Chapter 1 – Summer
I can’t breathe.
The chatter swirls around me like physical waves, pushing and pulling, dragging me in unexpected directions with the force of a vicious undercurrent. I stagger to my feet. My right knee buckles. I suck in a breath, and hold it, waiting.
My legs turn to unstable, gelatinous, sticks of nothingness. I take a tentative step forward, expecting my trembling legs to collapse. Surprisingly, I remain upright. My eyes bulge under a sudden, enormous pressure. My vision swims out of focus.
I can’t breathe.
A tight pain lands in my chest, my breathing is weak and shallow, my head spins. I grip onto the bar counter to steady myself. The barman is looking at me. He slides me another WKD. I wrap my sweaty hand around the cool bottle and press it to my flushed forehead.
I can’t breathe!
I stumble away from the bar, backing into someone, and mutter an apology. The bar is thick with cigarette smoke that has wafted in from outside. The DJ in the corner is moving to his beat. Everyone is talking, laughing. I wince against the noise and push through the stagnant crowd.
Outside. The glare of the evening summer sun makes me squint. Everything is so bright. Sunbeams bounce off cars and metal drains and windows in buildings making everything twice as bright. The reflections become an army of piercing laser beams that seem to attack my skin, making it sting and prickle, and make me wish for an old fashioned shield and some sunglasses.
I suck in another breath. I can’t breathe. But I am breathing.
The bottle of WKD slips out of my hand and falls to the pavement. It doesn’t smash, just rolls away under the protection of a parked car. The liquid gurgles out in a foaming froth of unnatural blue. A car horn blares and I reel away from the road I was about to step into. My heart hammers against my ribs, so fast, too fast, threatening to leap out of my chest altogether. My pulse rushes in my temples. A headache knocks on my skull. With every step, my knees threaten to buckle. Home. I have to get home.
The barrage of bodily sensations is continuous. They seem to grow with the enormity of a tidal wave until my entire body is awash with foreign sensations and I am sure they are the beginning of a colossal event about to take place within my body. Is it possible to become epileptic at the age of nineteen? Is it possible for your heart to just suddenly give out?
As I stagger on wobbly legs, I wrap my arms around myself, attempting to steady my trembling body. I keep to the pavements, checking roads three times before I cross them. Everything is happening in slow motion around me. But inside my body everything is moving so fast. Too fast. Scarily fast.
Carrie and Gemma are still at the bar. Did I even tell them I was leaving? Lauren and Pete are at home in the house the five of us share. If I can just get to Lauren. I’m afraid I won’t make it. I might collapse right here in the street, unconscious, at the mercy of some passerby.
I wipe at the sweat on the nape of my neck. I squint into the abusive sun. I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. One at a time. Faster and faster until I am almost jogging the half hour route home. I pray to a God I don’t believe in. I make promises to the universe that I won’t ever fulfil. My chest lurches and my heart threatens to leap out of my ribcage, tearing muscle and flesh on its doomed exit. I clutch at my chest and will my feet to move faster. I turn the corner onto my road and feel a burst of relief. I run up the road, past the rusted iron gate that hangs from one hinge like a drunken sentry, and through the wide open door.
“Call an ambulance!” I burst through the front door and hold onto the balustrade, gasping for breath.
“What’s the matter?” Lauren is beside me at the stairs, her face full of alarm.
“I think there’s something wrong with my heart! It’s beating out of control!” I wail desperately. I clutch my chest, trying to keep my heart inside my body. I am about to die. Any moment now. My heart can’t possibly beat this fast and hurt this much and still function.
“Maggie, take a deep breath, calm down,” Lauren instructs.
Calm down? Deep breath? What isn’t she getting here? I need to go to the hospital. Why isn’t she getting her car keys?
I look wildly about the small hallway. A peel of laughter cuts across the road and whips through the open door. The sound is abrasive and I move my hands to cover my ears. I sink down to the first step of the stairs and curl into a ball. My body is shaking. Vibrating from head to toe. I sit there, squeeze my eyes shut, grit my teeth and rock back and forth. Back and forth, back and forth. And I wait to die.
But I don’t die. After a while I dare to lift my head and open my eyes. Lauren is sitting next to me, I hadn’t noticed her hand on my back. I am still shaking, but the pain in my chest has abated somewhat.
