder in his eyes. He dropped the gun and beat me like the young man I was. At some point during the beating, I passed out. I remember reaching up, trying to grab his leg before darkness took hold and everything was gone.

When I woke, Rose sat on the bed we still had not shared, a damp cloth in her hand, rubbing my battered face. Tears were in her green eyes. I tried to talk but she placed one of her perfect fingers on my lips and she shook her head.

“Rest, my knight,” she said. “He’s gone, and he won’t be back.”

She was right. He was gone, but his shotgun remained and there was only one shell in it. There was a dark stain on the wooden floor of the cabin not too far from where I had fallen and taken the beating her father put on me.

Once upon a time we fell in love, a beautiful flower and her knight. 

Once upon a time seems so long ago.  

Once upon a time I stood next to an old Weeping Willow, thinking about our fairy tale came true. I knelt and kissed the wooden cross I made for her grave. Death came and claimed my Rose after all these years together, plucking her from the garden of life. In my hand I held her favorite wind chime, the one that always comforted her and helped her sleep; the one I hung on the eave of our old house when we moved in. I hung it on a nail I had hammered into one of the limbs of the Weeping Willow.

As I walked away the wind picked up and I heard the hollow racket of the wind chime. A smile crossed my face as I thought, again, of our once upon a time and our happily ever after.

__________

Some stories are sad. Some stories have those moments that make you weep inside. I feel this one has a couple of those moments. But this story wasn’t meant to be sad. It was meant to be happy. The main character in this piece—his name is Robert, though he never mentions it—fell in love when he was in the second grade, at eight or maybe nine years of age. He loved one woman his entire life, and he spent that life with her. That’s a happy thing. That’s a joyous thing. 

The wind chimes at the end, though sad in one respect, is a happy thing for Robert. He hung it in the tree above Rose’s grave, and as he walked away after hanging it, he heard the wind rattle the pipes together. It made him smile. It made him think about how they triumphed, how she had saved his life after he tried to save hers.

This story is another of those prompt based pieces. The prompt was simply: Once upon a time … and go. So, I went and I wrote, and this story is the result.

I hope you enjoyed Our Once Upon A Time. I also hope you will take a minute to like this post, share it to your social media sites and comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

A.J.

 

Everything I Am (Free Fiction)

Everything I Am

By A. J. Brown

“What can I give you that you don’t already have?” William asked. He stood in the white glow of a streetlamp. His body cast a black shadow at his feet that copied his arms out in frustration gesture. 

She stood in the darkness, outside the circle surrounding him. “Your heart,” she whispered, her voice a soft breeze in his ears. 

“My heart?”

“It’s all I ask.”

“It’s everything I am.”

“Then I want everything you are.”

His shoulders slumped. The shoulders of the shadow at his feet does the same thing. “Someone else already has it.”

“Yes,” she said, “The one who left you?”

William looked down at the shadow trailing from his feet. He nodded as tears slipped from his eyes. Then he turned and walked away. A moment later, the streetlamp winked out.

***

“Love is a treacherous thing,” William said into the empty glass in front of him. A scrim of froth clung to the bottom of it.

“What are you on about?” the bartender asked. He took the glass and replaced it with a full one.

William looked at the older man. He had a bald head, and gray hair in his ears. A dirty dishrag was slung over his shoulder. His white shirt had a stain just below the left breast pocket. It could have been ketchup from a burger eaten years earlier. It could have been blood.

“Love,” William said. “That’s what I’m on about.”

“A sticky subject there,” the old man said. He pulled the towel from his shoulder and wiped the bar between them.

“I guess so.”

“Broken hearted tonight?”

broken-154196_1280William shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Your girl leave you?”

William took a deep breath. Tears formed in his eyes. He swallowed the knot in his throat. “No. I mean, yes.”

The bartender slipped the dishrag onto his shoulder and put his hands on his wide hips. “Did she or didn’t she?”

William licked his lips, then wiped them. “It’s been months since she left.”

The bartender nodded. William picked up the glass and took several deep swallows. It was cold, but not refreshing.

“You need to move on, Mister,” the bartender said. “You only have one shot at this life. Mourning the loss of a relationship will only bring you down. Find another person to give your heart to.”

William laughed, a sound with no joy in it. “That’s the sad thing about all this.”

“What’s that?”

“I did find someone else.”

The old man smiled, showing he was missing one of his lower front teeth. “Then why are you here, drowning yourself in booze and not out with her?”

William ran a finger along the top of the glass several times before answering. “She wants my heart.”

“Everyone wants someone’s heart.”

“You ever give your heart away?” William asked, his finger still running the edge of the glass. 

“Once or twice, I reckon.”

“How’d it work out for you?”

The bartender shrugged, a simple up and down of the shoulders. “The first time, not so well. The second, well, we’re still together, so I guess that one turned out okay.”

“Second time was a charm?”

“You could say that.”

“I should probably leave now and go find her—the second woman, not the first—and give her what she wants?”

“What do you have to lose?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then, what are you waiting for? Give it to her. It’s not like it will kill you to do so.”

William stood and placed a ten on the bar. “Thanks for the ear, man.”

***

William heard her calling even before he made it to Itsover Lane. 

William, why won’t you come to me?

Her voice was haunting and hypnotizing, and was that desire he heard? He wasn’t sure—he hadn’t heard that tone from a woman in what felt like years. Still, he listened to the pull of her voice, to the seductive promise in it.

We can be together, forever, William. Just give me your heart.

William stepped into the road. Just as he did, the streetlamp came on, lighting up the spot where he stood. His shadow appeared at his feet.

“I’m here,” he said, a quiver in his voice.

You came back.

He nodded. 

Are you going to give me your heart, William?

“Yes,” he said and slipped the gun from his waistband. 

Just take my hand and I’ll take care of the rest, she whispered and stepped from the shadows. She wore a black robe with a hood that concealed her face. She stretched out a thin hand.

Tears fell from William’s eyes. His chest was heavy, and he was suddenly very tired. 

Do you give me your heart, William?

“Yes,” he said and took her hand. As he did so, he saw the blade in her hand … 

… and the gun went off.

A moment later, the streetlamp winked out.

________

So often my stories come from singular thoughts I have. In this case, an image of a man with his head down and tears in his eyes popped into my head. It was a black and white picture in my mind. He stood in a white circle, his shadow hooked to his heels. All around him the world was black. Reaching from the darkness was a thin female hand. It was like a comic strip image. Above his head was a thought bubble that simply read, What do you want from me? Another thought bubble appeared, and it read, Everything.

My brain spoke up with a question of its own. What is everything? Well, his heart, his love … his life. 

