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

A Talk With Rhapsody In Red Author, Pete Molnar

On December 17th of this glorious year, my good friend, Pete Molnar, released his second book, Rhapsody in Red. It’s a two novella collection that is sure to keep you up at night. Having read some of Pete’s work, I’m really excited to get my hands on a copy.

Here’s the thing about Pete: he is a true lover of horror and one hell of a nice guy. I got to meet him a couple of years ago at Scares That Care and the time I spent with him and his wife was one of the highlights of the event. I couldn’t think of a better person to support than Pete.

Shortly after the release of Rhapsody in Red, Pete and I had a chat through PM’s on social media. The following is our conversation, in it’s entirety.

A.J.: So, Pete, talk to me about your new book, Rhapsody in Red.

PETE: Well, it started out with just one novella I had been working on about a second Civil War sparked by a pair of Undead Confederate vampires. Then I started a second novella and it just so happened to center around the same vampire theme, only it came from a very different place. 

I’m always listening to the news and following stories and the subject of gun rights and the school shooting epidemic just wouldn’t leave me be. Just as the first novella was sparked by the ongoing tragedy of systemic racism, the second was sparked by another social crisis. My mind married both issues to a sanguinarian plot line and the result is Rhapsody in Red

I’m deeply concerned with societal ills and this is how I process them, so as not to wallow in hopelessness when it comes to some sort of divine reckoning or soothing of the masses. Basically, I worry about the world just as much as I dread what’s underneath the bed, so to speak.

A.J.: I’m curious, what role do the vampires play in these societal ills?

PETE: They take advantage of our weaknesses as human beings as well as manipulate our vices and tragic flaws.

A.J.: That makes sense. 

You state something intriguing in your first response: Basically, I worry about the world just as much as I dread what’s underneath the bed, so to speak.

With this in mind, could the world itself be considered the boogeyman or the monster beneath the bed or in the closet?

PETE: Absolutely. I liken that to the main theme of one of my favorite books, Lord of the Flies. The boys on the island think the island is evil and there is a monster stalking them. In reality, they fail to realize the monster is within each and every one of them. That hits me hard.

A.J.: In Lord of the Flies, Piggy’s death is what I feel is a turning point for the story. Though Roger was responsible for his death, the events leading up to that point all build up to the moment where Piggy dies. In this way, the evil is kind of a creeping up type of thing. Do the events of the two stories in Rhapsody in Red have that same build up where the reader possibly starts dreading turning the next page?

PETE: I think so. Each chapter of each novella is like another couple of steps in the downward spiral.

A.J.: Do the two novellas go together or are they standalone stories?

PETE: They are conjoined by the presence of The Familiar, an ageless vampire who has taken the form of The Tumor Deer. It watches and waits, sort of like a god.

A.J.: Nice. Do you feel like you are tackling subject matters that others might shy away from?

PETE: I used to write straight horror when I started out, but I started to realize that I had other things to say that were pressing to me. I realized I was kind of walling myself into a very specific far too stringent genre of writing, and I decided if I was going to keep writing horror then I wanted to do more with it than I was before. And I had to start grounding it in the real things and people that have always scared the sh*t out of me. I mean, sorry, but Cthulhu doesn’t quicken my pulse in the slightest. But a student walking the hallways with an AR-15, picking off anyone that moves, well, that’s something I could find outside my classroom one day.

And that’s horror.

A.J.: That is, indeed, horror—a real horror.

When writing the two stories for Rhapsody in Red, did you find yourself rooting for any characters in particular or did you know where the stories were going and knew the fates of the characters already?

PETE: I always know the ending, but the journey towards that end is almost always a surprise in how it plays out. And the heroines in both novellas have been living their lives under perpetually black clouds of bad luck and hardship. To watch them both grapple with evil and rise above their own difficult circumstances made me feel really good and it kept me writing because I wanted to get them to the finish line!

A.J.: Did those characters surprise you in how they overcame their circumstances?

PETE: Yes, and they made me very proud of them.

A.J.: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Rhapsody in Red?

PETE: I think we covered everything.

If you’re looking for your horror grounded in both myth and reality, then Pete is your guy. If you’re looking to support a small press author who won’t disappoint you, again, Pete is your guy. If you’re looking to support someone I support, for the third time, Pete is your guy. I love this guy like a brother, and y’all know me, y’all know I’m all about quality work and good people. Give my buddy a try. You can do so on his website where he has several stories posted to whet your appetite, and by purchasing his books, Broken Birds and Rhapsody in Red. 

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

A.J.

Visit Pete at his Amazon author page and his website.

Because I Can (Part 4 of 4)

“There’s just not enough evidence to indict any of them.” The D.A. said that as I stood in his office, a cozy place with a nice rug, a big desk with a lot of paper on it, a chair in front and behind it, a state flag in one corner and the American flag in the other. It struck me as a typical big lawyer’s office. And like a typical big lawyer, he didn’t look me in the eye when he said there wasn’t enough evidence. He looked away, as if he couldn’t bear to tell a grieving grandson the murderers of his grandfather would go free. Or maybe he could bear with it but didn’t want to see the dirty deed all the way through, as if by looking away and not seeing the pain and disbelief etched on my face kept him from being just as guilty as those thugs.

“What do you mean there’s not enough evidence? I’ve watched that video a thousand times. You can clearly see the face of the man who threw the punch that killed my grandfather.”

“Can we?”

“Yes. It’s clear to me who it is and—“

“It doesn’t matter if it’s clear to you. It matters if it’s clear to me and clear to a grand jury. Clear to you means nothing. You’re not a witness who can testify you saw it happen, and no, watching it on video isn’t the same as seeing it in person.”

“What about the wallet? What about his fingerprints on the wallet?”

“He said he picked the wallet up when he saw it lying on the street.”

“He’s lying.”

“We don’t know that.”

“But—“

“Like I said, there’s not enough evidence to get an indictment.”

The coward. I walked out of there sick to my stomach, but not because I was angry and had thoughts of hurting Mr. No Balls District Attorney, but because there would be no justice for my grandpa.

Well … that’s not entirely true.

***

He tried to escape. Yeah, you would think he wouldn’t have with everything on the line, including the life of his little brother, but he did.

