Trigger warning for stalking and violence against women.
Today my short story “When First He Laid Eyes” has been published at Fireside Magazine! I hope you’ll check it out.
Many authors have a story that scared them to write. This was one was mine. I sat at my laptop and wrung it from myself sentence by shuddering sentence, breaking between each line to breathe, walk around the room, and brace myself for the next line. It’s a deeply personal story, and a difficult one. Given that, I’ve written up a post about the story’s origins and inspirations.
I’m 30 years old, and running by his house again in the summer heat. Reflexively I remember to forget. On the way home, exhausted, I remember again, and take the shortcut through the woods. He doesn’t live there anymore, but I cannot convince my brain it’s true. He’s gone, but that house is still his. Guilt by association.
He drives a beat-up dark green Nissan Sentra. Sometimes I think it’s gray, if it’s early and the light is dim. A long, white scratch crosses the driver’s side door. A big white G takes up the rear windshield. I would know it anywhere. I cannot stop looking for it.
I always feel him staring. I see him like I see his car, in snatches. Look, and look away. If eyes are weapons, mine are machine guns. His are tractor beams.
I’m 26, and I wave to him as I run past his house. It’s raining. I’ve never run in the rain before, and it’s spring, and the air tastes wet and green. It’s a good day. He is at his mailbox. He stares a little too long. The stare is physical; it has weight and heat, like an iron brand. I steal backwards glances, and he hasn’t stopped watching me. Something inside me shatters, and my joy spills out of the cracks. I’m not happy anymore. It’s the memory I return to the most, save one.
I’m 19, and horror movies annoy me, because everyone mocks the screaming girl who loses her shit in the second act. Shut up. Stop screaming. He’ll hear you. The camera lingers on her wet mascara, her choking sobs. We despise her for her stuttering heart, her hitching breath. She dies because she didn’t use her brain. We’d know what to do.
I’m 27, and I’ve just run the farthest I’ve ever run in my whole life one Sunday morning. I’m footsore and proud, plodding my way home past his house, and he’s there in his car with the engine running. The Nissan slowly follows me, drifts past, turns left toward my house at the T intersection. I am so, so weary. I want to go home. I veer right. After 100 meters, I turn around and head back. The Nissan passes me again before I reach the intersection, then doubles back. This is the third-most important moment in our relationship. My friends tell me to call the police, but I don’t, because I don’t know what to say. It sounds like nothing, even to myself.
I’m 25, and my friends and I swap zombie apocalypse survival plans. One thing is consistent: we always survive. Nobody ever plans on being one of the zombies. But if that’s true, if we all survive, why are there so many of them? Where did they all come from?
I’m 28, and people are so full of advice. Get a gun. Learn karate. Adopt a Saint Bernard. Everyone’s got an ironclad survival plan they’re all willing to share. For this, I forgive them.
The day after it happens, I want to check the mail, but I freeze at the door knob. What if he’s out there, driving past my house? What if he learns where I live? Silly me. Zombies can’t open doors. I stay inside the house.
Two weeks later, I go running. I make it past his house. I think I’ll leave the fear behind me after that, but I cannot stop watching the cars. It’s amazing how many different cars can look like his. How all the colors collapse into one. The worst part is heading home again, drawing near his house, his driveway, the engine forever idling in my mind.
Toward the end of that wretched year, I begin to write a story in my head. It’s not happy, or very original, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We keep telling this stupid story. We keep living it. I’m thoroughly sick of zombie movies.
At 30, I’m driving past his house with a relative. Which one was his? she asks. Where did he live? She is smiling like it’s a sightseeing trip, and I’m her friendly tour guide. I’m 28 again, and I’m about to die, and it hits me how they’ll write the headline tomorrow. Nobody expects to become the news. That’s why she dies. That’s why most of them are zombies. These things were never fictions, because most of us do not survive.
You want to know what happened at 28, right? You’ve been waiting to hear how I got bitten. Does it really matter?
This is my zombie apocalypse survival plan:
I don’t survive. I get bitten.
After I join the shambling dead, I write stories about about my future. Sometimes I live, and sometimes I die. Sometimes I run, and sometimes I fight. Despair and and anger collide on the page and produce something that looks like hope. We measure the protagonist’s worth by her perseverance. The truth is, I don’t know how my story will end. I love that ambiguity. This is how I’ll survive.
I make new survival plans. I give myself permission to trust my gut. I mail letters to strangers around the world, and nothing bad happens. I still reflexively look for his car sometimes. At the gas station. On my running route. When I fly across the country one summer, I wonder if I’ll keep looking there too. If that’s how far he’ll follow me. But I don’t. I forget.
He doesn’t live in that house anymore. I never predicted that in any of my stories, that I would outlast him, that I would run past his yard again someday, and sometimes I would forget.
Maybe we are more than the sum of the worst things that happen to us.