The First Chapter of My New Book, “Search the Woods”

The following is the first chapter of my new book, Search the Woods, which is coming soon:


The woods spoke to him, to some quiet part of his soul he wouldn’t have known existed if not for it echoing through his bones. It was this way as long as he could remember. Dustin could not bear the four walls of his room or the comfort of his home for very long. So as the sun began to peek over the tops of the tall pine trees that grew near his home, he set out to explore the forest that grew around him for miles.

His house stood beside a dirt road that ran in two directions. To the west, it led to Crow Valley, a small East Texas town built alongside an interstate highway. To the east, it led into a deep wilderness that was made up of deer leases and abandoned cattle ranches. The house, a three bedroom ranch style with a yellow brick exterior, sat on top of a small hill surrounded by about five acres of a green pasture. Dustin’s father let some people from town cut and bale the hay it produced in return for a percentage of the sales.

Dustin walked quickly down the dirt road, feeling his feet sink into the thick sand, kicking the occasional rock. After about a quarter mile, the road turned at a ninety degree angle and headed north. At the turn was a driveway with a tiny gravel private road that led to a small mobile home near a deep forest, where Dustin was headed.

It was the first day of summer vacation, and Dustin had decided to explore the woods to the east of his house. He was starting at the property with the mobile home. An older couple, the Carters, bought the land a few years ago with plans to start building a house. They left last summer, but still owned the land. They’d always been nice to Dustin and never cared about him running around in the woods, so long as he didn’t leave any trash.

He passed the mobile home and noticed an early model Ford truck parked beside it. Maybe it was the Carters, back from where ever they’d gone. He didn’t remember them having a truck, but he hadn’t seen them in a year, and they could have bought one. Dustin shrugged his shoulders and continued on.

Every time he stepped into the woods, he felt like he became part of something bigger than himself. Something alive and complex. The bright sunlight faded away as Dustin walked deeper into the dark canopy of trees. Dead, rusty orange pine needles crunched beneath his feet. The smell of rotting wood from fallen trees invaded his nostrils and Dustin breathed deep.

He stopped by the creek that ran through the woods, a narrow brown stream that pooled deeply in some spots and slowed to a trickle in others. This was one of the deeper spots, almost a pond, because of a old beaver dam. The beavers were long gone, and the dam had fallen into severe disrepair. Now it mostly looked like a pile of sticks.

Dustin stood near the dam, counting turtles and keeping an eye on the water moccasin he spotted on the other side of the creek. He searched the ground for some rocks to skip on the water, but couldn’t find any. The soothing sound of the water trickling through the woods made him feel at home, and Dustin wondered why anyone would want to live anywhere else.

As he watched a large turtle slowly open and close its mouth, Dustin became aware of something. At first he wasn’t exactly sure of what the feeling was, but the hair on his neck stood up and goose bumps appeared on his arms. Some instinct told him to stand still. His first thought was to search the ground for snakes, but he didn’t see any. Then he heard the rumble.

Deep and throaty, he knew it was a growl, and it came from behind him. Dustin’s hands began shaking and his breathes became shallow. Slowly turning his head, he saw a dark shadow descend the tree behind him. Though he knew he shouldn’t, Dustin couldn’t help but look. There seemed to be two voices in his head, one screaming to stay completely still and the other screaming to find out what shared these woods with him.

Standing beside the tree was the largest cat he had ever seen. A large, black panther stood staring back at him. His pale yellow eyes flicked side to side quickly, and his nose wiggled slightly as he smelled the air. Dustin could see its muscles rippling in its shoulders and legs. Its yellow eyes watched him intently, waiting for something.

The panther stood there staring for several moments, curious. Dustin’s legs began trembling badly and tears fell down his cheeks. He wanted his father to appear and protect him, and he wanted his mother to hold him and tell him that everything would be okay. He felt tiny and alone, certain that he would die.

But the panther simply growled and slowly walked away, following the creek until he was out of sight. The voices inside started arguing again, one screaming to run home and the other telling him to follow the panther. Either way, Dustin’s legs felt as heavy as stones, and he couldn’t move. He’d always heard of being frozen with fear, and now he was living it.

