I worked hard on this, along with the outstanding international team from Misery Development. If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic books, this will be right up your alley.http://mdtseed.com/
They shape us, sometimes sculpting with care, but often chipping away at who we could be. For expectations are born both from within and from without. Left unfettered, expectations will crush a soul, reduce an artist to rubble, and smash the joy we should feel every day.
Our parents start the process… “You go to a good school, get a good job, marry well, have children, and work hard. Go to church on Sundays. We absorb these ideas until they seem to be our own.
Then our peer group kicks in, and they can either help or hinder the process of personal growth. In my case, my friends from school and early adulthood tended to be unconventional. I tried to have it all, marrying a lawyer and writing songs in Nashville and never quite fitting in. Like many writers and artists, I strived for conformity, yearning for acceptance. But as an unknown writer, I was always just on the other side of an invisible door. I could see the people, smell the food, and hear the music, but I was more spectator than participant. So close, yet infinitely far.
Artists and creatives who surrender early on my find happiness if they can kill that part of themselves which longs for artistic success. It’s tough to achieve a balance.
We believe, deep in the secret places of our heart, that we are living a certain kind of lie, that there is something else out there in the universe whispering, then shouting, exhorting us to yearn for more. We chaffe against the bonds of the past and the expectations which threaten to confine us. Some of us are lucky enough to shed those shackles, and that is a glorious thing, an awakening of the spirit.
Yet, when we look beyond the borders we have been confined to and set our eyes upon the distant mountaintop, we begin another journey in which our own great expectations do us harm. It’s inevitable.
We dream great dreams and imagine a future of rainbows and unicorns where our art is heard, seen, read, and important. We visualize how things could be and convince ourselves that they not only should be, but that they will be thus because it is our destiny. Ahh, the arrogance of an artist. We must possess some of it, for we dare to believe that someday, somewhere, we will make a difference and that our work will matter. This drive can propel us to great heights, but it can just as easily destroy us.
I write because I must. My pen touches the page and I and mix color and emotion because I need to pull the swirling tempest of light and darkness out of me and share it with the world.
When I remember this truth, I enjoy the journey toward that lofty peak, savouring the scents and vistas along the way. I am free of expectations and can live, love and laugh in the moment, and the moment is what matters.
I strive to remember, because the moments will only keep slipping away.
story by SEAN T. SMITH
The Carl Vinson carrier strike group is poised to unleash hell. President Trump has promised that if China cannot reign in North Korea, the United States will handle the “problem.” In past weeks, the U.S. sent 59 cruise missiles into a Syrian airbase, closing it down for about six hours. Our forces also dropped the MOAB, aka the “mother of all bombs,” on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Cable news media fawned over the “beauty” of our firepower. In recent years, our military has conducted drone strikes throughout the Middle East, and has waged prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as a nation, we cling to the belief that we have the moral high ground and the United States is a shining paragon of virtue and morality.
In short, we have refined hypocrisy to an art form. Our nationalism blinds us to history, our ignorance compels us to blind faith, and our faith binds us to destruction. Our leaders reflect these beliefs, and our commander-in-chief exemplifies the nation’s staggering propensity for self-righteousness. We reap the consequences of our collective hypocrisy globally and nationally every day, and as the world hurtles toward the abyss of nuclear war, it is worth examining our faith.
MORAL HIGH GROUND?
In April, the Iraq Body Count project (IBC) reported civilian deaths from violence are 173,686–193,965 from the second Iraq war. A National Geographic article published in October 2016 puts the number of deaths considerably higher, at almost a half-million.
Airwars reports that this March alone, 1,200 civilian casualties occurred in Syria as a result of coalition air strikes.
The U.S. is the only nation in the world to deploy nuclear weapons in war. Conservative estimates place the cumulative death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at 225,000. The narrative is that these bombs were necessary to end World War II, and save American lives. This may be true, but the fact remains that those bombs resulted in nearly a quarter-million civilian deaths.
The U.S. also boasts more people in prison, by far, than any other nation on the planet.
According to the CIA, 56 countries have lower infant mortality rates than the U.S. Some of these countries include Bosnia, Cuba and Latvia.
Today, 46 million Americans live in poverty; the poverty rate in the United States is the highest in the developed world.
Do these statistics sound like a nation that has the moral high ground?
President Trump has discovered that his ratings go up when bombs fall, a fact that gives Americans a good reason to pack a bug-out bag and stockpile seeds and dried food. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and its fearless leader seems almost as anxious to play with his toys as ours does. Unlike Jack Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, who took the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and who were each careful and calculating, we now have Donald Trump and Kim-Jong-Un, two man-babies playing a game of chicken with nuclear warheads.
Whether it’s Iran, Syria or North Korea, what gives the United States the right to make a preemptive strike, including a nuclear one? The argument can be made that it’s in our national best interest. That is not a moral argument, however, and selling such an action to the American people always involves moral superiority. The enemy is “evil.”
If war breaks out in North Korea, hundreds of thousands of civilians will die. North Korean artillery will shell Seoul, and there is no way for coalition forces to stop the ensuing slaughter.
If we start wars that result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and children, how can we still claim to be virtuous?
GOD MUST BE AN AMERICAN
Without the evangelical vote, Donald J. Trump could not have won the Electoral College. Christian fundamentalists, who profess to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, largely supported him because he stated that he’s pro-life. Many were single-issue voters who ignored his statements on other issues, and who also decided to overlook his public statements and lifestyle choices.
Many of the same people who voted for Trump because he claims to be anti-abortion don’t seem to mind rushing to war and killing innocents. They also overlook the bodies of immigrant children washing up on shores both foreign and domestic.
