The Story of Orville Hammonds

The old man was tired. He walked up the road with a limp and slightly hunched over. It felt like it had been years since he sat at the table with a sandwich in front of him, though it had only been less than five hours. 

The old man’s name was Orville Hammonds and before that night he didn’t feel old. He considered himself a youthful sixty-three. But right then, he felt like a used up eighty-one, with aches and pains he didn’t normally feel on a daily basis.

I’ll be feeling this tomorrow, he thought and continued his slow trek up West Lincoln Drive, a road he never considered a drive at all, more like a Street—a dead end street. To his left is where the Taylor’s lived. On the right is where the widow Lawson lived, she of ninety plus years who still got along like she was his age and not almost thirty years his senior. 

He looked up the road and he remembered.

Orville arrived home from work that evening a little after six, having made a stop at Jerry’s Deli on West End Street. He got the Jerry Special, complete with ham, turkey, chicken and sliced pepper jack. Jerry tossed on lettuce, tomato and a homemade mustard that was better than anything Orville could get from a store. A bag of chips and a sweet tea came with the special, as well as a cookie—chocolate chip for Orville. 

He didn’t bother with changing his clothes or even taking the heavy work boots off. Though he no longer did much construction, he still oversaw half a dozen projects for Mr. McGuinn and still wore steel toed boots and carried a sharp knife in his back pocket. Orville sat at the table, a small pinch alive in the right side of his back, thanks to a seventeen foot drop off a scaffolding six years earlier. The broken back was bad, but the spinal cord wasn’t damaged. Four surgeries and hours of physical therapy later and he went back to work, just not climbing ladders or scaffolds. 

Orville set his cell phone by the sandwich, took the top off his tea, and set it aside before taking a long swallow from the cup. The tea was good—not too sweet the way Alice made it when she lived here. He started to unwrap the sandwich when a knock came at the door. He looked at his watch. It was nearing seven and he rarely had company. Still, he stood, went to the door, and opened it just as the person on the other side went to knock again. 

He started to say something like, ‘Can I help you?’ but stopped when he saw the gun. He glanced up. The person on his porch had an Iron Main mask on.

“Halloween’s not for another two months, Mister.”

Iron Man held the gun up, pointing it at Orville’s face. “Get inside.”

Orville raised his hands in a surrender gesture and stepped from the door. Iron Man entered the house and closed the door behind him. 

“I don’t know what you want, but—”

Iron Man swung the gun. It struck Orville in the left cheek. A flair of pain erupted. The skin split and blood spilled from the wound, Orville’s head jerked to the right and he spun on his heel before losing his balance and falling to the floor. He raised his hand to touch the wound. He could already feel swelling below his eye. Another explosion of pain came, this time near his right ear. 

Orville collapsed and his world ran away from him.

He woke with a headache and his left eye swollen nearly shut. He could feel wetness on his cheek and jaw and soaked through the shoulder of his shirt. His head was down, chin on his chest, as if he had bowed to pray. He tried to move his arms, but they were bound behind his back. His right ear had a low ringing in it that hurt as much as his head and cheek did, if not more. Orville blinked his right eye several times trying to blink away the fog and confusion in his head.

“About time you woke up,” someone said.

Orville lifted his head slowly and winced as a fresh pain blossomed in his neck and the back of his skull. He closed his good eye, lowered his head again and waited for the pain to ease off. 

“I thought I killed you back there.”

The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it with the ringing in his ear.

How did I get here? he thought and tried to recall the last thing he could. It was still hazy, but he knew it had something to do with Halloween and some superhero. 

A hand grabbed Orville’s chin and lifted his face. The man half kneeling in front of him wasn’t wearing a mask.

He was Iron Man, Orville thought. He was Iron Man and now he’s not even Tony Stark.

“Hey, old man. Did I scramble your brains or are you with me here?”

He recognized the face. It was thin, as if the man in front of him had missed a few meals. His nose was too big for his face and pointy at the end. His eyes were as thin as his face and body was. Sparse hairs clung to his upper lip, chin and along his jawline. He looked like a weasel in human skin. His left arm had needle marks in it.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yeah.” 

Orville sounded weak, like someone so much older than he was. 

“Good,” the man said and released Orville’s face but not without giving it a good shove to the side. 

White dots filled Orville’s vision as the throbbing in the back of his head increased. His stomach did a somersault, then quivered. Orville swallowed hard, hoping to keep what little he had in his stomach from coming up. He took a deep breath, licked his dry lips, and forced himself to look up.

“I know you,” he said. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say, but it came out anyway.

“Or course you do, old man.”

“You’re Crawford.” Orville shook his head slightly. That was wrong. “Your last name is Crawford. Your dad used to work for the county.”

“He used to. He’s dead now.”

Orville blinked several times. The vision in his right eye had begun to clear and he knew where he was: the dining room in Gary Crawford’s house at the end of the road. The wood dining table sat in front of him, covered in papers and various odds and ends, including a laptop that sat closed, a ledger, a penholder with various pens and a letter opener sitting inside of it. Orville didn’t sit quite behind the table but slightly off to the side. His hands were loosely bound between his back and the chair. He could see the doorway that led to the kitchen and the bright white light coming from it. If what Crawford’s son said was true, then Gary was dead, and Orville probably was as good as dead.

“What?” Crawford asked. “You’re not going to ask how he died?”

Orville gave a short shake of the head. “No.”

“Suit yourself, old man.”

“What do you want?” His voice was getting stronger. His head was clearing with each passing minute.

“What do I want? You want to know what I want, old man?”

“That’s what I asked.”

He could see Crawford fine now. He looked more like a weasel than he could ever recall. He guessed that was because this kid—what was his name?—had always been some kind of trouble. Gary had told him as much over the years. ‘That kid’s got problems. He’s going to be a handful when he’s older.’ And he had been, getting in trouble with the law on many occasions, the least of which was DUI and reckless driving. There had been a drug arrest as well and sitting there in Gary Crawford’s kitchen, his hands bound behind his back, he had a feeling drugs might have played a part in his actions that night.

Orville, moved his wrist, trying to keep his shoulders still but not certain he did a good job of it. The rope was looser than he thought, and he believed he could eventually work one hand free. If he could do that …

Then what? What are you going to do? The kid has a gun.

I don’t see it.

You saw it earlier, when you opened the door like an idiot.

He conceded to that rationale. 

“An old man like you,” Crawford began, “I bet you have a nice little savings, don’t you?”

If he were to tell the truth, Orville didn’t really have a nice little savings. When Alice filed for divorce shortly after the accident, she took a lot of his money and assets with him. He got the house, but only because she didn’t want it. Ellen, their daughter had been angry with her mom.

‘You’re abandoning Dad when he needs you most.’

‘This was a long time coming, Ellie,’

‘His back is broken, What is he going to do?’

He heard the argument while laying in the hospital bed, having been there all of eleven days at that point. They thought he had been asleep. 

‘I’ll be fine,’ he said.

Both women turned to him. Ellen’s eyes were wet with tears. Alice had a shocked drop-jaw look on her face. Then she clamped her mouth shut and left the room. It was the last time Orville saw her outside of a courtroom. 

“I have a little,” he said. “Is that what this is about? Money?”

“Isn’t that what everything’s about?”

“No.”

“Really, old man?”

“I wish you’d stop calling me old man.”

“That’s what you are, an old, washed up man. You couldn’t even keep your wife. At least my mom died, and my dad didn’t lose her the way you did.”

Orville said nothing to this.

“Didn’t like that, eh, old man?”

“Not particularly.”

Crawford laughed, his head tipping. As suddenly as he began laughing, he stopped, approached Orville with a sneer on his face. “It’s not about money, old man,” he said before swinging a fist at him. The chair tipped back. For the second time that night, Orville was on the floor unconscious.

***

When Ellen was thirteen, she began showing signs of the woman she would become. Some of the young boys in her class noticed. One of the older boys did as well. This boy was seventeen and had taking a shine to Ellen. Alice thought it was cute, said, ‘It’s just puppy love.’

‘Puppy love is what kids get. That boy is no kid.’

‘He’s harmless.’

‘He’s almost an adult.’

It was one of those arguments where there was no winner and no loser, but it was one of many wedges that would drive Alice and Orville apart, even if they stayed married longer than they should have. 

Still, Orville had an uneasy feeling about the boy, about the way he looked at her. He knew that look and he knew it wasn’t puppy love. It was only a matter of time before something would happen. This much he was positive of. And he had been right.

Ellen woke one night to someone peeking into her window. She was too afraid to yell. Instead, she crawled out of bed and slowly left the room as if she needed to pee. She had closed the door and ran up the hall to their bedroom. She didn’t turn the lights on, and she didn’t scream. She only said, ‘Dad, there’s someone outside my window.’

Orville got out of bed, put on a pair of pants and said, ‘Go get in bed. Act like you don’t know he’s there. I’ll take care of it.’

He put on his boots and grabbed a small baseball bat he got at a minor league baseball game in Columbia. It wasn’t much longer than a foot, but it was solid and when he caught the boy outside her window, it only took one swing to the back for him to go down. 

That boy was Brady Crawford.

***

Orville was only unconscious for a few minutes before he woke. He was on the floor where he had fallen, the chair to his side and his hands still behind his back. He remembered the boy’s name now. Brady Crawford. He also knew why he was there. No, it wasn’t about money, though he supposed in some way it was. If not, Brady wouldn’t have brought it up before knocking him out again. This was also about revenge for being caught outside Ellen’s window nearly twenty years earlier. 

Some people have long memories.

Orville looked around the dining room and saw no one, at least not from where he was. He rolled onto his back, winced when he got onto his other hip. No one was there. Orville tried to sit up but that did no good. Instead, he rolled back onto his other side off his bad hip and leg and started working his wrists from side to side, hoping the rope would loosen even more than it was. 

The rope burned against his skin as he pulled at it until finally one wrist tore free. He pushed up to a sitting position. His shoulders hurt. His wrists bled. His left elbow was swollen where he had fallen from the chair. 

