Posts Tagged ‘short story’

An Excerpt From Susie Bantum’s Death

Posted: February 22, 2017 by ajbrown in Writing
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Good afternoon Faithful Readers,

Today I want to give you a taste of my newest story. This is the beginning of Susie Bantum’s Death.

I hope you enjoy.

***

She smoked the cigarette like it was the last thing she would ever do. Within three minutes of lighting it and a dozen or so steady puffs, she had dwindled it down to the filter. She flipped the butt away. It landed just by the shoreline of the flowing river. What remained of the red cherry was nothing more than a smoldering black pit with gray smoke pluming up from it.

It wasn’t the last thing she did. No, that thing was the run and jump into the raging river head first. That was odd for a couple of reasons. One, the river had swollen and had risen up the banks over the last three days, thanks to the week of rain the state had received. It was just a reprieve, a lull in the constant downpour that allowed her to take the walk to the river from her little home just up the hill from it in the village. Two, she was fully clothed and what most people would call sound of mind. The papers would say that was not a sound of mind thing to do, jumping in the water, fully clothed during what would be a flood just the next day.

They would be right. It was not what sound of mind folks did. But then again, Susie Bantum was a nobody and nobodies don’t matter to the somebodies of the world.

There were two witnesses who saw Susie take the leap to her death. The first of these was an old man, Marcel Declerque. He had been walking his dog when Susie went by him, her head up, eyes focused forward.

“She looked intense,” he would tell the police, but that wasn’t quite true. Sure, she was focused, but what was taken as intense was nothing more than Susie’s determination to get to the river, to … end it all.

“I only noticed her because Jerry barked at her,” Declerque told the police. Jerry was his fourteen year old German Schnauzer with bad hearing and bad eyesight. For Jerry to even notice her told his owner the woman was ‘just bad news.’

“She kept talking to herself, as if there was someone with her, but there wasn’t. I thought she was a couple laughs away from the funny farm until she jumped into the water.”

The other witness was a kid, aged ten, who had gone down to the river to skip rocks, but he couldn’t find any stones because the water had risen so high.

“I’ve been stuck inside for six days,” Bartholomew Winslow said. “You can’t watch but so many episodes of Spongebob before you get bored. It’s the same thing over and over. Spongebob is annoying, Patrick is dumb, Squidward is, well, he’s Squidward. It gets annoying after a while, you know? And that woman made them all look sane. She walked by me, carrying on a conversation as if she were with someone.”

The police weren’t interested in Winslow’s cartoon stories or Declerque’s dog tales. They only wanted facts and those were Susie smoked a cigarette and then jumped into the river, “where she was swept away like a trailer home during a tornado,” as Declerque put it.  And if it was true that Susie was talking to herself, having a conversation, as the kid put it, then maybe she really had been a few laughs away from the funny farm.

It was Henry Killmander who investigated the case. Not that he was a cop or a detective, or really anyone other than someone who had read about the case in the paper and seen the reports on the nightly news. Henry Killmander lived three houses down from Susie Bantum, and “she wouldn’t just up and kill herself like that,” he told the police. As with events of this nature, “it’s an open and shut case,” the detective said to Killmander before he folded his little black notebook up and tucked it in his pocket. He left with a wave and a “good day, Mr. Killmander.”

And that was that. Case closed. End of story. Move along little doggie, nothing to see here. But that was not good enough for Henry. No, Henry knew Susie and he knew she wouldn’t have just jumped into the river and taken her own life.

***

If you enjoyed the first two pages of Susie Bantum’s Death, please let me know in the comments section below.

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

A.J.

When he woke this morning, the sun was shining in his face. He cracked an eye and realized, ‘holy cow, I actually got some rest.’ It was a rarity for him. Sleep had not really been a friend of his. She liked to tease him, tell him she was ready for him to come to bed, big boy. Then when he did, she would leave.

This frustrated the guy—let’s just call him J. for now.

So, he would stay awake, often staring into the darkness, wondering if he could count how many times the shadows seemed to shift in the room.

At any rate, when he woke up late for a change, his head wasn’t in its usual state of fogginess. No, it was somewhat clear, not quite like a bright, sunshiney day clear, but more like a glass at a restaurant. It may be clean, but there are still specks on it.

As he lay in bed, still not quite ready to get up—he was already late in doing so, at least his mind told him as much—he pondered. You see, J. is somewhat of a writer. He likes to tell stories and he likes for people to hear/read those stories. But, lately, those stories haven’t been getting read. Probably because he hadn’t been submitting much, and those places he did submit to weren’t accepting much of his work. Yeah, they were saying, ‘great story,’ and ‘we really liked this piece,’ but in the end, many of them were still rejecting the work.

Bummer.

The problem for J. is it wore on his confidence, and he began to lose the one important thing all writers need: a desire to write.

Then came the thought he had been having for a while. Why write? Why do I even want to try anymore?

