No Expectations

‘No expectations!’ Glory promised me, repeating it on every video of her dancercise channel. ‘I don’t need to ask you to come back! I know you will!’


Horror


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NO EXPECTATIONS

Dancercise videos… It was something I’d considered trying a few times. Not just during the pandemic. The idea had popped into my head before then. I’d never gotten around to it though. Jumping around in my living room with the hopes of shedding a few pounds and feeling healthier was a great prospect. What stopped me back then was that I was an awful dancer, and really hadn’t high hopes I’d be able to follow the instructor.

Then the pandemic hit, and crisis and lockdown took a toll on both my physical and mental health.

‘Try one, Amy!’ my friend, Danielle, encouraged me over the phone. ‘We’re stuck inside anyway, might as well get a bit of exercise in! And no one’s looking at you! It’s fine to suck!’

Easy for her to say. Danielle had never had my astronomical level of insecurity nor my near absent level of motivation. And I saw no point in having to confront that… with a dancercise video.

I stuck to that perspective for another few days. Until an afternoon where my anxiety hit fever pitch.

If you’ve never had bad anxiety… I’ve heard people describe it as that feeling you get when you trip and see the pavement racing up towards you. For me, it feels like there’s a black, evil beast swollen inside my chest, writhing and fighting to tear me up from the very inside. And it just stays there. Constant.

‘Try some exercise,’ my therapist suggests in a video session. ‘Go out and take a walk. Do your breathing exercises as you walk.’

But outside was beyond what had been becoming my safe zone. And that seemed more like a way to make my anxiety worse, not better.

I put off trying exercise until, one afternoon, I just couldn’t take it any longer.

My meeting ended, and my mask of being fine crumbled. I sat there, in my office chair, sobbing my bloody heart out; my hands shaking badly, my fingers starting to tingle.

It was too much – way too much! I knew I had to do something – something other than just put on an appearance of being fine and dandy and get on with my work-from-home.

So I flicked on my TV, found the YouTube app, and typed in the word “Dancercise”.

There were so many options. Bollywood dancing ones, ones with peppy-looking women in boob-tubes, intense workouts I doubted I could manage, ones that were a bit more like musical theatre…

To me, sitting there still wiping tears off my cheeks… They all looked too bright and cheerful, or too serious, or intimidatingly difficult.

And then I found one put up by a channel called “No Expectations”. The thumbnail of the video, titled “Let it all out for your mental and physical health! Day 1 – Let’s Dance!” featured a beautiful smiling woman. She looked kind and understanding, and I knew, from her opening introduction, that if there was any dancercise video for me, it was this one.

‘Hey wonderful person!’ the beautiful woman said to the camera, sounding sincere. ‘And welcome to my channel! I’m Glory, and this is the first video of a series I want to do for everyone out there having a rough time, for whatever reason.

‘Sometimes it can be really hard to get out of your shell – to just let it all out, forget about the crap for a moment, and enjoy moving. But doing so is so helpful! It’s helped me so much, I can’t even tell you! And I really want to help create a safe space, there in whatever room you’re watching this in, where you can connect with that.

‘There’s no expectations here! The whole point is to just dance like a loon – and enjoy it! It doesn’t matter how you dance, it doesn’t matter if you think you suck! I suck at it!’ she said emphatically, looking bright and caring. ‘So dance like a sucky loon with me! Remember, only I’m watching!’ she laughed. ‘And I’ll be looking sillier than you!

‘So, come on, get up!’ Glory looked into the camera, making me feel like she was gazing straight at me. ‘Take your socks off, and let your hair down! Seriously,’ she assured me, smiling, ‘this isn’t some hippy stuff – it just feels so much better if you can swing your hair around and feel the floor beneath your feet!’

The woman was a good advertisement for her own medicine, I thought. It wasn’t just that she looked as fit and beautiful as I wanted to. It was that she glowed with an easy happiness I craved. If I could get just a bit of that…

Glory was encouraging me to get up again. So I got up. I took off my socks, and I pulled out my hair tie. If this had a chance of working, yeah, I’d try it.

‘We’re going to start off with a warm up one!’ Glory announced, lining up a song on her phone. ‘And end on a real cracker! I think today…’ she flashed a smile up at the camera, ‘we’ll do 80s hits, to kick us off! Every video we’ll do two songs – and if you have any requests, put them in the comments!’

