“Chasing Hair of Gold” by Ashley Earley is the First Place-winning story in the thriller category of the 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the 13th Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Earley’s winning entry.
Chasing Hair of Gold by Ashley Earley
Her hair looked as if it was made of gold. I liked watching it whirl behind her as she walked in the winter wind. It flowed out from under her hat and danced around the nap of her neck as she walked along the curb. I wished she was alone, but she had a friend beside her, who I considered not to be particularly as interesting. Her friend must have said something at that moment because the girl with the gold hair smiled at her friend. It lit up her face, brightening it and causing her to look more radiant.
The girls wore backpacks slung over their shoulders, indicating that they were walking home from school. I had not realized the time. I just knew when to come outside to see her. I got this feeling around the same time nearly everyday—this feeling lets me know when she was about to walk by my house on her way home from school. It was like I could sense that she was close by. She walked with a friend who happened to live two houses down from me. So, everyday for the last few weeks, I’ve been watching her.
At first, it just started out as a coincidence. I would happen to be passing by a window just as she was walking by, or I was out at the end of my driveway getting the mail. But then, as I began to notice her more, it turned into an everyday affair. I waited to see her. My eyes would glance at the clock as the hour drew near. After a while, watching her from my living room or dining room window wasn’t good enough. I wanted a clear view. So then, I started walking to my mailbox at the same time every day and started working on my truck more— though it was perfectly fine.
I used every excuse I could think of to see her.
I anticipated when she would pass by. Sometimes she was a few minutes late; sometimes a few minutes early. I preferred it when she was early. I preferred it when she and her friend walked slower so I could stare at the girl with the gold hair longer. I preferred it when she wore her hair down so I could watch it flow out behind her. I preferred her over her friend and wished she would walk home alone—just once.
I was “fixing” my truck again today with my garage door open, so I could watch her walk by. Not finished with their conversation, I noticed that they slowed their walk just as they were passing by my house. They were getting closer to the not-particularly-interesting friend’s house and were trying to prolong their inevitable separation. It was only Thursday; they would see each other again tomorrow morning.
They were walking on the opposite side of the street. The girl with the gold hair was walking alongside the curb while her friend walked on the sidewalk. I wanted her closer. I wished she was closer so I could see her more clearly. I wondered why she was walking beside the curb, basically in the road rather than on the sidewalk.
She did this almost every day, and I wondered why everyday. Was there a point to it? Did she have a reason?
I stepped away from my truck when they walked out of sight, wiping my greasy hands on the white rag that I had draped across the side mirror as I went to exit the garage. I wasn’t done looking at her. I paused at the edge of the garage, looking for her. I had a bush just outside the garage on the right corner, giving me the perfect cover. Even if they looked back, it was unlikely that they would catch me staring after them.
I watched as the not-particularly-interesting friend left, telling Her goodbye before running up her lawn to the front door. The girl was alone, yards away from me. I wished I could touch her golden hair. I wished she wasn’t so far away. I wished she and I were somewhere not so public. I wished I could get her completely alone so I could touch the hair that I was becoming obsessed with.
I watched her walk alongside the curb until she became really small, and I could no longer tell that her hair was gold.
She was walking home from school again. And today was different. She was alone. She was walking home alone for the first time since I noticed her all those weeks ago. I stood by the mailbox, attempting to look nonchalant as I mindlessly flipped through my mail.
The way she moved almost seemed fluent. Each step she took was so relaxed. I wondered if she thought about where she was going—about every step she took—or if she just moved gradually like it was natural. It was as if she moved with the breeze—as if it carried her forward and made her graceful. My eyes moved up her body as she walked by my house, taking in every movement she made, drinking her in. The way she moved made me feel a strange hunger that I didn’t quite understand.
My eyes cease their travel when I come to her hair. I drank every part of her and liked it, but I loved her hair. Her golden hair was something straight out of a storybook. She had the hair of a princess or a goddess. It was amazingly beautiful. Every time I laid eyes on her gold locks, I felt the strange desire to run my hands through it; to grip it; to smell it; to cut it and keep it for myself.
