Like a heart attack. That’s the best way to describe it. I’ve never had one of those, that I know of, but I’m pretty sure it feels just like that. Dr. Carpenter even agreed with my description. But I hadn’t seen her in a few months.
Maybe that was a mistake.
“You’re late, Pelly,” David said to me as soon as I walked in the door of the Hole in the Wall Café.
I didn’t answer. Couldn’t. When the attacks come, I can’t really speak. Or if I can, all that comes out is muttering, stuttering stupidity.
The Hole was a safe zone for me. A place I could trust. It took a while to attain that lofty status. And there aren’t many such places. But I couldn’t stay inside. I dumped my bag behind the counter before pivoting right back around and rushing outside, panting.
It helped that the sun was out. Nighttime tended to be worse, although I didn’t know why. I guess because it’s harder to see. I pulled a soft pack of Camel Lights and a cheap blue disposable lighter out of my hip pocket and lit up. Most people start when they’re twelve or thirteen. I waited till last year. Because I’m that dumb.
I paced along the sidewalk in front of the Hole, taking long, purposeful strides. Like a soldier on guard duty. Stop, pivot, walk back the way I came. Deep drag, hold, blow out. Stop, pivot, repeat.
It’s almost like OCD at this point. Everything has to be just so. If I can keep walking and be outside, the panic will pass. Usually. Eventually.
After a few minutes David poked his head out the front entrance. “Pel?” he said as I stalked past.
I blew out a harsh breath of smoke. Kept walking. My heart wasn’t beating fast anymore. Instead it beat hard, and that was almost worse. Like my heart wasn’t pumping so much as knocking from the inside, bam! bam! bam! Let me out!
“You okay?” David said as I walked past in the other direction.
My free hand clenched and unclenched of its own accord. The muttering and stuttering began.
“It was a guy, this guy, he was staring, he was just staring, this guy . . .”
I watched the gray concrete beneath my feet as I chanted. A little voice whispered to me that David had never seen me
like this. I’d never wanted him to. I never wanted anyone to. Reason number 3,854 I didn’t go to a real school anymore. I’d meant working here to be the first step toward going to school again someday, but—
“Someone hassled you on the bus?” David asked, stepping out into the sunlight. He jerked his head to one side to get his long, splintery bangs out of his eyes.
I almost snarled a laugh at him. The bus? Right. One isolated girl among crowds of people I didn’t know, in a vehicle I could not control? Not happening. I walked everywhere—which wasn’t many places—or got rides from Mom. I should’ve had a license by now, and instead I got carted around like a pathetic loser.
“Seven-Eleven,” I said to David, and stopped walking. Stayed a few feet away from him. I hadn’t gotten control of my breathing yet. The exercise and adrenaline and nicotine were making me nauseated. I’d all but run here from the store. “I was buying a pack and there was this guy, he just kept staring, and I thought . . . I mean, he just . . .”
I took a drag. Blew it out. Took another. Held it.
“So, are you okay?” David asked again. Like he didn’t know what else to say.
I took my last puff and pitched the butt into the dirt parking lot.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Forget it.”
“Okay, well, that was bitchy, in case you were wondering.”
“I dunno, I dunno, okay, I just, he was looking and he wouldn’t stop looking and I can’t deal with that . . .”
David took one step toward me. Slow. Like I might cut him. My fingers dug into the coin pocket of my jeans, made sure my pillbox was there. I knew it was. Never used the blade inside it while at work. But maybe today. I wondered if David knew about it somehow.
“Did he say anything?” David asked. “Did he do something to you? You want me to call the cops?”
The word acted like a switch thrown at the base of my neck. My hands froze into fists. I stared into David’s hazel eyes, which he shaded from the early afternoon sun while he looked at me.
“No.” My breath shuddered as I sucked in fresh air. “No. He didn’t. Nothing happened. He just, he freaked me out. Is all. I’ll be okay.”