He had been in cuffs, his arms probably like lead weights after hanging in the same position for several days. I guess that’s where we made our only real mistake. We underestimated his strength and instead of cuffing his hands behind his back, we bound them in front. As soon as the tape and ropes came off his ankles, he struck. The blow to Lou’s head startled him and he stumbled backward. I don’t know how he got to his feet as quickly as he did, but he landed a double-handed punch to my face. I stumbled backward.

Dequan made for the door, tripping on the way up the steps and catching himself the best he could. He was halfway up when Lou caught his ankle.

Do I really need to say what happened next? How Lou pulled his legs and Dequan hit his face on the steps? How Lou dragged him down the stairs and then kicked him hard in the ribs? How Dequan tried to suck in air with his eyes wide open? How Lou smacked Dequan so hard it dazed him and eventually he passed out?

Nah, I didn’t think so.

***

“You tell anyone, your little brother dies. Got it?”

Daquan was in handcuffs—this time with his hands behind his back. Duct tape covered his mouth. What choice did he have? We had him between a rock and a hard place and either way, someone he loved was going to get hurt and hurt bad. He gave a reluctant nod.

My stomach hurt, but for the first time in years, I felt like I could handle what was about to happen. Sure, I may not have been the one doing the deed, but I set it up, planned it out, executed it. My stomach cramped, and I let out a small whine from the pain, but that was it. Nothing more.

“You do as we say, and all will be okay for Reggie. Do you understand?”

Again, he nodded. 

“We have a camera on you … and a gun. If you try to run, you’ll be shot down right where you stand. Do you understand so far?”

Another nod.

Truthfully, we did have a camera on him and it was set up right where it needed to be, along a stretch of road Dequan’s mom walked every night after leaving her sister’s house. It was only three blocks from one home to another, but that was enough. That was more than enough. There was no gun, not on him. We reserved that for Reggie. 

“You do the deed. You get around the corner and we’ll be waiting for you. If you do anything other than what we told you to, you, your mom and Reggie … well, you know.”

My stomach did a somersault. I think if I would have finished the sentence I would have thrown up. Still, I felt the vomit in the back of my throat and burning my esophagus. 

“Anything you want to say before you guys leave?”

Once again, he nodded. Lou pulled the tape from his mouth. Just the sound of it coming free of skin made me flinch. Dequan let out a yell and then licked his lips. 

“You don’t have to do this, man,” he said quickly. “Look, I’ll turn myself in to the cops, confess everything. I’ll give them the names of everyone involved, just don’t do this, man. You don’t have to do this.”

There were tears in his eyes. Dequan was serious. Either that or he was really good at bluffing. I felt bad for him. I just felt bad. I had never done anything like this. I couldn’t. Either because I feared disappointing Grandpa or because I truly never developed a stomach for doing bad things to people. Either way, I wanted to give in. I wanted to just let him go and run to Reggie and hug him and let them both leave and …

“Yeah, I do have to do this.”

“Why? Why, man?”

“Because I can.”

Lou left, taking Dequan with him. There was a moment where I almost called him back, almost told him to call it off. This isn’t what Grandpa would want. Almost. But Grandpa was dead. He couldn’t be disappointed in me any longer.

***

The video was grainy. By the time it came on, I had moved Reggie from the wall to the floor where Dequan had been shackled. He was lighter than I thought he would be, but weak, too weak to do anything but lay against the wall while I chained him. His eyes slid closed. 

“Wake up,” I said and lightly tapped him on the face. “The show’s about to start.”

The video showed an alley that ran along the backs of a neighborhood. Fences lined the small road, gates for entry on most of them. Street lamps stood twenty or so feet apart, every other one on the opposite side of the street. There were plenty of dark spots for someone to hide and wait. 

She appeared. Sweet Momma Jackson. Her hair was all bouncy curls and she wore a light overcoat to keep warm during the early fall evening. In her hands was a plate of some food or other. It was covered with tin foil. Glasses sat on her nose and a black purse hung from one arm. 

I looked over to Reggie. Only one eye was open. The other one was completely swollen shut. I suddenly felt bad. I could see something on his face. Confusion?  Yeah, I think that is what it was. Confusion. The entire time we had him down in that basement he had only spoken once. Not that he had been awake all that long, and when he was Lou worked him over until he passed out again. He hadn’t had anything to eat in four days and he was watching a video of …

“Momma?” he whispered, his voice cracking.

“Yeah, Reggie, that’s your momma, but hold on, man. This is about to get real. Is that how you would put it? Real as in bad?”

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 8.50.59 PMHis bottom lip was swollen so bad he couldn’t completely close his mouth. Or maybe that was from the busted jaw. I don’t know, but either way, he didn’t seem to pay me much attention. He watched the screen as his momma walked down the back road behind the houses on her way to hers. He watched the vicious cycle of life and hate and selfishness all play out in front of him. He watched as his world turned in on itself. 

Momma Jackson approached her yard, which was just inside the view of the closest street lamp. Her head turned to her left, to the man approaching her. His arm went back and there was no hesitation as he swung his fist as hard as he could into her face. Her glasses snapped in two across the bridge of her nose, the plate flipped out of her hands and landed on the ground, the tin foil shifting mid-air and spilling green beans from it. Her arms went out to her sides, much like Grandpa’s did and she fell to the ground, striking a fence post and rolling over, face down on the crumbling blacktop of the alleyway. 

The man on the screen? He stared at her. He started to bend down and that is when we saw his face. Dequan Jackson had done it again. Why? Because he could and killing a person was nothing to him.

I looked to Reggie. His lone good eye was as wide as it would go. Tears were streaming from it and he constantly repeated one word: “Momma.”

I threw up.

***

There is this little thing called a lie. Lies can be beneficial to some. Destructive to others. In this instance, it was a little bit of both. Beneficial to me. Destructive for Dequan.

When Lou arrived back at Grandpa’s, I was waiting at the kitchen table. By then my hands had stopped shaking and my stomach had settled. He brought Dequan in the back—it really didn’t matter much, I guess. There weren’t that many people out where we lived. Dequan’s blindfold was soaked, and his lips were downturned in a deep frown. Every few seconds he sniffled as if he had a cold.

We walked him down the hall to the basement door and took the blindfold off. 

“You said you’d let us go, man. I did what you said to do, now you do what you said you would do.”

“I’m going to. Go on down there. Get your brother. In a couple of minutes, we’ll take you both out of here. I promise. I’m going to untie your hands. When you step into the room there is a rail to your left. Hold onto it as you go down the steps. On the third step down, reach up to your right and grab the chain. It will turn on the light. Reggie’s waiting for you. He knows you’re coming.”