It was a peculiar thing to think about, but I couldn’t help myself. I just loved it so. I wanted it for myself.
She was alone. I could have her hair if I really wanted it. Now was the time. Right now. This very moment. I could act now. Snatch her away from the street and drag her inside my home before anyone noticed. People rarely looked out their windows, right? I lifted my eyes from the envelope in my hand to scan the driveways behind the girl. There was a red BMW in the driveway of 1478, but all the others were empty. What were the chances that they would look out their window and see me dragging a teenage girl into my house?
She was getting closer now, and my heart started to beat faster when I thought about how we would be mere feet away in just a few moments. I put the envelope in my hand under the stack of mail and proceeded to pick at the magazine that was now on top to act like I was taking interest in it, rather than her hair and the way she moved.
She noticed my staring and gave me an awkward smile with a nod of the head to say hello. Taken aback, my heart leaped in my chest. I smiled back, and immediately wished I hadn’t. I did not want to alarm her. I did not want her to know that I was watching her because then she would avoid me. I didn’t want that. I wanted her close.
I offered an awkward wave before turning on my heel and walking back up to the house, still pretending to look through my mail as I went. All the while, I was sneaking glances back over my shoulder with the hope of not getting caught, and with the hope that I could catch one last glance at her before she was out of sight.
Her smile and nod had caught me off guard, but I would not allow her to slip through my fingers again. Who knew when I would get another chance to have her alone. I would not let another opportunity like this go. I would not make the same mistake twice. Next time I saw her alone, I would make her and her golden hair mine.
It was Saturday. I wouldn’t see Her and her gold hair again until Monday afternoon. I had a whole forty-eight hours to fill up. On the days that I didn’t see her, the time dragged by slowly. I tried not to look at the clock because it did me no good. She wouldn’t pass by my house today. Despite knowing that I wouldn’t see her today, I still glanced out the window every time I passed one.
I had missed my chance. If I had acted on my urge, she would be with me now. Instead, I was walking through the house alone, giving myself meaningless tasks to fill up the time. I desperately wanted to fill the time and silence. I felt like I was inching toward something that I could not turn back from, though what, I did not know. I felt like my time was being wasted away. I could almost feel myself unhinging. My patience was thinning. As well was my tolerance of being in my own home.
Deciding that I could not remain cooped up any longer, I grabbed my coat from the rack beside the door and snatched up my keys before walking out my front door. My truck was parked in the driveway rather than in the garage today. Since I knew I would not need to quickly slip outside to give my truck a “tune up” before She arrived, I decided that there was no incentive for me to park in the garage. After getting behind the wheel, I pulled my phone out with the intention of finding my grocery list. Sad as it was, it was the only thing I could think of to pass the time outside the confining walls of my house.
I drove in silence; not in the mood to crank up the radio. I didn’t necessarily want time alone with my thoughts—it was just that I couldn’t stand to listen to rubbish right now. I end up deciding to roll down my window to let my arm hang outside. The night air felt good despite the chill that crept up my jacket sleeve. My face and neck were exposed to the chill, but I didn’t mind since I was only a few moments away from pulling into the store’s parking lot.
The list of things I needed was short. Toothpaste, tomatoes, and cucumbers, as well as frozen pizza. An odd collection of requirements that would surely get me a strange look from the cashier at the checkout counter. As I roamed through each section in the store, my eyes wandered to the few people that were shopping. It was rather late to be shopping for groceries, as it was nine o’clock, but I was doing the same thing, so I found it best not to judge why they were here. Though, the more I walked around, I started to realize something… I saw Her face everywhere. Everyone I looked at resembled her. The only thing that distinguished that they weren’t her was that they did not have her golden hair.
My heart rate quickens every time I think I see her, but then my heart sinks every time I realize it isn’t her. I should have acted. I should have stolen her for myself when I had the chance! How could I have given up such an opportunity? I should not have allowed her to slip through my fingers—given her up.
My anger boils, banishing the chill that I had felt after walking past the freezer section. I want her here. With me. I want her hair in my hands. I shouldn’t have let this happen. I shouldn’t have let her walk by me without taking action. I felt like I was letting her slip away now, as I walked past all the people that suddenly wore her face. I considered reaching out and grabbing the woman that stands in front of the dairy section, oblivious to my thoughts.
