The Rainbow Bridge

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

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

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

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

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


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

She shakes her head and continues on. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He.”

“Where is he?”

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

“A natural?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come,” the little girl says. 


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

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

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

“I don’t mind.”

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

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

“Bye,” the woman says.

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

That was the case for this UNTITLED 4. 

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

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

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

Why was she carrying an umbrella?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Broken Shells

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Broken Shells (2013)

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

Still, Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach.

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to look for shells.”

“Shells?”

“Yes. Seashells.”

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

“We can add them to your collection.”

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

“You’ll be cold,” I said.

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

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

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

“We shouldn’t stay out long,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“There is no beauty in broken things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no beauty in broken things.

I was wrong. 

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

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

Forever Broken, Forever Beautiful (2021)

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

I can only shake my head at that. 

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

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

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

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that it?” Kimberly asks.

“Yes.”

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

“Are you okay?” 

I’m not. “Yes,” I lie. She knows. 

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

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

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

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

And I haven’t been the same since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s okay.

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

“Thank you,” I whisper. 

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

“Are you okay?” she asks.

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

WHY?

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

I did not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Crumbled Blacktop–Rough Cuts #3

I saw the woman on the bridge right before she jumped. 

A little context: I often take long drives on the weekends. I get in the car, crank the music up and drive until I want to turn around, then I usually come home. I usually go on either Saturday or Sunday. Sometimes, especially if the world has been particularly cruel, I go on both days. Still, on a handful of occasions, I drive until it gets dark, stopping only for gas and food, then park for the night on the side of the road at a rest stop or in a state park if one was near. On those occasions, I usually spend the next day driving home.

This was a Saturday, which was shaping up to be the first day of a two day bender. My head ached, as did my heart. The lady I loved—Lelani—left me a couple of days earlier, while we sat at a restaurant during my lunch break. She barely touched her food and she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked her. 

She stared down at the table. Her hands were in her lap. When she brought her right one up she had the ring I gave her when I proposed four months earlier (and she said yes then) in it. She set the ring on the table. 

“What’s this?” I asked. I knew what it was. I knew she was breaking up with me. 

She shook her head. “I can’t do this.” She stood and walked off, leaving me sitting at the table, staring at the engagement ring. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to chase after her and find out what was going on, what happened and how I could fix it. The other part told me it was over. Our turbulent on again, off again relationship was over and chasing her down would do no good. That part won out. 

I paid for our meals, stood and walked away, leaving the engagement ring on the table. 

This is what I thought about as I drove roads I don’t remember and lost hours I would never get back. And my head hurt and my heart hurt and I wanted nothing more than to stop hurting.

I got off the interstate hours before, following road signs for a town I never actually found. I did come across old houses along the road with rusted out cars in drive ways or sitting up on blocks in front yards. I didn’t see any people and I didn’t pass any other cars. The road was blacktop that was more crumbled than whole with weeds and grass growing through all the cracks and crevices. 

I drove slowly, as if on a dirt road with deep ruts that made the front end shiver and the back end shake. At some point, I turned the music off, silencing some punk rock band or other—I truly can’t recall which one it was. The world grayed at some point and the music felt off, as if where I traveled commanded a quietness that felt loud in my ears. 

I rounded a curve. Ahead about a hundred yards or so sat the bridge. Even from that distance, I could see it was old and wooden. I won’t lie and say my curiosity didn’t suddenly pique. There I was on an old forgotten road after spending all day in my own head and that was in my sights. I drove on, but by then I was mostly on the road’s shoulder and trying to stay off the bumpy black top. 

About fifteen feet from the bridge, I pulled off the side of the road and parked next to a tall, thick tree with bare branches. It was well into mid-afternoon by then and I would need to start trying to find my way back to the interstate. But the bridge … I had to see it up close. 

That’s when I saw her. She stood in the center of the bridge, her back to me, looking out at the world to her right. She wore a light colored blouse and blue slacks, kind of like the ones my grandmother wore when she was alive. Her hair was gray and she was thin—maybe too thin, as if she were sick. 

