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.

Meredith’s Umbrella–Rough Cuts #2

Today’s Rough Cut is a quick piece I wrote based on a comment to a Facebook post I made. The post was an image of a red umbrella on a blacktop road with what looked like blood around it. Honestly, it could have just been water. The question I posed was: What do you think of when you see this picture? There were almost 40 responses of a wide variation. 

One response, in particular, caught my attention. It was from Chaz Robertson, whose wife, Briana, is the author of some really dark and emotional stories. Chaz answered in a writerly way:  

“There is a rain drenched sobbing mother being held up by an equally wet and distraught police offer just off scene, stage right, there is a crashed car off scene up stage and stage left, there is a teddy bear hanging from the remains of the wrecked grill. The man behind the wheel reaks of booze and cordite. The pistol he used to kill himself after seeing the little girl under the umbrella lays on the passenger seat his limp hand close by.”

Another individual stated, simply: write that story. I know she was talking to Chaz, but my mind kept coming back to it. Over and over it kept saying what if? So, I finally sat down yesterday morning and pounded out this little story in about an hour before work. I sent it to Chaz, who liked it. Then, since it was his idea, I asked if I could post it here, as one of my Rough Cuts stories. With Chaz’s permission, I present to you Meredith’s Umbrella.

***

Meredith saw everything but she wished she hadn’t. 

Rain pelted the world. It came in sheets that went sideways, aided by gusting winds. It didn’t help that Main Street was a wind tunnel from the capital building all the way down to the courthouse eight blocks away. The road was the center of downtown, with shops, little eateries, apartment buildings geared towards college students, big hotels geared towards business types and coffee shops geared toward everyone. 

There wasn’t much traffic and the stores and eateries were mostly empty. The storm saw to that. Maybe tomorrow things will be back to normal. Meredith wasn’t so sure. Rain had been constant for the last three days and the weather man on Channel 6 News this morning said it would be here through the weekend and possibly into the early part of the following week. 

Meredith stood in the doorway of the small shop her mother owned. It catered to those with a sweet tooth. It wasn’t quite a bakery but was the closest thing downtown had to one. The treats were good, the coffee okay, the staff friendly and the atmosphere cozy.

She could get one of the pastries from the display case—she was fond of the raspberry cheese Danishes, but she wanted real food and the Mexican restaurant on the corner half a block down had the best chicken burritos. She stood at the door, her red umbrella in hand, and waited for the wind and rain to die down enough for her to make a mad dash the half block and not get completely soaked. 

Her stomach grumbled. She pressed a hand to it and whispered, “Be quiet.”

“You know that umbrella isn’t going to do much good,” Jim called from behind the counter. 

She glanced back. He was tall and lanky and his gray hair was slowly turning white. She wasn’t a fan of the man, but Mom liked him and allowed him to work there. Meredith guessed that was one of the perks to sleeping with the owner. She shivered at the thought and said nothing to Jim. Instead, she looked out the window as rain drops hit the glass and rolled down as if racing against every other rain drop. 

Maybe not, she thought, but I hope you’re wrong.

She doubted that. He was rarely wrong.

Meredith watched as the rain began to slacken and the wind tapered off so the trees on Main Street didn’t look like they were doing hula dances. 

“Now,” she said, not realizing she spoke out loud. She pushed the door open. A chill and a smatter of rain greeted her before she could get the umbrella up and open. She lowered her head and lifted the umbrella. With a press of the small silver button, the umbrella opened with a whoop and click. 

Meredith left the store and turned to her left, away from the wind. She held the umbrella slightly tilted behind her but still covering her head. With shoulders hunched and both hands clutching to the umbrella she hurried up the road. 

Two buildings down she came to the corner. The light was red in her favor and the crosswalk sign showed a white stick figure crossing merrily. She thought she might look like that stick figure, but with an umbrella over her head and not looking so merry. She went to step into the road, then stopped. The drain overflowed and the rain was ankle deep. Maybe that’s what saved her life—that one moment where she debated going back and eating a raspberry cheese Danish instead of crossing the road to the Mexican restaurant with the awesome chicken burritos. 