“That’s it,” Lauren encourages.
I take some deep breaths, daring to hope that I’m actually ok and that this day, this cloudless blue summer’s day isn’t going to mark my death. I suck the air deep into grateful lungs. My chest expands around the vice-like grip that seems to strangle it, loosening, lessening the fingers of pain that dig into my ribs. I take more breaths. My lungs inflate, my panicked heart slows, the pain in my chest eases, the colours and lights become less bright. My body convulses in a shudder of relief. Whatever is happening is ending. It is coming to a natural finish and my body is relaxing.
“Have you eaten anything today?” Lauren asks.
“Breakfast,” I reply sheepishly. Could it have been just a blood-sugar thing, combined with the late night and alcohol of last night?
“I’m going to make you some toast,” Lauren says, and retreats to the kitchen to set about the task.
I sit there on the front step, grateful for the breeze that is blowing in through the open front door. I put my fingers to my neck, to my carotid artery, and feel for a pulse. My heart is beating fast, but not too fast.
Lauren hands me the toast and sits down next to me while I gobble it down.
“Better now?” she asks.
“I think so,” I reply. But what the hell?
My dad asks if I had been studying too hard.
My brother asks if I’ve been partying too hard.
My mom asks if I’ve taken any drugs.
And definitely not. I might not always make the best decisions at this juncture in my life, but I’m not stupid.
“Even one of those legal highs?” Mom asks on the phone that night.
“Not even one of those.”
“I won’t be mad.”
“Mom, I haven’t taken any drugs.”
“You said you wouldn’t smoke either,” she accuses.
I sigh. “That’s different. Please can you just tell me what happened?”
There is a pause from the other end of the line. “I’m coming to pick you up next week. I think you just need a rest. You’re probably over tired. Why don’t you just go to bed and see how you feel in the morning?”
“Ok. Yeah. I’ll do that.”
Just before I hit the hang-up button I hear a soft ‘I love you’ from mom. I don’t have the energy to call her back to return the sentiment.
And that is that, trauma over. #majorfreakout complete. I change into my pj’s, wash my face, brush my teeth, apply moisturiser, all dreading the moment when I will have to crawl under my duvet. There is a sense of trepidation building in my stomach and as soon as I crawl into bed and try to close my eyes, it spreads to the rest of my body too. I can’t sleep. I can only doze for ten minutes at a time. Each time my eyes close and I fall off the edge into sleep, I startle awake with that feeling that I’m about to fall off a cliff backwards, and I’m confronted by a painful pumping sensation in my chest. I spend eight hours tossing and turning until I finally decide it’s time to get out of bed and study for my final exam of my first year at university.
I stick my blonde hair in a ponytail and arm myself with highlighters and 3 x 5 cards. I manage to ignore the dull headache at my temples and sip on a bottle of water. The fiery pain in my chest is harder to ignore…but I have work to do.
Maybe it’s a blood-sugar imbalance, maybe it’s a hangover, maybe it’s the stress of exams and the relief that my relationship with Ronan is finally over. Maybe it’s all of these things that caused a bizarre physical reaction. I don’t really understand what happened and I don’t spend too much time thinking about it – or rather, I spend time deliberately not thinking about it – I’m just thankful it is all over.
But then it happens again.
My final exam is in human psychology and with each day that passes, I forget about my strange episode and begin to prepare for the #partyofthecentury. Now that my exams are over, there are priorities. Obviously.
On the night of the summer ball, my house mates and I dress up in our finest for the occasion. It will be our last hurrah before we all head home for the summer. We go to Las Iguanas for a few pre-ball cocktails. Gemma and I start on the vodka and Redbulls. Perhaps an alarm bell should be ringing, but I have not yet learned to recognise the ominous tolling in the back of my mind.
By the time we reach the marquees that house the various dance tents, inflatable contests, food and drinks, the sun has hidden behind some dark clouds and the rain has started to drizzle down.
“Just what we need,” Gemma mutters, her blonde curls flattening under the increasingly insistent rain drops.
“Come on,” I grab her arm and pull her towards one of the tents. By the time we dash inside my hair is an unruly mess so I bung it in a ponytail.
