Broken Shells

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Broken Shells (2013)

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

Still, Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach.

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to look for shells.”

“Shells?”

“Yes. Seashells.”

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

“We can add them to your collection.”

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

“You’ll be cold,” I said.

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

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

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

“We shouldn’t stay out long,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“There is no beauty in broken things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no beauty in broken things.

I was wrong. 

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

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

Forever Broken, Forever Beautiful (2021)

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

I can only shake my head at that. 

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

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

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

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that it?” Kimberly asks.

“Yes.”

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

“Are you okay?” 

I’m not. “Yes,” I lie. She knows. 

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

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

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

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

And I haven’t been the same since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s okay.

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

“Thank you,” I whisper. 

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

“Are you okay?” she asks.

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

Prioritize Yourself

I’m 51—a number I can’t even begin to fathom—and for the first time in my life, I honestly like who I am and where I am and the possibilities for the future. I’ve always had a sort of quiet self-loathing so few people ever see. I’ve always said something like, “Nobody loves Jeff Brown the way Jeff Brown loves Jeff Brown.” It’s a true statement, but maybe not in the way I present it. I do love me, but I’m not really sure I ever liked me. It’s like being my own relative. You can’t choose your relatives and you can’t choose the person you’re born as. You love your relatives, you just may not like them very much. That’s where I’ve spent most of my life, loving me, but not liking me. 

Until this year, I never really tried to work on me. I never really tried to make myself a priority. There were other things far more important than my own well-being. I worked hard at everything because I hated the idea of failing—not necessarily actually failing, but the very idea of it. I hated it so much that I failed a LOT. So, I worked harder and I failed more spectacularly. I pushed myself to the point of physically hurting myself, then refusing to let me body heal, claiming, “I’m a man, I got this.” Okay, that’s a bullshit mindset. I don’t care if you’re a man. You still have to allow your body to heal or you will deal with it much later in life when your body is breaking down due to your bullshit mindset. 

I dealt with physical pain on an everyday basis because of injuries I didn’t allow to heal properly. Broken bone in my foot? No problem. I’ll walk it off. Blown out knee? I got this. I’ll just limp for the rest of my life because, I don’t know, I’m a damn man. Torn up shoulder? It’s okay. Just a little pain. Yup. I’m a man for sure—a dumb one. 

Back to my point: until this year I didn’t really work on me, mentally, physically or emotionally. And I never really liked myself, partially because, well, I’m a man and expressing you have limitations or flaws just isn’t allowed. Hold on, I need to sneeze. Ahh … ahhh … ahhhbullshitchoo.

Excuse me. Sorry. That one was building up for a while. 

Back in February I left publishing for what I thought would be for good but came back with a different mindset a few months later. I took all the pressure off that I had put on me. No one else put this pressure on me. I did it to myself. And when I left, I felt like I had spent nearly 30 years on something I failed at. 

I did a few things during that break that I should have done and kept doing for all these years: I focused on me. I put myself first for a change. I started looking at who I was and all the things I didn’t like about the person I was, who I claimed to love so much. I began working out, eating less junk food, writing for me and no one else. I got rid of several social media accounts and the ones I kept, I culled the friends’ lists and follows’ lists. I got rid of Twitter all together. On Facebook (my primary social media presence) I cut my friends’ list from around 2800 to just over 600. I slowly began removing people from my life who were a negative influence. I got rid of a lot of toxic people (and yes, some of those people had a positive mindset I found to be toxic).

One of the biggest things I did, outside of the ones mentioned above, is I stopped making excuses. You know what I’m talking about. You probably do it, too. I said things like, ‘If this would have happened …’ or ‘If I would have done this, then my life would be different,’ or ‘If I had a better job …’ or ‘If people would buy my books …’ or ‘I don’t have time to do this,’ (Ooooo, that one got a few of you, didn’t it?) or ‘I don’t know how’ (Ouch … got a few more of you, didn’t I?).

When I stopped making excuses, I started seeing a change in my attitude, my mindset, my physical well-being. When I stopped making excuses, I attacked my workouts with everything I had, even on days I didn’t want to. I changed how I viewed writing and publishing. I started smiling more. 

I never look in mirrors except to comb my hair. I’m not a bad looking dude, but I’ve never liked what I saw in the mirror. I walked by a mirror in Target last night, glanced at it, took a couple of steps, then stopped. I took those couple of steps back to the mirror and looked again. I only looked at myself for maybe five seconds. I smiled and thought, ‘Damn, that’s me,’ then, ‘Damn, I look good.’ I walked away, a smile on my face, my head held a little higher.

Physically, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in in over 20 years. Mentally, I’m in the best place I think I’ve ever been. Emotionally, I’m also in the best place I’ve ever been. By prioritizing myself for the first time in my life, I’ve found a balance that works for me, that has helped me get to a place of actually liking myself, of liking who I am and where I am in life. 

