For as long as Frankie could remember, she had been shadowed by a stalker. She couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t with her. He was mean, dark and horrible. Veiled behind a black cloak, he was tall and imposing. He wore the mask of a grey wolf and would appear at seemingly random moments, night or day. He seemed to enjoy sabotaging Frankie’s efforts to be happy. The dark figure didn’t have a name, so Frankie always referred to him as “The Wolf”.
The Wolf would talk to her. He’d whisper horrible things that made her feel awful. He would tell her that she wasn’t good enough, would never amount to anything and would always be lonely. He told her she was boring, dumb, and not worthy of love or respect. He was especially cruel when she was in a relationship. It was like he was jealous of anyone who got close to her. He would whisper fiercely and cruelly to her, “He’s going to leave you.
“He thinks you’re ugly. “He thinks you’re dumb.
“He’s going to cheat on you.
“She’s much more beautiful and interesting than you. Why bother. Give up now.”
If Frankie had a suggestion, The Wolf would tell her why it wouldn’t work. He was the devil’s advocate, the naysayer, the party pooper. He was really quite a drag.
Whenever her shadowy stalker was around, Frankie felt physically uncomfortable. Her throat would close up, making it difficult for her to breath. Her chest would hurt. Her stomach would churn and she would feel an almost constant sense of impending doom. She was hyper aware, always on the lookout for danger or hurt.
Frankie wished so many times that the cloaked figure would leave her alone. She would mentally scream at him go away and stop ruining everything. Sometimes she would smoke cigarettes as a distraction. Sometimes she tried ignoring him. Other times she would stay awake all night, with the light on, because he liked to get into her dreams and when he did, they could be horrific, with bone crunching clarity. Frankie often believed she must be crazy and that everyone around her thought so too. She didn’t understand how anyone could be so cruel and to relish torturing another person so much. Why her? What had she ever done to deserve this? There were days when she just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up.
Thankfully, today was not one of those days.
Frankie, her pale skin glistening with sweat, breathed heavily and flopped down on a rock to rest. She fumbled in her backpack for her water bottle. Drinking greedily, Frankie savoured the feeling of the water passing through her throat and cooling her stomach.
With her thirst slaked, Frankie turned her face to the warm sun, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. For a brief, yet glorious moment in time, she felt at peace. Like all was right with the world, and within her.
It was a superb day. A warm sun burned brightly in a clear, blue sky. Frankie smiled as she took in the breathtaking ocean views. She was on the Tasman Peninsula and had just reached the cliffs of Cape Hauy. It was one of her favourite places in the world. A place she liked to visit when her day to day life, and the world in general, got the better of her.
As an Accountant in her mid-30’s, Frankie assumed that people thought she was boring. That her life was in order and she did all the right things. In reality, Frankie’s life was more like a rollercoaster ride than a well-executed plan.
Ordinarily Frankie could escape the stresses of the world, and even the presence of the Wolf, by walking in nature. But when she opened her eyes, she saw him. He lurked at the edge of the trees, staring at her and waiting patiently. Frankie closed her eyes again, her brow knitted in consternation, and took several long, deep breaths.
The Wolf had been her constant companion. Well, he was more like a barnacle than a companion. She didn’t like him, nor did she want him around, but everywhere she went, there he was. Sometimes he would disappear for days or weeks, only to return, furious and more mean than ever.
Frankie had been wanting him to leave her alone for so long. But she was exhausted. She didn’t want to fight or run anymore. So, in a rare moment of self-confidence, Frankie approached him. The Wolf seemed surprised. For a long while, neither of them spoke. Frankie looked him up and down and noted, with a slight frown, that he wasn’t actually as tall as she remembered. Then, softly, Frankie said “what do you want? Why do you keep following me around?”
The Wolf regarded her silently for a long time. She was taken aback at the tenderness in his gaze. His eyes were green, like hers. “Don’t you see it?” he asked her, “I love you.”
Frankie gasped and furrowed her brow in confusion. Shaking her head in disbelief, she said “but you’re so mean to me.”