When she looked up, the stick man was gone, and a red hand replaced it. A couple of seconds later, the light turned green in the other direction. Though only one car poked along through the intersection, its wipers swooping quickly from side to side, its headlights on, Meredith waited for the light to change. That’s when she saw the woman and child crossing the street in the other direction of the intersection. They wore raincoats and rain boots—the mother’s were yellow and the little girl’s were pink. The girl couldn’t have been much older than five, or maybe younger. Meredith couldn’t tell. They held hands and the little girl seemed to stomp in the ever widening puddles. Clutched tight to the little girl’s chest was a teddy bear, who also wore a raincoat and boots—blue ones, in fact. 

Meredith smiled. It was one of those moments where she wondered if she would be a mother one day, if she would have a little girl she could stomp in puddles with. She hoped so. 

The mother and daughter reached the sidewalk and rounded the light pole on the corner. They stopped opposite Meredith. It gave her a chance to see the dimples on the little girl’s face, her soft pink lips and the brown bangs hanging down her forehead. 

When the light changed, Meredith looked in both directions. Though there were no cars coming down Main Street, one did come along the intersecting road. It swerved, it’s driver’s side tire hitting a puddle. Drain water sprayed into the air. The car swerved again. 

“No!” Meredith yelled as the car bumped over the edge of the curb and towards the mother and daughter. The mother had time to look back but nothing more. Somehow, the car missed her. Hours later, Meredith believed in her heart of hearts the woman would have rather been the one struck and would second guess why they were even out in the rain in the first place. 

The front of the car struck the little girl. She did a spin, like an ice skater would a graceful pirouette. The teddy bear was pulled free from the girl’s hand and the girl landed in the road several feet from where she stood less than three seconds earlier. The car turned sideways, spraying more water up from the road. The passenger’s side struck several parking meters before coming to a stop against one of the trees planted in the center of the sidewalk. 

There was a scream that seemed to last for minutes. The mother ran to her daughter. She dropped to her knees along the drain that had been too full to hold all the rain. Meredith didn’t need to see the girl’s face to know she was dead. Her little hand floated in the water, the hood no longer covering her head and her hair spread out like a halo beneath her. There was blood. She could see that much. 

Meredith wanted to run to the woman, to put her arms around her and pull her away from something no parent should ever have to see. Her legs felt like concrete as she hurried across the street. Her skin was cold. At some point, the umbrella had been lowered. Though the rain and wind began to pick up again, Meredith didn’t notice. 

Before she could reach the woman, a loud sound, like a gun going off, rang out to her right. Meredith didn’t duck. The woman didn’t move from where she cradled her daughter’s head in her arms. Meredith turned to where the car now sat. The driver’s side window was broken. A splatter of blood and hair clung to where part of the window was still intact. In the car, the driver’s head had tipped back, his mouth open, the top of his head missing. 

Meredith’s belly grumbled, not from hunger, but from a sudden rush of nausea. She bent over and vomited.

“Ma’am. Ma’am,” came a voice from somewhere nearby. Meredith wiped her mouth and stood straight. Over where the little girl lay dead, a cop stood. He was young, maybe not even in his thirties yet. He took the mother by her arms and helped her to her feet. The mother collapsed into his chest, her hands to her face. The officer—in a gesture Meredith would later say was the sweetest, most caring thing the cop could have done—put his arms around her and stroked her hair with one hand. She didn’t know what the officer said, and never would, but in that moment, she thought the officer was an angel and had come to the mother’s aid. 

Meredith glanced back at the car. The front end faced the road. Stuck in the grill was the little girl’s teddy bear. Her heart cracked and tears finally fell down her face. Meredith stumbled to the car, passing the blown-out window and the dead driver. Though it was faint, she could smell alcohol and what she thought was the residual odor of cordite from the gun. Meredith pulled the teddy bear free and started back across the road. She didn’t know its name, but she thought it was something cute, like Mr. Stuffings or maybe something simple like Teddy.

The rain increased; the wind picked up. Off in the distance came multiple sirens. But the little girl … she still laid in the road, her hand still moving with the steady flow of water running down the street, her eyes facing a sky they would never see again, her hair flowing out around her. Meredith’s shoulders slumped. On her heavy legs, she walked over to the little girl. She didn’t look directly at her as she bent down and placed her umbrella over the girl’s body. It bobbed in the water, but it did its job. It covered the little girl’s face and upper body. 