Get up. Get out of here.

Orville got onto his knees. He reached for the table with one hand and began to pull himself up. He was halfway to standing when his back seized up on him. Orville let out a cry of pain and dropped back to his hands and knees. Without being able to stand, he didn’t think there was any way he would make it out of there. Not in the pain he was in. 

I have to try.

He tried to remember the layout of the house. It had been a long time since he had been there and that had been when Gary’s wife, Janet, died. 

I’m in the dining room. The kitchen is straight ahead. There is a doorway off to the right, no, the left. The living room is there. To the right is a hallway? I can’t remember but that doesn’t matter—the front door is across from the doorway to the kitchen. I need to get there.

If he were able to stand and walk, he could be there in half a minute at most. But there would be no walking. Not right now.

Orville turned toward the kitchen door and began to crawl. It was slow going. Every time he moved his right leg, his back and hip screamed with a fresh, sharp pain that almost took his breath away. 

Thirty seconds had come and gone several times over when he reached the entrance to the kitchen. The overhead light washed the room in a yellow hue. The refrigerator stood directly to his right and the stove was across from it. He didn’t look around to see what else was in there, or if someone were hiding. He crawled across the gray tiled floor until he reached the doorway leading to the living room. 

The light was off, but he could make out the couch along the far wall, the television to his left, the hallway to his right and the recliner near the front door. His heart sped up. Someone sat in the recliner, his head tilted toward him. He didn’t think it was Brady—the person in the chair was too big. 

He remained in the doorway for a minute, maybe longer, waiting for the person in the recliner to move, to say something, to get up and attack him but none of that happened. 

He must be asleep.

Orville eased out of the kitchen and into the living room. He crawled slowly toward the door, his eyes on the person in the recliner, his heart trip hammering in his chest and sweat beading across his forehead. He held his breath for as long as possible, then let it out in what he hoped was a silent stream. He was halfway across the room by the time his eyes adjusted to the light and he was able to make out Gary Crawford in the recliner. He wasn’t asleep and he wasn’t looking at Orville. One eye was open, but the other one was missing. What looked like blood caked the right side of his face. Gary Crawford was dead, just like Brady said he was. 

Orville crawled again, a little faster than before, even with the incessant pain running along the right side of his body. He reached the door and grabbed the knob. It turned easily enough but the door didn’t open. He pulled on it again with no luck. He looked up. There was a bolt lock near the top of the door.

Oh boy.

Orville put his left hand on the wall and his right on the doorknob, He pulled himself up enough to get his right leg under him, then he pushed up. He grimaced. The pain increased and his stomach began to hurt. Orville hugged the door and wall in front of him, both hands up, his face against the cool wood of the door. Then he reached up, slid the bolt to the right. It let out a loud click that made him flinch. He grabbed the knob and turned it.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

He heard Brady before he felt the pain in his lower back. He let out a yell and clutched the small of his back before his legs buckled and dropped him to the floor again. He rolled onto his side, his eyes clenched shut, his lips peeled back, showing his yellowing teeth. 

“I bet that hurt, didn’t it, old man?”

Orville opened his good eye to see Brady towering over him. In his hand was a familiar object. It was the same bat Orville had struck Brady with all those years ago as he stood outside Ellen’s window, groping himself and no doubt fantasizing about the things he wanted to do to her. 

Brady smacked his open hand with the barrel of the bat. It made a meaty THWACK sound each time he did so. 

“Oh, look what I found at your house.” Brady held up the bat, waving it near his head before bringing it back down on his open palm again. “Bet you didn’t expect that, did you, old man?”

Orville said nothing. He had a feeling that would not be the only time Brady would strike him with the bat and the next time it may not be in the back. He stared at Brady as he slipped his right hand behind his back and into the back pocket of his jeans. 

“I see you found Dad.”

“What did you do to him?” He didn’t think it mattered. He could see what had happened, but maybe getting Brady to talk could buy him time. 

“Are you blind? I killed him. Shot him in the eye with his own gun. You know, kind of like I hit you in your back with your bat. Talk about turn about is fair play.”

Orville gripped the knife in his right hand and slowly pulled it free from his pocket. He turned it over in his palm until it was in his hand correctly and his thumb was on the blade assist button that would spring the knife open, not unlike a switchblade. 

Brady tapped his hand again, then without warning, brought the bat across the side of Orville’s left leg. It struck just above the knee in the fatty part of the thigh. Orville screamed again and grabbed for his leg. He saw Brady’s arm go back again and moved his hand just before the bat struck his leg again, this time a little further up. 

Orville tried to move but could only manage to squirm a few inches. Again, he saw Brady’s arm go back. He swung again for the thigh, striking it in the same place as the last time. Orville tried not to scream but still did, even as he grabbed the bat’s barrel and yanked. 

Brady tipped off balance with a sentence that was clipped off when he landed on the floor beside Orville. “What the …”

Orville brought the knife from behind his back and drove it into Brady’s side. It sank between two ribs.

This time, Brady screamed. It was loud and painful sounding, like a dog that had its tail snipped off. Brady rolled to the side. He dropped the bat and grabbed at the wound. 

“You … you stabbed me.”

Orville said nothing. His leg and back and hip hurt, and the pain was almost blinding. 

“You stabbed me.”

Orville sat up the best he could and scooted away from him, pushing with his right leg as the useless left one dragged along. His back struck the door. From there he could see Brady was also sitting up. One hand held his ribs. Blood seeped between the fingers. 

“I’m going to kill you, old man, and it’s going to hurt.”

Brady started to stand but stopped. He looked around until he found what he was looking for. He smiled and picked up the bat. 

Orville scooted to his right and put one hand on the recliner. By the time he had the other one on the recliner—on Gary Crawford’s cold, dead arm—Brady was to his feet. 

Brady shook his head as he smiled at Orville. He held the bat in both hands and raised it over his head. 

Oh crap.

Orville lifted his left arm, his hand out in front of him. He swung his right hand forward as the bat struck three fingers. Orville howled as two of the fingers broke. Brady screamed as the knife struck him in the crotch. Brady dropped to his knees then fell onto his side. The bat clattered against the floor. Both of Brady’s hands went to his crotch and he rolled from side to side, his legs pulled to his chest. 

Orville still held the knife in his hand. Blood dripped from its blade, but it was the bat he wanted. He wiped the blood from the blade and closed it with his one good hand and slipped it into his back pocket. Carefully, he bent down, his lips pulled back from his teeth as bolts of pain coursed through his back, hip, thigh and knee. He crawled the few feet to where Brady rolled around holding his privates as blood spilled between his fingers.

***

On the night Brady peeked through Ellen’s window, probably not for the first time but certainly the last, Orville wanted to kill him. He had warned Alice about the boy, but she thought he was overreacting. He didn’t kill him. No, he only struck him the one time in the lower back. It was enough to send Brady to the ground, screaming and crying. 

What Orville did after that was call the police. He didn’t know if it would matter, but he hoped it would deter Brady from ever peeping into a female’s window again. More than that, he hoped it broke him of possibly becoming a sexual predator. 

Gary Crawford came down a few days later to apologize.

‘He’s going to spend a few weeks at The Mannassah Hall Institute for Boys.’

‘I hate that it came to this.’

‘Me, too, and I really am sorry.’

It was the last conversation Gary and Orville would have until Janet died. He hoped the boy would turn the corner and do better, if not for himself, then for his parents. 

He was wrong.

***

On the evening Brady Crawford killed his dad with his own gun and kidnapped Orville with plans to do something similar, Orville Hammond brought the foot long souvenir bat down on Brady’s head and arms, until both arms were broken and Brady was both still and silent. He tossed the bat aside and dropped to the floor. He lay there for several minutes, his eyes closed. He felt himself fading toward sleep. 

“No.”

Orville struggled to stand, but he managed by using the armrest of the recliner and the wall for leverage. He looked back at Brady and shook his head. Then he opened the front door and slowly shambled outside. He stood on the porch looking up at the night sky. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen. Stars hung like ornaments on the black backdrop. The moon wasn’t quite full, and it looked like a giant spotlight in the sky. He didn’t think he would see another night and maybe he won’t after this one, but the moon and stars were beautiful. It was as if he saw them for the first time. 

It took him several minutes to get down the steps, then several more to make it to the end of the sidewalk and into the road. 

Orville turned to his right. His house was twelve houses away. He took a deep breath, released it and started for home. He limped along, slightly hunched over trying to alleviate the pain in his back any way possible but failing miserably. He reached his house sometime after midnight, but he would swear more than five hours had passed since he sat to eat a sandwich from Jerry’s Deli.

It was a struggle to get up the steps but not get inside. The door had been unlocked and the lights left on. The living room had been ransacked and he bet if he searched the house, the other rooms would have been just as turned upside down. 

Orville went into the small room that served as both den and dining room. His tea, sandwich and cellphone sat where he left them. The top to the cup lay beside the cellphone. Orville sat at the table, picked up his phone and dialed 9-1-1. He gave the dispatcher—a woman who sounded like she gargled with razor blades on more than one occasion—the information on two dead bodies as well as his address. He figured the cops would want to talk to him about what happened, and he was okay with that. He might even get in trouble for what he had done to Brady. He guessed he wasn’t so okay with that one. 

As he sat at the table, he carefully unwrapped the sandwich, the broken fingers making it difficult. He heard sirens off in the distance as he took the first bite.

AJB

BLINK, A Short Story

BLINK

There’s a girl walking on the side of a country road. Her back is to the traffic. She can’t be much older than eleven, maybe thirteen. She wears faded blue jeans and a white shirt. Her hair is blonde, and it flows down to her shoulder blades—not too long, not too short. In her left arm is a brown paper bag. 

It is 1982.

BLINK

A half mile down the road is a convenience store, a block building painted yellow years before. A glass door at the front of the store is the only way in and the only way out. A small cowbell dangles above it, letting out a hollow CLUNK each time the door opens and closes. Most people don’t notice it. 

