Abel

I was excited. That excitement and joy was short-lived when we found out that most of his friends were in another league and he ended up on a team where he knew exactly none of the kids.

We were an hour into our first practice of our first t-ball season. My son wanted to give baseball a go. After all, his friends were playing, and he was five and what kid at that age didn’t want to do the same thing as all of his buddies. We signed him up in a league close to home—one with a pretty good reputation for grooming young boys into good ball players. 

The coach was a big man with a mainstay five o’clock shadow along his chin. He had two assistant coaches I would later find out worked with him. One of those coaches was the son of the man who built the ballpark. I sat on the hill watching as the three men tried to corral the group of young boys, Cate beside me, my daughter playing on the play set across from the field. Then the behemoth of a coach walked up the hill. 

“We’re a coach short and could use the help.”

“Me?” I asked. I looked around, thinking he really was talking to someone else.

“You played baseball, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then we could use your help.”

That was the beginning of my days as a coach in little league baseball. It was also the day I noticed Able, a shy boy with brown hair, and almond shaped eyes that didn’t seem to focus on any one thing. He looked at the ground, his shoes, his momma’s leg, back at the ground, his eyes and head never staying still too long. He looked as if he wanted to crawl inside himself and never come out. I could see him physically trying to blend in with the air around him, his elbows hugging his sides, his knees slightly bent in. He leaned into his mother’s legs. If he couldn’t disappear into the air, why not vanish into the black denim of her jeans?

I didn’t say anything at first, but I would later, at the season’s Opening Ceremonies, which other than having all the teams on the field at the same time and announcing the coaches, it was pretty much a waste of time. I hate to say that, but it is what it is.

During those ceremonies, the team mom, a lady named Patricia, held Abel’s hand as we walked onto the field to join the other teams, our hats in our hands. We waved at the crowd of onlookers when our team was announced. Like with his mother, Abel tried to fade into Patricia’s leg, the cheering and clapping from the crowd making him shake as if tiny earthquakes rumbled within his seemingly frail body.

Before the end of the ceremony his mom was on the field with him, and he clutched her leg and cried. I shook my head. I’m not going to lie when I say I thought the mother was being cruel for making him do something he clearly did not wish to do. I’m also not going to lie and say I didn’t think he was a bit on the spoiled side. I would soon learn I was wrong on both accounts, but not on that day. No, on that day, I looked down at my son, the eagerness on his youthful face, the dazzle in his blue eyes—there was excitement there, just like in the rest of the faces of the boys on our team. All except Abel’s.

The following Tuesday we had practice—the first of three that week before the season opener on Saturday. The coaches broke the team up into two groups, one dedicated to fielding and learning the bases, the other dedicated to learning the nuances of holding a bat and hitting, as well as learning how to stand in the batter’s box and keeping their eyes on the ball.  

I didn’t see Abel at the beginning of practice, and I let out a sigh of relief. Maybe his mother had come to her senses and decided not to force him to play. That relief fled as I saw her coming down the sidewalk, Abel melded to her leg. She stopped near Coach Jim, spoke a few words.

“Abel,” he said loud enough for all of us to hear. “Let’s get your helmet on and take a few cuts.”

From where I stood between Jeromy and Jamille, a troubled child with divorced parents, I could hear Abel crying and mumbling words I couldn’t understand. He finally let go of his mother. While Coach Jim slipped a helmet over his head, she ran to her car. Yes, she ran. A minute later, Abel held a bat in front of the tee, his shoulders hunched, legs bent in. He was still trying to disappear. The bat seemed too heavy for him and he held it near his stomach, the barrel pointing down. Coach helped him, putting his arms around his shoulders and easing him to the tee. He showed him the sweet spot of the bat, pointed to it and told him to swing.  

It was agonizing watching him barely get the bat to the ball, striking the tee or whiffing altogether. Then, he did it—he swung hard, struck the ball with good force. He jumped up and down, excitement ringing from his voice in unintelligible words. He swung several more times, hit the ball and squealed happily.  

When it was time for him to come into the field with me, he closed up again, his excitement having faded.

“Come with me, Abel,” I said and knelt beside him, trying the teacher approach of welcoming a new kid to class. “I’m going to be right beside you the whole time, okay?”

He looked up at me, his brown eyes slightly rolled up, his lips a twisted frown. My heart sunk. Not because of the realization that Abel was a child with special needs, but because of how I had felt about his mother, angered by her forcing him to play baseball. She wasn’t forcing him, but helping him, a mother hoping her son can adjust in some way or other into a world where he didn’t seem to fit in.

It was the single most eye-opening moment of my life.

Having friends with autistic children, I realized right then I needed something to relate to with Abel. I needed something he related to, something that could get his interest. That’s when I noticed he wore an Atlanta Braves jersey. Number 10. Chipper Jones.

“Abel, do you like Chipper Jones?” I asked.

His head jerked up; his eyes brightened. He smiled his crooked smile. “Chipper Jones? Chipper Jones? Chipper Jones?”

“Yeah, Chipper Jones,” I said. I glanced up at his mother. His grip had loosened, and I had a feeling I found the relatable content I needed. “Abel, do you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones?”

“Chipper Jones? Hit? Chipper Jones?”

“Yeah. Do you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones?”

He repeated his questions of Chipper Jones and hit. Yeah, that was the ticket I needed to get him to pick up what I was putting down.

“If you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones, you need to let me teach you hot to field like Chipper Jones, and how to catch the ball like Chipper Jones. Can you do that?”

Again, he said Chipper Jones several times. 

I stuck out my hand, “Come on, Abel, let’s go learn how to catch the ball like Chipper Jones.”

As Lady Luck would smile on a gambler from time to time, she smiled on me and Abel that day. He took my hand and walked with me out onto the field at some little elementary school I had never been to until we started having practices there. I helped him with his glove. I showed him how to stand and how to cup the ball in the glove using the alligator method. Chomp your bare hand down onto your glove hand when the ball gets to it. I pointed to the batter.  

“If the ball comes your way, you run and get it. Okay?”

He cringed a little but nodded. He could hear me; he could understand me. Then Coach D stepped up to pitch. He tossed the first ball, which was hit sharply by Cole, the boy at bat. The ball rolled toward Abel.  

“Abel,” I yelled, my heart lifting, “Get the ball!”

Without hesitation, he ran. The ball hit his foot, bounced off his shin. He picked it up and cheered himself for his efforts. I cheered, as well. Abel danced as the coaches clapped and yelled their “way to be’s.”

His mother stood from her car, clapping. Later, I saw her crying as she hugged him tight to her chest. I went up to her, tussled Abel’s hair and knelt beside him. “Abel, will I see you at the next practice?”

He smiled, gave a hearty nod.

“Give me five, buddy,” I said and stuck out my open hand. He slapped it hard and laughed. To his mother, I said, “Thank you for being a good mother.”

She smiled as another trail of tears slid down her face.

After practice, I went to my son and hugged him tight.

“Did I do good, Daddy?” he asked.

“Yes, buddy. You did great.” 

That’s not where this story ends. Where would the lesson be if I ended it here? I would love to say that Abel was the easiest kid to coach. He wasn’t. He tried, but his mind wandered a lot and so did he. But he stuck with it. His mother stuck with it. I stuck with it.

Coach Jim had a way about him that both scared the kids and enthralled them, so they listened, and our kids advanced far further than the tee ball level. By midseason our kids were hitting live pitching, whereas a lot of the kids on other teams were still hitting directly off the tee. Well, I need to correct that last statement. Except for Abel, the rest of the kids on our team were hitting live pitching. Don’t get me wrong, we pitched to Abel. He just couldn’t hit the ball. His hand/eye coordination and timing never seemed to flow together.

We had played nine games and Abel had not gotten a hit all season. I spent a lot of time with him, teaching him how to swing, teaching him how to hold his bat, teaching him how to stand, and no hits. I had not taught him to hit like Chipper Jones. Still, he tried. He swung as hard as he could, missing and usually hitting me with the follow through. I carried away many bruises that year. 

The season came to an end one hot June Saturday. Abel had been up to bat twice and had no luck hitting pitches thrown by Coach D. Then came his last at bat. I’m sure you can figure out where this is going, but I want to tell the story anyway. 

Abel came up to the plate, his orange- barreled bat in his hands, his dark blue helmet on his head. 

By this point in the season, I played catcher and caught the pitches Coach D threw that the kids didn’t hit. I had caught every one of them thrown to Abel. 

“Are you ready, Abel?” I asked as I knelt beside him at home plate. 

Abel nodded, but it wasn’t very confident. He looked like he did that first day I saw him, like he wanted to crawl into his own skin and hide away from the world.

“Look at me, Abel,” I said.

He fidgeted but didn’t look up.

“Abel, look at me.”

Finally, he lifted his head and held his gaze on me long enough for me to tell that somewhere in his mind he absolutely knew he couldn’t hit the baseball. I could almost feel his pain. Though he was special needs and I wasn’t, at one time I couldn’t hit a baseball, either. When I played the game, I got lucky to get a couple of hits every ten at bats. I just wasn’t that good of a hitter. I would get frustrated and down about it. I couldn’t imagine how he felt. My heart almost broke right then.

“Abel, you’re going to hit that ball, do you hear me?”

At first, he only stared at me. I repeated my statement, then he nodded. Again, it wasn’t a confident gesture.

I settled him into his stance and did the robotic diatribe I did with all the kids. “Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin, Abel. Watch the ball. Watch it all the way to the plate.”

Coach D tossed the ball. Abel swung, missed and spun like a top trying to dig its way into the ground. I caught the ball, tossed it back and looked at Abel. He shook his head but didn’t look at me.

“Get your bat up, Abel. Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin. Watch the ball, Abel. Watch it all the way until the bat hits it.”

Again, Coach D tossed the ball. It was just an underhanded lob to the plate. Abel swung with the ball still fifteen feet away. We did this two more times. The league had a five-pitch rule. If a kid hasn’t hit the ball after five pitches, then he has to hit it off the tee.

