Derpy Can't Breathe Good

by darf

First published

Derpy is having trouble breathing, so she goes to the doctor to get some help. Afterwards, she has a hard time adjusting to the changes in her life. Based on a true story.

Even though it seemed normal for her, Derpy's never been the best at breathing. When she panics, when she flies too fast for too long, or sometimes just randomly in the middle of the night, waking her up out of her dreams and nightmares. She's never known there was a solution for her problem, or for the other problems she didn't even know she had.

After Derpy's visit to the hospital, things in her life get more complicated than she feels like she can handle. What happens after that? Derpy tries her best, of course. That's all anypony can really do.

Written as part of a series of ongoing PG-13 commissions for an Anonymous donor.

Content Warning: Mild AU, depression/intrusive thoughts, realistic portrayals of mental illness and emotional trauma.

Please be careful reading this story if you suffer from depression or another mental illness. Some of the passages contained now (and especially later) may be triggering.

Chapter 1ne

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About six months ago, Derpy had gotten sick.

That was how she saw it. According to the doctor ponies and other ponies she'd talked to afterwards, she'd been sick for a very long time, but was just finding out about it now.

But I've always had trouble—

We know, they had said. That's why we're giving you these. They're going to help.

Things had gotten much worse after that, in Derpy's opinion.

The first thing she had talked about at the hospital, and why she'd gone there in the first place, she guessed, because one day she'd been out delivery mail and she'd been flying very fast and flapping her wings very hard and for some reason her chest had decided to yell at her and get very close and very tight like it was fighting inside and leaving bruises everywhere, and suddenly she couldn't fly, and suddenly she couldn't breathe, and she was falling very fast and very far onto somewhere or something she didn't know what it was a cloud poof and then she has closed her eyes and when she opened them she was somewhere else.

This is a hospital, they said to Derpy when she woke up.

Oh, Derpy had said.

Can I please go? I have to finish my mail.

The nurse pony had smiled and shaken her head.

No dear. You're not well. Somepony else is taking care of your mail.

But I'm the only pony who knows exactly where to go.

Don't you worry about that, dear. Just lay back in your bed and try to relax.

But I'm the only one who knows about Mr. Largefoot's dog.

Hush, dear. Rest.



Chapter 2wo

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When Derpy had woken up again her chest felt better but she was still very confused about what had happen and why she'd fallen and when she was allowed to get up. There were wires stuck on her chest with sticky things and they went to a machine that made a lot of beeping and it seemed to get louder when Derpy looked at it and thought about it or worried about it without looking at it. She tried really hard not to worry about it. It worked okay.

Miss Derpy, the doctor had said when he showed up, which was surprising, out from under the draped cloth barrier that had surrounded Derpy's bed. I understand you've had a panic attack.

How do you understand it? I didn't know I had one.

Now now, it's just a figure of speech. What I mean to say is, I am lead to believe via this chart and reports that you collapsed during your mail delivery, suffering from chest-pains, light-headedness, and a general inability to keep focus on the world around you. Does any of that sound right?

I guess so, Derpy had said. I just thought that was normal.

Well, you'll be pleased to know that now that we've found out about this problem, we can do something to fix it. It seems your panic attack was caused by a previously undiagnosed asthma becoming aggravated and interracting with a series of recurring thoughts. Tell me, Derpy... have you ever had problems breathing before?

Derpy had scratched her head. When was breathing just hard, and when was it a problem?

I don't know, she had said.

Hmm, the doctor had said.

That's very interesting.

Derpy didn't know what was so interesting about it.

The doctor didn't say anything for a moment. He cleared his throat, and looked at his clipboard.

Sometimes when I'm flying really fast it feels like my eyes are gonna start spinning, Derpy offered, raising her shoulders meekly.

Do you find yourself short of breath in other, non-exercise-based scenarios?


When you're at home, relaxing, or doing nothing that would otherwise cause stress to your lungs?

Derpy thought back to the few nights every month she seemed to spend waking up, gasping, waiting for the invisible pillows on top of her to go away, please, and then holding herself upright and opening the window and huffing in as much fresh air as she could, and most of the time it worked. And when it didn't she just curled there, sucking air through a straw, waiting for the darkness to pass.

Um... I guess so. Sometimes, she said.

