breaths filter shakily from my parched lips as i sit hunched over on my bed, waiting. waiting for the moment i have longed for. counting the footsteps along the hallway outside, eyes fixed on the door. i hear the floorboards creak and hint of a smile finds its way into my face: this is it. the attention i've been craving. i freeze.
seconds pass. one minute. then two. no one opens the door. hope and fear mix in my stomach and i am sick from the anticipation, and everything that came before it. finally, i hear the creak of floorboards. an image forms in my mind, of my mother turning the doorknob and creeping in, a smile glittered with tears adorning her features, and talking. apologising. i'd apologise too; i would confess my secrets and my worries and she would do the same and maybe then we would both stop feeling so down. i ache for that moment, for the shackles that chain our hearts to our ribs to be broken. maybe we could find a way to attach those hearts; maybe then we would understand each other. i wait. hoping.
then i hear a sigh, muffled footsteps. my mother has given up.
silently i pull the sheets over my head and beg for sleep.
the next morning, i wake earlier than i have done in months. i pull one curtain back and soak in the lavender skies, take deep breaths of the crisp morning air in the hopes to cleanse my insides of the insufferable disappointment that is crowding the spaces beneath my skin. to me, disappointment has always seemed softer than sadness, but now i know how crushing it is to get your hopes up only to have them forced back down. after a while, the air doesn't seem so clean, and the sky has lost its colour. i will myself to take a last look at my revision, pack my bag with supplies for the exams, and pull my headphones firmly down over my ears. i will have to face the demons at some point today, but i am putting it off for as long as possible. if i start to feel something, i fear that everything else will escape too.
unfortunately i am right about that.
somewhere hidden in the darkness of my mind is a memory, a distant spark, of a time some years ago when i cut my knee on a broken beer bottle. i remember sitting sprawled on the pavement, my vision blurred by tears; i remember finding it oddly fascinating how the blood immediately found its way to the surface, oozing out of the gash and gliding along the cracks in my skin, cracks that i had never noticed before. it was painful, of course - i still have a faint scar. but it was also painful in a way that i couldn't quite describe; not then, when i was young and afraid, and not now, when i am older, and still afraid. there was something about how strange it was to see the blood staining my leg dark crimson; it felt so unnatural to me, as if whatever was going on inside of me was never meant to see the light of day. some things, i decided, were just not meant to be exposed. maybe that was when i realised the importance of not-knowing.
today, as i file in to the school hall for my first exam, i am reminded of that moment. i listen to the rhythm of two hundred pairs of footsteps as my entire year group assembles and then i listen to the irregular pattern of my heartbeat, and how fast it is, like a drummer who has fallen out of time. i am aware that my legs are shaking, and that my fingers are frozen but my head is pounding and that this is not like the panic attacks i have experienced before. previously, i have been hit full on, every fibre of my body absorbing the impact of overwhelming, seemingly inescapable fear. this time i do not feel the fear straight away; there is no head-on collision. it starts slowly. i am standing on a sandy shore, waiting for the tsunami to hit.
ignoring the trembling in my fingers, i take my seat. i listen as the invigilator in front of me addresses the details of the forthcoming exam. as she speaks, the discomfort i felt as i entered the room is amplified. my chest feels tight, my head heavy, my skin is cold. gradually, as the invigilator's speech draws to a close, and the entire room waits for the exam to begin, i feel the first wave of panic. or, rather, the panic that comes about as a result of thinking that i am going to panic. but still there are no tell-tale signs of an attack: no sudden bursts of fear, no shortage of breath, no demons screaming. right now, they whisper. i hang between fear and uncertainty, each morphing into the other as i contemplate what is really happening. am i panicking? will i panic? what is this? these questions tumble over each other in my head, each one fighting for attention until there are no thoughts, only meaningless combinations of letters and feelings. and then i remember where i am, in a silent hall full of silent people, but i am far from silent –
the tsunami hits. suddenly all oxygen has been sucked from the air and i am falling through an empty vacuum at hundreds of miles an hour. only blackness rushes past, yet i feel as if i am witnessing every colour, witnessing every sound; this is not beautiful, this is madness but i am incapable of making it stop. i cannot breath, i cannot think, i cannot move, but i am aware of everything and everyone around me, i am watching this fear in high definition. it is now that i am reminded of that moment all those years ago, when i watched blood seep from a cut into cracks i did not even know existed. this is now. this is watching as fear escapes from every part of me, fills the junctions and the alleys that connect my bones, slides over the paved roads of my skin. it reaches places i have not seen before, places i thought fear could not touch. it falls onto the floor and it clings to the air and it is everywhere, i am desperate, i am helpless. panic stop panic stop panic please, make it stop panic please panic get out panic i can't breathe.