Meredith sat down on the curb, the water rushing over her shoes and sloshing onto the sidewalk, soaking her pants. She cradled the bear in her arms. As she rocked back and forth and cried into the soft fur of the stuffed toy, a brief thought entered her mind, then fled: Jim was wrong.

AJB

8/06/2021

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.

Out of Sight

So often when a new year begins we reflect on the one that has passed. We take a moment to highlight the goods and some of the bads that transpired over the previous 365 days. It’s a bit of reminiscing, but quite often it is more regret than anything. I’m not doing that this year. There are two things I want to state in this piece, both of which have to do with my writing. 

Media Booklet Butterflies and BookFirst, I know I haven’t posted much in the last three or so months. I realized something last year, something I did for a long time because, well, honestly I didn’t want to lose the few readers I have here on Type AJ Negative. Sometimes I posted things just to post them, just to keep my name in your minds and on your lips. 

The way social media works is a simple concept I think we all understand: out of sight, out of mind. The belief of many people in the business of business is if you are not constantly putting out content you will become irrelevant and disappear from the view of customers. With that in mind, I wrote blogs and posted them, sometimes a few times a week, in hopes that you, the reader, will not forget me, the writer with the handful of followers. It’s almost like panicking. ‘If I don’t put out content now I will lose readers. Put it out. Put it out. PUT IT OUT!!’

It gets to the point where putting out content is not fun. One of the reasons I write blogs and books and funny things on social media is because I want to have fun doing it. I want to enjoy the process of growing a fan base. But when I put pressure on myself, what I put out isn’t all that great. That includes blog posts.

When I realized some of the content I was putting out was meaningless, I got aggravated with myself. That is not what I set out to do. I set out to inform and entertain, not to put out mindless drivel. So, I stopped writing blogs for a while, putting out only one, I think, in the last ten weeks, and that one was important to me. That’s why I wrote it and shared it with you.

Here is the deal: I’m not going to put out things that don’t matter or that don’t inform or entertain you in some way. I want to reach you, the reader, but I don’t want to do so out of worry that if I don’t write one or two pieces each week you will leave. I will write my blogs when I have something to say. Yes, I know that means my numbers will go down. It is what it is. For those of you who stay, I thank you.

Now, the second thing is much better than the first. Though I haven’t written many blogs in the last few months, I have been writing and I have been editing and I have been working on quite a few projects. That means real content will be coming to y’all in the form of books this year. Here are a few things coming your way in the next year or so:

Interrogations, a Hank Walker novella, is in the process of going to print. It should be ready to put in your hands any day now. 

Five Deaths, a novel about ghosts, revenge and love. Oh yeah, this is one you’re going to want to get your hands on.

The One Left Behind, a novella about love, death and determination. I’m starting to see a theme here.

My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert. This is another novel, not put out by Jimmy Lambert, but by me. The story is about Jimmy Lambert, a twelve-year-old boy who should have enjoyed his summer with two good friends, only to have his entire world pulled out from under him by a drunk driver, a crooked legal system and Doctor William English, the head of a boys institute who takes an instant dislike to our hero, Jimmy. Recently, I asked someone to read it. She sent me back a note stating: This story broke my heart.

Other possibilities for 2020:

Simply Put, my thoughts on telling stories and the business of it. No, this is not a how to book, but kind of an anti-how to book. It has quite a few of my philosophies, not on writing, but on storytelling, including what I call The Primary Colors of Writing. Oh, and this book has quite a few short stories laced throughout its pages.

Suzie Bantum’s Death, a novella about a woman who committed suicide by jumping into a swollen river. What caused her to take her life this way? One man sets out to find answers and he may have bitten off more than he bargained for.

Southern Darkness, The Collection. This one I’m not sure about yet. Last year I did a subscription similar to The Brown Bag Stories. There are four editions, meaning four stories. Folks paid for the subscription and I have sent out the stories on a quarterly basis. However, I’m thinking of adding one or two stories to the original four and putting out a collection. If I do this, the readers who did the subscription will get a significant discount if they purchase the print book with the extra stories in it. This is one I still haven’t decided on yet.

Okay, I guess I have said all I have to say for now. No need to drag it out, right?

Oh, one more thing: if you have read any of my books and you have not written a review for them, would you mind doing so? I would greatly appreciate it.

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

A.J. 

