10 of 52

This Place

Chet sat alone in a blue chair that might have been meant for a beach, but instead was around a metal firepit with chairs of the same type. A slight breeze blew through his hair. A car went by, a song he didn’t know blaring from it until it was off in the distance. There were too many people, mostly younger than him.

He didn’t know this place, had never been there until that day, but he knew he didn’t like it. It was too busy, with its crowded streets, loud music and people, and stores, stores, stores. Everything about that place screamed commercialism. He wanted to be home, away from the noise and the people, where trees dominated the landscape instead of concrete buildings, where animals roamed the countryside instead of cars zooming by on roads, where the sounds you heard were leaves rustling in the same breeze he felt right then, birds chirping and bees buzzing from flower to flower.

Instead, he sat, uncomfortably, as a group of young men set up instruments on a stage at the end of the building. There was a cover over the stage meant to protect anyone playing from the elements of weather; the sun, rain, the cold—the last of those he had his doubts about. Based on the long sleeves the five men wore, they had theirs, too.

After several quiet minutes to himself, his wife, Allie, came to her seat next to him. She had a beer in one hand—bottled not draft. He smiled at this. She wasn’t a country girl by any stretch of the imagination, but with her hair pulled into a ponytail and a bottled beer in hand, he thought she pulled off the look quite well. 

“When are they going on?” she asked and sat down.

Chet looked at his watch—not a digital deal, and not a phone, but an honest to goodness analogue watch with ticking hands and lines for minutes. “In about ten minutes, I reckon.”

“Are you excited to see them play?”

He shrugged. “I’ve seen ‘em play plenty of times.”

“Watching your brothers play at home or church is one thing, but they’re getting paid to play here.”

“They’ve been paid before …” he said and looked around. “… just not in a place like this.”

“You mean not in the city?”

He nodded. “Yup.”

“You don’t like it here, do you?”

“Not particularly.”


“It’s too …” He shook his head, looking for the words.

“Busy?” Allie interjected.

“Nope. That’s not the word I’m looking for. It’s too fast. People hurrying by like there’s no tomorrow, like, I don’t know, they don’t have the time to stop and smell the roses, or in this case, the exhaust fumes.”

Allie laughed at this, took a drink of her beer. “I guess this means you don’t want to move to the city?”

Chet frowned at this. He knew by being here that question would come up. “If you want to move back—and I know you do—I’ll do it. If that’s what’ll make you happy, then I’ll do what I need to.”

“I hear a ‘but’ coming?”

He took a deep breath. “But this place … this isn’t for a country boy like me. I feel about as out of place as vegetarian at an all meat buffet.”

For half a minute they sat in silence. Then Chet spoke the most honest words he could think to say. “I know you want to move back home. I also know you won’t ask me to do that. Just know if you want to come home … to this place …” He waved one hand in the air, motioning their surroundings. “… then I’ll move the earth and moon to make it happen. As long as we’re together …”

Allie didn’t respond, but he saw the smile on her face. She reached for his hand as The Bluegrass Brothers began their first song. At the end of the song, she released his hand. 

“It’s just a place,” she said. 

He nodded. “Yup.”


9 of 52

I Love You, Dog

The boy was born on a Wednesday, the same day his father picked up a puppy from the shelter. Though the world was a scary place at first and thoughts were only emotions and feelings, the boy sensed the puppy. The puppy sensed the boy, as well.

It wasn’t long before the puppy was sleeping on the floor in the baby room. Not long after that, the puppy and the boy connected in thought if not in words. 

“Hi, I’m Boy.”

“Hi, I’m Dog.”

And so the bond was made. 

What the parents would hear is a baby’s coo or gibberish, and what they would see is the puppy’s floppy ears perk up and its tail wag from side to side. What really happened were exchanges of joy.

“I love you, Dog.”

“I love you, Boy.”

As they grew, the puppy stayed with the boy and the boy played with the puppy. Bits of food was shared from the plate to the bowl. They ran and played, jumped in leaves, slept at the same times. When the boy went off to school, the puppy—now a full grown dog—waited by the door or on his blanket in the boy’s room. 

“I missed you, Boy,” he would say with a wag of its tail, a bark and several kisses to the face. 

“I missed you, Dog,” the boy would respond with a hug, rub of the ears and a kiss on the snout. 

“I love you, Boy.”

“I love you, Dog.”

And they grew together, the boy always spending time with the dog, the dog always happy to see the boy. They were the best of friends. The dog would sit and watch his games, happy to be on a leash at the foot of one of the parents so he could be near the boy. And the boy would always look for the dog, happy he was able to be there.

And so it went, a bond stronger than anything grew tighter each day.

“I love you, Dog.”

“I love you, Boy.”

The boy was sixteen when he knew sadness—true sadness—for the first time in his life. He had noticed the dog struggling to walk, struggling to eat. His tail always wagged, but he was rarely able to play. 

He sat on his floor, scooted onto the dog’s blanket, and lifted him into his arms. They sat, quietly, the boy holding the dog on his lap, listening to the slowing breaths. 

“I love you, Dog.”

“I love you, Boy.”

The dog breathed his last. The boy cried.

For the first time in his life, the boy was alone. No Dog to talk to, to bring him joy, to pet and feed pieces of his meal to. He picked a spot in the yard, one in the sun where the dog liked to lay. He didn’t take the help of his father and dug the hole himself. Wrapped in his blanket, the boy laid the dog gently in his final bed, then covered him as tears flowed down his cheeks. He made a small cross out of scrap wood and carved the word DOG in it. He placed it at the head of the grave, sat and stared quietly. 