Copperhead Road, by Steve Earle, was Glory’s “warm up” song. She laughed as it started playing, put her phone aside, and tucked her thumbs into her pockets. With a grin, she suggested we do a bit of a square-dance style – ‘Just mimic what you’ve seen on TV if you’ve never done it yourself!’ she hooted, kicking her legs around and stomping this way and that. ‘I certainly haven’t!’

Glory was right, she wasn’t any kind of trained dancer. It was obvious this was nothing she’d prepared. But what she lacked in choreography, she made up in enthusiasm and comfort in her own skin. And it did make me feel like I wasn’t the lone looser who couldn’t follow the steps.

Glory’s aim didn’t seem to be to teach me a dance. All she was trying to do was to get me to enjoy it.

‘Get ready!’ Glory said, an excited smile spreading on her face, as she crouched, prepared for something. The song gave a loud and rapid salvo of guitar strums Glory was ready for. She pounded her feet into the ground, beaming, then swung off into glorious kicks and twirls – half of which she stumbled out of, laughing at herself and calling for me to get my bum moving to the music, doing so herself and showing me.

It looked fun. And, as the video went on, it was fun. I actually started to forget that dark beast in my chest, and, more than that, it was like I became aware of a heavy weight that had been on my shoulders only as it started to lift.

I felt lighter. I started to feel freer. I wanted to laugh with Glory. Spin with Glory. Enjoy the music and my terrible dancing with her.

And she wanted to enjoy it with me. Called out to me as she danced, encouraging me to be like her: happy and free.

‘Always makes me want to dance, this one!’ Glory said, getting ready to reveal her “cracker” second song. She grinned at me. ‘What a Feeling!’ she announced, as the first strains of Irene Cara’s song played.

I’d forgotten about this song. Forgotten how carefree and motivational it was. Hearing it come on was like being reminded of a far easier time in my life, and I grinned with Glory.

‘Swing your hair around!’ Glory called, laughing joyfully. ‘Get your whole spine moving!’

I swung my hair; I moved my spine; I bounced around, my feet pattering on my living room floor, feeling like I was a star dancer in a movie – Glory telling me I was. Telling me I was gorgeous and fantastic, and that I was the brilliant star in my own story.

And then it all got a bit too much – a bit too emotional. And Glory seemed to know that. The moment the first tingle of renewed tears found me, she called out, ‘It’s okay to be emotional! Let it all out! It’s moving the spine – it unlocks your emotions – and let it happen! Cry, scream, laugh, rage at the world – do it all!’

So I did. Feeling more understood than I had by anyone else, I sobbed as I bounced and swung; sang along with rage and sadness and joy all in one. Belted the song out to my living room, alone, safe, and understood in here with the brilliant Glory.

I pumped my fist in the air as the song sung out, copying the enthusiastic fist pumping Glory was doing. And then I tumbled, panting, onto the couch as Glory applauded my hard work.

‘Well done!’ Glory congratulated. ‘Oh well done! That was all you! That way you feel now – that’s testament to your own hard work! You let it all out, you got into it – and sometimes that’s so hard for us to do! Feel proud – recover and enjoy it!

‘There will be another video up for you to watch tomorrow!’ she went on, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the blank room she’d danced in. ‘I’ll be releasing one every day. For me, doing this once a day was a godsend for my mental and physical health, so that’s my recommendation – just based on personal experience!’ she added conscientiously. ‘I’m no therapist or scientist!

‘But it is easier to stick with it and start to feel better if you do it at least once a day. You always have to work harder to get back into something if you break the flow. Though,’ Glory smiled warmly, sinking, limber, into her cross-legged seat, ‘if you made it this far, I know you’ll be back! It’s fun, isn’t it?’ she chuckled. ‘I don’t need to expect to see you tomorrow, I know you’ll be here!’

I absolutely would. The way I felt now was… like the calm after a perfect catharsis. I avoided evaluating just how anxious I was currently feeling, how weighed down by black doom, just in case that brought the anxiety slamming back. Instead, I revelled in the feeling of feeling free from the trap of doom my mind had had me in day after day – feeling about a thousand times lighter.

Glory was an absolute genius. As the video ended, I grabbed the remote and scrolled down through the comments, looking for companions in my view that Glory was probably the most glorious person on the planet.

They were there, tonnes of them. The video was hugely popular.

