The Rainbow Bridge

She takes a rose with her each time she crosses the bridge that separates one part of the world with another. Today it is bright red, the petals full and thick, its fragrance like Heaven to the senses. She holds a purple umbrella over her head. The clouds are grey, verging on black, threatening stormy weather. The breeze fluffs her brown hair, carrying the promise the clouds have made to her. Her dress billows up and falls back around her legs. 

The toes of her shoes touch the edge of the bridge. She stares ahead at the arched bridge, at the way the stones that construct it shine like black glass. The odd white light that passes through the gray clouds twinkle like stars in a night sky on the stones, reflecting back a prism of bright colors. The rails are wrought iron and black and smooth like marble. There is no flaking paint, no dirt on the stones, nothing to mark a passage of time. 

Here, she slips out of her shoes. They are no more than old pair that has seen far better days, but she hates the click and clack of the heels on the hard stone. She steps onto the bridge, the rose in one hand, her umbrella over her head. The rains will come, but not for a while, not until she is done. At least, she hopes.

The stone is cool under her feet. Shivers run up her legs and into her tailbone. With her head held high, she crosses. With each passing step, the stones’ colors change, from black to reds, to indigos and purples, to greens and yellows and oranges, the colors of rainbows. Halfway to the other side, she stops near the railing to her right and looks out at a world that appears unblemished. Clear blue water flows below. On the bank are tall trees that seemed to stretch into the Heavens. 

A cool breeze blows through her, ruffling her hair and dress. Another shiver follows, this time it’s a full body experience. She steps back into the center of the bridge and continues. 


From where she is, she can see the other side. A dirt path leads from the bridge, bright green grass growing up on either side of it. Trees, not as tall as the ones by the river, stand tall, their leaves green, their bark healthy shades of brown. She’s always liked that side of the bridge, where the grass is truly greener and the world …

She shakes her head and continues on. 

Thirty feet from the end of the bridge, a little girl appears. Her blonde hair is in pigtails, each one dangling by the sides of her head. She has a broad smile on her face that reveals a missing front tooth. Dimples accentuate each cheek and her eyes are a dazzling blue. She wears a pink dress that has pockets on either side of her small hips, but no socks or shoes. 

There are no clouds here, no threatening storms and no breeze to lift her hair or skirt or even pull on her umbrella. There is the sun and there is warmth.

“Good day,” the little girl says and curtsies. 

“Good day,” she repeats back, then extends the rose.

The little girl takes it. “Just the one?”

She nods. “Yes, thankfully.” Or, maybe not. It just depends on how you see things. For her, this could be good, but so often, in so many other cases, it is not. She usually only brings two or three roses, but sometimes she brings half a dozen. Only once has she brought more than ten. On that day her heart hurt as if it had been cut out. That feeling stayed with her all the way until she reached this point, this spot on the bridge. After she would smile, knowing the worst was over, but … 

“Okay.” The girl said. “One it is. He or she?”

“He.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s coming. He’s a bit older than most.”

“A natural?”

“Yes.” She was thankful for this. She didn’t have very many naturals these days.

The girl sets the rose on the ground, it’s red somehow more vibrant on that side of the bridge, somehow more alive. She reaches into one of the pockets and pulls out a brown object, shaped like a bone. “This is for him.”

“I’m sure he will like it,” she says and takes the bone. She turns, her smile somewhat forced. “Here, Boy,” she calls, kneels and holds the bone out at arm’s length, and she waits.

Half a minute passes before she sees him, a tan lab with floppy ears. He’s thinner than he should be for an animal almost twenty in age. His fur is thinner than it was when he was younger. He walks with a limping gate. It’s painful to watch, but not the way some of the others are, those who were struck by cars or killed by their owners or by other dogs. Those are the ones that hurt her heart the most, that make this part so painful. This one, this sweet lab who lived a good life, one where he didn’t fear his owner, but loved him, one where there were no fights or a car that rolled up over him, one where death came naturally as he lay his head in his owner’s lap, his head being petted, this one doesn’t hurt her as much.

His nails click clack on the surface of the stones, much like a pair of heels would a hard floor or concrete. He stops in front of her, his head up, his tail still. He looks exhausted from the walk.

“Here you go,” she says. The dog takes the bone in his mouth but doesn’t chomp down on it. “Good boy.” She pets his fur, feeling the bones beneath.

“Come,” the little girl says. 


The dog looks up at the woman who brought him here, then he steps slowly off the bridge and over the rose lying on the ground. The rose’s bright red petals and green leaves slowly wither until the stem is a dark brown and the petals and leaves are brittle and black. The dog’s pelt grows thick. Meat forms on bones and the limp he had crossing the bridge is no longer there. He sits at the girl’s feet. She pets him and his tail strikes the ground hard.