The pro-war, pro-gun, anti-safety-net group defines itself as “pro-life.” Yet they voted for a narcissist billionaire who wants to cut programs for the poor. How is this possible? After all, Jesus said, “If you wish to be complete, sell all of your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven; then come follow me.”
The same folks who howl about government intrusion are perfectly willing to insert the government into our bedrooms and women’s wombs. Protestors carrying signs and bibles shout that All Lives Matter, yet somehow the Black Lives Matter movement is wrong.
We have collectively become so inured to hypocrisy that we no longer even recognize it. Unless we take the time to examine our beliefs and our actions as a nation, we can no longer call America the leader of the free world.
We must lead by example. We must show, rather than tell; act rather than pontificate.
She means to mean well; you can almost admire her tenacity. She never quite makes it over the hump to where she actually means well, but you can see that she’d like to. You wish you didn’t hate her, because hating people doesn’t do anybody any good and everybody knows that, but she sure makes it easy, when you figure it out.
When you look over your shoulder, it’s plain and you wonder why you didn’t see it before, but that’s how life works. We understand our mistakes after we’ve made them more than once and they’ve smacked us in the face, and maybe we can do something about them or maybe we can’t.
She reminds you of mistakes, and you allow her whispers power.
She will cut you in the knees, the ankles, slashing with smiles, severing truth and leaving festering doubt until you cannot stand and fight because she means for you to fight yourself.
She means to mean well, and she cannot even manage that. She is focused on her wants and needs, and those things never wind up the same as being good to anyone but her, and she can’t get over that wall. She hurts everyone around her, including herself.
You know her when you think about her, and later, when the gray starts to show, you see what a poison she is. She’s that friend who wasn’t, the love that isn’t, and the dream that will never be.
Canadian thriller author Jamie Mason and I are collaborating on CERTAIN FURY, which will release March 25.
This is a fast-paced novela about a nation and White House in crisis. When the embattled President is deemed no longer able to discharge is duties, the line between patriotism and treason is bloody. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06VTDFMQQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1486783849&sr=8-1&keywords=certain+fury+by+sean+smith+and+jamie+mason
Here’s my first newspaper article; I’m hoping to write many more. My take on our current state of affairs, here in the United States, the featured backpage editorial this week in Folio Weekly. Follow the link below to read.
I’m not sure what’s real and what isn’t anymore; the dreams started again. I wake most nights coated in sweat with a strangled scream on my lips, and the feeling that I can’t breathe. Maybe the nightmare is reality, and I’m only now sliding back to it after all these years. Perhaps I’m dead, after all. There are times, especially in the dark of the night, when the rain beats down on the roof with the sound of a cascade of pebbles and the branches beyond my window sway and leer in the shadows, when I wonder if I’m not still back there on the hill.
I’ve tried to reach Logan, but he never answers; I wonder if he shares the same dreams, and doesn’t want to talk about it now because it might make what happened then seem more sinister, more real. Like what happened before is going to come back to haunt us again because it can.
Sometimes it’s easier to bury things we cannot vanquish. We made a vow to each other back then, swore we wouldn’t speak of that night again, and we stuck to it. We skirted around it, and if the conversation looked like it was going to get too close and mean, someone would change the subject and make a joke about girls. We didn’t want it to be real, so we decided to make it fantasy. A month later, Logan moved to England with his mother, and I haven’t seen him since.
I was twelve, Logan was eleven, and John was fourteen. We’d been friends all our lives, growing up on the same placid tree-lined cul-de-sac in Jacksonville, Florida. I lost two friends, my childhood, and pieces of my soul that night. Often, the things we bury rise again; when they come for us, there is no where to hide.
I woke up while it was still dark outside, a hollow, flying feeling in my chest, one of excitement and possibility. It was Saturday morning, and there was no school on Monday. Better still, we had a big plan for the day. This was going to be an adventure, not the lame sort of backyard fantasy we usually engaged in, but an actual exploration of parts unknown. I’d prepared the night before, emptying my school backpack of its crumpled papers and unsigned notes, stacking books and binders on my nightstand, replacing them with four Snickers bars, bottled water, a Swiss-Army Knife, one family-sized bag of Ranch Doritos, and a detailed map of the city.
I checked the time on my phone, a recent addition to my collection of home electronics, and the one I liked the most. Because now I could call and text my friends anytime. I sent John a quick text.
I padded across the wooden floors, putting my shoes on only once I got to the front door. Mom and Dad wanted to sleep in on Saturdays, at least until 7:00. They’d notice me missing, but we had it all planned out. I was at John’s, John was with Logan. Our folks wouldn’t worry, because we did that sort of of thing all the time, and our parents all looked out for us. It wasn’t much of a stretch. We just had to make it home by dark. They would figure someone was watching.
That particular Saturday, though, we were going to travel. We figured that we could maintain an average speed of at least 6 miles per hour on our bikes (we debated this for hours during the days leading up to our excursion.) We had an effective range, therefore, of thirty miles, as long as we still had the stamina to bike home. Five hours in, three to explore, five or six to make it back.
We pedaled hard along silent streets where trees hung low and porch lights casting a meager glow were the only way to tell the street from the sidewalk. The occasional dog barked, but other than that, the night was still, and my breathing seemed louder than it should have been while the tires ground the road and the chain clicked on my red Mongoose. We pushed east and north, following the route we’d planned across the slumbering city. It was late October, and the air was crisp and clean, and my mottled green Army jacket flapped in the wind behind me.