But wait, another thought came to him. It made more sense than giving up. It made a lot of sense indeed.

‘Why don’t I just start over?’

The previous night he had updated his publishing credits on his blog and realized they had dwindled in recent years. Again, not submitting a lot doesn’t help with that. But, maybe, just maybe, he needed to send some work to a few different places than he had been. Why not try and get his name back out there like he used to?

No, he’s not a big fan of For the Love markets, but if some of them took reprints, he could see submitting to them again. But what about some of the other markets that don’t offer pro rates? Pay is pay, isn’t it?

Yes, he liked that idea. It wouldn’t pay as well, and some wouldn’t pay much at all, but an acceptance and some money and exposure would do his psyche some good. Don’t you think?

‘But am I settling?’ he wondered.

Legit question.

He didn’t believe so. Here is what he told himself:

‘You have to start somewhere. You can still submit to the big dogs, but don’t forget about the smaller ones. Those are the ones that can help you get back into the game.’

Here’s the thing, sometimes you have to step back, and reevaluate the game plan. Sometimes you have to be willing to start small and work your way back up the ladder. It’s like a new job. Most folks start at the bottom and have to work and work and work their way to a promotion. Writing is the same way.

So, here he is, J.—err, A.J.—and he is applying for jobs in the short story world. Hopefully, he’ll get a few callbacks. He may even post what he sends and when and whether or not the stories get accepted, and even the comments.

It’s time to crack some knuckles and get back to work.

~CRACK~

Ouch.

No, he probably shouldn’t crack anything on his body these days.

Until we meet again, my friends…

Broken Shells

Posted: November 30, 2013 by ajbrown in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach.  I thought she was crazy.  I’ve always thought she was a little nuts, anyway.  It was bitter cold—twenty-six degrees, and it was well after noon, so the temperature wasn’t going to rise much, if any at all.  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 earlier, but that 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 oh so cold.  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 from her bones.

‘You’ll be cold,’ I said.

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

It didn’t take long to get to the beach.  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.

There were clouds rolling in, brought by the wind.  A threat of rain hung in the air.

‘We shouldn’t stay out long,’ I said.

‘You can always go back,’ she remarked, knowing I wouldn’t leave her.

For the next hour 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, casting a purple hue in the sky.  I stared at the piece 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 the curved piece of a 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, turned her head 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.’  Then she dropped the broken shell back to the sand, 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 certainly couldn’t be bothered to speak up when I needed it to most.  It was the single biggest mistake of my life.

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 in that moment 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 that 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…

As I’ve gotten older, my love for the Christmas season has dwindled significantly. This is terribly sad. Sad, I say. I guess that happens to a lot of folks when they realize the magic of the season fades as you get older. No, it doesn’t fade for everyone, but most. There is still a certain joy at points during the Christmas season, but for me it doesn’t carry that sense of awe like it used to. Yes, sad…

I guess it is the commercialism which lends to seeing Christmas stuff up in stores in August (yes, there was a store here in South Carolina that actually had their trees and lights and decorations up in August) and the Black Friday sales, Cyber Monday sales and all the insane traffic around any store for months in advance of Christmas.

There is a part in A Charlie Brown Christmas that I’ve always enjoyed. Good old Chuck has just been laughed out of the auditorium because of the Christmas tree he picked out. Charlie Brown then wonders about the true meaning of Christmas, and Linus obliges an answer by telling the story of the birth of Jesus. Now, that’s not the part I am talking about. The part I like is right after that as Charlie Brown is looking up at the sky to the North Star that shines bright, he smiles and says:

Linus is right. I won’t let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas.

Linus is right.

Still, Christmas just isn’t like it used to be. And that is the basis of today’s story. I hope you enjoy.

Not Like It Used To Be
By A.J. Brown

Families line the streets. Kids are bundled in coats, hats, gloves and blankets. Adults stand or sit in folding chairs, hands in pockets or laps, their excitement matching the children’s. A chill hugs each person tight. Teeth clatter, legs shake and dance; people trying to stay warm. Hot chocolate and coffee work for a while, but fade, leaving shivers along spines.

“How much longer, Momma?” they asks, young eyes and hearts waiting, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elf or reindeer or even Santa Clause. Maybe some candy will get tossed their way.

“Not much longer,” mothers and fathers announce, some happily, others with a chagrin that sits in their stomachs like heavy rocks. Christmas isn’t like it was when they were kids, back when December meant presents and eggnog and feasts, parties and family get-togethers, Christmas lights and holiday specials on television. Snow-filled streets meant sledding and snowmen, snow angels and snow ball fights.

There’s no snow this year; streets are covered in dust and dirt, debris from crumbling buildings, worn by time, weather and the passing wars. Few trees have stood the test of bombs and bullets. Fewer windows remain intact.