The girl looks up at the woman. “It’s time to go.”

“I know.” She let’s out a deep breath. “If you don’t mind, I would like to stay a while longer.”

“I don’t mind.”

The little girl turns. She taps her leg with her right hand, “Come,” she says to the dog.

The dog stands, falls in line beside the girl and they begin to walk up the path away from the bridge. 

“Bye,” the woman says.

As if he heard her, the dog stops and looks back. His tail wags fast. 

She waves and the dog turns around to follow the little girl. They disappear into the trees, leaving her on the edge of the bridge by herself. She fights back tears.

It takes a minute, but she finally turns and begins her trek back to the other side of the rainbow bridge. There are other puppies and dogs that need safe travel to the afterlife, others far less fortunate than the one she just walked across with. 

Halfway across the bridge, a breeze cuts through her and she shivers. The clouds are darker than before. She sees the world on the other side. It’s trees are bent and branches lay on the ground. The grass is gray and high, and the path is lined with rocks and roots. It’s a dangerous world, one she wishes not to go back to. A mournful howl beckons her on. Her shoulders slump. She fears this one isn’t so fortunate. With tears in her eyes, she hurries across the bridge.

As she slips on her shoes, it begins to rain. She lifts her umbrella over her head and steps back into the world of the living.

____________________

I started this story in November of 2018. I wrote two paragraphs, maybe a little over a hundred words and had no clue where this story was meant to go. I saved the document with the title, UNTITLED 4. A little while later, I moved the story to a folder titled, UNFINISHED STORIES. I don’t delete any story I start. Ever. I save them and if I don’t end up working on them, I moved them to that folder in hopes of one day coming back, seeing the words and thinking it would be great if I finished it. 

That was the case for this UNTITLED 4. 

I wasn’t looking for this particular story, but something else, a story I thought I might know how to complete. I couldn’t remember what I called it, so I started going through files. Near the bottom of the UNFINISHED STORIES folder are all the untitled pieces. I opened the first three, didn’t find what I was looking for, then opened UNTITLED 4. I read the two paragraphs and thought, Where was I going with this piece? I honestly, have no clue where the story was supposed to go, but I liked the girl with the umbrella and rose and I wanted to know why she kicked her shoes off. 

I moved the story to my desktop and the next day, I opened it, read the two paragraphs half a dozen times. There had to be some significance to four things in the first two paragraphs. They are:

Why was she carrying a rose? What is it’s purpose?

Why was she carrying an umbrella?

There had to be a reason the bridge was pristine. What is that reason?

Finally, why does she take her shoes off? I believed there had to be an emotional connection to that final question. It turns out, there really was.

As I reread the words, my brain started clicking. The stones shimmer with the sunlight. What if … what if the sunlight created a prism of colors that shone off the stones? Then, my brain latched onto the thought of a rainbow bridge. And I knew the story. I still didn’t know the purpose of the rose, but I knew immediately the woman was a sort of grim reaper for dogs and she was ushering one or many dogs into the afterlife, to a place where they can run in the sun with no fears of an angry owner, no cars to hit them and no age to make wither them away. 

I’m normally a fairly fast writer, but this story, though less than 1400 words in length, went painstakingly slow. It’s as if the story wanted me to feel the pain of losing an animal. That brings me to the tan lab. When I met my wife, she had a tan lab named, Sugar. He was smart and sweet. A few years passed and Sugar grew sick. If I remember correctly, he had Cancer and Cate’s brother made one of the toughest, most heartbreaking decisions of his life. In January of 2009, Sugar was, mercifully, put to rest. My brother-in-law was with him to the end. That evening I helped him bury Sugar. He cried. I cried. I wrote a story titled, Farewell Old Friend, the day after we buried Sugar. It was one of the more difficult pieces I have ever written. I might post it here one day. 

This is what I thought about as I wrote about the dog crossing the bridge. For me, this is what I hope happens for dogs as they cross the Rainbow Bridge, they become whole again. 

The rose was the key to becoming whole again. When the dog steps over the rose, he absorbed whatever life had been in it and it restored him to his healthiest. That is why the rose withered and died.

That brings me to the ending of this piece, with her crossing back the way she came. The scenery on the side where the dog was ushered to is a paradise, a dream, a Heaven. But on the other side, the world is gray and dismal and dangerous … and stormy. It is a sad place, a place she never wants to return to but has to. And she puts her shoes back on, the shoes that remind her of paw nails tapping on the stone bridge, and she steps into the gray, bleak world of the living, and into rain. 

I hope you enjoyed this piece, if you can call it ‘enjoyed.’ I hope it moved you and I hope you will take a minute and let me know and share it with others. 