“Settle down, Abel,” I said. At this point I was sitting on my butt, legs criss-cross Indian style, the way they taught us in school when I was a kid. “Abel, listen to me. You’re going to hit this ball, and when you do, I want you to run all the way around the bases. Don’t stop, you hear me?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do, Abel?”

“Hit.”

“That’s right. Then what?”

“Run.”

“Don’t stop.”

“Don’t stop,” he repeated.

“Get in the box,” I said.

He stepped into the batter’s box. He was slouched over, the barrel of the bat touching the ground.

“Abel, bat up. Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin. Abel, watch the ball, hit the ball, and then run.” Then I added, “Hit the ball like Chipper Jones.” 

I tapped him on the back of his helmet, a gesture I hoped he took as encouragement. I squatted behind the plate, looked at Coach D, then nodded. Coach D tossed the ball. It seemed to float toward home plate. I swear I saw the seams of the baseball.

Abel lifted his front leg and swung the bat as hard as I had ever seen him swing it … and it connected. The ball rolled a few feet in front of the plate. Abel stood looking at it. Well stood is not quite accurate. He appeared to have full body shivers.

“Run!” I yelled. So did half the crowd in the stands watching the game.

Abel took off down the base path, but instead of heading for first base, he headed for third.

“Abel,” I yelled and chased after him. “Wrong way.”

I caught him halfway up the third base line and redirected him. 

It was one of those moments I wish I could have caught on video. But, really, I don’t need it—I have it in my memory. Every detail, as if it were yesterday and not ten years ago.

The infield was orange dirt, covered in the footprints of all the kids who played that day. The on-deck circle was still pretty much a circle, but the chalk outline had spread out and had been scuffed up quite a bit. The outfield grass was as green as it would get that summer and the kids in the dugout were all jumping up and down. I don’t know what they were screaming, but I know they were cheering as loud as they could. 

Abel was still holding the bat as he cut across the field from the third base line to the first base side. I remember this because I yelled for him to ‘drop the bat, drop the bat, Abel.’ He did drop it just before stepping on first base and jumping up and down as if he had just won the lottery. In a way, I guess maybe he didn’t win the lottery, but the rest of us had. You see, we were witnessing one of the greatest moments in our own lives. We just didn’t know it right then.

One of the coaches from the other team pointed to second base and yelled, “Run. Run. RUN!” I yelled for him to run. Abel did. Head down, arms flailing and legs pumping in an awkward gallop that was simultaneously one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The kids on the other team didn’t chase after the ball, as were their instincts to do so. They didn’t try to tag him as he rounded second and headed for third, then rounded third and headed home. 

I don’t know when I dropped his bat and fell to my knees just on the other side of home plate, but I had. I was yelling for him to ‘run, don’t stop.’ I waved my arms for him to run toward me. I don’t believe he ever saw that. His head was still down, and his arms were still flailing and his legs were still pumping for all he was worth. 

Halfway down the line he looked up.

He looked up.

Ummm … 

I get a little choked up here, and I’m hoping you will understand why.

You see, there was this … this … broad smile plastered on his face. His eyes dazzled brighter than I had seen on any child’s face before that day. I saw this through the face mask on his helmet, even as the helmet itself bobbed up and down on his head with each awkward step he took.

The little boy with special needs was living his dream, and for a brief moment in time, he was just like any other kid. But he wasn’t. He was flying. Somewhere in his reserved mind he was soaring through the clouds as he ran the bases. Then, just a few feet from home plate he dove, feet first. It was just as awkward as his gait, but just as glorious as well. He landed next to home plate and stamped one cleated foot on it emphatically. 

Then he stood and started his lottery dance again. I gave him a hug, just as I would my own son, then we gave each other a high five—him slapping my hand as hard as he could—and he continued to jump up and down, even as his momma stood in the dugout door, her hands over her mouth and nose, tears streaming from her eyes. 

That’s when I noticed everyone in the bleachers were not only standing but clapping and whistling and cheering. There were others crying, and there were tears in my own eyes, though I didn’t realize it right then.

Abel’s mom met him at the dugout gate, picked him up and hugged him tight. I don’t know if it was what she envisioned for him—I’m certain it’s not—but I know it was a proud, emotional moment for her.

It was over entirely too quickly. A season full of hours of practices and games. And it was over in less than five minutes. After the game, Abel’s mom came to me as I was getting my son’s gear together.

“Thank you,” she said. 

“Thank you,” I responded with a smile.

We talked for a few minutes. The words exchanged really doesn’t matter. What does is for a moment in Abel’s life he was just another little boy on a baseball team, wearing the joy in his heart on his sleeve as he ran the bases and slid into home plate. I bet in his mind it wasn’t just a hit, but a game winning homerun by Chipper Jones in the World Series that played out somewhere in his mind.

As I left the field with my family, holding my son’s hand, I was reflective of the season, of the first day I saw Abel and his mom and how wrong I had been in my assessment of the situation. That wrongful thinking drove me all season to help Abel play the game he loved. I think that was a heaping of guilt I carried on my shoulders until Abel got his hit. Then all that guilt was gone.

“Daddy, we played good today,” my son said as he tugged on my hand. 

I took his bag and slung it over one shoulder, then I picked him up. “Yeah, buddy, you guys played great today.”

***

If you’ve read this far, thank you. This is a true story. I changed the names of most everyone mentioned, including Abel’s. I chose the name Abel because I thought it was important to use something that showed it was possible to do this and what better way to show someone was able to do something than to use a name quite similar to the word ‘able?’

Abel would be around 16 or 17 now. I haven’t seen him since that last game. I wish I knew how he was doing, what he was up to. 

This story originally appeared in my short story collection, Ball Four. If you would like a copy of the book, drop me a comment below. 


Thanks for reading.

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

A.J. 

Crumbled Blacktop–Rough Cuts #3

I saw the woman on the bridge right before she jumped. 

A little context: I often take long drives on the weekends. I get in the car, crank the music up and drive until I want to turn around, then I usually come home. I usually go on either Saturday or Sunday. Sometimes, especially if the world has been particularly cruel, I go on both days. Still, on a handful of occasions, I drive until it gets dark, stopping only for gas and food, then park for the night on the side of the road at a rest stop or in a state park if one was near. On those occasions, I usually spend the next day driving home.

This was a Saturday, which was shaping up to be the first day of a two day bender. My head ached, as did my heart. The lady I loved—Lelani—left me a couple of days earlier, while we sat at a restaurant during my lunch break. She barely touched her food and she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked her. 

She stared down at the table. Her hands were in her lap. When she brought her right one up she had the ring I gave her when I proposed four months earlier (and she said yes then) in it. She set the ring on the table. 

“What’s this?” I asked. I knew what it was. I knew she was breaking up with me. 

She shook her head. “I can’t do this.” She stood and walked off, leaving me sitting at the table, staring at the engagement ring. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to chase after her and find out what was going on, what happened and how I could fix it. The other part told me it was over. Our turbulent on again, off again relationship was over and chasing her down would do no good. That part won out. 

I paid for our meals, stood and walked away, leaving the engagement ring on the table. 

This is what I thought about as I drove roads I don’t remember and lost hours I would never get back. And my head hurt and my heart hurt and I wanted nothing more than to stop hurting.

I got off the interstate hours before, following road signs for a town I never actually found. I did come across old houses along the road with rusted out cars in drive ways or sitting up on blocks in front yards. I didn’t see any people and I didn’t pass any other cars. The road was blacktop that was more crumbled than whole with weeds and grass growing through all the cracks and crevices. 

I drove slowly, as if on a dirt road with deep ruts that made the front end shiver and the back end shake. At some point, I turned the music off, silencing some punk rock band or other—I truly can’t recall which one it was. The world grayed at some point and the music felt off, as if where I traveled commanded a quietness that felt loud in my ears. 

I rounded a curve. Ahead about a hundred yards or so sat the bridge. Even from that distance, I could see it was old and wooden. I won’t lie and say my curiosity didn’t suddenly pique. There I was on an old forgotten road after spending all day in my own head and that was in my sights. I drove on, but by then I was mostly on the road’s shoulder and trying to stay off the bumpy black top. 

About fifteen feet from the bridge, I pulled off the side of the road and parked next to a tall, thick tree with bare branches. It was well into mid-afternoon by then and I would need to start trying to find my way back to the interstate. But the bridge … I had to see it up close. 

That’s when I saw her. She stood in the center of the bridge, her back to me, looking out at the world to her right. She wore a light colored blouse and blue slacks, kind of like the ones my grandmother wore when she was alive. Her hair was gray and she was thin—maybe too thin, as if she were sick. 

I got out of my car and closed the door gently. I didn’t want to startle her. Thinking about that now, it sounds stalkerish. I wasn’t trying to be creepy but I thought it odd that there was an old lady out on this road that didn’t seem to have a name and with no other cars to be seen besides mine. I was afraid she might have wandered off from a home and she was lost, or maybe her car had broken down and she needed help.

For a minute or so, I stood at the front end of my car and stared at her. She didn’t move. The slight breeze that came off the water blew through her hair and ruffled her shirt. I took a step forward, suddenly very concerned for this woman I had never met. My head swooned and the pain that had been small earlier, bloomed.  I was slow about it but I made it to the edge of the bridge. The wood was mostly rotten; there were quite a few holes in the planks and some boards were missing all together. The rails to either side were mostly warped but still in place. 

“Ma’am?” I called. “Are you okay?”

She didn’t look back at me or even flinch like she had heard me. 

“Ma’am?” I called again, a little louder this time. “Are you okay?”

I took a deep breath. My head still thumped but it wasn’t swimming. I stepped onto the bridge. The wood was soft beneath my feet and I hesitated, afraid I might fall right through to the … the what? I couldn’t see water in either direction, just land on my side of the bridge and land across it. Up until that moment, I didn’t notice what was beneath the bridge or what it crossed over. I leaned to my right to peer over the rail. I saw muddy water, but it couldn’t have been much more than a wide creek; the bridge probably wasn’t needed.

