, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

by Haley Petcher

The black ink from my pen railed against the paper, wrapping upward like vines intent on choking me with the marrow of my fears. It tried to latch onto my skin. Once some ink escaped and left a dark, sap-like stain on my wrist, so I started to wear gloves when I wrote, hoping to keep my hands clean.

When I started the list, I was in college and decisions felt like falling dominoes. It began in an orderly fashion, with each fear lining up one after the other. I’m afraid I chose the wrong major. I’m afraid my clothes say the wrong thing about me. I’m afraid that there’s something wrong with me because Nicholas Sparks movies don’t make me cry. Always the same form. I’m afraid … I’m afraid … I’m afraid … After a while I ran out of lines, so my fears spread to the margins. Sideways. Upside down. Cattywampus. As much as I tried to tame them, my fears didn’t want to be in a straight line. They wanted to tangle and to thrive.

I’m afraid I won’t respond with kindness. I’m afraid I won’t get a job. I’m afraid I’ll become a bit too much like the obsessive side of Leslie Knope. No fear was too small for inclusion. The dominoes, I’d learned, were all the same weight. I’m afraid I’ll be mechanical. I’m afraid I’ll live in a box. I’m afraid I’ll feel nothing.

Each time I finished writing, I stuffed my fears between stories in my journal, forming creases in the page, channels where the ink flowed and finally settled. Eventually — after countless sessions with counselors telling me that we can’t obtain perfection or control exactly where each domino will fall — the words bled together like black reflecting pools, dark and deep. As I looked into the depths, I caught a cracked Narcissus, frozen by fear instead of beauty.

Tonight I consider holding that page near a campfire, the ink threatening to spill on the flames, and without unfolding it, offering it to the fire. I’m afraid the list will explode. Instead, the paper turns tan to brown to black with ink oozing from the burned holes and sizzling among the wood and ash. The flames are hungry. They flare up, then fade and retreat into smoldering embers. Heat radiates against my face in the dimming light, and I rub my wrist with the sap-like stain, wishing that my hands were clean. Between crackles, the fire whispers, “You are afraid … You are afraid … You are afraid.”

Haley Petcher earned her BA from Auburn University and her MA from the University of Louisville. She currently teaches high school English in Huntsville, Alabama. You can find her work in Pithead Chapel and learn more about her at http://petcherpages.wixsite.com/portfolio.