Some days are just harder than others. I don’t know why. It can be triggered by anything really. A bad night’s sleep, the weather, eating something unhealthy the day before, not exercising for a few days, and, of course, drinking, always drinking. It can be something as simple as letting the Fear in.
It makes me grimace even to think about it. I don’t even really know why I still call it that. It’s something I picked up years ago when I was a child in school. I’d get the Fear every Sunday night before the week ahead. It would settle into my adolescent mind, and I’d be up until one or two in the morning worrying about not being able to sleep. It was horrible, so it’s just something I still say despite the many years in between now and then.
It’s just a stupid saying, I guess, but it’s the best phrase to describe it. The Fear. The dread that allows those dark thoughts in, and when they do, they come in thick and fast, just like a flood. I shouldn’t trivialise natural disasters, but that’s genuinely how it feels. The flood gates are open and here comes the dark tide of introspection.
I shift uncomfortably in my chair. It’s a real piece of shit, standard issue in the office where I work. In fact, mine is probably one of the better ones, so I guard it like the treasure it is, despite its lack of comfort. You have to take what you can get in this office. In this nine-to-five shithole. This is one of many that I’ve worked in during my short stint on this planet. So many that it fills me with terror to even think about counting them up. Office after office. Administrative job after administrative job. All different but all the same. The same conversations, the same computers, the same windows looking out on to a greying cloud-filled sky…
Breathe, just breathe.
I’m clearly in a shit place right now. I only get apocalyptic when I’ve fallen right into the pit of despair, when I’ve really let the Fear in.
My back and shoulders feel sore. The tension is there, razor-sharp. I lean back and stretch my arms as far as I can until I hear a satisfactory click from somewhere deep within. It helps but only psychically, it does nothing for my mood.
I glance very briefly at my computer screen. For a second, my brain seems to melt, and everything that’s on the glass surface makes absolutely no sense to me. It’s just numbers and strange shapes. It must mean something… but does it really? I mean, let’s be honest, in the grand scheme of things, that screen means fuck all. It’s just a random assortment of nonsense. It doesn’t mean a fucking thing, but it’s what I get paid to do…
That thought stills me.
If that screen doesn’t mean anything, what does that say about me?
I feel a tremor of panic flash down my spine and into my stomach…
I lock it down.
Or at least I try to…
I won’t go down this route. Not so early in the week.
I push myself away from my desk cubicle, swivel my piece of shit chair around, stand, and emerge out into the wider world of the office where I can see my many work colleagues. They work in their cubicles. Typing away. Some more than others. I wonder which of those people feels the same way as me right now? How many of them are feeling the Fear? I dread to think.
I glance at Dave. He’s in the cubicle to my left. He stares lazily at his screen, leaning on his left knuckle, his head at an awkward angle. His screen is filled with nonsense as well. For some reason, he looks exactly how I feel, as though he’s me projected out of my own mind. It chills me for some reason. I nearly ask him how he is, but I can’t bring myself to speak. Instead, I turn and stride away.
I pass through seemingly endless rows of cubicles. All the worker bees buzzing away at their screens… Actually, that would be unfair to bees. At least they produce honey. What do we produce? Numbers? What’s the point of that?
I try to keep my head down as I continue my purposeful journey towards the coffee machine and attempt to not meet anyone’s eyes. The last thing I need right now is a conversation with someone. I mean, come on! What the fuck would I say to them if they ask how I’m doing? Would I tell them the truth? Would I tell them that I’ve let myself fall into an endless hole of despondency so early in the day? And on a Monday? Would I tell them that the Fear has me now? Fuck, that’s too much to lay on anyone at any time of the day, but especially on a Monday, especially when they’ve got their own problems to deal with.
My goal is just around the corner, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the holy fucking grail, the drinks machine. The machine that provides coffee. Beautiful, exquisite coffee… Actually, that’s an exaggeration. This coffee is far from any of those things, but it’s not really the taste I’m after, but the caffeine and, most importantly, the distraction.
I turn the corner but grind to a halt mid-stride. Two people are standing in front of the coffee machine, talking quietly. It’s a man and a woman that I don’t recognise. The man glances at me briefly, so in a panic, I begin to walk again in and head straight past them. I keep my shoulders square and my back straight. I want to show them that I’m not interested in what they’re doing right now. This will keep them at bay just in case one of them speaks to me. It’s not that I’m rude, but, right now, I just don’t want to talk to anyone. I know that if I do, they’ll know something is wrong with me the moment the words leave my mouth. They may ask that most terrifying of questions… Are you alright?