The boy took a deep breath, let it out and whispered, “I love you, Dog.”

As if the dog was still there, the boy felt his nose nuzzle his arm. “I love you, Boy.”


If you cried at the end of this story, please know you are not the only one. I wrote this one day on my lunch break at work back in November of 2022. I had to wipe tears from my eyes and compose myself before getting back to work. 

Part of the beauty of the relationship of a child and a dog is how pure it tends to be, especially when they are introduced to each other early on. That type of love is something completely unbound by fear of each other. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

8 of 52

Passing Clouds

He sat in the hospital room alone. It was the first time since his heart attack that someone wasn’t in there. Even at night when he was asleep—or trying to sleep if the nurses would just stay out of there—someone had been sleeping on the couch. The first two nights it was Evelyn. Last night his son, John, stayed over. He was as restless as Norvell was, but probably because he was too tall for the loveseat the hospital called a couch. It didn’t look all that comfortable.

But right then, no one was there. Evelyn was at the house. John stepped out to make a phone call and the nurse—Cruella, he thought of her as with that white streak in her otherwise black hair and the stern tone to her voice—had done her morning rounds. He thought he might have ten or fifteen minutes of peace. 

The clock on the wall to the right of his bed was nothing more than a cheap dollar store battery operated thing. The second hand tick ticked away. It read seventeen minutes after three in the afternoon. Norvell stared out the window. Gray clouds rolled by. Earlier John said a storm was on the way. With the way the clouds moved, Norvell thought it might be a doozy. Black clouds began taking the place of the gray ones as he watched. He thought they moved a little faster than they should. He frowned. Yup, a doozy indeed.

“I see a face,” he said. His voice cracked and sounded tired, almost breathless. He shook his head slowly. He raised his hands.. They were thin and wrinkly and there were several liver spots on them. HIs wrists looked too thin for his liking.  “When did I get so old?”

The face in the clouds rushed by, replaced by gray and black and the occasional puff of white that looked like the only clean spot on an otherwise dirty sky. As the clouds moved along, a swirl of white clung to the underside of a dark one.

“That looks like a cinnamon roll.”

Norvell smiled at this. 

A laugh came from his right. When he looked, a kid stood there in brown pants, a tan button-down shirt and brown suspenders. His feet were bare and his face was smudged with dirt. 

“Hey, Ed,” he said. The kid smiled, showing he was missing two teeth.

“Hey, Norvell, Ed said, then added, “That does look like a cinnamon roll. Remember Grams’ cinnamon rolls?”

Norvell nodded. Grams was his grandmother and she baked the best cinnamon rolls. She put them in the open window of her kitchen to cool before scooping them out of the pan.  “They were the best.”

“Yeah, they were.”

They sat in silence for a minute, then Ed pointed with one long finger at the clouds. “Is that a cat?”

Norvell shook his head. “No. That’s a lion.”

“I guess so. Remember how we used to lay in the field out behind the house when were kids?”

“I do,”

“We watched the clouds go by with our hands behind our heads.”

“And we chased the rainbows after storms.”

Ed nodded. “Those were good times.”

“The best times.”

Another minute passed. Norvell didn’t look back at his older brother who died when he was only thirteen thanks to a clumsy fall off a wall and a busted skull. “It’s time, isn’t it?” he asked.

“We can watch the clouds a little longer,” Ed said. “Whenever you’re ready, just close your eyes and the clouds will stop moving.”

Norvell nodded. He thought of Evelyn, of how hard his health issues have been for her. He thought of John, of the many times he took off from work or left his own family to take him to the doctor or the hospital and the many nights he slept on too short and uncomfortable  couches like the one in the room he was in. 

He looked at the clock on the wall again. The hands had stopped moving and it read nineteen minutes after three. Norvell’s lips turned up slightly, then he looked back out the window. 

“What do those look like?” Ed asked and pointed to the window where white clouds tried to overtake the gray and black ones. A flash of lightning was followed by a rumble of thunder. 

“Angels,” he whispered as the clouds continued to move along briskly. “I’m ready.” Norvell closed his eyes … 

6 of 52

The mirror is an unforgiving object. 

It was a thought she often had as a kid when she was awkward, all arms and legs and no boobs or hips. In front of a mirror was a place she hated. Preteen Mariah was just … what was it Brody Brady said that one time? Oh, yeah. Mariah was an ugly zipper.

“Just stick out your tongue and stand sideways …”

She shook her head at that. How hurtful could kids be? 

“Very,” she whispered.

She wasn’t an ugly zipper anymore. The rest of her body caught up to her arms and legs and she filled out in all the right spots. When that happened, the boys came calling. For the last eleven years, she relished in those boys—because that’s what they were, even the twenty somethings who chased her now—going gaga over her. She relished even more in turning down the ones she didn’t think lived up to her standards. 

That was until this morning.

Last night, she turned down Derrick Underwood for the hundredth—or maybe just the twelfth—time. He was sweet and nice and funny, and she had known him since they were both six and in first grade, but he lacked in the looks department, both facial and bodily. He was average and average might have been okay for preteen Maria, but adult, in college Mariah, average wasn’t even on the For Consideration scale. 

“Just one date?” Derrick asked after her latest rejection. “That’s all I’m asking for. After that, I’ll leave you alone. I promise.”

She rolled her eyes. “No. It’s never going to happen.”

It was cold, maybe even heartless.

Derrick’s shoulders slumped. He looked down at his feet, then back up at her. “Why not?” 

It wasn’t a whine or anything like that. Just a question, one she answered, maybe a little too harshly.

“You’re ugly, Derrick. You’re not my type.”