By prioritizing yourself, you’re not being selfish. You’re not saying that nothing else matters in your life. You’re saying, ‘I matter,’ and when you start believing you matter, you change. You don’t become selfish. You don’t become arrogant. You become a better person, because the more you change for the better, the more you benefit. Those around you will notice, and if they try to drag you down or talk shit about what you’re doing, you know who to remove from your life. You begin to surround yourself with people who will lift you up, not tear you down. Why? Because you matter to yourself, and at the end of the day, you go to bed with yourself and you have to like who you are in order to truly experience this beautiful thing we call life.  

So, hear I am, deeper than ever, maybe even truly happy with who I am for the first time in my life. So, I say this to you: prioritize yourself. It may be the missing link between who you are and who you wish to be.

Much love to you all and be kind to one another.

A.J.

They Seemed Okay

In April of 2018, I was sitting at a table on Main Street here in Columbia. I was eating a meal with my wife and listening to our favorite local band. The text tone on my phone went off. I didn’t check it. I have this pet peeve where I hate having dinner with someone and that person is constantly answering their texts or phone calls. So, the phone sat on the table, face down at I ate and Prettier Than Matt performed.

The text ring chimed again. And again. And again.

Finally, Cate said to me, “You might want to check that. It could be important.”

I flipped the phone over, typed in my password and checked the text. Cate had been right. It was important. 

I sat staring at my phone and shaking my head. I think I put one hand to my forehead and rubbed. 

“Everything okay?” Cate asked.

I shook my head. “No. (Name that shall not be mentioned) committed suicide last night.”

I wiped my mouth and responded to the multiple texts that I had received about the death of a friend. Just the night before I had talked to him—less than 24 hours earlier and he ‘seemed okay.’ 

Fast forward almost a year later. It’s now April 1st, 2019. I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed when I see an announcement that stopped my scrolling. A friend of mine’s son had posted on his mother’s page that she had died in her sleep. I thought it was a bad April Fool’s Day joke and I sent my friend a PM. 

It wasn’t a joke. She didn’t respond and by the time her mom responded a month later, her death had been confirmed by multiple people. It had been speculated she didn’t just go to sleep and not wake up. 

My friend had depression issues. She and I had talked about it on more than a handful of occasions. A few days before we had talked. Plans were being made for projects we were working on, for things she wanted to work on. She ‘seemed okay.’

In the last couple of years, four of my friends committed suicide. 

I’m going to pause here and let that sink in.

Fast forward to just a few days before Christmas of one of the toughest years ever, 2020. A friend of mine posted about his daughter’s sudden passing. I saw it, but said nothing right away. I thought my friend from my teen years probably needed his space, needed to grieve. 

The Monday after Christmas, I sent him a message. I’m going to be honest here: I was worried about him and I didn’t expect him to answer so quickly. Within two minutes, he responded and it shocked me to the point of nausea and speechlessness. His sweet, teenaged daughter had committed suicide. 

It brought tears to my eyes. His daughter was the same age as my son. My stomach knotted and I could only shake my head in shock and disbelief.

I’m still shocked.

I don’t know the situation behind my friend’s daughter’s suicide, but the two people I mentioned and the two I did not all had depression and anxiety issues. One of them suffered from PTSD and injuries he received while serving in the military overseas. My four friends all dealt with some form of mental illness, whether it was depression, anxiety or PTSD. Two of them didn’t think they measured up to the world’s standards. One of them was lonely and raising kids by herself. Her depression was debilitating, as was my military friend’s.

Listen to me for a moment. All of you who read this, all of you who follow this page, please listen to me. Mental illness is no joke. Depression is no joke. Anxiety is no joke. It’s as serious as Cancer and heart disease and any other sickness that can be deadly. 

Sadly, there is a stigma surrounding these things. You hear things like, that person is just seeking attention, or it’s not that bad, just a little sadness, or it’s all in their head, or, worse still, it’s just an excuse for whatever that person doesn’t want to do or deal with.

So often people who suffer from any form of mental or emotional illness are told to get over it, to rub some dirt on it, or any other way of saying this is a nonissue and they’re making more out of it than it is. I don’t cuss much on my website, but I’m just going to say this: that’s bullshit. People who deal with these issues can’t just get over it, can’t just move on or rub some dirt on it or man up. It’s a big issue for them. Sometimes it’s so difficult they can’t bring themselves to get out of bed or to go out around people. Sometimes the cloud of gray they are surrounded in is so thick and all encompassing that they see only one way out. They don’t see any sunshine on the other side of those clouds. For some—for many—there is only damp, cold and rainy days.