I opened the door. Dequan stepped in. I closed it.

Here’s the great lie:

1-That I would let them go.

That’s pretty much it. But there were a couple others, well placed words I had written long before the lie played out.

1-Dequan hit his mom because he was angry with her. Something about drug money. Lie.

2-That Dequan had put us up to this whole thing and Reggie would die at the hands of his brother when he got back. Lie.

3-If Reggie wanted to live, then he would have to kill Dequan. Lie … well … yeah, a lie.

4-Well, there is no four, but there was another video camera. It was nothing more than a hand-held thing in the corner. It sat on a tripod with cables that ran into a relay that ran into the computer upstairs. I had turned it on shortly before Lou and Dequan arrived. 

We stood at the computer. Yeah, it was black and white, but we didn’t need color to see what would happen. It could go two ways, depending on Reggie and if he believed what I had told him and if he believed the video I replayed for him several times as I waited for Lou to arrive home. But if he believed his brother …

The light to the basement came on. The chain and bulb swung back and forth. Dequan ran down the stairs. I could see Reggie, still sitting on the floor, but one of his arms was not shackled. No, it was free and in his hand was a gun. 

“Reggie! Reggie!”

It’s amazing how someone’s fear can also sound like their anger. 

Reggie looked up, his one eye open. He lifted the gun.

“Whoa! Whoa! Reg—“

The boom was loud. Dequan’s head snapped back. A spray of blood streaked the air as he fell. Reggie lowered his hand, dropping the gun on the floor.

“Now what?” Lou asked. 

My stomach knotted, but there was no nausea, no need to run to the sink or the bathroom or just splatter its contents all over the floor. There was nothing. I finally understood. To do the things Dequan and so many others do to others, you can’t care. You can’t give a rat’s behind what others think of you. You can’t care if you hurt someone. You can’t let it bother you. Why? Because, at the end of the day, you have to live with your own actions and if you can sleep at night, then what’s to stop you from doing anything to anyone? 

“We finish it,” I said.

“You want me to …”

“No,” I said. “I’ll take care of him.”

“He’s got a gun, Charles.”

“It only had one bullet in it. Can I have the other gun?”

Pistol in hand, I went downstairs. I stepped over Dequan and around the blood spatter as best I could. Reggie looked up at me and shook his head from side to side, a slow-motion thing, as if he tried to understand what had happened.

‘Why?” he asked.

“Because I can.”

AJB

Because I Can (Part 3 of 4)

“Stop it! Stop it, man! Stop hitting my little brother!”

Eight. That’s how many times Uncle Lou punched Reggie. The younger brother’s face was meat by the time he finished. One eye was completely swollen shut, his other one may as well have been, his nose was broken, his lips were fat and split and the blood … his face and clothes and the wall and the floor were covered in it.

And my stomach danced the dance of Earl and Ralph, but nothing came up. 

I looked at Dequan. He looked from me to Lou and Reggie, his head moving back and forth as if he were at a tennis match. 

“Why are you doing this, man?”

I wanted to laugh but held back. “Because we can. Isn’t that what you said when I asked you why you hurt people? Because I can?”

Ahh … the defiance surfaced on his face again, but only briefly. “I’m sorry, dog,” he said, trying to sound apologetic. “I shouldn’t have said that. Just stop, man.”

“Sorry isn’t good enough, DOG. And if you want us to stop, well, you’re just going to have to hurt someone else. You know, since you can.”

“What? Who? You made your point, man. I get it. I hurt people, so you hurt me and …”

“No, that’s not the point, man. That’s not the point, dog. That’s not the point at all. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t do well with hurting people.” I looked at my uncle. I could see that twinkle in his eyes and Johnny was there again telling me to drown the kitten, drown him and you’re in. He wanted to hit Reggie again. Part of me felt the horrible head of revolt surface, but then it faded as fast as it arrived. I pointed at him and spoke, “That guy, though. He likes hurting people.”

With that said, he punched Reggie again, this time in the side of the head. Reggie’s head jerked to the side violently, striking the wall. Blood seeped from his ear and his head sagged to his chest.

“Stop, man! Just stop, man!”

My stomach clenched, but it wasn’t a feeling of nausea, but a legitimate pain that felt like something gnawing at my insides. I turned away from Dequan and grimaced. I wasn’t sure I would be able to go through with this. Just watching Lou use Reggie as a punching bag made me sick. But there was something else there, something that pushed the sick feeling aside and kept me on track to finish the deed. It was excitement. I could feel it in my chest, in the way it made the muscles on my face twitch into a sadistic smile, the way it made me feel cold inside. Is this how it is for people who commit crimes of murder and rape and muggings and stealing and who knew what else?  Is this what ‘because I can’ feels like? It scared me but exhilarated me as well. 

“He’s out cold,” Lou said and shook his fist. There was blood on it.

“Please, man. Whatever you want me to do … I’ll do it, man. Just stop. Please, just stop.”

“Whatever?”

“Anything, man. Anything. Just stop hurting him.”

“Your brother … you love him, Dequan?”

He nodded, but I could see he didn’t want to actually say it. Yeah, keep that tough guy persona. That’s not what I wanted right then. I needed him to do one thing, one more act of violence, just because he could. But I needed to break him a little more.

“Is that the best you can do? A nod? That’s your brother. If it were my brother, I could say I love him. You can’t say that, can’t you?”

“I can say it.”

“Okay, let’s hear it. Do you love your brother?”

Again, I could see the thug in him wanted to come out, wanted to reach out and punch me as hard as Lou punched his brother. This is a man who was raised to be tough. Big boys don’t cry and all that crap. Then his face softened just a little. “Yeah, I love my brother, man.”

“Good. Because if you love him like I think you do, then you have the opportunity to save his life.”

“What? How?” His eyes grew wide. I had him. I knew it and so did he.

That pain in my stomach subsided. Deep down it was still there, but not so bad. No nausea, and that gnawing pain was fading. 

“Uncle Lou, do you have that picture I asked you to get?”

“Yeah. Let me go get it.”

Lou went up the steps, his boots thudding heavy with each one he took. The door opened and closed and for several minutes it was just me and Dequan.

“Man, please, man. Just let us go.”

“Dequan, do you remember a couple days ago when I said you had no problems killing someone? Remember that? You said that, right?”