He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, but at some point a mockingbird called out, imitating the roar of the panther. The odd sound brought life back to Dustin’s legs, and he lit out for his house, looking back over his shoulder from time to time.

Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Human Dignity

I recently read an article about Hank Aaron and the indignities he suffered when he was a young baseball player in the sixties. He was subjected to segregation and vulgar racial slurs almost everywhere he went. And yet he faced them all with class and dignity when no one would have blamed him for responding with anger and equal hate.

It reminded me of Jackie Robinson and all he endured in order to integrate baseball in the late forties and fifties. Every kind of slight and insult was hurled his way, but Robinson never reacted in a violent or hateful way.

Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron serve as wonderful examples of how to turn the other cheek and forgive your enemies.

And it occurred to me that fifty years later, we admire Robinson and Aaron as dignified pioneers of civil rights and think of those who spewed hate at them as uneducated bigots whose names we don’t even know.

Rooftop Story

The following is a short (really short) story for Joseph Craven’s Sudden Writing Challenge. What exactly is a Sudden Writing Challenge? Those of us who took up the challenge had 48 hours to write a short story containing three required elements. I won’t tell you what they are, but I will post links to the other stories as soon as I can and I’m sure you’ll be able to figure it out. Enjoy.

 This certainly wasn’t the evening I’d planned. I could see the dawn approaching, evident by the dark slowly turning purple just over the rooftops of the buildings surrounding me. I don’t know why this sparked a sense of urgency, but it did. I’d only been locked on the roof of my apartment for close to five hours. Mostly I had just waited for her to come back, certain she was just joking or trying to teach me a lesson.


It was around six in the morning that I began to panic and realized that I was in serious trouble. I tried the door to the stairway for the hundredth time, hoping against hope that, this time, it would open. I even banged against it with my shoulder, but all that did was give me a bone bruise and a sense of despair. There was the fire escape, of course, but I’d made it two floors down when I found a level without a ladder. Figures. You get what you pay for, and I pay next to nothing for this run-down rat trap I call home. I had no phone. She’d made sure of that.


As soon as the sun rose, one of two things would happen. No one would notice me up here on the roof, and I would bake like a roast on Sunday afternoon, possibly perishing from dehydration. Or someone would notice me, which would be a sure ticket to jail. No questions asked. Then the lawyers, the bail money, the court dates. I wanted none of that, but I guess it was preferable to the parched, sunburned death that was the alternative.


I sat down near the bank of air conditioner units that kept the building below me cool and leaned against one. The metal was warm against my skin. I thought of Sarah and began to examine our relationship. Betrayal like this wasn’t easy to overcome. We’d probably need some serious couples’ therapy to get back to the place we were before she left me to die on an apartment rooftop. The more I thought about it, I realized I’d have to be crazy to want to be with someone who would do such a thing. But those eyes. That smile. Crazy.


I dozed off after a few minutes, and, of all things, dreamed of being trapped on the roof of the Empire State building. I guess even my subconscious was trying to find a way out of my predicament. A loud noise startled me out of my sleep and annoyed me, until I realized that I was getting off the roof. Relief swept through me, but only a little, because the person on the other side of the door could be a cop, and my next destination was the can.


But a police officer didn’t open the door and arrest me. It was Glenn, the building custodian. He was an elderly gentleman, probably in his sixties, with white hair and a blue jumpsuit. He was holding a coffee mug and a newspaper, looking like he just woke up. I got up and walked over to him, grateful that I had given him Christmas gifts the last two years. He stared at me with wide eyes, mouth hanging open.


“Morning, Glenn.”




“Um, Glenn, you see….”


“Sheesh, Mike.” Glenn handed me the newspaper. “Cover yourself up.”


“Thanks.” I took the paper and unfolded it, then wrapped it around my waist. I still wasn’t as dressed as I would have liked, but I had definitely lessened my odds of an indecent exposure indictment.


“What were you doing up here?” Glenn asked.


“Well, my ex-girlfriend emailed me,” I replied. “Wanted to know how I was doing, if we could get together and talk about old times, stuff like that.”



“My current girlfriend–”


“The one with the pretty eyes?” Glenn asked.