“Nothing for nothing, but you don’t look okay.”
I tried to ease my panting down to a slower rhythm. Force more air into my lungs.
“What’s that even mean?” I said.
“What, ‘nothing for nothing’? I don’t know. It’s probably just a corruption of ‘not for nothing,’ but come to think of it, I don’t know what that means either.”
“Splendid,” I said.
David looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or be pissed. I didn’t know which I wanted him to be. God, my brains were like scrambled eggs.
“Just need a minute,” I said before he could respond. My
knees shook, urging me to keep walking. Walk off the fear. Walk off the panic.
“I’m not punching you in,” David warned.
David kept his eyes on me for another second. “But I guess I could cover for you. We’re not exactly slammed.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, and began pacing again. I couldn’t stop myself. I could pace, or I could scream. One or the other.
“Or ‘Thank you, David’ is another option,” he said, and went back inside the café.
“Thank—” I started, but the door closed.
And David is the coworker who is nicest to me.
I rested my hands on my hips as I paced again. My heart finally eased up, stopped throwing its elbows against my rib cage. I wanted another cigarette but forced myself not to. Maybe I hadn’t been doing it long enough to really be addicted. I hoped so. I wanted to stop. But nicotine was my only medication. At least I could think when I smoked.
Maybe I shouldn’t have flushed my pills. I couldn’t get another scrip without Dr. Carpenter’s permission. Five years with her—you’d think she’d make it so I could get a refill or two without her, but no.
I went ahead and smoked another cigarette but snuffed it out halfway. By then I felt like I could go inside. Not a single customer had come and parked in the dirt lot during that time.
I found David reading a book at the service counter as the
door closed behind me. That’s how not-busy we were on a Wednesday afternoon.
David let his paperback book whisk to a close. The cover read Tai Chi Classics.
“That seemed pretty epic out there,” he said. He narrowed his eyes cautiously, trying to figure where my mood was. I knew the look. He did it several times per shift. God. I belong back in the hospital. Or a zoo.
I came around the counter, passed him, and grabbed my blue apron from a peg on the wall. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, it’s just—”
I held up my hands. “Just don’t, okay? Please? Please.”
David raised his hands back at me. “Fine, okay,” he said. “Sorry.” He turned to his book.
I started pulling at the brown rubber band on my left wrist. Snapped it against my skin. Once, twice, three. Once, twice, three. Stop intrusive thoughts, chanted Dr. Carpenter in my head. Stop intrusive thoughts.
By finishing the tying of my apron, I’d officially completed every job there was for me to do at that moment. I crossed my arms and leaned against the side wall, watching David read. If he noticed I was watching, it didn’t bother him.
“I texted you to give you a heads-up that you were running late, in case you forgot or something,” David said. Maybe he’d sensed me watching him after all.
“You did?” I pulled my phone out. The screen stared back blankly, like a shark’s eye.
“I forgot to charge it,” I said. That was stupid. So stupid. What if there was an emergency?
“You forgot to charge it—again,” David corrected, and smiled.
I swear I tried to smile back, I really did. I guess I needed to learn how to do that. Smile, I mean. I know I’m not a bowl full of sunshine. When I smile, I’m afraid I look like I’ve got gas cramps or something.
I think somewhere in here is a real smile, hidden behind too many zits and hair that needs cutting or at least styling. My last haircut was a year ago. I’m one-less-shampoo a week from dreads. I hope people think it’s this tangled on purpose.
“Yes, again,” I agreed. No smile.
David made as if to smack my shoulder. I sidestepped out of the way. There followed that awful, awkward moment where he knew I had dodged and he ended up looking dumb. I hate that I do that. It happens at home, too. With hugs or incidental contact.
“Sorry,” I said quickly.
David shook his head and made some kind of noise that was probably three or four phrases all jumbled together.
“Has it been busy?” I asked, to get us moving in another direction. Any direction.