I’m not going to sit here and say I understand suicide. I don’t. I’ve never gotten why people choose to end their lives instead of seeking help. [[Let me clarify one thing before I continue: I think I do understand when someone is suffering from a terminal illness or who is losing their mental facilities thanks to illnesses like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.]] Here’s the thing: where are you going to get help from these days? It’s such a stigma that talking about it to others sometimes makes things worse in the fact that those people sometimes look at you differently once you air your depression or anxieties out. Sometimes reaching out can make things worse if you reach out to the wrong person. How wrong is that?

“They have issues.”

Don’t we all? Don’t we all have something that touches us in a way that hurts us on a whole different level? Don’t we all have our own demons we have to deal with? Just because someone can get over something doesn’t mean the next person can. Each person is different. 

We can medicate, but that’s not treating the issue, it’s treating the symptom. If you want to get to the cure or even to the ability to maintain this, you have to treat the root. You can snip the leaves all you want, but until the root is treated, the plant will keep growing. That’s not to say some people don’t need medication—they most certainly do, but that’s not always the cure. 

We can seek counsel from a therapist. That’s a start. Even that isn’t always going to help. 

What I think—and please understand these are my thoughts and how I feel about this and nothing more—is until we start taking the different forms of mental illness serious, it’s going to get worse. Until we start educating ourselves, our children and our leaders, about mental illnesses, it’s going to continue to get worse. We need to look at mental illnesses, not as a stigma or as something to be ashamed of, but as something that can be talked about, that can be openly discussed without being ridiculed or treated differently. Until we accept that many people can’t just ‘deal with things’ we’re never going to get hold of this.

And, again, listen. This is important. I mentioned ‘get over it’ earlier. Don’t say that. Ever. Just don’t do it.

She’s probably going to kill me for this, but my daughter has anxiety problems. Every feeling she has is amplified. She feels things on a much deeper level than I do. When she has a panic attack it’s a big deal. For the longest time, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand she couldn’t control them or when they happened or how long they lasted. For me it was as simple as ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ Essentially, that is just a lousy way to say an even lousier ‘get over it.’

I want to say this and I want to be clear about this: I. Was. Wrong. It should have never been ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ It should have been, ‘talk to me, tell me what’s going on, help me understand so I can help you.’ Don’t get me wrong, my default setting wasn’t get over it. It was to try and help, but when I couldn’t help, get over it became that default setting. That was shitty of me. I hate that I couldn’t help, but I hate even more my eventual reaction. It was wrong and it could have led to far worse things. I know this now and I’m thankful my daughter has learned the warning signs for when a panic attack is coming and that she can put herself in a place, mentally, to handle it—not to deal with it, but handle it. 

A panic attack can be as debilitating as any longterm pain. It’s a heightened form of anxiety that grabs hold of you like an angry dog to a bone, and it doesn’t let go so easily. Depression is the same way.

I wasn’t raised to understand depression, anxiety, panic attacks or any other form of mental illness. If I was sad then that’s all it was. If I feared something, then it was me being irrational. If I was unhappy, I had to ‘get over it.’ It took me a long time to understand that this is something that can crush a person and lead them to make decisions that I still don’t understand. 

Life is precious and the minutes are so few. I always thought from the time you take your first breath you begin dying, so why speed the process up? I don’t understand suicide. I don’t understand the mindset you have to be in to make that decisions. I’ve written about suicide in some of my fiction and I’ve tried to understand the pain and sadness of someone on the verge of ending his or her life. It’s a dark space to go as a writer. I imagine it is so much darker as someone struggling with depression and any other mental illness.

So, where does all this rambling leave us? It leaves us with me saying—no, begging—please, world, stop frowning on those who struggle with the various forms of depression and mental illnesses. Please, take their hand and help them. Please, don’t just listen to them talk, but actually hear them. You don’t always have to have the solution, but have the empathy to be a friend, and for Heaven’s sake, love them. Love them in a way that leaves them feeling loved, in a way they believe they are loved. Don’t be critical and rude and don’t tell them to ‘get over it.’ 

We all need to know someone cares—All. Of. Us.—so be that person who cares. Reach out, even if your friend or family member ‘seems okay.’ My two friends at the beginning of this ‘seemed okay’ when I talked to them last. They weren’t.

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

A.J.

What Is Love? Hmmm …

True love is an amazing thing. 

My wife is an amazing woman. I can go on for hours and days about how amazing she is. I, honestly, do not deserve a woman like her. We’ve been together 25 years and she constantly shows me what true love is. 

I can’t say that I have always shown her the same. However, I can go back to one time in particular where I showed my wife how much I loved her … and then some.

We were still young newlyweds with no kids at the time. It was a Sunday morning and we were getting ready for church. She came out of the bedroom with a frustrated look on her face. If you don’t know what that is, don’t clean up after yourself for a day or two and you will see it from your significant other. 

