The Pen Is…Putting a Story to Bed

Hana brings her story of a potentially haunted toy to a close and feels the satisfaction and relief of resolving an open task, while treating her character with respect. She discusses the pitfalls of perfectionism with Ana, the experience of falling prey to the allure of procrastination, and the repeated lesson that putting things off never feels as good as finishing them. Finding methods to encourage accountability, breaking projects down into more-manageable pieces, reaching out to colleagues/podcast co-hosts for help – these are just some of the tools that Hana and Ana have developed and are still working on to make the work of writing achievable in their daily lives.

Originally recorded December 13, 2020.

A Discarded Toy

The day was waning, shadows from the trees long against the grass as the girl walked her dog down the lane. Though the leaves had barely begun to lose their green, there was a crispness to the air that hinted at harvest time, morning frost, and the need for sweaters. The dog ran slightly ahead, trotting toward the field in anticipation of the long expanse of grass to run through. Occasionally, she would stop to sniff at a plant here or a pile of dirt there, responding to cues that were invisible to the human senses. They approached the overgrown walkway leading to the field where the dog hesitated, waiting until her companion was with her before stepping into the shade cast by the trees overhead.

“You always stop at the same spot,” the girl said to the dog, reaching down to give a comforting scratch between her ears as she wondered out loud to herself, “Is there something you can sense here that I can’t?”

They continued down the path, the dog wandering from side to side until they reached the field, where the girl unclipped the leash and immediately the compact, furry body went flying across

the terrain in an ecstasy of joy and freedom. As she watched her faithful shadow run in widening circles around her, she felt a slight chill in the air, though no breeze ruffled the tall grasses around her. For a moment, everything seemed to pause slightly, as though the world were holding its breath. The sky darkened for a split second and all sound stopped, then everything started again, so quickly the girl thought she must have imagined it.

The dog came bounding over from where she had been investigating a shrub beloved by all the dogs of the neighborhood. Panting, she sat down expectantly and cocked her head to the side, waiting for the treat she knew was coming. The girl looked closely at her to see if she had noticed the same odd moment of stillness, but she seemed unaffected or, at least, wasn’t dwelling on it. Shaking her head to clear the fog, she reached into her pocket and held out her open palm to the waiting dog, who eagerly scarfed down the small knot of dried beef before turning around to head home.

The girl was walking down the tree-lined path behind the dog, lost in thought, when she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise in response to being watched by someone. At the same moment, the dog stopped, dropped her head down, and began to growl softly, until the girl tugged on her harness to get her moving again. She looked around, but saw no one on the path in front or behind, nor were there any noises of people in the fields and yards hidden by the trees. Once they reached the end of the path where the pavement began, the feeling began to fade until just a faint sense of heaviness remained, echoed by the clouds that had rolled in during their walk back home. The dog relaxed out of the hunting position she had adopted, trotting cheerfully back to the house.

Walking to the field the next day, late in the afternoon, the girl had forgotten entirely about any strange occurrences from the previous day. The sun was hidden behind a veil of clouds and the air felt thick with cool humidity, the moment of calm before the torrent of rain. Sensing the impending deluge, the girl walked faster than usual, coaxing the dog along with ear scratches and calls. As she walked, she thought she caught something moving out of the corner of her eye, but all was still when she turned her head in that direction. Walking closer, she saw a light-colored object poking out through the brush at the edge of the path. A pair of wide eyes stared at her between leaves and then she was standing in front of it. She vaguely registered the dog giving the spot a wide berth as she tried to hurry past it to the field.

The monkey was neither small nor large, about the size of a teddy bear. Its wicker straw was tightly woven and appeared to have been painted white at some point, but exposure to the elements had worn the color down to a dirty grey. It lay on a bed of leaves, one of its legs partially torn and hanging at an angle from the body. It seemed like a toy from an earlier era, too stiff and uncomfortable to hug like a plush animal, but too delicate to toss around like the plastic and rubber toys children left lying in their yards throughout the neighborhood.

Gazing down at it, the girl felt a shiver go through her body. It seemed innocuous enough, lying there in the muck, clearly thrown out by its previous owner. But who would own something like

this and why would they rid themselves of it here? The silvery white eyes were flat and shiny, with no depth to them but their stare was unnerving, the stare of a dead animal and yet somehow it felt like the monkey was observing her in turn.