As always, until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Broken Shells

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

Broken Shells (2013)

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

Still, Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach.

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to look for shells.”

“Shells?”

“Yes. Seashells.”

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

“We can add them to your collection.”

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

“You’ll be cold,” I said.

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

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

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

“We shouldn’t stay out long,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“There is no beauty in broken things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no beauty in broken things.

I was wrong. 

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

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

Forever Broken, Forever Beautiful (2021)

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

I can only shake my head at that. 

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

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

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

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that it?” Kimberly asks.

“Yes.”

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

“Are you okay?” 

I’m not. “Yes,” I lie. She knows. 

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

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

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

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

And I haven’t been the same since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s okay.

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

“Thank you,” I whisper. 

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

“Are you okay?” she asks.

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

Crumbled Blacktop–Rough Cuts #3

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” I asked her. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am?” I called. “Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I touched my forehead and pulled back red fingers.

“What’s going on?” 

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

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

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

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

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

AJB

Coming Soon: Five Deaths

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

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

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

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

Spread the news. It’s coming.

Just A Memory

Memories are funny things. Sometimes they are as crisp and clear as yesterday. Sometimes they are hazy, like a foggy morning in the mountains. I think this one is somewhere in between. (These memories are completely unedited. They are written in one sitting and I feel if I go back and edit them, my mind will tell me something is wrong and want to make changes. )

My grandparents lived in the mill hill in West Columbia, not more than a couple hundred yards from the Congaree River. My brother and I spent a lot of time at the river, more times than not getting soaked because we were either stupid, daring or both. We skipped rocks, broke bottles (yeah, with rocks), and even got in trouble one time when the pretty little girl who lived on Alexander Road stepped on some of the glass we had shattered with a bunch of rocks we couldn’t skip (we caught hell for it and had to go down to her house and apologize for being idiots—that’s what my uncle called us). 

We walked those streets like we owned them, even though we knew if we did something wrong, our grandparents would know before we got back to their house. 

There were few kids in the neighborhood, most of them like us who were only around when they visited their grandparents. There was Wayne and David—popular names back then, apparently, and I knew three sets of brothers with those names. There was another Wayne and David who were not brothers (they were cousins) who visited from time to time. Bryce lived on the corner of Sortwell Street for a while and Susan visited her grandmother from time to time (whew, she was a sight for young boy eyes and the only girl on the street). There were the Burnette Brothers whose names I can’t recall now to save my life—they became the models for the bullies in Cory’s Way. They were the local bullies, mean as hell, ugly as hell. Then there was Tony C., not to be confused with my buddy Tony M., who I often called T. 

Tony C. was not much to look at as far as boys went in the late seventies and eighties. I can’t really say I was either, but I think I grew up and became better looking with age. His face was loaded with freckles, his hair was dark brown, skin fair. He was thin and his voice was kind of higher in pitch. He was a part time friend who always tried to intimidate the rest of us. We tolerated him because sometimes there was no one else around to hang out with. We played marbles in my grandparent’s front yard; played cops and robbers at his grandmother’s house two blocks down. We got in more fights when he was around than when he wasn’t. I don’t think we ever truly became friends. 

There was this one time … I think it was the only time any of us really showed some sort of compassion for each other. I was walking down the street by myself. I don’t recall why my brother wasn’t with me, but he wasn’t. I was, maybe nine, maybe ten—memories don’t always recall time too well. I passed Tony’s grandmother’s house to see him sitting on the porch, his knees pulled up to his chin and his arms wrapped around them. His back was against one of the porch pillars. He was wearing bluejeans—he always wore bluejeans—and a T-shirt that I think was white, but I honestly can’t remember. 

I asked him if he was okay. He looked up. He had a shiner that would get worse before it got better. He had been jumped by the Brothers and the fight didn’t last long. I remember thinking he had probably ran his mouth at them and his face paid the price. Maybe that was true. Maybe it wasn’t. It didn’t matter. I opened the gate and entered his grandmother’s yard. I went up the steps and sat beside him. I have no clue how long I sat beside him, but neither of us spoke for the longest time. His sniffles dwindled and he wiped his nose. 

His grandmother came to the door and said it was time to eat. We looked at each other and stood. I shrugged my bony shoulders as if I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t. He wiped his nose again, then Tony C. went inside and closed the door. 

That was the last time I saw him. 

Fast forward many, many years later and my baby brother and I stopped one day in the parking lot of a Bi-Lo’s. We got out and walked. We talked about life and other stuff, but mostly life. We made our way to my old stomping grounds and I took that stroll down Memory Lane. I pointed out things, like where the German Shepard had chased me and my older brother and where some of my friends lived and where the old park used to be and the house where another pretty, but older girl lived and would wash her car in a bikini during the summer—yeah, us boys spent some quality gawking time at that park during the summer.

