Welcome to Fantastique; stories of wonder, dread, and hope. I’m your storyteller, Jason Beckom. Today’s story is a standalone, and the first story on this podcast. I hope you enjoy this and all the stories going forward. Content warnings for this episode include depression, intrusive thoughts, and very brief mention of self harming thoughts. I give it a PG rating, listen before your kiddos to make your own decision.
So do your best Levar Burton slow breath, and get ready to listen to our story, titled, Just Breathe.
She breathed in slowly and let out an even slower stream of air. She visualized her frustration flowing out with her breath. It is toxic to keep that negative tightness in your body you know. She pulled her hand back from the apparently closed craft store. She leaned in close and tented her hand over her reflection so that she could see through.
No one was inside, and the lights were off. That was confusing though. Didn’t stores always keep their lights on for security purposes? The sign said it was within business hours. Marelle shook her head and some of her hair fell loose from her scarf. Up went her manicured hands to tuck the escaping strands back into place.
She lifted her phone and ran her finger along the back to unlock it. The popular kpop star on the back of her case had a section on the top of his head cut out for the camera and fingerprint scanner. Often when she unlocked her phone she imagined she was wiping the sweat from his brow.
A quick search pulled up a list of other craft stores. Between the generic box store, the hot pink one with the too cutesy name, and the store just called Sarah’s, she went with option number three. She pressed the navigation button and walked back to her car. She forgot that meant her phone would keep telling her it was recalculating the route. But she was too good at dealing with irritation and not good enough at dealing with having to redo minor tasks so she left it running.
As she got into her car, she breathed in and out again slowly. After turning the key and hearing her car rumble to waking, she turned up the CD player and let it fight for attention with the maps app repeat directions in a monotone voice. Currently she was playing one of the mix CDs she had made herself. This one was called Summer Afternoon in a place I’ve Never Been. She made her CDs based on the feelings they invoked. Genres didn’t matter as much as feelings did.
This whole outing wasn’t really what she wanted to be doing today. Her plans had included scrolling through social apps in bed, listening to podcasts in bed, and napping… well you get the picture. Her friend Stacy on the other hand had just broken up with her girlfriend and was heartbroken. What was the only thing that made Stacy feel like dealing with the world? Small knitting projects and hand made dioramas. Her girlfriend (currently ex) had told Stacy her hobbies were childish (during the previously non-ex period), and Stacy had thrown all of her asupplies away. She had also hidden some of her favorite pieces around the house. Hiding things from someone you live with is a trust issue and a sign something has to change. Now that the change is happening, Stacy needed to mourn, heal, and make a tiny scene of a masquerade ball with matching full sized masks so whoever looked at the art could be part of it.
Marelle drove with her windows down and her air conditioning on, preferring to live in the place where the warm and cold met at just the right temperature but with all the added air flow. Air was important, the movement of air was the source of life and she breathed deeply. She felt her muscles begin to loosen again, the tightness draining away. Other than having to change plans and face the public; there shouldn’t be any reason she’s feeling this much frustration.
More people should be out, but on the drive over the roads had been pretty empty. More places around her seemed to have some cars in the parking lots but few things seemed open. She wondered if this was some sort of holiday and decided to call ahead to Sarah’s Crafts to find out if they were even open. A quick check of her calendar after running her finger along the kpop star’s hair part showed that it was just a typical Saturday. Then she rang Sarah’s only to get no answer. She would have rang the big box store, but she was in a parking lot it was attached to anyway and she drove around to the front and parked.
She got out of her car, turned her closed eyes to the sun to appreciate the warmth. She liked to appreciate as much as she could about being alive. She breathed in and out slowly, adding some stretching as well. She was getting irritated at the amount of stress her body seemed to be under. Did she not sleep well? Her pondering was interrupted when two older ladies than her were yelling at each other about a parking space. The one who got the parking space (let’s call her Pearl) was standing outside of her driver door, and the other one (Let’s call her Bonnie) rolled her window down and was complaining about not getting the spot first.