“I was bluffing, man. I ain’t never killed anyone.”

“You’re wrong, Dequan. You killed someone.”

“You’re lying, white boy.”

“Am I?”

I went upstairs. I was only gone long enough to go to my bedroom and reach into the top drawer of my desk where a newspaper sat, a constant reminder of just who Dequan had killed. I saw Lou near the back door having a smoke. That was okay with me. It gave me a little more time to talk to Dequan. Back into the basement I went and sat back in my chair. I unfolded the newsprint, then opened it up to a story on the third page, one about an old man who had died after spending three days in the hospital.

***

He slapped the old man. That’s what Dequan did to my grandpa. After he punched him and after Grandpa had hit his head, not once, but twice, that punk slapped my grandpa across the face. 

That’s when I threw up again. 

Officer Sam stopped the tape. I wiped my mouth and motioned for him to keep going. That’s when good old Dequan reached into Grandpa’s pant pocket and pulled out his wallet. There wasn’t much money in it, but he took what there was and threw the wallet across the street. 

Then he slapped Grandpa again. Then he punched Grandpa square in the face. I threw up again. After that I left the police department and Officer Sam. 

Let me say this about the police in my town. Other than good old Officer Sam, they suck. There was enough evidence on that video to arrest at least two of the men involved, including Dequan Jackson, the one who had completed the Knock Out Game the way it was intended: knock out the victim with one punch. But he didn’t just win at the game, he then stole the money out of my grandpa’s wallet, then hit him in the face again. They had the evidence. Any of those blows could have been the one that put Grandpa in a coma. Any of them.

Then there’s the matter of the wallet and the fingerprints that they could have lifted off it. It’s not like Dequan didn’t have a few arrests under his belt, one of which had him on probation already.

Guess what? They did nothing. Nothing.

Nothing …

***

The image on page three of the newspaper was of an old man with a smile on his face and a VFW hat on his head. There were enough wrinkles around his nose and mouth to give him a bulldog look. The collar of his button-down shirt could be seen. The picture had been taken three weeks prior to his death. I provided it to the paper when I thought that both them and the police were going to do something about the crime that claimed Grandpa’s life after three days in a coma. 

Daquan stared at it.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“My father,” Uncle Lou said. 

I spun around to look at him. I didn’t hear him open the door or come down the steps in his heavy boots. 

“The man you killed when you decided to play that game you thugs play. What’s it called again?”

“The Knock Out Game,” I said.

“Yeah. That’s it. The Knock Out Game.”

“I ain’t never seen that man.”

I didn’t have enough time to react before Lou lashed out, smacking Dequan so hard one of his teeth came out and landed on the floor a couple feet away.

“You lying sack of crap,” Lou said. “I’ve seen the video. I saw you hit him, then take his money, then hit him again while he was out cold on the sidewalk. You did that and guess what? You’re going to do it again.”

“What? What’s he talking about?”

“You’re going to—“

“Stop,” I said. I stood in front of Lou, my hands out, palms up. “Please, stop for just a minute. If he doesn’t do what we want him to, you can do whatever you want to him. But let me do this. Okay?”

Lou nodded reluctantly. His hands went to his hips and he glared at Dequan.

“Do you have the picture?”

Another nod and he reached into his shirt pocket, then handed it over.

I looked at it for a minute. She was an older woman, her hair streaked with white. She wore a yellow housedress and a pair of white canvass shoes. A pair of glasses were perched on the bridge of her nose. She was smiling. Beside her was a young man, one that may have been seventeen or eighteen at the time it was taken.

I flipped it over and held it between two fingers and my thumb. Turning it to Dequan, I showed it to him.

“Recognize this woman?”

Because I Can (Part 2 of 4)

I was eight. There were some older boys down the road from me. Johnny Jenkins and Dale McMurtry and Paul Whateverhislastnamewas. They were almost teenagers, and they hung out at the park, near the swings, smoking their Marlboros and swearing their swears and talking about girls and skipping school and how much they hated their parents. They were tough. Sometimes they got in fights, but I never saw any of them. I only heard them talking about it, about how Paul swiped at this Ricky kid and broke his nose, and how Dale punched that same Ricky kid and blackened his eye. But Johnny had them beat. He had knocked a tooth out of Ricky’s mouth and split his lip—with one hit.

Yeah, they were tough, and I wasn’t. I wanted to be, so I approached them one day. It was summer, and it was still early in the morning before the sun was high and the heat was unbearable. Independence Day had passed a couple weeks prior and school was still well over six weeks away. They were smoking their cigarettes and Paul had just flipped a butt away.

I guess they thought I wanted to swing on the playset, because Paul crinkled up his nose and called to me, “You wanna swing?” His dark hair was down to his shoulders and neatly combed for the most part. My dad said only girls wear their hair long, but Paul Whateverhislastnamewas didn’t look like a girl to me. He looked mean, and his stare scared me. 

I didn’t turn and run, like I probably should have. Instead, I stood stock-still and shook my head when he asked his question.

“Then what do ya want?”

“I want to join your group.”

The three of them laughed. Dale had been sitting on one of the swings, slowly rocking back and forth when I spoke. He laughed so hard he fell right out of the swing and onto his knees.

I didn’t laugh. Sure, my stomach quivered, and my chest heaved, but I tried to stay under control. 

“You want to join our group?” Paul asked. 

“Yes,” I said, my voice strong. 

True facts:

1-I was a wimp.

2-I wanted to be tougher.

3-They were the toughest, meanest kids I knew.

4-Before that day, I had no problems with wanting to swear and call people names and whatever. I could even make bad jokes about some of the kids my age.

5-After that day, well … vomit happens.

Paul and Dale exchanged looks. In that exchange I could see they thought I was crazy. They were probably right. Johnny smiled and I should have known I would regret walking up to them thinking I could be cool and tough and smoke Marlboros and talk about what girls looked like without any clothes on and beat up other kids. I should have known better. 

Johnny pushed himself off the pole he leaned against. He blew out the last puff of smoke from his cigarette before tossing it aside. It flipped through the air, end over end until landing on the ground, the hot cherry sparking off in several directions, tendrils of smoke still wafting up from the burnt end.

“You want to join our group?”

“Yes.” I think I moved a little, maybe shuffled my feet or something. I’m certain I was tense and terrified, but unwavering even as heat filled me.

