WHAT GREATER FEAR • by J.C. Towler

Stars emerged beyond darkening skies over the Shenandoah forest. Though we’d just arrived at the campsite, Alex and Kevin insisted we build a fire straightaways. Fire assuaged ancient fears of tooth and claw buried in the lizard-brain and their grandfather’s stories about Wendigos, Mothmen and Jersey Devils had the boys on edge. I didn’t have to be their mother to see that much.

I set Hannah’s urn gently on the ground then sloughed off my backpack as Dad started up another tale.

“Used to camp here when I was your age. Met lovely Lois one summer.” Dad lowered himself on a log, dribbled water from his canteen over a handkerchief, and then placed it against the back of his neck. “She’d have probably been your grandmother if not for the Sasquatch.”

Having heard all his stories growing up, I knew it didn’t end well for Lois. Since neither boys’ bravado would allow them to admit their granddad was scaring the crap out of them, I stepped in.

“I think it’s time we quit with the heebie-jeebie yarns.”

“Awwww, mom,” they said in unison.

“I want to hear it,” said Kevin, my nine-year-old.

Dad fished an oversized Calabash pipe and a bag of tobacco from a sweaty pocket of his safari jacket.

“Tragic story, really,” he said as he packed the bowl with a bone colored tamper. “Lois was pretty as a song.”

“What kind of song?” asked Alex. All of twelve, my oldest had the world figured out except for girls.

The pungent aroma of cherry tobacco suffused the campsite. The smoke kept the mosquitos away better than an economy sized can of Deep Woods Off! so I didn’t mind. But I was over the stories.

I cleared my throat and cut my eyes at Dad. He rocked back on the log and blew four wizard-quality smoke rings. The boys “oohed” in harmony.

“Another time then, lads,” Dad said. He shrugged then slapped his hands against his thighs.

“So, let’s whittle up some roasting skewers for hotdogs. Got your knives?”

Between the smoke rings and the chance to finally use their new for-camping-trips-only Swiss Army knives, the kids forgot all about poor Lois. Armed with flashlights, the boys marched into the forest so Dad could show them the finer points of woodcraft.

I sat on the ground and put Hannah in my lap, wiping the urn’s brass surface clean with my sleeve. “It’s so pretty here, sweet baby. The cicadas are singing just for you.”

I knew I should have been pitching the tents while there was a bit of light remaining, but by the time everyone returned I hadn’t moved. The three of them regarded me in silence. Alex shuffled his feet and whispered, “At least she’s not crying.”

Dad gathered the canteens and called the boys to him. “Lads, we passed a creek a little ways back on the trail. Go run and top these off for your mom.”

“Just us?” Alex asked.

“Buck up, son. You got your flashlights. And your knives.”

“What about the Wendigo? What if there’s one out there?” asked Kevin.

Dad knelt in front of Kevin and put his hands on his shoulders.

“Ain’t no shame to be afraid. But if you don’t learn from your fear, then that is a shame. Now what happened in the Wendigo story I told you?”

“He gobbled up everyone.”

“Not everyone.”

“That boy lived,” Kevin said. “Migisi.”

“Right,” Dad said.

“Migisi made friends with the East Wind,” Alex said. “He ran straight off a cliff with the Wendigo hot on his heels and the East Wind carried him away safe.”

“But I’m not friends with the East Wind,” Kevin said.

“The story isn’t just about friendship,” Dad said. “It’s also about trust. And I’m telling you there’s no Wendigos in this here forest. So do you trust me?”

“I guess.”

“Off you go then.”

Kevin tucked two canteens under his arm. Alex grabbed the rest and they headed down the trail, arguing about who got to carry the bigger flashlight.

Dad stood and turned toward me.

“So.”

“So,” I said. “The boys won’t sleep a wink tonight, thanks to you.”

He settled beside me, wisps of smoke trailing from his pipe.

“World’s a scary place.” He pointed the stem of his pipe at the urn. “One don’t rightly know how scary till you grow up.”

“And telling those stories helps how?”

“I always thought of them as a sort of inoculation. You know how they kill a virus then squirt it in you to you get immune? Them stories are kind of like a dead virus. There’s nothing that can really hurt you, but maybe you learn a little about dealing with fear.”

“Didn’t seem to work for me.” I stared at the urn, willing myself to remember the pink, alive Hannah. Not the blue Hannah.

“Worked just fine as I see it,” Dad said. “You found her in the crib like that and you didn’t panic. You did everything you was supposed to do. It was just too late.”

“But I’m still afraid,” I said. “I’m afraid if I put her down, I’ll forget her. You see how the boys are? They hardly even think about Hannah and she’s right here.”

“They haven’t forgotten. They’ve just moved on. That’s what you can’t be afraid of: moving on. You’ve been stuck in the same moment these last two years now.”

Dad cupped my chin in his hand.

“We spent lots of time out here when you was growing up. Lot of good memories. Think it might be a place Hannah would feel… comfortable? Place like this with good memories.”

I snugged Hannah in the crook of my arm. Remembered her smile. Remembered her inside me. Dad stood and offered a hand up.