A breeze blows along Main Street, lifting grit and trash into the air. Many cover their faces, kids cry out from the sting of sand in eyes; some adults shake their heads and wonder why others choose not to wear protective goggles.

“Here they come,” a kid shouts. Others echo his words. Eyes open wide in anticipation and little ones squirm in their seats; blankets come off as they stomp their feet, kicking up clouds of dust.

Down the street a truck appears, adorned in reds and greens, its lights shining. The driver honks and waves a meaty hand as he passes through the crowd of onlookers. Three fingers are missing. A pinky and thumb form an odd L shape. “Merry Christmas,” he bellows. It comes out “Mare-wee Cwis-moss.”

The next vehicle inches along, yellow and orange lights cling to its exterior. The top of the car is missing, shorn off pieces of metal still jut out where the top use to be. A real beauty sits on the trunk, her feet inside the car. Her blond hair is singed at the ends, her once youthful face scarred on one side, an eye drooping, the eyebrow gone. A rusty crown sits atop her head. An unraveling sash across her faded blue dress reads Miss WW III 2038. She smiles. Her teeth are missing.

A marching band follows, horribly out of sync, no rhythm, none of them marching in unison with the ones in front, behind or beside them. Damaged horns squeak and squeal, bells clatter, hollow drums are rapped on with broken sticks from fallen trees, all forming a cacophony of noise that no amount of rehearsing could fix. Some of them are missing limbs, a foot here, an arm there, both legs over there, being pulled along in a wheel chair by a man with no arms and a limp, a rope tied around his waist. Distorted faces and twisted torsos make the rag tag orchestra a crowd favorite. Several other bands would follow, strategically placed along the length of the parade, but none quite as spectacularly grotesque.

A semi pulling a trailer creeps up the street. Women dressed in red and white striped bathing suits dance along poles to ancient Christmas Carols that few of the children have ever heard. Adults sing along to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Holly Jolly Christmas. Few even notice the women. The new wave of freaks stare out at nothing as they dance, cringing with fear at those gawking at them. Tears fill their crystal blue, green and brown eyes.

Cars proclaiming the holiday season inch along, large men behind the wheels, motorcycle riders doing wheelies and criss-crossing figure eights careen about, almost going into the crowds, but pulling back at the last moment, much to the dismay of the thousands of onlookers. It is rumored that once a year a bike goes off course, taking out several spectators to the delight of those who are fortunate enough to take in the carnage. Smoke billows from rusty mufflers, engines growl, spit and sputter during turns, but none of the bikes slide out of control, maiming or killing folks along the streets. Children poke out their lips. The pain would be worth not being like the freaks dancing on poles for men and women alike to ogle and insult, to abuse as they see fit when the parade is over.

The first hour pushes well into the second one. As the end draws near a burnt orange fire truck looms in the distance, its tires dirty, ladder crusted in grime and rust. A wooden chair sits at the back, elevated. A large man with blush red cheeks and flowing white and gray hair, a beard down to his stomach and a red jump suit sits on the throne. A hole is in one knee, no black belt at the waist. His black boots are scuffed and his red cap is missing the dangly white ball that should be attached to its tip. At his feet sit several packages and bags, wrapped in newsprint and tied with twine.

The children scream, “It’s Santa Clause.” They laugh and cheer and clap; some of the adults cry. Santa didn’t look like this when they were kids. He wasn’t a scraggly old man whose rosy cheeks came from drinking a pint of illegal liquor before the Christmas parade. He wasn’t a man with a sack not full of goodies, but something much worse. He wasn’t this vision of insanity that the younger people know and somehow love.

The fire truck stops. Santa stands, reaches behind his throne, hefting a gray bag onto his shoulders. He waves a black glove at the crowd as he turns in a circle, a toothless smile noticeable even with the thick tufts of gray and white that cover most of his face from ears down. His eyes fall on a group of people huddling around a metal barrel, flames licking up from it. They warm their hands and roast marshmallows; the perfect picture of happiness.

Santa points. “Onward, Rudolph.”

The fire truck veers to the left as the driver mashes the gas. The engine revs, the truck lurches forward, black smoke spills from the exhaust. Bodies scatter as the grill and bumper strikes the crowd. A brilliant flash of orange, yellow and red emits from Santa Clause’s bag of gifts. The explosion follows, ripping the back of the fire truck apart. Santa evaporates in a spray of metal, flesh and shredded wrapping paper. The front of the truck smashes into a dilapidated building. It collapses, brick, metal and glass tumbling to the ground, taking with it several more people and kicking up a large dust cloud. Fire engulfs the truck, the building and many onlookers. Others scramble about, searching for body parts, tossing pieces aside, frantically looking for…

“I found it,” a woman yells and lifts Santa’s head from a pile of rubble. His jaw is missing, along with one ear. An eye dangles from an empty socket. Her family and friends pat her on the back, congratulating her, some grudgingly, others with the genuine sincerity only offered by loved ones.