When I looked back at the woman, she had turned around and now stared at me. Her jaw was slack and her eyes were blank. Beneath her eyes looked like bruises. Her hands hung down at her sides and the front of her blouse had a large brown stain on it, almost in the center of her chest. I knew immediately she had been shot, or at the very least, stabbed.

“Ma’am …” I said. Both of my hands were out in front of me, as if trying to keep her from moving. “You’re hurt.”

I looked down, then took a few unsteady steps toward her, then looked up again. She hadn’t moved. Her eyes still looked distant and her jaw was still slack. She didn’t see me. I was almost certain of that. It didn’t matter if she could see me or not. I could see her and I couldn’t leave her out there to die. Every few feet I looked down to make sure I didn’t step through a weak spot or fall through a hole that was already there. And every few feet my head spun and I had to regain my bearings.

Thirty or so feet from her, she seemed to notice me for the first time. Her eyes seemed to clear and her jaw clamped shut hard enough for her teeth to clack together. She looked out at the world beyond the bridge’s rail. 

“No,” I yelled when she moved far quicker than I believed she could. She took four quick steps, put her hands on the top wooden rail, her foot on the bottom one, then launched herself off the bridge. She didn’t scream. She didn’t yell. She just plummeted. 

I went to the rail and looked over, the pain in my head forgotten. The woman was gone. She didn’t land in the water or hit dry ground. She was just gone, as if she had never been there before. Maybe she hadn’t been. 

“No, no, no, no,” I said over and over. Then, as if someone watched me, my skin began to crawl. I was in a horror movie come to life and fear gripped my heart. I backed away from the rail and hurried back toward my car the best I could. The pain in my head intensified with each step I took. I reached the end of the bridge, stepped off and started to run for my car …

And somehow ended up back on the bridge, standing where the woman had been when I first saw her. I turned, first to my left to the side of the bridge I had no intentions of walking to, then to my right, to where I stepped onto the bridge and where my car … my car didn’t sit on the side of the road where I parked it. It was off the road, the front end smashed into the thick, tall tree. The front windshield was splintered right about the spot a head would have struck if …

I touched my forehead and pulled back red fingers.

“What’s going on?” 

I touched my head again, this tim planting my palm on my forehead. The skin there was torn. I could feel flesh bunched up near my hairline. I probed a gash that seemed like it ran the length of the top of my head, feeling something hard that could only be my skull. I pulled my hand free and looked at it again. Blood dripped from my fingers and palm. I wiped my mouth with my other hand and suddenly felt the urge to run, that something was terribly wrong and I was in danger. 

I ran for my car, not worrying about the holes or weak boards in the bridge. I couldn’t hear my feet or my breaths or feel my heart beat hard in my chest. I only felt the heavy weight of panic and fear in my chest and mind and the sharp, intense pain of the headache that seemed to split my skull. I reached the end of the bridge, stepped off and was back in the center where the woman had been. 

I almost ran for my car a third time but didn’t. Instead, I walked toward the other end. My legs grew weak as I walked and I didn’t think it would matter what happened when I reached the other end. I reached it and stepped off the bridge and back onto it in the exact same spot as before. 

Now, I stand here, in the center of the bridge. I can see both ends of the bridge, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t step off of it. But this waiting, this feeling of being trapped here with no way to get help isn’t the worst of it. That’s reserved for the creature standing at the end of the bridge where my car is. It came up in an old style horse and buggy, both of which are black. It stepped away from the buggy. It is not much taller than I am and it wears a hooded robe. In one of its hands—hands that look skeletal—is a long pole with a sharp blade on one end. It’s spoken a couple of times, but I can’t make out what it’s saying. It can’t be anything good. It’s on the bridge now and coming toward me. A darkness spills off of it, like a thick fog rising into the air and going out before it. It’s coming for me. It’s …

I can’t run away. I’ll just return to this spot and it will be waiting for me. But what if … what if I jump over the rail and off the side of the bridge? What if …

AJB

Coming Soon: Five Deaths

Andrew Colson never intended to kill anyone. The dead that haunted his childhood had other plans.

The first ghost to appear to him was Billy Jumper, a four-year-old special needs child murdered by his stepfather in a drunken fit. Billy was followed by Sarah Lockingham and Janie Whiteside, then the one person who he loved most, his father. 

After the death of a close friend, Andrew learns what the ghosts want from him and sets out to fulfill their needs. In doing so, Andrew discovers a devastating truth that may push him beyond setting things right for the dead. It might lead him to revenge.  

Coming to an e-reader in your hands or get your hard copy on September 13th.

Spread the news. It’s coming.

Meredith’s Umbrella–Rough Cuts #2

Today’s Rough Cut is a quick piece I wrote based on a comment to a Facebook post I made. The post was an image of a red umbrella on a blacktop road with what looked like blood around it. Honestly, it could have just been water. The question I posed was: What do you think of when you see this picture? There were almost 40 responses of a wide variation. 

One response, in particular, caught my attention. It was from Chaz Robertson, whose wife, Briana, is the author of some really dark and emotional stories. Chaz answered in a writerly way:  

“There is a rain drenched sobbing mother being held up by an equally wet and distraught police offer just off scene, stage right, there is a crashed car off scene up stage and stage left, there is a teddy bear hanging from the remains of the wrecked grill. The man behind the wheel reaks of booze and cordite. The pistol he used to kill himself after seeing the little girl under the umbrella lays on the passenger seat his limp hand close by.”

Another individual stated, simply: write that story. I know she was talking to Chaz, but my mind kept coming back to it. Over and over it kept saying what if? So, I finally sat down yesterday morning and pounded out this little story in about an hour before work. I sent it to Chaz, who liked it. Then, since it was his idea, I asked if I could post it here, as one of my Rough Cuts stories. With Chaz’s permission, I present to you Meredith’s Umbrella.

***

Meredith saw everything but she wished she hadn’t. 

Rain pelted the world. It came in sheets that went sideways, aided by gusting winds. It didn’t help that Main Street was a wind tunnel from the capital building all the way down to the courthouse eight blocks away. The road was the center of downtown, with shops, little eateries, apartment buildings geared towards college students, big hotels geared towards business types and coffee shops geared toward everyone. 

There wasn’t much traffic and the stores and eateries were mostly empty. The storm saw to that. Maybe tomorrow things will be back to normal. Meredith wasn’t so sure. Rain had been constant for the last three days and the weather man on Channel 6 News this morning said it would be here through the weekend and possibly into the early part of the following week. 

Meredith stood in the doorway of the small shop her mother owned. It catered to those with a sweet tooth. It wasn’t quite a bakery but was the closest thing downtown had to one. The treats were good, the coffee okay, the staff friendly and the atmosphere cozy.

She could get one of the pastries from the display case—she was fond of the raspberry cheese Danishes, but she wanted real food and the Mexican restaurant on the corner half a block down had the best chicken burritos. She stood at the door, her red umbrella in hand, and waited for the wind and rain to die down enough for her to make a mad dash the half block and not get completely soaked. 

Her stomach grumbled. She pressed a hand to it and whispered, “Be quiet.”

“You know that umbrella isn’t going to do much good,” Jim called from behind the counter. 

She glanced back. He was tall and lanky and his gray hair was slowly turning white. She wasn’t a fan of the man, but Mom liked him and allowed him to work there. Meredith guessed that was one of the perks to sleeping with the owner. She shivered at the thought and said nothing to Jim. Instead, she looked out the window as rain drops hit the glass and rolled down as if racing against every other rain drop. 

Maybe not, she thought, but I hope you’re wrong.

She doubted that. He was rarely wrong.

Meredith watched as the rain began to slacken and the wind tapered off so the trees on Main Street didn’t look like they were doing hula dances. 

“Now,” she said, not realizing she spoke out loud. She pushed the door open. A chill and a smatter of rain greeted her before she could get the umbrella up and open. She lowered her head and lifted the umbrella. With a press of the small silver button, the umbrella opened with a whoop and click. 

Meredith left the store and turned to her left, away from the wind. She held the umbrella slightly tilted behind her but still covering her head. With shoulders hunched and both hands clutching to the umbrella she hurried up the road. 

Two buildings down she came to the corner. The light was red in her favor and the crosswalk sign showed a white stick figure crossing merrily. She thought she might look like that stick figure, but with an umbrella over her head and not looking so merry. She went to step into the road, then stopped. The drain overflowed and the rain was ankle deep. Maybe that’s what saved her life—that one moment where she debated going back and eating a raspberry cheese Danish instead of crossing the road to the Mexican restaurant with the awesome chicken burritos. 

When she looked up, the stick man was gone, and a red hand replaced it. A couple of seconds later, the light turned green in the other direction. Though only one car poked along through the intersection, its wipers swooping quickly from side to side, its headlights on, Meredith waited for the light to change. That’s when she saw the woman and child crossing the street in the other direction of the intersection. They wore raincoats and rain boots—the mother’s were yellow and the little girl’s were pink. The girl couldn’t have been much older than five, or maybe younger. Meredith couldn’t tell. They held hands and the little girl seemed to stomp in the ever widening puddles. Clutched tight to the little girl’s chest was a teddy bear, who also wore a raincoat and boots—blue ones, in fact. 

Meredith smiled. It was one of those moments where she wondered if she would be a mother one day, if she would have a little girl she could stomp in puddles with. She hoped so. 

The mother and daughter reached the sidewalk and rounded the light pole on the corner. They stopped opposite Meredith. It gave her a chance to see the dimples on the little girl’s face, her soft pink lips and the brown bangs hanging down her forehead. 

When the light changed, Meredith looked in both directions. Though there were no cars coming down Main Street, one did come along the intersecting road. It swerved, it’s driver’s side tire hitting a puddle. Drain water sprayed into the air. The car swerved again. 

“No!” Meredith yelled as the car bumped over the edge of the curb and towards the mother and daughter. The mother had time to look back but nothing more. Somehow, the car missed her. Hours later, Meredith believed in her heart of hearts the woman would have rather been the one struck and would second guess why they were even out in the rain in the first place. 