We passed by Tony’s grandmother’s house and a man was out in the yard. I stopped and asked about the lady who lived there once upon a time. I also asked about Tony. Turned out, he was Tony’s cousin. 

“How’s he doing?” I asked.

“Tony’s dead,” he said. 

I was stunned at this matter of fact statement. The story went like this: Tony had been in all sorts of legal troubles during his life. He had spent time in prison, and as was his life, he got into some more trouble. Instead of going back to prison—which he surely would have, even though his cousin said Tony didn’t do anything wrong—he committed suicide. We talked a little while longer, then said our ‘goodbyes.’

I often think about Tony C., and our tolerating relationship. I also think about the last time I saw him. It was an unspoken understanding we had that day. He needed comfort and I provided it, though I didn’t realize it then. I’ve often wondered if I would have done something different, said something, tried to make him feel better, something other than just sitting there with my elbows on my knees looking out at the street in front of us. I don’t think I would have. I think that understanding: ‘I know you’re hurt and I won’t say anything,’ from me and a simple, ‘Thanks for that,’ from him was the only thing we ever shared that wasn’t argumentative or spiteful. I think it’s the only good way to have ended a friendship that never really was. 

The Down Side Up and Other Things

Before I get started today, I want to state two things. This post will have a LOT of pictures. Second, if you are a long time (or even first time) reader of Type AJ Negative, hit the like button at the end of this post and leave a comment. Give me some feedback, especially about the last part of this post. 

Let’s dive in.

I realize I haven’t been around as much as a couple months ago, but if you have followed me any length of time, then you know I go in spurts. Sometimes I post two or three times a week, then don’t post another thing for a month. I try to go for quality over quantity. I hope that means my absence makes your hearts grow fonder. If not then …

So, where have I been pretty much since the beginning of the year? After not really going anywhere in the year of the Covid, 2020, Cate and I have spent nearly every Saturday of 2021 driving around, visiting parts of our state, going to state parks and spending a lot of time together. Rain or shine, cold or warm, we have been out and about, determined not to spend every waking moment cooped up in our house. 

That’s not the only thing going on. We have purchased a school bus. No, not a little school bus, but a regular sized bus. It’s huge. We’re in the process of renovating it and turning it into a tiny cabin. We call it The Get Away Bus. We got it in January and have spent at least one day every weekend (except for Valentine’s weekend) working on it. 

Cate has also begun pursuing her art. Back in September of 2020, I turned my shop into a studio for her so she would have a place to paint and explore different styles of art. She has done some amazing artwork. (Yes, her artwork is for sale, so you can check out her Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/Cates-Chaotic-Creations-113445590484536

But wait, there is more. 

I’ve gotten back into the Remote Control Car hobby. I’ve spent a lot of time researching things I didn’t know, and learning some of the ins and outs. I’ve rebuilt two of my RCs and fixed two others, including one that hasn’t worked in over ten years. For the first time since first dabbling in the hobby, I’m enjoying it. 

We’ve also restarted the Gettin’ Caffeinated Coffee Tour blog. 

To say Cate and I have kind of thrown ourselves into 2021 is an understatement. 

There is one more thing. This is a big thing. I’ve taken a step back from traditional publishing. It’s something I have thought about quite often in the last couple of years. If I’m thinking about it that much, maybe I should actually do it. This does not mean I will not be writing and putting out work. It just means I’m under no pressure to do so. 

A few years ago, I was told in order to stay relevant I had to constantly put out work to keep my name on the tongues of the readers. With that in mind, I constantly posted on blogs and social media, I sent out booklets to people, I released books and tried to engage people in person and online. I wrote a lot of stories, many of which felt forced and I didn’t like (and which have never been published). I put so much pressure on myself to be relevant that I stopped enjoying the thing I loved doing: writing. 

Here’s an honest moment I hope everyone understands (though I’m sure some will disagree, maybe even vehemently): I feel the publishing model is broken. I feel there is so much wrong with how things are done in publishing, from some of the way authors are treated by publishers and editors to the way some publishers steal ideas from others, to the way royalties are divided, to the way some (dare I say, many) authors no longer care about putting out good work, to how crappy Amazon is for writers and how people view authors whose work is not on Amazon, to writing organizations taking their fees but not really doing much for the writers, to those same organizations frowning on those who choose not to join them. It’s a crappy model and I have no clue how to go about fixing it. 

