Coward’s Play

A preacher once told me that the bible says, “Fear is the absence of love.”*

Maybe that’s why I am so afraid to apologize, to remember, to forget, and to forgive Thomas for what he put me through. Because the truth is, I never really loved Thomas, and I don’t think he ever loved himself. If I could rewrite his obituary now, maybe I’d say that instead of the fluffy nonsense about how he would be missed. No one misses that boy, not even his own mother.

Sometimes people are so reckless, they awaken demons just for the entertainment. Thomas was one of those people. He was too young, or too stupid, to know what he was doing. He burned all his bridges on the way to hell, just to feel the warmth.

A few nights before a search party discovered his body in the swamps, he stumbled up onto my front porch. His blonde hair was crusted with dirt, and he was trembling despite the summer heat. His shirt was torn, but that was nothing new. It was unusual, however, for him to be missing a shoe.

I sighed and placed my book on the porch table.

“What did you get into this time, Tommy?” I asked.

His eyes were wild, red, and puffy. He scanned the front yard as though he were a cat, trapped in a corner.

“How long,” he stammered, “How long have I been gone?”

“At least a week this time,” I replied, studying him closer. “The sheriff is looking for you.”

He kept one hand on the railing, and slid down to sit on the top stair, facing out into the darkness. Less annoyed than curious, I moved to sit next to him. When I touched his back, he stiffened. 

“What did you get into this time?” I repeated.

At first, I thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then, he turned his head to look at me. I’d never seen him so frightened. 

“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” he whispered. “Hell, I think I’m crazy.”

“Thomas, you’ve been drinking for days. I smell it all over you. I’m sure you just had some sort of dehydration-induced nightmare. Why don’t you go inside, shower, and then we will talk.”

“There’s no time!” he shouted and stood. “We are in danger, and it has something to do with those damn coyotes I killed last summer. They’re back, and they brought someone, or something, with them.”

“What do you mean ‘they’re back’?” I asked, incredulously. “You said you killed the whole pack. I saw the ones you used for bait strung up in the trees by the pond. I smelled the smoke when you burned the rest of the remains. We may have coyotes again, but come on, Tommy, you know they are not the same ones.”

In the distance, I heard the unmistakable sound of a howl. It was unusual to hear them in broad daylight. I felt chills rush down my spine.

“They are the same ones,” he said, quietly. “I saw their shadows circling by the pond in the twilight. I’d just woken up, thirsty, and reached for my last beer. I heard a rustling sound in the bushes. When I saw their shapes, I grabbed my gun and fired off a few shots. That’s when I heard the laughter.”

He wiped his brow and continued, “I asked the person to show themselves. ‘Come on out,’ I said, ‘unless you’re a coward!’ Then the calmest voice I’ve ever heard replied, ‘I’m no coward, Thomas. I do not run from my mistakes. You, on the other hand, know a little something of running, don’t you?’”

“In the silence, I could only hear the dogs panting and my own heartbeat. Then, the bushes began to move, and a woman came out. At least, I think she was a woman. I couldn’t see her face. She was wearing a mask made of bones. Her hair was long, tangled, and matted with blood. She had a dog on both sides of her, and these fangs that glistened in the moonlight. I could see them from the boat.”

“Thomas, I…”

“No, listen. She said she couldn’t swim, but she invited me to the shore. When I refused, she said she would give me a choice. She called it the ‘Coward’s Play.’ I could pay for the blood I’ve spilled with my life or the life of someone I love. She gave me two nights to think it over. I stayed on the boat until sunrise, and then I came straight here.”

“Thomas, it sounds like you had a hallucination or a bad dream,” I began. “Either way, you need to go see the sheriff to clear up a few things. He had questions about a hit and run on the outskirts of town on the night you went missing. I can’t get you out of this one, kiddo, and neither can some silly ghost story.”

He closed the distance between us, and put his hands on both sides of my face. 

“This is real, momma,” he whispered. “She’s going to come for one of us.”

Sirens echoed just down the road. He bolted up, my frightened rabbit, and looked at me with a mixture of genuine fear and sadness. He said nothing more before he ran off, back to his sanctuary in the woods. 

I waited for the police car, my eyes following him as it pulled into our driveway. Too old to chase my son, and too young to bury him.

I sometimes wonder if Thomas was more afraid to live than to die. Either way, he was right. The coyotes are back. They howl outside my bedroom window every night. In the end, I guess we all pay for our sins. The thing I fear most now is not knowing which ghost will come for me.

 

 

*1 John 4:19

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Fireworks Season

Written for April Words3, theme: Wanderlust.

