Elayna stared blankly at the screen above the register, her idle fingers drumming a staccato rhythm out on the stained keyboard. The woman in line swore under her breath in frustration as she swiped her debit card for the third time, sighing with relief as it was finally accepted. She punched in her four digit pin, and the register began its screeching song. Elayna handed the woman her receipt, wished her a nice day, and turned to the next customer as he began loading his items onto the conveyer belt, a false smile automatically forming on her lips.
She continued like this for the next few hours, customers marching forward like an endless line of ants. Elayna appreciated the monotony. Everything was in its place. Everything went as expected. She moved along in her routine, smiling again and turning to the next in line. He smiled back, his eyes soft as he looked her up and down. Elayna felt her face grow unnaturally warm, suddenly feeling the need to avert her eyes.
“Good afternoon,” he laughed.
It sounded so…familiar. Elayna’s stomach lurched. Her breath caught in her throat, and her legs began to shake unsteadily.
“I – I’m sorry, this l – lane’s closed,” Elayna croaked, flicking off the light above her head before doubling over.
“Are you –” his chilling voice came again, and she quickly blocked it out. No words assaulted her ears with false concern. No crowd huddled anxious and observant. She was alone. That was how it had to be.
Elayna’s hands clutched the edge of the counter with white knuckles as black spots flickered along the edges of her vision. She concentrated on the irrational fear, willing the knot in her stomach to loosen. It couldn’t be Him. The very thought was ridiculous. She almost laughed, but the sound came out wrong. He wouldn’t deign to show up in such a place, not among the organized rows of sugar coated cereal and frozen pizzas. Not unless she let him. She repeated that argument within her head. It was a pretty lie, and it worked. Elayna’s breathing became more even, and she was able to stand. She slowly raised her head, looking for the cause of her distress. There, two lanes over, the man watched as a cashier scanned his items and neatly loaded them into a brown paper bag. He glanced bitterly in her direction and looked away. Elayna flinched as if struck.
“Elayna, what’s going on over here?” asked her supervisor. It was clear from her tone that she had asked the question several times without an answer.
“Sorry Peg,” she replied, her legs still wobbly as she looked up at the older woman. “I need to go home…I’m not feeling so good,” she quickly jerked her hand up to cover her mouth, clutching her stomach.
The other woman’s eyes widened, but she quickly nodded and motioned for Elayna to hurry to the ladies room. “Damn stomach flu,” she mumbled under her breath as Elayna made a hurried exit.
Elayna stayed home for the next three days at Peg’s advisement. She knew very well it wasn’t the stomach flu that plagued her, but she took advantage of the break. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to work; she enjoyed the predictability of her job. She should have gone in purely for the money, but she couldn’t bring herself to walk through those doors – at least not so soon after the latest episode. As it was she would have to go in tomorrow, she had promised Tammy she would pick up her weekend shift to make up for all her help that past week. Besides, it was becoming more and more difficult to keep herself busy – to keep herself awake and occupied. She had sped through each day in a flurry of activity, and it was beginning to catch up with her.
Elayna’s feet slapped the wet pavement as she ran in the rain. Thwack, thwack, thwack. She had thought an early morning jog around the neighborhood would calm and clear her mind. Now, she realized that it had only exhausted her further. Every part of her body ached with fatigue. Her eyes were bloodshot, surrounded by deep purple circles, clashing with the paleness of her skin. She hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in weeks, settling for short catnaps and large doses of caffeine. She knew that she couldn’t run forever. Eventually her body would shut down, allowing itself the respite she denied. Until then, she’d take every step to avoid him.
The attack came. Suddenly Elayna was fighting for even the tiniest bit of air. The world dipped and dived, darkening in front of her as the heat of blood rushed into her face. Her stomach threatened to revolt. She was lightheaded. Something was wrong. Something was missing. Breathe! Her lungs screamed at her achingly. Elayna inhaled sharply, leaning heavily against the rough brick wall of a nearby building. Her eyes flew open desperately as her face began to cool. When had she closed them? How long had she stood there motionless? Rule number one: never close your eyes…He would claim you.
Elayna only gave herself enough time to fight off the dizziness, and she set off at a run; her lungs yelling in protest. She could never stop running. No matter where she went he was always there, hovering at the edge of vision.
The doctors had all tried to convince her that he wasn’t real, that he was merely a figment of her overactive imagination. They said if she took her medication he would disappear. Elayna had stopped going to the doctors. She had also stopped taking the pills they’d prescribed. The drugs only prevented her from fighting him.