“Wow! This was just what I needed! It’s been a shocking year for me and my family, and I just have to say: you get it Glory! You are the most beautiful and fantastic person I’ve ever encountered! Thank you so much for this! I’ll see you tomorrow!”

“This is humanity in these messed up times – just doing something so pure for others. Glory, you found me in my living room during one of the hardest moments of my life, both my parents dead within one week from Covid. I needed you so much, and you helped me like no one else could.”

“I’ve never been able to follow an exercise video until now, and now I’m crying on the floor, just so happy I found this. It was more than just exercise. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I feel like I can enjoy life. You reached me big time, Glory, and I love you for it!”

For me, the whole thing seemed like overwhelming humanity, like I’d stumbled upon this glorious treasure trove of human compassion, laid out in a YouTube video and comments. How deeply Glory had reached so many people; how everyone was responding to each other’s comments with generosity and support… It was something so beautiful and perfect my eyes welled up all over again.

Glory had responded to comment after comment, and they weren’t copy-paste jobs either. It must have taken her countless hours, responding to so many people. She even responded to the few shitty comments – those disappointing ones you expect on any YouTube video. And she was nice and gentle about it, even when the commenter was calling her an “evil scammer” or a “bitch of a leech preying on vulnerable people”. I thought even more highly of her, reading her tell these people she was sorry they thought that, and asking them for specifics so she could improve her videos. As you’d expect of jealous internet trolls, these people never got back to her with suggestions for improvement. There wasn’t anything to improve, and they’d know that.

There was only one comment I saw Glory hadn’t responded to. I stopped on it, surprised to see it.

“Does she look more beautiful to anyone else?” the commenter asked. “I swear she’s much more beautiful now than the first time I watched this video. Glowing! Did she re-upload a replacement? Or did I just not notice the fullness of her beauty the first time lol?”

I smiled, exiting out of the app. If I was Glory, I wouldn’t respond to that one either. It’d be too hard to appear modest there. And that all the responses to the comment from other people were in agreement or just gushing about Glory would make that harder.

*

Wearing my “I’m fine” mask was a billion times easier to do after Glory’s dancercise video. I got through the rest of my work-from-home day with an easier smile, and for once in a long time, found myself actually enjoying my post-work chill out time, starting a computer game I hadn’t had the motivation to try since I’d bought it eight months before.

The next day, the second the clock ticked over into my lunchbreak, I was back before my TV, ready to toss my expensive therapist and just follow Glory with dedicated trust. She hadn’t been lying. She had uploaded a ten minute dancercise video every single day for over a year. There were nearly 400 videos on her channel. I beamed at the sight: I was set. My new therapy had my back, free in a video collection that’d be there to help me for at least the next year – and as the latest video was uploaded today, Glory still posting new ones, for much longer than that.

The warm up this time was Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us, something that Glory encouraged me to shout aloud – to get out my anger at all the selfish bullshit and injustice that had been stirring the hot coals of fury in the pit of my stomach over these past months. I did, releasing that fury with Glory as we danced, if without skill, then with significant power. That was its own floor-pounding, shouting catharsis.

And then she evaporated that spent fury with her cracker of the day: Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. It couldn’t have been more perfect to make me have hope for humanity after that. My hair flung around like a wild woman, sexy in a music video, who didn’t give one damn about how she looked because she was living her best life and loving it.

I laughed aloud to myself, thinking of how much my neighbours must hate me – cranking up the volume and screaming with Freddie Mercury. And then Glory echoed just that thought, with a joyful, ‘I hope my elderly neighbour likes Queen!’

‘Everyone does!’ I called back to Glory.

It was nightclub in your home, and a celebration of unquenchable humanity. And I loved it, returning to my workday out of breath and looking forward to tomorrow’s dancercise video.

Every day, there was something new and downright fantastic on Glory’s No Expectations channel. Glory had me slithering and crawling around on the floor to Rhianna’s Disturbia, imagining myself in a skin-tight cat suit and doing things with my spine I wouldn’t have thought I could before Glory talked me into it. She had me playing Simba in Just Can’t Wait to be King from the Lion King and embodying a graceful ice queen as I belted along with Let It Go. It was cheesy. And it was so goddamn fun. Glory and I laughed together, sure we looked stupid as hell, but not feeling that way.