I got out of my car and closed the door gently. I didn’t want to startle her. Thinking about that now, it sounds stalkerish. I wasn’t trying to be creepy but I thought it odd that there was an old lady out on this road that didn’t seem to have a name and with no other cars to be seen besides mine. I was afraid she might have wandered off from a home and she was lost, or maybe her car had broken down and she needed help.

For a minute or so, I stood at the front end of my car and stared at her. She didn’t move. The slight breeze that came off the water blew through her hair and ruffled her shirt. I took a step forward, suddenly very concerned for this woman I had never met. My head swooned and the pain that had been small earlier, bloomed.  I was slow about it but I made it to the edge of the bridge. The wood was mostly rotten; there were quite a few holes in the planks and some boards were missing all together. The rails to either side were mostly warped but still in place. 

“Ma’am?” I called. “Are you okay?”

She didn’t look back at me or even flinch like she had heard me. 

“Ma’am?” I called again, a little louder this time. “Are you okay?”

I took a deep breath. My head still thumped but it wasn’t swimming. I stepped onto the bridge. The wood was soft beneath my feet and I hesitated, afraid I might fall right through to the … the what? I couldn’t see water in either direction, just land on my side of the bridge and land across it. Up until that moment, I didn’t notice what was beneath the bridge or what it crossed over. I leaned to my right to peer over the rail. I saw muddy water, but it couldn’t have been much more than a wide creek; the bridge probably wasn’t needed.

When I looked back at the woman, she had turned around and now stared at me. Her jaw was slack and her eyes were blank. Beneath her eyes looked like bruises. Her hands hung down at her sides and the front of her blouse had a large brown stain on it, almost in the center of her chest. I knew immediately she had been shot, or at the very least, stabbed.

“Ma’am …” I said. Both of my hands were out in front of me, as if trying to keep her from moving. “You’re hurt.”

I looked down, then took a few unsteady steps toward her, then looked up again. She hadn’t moved. Her eyes still looked distant and her jaw was still slack. She didn’t see me. I was almost certain of that. It didn’t matter if she could see me or not. I could see her and I couldn’t leave her out there to die. Every few feet I looked down to make sure I didn’t step through a weak spot or fall through a hole that was already there. And every few feet my head spun and I had to regain my bearings.

Thirty or so feet from her, she seemed to notice me for the first time. Her eyes seemed to clear and her jaw clamped shut hard enough for her teeth to clack together. She looked out at the world beyond the bridge’s rail. 

“No,” I yelled when she moved far quicker than I believed she could. She took four quick steps, put her hands on the top wooden rail, her foot on the bottom one, then launched herself off the bridge. She didn’t scream. She didn’t yell. She just plummeted. 

I went to the rail and looked over, the pain in my head forgotten. The woman was gone. She didn’t land in the water or hit dry ground. She was just gone, as if she had never been there before. Maybe she hadn’t been. 

“No, no, no, no,” I said over and over. Then, as if someone watched me, my skin began to crawl. I was in a horror movie come to life and fear gripped my heart. I backed away from the rail and hurried back toward my car the best I could. The pain in my head intensified with each step I took. I reached the end of the bridge, stepped off and started to run for my car …

And somehow ended up back on the bridge, standing where the woman had been when I first saw her. I turned, first to my left to the side of the bridge I had no intentions of walking to, then to my right, to where I stepped onto the bridge and where my car … my car didn’t sit on the side of the road where I parked it. It was off the road, the front end smashed into the thick, tall tree. The front windshield was splintered right about the spot a head would have struck if …

I touched my forehead and pulled back red fingers.

“What’s going on?” 

I touched my head again, this tim planting my palm on my forehead. The skin there was torn. I could feel flesh bunched up near my hairline. I probed a gash that seemed like it ran the length of the top of my head, feeling something hard that could only be my skull. I pulled my hand free and looked at it again. Blood dripped from my fingers and palm. I wiped my mouth with my other hand and suddenly felt the urge to run, that something was terribly wrong and I was in danger. 