“Crap,” I say, looking down at my fingers. A couple of my rings, a little on the large side, have slid off my fingers during the downpour. Mascara is running down both our cheeks. Our dresses are stuck firmly to our bodies with no sign of drying out.
“Well, at least everyone looks the same,” I gesture to the soaked appearance of the students in the tent.
“Let’s dance,” Gemma suggests.
We head towards the centre of the dance floor. A familiar song is blaring from the speakers. I glance towards the stage where a crew of guys are peacocking for female attention. Among them is a good friend of mine, Kyle, who I’ve known from home for a few years. I wave. Next to him is Ronan. AKA Butthead. That sudden lurch of nausea that slams into your stomach when you run into an ex-boyfriend unexpectedly assaults me.
“Hey,” Ronan says, after he winds his way through the crowd to my side. He is full of nice smiles and his Hugh Grant dimples.
I narrow my eyes at him.
“Just saying hey,” he says, his hands held up liked I’ve pulled a gun out of a thigh holster.
“But we don’t do that anymore,” I snap. “We agreed.”
“Hey Mags,” Kyle bounds up to my side. “This one bothering you?”
I shoot him an accusatory look. He’s been fraternising with the enemy. He shrugs apologetically.
“Come on Ro,” Kyle places a hand on his shoulder and nudges him away.
“Thanks,” I mouth.
Kyle winks at me as he follows Ronan into the crowd.
“It’s been a month, hasn’t it?” Gemma asks.
“You haven’t, you know, since…”
“What’s it like, seeing him now?”
“Irritating,” I reply. “There are three thousand people here. Somehow I thought I’d avoid seeing him.”
I turn my back on the dance tent and go get another Redbull and vodka.
At two o’clock in the morning, when the last song has been spun, the rain finally stops and allows Gemma and I walk home.
“It’s going to be fun to go back home,” Gemma says.
“Yeah. Totally. I haven’t seen anyone from school since Easter.”
“And now that you’re single…” Gemma grins.
“Summer is always the perfect time for a fling,” I agree.
But it’s more than that. The future is this big open ball of space that I can’t yet fathom the boundaries of. It is…unquantifiable. Immense. Limitless. I’m not yet of the age where you get stuck in a dead-end career or job and are forced to move only forward down a narrow one-way path. #loserville. Nope. Not my life. Right now, anything is possible. Important decisions will be made over the next couple of years, life-defining decisions. My future is just out there, just there, waiting for me. It’s all so…megalithic.
I undress in my room and think about the ball. Even seeing Ronan hasn’t dampened my mood. And Kyle was looking good, even if he did insist on using a whole bottle of gel on his dark hair. I lay on my bed, in just my pants, the humidity of the summer has not been wiped away by the rain, and watch the bulbous moon through my orange curtains. It seems as big as my future. My arms are twitchy, my skin restless, I presume Redbull is still coursing through my veins. My brain refuses to wind down.
The hangover that assaults me the following day is of Titan proportions. Not even a toasted cheese and ham sandwich can perk me up.
A half hour later I am sitting on my bed, still in my pyjamas, bringing up the toasted sandwich I have just eaten. The retching sends convulsions through my chest and back. My throat burns from acidic bile. I drink some water. I’ve thrown up in my sink. Which has tiny holes in the drain and the chunky sandwich has clogged the hole. I have to mush it down with my fingers. I am more than slightly disgusted with myself.
My hands start to shake. And then my legs. I need food, but I haven’t been unable to keep anything down. The Redbull has screwed me up. Why, oh why am I so crap at determining my limits when I’m in the middle of a good night? I sit wearily on the edge of my bed and hang on to my sink. I rest my head on my arms for a moment. I so want to sleep, but my shoulders are tense and my toes are tapping an unusual beat. My skin feels prickly, as if I’ve just been dragged backwards through a blackberry bush. That is the first thing. A flush of prickliness that runs up my spine and concentrates at the nape of my neck. It grabs me from behind and savagely wraps itself around my ribs and chest. It grows in intensity until I shoot to my feet and begin to look for whatever alien thing is trying to claim my body as a host. I expect to see my body covered in flies. Or a long worm-like entity silently slithering up my being, trying to enter an orifice. Or something.