“Not really,” David said. “I hope you didn’t rush.”
“Good,” he said. “So how do you buy cigarettes? You’re not eighteen.”
“I got a guy.”
I didn’t want to give away anything more. Like, it wasn’t a guy. Alecia, nineteen and ultra bipolar, bought me up every week. Three packs. We met last year, which is when I started smoking. Maybe she had access to some pam, too, that I could bum or buy off her. That’s what she called her Klonopin prescription, “pam.” Maybe that’s what all the cool kids called it. I wasn’t one of those, how could I know?
No. I didn’t need—I didn’t want any meds. I could stop. I had stopped. I had everything I needed to get over this. I could get better without them. Without anyone.
“But you said you were buying a pack at Seven-Eleven,” David said.
“That’s where I meet the person who gets them for me. I was buying water.”
David said, “Oh. Okay.” Then he added, “Do I freak you out?”
It came out like he was just checking the time. “No,” I said.
“It’s okay if I do,” David said. “I mean, it’s okay if you feel like I do. Sometimes people just rub other people the wrong way. At my last job I had this supervisor, Brenda? And man, even at the interview she looked at me like I reeked or something. Everyone else was cool, and she was never an outright bitch or anything, but man, as far as I was concerned, she was not having it. Maybe it was pheromones or something. My hair was longer then, though, so maybe that was it.”
“It’s not you,” I said.
“Okay. Just checking.”
“Do I freak you out?”
“Oh, absolutely,” he said over his shoulder.
David turned to face me. “You’re surprised? Everyone knows something’s up. It might help if we knew what it was.”
David face tightened, and I could see him trying not to say something extraordinarily rude. “Help make shifts with you not so damn tense? I don’t know.”
I couldn’t think of a response to that. I’d only been working here a few months, but I knew David was right. People didn’t enjoy working with me.
So to escape, I said, “Is there anyone in the purple room?”
David gazed at me for a moment in silence, like he wanted to ask me something else. Then instead he just said, “No, huh-uh.”
“I’m gonna mop it.”
He pressed his lips together and turned back to his tai chi book. I wanted to ask him what it was about. Instead, feeling both awful and grateful for the break, I walked to the back room where we kept the big yellow mop bucket. I wasn’t really supposed to do this now. Mopping was more of an end-of-shift thing. But it was something to do. Eli wasn’t the best at scheduling. We wouldn’t get the next rush until about 7 p.m.,
right before our weekly poetry open mic. I’d be home before then. I didn’t work nights.
The Hole in the Wall sits in an old residential neighborhood in downtown Phoenix, about a mile from my condo. Most of the houses around here have been torn down, but a few—like the Hole—were renovated into businesses. Eli kept many of the rooms in the little one-story building, and designed each one with its own sort of personality. One was painted purple with glow-in-the-dark stars stuck all over it. Another one, he painted red and hung old ’50s monster movie posters all over. That sort of thing. Quirky indie snarky pop-culture coffee.
I’d been a little surprised Eli had hired me, since I was only sixteen, but then I found out David was seventeen, and he’d been there more than a year. A record for an indie coffee shop, as far as I knew. Eli couldn’t pay a lot. It was the kind of place you worked at just to say you worked there. Quirky indie snarky street cred, I guess.
I mopped the purple room slowly, thinking about David. I did like him, actually. He was a good guy. Of all the baristas, I got along with him best. Still, he was right—I’d been pretty bitchy to him when I got here. Probably I should talk to him about that. Apologize. The other baristas wouldn’t have responded quite so kindly.
By the time I was done mopping, everything inside me was back to normal, for whatever that was worth. I emptied and returned the bucket, washed my hands, and went back to
the counter. Sunlight filtered through the picture window by the front door, turning the red-and-white checked curtains into fire.
“So, um . . . sorry about . . . earlier,” I said as I joined him.
David’s face registered interest, but he didn’t look up from his book. “It’s okay,” he said. “Feeling better?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” I paused. “You don’t freak me out.”
