Short Story: The Hill

The Hill

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.
Then
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.
“U ready?”
“We’re outside.”
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.

Now



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?”
“Of course.”
“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.
Then



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.

Now



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.
End

The Writer… Free short story

The Writer
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. 
“Yeah. Thanks.” 
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 guess.”
“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.”
“Right on.”
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.”
“What signing?”
“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.

Of Music and Memories

I’ve heard that smell is the sense most tied to memory. I don’t doubt that, but for me, a certain melody can bring the past flooding back in a way that nothing else can. Music has been an integral part of my life since Junior High, so at my age, that’s a prettty long soundtrack.

The perfect song at the right moment leaves an indellible imprint on me. If I’m in a pensive mood and hear that song again, there is a kind of echo in my soul and I can feel the sun on my face, taste the wine, or catch a whisper of perfume.

When I hear Jimmy Buffet, sometimes I’m back in college on a leaky boat with my old friends, that lazy warmth of sunshine, salt water, and laughter shining strong. Back when I knew I could do anything and the world was my oyster and real problems were things other people had. My biggest concern then was whether we would catch fish or get caught by the Marine Patrol. (We were always in violation of something.)

Rock You Like A Hurricane takes me back to high school, getting pumped up before a big basketball game, and I can smell the gym floor and feel the adrenaline and sweat and anticipation. Basketball was a huge part of my life, and like so many things, it’s faded from my consciousness, something I once did that I no longer do. I miss it sometimes, especially when I hear that song.

The Song Remembers When brings me  out west to Jackson Hole  and Yellowstone  when the air was crisp and the light was golden and tasted like hope. We heard that song on the radio as we drove over the Great Divide, the sun slipping below snow-tipped peaks around us and the sky painted a glory of pink and orange, and I recall that moment, knowing how rare and precisous it was, holding on to it for as long as I could. She and the moment slipped away like old loves always do.

My wife recently turned me on to Van Morrison, songs like Into the Mystic, and I can feel those songs wraping around my soul as we make new memories that one day we will look back on with deep fondness. I am in a season of gratitude and love, keenly aware of the often fleeting nature of peace and passion. It’s priceless, a sensation to be savoured, an emotion to be relished in the moment.

Because the memory is only an echo.

Friends, Followers and Vanity

sunset

Why the “Duck Face?” What IS that? The woman who wants to be a girl, the girl who wants to be a woman, both of them holding an iphone at arm’s length. Or it could be an absurd man-child with an over-abundance of love for both self and tight shorts, all of them with the lips protruding in a way that conjures a platypus on crack.

Who is it that finds these creatures suddenly intriguing, as though an uninteresting, average person has miraculously morphed into something more and greater, something to be “liked,” and “followed,” and “commented” upon. I don’t understand it even a little bit, but the phenomenon is inescapable.

I could go on a rant about the objectification of women, and while I do think that’s a part of this trend, I think it goes deeper, and in some ways is more insidious. It’s harmful, any way we slice it. People crave connection and validation, and do stupid things to satisfy that innate thirst. I’m an author, so there’s a certain irony there. I’m trying to do it with words, not pictures, and while I’d like to believe it’s more meaningful that way, perhaps it’s not.

Next to war, social media is the most unsocial thing mankind has invented. We are invested in documenting life without living it, more concerned with the appearance of happiness than the experience of joy, showing memories rather than making them. It’s a collective sickness of the soul.

We want to matter. To make a difference, and believe our short time on this rock is something other than nasty, brutish and short; rather than make it so, we try to convince others we are something we are not, and hope that we can sell ourselves in the process, even if it’s a fleeting illusion. When we look back on the time we’ve squandered in this manner, we’ll no doubt see we’ve been deluded fools.

The things that matter in the moment are often the things that matter the most, and when the time has slipped away, there’s no getting it back, no matter how many pictures we took. Sometimes it’s better to be in the moment, and let the moment be.

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Friends and Sharks

It’s late and Springsteen is playing in my sanctum and I’m thinking about friends. About what friendship means to me. I thank God for my friends, I thank them, and I wish I’d been a better friend all along, to all of them. Friends are precious, and I’m blessed to have some.

Friends make you better, even if it’s better at being worse. A true friend will do both things, over the years. That’s how it is. I’ve been lucky enough to have friends like that, and I’ve been a bad influence and a good one, a hellion and a saint, a healer and a divider. My friends have been that too, and that’s good.

We know many people, but have few friends. We have plastic smiles and rainbow relationships which are real in the way of whipped cream, and equally as fulfilling. We all know the difference in our hearts, and miss it when we settle for less.
My friends are few, and I’m all right with that. I’d like to be a better friend, having more to give than I take.