The front of the car struck the little girl. She did a spin, like an ice skater would a graceful pirouette. The teddy bear was pulled free from the girl’s hand and the girl landed in the road several feet from where she stood less than three seconds earlier. The car turned sideways, spraying more water up from the road. The passenger’s side struck several parking meters before coming to a stop against one of the trees planted in the center of the sidewalk. 

There was a scream that seemed to last for minutes. The mother ran to her daughter. She dropped to her knees along the drain that had been too full to hold all the rain. Meredith didn’t need to see the girl’s face to know she was dead. Her little hand floated in the water, the hood no longer covering her head and her hair spread out like a halo beneath her. There was blood. She could see that much. 

Meredith wanted to run to the woman, to put her arms around her and pull her away from something no parent should ever have to see. Her legs felt like concrete as she hurried across the street. Her skin was cold. At some point, the umbrella had been lowered. Though the rain and wind began to pick up again, Meredith didn’t notice. 

Before she could reach the woman, a loud sound, like a gun going off, rang out to her right. Meredith didn’t duck. The woman didn’t move from where she cradled her daughter’s head in her arms. Meredith turned to where the car now sat. The driver’s side window was broken. A splatter of blood and hair clung to where part of the window was still intact. In the car, the driver’s head had tipped back, his mouth open, the top of his head missing. 

Meredith’s belly grumbled, not from hunger, but from a sudden rush of nausea. She bent over and vomited.

“Ma’am. Ma’am,” came a voice from somewhere nearby. Meredith wiped her mouth and stood straight. Over where the little girl lay dead, a cop stood. He was young, maybe not even in his thirties yet. He took the mother by her arms and helped her to her feet. The mother collapsed into his chest, her hands to her face. The officer—in a gesture Meredith would later say was the sweetest, most caring thing the cop could have done—put his arms around her and stroked her hair with one hand. She didn’t know what the officer said, and never would, but in that moment, she thought the officer was an angel and had come to the mother’s aid. 

Meredith glanced back at the car. The front end faced the road. Stuck in the grill was the little girl’s teddy bear. Her heart cracked and tears finally fell down her face. Meredith stumbled to the car, passing the blown-out window and the dead driver. Though it was faint, she could smell alcohol and what she thought was the residual odor of cordite from the gun. Meredith pulled the teddy bear free and started back across the road. She didn’t know its name, but she thought it was something cute, like Mr. Stuffings or maybe something simple like Teddy.

The rain increased; the wind picked up. Off in the distance came multiple sirens. But the little girl … she still laid in the road, her hand still moving with the steady flow of water running down the street, her eyes facing a sky they would never see again, her hair flowing out around her. Meredith’s shoulders slumped. On her heavy legs, she walked over to the little girl. She didn’t look directly at her as she bent down and placed her umbrella over the girl’s body. It bobbed in the water, but it did its job. It covered the little girl’s face and upper body. 

Meredith sat down on the curb, the water rushing over her shoes and sloshing onto the sidewalk, soaking her pants. She cradled the bear in her arms. As she rocked back and forth and cried into the soft fur of the stuffed toy, a brief thought entered her mind, then fled: Jim was wrong.

AJB

8/06/2021

GONE–ROUGH CUTS

Over the last couple of days, I wrote this story based on the picture in the body of the post. I saw it on social media and it really hit home with me. IT IS COMPLETELY UNEDITED, so please don’t trash it because of errors I may have made. Yes, I know I could have edited it, but I want to try something. When you get to the end of the story, I would love for you to leave your thoughts on it. Also, would you like to see more of Abigail Sherman and find out what happened later in life? If so, what would you like to see? I hope you enjoy the first story of what I’m calling ROUGH CUTS, completely unedited first draft pieces. 

Here is GONE. Please like, share and comment. It is very much appreciated.

GONE

Her name is Abigail Sherman and she used to live in a small neighborhood where everyone knew her as Abby and knew her parents as Gail and Wes. She was six when her family moved away from their nice home with the chain link fence, a huge back yard with lush grass and a pecan tree in the back corner. Sometimes they set up a tent and slept under the stars. They had cable television and this thing called the internet, though Abby didn’t quite know what that was. She wore cute pink dresses and took baths daily. She went to a good school for first grade and had made several friends whose families often had cookouts or ‘get togethers.’

When they left home one morning, she didn’t know they would never go back. Her mom handed her the pink book bag she used for school and her stuffed bunny, Floppy Ears. Then she took her hand and they went to the car, just her and Mom. 

“Where’s Dad?” she asked from her car seat in the back.

At first her mom said nothing but in the mirror Abby saw her wipe at her wet eyes. Then her mom spoke and said one word. “Gone.”

For Abby that word didn’t mean much. She didn’t understand such a small word. 

Gone is just Go with a N added, she thought, so he must have went somewhere. He’ll be back. 

For Gail, gone meant everything. Abby would learn that in time, but at first, it was just go with a N added

She’s still six and Gone is what she and Mom now were. Gone from their comfortable home, gone from her bed, gone from the big back yard with the pecan tree in the corner. Gone from the school where her friends still were, but where she no longer belonged. This is something she didn’t understand either. If she belonged before, why doesn’t she now?

They went from a place Mom called a hotel to another one, to sleeping in her car. Eventually, the car became Gone as well. She didn’t understand that, but she understood things were bad. Mom didn’t smile and she was constantly on the phone at the hotel. Abby tried to ‘mind her own business,’ but with just Mr. Floppy Ears to keep her company, she couldn’t help but hear Mom’s end of the phone calls. It was after one of those calls where Mommy argued with someone on the other end about it not being her fault Wes did what he did. She slammed the phone down on the receiver. That’s when Abby approached her mom with questions.

“Mommy, why did we leave home?”

At first, Gail didn’t answer. How was she supposed to answer such a question from her sweet, innocent child? Then she did. The conversation went like this:

“We had to.”

“Why?”

“Your dad … well, your dad …”

“What about Daddy?” Her blue eyes were wide and full of wonder and how can you lie to a child who will eventually learn the truth?

Gail pulled Abby onto her lap and put her arms around her. “Your daddy got into some trouble and …”

“Bad trouble?”

“Really bad trouble.”

“Is that why the police came?”

“Yes. The police were not happy with Daddy and they took him away.”

Abby nodded, said a soft “Oh.” Then she added, “But why didn’t we stay home so when he came back we wouldn’t be gone?”

Gail sniffled. “We had to leave. I didn’t want to, but they made us.”

“Who is they?”

“The police.”

Abby sat up and looked up. Tears were in Mom’s eyes and she stared off toward the wall of the hotel that held a large painting of a bull and a man with a red cape and his arm pulled back to throw a long spear he held. “Are we in bad trouble, too?”

Gail shook her head, sniffled again. This time, she wiped at her eyes with the palm of one hand. “No, Sweetie. We’re not in bad trouble. Just Daddy.”

Abby stared at Mom. She didn’t know how, but she knew Mom was lying. She only called her Sweetie when things were not good. They were in trouble. In six-year-old Abby’s mind, they were in bad, bad trouble. 

Abby pushed away from her mother’s chest and slid off her lap. She went to the hard chair with the blue cushion on it where her book bag sat. She put her crayons in it. Then went to the small dresser near the foot of the single bed the two of them shared and pulled the few clothing items from it. She put those in the bag. She then picked up Mr. Floppy Ears and set him next to the bag.

“Abby, what are you doing?”

“Getting ready.”

“Getting ready? For what?”

Abby turned to her mom. She almost rolled her eyes but didn’t. “To be gone again.”

And they were gone again. This time, with no car to go in. They walked, Abby with her backpack on her shoulders, Mr. Floppy in one arm and holding Mom’s hand; Mom carrying a black trash bag over one shoulder and her head down toward the road. They walked until they came to an overpass.

“Stay here,” she said.

“Why?” Abby asked.

“Just do it. If anything happens, scream.”

That scared Abby. Chills ran up her small arms. “Where are you going?”

Gail jerked her head toward the dark underpass. “To make sure it’s safe.”

Though her mother wasn’t gone long—two minutes at most—it seemed to last the entire night. Abby peered into the darkness but could only see a faint impression of her mother. Tears formed in her eyes and her bladder suddenly felt like it would let go. She licked her lips and held Mr. Floppy Ears close to her chest. She let it her breath out when her mom came back into view.

“Come on,” she said.

“Is it safe?”

“As safe as it’s going to get tonight.”

Abby took Gail’s hand and they stepped into the darkness of the overpass. Once beneath the road above them, Abby’s eyes adjusted to the dark. It wasn’t a big area and the road connected the small downtown area to what looked like a neighborhood on the other side. A long fence separated the two sections of town. 

“Here,” Gail said and reached into her trash bag. She pulled out a pink blanket, one that Abby hadn’t seen in a while. It was her ‘sweet sweet,” at least that was what she called it when she was smaller and younger than she was then. One corner was frayed where she chewed on it when she was teething. Abby took the blanket and held it to her cheek. It didn’t smell freshly washed, but stale, as if it had been at the bottom of her closet or under her bed in her old house.

Gail led her close to one of the walls of the overpass. On the ground was a long piece of cardboard. “Lay on that,” she said. “It will be better than laying on the hard concrete.”

“What about you, Mommy?”

“Don’t worry about me, Sweetie. I’m going to be right here beside you.”

Abby first sat on the cardboard. It was thin and old looking. Then she laid down. It was stiff and hard and nothing like a mattress on any bed, not even one of the firm ones in the hotels they stayed at. She pulled the blanket over her shoulders. Her legs stuck out and that bothered her, but at least her arms were covered. She clutched Mr. Floppy Ears tight to her chest and stared off at the fence separating one part of town from the other. Before she could close her eyes and fall asleep, she wondered if that was their life now. Living under a road that cars passed by overhead on. Eventually, her eyes grew heavy and the last thing she saw before falling asleep was her mother with her knees to her chin and her arms covering her face. Abby thought she might be crying.

