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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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.