Hmm, the doctor pony said. He tapped his clipboard with a pen. That's very interesting.

Derpy didn't understand why it was so interesting.

Have you also had problems with persistent intrusive thoughts... hearing or thinking things you don't want to hear or think?

Derpy thought hard. A lot of things she heard and thought she didn't want to hear or think. Ponies saying mean things about each other. Ponies saying mean things about her. Ponies saying nice things about her, on account of it made her feel nervous and like maybe somepony was tricking her. She thought all the time about mistakes... did I mess this up again, did I get that right, if I do this on time will it mean I did a good job... and she didn't think she was special. From what she heard, everypony thought like that.

But did she like it?

Um, Derpy had said. I'm not sure.

You can be honest with me, Derpy. This meeting is confidential.

Outside the thin cloth curtain around the bed, a nurse whistled to herself as she bustled by with a tray full of loudly clanking metal.

I don't wanna go home with a bunch of new words for all my problems, Derpy said, staring down at her own chest, eyes focused on an invisible point.

But wouldn't a new word for a problem help you understand better, and help you tell other ponies what you might be dealing with?

Derpy thought hard again.

She did like the idea of being able to say exactly what was going on. She knew there were a lot of words, and picking the right ones was hard on account of how many there were. Ponies like Twilight Sparkle and Rarity were really good at picking their words. Derpy just stuck to the ones she knew, because every time she figured out a new one she would use it all day until everypony around her would groan each time she said it, and even then she could tell they weren't very happy she was learning a new word anyway, so it was better to stick to the old ones. Yep.

The doctor pony waited for a few moments, leaving Derpy in thought, before finally checking his watch, as though it were silently alarmed.

I'm afraid I have to attend to another patient. Based on our conversation here, I'd still like to recommend a prescriptive steroid-based inhaler, as well as an at-night medicational supplement to help deal with those more troublesome intrusive thoughts.

Derpy looked at the doctor and blinked. She tried hard not to scrunch up her face or cry.

That just means a little tube you'll carry around to use when it's hard to breathe, and some pills you take at night before bed to help you sleep and feel better the next day.

Oh. How did he know to...

Take care, Derpy. The doctor pony touched a hoof to her shoulder and smiled at her. Then he walked out from this side of the curtain, and became an outline on the other side. Then he disappeared.

Derpy didn't know why, but the doctor pony had reminded her of her father.

Chapter 3hree

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That day Derpy had gone home from the hospital with a piece of paper with some stuff written on it and signed by the doctor she had met before, or maybe a different doctor. Derpy couldn't read any of the words on the paper, but the nurse pony who had given it to her had told her one of the names was a something-something-'ixol' and the other one was a something-something-'ion'. Derpy knew she hadn't said that exactly, but it was the best she could understand, and she felt tired and lonely and wanted to go home and didn't feel like she was brave enough to ask the nurse pony to explain more. So she had just taken the piece of paper and left, because the nurse pony had said to go to the pharmacy, and Derpy at least knew where that was, because before sometimes she had to go there to get medicine for her grandma. Who she missed, now.

One thing that confused Derpy was that when she had gone to the pharmacy, and given the piece of paper with the writing and the signature on it to the pony behind the 'PLEASE STAND HERE FOR PRESCRIPTION DROP OFF' counter pony, the pony behind the counter had looked at, clicked their tongue, looked back up at her, and said Is this for short or fast-release?

And Derpy had said, um?

And the pony behind the counter had said, Also, does he mean //something-something//-etamol? Because that's not covered by your insurance. Probably.

Um, Derpy had said.

It was very hard not to cry.

The pony behind the counter had shaken their head.

Let me just fill in for a brand equivalent. You'll have to take two and a half at night instead of one. The behind the counter pony took a piece of paper, wrote the word 'COUNSEL' on it in large blue letters, then circled it twice. She handed it to another pony behind the counter, who took it, and then went off to somewhere Derpy couldn't see, which was behind a bunch of large white shelves and more bottles than Derpy could count.

Fifteen minutes, the behind the counter pony had said. Next!