“Can you do me a favor?” she asked.

“What kind of favor?” I’ve learned when someone ask you to do them a favor, you should always find out what it is before committing. Some favors are loaded dynamite waiting to explode.

“I’m out of tampons,” she said without smiling. “Can you run to the store and get them for me?”

I’m sure I stared at her for a few seconds in disbelief. She wanted me to go to a store by myself to purchase feminine hygiene products. “Ummm …”

“Please?”

First of all, she should not have had to say please. I had already failed. 

I nodded and said, “Okay, but what am I getting?”

Even though we had only been married a short time, she already knew the most important thing she could do was write exactly what she wanted down. A minute later she handed me a piece of paper with the names of the products she needed. I took the paper, read it and looked back at her. 

She smiled big and gave me a cute, “I love you.” It was one of those ‘I’ll love you forever if you do this for me’ I love yous.

“I love you, too,” I said and left the house. 


Back then, when the dinosaurs were merely dead and not quite fossils, there was still a drugstore chain named Eckard’s, and there just happen to be one five minutes from the house.

I drove to Eckard’s, got out of the car and went inside. I strolled around, not really searching for the aisle I needed, putting off the inevitable for as long as possible. Eventually, I found the feminine hygiene aisle and stared blankly at all of the products. I stood there wondering ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ There were so many different packages with their pinks and purples and blues and greens, and most of them had similar names. 

I pulled out the piece of paper, which had been crumpled and shoved into my front pocket. I read the first of the two items and began The Search For That Which Terrifies Me. This was an easy find. It wasn’t quite eye level but close enough to where i didn’t have to bend over or squat to find it. The second one took a little longer to find. I looked at the paper, then at the shelves, then back to the paper. I did this several times. I even picked up what I thought was the right pack, but it didn’t feel right. I looked at her list again. There was one word that was different, so I put it back and the search continued. 

“A-ha,” I all but yelled when I found the right package with the exact wording as her note. I cringed—physically, to the point of my shoulders scrunching up and me ducking slightly, then looking around as if I had committed a crime and someone had seen it. I picked the package up and looked at it as if it was a newborn child. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I did have somewhat of a triumphant, ‘ha, I found you,’ feeling going on. It’s almost like I killed the wabbit, and in the next scene I would be wondering what have I done?

I thought that would be the difficult part. I was wrong.

This was a drug store and it was Sunday morning. There shouldn’t have been as many people in it as there were. More importantly, there shouldn’t have been as many attractive women in there as there were. Yeah, yeah, I know, why did I notice the attractive women and blah, blah, blah … It’s definitely not what you think, unless you think, ‘hey, he only noticed they were women because, well, they were women and not men, and if they would have been men, then he would have noticed that, too.’ Bottom line: I’m a writer. I notice things. Stick with the story, people!

I left the famine hygiene aisle, head held high, listening to my internal soundtrack playing We Are the Champions. Of course, the lyrics were slightly different:

I am the champion, my friends.

I found the tampons in the end.

I am a champion

Found the pads and tampons

‘Cause I am the champion … for my girl.

Along with the Weird Al-esque singing in my head, I probably had my Bee Gees Staying Alive strut working. My short hair was probably not blowing in a nonexistent breeze, and I didn’t have a beard but a goatee, and I certainly didn’t wear bell bottoms. But I still thought I was The Fonz when I walked into a room. If you don’t know the reference, Google is your friend. I was young and dumb and didn’t think people noticed. I’m probably right. 

As I approached the checkout counter I noticed the pretty young lady behind the counter, and the two pretty young ladies waiting to be checked out. I get in line holding a box of tampons in one hand and a pack of pads in the other. Two more young ladies get in line behind me. See what I mean about too many people in a small drug store on a Sunday morning?

So, here are these five attractive women … and me. The one lady directly behind me glanced at the feminine gifts for my wife and smiled. I don’t know if that was a ‘that is awesome of you,’ smile or a ‘you won’t be getting any anytime soon,’ smile. It was probably a little bit of both. I will be honest and say I was a little uncomfortable. 

The first lady in line checked out, and we all moved up a couple of steps. The young lady behind the counter glanced at me and gave me the same smile the one behind me did, but I could see the smile was in her eyes, too. It was as if everyone was in on the joke, except for me. 

The second lady paid for her items and walked off. I stepped up, placed my two products on the counter. By then I felt naked and alone and as if I were being laughed at behind my back. The lady behind the counter picked up the tampons and looked at them, then at me. She didn’t smile when she asked, “Are these for you?”

I venture to say a lot of folks would have frozen with that question. Is she serious? is she sarcastic? Not me. I’m usually pretty quick witted.