They both seemed riled up, and Marelle wondered if she should get involved when Bonnie spit out some expletives and drove off without another word. Pearl looked worried and got back in her car and headed in the opposite direction. Marelle breathed enough for both of them. Wondering what was up with people today.
When she walked into the store and headed for the back left corner where they kept the foam board, she found there would be even more questions. One section of the store had the lights out and it was very dim. Shopping carts were blocking off every aisle opening there. She’d been here enough to know that it was where they kept canvas, artpads, paints, and other drawing supplies. She felt a dreadful shiver creep through her body as she couldn’t stop herself from walking slowly towards the makeshift blockades.
She heard strange muffled noises like heavy breathing and scrabbling. The blood was rushing in her veins and the butterflies in her stomach were fighting like it was an action movie. The image of strange creatures came up in her head, or what if those sounds were zombies twitching across the floor trying to rise. But no matter how much fear was flooding her, she was drawn to keep inching forward, holding her breath, to find out what was on the other side of the first barricaded shelf.
She closed her eyes and let the air come in, breathing back out slowly. She told herself to calm down, breathe, regain control. Again her body let go of the tightness. She still felt fear, but she could maintain it. She slowly and silently peeked around the corner and saw several people all sitting on the floor in the dim light writing something in pads from the shelves. No zombies, no rogue AIs, just people, who all seemed to be in various stages of distress.
She let out a tentative “Hello” that sent some people skittering or hiding their heads and rocking, or in two cases people picked up nearby merchandise ready to attack. She held her hands out palms displayed in a sign of peace. Her anxiety spiked and again she had to breathe slowly and let all the tension out. It took three breaths this time.
She spoke softly “I’m not here to hurt anyone, and I won’t come any closer. I was just wondering if I could help, or if someone could tell me what was going on perhaps?” Nobody said anything, but someone ripped off a page of their dropped art pad and started writing. When they turned it to her she saw in big shaky letters END OF THE WORLD. Again she had to fight her fear and asked “How do you know?” The next note said JUST FEEL IT.
Marelle shook her head slowly, then looked around at everyone. Their posture, their breathing, and thought about the nice day outside, with so few people. Could it be the end of the world? But what could it be, surely there had to be something that had told them that. She yanked out her phone and almost dropped it, but steadied her hand and scrolled through the news. Nothing with sure answers, but it seemed like the only references were local. Life outside of her town was acting normal. Inside, no news stories, social media was dead, except for a few people talking about their life being crushed or feeling a sense of doom.
She put it all together. She looked back at the people and smiled while she said “I’ve got good news, it’s not the end of the world. Nothing bad is going to happen, you just feel like it. It’s anxiety, you’re all, well all of us in town are having a collective panic attack. It’s strange, it’s scary, but if you breathe and stretch and focus on what’s really happening instead of what you feel it should help.”
They seemed hesitant, though one of the ones holding an easel as a weapon slowly put it down and said “Ohhhh, why didn’t I figure that out. They pulled out some earbuds, clicked them into their phone, and closed their eyes to relax with some music. One of the ones with a pad stopped writing letters to loved ones and asked if they would share the music. A few awkward hand waving pantomimes later the music listener realized what they were asking and unplugged their earbuds and filled the room with the sound of a catchy pop song that you could probably find in one of those montage scenes.
Marelle smiled wider. She had been dealing with anxiety her whole life, she found it hard to imagine how people who never had it full force had to cope with it out of nowhere. Luckily she wasn’t the only one with experience it seemed. She felt compassion for them, and then angry that they were all going through it. She was well aware of the anger though, and channeled it into action. She was an administrator, her mind quickly searching out solutions then assigning priority. Once that was done internally, she began to delegate.
“Okay everyone, we’re all in this together, but we may be the only ones grasping this. There are other people that need to be helped. Focus on that and be aware of your feelings. Go find others, loved ones, neighbors, people down the street. Get the word out to help each other, trust reality over feelings, and when in doubt? Breathe.”