I sat and wrote Everything I Am that night. After I finished writing it, I realized the story wasn’t so much about love, but about desperation. So often love makes us do desperate things, things we wouldn’t normally do. In the case of William, there wasn’t another woman. He was still heartbroken because of the one who had left him. The other ‘woman’ who lurked in the shadows and had a thin, white hand and a black robe was the only way he believed he could get out of the depression and heartbreak: death. 

It’s a painful story. It’s a painful reminder of the power of love, and the ruin it can bring if things end in something other than happily ever after. 

I hope you enjoyed Everything I Am. If you did, please like the post and leave a comment letting me know you liked it. Also, please share this to your social media pages and help me get my stories out to other readers. Thank you for reading.

A.J.

Courage (Free Fiction)

Beneath the Sycamore Tree

A.J. Brown

I told Cassie I loved her as I pushed her on the swing that hung down from the tall sycamore at the edge of the field behind my parents’ house. There was a pond not too far away where fishing was good and swimming in the summertime was a rite of passage. It was the perfect scene for any kid growing up in the south.

“What?” she asked and brought the swing to an abrupt stop, her feet kicking up dust as they dragged the ground beneath her. She looked at me with her crystal blue eyes, her head cocked slightly to the side, her light brown ponytail dangling. “What did you say?”

A lump caught in my throat, my palms began to sweat, and tears formed in my eyes. My chest swelled with fear. “I said I love you.”

She nodded as if satisfied, turned around, and placed both hands on the ropes of the swing. “Okay. You can push me again.”

I stood there for a moment, not sure what to do; not sure I liked or disliked her reaction. I had expected more. Like maybe Cassie hopping off the swing, hugging me, and saying she loved me. Leaning forward, I placed my hands on the small of her back and pushed.

I was eight. It was the first—and only—time in my life I knew love and how strong it could be.

She left my house that afternoon, skipping the way she always did, her ponytail swishing from side to side. At the end of the driveway, she turned, cupped her hands to her mouth. “I love you, too, Joshua Turner.”

It was the single greatest moment of my life.

Three days later Cassie was dead, her mangled body found on the other side of our property, not far from Grover’s Pond. Momma told me someone had done something bad to her but didn’t go into details. The truth is—and I found this out some time later—some pervert grabbed her on the way home from Mr. Hartnell’s grocery store the day after our conversation and raped her. He couldn’t leave it at that—violating her and taking her innocence away. He stabbed her sixteen times. I won’t go into the details of where several of the wounds were. You can figure it out on your own.

Cassie—my Cassie—was gone forever.

So, I thought.

I sat at the base of the sycamore the morning after her funeral, head in my hands, tears streaming down my face, heart broken into a million tiny pieces. A picture of her lay between my feet—I stole it off a collage her parents had made for the funeral. She smiled big in the photo, her eyes shining, her hair pulled back in the ponytail she so loved. The sun beat down on the world, promising another hot summer day. My eyes were puffy, and I wiped away a snot runner. I kept hearing her voice in my head.

I love you, too, Joshua Turner.

I guess as far as last words to hear from someone, those were the best types.

Taking a deep breath, I looked up. The swing swayed forward, hung in the air for a second, swayed back. My skin swam with goose bumps and a cold chill came over me. The swing repeated the process.

Before you say it was just the wind, which I’m sure some folks believe, there was no wind. It was as dry and still as any day could be.

I stood. My legs were weak and threatened to collapse beneath me. My hands shook. The swing pushed forward again, then stopped. The branch that held it creaked. Then the swing turned sideways, as if someone were sitting on it and looking back at me.

I inched away, each step taking me further from the tree. The swing dropped back to its normal position. I turned to run and only made it a few steps before I heard her voice.

Don’t leave.

Remember, I was eight. I was terrified. I knew what I heard and who it sounded like, but it was impossible. Still, her voice stopped me, and I couldn’t have run away if the devil were standing in front of me.

“Who’s there?” My voice cracked.

Don’t leave me, Joshua.

My bladder felt heavy. “Cassie?”

Joshua.

My mouth became dry. “Where are you, Cassie?”

I don’t know. I’m scared, Joshua.

sycamore-tree-4704744_1920I shook my head and pinched my arm, hoping to wake from the nightmare. I winced at the sharp pain. 

“Cassie, can you see me?”

Yes. Can you see me?

“No.”

Silence followed.

She had to be thinking. I could almost see her head cocked to the side, her ponytail dangling, her blue eyes clouded by thought. Why couldn’t I see her? She could see me. She said as much. So why couldn’t I see her? She had to be wondering the same thing.

“Cassie,” I hesitated. “You’re dead.”

Who knew ghosts could cry? Her sobs echoed all around me. The sycamore tree’s branches shook. Some of the leaves pulled free and fell to the ground as if they were green stars dropping from high in the sky. The water in the pond rippled away from the shoreline. I pictured her dropping to her knees, her face covered by her hands, shoulders heaving up and down.

“Cassie?”

I went to the swing, my legs still weak and my insides buzzing. It was much cooler by the swing. I reached for the rope, slid my hand down to where I thought her hand might be. Fingers. I felt her fingers gripping tight to the rope. In that instant I saw her. She faced me, her legs bent in at the knees. One of her shoes was missing. I saw the many stab wounds, her torn dress and bruised face; her split lip; the tears in her eyes. She released the rope, took my hand, and opened her mouth to speak, but said nothing. Instead, she stood and embraced me, putting her head on my chest. I shivered, and my teeth clacked together as her cold body clung to mine. Then I was pulled into her world, her final few minutes of life. She barely saw the man who grabbed her, catching only a glimpse of jeans and old brown work boots before a potato sack was shoved over her head. He dragged her down to Grover’s Pond, Cassie kicking and screaming until he leveled a heavy hand to the side of her head. The rest, the pain, the fear, the very life bleeding from her, I endured as well. I couldn’t pull free and I couldn’t scream. I could only feel.

Then, as if she knew I couldn’t take anymore, she released me.

I fell to my knees. Freezing and scared, I crawled a few feet away, then vomited. Dropping onto my back, I tried to regain some sense of where I was, who I was. Cassie knelt beside me. Her body was a mutilated mass of flesh and torn clothing, but her eyes—even the one swollen badly from a punch to the face, the same punch that had split her lip and broken her nose—held the beauty I had fallen in love with before she died.

I tried to sit up but couldn’t. After several minutes of a silence between us that felt too heavy to bear, I managed to roll over and get to my knees.

“Do you know who killed you?” I asked between deep breaths.

No.

“I’m going to find out.”

How?

“I don’t know.”

It was the truth. I had no clue how I would find her killer, just that I had to, that no one else would be able to.