David snorted a laugh. “I’m touched. Deeply. So you want to talk about it? And if not, can you just politely say ‘No, thanks, not right now’ and we’ll move on?”
David might’ve been best at putting up with me, but he wasn’t a doormat. I didn’t mean to be a bitch, and I didn’t even think I was one most of the time. I just didn’t know how to explain what went on in my head, my chest, my stomach, when I panicked. And how often and absurd it all felt.
“I get scared,” I said. Just to see how it sounded. And it sounded weak. As in, pathetic. Not nearly accurate enough.
David looked up from his book. “Of what?”
“Oh, you know,” I said, grabbing a rag and rinsing it out in the sink to give me something to do. “Everything.”
David inhaled. About to ask more. Stupid, stupid, stupid, why did I ever open my stupid mouth?
Thankfully, I heard a car pulling into the dirt lot right then.
“You want this one?” I asked David to cut him off.
“Actually, I’m going to take my break now that you’re here,” David said. “You’re on your own, Maverick.”
I scanned what we could see of the café. The few customers
we did have were in other rooms. From here behind the counter, the café appeared empty.
“Splendid,” I said.
David chuckled, like my mood amused him, then headed for the back room.
An older guy and young girl came into the shop as David disappeared. I tried to twist my face into a customer-service smile.
“Hi,” I said as my cheeks cramped. “What can I get for you?”
The old man—old to me, anyway—smiled. I didn’t like it. Maybe “smile” is the wrong word.
Leer. That’s it. He leered at me. I think. It reminded me of the guy in the store today who’d been looking at me, glancing over and over again—
I snapped my rubber band against my wrist. I didn’t need another attack while waiting on a customer. Where would I go? How could I escape? I couldn’t leave the register, just bolt outside again, what if—
Snap, snap, snap. Once, twice, three. The band stung my wrist, and I winced.
“Are you all right?” the old man asked me.
The leer disappeared. I’d imagined it. He only looked concerned now. His voice was warm, his expression grandfatherly.
Pelly, I told myself, shut up. Focus.
“Yes,” I said. “Fine. I’m sorry. You caught me napping.”
I managed a weak laugh. The old man smiled and gave me an understanding nod.
“I’d like a small decaf,” he said, perusing our pastry case. “And she’ll have a large hot cocoa.”
I studied them both as I started making the cocoa. I figured the guy to be in his fifties, maybe. Balding, starting to whistle now while jingling his keys in the pocket of his nondescript khakis. Jang, jang, jang. Whereas the dad carried a belly over the waist of his khakis, his daughter was one skipped meal away from being a skeleton. Her skin nearly glowed in the low light of the café. I wanted to wash her hair for her. Which I guess was ironic. It ran in long brown strings down her shoulders, with flakes of dry skin along the center part. It almost bugged me the way he ordered for his daughter, but she didn’t look capable of ordering for herself.
I suppose I had no room to judge.
“Do you want any flavoring?” I asked her over the counter while I steamed the milk. Flavoring cost extra, but I wouldn’t charge her for it. I just felt like doing something, anything, to brighten her day. I felt like she looked, a lot of the time. Insubstantial, skeletal, broken. It was too much like gazing into a psychic mirror. I wondered if that’s how my parents or Dr. Carpenter—or David—saw me.
The girl hadn’t lifted her head since she and her dad walked in. Now, when I spoke to her directly, she did. Barely. Something about the way her thin shoulders sagged and cheeks sank in made my ribs ache.
And when our eyes met, I felt all the breath in my lungs get vacuumed out like I’d been launched into outer space.
Suffocating, I choked out one word:
The girl’s dull blue eyes widened, ever so slightly, as if in shock. It couldn’t have been any less shock than I was experiencing. Shock, fear, goose bumps—
I was looking at a ghost.
I hadn’t seen Tara in six years.
No one had.