Struck by panic attacks and nightmares of being pursued, Jewel fears she is losing her mind. Her world spirals out of control. As terror builds, Jewel uncovers scraps from a past she has forgotten. But what she has pushed to the deepest recesses of her mind, another remembers all too well. And he is waiting for her.
The panic attack strikes with the weight of a tsunami. One moment I’m standing in the checkout queue at my local Woolworths, eyeing some obscenely famous starlet’s Hawaiian honeymoon shots in the latest Women’s Weekly, the next moment the magazine’s flapping its way to the floor along with my shopping basket (which doesn’t so much flap as crash).
‘You alright, love?’
I gasp. The too-bright supermarket see-saws.
‘Careful, Marjorie. If she’s on drugs she’s probably got hep C.’
Blinking, I stare at the elderly couple hovering an arm’s length away and try to say I’m most definitely not on drugs thank-you-very-much, and that I’ll be fine if they’d just leave me alone. But no words come. My throat locks up tight, allowing only the barest sip of air through. This development scares me in about a thousand different ways. Struck by another wave of vertigo, I stumble into the magazine rack at the end of the checkout. My fingers grip the wire so hard the plastic-coated metal digs into the skin. The pain, sharp as a puppy’s bite, helps ground me.
The elderly woman, Marjorie, who seems barely able to keep herself upright, waves arthritic hands in my direction, all the while making a strange keening sound that might be a cry for help. The other customers, including Ralph, have all moved well back as though afraid I’ll produce a weapon any second—or maybe spray them with hep C-laced saliva.
Oh dear God, I’m going to faint! Squeezing my eyes shut, I try to concentrate on relaxing my diaphragm. I haven’t had a panic attack since age twelve, but it’s not something you forget. I think of nothing but breathing, in—one, two, three—out, and try to will my cramping stomach muscles into submission. But focusing on breathing only makes me more aware that I’m not doing it right, which compounds the problem. My tongue turns to cotton wool and my skull throbs in time with my rocketing heart.
‘Here, drink this.’
Releasing a rush of breath, I open my eyes and stare, uncomprehendingly at a hand mere centimetres from the end of my nose. The hand, with its chewed electric blue fingernails, clutches a plastic cup brimming with water. The dimensions of hand and cup are all wrong, the nails too blue, the shivering overhead strip light reflected on the water’s surface far too bright. Like Alice, l have shrunk to the size of a child after biting a dodgy Wonderland cake. This thought prompts another surge of panic, a clenching roiling wave that explodes upwards from my belly. With teeth grinding determination, I force my quaking mind to visualise the panic as an ocean wave and myself as a body-surfer riding it to shore. After several minute-long seconds—seconds that stretch out from the centre of me with the elasticity of bubble gum—the panic releases its grip, leaving in its wake a rush of trembling, skin-prickling anxiety.
Dazed, I look up from the floor where I’m slumped, having no clue as to how I came to be here. Maybe I passed out after all. But if that happened then surely I would have landed on my side, or, god forbid, my face, not on my bum. Breathe. That’s it. Breathing is really quite easy when you know how. Nothing to worry about. Everything is A-O-kay.
With twitching fingers, I reach for the cup that’s still dangling before my eyes and right away I splash half its contents down the front of my blouse. The shock of cold water slams me fully into the present, focusing my mind like a slap. I gulp the rest and hand the cup back to the baby-faced checkout girl with Gothic hair and chewed blue fingernails. The girl’s eyes are wide, ringed with kohl; her cheeks as pale as ice-cream. Dark hollows mark the position of each cheekbone.
‘You’re not gonna spew are you?’ she says, ‘coz no way am I cleaning up spew.’
I try to give her a reassuring smile, but my lips are numb, unco-operative, so I shake my head to indicate that, no, I will not be troubling her with my breakfast this fine day. I lurch to my feet, desperate to be away from here. Marjorie, her crepey cheeks even paler than the checkout girl’s, gives her head a violent shake that sends her neck wattle into spasms. ‘Don’t move! We must ring an ambulance at once.’
The checkout girl produces the latest iPhone and starts tapping.
‘No, please, I’m fine.’ I attempt to stay the girl with a hand to her wrist. I’m horrified to see my own hand is still shaking.
The girl regards me with suspicion. ‘You sure?’
