Fear = (Cockroaches + Laboratory) / History
©2002, Tim Lightfoot

Notes on piece: This is a pure fiction piece that I set in a familiar environmentand was originally written for a writing contest. The lab can be a spooky place. .
Ashika felt her anxiety building. She knew well the uncontrolled panic when it started deep inside her. Her anxiety, already primed by the events of the day, was only augmented by the darkness and isolation that seemed to radiate into her office through the window from the adjoining Human Physiology Lab. "I’m okay, I’m okay" she repeated, but tonight the darkness streaming through her window seemed palpable and amplified her panic. Even the lab equipment conspired to heighten her anxiety. The low steady buzz of the cooling fan in the mass spec and the slight hissing of the furnace in the oxygen analyzer became menacing when all the lights were out. "Calm down, calm down" Ashika now chanted, as if changing what she told herself would wipe away all of the fears and anxieties that arose in the dark. The darkness of the night her older sister was murdered, the darkness of the closet she was locked in by her enraged father, the darkness of the lab night after night as she worked, there was nothing she could do when the darkness caused the fear to come. Even turning on every light in the lab wouldn’t alleviate the anxiety that welled up in her in her office in the dark, dank basement of Ewing Coliseum.

"Boo!" a voice suddenly whispered in her ear.

With a scream, Ashika jumped out of her chair and spun around to see the laughing face of Colin, her office mate who spent more time goofing off than studying. "God damn it Colin. You’re lucky I didn’t punch you!"

"Given the state you’re in, I doubt you could have punched anything. Heck, you were lucky to just to get out of your own way! Besides, what are you still doing here? If I’d had the day you’ve had, I would’ve been somewhere drowning my troubles in a beer or two, instead of sitting here in a dark building tempting the lab ghosts."

"Ha. Lab ghosts. Remember who you’re talking to. I was there when you first made that story up about the girl falling off the treadmill, getting her hair caught in the treadmill belt and it killing her. It was an effective story to get the undergrads to watch subjects closely when they are on the ‘mill, but it won’t work on me. Anyway, I’ve got to get this data into my abstract before I can submit my paper to Experimental Biology. So, I can either sit at home and be freaked out or sit here and be freaked out while working on my abstract. Besides the plethora of Charlotte State morons that decided to pick on me today couldn’t do much more to me than I do to myself."

Colin held up his hands in mock surrender. "Okay, okay. I just needed to get my lab coat." Colin grabbed his lab coat off of the back of the door and started out, but turned and considered Ashika. "Are you going to be okay?" he inquired.

Ashika looked at Colin, surprised at the concern in his voice. She nodded her head. "I’ll be okay. I’ve just got to get this abstract done or else I’ll…" she trailed off.

Noticing Ashika’s distracted look, Colin shrugged and turned to go. "Don’t forget to turn off the lights" he called back over his shoulder.

Ashika sighed and tried to keep the anxiety from swallowing her. It had been a rough day. Everyone had seemed to single out Ashika for verbal punishment today. "You’re a racist bitch!" had been the phrase one student had used loudly in the middle of class to describe her grading of his mid-term. When the student’s anger had inflamed several adjoining students, Ashika had immediately dismissed the class and summoned campus police. "What in the hell do you think you were doing?" was the phrase that the department chair had used when the police arrived in Ewing Coliseum, much to his surprise. "Why aren’t the experiments done? That abstract has got to be finished by the end of the week" was the phrase later used by Dr. Butler as Ashika was still trying to recover from her exposure to the students, police, and the department chair. "You’re either stupid or too lazy to write well. Your choice!" was the phrase that came from the professor of her graduate course. The words had shredded Ashika’s confidence and added to her growing fear that she did not belong at CSU or anywhere else either. Home had ceased to exist when her dad had locked her in that dark closet amidst the cockroaches. Graduate school and this assistantship seemed to be the only thing left to her. "Get your mind off of it!" she reprimanded herself, but the darkness and isolation combined with the mental pounding she had taken today continued to drag her toward the abyss of panic. "Focus, focus, focus" she chanted while staring at the line graphs that made no more sense now than they did when she first started staring at them two hours ago.