Without smiling and in my best stoner’s shakiest voice I said, “I have a really bad bleeding problem.”

Her mouth dropped open and her cheeks flushed red, and that is how I showed my wife what true love is. 

Y’all, have a good day, stay safe and until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Torn (Free Fiction)

Torn

A.J. Brown

I found her on the streets, worn by the world and her spirit broken. She offered me sex for a few dollars, just enough for a meal and a place to stay. Maybe that was so; maybe she really wanted a meal and a hotel for the night. I think she wanted enough money to buy some white dust so she could escape the reality of her world for a little while. It doesn’t matter what she wanted or needed cash for. The ‘why?’—now that’s the important part.

Her name was Poppy, and she sat at the edge of an alley, her head down, dirty hair meeting me. She barely had enough energy to lift it up, let alone give me sex like she offered. I helped her to the car, lifting her off her feet and carrying her as if she were my bride. She couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. I set her in the front seat, buckled her in and let her sleep as I drove the few miles home. Every few minutes I stole a glance at her, especially when the car passed under a streetlight bright enough to shine on her once beautiful features. Her blond hair was dirty, her skin marked with scars, bruises and tracks from heroin use.

Compassion washed over me, followed by anger. Anger at the world for allowing people to fall off the face of society because of money, drugs, sex or just plain hard times. Heat welled up inside and my face flushed. My heart cracked a little and I had to force myself not to look at her.

Home greeted me with the cool of the air conditioner. I took her inside, her arms around my neck, though I don’t think she realized it. I hoped a warm bath would rouse her, would bring her back to this world. As gentle as I could I slipped her clothes off, dropped them in the trash can and set her in the water. Her eyes fluttered, showing hints of blue behind purple lids.  

addict-2713598_1920Soap, water and a rag washed away the grime a life on the streets left behind. There were teeth marks on her small breasts and thighs. My jaw clenched. My heart cracked a little more. Visions ran through my head of mean lovers or abusing pimps and johns who wanted all sorts of perversities from her. My stomach turned and I tried to block the images with other ones. A little girl picking flowers for her mommy; a teen preparing for her first dance; a graduating young lady, smiling bright, wearing a blue and yellow cap and gown.

She stirred, a moan escaping her. Her eyes opened. She shielded them with one boney hand showing cracked and yellowed fingernails.  

“Who are you?” Her voice was weak. She shook, out of fear I believe.

I said nothing. My mouth opened but words failed me; my throat constricted and the vocal cords froze. 

She dropped her hand and gazed through her drug induced haze. The light went on and her cheeks bloomed with two rosy splotches. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Maybe even a bit of anger crossed her young face. I said nothing of her state and handed her a towel and a robe.  

The lights were down in the kitchen. My head ached, as did my saddened heart. She walked in, smelling of coconut cream instead of filth. The aroma was sweet, and I couldn’t help but smile a little. She sat down to a bowl of cereal and a hot cup of coffee. We didn’t speak while she ate but I watched her as only someone who loved her could.    

“Tell me,” I said.

She did. And my heart cracked a little more. I felt it breaking, pulling apart with very little chance of it ever being whole again. When she was done, I led her to a room. I closed the door when I walked out, my shoulders slumped and tears in my eyes.  

Alone in the dark in the front room I prayed for forgiveness, though I had done nothing wrong. I went to the kitchen, the light still dim, and made a list. I recounted everything Poppy had told me.  

Some time during the night I dozed.  

I don’t know when she left but when I woke, she was gone.  Her clothes were gone from the trash can and the cash in my wallet was as well. My heart cracked a little more, a piece chipping off and falling away forever. I looked for her in all the places she had mentioned. She wasn’t at any of them, though many of the people I spoke with knew her. I took mental images of their faces.

That was four months ago, and I hadn’t seen Poppy since the evening I found her on the streets.  Five days ago, a homeless man found her body in a dumpster behind a burger joint, beaten and broken, stabbed to death. My heart broke and tears fell, more so than any other time in my life, even more than when her mother died. Her funeral was this morning. My little girl now lies in a casket six feet into the ground next to her mother, never to be harmed by this world again.  

But, I’m still here, hurting for the girl I watched grow up, become a young woman, then disappear to the streets. This evening I prayed again for forgiveness. Until now, I had done nothing wrong.  

I hear the screams of the people in the drug house at the end of the street. They had boarded the windows up some time ago and even put condemned signs on the lawn. I guess that was to make it look as if no one ever went there. Poppy told me differently that last time I saw her alive. Flames reach to the sky, licking the air, pushing ash up with it. There’s no escaping—the lone door out has been nailed shut. It’s amazing how little you notice when you’re high; things like a hammer nailing boards in place, trapping everyone inside.  