The Wolf looked at his feet, ashamed. “I thought I was helping you,” he muttered. “I thought I was helping us.”
“How do you figure that?” Frankie asked, raising one eyebrow.
“We belong together, you and I. I can’t survive without you”, he look up at the sky, as if searching for something and then continued, “I don’t want to survive without you. I’ll always be a part of you. We need each other.”
Frankie narrowed her eyes, crossed her arms defiantly, and said “I definitely do not need you.”
The Wolf looked away, wounded and sighed. “I need you. And I have to protect you. Otherwise you’ll get hurt.”
“By who? Or what?” Frankie asked. She was getting annoyed now. She clenched her jaw and curled her hands into fists. It was a defensive pose that she often adopted unconsciously when she felt confronted.
“Everyone, and everything. You think that I’m here to make your life hard. You don’t realise how many times I’ve saved you.”
After a stunned silence, Frankie said angrily “You’re insane.” She turned her back on the Wolf and kicked at a small rock on the ground. It bounced once and then tumbled over the cliff edge before plunging into the ocean below. Following the rock’s progress with her angry stare, Frankie had a fleeting vision of her pushing the Wolf over the cliff. She almost smiled at the thought, but then felt guilty. Even if he was horrible, he didn’t deserve that.
“Just hear me out,” the Wolf pleaded. “Do you remember the time you wanted to fly to India for your friend’s wedding? Or the time you wanted to go to Iceland because your friends invited you to join them?”
“How could I forget,” the girl said sadly, looking out at the ocean with a wistful look. “You told me how the plane was going to crash and that I would die a painful, horrific death. You even showed me vivid images of what could happen. And then I was too frightened to go. Those are the biggest regrets of my life.”
The Wolf touched her lightly on the shoulder, “don’t feel sad. I saved you. I prevented you from being hurt or killed.”
Frankie’s shook The Wolf’s hand off of her shoulder. Her mouth fell open and she blinked incredulously. “Can you hear yourself? Do you know how unrealistic and irrational that sounds? Planes don’t just fall out of the sky. I have more chance of having a car accident than dying in a plane. You didn’t save my life, you stopped me from living, like you have so many times,” she said angrily.
“I know it might look that way, but I’m helping you live a long and safe life” the Wolf said matter-of- factly.
Frankie sighed. “You’re not helping me live, you’re helping me exist… often unhappily. We’re all going to die, whether we live our lives or not.”
The Wolf’s eyes filled with tears, “I’m so scared of losing you”, he whispered.
“You will lose me if you keep going like this. You’re killing me” said Frankie, with a pained expression. “You have consistently tried to sabotage all my attempts at happiness. Every time I’ve thought about applying for a job or further study, you’ve told me that I’m too dumb and I’m wasting my time.
“You’ve ridiculed me and made me feel like dirt because I’m not where I ‘should’ be in life. You’ve called me a fraud and told me how I don’t deserve better anyway”.
This was something the weighed heavily on Frankie’s mind. She, an Accountant, was bad with money and terrible at saving! She rented a one bedroom apartment in Hobart. Her furniture was either borrowed or passed down from family and friends. Her car was a rusty, loud, bogan mobile. She had to crawl through the passenger side because the driver side door didn’t work. Sometimes, as if punishing her for not being a more responsible adult, the seatbelt would pop out of it’s clip whilst she was driving. And to add insult to injury, the boot got stuck and the engine would often overheat. She was childless, never married, her career was going nowhere and, whenever it seemed as though things might finally turn out well, something would happen to send her back to square one.
With a loud sigh, Frankie sat heavily next to her pack and hugged her knees. She glared at the Wolf, and said “Every time I’ve entered into a romantic relationship, you’ve told me that my partner is going to leave, hurt or cheat on me. You’ve told me that all other women are a threat to me and that getting close to people is dangerous. That trusting people, or myself, is a waste of time. You pushed me to be with people who treat me badly and told me that I don’t deserve people who treat me well”.