Oh. Okay, Derpy had said. And she left the line, then came back because she had forgotten her small bag of groceries and her stuffie Mr. Octo-Pie, and then she had gone to the other line and stood it in and waited one minute and got to see another, different pony behind the counter, who had asked her name, and when she said Derpy, made a funny face at her and said You just handed it in, hun. Come back in about fifteen minutes. And Derpy had said Oh, okay, and left the line quickly and gone to look at protein supplements and what were those and why did she need them. Maybe she didn't. She figured out after fifteen minutes that they were good for ponies who were trying to make lots of muscle or get very big. So Derpy left them on the shelf and didn't put and in her bag that she brought with her for groceries.

When she went back to get her prescription, the pony behind the counter made her wait until a pharmacist was available to talk to her.

Hello, he said. He had a beard and some small glasses and a name-tag that said WIND-STAFF on his white coat.

Wind-Staff? Derpy had said.

It's Wind-staff, actually. Wind-Staff gestured to a pin on his coat, with a staff made out of coiled snakes.

Oh. I get it.

Mhmm. So this is your first time using a respiratory inhaler?

Um... I think so.

Well, here's the device—he held out a tiny blue tube that looked like a toy submarine, or maybe a big piece of toy construction block she had played with as a filly. To use it, you shake it gently for several seconds—he gripped the blue thing inbetween his hooves and shook it around a bit. Then you remove the cap—it made a smallpop—place the designated end in your mouth, press down on the insert capsule—make sure to open your mouth wide, you want to avoid spraying it onto your tongue—then inhale once you've released the steroid mist. You should feel an immediate relief, followed by a de-inflammation of your lungs, which will help mitigate the asthma on a more continuous basis.



Derpy held out her hooves, and the pony behind the counter dropped the blue thingy into them.

These pills are much more straightforward. They come in a sealed blister pack, and you're not to use more than one each night. See, they're labelled for each day of the week—

Like a mail schedule!

—yes, I suppose. So each night, right before you're about to go to bed, you pop these out of their blister pack and swallow them with a glass of water. Does that make sense?

I think so. Derpy looked at the container of pills with an eyebrow raised. Those are supposed to help me breathe better?

No, no... these are to help you sleep, and also to, uh... be more focused, when you're awake.

I didn't know I needed help to sleep. Derpy's inner eye took a sharp ninety degree turn, to the heap of her blankets wrapped around her legs as she turned and spun in a cold, muggy sweat, somehow unable to think about anything but getting up the next day for work. Somehow unable to turn off her brain, her eyes, or any part of her body, all which said GET UP, IT'S TIME TO DO STUFF, except for one tiny fragment left inside, maybe her chest, screaming as hard as it could, but so meekly in comparison, please let us go to sleep. She was very tired after that, for a few days.

Okay, she said. She kept her hooves outstretched, and the pony behind the counter lifted up the pill-package and placed it into her hooves. After making sure she had both the items in question, Derpy slid them into her bag, where they settled near the bottom next to Mr. Octo-Pie (who was hanging along the side with one of his tentacles stretched over the rim of the bag. He liked to do that when he came along). Derpy smiled at the pony behind the counter.

Thank you, she said.

Not a problem, the pony behind the counter had said. Please call us if you have any further questions. If you notice any light-headedness or persistent negative thought patterns, please call your doctor immediately.

Derpy wondered how she could have a light in her head. Or how her head could be lighter than the rest of her. Sort of like why it had felt her head was flying when she'd fallen, while the rest of her was a big bag of oatmeal headed hard in a downward direction.

Thank you, she said again.

The pony had gone off somewhere, busy with something else.

Derpy bought a carton of milk and a box of cereal before she left. She also bought lettuce and strawberries and a salad dressing that said 'fusion' on it. That was to eat healthy with later.

When she got home, she had a bowl of cereal. It tasted pretty good.

Chapter 4our

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That night, Derpy thought hard about her decision on when to use her new breather-thingy first. She remembered it had a lot of different names, but she thought that since it was for helping it breathe, calling it a 'breather' made a lot of sense. Like calling a thing that toasted bread a 'toaster'. That made sense too.

It was late at night, a little past when Derpy normally went to bed, and the sky was dark and hot and Derpy's window was open and there was barely a cloud in the sky. She could see the moon, and it looked like it was close enough to touch. It was really big, an almost perfect circle. Derpy reached a hoof up towards it.