A collective groan emits from those seeking the Christmas prize. People gather their blankets and meager belongings. Kids shuffle with parents back to their cold homes, devoid of windows and heat, misery greeting them at their doorways.

A green car pulls alongside the woman, the back door opens but no one gets out. The woman hugs her family, tears streaming from her eyes.

“I’ll miss you all,” she says and steps toward the car.

“We love you, Mommy,” one little girl says and hugs her leg tight. She lets go, steps back. “You’ll be the best Santa ever.”

“You bet I will,” she says and lifts Santa’s head high in the air before stepping into the car. It speeds off, leaving the family waving. The little girl bends down, picks up Santa’s stocking cap, turns it over in her hands, places it on her head.

“Daddy, do you think I’ll ever be Santa Clause?”

Her dad kneels, puts both hands on her shoulders. “Anything’s possible, sweetheart. Anything’s possible.”

The family leaves, father and daughter holding hands. They chatter about the parade, the fireworks and wonder about the body count. Still, some parents, some adults stand, shocked, dismayed by the events. Christmas wasn’t like this when they were kids…

In 2006 I wrote a lot of holiday themed stories, from Halloween to April Fool’s Day to Boxing Day to, yeah, you got it, Christmas. I even wrote a Valentine’s Day story, though I wouldn’t call it very romantic. This story is another one of those 2006 pieces, but only slightly reworked.

Instead of going with my normal style of writing, I went in a different direction with this one. I hope a bit of the humor comes through. Sit back, relax and enjoy the read.

Rudy
By A.J. Brown

“Rudolph, you can stop now.”

“Relax, Nick,” Rudolph said and stomped on the woman’s head again. It squished, as if someone had stepped on a slug. He looked up from the bloodied body beneath him. “She had it coming, boss.”

“How can you say that?” Nick looked at the gore on the ground, the mass of light brown hair that was graying and soaked in red. The woman’s face was gone, ripped away by the incessant pounding of Rudolph’s hoof. Her chunky body was bruised, and in some places, bones poked out of skin and clothing.

“Take a whiff,” Rudolph said and backed away.

Nick sniffed the air and shook his head. He then inhaled sharply. “What am I smelling for, Rudy?”

“You can’t tell what that is?”

“Rudy, all I smell is crap and blood.”

“Come on, Nick,” Rudolph said, gave a roll of his eyes. “Have all the cookies and candies gone to your head instead of your stomach? Stop playing around and sniff her again. Get down between her thighs if you have to, but take a good whiff.”

Nick bent down close to her midsection and took a deep breath He inhaled a second time, taking in the scent of the dead woman. There was some perfume and blood and the stench of a fresh bowel movement. There was also the scent of something else; something that forced Nick to pinch his nose in disgust and stand up quickly.

“How could you tell?” he asked.

“Nick, I’ve got a sensitive nose, remember?” Rudolph said as he stomped on the woman’s head one more time.

“Rudolph, your nose is a flashlight—that doesn’t make it sensitive.”

Rudolph smiled and his nose lit up. “I tell you what, boss: you get you one of these noses and tell me it don’t get a little sensitive after having it on all night.”

“You were born that way, you freak of nature,” Nick said and laughed aloud before growing serious again. “How could you tell?”

“Nicholas, old boss, wasn’t it you who said you have to be able to smell a hater from a mile away?”

“Well, yeah, but that is just a figure of speech.”

“Not for me, Nick. I could smell her an hour before I saw her. Granny, here, reeks of someone who hates Christmas. And she don’t just hate it, she despises it.”

Nick nodded and scratched his nearly bald head. “How’d she get all the way out here?”

“She must have been determined,” Rudolph said and looked around. “You know yourself, what determination can do for a person.” Again, his nose lit up, shining brightly, then dimming. “There are tracks leading from the woods—she’s been waiting.”

“I wonder what she was up to?”

Rudolph rolled his eyes again. “Think about it, Nick. She was here to take you out, old man.”

”But why would she—“ Nick started to say before it dawned on him. His eyes popped open, his jaw went slack.

Rudolph nodded.

“I see now. If she gets rid of me, then there is no Christmas.”

“That’s right, Nick, old boy,” Rudolph said and stepped away from the body. “I don’t know what you did to her but you pissed her off pretty bad. I’ve never heard of anyone trying to take out Santa Clause.”

“Do you really think she was here to do me harm?” Nick asked as he looked down at the pulpy mass.

“Dude, she was here to kill you,” Rudolph said. “But don’t sweat it, Boss, I’ve got your back and she’s just meat for the bugs, now.”

Nick clapped Rudolph on the neck and they started away from the body. He glanced back momentarily and smiled.

“Would you like a beer?” Nick asked.

“Nah,” Rudolph replied, “but I’ll take a fuzzy navel, especially if you’re buying.”