When she woke, the sun was out. Her body hurt when she sat up and the blanket lay beside her. Mr. Floppy Ears was still in her arms, but Mom was nowhere to be found. 

“Mommy?” 

She stood. Her heart sped up. 

“Mommy?”

She spun in a circle, taking in her surroundings and hoping her mother had just laid down in a darker corner or was sitting somewhere else. Maybe she was beyond the fence. The couldn’t have gone too far. She left without Abby and her trash bag laid near the cardboard bed. 

“Mommy?”

She ran to the open end of the overpass and looked up the road, then down it. Cars passed overhead, their tires thumping on sections of concrete. A bird chirped from somewhere. A lawnmower grumbled angrily from the neighborhood behind her as it chewed up grass. A dog barked then grew quiet. But Mom was nowhere to be found. 

“Mommy?”

Abby ran to the other end of the overpass, crossed the crumbling blacktop and stood at the fence. She clutched it with her right hand as Mr. Floppy Ears dangled from her left. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She sniffled.

From where she stood, she could see a road and the fronts of several yards. Most of them were neatly cut. On the porch of a house painted yellow with several creepy looking lawn dwarves standing watch in the yard, an old woman sat in a rocking chair. Her hair was gray, verging on an ugly shade of blue. She wore a long gray gown with some sort of pattern on it that Abby couldn’t make out from that distance. The old woman stood and went to the edge of her porch. She looked toward Abby then went down a couple of steps. 

Abby turned and ran back under the overpass. She went to the piece of cardboard she slept on the night before and sat down. She pulled the blanket over her knees, then pulled her knees up to her chest. With Mr. Floppy Ears sitting tight between her chest, Abby cried. 

After crying, Abby straightened her legs and stared toward the entrance of the overpass. Her stomach grumbled. Abby crawled to the trash bag and looked inside. There were clothes and some toilet paper. There were a couple of dollars in a clear zip up bag. There was a grocery bag with a couple of small bags of chips. There were no other food items and no drinks. Abby took a bag of chips, sat back on her cardboard and ate quietly. It did little to satisfy her hunger, but it was better than nothing.

Abby remained on her overnight bed. Her bottom hurt from sitting. Her back hurt from laying the night before. At some point, she saw the old woman near the fence. She pretended not to see her. After all, she was a stranger and strangers meant danger. Instead, she reached into her bag, hoping to find something to do until Mom came back.  Her crayons sat at the bottom of her bag. She pulled them out—a box of 64 with a convenient crayon sharpener in the back. She never used the sharpener, preferring to peal away a little of the paper wrapper at a time until it came completely off on its own.

She looked for a pad or any paper but couldn’t find anything. Her shoulders slumped and she shook her head. She let out a sad breath that rattled in her chest and sniffled. Tears threatened to form in her eyes again. From the corner of her eye she saw the woman walk away and all the tension in her little body went with her. 

Abby thought about Mommy and Daddy and got angry. Daddy did something bad and was gone. When she fell asleep last night, Mom was beside her. Now, she was gone. But Abby was not. No, she was still here and she was alone. She thought of home, her room, her table where she drew pictures at. So many of those pictures hung on her walls and …

Abby stood. Her legs and back hurt as she did so. She looked at the concrete wall she had leaned her back on. It was rough to the touch, but not too bad. Once, when she was only four, she drew on the wall behind her bed. Daddy had made her a tent of pink sheets and closed tacks and she hid inside with her crayons and her imagination. She got into trouble that day and Daddy painted over the walls eventually. 

“Daddy’s not here,” she whispered. “He’s gone.”

But … Mommy …

“She’s gone, too,” she whispered. That word—gone—she still thought of it as go with a N, but it started to take on a new meaning. It wasn’t just go it was never come back. Maybe that was what the N stood for: never. 

Abby picked up her box of crayons and flipped the lid open. She plucked out the black and set the box on the ground. She didn’t care that it tipped over. She cared only about the things that were gone in her life. She thought about drawing stick figures of Mom and Dad, but decided they left her—they were gone by choice—and drew something else. To the left of her cardboard bed, she drew a series of squares that formed a dresser with a television on top of it. To the right of the cardboard, she drew a table with a bird cage on it. She never owned a bird, but had always wanted to. Next to the bird cage she drew a box, then wrote the word CRAYON on the top of it. Directly above the cardboard and between the dresser and table, she drew a window, much like she would if she had drawn a picture of a house. In the body pane, she drew a candle with a flame she imagined flickered from time to time. 

When she was done, the crayon was not much more than a nub. She stuck it back in the box and sat down. At some point, she picked up Mr. Floppy Ears and laid back on the cardboard. She pulled the blanket over her shoulders and stared at the crude window. Her eyes grew heavy and Abby slept.

She woke to the sound of a car door closing. She sat up and blinked several times. It was still daylight out and Mommy was still nowhere to be seen. 

“Hey, little girl,” a woman called. 

Abby looked to the edge of the overpass. Two women stood next to a police car. The blue lights were off. One of the women wore a police uniform. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She might have been Mommy’s age. The other woman wore a gray gown and her hair was a shade of ugly blue. 

Abby grabbed Mr. Floppy Ears and pulled her knees to her chest.

The lady cop walked up to her, knelt beside her. “Hey.”

Abby said nothing.

“You don’t have to be scared. I’m not going to hurt you. Mrs. Hayworth saw you and thought you might need some help.” She pointed back to the lady with the blue hair. “What’s your name?”

She licked her lips. Her heart thumped hard in her little chest. Her skin felt cold and wet at the same time. 

“It’s okay,” the officer said. “My name is Camilla. It’s nice to meet you.”

“My name is Abby. I like your name.”

“Thank you. I do, too. There’s not many Camilla’s out there these days. I like your name, too. Is it short for Abigail?”

Abby nodded. 

“Okay, Abby. Can I asks you a couple of questions?”

Abby nodded again. She squeezed Mr. Floppy Ears a little tighter to her chest. 

“It’s okay,” Camilla said. “I’m not going to hurt you. Neither is Mrs. Hayworth. We’re just here to help you. Okay?”

Another nod came.

“Abby, are you here by yourself?”

A nod.

“Okay. Umm … did you run away from home?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“How did you get here?”

“My mommy brought me.”

Camilla looked around. “Where is your Mommy?”

Abby shrugged. “Gone.”

“Gone?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Where is your daddy, Abby?”

Another shrug. “He’s gone, too. He got in trouble and he’s gone.”

“He got into trouble?”

A nod.

“Abby, do you know where you live?”

Another nod.

“Can you tell me.”

“I live here. See the window and the dresser and the table. I watch tv from right here and I draw on that table with my little bird. He doesn’t make much noise.”

“I see.”

“Are you hungry, Abby?”

She nodded, a little more intensely than before.

Officer Camilla stood. She held out her hand. The nails were pink. “Come. Let’s get you something to eat and we’ll see if we can find your parents.”

“They’re gone.”

“Yeah, but I hope I can make them un-gone for you. Would you like that?”

Abby nodded, reached up and took Camilla’s hand. They started to walk away, then Abby let go of the officer’s hand and went back to her piece of cardboard. She picked up the box of crayons and took the nub of the black one out. With it, she wrote on the wall just below the window. When she was done, she dropped what little bit of black crayon was left into the box and shoved it into her book bag. She zipped it up, slung the bag over her shoulders and took Officer Camilla’s hand again. 

As they walked away, she glanced back once. On the wall below the window were two words: Abby GoN.

It Gets the Death Off

4/09/2021

Richard pulled into the driveway and shut off the van. It was an old Ford Econoline that had seen better days, but still ran like a champ. He got out, gave a wave to the three hispanic kids on their bikes in the yard next to his. None of them waved back. One, a small boy named Guillermo, straddled his bike and stared at him. Well, he stared at Richard’s hands, which were stained red all the way to the forearms. 

He unlocked the door and stepped inside, closing it behind him. A few minutes passed before the door opened again. Richard stepped onto the porch with two plastic bottles of clear liquid, and an old sock. He sat on the top step. It hurt to do so—his legs were tired, as were his arms. His lower back held a pinch of pain that nagged at him. Still, he sat just as Mr. Hannahan had all those years ago when he was, maybe, Guillermo’s age.

He glanced to his left. Two of the children were gone, but Guillermo remained. His lower lip had been busted recently and his left eye was bruised and swollen, not quite shut, but enough to probably make it difficult to see. Richard gave a wave. Guillermo didn’t wave back. Richard took a deep breath. He knew where the boy had gotten the damage to his lip and eye and he was willing to bet a year’s paycheck there were other marks in places covered by clothing. How often had he heard the screams coming from next door since the family moved in a year earlier? How many times had he heard the mother begging for mercy in Spanish? How often had the young boy appeared the next day with a black eye, busted lip or even a broken arm (as had been the case about six months earlier)? He shook his head and looked down at his hands and he thought of the old man who lived across the street from him when he was a child.

Mr. Hannahan had been much older than Richard the day the boy finally worked up enough nerve to talk to him. He always wore the same black boots, blue jeans and blue denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. That day was no different. Grooves lined the sides of his nose and mouth and deep crow’s feet seemed to cut into the skin at the corners of his eyes. Gray bags sagged beneath those pale blue peepers. Though his face could have been as old as Father Time, his hands looked strong and he didn’t move like someone at the tail end of life. 

Richard, all of eight-years-old when he worked up the nerve to approach Hannahan had seen him on many occasions come home on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon with an animal in the bed of his beat-up truck. Sometimes, there would be a deer or two, or a raccoon or a wolf. Once, there had been a bear that made the back end of the truck droop. Hannahan managed to get that one out of the truck and around to the back shed with two large hooks, a tarp and a chain, and he did so with relative ease.

The old man sat, not on the top step of his porch, but in a wooden rocker that groaned when he sat down in it. A small, wooden table sat next to the step. On it was a metal can with the words Ginn’s Paint Thinner in red lettering. He held a rag in one hand—it had probably been white when it was first made, but had become a grayish pink color. He tipped the opening of the paint thinner onto the rag quickly, then set it back on the small table. Then he began to wash one hand with it, carefully cleaning each finger, each nail, his wrist and forearm. He flipped the rag over and tipped the paint thinner again. 