Friends are honest when it hurts, even if it hurts them. Even when honesty is something which pierces a lie most terrible and devouring. There is a certain loyalty in that.

grouper

An old friend is someone who is there for you, when you need them. I’ve found that often this doesn’t mean they’re actually around or that I even talk to them. They’re with me in spirit, and their memory speaks wisdom to me, words I need to hear, a voice in my mind like my own conscience, but separate. Sometimes, though, you need a friend to physically pull your ass out of whatever trouble you’ve gotten yourself into.
I’ve had quite a few near-death experiences with one particular old friend of mine, and here’s one. We were SCUBA diving down in the keys. Now, I’m an experienced diver and a strong swimmer, but when things go wrong under water, they tend to go very wrong, very fast. We were spearfishing on a coral reef, and at first we stayed together, but wound up getting separated, each of us chasing fish all over the reef. There is a kind of hyper-focus that happens when you’re after a nice grouper, the thrill of the hunt and the idea of what that fish is going to taste like that afternoon when you pull the boat up to the restaurant and it gets blackened and served with the lobster also in the cooler. An epic meal, a perfect end to a glorious day. An ice cold Red-Stripe, conch-fritters, the sunset on the water, you get the picture…
I was down about a hundred feet, pushing the limits of my air. Visibility had been pretty good, but the current grew stronger and the water got progressively more cloudy. The thing is, I’d speared a nice fish, maybe a 20 pounder, and he’d twisted off the spear. The fish was bleeding, and he was certain to die, and I hated that. So I kept pursuing him, him swimming sideways and thrashing about with blood coming out of him, ringing the dinner bell.
I like the idea of sharks. Diving on the reef, you know they’re around, and sometimes you catch a shadowy glimpse of a torpedo shape gliding through the murk at the edges of your vision. It makes the dive special and memorable when that happens, and there is a sense of being lowered on the food chain and being a part of nature in a way that is impossible in the world of Starbucks and paved paradise. I get alarmed when they start getting overly curious, though. I’ve had sharks and barracuda steal a fish I’ve speared, and that’s an uncomfortable experience. Blood in the water and feeding frenzies and what-not.
This magnificent grouper decided his best bet was to hole up beneath a car-sized brain-coral. I bled air from my BC and put my belly on the sand and peered into the darkness. I could see the blood trailing out, but I couldn’t see the fish. I stuck my arm into the hole (dumb) with the spear gun extended, and wound up nailing the fish with the loaded gun. I dragged him out from under the hole, feeling pretty pleased with myself. My mask was leaking and salt water burned my eyes. My air was critical. I began my ascent.
I should have let the fish go in the first place, because at 100 feet down, I knew I had to make safety stops to avoid getting the bends. When I saw the Great Hammerhead cruise past, then circle, I was afraid. He was about fourteen feet long, and thick, passing close enough that I could see his teeth. I’d never seen one while diving before, only from the safety of a boat. Hammerheads eat people from time to time. Graceful, deadly, moving with effortless, predatory intent.
I’m not one prone to panic. I’ve faced some pretty grim situations where people were trying to kill me with guns or knives. This time though, I started to freak out. I couldn’t think clearly, and even remembering it now, I have a blurry feeling of terror in me. I couldn’t just shoot to the surface because I’d die. I had to pace my ascent from the depths, rising at the same leisurely speed as my bubbles. And I had two safety stops looming ahead, where I’d be forced to hang there in the water. I had about 100 psi left in my tank, so if there wasn’t any sort of reserve in there, and probably even if there was, I was in trouble.I let the line out on the spear gun so that the speared fish dangled about twenty feet below me. It was mostly dead, still bleeding. A reef shark showed up to enjoy the show, but it was the hammerhead and my lack of air that worried me the most.

I heard the engine turn on the boat, twice. My friend telling me to get my dumb ass to the surface. I waited at the first safety stop, and it got hard to pull air. I was at the end of the tank. I could see the boat, a shadow against the sun above me. I was using more air than I should have because I was fighting the current, drifting now, away from the boat, still maintaining my depth. There was a splash.
My friend, deciding that I’d been down too long, and seeing the damn big assed shark, jumped into the ocean. He swam down, and we used the extra regulator, a thing called an octopus, to get to the surface, the big shark giving us the evil eye the whole time.

We pulled into Whale Harbor Marina that evening and ate a platter of grouper, lobster, and conch fritters. It was the best meal I’ve ever had.
That’s a good friend.

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