The Fear Inventory by Elizabeth Guilt
He paused on the street, unable to believe he was doing this. The brass plaque by the door said something tedious about asset management; the remains of polish had collected in the right-hand edges of the etched letters.
He pushed open the door, passed the reception of the asset managers, and started up the stairs. At each floor, the stairs got steeper, and the notices on the doors shabbier. The institutional gray carpet gave way to a worn brown, and then to cracked and pinkish lino.
The final door was painted white, had no sign at all, and looked more like an attic or a broom cupboard than an office. He knocked, feeling foolish, and heard a distant “come in.”
The room was small, almost too small for everything in it. In front of an enormous cabinet was a narrow desk, furnished with blotter, paper, inkwell and pens, and behind that was a neat, prim man. His precise haircut, trimmed mustache, dark suit and stiff shirt collar made him look like a bank clerk from an old film.
“Are you… are you the Inventoryman?”
The clerk nodded once. “Mr. Tymon? Please take a seat.” His voice was thin and soft.
There was only one chair: black-painted and narrow. Ty walked toward it, feeling bulky and out of place in the room. He had to turn sideways to pass a spindly table with a dried flower arrangement on it and was sure he was going to knock it over. His floppy hair and scruffy cargo pants didn’t belong here, and the way his biceps bulged beneath his t-shirt felt suddenly vulgar. Even his customary open smile was too untidy for this cramped office.
He sat carefully in the chair, relieved that it seemed sturdy enough to hold him. He curled his feet behind the legs, trying to hide lime-green trainers. The clerk looked at him expectantly, and he wished he’d planned out what he was going to say.
“Err, hi. A friend of mine recommended you.”
The Inventoryman inclined his head politely.
“She said you might be able to help me out.”
The Inventoryman spread his fingers—an invitation to continue.
“She said…” Ty paused, aware he was about to make a massive idiot of himself. “She said you’d arranged for her promotion in exchange for her telling you her worst fear.”
There was a long pause, in which the Inventoryman’s expression became, if anything, more polite.
“Jeannette. Jeannette Miller. She’s now a partner in her company, and she’s good but she’s not that good. Not to get that job at 23. I know something strange must have happened, and she said you fixed it.”
“I don’t discuss my clients’ business, of course.” Ty had to lean forward to catch the words. “But I can arrange such things. What do you want?”
Ty let his breath out in a rush. “I want to be selected for the World Cup squad. I’ve been training hard, but I’m not going to make the final selection. I’ll be dropped. Again. I want to play for England.” The expression facing him remained bland. “Rugby. For the England Rugby team,” he added.
“I see.” The Inventoryman made a note. “Any conditions?”
“Conditions?” Ty hadn’t been expecting to be the one setting conditions. “Um, I guess I don’t want to see anyone who’s ahead of me, like, injured or anything. They’re good guys. I just want a little juggling of the selection.”
Another note. “That seems reasonable. And in return you will give me your worst fear. I will not use it against you or compel you to do anything. If you agree, we will make the exchange.”
Ty looked around the room, as if the old furniture would be able to give him a clue about how this bargain would work. “Do I have to sign anything?”
“You do not, you merely give me your fear.”
“I…” Ty could feel sweat prickling along the back of his neck; he suddenly couldn’t breathe in this stuffy attic. “I need to know how this works. How can you get me selected?”
The man stroked his hand down his jacket sleeve. “You must understand that small causes can have large effects.” He gently lifted a butterfly away, its black wings fluttering like torn silk. “A butterfly flaps its wings, and the course of history changes. Your selection, Mr. Tymon, is just a matter of ensuring that the butterfly flaps in the correct place.”
He flicked his finger and the creature flew briefly before it dissolved in a shower of inky droplets. The specks hung in the air a moment, then fell, fading to nothing before they hit the blotter.
Ty stared, his heart hammering. He did not feel comfortable with the bargain he was making. He tried to relax, determined to take control of the conversation.
“And you?” he demanded. “What do you get out of it? Why do you care what I’m scared of?”
“I will have your fear, it will be mine to enjoy. I will be able to taste it when you dream your worst nightmares.”
Ty’s eyes narrowed. “How? And why do you want to?”
The clerk smiled slightly and folded his fingers together. “The nature of the contract means I will know when you have bad dreams. As for why… you have watched horror films, Mr. Tymon. You know how delightful it can be to watch someone else’s fear, to see their eyes widen or fill with tears. To see them made vulnerable by their own thoughts.
“I am, if you like, a connoisseur of terror. I enjoy a wider range of fears and responses than are found in the average movie.”
As he spoke, his smile widened, and Ty began to wonder if he saw the glint of pointed teeth. Had the Inventoryman’s pale cheeks always had lines that gave the faintest hint of scales?