If she would have stuck with the last part of that statement, things might have been okay. But she started with ‘You’re ugly, Derrick,’ and that’s probably all he heard. 

He nodded. His jaw worked from side to side. His Addams apple bobbed up and down and his eyes filled with tears. 

Oh great, she thought. Here we go.

“Do you remember when we were kids and Brody Brady called you an ugly zipper?”

She didn’t respond. He didn’t give her much time to.

“Do you remember how you felt? How he laughed at you? Do you remember the next day? You probably don’t, but do you remember the black eye he had the next day? I gave that to him. I told him you were a beautiful girl and socked him for insulting you. You may have been flat chested and had no butt, but you were a nice person, you were a beautiful person.” He shook his head. “Now … now you might be nice on the outside, but on the inside … I liked you better when you were an ugly zipper on the outside.”

With that said, Derrick shoved his hands into his pockets, turned and walked off, his head down, shoulders slumped.

“Whatever,” she said and that was that. No more Derrick Underwood in her life. “I’m beautiful and that’s what matters.”

Or anyone’s.

Now, she showered, had her makeup on and was dressed to attract the hot guys on campus, not the Derrick Underwood’s. The mirror had become a place of pleasure for her. 

Her phone buzzed, once, twice, eight times before she finally picked it up to see the text from Candace, one of her sorority sisters. It was only six words, but the most impactful text she had ever received: Derrick Underwood committed suicide last night.

Mariah’s shoulders slumped. Her stomach knotted and she was suddenly out of breath. She stared at her phone but didn’t see it. What she saw was Derrick walking away that last time. She set the phone down. Tears fell down her cheeks. She wiped her eyes and smeared her mascara. 

She touched the mirror. It was cold. In that moment, she realized Derrick was right. “You’re an ugly zipper, Mariah,” she whispered to the image staring back at her.

She didn’t think about what she did next, she just did it. Scissors came from the cup by the sink, meant to trim dead ends. Instead, she snipped at her long brown hair, cutting it short and choppy. She took a razor to her eyebrows and plucked her eyelashes and smeared the makeup on her face. She took off the sexy, head turner of a dress and stared at the curves she had in the mirror. She shook her head, picked up her red lipstick and wrote the word ‘ugly’ on her forehead, stomach, and legs. 

“You’re an ugly zipper, Mariah.” 

Wearing only bra and panties, Mariah walked out of her dorm and into the hall. She didn’t care if she was a beautiful girl any longer. She wasn’t and she never would be again.


I first saw Jeff Pitts and Jessica Skinner-Sims play at a festival in Rosewood here in South Carolina. Cate and I originally went to hear another band play, but, in all honesty, they weren’t that good. We left that stage and walked around until we found a sign that said what bands were playing on which stages. One of the bands was titled Prettier Than Matt. 

“That’s an interesting name,” I said. 

We made our way to their stage. I think we were both surprised to see a duo and not a band. However, they were good—very, very good—and we enjoyed the show. That day we purchased one of their albums and started following them, going to as many local shows as possible. 

Then we found out they had another band, one that was more rock and roll, called Deleveled. We went to one of the few shows they played while they were still together and it was amazing. One of the songs that appears on one of Deleveled’s albums is called Beautiful Girl. It is, by far, my favorite Deleveled song. 

I’ve always taken it as a song about a girl who was either abused by her father or one who had a low confidence level. It’s kind of a haunting song when you look at it that way. 

When I sat to write this story, I did so with Beautiful Girl in mind. However, I didn’t want it to have the same abuse or lack of confidence feel that I always got from the song. I wanted Mariah to have dealt with being ugly, then, becoming like the ugly duckling that grew into a beautiful swan. I also wanted her to be the bad guy in this story. 

The ending is sad. The ending is heartbreaking. It is also an epiphany for Mariah, that no matter who beautiful she might be on the outside, she was just an ugly zipper on the inside and she probably always would be.

5 of 52

My brother and I were never the best of friends. He lied. A lot. He stole. A lot. He cheated. A lot. He did a lot of things I never thought good people would do. I never thought he was a good person. 

He was three years older than me and far meaner than I would ever become. He beat me up more than a few times.

I was eleven when my grandfather broke up a particularly nasty argument that had me lash out and punch Bart as hard as I could. He saw the punch, not what led to it. He sent Bart in the house for some ice and some good old-fashioned consoling from our grandmother. I imagined he would twist this into some lie, and I would get the blame for it somehow. I was right, but that’s not what this is about.

Granddad pulled me aside and said, “Do you want to play marbles?”

I was confused. Was this a calm before the storm?

He nodded. “Sure, you do.”

He went to the porch and grabbed my marbles off the swing. They were in a purple Crown Royal bag my dad gave me. He came back to where I stood, still unsure of what was happening. He knelt, wiped dirt away with his palm and drew a circle with a stick in the clearing he had made. The marbles went into the circle and we each picked out a shooter, his a plain green one, mine a shiny purple one with white speckles. 

We only played for a few minutes. At one point, I took my shot and knocked a yellow and white swirled marble from the circle. Before I could pick it up, he did. 

“That’s mine,” I said.

He looked at it. “It is.” Then he reached into the circle and picked out another yellow and white swirled marble. He held his hand out, the two marbles side by side on his palm. Then he closed his hands.

He spoke in the way only he could, calm, soothing and wise. “Brett this circle is your world, your surroundings. These marbles …” He pointed to the ones within the circle. “… are the members of your family. These two …” He held up the two yellow and white swirled marbles, one between each pointer finger and thumb. “… are you and your brother.”