#everythingislifeeverythingisastory

#horrorwithheart

18

A young man walks along a path in a small town cemetery. In his right hand is a paper bag, the open end folded shut. He wears a pare of black Converse sneakers with his initials printed on the heel end, and blue jeans, ones with holes that run up and down both legs. His hair is a little long and there is stubble on his face. It’s young stubble, the type that only males in that in-between stage of life of being a kid and becoming an adult can grow. He is seventeen and he has made this same walk every year since he can remember.

He parked his car outside the rusted steel gates of the graveyard, preferring to walk the distance to the marker he intends to visit. It’s that walk that allows him to prepare him for his emotions, the ones surely to come on this day. 

The young man veers off the path and across the lush green lawn. In some places, the grass hasn’t been cut and it grows higher than in others. But where he walks today, the lawn may not be freshly cut, but someone had gone over it in the last week or two. Though the morning was a little warmer than most for this time of year, there is still a little dew left on the grass that hasn’t burned off with the rise of the sun, or in this case, the hiding of the sun behind tinted gray clouds. 

He lifts his arm and looks at the watch on his wrist. 

10:20.

He nods and continues along the headstones of the deceased, paying no attention to the names or the years of life etched in them, or the epitaphs so eloquently written by loved ones who no longer visit those they wish to never forget. There is a lump in his throat and every breath he takes is a little shaky and getting shakier as he goes. 

No, he’s not sick or afraid or running from anything. This young man is going forward, running toward something, facing a truth. 

A bird lands on the ground fifteen feet in front of him, cocks its head to the side and looks at him with its curiously beady black eyes. It flaps its wings once, twice, then flies away. He continues forward, the lump in his throat seemingly getting larger, his breaths harder to take. He looks back at his watch.

10:24.

Then the young man stops in front of a headstone that is nothing special in shape or size or expense, but it is everything special to him, for who it belongs to. He opens the bag and pulls out a Mountain Dew and a Snickers candy bar. He set the bag down and reaches into his back pocket for the folded piece of paper there.

His watch now reads 10:26.

The young man sits down in front of the stone. He reads the name there, reads the date of birth, and more importantly, the date of death: 9-11-2001. The lump in his throat is a heavy rock and the tears he had held back now begin to flow. His breaths are raspy and his hands shake as he unfolds the paper and sets it on the ground in front of him. He then opens one end of the candy bar and follows that by popping the top on his soda and sets them both on the ground. 

He glances at his watch one final time.

10:28.

He picks up the letter. It is short and written in his stick-like scrawl. With the grief of a child who lost a parent, he reads the words he wrote.

Dear Dad,

Eighteen years ago today you died. You never got to hold me. You never even got to meet me. Mom gave birth to me three days later as she mourned you—as the nation mourned. 

He takes a deep breath, releases it and tries hard not to think about the truth his mother told him about his father, that he’s not buried there, that his body is not in the ground where he sits, that only one shoe—a black Converse with his initials on the back—was ever found in the rubble of the collapsed building he had been in that day.

He swallows hard, trying to get the lump in his throat to go away, then reads more of his letter.

I never got to throw a baseball with you. We never got to have father and son time. You never got to tell me dirty jokes and I’ll never be able to ask you for advice about women. 

He wipes his eyes with the palm of one hand, then continues.

Though I never knew you, I love you. Mom has told me a lot about you and I know you would have been a great father, just as you were a great husband to her. I hope I can be half the man you were, and I hope, wherever you are, you are proud of me. 

As tears stream down his face, the young man, soon to be eighteen years of age, says the final words of his letter.

I love you, Dad. I love you. 

  

I love you.

The young man sets the letter on the ground and puts his face in his hands. He sobs, letting the grief of a love never felt from a man he never met, flow from him. After several minutes, he wipes his eyes again, then his nose. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, lets it go and picks up the candy bar—his dad’s favorite—pulls the wrapper completely off and takes a bite of it. Then he raises the Mountain Dew—his dad’s favorite drink—to the air and taps the headstone with it. He only drinks a couple of sips, then sets the drink and the half eaten candy bar on his father’s headstone.

Heart broken, the young man picks up the paper bag and the candy wrapper and stands. He walks away, leaving the letter by the marker, his head down. Tomorrow will be better, but today … today will always be difficult.

AJB

9/11/2019

18