Ty drew back instinctively, repelled by the sibilant voice, and by the thin fingers moving as if caressing fear itself. The air above the desk seemed grey and filmy, and he knew he did not want to pass any part of himself over to this Inventoryman.
He stood up in a hurry, the black chair scraping behind him.
“Nope. No, thanks. I’ve changed my mind.” He turned toward the door.
“If you are sure, Mr. Tymon. If you want to wait for the next World Cup and hope.”
Ty stopped, his hands clenched by his sides.
The voice continued, calm and relentless. “In four years, you will not play as well as you do now. Four years older, four years more tired, less able to recover.”
Everything the man said was true.
“You’ll be pushed aside by the newer recruits, perhaps just grateful for a place at a decent club.”
Ty knew that realistically this was it. He’d been training since he was seven years old and turned professional at twenty-one. But he’d been passed over so many times and to play in the World Cup, just once, had been all he’d wanted as long as he could remember. If this was his final chance at that dream, he couldn’t just give it up. It had to be worth knowing this weird guy was getting off on his occasional nightmares.
“All right. I agree.”
“Excellent. I shall add your fear to my inventory.”
The Inventoryman stood up and swung open one of the cabinet’s thick doors. Inside was a wall of tiny drawers, each with a square brass handle. He ran his fingers along a row then slowly down, apparently selecting a drawer.
He chose a handle, his thumb caressing the edge before pulling it out and laying it on the desk. The drawer was very long and narrow, and divided into square sections that each held a token—Ty saw silver balls, golden dice, rough cubes and prisms of crystal. One section sat empty, and the man held out his hand.
“Your fear, please?”
Ty drew in a careful breath and relaxed his hunched shoulders. He’d practiced his answer in the mirror until he felt it was convincing. “Rats. Filthy rats, running over my face.”
The Inventoryman stepped out from behind his desk, a rusty iron crowbar in his hand. Ty stared: where had that come from? He was still staring, bewildered, when the smaller man swung the bar hard against the side of his knee.
Streaks of white-hot agony ran up his leg, and he sank to the floor trying hard not to scream, trying to breathe. He rocked from side to side, his hands around his knee as if he could hold it together. He felt the Inventoryman’s dry hand on the back of his neck, and almost heard the slowness that enveloped him.
“Do you think,” hissed the Inventoryman in his ear, “that I don’t know fear?” Ty felt the man’s cheek against his own, cold and leathery. “Did you think you could cheat me?”
Ty tried to pull his face away, but his muscles wouldn’t respond. Under the weight of the man’s grip his body was leaden, even the pain in his knee was barely noticeable anymore.
Time started again as the Inventoryman stepped abruptly away from him. “Your worst fear, Mr. Tymon, has always been injury to your legs.” Ty rolled his head around to look up at the man behind the desk, who now held an irregular, faceted lump of metal.
“This is your fear,” said the Inventoryman, holding it up for Ty to see. His thin tongue flickered over his lips as he spoke; he dropped the charm into the drawer and slotted it back into the cabinet. “You may leave. Your selection will be announced on Monday.”
Ty looked around him as feeling returned to his body. There was no sign of the rusted bar and, although he was curled on the floor and his face was wet with tears, there seemed to be no damage to his leg. He scrambled to his feet, bumping the stupid little table and hearing the papery rattle of the flowers hitting the floor, but wrenched at the door handle without looking back.
He ran blindly down the road, barging past shoppers and taking turns at random. Eventually he stopped, caught his breath, walked into a pub and began ordering whisky.
By Monday morning, the hangover had just about worn off and Ty’s claim of food poisoning seemed generally accepted. The coach called a few of them in for a long chat, and Ty learned that a revolutionary new strategy based around tactical flexibility, suitability, and a broad experience base had earned him a place in the squad.
Fortunately, the lads seemed happy to assume that his low-key response was another side-effect of the salmonella. He assured them he was delighted. He assured himself, over and over, that he was delighted. As soon as his stomach felt less delicate, he’d be stoked.
A couple of weeks later, Ty came out of a training session feeling like he was king of the world. He’d nailed it, nailed the pool drill that afternoon, and was more on top of his game than he’d been in years. His selection was just a result of his own hard graft: no magic required, and he could forget about that pervert in the asset management building.
He headed home, cooked his dinner and messed about online for a while before turning in for an early night. Not long afterward the smoke came creeping under his door and began to wrap itself around him. He tried to ignore it for a while, but soon it was impossible even to see the other end of the bed; he opened the window and crawled out along the narrow ledge. Could he make it to the roof of the neighboring building? It seemed far too far to jump.
He crouched down and made the leap, flying so easily through the air that he overshot and went skidding along the roof toward the safety rail. As he collided, the metal snapped, bending his legs at a hideous angle and pitching him over into the darkness. All the air rushed from his lungs as he heard the grating of his bones and felt himself falling. His scream turned into a ragged gasp and he pushed his pillows away from his face.