The next few weeks I spent looking at people’s feet, hoping to catch a glimpse of badly scuffed brown work boots. When I wasn’t searching for her killer, I spent as much time by the sycamore tree as I could. Cassie sat on the swing and I watched it sway forward then back. A couple of times I asked her to take me there, to take me to her last moments again. I felt bad for asking her to do this—she had to relive it so I could be there, so I could try and see something different, or so I could remember those boots. Each time I threw up after revisiting the horror, after seeing the girl I loved raped and murdered.

And each time she pulled away a little more, as if I were killing her all over again.

Almost a year into my investigation, I found her killer. Tommy Tillman—the deputy sheriff. He was young, not even in his thirties at the time.

I found out by accident.

Back then our little town had donation drives for the police department. It was nothing more than canvassing neighborhoods, Jehovah Witness style, but instead of tracts about their religion, the adults received donation cards, and sticker badges were given to the kids. Sometimes they came around in their uniforms, but more often than not, they showed up in normal, everyday clothes. This was done to give the impression the cops in our town were normal, everyday folks, like you and me and Mom and Dad and Grandma across the river and Uncle Earl down at the bar. If people believed the police were no different than anyone else, then they would be willing to give more. It was a trick that worked. Heck, one year Bobbie Joe down on the farm not too far from us cracked open her piggy bank and gave them every penny she had saved up that year.

Tommy Tillman and one of the other deputies—I forget his name—knocked on our door one Saturday morning. Cartoons were on and Dad had let me skirt my chores until later that day. I don’t really remember what I had been doing or thinking, but I remember Momma saying ‘hello’ in her most polite way possible. I got up and walked to the door. She didn’t try to block my view when I stuck my head between her arm and waist. Officer Tillman was there with his best salesman smile on. And that other guy was right there with him, pitching their ‘give to the police of your town’ spill in his best ‘awe shucks’ manner.

I don’t know why I looked down at their feet. They were the law—I had no reason to suspect them of anything. They were supposed to protect us, not hurt us. I glanced down and saw those brown scuffed boots at the end of a pair of blue jean cuffs. Right then there was nothing else in the world. Momma was gone. The house was gone. The other cop was gone. The coming summer was a myth, and I swear, the world could have ended right then and I wouldn’t have known it. I looked up, following the blue jean pants and white T-shirt up to Tillman’s toothy smiling face.

“What’s wrong, kid?” he asked, that salesman voice still trying to make the politician’s pitch. “You look like you saw a ghost or something?”

I shook my head, pulled free of Momma’s arm and backed away. I stumbled, caught myself. I tried not to run, but by the time I was at the bottom of the steps leading to the second floor, I was in full sprint.

I went to bed early that night, telling Momma I wasn’t feeling so good. She checked my temperature, said I felt cold to her. Of course, I did—I had found Cassie’s murderer and there was nothing I could do about it. Contacting the police would do no good. Telling my parents? I thought about it. They wouldn’t have believed me. How many adults actually believe their kids about these types of things? Back then, not many. Instead, I kept an eye on Tillman, watching to see if he would strike again. During that time he didn’t, and Cassie’s death appeared like a random murder. That’s probably how Tillman wanted it to appear.

Dad died two years after Cassie. Mom moved us away, closer to her family in Nebraska. Years passed and seven other little girls, around the ages of eight to twelve, disappeared from around my hometown in the south. None of them were found. I knew who had taken these girls, and more importantly, I knew they were all probably dead. I didn’t find all of this out until I left home at eighteen and headed for a small college in South Carolina—less than a hundred miles from where I had spent the first eleven years of my life.

We still owned the old house and farm, but time and the elements had worn it down. Windows were broken, and a wino had moved in. The inside was a wreck.

Down at the sycamore tree, the rope that had once held the swing was frayed and the swing itself was missing. I got on my hands and knees, searched through the decaying leaves and found it not too far from the base of the tree itself. It was wet, but still solid enough to hold in my hands without it crumbling, to hold close to my heart.

“Cassie?”

I waited, repeated her name and listened. My heart sank. That familiar broken feeling crept into my chest. I had been away too long. She was gone.

Joshua?

Like the first time I heard her voice after her death, I almost ran away, not believing what I heard. At the same time, I thought it was just my desire to see her, to believe she was still there. My emotions ramped up.

Then it came again, soft and hollow, like an echo. Joshua.

My heart lifted.

“Cassie?”

You came back.

“Of course, I did—I never wanted to leave.”

I’ve missed you, Joshua.

The frayed rope swung slightly. I reached out, grabbed it. I saw her. She was still eight, still had that shredded dress on and all those stab wounds. I hadn’t expected that. To be honest, I don’t know what I expected. She died when she was eight. It’s not like she could have aged as a ghost, but part of me thought she would have been the same age as me. It was a ridiculous notion. The dead don’t age a day after they die.

“I’ve missed you too, Cassie,” I said, paused and then blurted out the only thing I knew to say. “I know who killed you.”

You do?

“Yes—and its time he got punished.”

We talked for a while, me and the ghost of the girl I still loved. Then I went back up to the house. The interior was wrecked worse than I thought it was and the remnants of where the bum had slept at one time remained in the corner near the back door. I searched the house, found it empty.

Instead of waiting for the homeless person to come back, I called the police from my cell phone, told them I wanted to speak to the sheriff. Turns out the sheriff was Tillman. An hour later, he met me on the front porch of my childhood home.

“What’s all this about, Mister …?”

“There’s a bum inside my house.”

“This is your home?” Tillman raised an eyebrow. He had changed some during the eight years since I had last seen him. His hair was still dark, but he wasn’t as lean as he had been—good eating had filled his body out. He didn’t wear his sheriff’s badge prominently on his shirt like I thought he would, and he certainly didn’t flash that car salesman’s smile.

“It belongs to my family,” I said. “I want the bum gone.”

“When was the last time anyone lived here?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I reckon not.”

Tillman walked inside, his thumbs tucked in his belt loops as if he were going to just stroll on in there and have a word of peace with some drunk and that would be that.

“There’s no one here,” he said after searching the house.

“Maybe he went out the backdoor when he heard you pull up.”

He gave me a curious look, a suspicious look. “You said he was in the house.”

“He was, but he might have gone around back.”

Tillman made his way outside and down the steps. He turned around in a half circle, scanning the yard or maybe just appearing like he was. His hands went into the air and he was about to say something when I yelled.

“Over there. He ran behind the sycamore tree.”

“What? Where?”

“The sycamore tree. He ran behind it. I just saw him.”

