What pursues you?

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Fear is the whisp of smoke. Fear is the scent of a fire beginning. Fear is the moment when the surface becomes hot enough to singe your hand. Fear is the dark smudge where a fire once had been.

“Would you like a glass of water before we begin?” I ask as Fear settles onto the dark blue velvet chair across from me. I reach forward to grasp the pitcher of cold ice water that is sweating on the glass table between us but stop when Fear raises her hand.

“No, thank you. It may cause me to choke,” Fear says. She arranges the folds of her black satin dress around her legs. Her skin is as pale as death. Beneath its surface, I can see the faint rivers of blue veins snaking their way to where I expect her heart to be, if she has one.

“Okay.” I move my hand to my glass and sit back with it, the nearness of Fear causing my pulse to race. I sip at the water, squashing the impulse to gulp it down. She is studying me as much as I am studying her.

“Let’s begin then,” I say, putting the glass down. “Do you remember when we met?”

She nods once. “In the hospital. You had just arrived.”

“Been born, you mean.”

“I thought you would recognize me.”

I gaze at her curiously. “How would I have, if we had just met?”

“I knew your mother. She and I spoke about you. I thought you might remember that.”

“I don’t. I didn’t, I guess.”

“You cried. Honestly, it hurt my feelings.”

“It was probably because of surprise and not you. The air was cold and there was suddenly so much to take in.”

She snaps, “Let’s not talk about Surprise.”

I had not thought about how Fear and Surprise might be mistaken for each other at times or the cause of one or the other to appear. I would have assumed that they would be good friends. Perhaps not.

“What would you like to talk about then?” I ask, reaching for the water again. I allow myself a gulp before admitting, “I had not planned on talking with you tonight. Otherwise, I would have prepared some questions or at least a topic.”

I lean forward to put the glass down and Fear leans forward at the same time.

“Why do you care about me?” Her gray eyes are searching the depths of my eyes, diving into them like a hot iron stick being quenched. I know I’m imagining it.

I slam my back against the chair.

Fear sighs and sits back too. “We’ve been walking together all these years and not once have you talked to me. You’ve mumbled about me, but not a peep of kindness to me.”

“You scare me,” I whisper.

She snorts. “That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”

Out of the corner of my vision, I see Courage peeking into the doorway. She’s dressed as a Lion today, though her costume fur is quite ragged. It’s enough.

“You grab my hand,” I say, staring back at Fear. “You grab it and stop me. You make my heart pound. You twist my stomach and intestines until I am sick with the feeling of it. You’ve even stolen my breath.”

“I have never stolen anything from you.” She slides to the edge of her seat as if to bolt at the slightest hint that I might try to hurt her in the way she’s hurt me. “You’re so ungrateful. I’ve saved your life more than once.”

“Sure,” I admit. I can’t in good faith say she hasn’t kept me from harm, but there’s more to it. “But there’s also so many things that I lost because of you. You overdo it.”

“My job is to warn you. I can’t control what happens next. It’s your decision what you do with the information I give you.”

“You can’t put it all back on me. You cry wolf all the time. When am I supposed to know an actual wolf is standing behind the closed door?”

“Maybe if you knew me better, you would know that I’m not crying wolf. I’m telling you to pay attention.”

The light hanging above us has somehow become brighter. The gray color of her eyes has turned to a golden amber. She turns her face from me, disgusted.

I want to puke, to run, to scream. I look toward the doorway for Courage, but she has disappeared. I am alone with Fear. I’ve never been so scared in my life.

She lifts a thin hand to the cheek and wipes a tear away.

I realize that we are breathing together, the rise and fall of our chests falling in tandem. I feel the wetness of the tears on my cheeks, sliding down past the tip of my nose and dropping onto my lips. I taste the saltiness in them.

When my heart slows to a pace that does not choke my voice, I say, “I’m sorry.”

She flashes a sad smile. “There’s more to me than what you see. I am the whisp of smoke, not the fire. When you smell the candle burning next to your bed, do you worry about a forest fire? I am the moment when a surface becomes just hot enough to singe your hand. Do you blame the stove when you touch it rather than put a pan on it like you should? I am the dark smudge where a fire has been. Does the memory of a fire burn you now? If you would walk with me instead of run from me, I would not have to yell. If you would listen and pay attention to me rather than assume what I am telling you, your heart would not beat so fast. I don’t want to pursue you anymore. I never did.”

She stands to leave. I grab her hand as she turns, keeping her with me for a few seconds more.

“Walk with me?” I ask. “As a friend?”

I bite my lip, waiting for her reply.

She nods. Then, she slips her hand from mine and leaves.

She appears again a few days later. I am with Courage, her tail tucked in her hands but her voice loud and clear telling me to move forward. I smell the smoky scent of Fear and see her in the shadows behind me. I almost rush to her to let her fold me into her embrace. As scary as she is, Fear feels known and safe.

I smile at her. Then, I turn, open the door, and leave.