To Be Brave

Submitted into Contest #58 in response to: Write a story about someone feeling powerless.... view prompt

4 comments

Drama

My fear follows me everywhere. It doesn’t always look the same, but I can find it, whatever face it wears, and it can always find me. I weave through the crowds of rush hour foot traffic, sometimes, trying to lose it on my way home from work. It’s like a game, almost. If I lose myself in the crowd, maybe I’ll lose it, maybe I’ll be just another person, maybe the fear will go away. Can I drown it in people, smother it in the jittering buzz of a hundred lives? 

The answer is always no. I will never be fearless.

I think there was a time before it started stalking me. I think. I don’t really remember when it showed up, just that it is here now, that it is here always. My one constant companion.

It was definitely there in high school, when it took Amelia Kent’s face. It sneered at me, then, with ruler-straight teeth bared in a fanged, feral grin, and it told me that I wasn’t good enough. Too ugly, to stupid, too clumsy to amount to anything. Not enough to stand against the world, and certainly not enough to be brave.

It was right—I wasn’t brave. I fled then, fled to the girl’s washroom and locked myself into a stall. I gasped for breath, but my lungs couldn’t catch the air, and I was locked in the cycle of my peppering heartbeats as I performed a quiet ritual of hyperventilation.

My fear followed me there, too. I could feel it prowling outside the door, hear the purring of the breath that rushed by its sharp, perfect teeth as it stole my air.

That was years ago. I try to put it behind me, even though I can’t. It hasn’t looked like Amelia in a while, now. I haven’t looked at it in a while, now, but I can still feel its sticky breath on the back of my neck, the hum of its laughter when my muscles go stiff and my pulse accelerates in a spiralling furor.

Last week, I tried to buy chocolate milk. It was my very favourite thing as a child. My mom is lactose intolerant, so there was never a ton of milk around the house. Chocolate milk only occasionally made its way into the fridge, and when it did, it never lasted long.

Now that I do my own shopping, I stare at the dairy section a lot. It's right there, waiting to be bought. I reached for the handle of the cooler last week, wrapping my fingers around the cold, slippery metal. The milk was right there.

My fear was watching me. Its eyes burned twin holes in my chest, and I jerked my hand back. What was I doing? Chocolate milk was a drink for children, and maybe cowards. Would other people see, would they see what I was with my sickly childhood comfort in my cart and my fear on my heels? I shouldn’t have been there, shouldn't have been doing anything.

The fear stalked forward, hands clawing toward me. My hands shook, and I couldn't look at it, couldn't look at its face. I left the milk on the shelf.

I almost choked to death yesterday. No, maybe that isn’t true. It was another man who choked, at the diner across the street from my apartment building. It has a sign in neon cursive, the sort that always gives the impression of smiling at you. I was sitting alone in a booth (or not alone, but as close to alone as I could get), and I wanted nothing more than to eat my salad in peace. It was a pretty good salad, for something from a diner. But then the man in the booth beside mine swallowed something wrong, and that sound he made. It was like the sputtering of a dying car, a machine trying to scrape its way through a fatal clog in the gears. I had taken first-aid at some point. This was what first-aid was for, I knew, to save the man dying five feet away.

I couldn’t move. There was one long moment of limbo as I tried to think through the thick fog of my head, tried to buffer and process and calculate what was happening and what I should do. Then the fear wrapped its bony, prickling hands around my throat and I couldn’t move. My lungs were too empty—or too full? It didn’t really matter. The fear was behind me and beside me and all around me, and the man was choking on his fragile mortality.

The waitress saved him. She must have had first-aid training, too. The man didn’t die. He smiled and thanked her, gave her a fat, grateful tip. And that was that.

My fear smiled at me from across the booth. 

I bought chocolate milk this week. I had to fight my fear for it.

Even now, as the pedestrian flood disperses into the evening, it follows on my heels. There is nothing to be afraid of here, I tell myself, nothing but my bus running late or my money running low or that woman across the street hating my haircut. 

My fear steps closer, its shadow pooling around my feet.

I stand as still as I can, still as a dead woman, and we wait for the bus. It’s getting dark out earlier and earlier these days, the sun tiring of our pitiful little part of the world. I hate being with my fear in the dark, because I can never tell what face it’s wearing, and that’s worse. I used to have a nightlight, but the indignity of it all forced me to throw it away. I sleep with my curtains open, though, and the light from the street seeps through my window in dim golden patches. The shadows shiver, and the darkness slithers around me in all its predatory glory, but I can still sleep, some of the time. I can remember that I am here, that I am me, that I am not my fear, because I can see my fear sitting over in the corner.

I am not my fear. My fear is not me. I am not ruled by my fear.

That last one might be a lie, but I might be able to make myself believe it if I repeat the words enough. I am not ruled by my fear.

The days blend together and my fear stands in sharp relief. Sometimes, it paces in front of me, or holds me in place, and these are the times I have to fight it to keep moving. I don’t win, most of the time. 

It listens to my thoughts and whispers to my soul. Coward, imbecile, fool, you will never be able to endure the world.

But enduring is what I’ve been doing, isn’t it? I’ve endured so far. And maybe I needed a lot of help. Maybe I go running back to my parents’ doorstep a lot more than I should. Maybe I can’t always breathe when I need to, because the fear swallows all my air. But I’ve made it this far.

My fear follows me home, like it always does. I let it trail behind me, like I always do. Its footsteps patter behind me in a slow, shivering song. I am not ruled by my fear. I am me, and it is not my master. It belongs to me. Do you hear that, fear? I’m the one in charge.

When I get home, I pour myself a glass of chocolate milk. The liquid ripples silkily in the cup. My fear is behind me, its icy hands brushing against the thin fabric of my jacket. 

I turn. I face it, this skeletal hunter that has stalked me through my life. I look it in the eye, right in the eye, dead in the eye, and I smile. 

“I am more than you,” I tell it. “You will never control me.”

My fear does not smile back.

I don’t know where it is right now. It’ll be back, I’m sure, but the milk is nice and the space between us is even nicer. This is a slow fight, another fight that I might lose. But I think I’m starting to believe, now, and I’m not sure I’m really lying to myself anymore.

I am not ruled by my fear. I can fight it, with every fibre of myself. I can be more than it is. And maybe I can’t fight it alone, but I don’t have to. It won’t tear me away from the world.

It isn’t gone—I know that. I’m still afraid. But I’m still going to fight it.

I think maybe that’s what it is, to be brave.

September 08, 2020 01:57

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

4 comments

Rayhan Hidayat
12:52 Sep 13, 2020

Fear has never been personified this good before! I imagined a huge, canine beast, like a giant wolf or something. Love the use of something as mundane as chocolate milk to hammer home how this sort of thing (social anxiety, I’m assuming) interfers with even the littlest day to day things.

Reply

Shea K
00:04 Sep 23, 2020

Thanks,

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Christina Hall
05:02 Sep 09, 2020

Loved the way you crawled right inside the character so we could feel everything along with you.

Reply

Shea K
17:00 Sep 09, 2020

Thanks!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply