Spotlight: Symphony of Panic


You sit in a Goodwill engulfed in the sadness emitted by the abandoned objects, each with their own story you’re sure, and the dejected shoppers. Your chosen object is a $20 chair, cracked red leather outlined by shining buttons.

You listen to a man, ratty t-shirt and balding blonde hair, sitting in a different used chair. Wooden. Evidently, the people aren’t too different from the objects. Desolate, carrying their own stories. The man tells part of his story aloud.

“All I’m sayin’ is, he was lucky I didn’t have my gun.”

You try to shift your attention, but it’s hard not to wince each time “fag” cuts through the air. From the bits and pieces you manage to gather, the man is not, in fact, a fag.

The rhythmless tapping of your foot begs you to move, to act, to flee. So you drag yourself from the red leather chair and try to remember where you are. You know you are in a Goodwill, but something is off despite nothing being notably out of place. The broken children’s toys, the obscure VHS tapes, everything is as it should be and yet you are certain something is wrong. You can feel it bubbling up in your chest. You are certain there is an emergency. The sirens are deafening.

The alarms decrescendo as quickly as they arrived, the ambulance rushing by to find its target. You wish it was you.

“Fag.” You can’t discern which of them said it, but you feel the hatred dripping off the word as blood drips from your nose. Your back is pressed against the brick wall of a school building. You hold your head high despite the tears welling. This is the first time. Pride hasn’t been beaten out of you yet.

You stare at your attackers, their young age contrasting the violence they endorse. They jeer, mock, taunt. At the forefront is Kelly. Pristine sneakers, tight jeans, hair pulled back. Her favorite pastime: tearing others down and proceeding to kick.

The pain in Charlotte’s eyes is directed towards you, but not at you. You aren’t the first person she’s hit and you won’t be the last, but you can’t hate her. Every time you feel the sting in your nose and try to blame her, you fall into those eyes. Dark, guarded, hurting eyes. You wonder what she’s seen, what she’s felt. You wonder if she knows how closely her pain mimics your own.

Where Kelly is bored and Charlotte hurting, Maria is offended. Your pining, fawning, loving—it hurts her. How could you?

“Dyke.” Maria’s insults hurt the worst, accented by a pious finality. You know she sees you as the devil, and you know, despite the contradictions, you can never convince her otherwise.

“Are you alright?” A young girl, short, choppy hair, asks. Judging by just her face, you’re missing an arm. Your body responds to her with a nod—not to answer her question, but to ward off the threat her presence poses. You’re suddenly aware that you’re pressed against a shelf, a few of the VHS tapes fall to the ground; you’re gripping the metal so tightly your knuckles have gone white. You don’t know what the girl saw or if you’re crying.

Your lungs fill with air that you were unaware they needed until their sudden expansion. You gasp like a child that has ventured too deep into the water. A child that was under much longer than she planned, considered the prospect of drowning, and now that she’s resurfaced can do nothing but gasp.

You relax your grip and your posture, sliding down the shelf. You close your eyes, rest your head on your hands, your hands on your knees, and try to reestablish your surroundings.

Chattering shoppers. Dim lights, some flickering. Objects being shuffled. Cold, hard, unforgiving floor. The smell that reminds you of your grandmother. A child’s voice here and there. You breathe in and out, slowly, counting, and pull the blankets up under your chin.

Staring at the blank wall beside your bed, you deprive yourself of any stimulus. You try to purge your mind of thoughts. There are considerable civilian casualties. Your bed is supposed to be a safe haven, but you’re finding that occupying it only exacerbates how little you feel. Instead, the emptiness makes you more susceptible to the awful, self-deprecating thoughts, leaving cracks in your mind for them to sludge through.

You feel them making their way up your body, crawling, as you stare idly. Their hand trails your spine. Their light touch leaves your skin tingling. No one else fights for your attention. Almost as if seducing you, they coerce you into giving in. They push aside your hair and you hear the warmth of a whisper on your ear.

“Worthless. Absolutely worthless,” you spit at your reflection. You can’t remember how long you’ve been staring at this dirty mirror, framed by student-scrawled sharpie. Tears begin to mingle with the running faucet water, your hands clutching the sink. You barely recognize yourself. This battered girl, dirty hair, sunken eyes. This can’t be you. Surely you aren’t this broken.