‘Just let go!’ Glory laughed as she hopped side to side, flapping her arms and telling a fictional hornbill she was done with being told what to do. ‘Why in the world do we judge each other so much for looking silly! That’s just tying ourselves into stupid knots – limiting ourselves – for no good reason!’

I wholeheartedly agreed.

*

‘I took your advice,’ I told Danielle when she commented on a phone call that I sounded so much better lately. ‘I’m doing this dancercise stuff – found this great channel on YouTube!’

‘Oh – I’m so glad to hear that!’ Danielle gushed. ‘God, girl, I was getting worried about you! So which one did you go for?’ she went on. ‘I like the Bollywood dance ones.’

‘It’s not like those,’ I said. ‘It’s different – called No Expectations.’

‘Sounds great!’ said Danielle. ‘What’s it like?’

‘It’s just dance like no one’s watching,’ I told her. ‘And it’s genius! There’s all this stupid stuff society has us all caught up on – it’s complete freedom from that. From all your worries. No need to pretend with Glory – just be yourself and let it all out.’

‘Ooh,’ said Danielle, supportive. ‘That sounds like what everyone needs!’

‘Yeah!’ I agreed, enthusiastic. ‘And I feel so much better for it! Physically too – I’ve never been this flexible!’

It was true. It seemed just moving about like Glory did for ten minutes every day did wonders for my body. After just a few weeks of her videos I could touch my toes again – something I hadn’t been able to do since I was a kid. In fact, more than just touch my toes, I could put my hands flat on the ground. I could run up the stairs, taking them two at a time, without being at all out of breath afterwards. Rather than finish Glory’s videos gasping for air and slumped on the sofa, I now finished them standing there, panting only a little, and feeling like I could probably pull off some pretty advanced yoga moves.

And I’d been outside – gone to buy my own groceries, rather than have them delivered. I’d stepped out into the sunshine without wanting to run back inside, all because of Glory. The dark beast inside my chest had completely gone – gone and left me feeling free for the first time in what seemed like ages. Though I knew she wouldn’t really understand, I enthused to Danielle about how absolutely fantastic it was to have that relief – to be without the depression and anxiety. It’s nearly impossible to explain what it feels like to be free from that, but here’s my attempt: it’s like sweet blissful honey – like your body is replaced with it – that relief. It’s enough to bring you to your knees and kiss the ground, thanking the fates or gods that may be for giving you this wonderful opportunity to not feel that constant nightmare.

‘Seriously, Danielle,’ I said, ‘Glory’s videos have done for me about a thousand times more than what eight months of therapy could. I’ve completely given up on my therapist, doing this is just so much better. You should absolutely try it!’

*

Danielle didn’t. Initially. She was a lot cooler and more talented than me, and she wanted to learn killer dances from videos, not just bounce around like an idiot imagining you were good.

But then her sister ended up in the hospital with Covid, on a ventilator. Leaving her two children at home with her broken and terrified husband. And then he went and had a beat up with their neighbours – neighbours who didn’t believe in vaccinations or the pandemic. Neighbours he’d decided were the reason his wife was sick. And he got shot for it, the children ending up with Danielle’s parents while her sister and brother-in-law recuperated in overrun hospitals, unable to have visitors.

Being a nurse in a nursing home, Danielle was stuck: visiting the kids would put someone at risk, either the elderly patients she cared for, or her own parents. So she couldn’t go see them. She couldn’t go see her sister. She couldn’t do anything.

And she raged at the world, furious. Raged over the phone to me, venting her anger – until she broke into tears and sobbed on the other end of the line, helpless to do anything.

‘Try Glory’s videos,’ I suggested quietly. ‘It won’t fix anything, but you can’t go on feeling like this all the time, Danielle. It’ll eat you up.’

I heard from her a week later, and while there was no news from the hospital, Danielle sounded less broken over the phone. She’d been doing Glory’s videos.

And she kept doing them, even after her sister was released from hospital, alive but with long-term health consequences; Danielle’s brother-in-law doing better as well, after a surgery they couldn’t afford.

*

I thought of Danielle’s family the next time I screamed and sobbed and danced along with Glory’s videos. Just as I was sure Danielle was doing, in her own living room. Letting it all out. Finding that catharsis, led by the wonderful Glory who encouraged us along.

In time, things settled. Danielle’s family managed to sort things out in the short term at least.