From the corner of my eye I spot a rounded middle-aged woman with an air of authority and a terminal perm, marching up the centre aisle and I know, without a doubt, that if I don’t get out of here now they’ll never let me leave.
Still light-headed, my heart drumming (though less frantically than before), I straighten my skirt and sling my bag over a shoulder. As usual I’ve failed to zip it and a handful of shiny red chocolate wrappers make their bid for freedom, raining down around my feet. ‘I-I’m really sorry about…about everything,’ I say, glancing guiltily at the chocolate papers littering the floor, and then over at the plastic basket lying on its side beside the magazine rack. An orange has escaped, rolling several metres across the polished tiles. The remaining fruit, milk, cheese slices, crisp bread and deodorant form an untidy offering at Ralph’s feet. I briefly consider scooping up the groceries and carrying on as though nothing untoward has happened, but the combination of the woman charging up the aisle, and the swell of another panic wave building in the pit of my stomach put a stop to that.
I take a faltering step towards the exit and my hip connects painfully with the corner of someone’s shopping trolley. ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry. Really. I, um, have to go.’ My gaze flickers from the checkout girl to the permed woman, who’s almost at the checkout now. It seems the supermarket has ground to a halt. Customers and workers have appeared from everywhere, and they’re all watching me. I turn and run.
Once outside on the pavement, the late summer breeze combing sticky fingers through my hair, I’m finally able to take a proper, stomach-swelling breath. When the next panic wave hits, rushing up from my gut and detonating in my chest, squeezing every drop of air from my lungs, I stop at the bench outside the newsagent until it passes. Fingernails digging into my palms, I force my breathing to steady through sheer will, trying to ignore the attention of passers-by who throw glances ranging from mild concern to barely concealed hostility. Keep breathing, that’s it, I coach myself, sucking air in through my nose and counting off the seconds before blowing it out through my mouth. Cars and buses roar past, a continuous babble of noise and noxious smells—a concoction that only adds to my sense of unease. No, not unease but fear: raw unmitigated fear without reason. Where has this come from? Why here? Why today? But I can’t think about this right now; now is for putting one foot in front of the other, a task that will take all my concentration.
Although the vertigo doesn’t fade completely—I see it as a shadow bird swooping back and forth inside my head—I head for home as soon as the worst has passed, continuing down the path on jelly legs, counting out each step in order to keep my mind from other thoughts. It’s stubborn, my mind, wants to examine the question of what triggered the attack. The supermarket of all places—there is nothing even remotely threatening inside a supermarket. Later, I tell it, counting steps: fifty-eight or is it nine? Keeping the fear at bay is all that matters.
Three blocks later I turn into my driveway. Just seeing the biscuit-coloured brick block of flats with their once trendy glassed in balconies and topiary gardens (now reduced to crisp brown lollypops thanks to the unrelenting summer) sucks the final dregs of panic out of me. What’s left is a sudden all-consuming tiredness. Thankfully it’s Saturday. I can sleep all afternoon if I want.
‘That you, Jewel?’ my flatmate, Becs calls from the kitchen the second I’ve got the door open.
Nudging the door shut, I call back: ’No, I’m a burglar.’
‘You’ve gotta ring Seth. He’s rung, like, a hundred times. Says he can’t get through on your mobile. You haven’t lost it again, have you? I told him you must be due to lose another one.’
‘Right. Thanks.’ A twinge of guilt pinches my midsection. I don’t need to be told how often Seth has called.
‘What’s up with you two anyway?’ Becs appears in the kitchen doorway, head cocked, one slim hip propped against the jamb.
‘Nothing for you to worry about.’ I cross the expanse of faded mustard-yellow carpet, worn flat by a thousand, thousand footsteps, and hurry down the hall to my room before Becs can come up with another probing question. My first order of business is to get out of this wet blouse.
In my room, I toss my bag onto the bed and peel off blouse and bra, both of which are soaked through as much with sweat as water. My clothes are instantly claimed by gravity. Stepping over them, I slide open the wardrobe door and wince as pain spears a temple. Great, a headache. Just what I need.
‘I don’t know why you’re so hard on him. He doesn’t even know what he’s done wrong.’
