Broken Shells

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Broken Shells (2013)

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

Still, Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach.

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to look for shells.”

“Shells?”

“Yes. Seashells.”

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

“We can add them to your collection.”

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

“You’ll be cold,” I said.

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

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

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

“We shouldn’t stay out long,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“There is no beauty in broken things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no beauty in broken things.

I was wrong. 

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

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

Forever Broken, Forever Beautiful (2021)

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

I can only shake my head at that. 

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

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

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

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that it?” Kimberly asks.

“Yes.”

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

“Are you okay?” 

I’m not. “Yes,” I lie. She knows. 

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

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

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

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

And I haven’t been the same since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s okay.

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

“Thank you,” I whisper. 

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

“Are you okay?” she asks.

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

Communion, A Short Story

My dad sat on a tree stump every day before dinner. It was about three feet tall and stood near the back fence. Dad looked more like he was leaning when he sat on it. Usually both hands dangled between his legs and he stared off beyond our yard toward the trees that ran along the backside of the neighborhood. If you walked through the trees, you could only go about ninety or so feet before you came to a stream that split the center of the wooded area. 

It didn’t matter how hot or cold or rainy it was, he went to the tree stump, sat for a few minutes, then came inside. On some days—mostly in early fall—he would sit a little longer, sometimes with his head bowed as if he were asleep or maybe praying. Dad wasn’t the religious type, so I doubt he ever prayed.

I guess I was four or five the first time I noticed him go outside and to the stump. I went to go after him, maybe so he would play with me, but probably out of curiosity more than anything. 

“No, Heath,” Mom said from where she stood at the counter, cutting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half for me. 

I looked back at her. “I wanna go outside,” I said—or I think I said. Time has a funny way of playing with memories. 

“Not right now.”

“Why?”

“Your dad’s having communion.”

“What’s com-u-non?” I asked. 

“It’s what your dad is doing right now.” She set my sandwich on the table. “Now sit down and eat. Your daddy will be inside when he is done.”

I didn’t sit and eat. Not at first anyway. I went to the back door. It was open and the screen door was shut. I could see Dad from there. His shoulders were slouched like he was tired. His head was down. I thought he just might have fallen asleep. Then I saw his shoulders go up then down a couple of times. His head bobbed in sync with them.

“Sit down, Heath,” Mom said and steered me away from the door with both her hands. She closed the door gently.

I ate my sandwich and set my plate on the counter. Dad came in as I was leaving the kitchen to take a bath. He looked so tired. His eyes were rimmed red and there were angry red squiggly lines in them. The tip of his nose was pink. He wiped it as he went by me and to the bathroom where he washed up. He didn’t say anything to me as he passed, just went by without even glancing in my direction. I remember how bad it felt. He walked by me as if I were invisible. Maybe I was.

“Get ready for your bath,” Mom said when she saw me standing at the foot of the hall looking toward the bathroom where Dad went. She sounded irritated. That was her default setting.

“Dad’s in there.”

“He won’t be for long, so do what I said to do.”

I went to my room and gathered my night clothes, then took a towel from the hall closet. I waited outside the bathroom door until it opened, and Dad walked out. His eyes were no longer red, and he didn’t look as tired. 

“Hey there, Heath,” he said with a smile. He bent down and picked me up, then gave me a big hug. His hugs always made me feel safe, like everything would be okay. He set me down and all was right again. He didn’t look worn or weighted down at all. He didn’t look sad. 

Every day for the next six years, I stood at my window, watching Dad out on the tree stump. After the first time I was shooed away from the  back door, I didn’t think Mom would take too kindly to me going and watching him as he had communion. 

I still didn’t know what that meant.

***

I was eleven when Mom died. She wasn’t really the loving type. She was stern and rarely gave hugs, kisses or said ‘I love you.’ I should have felt more, but I didn’t. I think I felt more ashamed that I wasn’t as sad as I thought I should be. It didn’t help that we had argued before I left for school. I wanted to go to Jerry’s house before coming home. 

“Not with your grades, Heath. You come straight home and do your studies.”