At once, a breeze blew through the trees, rousing her from her staring contest with a broken toy. The girl gave herself a shake and turned to the dog waiting at the end of the path and together they walked to the field. She told herself she was imagining it, but there seemed to be a faint imprint of the monkey’s white button eyes burned onto her vision, like the aftermath of looking directly at a bright light. As she chased the dog around the open expanse of grass, the memory and image of eyes faded away.

Walking back to the house, she became very aware of the spot where the monkey lay as they neared it. Telling herself that she was being silly, she still concentrated very closely on looking straight ahead, not wanting to catch a glimpse of those shiny, creepy eyes staring at her through the deepening twilight. It was easy to concentrate on the dog trying to stretch herself to the end of her leash, avoiding the spot where the monkey lay. As she and the dog moved out of the trees and into the neighborhood, the girl found herself breathing a little more easily.

Later that evening, at the dinner table, she brought up happening upon the monkey toy as a strange anecdote from her day and joined in her family’s laughter at such an odd item appearing in an unexpected place. The feeling of relief and embarrassment that swept through her made her realize how unsettling the experience had been until she shared it with others who reassured her of its absurdity by their amused reaction.

The days passed, growing shorter and the girl and her dog continued their afternoon routine. Each time they would approach the spot where the monkey lay, the girl would quickly glance at it before hurrying past. The dog never got any closer to the toy than she had to, hugging the other edge of the path as she ran by. The girl noticed the monkey showing signs of its exposure to the outdoor elements – the leg separating more from the body until it was barely hanging on by a few straws, the paint fading even more so that it blended into its surroundings and became harder to spot. Everything aged and changed except for the eyes, which remained a stark, staring, shiny white.

One day, as they were walking to the field, the girl noticed that the toy wasn’t in its customary spot. Thinking she must have just missed seeing it as she walked along, she put it from her mind, not wishing to dwell too long on something that made her so uneasy. However, when she walked back home with her tired companion, the girl saw that it was truly gone. Indeed, the dog showed no unease in that spot, trotting past with confidence. Although she felt somewhat embarrassed by her strong reaction to a discarded plaything, the girl felt a sense of relief.

In the days that followed, she went on with life as normal and didn’t give the mysterious toy with the staring eyes any more thought. Walking to and from the field went smoothly, with the dog occasionally stopping at random spots to bark at unseen or imagined threats. Every so often,

the hairs on the back of her neck would rise and she would look around to see if anyone was watching her, but the moments never lasted long and were infrequent enough that she didn’t make a connection between them at first. Even as the disturbances became more frequent and the girl’s rising anxiety cast a pall on her daily life, she didn’t mention anything to her family. She told herself that her hesitation to give voice to her unease was to avoid being laughed at.

Standing by her bedroom window one night, the girl was getting ready for bed when she glanced outside at the ring of light cast by the streetlamp across the street. As she turned back to her wardrobe, something flashed just out of the corner of her eye, at the edge of the light’s circle. She turned back to the window to see what was out there, but saw nothing within the lit space. All the same, she felt that sensation of someone watching her and tried to peer through the darkness beyond to detect any eyes that might be watching her. She moved from the window and continued with her nighttime routine, trying to push the event out of her mind. Had she seen a small, greyish body with a pair of bright eyes in that brief movement or had she just imagined it?

As the girl’s fears grew, she still couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone the true cause of her stress. She gave noncommittal answers when concerned family members remarked on the change. Part of her wanted to bring her fear out into the open, to air it in the light of day and confirm that it was all in her head, but the worry that confession could possibly make things worse stopped her from saying anything to another person. Even voicing it aloud to herself was too dangerous, it would acknowledge her fear as legitimate and give form to the dark shadow that haunted her.