Sometimes, her chest would get tight without her noticing it, and suddenly the next breath she would draw in was shorter, or just a little bit less. And she would notice it then, and start to wonder if the next breath was going to be back to normal, or if it was going to be the same, or worse. And usually it would be worse.

And by the time she had started counting her breaths, and focusing on her beaths, and asking her breaths and begging her breaths and pleading with her breaths to please go back somewhere she could forget about them, when she could think about what she was looking at or the bed she was lying down in or anything other than how hard it was to make her chest go from one part of the huuuuuh to the ahhhhh on the other side. It felt like she was trying to throw a sponge down a football field in a single throw.

But that had happened a lot before, and she didn't have a breather back then. So was that when she was supposed to use it? Or when it got worse? Right when she was about to pass out? Just before then? As she was losing consciousness, or things were starting to become dark?

Derpy was gasping hard now, holding a hoof to her chest. She used her other hoof to pick up the bright blue breather, and shook it clumsily, noticing how much strength it suddenly took not only to lift the tiny apparatus, but just to move her body at all. Everything was mollasses. A sugary soup. Her breaths were wading through exactly the same.

Eyes closed. She popped the cover off. Pop. Put the breather in her mouth. Squeezed.

It made a sound like fwooooosh. Like a balloon blowing up.

Derpy felt a lot of something that was light and feathery and tasted a little like stale air and cough syrup. She remembered she was supposed to breathe in, and she did. Her lungs screamed with their only voice, the raspy wheezing that rattled in Derpy's chest as she drew in a precious mouthful of air and her new medicine.

It was just like the doctor said—even though she couldn't remember exactly what he had said. It was probably just like that.

She could breathe again. Her chest was calming down.

Derpy imagined her two lungs wiping off after a scuffle, both sweating heavily, before giving each other grudging smiles and hugging out the outcome of the brawl.

Derpy laid back in her bed and let the tiny blue inhaler land softly next to her on the pillow.

It was like magic.

I'm going to keep you around all the time, Derpy though to herself as she sat up. She remembered just in time to take the pills out of their package, and did her best to swallow them with the glass of water she kept on her bedside table. One of the pills seemed really big, and she had to try a few times and fill up her water once to get it down, and her throat made choking noises and felt like the pill got stuck in there somewhere, even though she knew it probably didn't.

She wondered if she was supposed to feel sleepy right away.

The moon was still there, waving at her from far out in space. Derpy waved back at it as she fell down into her pillows and blankets.

Before she had time to wonder about her breathing or the way to sleep, her eyes were closed, and she was snoring quietly.

Chapter 5ive

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When she woke up, Derpy wondered how much of what she remembered had been a dream and how much was real. That happened a lot. One of the things she would always dream about was being at work, going to get her lunch, and finding somepony else had taken it. In the dream she was always really hungry, so hungry she felt starving, like if she didn't get something to eat at the halfway point of the day, there was no chance of her making it home, let alone out the door to deliver more letters. So in her dream, every time, she did the sensible thing and took somepony else's lunch that was in the fridge, plastic-wrapped and unlabeled. She ate it alone in the break-room, looking nervously over her shoulder towards the door every time she heard somepony walking along in the hall. But nopony ever came by to notice her. She would finish the sandwich or pasta or whatever else the dream had served up, and go on her route. And just as she was taking flight, with her bag of letters thrown over her back, somepony would yell 'Hey!' behind her, and without even having to turn around she knew what they were about to say to her.

But she always woke up before she could turn around. And then she wondered for a long time if she had ever taken somepony else's lunch and forgotten about it, and it made her nervous in the morning before she went to work.

This morning before work, Derpy felt like she had a lot more to remember. Now, instead of remembering to take time to breathe when her chest got tight, she had to remember her breather, and where it was, and how to use it. And if she put it in the same spot every time she was home on her bedside table next to her lamp and picture of her mom and usually a glass of water, that was fine. But when she was at work she had to keep it in one of her bags, and not getting it mixed up with the mail would be tricky. She had to make sure to have it with her all the time, and to remember to pop the cap and inhale and hold her breath for at least three seconds. And she had to not lose it.