I ran for my car, not worrying about the holes or weak boards in the bridge. I couldn’t hear my feet or my breaths or feel my heart beat hard in my chest. I only felt the heavy weight of panic and fear in my chest and mind and the sharp, intense pain of the headache that seemed to split my skull. I reached the end of the bridge, stepped off and was back in the center where the woman had been. 

I almost ran for my car a third time but didn’t. Instead, I walked toward the other end. My legs grew weak as I walked and I didn’t think it would matter what happened when I reached the other end. I reached it and stepped off the bridge and back onto it in the exact same spot as before. 

Now, I stand here, in the center of the bridge. I can see both ends of the bridge, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t step off of it. But this waiting, this feeling of being trapped here with no way to get help isn’t the worst of it. That’s reserved for the creature standing at the end of the bridge where my car is. It came up in an old style horse and buggy, both of which are black. It stepped away from the buggy. It is not much taller than I am and it wears a hooded robe. In one of its hands—hands that look skeletal—is a long pole with a sharp blade on one end. It’s spoken a couple of times, but I can’t make out what it’s saying. It can’t be anything good. It’s on the bridge now and coming toward me. A darkness spills off of it, like a thick fog rising into the air and going out before it. It’s coming for me. It’s …

I can’t run away. I’ll just return to this spot and it will be waiting for me. But what if … what if I jump over the rail and off the side of the bridge? What if …

AJB

Coming Soon: Five Deaths

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

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

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

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

Spread the news. It’s coming.

It Gets the Death Off

4/09/2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it you want, fellah?”

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

“Well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AJB

4/09/2021

Communion, A Short Story

My dad sat on a tree stump every day before dinner. It was about three feet tall and stood near the back fence. Dad looked more like he was leaning when he sat on it. Usually both hands dangled between his legs and he stared off beyond our yard toward the trees that ran along the backside of the neighborhood. If you walked through the trees, you could only go about ninety or so feet before you came to a stream that split the center of the wooded area. 

It didn’t matter how hot or cold or rainy it was, he went to the tree stump, sat for a few minutes, then came inside. On some days—mostly in early fall—he would sit a little longer, sometimes with his head bowed as if he were asleep or maybe praying. Dad wasn’t the religious type, so I doubt he ever prayed.

I guess I was four or five the first time I noticed him go outside and to the stump. I went to go after him, maybe so he would play with me, but probably out of curiosity more than anything. 

“No, Heath,” Mom said from where she stood at the counter, cutting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half for me. 

I looked back at her. “I wanna go outside,” I said—or I think I said. Time has a funny way of playing with memories. 

“Not right now.”

“Why?”

“Your dad’s having communion.”

“What’s com-u-non?” I asked. 

“It’s what your dad is doing right now.” She set my sandwich on the table. “Now sit down and eat. Your daddy will be inside when he is done.”

I didn’t sit and eat. Not at first anyway. I went to the back door. It was open and the screen door was shut. I could see Dad from there. His shoulders were slouched like he was tired. His head was down. I thought he just might have fallen asleep. Then I saw his shoulders go up then down a couple of times. His head bobbed in sync with them.

“Sit down, Heath,” Mom said and steered me away from the door with both her hands. She closed the door gently.

I ate my sandwich and set my plate on the counter. Dad came in as I was leaving the kitchen to take a bath. He looked so tired. His eyes were rimmed red and there were angry red squiggly lines in them. The tip of his nose was pink. He wiped it as he went by me and to the bathroom where he washed up. He didn’t say anything to me as he passed, just went by without even glancing in my direction. I remember how bad it felt. He walked by me as if I were invisible. Maybe I was.

“Get ready for your bath,” Mom said when she saw me standing at the foot of the hall looking toward the bathroom where Dad went. She sounded irritated. That was her default setting.

“Dad’s in there.”

“He won’t be for long, so do what I said to do.”