And I got asked out by a co-worker. As lockdown restrictions eased, I decided why not? I took Johnathan’s offer, going on my first date since before the pandemic, and marvelling at how far I’d come – how well I’d dug myself out of the deep dark hole I’d been in, with Glory’s coaching.

I could do it: I could go on that date. I could pursue the life I wanted to live. I could move on and be a star in my own story. Just as Glory had told me time and time again.

And the date went well. It went fantastically, actually. One of those dates you only see in the movies: with us connecting on level after level, and me driving home, smiling a touched smile at the road ahead of me, feeling like I’d found my groove in life. Feeling like I’d worked for this, and now everything was paying off. That I was safe now: my demons were behind me, and I could move on.

My relationship with Johnathan took off. I heard from him every night, us chatting or texting as we went to bed, wishing each other nice sleeps or whispering secrets to each other in the dark. It was a chance at a glorious life I’d thought impossible only months before.

So I took it: grabbed it with both hands, determined to not let go. I met Johnathan’s parents. I met his whole family. I committed to an exclusive relationship with him. I brought dinners to Danielle’s sister’s family, because I was in a good place and they needed help.

And I stopped needing Glory so much. She’d given me legs, and I used them to walk.

What had been a daily dancercise fix became every second day, then twice a week, then weekly.

I’d expected my flexibility and physical fitness to drop off as a result, and it did. Disappointed, I panted at the top of the stairs I’d taken to Johnathan’s third floor apartment, bent over and holding my knees. When I stood up after, several pops sounded along my backbone: multiple vertebrae cracking.

‘Two flights of stairs isn’t a lot…’ Johnathan said, frowning. ‘And it’s not like you’ve been sedentary for years or anything…’

I pulled a smile, but it felt eerily similar to the false mask I’d worn months back – that mask that pretended I was fine. It was just an off day, I was sure. And fearing relapse into past mental health troubles was normal. It didn’t mean it would happen.

Johnathan suggested all sorts of medical ailments, from anaemia to hypothyroidism, but I was just a bit tired that day, that was all. I could walk up two flights of stairs. Just not as well as I used to. And, as I’d done only ten minutes of exercise a week for the past two, that really didn’t sound ridiculous. That was a tiny amount of exercise.

Vowing to go back to doing Glory’s videos more frequently, I smiled and told Johnathan I was fine.

*

I got to it the next day, right after work. I hadn’t the same level of enthusiasm for Glory’s videos I’d had before. It had started feeling more like a chore I was making myself do. But I pulled off my socks and let my hair down for what I was sure would feel great once I just got back into it.

The video started, and Glory greeted me with a broad grin, telling me she was glad I’d joined her again.

I stretched my arms, for once wanting Glory to just get on with it so I could go and do my evening chill out with a computer game. But Glory had things she wanted to say to her hordes of devoted fans: how much she appreciated each and every one of us, how wonderful we were, and a reminder, the same one she usually said at the end of her videos, that doing her videos daily was important; how much harder I’d have to work to get back into it if I fell behind.

Maybe it was my own guilty conscience, knowing I’d let my health become less of a priority, but this time, hearing Glory say that… It felt a bit ominous.

‘No expectations here!’ Glory said, beaming. ‘I don’t need to expect you to come back! I know you will!’

I shook myself. I didn’t really believe Glory meant anything sinister by that. It was just something of her tagline.

But with that little seed of doubt sown… All of a sudden, Glory looked a bit different to me. Beautiful, yes – in fact, I had that same impression that commenter on the first video had: Glory actually looked more beautiful now than I’d first thought her. She seemed to downright glow with glorious vitality.

But her smile… I’d long seen it as perfectly understanding and kind. Just a sweet woman doing a great thing for people on the internet. I wasn’t as sure, now. Watching Glory laugh as she set up the first song, I actually thought… her big smile looked fake.

‘I think this video will be a good one if you’re trying to get back into it!’ Glory said, too cheerful and looking, it seemed, straight at me. ‘Got a kicker for us today!’

It seemed fake. It seemed somewhat… sinister. It made me uneasy, and, above that, it made me feel betrayed.

Get Off Of My Cloud!’ Glory announced as the Rolling Stones song started.

I shook myself again. I wanted to go back to seeing Glory as I had before. And, though I tried to do that through the video, it felt more like I was just going through the motions. I got nowhere near the same level of joy or freedom from it I was used to.