“That’s the one. Sarah. She kinda glanced at my phone and saw the email.”




“But she didn’t say anything at the time. Didn’t even let me know she read it.”


“I see.”


“Then last night, we were supposed to go out, movie, dinner, all that,” I said. “Well, she got here early, put a blindfold on me, and led me up here to the roof. Said she had a surprise for me. We get up here, she takes the blindfold off, and shows me my phone, where she had the email up. Asked me—no, demanded to know—what I was doing and was I cheating. On and on like that. Okay?”




“Then she pulls out a taser and points it at me,” I said. “Tells me to strip down to my birthday suit. So I did. What other choice did I have? She took my clothes and threw them off the roof.”


“She threw the phone off the roof, too.” I adjusted the paper around me, because it was slipping. “Then she ran off and locked the door behind her. Been up here for about twelve hours.”


“Well, were you cheating on her with your ex-girlfriend?” Glenn asked.


“No,” I replied. “I deleted the email. Didn’t even respond. But I guess since she saw it, she assumed.”


“I see.”


“What’re you doing up here this early?” I asked. “Not that I’m complaining.”


“I come up here for some peace and quiet before I start the day. Drink my coffee, read the paper.” He nodded toward my waist. “Helps me stay relaxed.”




“So, are you gonna call this girl?” Glenn asked. “The one with the pretty eyes?”


“Well, after this, I’d have to be crazy to do that, wouldn’t I?” I laughed. “And I don’t have a phone to call her with anyway.”


“I guess you would be pretty dumb to go back to her.” Glenn sipped his coffee. “But those eyes could move mountains.”


“Those eyes.”


Glenn looked up into the sky and sort of smiled. I believe he was thinking of some blonde girl with emerald green eyes that could melt your heart. I cleared my throat.


“I should get going,” I said. “Get dressed and explain myself to her.”




“You know, I’m kind of glad this happened,” I said. “It gave me a chance to find out how I feel about Sarah. If I really like her. Sometimes I have a hard time with emotions. Stuff like that. This little episode was like a test, a way to find out how deep my feelings for her are.”


“Well, that’s not how I would have planned it,” Glenn said. “Probably better ways of figuring out if your relationship is real. But whatever works for you.”


I smiled and started easing past Glenn. He stepped back and gave me a wide berth, which I didn’t mind at all. As I got to the door, I noticed he had that look on his face again, and he was reliving some interesting moments with that green-eyed girl from his past.


“Glenn, did you want me to bring your paper back up after I, uh, change?”


“No, Mike,” he replied. “You keep that. Probably burn it when you’re done.”


I laughed as I jogged down the stairs, hoping that the building Super would be as kind when I explained why I was locked out of my apartment.

Buying a Jersey

The first jersey I ever owned was a turquoise Seattle Mariners jersey, and if you grew up watching baseball in the 90′s, you know whose name was on the back. It didn’t matter that I lived in Texas. Ken Griffey, Jr. was one of the most exciting and popular players at the time, so I begged my parents for a jersey with his name. Then I got a Derek Jeter jersey, despite the fact I didn’t like the Yankees. But I had started playing infield, and I loved the way he played the game.


(You might be curious as to why I never ended up with a jersey from a player on the Texas Rangers, my favorite team. The answer is that about the time I discovered wearing jerseys was the same time the Rangers started sucking for about a decade. So I never ended up with one.)


I’ve also owned a Roy Williams (the receiver, not the safety) Cowboys jersey, and a Vince Young Tennessee Titans jersey.


But then I read a book by Jeff Benedict titled Out of Bounds, which chronicles the criminal histories of several prominent NBA players. Though I won’t go into all the details of Benedict’s report (which is excellent), I will say it made me realize that there might be a dark side to the professional athletes I enjoyed watching on television.


We often think we know the players we follow, especially in today’s age of constant media awareness. Players tweet, give interviews before, during, and after games. They invite us into their homes and give us a tour of their “cribs.” We read books and magazine articles about them. We ingest so much information about these players that we belive we know them. And with media scrutiny at an all-time high, players are extremely aware of their public perception, going to all sort of lengths to make sure their image is squeaky clean. Because a well-polished public persona is the key to high-dollar endorsements.