I went to my room and gathered my night clothes, then took a towel from the hall closet. I waited outside the bathroom door until it opened, and Dad walked out. His eyes were no longer red, and he didn’t look as tired. 

“Hey there, Heath,” he said with a smile. He bent down and picked me up, then gave me a big hug. His hugs always made me feel safe, like everything would be okay. He set me down and all was right again. He didn’t look worn or weighted down at all. He didn’t look sad. 

Every day for the next six years, I stood at my window, watching Dad out on the tree stump. After the first time I was shooed away from the  back door, I didn’t think Mom would take too kindly to me going and watching him as he had communion. 

I still didn’t know what that meant.

***

I was eleven when Mom died. She wasn’t really the loving type. She was stern and rarely gave hugs, kisses or said ‘I love you.’ I should have felt more, but I didn’t. I think I felt more ashamed that I wasn’t as sad as I thought I should be. It didn’t help that we had argued before I left for school. I wanted to go to Jerry’s house before coming home. 

“Not with your grades, Heath. You come straight home and do your studies.”

I guess it wasn’t much of an argument after all. I left for school, angry at her for the umpteenth time in my life. 

Mom died while I was at school and Dad was at work. It wasn’t anything terribly tragic like the house caught on fire and she couldn’t get out or she was in a car accident, or even someone broke into the house and murdered her. No, it was nothing like that. Mom choked on a piece of toast. 

I found her when I got home from school. She lay on the kitchen floor, faced down. She was still in her bath robe and nightclothes and her face was a shade of purple that bordered on black. I stared down at her. And I didn’t feel anything, at least not right then.

I called Dad, then I called 9-1-1. Then I sat on the front porch and looked out on the road in front of our house. 

The ambulance made it there before Dad did, but not by much. They were inside tending to her body when Dad pulled up in his old truck. He was out of it in a hurry. He forgot to close the door before he ran across the yard to me. His face was red, as were his eyes. I had seen that look every day for the last six years of my life. 

I stood.

Dad reached me and put his arms around me. Just like when I was little and he would pick me up, I felt safe. I know it sounds crazy, but even with Mom in the house dead and the emergency people inside the house doing what they do, I felt safe in Dad’s arms. Everything would be okay.

Dad released me and went inside. I walked over to his truck and gently closed the door.

For me, everything was fine. Like I said, Mom wasn’t very loving, and we never really got along. But for Dad, nothing would ever be the same again. 

One thing didn’t change, though. Like every night since I could remember, Dad went out the back door to the tree stump. He sat, stared off into the woods, but this time I could tell he was crying. I stepped away from the window and sat on my bed. And I cried. too.

***

Dad did the best he could. He was a widower and he and Mom had been together since they were kids. They were high school sweethearts and married right after graduation. 

For the better part of my life since her death I’ve regretted not being closer, not trying, though she never really tried either. Guilt is a funny thing. You don’t realize you’ll feel it until you do.

***

I was sixteen when I finally worked up the nerve to ask my dad why he went outside every day before supper. He was already out there with his coat on and his hands between his knees. His head was down, and I could see his lips moving when I approached him.

“Dad?”

He didn’t jerk in surprise of my presence. His head didn’t swivel on his neck and he didn’t look irritated to see me standing there, my hands jammed into my coat pockets, vapor pluming from between my lips.

“Everything okay, Heath?” His voice was shaky.

I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, everything is okay. I just …”

“You just what?”

I shrugged. “Dad, why do you come out here and sit on this stump every day?”

He looked away from me, back in the direction of the woods. By then, some of the land had been sold and some of the trees further down from our place had been removed. The frame of a house stood like a silhouette in the dying sunlight. When he looked back at me, he had tears in his eyes. He wiped at them and looked away.

“My Daddy died cutting this tree down.” He patted the side of the stump with one hand. “I was a little older than you, eighteen, I think. He had a heart attack and died where he fell. I come out here to be near him. It’s like he never left. I can feel his presence.”

