It really was a hard thing to do, not breathing. Holden could manage to avoid it if he focused but then his mind would wander and he would forget that he was trying not to breathe. Each time he forgot he would inhale out of habit or the occasional vague fear that he really did still need to breath. That was when the smell would hit him and he’d be off coughing again which would also make him stumble because their pace had yet to slow. Holden was still being pulled along the hallway by the bushy-mustached man, as he called him since he hadn’t been supplied a name yet. Whoever he was, the bushy-mustached man just kept walking and dragging Holden along with him. Gradually he got better at not breathing. To help his mind get over its fear of suffocating he began counting steps.
He was still nervous at thirty. People could hold their breath that long, it wasn’t proof that he didn’t need oxygen anymore. His brain wasn’t convinced when a hundred and three steps passed. At around three hundred and seven Holden finally began to relax. His six hundred and twenty-fourth step was marked by the tenseness in his shoulders easing. One thousand eight hundred and thirty-five steps in without suffocating ended the rest of his anxiety. To have gone that long without breathing definitely meant that he was dead. With that mystery solved he took the time to look around himself. Holden was startled to realize that the hallway had changed.
The grey paint was no longer peeling off the walls. It still looked a bit worn in places but unlike before it was serviceable. The floorboards weren’t rotted with roots pushing through them. They even appeared to have been swept, unlike Holden’s poor apartment. As his life had spiraled worse and worse, so had his housekeeping skills. He just couldn’t seem to gather up the energy to do something about the trash and dust. If he was honest with himself, the clutter and refuse filling his space was deliberate. An outer indication of how he felt on the inside, not that anyone had noticed. The only person that ever visited him had been his sister but they hadn’t had time to get together in so long. At the end of every conversation, saying they would hang out another time. Now they never would.
“You’re sinking again. Try to keep up with me. We’re almost there.”
The bushy mustached man hadn’t said anything in so long Holden actually jumped at the sound of his voice. He was sinking? That made no sense but nothing about this situation made sense so he let the comment slide. As apathetic as he had become, Holden supposed it was about time for him to ask some questions. The catch to that was, of course, the smell. The hallway had changed though, perhaps the smell was gone as well? Holden decided to take a chance. If the smell was still there then he would have to either get used to it or wait for the air to clear, if it ever did. Bracing himself, he took a deep breath and was shocked. The smell was gone!
“What happened to the smell?”
They were the first words Holden had spoken to the bushy-mustached man, who also paused for the first time. Normally it would have been a relief to take a break, they had been walking for quite a while, but he wasn’t even tired. Perhaps that was another benefit to being dead? Or would that be a benefit to no longer needing to breathe? Not becoming winded?
“You’re recovering quickly. We’ve moved to a different section of the hall. How are you feeling?”
Honestly, he felt better than he had in years. He was anxious to discover what his new situation was but so far everything was an improvement to the life he had left behind. An echo of his sister’s voice nagged at him from the back of his mind though, why did you leave? His throat began to close with tears but the firm grip on his hand and sharp jerk brought his attention back to the bushy-mustached man.
“I told you before, none of that. No more sinking.”
“What do mean, sinking?”
The man sighed and his free hand reached up to stroke his mustache. He looked at Holden with a thoughtful expression before shaking his head. “You’re not ready to hear it yet. You only just woke up. I don’t suppose you’ll be ready for quite a while still. Not after being under for that long.”
Holden’s stomach twisted at not only the bushy-mustached man’s words but how his expression changed. After being under for that long? What did that mean? He had a very bad feeling that was quickly becoming worse. He was dead, weren’t things supposed to be easier now? He needed answers badly if only to assuage his growing panic, and this was the only person he had met so far. Unfortunately, the man was obviously hesitant at explaining. Even though he felt on the verge of a full blown panic attack, out of habit he opened his mouth to tell the man that it was okay. He could wait. There was no point in pushing people after all. What he ended up saying was not that.
“Please tell me.”
Where had that come from? He felt shocked at his own actions then a deeper sense of trepidation and dread. People didn’t like to be pushed and he hated confrontations. Now he would have to smooth things over or deal with an angry, uncooperative man. Or worse. The man could just leave him here. Alone. With no idea what to do, where he was, what he should be doing, or what to expect. When he had come up with his plan it was with the certainty that anything had to be better than the sham existence he had been leading. Now he was terrified that he had been wrong and that now he was going to find out exactly how wrong.
“So you do have a backbone! Excellent, I was beginning to worry that I had been wrong about you. You may be ready after all. Tell me what you remember and we’ll go from there.”
Approval? For something he had done? Holden stared at the bushy-mustached man in shock. He couldn’t even remember the last time anyone had given him praise for standing his ground. Usually, they steamrolled right over him or ignored him as if he hadn’t said anything at all. Even those who tried to encourage him to stand up for himself only did it when he followed their suggestions. Whenever he had attempted to deviate to something he chose that encouragement quickly changed to disappointment or anger. This man was listening to him, though. He was even smiling at Holden! Bit by bit his dread began to fade.
“Well. I remember my bathroom…”