That’s when Richard left his yard, looking both ways before crossing the street. He had never stepped foot on Mr. Hannahan’s property, but his fascination had gotten him that day.

“Excuse me, Sir,” Richard said, his voice shaky with nerves.

Hannahan didn’t lift his head, but his eyes shifted from his hands to Richard. He said nothing, but those cool blue eyes said leave me alone

“I’m sorry,” Richard said, believing he had bothered the old man just by being there and even more so by talking to him. He turned to leave, got a few steps away before Hannahan spoke in his deep gruff voice. 

“What is it you want, fellah?”

Richard stopped, his heart suddenly in his throat. He turned to see Hannahan looking straight at him, the rag dangling from his left hand—the clean one. The other hand still mostly red.

“Well?”

Richard swallowed. “Why do you clean your hands with paint thinner?”

Hannahan looked at the metal canister, then at his hands, then back to Richard. “It gets the death off.”

Richard’s heart no longer beat hard in his chest. For several seconds, it didn’t feel like it beat at all. Mr. Hannahan must have seen the look of fear on his face. He smiled, showing hints of old yellow teeth. 

“I hunt, fellah. Every weekend. I gut and skin the animals—nothing goes to waste, ‘cept maybe some of the bones. Thinner gets the blood off better than anything else, including soap and bleach. It doesn’t smell all that bad, either, the way bleach does.”

Though he explained things, Richard didn’t get past It gets the death off. It was the only conversation the two had, but it was still as fresh in his memory as if it had happened yesterday.

That was then. In the hear and now, he opened the paint thinner, tipped the container over so it could soak a portion of the torn sock. He set the thinner on the step and began wiping his left hand. The blood came away easily enough, turning the sock a grayish pink color. He scrubbed around his fingernails. Some blood had gotten under one of the nails and he thought he would have to trim that one. He did the same with the other hand, carefully scrubbing until it was no longer red or pink, but the light tan color of the rest of his arms and neck and face. 

When he was done, he capped the thinner and opened the other bottle—the one with the yellow label that read Alcohol on it in blue letters. Mr. Hannahan had said the thinner smelled better than bleach, but Richard disagreed. The alcohol would help get rid of that smell. Washing his hands with soap and hot water would further get rid of it. It’s what he planned to do when he was done. 

Richard glanced to his left. Guillermo was gone, but his bike lay on its side in the yard. His father’s truck was gone, as well—had been since the night before after his drunken battery of his family. He had half expected the boy to walk over and ask Richard about the thinner, about the red on his hands, but he didn’t. If he would have, Richard would have answered, simply, “It gets the death off.”

AJB

4/09/2021

ImPossible

My wife, Cate, joined a fitness group. They support each other with words of encouragement, congratulations on achieving goals, and friendship on their quests to become healthier. I’ve watched my wife take on this fitness routine with a fierce determination that makes me proud of her. They also do check-ins through the Marco Polo video app. Cate listens to them throughout the day, whether it is while she is driving or eating or just sitting on the couch resting after a long day. Seeing how I’ve been in the vicinity of my wife on a few occasions when she listened or watched these videos, I have heard a few of them. These women seem to genuinely care about each other, which is something we don’t see a lot of these days.

On the first Saturday in April, Cate and I took a day trip to several state parks here in South Carolina. Before we visited any of the parks, we popped into an RC car shop in Monroe, North Carolina, then went and had what amounted to brunch at this little diner called The Village Grill. As we sat and ate (me eating a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich and she eating a salad), she mentioned one of the videos she recently watched. The woman’s name is Marcia and her check-in was kind of typical check-in fair, but the main part of it was about one word: Impossible.

Before I continue with my story, let me state that after Cate told me about it, I asked if I could listen to it. A couple days later, as we sat at the kitchen table (me working on the RC car I bought the Saturday before, and she watching Marco Polo videos), she asked if I wanted to see the one by Marcia, the one about the word Impossible.

“Of course,” I said.

She tapped the screen of her phone a couple of times, then turned it around for me to see. Though, I didn’t look at the video, I stopped what I was doing and listened. 

Marcia mentioned how, at the beginning of the year, they were challenged with coming up with a word … a word for the year. It sounded like this word could be the one that defines their year. Or, maybe, it was a word of encouragement or something to strive for. Marcia liked the words some of the others came up with, but none of them was her word. None of them spoke to her. 

Then, in one of her workout programs, the instructor mentioned the word Impossible. It clicked with her. It resonated with her, and I think it might resonate with you—it did with me.

Stick with me. This next bit is important. 

Marcia mentioned how she is older (no, I’m not mentioning her age), and how she might have a little more weight on her bones than she thinks she should be carrying, and how she has bad knees. They were all things she could use to say she couldn’t do something, or maybe, something was Impossible for her to accomplish. It may not be exactly the same, but we all have things that we make excuses for why won’t try to do something. I don’t want to say it was an excuse for her, but I believe she alluded to it. 

Ahh, but then the instructor said that word. Impossible. It hit her. The word Impossible is made up of two words: I’m Possible. By seeing it as I’m Possible, the concept of Impossible changed for her. 

I’m Possible. Do you get that? Read it again:

Impossible … I’m Possible. 

Marcia goes on to state, in a somewhat excited tone, that “I’m possible to be the wife I need to be to my husband, the mother I need to be to my children …” But the realization doesn’t end there. She can be so much more—the possibilities are limitless. This was a huge realization for her.

There is more to Impossible and I’m Possible than just breaking the word into two and putting an apostrophe in there. It’s a mindset. It’s about believing in yourself, in your abilities, in your determination. It’s not making excuses.  

It’s about Can and Can’t. Possible and Impossible. 

If you go into something with the word Can’t (or Impossible) on your lips or in your heart, then you’ve sabotaged yourself. You’ve already given up, but you don’t realize it, yet. Mentally, you’ve checked out and you might think you are putting a lot of effort into something, but you aren’t—at least not the effort you could put forth if you went in with the mindset of I Can. Can’t or Impossible truly limits you in what you will do.

When I was younger, I played a lot of sports. I was good, especially at basketball. Every time I stepped onto the court I felt like I was the best player out there. It didn’t matter if I was or wasn’t because, mentally, I believed I was. Believing in yourself is more than half the battle. I sized up my opponent before the game started, and in my head and in my heart, I always believed, “I’m going to own you.” I never went into a game thinking my opponent could beat me, that he was better than me. 

It was a mindset. Just like Impossible and I’m Possible is a mindset. If you think it’s Impossible, it will be. If you think I’m Possible, YOU will be.

What Marcia did was look at things with new eyes. Instead of things being Impossible for her because she was a little older, maybe a little overweight, and had bad knees, she began seeing all things are possible if you believe. 

I’m Possible is also about ownership. Ownership of who you are, what you do, and how you view life. It’s making no excuses. There are no I Can’ts with I’m Possible. 

With that in mind, be possible. Not just possible, but be possible without limits. Believe in the term I’m Possible. Believe that you have the ability to do anything you want, and not just be who you are, but be who you want to be. Don’t say I can’t. Don’t give yourself a reason to not be possible. Be like Marcia. 

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

A.J.

Three Seconds of Life

I want to tell you a story. Well, it’s not really a story, but a moment in life, a few minutes of a day that was pretty much like any other day, except for these few minutes. But aren’t these moments what stories are made of? Aren’t these moments the times that we recall later in life, the stories we tell people? Moments like this are exactly what stories are made of.

It was a wet day. Gray outside. Rain coming in fits and starts. Just two days earlier it had been in the upper seventies. Pollen dusted most outside surfaces. People had been out and about enjoying the beautiful weather. But, like I said, that had been two days earlier. On this day it was in the mid-forties, rainy and windy. I’m not sure that really plays into the moment, but it might have. I’ll let you decide.

The events took place after a routine morning of stretching, coffee, getting ready for work, and going to that job I got ready for. 

I went to the post office, something I do from time to time when there is no one else there to do it. I had my raincoat on and I walked the two blocks there only getting rained on a little. At the post office I said good morning to Mrs. Cathy and we exchanged about thirty seconds worth of pleasantries. We gave our “Have a good days” and I left. The rain had picked up by then and I flipped my hood up.

Normally, I will make a left at the corner and walk along the sidewalk until I reached the next corner, where I cross the many lanes of traffic one way, then the many lanes of traffic the other way. I then walk the half block to the backside of the building I work in. It’s pretty simple and usually takes about ten minutes round trip. 

This day should have been no different.

I reached the corner of the block and stopped. Though I had the little white walkie man on the sign and the light was red for cars traveling in that direction, I reached the corner the same time as a car did. It was a burgundy Toyota, nothing new but certainly not something older than ten years. It had slowed a little faster than I liked and came to a stop halfway in the crosswalk. I waited for a couple of seconds to see if the person driving was going to make a right turn, even though I had the right of way. When the car did not go, I stepped into the road and started to round the front of the car. 

That is when things went south. 

I glanced at the car when i was about halfway by it. It lurched forward. Time did not stand still but it slowed down considerably like in the movies or a good book. There was no way to avoid what happened next. I didn’t jump but somehow ‘lifted’ myself a little. The car struck my left knee. I tensed up and lowered my elbow and shoulder as I fell onto the car’s hood. My elbow struck first, then my shoulder. I rolled to my right and off the car, landing on my right foot, then my left. Then I took a step backward.

The entire incident was maybe three seconds, but they could have been far more devastating than what they were. 

I was shocked.

I was stunned.

I was pissed.

I honestly believe the person in the car had struck me on purpose. I thought for a second there that the person had gotten angry that I decided to cross at the crosswalk when I had the light and drove into me on purpose. I imagined this angry guy with a scowl on his face and wearing a wife beater sitting behind the wheel and cursing me for having the balls to cross when I had the right of way. Or maybe he was just impatient and thought I was walking too slowly. I didn’t know.