Dad looked back at me again. His eyes shimmered with tears. “I know it sounds crazy but sitting here makes me feel like he’s still around and not dead and in some box in the ground in Meacham Cemetery. I come out here and talk to him. Then I listen for his voice. I reckon you can say I come to have communion with him.”

I never bothered him while he was out there again. I still looked out the window from time to time, but I never bothered him. It was sacred for him.

Now, I understand why.

***

Barely two years later, Dad passed away. I just turned eighteen, and yes, I see the foreshadowing in our lone conversation about his visits to the stump. He died before supper, and yes, he was sitting on the stump.

He had aged so much in the seven years since Mom passed. He looked older than his fifty-four years. If you do the math, you can figure out my parents had me when they were in their mid-thirties, but Dad looked like he was in his mid-seventies that last time he walked into the back yard to the stump to have communion with his father. 

I stood at the back door, something I hadn’t done since that first time when Mom shooed me away. He sat gingerly on the stump. As always, he looked out to where the woods used to be, but now they were all gone. Houses now sat where trees once stood. His head dipped, his chin touching his chest. Then he leaned to one side and fell.

“Dad,” I yelled and ran from the house. I vaguely heard the clatter of the screen door as it slammed shut. Dad was gone by the time I reached him. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell. Much like when Mom died, I dialed 9-1-1. This time I didn’t wait on the front porch, my elbows on my knees and my head down. No, this time I waited in the back yard, Dad’s head on my lap. 

***

It’s been two days since his funeral. The coroner said he died of a massive heart attack. He was dead before he hit the ground. I can still see him toppling off the stump. I can still hear me yelling for him. 

Tonight, just before I sat at the table by myself for the first time in my life, I walked out to the stump where my dad died, and where his dad died. I sat down on the stump with my hands between my legs. Tears spilled down my face.

“I miss you, Dad.”

Then, like so many times as a child, I felt his arms around me, and I knew I would be okay.

AJB

10/15/2020

19

Mike sits in the dark. He always does on this day. It doesn’t matter hlong its been or how long it will continue to be. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed—19 as of today—the pain is still there, like a fresh wound, always open and no amount of bandages or medication can help it heal. He knows. He’s tried several remedies since that Tuesday morning 19 years ago. Alcohol didn’t work. Neither did cocaine. All those did was cause him to lose his job for a brief period of time, at least until he got out of rehab clean and sober.

On the television a plane crashes into the South Tower in lower Manhattan. He’s seen this image a thousand—no, a million—times. It’s 9:02 by his watch. He pauses the video, wipes his nose with the back of one hand. In his lap is an old cell phone, one he can’t bare to let go of. 

Mike closes his eyes to the still image of glass shattering and a fireball erupting in that once tall building. He takes several deep breaths as he stares into the darkness behind his eyelids. 

So often people say, I remember where I was when the towers were struck by planes, or I remember where I was when the towers collapsed. Like everyone else, he remembers in clear detail where he was, but not when the towers collapsed. He knew exactly where he was when he received the voicemail on his phone, though he didn’t have his phone on him. It was sitting in his car, accidentally left behind on the passenger’s seat. He, however, was underneath a car in the shop he worked at, having just got off vacation the day before. 

He slid out from under an old Buick with a leaky transmission and looked around. The garage, though full of cars that needed work done, was empty of mechanics. Earlier, the place was full of men chattering about the game the previous night. He even hard Hal McDaniels mention to Jim Brookings that one of “those Broncos receivers broke his leg.”

Where’s everyone? he wondered as he grabbed a rag from his shop rack and wiped his hands of transmission fluid. He had found the problem and the owner wasn’t going to be too thrilled. He was certain of this. He reached into his back pocket for his cell phone and frowned. It wasn’t there. Mike looked around his bay and on the floor and didn’t find it. 

“I must have left it in the car.”

Mike headed for the office, a little unnerved by the silence of the usually busy, loud shop. He rounded the corner and left the garage. It was 9:49 when he entered the shop’s office. Where’s everyone turned out to be in the office around a flat screen television mounted on the wall. 