I marveled at my freedom and innate daring and congratulated myself for venturing so far from home in such pirate fashion. I was a benign Columbus, seeking the new world, or Galileo, pushing the boundaries of the solar system, for I was an explorer at heart and a believer in the idea that boundaries were made to be broken. With the wind in my hair and the sun breaking over downtown, I felt something glorious tugging at my soul. Like I knew something no one else knew, a secret made me smile to myself.
An hour after sunrise, we made it to the highest bridge in the city.
“Holy crap,” John grunted, standing on the pedals, grinding up the steep slope of the Dames Point Bridge.
“I’m gonna stop now,” Logan huffed. “Keep going if you want. I’m walking the rest of the way.”
“I’m pretty tired,” I said. “Let’s walk to the top. This thing is nasty.”
“Wimps,” John snorted. But he got off his bike. I think he was relieved that someone had suggested walking.
None of us had ever tried to bike up a hill of any significance. Jacksonville was flat, and this thing was Everest in the winter. Impossible, relentless. I was sweating and out of breath. I climbed off the bike, legs quivering and sweaty under my jeans.
As we neared the top of the bridge, vertigo hit me. The St. John’s River looked like it was miles below. Downtown Jacksonville appeared small in the distance, with the sky-scrapers clustered together off to the south and west. We’d come far.
Cars blew past us, and I noticed some of the drivers giving us dirty looks. A few of them appeared worried. Mostly, though, they ignored us. Since it was early on a Saturday, there wasn’t too much traffic. Still it was dangerous. The bridge was four lanes, and every time a semi went by, I felt the air- wash blast me and threaten to fling me over the low railing.
I paused beside a red bow and fading flowers tied to the metal railing with a string.
“What’s that?” Logan said from behind me.
“Suicide,” John said with authority. “People jump from this bridge every year. Number-one spot here in Jacksonville to end it all.”
All three of us stopped beside the red ribbon, gazing down. I imagined what that would feel like to fall from here. The seconds of flying, with the water hurtling up at me like a concrete wall and the brown marshes sprawling in the distance. What was the last thing he saw, that sad person who leaped into the great unknown? Did he see his mother’s face, or his son or his wife, there at the end? Did he focus on the towering smokestacks at the utility company’s power plant, falling, falling, rather than the river or the sky? Did he wish he hadn’t taken that last step on the way down, screaming because he figured out that he made a mistake after it was too late?
“I wonder why he did it,” I murmured.
“He was brave,” John said, squinting out at the river, his voice two octaves lower than normal, a bit of gravel in it. “He wanted to see if he could do it. I guess he did.”
I cut my eyes sideways at John. He’d been going through it at home, I knew. He didn’t talk about it much. He tried to make jokes about his dad and mom. Sometimes, though, when he had a new purple bruise on his face, he’d get a far-away look in his eyes while he joked, and you just knew how bad he hurt inside. When it was cool outside, in the spring and the fall, the shouting from inside his house spilled out through open windows and onto the street. Sometimes, police came.
“He was a coward,” I said bravely.
John snorted. “What do you know about anything?”
“He gave up. You gotta keep on, and eventually it gets better,” I said with earnest. “If you give up, it never gets better.”
John cocked his head sideways and grinned at me, slapping me on the back of the neck. I was struck by how old and wise he looked just then, like he was a big brother visiting for Christmas and he’d already seen the world, been in the Army, gotten married, and had kids of his own.
“You’re right,” he said. “I’m just messing with you.” But he had that far-away look.
“Let’s go!” Logan howled, already coasting downhill.
“Ya know I’m gonna win,” John said with a sly smile and an exaggerated southern accent, hopping onto his bike with one fluid movement and kicking forward.
We flew down the bridge, and it was glorious. The wind whipped my face and the sun shone golden on the face of the water while I hurtled down the bridge. The smell of the ocean and marsh filled my lungs and I shouted the kind of scream I normally reserved for roller-coasters; this ride was better, though, because it was real, and it was mine. The struggle up was worth every second of the road down. Johnny zipped past Logan during a long lull in traffic, swinging around him and leaning hard into the handlebars, pedaling furiously rather than hitting the brakes.
I hit my brakes every few seconds, because I was going almost as fast as the last car that went by. I whipped around Logan, too, right before he dismounted and decided to walk down. A hundred yards ahead, John put his hands in the air and kept going, no-hands, while the slope of the bridge flattened out.
Johnny stopped ahead and dismounted, waiting for me. My brakes smoked with effort, my entire bike vibrating under me as I slowed.
“Holy crap!” He said.
“Yeah. That was awesome,” I replied, unable to wipe the grin from my face.
“Let’s do that again!”
“We will, on the way back,” I said.
“No, I mean right now. Why not?”
“Well, we’ve still got a long ways to go. That’s a long haul back up.”
“Yeah, but this is the best part. Don’t you think? What’s going to be better than this? We should do this again and go home. Man, that was better than I thought. Freaking amazing.”
“You don’t want to hike the plantation? That’s part of it, you know. See where the slave quarters were. Maybe we’ll see Old Red Eyes.” In local urban legend, “Old Red Eyes” was the ghost of a former slave who’d lived and died at the plantation, a man who’d raped other slaves, and been lynched by fellow slaves for his crimes from a live-oak tree on the grounds. Over the years, many visitors claimed to have seen red eyes glaring at them from the rear-view mirror. We’d discussed the legend and were dying to see for ourselves, though we lacked the resolve to see the grounds at night.
“Not really. I wanted to go on this little trip for the bridge. I couldn’t care less about seeing some dumb made-up ghost. I’ll do it, but I’d rather try that downhill again and go home. You don’t seriously think Logan’s going to make it all the way back, do you? I mean if we keep going? Look at him.”