This is only the beginning. I will bury them all under the weight of my torn heart …

__________

I have to admit that I am not a big fan of this story. No, it’s not that the story isn’t good. It is. It’s also very short, which means I could go back and build it a little more. I find I don’t want to do that. The reason I am not a fan of this piece is I have a daughter, one who I worry a lot about. I worry something will happen to her, that someone will hurt her. I worry a lot. 

When I wrote this piece, the image of the father carrying the young woman into his house, her body emaciated and dirty, her arms riddled with needle tracks was the first image I saw. Him sitting in his chair, hands to his forehead and praying for forgiveness because of the grief and anger he felt was the second image. The third was a gravesite burial. That’s a bad image to have when you fear something like this playing out in anyone’s life.

I hope you enjoyed Torn and please, like this post, comment on it and tell your friends about it. The more readers, the better. Thank you for reading.

A.J.

Flash (Free Fiction)

Flash

By A.J. Brown

The world ended in a flash.

Robbie and Sarah were making out at the drive in when it happened. Armageddon played on the movie screen they paid little attention to. For Robbie, his attention span turned solely to Sarah when she nipped his ear with her teeth. When he turned to her, she was smiling, and her upper teeth pinched at her bottom lip in a mischievous manner. He leaned in. One kiss lead to another and another …

One car over, Dale and Delaney Smith sat, not making out, not even talking. They stared at the screen, he actually enjoying the action, she wondering if there was ever love after twenty-six years of marriage. She glanced at Dale. His beard was rough and in need of a trim. Images from the screen reflected in his glasses. He didn’t seem to notice.

Her eyes caught sight of the couple next to them …

Robbie’s hand managed to make it onto one of Sarah’s breasts. It was heavenly and soft and something he had wanted to do since he first asked her out. Deep in the back of his mind, he saw her jaw drop open and her eyes widen. Then he saw her pull away, a hand went forward, and his head jerked away.

“What type of girl do you think I am?” Mind-Sarah asked.

That didn’t happen. In fact, Real-Sarah leaned in, pressing her breast into his hand. She let out a soft moan and slid a hand behind his head. She pushed her lips harder against his. He couldn’t believe it was finally happening. They were kissing and he was actually copping a feel and she let him.

Delaney couldn’t help what she saw. It brought back memories of when they were younger, maybe even the same age as the couple in the car next to them. She had pushed many of Dale’s advances away as teenagers, but now … now she would give anything for one look, one touch … one kiss that brought the magic to her lips and heart.

Robbie’s hand slid down to Sarah’s stomach. He pulled her top free of her skirt and touched bare skin—BARE SKIN!—for crying out loud.

From the corner of her eyes, Delaney saw the girl’s shirt come up. She wore a light blue bra with flower prints—something sexy the boys would like. She wondered if the panties matched, then thought of her own under garments: a cream-colored bra and light pink underwear, nothing she would consider sexy by any stretch of the imagination. Still, she wasn’t in bad shape. She still had good curves, only adding maybe twenty pounds to her frame since their dating days. Okay, twenty-five, but not more than that. 

And maybe that’s where things had gone wrong. The extra weight, the slight chubbiness in her fingers, the pooch in her stomach, the extra padding in her hips. Delaney’s heart sank and her shoulders sagged. She let out a deep sigh and tears tugged at her eyes. 

One car over, Sarah’s shirt hadn’t quite come off yet. It was pushed up over her breasts, but she hadn’t slid her arms out of it. Robbie didn’t try to force it off—that would ruin the moment and he didn’t want to do that. Not if he could help it. His right hand traced the middle of her back until it reached her bra. The fingers lingered there for a moment as Robbie wondered if it would be safe to try and unclasp it—something he had never done before with any girl. Instead, he slid his hand back down along her spine. 

Sarah’s breath hitched and she pulled her lips from his. 

Robbie opened his eyes to see her head thrown back. Then they came toward him. Instead of her lips finding his, they found his jaw, then his neck and then her teeth nipped skin there.

Delaney saw the young man’s hand on the back of the girl’s bra strap. His fingers then fell along her back. Her mouth dropped open for a moment. As much as she didn’t want to look at the young couple making out, she couldn’t help it. She bit the top of her lip with her bottom teeth. When the girl moved in on the boy’s neck, Delaney’s breath caught in her throat. 

She looked away from the scene that played out to Dale’s left. She couldn’t believe he didn’t notice the couple next to them, less than twenty feet away. On the screen, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck were talking, or were they arguing? She didn’t know. She didn’t care. 

When she looked back to the car next to them, the girl raised her arms and her shirt came off. She wanted that type of passion again, but didn’t think it would happen, not after Dale had tried so often and been rejected more than accepted by her.

