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. 

The Story of Orville Hammonds

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

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

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

He looked up the road and he remembered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know what you want, but—”

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

Orville collapsed and his world ran away from him.

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

“About time you woke up,” someone said.

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

“I thought I killed you back there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yeah.” 

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

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

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

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

“Or course you do, old man.”

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

“He used to. He’s dead now.”

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

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

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

“Suit yourself, old man.”

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

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

“That’s what I asked.”

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

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

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

I don’t see it.

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

He conceded to that rationale. 

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

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

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

‘This was a long time coming, Ellie,’

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

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

‘I’ll be fine,’ he said.

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

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

“Isn’t that what everything’s about?”

“No.”

“Really, old man?”

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

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

Orville said nothing to this.

“Didn’t like that, eh, old man?”

“Not particularly.”

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

***

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

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

‘He’s harmless.’

‘He’s almost an adult.’

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

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

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

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

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

That boy was Brady Crawford.

***

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

Some people have long memories.

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

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

Get up. Get out of here.

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

I have to try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He must be asleep.

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

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

Oh boy.

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

“Where do you think you’re going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see you found Dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You … you stabbed me.”

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

“You stabbed me.”

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

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

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

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

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

Oh crap.

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

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

***

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

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

Gary Crawford came down a few days later to apologize.

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

‘I hate that it came to this.’

‘Me, too, and I really am sorry.’

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

He was wrong.

***

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

AJB

BLINK, A Short Story

BLINK

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

It is 1982.

BLINK

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

The store sells everything a small country town could need. 

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

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

BLINK

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

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

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

They live off of Social Security benefits.

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

BLINK

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

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

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

Carl nods. The big guy doesn’t. 

BLINK

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

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

She hates it. She hates all of it. 

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

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

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

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

“She’s fine,” Alecia says. 

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

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

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

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

BLINK

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

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

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

BLINK

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

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

Carl nods. 

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

“Is that all?” the man asks.

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

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

Carl does.

BLINK

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

BLINK

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

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

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

BLINK

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

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

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

It’s not that far away, she thinks. 

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

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

“Hmmph.”

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

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

BLINK

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

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

“I must have gotten shook up a little.”

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

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

As he approaches the store, his stomach grumbles.

BLINK

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

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

“Can I have the matches, please.”

“Umm … yeah, yeah. Sure, Alecia.”

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

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

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

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

“Does that mean free?”

“Yes. Yes, it’s free.”

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

Alecia smiles.

Jim’s eyes grow wide.

BLINK

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

What if something happened to her?

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

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

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

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

“Just wait until you get home, Alecia.”

BLINK

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

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

“Hello?” he calls out. “I’m back.” 

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

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

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

That’s blood, Carl.

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

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

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

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

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

BLINK

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

From behind her comes footsteps and someone shouting.

BLINK

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

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

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

Maybe I misplaced the gun.

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

She doesn’t find the gun.

BLINK

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

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

“Hey!” he yells. “Hey, little girl.”

BLINK

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

“Hey! Hey, little girl!”

He’s close. Too close for her liking.

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

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

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

BLINK

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

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

He lunges. She pulls the trigger.

BLINK

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

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

BLINK

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

He rolls away and is groaning. 

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

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

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

BLINK

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

BLINK

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

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

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

“Nothing.”

BLINK

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

BLINK

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

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

AJB

Space Available

I live in South Carolina. I have worked in downtown Columbia since May of 1990. It’s nuts to see that thirty years have passed since May 29th of that year. A lot has changed. I’ve gotten older, gotten married, raised two kids, released fourteen books and had over 200 stories published in various online and print publications. I’ve blown out my knee, had pneumonia, had a heart scare and a few other things that could be considered life altering events. I’ve lost many friends and some relatives to the eternal sleep. I’ve had some good times and I’ve had some bad times. That is the way of life.

On that Tuesday in 1990, my boss at the time, a young woman named Sheri who was not much older than my twenty years, told me, and I quote: “Go across the street and tell them you want a short, sweet blonde.”

I smiled because, in truth, I really did want a short, sweet blonde. Or, really, any blonde. But that is besides the point.