“You gonna be my East Wind, Dad?”

“Sure. Anything you need.”

“I’m not ready to jump off that cliff today,” I said. “But let’s see how I feel in the morning.”


J.C. Towler feels it is silly to write bios in the 3rd person unless one is British Royalty, which he is not.


All we want for EDF’s birthday is your Patreon support.

Rate this story:
 average 4 stars • 1 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A story that after a slightly confusing start resonated with me. I did think it was heading in a horror direction and was glad it didn’t. That weasel word ‘then’ pops up five times, yet needn’t be used at all. Nicely told – I enjoyed the voice.

    • Joseph Kaufman
      Interesting, I never considered "then" a "weasel" word (the words "that" and "just" are ones I like to slash with extreme prejudice). But I do see where "then" could be left out in the piece. However, that's not always the case. For example: "I set Hannah’s urn gently on the ground then sloughed off my backpack as Dad started up another tale." You can't just remove "then" from that sentence, can you? Sometimes "then" really does indicate doing one thing then another. How would you rework the above passage to excise the "then" (and reduce the word count by one)? When it comes to "and then", though, I definitely see what you mean. Use "and" or "then", but rarely does one need to keep both.
      • Paul A. Freeman
        'and' works just as well, denoting as it does a chronology of actions.
      • Joe, I, myself prefer a three-beat sentence structure, and use it as often as I can (hopefully) without it being noticed. "I set Hannah’s urn gently on the ground, sloughed off my backpack, and sat as Dad started up another tale." Net word count +1, but I've added an entire physical action for the MC. More "stuff" for the reader to envision. "Then" can't be seen. Maybe that's part of what Paul is saying? In general, although I've not thought of it consciously until now, I do avoid "then" when possible.
        • Joseph Kaufman
          Dustin, I see what you are saying. However, like any writing construct, things get "samey" if you always do a certain thing. For example, if you always replace "then" with a comma-delimited series of actions, that will start to stick out like anything else. That's why I am saying the adverbial use of "then" (like the use of any adverb) should be analyzed, but not strictly avoided. But that goes for pretty much any word.
      • Nick Oz
        Microsoft Word editor immediately wants you to insert an "and" before any "then" following a comma. And then I always wonder who, exactly, programmed Microsoft Word editor and where he/she went to school.
      • weequahic
        I just have to agree.
  • Paul A. Freeman

    A story that after a slightly confusing start resonated with me. I did think it was heading in a horror direction and was glad it didn’t. That weasel word ‘then’ pops up five times, yet needn’t be used at all. Nicely told – I enjoyed the voice.

    • Joseph Kaufman
      Interesting, I never considered "then" a "weasel" word (the words "that" and "just" are ones I like to slash with extreme prejudice). But I do see where "then" could be left out in the piece. However, that's not always the case. For example: "I set Hannah’s urn gently on the ground then sloughed off my backpack as Dad started up another tale." You can't just remove "then" from that sentence, can you? Sometimes "then" really does indicate doing one thing then another. How would you rework the above passage to excise the "then" (and reduce the word count by one)? When it comes to "and then", though, I definitely see what you mean. Use "and" or "then", but rarely does one need to keep both.
      • Paul A. Freeman
        'and' works just as well, denoting as it does a chronology of actions.
      • Joe, I, myself prefer a three-beat sentence structure, and use it as often as I can (hopefully) without it being noticed. "I set Hannah’s urn gently on the ground, sloughed off my backpack, and sat as Dad started up another tale." Net word count +1, but I've added an entire physical action for the MC. More "stuff" for the reader to envision. "Then" can't be seen. Maybe that's part of what Paul is saying? In general, although I've not thought of it consciously until now, I do avoid "then" when possible.
        • Joseph Kaufman
          Dustin, I see what you are saying. However, like any writing construct, things get "samey" if you always do a certain thing. For example, if you always replace "then" with a comma-delimited series of actions, that will start to stick out like anything else. That's why I am saying the adverbial use of "then" (like the use of any adverb) should be analyzed, but not strictly avoided. But that goes for pretty much any word.
      • Nick Oz
        Microsoft Word editor immediately wants you to insert an "and" before any "then" following a comma. And then I always wonder who, exactly, programmed Microsoft Word editor and where he/she went to school.
      • weequahic
        I just have to agree.
  • During most of the first half of the story, I thought the MC was a guy and Hannah was his dead wife. But it didn’t really change the story for me. Things became clear once I realized she was the mom.

    It was a touching story. Well-crafted and timely as we see another summer come to a close.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • MPmcgurty
      Funny you should say that. When I read "I didn’t have to be their mother to see that much" in the first paragraph, for a couple of seconds I thought "is this a stepmother?", but never considered it a male.
  • During most of the first half of the story, I thought the MC was a guy and Hannah was his dead wife. But it didn’t really change the story for me. Things became clear once I realized she was the mom.