“In the neon light from his dashboard, his chiseled facial features looked ethereal. It was hard to imagine that he could be manipulative or dangerous. My eyes travelled to his hands as they fidgeted on the steering wheel, and the illusion disappeared. Blood and dirt were caked beneath his short fingernails. I wondered how long it had been there, and turned away quickly as it dawned on me that the blood may not have been his own.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked, a slight tremble in my voice.

‘Why?’ he replied, flashing a smile as his blue eyes turned to meet mine. ‘You got some place else to be?’
Anywhere, I think, but I knew better than to say it out loud.

‘Of course not, Glen,’ I whispered, sliding my hand up his arm. 

‘Good,’ he said, and winked at me. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you. I know Christmas wasn’t the best this year.’

His voice trailed off, and my mind slipped back to our empty duplex, sparsely decorated for the holiday we would not spend together. On Christmas Eve, he left to buy a few final gifts with money he’d somehow acquired despite losing his job a month prior. He kissed me, and left before I could argue. 

He didn’t turn up again until early January. By then, his bags were packed and the locks were changed on the front door. We barely spoke when I let him in to claim them, and he sauntered out like I was just another piece of furniture he’d cast off in an eviction. No explanations, no begging for forgiveness. Just a light switched off.

That was, of course, until that night in July.

I suppose summertime does that to a person. It makes us hit the road looking for fireworks in nostalgic places. Sometimes, when we can’t find them, we have to make our own.

So he showed up around midnight, making all kinds of promises and apologizing for things that I am, to this day, sure were meant for someone other than me. I stood on the porch of our duplex, arms crossed, and unrelenting. 

Finally, he pulled his button up shirt back to reveal a pistol tucked into his jeans and said, ‘Just get in the car.’

And, not knowing what else to do, I did. It was fireworks season, after all.

Thirty minutes in to our rendezvous, his eyes strained as he looked out of the windshield onto the side of the highway. 

‘Pay attention, Char. Look at the trees.’

I followed his gaze to the evergreens that ran along I45. 

‘There!’ he exclaimed and jerked us over to the side of the road. He’d barely stopped the car when he threw open his door and shouted, ‘Come on!’

‘Glen,’ I began, ‘you don’t have to do this.’

He slammed his door and slid over the hood. Then he opened my door and held out his hand. Suddenly, I wasn’t afraid anymore.

‘It isn’t far,’ he said, ‘I promise. You can see it from the road in the daylight.’

We walked in silence for a few minutes, my hand still locked in his, and then he stopped.

‘Can you see it?’ he asked, pointing to a tree a few yards from the road.

I nodded. It was beautiful. Right there on I45, in the middle of June, an evergreen stood out from the rest. It was covered in silver tinsel and dozens of bulbs of all sizes and colors. 

‘That, my queen, is for you. Merry Christmas.’

I don’t remember how long we stood there, my hand in his, as cars raced by behind us. But he took me home in the early hours of morning, kissed my hand on what had been our doorstep, and vanished back into a world where promises are made to be broken and Christmas comes in June.

So you see, Officer, I am afraid I didn’t realize I was trespassing today. These bones are getting old, and I don’t move as fast as I did back then. It’s getting harder to drive on the highway so late at night. But summer is here, and my ghosts are coming out to play in the heat. I’m feeling a little nostalgic. Won’t you give me back my decorations and let a little old lady have one last Christmas in July?”

“The Huntsman” Discussion Questions

The Huntsman is a modern retelling of Red Riding Hood. Fairy tale retellings are very popular right now, casting original characters in modern roles that only slightly reflect their previous adaptations. Do you think the new versions of the old stories will play an important role in literary history some day? How do the changes show how we have evolved as a society over time?

As representations of good and evil, do you feel like Jasper and Silver are flawed? If so, how?

How does loneliness affect each character differently?

How do the tragedies in their lives force characters to make decisions that will either lead to their salvation or their demise?

The toy elephant is a very tangible object in this book. What else could it represent in a larger context, by traveling from the huntsman’s mother all the way to the huntress?

By the end of the book, do you feel that the wolf’s power diminishes? Or has it simply changed?

How do you feel about the end of the book? Did you know who Anna was by then, and when did you know? What do you think will happen in the sequel?

What is your favorite quote from the book? How did this relate to your life?

If you could hear this story from another character’s perspective, who would you choose, and why?

How do you feel about where the story ends for the huntsman’s character in this book? Did he deserve better?

 

Find The Huntsman: A modern retelling of Red Riding Hood and other works by Hayleigh Worgan at www.hayleighworgan.com.