She wears Her face. I wonder if she smells like her. The only thing that causes me to keep my distance is the woman’s auburn hair. It wasn’t Her hair; therefore, it wasn’t really her. This was the only way that I could differentiate who the real Her was.
I wish I knew her name, I suddenly think as I rushed past the woman, without grabbing her as I fantasized. The girl with the golden hair—I didn’t know her name, though I wish I did. I only knew her, as well, Her and as the girl with the golden hair. I’ve been waiting for the friend that she walks home with to say her name, but she never has, or she never said it loud enough for me to hear. I get in line to checkout, my thoughts still on the possibilities of the girl’s name. Hannah, Sarah, Clare—none of them sounded right. None of them fit her.
After going through checkout—and getting the predicted odd look from the old guy behind the counter—I take my bags and head for my truck. I roll all of my windows down to feel the cool air as I drive back home. Now it is nearly ten o’clock, and there is almost no one on the road, giving my eyes the freedom to wander. Once I’m away from the streets and the lights are far behind me, a corn crop pops up on the left side of the road with an empty field on the right. Roads like this would seem lonely to most people. But, to me, it looked like a place where dark things happened. Terrible things were done in the dark when no one wanted to be caught.
As I got closer to the end of the crops, I began to hear booming music. I slowed down, searching for the source of the sound. I started to see cars lined up in front of the cornfield, followed by lights, and then, a few moments later, I hear laughter and the hum of conversation. I decelerated further, my truck crawling along at 25 miles-per-hour when I spot a few figures dance and move about the cars that are lined up in front of the crops. High school kids were always having parties in the oddest places in this town. When their party was broken up at one destination, they moved to another ludicrous location the very next weekend.
I shook my head as I watched the figures disappear back into the corn. Eventually, as I drove further past the corn, there weren’t any more cars. But then, at the very edge of the cornfield, I saw another figure stumble out from the stocks. No one else was anywhere near the figure, and the figure was far from the cars. I flicked on my bright lights to get a clearer look at the figure.
And I’m amazed to see that the figure was the very person that I hadn’t been able to shake from my mind the entire day.
I nearly slammed on the brakes. Having no plan, I quickly turned into the field. I parked a little ways from the edge of the cornfield. My eyes were on Her the whole time. I watched her from my car, unsure of how I should go about this. I couldn’t leave. I would regret it as I did last time.
Without allowing myself to think about my actions any further, I unbuckled and got out of the car to make my way to her. My steps were quick, my mind was running wild with possibilities, my blood was soaring with excitement, and my eyes remained locked on her. She took a long gulp from the plastic cup in her hands, making herself even more vulnerable to me. She hadn’t seen me yet, and she seemed to be too intoxicated to fight back.
I had so many things I wanted to say when I reached her, but I fought every word back and did what my instincts were practically screaming at me to do. She didn’t see me until I was practically standing right next to her, and at that point, it was too late. I was already reaching around her to cover her mouth with my hand. She sucked in a breath to scream just before my palm firmly covered her lips. Her voice was muffled against my hand, her screams not nearly loud enough to alert anyone from the party. I wasn’t going to let her slip through my fingers this time.
“Hey, Amy! Where’d you go?” a voice from the corn called over the music. I tensed with the realization of how close the voice was.
Amy? Could the name of the girl in my arms possibly be Amy? I didn’t have the time to confirm with the wide-eyed, golden hair beauty that I was about to take away. She began to furiously struggle against me, clawing at my arms while attempting to scream around my hand. I tightened my arms around her before dragging her away.
She had bitten my hand, forcing me to release her from my gripping hold. She was now free inside my house, but all the doors and windows were shut and locked. There was no way she would get past me to make it outside. I was doing circles on the first floor, listening for footsteps as I checked under tables and behind curtains and doors. She would not get away from me. Not now. Not when I finally had her.