Some things in life I’ve never been good at: Math. I hated the subject growing up and barely passed every math class I was ever in. Social gatherings. I’ve always been somewhat of a loner. Affection. I’ve only told one person other than my mom that I loved her, and she was dead. Lying. I’m just not good at it. And I think Sheriff Tillman saw right through my attempt at getting him out to the sycamore tree.

If he knew, he didn’t completely let on. He walked slowly out that way, through the tall grass and unleveled ground. He neared the sycamore tree where a picture had been nailed to it. He yanked the photo free.

“Recognize her?” I asked.

He glanced toward me as I swung at him. I caught him below the left ear. He fell to the ground, rolled onto his feet and into a crouch. He drew his revolver, aimed at me. “What do you think you’re doing, boy?”

“Her name was Cassie. You murdered her eleven years ago.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, punk, but you’re under arrest for assaulting a police officer.” He spoke the typical cop words in the typical attempt at intimidating me. 

“The other girls—you murdered them, too, didn’t you?”

Full recognition dawned on Tillman’s face. His eyes grew slightly bigger than normal, and then he squinted. A smile—yes, the same smile he used on women to get them to donate money to the police department—appeared on his face. He laughed. “You think you’re smart, kid?”

I shrugged. I don’t know what I was thinking not having a weapon with me. Maybe I thought love would protect me. Maybe I thought I was tougher than I really was. Tillman pointed his gun at me, pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through my shoulder socket, shattering bone and coming out my back. I fell to the ground, blood seeping into the hot earth. Tillman’s shadow loomed over me, the sun behind him. Shading my eyes I saw the revolver a couple of feet from my head. I was going to die, and I was okay with that. Then I could be with Cassie again. For a brief second, I hoped I would be eight as a ghost and not eighteen.

No!

Startled, Tillman spun around. I didn’t see her as clearly as I had before, but Cassie was there, a blur of gray and white. She rushed at him, sinking both of her ghostly hands into his ribs. Tillman fired several times, the bullets striking the ground near his feet but doing no damage to Cassie. His mouth dropped open and his eyes—full of amusement earlier—grew wide in fear. I hope it was the same fear Cassie had felt as he raped and then stabbed her to death.

She held him there as his body shook. Another round was fired from his gun. I think he tried to scream, but nothing came out. Cassie did scream, her voice the same hollow sound, but so much louder, as if there was a microphone to her mouth. Her hands stayed buried in his ribs until his face turned blue and he collapsed, dead at her feet.

Somehow, love did protect me.

I dropped my head to the ground and closed my eyes. I welcomed a death that never came. Instead, I heard Cassie crying for several seconds before the sound faded. I opened my eyes and caught a glimpse of tears in her eyes before she vanished.

Folks around here say Tillman up and left. Turns out another cop had the same suspicions I did and had gathered enough evidence to prove the things he had done. It was enough in the eyes of the townspeople to believe he was guilty even though they haven’t seen him since.

That was nearly four years ago.

I have since moved back into the old family home and have been renovating it the best I can. I hung the swing from the same branch it used to be on. Each day I walk out to the sycamore tree and sit in the shade. I call for Cassie, but she’s gone, this time probably forever. I hope I’m wrong. I hope one day the swing will sway again; that I’ll hear her voice, and maybe, she’ll tell me she loves me one more time.

__________

A prompt-based contest story. The original version was much shorter than the one here. Sadly, I can’t recall what the prompt was, but I can say with certainty the story won that particular challenge.

It originally appeared on the now defunct House of Horrors website back in November of 2009. It can also be found in the short story collection, Southern Bones.

If you enjoyed Beneath the Sycamore Tree, please share this post to your social media pages and help me spread my stories to the world. Thank you, in advance!

A Note About Closing The Wound

If you’ve read my book, Closing the Wound, then you know several things right off the bat. First, this story would not have happened if not for a friend calling me early one Saturday morning and asking this question: What happened that night? You also know I went and had breakfast with this friend and we talked for a long time while sitting at a Denny’s. You also know Closing the Wound is a true story, at least as true as my memory recalled it. 

coverIt had been a while since I had seen that friend. His name is Chad and we were (and still are, though we don’t see each other often enough) good friends.I ran into Chad at my daughter’s graduation. He was there for another student, but he got to see my girl walk across that stage, too. Afterwards, we talked, as friends tend to do. We said, ‘Hey, we need to keep in touch,’ as friends tend to do, though often they don’t. 

Before we went our separate ways, I told him about Closing the Wound and his part in the story. A couple of days later, he purchased the digital book. When he finished reading the story, he didn’t leave me a review. Instead, he sent me an email. After reading it, I asked him if I could share it with the world. With his permission, I give you Chad’s letter to me.

Dear Jeff,

It is just passed midnight and I read “Closing The Wound”.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it from your perspective.  Like you, I have somewhat boxed those memories away to be opened only one time a year, Halloween.  The book itself is very well written, it’s what’s between the front and back (that) really mattered to me.  It did dredge up a lot of memories.  I am still a bit hazy on our conversation that day, I do recall us talking about that night just can’t quite piece it all together.  It has been 24 years ago and after reading the book, a lot of those forgotten details and memories have crept back into my mind, which is a good thing.  I never want to forget those days no matter how horrific they were at times.  Each piece is somewhat of a building block of who we have become. Back to the book, you have a gift Jeff, you are a master story teller and writer.  I do not use those terms lightly either.  When I was writing, I had a similar style, but I can’t focus long enough to eat a sandwich let alone write a book!   LOL!  You have always had that gift, you can say you’re a natural at it. 

 I know we haven’t kept in touch over the years and meeting at the graduation was very refreshing to say the least.  I like how you write in the book to not live in the past.  There are somethings that I have been apart of where I too, ask could I have done something differently to alter the outcome.  I suppose we can all agonize over those questions, but questions don’t change events concerning the past.  I have struggled with Chris’ death, well at least once a year, yes it still haunts me.  I know he was tormented and I understood his struggles to a degree.  I truly believe he is in Heaven and no longer has those feelings of loneliness, depression and the desire to belong.  I still see his face when he was with all of us.  He admired you so much because you were such a good friend to him.  Like me, you helped alter some of his life Jeff.  His life ended at a very young age, but perhaps that’s how it was meant to be.  We can ask questions of “what ifs”, but I remember the best days with him was when we were all together hanging out.  Those are the days that I remember the most.  Yes, I remember that picture of us at the rest area off of I-77 in between the snack machine bars.  I had so much fun back in those days! 