Derpy wondered about her pills too. The new ones, which was to say, the only ones she'd taken besides the few times she had a really bad headache or her stomach felt extra icky, and those she just got over the counter at the convenience store cloud just down the way, and they didn't have any fancy warnings or names she could pronounce except for the ingredients, and that was everything anyway. Plus, when you took these pills, you didn't feel them do anything right away. Derpy had been taking them for one day, and when she came home tonight would be day number two. She didn't worry about forgetting that because she put the pills in their package next to her alarm clock, and she always set that before bed, so she was pretty sure she would see the package of pills and remember she was supposed to take them before bed. That was a pretty good strategy, she thought.

Derpy didn't remember in school learning about how a pill you took could fix an icky stomach or a hurting head. She definitely didn't remember learning about any pill you took that worked on you secretly, hiding away in your head and mixing itself up with your brain chemicals and doing whatever it was it did that was supposed to make you think and feel different. Or remember stuff better. Or not start crying for what felt like no reason when you were lying in bed at night.

Were there other pills she could take that would fix different things, things she wondered about being wrong with her? Could she take a pill to make her more eager to greet the morning of each work-day, that would help her uncross her eyes when they got stuck every so often?

Could she take one to sleep forever, and never wake up?

Derpy shook her head. That was strange. It felt like somepony else was talking to her. They were using a voice she recognized, but not one she could place by name. Just somepony familiar, murmuring to her over her shoulder. When she turned, of course, nopony was there. Just the kitchen walls, and the cat-clock with its swinging tail mounted above the stove.

Well, it was time for cereal, anyway. That's what Derpy had every day before work, a bowl of cruncy sugar-crusted oats swimming in milk. She wondered about the cows that gave away their milk for ponies and their cereal, but she had never met those cows, and didn't really know what they thought about the whole situation. The sugar-crusted oats were yummy and they crunched in the milk if you ate them fast enough and didn't let them get all mushy. Then at the end you could drink the milk, and it would be extra sweet with the sugar that it had soaked up off the bits of oats. Derpy loved that taste. She wished she could buy it in a jug by itself, and maybe even pour it in the cereal again to super-charge it with flavour. Flavour and sugar.

Mom hasn't called in over a week. She's probably mad at us.

Probably, Derpy said in her head as she got up to put her bowl in the sink and wash it. But she's usually kinda mad at us about something anyway.

Derpy washed the bowl and spoon with a tiny dab of soap, 'no bigger than a pea', just like she remembered her mom saying. She liked to giggle when she imagined a pea made of soap. It sounded silly.

You're gonna be late for work if you don't hurry.

I know, just let me finish cleaning up. Derpy rinsed her hooves in the same spray she'd used on the bowl and spoon, turned off the faucet with a dry part of her foreleg, and dried her hooves on the dish-towel hanging over the stove-handle. She checked the cat-clock up on the wall, which confirmed that she only had ten minutes to get to work on a route that normally took her nine. One minute to go and she hadn't packed lunch yet. But she wasn't going to forget, but she didn't think she was somepony who had taken anypony else's lunch, and she was going to keep it that way if she could.

There. Enough time for a cup noodle and some puddings. Derpy really liked the banana-cream ones, and you could get a deal if you bought two at a time. She liked to mix and match the flavours too, chocolate-ice-cream, vanilla-caramel swirl... it was like getting a little synthetic bite of a flavour vacation. You could stay there for as many spoonfuls as you could stand the blatantly manufactured taste of the dessert selection. Three was usually enough for Derpy in one day.

I don't think we have enough milk to last until payday, the voice said, taking on a tone eerily similar to Derpy's mother. You need to do your budget better. This week by week thing keeps leaving us in trouble.

Derpy shook her head and opened the front door. She could put on her bag and hat when she got to work. No time for fussing about the milk. Even though she was right—they always ran out of something before payday, and it was usually a compromise between cereal without milk, milk without cereal, or neither in favour of the caffeinated soda Derpy liked to have at twice a day, one at lunch, usually to go with her noodle cup, and one when she got home, after she'd started relaxing on the couch and usually turned on something to watch that was funny or had cute animals in it. Derpy smiled uncontrollably whenever she saw a cute animal, and rather than question the phenomenon, preferred to give into it whenever possible.

