How to be afraid, by Stephanie Erdman Forsythe

As we’re laying out issue five, here’s a sneak peak from one of the many fine poets in the next issue of Retirement Plan.

Step one: The lizard brain sends signals to the adrenal glands, superlatives of adrenaline. Run through hero fantasies; being the one where the smoke pools, where the flames climb. The one who helps.

Step two: Odd despair. Like the desert island fantasy, childhood drills have not prepared for the real thing. Another placebo fed to keep you functional. In fantasy, one can always prepare: list what to be marooned with. In the drills, there is ready access to towels and water—to buy time—to wait for rescue. There is always rescue in the drills.

Step three: Mourn those things you should have. Towels, water, the ability to open the door, stay low, or break a window. The humor of a 20-floor drop.

Step four: Hopelessness.

Step five: Relax. When a person nears death, time dilates. Like falling into a blackhole. You have all the time in the world.

Step six: Gratitude. There are many worse ways to die. Smoke inhalation is quick; like drowning, you’ll lose consciousness first, assuming you avoid burning. Even that has a poetic equilibrium to it.

Step seven: Remember, acceptance is a matter of choice.

Step eight: Arrange yourself, roughly, as you wish to be found—keep in mind the contracture of the major muscle groups in extreme heat, though the bone won’t splinter as some of the Pompeiians’. Face the outside wall to deflect the bare-toothed grimace common to victims. Take care to best preserve your good organs. They won’t be able to harvest your lungs, corneas, or much of your skin.

Step nine: Breathe deeply. Unless you want to suffer.

Step ten: Wait for rictus; your body held still without taxing your muscles. This could be a womb. You will be found in the same form as the monks self-mummified and deep in caves. Try to remember the Tibetan chants and ignore the animal panic.

From the time you were born, this day was coming—the cycle will restart.

Step eleven: Panic while you still can. Who will feed the birds, help them evolve into urban scavengers? Who will keep the neighborhood cats out of the street? Of course, there is guilt. You never really got your life together, did you; content with fulfilled expectations. Pleased never to have broken a bone. To wear tattoos belonging to alternate selves snuffed willfully. Think about all the places you’ve written your name and how quickly the individual surfaces erode. Is it comfort to know that some will mourn?

Step twelve: Embrace that there is no one waiting for you; the light and the tunnel are simply synapses, starved of oxygen, tripping, igniting centers of the brain programmed for epiphany.

There is no Pantone name for the shade of black opening for you.

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