It could just be an off day, I thought. Glory was allowed to have bad days too. Looking for evidence for this, I scrolled down through the comments as I sat, winded, on my couch after.

There was no one saying Glory seemed a bit off this video. In fact, unlike the first video, there were no negative comments at all; not even a single troll.

Well, I decided, I’d just give it another shot tomorrow – see if it was merely an off day. Or if my perception was just skewed today.

*

I didn’t get a chance to. Between Johnathan and business picking up after the worst of Covid, I was run off my feet. We’d let a lot of staff go for the company to survive the contraction. And when business picked back up again, it all landed on my plate.

Every day I was just looking forward to sleep. To getting in bed and chatting with Johnathan until I conked out, exhausted, after yet another long day trying to hold the fort before we earned enough that we could rehire people.

I knew my fitness had decreased a great deal. Even one flight of stairs took it out of me now. But, busy as I was, it took me a while to even notice that my joints cracked more than they did before. Like, a lot more. Cracking knuckles or neck is pretty normal…

Every single one of my finger joints cracked: first, second, and third knuckles on each finger. My wrists cracked. My elbows, shoulders, ankles, knees, toes, entire vertebral column… It all cracked. In just the same way your knuckles might.

And, weirder than that… My kneecaps and hips did too. I’d be sitting there, doing my work with frantic panic, trying to get it all done, and notice that my hip was so stiff it hurt. So I’d lean over, forcing against that stiffness. The hip is a large joint. When it cracks, it thunks. It would hurt, hurt, hurt, as I leant, then thunk: it’d crack. I’d see my leg jolt with it. And then it’d be relief, the joint no longer stiff and sore.

I was with Johnathan, playing a board game on his coffee table, when I noticed my feet cracked too. I was sitting cross-legged on my backside. And I noticed, where the sides of my feet rested against the floor… they felt stiff too.

I don’t know how many people out there have cracked their feet… You know that feeling when you are aware your knuckles or wrist is stiff? And you’re just dying to crack it?

I reached down, grabbed my socked foot, and bent it in half. On both sides of my foot, bones inside my foot cracked. It felt like metatarsals popping against tarsal bones. It relieved the stiffness. I did it to the other foot as well.

Pulling a face, Johnathan stared at me.

‘Did you just… crack your feet?’

I leaned against a hip, feeling the sore stiffness, and cracked that too.

‘Yeah,’ I snickered. ‘Everything cracks now! Even my feet!’

Johnathan didn’t see the humour in that. He watched me with concern.

‘It’s just gas bubbles being released from your joints,’ I told him. ‘It’s not harmful. I think it’s because I was pretty flexible before, but now my joints are getting stiff again. If it bugs you, I won’t do it around you, though.’

Johnathan shook his head.

‘I don’t think… you’re supposed to be able to crack your feet,’ he said slowly. ‘No matter what…’

I had neither the time nor the desire to dwell on concerning thoughts. So I just resolved to not crack most parts of my body around Johnathan again.

*

‘This is amazing!’ Danielle said, excited, over the phone to me. It was during one of my lunch breaks, and I hadn’t spoken to her in a while with everything else going on. ‘I’ve never been able to do this before! And I’ve done yoga for years!’

Danielle had called me to let me know she was sitting on the floor of her apartment, with her foot behind her head.

‘Can you get it out from behind your head?’ I checked.

‘Yeah,’ said Danielle. ‘Course. There –‘ I heard the rustling of fabric. ‘Ok, foot on the ground now, mom.’

I snickered. Moving in my chair shifted my attention to my hip. It felt stiff and locked in place, so I leant into the pain, looking to crack it. It didn’t work. Danielle gushing on the other end of the phone about how limber she was now – how Glory, rather than years of yoga, was the secret – I tried leaning into the stiff pain again, hoping to finally crack that hip joint. My face screwed up, the pain getting bad, no crack in sight.

‘I should try her videos again,’ I said over the phone, letting up. ‘I used to be able to put my hands flat on the floor. Now my hips lock up the moment I bend over.’

It was currently only too true. But I didn’t want to worry about it. I wanted to wear my mask of being fine. Wanted… to just be fine.

‘It’s amazing!’ Danielle gushed over the phone to me. ‘Who’d have thought just a dancercise video would make me this flexible! Thanks again, hey, for putting me on to it!’

