by David Galef

Sarah won’t get out of the van. It’s been half an hour since the group and tour guide left for the Starling Mountain trail, and by now the door should be safe to touch, but the curved green metal handle is still poisonous as a snake. She remains in the third window seat, hands clasped but not praying, because religion isn’t one of her superstitions. The portraits she received of God always showed an unfriendly old man, given to strange tricks and abandonments, like her father, who deserted the family when she was five.

Sarah’s last boyfriend, Eric, left her two years ago, advising her to see someone about the problem: a form of agoraphobia or maybe claustrophilia that made her feel safe in cocoons and frightened of exits. Inside warm, outside evil—the prospect of which paralyzed her. She sensed a rush of colored air whenever she made it outside, a breeze heightening to a gale that knocked over the chairs in her brain. Hours to recover.

She had been an adventurous child. Bicycle rides to anywhere, coming home long after her mother had started drinking. At school, she’d been the one late to class because she’d found an interesting maple leaf on the way from home.

Her first episode was right after college. She couldn’t emerge from a dented Honda she and a friend had borrowed to visit New York, right after the driver’s door slammed shut. She stayed behind the protection of the tinted glass windshield as dread amassed like a ten-foot wave, beyond which lay inundation. Episode by episode, the dread turned into an all-pervading anxiety that could attach itself to anything: a brass doorknob rotating ominously, beyond which unspooled the endless corridor; a view of the front walk that led to Hades. Anything outdoors. She changed jobs from office staff to online gig, working for a pet-care content provider. She went to see a psychopharmacologist, who put her on Wellbutrin and Klonopin. Some days, that worked.

She found a new boyfriend on OkCupid, a coder named Will who found her attractive and liked her self-deprecating wit. She was just fine for over a month. But on their fifth date, when he took her to dinner at an upscale sushi place called Nori, she found herself trapped in the restroom. She couldn’t get out for an hour. They talked about it afterwards. Will said he suffered from fear of heights and understood. Then came the incident in Ramsey Park, where she hid under a bench, her legs bent beneath her, head back, the green slats barring her face. Will finally coaxed her out by wrapping her in his overcoat.

Then came the incident in Ramsey Park, where she hid under a bench, her legs bent beneath her, head back, the green slats barring her face.

And now this in the van. Will’s expression blended confusion and disappointment. He left with the group, saying he’d return before too long.

She waits in her seat, the fear transferred to the blocky stitches in the ceiling fabric (107 of them) and the miniature gray curtain half-blocking the window, which is preventing her from taking a full breath.

It’s been five years of this, and five more seem to pass in the empty van. She reviews her job, her meds, her short-lived future with Will. Cannot or will not move? She reaches for the door handle again and draws back just in time. Snakes, electric green void outside.

When Will returns, she can go home again, but to what? All the entrances and exits in her life where she’s seen others disappear. Daddy slamming the car door shut and driving away. Mom and the kitchen door that she wobbled drunkenly through and left an inch aslant. The round-topped bedroom window through which she could see all her potential escapes, knowing none would work. She has waited forever for the right door to open of its own accord. Pass through it, and everything would change.

She will stay here until the painted metal carapace of the van rusts away and leaves her seated on air. Her palms dig into her nails, drawing blood. The worn gears of her brain grind their wooden teeth to nubs. Will the gears ever reverse?

She dreams she is outside, lying on the springy grass, gazing up at the brown flank of the mountain. The van lies elsewhere, huddled in its misery. A light breeze from nowhere and everywhere urges her to sit up, and when she does, the overarching sky is so broad and welcoming, it seems to wave or at least waver in the late morning light, asking where she’s been all these years, long time no see.

Then she opens her eyes.


David Galef has published the collections Laugh Track and My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize), and the novels FleshTurning Japanese, and How to Cope with Suburban Stress (Kirkus’s Best Books of 2006). His latest is Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook (Columbia University Press). He directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University and is also the editor in chief at Vestal Review.
Website Twitter @dgalef.