I glanced back up the bridge.
Logan scrunched his shoulders every time a car passed him, leaning away, seeming to shrink into himself. He might have been crying, but I couldn’t see his face. “He’s tougher than you think,” I said.
John gave me a smirking nod. “All right, man, whatever you say. He’s got more stones than both of us, I’m sure. But he’s gonna whine all the way home, I promise.”
We watched Logan get back onto his bike and coast down the part of the bridge that wasn’t so steep. His eyes were red when he pulled up next to us, and his nose was running.
“Hey,” he said. “That was the coolest. You guys are fast.” His voice cracked and his eyes were wide. “We’re almost there. I can’t wait.”
“Yeah,” John said. “Need some new underwear?”
“Kiss my butt,” Logan said.
The dreams come every night now, and they are getting worse. I can’t focus on writing the novel I’m under contract for, so I’m writing the truth. This manuscript is just for me, a kind of therapy. A journey, I guess. I spoke to my editor and she suggested that I see someone about it, knowing I wouldn’t.
“I call editor,” she said yesterday. She knows I’m eccentric and becoming more so. Felicia probably thinks I’m just performing the author’s equivalent of character-acting. Believing my story so I can tell it right.
I finally spoke to Logan in VR, after pestering him for weeks. He hovered in front of me, wearing an impeccable blue suit and yellow tie, speaking with an equally perfect Oxford accent.
“William,” he said. “It’s great to see you after all these years. Even if it’s not in the flesh.”
“Hey, Logan,” I replied. “I hope this isn’t too weird.”
“No, no, not at all mate. I’ve been very busy, but I’ve always got time for an old friend.” In virtual reality, we faced each other. Behind him, floor to ceiling bookcases lined the walls of an intimate study, a massive wooden desk in front of him, a cracking fire burning in a stone fireplace at his back. We both knew that he wasn’t making time for an old fiend, because we weren’t friends anymore, merely people who once knew each other.
“I guess life’s been good,” I said, smiling at a man I did not know. He was tall, slim and square-jawed. I could see the Logan I’d known when I looked at him now, and I felt a certain kind of pride. Like maybe I’d known all along, and he became what he should have, and I had something to do with it. Which was preposterous.
“Indeed,” Logan said, with a magnanimous sweep of his hands. “I suppose I could say the same for you. I read one of your books.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“So,” Logan said, checking the gold watch on his wrist and arching his eyebrows, “why now, after all these years?”
“I sent a few letters after you moved,” I said.
“Hmm. I never got them. No worries.”
“Have you been having dreams, Logan? Anything strange. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve got to ask.”
“Not at all. Why?”
“Nothing tugging at you? Memories, visions, anything?”
“We haven’t spoken in decades, but let me tell you something,” Logan said, his voice dropping and becoming ice, like he’d rehearsed this conversation. “I always appreciated your friendship, but I hate the fact that you filled my head with nonsense. It caused me more pain than I’d care to admit. I’m thankful that I moved away from you, because you poisoned everyone around you. Truly, I was hoping you called for another reason; an apology, perhaps.”
“So, wait. You’re telling me you don’t think it happened?”
“Of course it didn’t. And, I know exactly what you mean when you say it. Look, I’m sorry your life isn’t quite what you thought it would be. And I’m sorry about Johnny. That’s how it goes, old chap, though. You can still do something great if you decide to. Your imagination is truly impressive. Always was.”
“So, you weren’t there at the hill? That’s, what, a construct of my mind?”
“What happened, then, if I made it all up?”
“Kids got hurt. And you made up a good story to explain it. And I believed it, like you did, I suppose, because that was easier than the truth. It took me years of therapy to figure that out.”
“So, you think I’m crazy, now, I guess? You don’t think about it anymore? There’s nothing happening now that makes you wonder whether or not I wasn’t telling a story?”
“Old friend,” Logan smirked, “you really should speak to a mental-health professional. I’d love to chat more, but I’ve got another VR meeting in thirty seconds. Feel free to call again, though.”
The screen went gray, and I yanked the set off my head. I knew we’d never speak again.
The ruins of slave quarters stretched for more than a mile along the plantation site. Each one was white, bleached with age, roofless, once smooth walls aging and crumbling beneath the Florida sun, the patina walls whispering with evil that erected those structures more than a hundred years ago. A few tourists walked around with pamphlets, muttering to themselves, pointing at this and that, smiling and laughing.
I was shattered.
There were too many. Too many buildings, too many tourists. Too many broken lives. This place tried to be a museum and a memorial, but I felt that it didn’t succeed. Generations of families died and lived on these grounds, stripped of their freedom and living secret lives in these wrecks, finding faith in what they could. There was a stain of evil, a reverberation, an echo clinging to the earth. I felt it in my soul.
That the original owner was a decent man, as slave holders go, was swallowed by the greater evil perpetrated here. I’d been raised to view slavery as abhorrent, a thing for which there is never an excuse, because it destroyed families and people, and stripping a human of freedom was the same thing as killing him, except worse, because a good man would endure bondage for the sake of his family and children, clinging to a thread of hope for them.
We walked away, like everyone else did.
Before this land belonged to Zebidiah Kingsley, Timucuan Indians lived here for thousands of years. They were killed off with the arrival of white men even before “Manifest Destiny” was a phrase of justification.
Vines hung onto the trail, thick and gnarled, the size of my wrist, and spider-webs caught the late-morning sun amidst the shadows, with Golden Orb Weavers the size of my palm hanging in the middle of ornate webs spanning ten feet. Live oak trees shaded the trail, a loving canopy, a tunnel, with Spanish moss weeping long and hanging low. In the scrub, squirrels chattered, birds twittered, and reptiles rustled among dry leaves. The sound of my breathing mixed with the crunch of my sneakers on twigs and the cries of birds, and there was a darkening.