So, here is what I am doing: I’m creating a Patreon page for my writing. If you don’t know about Patreon, it is a subscription-based system that allows artists to have control of their art and for fans to show their support for those artists by purchasing subscriptions. The page is called The Down Side Up and will be going live sometime in the next eight weeks. It will have exclusive content you can’t get here at Type AJ Negative (or anywhere). Content includes serialized stories never published (quite possibly including my love story I wrote in 2020), an article titled One Step Forward, which is about my journey in the writing world, both the ups and downs. It’s somewhat autobiographical. There will be discounts for books, and we’re debating on video content as well.

I’ve never done anything like this. I have no clue how it will work. I have no clue if anyone will actually want to pay a subscription for my stories and my thoughts. I may get one subscriber. I may get twenty. I may get none. But I’ll never know unless I give it a try. I may go back to traditional publishing at some point, and yes, I will still put out physical books and do events, and yes, Type AJ Negative will still be here. For now, I feel it is time to go in another direction.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blogs, my stories and my thoughts. As a person, it means a lot to me. Don’t forget to like this post, share it with your friends and leave a comment below.

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. 

Right Now: Grasshopper

So …

Here we are, you and me, me and you. Where do I begin?

Okay, how about from the beginning.

Stick with me a few minutes. I’m not sure how this is going to work out.

Eddie Van Halen died. Most, if not everyone, knows that. Then the best friend of someone I am close to at work passed away. Here it is a little more than a week after that and someone I know passed away. 

Please, don’t leave yet. This is not going to be all doom and gloom. Sure, the first part will be, but I promise I will try to pull it back, try to be positive at the end of this. Okay? Stick with me a little longer?

When Eddie Van Halen died, I saw a lot of comments on websites and blogs where people wished they would have been able to tell him how much of an impact he had on their lives. He had an impact on a ton of musicians, and so many of them wish they could have told him that. Here’s the thing: they could have. In today’s world of social media and websites, it’s so easy to contact sometone through their various pages. Would they see it? Maybe not. Someone else might read these things and Van Halen may have never seen the first ‘hey, thank you for what you did.’ Would he respond? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. However, you said your peace, you sent him the message and that effort is what matters. You could have told him. You could have. Now you can’t. 

Those last few sentences seem harsh, but they are not meant to be. They are meant to show you a way to actually attempt to tell someone what they mean to you. 

Okay, one more thing before I continue, one more link to Eddie Van Halen. The song Right Now came out in 1992. I was twenty-one at the time and angry at the world, which was kind of my default setting. The song is about living in the moment, not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. It’s about not being afraid. We only have right now. The past is gone. The future is never obtainable. We have right now. That is it. Right Now.

Fast forward to a post I saw on Facebook. Another author tagged me in it. I read it, smiled and realized, though this was the author’s way of showing how he got to where he is today, it was also his way of saying ‘thanks for what you’ve done for me.’ This was his Right Now moment.

Let me be upfront about something before I continue on: I’m horrible with praise. I’m uncomfortable when I get praised. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. I just don’t know how to take it. It’s such an oxymoron.

The author said I took him under my wing, that I challenged him to be the best he could. I say this: that is true. I did take him under my wing, and I challenged him, but there were times I was an utter jerk about it. There were times where I would fuss at him and point out minor things when he was starting to get the big picture. I was so frickin’ hard on him when it came to his social presence and how he presented himself on social media. The words he said in some of his posts drove me nuts, or some of the argumentative stances he took were bad looks. 

We had a lot of good conversations about writing and life and life and writing. I called him Grasshopper. He didn’t seem to mind.

But I fussed at him so frickin’ much when it came to writing. I was hard on him. 

When I was a kid, my dad taught me about discipline. I got in trouble one time and he didn’t yell at me, he didn’t spank me or smack me around. He didn’t do anything until Saturday morning when I wanted to sit down and watch School House Rock and the Saturday morning cartoons. 

“Boy, come on outside,” he said to me.

“But …”

“Come on outside.”

I went outside and my dad said, “You see those boards and bricks?”

“Yes, Sir.” (It was always yes or no Sir. Always.)

“I want you to move them over to that corner of the yard,” he said and pointed to the opposite corner—the furthest possible spot from where the pile was. “But before you do, you need to clean that corner up so it’s not a mess when you get finished.”

For the next four hours I cleaned the corner of the yard he wanted the boards and bricks, then moved them, and stacked them neatly.

“I’m done,” I told him. By then School House Rock was over and the Saturday morning cartoons had given way to whatever movies played that day. 

My dad looked at the pile, then back where they had been. He shook his head. “I don’t like them there. Move ‘em back, but before you do, clean that corner up.”

I can’t remember what I did, but I’m certain I never did it again.