One of the younger men in the group asked “Is that where you’re going?” Her smile became a look of determination as she replied “No, I think you can handle that. I’m going to find out what started this” Without explanation she walked out of the craft store and started up her car. She tried calling her friend, but no answer. She sent a few supportive texts to her and made a priority decision. She felt possible real anxiety build as she pulled out of the parking lot.
She didn’t have a map, just an emotional compass. Every time the feeling of tension felt worse in one direction she would turn that way. She changed CDs to a power mix normally reserved for exercising. This one was titled “Shoulders down, neck long, think murder, and drive”.
Strip malls gave way to more strip malls. By the time she entered an area full of car dealerships she was seeing people hitting the cars with hammers or crying on the ground. She entered downtown as people were running away, pouring away from the source of the tension, whatever that could be. By now she had momentum building on her internal feelings, with the external tension being met with a growing hope that she would not let die.
She had to park because the road was littered with cars whether people were inside of them or not. She ignored everyone, focusing entirely on the feeling. The closer she got to the epicenter, the more her stomach tightened. Intrusive thoughts kept washing over her. She wasn’t good enough, she was unattractive, the world was ending, at any moment one of these people could attack her, she was going to die, she should be the one to do it.
She moved forward unceasingly though. Step, breathe in slow, step, breathe out slow. Her body was responding like an athlete after a run, yet all she focused on was breathing, moving, and the feeling. Fear couldn’t stop her, it was her mind telling you to pay attention. Anger couldn’t stop her, it was her mind telling her to change something. Sadness was separation from what she wanted, and finding the source would end that separation. None of the bad things were happening, it was all alerts, no bite. Fuel for the fire keeping her legs going, her lungs breathing.
Her steady pace took her past the few tall buildings and to a boutique coffee shop that she disliked because she could make better at home for 7 dollars less per cup. No one was around here, and this close to the center of the whatever was quiet, so quiet that it was like a weight. It wasn’t as much pressure as the feelings, but it also wasn’t as bad as she had ever been.
Some of her darkest moments started coming to mind. She closed her eyes, called to mind her favorite song to banish the darkness. It was a live version of a Jane Says by Jane’s Addiction. She kept walking forward wondering what Jane was like, and if she was still out there struggling with life. As she got closer to the coffee shop she heard the applause in her head. Perry gets on the mic and tells all the fans “Thank you, thank you very much.” Then the band breaks into this soft song that the crowd had never heard. You could hear the confusion, the listening, of all the people wondering what this was. The words weren’t even words, just random word-like things Perry was spouting off. Then, when the audience was at the height of the tension, he screamed “One, Two, Three, Four” and immediately dove right into Jane Says. And the crowd? When they heard one of the most iconic J.A. songs when they had been holding their breath, exploded. There was surprise, rolling thunder of applause, and shouting from who knows how many souls joining together in one cathartic release.
As that moment hit, Marelle’s tension flooded away, and she walked the rest of the way into the shop the singing the words. Her spirits were high above of anxiety flooding the city. And there, sitting at one of the tables, with a coffee in one hand and their head laying on the hard surface, was a young woman. She looked to be college age, with multi-purple hair and a gray hoodie. She was also asleep.
Marelle walked around her, and without a doubt, the girl was the center of the feeling. Marelle checked her pulse, shook her gently, to no avail. She turned and went to the counter, and got one of those fancy squared off water bottles before coming back to the girl. She said “Sorry to have to do this” and then started pouring cold water on the girls face. The sleeping girl sputtered awake, spraying water all over the floor. She said “Wha… What the hell?”
Marelle smiled gently, the tension had instantly left the building, everything was back to normal. Her lungs filled and emptied again, but this time in relief. She could only wonder about how much pressure this girl was under. She smiled with her best understanding smile and said “Need to talk?”
And that’s the story. Thank you for coming on the journey. You can subscribe anywhere you find other podcasts to listen to more stories of wonder, dread, and hope. You can find me on twitter @podfantastique, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you liked this story, please share it with a friend or stranger. Our intro and outro music is Bughici’s Suite for Violin 8 Ardeleneasca as performed by Advent Chamber Orchestra. Other music courtesy of the free music archive and all attribution will be in the show notes on podfantastique.com.