With a last few blinks to clear her eyes, which were as clear as they were going to be, anyway, Derpy took off to work, eight minutes on the cat clock. While she'd remember to shut the door, her key remained hanging in the lock, unturned where she'd left it mid-way.

Chapter 6ix

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At work, it felt like somepony hanging out in the background of everything had tuned an unlabeled knob slightly to the left. Surfaces were either blurry or crystal clear and shiny. Derpy heard her own thoughts louder than almost anypony around, but on occasion, a bit of dialogue would burst through, snippets of conversation that seemed intensely related to whatever she was thinking at the moment of interruption. 'Just take it easy and remember to breathe,' a supervisor had said to a trainee, going over the mail routes with him on his first day. Derpy had snapped her head sideways and stared on her way down the hall, before realizing the conversation had nothing to do with her, and pretending just as quickly that she was intensely interested in a piece of fluff stuck in the carpet she was walking on.

'I swear, if somepony takes my lunch one more time, I'm going to scream,' was someone else's interjection. Derpy stopped for a moment and guided herself through a deep breath, checking in the single brown pouch she was carrying for her breather and feeling it secure and bumpy underneath her hoof. That was one of her co-workers, somepony who worked at the front desk, with a bright red mane and lots of jewelry with shells in them. Was she talking about the time Derpy had taken somepony's lunch... Or the time she had dreamed about it, if it had never happened at all? Derpy felt herself getting sweaty, and her chest tightened up a little bit. All this and she hadn't even gotten dressed for work yet. And she was three minutes late.

But when Derpy got to the back room, nopony seemed to notice or care that she was late. Nopony seemed to notice her in general. A strange image of a pony-ghost with her features gliding inbetween the solid, corporeal images of her co-workers, drifting towards her mail-bag and hat hanging on the shelf, throwing them on, and then vanishing out the window, growing thinner and thinner and evaporating like a puff of smoke that had been blown into the wind.

Derpy shook her head. Nopony noticed that either. She squeezed through the small crowd of other pegasi getting ready for their own routes, or just standing around and laughing with each other as they chatted and drank their third cup of morning coffee. Letters would get to where they needed to be.

Derpy wondered about that too. If she hadn't come into work today, or she hadn't the next day, or the day after that, if she stopped coming altogether, how long would it take somepony to come check on her? To notice she was gone? And when they finally noticed, what would happen next?

Thinking like this hurt Derpy's head sometimes. The words she was using to talk to herself would get bigger and deeper and slower and it would feel like the idea she was trying to understand was too large to hold in her head, as though she could either just see the edges over the horizon, or hold a tiny part of the whole and examine it piece by piece, rotating the thing in her hooves like a giant toy puzzle.

But that was strange. How could a word be 'big'? She knew it could have a lot of letters, but... then how could an idea be 'big'? How could you be able to think about one thing, and nod and follow along and understand everything somepony was saying to you, or that you were saying to yourself, and then the very next moment, be unable to move the conversation in any direction, be buried in lead weights or giant boulders or just in any way pinned to the ground, stuck underneath the weight of the wrinkled mush inside your head being unable to contort itself around this new idea.

And there were a lot of big ideas like that. Most of them included the word 'why?'. Some of them were deceptively simple, like "why do we need to eat food?". Others were more complex, involving words for things happening with each other in physical ways that Derpy could barely remember, even when she wrote them down. At present, the idea that seemed ready to swallow her up on every side and engulf her mind to drown in its tempest, was simply the notion of the nation she occupied.

Equestria. A place within a space within a... what then? A nothing?

And Equestria was a big place. It had many smaller places inside it. The same way a town was a place, but had many smaller places inside it too, like markets and pubs and villages and dog-houses and even little ant-hills if you were counting those too. And most of those places had different names, and different ponies and non-ponies, and some of them were much bigger than any place Derpy had lived before.

There were places with hundreds—thousands of ponies. More ponies that Derpy could name if she spent a lifetime reading through the phone-book. Ponies who were big and old and on their way out, and young and small and just learning what life was about, taking their first steps or getting into fights on the playground over Ponemon cards. Most of those ponies—all of them, in fact, had no idea who Derpy was. They had never read about her in the paper, or seen her on the news. Nopony had ever written anything about her, and nothing she did was newsworthy. When she was gone, nopony would recognize her ever again.