i am vaguely aware of a hand on my arm, skin against freezing skin, and i am led from the hall with two hundred other faces turned my way. i want to scream. the adjacent corridor is quiet when we emerge (i am nowhere near focused enough to register who is beside me) and it is the silence, juxtaposed with the thunder in my head, that makes me feel as if i am going to pass out. a voice is repeating the words calm down in my ear and there are teachers approaching from every direction but i am a time bomb, a killing machine, i feel as if the wires inside if me are tangled and there is no one to reach inside my chest and set them right. i will explode. get away, i want to shout, i will explode. i am gasping and my vision is swimming but i am being pushed into a chair, a cup of water held to my lips, breathe. breathe. dizziness. head reeling. air filling up my lungs in a way that i had not thought possible: better, this is better. hands shaking. panic subsiding? eyes closing. stop –
charlie? a voice that stings, warm fingers over mine. red lips and lacquered nails. charlie. charlie, can your hear me?
i force my eyelids open.
a nod. yes. yes, i can hear you.
that's it. it’s okay. that was a bit of a shock, wasn't it? gave us all a bit of a fright.
i turn away. miss mirlott, of course. come to save the day.
you're not the only ones, i reply. she smiles, but a smile that is slightly less sickly than usual. i shuffle in my seat.
we're going to get you in a room by yourself, okay? someone will keep an eye on you. you don't have to go back in there.
i want to throw up. you're making me do the exam?
miss mirlott's expression droops pityingly. once you've calmed down, yes. she squeezes my hand again. i'm sorry, charlie.
i shake my head. but i won't be able to concentrate, i plead. there is a lump in my throat; i almost feel like crying. i don't think i can face an exam now. not after something like that. please, i say desperately. not now.
my guidance counsellor smiles again, but sadly, this time. i'm sorry. we'll give you some time first, to get settled again. it won't be so bad.
the school ends up calling my parents, both of whom talk to me individually. they sound genuinely worried, which comes as somewhat of a surprise after the events of last night; my mother even gets a little choked up. i feel sorry for her, as if all this is my fault, and then i remember yesterday, her cowardice, and i feel nothing at all. i give her one-word answers to all her hurried questions and end the phone call with a less-than-half-hearted i'm alright.
the school don't let me call Mo; she's probably in an exam of her own. i walk to the empty classroom in silence, dragging my feet, calculating in my head how much revision i have forgotten since this morning, and working out the probability of failing. i decide that the chances are high. coincidentally, it is a maths paper that is placed in front of me. i am told i have two hours. luckily, i don't panic. there is even a probability question in the exam: something about money and investments. briefly, i wonder why examboards don't think to put relevant questions in their exams; questions that we might understand better. then i think about all the shit teenagers go through anyway, and how they probably don't want to be reminded of it during a test.
time is up before i have finished the paper. i throw my pen down and walk out.
when i turn my phone on, i have two new voicemail messages from gecko and sven, asking if i am okay. i text them back using words not unlike those i spoke to my mother earlier. then i put my music on and walk slowly home.
i spot a figure leaning against the staircase as i enter the foyer of my apartment building. Mo, watching shyly as i approach, looking as beautiful as ever. for the second time that day, i get choked up. my footsteps quicken as i close the distance between us and my questions are lost in the fabric of her t shirt as i bury my head in her chest. shh, she says softly, pressing a kiss to my forehead. how – she cuts me off gently. your mum told me.
i don't know how to feel. and then i realise who i am with, and of course all i feel is love: gratitude, relief, and love. love that is soft and coloured in pastel crayons, love that sings lullabies and whispers beautiful words in my ear, love that is nose kisses and tight hugs and comfort. love that is Mo, here, with me, when i need her most. we stay there, in the dimly-lit foyer, for a very long time. shh, charlie bucket, Mo says, as i feel a tear glide down my cheek. you're alright.
for the first time, i don't think i can believe her.