The room was a silence so loud it was deafening.

“What’s going on?” he asked Jim.

“A couple planes crashed.”

“What?”

“Yup.”

“Shhh …” Brock Charmine gave the universal get quiet gesture of his finger to his lips. 

“I’m going to get my cell phone out of my car, okay?”

Jim nodded but didn’t look back. It was 9:51.

From the office to his car and back took him seven minutes. Seven ho hum minutes that he—and no one—would ever get back. He didn’t know why the phone was off when he plucked it from the seat. He pressed the button on the side and walked back to the office as the phone booted up. 

He clicked on the voice message icon and pressed play. As Kimberly’s voice came through the phone, he looked at the television. 

“Is that the World Trade Towers?” he asked aloud, not meaning to.

“Yeah,” Jim said without turning around. 

Over the phone, the message played Kimberly’s calm voice.

Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.

By the end of the call she was crying and the South Tower collapsed on the television screen. 

“No,” he whispers. “No.” Tears form in his eyes. He swallows a lump in his throat and stares at the television. Other mechanics speak or cry out in horror and sadness, but he doesn’t see them or hear them or feel anything in the world but the certainty his wife just died and he wasn’t there for her. He wasn’t even there when she called him and … and she died alone without him with her or without hearing his voice. 

Mike Johnson sits in the dark. From the bedroom comes the sound of his alarm clock. It is 9:58. He picks up the old cell phone and clicks the voicemail icon. He puts the phone to his ear and listens to his wife of nine days, the woman he had just come home from a honeymoon with, the woman he kissed goodbye that morning and whispered I love you in her ear before heading in. 

“Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

On the television is the still image of the South Tower right after the plane struck it. 

Mike feels his heart break all over again. In the dark, he weeps. 

AJB

9/11/2020

14 Days …

Fourteen Days

Quarantine was only supposed to last fourteen days. Fourteen. 

The world went on lockdown on June 17th. The virus, worse than any ever seen before, had spread quickly in the previous twenty or so days, starting somewhere not here, with an incubation period of fourteen days at most, three at the least. Symptoms are basic sniffles and sore throat at first. No real cough or sneezing. Then … then the headaches start, the eyes swell and muscles cramp. Finally, the Infected, as they have been dubbed by some jerk on CNN, become violent. 

The only cure right now … well, there is no cure other than ending the life of an Infected, either before or after they reach the violent stage.

At the beginning, Kaycee and I had plenty of supplies—she saw it coming, having watched her town and world get disrupted a few years ago, thanks to another infectious disease no one knew much about. We played board games and binge watched some of our favorite shows. We had sex a few times—I never knew boredom could lead to that, but I took what I could in times such as these.

Through three days, we both felt fine. No symptoms. Not even a hint of one. On the fourth day, Kaycee woke with the sniffles. 

“It’s just allergies,” she told me as she wiped her nose of the steady faucet drip. 

My first mistake was believing her. Why wouldn’t I? She had allergies more in the summer when things are dryer than in the spring months when the pollen is everywhere. Knowing that, what reason did I have to disbelieve her? She took her allergy medicine and we thought nothing else about it. 

That’s not entirely true. I did think about it, especially when she kissed me and … other things. I thought about it even more on the sixth day when she woke, not just with a bad case of the running nose, but also with a voice that sounded like she gargled with a handful of razors. 

“Kaycee, are you okay?”

She sniffled, shook her head and swallowed hard. Her throat seemed to expand and she grimaced. It was hard to watch. “I don’t feel too good, Cole,” she said. Her eyes held tears in them. I think we both knew what was happening, but neither of us wanted to admit it, at least not out loud. 

Kaycee laid down on the couch and turned the television on. She clutched herself in a tight hug as she shivered uncontrollably. I covered her in a blanket and went to the kitchen. With tears in my eyes, I stood at the counter, knowing it was only a matter of time—a little more than a week, or a little less—before … The deep breath I took rumbled in my chest. I wiped my eyes and made her an old fashioned hot toddy, heavy on the whiskey. By the time I got it back to her, she had fallen asleep on the couch.