And at her job—when she was gone there too—eventually, somepony would replace her, and learn the routes, and her regulars, and after a while it would be like she had never been there in the first place, and the last time her name was ever said would be lost to the wind and time and scattered over everything like a handful of dust on a seaside cliff. She would be swallowed by the waves.

Ten-o'-seven. She had been standing around thinking about nothing for four minutes. And there was mail to deliver.

There was always mail to deliver.

Chapter 7even

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As time was like a fabric, could it be stretched and strung out to maximum length, or wound up tight so it took up no more than a hoof's width in size? Maybe it was more of a gel, or liquid, that you splashed around in and swam and tried to make headway, but no matter what found yourself repelled by the current or simply stuck as the stuff thickened around you, cutting off your movement and oxygen supply besides.

Derpy would wonder about these things in the back of her head, and then when they got to the front of her head, she would wake up, and gasp a lot, and scramble to find her breather even though it was exactly always in the same place she left it. One time she'd left it somewhere else. One time, the feeling was enough to throw her in circles around her house, searching absurd places like kitchen drawers and the cabinet in the bathroom mirror where she kept her shaving stuff. She'd looked in the shower, under her bed, and in the fridge before finally finding it left on the top of the toilet lid, evidently somewhere she'd carried it with her and left it absentmindedly. The way her chest seized with each second as she ran from room to room, the fifteen voices in her head shouting to panic and not panic and do both at the same time...

She didn't like to go back to that place. She needed to have rules.

For Derpy to understand how much time had passed, it was easier to make a list of a differences. Different things she started to notice as time went on, things that only changed once she had taken time to chart their progress, usually from one direction to the other, taking place only in the most gradual sense, assuring her of the regular flow of some untouchable constant behind the background of the universe.

Words were bigger, for a sudden. And the sentences weren't always right... the feelings were easier to put into her head, but then harder to come out. And she found talking and answering herself a lot easier too, no fuss about doing it out loud or in public, whenever she heard something, it was just polite to answer instead of let that long, haunting silence continue. Silence was the worst. It was important to always have some kind of sound at all times. When she couldn't think of anything else, Derpy left the television on, which made her feel like she was in a restaurant sitting next to a rowdy party of ponies who were laughing and talking jovially about whatever exciting things were going on in their completely Derpy-unrelated lives. She fell asleep on the couch like that sometimes, and had to get herself up in the middle of the night to go to bed and take her pills. She felt groggy in the morning when she took them late, so she'd felt groggy a few times this month.

Remembering things got harder. Not everything—little bits and pieces would get lost, for example. It used to be easy to keep track of things like the day, the date, the time of day. But after a few weeks of her new medication, Derpy found herself forgetting things like that, and instead remembering otherwise obscure details, like exactly how many minutes a T.V. program had run over-allotment last night, or the zip code of every pony on her Monday, Sunday, and Tuesday routes. She found herself reading more, taking a sudden interested in ancient Equestrian history, particularly the parts where famous battles had taken place. Sitting anywhere in the clouds felt like a different world away from anywhere somepoy had hurt someone else, anywhere there had been blood shed or bodies laid down to make a group of folks change their mind. Derpy wondered what life would have been like to be alive in the times when everypony had to fight for the rest of the ponies around them. She wondered if there was anything to help her breathe back then, but didn't think anypony had invented plastic that far back.

Still... she'd gotten on okay before the change. Now things were better, but they were worse too, or they were just... different.

It felt like relearning to breathe. Your whole life you had grown used to certain sensations, found a voice that said 'everything will be okay, just stay calm and we'll get through this'. But now the voice was a panicked shriek, and it came along with clenches, chest tightening, gasps and wheezes and jolts of white-out lightning that threatened to knock you off your hooves with just the strength of the persistent thought that, if you didn't pop and press and inhale and hold and breathe very soon, you were never going to take another breathe again. What was already an emergency had grown into an existential horror. Derpy wasn't allowed to breathe without her breather nearby, always in case her lungs decided, what seemed like arbitrarily, to revolt.