“Oh, I’m buying, alright.”

“Nick, do you have a cigarette?” Rudolph asked.

“Sure do,” Nick said. “But, don’t let Martha know. She thinks I quit.”

Nick placed a cigarette between Rudolph’s lips and looked back toward the woman. Pulling out his lighter, he flicked it several times before it came to life. He lit the cigarette and stepped back.

The sound of the rifle penetrated the air. Rudolph teetered, one eye wide in disbelief. The other eye was gone, as was the back of his head and his once bright red nose. Nick bent down slipped the cigarette from between Rudolph’s lips and placed it between his own.

Rudolph’s body twitched, his back hoof jitterbugged.

“Cocky son-of-a-bambi, wasn’t he?” came a voice from the shadows.

“Yes, Blitzen. The cockiest.”

“You reckon he knew?” Blitzen asked, nodding and motioning to the woman.

“I don’t think so, but if he did, well, at least he was good for something before he died.”

“Do you reckon Martha knows about the affair?”

“No. But, she would have, if it wasn’t for Rudolph sniffing her out.”

“He had a good nose,” Blitzen said and walked off.

“Yeah, that’s about the only thing I’m going to miss of him.”

“You may want to get someone out here to clean up the bodies. You don’t want to leave them here overnight.”

“I’ve already got it taken care of, Blitzen,” Nick said and blew out a long strand of smoke. “Ahh, here they come now.”

Rounding the corner was an old beat up pick-up truck. One head light was blown out, but with the way it kicked and sputtered there was no doubt to Nick who it was.

“Howdy, Nick,” the driver said as he pulled up. His hair was a brilliant white, as was the stubble on his knobby chin.

“Evening, Jack. How’s Mrs. Frost doing?”

“She’s fine, and Martha?”

“Oh, she’s doing well. Gearing up for the Christmas rush.”

Jack got out of the truck and rubbed his head. “So, what is it you need, Nick?”

‘Well, it seems one of my trainees has been shot.”

“Ahh, man, I’m sorry to hear that,” Jack said and shook his head in disgust. “I thought it was illegal to hunt in these parts.”

“It is, but sometimes they do it anyway. You know how it can be.”

“Yeah, so what’s one of your trainees got to do with me?”

Nick pointed at the ground where Rudolph lay, his head face down in the snow. “I hear you like venison.”

***

Again, I hope you liked the story and, well, it’s time for a shameless plug. If you would like to find more of my work, you can pick up my short story collection, Southern Bones, here

I would appreciate if you would pick up a copy, and leave a review. Like the page, if you will.

Okay, no more plugging for now.

Until we meet again, my friends…

Not Staying Out of it, Old Hoss

Posted: December 30, 2011 by ajbrown in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

They’re all just kids, young and naïve, life having not had a chance to taint them with the darkness that hides in the shadows. They run and they play and they chase that brown ball, even after it hits the ground and the coach blows the whistle and yells, ‘stop, stop, stop’ over and over.

It’s like herding cats. That’s what it’s like getting those boys to pay attention, to keep their minds on what the coach is telling them. Anyone who has tried to herd cats knows it’s near impossible to do, even if you have a mouse on a string dangling out in front of them.

They’re all just kids. Hammond tells himself that as he sits on the metal bleachers, the cool wind blowing in across the open area divided up into four practice fields, each one occupied by one team or other. Four fields of five and six year olds learning the game of football—most of them without a clue what to do or even how to throw the pigskin around. They like the belts they wear, the flags dangling on either side of their legs. They like to grab those flags, even when they aren’t running a play or practicing a drill (as if you could really call them drills). It’s their fascination.

His boy doesn’t get it, not like his old man did at the same age. No, his boy doesn’t get football at all. But, he wanted to give it a try—something to do between baseball seasons, Hammond guessed. Why not? Hammond played football and played it well. Maybe that was the problem—Hammond knew how the game was supposed to be played, knew how to coach the kids out on that field, but thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to do so. They’re just kids, after all. And Hammond… well, he didn’t have the best temperament… Still, watching the coaches try to teach the kids was like watching a train wreck as it happened.

Instead, he sits on the bleacher, dark shades over the eyes, even as the sun drops from the sky and brings night with it. He watches as the three coaches who look like they never played a down in their lives, try to herd those cats into a huddle.

On the field to their right, a kid drops a thrown ball. His head is a mop of black hair, his skin as white as a crayon. He’s not much on size and slow of foot. Hammond hears the ‘oh man’ from the kid, then the ‘what’s the matter with you, boy?’ from his father walking along the sideline. At least he assumes it’s his father, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. He knows what assuming does—makes an ass out of… well, in this case, it would be just him if he were wrong. But, he didn’t think he was. The man’s hands were in the air over his head, then they were down by his side, slapping his thighs as they dropped. The man spins in a disgusted circle, wipes his mouth with one hand. He glares at the kid and the kid sees it. Hammond sees the fear in the boy’s eyes and he knows…

Hammond looks away. Looking away is a good thing for him.