Grandad dropped one marble inside the circle. “This one is you.” He dropped the other one on the outside of the circle. “This one is your brother.”

He paused, as if thinking of what to say next. “Sometimes, you will not like your family. Sometimes they will do things that make you mad and you will not want to be around them. But they will always be your family.” He picked up the marble representing my brother. “You may not like him, but Bart is your brother and one day … one day you will wish you kept him in your circle.”

Grandad set the marble back in the circle, stood and went inside the house. I stared at it for a moment or two, then scooped them all up and placed them back in the bag. At some point, I lost track of that bag of marbles.

Life went on and Bart and I never really got along again. 

Twenty years have passed since that day. I found the bag of marbles the other day as I helped clean my grandparents’ house. It had been sitting empty since Grandad’s death a year ago. The bag was at the bottom of one dresser in the room I slept in when I was a kid. I opened it up and dumped the marbles out. Among them were two white and yellow swirled ones—my brother and I. 

I stared at it for a long while …

Now, here I stand, at my brother’s grave. It’s been four years since drugs took him in the form of an overdose. When I leave, I will go visit Grandad and tell him he was right—I wish I would have kept Bart in my circle. For now, I will stand here a little longer, silent and in thought. Before I leave, I will set one of the two yellow marbles on his head stone. I will never have him back in the circle, but maybe … maybe this will wash away some of the guilt and pain I feel. I doubt it, but it’s worth a shot.


Before anyone asks, the only thing true in this story is the game of marbles and the conversation my grandfather and I had when I was a kid. Yes, it did come after a moment of fighting between me and my real brother, but it never escalated to the point of the two brothers in this story—thankfully.


4 of 52

Two sounds, like loud knocks, echo in the night, first one then a few seconds later the other one. Silence followed. 

The sun rose on a lonely house, set apart from the rest of the world by fields as far as the eye could see in two directions, trees in a third and a large pond behind it. A red dirt road split one field, leading from the house to a crumbling blacktop few people traveled. A slight breeze blew through tall grass; leaves shivered on trees; ripples swam along the surface of the pond.

June sat in her usual chair, an ancient faded yellow seat with a hardback and worn cushion. It had been crushed velvet at one time but was now mostly matted. A glass of warm tea sat on a small end table next to her. A book sat open in her lap, her hand on one page. Her glasses lay on the floor. Without them she couldn’t read.

John sat across from her in a brown recliner that was more comfortable than the seat June preferred. Like June, a glass of tea sat on a small table next to him. A cigarette burned to the filter but barely smoked sat on a saucer next to the glass. A gun sat in his lap.

He stared at his wife of sixty-three years. She stared back. Neither of them spoke.

John smacked his dry lips, sniffled. His head hurt and his world was a fog. His right eye was blurry.


“Yes, June?”

“Is your eye bothering you?”


June nodded. 

John blinked. It would do no good, but he still did it. Habit, he guessed. 


“Yes, June?”

“Weren’t we supposed to go somewhere today?”

“A walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yes. To Miller’s house.”

“Miller’s house?”


She blinked. A frown crossed her face. “Who is Miller?”

It was John’s turn to frown. The years hadn’t been kind to her mind. It was bad enough age took away her ability to do most things, but now it ate at her brain and more times than not, June was in her own world.

“Miller is our son, June. We told him we would visit today. “

She nodded. “When are we going?”

“Now is as good a time as any.” 

For a few minutes longer, John stared at June. She had been beautiful in his eyes from the day he met her at a roller rink when they were in their teens. Even now, with age, life, and a horrible wound having deformed her face, she still held him captive. Her night dress was stained, and her slippers were old. What was left of her hair was a white/red tint. Still, she was his June, even if everything he loved about her was mostly gone.

He stood slowly, his old bones not what they used to be. He went to June and held out one knobby, arthritic hand.

“Let’s go, June.”

She looked at his hand. Her brow creased. “Where are we going?”

He smiled as sweetly as he could. “A walk.”

She looked down. She tugged on her night clothes. “In this? I can’t go out in this.”

“You look beautiful. “

“I look like a hag.”

“No, June. You’re beautiful. Don’t you want to get some air?”

She blinked. He saw the sudden transition. He saw her mind flip as it did so frequently now. The clothes and how she looked was a distant memory for her, but his question, his hand out in front of her, was still there. She reached up and took it. With a little effort, he pulled her to her feet.


“Yes, June?”

“Where are we going?”

“Outside for some air.”

June nodded. 

Their feet slid across the floor almost silently. When they reached the door, John opened it. With one hand on June’s elbow, he led her onto the porch. They walked to the steps and stopped. 

“Don’t forget to close the door, John. “

John turned back to see the door already shut.

“It’s closed, dear. “

He thought the steps would be tricky, but they took all five of them with ease, him still holding her elbow and them taking each step one at a time.


“Yes, June?”

“Where are we going?”

He looked at his wife, at the confusion in her dull eyes. Her memory was shot, and it didn’t matter what he said, she would ask some variation of the same question again and again and again. 

“For a walk, dear. “

Up the dirt driveway they went, longtime lovers at the tail end of their lives. John blinked several times. The blurry eye was worse, as if something was in it. The fog in his head grew thicker. 

They reached the road and stopped. June was lost again, her eyes vacant, her jaw slack. 

“Come on, June,” he said and took her hand. He pulled her gently into the road.


“Yes, June?”

“Where are we?”

He looked back to the house, blinked several times, and shook his head. The house was faded, as was the tall grass on either side of the driveway. The sky was a pastel blue. Though the breeze still made the grass sway, he didn’t feel it on his skin or in his silver hair. The sun hung directly overhead but he didn’t feel the warmth of it. He looked down. Where shadows should have been, there were none. 