The store sells everything a small country town could need. 

Jim Baker sits behind a wooden counter. He’s a year passed sixty and looks like he could be older. His hair is thin and unkempt, his eyebrows bushy. He’s slightly overweight and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. 

A cash register with small round number buttons and a fatter button used to make the drawer open sits atop the counter. There is eighty-four dollars in the drawer, mostly ones and fives, but at least one ten dollar bill. The rest of the money is in a lockbox under the counter, next to a shotgun he keeps loaded. He has never had to use it and he hopes to never have to.

BLINK

Betty sits on a couch. It’s frame is wooden, the cushions orange and brown. She bought it in 1978 when the style was still popular, but she doesn’t chase bad purchases with good money. No, not since her husband died and left her and the daughter he fathered with little to nothing in money. 

She’s too big to get a job. Her hair was once long and blonde and kinky with curls, but over the last three years she has kept it short, barely on the shoulders, and with no curls. She wears too much makeup, though she never leaves the house. Blue eye shadow, rosy rouged cheeks, and the lipstick color of the day. 

She sits on the couch most days from sun up to sun down, watching her shows. Game shows (her favorite has always been The Price is Right with Bob Barker) and her soap operas, though there is never any singing, and as far as she knew, never any soap. Still, she loves them, and she hasn’t missed an episode of Days of Our Lives in over nine years. 

They live off of Social Security benefits.

She reaches for her cigarettes only to see the pack is empty.

BLINK

Carl Yelder drifts from town to town, mostly doing odd jobs for a few dollars here and there. He doesn’t carry much with him, a change of clothes in a bag, some deodorant, and that’s about all. He’s not much to look at and most people, if asked, wouldn’t remember him. Brown hair and brown eyes, a scraggly beard that wasn’t really a beard at all, but just some hairs on his face gone awry. His not big and he’s not little. He’s average in every way, shape and form, right down to his average jeans, average t-shirt and average sneakers. 

Currently, Carl stands on the road, his bag in hand, and stares at a convenience store that has no name. He walks across the dirt parking lot and enters the store. A cowbell above the door CLUNKS his arrival twice. He glanced up at it. It wasn’t a big cowbell, but it did its job.

The big guy behind the counter eyes him suspiciously. Carl takes no offense to it—most people who work in small places like this eyeball him, expecting him to use his five finger discount to lift something from the store without paying. 

Carl nods. The big guy doesn’t. 

BLINK

The young girl’s name is Alecia. She is a shade over eleven, but not quite thirteen—she is twelve and life has never been carefree for her. With no father—killed by a gunshot wound to the head that was ruled a suicide—and a mother too obese to do much more than sit on a couch all day, Alecia has had to grow up a lot faster than the few friends she has. 

As if having to act like an adult instead of a kid isn’t bad enough, her body is changing. Where there were no curves three or four months ago there are now. Her period arrived two months ago and what used to be a flat chest had begun to develop breasts. The boys who never noticed her before all notice her now. 

She hates it. She hates all of it. 

At the convenience store, she grabs a half gallon of milk. 

The sound of the cowbell grabs her attention away from the aisle with the snack cakes on them. A man enters. She glances at him, then looks back to the snack cakes. She picks out a pack of chocolate iced, vanilla cream filled Zingers. They are her favorite.

At the counter, she asks for a pack of Virginia Slims.

“You’re kind of young to be smoking,” Jim Baker says with a smile. He knows who the cigarettes are for. Then he asks about her mother. 

“She’s fine,” Alecia says. 

Jim punches in the prices of the few items she has. “That will be Five dollars and nineteen cents, Alecia.” He says this, then his eyes drift down to her chest for a second. He looks back at her face, but she saw his eyes, she saw how he looked at her. 

Alecia hands him two fives, waits for her change, then she says, “See you next time.”

Jim nods. “You be careful out there, Alecia.”

She turns away, nods and smiles at the stranger, then leaves the convenience store. She doesn’t think the guy checked her out the way Jim did, but it doesn’t matter. She feels dirty and all she wants to do is get away from them. 

BLINK

Betty stands, not without significant effort. She’s not quite out of breath when she gets upright, but close enough. She walks across the room to the front window. She opens the curtain and looks out at the front yard. The lawn is in dire need of cutting. A car sits in the cracked driveway, the front driver’s side wheel flat, dirt and grime caking the windows. It hasn’t been driven in years. 

Across the street is Sue Ellen Jacobs. She has no kids, and her husband is still alive. She stands at the mailbox going over the few pieces in her hands.

“Enjoy it while you can,” Betty says and places her face to the window. She tries to see up the road, but barely sees beyond her yard. She lets out a heavy sigh and heads back to her couch. The commercials only last so long and she doesn’t want to miss anything juicy. 

BLINK

Carl goes to the glass drink coolers against the wall. He grabs a Coke, then walks back toward the checkout counter.

The young girl is there. She hands the guy behind the counter two fives. They chat for a second, he asking how her mom was doing, she replying her mom is well. There is a see you next time and be careful out there exchanged, then the girl leaves. She glances at Carl and smiles. It’s nothing flirty or anything, just her being courteous.

Carl nods. 

He sets his drink on the counter and waits as the guy looks at him.

“Is that all?” the man asks.

Carl nods. “Unless you have work I can do, then yes.”

The man doesn’t really consider his comment before saying, “I have no work for you and the Coke is forty cents. Do you have that much?”

Carl does.

BLINK

Alecia shakes her head. She’s annoyed with herself. She forgot the matches for her mother’s cigarettes. She turns around, bag tucked under her left arm and goes back to the convenience store.

BLINK

Jim watches the young man leave, Coke in hand and his head down. The cowbell above the door makes its hollow sound as he exits. For a few seconds more, Jim stares at the door, not certain if, but believing the man might return. He doesn’t believe the man wanted work, but more likely he wanted a freebie. And what if Jim had work for him? He thought the guy would get in good, maybe work a few days, then take off with all the money in the cash register.

“Not happening,” he says and reaches down, feeling for the shotgun that brings him instant security. 

When the door opens the next time, he glances up. He smiles the best he can. “Back so soon?”

BLINK

Days of Our Lives ends on its usual daily cliffhanger. Betty looks at the clock on the wall near the door between the living room and kitchen. It’s now three in the afternoon.

“Where’s that girl?” she asks the air. “She should have been back by now.”

Betty smacks her lips together. She can go for a cigarette right about now. She usually has one when Days goes off. But not today. No, not today, all because Alecia hasn’t arrived back from the store. 

It’s not that far away, she thinks. 

It is further than she thinks, at almost three miles from here to there. For Alecia it takes an hour there and an hour back and a few minutes in between for the shopping for of the items Betty sent her for. 

Like earlier, she struggles to stand and is out of breath when she gets to her feet. When she goes to the window this time there is no Sue Ellen Jacobs and her carefree world. There is also no Alecia.

“Hmmph.”

Betty turns from the window and shuffles from the living room and down the hallway to her bedroom. The room has a musty smell, like sweat and armpits, but she doesn’t notice the very scent she wears. She goes to a small end table near the bed and opens it. She frowns. The pack of cigarettes she keeps there is gone. 

And so is something else, the gun her husband used to kill himself with.

BLINK

Carl leaves the store with no name with his Coke in hand. Even though he has been treated with the same suspicious eyes for as long as he has been on the road, it still bothers him. He is a good person who hasn’t given anyone a reason to treat him poorly. That’s the way of the travelling man, he supposes. 

He crosses the dirt lot and steps into the road. He turns to the left and starts back the way he came. He’s probably half a mile up the road before he realizes he is walking in the opposite direction he means to go. 

“I must have gotten shook up a little.”

He turns around and heads back toward the store. He has no plans to stop in, not with the warm reception he received the first time.

From where he is he can see the store. Someone walks out but that person is too far off in the distance for him to make out any features. He barely makes out what could be jeans and a t-shirt but could also be slacks and a pullover. He honestly can’t tell. 

As he approaches the store, his stomach grumbles.

BLINK

“I forgot the matches,” Alecia says and walks up to the register.

She can see Jim’s eyes roam down to her chest, then back up to her face. Color forms in his cheeks when their eyes meet. She shakes her head.

“Can I have the matches, please.”

“Umm … yeah, yeah. Sure, Alecia.”

He plucks a box from the left of the register and holds them out to her. She looks at the box but doesn’t take it.

“Can you set them on the counter, please?”

She’s young but not dumb. She’s seen that look before. She reaches behind her.

“Oh no, it’s on the house,” Jim says. 

“Does that mean free?”

“Yes. Yes, it’s free.”

“Thank you,” she says and brings her hand from behind her back.

Alecia smiles.

Jim’s eyes grow wide.

BLINK

Betty paces the room. She doesn’t like that Alecia hasn’t returned from the store. She should have by now.

What if something happened to her?

It’s a natural thought for a mother to have when her child has been gone longer than she should have been. Then came the next thought, the true nature of her concern.

You better hope nothing has happened to her. Without her there is no Social Security check.

The true nature of her concern comes out in that moment. She licks her lips. They feel dry. Her hands and armpits are sweaty. She smells rotten onions on her skin, a sure sign she is nervous. She looks out the window, but sees no one, especially not Alecia. She steps onto the porch to get a better look but doesn’t see her daughter walking back up the street toward her. 

“Where are you?” she growls and stomps back inside. She slams the door behind her and goes to her chair. She has lost all interest in the television. She wants her cigarettes. She tells herself she needs them. Her hands shake and sweat breaks out along her forehead.

“Just wait until you get home, Alecia.”

BLINK

Carl stands in front of the store with no name again. He doesn’t want to go inside, but he is hungry, and hunger trumps the lack of desire to go somewhere he isn’t necessarily wanted. He takes a deep breath and walks across the parking lot. 

He enters the store. The cowbell clunks its two times. There is no one standing behind the counter. He stands there for a minute. Something feels off. 