I hummed my response, trying, once again, to crack my hip. It didn’t matter how much I leant into the pain, the thing just wouldn’t crack.

I had fully intended to do another of Glory’s videos after Danielle hung up. I didn’t get to it, however. In the time I’d been chatting to Danielle, twelve urgent emails had popped into my inbox.

‘So you’re going to go see them?’ my boss said, finishing off the video meeting I’d barely been paying attention to while I tried, covertly, to crack my sore hip. ‘Can you do it on Monday?’

It took me two colleagues calling my name to recognise he was talking to me.

‘Meet…’ I said, staring at my monitor. I was finding it hurt to even just sit now. ‘They’re on the other side of the country…’

It didn’t matter. My boss was going to fly me out there to meet with our legal team. Not something that could be discussed over video conference, according to him. Pandemic or not, I had to go do it in person.

And flying across the country was very, very far from my safe zone.

It was something that hadn’t mattered in months. But with that thought, the black, vengeful beast of anxious doom slammed straight back into my chest. I couldn’t even shift in my seat without pain from my hip. And my heart was suddenly going a mile a minute, that roiling feeling of horrendous anxiety back to shredding the inside of my chest.

*

I didn’t even get a chance to do one of Glory’s videos over the weekend. Two days later, I limped into the airport on a very stiff and painful hip, wearing two masks on top of each other; my knuckles white as I gripped my carry-on luggage, anxiety drowning me from within.

It was on the flight that I realised the bones in the palm of my hand cracked too. They cracked. My hips, knees, and feet no longer did. They were just stiff and sore, unable to be cracked. I limped off the plane on the other side, and just about hobbled back into the airport when my meetings were over a day and a half later.

If being free from terrible anxiety was like feeling my body was made of light, sweet honey… Having that anxiety back was simply unbearable. The person sitting beside me on the plane cast me wary little looks as I sobbed behind my mask, sat in the window seat, my stiff and tingling fingers gripped hard together in my lap.

Normal anxiety attaches itself to regular things, like exams or upcoming presentations. This anxiety… was like drowning in a black cloud of doom that didn’t need anything to attach to. Everything fuelled it. The stewardess asking me if I wanted anything to drink had me bursting back into panicked tears.

And when I raised a hand to take the drink she offered me, my elbow screamed with stiff pain, then locked up. I couldn’t extend it at all, not for the rest of the flight. Not after I deplaned either.

I creaked off the plane and into a taxi. Just get home, I thought. Just get back to my safe place. It may sound like what I should be more concerned about was my joints locking up. But my anxiety doesn’t work that way. I wasn’t able to focus on specific things to fix. I could only focus on the soul-crushing anxiety. Couldn’t see the trees for the wood.

At Johnathan’s phone call, wanting to know I’d landed okay, I swallowed it all back down, and answered with what I thought was a fine-sounding, ‘Heya!’

‘You landed?’

‘Yep,’ I answered. ‘Flight wasn’t too bad!’

I kept it up for a bit. But I obviously wasn’t as convincing as I thought I was.

‘You okay?’ Johnathan asked, after I’d explained my meetings to him. ‘You sound… off…’

‘Just tired,’ I said casually, my locked arm tucked against my middle. ‘And I’m sure the mask makes me sound muffled!’

It worked well enough. Worked enough for me to finish the call, and arrive home.

Driven on a wind of crushing panic, I hurried into my house as fast as I could hobble, stumbling and nearly falling twice.

I’m not sure if my impulse was born from believing it was Glory I had to blame, or if it was just because the last time it had all gotten too much, it was with her I’d finally found relief. I hadn’t gotten to evaluating that yet – I wasn’t sure what I believed. I just knew that something – an escape or an answer – was to be found on the No Expectations channel.

The pain was extreme as I lowered myself onto my sofa, both my hips feeling tight and screaming as they bent. I’d been worried, when I first started looking at dancercise videos, about the fact that I couldn’t dance. Now, that worry had been far more literally realised.

With my one good arm, I clicked into Glory’s channel.

There she was. Ready in the next video. Smiling widely at me. And, as the video rolled, it took her a moment longer than usual to speak.

To me, sitting there with my body locking up, one of my feet starting to spasm and curl in on itself, tears running silently down my face as my heart raced and the beast of doom clawed at my chest… It looked like Glory was evaluating me. Looked like she was taking in my despair, and grinning at it.