Johnny nodded, his upper lip somewhat curled. There was a shine in his eyes, and I knew that was a bad thing. “If you can pass the initiation, you’re in.”

Dale and Paul shot glances at Johnny, but they were smiling, too. 

Fast-forward about two hours to a rundown house on South Street a few blocks from the park. “Be there at three,” Johnny had said. I arrived a full ten minutes early. They were already there. Paul and Dale sat on the crumbling top step to the house. Yeah, they were smoking their cigarettes and looking cool as always. I had my first doubts about everything right then. My stomach knotted, and my mouth had become dry somewhere between home and there. 

What am I doing here? I thought. Grandpa would be so mad at me if he knew what I was up to. 

Then the thoughts were gone. Simply, I didn’t know what I was about to do, so how could I truly think Grandpa would be mad at me? It was the way little kids (and yes, adults, more so) rationalize things.

“You ready?” Paul asked.

“Sure.” Yeah, right. I was about as ready as a terrified virgin in a jail cell full of men who hadn’t seen a woman in a long time.

They stood, walked across the crumbling wooden porch to the gaping doorway of the house. From where I stood I couldn’t see any further inside than where the sun shone. Up the steps I went and across rickety boards that felt like sponges beneath my feet, not bothering to pause at the doorway because I was tough, and I would show them how tough I was. 

It wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be inside. The sun penetrated through the dust-caked windows, casting a dim light through each room. I followed them to a back room where Johnny sat in a folding metal chair. A five-gallon bucket sat in front of him, along with a brown box, the lid closed on it.

“I have to admit, I didn’t think you would show.”

“I’m here,” I said, not really knowing what else to say.

“Are you ready for your initiation?”

“Yes.” 

(NO! NO! NO!)

Even in the gray of the room I saw the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes. He motioned me over. On lead legs I went to him. 

“Open the box.”

I did, trying to keep my hands from shaking. Inside was a kitten, an orange and white tabby with pointy ears and bright greenish yellow eyes. It meowed loudly, its mouth wide, tongue as pink as any I had ever seen before or even after.

“Drown it,” Johnny said.

“What?” I faltered.

“Drown the kitten and you’re in.”

I stared at Johnny for the longest time. It felt like the seconds had slowed to hours. I looked down at the bucket to see the water within. Somewhere far away I heard the kitten’s constant meowing. Johnny was smiling like the fool he was, that twinkle in his eyes, and behind it the knowing that I wouldn’t go through with it.

I picked the kitten up. It was soft, and it weighed so little, maybe not even a pound. It meowed and clawed at my hand as I shoved it into the bucket of water. Slivers of pain tore at my hand as the kitten fought for its very young life. 

Laughter. 

That’s what stopped me. I heard Paul laughing and it was maniacal and terrifying. Then he said, “He’s actually doing it. What a nut job.”

I heard it as clearly as I’ve ever heard anything.

Then I pulled the kitten out. Blood mixed with water spilled off my hand. The kitten still clawed at me, its meows frantic and terrified. I clutched it tight to my chest, taking its claws through my shirt and into my skin as I ran through the house and out the door and down the steps. All the while, they laughed and yelled for me to come back little wuss boy.

As I ran I could hear Grandpa scolding me for such a horrible thing as to try and kill an animal for any reason at all. I cried, and the kitten meowed and I ran all the way home where I lied to Grandpa about saving the kitten and … and I threw up.

That was the beginning of me never being able to say or do anything bad to anyone.

***

The video played out. The older gentleman, a VFW hat on his head, the two paper bags, one in each arm and the gentle stroll of a man who had lived life the best he could. 

I threw up several times before reaching the end of it. Sam—good, patient Sam—rewound it each time, knowing the torture I put myself through. 

***

“As you can imagine, Dequan, I’m not very good at violence. It makes me squeamish. I couldn’t kill the kitten, and it became a pet—Mr. Pouncer—but I guess I already told you that”

“So, what? What do you want from me?”  

What did I want from me? Truthfully, something I can’t have back. I shook my head and just looked at him. I knew his facial features, the scar on his left cheek, the dark brown color of his eyes, the corn rolls along his skull, the gold front tooth—the right one, not the left—the thickness of his nose and the bulge in the bridge where it had surely been broken before. I knew all these features. I had seen them so often in the past year or so to know them as if they were my own. 

“You’ll know soon enough,” I said and stood. I slid the chair all the way against the wall and started up the steps.

“Where are you going?” he yelled.

“Out for a while. Sit tight. I’ll be back.”

“I need to piss, man.”

I wanted to laugh, but if I would have my stomach would have rolled on me. Instead, I spoke calmly, “Go ahead.”

***

I made a phone call. It was quick and the answer I received for my request was better than I thought it would be.

“When?” I asked.

“Tonight,” came my uncle’s voice.

My stomach quivered with excitement and trepidation. 

“Okay,” I said. “Tonight will be great.”

I was smiling. My plan was coming together easier than I thought it would. Still, I was nervous. What if I couldn’t handle tonight? What if my nerves and stomach got the best of me? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out. I wanted to see this through, even if I vomited up my intestines. It was important and important things are better done than not, as my grandpa used to say.

***

fist-4112964_1920Uncle Lou arrived around midnight. He parked in the back where there were no lights and the privacy fence blocked all view of the yard. It didn’t matter much. We lived out in the country, away from most folks, and those that were out here with us were a good mile or so away in any direction. The back hatch of his SUV came open, but no light came on. He rounded the vehicle, reached in and pulled something out. It was long, but not rigid, and he slung it over his shoulder.

“Close the hatch, Charles,” he said and made his way up the steps. I shut the hatch and opened the back door. We both went inside, Lou first. I closed and locked the door behind us.

I didn’t need to ask what was wrapped in the tattered green army blanket. I saw the feet sticking out the bottom and knew he had delivered a valuable piece of the puzzle. 

“You want him downstairs with the other guy?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind.”

“Lead the way,”

We made our way down into the basement, the light coming on with a quick pull of the chord. The bulb bobbed up and down and from side to side for a few seconds before settling into a slow seesaw motion.

Dequan looked up as we made our way down the steps. He looked like he had been asleep and had been startled awake. His eyes narrowed when he saw Lou.

“Set him down there,” I said and pointed to the wall opposite Dequan.

“What’s going on, man? What’s that in …”  His words trailed off when he saw the shoes with a familiar mark on them, the mark of his gang.

