2. Breathe

Just when I thought my lungs were about to explode, my chest relaxed and air rushed in. My gasps sounded like a baby seal calling for its mother.

The girl stood up and backed away, obviously freaked out by me.

I raised a hand, trying to say I was okay. She seemed to understand and looked over to where the others were gathering and started edging towards them. I didn’t blame her for not wanting to be left looking after the retarded kid.

Still shaken and breathing hard I got to my feet. I hadn’t had a panic attack since I was twelve. For most people, you feel scared, nervous, shy, you eventually get over it. You tell yourself to stop being silly, and you take the plunge. Learning to swim, asking a girl out, killing a spider—whatever it is, if you can overcome the fear in your mind, you can do it.

That doesn’t work if no matter how much you convince your brain to play ball, your body says, “Fuck you,” and shuts itself down, leaving you flopping around like a spaz.

It’s the reason my life turned out the way it did. The best way to avoid embarrassing myself was to avoid situations that might trigger me. Which meant avoiding people in general. Not great, but manageable. And suddenly I’m stuck with a bunch of strangers in a place, judging by that thing I saw, that isn’t even—

“Hey guys, listen up.”

The speaker was a tall, blond guy. Ripped, good-looking, your basic alpha male. He was wearing a tee shirt for a band so cool I’d never heard of them, and knee-length shorts. He looked ready for a trip to the beach and maybe a little surfing. Girls and guys alike huddled around him.

“Obviously we aren’t in Kansas any more.”

I wouldn’t have put it in quite such a cliched way, but he wasn’t wrong. Judging by the weird creature I saw earlier, we weren’t even on Planet Earth anymore.

“It’s pretty clear none of us knows what’s going on, but the important thing is to stay calm. There doesn’t appear to be any immediate danger so sit tight and a few of us will scope out the surroundings, see if we can get our bearings. That cool with everyone?”

A general murmur of assent spread through the crowd, but I expect they would have agreed to form a circle and do the hokey-pokey if Golden Boy had asked them to. By the way, I wasn’t jealous or resentful of his ability to wow with a smile and wink. Good for him. I’d long ago given up on any hope of that kind of popularity, and if he could get us out of this place, go, go, Team Golden Boy.

“And, girls,” said a guy who had taken up position on Golden Boy’s shoulder, “any of you feeling scared, come see me. I’ll make you feel safe.” He was a black guy with a shaved head and a dazzling smile, wearing a tight vest that showed off his incredibly muscular arms.

“Me first,” said a female voice in the crowd, to much tittering.

“Hey, shouldn’t we start a fire or something? In case they send out search parties. The smoke will be seen from the air.”

Rather than getting on with Golden Boy’s plan, suddenly everyone wanted to make a suggestion based on an episode of Bear Grylls they half remembered watching or something equally inane. They seemed to have totally forgotten about the strange noises we’d heard. Having seen the weird fairy creature, I suspected it wasn’t just a couple of stray dogs out there. The quicker we found a path or track leading somewhere safe, the better.

Once I got my breath back, I moved closer to the trees, trying to see through the gloomy gaps between gnarly tree trunks. Which was when I saw the group of men headed in our direction, dressed in armour and carrying swords.

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