“Hello?” he calls out. “I’m back.” 

He waits. When he hears nothing, he takes a tentative step, then another. 

“Hello? I’m just going to get a bag of chips or something. Maybe a pack of cookies. Anyone? Hello?”

Carl walks down the aisle where the snacks are. He grabs a bag of chips, then walks a little further and picks out a pack of chocolate chip cookies. He makes his way to the counter, listening and looking for the old man. He goes to set his snacks on the counter, then stops. There is a spatter of red that looks like …

That’s blood, Carl.

On the floor behind the counter is the old man. He is on his side, but Carl doesn’t need to ask him if he is okay. The amount of blood that has pooled around his head tells him, oh no, the man is not okay.

Carl runs from the store, his snacks forgotten. The cowbell clunks and he runs out to the road. Then he stops. He had seen someone leaving earlier. 

What if that person saw something? Then, he thought, What if that person did something?

Carl Yelder has had his fair share of troubles in his life, but he doesn’t want to add murder—especially one he didn’t commit—to the list and be framed for it. He runs. He runs with his Coke still in his left hand and the snacks back on the counter of the store with no name. 

He runs until he sees someone off in the distance walking.

BLINK

A young girl walks along the side of the road with a brown paper bag in her hand.

From behind her comes footsteps and someone shouting.

BLINK

She’s mad. She’s madder than she’s been in years. She thought she was mad when her Pete went and killed himself, but that’s nothing compared to how she feels right now. 

That girl, she thinks. She’s done stole my gun and stole my money and ran away.

She would call the police if she had a phone, but that was one of the first things to go when the bills came due and she didn’t have the money to pay for it. She could go to a neighbor’s house and use the phone, but that means going down those steps and she isn’t sure if she could, first get down them, then second get back up them.

Maybe I misplaced the gun.

Yeah, that’s it. Maybe she misplaced the gun. Betty goes back to the bedroom, huffing and puffing like an old train trying to get up a steep hill. She searches the room, tearing it apart, pulling clothes from the dresser and the closet, flinging things around the room in anger and frustration. 

She doesn’t find the gun.

BLINK

There are a few seconds where Carl doesn’t believe he is running after the right person. The person not too far from him now is the girl from the store, but when she left, the old man was still alive. Still, he calls for her as he runs. 

A stitch formed in his side a few minutes earlier and now it crosses his stomach and cramps the other side as well.

“Hey!” he yells. “Hey, little girl.”

BLINK

She hears him. She knows it’s the man from the store. He wasn’t in there the second time she went in. She also knows he must have gone back. That’s the only thing that makes sense to her. 

“Hey! Hey, little girl!”

He’s close. Too close for her liking.

She turns, lifts her right arm, and aims the gun at him. 

His eyes grow wide, but he doesn’t stop running.

She pulls the trigger when he is only a few feet from her.

BLINK

Carl sees the gun, but it is too late to stop. 

He has time enough to think, she’s going to shoot me.

He lunges. She pulls the trigger.

BLINK

On the edge of the road is a brown paper bag. It is wet and split open at the bottom and its contents lay on the ground, both in and out of the torn bag. The half gallon jug of milk has ruptured and soaks into the ground. A pack of cigarettes—Virginia Slims—peeks out the corner of the torn bag. A pack of chocolate frosted, vanilla cream filled Zingers has been crushed. 

Near the torn, wet bag and ruined items is a crumpled Coke can and a puddle of blood.

BLINK

Alecia falls to the ground with the weight of the stranger’s body. She lands hard beside the road but isn’t hurt. Sure, she has a scratch on her arm, but that’s nothing compared to the bullet the stranger just took to the chest. 

He rolls away and is groaning. 

Alecia stands, picks the gun up from off the ground and points it at him. 

“No, please,” he says and backs away. She doesn’t pull the trigger as he backs away slowly. His shirt is soaked red. There is even a trickle of blood spilling from one side of his mouth.

She looks down at the bag she had been carrying. It’s contents are ruined. Well, most of its contents are. Alecia bends down and picks up the hard pack of cigarettes. She puts them in one of her back pockets and walks away.

BLINK

Carl Yelder reaches the edge of the woods before he collapses. He’s seen some bad things in his life. This is the worst.

BLINK

“What took you so long?” Betty yells from her seat on the couch. Her face is red, but not from the rouge she smudged on earlier in the day. 

“You’re not going to ask what happened to me?”

“What happened to you?” Betty asks. She doesn’t care. She just wants her cigarettes.

“Nothing.”

BLINK

Alecia pulls the trigger of her mom’s gun for the last time. She had placed it against the woman’s temple, smiled, then put her lights out for good, just like she did her lustful, molesting father. She places the gun in Betty’s limp hand, then takes a shower. 

BLINK

There’s a girl walking on the side of a country road. Her back is to the traffic. She can’t be much older than eleven, maybe thirteen. She wears a pair of dark blue jeans and a pink shirt. Her hair is blonde, and it flows down to her shoulder blades—not too long, not too short. 

She is smiling. Off in the distance come the sounds of sirens.

AJB

Mickie’s Stars

The following story is called Mickie’s Stars. It is one of eleven that appears in my short story collection, Southern Bones. It is also one of my wife’s favorite stories. If you like Mickie’s Stars and would like to read more of Southern Bones, you can get an autographed print copy by clicking on the link at the end of the story. If you have any questions, please leave a comment at the end of the story and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Thank you for reading Mickie’s Stars. I hope you enjoy it.

A.J. 

MICKIE’S STARS

Mickie looked up from her sandcastle, the archway almost complete, two pieces of broken twigs from the parking area holding it up.

Across the way, a little girl cringed as an adult yelled at her. The man had dark hair and an angry face, his eyes like black marbles surrounded by splashes of red and white. He yelled something Mickie couldn’t quite understand. But the tone … the tone she understood all too well. He wagged a finger at the little blond-haired girl with pigtails dangling to either side of her head. She wore a one-piece bathing suit, pinks and purples with dots of yellow. One foot was clad in a similarly colored flip-flop; the other one was bare. The girl looked as if she wanted to crawl inside herself and hide; just disappear from the world altogether, especially from the man with the angered face and thick pointing finger.

Mickie stared, not meaning to, but doing it just the same—instinctive, her mom would say. Others would argue she was rude and the proper thing to do was to look away, to go back to whatever she was doing (in this case, playing in the wet sand on the edge of the ocean, building castles the tide would wipe away by evening). Staring was something Mickie was used to. So many others—children and adults alike—gawked at her brilliant white skin littered with stars of many colors. Yellows, blues, greens, reds, oranges all clung to her flesh in shapes with many points—not just five like the hand drawn stars kids learned how to trace when they are in pre-school, but circles with tiny points jutting out in all angles. Real stars.

The man pulled one of the girl’s pigtails hard enough to jerk her head to the side. She toppled to the ground and landed on her hip. Mickie heard her scream and saw tears streaking from her reddening face. The man reached down and grabbed the girl’s foot, yanked off the lone flip-flop and stomped over to a trashcan. He tossed it in, and then glared at the little girl.

“Now get out of my sight.”

Mickie glanced around the beach. Several people watched the events unfold, but none of them intervened. A few of them shook their heads and whispered to one another, but when all was said and done, they turned away, some of them moving their blankets or chairs further down the beach. Mickie stood and went to her mother, a brown haired woman with tanned skin and tattoos lining her body, very much in the same manner Mickie’s stars did.

“Momma,” she said. “Why isn’t anyone helping that little girl?”

Momma looked up from her book—one of vampires and romances Daddy found to be nauseating. She lowered her sunglasses, showing Mickie her brown eyes—motherly, caring eyes. “They’re afraid, sweetie,” she said, her voice soft and smooth. “And when people are afraid they often do nothing.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Sometimes,” Momma said, lifted her sunglasses to cover her eyes and went back to her vampire novel.

Mickie nodded, then walked back to her sandcastle. She drew lines on the arch and began to dig the mote that would surround it. A mote in medieval times were said to keep dragons and ogres and giants at bay. And armies wishing to conquer the kingdom of the good king and queen and all of their royal subjects. She read that somewhere, or maybe it was read to her, but she remembered the stories, and the mote was important to the survival of the kingdom (even though Mother Nature was going to wipe them out anyway). It was the barrier, the invisible force field, as her younger brother would say. “You have to have an invisible force field It keeps the bad guys away.”

She glanced up every once in a while, pulling herself from the construction of her doomed castle. The girl stood by herself, staring out at the ocean. Mickie wondered what she thought, if she hated the man who had yanked her pigtail and tossed her flip-flop in the trash. The girl looked her way, and quickly diverted her eyes.

Mickie stood, walked over to the girl. “Hi,” she said. “Do you wanna play with me?”

The girl looked up, her face still red and tear-stained. She shrugged.

“It’s okay,” Mickie said. “I know I look different, but I’m not going to hurt you like your dad did.”

The girl’s brow furrowed and her frown deepened. “He’s not my dad,” she said in a whisper.

“He’s not?”

She shook her head.

“Who is he, then?” She had always been curious about things. Those same people who would say she was rude for staring would say she was nosy, as well. Mickie searched the beach, looking for the man the girl came with. She spotted him talking to a young brunette in an orange bikini, her breasts barely able to fit within the top. The woman laughed and touched the man’s arm.

“He’s my mom’s boyfriend,” the girl said.

Mickie nodded. “Is that your mom?”

The girl turned, shook her head from side to side.

“So, do you wanna play with me? I’m building a sandcastle.”

“I don’t know,” the girl said and looked at her bare feet. “Brent might get mad at me if he sees …”

Mickie knew that pause, the awkward silence as someone tried to pick and choose her words.

“It’s okay,” Mickie said. She watched the mother’s boyfriend flirt with the brunette. His hand rested on her back now, touching skin Mickie had a feeling he shouldn’t be touching. “I’m not a freak. I just look different. And, really, I don’t think Brent is worried too much about you right now.”