Midwinter (Spoken Word, Words3)

Cold concrete bit through the denim on my skin, and travelled through my veins, sinking straight into my bones. The lifeless football field felt fragile in February. A stadium filled with nothing but echoes of all the other people who shared the same foundation. I closed my eyes, and it was like nothing had changed. So many mistakes were left untouched, relationships unmarred, and people unbroken.

When the stadium is exclusively mine, it is a sanctuary. On this day, however, the peace was cut short by the sudden realization that I was not alone.

“I bet you’ve never even seen someone make a touchdown on that field,” interrupted a voice behind me.

I opened my eyes and turned to see a young man wearing a letterman’s jacket, his thick, dark brown hair ruffled by the wind. He began a descent to my spot on the bleachers, and held up a finger when I started to speak.

“I didn’t mean to startle you. My name is John,” he said, extending a hand. “You’re Rebecca’s daughter, right?”

I nodded slowly, trying to place him. His cold hand met mine and I shuddered.

“May I sit?” he asked, but did not wait for a reply before doing so. He leaned in a little, smirked, and asked, “Do you come here often?”

Our laughter broke the silence and eased some of the tension.

“No,” I began, “only when it makes sense, or maybe when nothing makes sense.”

“Which is it now?”

“The latter.”

He placed both hands on his knees and stared at the bleachers across the field.

“Your mother and I used to meet here all the time,” he began. “How is she?”

Suddenly I heard my mother’s voice on the phone only a month before, asking when I would visit, when I would bring my husband, and when she would have grandkids.

Then telling me she was sick, but assuring me she would get better. She knew I was busy. And finally, quietly, asking me to come visit when it was convenient.

“Mom has seen better days,” I said softly.

“Haven’t we all?” he asked, but I didn’t feel like I should answer.

“You know,” he continued, “when Rebecca was pregnant with you, she used to come here to sit and figure things out too. Sometimes she would cry. Other times she would just talk to me about how scared she was to be a mother, and how much she wanted you to know that you were loved, that you were the most important thing in her life—even if you found yourself not quite as important to other people. I told her then, and have told her often since, that she should also make sure you also understood that her sacrifice to raise you alone was not your debt to be repaid.”

“What do you mean?”
“The best gift you can give to Rebecca is a life that carries her memory, but does not change or diminish as a result of her absence. You must keep building on the foundation she gave you, and you owe her nothing except to live your best life.”

Once again, I searched my memory for John. My mother spoke of her friends often, and rarely kept secrets from me, but the grief of her own upbringing was a shadow that she could never introduce. My curiosity was beginning to get the best of me.

“John, how did you meet my mother?”

He smiled, and his eyes grew misty.

“I met her on the top of that mountain,” he said, pointing behind us. “One day, I jumped the fence, like I did almost every afternoon. I climbed the trail all the way to the top. She was just sitting there by herself. She had a backpack with her, and she was staring off at the town, but she was miles away.

I had seen her before, but we never really spoke until that day. I made a lot of noise approaching her, and she turned around to look at me. She seemed angry, as though she had been caught doing something wrong. I held up my hands and said, ‘I’m not here to bust you.’”

“For trespassing?” I asked, incredulous.

“And skipping school,” he said.

I was stunned. “Skipping school? You knew her when she was in school?”

He ignored me and went on.

“When she realized who I was, she smiled and let me sit next to her. ‘John, right?’ she said. I nodded and she went on, as though we were always friends. ‘John, do you ever just want to run away? I thought I was going to today, but I am beginning to wonder if maybe I am trapped—like one of those figurines in a snow globe.’ She looked down at her feet and added, ‘I must sound crazy.’

‘Not at all,’ I said. We talked until the sun went down about how maybe one day we would leave this town and start over. It wasn’t romantic or weird. It was simple, like we were destined to be right there at that moment for each other. We were inseparable after that—that is, of course, until the accident.”

“The accident?”

“Listen,” he said, turning to look at me. “The only thing you’re responsible for is making sure she knows you love her. Never stop talking to her. Because the truth is that love knows no borders.”

He reached out to touch my cheeks where tears had started to fall. I closed my eyes in anticipation, but when I opened them, John was gone.

I stood, shakily wiping my own face with my gloves, and descended the concrete stairs. Within moments, I scaled the old iron fence behind the stadium and began a slow climb up the mountain, touching the small portion of my mother’s ashes held in a tiny box in my coat pocket.

“Momma,” I whispered, “I brought you home.”

Black Sock Society

For Kristina and Tim

When my head is more shiny than grey
I shall wear khaki shorts and black socks
that rest unevenly on my calves.
I shall spend my retirement
on coffee and biscuits,
and flirt with every waitress.