On the field his son is on they run another play. His boy—not a junior like all of his brothers’ kids, but a kid given his own name: Jeromy—takes a hand off and runs around the side and right out of bounds. He keeps running even after the head coach blows his whistle several times. The other boys chase after him, all of them reaching for that flapping flag.

Hammond smiles.

When Jeromy was born he thought he might have a little linebacker in the family, maybe a safety. He didn’t care at the time, as long as the kid liked football. But, he didn’t like football. Not at first. No, Jeromy liked baseball and he was pretty good at it.

Football came out of nowhere.

‘Sure, you can give it a try,’ Hammond had told him.

He did. With one game left, Hammond wasn’t about to let the boy give up now. One game and he never had to pick up another football. This tugs at Hammond’s heart, a touch of sadness that makes him wish Jeromy was a natural… like his dad was.

Another play is run and one of the boys drops the ball. Those coaches say ‘it’s okay’ and ‘you’ll get the next one, by golly.’ ‘It’s no big deal.’ Words of encouragement. If there was anything redeeming about the team and the coaches, even with their lack of know how, they were constantly encouraging the boys, telling them it’s just a game.

Hammond likes that.

In the grand scheme of things they’re right. It’s just a game, even if that game had consumed Hammond since he was four and not even ending when his college career was cut short early in his senior season, thanks to a cheap shot to the knee.

It’s just a game…

On the field to his right, the man is yelling at his son again. One of the coaches gives him a look, then walks over to him. The man yells at the coach and the coach stands and listens. Then he calmly speaks. As he’s doing so, the dad is clenching his hands into fists and the coach becomes uneasy. He puts his hands up and turns away, heading back onto the field.

Nothing like intimidation…

Hammond looks away, always looking away.

Stay out of it, old Hoss, he tells himself.

They run the same pass play several times. A couple of the boys catch it. Jeromy almost gets the ball cradled into his arms, but it slips away and hits the ground.

‘Good try,’ Hammond says and his boy looks up at him, gives him a smile. Hammond claps, waves and smiles back. Always try to be encouraging. That’s what he does. Football’s not the boy’s sport, but support… always show support. That’s one key to success for your children, supporting them no matter what they choose to do with their lives.

Practice wears on and the evening goes from slightly chilly to approaching cold. The next morning there will be frost on the ground and in two weeks the first bit of snow will fall from the sky. But now, sitting on that bleacher, Hammond watches. The lights come on, bathing the fields in a yellow glow that spotlights the sections each team practices on.

On the field to the right, the man—the bastard of a father—stalks the sideline. The coaches see him. Hammond sees him and he can tell that the coaches are worried. For several minutes Hammond watches the team on the other field. They don’t hand the ball to the mop haired kid with the alabaster skin. They don’t throw it to him either. When they switch him to defense, they try to steer the runners away from him. Don’t get him involved and the dad won’t have to yell.

Good philosophy.

Not quite.

‘Hey coach,’ the dad intervenes. He’s halfway on the field and gesturing to his boy. ‘Give my boy a chance to play. I didn’t pay all this money to watch him do nothing. Do your damn job and coach him.’

Hammond’s eyes narrow. His jaw tightens. ‘I love watching men who never played the game try to live through their kids.’

And it hits him a little. Hammond did play the game and his hopes for his boy had always been that he would follow in his footsteps. He had felt the sadness in watching his son and hearing him when he talked about football and how he didn’t like it and…

…and Hammond had been disappointed. He didn’t realize it until then, until watching the bastard dad yell at the other coaches, at his son—a kid who looked like he was trying his best to please a man it’s impossible to please.

He glances back at the field his boy is on, at the coaches and the smiles on their faces, the cheerful way they tell the kids it’s okay when they mess up, it’s okay if they didn’t catch that ball.

After all, their just kids…

Hammond looks back at the field to the right. The coaches are trying to talk to the dad, but the dad is a belligerent unhappy soul. He shoves one of the coaches and the kids see it. The mop headed boy starts to cry.

‘Don’t you cry, Cameron,’ the dad yells. ‘Or I’ll give you something to cry about.’

Stay out of it, old Hoss, Hammond thinks, but he knows he won’t. He knows that when that man gets his boy—Cameron’s his name, Hammond, don’t forget that—home then he’ll tear into him and that kid will cry himself to sleep. No, old Hoss won’t be staying out of this one.

He looks around at the other parents, at the way they avert their eyes, afraid the mad man may see them.

Hammond stands, takes the few steps to the edge of the bleacher and hops down. He reaches into his coat pocket, pulls out a cigarette. He has no real intentions of smoking it. For Hammond, it’s a habit. Pull out the smokes when he gets nervous. Calm down, old Hoss. Have a drag or two and ease those bad boy nerves a little.