Lou set the package on the floor and unrolled the army blanket. What happened next thrilled and sickened me at the same time. Realization swept over Dequan when he saw his little brother’s unconscious body unwrapped from the blanket. He pulled at his restraints and tried to kick his legs at us, all the while yelling all sorts of pleasantries.

-What the —- have you done to my little brother?

-I’m going to kill you mother—-ers.

-I’m going to kill both you mother—-ers.

-Reggie, wake up, man. 

-I’m going to kick you’re a—es when I get out of here.

-You’re dead meat, mother—-ers.

I think he likes that one word a lot. But Lou doesn’t. As a matter of fact, Lou doesn’t like many swear words.

“Shut-up, punk,” Lou said and pulled Reggie toward the wall where another set of chains and shackles were. Only these were higher up. 

Dequan yelled on, throwing his threats and curses out at us. 

“Hold on a second,” Lou said and walked over to Dequan. To him he said, “You got one chance to shut-up. You got that?”

Defiance was heavy at work when he spat into Lou’s face. He started to say something, but his lip was split and the back of his head hit the wall before he could get anything out. His body sagged and his head lulled on his shoulders. My stomach flipped, and I felt supper try to come back up. I held my hand over my mouth, forcing it back the best I could, even as cold sweat peppered my face.

Lou came back to where I stood next to Reggie. He was wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt. He said nothing as he hoisted Reggie to a standing position.

***

Let’s fast-forward again, this time about six hours. 

Uncle Lou and I had finished restraining Reggie a little after one that morning and agreed to set things into motion the next day, and what a long day it would be.

We woke—I slept very little, though Lou seemed to sleep like a baby—had a cup of coffee and some toast, grits and eggs, and made our way downstairs.

The brothers were asleep. I’ll be honest here: I wasn’t sure Dequan was still alive. Lou had smashed his head hard into the wall the night before. For all I knew, he had killed him. That would have been bad if it would have been true. The last year would have been wasted and then what? I didn’t know.

Lou walked over to Dequan and kicked his leg. Dequan woke with a startled scream that made me smile a little. No, my stomach didn’t shake or rock or roll—the last year or so I worked on trying to control it, but honestly, I hadn’t succeeded very often. But I was getting better at it.

“Wake up, scumbag,” he said and kicked Dequan’s leg again,

“I’m awake. I’m awake, man.” The defiance that had been in his voice and on his face the night before was gone, replaced with that dog’s been kicked too many times look.

Again, I smiled.

Then Lou walked over to Reggie, the younger of the two brothers who hung from his arms, his legs slightly buckled beneath him. 

“Wake up, Sunshine,” Lou said and patted the side of Reggie’s face. The younger brother stirred, his eyes fluttered, then he was awake and the blank look of confusion filled his face.

“Where … where am I?” 

“Hell,” Lou said. I flinched. My stomach woke up and the muscles twitched. 

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay, bro?”

“Be quiet, Dequan,” I said.

“Reggie? Reggie? You okay?”

Lou’s jaw flexed and he yelled “Shut-up!” 

“I just want to know—“

Lou leveled a punch to Reggie’s gut. The air rushed out of him and he tried to pull his legs up but couldn’t quite muster the strength. He struggled for air, his mouth gaping open and his eyes clinched shut, tears trickling from the corners of them.

“Why’d you do that?” Dequan yelled and pulled on his chains. He winced. I guessed his muscles were stiff from being stuck in the same position for a couple days. 

I pulled my chair from the center of the room and placed it about ten feet from Dequan and sat down. 

“Listen up, Dequan. This is very important. That man over there is very angry. This man, sitting here in this chair, is not very happy either. You see, you owe us some pain …”

My stomach gurgled when I said that. I bit back the vomit and swallowed. I continued.

“That man is going to get that pain one way or the other, either from you or your brother.”  

I nodded to Lou.

He punched Reggie in the jaw. The younger brother’s head snapped to one side. His lip split, bled and immediately began to swell.

Dequan turned his head as soon as Lou struck his brother. 

“Oh no, Dequan,” I said, “you need to watch this.”

“Why are you doing this? We ain’t never done nothing to you.”

“That’s not true,” I said and nodded to Lou. Another punch, this one to the eye. Reggie let out a small yelp of pain. My stomach lurched.

“What did we do? I ain’t never even seen you before, man. What did we do to you?”

I looked at him. His left eye was swollen mostly shut, his lip busted. Blood had crusted on his shirt. 

“What did you do?” I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question, but I didn’t. Instead, I spoke softly. “You hurt people because you can. That’s enough for me.”

I nodded and waved a hand at Lou. He turned to Reggie, a glimmer in his eyes—one like what I saw in Johnny’s eyes when I was a kid—and punched him and punched him and punched him …

***

“Play it again,”

“I think you’ve had enough, Mr. Hanson.”

“No! Just one more time. Please.”

“Why? Why are you doing this to yourself?”

“I have to.”

Officer Sam played the footage. Again, the older man rounded the corner, the camera’s angle catching it from almost a block away. He carried the two paper grocery bags, the VFW hat sat on his head. He wore thick glasses—coke bottle thick, my mom would call them. Nothing changed. He was still minding his own business. 

Then it happened. Six men appeared on the screen going the opposite direction. They were just ordinary men, until they reached the old guy. They were about to pass each other. That’s the way it should have been. The old guy passing the group of six. And if it would have stayed that way …

One of The Six turned his head to the side as they passed each other. Just as the One passed the old man, he turned back, his hand in a fist and swung for the old man’s face. 

The gist of the rest of the video:

-The fist connected.

-The old man’s head whipped to the side.

-That head hit the brick wall beside him.

-The grocery’s fell from the old man’s arms. It’s clear there was a jug of milk in one of the bags.

-The old man fell and hit his head on the edge of the sidewalk.

-The Six laughed.

-The One knelt and slapped the unconscious old man.

And I threw up.

To be continued on Tuesday, May 12th …

Because I Can (Part 1 of 4)

Because I Can (Part 1)

By A.J. Brown

I watched the video several times. The first time I felt sick to my stomach—literally. The cop in the room with me paused the video when I stood, my hand over my stomach, and turned to leave. I didn’t make it very far. One hand went on the wall—it was cool to the touch. I grew hot. Sweat beaded my forehead. My stomach turned over, grumbled, and I heaved, though nothing came out. My ribs hurt afterward. 