John rubbed his eye. His fingers came away sticky and red. He took a deep breath, something he no longer needed to do. He looked at his wife with tears in his eyes. June’s ruined head bled where the bullet went into her temple and out the other side just below the ear. 

“I don’t know, ” he said and rubbed the side of his head. “I guess we’re … gone”

He took her hand again and they started up the road.


“Yes, June?”

“Where are we going?”

“Wherever you want.”

She nodded.


While at a show by one of our favorite local artists who was flying solo that night, Jeff Pitts played a cover of The Way by Fastball. I always liked the song, but for some reason, it hit me differently that night. 

In my mind, I saw an elderly couple walking down a road that was crumbling blacktop. They held hands like old lovers. It was a sweet image, but it was also sad. You see, in the image there were no shadows cast by their bodies. They were ghosts, which meant neither of them were alive. 

My mind started adding little details to the image. The woman had a vacant stare, the man was terribly sad. It dawned on me then that he had killed his wife, then killed himself. However, this wasn’t a crime of anger or hate or even just being tired of being married. It was a moment of mercy for the woman and an instant of sad resolve for the man. 

I made a couple of notes on my phone about the song, some of the lyrics and the story I thought of. Then I looked up the song to find out what it was really about. Turns out, it’s based on the true events of an elderly couple who took a drive and never came home. She had Alzheimer’s and he recently had brian surgery. They were later found 400 or so miles from home in their car where they wrecked. Neither had survived the accident. 

I debated writing the story after learning the inspiration for the song. In the end, the day after hearing The Way played by Jeff Pitts, I sat at my kitchen table, phone in my hand, typing the story into a notes program as Fastball’s version played on a loop in my earbuds. 

3 of 52

“Do you want to go for a ride?”

I looked up from my phone. Kelsey stood at the end of the couch, her brows raised and keys in her hand. She didn’t look particularly excited. Her lips were straight lines with no curve up or down. It’s not a look that means something good. We were going for a ride whether I wanted to or not.

“I guess.”

I stood, pocketed my phone, and followed her to her car—a newer green Mazda. It was only the second time I rode in it since we brought it home from the dealer eight months or so earlier. We got her the car instead of getting me the truck I wanted. It turns out, she needed the car more than I needed a truck. I guess part of me was still unhappy about it since that’s what we went shopping for to begin with.

She pulled out of the driveway and drove. Neither of us spoke for several minutes. We just watched the road in front of us get eaten up beneath her tires. 

“Going for a ride” usually meant it would be a long drive and involve a serious discussion. Sometimes those conversations were good, other times, not so much. The first time we went for a ride was when I proposed to her. I took her down an old country road to a pond surrounded by lush grass and tall trees. It’s a place I’ve always liked. Dad and I went fishing there when I was a kid. It was a place of lessons and conversations that mean more to me than most. 

She took me for a ride to tell me she was pregnant. That was ten months ago, right before we bought the car. There were other conversations, most of them about work or relatives—her mom dying was news I had to give her on one of those drives. I hated having to pull over and tell her. The way she cried … I get a lump in my throat thinking about it.

The last one we took was nearly six months ago. She drove in silence for a long while, seemingly aimlessly. Then it was her turn to pull over. With tears in her eyes, she told me about her miscarriage.

Yeah, there’s that lump in my throat again.

Things haven’t been the best for us since then. We still do things together, but sometimes it’s strained, as if we’re putting too much effort into a relationship that never needed effort. Even sex felt like work.

“So, what’s this about?” I asked.

She said nothing at first. My brain screamed, She wants a divorce!


She took a deep breath. “Be patient.” There was an edge to her voice.

The remainder of the drive was spent in silence. No talking. No music. Just the sound of the thoughts in my head. My mind wandered to images of her asking for a divorce, me crying but agreeing to it, leaving the house, leaving the marriage … just leaving and taking another long ride, this one by myself. 

“Hey,” she said and shook my arm.

I looked at her. She didn’t look angry or sad. Concerned, maybe. I stared at her, confused, so certain she was about to lower the hammer on our relationship that I didn’t notice where she had parked. 

“Are you just going to stare at me?” she asked.

“Are you going to tell me what this is about?”

She smiled, then pointed. I looked out the windshield. We were at the pond. The grass was lush green. The trees were tall. A slight breeze blew through their branches. A black truck sat less than fifty feet away. I turned back to her. She was smiling.

“I thought you might still want a truck.”

I felt shame right then. She brought me out here to give me a present and on the way, all I thought were negative things. Still …

“We can’t afford two car payments,” I said.

“Don’t worry. I have it all figured out.”

“We’re not trading your car in—”

“We can’t. I need it.”

I didn’t respond to this. The miscarriage took the need away. I didn’t mention that.

She handed me a card that simply said, Chase, on it. I opened it. There was a balloon on the front and nothing more. The inside was blank. A slick piece of paper was there, faced down. I picked it up, flipped it over. On it was the oddly faint black and white image of a baby. I looked up at her. I’m sure my eyes were as wide as they have ever been.

“Are you …?”

She smiled. Tears spilled from her eyes. “Yes.”

2 of 52

Before you read this piece, let me state up front, it is an odd story, mostly told in reverse. For the most part, you can read it from the first paragraph, like a normal story, and read it to the end, or you can start from the end and work your way to the top. It’s very much an experimental piece that was difficult to write, especially in so few words. 

I hope you enjoy the story and don’t get too confused. Let me know what you think in the comments below.