Robbie pressed his hand to Sarah’s back. He wanted so bad to rip her clothes off and take her right there in the drive thru theater. He didn’t care if anyone saw them. He just wanted her more than he ever had before. 

She bit down on his neck again, this time a little harder. He didn’t flinch away from the pain. Instead, he leaned into it.

Then she stopped. It was so sudden it startled Robbie. He started to speak. She put a finger to his lips, shook her head from side to side. Her arms went above her head, one hand taking the hem of her shirt and pulling it off. It landed on the dashboard. 

It’s really going to happen, he thought. 

Sarah scooted over and patted the center of the bench seat. For the first time since getting the old clunker of a hand me down from his parents, Robbie was happy there was no console in the center and that the seats weren’t buckets. He slid over and seconds later, she straddled him. 

Delaney saw the girl crawl on top of the guy. She saw the guy’s lips go to her neck—it was his turn to be a Hoover. 

“What are you looking at?” Dale asked, bringing her fully from the show. Heat filled her face and if she would have looked in the mirror she would have seen patches of red on her cheeks. 

“Ummm … you.”

He let out a small laugh. “Really? Me?”

“Yeah.”

It was now or never, she thought. If he looks at the car next to them, he’ll know she wasn’t looking at him. She put one hand on his shoulder, then the other one on his face. She leaned in to give him a kiss.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

In the car next to them …

Robbie worked the clasp on Sarah’s bra, but couldn’t quite unhook it.

“Let me help,” she said breathlessly.

I just want a kiss,” Delaney said.

“Okay.” He leaned to the side and gave her a quick peck.

She frowned, shook her head. “No. I want a real kiss.”

“That was a real kiss.”

“No. I want one like this,” she said and pulled him as close to her as she could get him. 

flash-275423_1920The bra fell away. Though Robbie couldn’t quite see them, he could almost feel how perfect Sarah’s breasts were. He kissed her again, pressing his lips hard to her. Her hands slid down to the front of his pants and the world began to rumble. 

It really is like fireworks going off, he thought as she unbuckled his belt.

Delaney planted her lips firmly on Dale’s and hoped he wouldn’t pull away. The ground rumbled beneath them, sending a shiver of excitement through her. It could have been an earthquake or maybe she just made the world shake with her boldness, with her determination.

Dale didn’t pull away, even as the asteroid in the movie hurdled toward Earth and Bruce Willis offered to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the world. His tongue went between her lips and the world shook harder. She pulled away, looked at him. His eyes seemed to shine, something she hadn’t seen in quite a while. 

She pulled him to her and kissed him hard.

Sarah fumbled with Robbie’s belt, their lips still locked. The car vibrated, the doors shook. 

The windows shattered as they kissed.

Robbie and Sarah took a deep breath just as the world lit up in an orange glow.

Delaney kissed Dale harder as heat filled the car. Neither of them blinked as the world vanished around them. 

As the world ended, Robbie and Delaney, one who always wanted the girl and the other who had wondered if love existed after a quarter century of marriage, both thought of fireworks. 

__________

This is one of those rare stories where there is mild sexual content, something I rarely ever use in my writing. However, this was not a piece about sex. It’s about the desire to be wanted by the one you love.

Robbie wanted Sarah. He’s the typical teenager who is somewhat horny and if he has a chance to make it with a young lady, then he would do his best to make it happen. Delaney, on the other hand, had been where Sarah was once upon a time. However, she had spurned many of Dale’s advances. Interesting enough, she regretted that, feeling as if she had pushed him away. Now, all she wanted was a little passion, to be noticed by her husband of over 26 years. 

I guess that’s the way love and sex can be. Sometimes, you just want to be noticed by the one you love. Other times you want to be touched and you want to feel that passion you once had. It also has the occasional fireworks that take your breath away and leaves you in awe and wanting more. 

I hope you enjoyed Flash. It was a fun and difficult story to write. If you have an extra minute, will you please share this post on your social media pages, like and comment. Let me know what you think of the stories I have posted so far. Thanks, y’all. Have a great day.

A.J.

 

Our Once Upon A Time (Free Fiction)

Our Once Upon A Time

By A.J. Brown

Once upon a time …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found myself in tears, heart aching and breathless. 

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

“I have to.”

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

“He’ll come looking for me.”

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

“Then run away. I’ll go with you.”

“No. No. He’ll kill you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once upon a time seems so long ago.  

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

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

__________

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

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

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

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

A.J.

 

Everything I Am (Free Fiction)

Everything I Am

By A. J. Brown

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

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

“My heart?”

“It’s all I ask.”

“It’s everything I am.”

“Then I want everything you are.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so.”

“Broken hearted tonight?”

broken-154196_1280William shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Your girl leave you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

“I did find someone else.”

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

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

“Everyone wants someone’s heart.”

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

“Once or twice, I reckon.”