 I leave you with this my friend.  After reading the book, I couldn’t help but to go back 25 years ago and think how you have helped so many people.  I know you are a little rough around the edges but that’s ok, sometimes it takes course sandpaper to get the splinters off of some of us knuckleheads!  But seriously, as time rapidly marches forward and our own families grow before us, take stock in your life and the people you have influenced.  I know for me, my family may not be here if it weren’t for you.  God uses us in different ways and He used you and a number of others from that church to save me from myself.  I suppose some emotions have been awaken from 25 years ago, but I just remember how happy Chris was with us, in a way we were his family besides his aunt and sister.  This Halloween let’s start a tradition at go and visit him and remind ourselves of the good days. 

BoyThank you for all you have done for me Jeff!  You are and will always be one of my best friends. 

 Keep in touch buddy! 

 PS: Do you remember his sister’s name or know of her whereabouts? 

 Chad *********

After reading this, I sat back for a while, just staring at the words, not really thinking in clear thoughts, but in pictures. Pictures, like the first time I met Chris at a church work day; like the time I saw him at the South Carolina State Fair just weeks before his death; like the hundreds of teens in a standing room memorial service; like finding his grave for the first time after not visiting for so long; at learning my sister’s husband new Chris and has his own theories of what happened that night. All of them were snapshots into the memories that I—that we—dredged up.  

Chad said some nice things to me, but the one that keeps coming back is this: He admired you so much because you were such a good friend to him.  Like me, you helped alter some of his life …

I wish I would have done more, been a better friend (despite what Chad said, I always think I could have done more), knocked the block off the punk who influenced him in the direction that ultimately cost him his life. 

Here’s my questions to all of you: Do you know someone who might need someone to talk to? Do you know someone who might be heading down a path of destruction? Is there someone you care about who is doing something you think maybe he or she shouldn’t, but you are afraid to mention it because you think it will hurt their feelings?

Here’s one more question: Does saving a life mean more than hurting someone’s feelings to do so? 

The story of my friend, Chris, in Closing the Wound, is just the tip of the iceberg. The story goes so much deeper and cuts down to the bone when I think about his life and death. I honestly don’t know if there is more I could have done, and that brings me guilt from time to time. Even so, I did some good in his life, and clearly, in Chad’s life. 

Sometimes our guilt overrides everything else. It torments us to the point of forgetting all about the good in our life, the good we have done. Chad is one of those good things. He reminded me of that. Now, I remind you: think about someone you have helped in some way. How is their life better because of you? Yes, take credit for that in your heart. Say, I did something great for someone and I helped someone and that person is in a better place because of me. Don’t let guilt ruin you. 

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

A.J.

If you would like to pick up a copy of Closing the Wound, you can find the digital version on Amazon, or you can get the print version directly from me (signed of course) by contacting me at 1horrorwithheart@gmail.com.

Free Fiction Friday–Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage

(The family and I took a trip one spring break to St. Augustine, Florida. It was a fun trip—at least I think it was. I don’t know what the kids thought. They might have a different definition of fun. You would have to ask them to find out if they enjoyed themselves or not.

We took I-26 toward Charleston and then I-95 toward Savannah, Georgia. I-95 took as all the way to St. Augustine. Shortly after we crossed into Florida, Cate saw a man sitting in a lawn chair by the interstate. He had a drink in one hand and seemed to be staring off at nothing. She pointed the man out to me.

Over the next few minutes, I jotted down a few notes, mostly about the man’s appearance. Then I wrote the word ‘Why?’ Why was he there? Why was he sitting in a lawn chair with a drink in his hand? What was he staring at? Well, he’s staring at ghosts,A.J., my mind chirped. Of course, he was. Over the course of the next couple of days I wrote Rite of Passage, mostly at night when everyone was going to bed in the hotel we stayed at.

Some stories you just fall in love with. For me, this is one of them. The reality for Jake Eberly is he was not long for this world and he knew the parade of ghosts was an omen of death, in this case, his own. He faced his mortality and he was ready to move on, to join the rag tag band of journey folk. But not before letting his grandson see the rite of passage.)

____________________

The truck slowed almost a full two hundred yards before it needed to. Jake Eberly held the steering wheel tight, his old hands hurting, the knuckles white. They would be sore later. His arthritis would flair up worse than it ever had. He licked his lips and his breath hitched. Jake swallowed dryness. He pulled off the road, coasted to a stop, and killed the motor.

“Grandpa, why are we stopping?”

Jake looked to the passenger’s side where his oldest grandchild, Camden, sat. He wasn’t an Eberly like him, not in name at least. His mother was Jake’s only child. She married a Hartnett. The bloodline might carry on, but in time it will be nothing more than an infinitesimal amount and the Eberly name will be no more. 

Staring up at him was a good looking kid. Hazel eyes stood out against his creamy white skin; his hair blond and his lips very much like his mother’s. At ten, he was older than Jake was when he was brought here, to the place he now parked.

“We’re here,” he said.

“Where?”

Jake looked out the windshield, then out both side windows. “Here. Now, help me get the chairs out the back.”

Jake opened the door as a semi went by and rocked the truck on its tires. He got out and held back a grimace as the raw pain of Cancer punched him in the gut. He didn’t think he had much time left. Maybe the end of the day. Maybe tomorrow. He was weak and tired and the pain that stabbed at his stomach constantly made him want to throw up. After today, after getting the boy home, he thought he might just lie down one last time and never get up. He looked over at Camden. “Come out this side, Son.”

Camden scooted across the seat, slid from it and closed the door behind him. They went to the back of the truck. Jake put the tailgate down. 

“Grab those, Camden,” he said and pointed at two folded lawn chairs. “I’ll get the table and the cooler.”

The table was nothing more than a square fold up card table, one that had sat in the basement of the old house on South Street since he, himself, was a young boy. Camden grabbed the two lawn chairs, one in each hand, and Jake grabbed the table. 

“Come,” Jake said and went to the front of the truck, his legs weak, and his insides being gnawed at by a disease only death would cure. He set up the card table, pushing down on it to make sure it wouldn’t topple over. With a nod of satisfaction, he looked to Camden. “Let me have one of those, if you don’t mind.”

Camden dropped one on the ground and unfolded the other. He set it down in front of his grandfather. Jake saw pride in his eyes. He couldn’t help but smile. The young boy set the other chair on the opposite side of the table, and then went back to the truck. A minute later he returned with a beat up red and white IGLOO cooler. He set it on the table. 

“Have a seat, young man,” Jake said, reached into the cooler and pulled out two sodas. He handed one to Camden, set the other on the table, then placed the cooler on the ground beneath it. He picked his soda up and sat down. His legs seemed to sigh in relief, but the biting in his stomach continued. He popped the top and took a long swig, letting the carbonated water both burn and chill his throat on the way down. 