I held my arms out at my side and yelled, “What the heck are you doing?” Yes, I said heck and not any of the other words that probably could have come out of my mouth. 

I stood in the road, mail rubber banded together in my left hand, and stared at the car for maybe ten seconds. When the driver didn’t open the door I thought, “They’re going to run.” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my phone, certain I was going to have to take a picture of a fleeing vehicle’s license plate. 

During all of this, the light turned green. I stepped out of the road, my phone in hand and watched the burgundy Toyota. I flexed my left knee, rotated my shoulder and bent my elbow several times to make sure I was okay. Thankfully, there was no immediate notice of injury. 

The light turned red and the car had not moved. The hazard lights were now on and blinking their orange warnings. Then the door opened, and sitting in the car was not some crazed guy wearing a wife beater, but a woman who was possibly eighty or so (and if not, she missed a good chance to be). Her hands were shaking and she was crying—I’m talking ugly crying with tears and her face scrunched up and snot dribbling from her nose like a sniffly three-year-old. 

“Oh my God, Oh My God. I am so sorry.” She said this over and over again. 

Suddenly, I felt like crap standing there on the side of the road. I had yelled, not at the woman, but at my perception of who had to be driving that car. But that wasn’t who was there. Instead there she was, crying—sobbing—and shaking like a leaf in the wind. She was pale and constantly saying “I’m sorry.”

Right then, I had a choice. I could be a jerk and be rude to her or I could console her. Though it should have been the other way around—after all, I was the one hit by the car—I chose to console her. I squatted down in her doorway and we talked. Well, that’s not quite accurate. I talked, she cried and said she was sorry over and over again. 

As I squatted in her door trying to calm her down, I discovered there had been a witness. It turns out, a man who was maybe my age or a little younger, had seen the incident. He walks by the car where I am with this distraught woman and he said to me, “You need to call the cops.” He didn’t asks if either of us were okay. He just saw me do a slow motion Dukes of Hazzard style roll off the hood of a car and all he could say was, “You need to call the cops.” And it wasn’t just what he said, but how he said it, as if he couldn’t see the crying woman. In his eyes, I was the victim and she was the criminal. This was an opportunity for this guy to step in and be somewhat of a hero. Instead, well … you can see what I think of him two sentences from now.

Yes, I got pissed a second time. 

I turned to him and in my amazing wisdom, I said, “You don’t need to be a d*ck.”

It was his turn to have a shocked look on his face. I continued. “If you’re not going to help the situation, stay out of it.” He said something, but I don’t know what it was. He did, however, walk away. 

I turned my attention back to the woman. I learned a couple of things from her: 1) she parks in the garage not thirty yards away from where we were, 2) she works in the building we currently were in front of, and 3) she had just found out her sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The last of those three things told me her mind was elsewhere. She had said, multiple times, she had not seen me. She looked left then right and didn’t see me. Of course she didn’t. Her mind was on her sister—her terminally ill sister. 

With her still crying, I knew right then she was having a far more difficult go of things. Her hitting me was the straw that broke the floodgates open. It was my turn to ask if she was okay. She was not. I knew that. We sat and talked as cars went by, some honking because they were impatient and we were an inconvenience to them. 

Finally, after about fifteen minutes of trying to calm her down, she said she was sorry one last time. I reached over and took one of her shaking hands and said, “Ma’am, don’t say you’re sorry again. You’ve said it forty times. I forgive you. I am okay. Okay?”

I held her hand for probably thirty seconds. One thing I have learned in life is the importance of the human touch. The human touch is personal. It can have a calming effect or a damaging one. This is why hugs in hard times are so important and often lead to people letting their guards down long enough to get a good cry out. This is why physical or sexual abuse is so damaging, because it should never happen and it’s a personal attack on our bodies (and psyches). It can comfort in a time of stress. 

After getting assurance she was finally calm enough to drive the thirty yards to the parking garage, I stood, closed her door and backed out of the road. I watched her make the turn and drive away. 

As I made my way back to the office, this lady was on my mind. I had yelled at her after she hit me. I think it was a natural reaction, but I can’t help but believe that part of the reason she didn’t open her door right away is because of my dramatic display of anger and she was, possibly, scared of me. I felt terrible about that. 

When I arrived back at the office, most of my co-workers were already there. I walked in and one of them looked at me and said something, which I don’t really recall now. 

My response? “If you get hit by a car, do you get to go home?”

It was a tension joke all the way. It was at that moment that it sunk in: I had been hit by a car. Three seconds of my life could have ended much worse than it did. Three seconds either way and this story is different—or maybe not told at all. 

But there’s more to this than those three seconds. There were choices made. I had a choice: call the police and file a police report or look at this woman with compassion and console her. I chose to console her. I chose to look at someone—a complete stranger—as a human being, not as someone who struck me with their car, not as someone I could sue and get money from, not as someone who was negligent and needed to be punished. I looked at her like I would my grandmother, and I hurt for her. I can only imagine what went through her head as she sat in her car: “I could have killed him.” Yeah, that might have been one of the thoughts she had. I can only imagine.

I chose compassion over anger. I chose not to pursue a legal course of action. I chose to forgive and go on with my life. Unlike the guy who passed us and didn’t offer help or even ask if we were okay, I chose to not make this woman’s life any harder. 

There are moments in life where you can do the right thing or the thing you want to do or even the thing everyone else would do. Those are the moments that define you as a person, they show you—and the world—the type of character you have. Sometimes the right thing is easier to do than you think. It’s called having a heart and caring. 

A moment in life—three seconds—and things could have been different in a worse way. This is life. This is the way life happens and life is the very heart of every story.

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

A.J. 

Her Happy Place

A few minutes ago I was working on a story called Whisper. I’m nearly done with it. It’s the first story I’ve written in a long time where I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself to write it and make it publishable. More on that, maybe not today, but later.

Cate walked into the room with the smile on her face that is usually reserved for when she is creating. Tonight she is baking cookies. Not just any cookies, but her sugar cookies that she will ice with the royal icing. They are delicious. 

“Hey,” I said and turned away from the computer. I put my feet on the bed and watched as she dug through a rolling unit of drawers for the right cookie cutter. She found the one she wanted, closed the drawer and looked at me.

I smiled.

She went to the door, turned and looked at me. “I have to get them cut,” she said. I guess she thought I wanted to talk or to get her attention. I didn’t. I just like seeing her that way.

I just smiled again. In return, she smiled, then walked out of the room, closing the door behind her. 

I turned to the laptop and stared at the last few sentences I had written. 

“She’s dead, you know?”

Shelley swallowed hard and nodded. She knew.

I saved the document, then closed it. I spun in the chair and put my feet back on the bed, crossing them at the ankles. I stared at a tie dyed sheet hanging on the wall. It’s something Cate made. I turned and looked at the wall where my desk is. It is lined with pages from a book—Cate wallpapered the wall with a copy of King’s The Stand. On my desk is a replica of the Stoker Award that Cate made me one year when I thought one of my stories was a shoe-in for a nomination and I was sad that it hadn’t received one. We did a Not at the Stoker’s Award show the same night as the Stoker’s event. She called it the Bram Stokeher award. The shirt I currently wear is one she made for my last birthday. On it are the words Who Knew 50 Could Look This Good! On the wall next to the television that sits on our dresser is a painting she did of a door in a garden. 

All around me are the things that make my wife happy. When she is creating anything she is the happiest person alive. Her mind is thinking, her hands are working, her eyes have that determined look in them. That’s her happy place. 

How can I not smile at such happiness and joy. 

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

A.J.

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy?

(This is a rather long post, one where I talk about some of my writing and how I feel about some of those things. However, this isn’t just about writing. It’s about everything you do in life that brings you joy, which leads to happiness.)

I wrote a book a couple of years ago titled, Simply Put. It’s my thoughts on writing, on the craft, on telling stories, and on the things they don’t tell you coming into this business. They are, simply put, my opinions. It is not a how to book. Sure, there are some tips about writing, things I’ve learned along the way, but it’s not a book that teaches writing stories. I’m not a professor at a college who teaches writing and all its little nuances, so I don’t really feel I am qualified to say, ‘hey, do it this way or it’s wrong.’ Besides, I don’t believe in ‘do it this way or it’s wrong.’

Simply Put was set to come out mid-2020, but when the world went into shutdown mode, I decided to push it, and three other books back to 2021. As I sit here today typing this, I’m not so certain Simply Put is ready to be released. Don’t get me wrong. It’s been edited sixteen times. It’s gone through massive overhauls and rewrites. I’ve even taken a lot of snark out because I don’t think the sarcasm and snark are warranted in many places or will serve a purpose. 

Though a year ago I believed Simply Put was ready, now … now I don’t know if it will ever be ready. I’m not sure how I am going to explain this but let me try.

When I decided to get published—or attempted to—I thought I was a good writer. I was wrong. I had several people tell me I was. They were wrong. Those same people said, ‘you should try to get published.’ They meant well and they stroked my ego by suggesting that. Before I continue, I want you to understand something about writing: don’t listen to people you trust when it comes to publishing. Most of those people say you are a good writer because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. They are lying to you, just as they lied to me. They suggest things like ‘you should get published’ knowing fully you probably won’t pursue that avenue. Unless, of course, you do, and by then it’s too late for them to say, ‘oh, by the way, you really suck.’

Though I was wrong about being a good writer, I wasn’t wrong about being a good storyteller. That I have always been good at. When I really want to tell a story, I can do so with flare and humor and I don’t need the written word to do it. I could have been a comedian and told funny stories to crowds of eight or fewer at open mic night at whatever local bar was open at the time. I could have entertained with the oral word (get your minds out of the gutter …).

I may not have been an even halfway decent writer when I started out—I don’t think anyone is—but one element about it was also what pushed me to try and get published. I enjoyed it. The act of writing was fun and exciting. I could visualize things on the silver screen in my head as I typed or handwrote the words. I could watch events unfold for the first time and have the excitement of it all play out before me. Reaching the end of the story and signing my initials and dating the story always brought me great satisfaction. The accomplishment made me happy, but the process of writing brought me joy.