The girl nodded, shrugged again. “Okay,” she said.

Mickie smiled. Her teeth were as bright as her skin. “I’m Michelle, but everyone calls me Mickie.”

“My name is Allison.”

They walked to the sandcastle, sat in the wet sand. “I’m digging a mote around the castle,” Mickie said. “You start over there and we’ll meet in the middle.”

And they dug, two girls, a couple of years apart in age, one barefoot with pigtails, the other an oddity even to her mother.

“What’s wrong with your skin?” Allison asked.

Mickie looked up to see Allison staring at her. It was a typical question, to which she gave her typical answer. “I don’t know—it’s always been this way. Since I was a baby. Mom says I’m special, that the stars are there for a reason.”

“What’s the reason?”

It was Mickie’s turn to shrug. “I don’t know, but I like them. It makes me …” she paused, unlike the awkward breaks in sentences people gave her, but a thoughtful one where she was looking for the right word to describe herself. “It makes me unique.”

“Unique?”

“Different. Not like anybody else.”

Allison smiled. “I wish I had stars on my skin.”

“Do you think it would make Brent like you?”

Allison looked down, then at the ocean. Birds swooped from the sky, chatting with each other before flying up again. The tide was coming in. Another couple of hours and the water would be at their feet; another hour after that and the castle would be only a memory.

“So, how deep should we dig this mote?” Mickie asked.

“How deep do you want it?”

Mickie put one hand up, held her thumb and first finger as far apart as they would go. “This deep.”

“Okay.”

Allison drove a yellow plastic spade into the ground, placed the sand into one of the pails. They did this for a short while, working their way around the mote, the minutes becoming an hour before they knew it. Mickie looked up. Allison’s face was a mask of determination. Though her tears had dried, there were still tracks on her dirty skin.

“So,” she said, “why was Brent so mad at you?”

The girl stopped digging, and looked up at Mickie, one side of her mouth turned down. She shrugged. Mickie thought the girl probably shrugged a lot, unsure of what to say more often than not. “I lost my flip-flop.”

“He got mad about that?”

Allison nodded, scooped out another spade full of sand. “He gets mad about a lot of stuff. He’s not very nice.”

“Are you going to tell your mom what he did?”

Allison looked up from the mote, her eyes large. Her bottom lip trembled slightly. She suddenly stood out against the backdrop of the world around her, a three-dimensional image on a flat surface. “Oh no,” she said. “That would be bad. Besides, Mom is scared of him—he hits her when he’s mad.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

It was Mickie’s turn to look out toward the ocean, her thoughts dashing in and out of her mind in colorful blurs.

“Mickie, your stars are glowing.”

“Yeah, they do that,” Mickie responded, but failed to add they only did it when she was thinking about how to handle something; how to deal with a judgmental world where the strong dominated the weak. She had seen it so many times. Bullies beating up smaller kids, their parents just as belligerent and angry as their offspring. The gawkers who didn’t know how to take the odd little girl with the light red hair and impossibly white skin … and the stars—the countless stars along her body. They often acted out of ignorance or fear (mostly fear as Momma had told her many times before, though it contradicted her statement of people doing nothing when scared. For Mickie, she thought it was the other way around: they react more violently out of fear than when all was right in their world).

“Why?”

Mickie thought for a moment, then simply said, “I don’t know. I’ll be right back.”

She got up and walked over to Momma.

Momma looked up from her book when Mickie tapped her on the foot. “Yes, Mickie?”

“Can I go get my doll box?”

Momma lowered her sunglasses again, her light brown eyebrows lifted. “Why?”

Mickie pointed to Allison. “I want to make her a doll.”

“Why?”

“Allison doesn’t have any friends. I want to make her a special doll.”

Momma gave her a small smile. “I don’t see why not.” She handed over the car keys and lifted her sunglasses over her eyes. “Make sure and lock the door back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mickie hurried to the car, unlocked the front door. She reached in, grabbed the pink box—a caboodle, Momma called it. She flipped the lock button on the door and slammed it shut. Mickie started to run back to the beach, but stopped when she saw a purple and pink flip-flop lying near a car. She knelt down, picked it up and smiled.

“Hey, Allison,” she yelled as she reached the beach. Absently, she dropped the keys in Momma’s lap and continued running to the sandcastle and the little blonde girl digging the mote. “Look what I found.” She held the flip-flop up and watched as Allison’s eyes grew and a smile stretched her face—something Mickie was certain she didn’t do often.

“My flip-flop,” Allison said and stood. She took it and slid it on her foot. “Where was it?”

“In the parking lot,” Mickie said. “Let’s go get the other one.”

Allison shook her head, “If I leave the beach and Brent finds out, he’ll whip me.”

Mickie’s shoulders sagged. The excitement of finding the lost flip-flop faded as fast as it had arrived. “I’ll go get it,” she said, keeping the enthusiasm in her voice. She went to the trashcan near the changing booths. Kids played in the outdoor showers, rinsing off saltwater and sand. One of them whined, “Jeffery got water in my eyes.”

The flip-flop was in the trashcan, a white Styrofoam cup on top of it, ice and soda spilled out from its open lid. With thumb and first finger she lifted the flip-flop from the trashcan and held it at arms length. At the showers, she pressed a chrome button with the word PUSH on it. Water sprayed from a nozzle above her. As she rinsed off the flip-flop, the boy she assumed was Jeffery sat on a bench, his arms crossed, bottom lip jutting out. His mother fussed at him for being mean to his little brother. Behind her back, the little brother stuck his tongue out at Jeffery.

“Now you tell Dennis you’re sorry,” she said.

“But I didn’t do anything,” Jeffery argued.

The slap to his leg brought tears from the older child. Dennis smiled in what could only pass as satisfaction.

“Do as I said,” his mother snapped.

Jeffery stood, apologized and rubbed the angry red handprint on his leg. His mother turned and comforted the little boy, his deception rewarded. An indigo star glowed on Mickie’s left arm. It pulsed, sending shivers down into her fingertips.

Mickie knelt down, opened the pink caboodle and flipped through various pieces of thread and cloth, Popsicle sticks, buttons and markers until she came to a clear box. Inside sat several stick figures made from colored toothpicks. Their heads were small beads glued on. She lifted out a yellow stick figure and a black marker. On the brown head she wrote the letter D. She closed the caboodle and walked up to Jeffery, who sat on the bench as his mother and Dennis went inside a changing booth.

“That sucks,” Mickie said.

Jeffery looked up, said nothing at first, then spoke, “What do you want?”

“I saw what your brother did. It’s not fair you got into trouble like that.”

“Whatever.”

“Here,” Mickie offered up the stick figure.

“I don’t want that,” he said. “Only girls play with dolls.”

“It’s special,” Mickie said. “I made it just for you.”

Jeffery took the doll, looked at it. “I don’t want it,” he said and tried to hand it back.

“It’s yours. I made it for you.”

“You don’t even know me, you freak.”

And it was out. Freak. The word used to describe her most of her life. She took a deep breath and bit back the rising anger. The boy was mad, as well, but not at her. He was just lashing out. That’s what she told herself, at least.

“I’m not a freak,” she said. “I just wanted to help you.”

She took the doll back and started away.

Jeffery caught up to her and grabbed her arm. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just mad I got in trouble, again. for doing nothing. Sometimes I hate him.”

“Hate him? Really?” A smile creased her face. “If this were your brother, what would you do?”

With no hesitation, “Break his arm.”

“Do it, then,” Mickie coaxed. “Break his arm.”

“What? Are you crazy? I can’t do that. I’ll get me in more trouble than I’ve ever been in.”

Mickie shook her head. “No, Jeffery,” she said. “Break the doll’s arm. It might make you feel better.”

This time his lips stretched up, his brows lowered. He took the doll from Mickie and stared at it. He started to break it in half, but Mickie stopped him.

“No,” she said. “Only break one arm. You can’t break the rest of it.”

“Why not?”

“You just can’t.”

“Okay, whatever.” With no effort, he snapped the right toothpick arm in half.

“Feel better?” she asked.

“Yeah, I do. Can I break the other arm?”

“No,” Mickie said and put out her hand. The indigo stars dazzled along her skin. Jeffery’s eyes grew distant, as if he stared beyond her and out into the ocean. “Now, give it back.”

Jeffery handed the doll back to Mickie, broken toothpick and all. Mickie turned, put it back in her caboodle and left him standing there, confusion in his eyes.

Mickie went back to the beach, the indigo star no longer shimmering. She sat down beside Allison and set the flip-flop on the ground. Allison had finished the mote and had begun working on outside towers in the shapes of pails.

“Here’s your flip-flop,” Mickie said.

“Thank you,” Allison responded, slid the flip-flop on her foot and wiggled her toes. “What’s that?” she then asked.

“It’s my doll box.”

“Doll box?”

“Uh huh. I make dolls. Would you like me to make you one?”

“Yeah.” Enthusiasm, strong and real, showed in Allison’s eyes, in her smile, the way she nodded her head like a puppy waiting for a treat, tail wagging hard enough to shake its butt from side to side.

“I get to choose the type of doll, okay?” Mickie said.

“Okay.”

Mickie gazed out at the ocean, at the way the waves crashed onto the beach. The afternoon was waning and the water grew closer and closer to the sandcastle. Her stars began to glow, soft at first and then brightly.

“The waves are coming in. Soon, the castle will be destroyed.”

Allison screwed up her face, her jaw hanging slightly. “Huh?”

Mickie opened her caboodle. She pulled out several Popsicle sticks and markers and a small Styrofoam ball for the head. A bottle of glue followed and she began to put the parts together. As she pieced the legs to the torso, the water began to lap at the edges of the mote.

“Can I help?” Allison asked.

“Sure. Hold these two pieces so I can glue them in place.” Allison held the two Popsicle sticks apart and Mickie picked up the small glue bottle. She put one clear dot in the center and helped Allison put the legs together, forming a V.