I guess it wasn’t much of an argument after all. I left for school, angry at her for the umpteenth time in my life. 

Mom died while I was at school and Dad was at work. It wasn’t anything terribly tragic like the house caught on fire and she couldn’t get out or she was in a car accident, or even someone broke into the house and murdered her. No, it was nothing like that. Mom choked on a piece of toast. 

I found her when I got home from school. She lay on the kitchen floor, faced down. She was still in her bath robe and nightclothes and her face was a shade of purple that bordered on black. I stared down at her. And I didn’t feel anything, at least not right then.

I called Dad, then I called 9-1-1. Then I sat on the front porch and looked out on the road in front of our house. 

The ambulance made it there before Dad did, but not by much. They were inside tending to her body when Dad pulled up in his old truck. He was out of it in a hurry. He forgot to close the door before he ran across the yard to me. His face was red, as were his eyes. I had seen that look every day for the last six years of my life. 

I stood.

Dad reached me and put his arms around me. Just like when I was little and he would pick me up, I felt safe. I know it sounds crazy, but even with Mom in the house dead and the emergency people inside the house doing what they do, I felt safe in Dad’s arms. Everything would be okay.

Dad released me and went inside. I walked over to his truck and gently closed the door.

For me, everything was fine. Like I said, Mom wasn’t very loving, and we never really got along. But for Dad, nothing would ever be the same again. 

One thing didn’t change, though. Like every night since I could remember, Dad went out the back door to the tree stump. He sat, stared off into the woods, but this time I could tell he was crying. I stepped away from the window and sat on my bed. And I cried. too.

***

Dad did the best he could. He was a widower and he and Mom had been together since they were kids. They were high school sweethearts and married right after graduation. 

For the better part of my life since her death I’ve regretted not being closer, not trying, though she never really tried either. Guilt is a funny thing. You don’t realize you’ll feel it until you do.

***

I was sixteen when I finally worked up the nerve to ask my dad why he went outside every day before supper. He was already out there with his coat on and his hands between his knees. His head was down, and I could see his lips moving when I approached him.

“Dad?”

He didn’t jerk in surprise of my presence. His head didn’t swivel on his neck and he didn’t look irritated to see me standing there, my hands jammed into my coat pockets, vapor pluming from between my lips.

“Everything okay, Heath?” His voice was shaky.

I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, everything is okay. I just …”

“You just what?”

I shrugged. “Dad, why do you come out here and sit on this stump every day?”

He looked away from me, back in the direction of the woods. By then, some of the land had been sold and some of the trees further down from our place had been removed. The frame of a house stood like a silhouette in the dying sunlight. When he looked back at me, he had tears in his eyes. He wiped at them and looked away.

“My Daddy died cutting this tree down.” He patted the side of the stump with one hand. “I was a little older than you, eighteen, I think. He had a heart attack and died where he fell. I come out here to be near him. It’s like he never left. I can feel his presence.”

Dad looked back at me again. His eyes shimmered with tears. “I know it sounds crazy but sitting here makes me feel like he’s still around and not dead and in some box in the ground in Meacham Cemetery. I come out here and talk to him. Then I listen for his voice. I reckon you can say I come to have communion with him.”

I never bothered him while he was out there again. I still looked out the window from time to time, but I never bothered him. It was sacred for him.

Now, I understand why.

***

Barely two years later, Dad passed away. I just turned eighteen, and yes, I see the foreshadowing in our lone conversation about his visits to the stump. He died before supper, and yes, he was sitting on the stump.

He had aged so much in the seven years since Mom passed. He looked older than his fifty-four years. If you do the math, you can figure out my parents had me when they were in their mid-thirties, but Dad looked like he was in his mid-seventies that last time he walked into the back yard to the stump to have communion with his father. 

I stood at the back door, something I hadn’t done since that first time when Mom shooed me away. He sat gingerly on the stump. As always, he looked out to where the woods used to be, but now they were all gone. Houses now sat where trees once stood. His head dipped, his chin touching his chest. Then he leaned to one side and fell.

