The Woman Who Invented Worry


By Phebe Jewell

In the beginning, Brenda worried about earthquakes and floods, disasters she couldn’t predict. But now the world holds new catastrophes, hundreds more than Brenda imagined when she first discovered how easily one thread of fear braids with another, winding into a ball of yarn she could cup in her hands. 

Each day is a Russian doll. One worry tucked inside another, tucked inside another. How can she hold them all? 

Like this newest trouble. Someone is stealing plants from her garden, and she hasn’t slept in days. Of course she frets over which plant will disappear next, but she worries more about  why anyone would sneak into a stranger’s backyard to dig up hellebores. If gardeners are stealing from other gardeners, what is the world coming to? 

After midnight and still no sleep. Brenda climbs out of bed and stands by the window. Maybe it’s time to let someone younger take over. Someone who can predict new troubles, see beyond the usual disease, train wreck, disappointing life. Brenda has many disciples to choose from. But not a weekend worrier, lost in the Sunday paper. She needs someone with vision, an extensive repertoire of anxiety. 

Gladys in Cincinnati? One of her first acolytes, prone to getting trapped in one worry well after another. Luis in Guanajuato, who can’t stop agonizing over global warming? Or Felicia from Singapore, fretting about the impact of technology on social relations?

Brenda takes out a sheet of paper and writes “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe” at the top. Gladys is a quick “No.” Luis and Felicia fall under “Maybe.” Brenda hesitates. Both Luis and Felicia specialize. This new reality demands a generalist. She can’t do this now. When the right one comes along she’ll let go. 

Turning out the light, Brenda slips under the comforter, tugging it up to her chin. Even with her eyes closed a list of top worriers scrolls through her mind. She lies on her back, turns on her left side, then her right. As Brenda starts to doze, she jerks awake, holding her breath for a slow count to ten. Sure enough, metal scraping against rock. 

Brenda parts the curtain and catches sight of a dark figure below. Time to act. She imagines standing in the yard, pointing to an uprooted forsythia, the thief’s head hung low, the shovel at his feet. 

But what if the thief has a gun? Just last week there was a fatal shooting two blocks away. What if she dies before naming a successor? She sees her body dumped by the heavenly bamboo, covered by a spray of dirt. 

Brenda pulls the duvet over her head, but even the thick down can’t muffle the insistence of the thief’s shovel, uprooting her garden.

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Phebe Jewell’s work appears or is forthcoming in numerous journals, most recently Fiction Attic, Pithead Chapel, *82 Review, Milk Candy Review, and Drunk Monkey. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for incarcerated women, trans-identified and gender non-conforming people in Washington State. Read her at

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