“What are we doing, Grandpa?”

The kid looked at him with the curiosity of any young child, something he gathered most kids had at that age, one he certainly had. “We’re sitting down, having a drink.”

“Is that it?”

Jake gave a small smile. He understood impatience quite well. “We’ll probably talk some, but mostly, we’ll wait.”

“Wait for what?”

Another smile was followed by Jake taking a swallow of his soda. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “You’ll know it when you see it.”

Camden shook his head. There was no smile on his face, but more of a disappointed frown. He picked up his soda, popped the top and drank from it. 

They sat in silence, grandfather and grandson, both in their own world of thoughts, both probably seeing things far differently than the other. Though Jake didn’t know what Camden was thinking, he had a good idea. He, too, had sat on the other side of the card table between them, when he was only eight. His grandfather, known to him as Gramps, had brought him here in his old Ford back in 1952. ‘We’re going for a ride,’ he had said, and that is what they did. They stopped on the side of the road, back before it became I-95. It was just another road back then, and only two lanes at that. There were more woodlands and less traffic. Sitting by the road with a jug of water between young Jake Eberly and Gramps was as boring as watching paint dry. He would have rather done the painting than sit and do nothing. He told Gramps as much. Gramps gave him a nod, placed his yellowing ivory pipe between his lips and puffed on it. Gramps was patient with him then, just as Jake would be patient with Camden now.

GHOSTSLike Gramps before him, Jake stared off across the busy roadway and spoke words he remembered as if he had just heard them. “I reckon this isn’t much fun.”

“No, Sir, it isn’t.”

“It wasn’t much fun when my grandpa brought me here either.”

Camden looked at him with his big hazel eyes. He was his momma’s boy for certain. “Then why are we here?”

“It’s a rite of passage, Cam,” Jake said.

“A rite of passage?”

“Yup.”

“What is that?”

Jake smiled again. It was a good question, one he didn’t think to ask when his time had come to be here. Even so, he knew the answer.

“My grandfather brought me here when I was a kid. His grandfather brought him before that and his grandfather did the same before that.” He took a deep breath. The explanation, he believed, only got harder from here. “A rite of passage is like a point in someone’s life, much like graduating high school or getting married. They’re important moments in life. Like birth. And death. This … this is one of those moments.”
“Sitting by the road drinking pop?”

Jake laughed at this, then took another swallow of his soda. He smacked his lips, said nothing and stared straight ahead. Cars, trucks, an occasional motorcycle and quite a few semis sped by, most of them doing well over eighty. Occasionally, Camden would let out an exasperated huff that Jake ignored.

“Grandpa, can we go?”

“Not yet, Camden.”

“I’m bored.”

“I’m sure you are, but …”

“I want to go,” Camden said firmly. His brows were creased downward, just as his lips were. His eyes held an angry storm in them. He stood and started for the truck. 

“It’s not time to go, yet.”

Camden turned around. His drink was still in one hand, but some of it had sloshed out of the can. “I don’t care, Grandpa. This is dumb. I could be at home, watching tv or playing video games, or I don’t know, doing anything but sitting here bored out of my mind, watching cars go by.”

“Camden, sit back down.”

“No. I want to go home. I thought we were going to do something fun, or just do something. We’re sitting here, doing nothing.”

“We’re slowing down, son,” Jake said. “We’re smelling the roses, so to speak.”

“The only thing I smell is smoke from the trucks going by. If I would have known this is what we were going to do, I wouldn’t have come.”

Jake set his drink on the table. With quite a bit of effort, he stood, even as his insides burned and grumbled. His shoulders slumped. Children weren’t what they were when he was a kid. They were more impatient and intolerant of things. They were less respectful and more argumentative. As he looked at his grandson, Jake realized something he hadn’t before. Maybe it isn’t the kids who are different. Maybe it is the adults who changed. He gave a simple nod. Yes, that’s it, he thought. And he, like so many others, had changed. 

“Okay, Cam …”

Then, as if time knew it was running out, across the road Jake saw what he came to see.

“There,” he all but shouted and pointed.

“What? Where?” Camden asked. “I don’t …”

Then they both grew quiet. The world around Jake Eberly didn’t matter at that moment. The rot in his gut that had grown worse over the last few months was nonexistent. His smile, something that had been forced a lot over the last year or so, was as real as it had ever been. 

“Grandpa …”

“It’s okay, Camden. Just watch.”

And they did.

From out of the woods came a young man. He wore a white button-down shirt and black pants held up by suspenders. His hair was brown, long and pulled back in a neat ponytail. He held one arm up above his head and slightly out in front of him. In his hand was a lit lantern that gave off no light at all. A rag tag processional of people followed, dressed in clothes Jake thought Camden had never seen outside of a movie, and maybe not even then. The women wore long dresses, and most of them had their hair up in some manner of a bun. The few children wore long pants, mostly browns and blacks, and button-down shirts tucked neatly into their waist bands. Some of the men wore long pants and long shirts; some of them carried muskets and wore floppy hats. 

“Grandpa, who are those people?”

“They are who we’ve been waiting on.”

“There’s something wrong with them.”

“What is that?”

“I don’t know, but …” Camden’s voice changed, as did the direction of his words. “Are they going to cross the street?” There was alarm in his words.

“They most certainly are, Camden.”

“But they’ll get hit by a car.” His voice rose with each word. 

“Just watch.”

The ghostly procession neared the interstate. 

“Hey!” Camden yelled. He stood beside the card table and waved one hand frantically, trying to get their attention. “Hey! Stop! Don’t cross the street!” 

The people neither looked left or right before the man with the lantern stepped off the grass and onto the shoulder and then into the road. 

Camden screamed as a semi rumbled by, going through the young man in the lead. Jake looked down at him to see his hands over his eyes and his back turned to the dead coming toward them. 

“It’s okay, Cam,” he said. 

“No! It’s not. That truck just hit that guy and …”

“It didn’t hit him,” Jake interrupted. 

“Yes, it did. I saw it.”

“You saw the truck go through him.”

“It hit him and …” His shoulders shook, and Jake heard the tears in his voice.

“No, Camden. The truck went through him. Cars can’t hit ghosts.”

“Ghosts?” 

“Yes. Ghosts.”

By the time Camden looked back up, the young man leading the parade of dead had made it to the center of I-95. From that distance, Jake could see his face was ashen and his sockets were sunk in. He looked more like a corpse than a ghost. When he looked back at Camden, the young boy’s eyes were wider than he had ever seen them. Jake didn’t think he was scared, but maybe awestruck by what he saw.

“Are they really ghosts?” Camden asked, his voice dreamy, as if he had just awoken from a long nap. 