Frankie’s mood darkened as she thought back to the string of failed relationships. When she was 18, Frankie met Chase, a controlling, devoutly religious man, and they bought a house together in Adelaide. He was very possessive and controlling and would make her feel terrible for things like wearing jewellery given to her by her own brother, or keeping a bottle of Port that her father had given her when she was born. As a woman, her thoughts and ideas were deemed invalid, or even dangerous. A month before the wedding, Frankie called the whole thing off. It was a difficult decision to make and there were quite a few people who were upset with her. Relatives from home lost money on tickets and gifts and the house had to be sold. But the idea of a life in servitude to someone who saw her as less than equal held absolutely no appeal for Frankie. She had to get out.
When she was 22, Frankie moved to Brisbane and fell in love with Mick, a compulsive liar who conned her out of $20,000. Frankie was naïve and trusted that Mick would pay her back, but he never did.
At 25, broke and jaded, Frankie returned home to Tasmania, where she began part-time studies in Business at the University of Tasmania. She met Rob, a quirky genius who she became besotted with. He had long hair, tattoos and body piercings and was extremely intelligent. She became so fixated on pleasing him, that she didn’t realise he was struggling with depression. When he broke up with her 3 years later it shattered Frankie’s entire world. He fell in love with another woman and soon after, in a move that shocked everyone who knew him, took his own life. It was a difficult and turbulent time and Frankie never fully recovered.
When Frankie was 30, she quit her job, sold her car and moved to the other side of the planet, to be with her new love, Dave. This was going to be the time of her life. She had visions of finishing her accounting studies, securing a high flying, international accounting job, making friends all over the world and maybe even getting married and settling down. 16 months later, she returned home, depressed and broken, with $12 to her name and feeling like a stranger in her own home.
After spending much of the next few years unemployed or in temp jobs doing work that neither motivated nor challenged her, moving from house sitting job to house sitting job, and basically going nowhere fast, Frankie moved into a share house with a full blown alcoholic and, in trying to exorcise him of his demons, nearly lost her own mind.
“That was always for your own good,” the Wolf said, breaking Frankie from her melancholic reverie, “your relationships would have ended anyway. Better to end things sooner rather than later.” He was trying to sound confident, but Frankie thought she could hear a doubtful tone creeping into his voice.
“Really?” her voice was condescending now, “maybe you should have asked me what I wanted, before you tried to control my life.” Frankie was furious, but she realised how good it felt to get this stuff off her chest, so she squared her shoulders and continued, “every time I’ve thought about painting a picture, or writing a story, or doing anything creative, you’ve told me it will be ugly and that I’ll be a laughing stock.”
The Wolf was scuffing his feet and looked uncomfortable. This just got Frankie even more riled up. She went on, “every time I’ve gone into a room full of people or accepted an invitation to a group event, you’ve told me that I’ll be hated, ridiculed and made fun of. You’ve told me that they’ll all talk about me behind my back and that I don’t have any real friends. You’ve told me that no one really cares about me and that no one has any reason to like me.
“Every time I’ve thought of going on a road trip or holiday, or driven over a bridge, you’ve told me all the horrifying ways I might die. You’ve kept me awake all night with endless worries. You’ve woken me from sleep with vivid and terrifying dreams.”
“Stop”, the Wolf pleaded. He was trembling and looking around him as if trying to find an escape route. Frankie had never confronted him before and it was apparent that he didn’t like it.
“No, it’s time for you to hear me.” Frankie was almost yelling now. She stood up again and walked to face The Wolf. He blinked and turned his face from her, but she ignored him and continued to vent her frustrations, “you’ve replayed awkward conversations or interactions that I’ve had with people, or mistakes that I’ve made over and over and over.
“You’ve tried to frighten and shame me. You’ve tried to convince me to hide from the world. I’ve stayed small because of you. If you really love me, you need to let me go. Please let me live my life.”
The Wolf fell to his knees and hung his head in shame. “You’re right,” he said, “you deserve much better than this. Please know that I never meant to cause you harm. I’m sorry for all the hurtful things I’ve said and done to you.”
