Phobias

You haven’t been to your Phobia support group in a while. But that’s somewhat understandable for an agoraphobic.

But tonight you’ve made it. And you feel right at home in the not-completely-stable folding chair. The buzzing fluorescent lights in the church basement have once again given your skin a jaundiced yellow tone. Plus, you had almost come to miss the tepid, brown water that passes for coffee… almost.

There are smiles and handshakes from the familiar faces (well, those not afraid of smiles or handshakes). Everyone is glad to have you back, everyone except for the new guy John, who happens to be a neophobe.

You’ve taken a seat next to two regulars, Stan and Denise. Stan is overweight and his clothes are a size (or two) too small. Stan had been a firefighter, but retired due to the onset of his pyrophobia. Stan smells, oddly enough, like wood smoke. Stan claims to be pyrokinetic, but you’ve never seen him create fire with his mind. You have asked him, somewhat dubiously, to prove it, but he will only do it outside. And so that’s that.

Denise is a middle-aged woman with closely cut hair and a poor complexion. Denise began attending the support group on the same night as you, and you have a soft spot in your anxious heart for her. Denise is hydrophobic (not rabid, as the term has often come to imply, but simply afraid of water). Not surprisingly, Denise is also an ablutophobe. She claims to have not bathed in over five years. Denise’s aroma is very strong. You don’t, however, find it entirely unpleasant, and her rich, earthy smell reminds you of a time when you were not afraid to be outside. You used to run barefoot through your backyard. You used to love watching the clouds change as they soared through the blue sky. But that was before your mother left. Before the incident with your father…

Your phobia group is smaller than you remember it. There are only twelve attendees tonight, but you could swear that there were at least twenty at your last meeting. Apart from John, you recognize everyone. Their names and fears are like catalogue entries next to their faces:

  • Don is afraid of dancing.
  • Rabbit fears growing old.
  • Susan, Estelle, and Parker are all afraid of touching others, but Estelle is also afraid of groups and public speaking. And Parker dreads women.
  • Hector, the guy with the bags under his eyes, is afraid of sleeping.
  • Chuck sits at the top of the stairs because he’s afraid of basements.
  • And then there is Phoebe. Phoebe’s the group leader, which you find quite poetic. Phoebe, who leads a Phobia support group, is afraid of having a phobia. As you’ve said to Stan before, Phoebe the phobophobe is proof that truth is stranger than fiction.

Phoebe stands and says hello to everyone. She also welcomes you back, and says that she was afraid you had left the group permanently. Her eyes grow watery as she utters the word “afraid,” and she apologizes for letting fear get the better of her. You raise a hand in dismissed acceptance and smile along with everyone else as they return Phoebe’s greeting.

The meeting goes much as you remembered and expected it would. Phoebe nudges and prompts the group to share their successes and failures, but no one really has much to say. You comment on the courage it took to leave the house, how you managed the trip by taking it step after labored step. Chuck commends your bravery and you yell your gratitude.

The group falls silent once again.

And then Stan rises from his chair with a heavy breath. “I started another fire today,” he says. Everyone holds his or her breath. You try to hide your skepticism.

Phoebe nods in encouragement, “And then what happened Stan?”

“It was scary. Horrible,” Stan’s hands are shaking. His face is turning red. “I was so focused on it, you know?”

“Focused on what?” Chuck’s voice bounces along the stairwell and into our ears.

“I’d done so well, not thinking about fire or how that fire was all my fault. And those kids, well I gotta carry that burden too. The guys at my engine house laughed, said ‘Stanley, you’re crazy. You’re a firefighter, you ain’t no firestarter!’ But that was just it! You see? I’d been fighting those fires because I was trying to squash my own fears and demons. But fire sinks into your skin. Your pores get full of the smoke, and it don’t wash out. It don’t wash out!” The shakes have spread from his hands and up his arms. His torso trembles and shivers.

“Stan,” you say, “It’s ok. Just breathe.” You touch his forearm but recoil at the heat of his skin.

“And that fire gets into you. And it grows in you. And it grows in you. And then it wants out. It’s alive! Don’t you see? It’s alive! And I can’t stop it anymore, can’t keep it in. It was me that started my building on fire.”

“S-Stan, Stan, you didn’t start no fires. Nothing’s your fault.” Rabbit’s voice is weak and he’s edged his seat away from Stan.

Stan’s never been on edge like this before, you can’t remember his skin ever looking so flushed or feeling so hot. You’ve thought to grab him a drink, and you’re standing next to the water pitchers when it happens.

Stan’s entire body quakes. He yells, “It’s my fault! Can’t you see that I can’t stop it anymore! It grows in you! It grows in you!” Tongues of yellow fire lick from his cuffs and collar. His shirt bursts into flames, and the fire engulfs his head and upper body. His shouts do not stop, but grow louder. Stan is flailing his arms. He clings to Denise for support and the fire spreads. Her rayon blouse ignites and she begins to scream.

Everyone else stands back in fear. They watch helplessly as Denise and Stan burn before them. Denise pleads for help. She has fallen to her knees. Smoke curls into the air and the basement fills with the smell of hot dogs and the stink of burning hair.

You’re holding two pitchers of water, and they slosh gently in your trembling hands. Stan was telling the truth and now your friends are burning to death. But you’re torn between putting out Stan’s fire and not getting Denise wet.

And then you realize that you’re also afraid of making decisions.

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