“Dad,” I yelled and ran from the house. I vaguely heard the clatter of the screen door as it slammed shut. Dad was gone by the time I reached him. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell. Much like when Mom died, I dialed 9-1-1. This time I didn’t wait on the front porch, my elbows on my knees and my head down. No, this time I waited in the back yard, Dad’s head on my lap. 

***

It’s been two days since his funeral. The coroner said he died of a massive heart attack. He was dead before he hit the ground. I can still see him toppling off the stump. I can still hear me yelling for him. 

Tonight, just before I sat at the table by myself for the first time in my life, I walked out to the stump where my dad died, and where his dad died. I sat down on the stump with my hands between my legs. Tears spilled down my face.

“I miss you, Dad.”

Then, like so many times as a child, I felt his arms around me, and I knew I would be okay.

AJB

10/15/2020

I Want To Go Home (Free Fiction)

I Want to Go Home

A.J. Brown

I want to go home, away from here where the ghosts talk to me, whisper my name, smile their dead smiles, and wink their dead eyes, as if they know something I don’t. 

I want to go home, away from these sterile white walls and white tiled floors, mopped every other night by a balding guy with only three teeth left in his ancient mouth, and skin as dark as mahogany. His jaundiced eyes glow on the backdrop of his dark skin, and he coughs the cough of a dying man, one with lung cancer or tuberculosis or some other respiratory illness. I think his name is James.

Mary, in room eight, calls him a ‘lunger.’ Mary’s a spiteful old bitty with grey hair verging on blue and a hump on her back that makes her look like a camel. She shuffles up and down the halls at odd hours of the night, her slippers whisking with each short step she takes. She doesn’t like the balding guy with the dark skin and jaundiced eyes. 

She laughs when she passes my room. 

I saw her peek in once, her grey eyes sitting deep in their sockets, wrinkles pulling on the corners of her face. She laughed, deep and throaty. Startled at the odd grin and loud booming cackle, I spent the rest of the night sitting up, eyes focused on the doorway, heart hurting with each thump thump. Sometimes I hear her whisking feet, her impish cackles, her mean words to James—at least, I think that’s his name.

I want to go home, far from the uninterested doctors and nurses who parade in and out of my hospital room, wearing white coats to make themselves feel important. Even the pretty little blonde intern carries herself like she is far better than those she’s charged with taking care of. Sometimes I wet the bed on purpose, just so she would crinkle her nose and mumble under her breath how pathetic I am. Imagine that: me, pathetic. Never thought those words would come out of someone’s mouth about me. Other times I wet the bed, but not on purpose. It’s during those moments when she says I’m pathetic that I look away, my head down, and think she is right.

This place wouldn’t be so bad if everything wasn’t as bright—so bright it’s almost drab, if that makes any sense. The television screen has a glare on it, put there by the overhead light (or the sun, if the curtains are open during the day). What possessed any sane man to put a television in there is beyond me. I leave it off most of the time—there really isn’t anything on worth watching now that Bob Barker has left The Price is Right and the soap operas and court shows have taken over the afternoon programming. 

The curtains themselves are a light brown, the color of dry chocolate. They’re nothing more than window dressing. The sun peeks through during the day, the moon says hello in the evenings. 

The moon is hiding tonight, playing behind the clouds, or maybe even taking the night off to rest its weary head. The splat-swish of the mop is louder than usual. James is close by. The aroma of an old tobacco pipe hangs in the air well after he moves down the hall. He usually pokes his head in, nods at me and keeps going. Tonight he lingers, his yellowed eyes peering at me beneath half-open lids. A sizeable knot sits just above his right brow, stretching up to the top of his skull.

“Eldridge,” he says, his voice strong, his lips barely moving.

“Yeah,” I say. “Can I help you?” 

I should laugh at that question. I can’t help myself with this battered body, so how am I going to help the janitor, a man older than me, who can still mop a floor with no effort at all, his back bent over, arms pushing out, pulling in, pushing out again. 