This was how I was disciplined. This is how I was raised. This is how I treated the young author. My dad wasn’t being a jerk. He was teaching what not to do in life. I didn’t feel like I was being a jerk but teaching this author about things in writing others wouldn’t. 

I saw promise in this young man. I also saw a steady influence of comic books and action hero movies in his writing. That’s great for, I don’t know, comic books and action hero movies, but not necessarily for fiction. 

We did a couple of competitions, which he didn’t win. But I saw effort, and effort is important. Effort shows you want something, and you will work to get it.

Then he challenged me to a one on one competition. The subject was Switchblade monkeys, whatever that is. We both wrote and posted the stories in the online group we were part of. He won. The story was good, and he deserved to win. I didn’t like losing, but his story was better.

I don’t know if he believed he had arrived at that point by beating me—I didn’t lose many competitions back then—but that’s when I saw the effort wane. Or maybe that’s when I realized he could do better than the effort he put into it. 

I rode him harder after that. I didn’t feel like he was giving his best in every story he wrote. I felt he phoned in a couple of the ones I read. I ripped them apart, pointed out issues, things he knew better than to do. 

But what the heck? He kept coming back. He kept asking questions, like the annoying little mouse in the Warner Brothers cartoons. It wasn’t that he was annoying, I just felt like he wasn’t getting it. But he was. That’s the thing, he was. 

I saw improvements, but there was always something that wasn’t right. It’s as if I was a dad saying to his son, “You came in second place, that just means you’re the first loser.” He was a better writer than when I met him, but I still rode him like Bobby Knight in an Indiana basketball practice.

Then we had a falling out. It was part his fault, part mine. We didn’t talk for a while. The details aren’t all that important. 

Out of the blue he sends me a link to an interview he did. I didn’t look at the interview for a couple of weeks. He sent me a message, asking if I read it. I didn’t respond. Then I read it. He mentioned me in glowing terms. In. Glowing. Terms. That’s the first time he said I had helped him, that part of the reason he was the writer he was is because of my help. 

I responded with something that wasn’t a thank you or a thanks for the shout out. It was my normal “You came in second place, that just means you’re the first loser,” type response. I was still angry. He had extended an olive branch and I wanted nothing to do with it.

A year or so later, I went to Amazon and looked him up. He had several books out, some of them good, some of them okay. I contacted him about a couple of the reviews, focusing on the negative ones. “What about these?” I asked him. “Are you good with this?”

Still. Riding. His. Ass.

We may not have talked too often, but I still followed what he was doing, who he was signing with, what books he was putting out and how he acted in social media realms. Some would say that is stalking. My daughter calls it Intensive Research. I call it checking on someone who had so much potential. I realized something by stal … umm … checking in on him. He had listened. All those years of me riding him, he had listened. Something got through and he had listened. He had taken a little bit of this and a little bit of that and mixed it with a little bit of him and created his voice and his style of writing. 

He not only listened, but he learned. 

Not too long ago, I contacted him. We had been on again off again in our friendship/relationship/whateveryouwanttocallitship. It could be the Good Ship Lollipop. I don’t know. I said something to him I never said before: “I’m proud of you.”

And I am proud of him. 

I see writing differently than most. I’m not a traditionalist. I’m not someone who follows all the rules. I believe you should always be learning, and you should always try to improve how you write. I also believe stories should come from a desire to put together something amazing. I believe you should experiment with your words. I don’t believe in action, action, action, swearing, swearing, swearing, sex, sex, sex. I believe a good story doesn’t rely on crutches. And I don’t get bothered by other writers who think I do things wrong. Each person has their own belief on how it is done. And that is the key. 

This author has his own belief on the way to write that fits him. He’s no longer the writer who sees things with a comic book and action hero movie influence. He can put together a story, in his own way, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

Did I ride him hard? Yes. Did I ride him too hard? Sometimes. Was I jerk? On multiple occasions. Do I regret the way I was with how I taught him? Let me see: He’s grown into a fine writer. He’s matured in how he presents himself to the world. And I’m proud of him as if he was my own son. No, I don’t regret it. 

I’ve gone on for a long time here. Lots of words have been spilled on this subject. Except for two, the name of the author. His name is Lucas Pederson. He is a horror author and I’m proud of him.

This is my Right Now for today. I just wanted to take this time to say, “You’re not the first loser, Grasshopper.”

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

A.J.

Learning, Training, Practicing–Say What?

I talk about writing a LOT. I talk to anyone who will listen. However, I usually don’t talk about my work, my stories, what I am working on unless I am asked. Most people don’t want to hear about it, so no need to bore them with the things I find exciting in my work. Unless you are my wife, my editor or my publisher, you won’t hear me start a conversation about my writing.