He flexed his legs under the duvet, trying to shake off the dream and bring himself back into reality. The lurch of his knees buckling and the gut-wrenching drop toward the ground were still too real, more real than the room around him. He tried to concentrate on the duvet he gripped, on the flash of the digital clock: mundane, normal things. But instead, he slid again into that sickening plummet, and behind it all, he felt the Inventoryman.
He knew there was no one there; he was alone in his room. But he could see the narrow face, now gray and scored with deep lines. The eyes were closed to dark slits and he felt, rather than heard, a soft groan escape from the wet lips.
Ty almost exploded out of the bed, turning on the lamp and grabbing his dressing gown. He stared around the room, widening his eyes as if that would get light into his brain more quickly. He strode through the flat, slapping every light switch he passed, and grabbed a bottle from the fridge. The chilled water chased away the last cloying remnant of the nightmare, leaving him feeling foolish in his kitchen at 3 a.m. He felt even more stupid checking every room before he went back to bed, but did it anyway.
In the morning sunshine, Ty was able to laugh at himself. Everyone had an occasional nightmare—no need to get worked up about it. But a couple of nights later when he woke again, slimy with sweat and still trying to kick free of the motorbike that dragged him down the highway of his dream, it didn’t seem so funny. Nor did it the next night.
Feeling ragged after circuit training, he tried to make up with a power nap. He felt his body relax into sleep, and he was suspended in a warm bliss until his bones began to splinter and a scream welled out of him.
“Bloody hell, Ty, I thought there was a murder going on in here!”
He was almost grateful for the mocking laughter of his teammate, and clung to it as he clawed himself back to wakefulness.
By the end of the week, he was a wreck, shaking and twitching. His body ached, and his scalp itched with tiredness, but he was afraid to go to sleep.
As he blundered through the training, his body heavy and clumsy, he heard the whispers.
“What’s with Ty?”
“Is he losing it?”
The coach picked up on it pretty quickly, and sent Ty off to the doctor, who diagnosed stress. Ty listened to the advice on relaxation techniques, but through the fog that clouded his brain, he knew nothing would make any difference.
To his surprise, no one suggested he should be dropped from the squad. He was useless on the pitch, and he knew it. As he fumbled the ball once again, knowing he was letting the lads down, he decided miserably that he had to give up on his last chance to play for England.
He didn’t make an appointment this time, he just barged up the asset management stairs and shoved the broom cupboard door open. The Inventoryman looked up with a bland expression.
“Excuse me?” The Inventoryman’s face was all bank clerk again: polite, neutral, poised to deal with a difficult customer. It looked nothing like the gray mask Ty had seen repeatedly in his sleep, but somehow it was the same.
“Stop sending these dreams. The deal was that you’d know when I had a nightmare, not that you’d make me have them every night.”
“Mr. Tymon, I do not send dreams. Your dreams are your own, and no harm can come to you in them.”
“Really? Every time I go to sleep?” Ty dropped his hands heavily onto the desk. “Before I spoke to you, I hadn’t had more than five nightmares in the past five years.”
The Inventoryman spread his hands. “Your own subconscious, Mr. Tymon. I have no power to change others’ dreams.” His manner remained mild, almost weak, but he did not flinch away when the larger man leaned closer, arms shaking with fury.
“I don’t believe you,” Ty growled.
The Inventoryman straightened the blotter on his desk, a fractional movement to align it more perfectly with the edge. Eventually he shook his head. “But I am afraid it is true. Perhaps a bad dream scares you, makes you more susceptible to the next. By worrying, you bring about further dreams. There is no need for me to seek out ways to cause them.”
His face remained passive but his eyes flashed, letting Ty see that he had noted and enjoyed every nightmare. Ty, stomach already churning angrily, felt suddenly that he might throw up.
“Stop it. I want out. Give me the thing back, and let the squad drop me.”
“Oh, no. We made an exchange, and that is that. Your fear will remain in my inventory.”
The Inventoryman stood up as if the matter were closed and the conversation over. Usually Ty hated the way his size made him seem threatening, but he raised his fists, determined to rattle this parasite out of his indifference. The Inventoryman barely blinked, and suddenly in his hand again was that iron bar.
Ty turned immediately to leave, heart racing, determined that this jerk would not make him grovel on the floor again. He shoved past the ornamental table, deliberately kicking it over, and slammed the door back against the wall as he strode out.
He ran down the steps, shoulder bouncing off the wall as the staircase turned. As he blundered down the last flight, a small window rattled in the wind, and he felt an unreasoning urge to put his fist through it.
“Get it together, Ty,” he muttered as he stuffed his hands into his pockets and left the building.