My heart ka-thunks, leaving a quivering ache behind my ribs. I spin around, an apple-green T-shirt pressed to my naked breasts. Becs stands in the bedroom doorway, regarding me much as a mother catching a teen sneaking out to a party might. Whippet-thin regardless of what she eats, with almond eyes bequeathed by a Chinese great-grandmother and her pixie-cut auburn hair a perfect accompaniment to her pixie face, Becs would look right at home on a Vogue cover. Her fragility makes me feel elephantine by comparison.
‘He smothers me,’ I say, even though this isn’t true.
‘He said he only suggested you guys move in together. What’s the big deal with that? You’ve been going out, like, forever and you know I don’t mind if he moves in here. I mean, he sleeps here half the week anyway.’
A tiny drummer has set up shop behind my eyes. He rattles a cymbal and gives the bass a good whack. I sigh. ‘Look, I don’t know what’s wrong. I just kind of, freaked out, I guess. It’s what I do, all right? I freak out.’ Deciding to forgo a bra, I slip the tee over my head and close the wardrobe. ‘If you don’t mind, I need to lie down for a while.’
Becs’s forehead wrinkles. ‘Yeah, you don’t look so hot.’
I resist the impulse to glance at the dressing table mirror lest I see something that will set off another surge of panic. ‘I’ve got a bit of a headache.’
‘Hope you’re not coming down with that new flu, ‘cause if you are, you’d better stay away from me ‘cause I can’t afford to get sick. I used up all my sick days when Denny took me up to Noosa for that week before Christmas. You remember that, right?’ Becs’s eyes widen. ‘Oh my GOD! I saw a bunch of those bats that make horses sick just the other day. Maybe they’ve got that rabies thing, too.’
‘Relax, it’s not flu. I had a panic attack in the supermarket and it’s left me with a headache. Or maybe it’s just the heat.’ I shrug half-heartedly, trying to make light of it.
‘Whaddya mean, panic attack?’
There she goes, latching on like a tick. All the strength leaves my limbs. I sink onto the bed and as my eye level lowers, the unfinished painting I started the day of my mother’s funeral slides into view. I tear my gaze away. The painting and what it signifies is just another thing I’m not yet ready to deal with. I look up at Becs. ‘Um, panic attack, you know, dizzy, sweaty palms, couldn’t breathe— the usual.’
‘The usual? You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ Becs crosses the room and perches on the bed edge. Pressing her creamed-honey knees together, she studies me for a moment before leaning forward and pulling me into a tight hug. ‘You have to ring a doctor right away.’
Extracting myself from the embrace, I yawn and say: ‘Thanks for the concern, but it’ll be okay. I’ve had them before.’
‘No way?’ Becs’s eyes narrow. Her voice takes on an accusing tone. ‘Why didn’t I know that?’
‘Because I haven’t had one for years. I pretty much forgot all about them. Till today.’
Becs’s words are wasps buzzing in my ears. If only she’d stop with the questions and leave me be. ‘I don’t really know. I can’t remember much. They just sort of started one day, then after a while they stopped.’
‘Yeah, but something must have caused them.’
‘I think the doctor said it was stress.’
‘Oh yeah, stress.’ Becs turns her attention to the ceiling, forehead creased in thought. I can almost see all those synapses sparking.
‘So, if we’re done I’ll just lie down for a bit, kay?’ I consider hunting down the ibuprofen and then decide to leave it. Hopefully rest will send drummer boy packing.
‘You know what’s brought this on, then?’
Oh good god! ‘Look, I’d love to discuss this with you, Becs, I really would but not now, eh? I don’t even want to think about any of this right now. I’m tired and my head hurts. All I want to do is have a snooze.’
Becs grips my shoulders and gives them a stern squeeze. ‘But don’t you see? That’s the bloody problem. Sure, have a rest but then go and see your dad. Talk to him. Deal with your mum’s death. I told you this stuff would eat you up. Didn’t I tell you that? Didn’t I?’
‘If you’re not careful you’ll wind up taking a bunch of sleeping pills ‘cause you won’t be able to go on, or you’ll walk in front of a train like that poor woman who lived next door to that friend of my Aunt Maxine’s did.’ Becs shakes her head. ‘Geez that was so sad. Of course she did have cancer—and they said it had gone to her brain, so she wasn’t thinking like she normally would’ve… But still.’
‘Thanks, I feel so much better now.’
Becs beams. ‘Glad I could help. I’ll bet just ringing your dad will fix you right up.’