“Not much longer,” he says and nods. A cut opens up from eyebrow to skullcap. A trickle of blood drips down his face. He leaves the room and drops the mop head to the floor. It splats then swishes, but there is no water left behind, no swirl of dirt or shine left by a swabbing done right. James moves on down the hall, the sounds becoming fainter, splat-swish splat-swish. There’s no bucket behind him.

With nerves dancing along my skin, I settle down in the bed, tuck the covers to my chin and close my eyes. I’m tired tonight, more so than usual. A deep breath fills my lungs and it’s like cold milk going down my throat, cooling my insides after the heat of a hard day. 

I think I’ll sleep for a while.

Mary’s cackle wakes me. My hands and legs jerk reflexively and my heart skips. I lay still until my head clears and I know for certain it is her and not some vile creature I may have dreamed of and forgotten. I turn my head to the door. She stands in the entrance, her hands clutching a walker, her grey hair sticking out on top of her head. Her eyes bore into me and she’s smiling a smile of pure insanity, her brows forming an arrow above her nose and the sides of her lips point up toward her skin-tight cheekbones. All she’s missing is the white paint and she’d look like a saggy-breasted clown in an old blue housedress and pink slippers.

“Eldridge,” she whispers then giggles. “The lunger is dead. Fell down the steps, he did. Busted his skull right open.”

I say nothing as the fear of what I saw earlier and what I just heard collide. I try to hide the revulsion spreading across my face, but I’m not certain I succeed. I wait for the old bitty to walk away, her slippers whisking with each arthritic step. She lingers a moment longer, then throws her head back, a roar of laughter echoing in the room. She’s so loud my ears hurt and I try to cover them, but my shaking hands make it impossible. I close my eyes and sink further down into my bed, pulling the pillow over my head.

“Not much longer,” she says, and cackles again. The laughter fades but I don’t hear her shuffle up the hall. 

My heart speeds up. It hurts to breathe. I can’t move, can’t lift my hand to touch the call button on my bed. A surge of pain leaves me weak as it trails into my shoulder and down to my elbow. My jaw hurts. 

“I’m having a heart attack.” Did I say that aloud or only think it? I’m not sure, but a moment later, the light switches on and the pretty blonde is pulling the pillow from over my head, her blue eyes actually full with concern.

OLD MAN“Eldridge,” she says, her voice slightly high pitched. “Are you okay?” She holds a needle in one hand while glancing at my monitors, the heart rate a steady beepbeepbeepbeep, probably too fast for her liking—certainly too fast for mine. Seconds pass and she has the needle in the IV, pushing a clear liquid into my veins. A few more seconds and my heart rate slows, my breathing restored to its simplistic in and out rhythm. I relax. 

My eyes are heavy, but I try to hold them open. They slide shut, and then snap open at the fetid smell of a dead skunk wafting in the air. 

Mary is inches from my face, her mouth open, rotting teeth several shades of brown. “Eldridge,” she whispers and the dead skunk strikes me across the face. Tears well up in my eyes. “Not much longer,” she says. “Oh, not much longer at all.”

Gagging, I try to push her away so I can sit up, but she holds me down. She is stronger than I ever thought she would be. My stomach lurches and I vomit all over the front of my bed shirt and sheets. I swallow some of it. I gag again, try to catch my breath, but find it has left and doesn’t seem to want to come back.

“Eldridge,” the pretty nurse says, her hands out to her sides, a terrible look of worry and disgust on her face. I can see evening spaghetti drenched on the front of her clothes. I think she is angry. I shake my head, confusion tickling my brain, telling me everything is all wrong, telling me Mary was never here and James had stopped mopping a long time ago.

My head hurts.

The nurse’s eyes are wide. She presses the red button by my arm several times. I look at her in confusion, open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Doctors and nurses rush in, their shouts a muddled cacophony in my ears, each word echoing, then falling away. Nothing makes sense. 

I close my eyes. Maybe if I go to sleep they’ll leave me alone. Maybe I should tell them about the ghosts … how they haunt me nightly. But what good would that do? I’m a senile old man with bladder issues, dying from the disease they call age. They’d never believe me.