Finally a particularly warm and sunny fall day arrived, such a beautiful day that it coaxed her out of the house with its summery feel refreshing after her many days spent inside. The dog ran ahead after they approached the tree-lined section, as though she wanted to get through it as quickly as possible. The trees were now almost entirely bare of leaves and the ground was littered with yellow, orange, and brown leaves that gave a satisfying crunch under the girl’s boots and she began to relax in the warm and calming afternoon. As she emerged onto the packed dirt of the path beyond the trees, she thought she heard an echoing rustle of leaves, as though someone was walking behind her. The girl turned to look, but no one was behind her, and the sound had been so faint as to be almost nonexistent. Telling herself it must have been a small breeze on the otherwise still day, she walked on after the dog.

Returning home, she again enjoyed the sound of the leaves crackling beneath her steps, even as the dog fairly flew past in her effort to spend as little time as possible between the rows of looming, crooked branches. This time, after she stepped onto the roadway and left the leaf-strewn path behind, she heard the unmistakable sound of steps swishing through the leaves, an uneven gait that sounded as though one leg was dragging. She tried to appear as nonchalant as possible before suddenly whirling around, but again saw no one behind her. A few leaf fragments fluttered at the side of the path, as though someone had brushed past them, but the thick pile of leaves underneath the trees appeared undisturbed. She peered around for a few seconds longer before the dog’s barking caught her attention and she hurried to catch up to

her companion. Out in the open, without the walls of the house around her, she could no longer tell herself it was silly to be afraid of a toy. Her feet barely touched the ground as she sprinted toward the house, for once outrunning the dog as they both tried to reach the safety of home as quickly as possible.

After that, she only left the house when absolutely necessary, bringing the dog out to wander around their yard instead of their former trips to the field. Sleep eluded her and she jumped at small noises, while her appetite disappeared and her body never felt warm enough, even covered in sweaters and blankets. Sometimes, during the day, she could almost bring herself to tell someone what she was experiencing, but she would hesitate, telling herself she could handle it and things weren’t that bad. Then the night would come, she would shrink from looking out her bedroom window and lie awake in her bed, imagining those flat, shiny eyes staring at her and waiting to hear the sound of small feet scraping along the floor to her bedside.

Several weeks had passed and her cheeks were gaunt and pale, her eyes red and dry from wakeful nights. Family whispered among themselves, discussing their concerns about her in low tones when they thought she wasn’t paying attention, staring at a corner of the room. The dog never left her side, providing her sole source of security, a comforting presence leaning against her on the sofa, or warming her feet while she tried to read to distract herself. Anytime she thought she was descending into hallucination or doubted her memory, she reminded herself of the dog’s reactions to the presence of the monkey. Yet, as her mind became clouded due to a lack of sleep and the continued onslaught of anxiety and fear, she began to question this recall as well. It felt as though the walls around her were simultaneously closing in, imprisoning her in a cage of fear and yet, simultaneously offering no real protection should that thing decide to finally come for her.

The nights of sleepless anxiety and days of fearful boredom stretched out, unending, until she could no longer recall what life had been like before her first encounter with the toy monkey. She stopped talking, her voice faded away as she worried about alerting the creature to her whereabouts. To mask her smell, she stopped bathing and refused to change her clothes. The dog still faithfully kept watch by her side, but she no longer meaningfully interacted with anyone else around her. One day, she overheard mention of plans to bring in a psychiatrist to evaluate her for the nearest residential mental health program. At first, she felt relief at the thought of being in a secure, locked ward, but by the end of the day, she knew that those staring, glowing eyes would follow her everywhere. Not even the institution could guarantee her safety.

That night, as she tried simultaneously to drift off to sleep and yet remain vigilant to her surroundings, she felt as though she were drowning in helplessness and fear. The incessant presence of those eyes in her mind hadn’t gone away, no matter how she tried to shield herself. There was only one thing to do to break free of the prison of her terror…

The sun hadn’t yet peeked over the horizon the next morning when the older man’s dog started barking at something by the side of the road during their first walk of the day. He couldn’t quite

see what it was at first, in the grey pre-dawn light, but as he approached, he gasped and ran the last few steps. There, half-buried in a pile of dead leaves, was the sweet girl he often saw chasing her dog through the field. She lay as though she were tucked into her own cozy bed, a small half-smile on her peaceful cold face. The man turned toward her house, the dread of the news he had to deliver slowing his steps. As he began walking away, he saw a small toy monkey cradled in the girl’s arms, the same half-smile on its face, its wide, silvery eyes shining through the twilight.

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