The forest was dark and unfriendly, and sounds grew muffled; even my breathing didn’t sound the same. It was like I was underwater in a swimming pool, the way that sound gets distorted and seems father away than it is.
That’s when we saw the hill.
It was an anomaly. A sloping mountain rising from the woods that was only a mountain in the way that a landfill looks like natural phenomenon, but is actually Mt. Trashmore. It wasn’t huge in the way of an actual mountain, but it looked vast and scorched and out of place nonetheless.
A wooden sign with hand-written paint in faded red proclaimed “DO NOT ENTER.” The sign hung over an old chain-link fence rusted and beat into the ground.
“Woah,” I said.
“What the hell is that?” John said.
“I think we should leave now,” Logan said, voice cracking. “Go home.”
“I’m tired of following rules,” I said. “Let’s do this. This is a dumb sign, like every other dumb sign. Who cares?” I said that, and I wish I hadn’t.
“Right,” said Johnny. “Let’s do this.”
“No,” said Logan.
“You can wait here, if you want,” I said.
Johnny climbed over the fence in one easy move, and I followed him over. Logan huffed behind me, getting his shirt caught on the edges, muttering to himself the whole time.
We wandered into the dark tangled woods beneath the black hill. My arms burned with cuts from Devil’s Shoestring, nasty vines armed with needles which cut the skin and broke off inside, and saw-palmetto which raked wrist and face and drew blood.
We made it to the base of the hill, where the trees and scrub died, charred and crisp until nothing grew. There was an aura of dread about the place, a sense that we were violating something, walking where we should not tread, and there was a thrill in it, a shivering sort of danger which attracts and fascinates and dooms boys and men.
John was the first to reach the base of the hill, and he bounded up, his running shoes crunching on the blasted soil.
“Hey, this is sick,” he exclaimed. “This shouldn’t be here. But it’s awesome!”
I followed him, busting through the last brambles and webs, needing to climb that mountain of darkness because it was there. Adrenaline pumped through me and my heart hammered and the sky and the woods seemed to have a certain clarity, an odd sort of sharpened, jagged and dangerous tint to all of it.
“What are you waiting for?” John howled, scampering up the blasted, scoured hill.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Logan whined.
“See you at the top!” I hollered. I stepped onto the black sand, which wasn’t really sand, I saw. It was more like hardened ash. Cascades of it slid down the hill in my wake as I climbed. I slipped a few times, and had to throw my hands out to catch myself. Ahead, John kept climbing up.
The temperature dropped, as though we were on a real mountain and we were approaching the tree-line where the icy wind tore at anything alive.
John was already at the summit, hands on his knees and out of breath. “This is so cool,” he said. “Wait ’till you see this.”
I made it up to the top, clawing at the charred and shifting ground on the last steep bit. John offered me his hand, and I took it, hauling myself up to the apex. We straddled a pyramid, I saw, one with a blunt top.
We waited a few minutes for Logan to catch up. His nose was running and his eyes watered when he climbed the last few feet.
“Wow,” Logan said, attempting a brave smile. “This is too weird.”
“Got that right,” John replied. “This thing shouldn’t be here. Or at least, because it is here, people should know about it. Some kind of historic site, at least. Open to the people. What the hell is it?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Maybe some kind of Indian burial ground,” Logan offered. “Or one of those shell mounds, except different from the rest. Is it just me, or is it cold? And what happened to the sky?”
I looked up. The sky was wrong, dark and lowering the way it looked when a thunderstorm was about to unleash buckets of rain, but without the roiling clouds. Instead, we stood beneath a menacing charcoal, like a planetarium were the universe went one artificial color.
“Let’s go,” I said, my voice breaking from more fear than puberty. I felt small.
John, perhaps my hero and certainly the bravest of us, looked terrified. “This ain’t good,” he said. “I’m–” He took one half of one step.
John froze, one Nike shoe suspended above the slope, as though time itself stopped him, like a DVD on pause, like a video game character halted mid-stride because Mom is hollering to turn off the game, and you’d better take out the trash right then. John quit moving in a way that real people don’t quit moving.
He rose from the ground, still with his right-leg extended. He levitated. It couldn’t happen, but it did. Neither of his feet touched the ground, and he drifted up until his shoes were level with my head. His eyes rolled back in his head and just the whites showed and he shimmered with light, stark against the darkening sky.
“What the hell?” Logan screamed.
I probably screamed, too. I’d like to think that I didn’t, but I’m sure I did. I do know this, though: I ran.
I scrambled and slid down the hill, and Logan was right behind me. I ran through the scrub and thorns and webs and the sky was dark. My breathing seemed loud and my heart jackhammered in my chest and I shivered while I crashed through the dark woods.
Logan kept whining and whimpering, and I kept running, heedless of the cuts on my face and tears on my face and blood on my hands and arms.
We stumbled through the woods into a clearing dominated by a brick mansion with boarded-up doors and broken windows, a two-story home with a castle-like minaret.
The place was old and abandoned, and the cracked bricks crumbled from the walls. A murder of crows lined the roof top, cackling and jumping with nervous energy, and the air was cold beneath a sunless sky.
“Araggah! Help! Logan screamed.” Or maybe, it was me.
We plunged around the house, and kept running through the woods. And we wound up in front of that house again.
“NO!” Logan said.
“Keep running,” I said, cold and terrified.
We kept coming back to the house. I don’t know how many times it really happened. At least three times, we returned. It seemed like a hundred, a thousand, an eternity spent in hell. I was out of my head, because nothing made any sense.