Writing has brought me a lot of joy over the years. It’s been therapeutic. I’ve been able to express my sadness, anger, jealousy and resentment in stories. I’ve also been able to express my happiness, love and humor. I’ve been able to creep people out, make them cry, make them smile, make them feel. Having someone feel something after reading one of my stories is one of those things that drives me to get better, to learn how to write better with each story I tell.

Learning. That’s the ticket, as my old friend, Chris, would say. 

The entire sentence is important, but that one word … that one word makes the sentence and, for lack of a better term, the story. 

Learning is one of the most important aspects of life, and not just as a child, but as an adult as well. 

As a child, you learn how to roll over and get onto your stomach. Then you learn how to crawl. Eventually, you learn how to pull yourself up to a standing position. This is followed by many attempts to walk the way you see your parents or older siblings or anybody else in the world who, well, walks. You learn the most important word of your childhood by hearing your mother repeat, “Say Mommy.” Interestingly enough, saying Mommy or Da-da is like a competition for the parents, with each one hoping their child will say their moniker for parent first.

You learn by watching what others do, by listening to what they say. I find it interesting that as children under the age of two, we are/were at our most attentive, listening, seeing and learning selves. Little ones soak up everything you say, everything you do. Then they try these things, like walking and talking. It’s amazing. Don’t believe me? Cuss one time in front of your child and see what happens. At such a young age, we train ourselves to do things we see others do. Yes, I said train. I’ll come back to this in a second, so stick with me for the next couple to few paragraphs.

At some point, most children want to learn how to ride a bike. Most first bikes come with training wheels. They’re called training wheels for a reason: they help you stay upright on a bike as you learn to peddle and steer, as you train. You get on the bike and Mom or Dad gives you a gentle push, maybe even walking right alongside you as you first put foot to peddle and make the bike go. By doing this, you, the bike rider, are both learning and training yourself on how to do something. The learning is mental. The training is physical. Your brain tells you, push down on the peddle with this foot, then push down on the peddle with the other foot. With conscious effort, you put your foot on the peddle and push down. The peddle turns the gears with the bike chain wrapped around them. The bike goes forward. 

The effort is the training. When you actually physically do what your brain tells you to do, you are training your body how to do it and your brain how to remember it. In this case, your brain tells you how to peddle and you physically attempt it. You’ve seen someone do it, so you are already learning what you are supposed to do. The first few times are usually awkward and difficult, but eventually, the muscles in your legs and feet and hips all work together and you begin to ride the bike with less difficulty.

Then the training wheels come off and you get that push or that parent running alongside you and the front wheel wobbles as you try to steer while looking down at your feet, at the peddles that don’t want to do what you want them to do. You probably crashed a few times as you trained your legs to peddle and your body to balance and your hands to steer the handlebar straight so you don’t tip over or crash into something. 

Eventually, though … eventually, what you learned in your mind, you trained your body to do and you rode that bike. You got excited and probably screamed at the top of your lungs in happiness and exhilaration because, by God, you rode the bike. And you probably crashed. But for a moment, you rode that bike and you were the king of the world as Jack said in Titanic. 

You learned, mentally, what to do. You trained, physically, to be able to do what you learned. 

So far: learning is mental and intellectual, and training is the continued attempts to do what you learned. 

Life isn’t only about learning things and training is not just physical. It’s also about training your mind and your body to do things. 

Early in life, I was not all that great at math. Two plus two equaled four like it is supposed to, but multiplication and division and algebra were struggles to learn. Being told four multiplied by four is sixteen is great but being shown was better. Being shown was great but given problems to solve was better. I also hated it. The higher the numbers got, the more difficult it was for me to learn their totals. You want me to multiply eight by nine? Are you serious? Are you some sort of math psycho who relishes the struggles of us non-mathites? 


I also found math boring. 

Then I started watching sports. Sports is all about math. The scores are done in numbers. The statistics are all numbers. The records are numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. 

In order to understand statistics, I sat down in my room with a pencil and paper and wrote out the multiplication table, starting with one and going to twelve. I struggled with it until I realized that each number was simply added by the number of its multiplier (something the teacher could have explained and I probably would have understood a lot quicker). For example: six multiplied by seven is six added up seven times. 6+6+6+6+6+6+6= 42. I then wrote out every problem as I did in that example in the last sentence. I added them as if they were simple addition problems. 

By doing it that way, I trained my brain to add quickly. So, if someone said, ‘Hey, add this up for me,’ then tossed out a few numbers, I was/am able to tell them the answer fairly quickly. 

Learning the multiplication table wasn’t difficult, but it took training my brain to process those numbers for me to learn math. Now, math is second nature to me, and I can usually spout the answers off without much thought. 

Training is mental as well as physical. 

