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Fear of Fear

Updated: Jan 24, 2022


Artwork by Aldwin Li, staff artist

By Amberlynn Gong


I’m not sure why I put myself through this.

Frankly, I’m not sure why I ever decided to do this line of work.

Armed with only a Care Package including a net, a multi-purpose knife, and tranquilizers, I am no more prepared for this job than the girl I am defending. Each step I take to evade the nightmare, my Care Package bounces against my hip, an irritating reminder of how I am so very good at underestimating little girls.

Little girls, who apparently share the same fears as me.

Only an hour ago, I was safe and sound in my bed, perhaps ready to nightmare about this very fear. Ten minutes ago, Boss was practically about to explode with pride. How had my life turned so drastically within the past five minutes?

“Graceless! Am I happy to see you here!” Boss said, slinging an arm around my shoulder. She didn’t usually talk to me, let alone buddy up to me.

I managed to slip out of her grasp, strapping my Care Package to my hip. Later, when I picked a nightmare to fight, I would fill the pouch with what I thought would be critical to helping me defeat the fear.

“Graceless!”

Sighing, I tilted my head back, trying to look attentive. “Am I in trouble?”

Boss chuckled. “My favorite Defender? Of course not. Only--” The rest of her sentence was lost in the mix of screams and war cries. We passed the Doorways, multiple doors lined in a row. A few were open, boasting the Defender fighting off each nightmare.

“--so you have to pick your own door today.”

I didn’t have to ask her to repeat herself. “Now?”

She rolled her eyes, acting more like her old self. “No. Next year.” Boss slapped me on the back once more, sending me on my way.

At the end of the row, the doors were opened wide, a tell-tale sign some other Defender was slacking on their job. But an easy way to see which nightmare was plaguing the sleeper.

Pacing in front of the open doors, I wait until the automated voice narrates the name and age of the sleeper. A few others wait besides me, waiting until they hear a sleeper they’d prefer. When “Jonathon, fifty-two” is called, a Defender turns to the supply cart, and begins stocking his pouch with weapons of all sorts. He turns around, saying to no one in particular, “Don’t underestimate your sleeper. There’s always a fear out there that can be vanquished with fire.” He stuffs a lighter in his pouch.

“Bethy, three.”

A three year old! Usually, Boss would assign me a sleeper to work with, warning me beforehand what fear I’d be defeating. And fears always ranged from bombs and grim reapers, to holes. A three year old couldn’t be scared of too much. Snakes, at worst.

Before anyone else can claim the girl, I raise my hand, stocking my pouch quickly. “I got her.”

Taking a breath before stepping in--my nightmare ritual-- I peer through the doorway, trying to get an overall idea of the fear I’d be facing.

Stepping through the doorway is like celebrating your birthday; it doesn’t get any better with age. The nightmare-scape is blank at first, and I figure the girl, Bethy, had probably woken up to scream for her parents. But soon, she’d fall asleep again, and my hands would be full.

To pass the time, I sort through my Care Package. Come to think of it, Care Packages are funny, considering we use them to take care of ourselves, and the sleepers. A net, a multi-purpose knife, and tranquilizers. Pretty solid list, if you ask me.

A darkness begins to stretch, as though I’ve pulled a blanket over my head. Little Bethy must be nightmaring again. I grip the knife in one hand, the net in the other. This will be a story to tell one day, defeating a spider or bug with only a fishing net and a blade no longer than my finger.

Little Bethy’s nightmarish self is in the corner, lit by invisible beacons. Her eyes grow wide at the sight of me, mouth moving soundlessly. She must be paralyzed with fear. Little Bethy’ lucky day, apparently. I inch closer, brandishing the two inch blade and net with terror. “Never fear,” I start, the stereotypical hero speech. “Because I’m-”

Fingers curl into my throat, plucking away my next words like they are simply berries on a bush. And I can’t-- I can’t--

I’m gasping for breath, my throat contracting with each swallow. Without my knowing, the blade and net drops from my hands. Fingers scratching at my throat, possibly my own, trying to draw air as easily as digging a hole in sand. All while my thoughts have fallen upside down on themselves, a jumble of questions.

How could a three year old have the same fear as me?

It is the question repeating unrelentlessly through my head. Only now, too late, I realize why Bethy was drawn speechless at the sight of me. Because she quite literally could not speak.

How do I defeat this?

Every vestige of training has grown wings and flown away. It is only me, Bethy, and the smothering dark. And not to mention, a now useless knife, tranquilizer, and net. The little girl is practically forgotten at my side.

All I want is to run.

Run away, find the door, and never come back. I suppose I could always shoot myself with the tranquilizer, saving my heart from exploding from my chest.

One blurred glance at Bethy though, and Boss’s training floods back into me.

Save the sleeper first.

Fingers fumbling, I drag myself towards Bethy, sticking the tranquilizer tip up her neck. A moment later, fortunate Bethy slumps over.

I am left alone with my worst fear, not even a candle to defend me.

In my head, I curse myself for not taking Jonathon, fifty-two’s Defender’s words to heart. If I had a lighter, I could beat back the dark. It could dissolve in my fingers as easily as sand flowing through an hourglass.

Why can’t it then?

Because all my years as a defender, I have never stumbled into my own nightmare. I supposed Boss should include training for this, when you are completely paralyzed, not a wisp of air in your lungs. For the first time since I was recommended as a Defender, fear has greeted me like an old friend.

What makes a fear? Only the way it brushes a finger against my wobbling knees, the way it plants a painful kiss on my forehead, making me feel lightheaded. Perhaps it is a stimulant for how my heart pounds faster than a runner’s feet touch the ground.

How is it that one day, a fear decides to bother you?

It has been five minutes, maybe more. Time passes quickly in nightmares. If I wait any longer, Boss will have to pull me from the nightmare herself. I’d be made a laughing stock, and fired most likely. In that instant, I cannot fathom which would be worse.

If I want my job -- and my reputation -- I’d have to save myself.

I close my eyes, dragging my hands away from my throat, resting them at my side. Who decided I would be frightened of the dark? Or suffocation? It was no one but myself. And that being said, no one but myself can beat it.

I’m not scared anymore. I’m not scared. I’m not. My stomach rises and deflates, as though I can still breathe. Who decided I couldn’t? Why can’t I? Down, up.

Like the rising and falling motion is a generator for air, something snaps. An amount of air, barely breathable, in my lungs. Yet this is enough for me to relax again, slightly.

I’m not scared anymore. I’m not scared. I’m not.

The dark is a natural thing, like air, like the sky. Imagine how the darkness feels to be a monster, a fear, while daytime remains a hero. Would you be frightened of something so natural, like the sun?

Each thought brings a deluge of air back into my lungs. And each breath I take, my shoulders fall. My hands unclench. All until it is only myself, chest rising and falling.

I dare to crack an eye open. The world has returned blank; a piece of paper before an artist comes. Bethy’s dreamscape is unblemished, not a wisp of suffocating darkness in sight. It seems the tranquilizing dart did its job after all.

I pick myself off, stuff the net and blade back into my pouch, and take off like a shot. Now that the most palpable fear has left, it is only me, and a sense of urgency to get back before Boss notices how long I have been gone for.

I don’t know why I put myself through this.


 

Contributor's Note: Amberlynn Gong is a rising high school freshman in Maryland. She has been reading and writing since a young age, but has most recently gotten back into writing two years ago. Amberlynn enjoys reading, swimming, and eating.


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