As I pass, I hear a click, a rumble, followed by a strangely high-pitched creak, and then a cup falling out of the machine. The drink, and I use that term loosely, is ready for one of them to take. I could stop right now, return, and get behind them and wait for a coffee if I wanted to. But what if the other one wants a drink? What if they speak to me? There’s no use. I won’t risk it, so I continue my flight.
I pass through the small kitchen area, then out into the stairwell, where I do stop for a moment. It’s mercifully empty, and for some strange reason, it’s a few degrees cooler in here. They must not turn on the central heating in this part of the building. The cold feels pleasant on my skin. I take a few lungs full of this crisper air. It feels fresher somehow, tastes better. Not like the oppressive taint of my cubicle and the rest of the office.
I can only enjoy this sanctuary for a moment when I see someone walking towards the stairwell from the other side of the office. I abruptly head towards the toilet and push through the door, hoping for some respite, but find that some bloke is checking his immaculate hair in the mirror. I keep my head down and pass him as quick as I’m able without looking too much like a lunatic and head to the furthest toilet of the three. I enter, lock the door and sit down on the closed lid. This office might be a shithole, but the toilet is oddly modern and clean, so sitting in here like this won’t be too unpleasant an experience.
I take a few breaths, close my eyes, and wait.
I can hear that bloke pissing around, but I try and block the thought of him out of my mind. I just sit for a moment and try and relax my mind. Try a few breathing techniques that I found on YouTube. Try out a bit of this mindfulness I’ve heard so much about.
At first, it works, but only briefly.
The flood gates are already open, and I don’t have the strength to fight the tide.
I try and prepare myself as best I can, but it’s no use. The Fear has me now.
Here it comes…
It begins with the usual questions.
Why the fuck do I exist?
What’s the point of all this?
Why do I bother to come here every day?
When will this end?
There’s more like this, but then I move on to simple statements when I can’t answer my own berated questions.
There’s no point.
I can’t go on like this.
This is a waste of time.
I fucking hate myself.
After that, the questions and the statements cease and are replaced with an assortment of memories. They bombard me from the past—just little random snippets of things I have done and said. No context but they never paint me in a good light. Maybe something I’ve said that was embarrassing or that I now regret. Possibly, something stupid or idiotic that I did. Occasionally, something I did that was hurtful or callous to someone who I knew or didn’t know.
This is the true flood.
This is the true Fear.
These memories, these cuttings on the floor of my mind. The very worst parts of my past. They come uncontrollably in the dark. The gates are open, and they quickly fill my brain. They rattle around in there until I feel so shit that I want to burst into tears.
There’s no use. I’ll just have to wait it out.
So, I wait.
After a time, the flood begins to lesson. The tide starts to slow, and I can start thinking clearly again.
I remember that some of those memories really are out of context and that no one else will remember what I did or said. I remember that I may have made amends for any mistakes that I’ve made or even that it was so long ago that no one gives a shit anymore.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the flood becomes a torrent, that becomes a trickle, and I start to feel more human again. My heart slows, and my breathing with it. I take another few moments within the dark of my closed eyes. I still feel the fear, but it’s far away now, the murky tide pushed back for the moment.
I take one final deep breath and open my eyes.
For a second, I panic once again because even with my eyes open, it’s still dark, but then I remember the toilet lights are on motion detectors. I stand and flap my arms, which brings the lights back on, momentarily blinding me. I quickly recover and depart the now empty room after washing my hands despite not actually going to the toilet, force of habit. I pass through the cold stairwell and back into the office. Where before it filled me with horror, it now just fills me with a slight feeling of gloom.
On the way back, I notice with some small delight that the coffee machine is free. I quickly order a drink and wait while the old beast rattles during its weak regurgitation. With a coffee-like beverage in hand, I march back through the worker bees in their hives and return to my own hive, my desk.
Dave glances up and gives me a nod. Despite my previous dread, I return the nod and even try a smile.
He returns the gesture lazily and asks me that question I was petrified of only a few minutes ago. “How you doing, mate?”
I wait a split second before answering. I feel a small tremor of anxiety at his question, but it’s far away and manageable. “Not bad, mate. How about you?”
He shrugs. “Same old, same old.” And he returns to his screen.
I leave him to it and return to my computer screen safe in the knowledge that I’ve beaten the Fear for another day.
Elliot Harper is the author of two self-published books, The City around the World and On Time Travel and Tardiness. He has short stories in print in The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase by Air and Nothingness Press, Black Telephone Magazine Issue 1 by Clash Books, and The Protest Issue by Popshot Quarterly. His short story, “Into the Garden”, won the Flash Vision 2021 contest run by The Molotov Cocktail. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online magazines, including Maudlin House, Neon Magazine, Storgy, The Ghost City Review, amongst others.