“How long do I have to hold this?” Allison asked.

“Not too long—this stuff dries fast.”

Mickie put another dot on the torso, handed it to Allison who put it on top of the V, making it look like an upside down Y. The arms followed. Mickie reached into the caboodle, rummaged around until she found one of Daddy’s nail punches—a small instrument that looked like a pen made of steel. She drove it into the Styrofoam ball and then set it on the Popsicle figure’s neck. 

“Your stars are shining,” Allison said.

Mickie glanced at her skin. They were glowing brighter than before, the tips sparkling, the centers almost completely white. She said nothing at first. Instead, she pulled out a marker, handed it to Allison. “Draw a face—Brent’s face.”

Allison scrunched up her nose. “Why him?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Just because.”

“You sound like Mommy.”

The water began to wash over the mote, pushing against the castle’s walls. When the tide went out, it pulled beach sand with it.

Allison drew an upside down U for a mouth. She had one dot in place for an eye when the growl came.

“Allison!”  

Mickie looked up just as Brent reached them. His eyes were two pieces of hot coal set deep in their sockets.

“What are you doing with this freak?” Brent grabbed one of Allison’s arms. She screamed and dropped both the doll and pen.

Mickie’s stars glistened in the sunlight, the colors nearly completely gone from them. “I’m not a freak,” she snapped, her eyes narrowed.

“Watch how you talk to me, freak girl. I’ll smack you into next week.”

“Do it,” Mickie said, her lips a thin line dividing her face.

Brent stared long at her, but Mickie held her ground. After a moment, he turned his attention back to Allison. “Why are you wearing those flip-flops?”

“They’re mine,” Allison said, her voice almost a whisper. Tears had begun to fall down her face again.

“I threw one of them away. Did you dig it out of the trash?”

“No, sir, I—”

Brent’s hand connected with Allison’s face, a quick slap that clearly caught her off guard. A stinging red mark appeared where his fingers had struck. “Your momma’s on the way to pick you up. You just wait until I tell her you’ve been rummaging in the garbage like a street person. You’re a filthy, nasty little girl.”

“And you’re a mean old man,” Mickie said. She picked up the doll and the pen. She finished the eye as Brent yelled at her about minding her own business and kids like her ended up in jail or worse—dead.

“Are you listening to me?” he yelled.

“No,” Mickie said flatly and wrote his name on the Popsicle stick that made up his torso.

Brent released Allison and knelt down beside Mickie. He grabbed her by the top of the head, lifting her eyes to meet his. “I should knock your teeth down your throat, you little brat.”

Mickie smiled. The stars on her body turned pink, then red. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she dropped the doll into the courtyard of her sandcastle. The waves tickled her toes and ran over the tops of her feet as the stars changed color again, going from red to purple to blue. She closed her eyes and then opened them. Brilliant green irises stared out at Brent, and then she was falling. She landed at the back of the sandcastle, crushing one of the mighty walls she had built. But, the mote remained intact.

Her eyes cleared and Brent towered over Momma. Her face was a mask of rage, a finger poked out at him. She yelled. He yelled back. Behind them, Allison scooted through the sand on her bottom.

A woman ran from the parking area, brown-haired and tanned, not so much like Momma, but enough to have a light brown hue to her skin. She called for Allison and the little girl with the pigtails and pink and purple flip-flops with yellow dots on them, stood and ran for the woman. She was crying and saying something about Brent being mean.

Mickie scooped a handful of sand from the ruined castle wall and packed it around the Brent-doll’s legs. Brent—the man—growled and slapped Momma across the face. The crack of hand on cheek sent her to the ground. Several people watched as the altercation took place. Scared, Mickie thought. And when someone is scared, they often do nothing.

She stood and ran to Brent. He towered over Momma with his hands balled into fists. Momma rubbed her jaw. A trickle of red slid from her swelling lip. Mickie’s stars popped and crackled like electricity burning her skin. She slapped his back with both hands. Heat from the stars ran down her arms and into her fingertips. 

Brent’s back arched. He screamed, a loud, piercing sound of pain and surprise. His knuckles turned white as his fists grew tighter. Bones popped and smoke poured from his skin.

“Mickie!” Momma screamed. “Let go of him!”

She held on for a few seconds longer before removing her fingers from his singed shirt, leaving behind two smoldering black handprints. Brent stumbled backward; fell onto the castle, crushing two of its high turrets—where the archers would have been in medieval times.

The tide came in, crashing further and further up the beach. What remained of the destroyed kingdom began to wash away, pulled into the ocean by the undertow.

Brent got to his knees as seawater splashed over his legs. He cupped his hands against his chest. Blood dripped from ruined fingers. “You’re going to pay for this, kid,” he said and tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. They shook and dropped him back to his knees. When he finally managed to get to his feet he took one step forward and stopped, his face smacking into an invisible wall, or a force field, as Mickie’s younger brother would say. He reached his hands out, placing his palms against nothing and something all the same. Brent went in a circle, his hands up, appearing to pat the air around him like a frantic mime—one with broken and bloody fingers. He screamed for help, but the onlookers only backed away. Some of them snickered at him, while others whispered about the crazy man without enough sense to get out of the rising tide, how his mouth opened in a silent cry for help, a sound that never came from his throat. One man tossed a quarter at Brent’s feet.

“Impressive act,” he said and walked away.

Mickie stared, unblinking, at the fear in Brent’s face. Momma took her by the arms and leaned down so her lips were to Mickie’s ear. “What have you done?”

“Nothing,” she responded.

“Mickie, let him go. Let him go, now.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?” Momma asked, her bottom lip bleeding.

“Because I’m not afraid of him.”

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

“They are.” She pointed to Allison and her mother. They were hurrying away from the beach, the mother all but carrying the little girl. “Besides, the doll’s in there with him. There’s nothing I can do.”

Momma shook her head. “Let’s go.”

“Okay,” Mickie responded and closed her caboodle, snapping it shut. She picked it up and started for the parking area.

On the long wood deck that led to the parking lot, they passed Jeffery. He sat on a bench, his chin in his hands. Dennis ran around in the shower area, taunting and teasing his older brother. Mickie passed them and nodded. “Have a good day, Jeffery,” she said. A moment later, Dennis slipped in the water, landing on his arm. His screams were loud. Momma started to go to him, but Mickie held her hand firm. “No, Momma, his mother is coming.”

Mickie turned back to the beach. From where she stood, she could see Brent thigh-high in the ocean. His lips moved, but nothing came out. In maybe an hour the tide would wash him out to sea. Mickie turned and walked to the parking lot with her mother. 

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 …

Jerry Died (Free Fiction)

Jerry Died

A.J. Brown

Jerry died when he was eight. A car accident claimed his life. They were on the way home from a minor league baseball game, something both Jerry (who was a junior) and his dad, who went by Jay instead of his given name, enjoyed. It hadn’t been all that late when they got on the road, just a little passed nine. Jerry had been talking about the game (the home team won, 2-0) and how well the starting pitcher threw the ball. He wondered aloud if he would ever be able to throw like that. They were barely a mile down the road when the car in the oncoming lane veered into theirs and hit them head on. 

***

He stood on the mound, an older guy with scars running the length of both legs and his left arm. The scar on his forehead was puckered and purple and he absent-mindedly rubbed at it with the forefinger of his left hand. His blue eyes had grayed along with his hair—though his hair had grayed somewhat prematurely many years before. A bucket of baseballs sat beside him, all of them gathered over the years as he went to ballparks after games were over and scavenged the ones left behind.

The ballpark he stood in was old, run down. Kids rarely played there anymore. The infield was hard clay with patches of weeds and grass here and there. The outfield held the same weeds and grass, just much more of it. In some spots, there were crystalline spider webs on the ground. When the sun shone down on early mornings, the dew glistened off them, making the webs appear as if they were ice. 

The outfield fence had collapsed in sections, the wood panels crumbled and rotted out. The home team dugout was nothing more than a concrete bench (cinder blocks held together by mortar), while the visiting side’s dugout still had a rusted metal fence separating it from the field of play.

***

Jay slammed on the breaks when he saw the car crossing the line toward them. He tried to swerve out of the way, jerking his wheel to the right toward the shoulder. He would say later, as he laid in the hospital bed after his fourth or fifth surgery, “The guy never slowed down. He never hit his breaks.”

The metal on metal was nothing more than the sound of aluminum cans crumpling beneath the weight of a boot. The airbags deployed, front and sides. He felt the burn of the steering wheel’s bag strike him in the face. His nose exploded, his right cheekbone shattered, and he swallowed more than a couple of teeth. The airbag in the door hit him in the shoulder, breaking his arm just above the elbow. 

The car spun to the right, the tires on that side digging into the grass, catching dirt. Then it went onto its side, followed by its top. The car flipped three times before coming to rest on its crumpled top.

***

He slipped the old glove on his left hand. He hadn’t worn it since a warm night at a minor league game fourteen years earlier. It was tight around the fingers that were slightly chubbier than that night. He opened and closed his hand, the glove doing the same thing.

He was unaware that as he flexed his hand in the glove, the grip on the baseball in his other hand grew tighter. The knuckles on all his fingers, except for his pinky, were white. 

His breath hitched as he stared at the glove, the opening and closing of it reminding him of a fish out of water, gasping for breath … or maybe a person who can’t breathe, who had something pressed against his throat, his windpipe crushed.

***

12734126_10208347032850778_986475889973690833_nJay was dazed. Blood ran into his eyes and dripped onto the car’s ceiling. His face hurt and he felt like he was drowning. His seatbelt held him in place. The pull of it against his chest and stomach felt like a knife trying to cut through bone. His left arm hung over his head, the angle backwards. The bone jutted through muscle and skin.

A horn blared from somewhere. 

“Lay off the horn …”

The words that came out sounded nothing like him. They were as broken as he felt. 

Occasionally, the light tinkle of glass came as shards of window fell away and landed on the concrete. 

Jay wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard feet pounding the ground. He thought he heard people screaming.

