Friday 2 October 2015

Agoraphobia - OctoboPhobia Short Story

She walks with a stutter. A hesitation that she can't get past. Every few steps, it's like watching a needle skip on a record.

The mall is enormous and crowded. Escalators opposite the entrances are next to six feet tall maps with "you are here" pointers proving difficult to find quickly. It clearly overwhelms her. She stands in front of the map, trying to work it out but it confuses her. She looks at it like someone trying to work out a magic eye painting.

Frustrated and upset, she has to move when someone behind her says something. She steps to the side and immediately apologises, her voice a half pitch higher than usual.

No further conversation takes place, and she watches whoever it was walk away. She's burning with embarrassment. She got in the way. Again.

She has always hated being out like this. Ever since she was a little girl, hating school not because of the subjects or the teachers but because of the lunchtimes and the schoolyard. The hundreds of loud moving elements around her shouting and screaming and playing and, once they realised she was vulnerable to this, taunting and teasing.

Ever since she was at university, having to get food with everyone else and stand outside classes with everyone else, having to go through a thousand conversations she didn't know how to have. The everyday brutality of small talk.
With people she knows, she is comfortable. More than comfortable. She is funny and confident and relaxed. She has no problem surrounding herself with friends. But she doesn't know how to make them.

She looks for safety. Always. Bedrooms, houses, cars, classrooms... in these things, she has a roof and walls that keep the rest of the world out.

A place like this? All space and people, surrounded above and below by people, moving hassled and determined people, all of whom seem to know how to do this when she doesn't? A place where she feels she stands out like a white hair where there wasn't one before? If it isn't her worst nightmare, it's certainly on the list.

But she is still young, despite how she feels sometimes when she wakes up in the night,  and she is in love.

And for love, she has come to this terrible mass of corporations, and will brave the crowds and the spaces, all to buy a gift that will make her smile, and the next time they're lying next to each other on the sofa, their long hair tangled together, she'll be able to reach to her wrist, stroke it and smile and it'll be a perfect thing they share.

For this, she is here, trying to look at the map without getting in anyone's way, frantically hoping nobody notices her.
She traces the route along the map with her finger for a moment, repeating the directions to herself and then sets in search of the shop.

The escalator gives her something to hold onto for a few scant moments, and just the feeling of stability that provides gives her some brief salvation and calm.
When she gets to the top, she begins to panic, losing herself for a moment. The scale and size of the place threatens to overwhelm her, and she looks like she's stepped into a plummeting fall, until she sees a shop she recognises from the map, and the panic fades.

She walks uncertainly, the love in her heart proving stronger than the fear in her throat.

She tries not to look into the shops as she passes. It feels like looking in on someone's living room window on a street at night, something else she tries and often fails not to do. It feels intrusive, spying on a life she can never have.

A full quarter of the mall later, it happens.

It's the toy shops, of all places. The toy shops. A run of them, with a play area outside, keeping their wares in the site of the children playing while their parents rest, letting them see other parents and children walking out with toys that they immediately want and harass and cry and end either getting or being dragged away, kicking and screaming in jealous fury.

Something happens. A stumble. A trip. A fall. And then... children laughing? Pointing? Parents rolling eyes or, even worse, offering to help.

Suddenly the centre of attention with nowhere to escape to, her breath starts to shorten. Her eyes grow wide as she stumbles to her feet, and then she blushes and reddens and cannot hold back the tears.

It has all gone wrong. Children laughing and pointing, even innocently. Reminding her, almost certainly of being the object of scorn and pity in the school playground.

The regret at her attempt to come out and find a shop is written across her face, but there is no anger and there is no blame. There is only horror and burning shame.
She flees, her foot twisted painfully and her breath catching, somewhere else. Anywhere else. But the tears in her eyes blind her and she almost trips again, staggering into a stranger.

Now, she can barely breathe at all, except for occasional ragged wheezing loud gasps, that must only attract more attention that she cannot deal with right now.

She starts to run, tears streaming down her face, in absolute terror of people. She is partly doubled over, seemingly in agony.

With so many people around, she tries to find a safe area while trying not to look at anyone, so she can try to convince herself they are not looking at her, but the pain is making her clutch her chest again.
Trying to breathe, she sees a toilet and bolts towards it awkwardly.

Once in, she storms into a cubicle and sits, one hand against the door and the other clutching herself as she tries to regulate her breathing and get through to the other side of what she must surely begin to realise is far more than a panic attack.

I whisper to her that I love her and I try to hold her as she dies, the heart attack deadly and painful.

She doesn't hear me. She doesn't feel me in the cubicle.

But she never has. Not in these last three years that I've come here every day and watched her relive the last steps of her life.

I'll be here tomorrow and every day, trying to hold her and telling her that I love her and the watch that I found on the last page on her browser history would have been so perfect.

Maybe one day, it will help. Maybe one day I can help her be at peace.

Until then, I come here each day, reliving it as she relives it.

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