“You okay?”

He wasn’t gruff, and he didn’t have a raspy movie-cop’s voice. No, this guy talked like a normal person with normal feelings and normal thoughts. Still, he was tough. You could see it in his eyes, the way they appeared hard, as if staring in them too long would be like staring at two polished stones the color of onyx. 

“Give me a sec, okay?”

“You don’t have to watch it again.”

I put a hand in the air. The heat of my face had receded, the sweat began to dry. I could breathe again, but my mouth tasted like a well-worn shoe. Don’t ask me how I know what that tastes like. You won’t get an answer that will satisfy the question. 

I pushed myself back to a standing position. My stomach still hurt, but the cramped nausea I had felt moments earlier was gone.

“Play it again, Sam.”

No, his name wasn’t Sam, but that’s what I called him. He didn’t seem to mind.

revenge 3He clicked the mouse back to the beginning of the black and white surveillance video. An old man rounded the corner of a brick building. He moved slowly, the way most old men do, and he carried a couple of grocery bags—paper, not plastic. He was minding his own business. My stomach grumbled, then quivered. The backflow works kicked into gear. I tried to force the vomit back down, but in the end, it won, I lost, and the floor was splattered with what was left of lunch.

“Really, we don’t have to do this.”

I looked back at the cop through tear-blurred eyes. 

“Yes, we do,” I said, got back to my feet and staggered to the seat.

We watched the video again and again and again, until I saw all I needed to.

###

“Welcome,” I said.

The basement was dimly lit, the single sixty-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling. It was the old-style rope-pull type, with a chord leading from the light’s chain to the ceiling and through several eye loops, ending at the wall by the door with a loop on the end. The sheetrock walls covered the cinderblocks behind them and were painted a flat green back in the seventies. The trim work was six inch baseboards at the bottom and, interestingly enough, at the top. There were twelve steps that led to the first floor of my grandpa’s old house. Grandpa was dead, so what was happening—or going to happen—didn’t matter to him. It wasn’t like he would ever find out. There were no windows, and yeah, the room was a bit dusty. Other than the chair I sat in, there was no other furniture or boxes or bags or anything else in the room.

Well, that’s if you don’t include the dirt bag on the floor. 

The dirt bag mentioned just now probably didn’t think he was one, but he was. I watched him long enough to know he was a dirt bag extraordinaire. 

Extraordinaire.

“Where am I?”

He struggled to sit up but couldn’t get much further than where he sat against the wall, slouched back and looking like a sagging bag of deer corn. His arms were held to the wall by thick chains; twelve-inch bolts had been screwed into the walls, through the sheetrock and right into the cinder blocks. Reinforced metal plates held the chains and Mr. Dirt Bag in place. He squinted, but probably not from the light—like I said, it was dim, a sixty-watt bulb, the old type, not one of those new corkscrew type that burn forever and a day. From my understanding, he had a great fall and bumped his crown. He had some help.

“You’re here,” I said from my seat in front of him. I did a grand wave of my hands, like one of Barker’s Girls from The Price is Right.

He tried to push himself to a better sitting position with his bound feet. They scraped across the floor as if he were shuffling around, and he slid back to his former slouched over position. I watched this with great interest. His struggle with the chains and not being able to use his hands to push off on the floor or even to steady himself brought a sort of satisfaction I wasn’t terribly used to. His face contorted, and he grunted several times before looking up at his arms.

“What’s going on? You need to let me go, white boy.”

White boy? Yeah, I guess you could say I’m white—really I’m more transparent than anything else. The sun touches my skin and I burn to several shades of lobster. 

“I don’t think you’re in any position to tell me what to do.”

“What? Do you know who I am, white boy? Do you know what I can do to you?”

“Yes, and yes, but neither of those matter right now.”

Finally, Dirt Bag looked long at his arms, at the shackles that held him in place. No, I didn’t go for handcuffs—they were just too thin, and the chains weren’t all that strong. Someone angry enough just might be able to break the small chains that bound one wrist to the other. That’s a chance I didn’t want to take. He bent his wrists and used them to pull himself against the wall, but that was as far as he could go—I made sure of that. Before I had the chains put in I researched the average wingspan for a man that stood four inches over six feet. My guess was he eighty to eighty-four inches. I added an extra two inches to that higher total. Do the math—his arms could only go so far before he could sit up no further, and there was no way he was standing, not with his feet all bundled up in ropes and duct tape.

“Let me go,” he said.

“No,” I replied.

I had one leg crossed over the other at the knee. Both hands rested on that leg, folded one on top of the other. I probably looked like a statue or a mannequin sitting there, barely moving.

He yelled at me, called me names I won’t use here—I don’t use that type of language, thank you very much. He threatened me, cursed me. He spat at me once, but most of it dribbled down his chin or landed on his saggy-bottomed pants. He pulled against the chains. 

And I watched it all.

“When you’re done, let me know.”

“You just wait until I get out of these chains.”

I stood from my chair—it wasn’t anything fancy, just something I grabbed from the kitchen before bringing Mr. Dirt Bag into my grandpa’s home—and walked over to him. I knelt about ten feet in front of him. 

“Your name is Dequan Jackson. You’re twenty-two years old and have one brother who is younger than you. His name is Darrell. You live in an apartment on James Schofield Road with any number of whores you call girlfriends. Many of those women are strung out on crack or heroin that you gave them in return for sexual favors. You think you’re a gangbanger. You might be—I haven’t figured that out yet. If you ask me, you’re just another wannabe thug, trying to make a name with drugs and fear. For the most part that seems to work.”

I eyed him for a minute, waiting for a response that never came. 

“Your mother is sixty-two, meaning she had you when she was either in her very very late thirties or forty. Your brother just had a birthday. He is nineteen. You once joked that you had no problems with killing someone.”

I paused for a moment, stared him hard in the eyes. He stared back just as hard, but there was something inside of him that was different now. I had done my homework on him and his family and his ‘posse’ and it was dawning on him that I wasn’t playing around, that his abduction had been planned out by this crazy white boy and he might just be in a world of trouble.

“It wasn’t too long ago that you proved that to your buddies—killing, it’s just a thang to you.”

“I ain’t never killed no one.”

His eyes were crazy wide, like a rabbit trapped down the hole with nowhere to go and not enough time to dig further down. 

“We’ll see about that.”