‘I’m sure you’re right. But first I really need to lie down.’
‘I’m always right.’ Grinning, Becs springs to her feet and bounds from the room before I can point out how many times she has, in fact, been anything but right.
As much as I hate to admit it, Becs has a valid point. Until the panic attack today I wouldn’t have thought so, but in the space of minutes that changed everything. My mother has been dead nearly three months, snatched from this world at an intersection by a doped-up P-plater in a Suburu WRX. I haven’t been able to think about it, let alone bring myself to sort through her belongings. Hell, I can’t even bear to discuss the matter with Dad, who, of course, is in pieces. But the reason I can’t face any of this isn’t because I’m having a hard time dealing with my mother’s passing, which is what everyone thinks, but because I feel absolutely nothing. No, more accurately I feel guilt—guilt for not grieving the way I should, for not exhibiting some emotion over the loss of the woman who guided me in her own haphazard way through life.
With another jaw-popping yawn, I crawl to the top of the bed, curl on my side and promptly fall asleep.
* * *
Two hours later, I wake. The headache has spread to several points around my skull. It seems the little drummer has friends and he’s invited every damn one of them over for a bloody jam session. My stomach groans with hunger. Pushing hair out of my face, I sit up and yawn, wincing as the pain cranks up a notch. I stumble from the bed, hunting painkillers and food.
Becs turns as I enter the kitchen. ‘Thought you might’ve slipped into one of those diabetic comas, or something. Didn’t know if I should wake you up, stuff sugar cubes in your mouth or what.’
‘You have to have diabetes to go into a diabetic coma.’
I find a packet of pain paracetamol on top of the microwave and reach for a glass. ‘Guess that funny turn wore me out.’ I frown. ‘What are you doing?’
‘What, this?’ Becs says, indicating the floury lump on the bench before her, ‘I’m making scones.’
‘Denny said he likes scones.’
‘Ri-i-ight.’ Turning on the kitchen tap, I fill the glass and take a long swallow of water with each tablet.
Becs enthusiastically slaps dough. She stops, glances over her shoulder, brows dipping.
Here it comes.
‘I really think you ought to ring a doctor and get checked out. After you ring your dad, that is.’
I consider taking a third pill then decide against it. I read only last week that paracetamol causes stomach ulcers. Or maybe it’s kidney stones. Bloody hell, I’m turning into Becs! Draining the last of the water, I clear my throat: ‘And should that be before or after I ring Seth?’ Saying his name out loud gives me another pang of guilt.
Becs seems to mull this over. ‘Hmm… Ring him last. But make sure you do ring him. He deserves to know what’s going on with you.’
‘That makes two of us.’
Becs rolls her eyes. One is sapphire blue, the other muddy-green. She’s lost a contact. I wonder if Denny will find it later, staring up at him from the middle of a scone. Knowing Den, he probably wouldn’t care.
‘Honestly, it’s like you go out of your way to complicate your life.’ Becs turns and renews her assault on the scone dough.
I dump the empty glass in the sink. ‘You’re right. Don’t worry, I’ll sort it.’
Becs’s frown lines smooth out. ‘Course you will. One thing at a time. Yeah?’
‘Absolutely. By the way, you’ve lost a contact.’ I open the fridge and look for something to eat.
Becs makes a strange meeping sound and then sprints from the room, leaving a trail of flour in her wake.
* * *
After plying myself with leftover pizza, I ring my father.
‘Hey, how’re you doing?’
‘How do you think I’m doing? I go to work. I sit in this empty house. I –’
‘Yeah, Dad, I know.’ I chew my lip, torn between wanting to support him and hang up.
‘Did you get my card?’
‘Last week. I sent you a birthday card. I can’t believe you’re twenty-five. When I was your age I had a wife and a child already. Where’d it go, eh?’
I glance at the gold anchor-link bracelet circling my wrist and my heart swells. Seth was so excited and proud when he presented me with this gift. Was that only last week?
‘Still there, Muffin-top?’
I wince. ‘Must you call me that?’
Dad bestowed this nickname on me at age fifteen due to an unfortunate haircut provided by my friend, Lacey, rather than a sizable belly bulge—which these days, thanks to my fondness for chocolate, I do, indeed, possess.
‘Got the card. Thanks. Look—’
‘Didn’t win anything on the scratch ticket, I suppose?’