“Amy?” I called, trying her name on my tongue for the first time. Her name was said as a question because I was not sure if it was her actual name and because I was hoping that she would respond to give hint to where she was. I was met with nothing but silence, leaving me tempted to call out to her as my girl with the golden hair. She was mine now. I had her, and I wouldn’t let her leave me. Ever.
I heard a faint sniffle and followed the sound to a closet. I yanked it open to reveal the tear stained, red-faced beauty that I had been watching all these weeks. Except, she didn’t look as beautiful as she normally did. Her gold hair was matted, and crazy rather than perfect and flowy; her eyes glazed and red with tears rather than smooth and bright, and her lips were wet with fallen tears. Her lips were also parted with sobs that she was trying to quiet with her shaky hands.
As I stood over her shaking form that was curled into the very back of the closet, I couldn’t help but ask, “Is your name Amy?”
“Pl—please, no,” was all she said in response, her sobs causing her voice to tremble with the same fierceness as the rest of her body.
Her lack of screaming disappointed me slightly. I wanted to hear her panic in screams; instead, she was sobbing in denial. I reached out to her, my hands itching to touch her gold strands. However, I hesitated when she winced away from my hand. I want to see her hair in the light, I abruptly decided. I reached for her arms instead and snatched her up out of the coat closet. She immediately began to struggle against me, clawing at me and attempting to bite me once again. But I wasn’t going to let her get away with that a second time and kept her a good distance away as I dragged her into the next room—the bathroom. I had a pair of handcuffs waiting on the counter, where I had set them down in between dragging her into my house and searching for her after she had gotten away.
She began to scream between her sobs as I struggled to hold her back from the door while trying to get ahold of one of her hands. Between my attempts, she managed to thrust her hand behind her to slap me. Furious, I pushed her, nearly knocking her straight into the tub. She fell in the spot between the toilet and the tub, clutching her head after it hit the side of the tub. She looked up at me with fear and curled into herself as I stepped closer. I snatched up her hand, and as I bound her to the sink, I found myself wondering what she could be thinking right now.
Now having her attached to the sink, unable to run or resist me, I crouched before her. She cringed back as far as she could, choking on her sobs again. She must have realized that screaming won’t do her any good. I reached for her hair again. All the anticipation that had been building over the last several weeks had been leading to this moment. I had her now.
She couldn’t get away. She wasn’t going anywhere. She wasn’t going to slip through my fingers—only her hair would slip through my fingers.
I finally touched her hair, burying my hands in the gold locks that I had been obsessing over—dreaming about both night and day. I brought the gold strands to my lips, kissing them, smelling them, marveling over them. It was everything that I had envisioned.
Her hair looked as if it was made of gold. I drank in every part of her, my eyes starting at the top of her head before descending to the ends of the beautifully vibrant strands. She was perfect. Her golden hair was something straight out of a storybook. She had the hair of a princess or a goddess. Every time I laid eyes on her gold locks, I felt the strange desire to run my hands through it; to grip it; to smell it; to cut it and keep it for myself. Instead, I marveled over it as I gently dragged the brush through her wildly tangled hair. It was amazingly beautiful, and it was just as soft as I had imagined.
Tears and sweat had caused her hair to stick to her cheeks. It was a tangled, sticky mess that I was hurrying to correct. I wanted to make her look like the princess I had been watching from my garage. I no longer had to watch her from afar. I would make her hair perfect again and be able to watch her from only a few feet away. I could be as close to her as I wanted now. I did not have to worry about her slipping through my fingers anymore. She would never leave me now.
I had her displayed in the chair in the corner of my study—where I knew I would see her everyday. I was still unsure if her name was actually Amy. She had not given me the pleasure of knowing for sure as I strangled her, even though I had asked her time and time again, so now, she would forever be known to me as the girl with the golden hair. And it was such as shame, considering how much time we would be spending together now that she was mine, forever.
Once I was done untangling her tousled hair, I selfishly took a fistful of her hair and brought it to my nose. I took in her scent—fear mixed with desperation and sweat and death. I let her hair slip through my fingers and stood, taking her in now that she was perfect again.
She would never leave me. I could stare at her golden hair for as long as I desired.