I left the office, went across the street and stepped into the little mom and pop cafe known as The Lunch Box (established in 1980). When I walked in, I saw two small tables with two chairs each, one directly to the left of the door and one directly in front of me along the wall. A glass refrigerator stood behind the table in front of me. Inside were various salads, banana pudding, and boiled eggs. To the left of the refrigerator was the entrance to the cooking area. That opening wasn’t but maybe thirty inches wide. A counter spanned from there and formed an L that ran the entire left side of the area just beyond the table directly to my left. 

Behind the counter was a short, round woman. Her name was Vickie. She was pleasant and funny, but also a no-nonsense woman. Making sandwiches was another woman, Eleanor. It turned out, they were sisters and they were the owners of The Lunch Box. Next to her was a young man named, Todd. 

I walked up to the counter. There was a young woman in front of me who had just ordered her food. Two people walked in after me and stood in line behind me. 

“Can I help you?” Vicki asked.

“I hope so,” I said. “I need a short, sweet blonde.”

The girl who ordered before me smiled, almost embarrassingly, for me. Vickie also smiled in amusement. I probably should have phrased my request differently. 

“A small coffee, with cream and sugar,” Vickie said and rung up my order. She gave me the coffee shortly after, and she was still smiling when she did so.

That was the first time I had stepped foot in The Lunch Box. Over the next twenty-nine years of my life, I would go there quite often for my breakfasts and lunches. I loved their chili cheeseburgers before switching to their hotdogs with chili and cheese and mustard, no onions, please. 

I got to know Eleanor and one of her sons. I became friends with Vickie and was even treated to her one of a kind creation, The Vickie Special. 

For almost forty years, The Lunch Box had been a mainstay on Lady Street in downtown Columbia. During that time period, Vickie passed away from cancer but Eleanor remained, running the place with a welcoming smile and a conversation. 

In early April of this year, as places all across the world were closing their doors temporarily due to the coronavirus, The Lunch Box did the same. I must admit, I was concerned that the doors would remained closed. 

Today, I walked to the post office on Marion Street. On the way back, I walked down Lady Street and went right by The Lunch Box. The front door had been busted out during the race riots in May. There was a piece of board where the glass had been. On the window to the left was a sign that simply said, Space Available.

I stood there for about thirty seconds looking at the sign. I shook my head, saddened by the absolute realization that The Lunch Box would not be coming back. I last ate a couple of hotdogs from there about a week before they closed the doors. This was a sad moment for me, and I’m sure many people in the area will be as saddened.

I think back to Vickie’s amused smile when I told her I was looking for a short, sweet blonde and I can’t help but feel a piece of my life—one thirty years in size—is now gone forever. I think about Eleanor and her asking how I was doing, then how my marriage was going, then how my kids were doing, then how my writing is going. I’m going to miss that place, it’s friendly atmosphere and people.

To Eleanor, to Vickie, to Todd, to all of those who have worked there and brought us good food that wasn’t expensive, as well as smiles and real conversations, thank you for all the great years you gave us. God bless you all. I’m sure I can speak for all of downtown Columbia, you will be missed greatly.

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

A.J. 

Right Now: Harris and Hunter

Life is about change, Everything in life changes from birth to death. Change is important … Hmmm … I have a feeling I might use those three sentences again real soon.

I start this off with that first sentence for a reason. Most of you know me as A.J. Brown. That is not a pen name. Those are my initials and that is my real last name. However, when I started writing, I didn’t write under my initials. I wrote under the name given to me at birth, shortened to what most folks call me: Jeff. 

My first thirty-nine publications all came under the name Jeff Brown. It’s not the coolest name and there is even a punk song with my name as the title by Mi6. It’s not very flattering. And, no, the song is not about me. 

Back in 2004, I submitted a story titled, The Woodshed, to a publication called The Butchershop Quartet. It was an anthology of four stories put out by Boyd Harris and Cutting Block Press. I wanted so bad to get into this publication.

I didn’t make it in. I honestly don’t believe I came close to making the cut. However, when Harris sent the rejection notice, he didn’t send the dreaded form reject. He wrote me a little letter. I can’t remember it word for word, but here is the gist of it:

“I think you have good ideas, but you don’t have the skills to pull them off.”