In the summertime, I shall wear sandals
with my black socks as I roam the town
searching for a part-time gig
to get me out of the house

and pay for healthcare.

I shall buy wind chimes for my wife,
and wear earplugs when I sneak outside
for an afternoon cigar.

If you catch me on the right day,
I will tell you a story
about a young man
with thick black hair
who walked on dirt roads
instead of sidewalks.

A man who dreamed of the future,
but rarely the past,
and chuckled from beneath his hat
to warm the chill in his bones
when first he saw a pair
of black socks peeping

from the trouser leg
of a charming old man.

Battles (Spoken Word, Words3)

She does better sleeping in the room across the hall. From there, she can use the old desktop computer to read the obituaries and scour the internet for breaking news until she gets too tired to keep her eyes open. I say scour loosely, of course. She can’t get very far with the parental controls. It drives her crazy, getting the message that a site has been blocked.

The computer is old, I tell her. Someone else put those rules on there and I can’t get them off. I’ll talk to someone about it soon, when we have more money to fix it. Mercifully, that explanation works every time. But it doesn’t stop chaos from chattering away through her brain. I keep an eye on her through the open door. Terrorist attacks, car crashes, and natural disasters fill monitor. I never fight with her about it.. The truth is, she probably won’t remember it by tomorrow, and chastising her may end with a door closing in my face.

I know from experience, that the anxiety will always find a new fixation, and we will start it all again anyway. As horrible as it sounds, she might as well fixate on a disaster that isn’t ripping apart her life so she doesn’t have to face her disease every waking moment.

She spends more time watching the computer screen than she does watching her soap opera, The Young and the Restless, which is on five times every week for one hour every day. A few months ago, I got my hands on some old recordings from the early 90s. Between the new episodes, I occasionally trick her into watching the reruns. Her eyes are glued to the characters, and it is the only time when she becomes distracted from all of the ways her brain is trying to suffocate her. These are the happiest moments, where the demons lurk in the shadows and wait their turn to play. Sometimes I like to picture this as my personal journey to Mordor. We go over the mountains of triumph and hold hands as we cross through the dark valleys in her memory together. While the disease erases precious things so often, like the memory of teaching me to read, or even the fact that I am her granddaughter, it hasn’t completely extinguished her fire.

On a better day, while she sipped on sweet tea in her rocker and watched a drama unfold before her on television, I suggested that Victor Newman should really end up with Jack Abbott. The writers had gone everywhere else. She whipped her head around at me, and her eyes were wide.

“Victor Newman does not go for both women and men. And if he does, then I’m getting to him before he spots your grandpa in heaven,” she quipped, moving one hand over her bouffant hairdo. “This is no competition for that shiny bald head.

That sent us both into fits of giggles that brought tears to our eyes. We settled down, and her eyes went back to the screen.

I’m not sure what is worse anymore: when she forgets, or when she remembers. A few moments after our laughter died down, she wondered aloud where he was—not Victor Newman, of course—my grandfather.

The tears came back behind my eyes, and I was relieved that she didn’t turn to look at me. I cleared my throat and did what I do best. I lied.

Gesturing towards the television in front of us as if to indicate time by her soap opera, I replied, “It’s the middle of the day, Gran. He’s at work.”

She nodded, moving her rocking chair slowly back and forth. Never mind that we were not in her house, or that it was dark outside, or that he had been dead for five years. In the ground before he knew that she would grieve him anew almost every day for the rest of her life. By the time the episode ended, she wanted to know where she was, and why she couldn’t go home.

“I know you don’t think I can take care of myself, but I can,” she said to me, as I escorted her down the hall. I turned on the light in her room.

“I know you can,” I replied. “But it’s too late to go home now. You may as well get some sleep, and we can talk about it tomorrow.”

She nodded and walked to her bed, found her housecoat and slipped her arms through it.

“I’m just going to check the news first. Can you help me get this thing on?”

I sighed, and shuffled to the computer on the desk in the corner. The next morning, she woke and cried softly through dawn like she always does. She pulls herself together before she leaves the bedroom for breakfast. I don’t ask her why she cries, or even acknowledge it. Gran presents herself with an air of dignity that is a last little grasp she has on the life she led before her memory began to fail her, and her anxiety moved in to consume the rest of her waking hours. She still combs her hair. She still brushes her teeth. When we go out, she takes two hours to dress for the occasion, even if it’s just to get her hair reset.

When my mother or uncle call, they never believe me when I ask how she’s doing. Which is fair, because I never tell the truth.

“She’s fine,” I say. “We’re okay.”

“Miranda,” my mother says slowly, “she’s only going to get worse. We need to get her set up in a nursing home. You can’t spend the best years of your life taking care of her.”