A.J. Brown

The light was on in the lone room on the third floor. That’s where Maryjo lived before she died. She had been smoking a cigarette in the bed and fell asleep. The cigarette started a fire on her blanket and the bed went up in flames. She was 43 when she died. And there was a light on in her room.

The second floor window on the east side had a hole in it. Maryjo lived in that room for a while before moving to the third floor. A not so lovelorn guy tossed a brick through it. The brick held a love letter on a piece of paper wrapped in rubber bands to hold it in place. Marry me, Maryjo, was written in black marker on the paper. It creeped Maryjo out and she moved to the third floor. She was 38 then. The window was never fixed.

There’s another window with a hole in it on the west side of the house. A brick didn’t break this one. A rock did. Smaller and easier to throw. It struck Maryjo in her blonde curly-haired head. It left a nasty gash, lump, and painful bruise. It gave her a concussion that caused severe headaches and nausea. She moved to the East side room on the second floor after that, hoping with it not being on the open side of the house, nothing like that would happen again. She was 31 then.

On the first floor of the old Victorian house are three bedrooms. East room number two is on the backside of the house. A door next to the room opens to the outside if you are inside and to the inside if you are outside. At first, she didn’t mind being next to the door. She could come and go as she wanted with neither parent wise to her, well, coming and going. Then came the random knocking at all hours of the night. It started as soft taps and gradually grew to angered thumps then heavy kicks until the door jamb split one night. Dad didn’t hear the soft taps or even the knocks, but he heard the angered thumps and the kick that broke the door. He ran off the person—someone dressed in black who was never identified. That scared her enough to make her move to the second floor. She was 25 then.

East room one wasn’t really on the East side of the house but more towards the West side. Maryjo liked this room more than the others with its high ceilings and lone window that faced out at the field behind the house. There were trees beyond the field and on the other side of those trees is where Clint Hall and his family once lived. 

Maryjo loved Clint and dreamed of marrying him one day. He often came through those trees and across the field to see her. She watched him approach on his way there, then on his way home. 

Clint and his family died long before Maryjo did in a similar way. Unlike with Maryjo, a cigarette didn’t burn just her and her bed up, it ended up taking the entire house, Clint, and his family as well.

Heartbroken, Maryjo moved to East room number two so she could no longer look out at the field for who was never to come that way again. She was 20.

The West room sat closest to the front of the house. Maryjo lived in that room the longest, from birth until she moved to East room one. There were no pink walls or unicorn posters. It was just a room, almost like a place of waiting … waiting for another room to open for her. She hated the West room more than any room in the house. She was sixteen when she left the West room behind, choosing to leave bad memories alone and start anew in East room one. She never returned to the West room, where a monster lurked in the shadows and where sleep was often interrupted.

Once upon a time, she had a brother. He smoked cigarettes before he was twelve and liked Uncle Billy’s moonshine. He was sent away for doing things to little girls. No one has seen him since. He was nineteen when he vacated East room one and she moved in. 

Maryjo didn’t smoke. 


1 of 52

1 of 52


Beetle woke at five, just like any other work morning. He crawled from his bed and staggered from his room to the bathroom where he took care of business and brushed his teeth. He was proud of the fact that, even at seventy-two, he still had most of his real teeth. Two were missing in the back, one on each side, but other than that, they were all his. His hair had thinned over the years, but he still managed a decent comb over that didn’t look like one. 

From the bathroom, he went into the kitchen, pressed the silver button on his trusty coffee maker, one he had owned for nearly thirty years now. He went back to his bedroom to dress. Nice gray slacks and a white button-down shirt hung on the closet door’s knob, along with a blue and gray striped tie. 

You can wear jeans and t-shirt tomorrow if you want.

That had been his boss, a woman twenty-two years his junior. He was certain many others would take her up on that offer, but he didn’t. No, Beetle went for his normal, everyday attire.

“Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” he whispered as he knotted the tie. Gray socks and a pair of black shoes, polished the night before, went on his feet. He thought about putting on a blazer for good measure, but it was mid-summer and would be a blazing high nineties or even low hundred-degree mark by the time he left work. 

Beetle poured a cup of coffee into his favorite mug, the one he took to work with him every day. It was white with a little crack in the side near the handle. On one side was a cartoon image of a beetle drinking coffee. He took a breath and released it. The mug was a gift from his late wife, Maryanne. He was still getting used to her not being around, gone less than ten weeks. 

A minute later, he was out the door and heading down the steps, coffee in hand. The morning was cooler than he expected, but that didn’t matter. Some summer mornings in South Carolina could be in the low seventies at eight in the morning and the mid-nineties two hours later. In the car—an older model Buick he’s had since he was half his age now. Sure, it guzzled gas, but it was reliable and sturdy and rarely needed work done to it. He backed out of the driveway and flicked on the lights. Though it wasn’t completely dark, the sun was still down, and the moon still hung in the sky. 

It was a half hour drive to the office, give or take two minutes depending on traffic and lights and if the CSX had a train running across Morninglow Road. He made one stop, as he did most mornings, at a little locally owned gas station that still had pumps out in front but hasn’t had gas in fifteen years. It wasn’t gas he went for, but a bottle of orange juice. He set his empty coffee mug on the passenger’s seat and got out of the car.

He entered Ned’s, named after the owner, but now ran by his son, also a Ned. The walls were a bland, out of the seventies, green. The shelves, metal and old. It smelled like ancient leather, but Beetle could never recall seeing leather anywhere. The glass coolers that normally lined the backs of other convenience stores were on the side, near the counter. Ned’s sold no beer, not that it mattered to Beetle—he drank no beer. 