It turned out, it was him.

***

Sweat beaded along his forehead. Wet circles had blossomed beneath his arms and what looked like a dark cone had soaked through the back of his shirt. He swallowed the lump in his throat, but it seemed to stay put. His shoulders sagged and all the energy seemed to race down his legs and out of his body. 

He lowered the glove but held tight to the ball. 

On the ground was the cracked pitcher’s rubber at the center of what used to be a pitcher’s mound. He toed it like he did when he was a teenager and pitching in high school. For the longest time, he stared down at his sneaker covered foot. The laces were still in good shape for shoes that were over fourteen years old. The white exterior had grayed over time, but the shoes fit and were still comfortable. 

He took a deep breath and looked up.

***

His head thumped. It became hard to breathe. Dots formed in his vision. His eyes began to shut. Jay was dying. He knew this as well as he knew his son wanted to be a baseball player when grew up.

Jay’s eyes snapped open. Though it hurt him to move, he tried to look into the backseat.  HIs neck screamed. His arm protested. His ribs begged for him not to make any sudden movements. But he couldn’t help it. Through the rush of blood in his ears and the approaching feet, he had not heard his son speak, scream or cry. 

He did hear people yelling:

Call 9-1-1.

We have to get them out.

Oh my God!

Help! Help! Someone help them!

But he didn’t hear Jerry at all. 

Jay craned his neck the best he could. The image of his son in the backseat, the top of the ceiling crushed in, the frame of the window bent so the bar was at Jerry’s throat. His eyes were open and he still held his glove in his hand, a ball still in it.

He yelled, loud and long and hard, until, finally, he passed out.

***

dscn1683When he was in high school, he had been the third pitcher in a three deep starting lineup. He had an okay change up, but those weren’t the rage back then. He also had a good fast ball. It was better than average, but not even the fourth or fifth best on the team. The pitch he loved the most was a curve ball that could drop right off the plate as a batter flailed away at it. Even the good batters seemed to chase it when it was eyeball high halfway to the plate, only to miss as the full arc and break of the ball came into play. 

He didn’t think he could throw that curve ball now—his hand hasn’t been the same since the accident that claimed the use of the pinky. He gripped it the best he could, but knew without that pinky, he would never be able to get it to break right. It might cross the plate but hit the ground before it did so. Or maybe it would end up shooting off to the right or left and not break at all. 

He changed the grip, holding the ball with the middle two fingers on the seams, pointer finger and pinky on either side of the ball, completely on the rawhide, the thumb at the bottom, opposite the middle two fingers. He might could throw the pitch and have it move a little. The spin of the ball would be mostly off though without the aid of the pinky, which hugged the ball, but nothing else. 

He took a deep breath and switched the grip again, this time allowing the index and middle fingers to slide over the top the seams. His thumb went under the ball, opposite the other two. His ring finger and pinky sat beside each other. The only finger not touching the ball was the pinky. It sat, almost limply, by the ring finger. This grip felt right. He thought he could throw that pitch if needed.

“Two seamer it is,” he said and looked in at the batter’s box.

***

There were sirens. Jay heard them, though he had no clue where they came from. Someone kept telling him, “Stay with me, buddy.” He didn’t know who that was or who he was talking to. Jay thought it was a dream, or maybe someone else’s life.

The sirens gave way to bright lights. Stay With Me Buddy Guy was no longer there. In his place were several other voices, mostly men, but a woman (maybe two) was in the mix.

He opened an eye—the right one. Everything was blurry and bright. The faces around him all ran together. Their eyes seemed too large, their mouths too wide. The words coming from them were too loud. Everything was just … too much.

Then he was gone again, the voices and sights gone with him.

***

He had seen the headline. Well, it hadn’t really been a headline. It was more like a small heading with a six paragraph article beneath it. 

Man Who Killed Child in DUI Accident Released From Prison

He trembled when he saw it. He threw up after reading it. He threw up again after reading it a second time. There was a small image of the man to the left of the column. Prison life had not been good for him. He had aged poorly. In the image he wore a green jumper and his hair had thinned considerably. Whiskers stubbled his chin and his eyes held the thousand-yard stare of someone who had gone through a tragedy and still hasn’t come out the other side.

“How could they let him go?” he asked. His words didn’t come out quite right. Though his teeth had been replaced and the bones in his cheek reconstructed, his jaw was never the same. Surgery did no good. It was almost as if he talked with a mouth full of those broken teeth he swallowed. 

It wouldn’t have been hard to find the man—he could only go so far without a job, and his parents’ residence had come up during the trial. But Jay didn’t even have to go searching at all. The man—Collin Pickens—came to him.

The knock startled him. He limped to the door, opened it and almost slammed it shut. The two men stood looking at each other, Collin with the hopeful eyes of a guilty man seeking forgiveness, Jay, father of Jerry, now dead fourteen years, stunned and fighting the urge to punch the man across from him. 

“Mr. Hiller,” Collin said, “How do you do?”

Jay said nothing at first. He didn’t know what to say. How do you do? That’s the first words out of the mouth of the man who killed his son? How do you do? Finally, he spoke. “I’ve been better.”

dscn1703Collin nodded. His hair had thinned. He was smaller than Jay remembered from the trials. His eyes darted about, as if he were a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. “I’m sure,” he said.

“What do you want?” Jay asked, getting down to business. 

“I’m sorry, Sir,” Collin said. “I just want you to know that.”

Again, Jay said nothing right away. He stared at the man, his mind working hard and trying not to bog down. The very bane of Jay’s existence stood three feet from him. What was he to do if he wasn’t going to punch him or slam the door in his face?

“Come in,” he said and stepped aside.

It was Collin’s turn to be hesitant. Then, as if he believed he had been forgiven for his crimes against the Hiller family, he stepped through the threshold. Jay closed the door behind him.

***

The light hurt his right eye. There was no sense of feeling in the other, but the cheek and jaw ached bad. The beep beep of a monitor told him his heart still beat, which meant he was still alive. His head thumped and there was a ringing in his left ear that tried to drown out the heart monitor. 

Jay shook his head and immediately wished he hadn’t. His stomach rumbled and he didn’t get his head turned before he vomited down the front of his hospital gown and the sheet that covered him. 

“Take it easy, Jay.” The voice of his wife was strained. Her hand was cold and clammy. He could hardly make her out through the haze in his mind.

“Where’s Jerry?” he asked. It came out as “Bare’s Derbee.”

It was a long while before she answered and when she did, there were tears in her words. Though they didn’t sound like much, he knew what she had said. “He’s dead.”

Jay cried.

***

On the mantle in the living room stood a picture of Jay, Jerry and Heather. It had been taken about a month before Jerry’s untimely death. They were happy then, a family of three with everything they could want in the growing stages of their lives together. Two years after the death of Jerry, Heather followed, but not by accident or even by natural causes. She went into the night by her own hand and a bottle full of pills. Jay stood by the fireplace, just to the left of the picture. He didn’t realize he had done this.

“I appreciate you seeing me, Mr. Hiller,” Collin said as he sat on the couch opposite the mantle. His eyes were fixed on the image Jay stood next to.

“We … uh … things happen,” Jay said, though he didn’t believe the words coming from his mouth. He looked at the picture of his family. They were all smiling. Jerry had a cap on his head backward, just like his dad. Heather’s hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her green eyes shining the way they always did before her son’s death dulled them with the tears she cried. 

“I guess so,” Collin said and looked away.

“You … umm .. you want a drink or something?”

“Water would be nice,” Collin said with a nod.

“Water it is.”

***

The nightmares kept him awake. His son in the back seat, glove on his hand, ball still tucked in it. The bar of the window on his throat, his windpipe crushed and his eyes open in a begging expression that said, you were supposed to keep me safe, Daddy.

He always woke in a cold sweat, even in the dead of summer with air blowing from the window unit by the bed. He screamed until his throat hurt each time. Then he sat up in the bed, breath labored, blood pumping too fast through his veins, heart breaking all over again.

***

Water it was. 

Jay left the room and made his way through the kitchen to the room he had slept in for the last twelve years of his life. It was nothing more than his old study. The desk hadn’t been used for more than a takeout container catch all (not catching them all since some were on the floor around it). A sheet and pillow were crumpled on the couch and a clock sat on the end table next to it. 

At the desk, he opened a drawer and rummaged through it. Then the second one was opened and the third—and last—followed. It was in this third one where he found the pistol he had bought to use on himself after Heather’s death. He wanted to follow in her footsteps, just give up the living so he could give up the grieving. It was something he never followed through on. He opened the cylinder. Five .38s sat ready to be used. He closed the cylinder back and walked out of the room, stopping for a bottle of water from the refrigerator before going into the living room.

“Here you go,” he said when he entered the room. Collin had been looking at the floor. His hands were clasped together, and his eyes were wet with tears.

“Thank you,” he said and reached for the water. His hand stopped in mid reach and his eyes locked in on the gun in Jay’s right hand. 

“My son is dead because of you,” Jay said. “My wife killed herself two years later because her son was dead, so that means my wife is dead because of you. You see this gun? I bought it so I could join them, but I’m still here. And so are you.”

Collin put both hands in the air, started to say something. Before he could, Jay turn the gun around and brought it down on his forehead.

***

Jay visited the grave. He ran his fingers along his son’s name Jerry Thomas Hiller II. There were words there, something Heather wanted on the stone. Jay had no clue what they were. He never got passed his son’s name.

***

Now he stood on the pitcher’s mound. He gripped tight to the ball. A two-seamer for certain. He stared in at the batter’s box and just beyond it. The metal fence behind it had rusted over the years, but it served the purpose Jay needed it to. Bound to the fence by rope and plenty of duct tape was Collin Pickens. His arms were pulled out to his sides, strapped tight to the fence so he couldn’t move them. Tape wrapped around his forehead, keeping him facing toward Jay. His mouth was taped shut. 