He jogged home, trying to calm the thoughts racing around his head. He made toasted sandwiches for lunch, then abandoned them half-eaten. He read through the training schedule for the following day, his mind wandering over distances and weights. He put down the schedule, then picked it up again, losing interest then forcing himself to try to think through the exercises. He tried firing up the console to shoot some aliens. He flicked on a film he’d been looking forward to, but the plot ground tediously and he ended up walking up and down his living room.
“C’mon, Ty. Think. Relax. You’re fine. Ten minutes with the medicine ball. Ten minutes of…”
He stared at the TV, trying to remember why the hero was in a helicopter.
“Focus! Tomorrow: medicine ball, then push-ups, then…”
He stared at his hands, unsure what he was talking about.
By early evening, he was ready to tear out his hair. His eyes felt gritty and weird, and he had to sleep. He lay down on the sofa then jerked back upright, certain the Inventoryman was watching him.
He retreated to the basement and sat at the rowing machine, twisted it to a gentle setting, and began to pull. He concentrated on the rhythm, on his own breath, trying to keep everything easy, and eventually found his mind beginning to settle. The challenge became just to keep going: don’t think, don’t worry, don’t imagine. Just keep on rowing. How long had he been down here? It didn’t matter.
Calmed by the smooth forward-and-back of the machine, he felt an idea settle around him. He knew it was risky, knew that he wasn’t making rational decisions. But strung out, and exhausted, he clutched at any course of action.
Ty slipped down the side of the asset management building, dragging one of the battered black and green bins behind him. He vaulted up onto it, and levered open the window he’d noticed earlier. It was small, and he had to pull himself up to get level with it then squeeze his shoulders through the gap. He hung, briefly, with the window frame around his chest and the broken latch digging into his ribs. He heaved his weight up, feeling the latch rip his shirt and gouge his side, and for a horrifying moment, he thought he was stuck. Shoving at the frame in panic, he squirmed himself through the window, and then tumbled headlong onto the stairs. He broke his fall with his arms and lay, panting, on the rough carpet.
He’d planned to sneak quietly up to the top floor, but there was no point after that crash landing. Instead, dragging himself upright, he walked normally up the staircase. He tried the small, white door to assess how strong the lock was, and almost laughed when it opened immediately.
Ty had half-expected to find the Inventoryman waiting for him, but there was no one there, and he swung open the cabinet door. The light coming through the window was enough to see and he drew out the drawer he thought he remembered.
His hands shook as he turned it to the light. Gold dice, crystal, rock, was this the right one? Yes, that irregular gray token was surely his fear. Ty emptied the drawer onto the desk, picking up his own fear and then staring uncertainty at the others. Should he take them, too? Perhaps free other people from the Inventoryman?
“Oh, Mr. Tymon.” The soft voice sounded very close behind him, and Ty froze, gripping his fear so hard against his chest that the edges cut into his hand. “Mr. Tymon, did the butterfly teach you nothing?”
The Inventoryman brushed past and pulled drawer after drawer from the cabinet, emptying the little shapes and charms onto the desk. “These things aren’t real. They’re symbols. None of this is real.”
The Inventoryman scooped the fears into his hands. “They mean nothing.”
Ty felt an odd, slippery sensation in his hand and saw a blob of molten metal running down his wrist. The Inventoryman splayed his fingers, and a glittering shower of silver and gold shapes drummed onto the desk. They continued pouring from his hands, far more than could possibly be held there, and began to spill over the edge of the table and onto the floor in drifts.
“You gave me your fear,” continued the voice calmly. “There is no way to take it back. You are a slave to your fear, and it will always be mine.”
Ty felt the torrent of fears begin to weigh his feet to the floor. He staggered backward, scrabbling over the shifting surface. He slipped and slid, his ankles twisting under him as he struggled for the door. He fell awkwardly, taking the flimsy table down with him. As he lurched to his feet, trained muscles powering him toward the door, the dried flowers disappeared under the layers of trinkets.
He knew as he reached the door handle that it wasn’t real. Just as he knew that the Inventoryman in his dreams posed no physical threat. But reality didn’t matter. He couldn’t face another night waiting for that gray face to leer at his pain.
He turned back toward the Inventoryman, who still smiled blandly as the tokens cascaded across his desk.
Ty looked at the stairs and gritted his teeth. “You will not see another one of my dreams.”
The Inventoryman laughed, and the sound echoed around the building. “Oh, but I will, so long as you continue to be afraid.”
“Exactly!” yelled Ty, exulting in his own power. “And what’s the only thing you can’t be afraid of? Something that’s already happened.”
He placed one hand on the banister, vaulted over it, and plummeted down the stairwell.
Elizabeth Guilt reads and writes stories to make her daily commute on the London Underground more enjoyable. She has fiction published, or upcoming, in Luna Station Quarterly, Straylight Literary Magazine, and Ash Tales. You can find her at her website.