    It was a touching story. Well-crafted and timely as we see another summer come to a close.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • MPmcgurty
      Funny you should say that. When I read "I didn’t have to be their mother to see that much" in the first paragraph, for a couple of seconds I thought "is this a stepmother?", but never considered it a male.
  • MPmcgurty

    Very nicely told, good voice, fine imagery. Author did a good job of separating the MC from the protagonist here. The grandfather was sketched well.

  • MPmcgurty

    Very nicely told, good voice, fine imagery. Author did a good job of separating the MC from the protagonist here. The grandfather was sketched well.

  • Chinwillow

    Loved the voice in this and the writing flowed seamlessly….but did I miss something? Mom was male? I read it three times and never got that…J.C set the theme nicely…enjoyed

    • Joseph Kaufman
      No, mom was not male. She was female. The line "I didn’t have to be their mother to see that much." was meant to indicate that right from the start, I think.
  • Chinwillow

    Loved the voice in this and the writing flowed seamlessly….but did I miss something? Mom was male? I read it three times and never got that…J.C set the theme nicely…enjoyed

    • Joseph Kaufman
      No, mom was not male. She was female. The line "I didn’t have to be their mother to see that much." was meant to indicate that right from the start, I think.
  • J.C. Towler

    All,

    Thanks for the comments and insights.

    Paul you nailed what I was going for with the vibe early on. Grandpa telling spooky stories on the trail…naturally one thinks a boogeyman is going to jump out at some point. That’s a kind of horror lots of people can relate to because they’ve seen it in the theater or at a haunted mansion.

    The kind the MC has encountered in her life is only known to those who have actually experienced it. The rest of us are left with an uncomfortable “That must be awful” kind of empathy. The thought was to get the reader thinking “I’m about to be scared” and then when they find out what happened to the MC, have a fresh perspective about real terror.

  • J.C. Towler

    All,

    Thanks for the comments and insights.

    Paul you nailed what I was going for with the vibe early on. Grandpa telling spooky stories on the trail…naturally one thinks a boogeyman is going to jump out at some point. That’s a kind of horror lots of people can relate to because they’ve seen it in the theater or at a haunted mansion.

    The kind the MC has encountered in her life is only known to those who have actually experienced it. The rest of us are left with an uncomfortable “That must be awful” kind of empathy. The thought was to get the reader thinking “I’m about to be scared” and then when they find out what happened to the MC, have a fresh perspective about real terror.

  • monksunkadan

    What a really gentle, intergenerational tale of sharing grief the way a family can without making their loss overbearing. Thank you

  • monksunkadan

    What a really gentle, intergenerational tale of sharing grief the way a family can without making their loss overbearing. Thank you

  • joanna b.

    this was a terrific story. kudos, etc. (i hope kudos means what i think it means.) i did get hung up a bit on that sentence about “I didn’t have to be their mother…” but figured it out that she was saying she was their mother. i liked the writing of that sentence; i’m wondering if there were other choices you played around with, J.C. Towler, before going with that one. Also, I wouldn’t even have mentioned it but for reading the other comments and the confusion. i was very moved by this story and liked that you didn’t feel it necessary to tell us the boys came back safely and also liked that you didn’t leave us hanging about how Hannah died.
    anyway, re your Bio, i do suspect you have a bit (or more than a bit) of Writing Royaly in you.

  • joanna b.

    this was a terrific story. kudos, etc. (i hope kudos means what i think it means.) i did get hung up a bit on that sentence about “I didn’t have to be their mother…” but figured it out that she was saying she was their mother. i liked the writing of that sentence; i’m wondering if there were other choices you played around with, J.C. Towler, before going with that one. Also, I wouldn’t even have mentioned it but for reading the other comments and the confusion. i was very moved by this story and liked that you didn’t feel it necessary to tell us the boys came back safely and also liked that you didn’t leave us hanging about how Hannah died.
    anyway, re your Bio, i do suspect you have a bit (or more than a bit) of Writing Royaly in you.

  • Pingback: Black Gate » Blog Archive » SeptOberFright 2: What Greater Fear? Jersey Devil, Dinosaur Dracula, and Other Flashy Recommendations()

  • weequahic

    Relevant trivia: Back at Weequahic HS, made famous by Philip Roth and a few others, it was gently hammered into us that “You/I don’t/didn’t have to be” implies/means you’re not.

    The almost perfect examples were the massive billboards reminding folks, “You don’t have to be Jewish..[and here you see people of every ethnicity in the NYC area, and beyond, chomping into a luscious deli sandwich]] … to enjoy Levi’s Real Jewish Rye.”

  • weequahic

    Relevant trivia: Back at Weequahic HS, made famous by Philip Roth and a few others, it was gently hammered into us that “You don’t have to be” implies you’re not.

    The almost perfect examples were the massive billboards reminding folks, “You don’t have to be Jewish..[and here you see people of every other ethnicity in the NYC area, and beyond, chomping into a luscious deli sandwich] … to enjoy Levi’s Real Jewish Rye.”

    Weak spots in the above, but too sleepy now.

  • mdshahjaha

    nice story

  • mdshahjaha

    nice story