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.”
“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