No, that is not an insult. That is just honesty. And it wasn’t worded quite like that. Harris was nicer in his assessment. Looking back now, he was right. But he didn’t just make a critical point about my writing. He invited me to an online writers’ group called Zoetrope Virtual Studios. It was my first foray into social media, but it was in a web forum style. The name of the group was +The Horror Library+.

I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t sure about it. I wanted to become a better writer, but I didn’t know Harris. For all I knew he could have been some psychopathic serial killer. Thankfully, he wasn’t. 

I joined Zoetrope under the name of A. Jefferson Brown. Sounds kind of distinguished, but that wasn’t what I was going for. To this day, I still don’t know why I chose that username, but it wasn’t to sound distinguished. Once I joined THL, I sat in the shadows and read a lot of posts from writers who were way better than me. I was thoroughly intimidated. I was out of my league.

It was eye opening. 

These writers did something I thought was crazy. They posted rough drafts of their stories and had other writers and editors tear them apart. What type of sorcery is this? After a while I was encouraged by a couple of writers to post something I wrote and let them read it. It was then that I realized I wasn’t that good of a writer. I didn’t have the confidence in my words to submit one of my stories for others to criticize. I had thin skin and I only wanted people to praise my stories. 

I had been pretending up to that point. I wasn’t a writer. I wanted to be, but I couldn’t say I was a writer. Not after realizing how little confidence I had in my work. But I made it a point to get better. In making that decision, I chose a story I had written called Black Cancer. They tore that story up so bad it should have been considered a crime scene. 

Over the next couple of years, I submitted more stories, participated in contests, asked these better writers questions about how to do things, and I worked, worked, worked on the craft of writing. From 2005-2008, I wrote nearly 500 short stories and two novels. Over half of those stories were experiments in writing. 

During that time, I became friends with some great people. Boyd Harris was just one of them. There was Fran Friel, who is like a big sister to me. Chris Perridas, who my wife and I hung out with at Waverly Hills Sanitorium in Kentucky. Petra Miller, John Mantooth, Michael Dixon, Erik Smetena, Dameion Becknell, who might be might twin in theological beliefs, Steve Sommerville, Michelle Garren Flye, Jamie Sunshine, C.J. Hurt, John Lovero, Frank Hutton, all of whom pointed me in one direction or other (even if they don’t know it).

Then there is Bailey Hunter. Bailey allowed me to be myself within the group. She was funny and had no problems letting me asks her questions. She’s smart and the owner of Dark Recesses Press, who I always wanted to put a book out with. Maybe one day I will. She was also the web admin for +The Horror Library.Net+. She was a member of the Terrible Twelve. She encouraged me more than everyone except for Fran. 

Bailey is also responsible for A.J. Brown.

In 2006, two of my stories were accepted for publication with THL.Net (A Bone White Hand in March, and Drainers in June). In June, I became a contributor to THL.Net. That meant I got my name on the site. Bailey input the information and after my story had been workshopped with the Terrible Twelve members, it went up. That story was Bone Yard

When Bone Yard went live, I went to the website to check it out. In the place where my name was supposed to be was A.J. Brown. I smiled. I have always wanted to go by my initials. One of my favorite football players when I was a kid was A.J. Duhe, a middle linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. I still don’t know why she put my initials up, but I contacted her and asked her about it. She apologized and said she would change it. I think I yelled, NO! out loud. I didn’t yell it in my message to her. I just said, no, leave it.

From that day on, I have written under the name of A.J. Brown. 

I’ve lost touch with a lot of the writers I learned from in the early 2000’s, but Bailey and I still keep in contact, thanks to social media. As of this writing, she is getting married soon. I wish her a ton of happiness in that marriage. 

Though I haven’t heard from Boyd in a long time, I can point to me submitting to his anthology and his rejection letter as the cornerstone for me being the writer you guys love. Or, at least, I hope you love. I can point to Bone Yard and the name attributed to the story as the beginning of A.J. Brown. It was the thing that gave me confidence in my words. After that, I’ve had no problems showing people my stories. 

Boyd Harris, wherever you are, thank you. You put me on the path I follow to this day. To Bailey Hunter, thank you for mistakenly putting A.J. Brown on that first story. It stuck and that’s a good thing.

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

A.J.