There is nothing. (Really?!) But I can still feel it. The flush of fear intensifies to such a degree that my pulse pounds violently in my temples, my armpits, and the back of my knees. It is racing. Terrified. I am terrified. My heart is actually hurting. Is that even possible? I look down at my chest as if I might be able to see it throbbing through my ribs, or glowing in some weird luminous way through my skin and blood and flesh, a la Stephen King.
“Stop it!” I pound my chest like a crazy Planet of the Apes extra.
My ribs ache. I can’t breathe. I can’t suck the air in deep enough. Some invisible force is suffocating me. Crushing me. Paralysing me. Only my thoughts move. And they cycle viciously fast. Unpleasant, frightening thoughts that make me fear that perhaps I won’t have a future as big as the moon. Perhaps I will have no future at all. And still I am being strangled. I am half tempted to hit out and bat whatever it is away, but I can’t move. Not even a finger. I am rooted to the spot like a petrified tree. Not how I want myself to react in an emergency, not how I picture heroic scenarios in my mind. In my dreams I save the day and wear a cape and am always capable. But not now. Maybe not ever.
It is happening again. Whatever happened last weekend is happening again.
“No!” I don’t want this. Whatever this is.
Am I succumbing to some late onset condition? Am I developing a heart problem? Am I about to just keel over?
Gemma pops her head around my door. I swivel my body towards her, like a jerky puppet on strings. I can move. “Are you ok?” She asks.
“No! It’s happening again!” the voice that emerges doesn’t sound like me.
Gemma sits down on my bed. There is a temporary lull in the speed of my pulse as she holds out her hand to me. I take it and hold on. This time I won’t have to go through it alone, whatever it was.
“I’m afraid there’s something really wrong with me,” I dare to voice the fear that is occupying my mind.
“I think you’re just tired. You need food.” Gemma hands me a chocolate bar. “I’m not feeling so great either,” she smiles sheepishly. “How many vodka and Redbulls was it?”
“I daren’t stop to add it up,” I reply, managing a weak smile. I nibble at the chocolate bar.
A dizzy spell sends me to a horizontal position. Pangs of discomfort slither into my chest and leave behind spasms of breath-holding pain. I rock myself back and forth, back and forth. It’s better when I am moving. I don’t need to think when I’m moving. Or rather, I just mumble a prayer over and over again and fervently hope that I will be heard. Suffering is overrated. Mother Theresa. Nelson Mandela. Terry Waite. Heroes. But at what cost?
Closed eyes are better than the blurry vision, but that makes me feel dizzier. Something is ringing in my ears. There aren’t any churches nearby. Gemma’s voice is muffled, and then all at once too loud. I can’t focus on the conversation. I’m only nineteen-years-old…what the hell is wrong with me?
It lasts for three hours. The heart pounding, dry-mouth, body trembling, vision blurring, breath-stealing, almost dying, terrifying ordeal. And Gemma sits with me for every minute of it. Am I going insane? Am I going to be locked in a padded room and have to wear a white jacket with my arms secured behind my back? Will I have to live in a sterile bubble and never kiss anyone again? Never…have sex again? Make love. Tears run freely, unabashedly, and desperately. Once could be called an anomaly. Twice is something else. Twice is something.
“It sounds like a panic attack,” Mom says when I phone.
“A what…? What the hell is that? And why is it happening to me?”
“I had some when my parents died,” Mom says. “It’s kind of like a sensory overload. You body’s flight or fight response goes a bit haywire after an emotional ordeal or traumatic event.”
“What emotional ordeal?” I ask. I’ve never been raped. Never abandoned. Never abused by a family member. No one close to me has ever died. I’ve had an idyllic childhood with parents who love me and I love in return, and now that I’m coming out of my teenage rebellion period, are becoming friends again too.
Why me? Why at all?
After a fitful night, my mother arrives to take me home. I sit on the bed while she packs up my belongings. The simple task seems gargantuan to my incapacitated self. I tense when she goes near my exposed hanging rail of clothes, knowing they will stink of cigarette smoke. She makes no comment but her nose wrinkles.
“I can’t wait to go home,” I say, as I throw my suitcase in the boot. And it isn’t because I want to see my friends or have a summer fling or make money waitressing at the hotel. It’s because I want to feel safe.