Who was he, they had asked mockingly. He was pain. He was everything anyone has ever been scared of, but his name was Panic. Panic, the most dangerous of emotions, there was simply no escaping his hold. You can only experience so much anger before you erupt and only so much love before your heart breaks. But he - Panic was a black bottomless pit. Elayna had known him since the very first time she’d wandered away from her mother at the shopping mall. He had feasted upon her childish terror of being lost and alone. Panic was that overly strong tide of the ocean slowly pulling you to crash against the deadly rocks. He had owned her from that very first moment on.With the rush of adrenaline pumping through her veins, Elayna picked up her pace, her feet hitting the pavement only long enough to propel her forward – home. As Elayna approached her apartment, she gradually slowed her pace, stopping just short of the front door. After much arguing, her parents had finally allowed her to get an apartment, although they had insisted that she live as close to home as possible. She made just enough working at the grocer to cover rent and utilities. It was tight, but she made it work.
Elayna wandered slowly into the sparse living room and plopped herself down on the couch. It was old and broken in, but comfortable, and she sighed as she sank into the worn cushions. Yawning, she picked up the slender television remote and pressed the power button. The usual afternoon programming of trashy talk shows and family court appeared one after the other as she flipped through the local stations. With a disgusted grimace she turned it off. Getting too comfortable probably wasn’t safe, she thought as she yawned yet again. Nestling deeper into the softness of the couch, Elayna’s eyelids began their slow descent. This had definitely been a very bad…
Everything was dark, but there he was, looming over her, a silhouette against the light. How was that possible? There was no light in the dark. Fear began to rise uncontrollably, wriggling up from her stomach, resting in her throat, stifling a scream. He moved closer, becoming visibly clearer as he did so. Suddenly her fear was gone and she felt safe. Safe? The question flared within her mind.
“Yes Elayna, safe,” a voice whispered.
Had she spoken aloud? A trill of fear began to form in her stomach, but disappeared just as quickly as it had come. Who had spoken? She was alone in the overwhelming black. No, not alone. Panic was there. He was always there.
“You ask so many questions. Do you not ever tire of them? Always questioning and always running. I have waited so long for you to stop running, Elayna.”
His voice was a gentle caress. Why had she run from that voice? Elayna strained to see him. As if reading her thoughts, Panic stepped forward again, his features now clearly defined by the mysterious light-dark, leaving the shadows behind.
She had never seen him before – not like this. She had always fought to open her eyes as quickly as possible. Always running. Why? The answer eluded her as she studied his face. He was ghostly pale, and the pearly white that was his skin shone against the black hair dusting his shoulders. His thin lips were parted as though he might speak, but thought better of it. A nose that came to a sharp point and then rounded out centered hisface. But his eyes – Oh, those eyes. How could Elayna have forgotten them? They were the coldest, deepest blue she had ever seen. They were eyes that would drive you mad.
“You remember.” He spoke again, his words wrapping her in thin tendrils of warmth and something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She managed to stammer. Her words felt thick and heavy, her mind foggy. Suddenly a picture began to form, a subtle breeze to separate the haze, giving her a small glimpse of things long forgotten. Just as quickly as it had come, the breeze vanished, leaving her once again in a cloud of confusion. Elayna drew her legs up, wrapping her arms around them for comfort.
“I scare you.” Panic said simply.
“Yes.” Elayna whispered.
“That is why you ran.”
“Some might say it is wise to fear me. If that is true, then you should also fear yourself.” He made a weak attempt to smile, his expression wistful.
Elayna met his eyes again. They held a deep sorrow and made him seem incredibly old – as if he had seen and done too much within his lifetime. His physical appearance was that of a young man, but those eyes carried the weight of unfathomable knowledge. As she listened, something in his words stirred a long forgotten memory. “What reason would I have to fear myself?” She asked quietly, the answer just beyond her grasp like a word resting on the tip of her tongue.
“Because you are Fear.”
Her head swam as she struggled to break the surface and take a breath of sweet air. Centuries of memories flooded her mind, image after image, love, hatred, power, death, and she collapsed in the darkness.
Elayna stirred. Strong arms cradled her. They were arms that could wield great power. Arms that had built a kingdom only to see it smashed to pieces and in grief began rebuilding once more. Arms that had held someone they’d lost, hoping one day for a reunion. They were the arms of someone who had loved her, who would always love her. A hand brushed a strand of dark hair away from her pale face as she opened her eyes.
“I knew you would return.” A voice whispered, thick with emotion.
Elayna looked up. She was startled to see that it was Panic, but the memories calmed her, putting a name to the unfamiliar feeling overwhelming her heart, and reminding her she was safe. She leaned into his embrace, sighing in contentment, no longer afraid. They had been reunited.
There would always be a reason to run, of course, but now everyone would be running from her. After all, Fear and Panic had always been lovers, a King and Queen ruling their court of terror.