Of course, what neither of us say, but both of us understand, is that the odds are not in our favor. One day, this will be our mountain to climb too. And yet, beneath shattered debris of her past, my grandmother is alive and she’s fighting. If she only has one memory left before it ends, I want it to be of me fearless by her side, ready to carry the light when she no longer can.

City Girls

Written for February Words3
Theme: “Love”

(Author’s Note: This piece began in response to a writing prompt at a conference I attended in January. The goal was to focus on a souvenir and form the story around it. I used an actual souvenir from a trip I took years ago and wove a short fictional story that may become a memory for a character in a sequel to The Huntsman. I’ve changed the title since I first read it in February.)

We were a little tipsy by the time we saw the sign for the record store. I can still remember your hand on my arm, guiding me to it through the crowded sidewalks. It was snowing that night in Boston, and we were a few blocks from our hotel.

Between the buzz of my anxiety just beneath the alcohol and the hum of the city around us, I could barely hear your insistence that this place looked like a sanctuary for punk rockers and anarchists. You, who wanted to buy your way into both worlds with your parents’ money. And me, who really just tagged along for free plane tickets and hotel rooms.

The cold pushed us down a stairwell and through the glass door to a bright, open room with white walls. The cashier barely glanced up at us over his rimmed glasses, and I marveled at the thought of him pushing his tiny frame against the wind to wherever he called home once his shift was over. He wore a blue plaid shirt and jeans, but I know you don’t remember. Irony was always lost on you unless it helped you in an argument.

My hands were shaking, but it wasn’t from the lingering cold in my bones. I could feel my stomach clenching in the new silence of the store. I felt around in my pocket for the little pink pill my doctor told me to take for my panic attacks, and when my fingers found it I remembered what the bottle said about mixing it with alcohol.

I weighed my options as you sifted through Iggy Pop and Gogol Bordello albums for the little piece of treasure you believed, with all your heart, had to exist beneath the city streets. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a table filled with books. For the first time on our week-long journey, I found something to distract me from making sure your needs were met. The pill fell back into my coat pocket.

I crossed the room, past photos of Prince and Johnny Cash that stared back at me with what could have been indignation. The table was small—no bigger than the nightstand in our hotel room. A giant book featuring a cover with a tattooed Marilyn Monroe was propped up on top. Various other titles were stacked together next to it. On the shelf beneath that one, local publications were strewn carelessly, almost covering a stack of tiny bright green pocket-sized books covered with illustrations of protestors.

I picked one up, and flipped through the pages enough to realize that it was not exactly a book, but a planner filled with quotes from people who had protested different forms of injustice throughout history. I was fascinated, and I felt a smile cover my face as I read through them. It was at this point that you realized I was not right behind you waiting to be lectured on the imposters of punk rock and the artists that mattered to the genre.

“Are you ready to go?” I heard you ask from over my shoulder. I turned sharply, book in hand, and saw that yours were empty.

“This place doesn’t have anything good,” you added, loud enough for the guy behind the counter to raise an eyebrow as he thumbed through a magazine. “Let’s go grab another beer.”

I looked at you then, sickly pale in the fluorescent light. Your blonde hair was sticking to the sides of your face. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw you completely sober.

“I’m just going to get this,” I said softly.

You took it from my hand and flipped through it before laughing and spitting out, “A planner? Really?”

I felt heat flood my face, and my stomach turned once more. I thought I was going to be sick. Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply and took it back from you.

“I’ll be outside,” you said, pulling out your phone as you left to text someone more vibrant than me. Someone who needed less so they could be more for you. Someone who didn’t need some silly green planner to feel better about their free ticket to Boston.

Except it wasn’t actually free, was it?

After almost two years of watching you drown yourself in alcohol and self-medicating to the point of disaster, that trip to Boston was when we both realized that I was not capable of truly loving you, because you made me hate myself every time I tried.

I barely looked at the cashier when I bought that planner—just like you barely looked at me when I joined you on the sidewalk. We drank that night, and the next. On our last evening there, you roamed the city alone while I packed for the trip home. Somewhere between you falling off your barstool and stumbling to a taxi, I was making a list of all the things I needed to do to move out of our apartment when we got back.

I can’t remember much about Boston—all the streets rich with history, the tiny shops, or the people who lived there. What I remember instead is the chipped nail polish on your fingernails, and the way you painted on your face like a mask every time we left the hotel. I think of you only when I see lipstick stains on cigarette butts. In those moments, I realize you are still out there somewhere in search of the perfect record, the perfect girl, and the perfect distraction. Our ghosts, on the other hand, haunt those cobblestones with all the other memories of love and war.