So what we think we know is actually a facade created to increase a player’s Q score, not the actual person they are in private. What Benedict shows in his book is that some of the personas don’t match the person behind them. I was shocked to read about athletes I knew who committed vicious crimes such as rape and domestic assault. These athletes exploited young women, attacked fans, and even dealt drugs. Some of the names didn’t surprise me. Others did.


I realized that just because I’d read some articles about these men didn’t mean that I knew them or whether they were a good person or not. And then my thoughts drifted to the jerseys I wore, proudly supporting (whether I knew it or not) the players named on the back. Players that I didn’t know, who might be good husbands, but also might be serial adulterers who beat their wives.


I’m not saying Vince Young or Derek Jeter do these things. I am saying that I don’t know very much about them besides how skilled they are at their sport. They might do great works in their community and care about their friends and family. Then again, they might not. The only thing that I’m sure of is that what I don’t know about professional athletes vastly outweighs what I do know.


For that reason, lately I’ve decided to not purchase anymore jerseys. I might be thinking about this too much, but walking around with someone’s name on your back is essentially advertising for them. And I don’t want to promote someone I don’t know. As we’ve seen with the late Joe Paterno, we can be brutally wrong about our heroes. To be on the safe side, I’m just going to stick with generic team shirts to support my teams.


What do you think? Should we be more careful about whose jersey we buy?

Excerpt from Beginnings

The following is from my book Beginnings. The story is called “A Long Walk to the Store.” It’s about the trouble two little boys can get into when they walk to the store for some sodas.


          They walked out to the front porch. Cody’s mom was working in her flower beds, wearing a large floppy hat to protect her from the morning sun. They sauntered down the weathered wooden steps and stood next to her. The flowers she was planting were bright red and yellow. Cody thought they were beautiful, though he’d never say it out loud. Boys didn’t talk about how pretty flowers were.

“What are you boys up to today?” she asked. She paused and wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Something fun?”

“We’re going to the store,” Cody said. “To buy a coke.”

“Okay. Are you going to walk or are you going to ride your bike?”

“We’re gonna walk,” Cody replied. “We ain’t in a hurry. You can see more stuff when you walk. Last time we walked we found a lizard.”

“Okay,” his mom said. “Be careful around the corners. People drive fast.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Do you have money?”

Cody dug into his pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill that had been there for two days. He’d sold some baseball cards to get it. “Yes ma’am.”

“Well, have fun. Remember, be careful. Stay to the side of the road.”

“Yes ma’am,” they said in unison.

Cody and Charles stuck their hands in their pockets and started down the road. They walked mostly in silence. They were good friends, always together. There wasn’t much they hadn’t already said to each other. They had been friends since kindergarten, when they discovered their shared love of peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Since that day in the school cafeteria, they had been fishing, playing baseball, and collecting rocks together.

Their footsteps crunched against the dry red clay. It hadn’t rained in a month, and the hot Texas sun baked the countryside. Dust coated the trees and bushes that lined the road. It wasn’t long before sweat was beading on the boys’ skin. Occasionally they stopped to pick up a rock that was oddly shaped, or kick a pine cone that had fallen from an overhanging tree.

“I learned a new cuss word,” Charles said.

“What word?”

“I can’t say it.” Charles flipped a rock away. “I might get in trouble.”

“Ain’t nobody here,” Cody said. “Say it.”


“Fine.” Cody kicked up some dirt in frustration. “What letter does it start with?”

“It starts with a b.”

Cody grunted. “I probably already heard it, anyhow.”

Back to Nature

A few days ago I sat outside and watched the rain fall for about half an hour. It was a steady, driving rain that produced a symphony of sound on the trees and grass that surround my home. It was relaxing, and it wasn’t long before I was reminiscing on a childhood spent roaming pastures and forests.

I remember when grass was something more than a green blur on a median. I woke each summer morning as an explorer. I set out to conquer the wilderness that was my backyard, hoping to find my own personal El Dorado.