As we get older, learning and training become more difficult, not because it is, but because we make it difficult. I’m too old to learn new things. We make excuses as to why we can’t do something. For most of us the truth is we don’t want to learn something new, we don’t want to train our brains or our bodies to do something new. And that’s where we fail, not just in learning, but in becoming better at something … anything. It’s arrogance. It’s ignorance. It’s laziness. 

Are you still with me? I hope so.

I have a friend. Yes, just one. His name is Dameion. We both write and we both have our own viewpoints about writing and storytelling. (For the record, Dameion is one of those writers I am envious of. His words just spill off the paper.) He’s like a brother to me, one I never see, but talk to when we are both available. We were talking recently about writing. You learn how to write in school—or at least you used to. You learn basic sentence structure and punctuation but that’s pretty much it. Most of this stuff you forget. Why? Because you are told about it, not shown how to do it. When you are shown, you’re only given a handful of assignments or opportunities to actually practice it. You take a test, pass or fail, then move on to something else, so it doesn’t stick. 

What sticks is when you physically do something. By physically doing something repeatedly, you train your brain and your body to remember how to do those things. It becomes muscle memory and you do it without thinking once you’ve practiced it. For example: they say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. You might get rusty, but if you learned how to ride a bike at six and you stopped riding a bike at sixteen, at fifty-three you will be able to get on a bike and ride it. Muscle memory.

Telling a story, orally, is easy. If you’ve ever told a good joke, then you have told a story. Why did the chicken cross the road doesn’t count. Okay, fine, we’ll let it count, but only if you told it to someone who had never heard the joke. Good luck with that.

When you verbally tell a story, you get into it. You add little things to show the person (or people) listening something about where you were or what was going on. You can become animated with hand gestures and tone of voice and facial expressions. By doing all of this, you show your listener(s) the story. If you are really good at it, you can be a comedian. 

You learned how to tell a story by listening to others tell stories. If they were good at it (as my grandfather was), then you will pick up some good pointers by watching them. If they were bad at it, then the lessons you pick up will not be the ones that help you tell a good story. When you’ve seen someone who can speak, either in public or private, it doesn’t mean you can become a great speaker. It just means you have seen someone else do it right. It is up to you to gleam what you can from it and practice what you learned. The practice aspect is part of the training. It’s where you train your mind to think, your voice to have tone, your facial expressions and hand gestures to be coordinated with your words.

Writing is the same. A lot of your learning comes from reading. You learn neat turns of phrases, styles, descriptors, pacing, dialogue, and plenty more from reading. The trick is to not just learn these things, but to practice them. 

When I wanted to become a better writer, I picked the brains of other writers. I asked questions and read stories that were suggested to me. If I wanted to know about dialogue, I asked questions about it, then I wrote stories that were dialogue heavy to see if I could move the story along using conversations. If I wanted to learn descriptions, I asked questions about it, then wrote stories heavy on descriptions, then flipped the script and wrote stories light on descriptions in order to try and find the sweet spot for descriptions. The talking to writers and gathering information was the learning part. The putting words to paper and writing was the training part. 

Then came the practicing.

Are you still with me? Hang on a little longer. We’re nearing an end to this (probably) confusing topic.

Practice is honing what you have learned and trained yourself to do. 

I was a good basketball player. When I was a kid I loved Len Bias, who played for the University of Maryland. He was smooth and fascinating to watch. He was, in my opinion, the greatest basketball player to never play in the NBA (he died of a drug overdose the day after being drafted by the Boston Celtics—I cried). Though I wasn’t a fan of the University of Maryland, I watched their games when they came on television just so I could see Bias play. I paid close attention to the way he shot the ball, the way he played defense, the way he moved up and down the court. Then I would go outside and try to teach myself what I saw him do. After a while, I moved on to other players who did things that interested me. Jeff Lebo played for the University of North Carolina and was a great outside shooter. Michael Jordan (come on, do I need to say who he played for?) was a phenomenal defender and a better passer than most people give him credit for. 

I watched them to learn what they did. I trained myself by trying different ways of doing what they did. I practiced daily.

Practicing something you have learned and trained on will only make you better. 

All of this points to one thing in particular: training your brain. When you train your brain, it becomes muscle memory after your body is trained to do it. All of us have something we are good at, but we didn’t get good at just by saying we were going to be good at it. We became good at it after we learned, trained,  and practiced. All of that starts with your brain, with a thought your brain has, with you putting forth the effort to learn, then applying what you learned. 

The bottom line to the previous 2300 words is this: if you ever want to be good at something (you know, like writing), you need to learn it, train yourself to do it, then practice at it. Hmm … I probably could have just said that to start with …

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


A.J.