The last time, though, the door to the house was open. I remember that much. Every time before, the door was boarded shut with plywood and two-by-fours. And then, we came back up the slope, the door hung open. I ran inside, and I’ll never know why I did that. Maybe, because I’d already gone around so many times, I had to do something different.
I stumbled through the house in the dark. I saw crude paintings on the walls in the anemic light, stick-figures scrawled red in violent poses, primitive skulls and images of human sacrifice. I felt the darkness pressing close and mean and I swear there were candles in that house, too, burning slow in the corners amidst the rubble and sagging timbers, and walls oozing blood.
I ran out the back door, the only place that seemed to offer hope. On the far-side of the house, three coffins, wooden and rotten, lay on the ground. I screamed then; I’m sure of that memory. I stood before them, and the woods around me were gone. The house behind me no longer existed. There were the coffins, and there was me.
I spun around, and Logan was gone, too. It was just me and the boxes. No sound, no light beyond the diffuse gray. I stumbled away, my steps awkward and thoughtless, and came back to the coffins. I tried over and over again to leave, yet I returned.
I stopped, finally, panting and quivering with fear. I opened one of the coffins. My friend Logan lay there inside, looking peaceful and wearing the clothes I’d seen him in the last time I saw him.
I didn’t know what to do. I cried, there in the woods with the wrong sky and the coffins and the wet-spot on my pants. I prayed. I ran again, and came back to the coffins, although this time, one of them was open, and Logan was in it, looking like he was sleeping, like I’d left him.
I opened the next coffin, feeling like I had no choice. Like a video game where you have to unlock the door to move on to the next level. The second coffin was empty. There was only one way out.
I walked to the third coffin, and I pulled off the lid, the smell of rotten wood and corruption strong in the frozen air.
I saw myself, dead and pale, lying stiff against the wood.
My eyes flew open. Not my own eyes, but the eyes of the corpse who was me, yet not-me, eyes white and uncaring. The corpse lashed out and gripped my arm with the quickness of a snake, fierce and strong, and it pulled me into the darkness.
When I opened my eyes again, blue lights flashed and radios squawked and people were yelling at me. That’s how I remember it. No one believed me then, and I’m not sure I believe it anymore, either. They never found Johnny. He was gone.
I’m going back. I left my friend there on that hill. I never saw him again, and folks made me believe I’d lost my mind, convinced me that monsters don’t exist and that it’s better to forget than remember. Sometimes it’s easier to burry what we cannot vanquish, yet often we find strength in the truth.
Maybe Johnny’s living in Malibu and living the good life now, and he simply ran away from home that day because he couldn’t take any more bruises. That’s what the police decided, and even my own folks didn’t believe my story. Johnny’s childhood was stolen from him before we left that morning years ago, and mine ended that day in the darkness.
Who know’s what I’ll find? Perhaps I’ll come back to that scorched hill and see myself again, and this time, everything will be different, and the truth will set me free.
After the bombs rained down, the world entire was an open wound; it was in those bleeding years that I became a man. I was twelve on November 8, 2016, the day America lost its collective mind, a day which now lives in infamy for those of us who remain, the few that survived The Fall.
I recall that my father never believed the country would elect The Donald; we used to laugh at the news shows as a family, shaking our heads in disbelief at the words spewing out of the man’s mouth, and marveling at the way so many decent people were willing to overlook the threats he made. It was all there, nothing concealed. The racism, the misogyny,the blatant lack of human decency was on full display on television and on the internet twenty-four hours a day during the months leading up to the last election. The other candidate had some issues with emails. No one remembers what those were anymore.
That was back when we had email and televisions and cell phones. Kids go blank now when we try to explain those devices, because that technology is so far outside the realm of reality, children don’t believe it ever existed. The old-timers who were there are viewed with great skepticism and a certain disdain, as though we are woefully ignorant of U.S. history.
Back when there was a United States, we used to learn history. Most of our history now comes from legend and lore, and history is no longer written, but spoken and sung.
But I remember.
The dollar collapsed. (This was when currency existed, before the time of barter). After that, the entire global economy imploded. Civil unrest spread like wildfire throug the city streets across the United States and western Europe. Nationalism surged, and interment camps sprouted up on both contingents, where refugees and dissidents were rounded up and never heard from again.
Russia invaded the Balkans, and the west cowered in fear. NATO no longer existed, weakened by the U.S. pullout, and the EU itself was ripping itself apart. There was no way to stop the horde of armor rumbling across eastern Europe. The United States stood idly by, vowing to act on behalf of England and Germany, but staying out of the fray. “There will be peace in our time,” the President promised. Another lie in a long line of them.
I don’t know who launched first. Maybe it was the U.S. Maybe it was Russia, or Iran or Israel. It escalated too quickly from several tactical launches to full-scale global nuclear war to be sure. ICBMs streaked past one another through space and pounded major population centers. Submarines stationed off coastlines unleashed payloads onto military installations and vaporized navies.
We were on our way to the family farm in Tennessee when the Emergency Broadcast System blared in the middle of the night. I asked my father what the glow in the sky was, far off to the south, where the horizon looked like the sun was about to rise, the darkness cut with orange streaks.
“That’s the world dying,” my father said.
Later, when skeletal families showed up at the farm dying from radiation sickness, dysentery, starvation, or plague, I remembered what Dad said. He was right. The world was dying, and I watched the death throes every day for years. After the initial die off, there were more years of anarchy, when we were attacked by roving bands of people that didn’t seem like people anymore. They were animals, bent on death and destruction, murdering for fun and food, raping for pleasure, enslaving others because they could. The law of the jungle was the law of the land.