The cigarette slips between his lips and the lighter comes out next. A flick flick and the blue/yellow flame rises. He sets it to the cigarette, puffs a few times until it catches. He inhales deeply and walks toward the field on the right.

The dad is still arguing with the coaches. The boy is still crying. The other kids are looking on in confusion and the night is growing colder. That soft breeze that blew in earlier now brings with it the northern cold that bites through skin and sinks down into bone.

‘Sir, you need to calm down.’

The dad turns to Hammond, his eyes wide, his jaw set tight.

‘What did you say?’

Hammond blows out the smoke he had held in his lungs. It goes into the dad’s face. ‘I said, you need to calm down.’

The man steps back a step, waves his hand in front of him, shooing away the smoke. ‘Who the hell are you and give me one reason why I shouldn’t kick your ass right here?’

Hammond puts the cigarette back between his lips, then speaks as straight forward as he can. ‘I’m a concerned parent and as for the second part of your question, I don’t think you can.’

Up close, Hammond sees the man’s face is red. The veins in his neck bulge.

Hammond smiles.

Like all hotheads, the man doesn’t think before taking a wild swing at Hammond. A sidestep and Hammond brings his hard right fist across the man’s face. There is the sound of bone breaking, then the man is on the ground, holding his jaw.

It’s over that quickly.

No one on the field moves. The mop headed boy stops crying. The other kids stand with their jaws hanging open. The coaches say nothing.

Hammond kneels down, stares straight into the pained eyes of the dad. ‘If you lay one hand on your boy, I’ll finish the job. You got me?’

Dad nods. There is blood coming from his mouth. His jaw swells.

‘Good,’ Hammond says, puts the cigarette out on the ground and places it back in the box it came from. He stands. To the head coach, he whispers, ‘Look at the boy’s arms and back. See if there are any bruises. When you find them, contact child protection services.’

He walks away, leaving the angry dad lying on the ground holding his broken jaw. By then, his son’s team is looking on.

‘Everything okay over there?’ one of the coaches asks.

Hammond looks back. ‘It is, now.’

At the end of the practice, Hammond takes Jeromy’s hand and they walk toward their car.

‘Daddy, why did you hit that man?”

Hammond considers the question carefully. He looks up at the dark sky. ‘Son, sometimes in life you have to do hard things, even if those things may not be what others will do. That man is a bad man. I was just helping him become nicer.’

‘By hitting him?’

Jeromy has him there.

‘No, son—by showing him how it feels.’

They reach the car and crawl in. Hammond stares in the rearview mirror at his boy.

‘Jeromy, if you don’t want to play that last game, you don’t have to.’

His boy replies simply, ‘I want to, Dad.’

‘Really? Why?’

‘I want to make you proud.’

Hammond gives a soft chuckle. ‘I am proud of you, Jeromy. You always make me proud.’

‘Even though I don’t like football?’

‘Especially because you don’t like football.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Jeromy says.

‘You will one day,’ Hammond says, adds, ‘You want to go get a donut before we head home?’

‘Yeah,’ he all but yells in excitement.

‘Well, then, let’s go, my little baseball player.”

Hands #flash friday

Posted: November 18, 2011 by ajbrown in #flashfriday
Tags: , ,

“Can you, please?”

Isaac gave her a doe eyed stare. “Really?”

“I don’t have time to do it myself. I have to get the others done… tonight.”

She batted those dark eyelids and they were like ocean waves upon the shore, crashing against his heart and his love for her.

He gave a nod and a deep sigh.

At the table he stared at the cakes, each one dipped in orange chocolate, lines drawn in them, a green jellybean at the top. They were pumpkins and stabbed in the bottom were white sticks to make them look like suckers.

The cellophane baggies were small, but he managed to get one cake pop in each baggie. It took him an hour—a whole hour, he thought.

Isaac snipped the orange ribbon with the shears, a pair that his big fingers barely fit in the grips of. Each cut sent a bark of pain in his thumb and first finger. He counted as he cut, pulling the ribbon from the spool to a length close to what she had showed him.

He looked at his hands. Oversized. The fingers were calloused from years of hard labor in the outside world. Those things he did easy enough. Need a hole dug? Isaac was the man. Need a tree cut down? Yup, Isaac. And he could take an axe to tree with little thought, the swings fast, furious and often striking with such a solid, jarring thud that most people who heard it thought he had struck stone instead of wood. Need concrete poured or pipes fixed? You guessed it, Isaac could do it for you in half the time most normal men could.

But something as simple as this, as simple as tying a strand of ribbon around a cellophane wrapper with a stick extended from it? He took a deep breath, his barrel of a chest extending outward and deflating as he released it.