You are appalled by how little it takes. One sheet of paper decorated with the glaring red of a teacher orchestrating your failure with nothing but a pen. It seems to confirm the dwindling state of your potential. It is an undeniable self-admission confirming everything you already believed to be true.

You hope no one else tries to skip class. Your hand rushes to your chest. You try to keep your heart from bursting through. Sitting feet away from the bathroom door, you suddenly wonder if there is anything past it. There is nothing but this room suspended in a sea of black. There is no one but you, hand trembling, heart thumping, tears streaming. You accept that this will never end. You accept that you are now a part of this suspended room, forever panicking.

You pull your knees up to your chest, trying your best to be inconsequential. You tuck down your head and press your hands over your ears. You sit as still as possible, as quiet as possible. You are motionless except for the tears falling from your eyes.

You glance out from underneath the tablecloth adorning the sturdy wooden table above you. As you watch your mother shrinking beneath your father, you can’t help but blame yourself. You may not be the outright spark that caused him to explode, but you know your inabilities and defeats add up. You know that if you weren’t around, the operas that unravel before you so often would be few and far between. The lives of the singers would be much calmer without the incessant disappointment you prove to be.

Despite your attempts to cease your existing, you can still hear the symphony beyond your hiding spot. The bassy shouting crescendos to a deafening fortissimo while a small soprano occasionally chimes in, trying to coax it back down. Eventually she loudens as well, a staccato yelp brought about, as many dynamic changes are, by the raising of an arm.

As the arm comes crashing down the first thing you feel is grateful. You feel grateful because although this slap stings, it won’t leave any marks. No black eye to make excuses for, no bruises to coat in makeup, no cuts, no scratches. You much prefer the sting, a brief reminder of your faults, to markings loudly showing off your mistakes.

Tom’s energy is not spent on the hit. You used to love how full of energy he was. How bright and full of life. Charismatic as hell too. It didn’t take him long to win your affection. The compliments he so excitedly threw at you, like fans showering a performer in roses. The way he looked at you, he seemed to confirm that which love songs are made of.

But what once won your love now drives his hate. He could scream for hours without an ounce of exhaustion. The way his voice raises, smothering out your own, it echoes around your brain, nestling besides memories of another’s yells. You never figured your lover would parallel your father so closely.

You collapse below him. You barely register what his words accuse you of. You have long since learned to tune out the frequency of his anger. You have to if you are to keep loving him, if you are to keep sane. You haven’t even noticed his explosion has been contained until you hear a door slam so loudly you aren’t sure how it didn’t snap.

With the door now closed behind you, you stand shaking. The air conditioning is leaning on the cool side but the lighting is warm. A blanket of orange emitted by the various lamps seeks to infiltrate your trust, to create a false comfort despite the general unfamiliarity of your surroundings.

The ticking of the small clock occupying the wall to your left is deafening as you approach the couch. Taking a seat, you beg your leg to be still if only for a few minutes. Its rhythm compliments that of the clock’s. As the woman whose apparent nurturing nature reflects that of a mother takes her seat opposite yours, you can’t help but wonder whether you’ve made a mistake.

Her smile is easy and welcoming. It attempts to coax to the forefront even the most guarded of your secrets.

“I was planning on working on mindfulness today.”

She guides you through deep breathing exercises, her sweet voice with a seemingly inherent ability to soothe. You follow the pattern she instructs, breathing in slowly before exhaling at a matching tempo.

It only takes a few minutes of this before you regain your composure. A few minutes of inhaling and exhaling, in and out, slowly and smoothly. You begin to accept your surroundings as they are. There is nothing wrong with the incomplete board games or the tattered stuffed animals lining shelves. The children running up and down aisles as their parents try desperately to find a deal pose no threat to you. You aren’t sure how long you’d been lying on the ice cold floor of the Goodwill or how many judgmental glances passed over you while you did but for the first time in an indiscernible time frame, you feel safe.


Amadea Oberg is a senior in high school who has been writing all her life. She currently lives in Maryland, but plans on moving to New York as soon as she can. She is thrilled that this is her first published piece.