I’m lucky to be alive, I know. I lost my family during the years following the Fall. Now, when my kids ask me about it, they wonder why America didn’t do something to stop it. I tell them that most people are kind and decent, but that the really bad ones have a way of convincing everyone else to overlook the truth. I tell my children that because there’s nothing else I can think of that makes sense, and the words leave me with a hollow feeling.
Maybe there is hope, though. Maybe my kids will get it right, and the next generations will be better than the ones that came before.
He flowed onto the bar, elbows perched upon the hard edge with his shoulders slumped, a cigarette in one hand while the other aimlessly caressed a shot of whiskey, neat. The smell of stale beer and smoke mingled with decades of accumulated broken dreams and lingering hope. He regarded his reflection in the bar room mirror, and his face, gray-bearded and worn, stared back at him, half obscured behind rows of liquor in the dimly lit dive.
“Hey, John, you want another one?” Mickey said. Like he didn’t know.
John fell back into the foggy trance he’d wandered in for the last hour, meeting his own gaze, a certain kind of defiance in it. He remembered the first time he came in here, how he sat in front of this same dammed mirror, perhaps even on the same padded stool, back when he was shiny and new and his eyes burned with that fire which comes with youth and certainty. It was empty that first afternoon, just him and Diane, who still owned the place, and old Billy, who was sitting at a battered piano playing a hit song he’d written back in the seventies, three chords and the truth. It was magical; John was hooked.
That was why he’d moved to Music City, to be around people like that, places like this. To write songs and play music until all hours of the night and grasp the thrum of creative energy that hummed in the air all around this place and inside him. He yearned to find a way to unleash it, to tap into a force greater than he, to channel those ideas and create something great.
In those early years, ideas danced all around him in the way of magic, swirling threads of many colors, each one a line, a melody, an emotion, a truth. He figured that all he had to do was reach out and grasp those threads, weave them together, and sit down with his guitar, and something beautiful would eventually emerge, a song never heard before. Nashville, and then the world, would recognize this rare talent, of course, and reward him with the praise and cash commensurate with his ability.
It had only taken John a few weeks to figure out that he’d overestimated his unique skill set, which proved far less rare than he’d initially believed. There were folks writing poetry and lyrics that would have made Kirstofferson proud, singing their asses off in front of empty bars and tip-jars. Yet, he kept believing, working to get better, honing his craft. His fingertips were calloused from long hours playing his guitar, and his skin grew thick with rejection. Sometimes he wanted to quit, but he didn’t because he believed. Really, he didn’t have a choice, for writing was in him.
The years slid by while John wrote and played songs and networked and drank on Music Row. He lost his wife, who grew to despise him in spite of her kind nature, and he lost himself, too, somewhere right in the vicinity of where he now sat. She couldn’t forgive the wasted potential, and neither could he. She had a great job, while he was a mere “aspiring writer.” That’s how she introduced him at cocktail parties, and it made him grind his teeth then. Ten years of marriage down the drain. He wanted to think he was better than he was, and that label was something he chaffed at. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.
“John, do you want another one?”
“What do you think?”
“You’re too ugly to be an ass, and not old enough to get away with it,” Mickey quipped, sliding another one across the bar.
“Thanks,” John said.
“Written any songs lately?” Mickey said.
“A few. You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Mickey used to write songs, too. But last night he sang the same four songs he’d played relentlessly ten and twenty years ago, though now his voice was shot to hell. Back when John first heard the man sing, he sounded like Garth Brooks. Now it was like Garth on gravel with bad pitch. Back then, writers would pass around a beat-up guitar at the bar until five in the morning, after the bar was supposed to be closed, and Mikey would play harmonica while Billy made the piano sing and someone was always there on the fiddle, and there’d be mandolins and upright base-guitars, and girls singing harmony. All the while, the beer flowed and people laughed and wrote and played and created. It was joyous. That’s how he remembered it, anyway.
“What happened to this place, man?” John said.
“Progress. We’re busier than we’ve ever been. Nightly live shows, tourists come in and out every day. Business has never been better.”
“It’s dead, though.”
“The hell it is! Look at that table over there, a tour bus from Tampa. They just tipped me a hundred bucks. This place is hopping now. You’ve been gone a while.”
“The whole Row has changed. It makes me sad. Don’t you wonder what the hell happened? The publishers all moving away, high-rises taking over. There’s no heart here anymore. It used to be…intimate. Now it’s all corporate, impersonal, worse than I remember it.”
“You sound just like the Doctor Doom I remember,” Mickey laughed. “I never liked you then. You were arrogant, always bitching about “politics.” Guess what? You don’t have what it takes. Never did. And this place is still here, while you’re just passing through.”
“Screw you, Mickey.”
“You deserve it.”
“Maybe. But I’m just trying to sit here and have a drink in my old watering-hole.”
“It’s not your watering hole any more. So, you don’t get to talk bad about it now. I saw your ex in the paper last week, by the way. She looks great. A real peach.”
“Good for her,” John said, meaning it.
“So why’d you get divorced, anyway? I remember her coming in here to meet you, her all dolled up and professional in her business suit and you in your cut-up jeans and long hair. We all wondered when she’d leave your ass.”
John picked up his glass and gripped it tighter than he usually did, a slight nod of his head as he had a conversation with himself, the one where he reminded himself that he had much to lose and nothing to gain by coming across the bar.
“That’s not how it was. But you can go ahead and check yourself now, Mickey. Cause’ I never liked you either.”
“Just messing with you, Doctor Doom.” Mickey snickered and stuffed his rag down into the back of his jeans and turned away.