I knew where every ant hill was, and made sure that the ants stayed busy with repairs by stomping my foot into each one I found. I was careful to avoid the bull nettles that were interspersed through out the forest floor, remembering each time I passed one what the sting felt like on my bare calves.

I knew which tiny inlet of the creek held the most tadpoles, and stepped gingerly on the banks, always keeping an eye out for water moccasins, deadly charcoal colored foes that squirmed through the woods as much as I did. Mushrooms were dissected with sharp sticks and rocks were flung at turtles sunning on logs.

I found the ruins of old barbed wire fences, strung up decades before I was born. Fences so old that the posts were made of tree branches. I dug up rusty plow heads and coke bottles that were hilariously out of place, made of glass and wrapped with logos that were from the seventies.

I guess what I’m saying is that there was a time when I felt connected to the earth, like it was alive. It was something to be discovered. There was a synergy that flowed between us. Now there is only grass that needs to be cut and mosquitoes that bite at my ankles. Flowers have become nothing more than landscaping by the side of the road.

I’ll try to notice nature more. But I know how busy I am distracting myself with television and the internet. Maybe someday the call of a mockingbird will be more interesting than a recycled sitcom.

The Ring

Twenty-five years I went without a ring. I’m not much for jewelry. I flirted with a class ring, mostly because everyone else was doing it. I didn’t like it. I wore it only sporadically, eventually not at all.

Then I took her hand in a small chapel with only our parents there, and we exchanged rings. There were tiny silver daisies on hers. They are her favorite flower. Mine was inscribed with ancient words: “I am my beloved’s, and she is mine.”

It helps me to remember I am no longer one body, but two. I am no longer my own. If I ever was my own at all.

It was annoying at first, having this band on my finger. I touched it, picked at it, moved it up and down my finger. I couldn’t stand it. But I wore it to remind myself, to remind the world. I am no longer my own.

Only two years have passed, but now I feel my ring even when it is not there. Now I rub my finger where the ring should be. I do not feel complete without it. It is a microcosm of her. I do not feel whole when she is not near. I don’t need the ring to remind me of this, but it is a good example.

I have felt God near a handful of times, just a few. Maybe that is all we get.

I remember that I am not my own.

When you see love that is sacrificial, a life poured out for another, God is near. There’s no formula to make it happen, no way to predict it. But when you’ve felt it, the feeling never leaves you. You long for it again and again. You don’t feel complete without it.

I absentmindedly reach for the ring and think of her.

I’ve spent my entire life reaching for something because I feel incomplete. Lately it’s been the right things.

How to Pray for Your Favorite Team


I’m going to be honest–I prayed for the Dallas Mavericks to win. I wanted it to happen badly. I’ve been there through the years, and watched every single playoff disappointment. For the past six years, I’ve watched about 60-70 games a year. While you’re watching American Idol, Survivor, and The Office, I’m watching Dirk drain that jumpshot from the elbow. It’s my reality show.


He’s been this good for years, and he’s been a good guy for the same amount of time. So I wanted something good to happen for him. I was tired of everyone saying, “Dirk’s a great player, but…..”


Then you add the fact that they were playing against the Miami Heat, a team that has three superstars who are scared to try to win a championship on their own. They couldn’t take the pressure of leading a team full of nobodies to places those nobodies had ever been. If Miami had won, there would be no way I could tell my kids that winning isn’t everything, and sacrificing for others is the right thing to do.


So you could say I was a little more emotionally involved than the average fan.


There was a stretch in the fourth quarter of a game (I can’t even remember which, to tell you the truth) where the Mavericks were down by nine and the game looked like it was slipping away. I started to get that feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s that feeling that Dallas fans of all sports are familiar with.


Then I just started praying. It wasn’t one of those quick, easy prayers like “God, please let them win!” There was no bargaining. I didn’t promise God that I would go to church more if the Mavs won. I just sincerely prayed that they would win. It was one of the most honest, heartfelt prayers I have ever uttered.


To my surprise, they won. And they won again. And again. You know the rest of the story.


It made me think about prayer. I’ve always thought that praying for sports was ridiculous. It’s just a game. I’m not sure how much God would actually care who won between the Mavericks and the Heat. Besides, even if I prayed, there’s probably someone praying for the Heat to win, and that would cancel out my prayer.