“How’d it work out for you?”

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

“Second time was a charm?”

“You could say that.”

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

“What do you have to lose?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

***

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

William, why won’t you come to me?

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

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

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

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

You came back.

He nodded. 

Are you going to give me your heart, William?

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

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

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

Do you give me your heart, William?

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

… and the gun went off.

A moment later, the streetlamp winked out.

________

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Courage (Free Fiction)

Beneath the Sycamore Tree

A.J. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the single greatest moment of my life.

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

Cassie—my Cassie—was gone forever.

So, I thought.

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

I love you, too, Joshua Turner.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t leave.

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

“Who’s there?” My voice cracked.

Don’t leave me, Joshua.

My bladder felt heavy. “Cassie?”

Joshua.

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

I don’t know. I’m scared, Joshua.

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

“Cassie, can you see me?”

Yes. Can you see me?

“No.”

Silence followed.

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

“Cassie,” I hesitated. “You’re dead.”

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

“Cassie?”

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

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

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

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

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

No.

“I’m going to find out.”

How?

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

I found out by accident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cassie?”

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

Joshua?

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

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

My heart lifted.

“Cassie?”

You came back.

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

I’ve missed you, Joshua.

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

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

You do?

“Yes—and its time he got punished.”

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

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

“What’s all this about, Mister …?”

“There’s a bum inside my house.”

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

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

“When was the last time anyone lived here?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I reckon not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Where?”

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

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

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

“Recognize her?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!

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

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

Somehow, love did protect me.

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

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

That was nearly four years ago.

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

__________

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

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

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

A Moment In Life

It’s just a scene in life.

He sits on what they call the top step. It’s really the porch, and like the two steps that lead up to it, it is made of concrete. His feet are on that first step at the bottom. Well, that’s not quite accurate. The right foot is on the step while the left one is planted on the ground beside it where a blueberry bush was once planted but never bloomed. Now it’s just weeds and grass. There are two pillars, one on either side of him, that hold up the roof and ceiling of the covered up section of porch. They, like most of the house, are made of cinder blocks, only these are painted white, while the rest of the house is an odd gray color that was supposed to be blue. 

He wears a pair of ratty black jeans, the left leg with a tear that runs from knee to a couple of inches above the cuff. His shoes are beat up and dirty, having seen better days years ago, but he still wears them when doing odd jobs (or big ones, for that matter) around the house. His shirt is an old white tee with words on the front that are so faded they are no longer legible. If you were to ask him what the shirt said, he will say he honestly can’t remember. Spattered and smeared on his shirt, jeans and arms is white paint. 

He had a hard day. Nothing went according to plan. As he sits there, he realizes the painting of the bathroom had been the easy part of his day, even if his right hand tingled a couple of times—he believes that is from a pinched nerve in his neck. He leans slightly to his right, his head almost on Her shoulder. 

She sits to his right, both her feet firmly placed on the second step—or the middle one if you count the porch landing they both sit on as a step. She is looking at her phone and giggling. Every couple of minutes, she shows him a funny video. Sometimes he laughs. Other times he doesn’t. Her pants are light blue and fit her mostly the way she likes it. She thinks she is overweight. He thinks she is perfect the way she is. There are holes in both knees of her jeans and she wears a pair of sandals that are clearly not flip flops, if you know the difference. He, apparently, does not know the difference. Her shirt is gray and white and not as worn out as his, but it is one of her old shirts so wearing it to do yard work doesn’t bother her. 

Couple SittingHe closes his eyes and knows he can’t keep them that way. If he does, he will fall asleep on her shoulder. Not that she will mind—at least, he hopes she won’t. Yes, he is tired. Yes, the last two days have been difficult and busy, the night before going to almost eleven to finish one necessary project. His body aches and places hurt that he didn’t know could be sore. 

He lifts one paint stained hand and places it on her knee. It’s a movement that takes a lot more effort today than it should. As they sit there, neither one really talking much, he thinks of an old song by John Cougar Mellencamp (just John Cougar when the song came out, though). It is ‘Jack and Diane,’ a little ditty about two American kids growing up in the heart land. He thinks of the last lyric, how Jack and Diane did the best they could. At this moment, as the cool breeze chills their skin and the sun is starting to set off in the distance, he thinks of that song, on those two American kids. And he wonders if Jack ever worked so hard at something, put every ounce of energy into something and still not knew if things were better or worse for his efforts. 

He opens his eyes, lifts his head and stretches his neck. In a minute, he will ask her if she is ready to go inside. She will stand and offer to help him and he will accept. With a little effort, he will stand and they will go inside and the evening will go on like all evenings do for the living. But for right then, he looks at her and knows he is her Jack and she is his Diane, and, yes, they’ve done the best they can.

AJB

3/15/2020