‘Hey wonderful person!’ she sneered at me. ‘I know it’s hard to keep up the motivation sometimes! But doing so only harms yourself!

‘So I’d love to help you with that! I’ve got a great one for today! To encourage everyone to not break their stride!’

Glory laughed, and that’s when I saw it. Beneath the glorious beauty of her – that beauty that had just grown and grown over the months – was something shiny. Something that looked almost metallic, glinting behind her face.

Glory moved to the centre of the bare room she danced in, setting the song up on her phone. Her movement looked too graceful. Too fluid. Like there was something not really human about her.

A cold hand of horror grabbed my heart and squeezed. The deeper I looked, focusing on the flashes of something other, the more I saw it. I didn’t get up and dance, and Glory didn’t tell me to. It was like she knew I couldn’t. Like she just wanted to gloat at me – show me what I couldn’t be. What she’d taken from me.

Matthew Wilder’s Break My Stride blared from the TV, Glory dancing like an enthusiastic fool on my screen. I watched her throw her head back, tossing flowing hair. And saw it. Finally really saw her for what she was.

The head that came back down was a shining blue-grey. It had no eyes, just deep, soulless sockets above sharp cheekbones.

‘Never break your stride!’ the lipless mouth shouted, then pulled into an eerie grin. Her laugh was like distant screams, echoing through the woods. ‘Let yourself enjoy it! Feed off it!’

Glory wasn’t dancing in some blank room. For a moment, I thought the TV had suddenly started reflecting my own living room back at me. But it was my living room. And I was there, in the room with Glory, sitting broken and twisted on the sofa as Glory danced away in front of me, her laugh shrieking out.

My phone buzzed. My eyes spilling with terrified tears, I glanced at it. It was Danielle.

Goin away for a week with the new boy-toy! You’ll have to meet him next week! We’ve got a cabin in the woods for just the two of us – he likes that off-the-grid stuff. And I think I’m going to put some of my new flexibility to good use, if you know what I mean 😉

I wouldn’t have responded. Not with what I was seeing – what was going on with me. Except that a new shock of fear ran through me at Danielle’s message.

I rushed to unlock my phone, wanting to move away from Glory to warn Danielle, but not thinking I’d be able to get up off the sofa.

‘If you can’t get up and dance,’ Glory’s eerie voice called out to me, coaxing, ‘do it from your sofa!’

More tears ran down my cheeks. A shudder ran down my spine. But I was determined, my thumb flying, though it was stiff, over the keypad. Then it too locked up.

I was panting in rapid shallow breaths. I couldn’t move my thumb at all. I carried on, typing with my pointer finger, then my middle finger when that too locked up.

Finally finishing the message, I hit send, hoping Danielle would get it in time:

Don’t stop watching Glory’s vids! Take some with you! Every day! Please Dani!

Glory laughed at me from the TV.

‘Oh come on now!’ the demon cried, and I saw her beautiful guise flicker over her cold, eyeless face. ‘Get moving on that sofa! Move your arms around! Even if you’re stiff, you can do it!’

I let my phone fall onto the sofa beside me. Swallowing hard, I did as instructed. It seemed the only thing I could do. Under Glory’s soulless gaze, her glowing beauty flickering into and out of visibility, I started jiggling about in my seat, trying to move against the stiff pain and with joints that seemed to have fused.

‘That’s it!’ Glory encouraged, that beautiful smile becoming a lipless leer before reverting to a beautiful grin again. ‘You always have to work harder if you fall behind! But that’s okay! It’s just more effort! You can do it!’

Sobbing, in agony, I did it, forcing my body to move as much as possible. But unlike the first time I’d done Glory’s videos, I didn’t feel better after one video. So I tried two, then three, and finally got the offer of my one elbow unlocking. It was still stiff and sore, but I could move it.

The evening turned into night, then morning, me going from video to video, sobbing and dancing; bouncing endlessly on my sofa, even as my joints screamed, my muscles tiring out and starting to protest in maddening aches; as Glory laughed, grinned, and called out encouragement after encouragement.

‘And remember,’ Glory called out at the end of the umpteenth video, ‘no expectations! I don’t need to tell you to come back. I know you will!’


AUTHOR’S NOTE


This story is dedicated to all the health grifters and charlatans out there; to anyone who has ever exploited vulnerable people.

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