The next two days, Kaycee mostly slept. Occasionally she would wake and I would give her medicine I knew would do no good. Then she slept again. I sat on the love seat across from her, my knees pulled up to my chin, my arms wrapped around my shins. I rocked as I sat, alone, though Kaycee was no more than fifteen feet from me. 

Kaycee woke with a headache on the ninth day. She clutched the sides of her head as if her hands were clamps. She cried and snot ran from her nose. Hot compresses did nothing to soothe the pain. Neither did the bit of high dose drugs I still had from the surgery on my back seven months earlier. 

On the tenth day, her eyes bulged. Her eyelids had swollen and when she opened them, her eyes looked as if they would pop right out of their sockets. It was then that she made her request.

“Kill me, Cole.” 

She shielded her eyes from me when she said this, as if she didn’t want me to see her with blood dripping from her sockets. I shook my head. 

“Kaycee …”

“If you love me, you will not let me suffer through this.”

“Kaycee …”

“Don’t you understand?” she yelled. She moved her hands from her face. Her once green eyes had become darker and tinted red. They pulled at their lids as if they were too big to be contained behind them. Blood trickle from the corners where skin had torn. The most beautiful person I had ever known was now one of the Infected and she was asking me to kill her. “I’m going to die, Cole. I’m going to die, but before I do, I’m going to get worse, and I am going to try to kill you in the process. People get violent from this. They lose themselves, Cole. They lose themselves.”

Kaycee plopped onto the sofa and put her face in her hands. She looked up at me a minute later. Tears, mingled with blood, fell down her face. “I don’t want to lose myself.”

I nodded. “Okay.” There was nothing more I could say.

She took a deep breath and tried to smile, but it came out as a sneer that I wish I could forget. 

“Take some of your sleeping pills,” I said. “When you’re asleep …”

Kaycee nodded, stood and walked over to me. She put her arms around me and cried into my shoulder. She said ‘thank you,’ and kissed my cheek. I said nothing when she walked away. Half an hour later, she lay in bed, sleep about to claim her one last time. 

“I love you, Cole,” she said.

“I love you, too, Baby,” I responded and held her in my arms until she fell asleep.

I left the room and went into the living room. I pulled the curtain aside and peered out the window trying to work up the nerve to kill my girlfriend, my best friend, my lover. What I saw made my heart sink. What I saw …

A man ran down the street. He wore a pair of dark blue warmup bottoms and nothing else. He was bare foot and shirtless and his eyes were so huge they wobbled with each step he took. His feet were bloody, as were his arms and hands and mouth. He looked like a man who had just ripped the flesh from a person’s body with his teeth. His hair was disheveled and he didn’t seem to focus on anything or run in any direction. He zigged and zagged and stumbled along until he crashed into a parked car not more than forty feet from our house. His head hit the back window. His legs snapped at his knees and he fell to the ground, leaving a smear of blood on the trunk. I wasn’t positive but I believed he was dead. 

This man had lost himself. Kaycee would do the same soon. 

On the morning of the eleventh day, I went into our bedroom. It was still dark out and would be for several more hours. Kaycee lay on her side, her eyelids barely closed because of the swelling of her eyes. I looked at her, my heart broken. In one hand I held a pistol. In the other, a pillow from the couch. I thought I would hesitate, maybe even turn around and walk away, unable to end her misery. 

I didn’t.

I put the pillow over her head and pulled the trigger. The sound of the gun made me jump. I left the pillow in place and walked out of the room. I closed the door, locking it from the inside.

The last two days—numbers twelve and thirteen for me—I’ve stood at the window, staring out at the dead man who had crashed into the car. Flies buzz around him. I can’t help but wish I could go close his eyes, but that is impossible. They stare blankly at the sky day and night. 

