The Nothing – A Inspirational Short Story by Sam Magmin – Reedsy Prompts
With every footfall echoing through the vacant forest, Milo became more and more aware of the Nothing. The feeling crawling down his spine told him he must be being chased- but there was not a sound nearby nor a person in sight. His skin crawled with certainty nonetheless; he was being pursued. His footsteps sang alone in the evening air as he sprinted between trees. It was almost worse, this quiet. It would’ve been easier if he could hear a threat behind him, easier if he could tell how close his life was to ending. Now, though, he heard nothing. The Nothing, as he had become fond of calling it. His therapist seemed to think that there was power in naming his demons, but he felt as powerless as ever.
Although, that wasn’t entirely true. Running seemed to help. Milo tried to frame it as a coping skill rather than the cowardly escape it felt like. The winter breeze caressed his face, the cooler parts where his tears ran smarting in the chill. He counted his steps, up to ten, down to one and back again. His muscles burned and his feet ached, but he ran until he could no longer. Then, he set course and ran home.
The sun was barely peeking over the horizon by the time he let himself into his home. The hypervigilance had faded, at least for now. At first, he had thought that running would make it worse. That it would affirm to his broken brain that there was still something to run from. Over time, though, he’d begun to compare it to giving birth. His mother had always said that it was better when she was pushing- that although the pain was worse she’d had a purpose. That was what running was like to Milo. Though his pain could be unbearable, the running gave him a place to put that pain. It was a start, at least. He could hear his therapist’s voice in his head at times like these, affirming his choices in running to cope instead of more harmful endeavors. It meant a lot to him, her approval.
The day didn’t end up having much in the way of peace in store for Milo. Around lunchtime, he felt the Nothing creeping up on him again. It started slow, as it tended to. He felt as though he was being watched in his own kitchen, like at any moment he would feel a hand firmly closing on his shoulder. He did his breathing exercises, reminded himself of where he was and what time it was, and even situated himself in a corner so that he could see the whole room. Some days that was enough; but it seemed as though today was not some days. The Nothing crept up his spine and diffused into his fingertips. He began to fidget in place as the discomfort grew in his bones.
Nobody had told him that post-traumatic stress could manifest like this. He’d thought that it was all flashbacks and anxiety before it had happened to him. It made sense, though, that his body held more than his mind did. And now, it was restless.
Allowing himself to run was like letting a stallion free of its lead. Milo started out sprinting as fast as he could, allowing his harsh breaths and steady footfalls to drown it all out. The woods welcomed him like an old friend, his feet seeking out their well-worn path of their own accord. When he could continue at full speed no longer, he slowed to a jog and tuned back into the world around him. That confrontation of reality was his least favorite part, but it was the part that kept his running a coping skill rather than self-medication. His initial blind sprint had helped somewhat, and the Nothing wasn’t quite as obtrusive as it had been before. He noticed the trees and their branches stretching up into the afternoon sky, and he drew his attention to how the leaves underfoot crunched and crackled with each step.
Milo did everything he could to weave the Nothing into something. He imagined the uncomfortable feeling diffusing from his skin into the air around him, soaking into the trees and ground. He imagined it gathering under his feet, more and more left behind with each step. Even after all these years, he was surprised when it worked. The discomfort faded from his spine as he slowed to a comfortable walk. The trip home was beautiful, all of the landscape he’d sprinted madly through now under his observation. There were abandoned bird nests in every other tree, waiting patiently for spring. The world was at its least intense now, all potential energy holding on for snowmelt. The air was cold, just enough to ground Milo in this moment. Every moment was precious, but it was ones like these that remained his favorites. In the aftermath of the Nothing he felt calm and in control; his ecosystem recovering itself after being ravaged by flames.
Kindness to oneself was never a skill that Milo had been very good at. Over time, he’d learned to give himself space and time to work through the painful parts of his life. Still, he couldn’t help but feel cowardly for running away each time the Nothing got too intense.
“You know, Milo, it’s not running away if you always turn back and confront the feeling. It’s okay to put some space between you and that fear.” His therapist’s voice came to him unbidden.
He knew that- he knew that he knew that. It’s one thing for his brain to know, and another for him to believe it. He had faith that he was making progress, though. This time three years ago he would have chosen a much less healthy coping skill and had not one ounce of self-reflection about it. Improvement; that’s what life is all about. He was taking baby steps in the direction of the life he wanted. Even those baby steps had brought him further than he’d ever thought they would! He could baby step his way through this, he was sure of it.