My eyes open, but not because I want them to. They just do.

Blurry figures race around, their white coats flapping like wings on giant birds. Their words make no sense. A beeping noise echoes from somewhere in the distance. But it’s not really beeping at all. It’s a long, drawn out wail from a phone or a television or a monitor. 

As they dart about I think of home, of being far away from Mary in room eight and James with his eternal mopping and cancerous cough. I long to be home where the sun can warm my cold skin and I can sleep in my bed, the one I shared with my Louisa for all those years before she died. I want to go home, where my television sits in the perfect spot, where no glare from the overhead light or the sun or even the winking moon can hit it, and where Bob Barker still hosts The Price is Right.

I want to go home, where there are no nurses to call me pathetic, no doctors to fake interest in me, no needles or heart monitors … 

Brushing the multitude of hands away, I struggle to stand, fighting against their collective strength. I push myself to my feet, the cold of the tile floor sending slivers of ice through my legs and up my spine, touching the back of my skull with a shiver. I back away from the doctors and nurses, their mouths moving but nothing coming out, their eyes full of a determination I haven’t seen since coming to this place … this place where I’m supposed to die.

I take a couple of steps back, ease around the frantic hospital workers, and walk out the door. They don’t seem to notice. They are hunched over my bed, their words panicked. The light from the hall is a deep yellow, no glare to sting the eyes. The floor is clean and the walls are as white as the ones in my room. Another doctor brushes by and runs into my room. I shrug and walk up the hall, peeking into room eight when I get to it. 

Mary is long gone. In her place is another lady, probably younger than I am, her hair still clinging to some of the dark color it once used to boast. She glances at me and her eyes are as blue as the clear sky. Her bottom lip trembles and the monitor near her bed beepbeepbeeps, it’s pace quickening as her eyes grow wider. 

Cocking my head to one side, I realize I know her name. “Rachel,” I say. “Not much longer.” A chuckle escapes my throat. I wave to her before heading up the hall. The elevators are just around the corner. Maybe I can get out of here before the doctors realize I’m gone. Maybe I can go home, where a man can die in peace …

_____

Some stories have more meaning than others. Some stories I just write because the story tells me to write it. Yeah, crazy. I know. But when the voices speak (no, not like that) I tend to listen to them. This story has meaning.

Let me explain, if I can—honestly, I’m not sure I can.

Years ago, when my grandfather was dying he was stuck in a hospital. He didn’t want to be there. He wanted to leave and be done with the place. He wanted to go home.

One afternoon my dad paid a visit to my grandfather at the hospital. It was just the two of them.

“Larry, give me a hand here,” my grandfather said.

“What do you need, Rex?”

“I’m getting out of here. Come on, let’s go before the nurse comes back.”

I imagine it was hard for my dad to tell him “no, Rex, we can’t leave.”  

Dad told me this story one day shortly before my grandfather passed away. In that spot in my brain where all creativity lives, a clear picture formed of my grandfather ducking out of his room and hurrying down the hallway to the elevators, his hospital gown open in the back and flapping as he went. He didn’t have much hair on his head, and he probably had his glasses on.  

In that image, my grandfather is smiling, as if he knows he just got one over on the hospital staff. A couple weeks later, he passed away, not in his home where a man can die in peace, but in that hospital room.  

That image has stuck with me for years. It is also the basis of I Want to Go Home. It is what my grandfather wanted to do. Though he couldn’t have it in life, I wanted to give it to him in this story.

Earlier this month, I posted a piece titled, Home. In that story, the young man got his father out of the nursing home he was in and took him to his real home to die. I imagine if my dad thought he could have done the same thing for my grandfather, he would have.

I hope you enjoyed this final story of April. I also hope you will like it, share it and comment on it. Thank you for coming along for this ride. Come back tomorrow, and I will explain why I did this. Have a great day.

A.J. 

Torn (Free Fiction)

Torn

A.J. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me,” I said.

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

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

Some time during the night I dozed.  

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

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

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

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

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

__________

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

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

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

A.J.