Day fourteen, the last day of quarantine if you have shown no symptoms. I woke to a runny nose. I wiped at it with my hand. The smear of snot doesn’t scare me like I thought it would. It could just be a cold. Maybe it’s allergies. Maybe I’m one of the Infected now. 

Outside the front window, no more than forty feet from my house, a man lay dead, one of the Infected who lost himself. 

I don’t want to lose myself. I don’t want to be like him. I don’t want to go that way. I guess … I guess there is only one thing left for me to do …

AJB

3/23-3/24/2020

I wrote this at the beginning of the Covid 19 mess we are all currently dealing with. I now realize it could be so much larger, but I’m not sure that is a story I want to tackle.

Is There Nonfiction in Your Work?

6/02/2020

This is going to be a two part blog, since I have two things I want to talk about. 

First: I’m usually sure of myself when talking to people about anything. Ask anyone who knows me, I have no problems talking. It’s a gift … and a curse. I’m also opinionated and my filter is usually in serious need of repair. 

However, doing videos, recording myself talking, has always been difficult and awkward feeling. It doesn’t feel natural to me. That is why doing the video series that starts today is important. 

Let me explain, then we will get to the first video. 

I would like to, eventually, do public speaking, whether it is at a book club or in a library or at festivals and conventions. I want to share my thoughts with folks—some of them are too deep for the voices in my head and they scatter when I talk about certain topics. In order to do that, one of the things I have to do is conquer the awkwardness of doing videos. I’m not even talking about live videos—just prerecorded sessions. 

A couple of years ago, we did a similar Q&A set of videos. We had to do multiple takes on each one because I didn’t like the way I sounded or how my answers came out. Sometimes there would be background noise and I wouldn’t like that. I was trying to stage my videos, and as I mentioned before, I couldn’t escape the awkward feeling of them. I wanted them to be perfect, high quality pieces of art, when all we had was a cell phone and whatever backdrop we decided to film at.

This time around, we just went with it. We’re not trying to be perfect. There are going to be mistakes in some of these going forward, at least until we get our footing. We’re going to forget things. On the first video, we actually forgot my contact information. We’re going to experiment with a couple of things. As of this writing, I have developed an idea that might make things a little more natural feeling for me. We’ll see.

A couple of quick notes: the questions are randomly chosen. All of them were written down on index cards and shuffled several times before the first one was selected. We also shuffle them before each question is asked. I do not know which question I am going to answer until it is asked. None of these videos are rehearsed—they are completely by the seats of our pants. 

The first question comes from J.J. Marcum, from here in Columbia, South Carolina. We shot the video at Granby Gardens Park in Cayce, South Carolina, where Cate and I grew up. J.J. asked: “Is there any nonfiction in your stories? In other words, are they inspired by true life events or just your creativity?”

Check out the answer by watching the video. 

Is there nonfiction in your stories?

I would have liked to have been a little more eloquent in my answer, but I loved the question. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. 

The second thing I want to mention here is my novel, My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert released yesterday. You can find it on Amazon if you want a digital copy. However, if you want a print copy, please get it directly from me. You will get it signed by me and the price of the book includes shipping, which you will pay more through Amazon. The synopsis is as follows:

On the third day of summer vacation in 1979, three boys walked along the side of a road, laughing, talking about baseball cards, swimming at Booger’s Pond and Sarah Tucker, the prettiest girl in school. How could they know a few minutes later one of them would be dead, one crippled and one about to face the worse summer of his life? 

Wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Jimmy Lambert is sent to The Mannassah Hall Institute for Boys. On his first day there, Doctor William English strikes him. It would be the first of many Jimmy would suffer at the hands of guards and inmates. Fighting back is an option, but could it have dire consequences?

As Jimmy loses hope, two unlikely people come to his aid. Will they be in time to save him from the bullies at The Mannassah Hall Institute for Boys? Or will they be too late?

If you have enjoyed my work, I hope you will consider purchasing a copy of My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert. You can get the digital version on Amazon here and the print version through me by clicking on the link below. 

Thank you for reading, watching the video and coming along with me through this road trip called writing and story telling. Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.