“Morning, Beetle,” Ned number two said. Like his boss and many of the people, he interacted with, Ned was younger than Beetle by several decades. 

“Morning, Ned. How’s it going?”

“So far, so good. Are you ready for your big day?”

“I don’t know if it’s really all that big of a day, but I’m as ready as it gets to retire.”

“I’m sure you are. What are you going to do after today?”

“I have my garden, so I’ll tend to it. I’ve always wanted to write a book, so I might try my hand at that.”

“Fiction or nonfiction?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a little of both. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”

“Are you going to miss anything?”

Beetle thought on it for a second, then shook his head. “Probably not.”

He went to the cooler and plucked out an orange juice—Tropicana was his favorite. At the counter, Ned rang him up and Beetle pulled two dollars from his billfold. 

“Still paying with cash.”


“You’re one of the very few who do these days. It’s on its way out.”

“I reckon so, but I don’t plan on going the card route.” He tipped his head toward Ned. “Have a good day, Ned.”

“You too, old timer. Have a good retirement party.”

“I wouldn’t call it a party, just some folks getting together at the end of the day.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.”

Beetle drank the orange juice on the way in, capped the bottle and set it on the seat next to the mug. He parked in his usual spot, one not too close to the building, but not too far away either. He had been offered spaces closer but chose to keep the one assigned to him years before. He grabbed his mug, got out of the car, and walked across the parking lot. By then, the sun was up.

Inside, he was greeted with the same thing as always: a dark building. The first in on most days, he went about his normal routine of turning on lights and prepping for the day ahead. Slowly, almost one by one, workers trickled in, all of them younger than him. He delivered mail and did a few routine tasks, nothing requiring tools, many of which he had already taken home. 

Around noon, Beetle was packing a few miscellaneous items into a box. A knock on his door had him turn around. Mitchell stood there, the young fellow who would take his job when Beetle was gone. It wasn’t without being deserved. The kid had worked hard, listened, and learned the way of the office and how to take care of the people. He had been a good study and Beetle was happy to suggest he get the promotion instead of hiring outside the business.

“Hey, Beetle.”

“Hey, Kid. You doing okay?”

The kid, a young twenty-six-years-old from a rough family and even rougher upbringing, shrugged his shoulders. Beetle motioned to the chair in front of his desk. “Sit down. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Mitchell sat. Beetle did as well. Beetle picked up his mug, drank a little of the semi-warm coffee he made half an hour earlier. “What’s on your mind?”

“I don’t know if I can be you, Beetle. I mean, you’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve only been here three years and …”

“You don’t have to be me, Kid,” Beetle interrupted. “You have to be you, and you have to do your best. That’s all you can do.”

“Yeah, but … these people. They know you. They trust you. They rely on you.”

“They will come to do the same with you. After all, you come highly recommended for the job.”

Mitchell nodded and shook his head. “Thanks for getting me the promotion, but do you really think I can do it?”

Beetle smiled. He and Maryanne never had children, but if they had, he would have wanted one of them to be like the young man in front of him. “I know you can.”

The conversation didn’t last too much longer. Mitchell excused himself to haul two boxes to Beetle’s car, even though the old timer didn’t ask him to.

“You don’t have to do that, Kid.”

“I know,” Mitchell said and picked up both boxes, one on top of the other. “I want to.”

With that said, he was out the door, a young man with his life in front of him. Beetle had watched him grow, watched him go from struggling to keep the job he had to flourishing and gaining his trust. 

Lunch came and went amid offers by several co-workers to take him out. He passed on all of them and sat in his office with a sandwich and a small bag of chips Mitchell brought him. He thanked the kid, and after lunch, the two strolled the office, Beetle pointing things out, little reminders he knew the kid didn’t need. Then they returned to his office. 

His plan was to check his emails one last time, turn in his keys and access cards and ride off into the sunset. He washed his mug and set it on his desk. He sat to check emails. The newest one was from Jen, the boss lady. The subject line read HAPPY RETIREMENT!!! He opened it and read the single line: Shut off your computer and come to the lounge.

His shoulders slumped. I don’t want a retirement party. He was specific about that little detail for his last day. I just want to treat it like any other day, just I won’t be returning once I leave. 

Jen conceded, or so he thought.

Beetle took a deep breath, let it out, then clicked off his email. He shut the computer down one last time, stood and pushed his chair beneath his desk. On Monday, the desk, computer, chair, and office would be Mitchell’s. He knew the kid would do well and the others would grow to love him over time. The kid was likeable, for certain, and a hard worker. Beetle slipped a piece of folded paper from his back pocket and set it on the desk. He placed his mug on top of it. Then he looked around the office that had been his for three decades. He nodded, turned off the light, and left the office, closing the door behind him.

The lounge was on the second floor. As he made his way there, he saw no one else anywhere. Office doors were closed, desks were unoccupied. Betsy, the young woman hired not a year earlier to sit at the front desk, wasn’t in her usual spot with her usual bright smile and cheerful demeanor. 

They’re all in the lounge, Beetle.

And they were.

There was no shout of Surprise as he entered the room, but there were plenty of people clapping, a few whistles and one loud yell of Beetle! That was Bob Larson from accounting. He’d know that voice anywhere. 

“Come on in, Beetle,” Jen said. She waved him to the center of the room where a table stood, a black tablecloth covering it and a large square cake on top. She smiled. It was genuine. Her brown eyes dazzled. When he reached her, Jen wrapped her arms around him. It was out of the norm for her and was the first time since before Maryanne passed, he had been hugged. She was warm and smelled of vanilla. A surge of sadness rose into his chest and threatened to reach his eyes. He shook this off and faced everyone when she released him. 