Dreams had gotten stronger. 'Stronger' was the best word, because every time Derpy woke up, she felt like she'd been punched in the face by somepony who practiced hoof-boxing on the weekends, and even if her chest wasn't seizing and wheezing to go along with the jolt of terror, she always found herself hovering in the state between waking and asleep, unsure if she should get up and douse herself with a glass of water or lay back underneath the blankets and try her hardest to fight whatever force had been opposing her in the aether before her eyes had snapped open. Usually it was somepony she remembered from elementary school. Sometimes it was her mom. Her boss, or somepony she worked with. Once it had even been her.

And it was always something she had done wrong. Something so far back she couldn't remember it, so far back she felt like she was looking at the memories of a completely different pony, so removed and abstracted from who she was now that she didn't feel it was even fair to accuse her of being the same, of being capable of whatever she had done in youth that had left such a black mark on the collective hearts of her dream's occupants.

She would sweat when she woke up, and curse under her breath. Literally wish for a night of sleep to come that was simple, unending blackness.

Still, you could say she slept more soundly. When she went to bed, she went to bed, and she didn't have to lie awake listening to sounds outside the window and wondering if a creature in the shadows would show her the mercy of snatching her into the deep unknown. No more counting her breaths, checking them for hitches, wondering at which point she had crossed the threshold into 'need to panic'.

Ponies at work were less friendly. When she waved to them in the halls, they'd wave back only half the time, and even then, halfheartedly, usually looking in the other direction. When conversations happened, she talked when she used to listen and listened when she used to talk. Trains of thought would go on forever, babbling like a brook out of her mouth, and suddenly a voice would say Don't forget to listen!, and she'd come overly to her senses, shutting up completely and lulling the conversation into dead air as the other participant attempted to fill the silence like they were draining a drowning boat. Too many holes, and everypony would walk away after trying for too long without assistance. Derpy didn't know what she was doing wrong.

Chapter 8ight

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The first thing she did really wrong was losing her breather a second time. This time it wasn't on top of the toilet, or in the kitchen drawers, or any of the places she had looked the first time either. It wasn't on her bed or under her bed or tangled in amongst the blankets or fallen between the mattress and the wall or lodged under one of the pillows. It wasn't on her night-stand or dresser or anywhere in the kitchen. By the time she got back around to the bedroom, Derpy felt like she was gasping so loudly the neighbours would here, which felt good, and bad at the same time, because maybe they would think she was pretending or faking it because of how loud she was, or, though, maybe, they would think she was in serious trouble and call the hospital and get her another breather for emergencies. She wasn't sure about which one would happen, and her brain wasn't giving her time to think. It was saying NOW NOW NOW over and over again, and pointing an arrow wildly in every direction with a big flashing label in blue that said 'BREATHER' overhead. But it never settled anywhere. It kept spinning like a compass on top of a magnet.

Breather, Derpy said to herself. She put a hoof on her chest and felt the slow rattle of whatever was tightening her lungs as she drew in a breath, barely manage to rise at all with the tiny sliver of air she was able to get. When she exhaled, her lungs wheezed, and she coughed, hacking for several seconds and spitting a gob of phlegm into the trashcan by her night-stand. She missed slightly, and the yellow-white liquid trickled over the rim of the can, dripping slowly towards the floor.

Her phone. Call somepony. Call them even if she couldn't breathe to get the words out. The emergency number and somepony would come.

Hoof. Her hooves had to hold the phone. Hooves have to dial the number. Number. Put in the number. Breathe even if you can't. Eyes open. Keep moving forward.

"Equestria Emergency Services, what is your emergency?" chimed a voice on the other end of the phone, sounding like a proper-looking pony who maybe had her mane done up.

Derpy thought she spotted something blue underneath the dresser. She fell to the ground with a thump and reached out for it, scraping her hoof over the years-old caked up dust and bits of fuzz that were in the way. Finally unlodging the item in question, only to find it to be the plastic coil she unwound before the cap on her milk jug. A piece of a milk-jug that had wandered into her bedroom.

"Hello? Equestria Emergency Services, what is your emergency?" called the voice again. "If you are unable to speak, please confirm that you would like an emergency unit sent to your address by staying on the line."

On the ground, Derpy closed her eyes, and clenched her hooves around the small piece of plastic, holding it to her lips and mouthing the word 'breathe' over and over again, until finally her lips stopped moving.