Maybe the Mavericks won because more Mavs fans prayed than Heat fans. But if that’s the case, then prayer is some kind of voting system, much like the aforementioned American Idol, and I don’t think it works that way. Certainly cancer would be gone, because I’m sure everyone would vote for a cure.


Then I remembered Sunday school as a kid. My mom and various teachers always told me that I should pray to God and ask him for anything, no matter how big or small it was. Even if other people thought our concerns were insignificant, God took them seriously. Maybe they were right. Maybe God did care about who won a basketball game. But if there was a Heat fan somewhere praying sincerely, wouldn’t God care about his request, too?


I say all this because I feel absolutely foolish for praying for a sporting event. But it also made me think about prayer–the way it works, and the way it doesn’t. If the Mavs had lost that game, would it have made me doubt God? There have been times in my life when I prayed for things much more serious than a basketball game and they never happened. There have also been times of life and death that I have prayed, and I have seen good things happen.


I’ve learned that prayer isn’t about wins or losses, success or failure. The results matter, but we can only see a little of what is going on in life. Maybe prayer is getting closer to God, one conversation at a time. And occasionally he’ll toss you a bone and show you a miracle, like the picture above.

I’m glad that we can pray, and I’m glad that this summer, God was Rowdy, Proud, and Loud.

Excerpt from Leaving Darkness

The following is an excerpt from Leaving Darkness, a short novel I’ll be publishing in April. Right now it looks like we’re shooting for 4/10 as the release date.

Leaving Darkness is the story of a man who returns to his hometown ten years after graduating from high school. Haunted by dreams of his high school sweetheart, he hopes to find some relief amidst the nostalgia. Instead, all he finds are the secrets that he and his friends buried long ago.


“Jessica.” I leaned over and kissed her head. “Let’s forget the past. There’s only ghosts there, anyway.”

Jessica smiled and looked up at me. I leaned over and kissed her, letting my lips linger on hers. The smell of coffee mingled with her perfume. I breathed deep and wished that the day would last forever. We spent the next couple of hours talking and just sitting with each other. At five o’clock, Jessica told me that she needed to go home. We drove back to Cedar Creek, listening to music and not saying much. Jessica led me through a maze of turns until we arrived at her house. I parked in her driveway and looked over at her. She smiled sweetly at me.

“I had fun today,” she said. “I’m glad you called me.”

“Yeah, it was fun.”

Jessica smiled and reached out to hold my hand. I took her hand, felt how soft it was in mine. She squeezed gently.

“I’m going to church tonight,” she said. “Do you want to come?”

“Uh, church really isn’t for me.”

“Okay,” Jessica said. “I get that.”

“Can you hang out tomorrow?”

“Um, I work in the morning.” Jessica frowned. “I think I get off at two.”

“I’ll come see you,” I said. “Then we can go do something.”

“That would be great,” she said. “Do you want to come inside? My mom’s here. It’d be cool if you would meet her.”

“Maybe tomorrow. I should get going.”

“Okay.” Jessica leaned over to me and I kissed her. Her lips were soft, and she smelled like vanilla. She brushed her hand over my cheek and then pulled away. I watched her walk into her house, then I navigated my way out of the neighborhood. The sky was beginning to turn purple with the dark, and I still needed to stop at the grocery store to pick up a few things.

Before I was very far from Jessica’s, however, my cell phone rang. I looked at it and saw that it was Kathryn. I thought about not answering. I was tired of the arguments. I had grown tired of them years ago, and the last week had just been a continuation of the fighting.


“Josh, it’s me.” Kathryn sounded frantic. “I need you.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Someone’s here, outside my house.”

“Are they trying to get in?” I asked.

“No..I mean maybe. I saw someone looking around, near the windows. It’s dark, and I can’t see them very well.”

“Have you called the police?” I asked.


“Hang up the phone and call the cops,” I said. “I’m on my way.”

“Hurry,” Kathryn said. “Get here fast.”

“Call the cops.”

I hung up the phone and mashed the accelerator. My engine roared and the car picked up speed. The letters weren’t a joke.