The juke-box which once wailed Haggard, Jones, and Cash now blasted pop-country-rap while a group of starry-eyed kids set up on stage with nervous energy and fervent belief, like this was their moment. They wore hats and cowboy boots, and John smiled. They launched into a predictable set of songs about trucks and beer and girls in cut-off jeans and the tourists from Oklahoma cheered.
A kid sat down next to John, after he’d left the guitar on his back next to the stack of them lining the stage. He grinned, his eyes full of wonder and glory, scruffy and earnest.
“Hey, man,” he said, “are you gonna get up on stage?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You new in town? I’m Lance, by the way.”
“John. Nice to meet ya. I’m just passing through.”
“Ah. Well, this place has a way of getting in your blood. Watch out, or you might just stay.” He laughed. “There’s a cool vibe here, you know? An energy in the air. It’s like nowhere I’ve ever been. What are you doing here, if you aren’t here to pick some songs?”
“Reconnecting. Remembering. I don’t know. I love this place. Or at least, I used to.”
Lance got a far away look in his eyes, something akin to pity and perhaps a bit of fear.
“Ah,” he said, “you’re a writer. Moved away. That’s a hard thing.”
“Not really,” John lied.
“If you didn’t miss it, you wouldn’t be here, though, would you?”
“I worry about that, you know. Swinging for the fences and striking out. Failing in a spectacular way, because there are so many people more talented than me here trying to get through the same little door. And one day you wake up and you’re forty and wonder where your life went. No offense.”
“None taken. Trust me, I had that conversation with myself, right here, many times. Wondering why I what the hell I was doing. I moved away when I was thirty-five, no regrets.”
“So, what happened?”
“Life happened. And that’s a good thing, not something to be ashamed of. I used to think that there was nothing more important in the world than my music and my writing. I was a fool. By the time I figured that out, it was too late.”
Lance nodded his head, silent for a few minutes while the kids on stage wrapped up their set with an original song, a ballad about the death of a loved one. I noticed that the bar quieted down, and folks were listening, feeling it.
“I think the same way,” Lance said, peeling the label on the longneck in front of him. “Maybe it’s the only way to make it, to be willing to give everything up. Art demands sacrifice. Somebody said that. I’m willing to go the distance, but I worry how I’ll feel in ten years if I still haven’t gotten a cut.”
“It’s different for everyone,” John said.
“I’m up,” Lance said, brightening. “Wish me luck.”
He marched up to the stage, unzipping his gig bag and removing a battered Martin. John grinned. The kid had taste in guitars, anyway. He played finger style, a unique arpeggio, and sang a song about whiskey and loss, and damn it if John didn’t find some rain in his eyes. Lance was good, really good.
The crowd clapped after the song, though not with the same enthusiasm they’d displayed for the trucks and girls in Daisy-Duke’s. He spoke into the microphone, his voice a deep baritone, and said “I’d like to get my new friend John up on the stage. What do y’all think?” More tepid applause.
What the hell, John thought. That’s why I came here, maybe. He stepped up to the stage, and one of the other writers offered him a nice Taylor to play. Lance grinned at him, one hand shielding the mike, and said “I hope you don’t mind me puttin’ you on the spot. Let’s see what you got.”
“It’ll be fun,” John said. “Back me up.”
John played “Rainy Night in Nashville,” a song he’d written just before he left town, a sad song about broken dreams, and Lance sang harmony and laid down some cool licks. John lost himself in the melody, embracing the moment, weaving the threads dancing in the air around him.
After they left the stage, the two sat back down at the bar, and Lance slapped John on the back. “You’re pretty good, man.”
“Thanks. You’ve got it, Lance. That rare thing. You’re gonna make it, so don’t listen to old fools like me.”
“That song you played is still on the juke box here,” Lance said. “I dig it.”
John felt a warm hand on his neck, and he turned. His wife smiled at him, appearing from nowhere, long dark hair tumbling over her shoulders, her dress cut low enough for a hint of cleavage. She smelled like flowers and hope and sunshine. She kissed him on the lips and squeezed his thigh.
“How’s memory lane?” She said.
“Good. This is Lance, by the way. Really talented writer.”
“Hi, Lance, I’m Kelli. Did John invite you to the book signing?”
“Hi, uh, no.”
“Well, you should come. We’re going for drinks afterwards with some friends. You should join us. Always fun to hang out with a bunch of songwriters.”
“He didn’t tell you? A book signing at the Vanderbilt Barnes & Noble for his new novel.”
Lance arched his eyebrows, an almost relieved smile spreading across his face. “You write books? My faith is restored. You had me worried, there, for a minute.”
“Writers write,” John said, with a laugh.
Mickey sidled up to us, leering at Kelli. “So,” Mickey said. “It’s starting to make sense now.”
“Yep,” Lance said. “When you said life happened, I didn’t quite understand. But I do now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kelli said.
“Well, you’re beautiful.”
“Isn’t she, though?” John said, running his hand over her backside, savoring the curves in all the right places. “Gave me two boys and thirteen years. Now we’re getting to the really good part, I think.”
“It’s hell being married to a writer sometimes,” she said. “We had to learn to quit worrying about what might happen, and live in those times between the folds. Once we did that, it got easier. You writer-types spend so much time pining away for a dream, you miss the good stuff happening all around you every day. Do that enough, and it all starts going to hell in a hand basket.”
John and Kelli said goodbye to their new friend, and strode into the pale afternoon light hand in hand and the old homes cast friendly shadows down Sixteenth Avenue, while the new offices and condos looked on with disdain and music from the last bar on the row poured out onto the street and life was good.