THE FEAR MASTER

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Chapter 5: REAL FEARS

“It might sound stupid,” said Betty in the biology lab the following Wednesday night, her face daubed with shadows since the only light in the room was provided by five flickering Bunsen burners, “but at least it’s real.” She cleared her throat.

The Fear Master, dressed as a medieval executioner, nodded his hooded head.

“See, I had high hopes of getting picked to compete in the interschool athletics championship, but I … didn’t qualify. I was … pretty bummed. And the next night there was a party I’d been invited to – it had been planned weeks in advance – and I couldn’t suddenly not go, even if I didn’t feel like it, so … I did go. I got there late, but just in time to hear one of my so-called friends singing a song … a song about me – about how I was never quite good enough for anything and how I always just managed to miss out and was sort of … sort of a loser.

“But that wasn’t even the worst thing – I have to admit, the song was kind of funny – but what hurt was that all the people I’d thought of as friends … they were laughing the hardest. I suppose I should’ve gone in there and blasted the lot of ’em, but … I didn’t. I felt so … second-rate, like I didn’t belong – had no right to be there, and … I turned around and went home before anyone realised I’d been there.

“The next time I saw them, they all told me what a great party it had been, and how they’d missed me, but – even then … I couldn’t speak up. Because, underneath … I thought maybe they were right.”

The Fear Master nodded. “Apt that we’re in a place where they dissect things … expose what’s on the inside – discard the non-essential. Good. Keith – what’s your number-one fear?”

Keith smiled nervously. “They say young people don’t think about it – we walk around like we’re gods or something – but the truth is we have the same number-one fear everyone does. Biting the big one. Death. Everything else you can bounce back from, but there’s no beating the Reaper.”

“No cheating him, either,” said The Fear Master. “Stevie?”

“My biggest fear … and I think this goes for everyone at some time in their lives … is … abandonment.”

Debbie Dawe shook her head but said nothing. In the half-light she looked oddly pretty.

“When I was four,” Stevie went on, “I lost my mother in a department store. Everything was big and confusing. All those strangers racing past. No one looked twice at a little girl. Nobody cared. I felt so helpless … I just started to cry. That was … the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life.”

“So if you went home tonight and found your family sitting in front of the TV watching Preacher Creature’s Creature Feature – only not, ’ cause they’ve been butchered – you’d be---”

“Don’t say it – don’t even think about it!”

“I won’t. Victor?”

“This. This is my fear.”

“This?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Your greatest fear is of a biology lab?”

Vic laughed. He hoped his eye wouldn’t start to twitch. Now that he’d ditched the glasses and gone back to contact lenses, he hoped without the pinching pressure around his nose and left ear, his facial tic would occur less often.

“No,” said Vic. “This – speaking in public. It’s my fear. I had to be in a debate once and I froze. Just stopped. I completely forgot what I had to say. Afterward, I couldn’t talk to anyone. But that was OK, because after that no one was interested in talking to me.”

“How do you feel right now?” asked The Fear Master.

Vic took a long, slow breath. He knew his cheeks were red. But it probably wasn’t noticeable in this light. And at least he hadn’t started to twitch. To his surprise, he smiled. “You know, I feel better – as if telling it, like this, helped. Maybe it did. Thanks.”

The Fear Master tilted his head. “You think I’m trying to help you? Interesting.”

“Well, I …” Vic felt the tic starting and lowered his head.

“Miss Debbie Dawe.”

Debbie sat straight up and flashed a brave smile. “Spiders. All spiders. Even those harmless Daddy Longlegs ones – sorry, I hate ’em!” she gave an exaggerated shudder. “Everyone does, right?”

The Fear Master waited in silence.

Debbie glanced at her watch.

The Fear Master did not move.

Ten seconds.

Stevie looked at Debbie. She knew her friend had lied. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that, while Debbie might be a legend in her own mind, she wasn’t much of an actress.

As if believing it might be better the second time around, Debbie flashed another smile.

Twenty seconds.

Vic looked at Stevie. He felt his twitch easing. There was something about her that put him at ease. He might feel wrong-footed by the rest of the world, but it was like Stevie didn’t expect anything from him, there was no agreement he had to live up to, whereas Debbie (or everything he’d heard about her) was the opposite – always, pressure, complaints, demands. If Debbie and Stevie could be best friends, it only proved that opposites did attract.

Thirty seconds.

Debbie shrugged. “That’s it – spiders!”

“Not a vampire or werewolf among them,” said The Fear Master. “Thank you for giving me your real fears. Good night. And pleasant dreams.”

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