“Oh yes. They are the ghosts of your ancestors.”

“My ancestors?”

“Your family—all the members of the Eberly clan who have died are right there.”

The young man was now halfway across the lane closest to them. His hair was dark, and his bottom lip hung open. His eyes were distant, as if he didn’t see them. Several vehicles went through him as they went along their way to wherever they were going. The drivers didn’t seem to notice the ghosts as they sped by. 

Jake looked at his grandson. His eyes were still wide, and his mouth worked up and down as if he were trying to say something but couldn’t find the words. He looked like he wanted to run away. The hand holding the soda can shook badly. His breath came in sharp, terrified bursts. His shoulders still shook, and his cheeks were wet from the burst of tears a few seconds earlier.

“It’s okay, Camden. They won’t hurt you.”

“Are you sure?” His voice quivered.

“I’m as sure as you’re standing there right now.”

“Grandpa …”

Jake sidled over next to him, put one arm around him and rested the hand on his shoulder. Camden wrapped both arms around his grandfather’s waist and buried his face in his side.

“No, Camden. Don’t look away. You may never get to see this again, and if you do, it won’t be for a long time.”

He felt the boy’s face shift from in his side to toward the road, but the kid’s arms still latched tight around him. By then, the leader was in front of them. Jake pulled Camden to the side and let the procession of spirits pass by and through the card table. One by one, men, women and children walked by, their eyes forward, never slowing for the last of the Eberly’s and his grandson. 

As the final ghost made his way across the busy interstate, the strings on Jake’s heart gave a tug. With cane in hand, his grandfather made their way toward them. Hanging from his mouth was the old ivory pipe he used to smoke. Jake remembered his mother asking if anyone had seen it after Gramps died. No one had—and no one ever did after the day Jake and Gramps visited the side of the road.

Tears formed in Jake’s eyes as he recalled being here as a kid and not knowing that would be the last time he saw his grandfather alive. The next time Jake saw Gramps, the old man lay in a coffin in the foyer of the church his grandparents attended. If he would have known then what he knew now, he would have hugged his grandfather tighter that last time; he wouldn’t have complained about watching paint dry; he would have made sure to say, ‘I love you,’ even if it wasn’t the cool thing to do. 

“Gramps,” he said as the elder Eberly reached them. Like the others, he didn’t stop. Unlike the others, he turned his head just enough to look at Jake. 

Not much longer, Jake, he whispered. He puffed on the old pipe, nodded and continued through the table and into the trees behind them. 

Jake didn’t know how long he stared into the woods after the dead were gone, but it was Camden who pulled him free of the trance he had been in. 

“Grandpa, are you okay?”

Jake took a deep breath and let it out. His chest shuddered and the pain in his stomach had come back. He fought the urge to double over and grab his midsection. He nodded and said, “Yes, Camden, I’m okay.”

“You’re crying.”

Jake wiped his eyes and then his nose. “Sometimes it’s okay for a man to cry.”

“Like now?”

“Yes, like now.”

He took one last glance at the trees. The remnants of the dead were gone, but he knew that wouldn’t be the case forever. They would be back. And so would he, most likely on the other side of the road. He rubbed Camden’s head. “Let’s get you home,” he said. 

Camden grabbed the cooler and made his way to the back of the vehicle. Jake reached down for the soda he had been drinking. The can held icicles all around it. He picked it up, felt the freezing cold on his fingertips. He squeezed the can. It was hard like ice. He set the can on the ground by the road and folded up the card table. By the time he was finished, Camden was back and closing the chairs. 

With everything in the bed of the truck, they got in, both doing so from the driver’s side. Jake turned the key and the motor rolled over, caught and rumbled to life. He put it in gear, looked in the side mirror and eased onto the interstate. He glanced in the rearview mirror at the can he had left behind. It didn’t matter that it would be gone when he came back. Like all the grandfathers before him, he left a little piece of himself behind, a little piece of familiarity so when Camden came to watch the parade of ghosts in the later stages of his life, he would remember the day he came here as a young child. 

Jake Eberly took the first exit, circled back across the overpass and entered the interstate going in the opposite direction they had come. He didn’t look to the side of the road when they passed. With a tearing pain in his gut, he drove, hoping he would get the boy home before the pain grew too intense. 

“Grandpa?”

“Yes, Camden?”

“Was that your grandfather—the one who spoke to you?”

Jake licked his lips, nodded and said, “It was my Gramps.”

“What did he mean by not much longer?”

Jake let out a long breath. “You’ll understand soon enough. Let’s just leave it at that, okay?”

Camden didn’t respond. He just turned his attention to the world passing outside the truck. 

At Camden’s house, he let the young boy out and talked with his mother for a minute or two. They exchanged their goodbyes. When he started to get into the truck, Camden went to him. He put his arms around Jake’s midsection and squeezed. It was everything Jake could do not to grimace and let out a groan from the pain. 

“I love you, Grandpa.”

“I love you, too, Camden.”

The boy held on for a few more seconds, then let him go. When he looked down at Camden, there were tears in his eyes. 

“It will be all right, Camden,” Jake said and patted him on the shoulder. 

“I’ll come see you.” He wiped his eyes. “I’ll come see you.”

“I know you will,” Jake said, and then his grandson, with Eberly blood running through his veins, but not carrying the same name, stepped back. 

Jake got in the truck and smiled. A minute later he drove off. In the rearview mirror he saw the boy waving. He stuck his hand out the window and returned the wave. The boy held his soda can in the other hand.

(Rite of Passage appears in the mammoth collection, Beautiful Minds, which you can find HERE.)

 

Unknown Boy, Aged Four or Five

My 2018 Christmas story. I hope you enjoy.

Marcia looked out the windshield at the throngs of people standing outside the toy store. It wasn’t seven in the morning yet and people lined the sidewalk and stood in the parking lot six and seven deep. She took a heavy breath. There was no way she would find what she wanted with this many people here. 

She shook her head. She flipped her hair back over her shoulders and let the breath out. 

“I should have done this sooner.”

But she knew she couldn’t. It had to be on this day. It had to take place on Christmas Eve.

Marcia opened the door, got out of the car and closed the door back. She walked toward the crowd, stopping when she heard the murmuring excitement of rabid shoppers as the electronic doors opened and they began the mad rush for toys. People pushed forward, as if they tried to pack the store on the corner of Mall Drive. 

“We’re going to be like sardines in there,” she whispered. 

After most of the patrons had gone inside, Marcia made her way to the doors, took another breath, bracing herself for the craziness she was about to face, and stepped inside. 