Publishing was the logical next step, even if others hadn’t suggested it. Again, I believed I was good enough to get published. For the record, you should never be ‘good enough.’ Never. Ever. You should always be good, great, awesome, amazing, brilliant, but not ‘enough.’ Enough is like being second place in a two person contest. I know that sounds harsh, but ‘enough’ is not really good. It’s barely getting by, it’s meeting the minimum to not fail. So, first lesson to this post: Never be just ‘enough.’ Never be average when you can be amazing. Oh, and don’t ask ‘what’s wrong with average?’ or say ‘this is who I am.’ Those are excuses to not try. 

So, I was an average writer wanting to be an above average author who really didn’t know what I was doing and who didn’t take the time to or put in the effort to become a better writer. I was just good enough.

For several years I couldn’t get published. I was rejected time and time again until a now defunct webzine published one of my stories. It was called, Diane’s A Whore and Simeon’s Payback. It was truly atrocious. The title alone makes me cringe now. Ah, but getting that story published made me happy, got me excited. It was like a drug and I wanted more of that euphoric high. 

I wrote more bad stories and got published by more bad webzines looking for content they didn’t have to pay much for. Each time I received an acceptance it fed my addiction to get published again and again and again. Hearing someone wanted to publish one of my stories, then seeing it on the computer screen on a webzine intensified that euphoria.

I continued to write, but this time, I didn’t just write a handful of stories a year. For those who didn’t know me in the early 2000s you might find this hard to believe but From 2006-2009 I wrote an average of 126 short stories a year. That’s not including poems, haiku, songs, limericks, novels, blog posts and all the things I didn’t finish. That’s just short stories. Of those 504 stories, maybe a hundred were good. Maybe half that number were good enough. The rest? Slop. 

Though probably 350 or so of those stories weren’t that great, the process of writing and writing so much in such a short period of time was immensely satisfying. I found great joy in the process of creating characters and putting them in crappy situations to see how they managed to survive if they survived. 

I want you to remember one word in that last paragraph for just a little later. JOY. Forget everything else. Okay, well, don’t forget everything else. Just remember JOY.

In 2010, I changed my entire concept—the very idea—of how I was writing. I wrote less stories, but they were longer and fleshed out and the characters were believable. My enJOYment of writing grew, even as I wrote fewer pieces. 

In January of 2012, my first book, Along the Splintered Path, was published by Dark Continents Publishing. I was excited. I was ecstatic. A publisher wanted to put out a book written by me. Sign me up, buttercup. 

In November and December of 2011 and on into early 2012, I had a serious bout of pneumonia. It was bad. Really, really bad. Though I was so sick I would cough until I threw up, and I couldn’t lay down in my bed for nearly two months, I worked on the edits to ATSP and got them back to my editor as quickly as I could. 

The book came out, the reviews were good, the sales were decent, and I was happy. I did interviews to promote the book and things were looking up. Then someone asked me if I planned to put out anything else. More importantly, they said, ‘In order to stay relevant in this business, you need to constantly have new books for the readers to get their hands on.’

What? Relevant? You mean one very good book isn’t going to catapult me to fame and fortune? 

In October of 2012, I released Southern Bones, a collection of 11 short stories. It was the first time I put out a book myself. The process of putting the stories together, editing and getting cover art and learning to format and upload the ebook, then the print version was exhilarating. I was excited and happy with what I had done. With my second book out there, I thought, ‘hey, I’ll get more readers and things will be even better than they are right now.’

That didn’t happen. I did a handful of interviews, but the book didn’t do that well in either sells or reviews. My happiness waned. ‘It’s a good book,’ I lamented. ‘Why aren’t people buying it?’

‘You need a novel,’ someone answered. 

‘Yeah, that’s the ticket,’ I thought. I already had several novels written, but one in particular, stood out. Cory’s Way came out in December of 2014, just in time for Christmas. It did well. It still does well. It is our best-selling book to date. 

I have put out quite a few books since then, some of which you may have read. Each time a book went out, I was happy. Happy. Happy. 

Happy is a fleeting feeling. You accomplish something and you become happy for a minute, then you have to accomplish something else to keep that happiness. You say to yourself, ‘If I only had more money or a better job or a spouse, I will be happy.’ Then you get a better job and it pays you more money and you meet the man or woman of your dreams while working there and get married. You’re happy for a while. Then it wanes. You don’t like the job as much as you used to, you want a raise, and maybe the things you overlooked while dating the man or woman of your dreams you have a hard time overlooking now. Happiness is such a fleeting feeling. 

Do you remember that word I mentioned a few paragraphs up? If not, scroll up and you will find it. I will wait.

Do you have the word? Okay. Say it with me: JOY.

Joy and being Happy are similar but are two different things. 

Happy is feeling or showing pleasure, contentment, according to the Oxford Languages dictionary. A lot of times happy comes after getting something you want or accomplishing something or even marrying someone. It is also fleeting.

Joy is slightly different: A feeling of pleasure and happiness. What brings you joy? Your job? What is it about your job that brings you that joy? Money? What is it about money that brings you that joy? Your spouse? What is it about your spouse that brings you joy? 

Do you follow me so far? Okay, let’s take this a step further.

Enjoyment is the state or process in taking pleasure in something. Right smack dab in the middle of the word enjoyment is the word JOY. Joy is active during the process of doing something. It is called enjoyment for a reason. What do you enjoy doing? What is it that brings you joy?

For me, for the longest time, it was writing and telling stories. The act of telling a story still excites me. However … let’s go back to another thing I said earlier. ‘In order to stay relevant in this business, you need to constantly have new books for the readers to get their hands on.’

Talk about putting pressure on yourself. I took that to heart when it was told to me. I would get antsy if I went too long without a new release. I got frustrated when the books weren’t selling, or the reviews weren’t coming. I kept asking ‘why?’ and not having any logical answers. I promoted the works and even started promoting months in advance. I checked my Amazon numbers obsessively. I checked to see if there were new reviews daily. I questioned myself on whether the books I released were any good. I revamped my social media pages and turned my blog into a full-blown website, all in hopes of driving people to my various pages and upping the sells of books. 

The happiness of a new release was no longer there. It was replaced with ‘I hope this one does better.’ The addictive euphoria was gone. Still, one thing hadn’t really changed: the joy of the process of writing a new story and creating a new book. It waned some and there was a time or six I thought it had died. It didn’t, but it was on life support.

Happiness is fleeting, but joy is always there, even if we don’t realize it, even if we push it out the way because our pursuits and our goals changed.

I put pressure on myself to create stories people would want to read, to put out books that would be good and do well. I put pressure on myself to get readers and reviews and create posts about books on social media and create marketing materials. A lot of writers do. A lot of writers buy into being relevant. A lot of writers buy into the idea of publishing, so much so, they lose the enjoyment of why they write in the first place. 

Why? Why do we do this? My only answers are money, success and … validation. Yes, validation. Writers need publishers and readers and reviews to validate that they are worth a damn at putting words together. It’s not enough to know we are good at this. We need to be told. And that’s the most damning thing of it all. Validation outside of our own minds is the driving force behind so many writers. 

I love writing. I love telling stories. I love the process of putting word after word after word to create sentences that form paragraphs that lead to worlds being opened in my mind and characters being created. I love the act of writing, the process of writing. It is what I enjoy doing. That never fails for me. 

I do not love publishing. I do not love marketing. I do not enjoy the obsession of reviews and hoping readers will find me. 

Creating … creating brings me massive enjoyment. No, it’s not a euphoric high like publishing used to be for me. But it brings me such satisfaction that I want the world to read my stories. 

Recently on Facebook I posted part of a review for my dark collection of stories, Voices. The review was from Scream Magazine and it was extremely good—one of the best reviews I have ever received. Yet sells and more than a handful of reviews didn’t happen for Voices. I was frustrated that one of the best collections I’ve put together had done so poorly. It took the words of a long-time friend and someone I admire to set my mind where it needed to be, to make me think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Here is what my friend, Frank, said:

‘I say that is an excellent review and you shouldn’t overthink it. Unless, of course, what you lust after most in your authorial life is to write for “everyone.”’ And then, ‘Provided you’re content with the quality of what you’ve done … The review you posted flat out confirms you were right about the collection, no ifs ands or buts. The rest is just a crapshoot outside of your control.’

The idea of publishing is grand, and everyone now has the capability of doing it themselves if they choose not to go through a publisher. The idea of publishing so often leads to the need of validation from publishers, readers and other authors who can give us blurbs and help us push our books. The idea of publishing has also ruined the dreams of many writers. Outside of the actual writing and publishing, everything is a crapshoot outside of your control. As writers we overthink things and so many of us small press writers are left scratching our heads and asking ‘why?’

After writing the last 2600 words I no longer believe Simply Put is ready to be released. There needs to be an understanding that you should never let publishing a book or lack of sells and reviews hinder the enjoyment of writing and telling the story. But this isn’t just about writing. It’s about life. Don’t let anything hinder what you enjoy doing. Joy is an active thing. You can actively be joyful and when you are, happiness follows and tends to last longer. And isn’t that what we all want in life? Joy and happiness?

I am writing some of the best stories I have ever written. That joy of writing had been on life support, but now it’s off the respirator and getting its strength back. The joy of creating a book is back and there are several in the works with titles such as The Color of Sorrow and Grim as well as a possible three book set down the road. I still enjoy the process—I’m probably more excited than I have been in a while to create books, then release them. I think you’re going to like what’s coming, starting with Five Deaths on January 12th. I also think everything outside of writing the story is a crapshoot. 

If you’re doing something you used to love and you now longer love it, then you, like me, have probably altered your plans and goals and have forgotten what brings you joy. Be joyful in what you do. It leads to the happiness we all desire, but it also shows in your work. Readers and fans of any type of art can tell when something is forced and when the love of it is gone.

This has been one of the longest post I’ve written, and if you are still here, thank you for indulging me. 

Until we meet again my friends, be joyful, kind and happy.

A.J.