Frankie curled her lip in disgust and stared down at The Wolf. But when her mind settled, without really understanding why, Frankie realised that the Wolf did care for her. Although he had hurt her many times over, all she could see before her now was a sad and lonely creature. He was hurting just as much as she was, every single day. He was lost and afraid of being abandoned, just like her. He had been through everything she had been through. And in his mind, he was trying to protect her.
Frankie had a sudden desire to find out who The Wolf really was. “Show me your face,” she said gently, reaching for his mask.
The Wolf’s posture stiffened and he turned his face away from her. “If you see who I really am, you’ll hate me.”
I already do, Frankie wanted to say. Instead she joked “if it’s a non-threatening look you’re going for, you might have chosen a different costume.”
The Wolf said nothing, but turned to face Frankie. With a shaky breath, he grabbed the mask with both hands and slowly pulled it away from his face.
With a gasp, Frankie put her hands over her mouth and took several steps back. Her face went deathly pale and her eyes widened in horror. “What the…” her words trailed off and she stood in silent shock.
The Wolf just sat and stared at Frankie sadly.
Kneeling before her, Frankie saw a creature, cloaked in black with a face that shifted from one likeness to another.
At first, she saw her mother’s face, frowning at her. In her mind, Frankie could hear her mother saying “you’re hopeless” and then “don’t let Frankie do it, she’ll just mess it up.” Frankie felt paralysed. She wanted to run away from this crazy nut job kneeling before her, but her feet were rooted to the ground.
After a few agonising moments, The Wolf’s face morphed into her natural father’s face and she heard his voice mutter the hurtful words “why did you contact me? I don’t want to build a relationship with you.”
A small sob escaped Frankie’s lips and she fought back tears as the Wolf’s face continued to shift from one face to another. She saw a horrible boy from school who picked on her relentlessly, and then the boss who fired her, and then the cliquey girl from work who made her feel like an outsider. On and on it went.
With each new face, Frankie relived painful moments from her past.
The Wolf was a shape shifter, and she recognised every single face he changed into. These were all the faces of people who had shaped her life and the way she saw the world.
After several minutes, when the shock had worn off, Frankie sunk to her knees and uttered the words “Oh my God.” The realisation hit her like a jolt to the chest. “You’re me. You’re my shadow. My fears and anxieties. You’re my insecurity. You exist because I keep you here.”
The Wolf, with tears filling his eyes, nodded his head in sorrow. “I need you. I want to keep you safe, but all I do is hurt you.” Suddenly, the Wolf took the form of a young girl. She must have only been about 5 years old. She wore a white dress with pink polka dots. Her eyes were big and blue and she had a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks. She looked up at Frankie and, as the tears spilled down her face and her lower lip trembled, she said in a small voice, “I’m sorry Frankie. I’ve messed everything up. I’m hopeless.”
Frankie’s heart melted as she looked at the young girl. It was her. The little girl was Frankie, as a child. She looked so lost and helpless, and memories from the time when she was the same age came flooding back.
All Frankie ever wanted was to feel loved and accepted. To be cuddled and nurtured and encouraged.
The little girl, the Wolf and all his many faces were all the parts of Frankie that she never wanted to accept. But, whether she liked them or not, they were a part of her. And they always would be. Frankie realised that her shadowy stalker would probably never leave. And if she wanted to live at least some semblance of a happy life, she needed to accept that.
Frankie made her way over to the little girl, who by now was lost in silent tears and embraced her warmly. “It’s ok sweetheart. We’re gonna be ok”. The little girl hugged Frankie tightly and for several minutes they sat on the cliff top and cried together.
When the tears had run out, and they had regained some composure, Frankie tenderly wiped the little girl’s face and smoothed her damp hair. “Now,” said Frankie, “we’re in this together, right?”
“Yes,” the little girl nodded.
“Ok. If you’re going to stay with me, you need a proper name.” The little girl pursed her lips and nodded her head.
Frankie hugged the little girl again and said “from this day forward, my little friend, your name is Courage.”
By Danielle Stokes from Australia