memories of that night fade just as the sunrise did, as i cram in last-minute revision and hopelessly try to prepare myself for the weeks ahead: i am not worried about how much i know – or, more accurately, how much i remember. the demons, on the other hand? the demons are what i’m worried about. i will not be panicking about the exam paper in front of me on monday morning; i will be panicking simply at the idea of the exam itself, like i told Mo. i dread the idea of having to sit silently for an entire hour, in plain view of nearly three hundred other people. the demons will be louder and fiercer than ever, and i don’t think i will be able to hold them off for that long.
and to make matters worse, there is miss mirlott. i can already picture her dragging me into her office before the exam and ordering me to practice some stupid mantra about believing in your resilience, or whatever. no. i am as certain as i can allow myself to be that none of that is going to help: when my heart is battling my ribcage and my blood has frozen in my veins and time has sped up so enormously that everything around me seems to hardly move at all – there is only one solution. and that solution is not a what, but a who. Mo. no one else can make me feel like me again after i panic, and that is an achievement, because i don’t even know what me feels like at all… not really. it always seems like i am distant; detached, somehow. the demons have bonded like atoms together and now my entire world is made up of little voices screaming butwhatifyoupanic? it’s as if i see through a lens of shattered glass. like everything is broken, each piece of the world is just a worthless part of something that has been torn from what it once was. maybe the world was once priceless, but all i can see is something second-hand. i stumble blindly through a scratched mosaic of tragedy, but Mo is stained glass: she is colour, and light, and hope. she is all I can ask for. in my first exam – and every exam – i will think of her. and maybe things won’t go as badly as i am afraid they will.
the house is quiet as i scan over pages of revision notes, trying to memorize it all. but i can’t help thinking how pointless it all is. each sentence is just another collection of letters strung together in a different way, like beads on mismatched necklaces that are being wound around my neck as i read over each page. i am choking. and the saddest part? i’m in control of it all.
i’ve thought about giving up before. on nights when coursework is due and tests are looming and homework has yet to be finished, and my brain feels too big for my skull but also so feverishly small compared to the amount of information i am forcing in to my head– on those nights, i wanted to drop it all. forget it. stop trying. it isn’t like this stuff is going to help me anyway. but then i think of how much stress is behind me, how much i'm already past. just a little longer. if i stop thinking about how pointless and stupid and painful it all is i could actually get something done.
and so i sit in silence, reading and muttering and scribbling but also listening. listening for sounds of movement, of normality, of humanity. it seems like nobody is here at all. my parents are both at home today, having a quiet weekend before their students at the university sit their exams, just like i will with my gcses. but where’s the chatter, the laughter, the love? i think of all the things Mo and i would share if she was here with me; then i think of my father, buried in his newspaper, and my mother, submerging herself in pixels as she stares blankly at the television screen, watching some program that is not and will never be entertaining, simply trying to distract herself from the infuriating nothingness that has settled like dust in our home. i am begging for something more. i think they might be, too. as afternoon turns to evening the useless words on the pages blurring in my vision has driven me insane. the suffocating emptiness around me has consumed the air like smoke. except there's never any goddamn fire.
finally i can take it no longer. i drag my feet along the carpeted floors and into the living room, desperate for something to eliminate the silence. i think i'm going to call it a night, i say dryly to the two noiseless figures sat perfectly upright on the sofa. they nod.
alright, darling. my mother says. a smile pulls at her lips but her eyes remain blank, as if her features are not used to anything resembling cheerfulness. my father glances at me over his reading glasses. goodnight, son. he says in a low voice. i bury my hands in my pockets, expecting more. he pats me awkwardly on the arm. you've been good over these past few weeks, he assures me, albeit less than half-heartedly. you'll do fine tomorrow. i try my best to hide the way my breath catches in my throat when he mentions the exams. i shrug. thanks.
i turn to leave, some bitter mix of disappointment and anger swelling inside of me. no we're proud of you for getting through this, no are you sure you're not too anxious, not even a we're here for you. they're always here, always hovering, but never being anything other than silhouettes of people i cannot ever understand, and who definitely cannot understand me. after all, any parents who send their kid off to a therapist once a week can't be expected to try and understand the kid. they pay someone to do it for them.
but perhaps i shouldn't be too hard on my parents; in fact, i almost get my wish. i am just passing through the doorway when my mother says, charlie? i turn to face her. there's that unfamiliar, uncomfortable smile again, along with the words: are you sure you're alright?
i hesitate. my heart beats just a little bit faster. the demons, of course, have left me to deal with this one on my own. and then my lips are adorned with colours again, as a white lie turns into something even bigger. yeah, i reply. i'm alright.
maybe it's my fault for not trying, and not expecting them to understand. or maybe it's their fault for making me expect that. i don't know. but i retreat to my room, and they retreat to the silence. for a while, everything is how it always is. i spend the evening and some of the night on my balcony, carefully squinting through my telescope and taking refuge in the stars. soft music feeds itself through my headphones like ribbons made of melodies and tender lyrics; i fit myself between constellations and sink into the inky darkness of the sky, watching as the clouds evaporate into shadows and the moon appears as the horizon disappears. i always loved that about the night; i always loved that in the darkness, the world above looks so much bigger, it is so much easier to get lost in. rich blue sky stretches in all directions and i am tiny, i am small, i am so blissfully powerless among the planets and the galaxies and the heavens. what happens will happen; the world will go on turning, the sun will go on rising and setting and i will still be able to witness it all. i think that, as well as not-knowing, there's something else that's important: acknowledging your own minuscule existence. i don't mean to be a pessimist, but it is the truth. outside of our own little planet, and each of the spaces we inhabit within that planet, we are nothing. i am nothing. exams are nothing. i don't intend to get lost in space, but it is comforting to remind myself that there are things so much bigger than me. tomorrow will happen, and so will the day after tomorrow, and so will the day after that. it's all part of the never-ending cycle of existence. it will happen, and so many other things will happen as well. so, really, why worry?
the metal bars of the balcony are cool against my skin, and i sit there for a while, peaceful as the noises of the wind and the traffic are almost muted by the music from my headphones. after a while, though, there's something i can't ignore. voices. coming from inside.
i push myself to my feet. is it - i don't allow myself to finish that sentence. it can't possibly be - but it must be - who else would it be? my heart is beating with a twisted sort of nervous excitement as i creep back into my room. i am so unbelievably tired of the boredom, the silence, the numbness that everyone in my family pulls so tightly around them like some fragile armour. i am desperate for something different, something more than quietness and pretence. armour can protect you from violence, but it can't protect you from words. and to me, words are the most important weapon.
my footsteps are as loud as my heartbeats as i walk to my bedroom door and press my ear to the cold wooden surface. angry whispers, muffled, but audible. i freeze. waiting. spitefully hoping for the spark that will catch on the throats of one or the other of my parents and start a fire that not even their carefully constructed defences can withstand.
i'm just worried about charlie, that's all! i hear my mother's frail voice raise to a volume i didn't think her fibreglass vocal cords could allow. i am startled. they're arguing about me? now i am not so desperate for the battle, not if i am the cause, but something wills me to hold back a little longer. well, what good is it now? i hear my father shoot back. you're not exactly helping, patrick! my mother's voice gets louder again. my breath catches in my throat. neither are you! my father yells; my pulse roars in my ears, i clench my fists, waiting for a reply. nothing.
go on, he shouts again; and then, more quietly: go and fix charlie.