Jen gave a speech, one Beetle reckoned was given at any of a million retirement parties for old fogies like him. She said all the nice things and allowed others to speak. When Mitchell spoke, the kid choked up and wiped his eyes. When everyone was finished, someone started the “Speech” chant. Others joined in until Beetle finally raised one hand in a quiet down gesture.

He didn’t know what he would say. He certainly didn’t plan on saying anything. So, he spoke off the cuff and from the heart, if not the soul.

“When I started here, there were only a handful of people—eleven, I believe. We had a small building on the west end. I was nothing more than a gopher, running from this place to that place whenever Mr. Hayden asked me to. Now … now we’re a large business, making waves. I’ve made a lot of friends over the years, seen a lot of people reach the end of their rope, leave, and go on to do other things, live other lives. After all these years, I’m going to join them when I leave here today.”

He paused. Emotions swelled in his chest. He tried to keep them at bay the best he could. 

“Thank you, all of you, for your kindness, your friendship and for trusting me with your needs, both great and small.”

He nodded, as if satisfied what he said was enough. “I’m not going to say goodbye, maybe see you later, but not goodbye. Goodbye is forever. That’s all I have.”

The cake was cut. It was chocolate with a cream vanilla frosting. He had a slice and talked to several people. He shook hands, gave hugs, and said his see you laters. 

Like every other day, most workers were gone before him. They would be back on Monday and would carry on with the lives they had, doing the jobs they did. Mitchell stuck around and walked him out. At his car, they stood in awkward silence for several seconds.

The kid finally spoke. His voice cracked a little, but he kept himself composed. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Beetle. You’ve been like a dad to me, and I can never repay you for …”

Beetle reached forward, pulled the kid to him, and gave him a hug. Like Jen earlier, it was completely out of the norm for him. When he let go, he looked Mitchell in the eyes. 

“You don’t owe me a thing, Kid. Working with you has been one of the highlights of my career.”

Tears formed in the kid’s eyes. He nodded. “Thank you.”

“Get on out of here,” Beetle said.

“What about you?”

“I’m leaving. I just need a couple minutes before I go.”


Mitchell stuck out his hand. Beetle smiled and took it. He gave it a good squeeze, then released it. 

“See you later, Beetle,” Mitchell said.

“Goodbye, Kid,” Beetle responded.

He watched the young man walk away, get into his car, and leave. Mitchell gave one final wave before leaving the parking lot and heading off into his weekend. Beetle waved back. When he was gone, Beetle got in his car, wiped his mouth with one hand and stared at the building where he spent most of his waking hours over the last three plus decades. 

He had been wrong that morning when Ned asked him if he would miss anything. He had said probably not. Sitting there, alone in his car, he realized he would miss everything.

Beetle cranked the car up and headed home.

If he were forced to remember anything about the ride home, he wouldn’t be able to. It had been a blur with his mind somewhere else. He parked in his usual spot in the driveway, checked the mail to see two bills and a flyer for someone wanting to buy his house. Inside, he set the mail on the table. He sat down. Beetle cried.

His hand shook as he pulled his billfold out and flipped it open. He plucked out the black and white picture of him and Maryanne on their wedding day. Though some of the image had faded, he knew every detail of it. Again, his eyes filled with tears as he stared at the two young lovers looking into each other’s eyes just before they kissed. The photographer had great timing with that one. 

“All these years, Maryanne … I worked all these years so we could grow old together. Here I am, all by my lonesome and you’ll never get a day older.”

His shoulders shook as the tears flowed down his face. 

“I miss you. I miss you so much.”

Beetle took a deep breath and stood. He looked around the room. It felt so empty, as if the ghosts of days past were gone and they left behind nothing but a hollow shell of a building. It was no longer a home, but a house where his nights were long and now his days would be, too. He set the wedding picture on the table, then walked down the hall. He reached the basement door at the end, the one just beyond his bedroom. He opened the door, flipped the switch, and stepped onto the top step that led down. Beetle closed the door behind him, then locked it. 

On Monday morning, Mitchell Windham arrived early for his first day in a new position. He entered a building completely dark and went through turning on lights and the coffee maker. Then he made his way to his new office. Once there, he smiled when he saw the mug with the beetle on one side on the desk. He picked it up along with the letter beneath it. 

Mitchell read …

Then he called Beetle’s number. Frantic and panicking when he didn’t answer, Mitchell dialed the only numbers he could think of: 9-1-1.

The dispatcher spoke calmly, then listened as Mitchell all but screamed for him to get someone out to Beetle’s place. He thought about jumping into his own car and heading there.

It’s half an hour away.

“I don’t care.”

He ran to the parking lot and stopped when he reached his car. He stood for a second, his thoughts suddenly halted, not from what he knew the police would find, but in the realization that Beetle had told him his plan and he hadn’t picked up on it. 

“Goodbye is forever,” he whispered. He also didn’t need to know how that goodbye came. He figured that one out, too. Beetle had reached the end of his rope, not just with the job, but life as well. And he hung from it. 

Mitchell leaned against his car, his heart broken, his hands over his face. At some point, he slid down the side of the car until he sat on the ground. 

One Step Forward …

Good morning, y’all.

On my Patreon page, One Step Forward, three new posts are up: Part 7 of One Step Forward. Part 7 of the serialized novel, Unbroken Crayons, and Part 1 of a new short story. If you’re a Patreon member, head over, check them out. If you are not a Patreon member, head over, check out the page–there are some posts that are available to nonmembers–and maybe consider joining.


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