It wasn’t terribly hard to get Collin there and bound to the fence—being unconscious for part of it made things so much easier. When Collin finally came to, all Jay needed to do was put the gun to Collin’s head and he stilled. Jay knew that was the worse thing Collin could have done. That just made it easier for Jay to do what he needed to do.

On the pitcher’s mound he stared in. His pinky twitched as if it were itching to throw the ball as hard as he could. 

“My son wanted to be a pitcher,” Jay said. “I bet you didn’t know that. He was eight years old when you killed him. He would be twenty-two now.”

Jay cocked his arm back and slung the ball as hard as he could. He felt the tinge in his shoulder as soon as he released it. The ball sailed to the right, striking the fence almost three full feet over Collin’s head. That didn’t keep Collin from letting out a muffled scream. 

Jay took the glove off and rubbed his throwing shoulder. “I’m a little rusty,” he said, not necessarily to Jay. “Let’s try this again.” Jay reached into the bucket, plucked out one of the many balls he had pilfered from little league fields all around the state. There was a smudge of orange between the two top seams. He put the ball behind his back and rolled it around in his hand until the fingers found the seams and his grip tightened. Jay looked at second base, just as he would have when he was back in school. Then he turned to Collin Pickens and threw the ball.

***

“He’s not getting away with this, son,” Jay said as he rubbed his fingers along the headstone with his eyes closed. “I’m not going to let him. I promise you that.”

He left Jerry’s grave for the last time the day after Collin Pickens was released from prison and the morning he read the news. There wasn’t much left to say to his son, except, “I love you,” which he did before standing and leaving.

***

dscn1707The ball struck Collin Pickens in the right shoulder with a sickening thud. He screamed his muffled scream. Tears formed in his eyes. If he hadn’t been wearing a shirt, Jay would have been able to see an impression of the seams of the ball on Collin’s shoulder. 

“A little high,” Jay said and reached into the bucket for another ball. One of the seams had snapped on this one. He slipped it behind his back, rolled it over in his hand until his fingers found the seam. Then he threw it.

The ball hit Collin in the stomach. He tried to lift his legs, but his bonds held him in check.

“My son wanted to be a pitcher,” Jay said, “just like his old man.”

He fired another ball in. This one striking Collin in the left knee. A loud pop echoed in the air and the ball bounced off the knee cap. It came to a stop in the dip of the batter’s box where feet had dug it out years ago. Another pained and muffled howl came from Collin. Tears streamed down his face.

Jay took another ball from the bucket, tossed it in the air in front of his face. He caught it and put it behind his back as he looked in at Collin—at the strike zone that was his body.  

“My wife killed herself, did you know that?”

Jay shook his head and laughed. “Of course, you didn’t. How could you?” He paused. “Two years after we buried my boy, I buried my wife—almost to the day. She couldn’t live another day without her son. She … umm … downed a bottle of pain killers—my pain killers—and she just … went to sleep.”

Tears had formed in his eyes by then. He wiped at them with his gloved hand. 

“You killed my son and my wife.”

Jay fired the ball at Collin. It struck him in the left side of his ribs. Collin squeezed his eyes shut just before impact. The sound was thick and sickening. Collin leaned slightly forward, but could go no further, his bonds holding him to the fence.

***

The nightmares never changed. They talk in the car after the game. The headlights from the other car comes into view. His son asks his dad if he would ever throw as good as the pitcher did that night. Then the sound of twisting metal and glass. It is always followed by Jay turning in his seat to see his son’s haunting eyes, the accusatory stare in them. 

As always, he woke with a scream.

*** 

Another ball came from the bucket and was quickly zipped at Collin. As did another and another and another. The balls hit him in the leg and torso and arm. One struck him in the crotch, prompting a moment of vomit that couldn’t get through the tape on his mouth, but that partially came out his nose instead. Jay only missed on two throws. The fence rattled both times that happened.

One last time he reached into the bucket. He kicked it as hard as he could. It tumbled toward third base, stopping just on the infield dirt. Sweat poured off his face and arms and beneath his armpits and down his back into his pants. By then he was tired. His face was red and that twinge in his arm was more of a not so subtle throb. It was a pain he had felt when he tore the rotator cuff in his junior year of college. He didn’t care. He had one last pitch … one last strike to throw.

He said nothing as he stared in at Collin Pickens. The man hanging on the fence was bruised and battered. Some of his bones had broken with the impact of the balls. Blood and vomit spilled from his nose. Tears fell from his eyes. His body sagged, and his arms pulled on their restraints. He shook his head weakly from side to side, as if begging Jay not to throw another ball at him.

Jay went into his wind up and threw the ball harder than he ever had. There was a pop in his elbow, and he knew immediately he had blown it out. The pain was sudden, but he didn’t drop to his knees or grab his elbow. He watched the ball as it struck home in the center of Collin’s face.

***

He slept, the man with no child and no wife and no grudge to hold to any longer. He slept with the aid of a bottle of pain meds, just as his wife had. And the nightmare came no longer.

__________

If you know anything about me, you know I love baseball. Especially little league baseball. You also know I like writing about baseball, but rarely in that nice little let’s get a long and play well together mentality. I like exploring the darker sides of everything, including a game I love. 

I wrote this story over a few days after the family went to a minor league baseball gam here in South Carolina. The game was fun and the home team won 2-0. On our way home that night, no car swerved and almost hit us. However, my mind had already started writing a story when we left the parking lot.

If you enjoyed Jerry Died (or any of the other stories I have posted), please share them with your friends on social media, like this post and comment. I would like to know what you think.

A.J.

 

Skipping Stones (Free Fiction)

Skipping Stones

A.J. Brown

“Flat stones, Cadence.  You have to use flat stones.”

Remy ran his hand through the sediment just beneath the water’s surface. Sand washed away with the current of the river as he pulled his hand out. Five black rocks sat in the palm of his hand, four of them smooth and flat. He tossed the one rounded rock back into the water

He looked out over the narrow neck of the river. Tree branches stretched across the water from both sides. Thick moss hung down like heavy strands of hair on a hag’s head. Remy had tied the target to one of the thicker branches so it would dangle a few inches above the water.

Remy turned to his daughter, took in the eyes that were odd: one wide and one like a slit across her face. He took in the way one side of her lip pulled down, the scars on her face and arms where flames had licked her skin. His heart cracked and he clinched his teeth to bite back the anger welling up in his chest. He closed his eyes, released a long breath, tried to relax his suddenly tense muscles and opened his eyes.

“You do it like this,” he said and held his arm out to his side and at an angle. With a flick of his wrists he let the rock go. It skipped across the water, went into the air, skipped again but sailed just to the right of the target. “Dang it, I missed.” He shook his head.  “But, you get the picture, right?”

black rocks 2Cadence nodded, her once curly blond locks were short, barely there and clung tight to her skull.  The one good blue eye shimmered with excitement as she took a stone from Remy, held her arm at an angle and tossed the rock. It plopped into the water and sank.  

“Ah man,” she said, lowered her head. It came out “ah bant.”

“Try again.”

The second rock sank as well.

Remy held the last rock out for her.  “One more, kiddo.”

Cadence took the final rock, one a little bigger than the others. Remy stepped behind her, took her elbow and steadied her arm. “Close your eyes, child. See the target in your mind, feel it in your soul as if it were pain. We don’t like pain, now do we?”

”No sir.” It came out “Doe thir.” She did as she was told. Her eyes closed, her lips a crooked line across her face, one puckered with scars.

He stepped back. “Go on ahead now. Hit the target. You can do this, Cadence.”

Cadence took a deep breath, opened her eyes and stared down the target with her one good one. She stepped out with her left foot and flicked her wrist. The rock skimmed the water’s surface three times before striking the woman dangling upside down from the overhanging tree limb.  She let out a yelp of pain as she swayed from side to side. Blood spilled from the wound above her eye and flowed into her brown hair. 

“Bulls eye,” Remy cheered.

The child’s eyes grew wide, a smile stretched across her young face.

“Do you want to try again?” 

“Yes,” she said, clapped her scarred hands together.

He rummaged through the sediment, came back up with several smooth rocks. The woman cried, her nostrils flaring, her mouth held shut with duct tape, muffling her screams. 

“Aim for the middle of the target next time. She’s still much too pretty. Remember how she looked at you? Remember what she said to you? Remember how it made you feel?”

Cadence nodded, took another rock and closed her eyes and remembered …

__________

This piece was written when my son was five years old. The family had gone to the river walk in Cayce, South Carolina. The river was low and I told a couple of stories how my brother and I would cross the water when it was low enough to. We also used to have stone skipping contests. My brother, older by a year and a half, was always better than me at most things until I got into my early teen years. Skipping stones was one of those things he made look easy. 

My son asked me to show him how to skip stones. For half an hour or so I rummaged around in the water looking for smooth rocks, which there were plenty of. I showed him several times how to hold the rock between thumb and first finger with the middle finger like a resting spot for the rock itself. I showed him how to hold his arm sideways (much like a sidearm pitcher would). I showed him how to flip the rock, allowing your wrist to snap and your first finger to release the rock so that it sailed even with the water, striking it and bouncing up in the air. It took him a couple dozen attempts, but he finally skipped one three times across the top of the water. He jumped up, pumped his fist and yelled, “I did it.”

We walked away a few minutes later, him happy and me proud and my mind turning over thoughts. The first line to the story is almost word for word what I told my son, but I had used his name and not the fictional burn victim, Cadence’s. As we walked the path to the car, the story had somewhat developed into a father showing his child, one with bad scars all over her body, how to skip rocks and take revenge on someone who had looked at her in the wrong way and insulted her. I won’t lie and say I didn’t have a little fun writing this piece.

Hey, while I have you here, did you like Skipping Stones (or any of the other stories posted so far this month)? If so, would you mind leaving a comment, liking the post (and following the blog if you want notifications of future posts) and sharing it to your social media pages? It would help me get these stories out to others. Thank you for reading, commenting, liking, sharing. 

A.J.