He started to speak, then clamped his mouth shut. His eyes grew wide for just a second—a second, I tell you. That’s all. Then they went back to their normal almost slits on his dark skin. I could still see a little of the whites, but beyond that, the color was washed away beneath his eyelids. Still, I saw recognition in his face, in his eyes.

“I know what you’ve done.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“Really? You didn’t hear anything I said a minute ago? You know, your brother, your mom, your whores? You didn’t get any of that?”

He said nothing. He got it, but he was too stubborn to say so.

“Look, Dequan, I’m going to give you one chance to walk out of here, completely unharmed. You feel me? One chance. That’s the term, right? You feel me?”

Again, he said nothing. Stubborn, for sure. 

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

I stood, paced the floor a couple times, my arms wrapped around my suddenly gurgling stomach. I was nervous. I held the cards and Mr. Dirt Bag could do nothing but sit chained to the wall. Still, I was scared and felt like my stomach was about to revolt. 

(You can stop, you know?  Just blindfold Dirt Bag and haul him away, drop him off in some back alley and say, hey you’ve been warned. Turn your life around and fly straight, or I’ll be back. Yeah, you can go all Batman on him and …)

That was a pipe dream. There was no turning back. He had seen my face. I wasn’t sure if he had seen Uncle Lou’s face, but it didn’t really matter. I was smart enough to figure most of the plan out, but not so smart enough to remember to wear a mask like the dude in Saw or like Jason or Michael or a host of other horror movie villains. And if I let him go he would remember what I looked like, and yeah, you better believe he would come after me, posse in tow. I’m not stupid—I just forgot one little, but holy cow important, detail.

I stopped pacing and knelt back down. I looked him in the eyes and all I saw was contempt. 

“Why do you do it?”

He scrunched up his face, as if he were confused. “Why do I do what?”

“Why do you hurt people?”

He was quiet for a few seconds. I don’t know if he pondered his answer or just sat staring at me, anger burning on his face, but he answered with a smile that showed off one gold tooth. 

“Cause I can.”

It was my turn to get quiet. I didn’t really expect him to answer, and I certainly didn’t expect an answer so … honest. I was stunned. He was defiant. 

“I gave you an answer, now you let me go.”

I stood, put my hands on my hips. I wanted to kick him. I wanted to punch him as hard as I could right in the temple, just like … I wanted him to see stars and feel pain.

But I couldn’t. The thought of hitting Mr. Dirt Bag, of causing him even a fraction of the pain he had caused others, made my stomach sour. I wanted to vomit but held back. Instead of letting my anger get to me, I backed away and sat back down in the chair.

“Let me go. You asked your question, I gave you an answer, now let me go.”

“I said I would give you one chance to walk out of here unharmed. I didn’t say when you would get that chance.”

His upper lip curled, and he growled deep in his throat. A second later, he was cussing me for all I was worth. This is what he said, minus all the swear words:

–What type of ******* game you playin’?–

–Let me go right now, you ****head—

–I’ll kill you, mutha******–

–When I get free, you’ll wish your punk*** was dead—

“I’d like to tell you a story,” I said calmly.

Instead, I stood, walked to the stairs and started up them.

“Hey,” Mr. Dirt Bag called, “I thought you were going to tell me a story.”

“I changed my mind.”

I left the room, turned the light off and closed the door behind me. From outside the room I locked the bolts—all six of them—and slid the three boards in to the homemade latches I had made. If Dirt Bag managed to get out of the shackles, he would have to figure out the six locks, and even then, he would not be able to open the door from that side. I unlocked two of the locks—why make it easy on him?  

My stomach hurt, and I sat down at the kitchen table, a place I had spent many mornings while growing up, listening to Grandpa talk of the war—no, he wasn’t all shell-shocked like many others were. He had no problems talking about what war was and why they fought and just what the heck was wrong with it. My hands shook as I sat, elbows on the table, head down, eyes staring at the yellow Formica-topped table. Had I really wanted to hit the guy? Had I really wanted to hurt him?

You betcha.

I wanted to do all sorts of bad things to that thug wannabe. My stomach rolled again. I didn’t eat too much that morning on purpose, knowing what I planned to do, knowing the man in the basement wasn’t going to walk out of there or even be carried out alive, and it would be all on my head. 

As I sat there, I reflected on my life. I’ve never been able to hurt someone, or something. The thought of insulting someone out of anger made my stomach hurt. The thought of insulting someone as a joke wasn’t too intolerable but was still enough to make my stomach rumble. One time, at a party when I was a teenager (a party I probably shouldn’t have been at) I threw up on Maggie Igliana’s shoes because I laughed at someone jokingly saying Mike Halford’s mom would spread for half the football team. Up went dinner and the nastiness that was half digested beans and franks. It splattered the floor and Maggie Igliana. She screamed. I bolted. Out in the front yard I threw up a second time. I was sixteen. Rumors at school had me being totally drunk and hitting on Maggie. They said I asked if she would spread for the football team. The first time I heard it I vomited in the boys’ bathroom. 

Four things:

1-That was the last party I ever attended.

2-I’ve never told a dirty joke or made a joking comment or laughed at one about someone since.

3-I’ve never been drunk, but that doesn’t matter when you’re a teenager.

4-Maggie never talked to me again, which is a shame—I really liked her.

Yet, there I sat, wanting to kill a man I didn’t even know. The thought had me standing and running to the sink, where the last remnants of breakfast ended. I swished water around in my mouth, spat it out, and wiped my lips with the back of my hand. I washed the vomit down the sink, making sure none of it was left behind.

I could let him go. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I really, really wanted to do.

My legs shook as I went back to the door and unlocked it. I slid the boards from their places and opened the door. Three steps down, I pulled the rope, turning the light back on. I went down the steps. 

“You ready to let me go?” Dequan asked.

“No,” I said. My stomach gurgled.

I sat down in my chair and stared at him, hoping I didn’t look as uneasy as I felt.

“I want to tell you a story.”

“Seriously, man?”

“It’s not like you’re going anywhere, so, yeah, seriously.”

He shook his head, rolled his eyes.

I could still let him go.

“I want to tell you a story about Mr. Pouncer.”

“You know someone named Mr. Pouncer?”

“No. I knew a cat named Mr. Pouncer.”

Again, he rolled his eyes. I leaned forward in my chair, elbows on my knees. I rubbed my hands together nervously and began my story.

To be continued …