It was as bad as she feared it would be. People pushed by one another without bothering with an ‘excuse me,’ or a ‘pardon me’ or anything even close. Some folks with buggies had no problems bumping into others to get them out the way. She thought there might be a couple of fights as some customers gave dirty looks or snappy, sarcastic remarks. 

Marcia made her way by most people, detouring in and out of aisles where the crowds were the worst. Though she walked and shuffled nonstop, it still took her twenty minutes to get to the back of the store where the stuffed toys were. Thankfully, there were only a handful of people back there, in the section that boasted the toys that weren’t highly sought after and worthy of being fought over. She thought it a shame that so few people thought their children might like one of the plush bears, dogs, rabbits and kitty cats. 

She frowned. The pickings were thinner than usual. All of the rabbits and doggies were gone. There were still a couple of kitty cats, but none that screamed ‘buy me.’ The small teddy bears were mostly the same, each one a solid color (either white, brown, tan or gray) with a bowtie around its neck, glass eyes, pink stitched nose and mouth. She shook her head and stood straight; her hands went to her hips. She rummaged the shelves until she came across a pink teddy bear and plucked it from the pile. She thought it was right for one of the two gifts she needed. Still, there was the other one, the one she knew would be harder to pick.

Marcia left the aisle and went to the next one over. No stuffed animals. The next one over from that one also held no stuffed animals. Neither did the other two. She backtracked and looked at the original aisle of misfit animals. She dropped to her knees and rummaged through the various teddy bears. Just as she began to give up, Marcia saw it, the animal that called to her, that said, ‘I’m the one.’ She reached for it, pulled it free.

It was a white lamb. Its eyes sparkled blue. Its lips and nose were the same pink stitched type as on the teddy bears, but on the tips of each foot was a split hoof. Its tail was a curly-q and the fur was fluffy and soft. Marcia hugged it and knew it was the one.

Pink_Teddy__19550.1386245092.490.588She didn’t mind standing in line for almost an hour. She didn’t mind putting the purchase on her credit card. She didn’t mind sitting in traffic for another hour, trying to get out of the mall area. She didn’t mind that she got home well after lunch. She didn’t even mind that she would have to get up early again the next day to make the two hour drive to Hope, South Carolina, a little do nothing town on the edge of the nowhere. She was happy. She found the toys she hoped to find.

It was cold when she arrived in Hope the next morning. She drove through the little town, across the overpass and down a road with sleepy houses on either side. She made a left and drove a couple of blocks. Then she made a right and pulled through the large entrance and onto the dirt road that ran between graves older than her grandmother, who was in her upper eighties. She continued along until she came to a grassy area along the side of the path where she pulled over and parked. 

“Come on,” she said and grabbed the lamb. It was colder out in the open cemetery on Christmas day than it had been in the parking lot of an old toy store the morning before. She zipped her coat up and her body gave a shiver. Marcia crossed the lawn, passing gravestone after gravestone, touching some as she went. Finally, she stopped near a chipped headstone with the carving of a square wooden wagon on it. Just below the wagon was the word UNKNOWN BOY. Below the name was a presumed age: AGED FOUR OR FIVE. 

The first time she came here was eleven years previous. Her little sister, Donna, was six then and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail that bobbed when she walked. Her green eyes dazzled and she had been excited to go on one of Marcia’s Christmas traditions, this time to the little cemetery in Hope. 

Donna had a fake flower in one hand and she gripped Marcia’s hand with her other one. 

“Why are we here?” she asked in all of her innocence.

“One of the things I do at Christmas is I go to a cemetery. I take a flower with me. Then I search the headstones for a name or a grave that I think would like a visitor. I place the flower on the grave and tell the person, ‘Merry Christmas.’”

“Why do you do that?”

“Because everyone should receive love on Christmas day.” That wasn’t the total truth, but it was really all Donna needed to know. She didn’t need to know that a friend of hers does something similar at the cemetery where her father is buried, only telling the dead, ‘Someone loves you’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’

“Oh.” Donna stood, staring at her flower for a minute. Then she looked up with that wide-eyed innocent look of hers. “Can I pick the grave?”

“Sure,” Marcia responded. “Go. Find the lucky person.”

Donna hurried toward the rows and rows of graves. She searched, diligently, pondering each stone, though she couldn’t really read the names. She asked questions about the ages of each person. Then she came across the stone with the wagon on it. “What does that say, Marcia?”

“Unknown boy. Aged four or five.”

“He doesn’t have a name?”

“I guess not.”

“And he was four or five?”

“I guess so.”

“What does that mean?”

“I guess they didn’t know who the boy was and they thought he was maybe four or five years old.”

“That’s younger than me.”

“It is.”

Donna looked at the flower again, then placed it at the base of the headstone. “Merry Christmas, Unknown,” she whispered, and patted the top of the stone three times gently. 

As they walked back to the car, Marcia holding tight to Donna’s little hand, her sister looked up and asked, “Can we come back next year, but bring him a toy instead of a flower?”

Marcia nodded, smiled. “Of course.”

That’s what they did. On Christmas Eve the next year, they went to the toy store—the same one Marcia has gone to since. 

“What type of toy would you like to get him?”

“A stuffed animal.”

“A stuffed animal it is, then.”

“But it can’t be just any stuffed animal. It has to be the right one.”

Like when searching the graves the year before, Donna took her time searching for the right toy, the right stuffed animal, and when she had, her eyes shimmered and her smile was as bright as it had ever been.

That was a long time ago, and so much has changed since the first year Donna went with her and now. She stood in front of Unknown with the lamb in her hand and tears spilling down her cheeks. Her heart hurt, but she thought it would break later. She knelt, set the lamb in front of the headstone, said, “Merry Christmas, Unknown,” and then stood straight again. She tapped the top of the headstone gently three times. When she took a deep breath this time, she let it go with a rattle and a sob. 

Marcia tucked her hands into her pockets, protecting them from the cold. She hunched her shoulders and walked away. When she reached her car, she looked back, saw the little ghost of a boy standing at his grave. He was pale and his hair was black. He wore a white button-down shirt and dirty black pants. His eyes held bruised bags beneath them. He was holding the lamb in his arms. When he looked up, he raised his hand in a wave. 

Marcia’s breath caught in her throat, but her hand lifted and her fingers moved in a slight wave. She watched as the boy faded, leaving behind the stuffed animal where she had placed it. She got into her car and looked at the stuffed bear on the passenger’s seat. She would make the drive home now, this time to a different cemetery, one with a grave still not a year old. She would go and sit next to it, ignoring the cold. She would set the pink teddy bear on the grave and pat the headstone gently three times. Then she would say, “Merry Christmas, Donna.” 

And she would cry …

AJB

12/23/2018