The first ribbon lay on the table in front of him. He set one baggie wrapped cake pop on top of it, the white stick pointing at him like an accusing finger. Fingers rubbed together as if he were about to perform a magic trick. He picked up one end, bunny eared it in two fingers. With the other hand, he gripped the other end, bunny eared it over his thumb and into the rabbit hole.

“The hounds gonna chase yah in the hole,” he said and reached for the nub of ribbon jutting between the loop… and missed. The ribbon came free. A breath escaped him and he started over.

Grab. Bunny ears. Hole. Pull.

Over and over, the too large fingers fumbled with the ribbon, pulled it, made the damnable bunny ears, cinched them tight. Over and over he felt the frustration of hands better suited for labor than… than… what? What was he doing?

“How’s it coming?” she asked.

He glanced up at her and saw the aura of an angel before him, her brown hair like a vale, her smile to die for.

Back down at the table, his brows creased, bottom lip sucked in, two upper teeth bit down hard, drew a bead of blood. He looped the bunny ear, pulled the ribbon through the hole and cinched it. A smile came to his brute of a face.

Isaac held the cake pop up for her to see and then looked back at the table. His shoulders sagged, head dipped.

“Only one hundred and seventy four more to go,” she said…

#friday flash It’s Raining Again…

Posted: September 2, 2011 by ajbrown in #flashfriday
Tags: , ,

It’s raining again.

Cold and dreary gray clouds hang overhead, but not so far away–I think I can touch them if I tried. The rain chills the skin, sinks to the bone and dampens any hope of survival, a hope I’ve given up since…

No one saw it coming.

The massive rains flooded the world–not parts of it. All of it. Billions of people were washed away as the waters rose and levees and dams broke.

I’m fortunate, I guess, or maybe not so much when you consider the way things have turned out. When the rains began I pulled up the boat–a standard johnboat–and prepped it like I was heading out to fish. It’s a precaution I always took, though I never thought I would need to hop in and float away. As the waters rose higher, I pulled the boat onto my porch, loaded it with food, a cooler, life jacket, an inflatable raft, first aid kit and a few other items.

When morning came the next day the water had already seeped into the house and was rising at a steady clip. I grabbed my dog, Rufus, and untied the tether. The current swept us away, spinning our boat round and round. There was no use trying to steer against the rushing waters.

The rain finally stopped, but by then the world had been completely flooded. It was like Atlantis and I’ve often wondered if this is what happened to that city. Every once in awhile some of the larger skyscrapers can be seen jutting out the water like an obscene finger, a regular fuck you to the world.

The dead… they floated, bodies bloated, hair around their heads like halos. The stench grew worse as the days passed, but eventually blended in with the rest of the damned world, like one big rotting planet. I guess that’s what it really was– what it is.

I’ve also wondered if this is what Noah felt like when he was on the ark, if he saw the dead floating like logs. I wonder if he wanted to help the people too stupid not to have listened to him when he said it was going to rain.

I wonder if we didn’t listen to him again…

Most of the bodies have sunken beneath the surface leaving only dirty water and debris of the way things used to be. Plastic toys and bottles float along, some trees, too. I plucked a stuffed lion from the water. I was amazed to see it floating, but horrified when I tried to pull it out of the water. A small hand still clutched tight to it.

I screamed, fell back. The lion tore free from the hand and landed in the center of the boat. Rufus sniffed at it and then chomped down on it, probably hoping it was real meat or a bone, anything to get rid of those hunger pangs I’m sure he felt. His eyes were miserable brownies staring at me, begging for something to eat. He spat the stuffed toy out and went back to the front of the boat where he plopped his head down.

And we floated.

Days turned to nights and back to days, each one blending with the other. Our food ran out well before we found the stuffed lion. Part of me wishes I would have grabbed that bloated blue hand. The other part, that section of my brain that still holds onto sanity, somehow is still very thankful I didn’t. I think that part doesn’t know I’m dying.

It’s raining again.

My stomach no longer growls at me. It hurts and I can see my ribs. The clouds are now an angry black. Though I can’t see the lightning, I do see the bottoms of the clouds flicker like a bulb about to die. And that thunder off in the distance sounds like the gods are laughing at me.

Puny human. Puny survivor.

Rufus lays at the front of the boat, his eyes closed, tongue hanging out. I don’t know when he died, but I know he did, just like the rest of this damn world.

I stare at my old friend. His thick chest makes my stomach hurt more and wets my tongue. I scoot forward, weak, but determined. I reach for him. Lord knows I thought about it before… His fur is wet and matted down and my stomach grumbles for the first time in days. It’s still alive in there, still wanting to be fed, still clinging to life.

I lick my dried, crack lips and tears spill down my cheeks as I lift Rufus to my face.

“I’m sorry old buddy,” I say.

The sound of his body hitting the water makes me cry. He sinks quickly, leaving behind bubbles popping on the surface.

I lay down in the bottom of the boat. My head is dizzy and the rain pours down on me… And somewhere behind the clouds, the gods laugh louder…