As she focused on them, the lines on the graphs blurred and seemed to change, moving into the shape of a large cockroach, very similar to the kind that used to chronically infest her parent’s home. Ashika gasped as the cockroach turned toward her. The cockroach whispered "you thought you could get away. You thought that by hiding in this lab, I wouldn’t find you."

Ashika’s panic returned full force. "You…you…can’t talk. You’re just a bug!"

"Oh, but I can talk. And I’m more than just a bug. I’m your fears and anxieties – you know, the ones you keep stuffing down and hiding from. The fears you never take out. Well here I am! Don’t you like the way I look?"

Rrrrr…clunk….rrrr….clunk….rrr….clunk….rrr….clunk……rrr….clunk.

At the sound, Ashika woke directly into the face of the darkness and isolation that was now accompanied by this forbidding rhythmic sound coming from the lab.

Rrrrr…clunk….rrrr….clunk….rrr….clunk….rrr….clunk……rrr….clunk.

With the cockroach image of her anxieties ricocheting through her mind, Ashika realized that the sound was coming from the lab.

Rrrrr…clunk….rrrr….clunk….rrr….clunk….rrr….clunk……rrr….clunk.

Virtually paralyzed with fear, Ashika shakily stood up from her desk and walked hesitantly around the corner to the lab door.

Rrrrr…clunk….rrrr….clunk….rrr….clunk….rrr….clunk……rrr….clunk.

Ashika knew that if something was wrong in the lab and she didn’t fix it, Dr. Butler would have her hide and she wouldn’t be in the program and wouldn’t have her assistantship. But the horrific sounds coming from the lab acted as a catalyst for her anxieties and fears. As she got closer to the black doorway the panic welled up and wrapped around her. As if in slow motion, Ashika saw her hand disappear into the solid darkness of the lab as she groped for the lab light switch. As the panic began to consume her, Ashika managed to flip the switch.

Rrrrr…clunk….rrrr….clunk….rrr….clunk….rrr….clunk……rrr….clunk.

The scream that Ashika heard in the sudden darkness that was now her mind did not translate to an audible noise. By instinct, Ashika slowly backed away from the doorway and continued retreating to try to get away from her panic. She did not realize that this would be the last time she ever saw a laboratory.

Epilogue
"Hey Colin - do you know what happened here last night?"

"Oh hello, Dr. Butler." Colin, looking up from his desk, greeted the slightly overweight lab director who was dressed in her normally frumpy attire. "Something happened? Hmm… I came in around midnight and Ashika was still here working on her abstract. I left fairly soon after that though. But Ashika’s stuff is here, so I’m sure she is around here somewhere and knows what went on."

Dr. Butler arched one eyebrow, "Then you didn’t hear about Ashika? The campus police found her in a snow bank at about 3 am. You should probably call and let them know that you saw her here."

Colin managed to stammer "Is she okay?"

"I’m not sure – she was hypothermic and in shock when they took her in. The police won’t release any more information until they find her parents to get all of the appropriate releases." As she turned to leave, Dr. Butler added "by the way, I got Dave to come down and fix the treadmill."

"I didn’t know anything was wrong with it."

"I didn’t either. But this morning when I came in, the treadmill was running full tilt and was elevating and descending repeatedly. The headgear supports were bashing into the ceiling repeatedly and were making quite a racket. I even had to pull the plug because the control panel wasn’t working. Dave said that apparently a couple of our cockroach friends had crawled inside the control panel and shorted themselves across the power and elevation terminals." She paused, looked at Colin, and added "more for your lab ghost story I guess . Oh well, give me a call if you need help with Ashika’s labs later."

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