‘What? No.’ I rub my temple. ‘Listen, what are you doing tomorrow?’
‘I told you, I work, I sit.’
‘How about I come round in the morning? Is that okay?’
‘Don’t put yourself out.’
‘Don’t be like that, please.’
He sighs. ‘I’m sorry. I know you’ve got your own life. Speaking of which, have you done any painting?’
‘Not since…’ I think of the unfinished canvas propped against my bedroom wall—the first artwork I’ve attempted since leaving school more than six years ago. How could I have ever believed I have what it takes to be a professional artist? I can’t even finish one simple painting. ‘No, I don’t paint anymore. You know that.’
‘Well, it’s a shame. No, a waste. That mate of yours, Troy, isn’t it? He said you have talent. You should listen to him. He’s some sort of big-time artist now, isn’t he?’
Another twinge of guilt. I haven’t thought about Troy since before Mum’s death. Did I even tell him about that? I don’t think I did. Yet another person I’ve neglected. ‘Yeah, he’s in New York—or maybe he’s back by now. But really, Troy was just being nice when he said that stuff. It takes a lot more talent than I’ve got to make it.’
An empty silence unfurls between us.
‘So,’ I say trying to get back on track, ‘I’ll come round and we can go through Mum’s things together. Then, if you like, we can go to the pub for lunch after.’
Dad’s voice lightens. ‘I’d like that. What time?’
‘Say, around ten?’
‘See you then.’
With relief, I end the call. The knot in my stomach loosens. Avoiding Dad and Seth has to be the cause of the panic attack. It makes sense. I should have known better than to bottle this stuff up.
Seth. Just thinking about him makes my heart flutter like a trapped moth. Seth is just about the hunkiest guy on the planet; even my best friend, Luriti says so. Seth and I have been dating for almost a year. He has everything a woman could possibly want in a man: good looks and a kind heart being just two of his many attributes. But for some inexplicable reason I can’t seem to commit to him the way he wants me to. Whenever the subject of commitment comes up, I bail, just like I did last week when he suggested we think about moving in together. Just as I’m doing now, avoiding his calls. The stupid thing is I want to be with Seth, but some stronger, secret part of me wants to run. How can I possibly explain this behaviour to him when I can’t explain it to myself?
About to tap in Seth’s number, I look up, finger poised. Becs’s boyfriend, Denny, explodes into the flat in his usual boisterous way, bellowing, ‘Where’s my Becky babe?’ When he sees me standing by the breakfast bar, frozen in mid-call, he yells, ‘Jewels! How’s tricks?’ With a windup that would make a fast bowler proud, he tosses his motorbike helmet onto the sofa; it bounces once and thumps to the floor, barely missing the glass-top coffee table. Before I can say a word (not that my head possesses one) he strides from the room in three giant steps and disappears into the hall. Pacing from kitchen to lounge room and back, I complete the call to Seth. My nostrils twitch with the odour of burnt scones.
‘Hey, it’s me,’ I say into the phone before Seth can utter a word. ‘Before you say anything, or hang up, I just want to tell you I’m really, really sorry about, well, you know. Everything. I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with me, But it’ll get better, I promise. I’m totally dealing with it.’
Seth sighs. ‘I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear your voice. If you’re not ready to move in together that’s okay. No pressure.’
Tears prickle the back of my eyes. How can he be so understanding? I half-wish he’d yell at me, call me a selfish bitch. God knows I deserve it.
‘When can I see you?’ he says. His voice is as hopeful as a child’s. It brings a painful lump to my throat.
Denny chooses this moment to thump into the lounge room with a squealing, squirming Becs draped over one shoulder. Small, elfin Becs is Denny’s opposite in so many ways. On his mountain of a shoulder she resembles a doll. ‘I’m taking my woman out drinking,’ he roars.
‘But I made scones. You’ve gotta try one,’ Becs shrieks.
‘I’ll eat ‘em later.’
‘Wait! Jewel might want to come.’
Denny spins around, almost cracking Becs’s head on the front door frame. ‘Whaddya reckon? I can drop her off and come back for you, if ya want?’
I glance at the clock: 3.19pm.
‘What’s going on? That Denny?’ Seth says in my ear.
‘Yeah, he’s taking Becs for a drink. Asked me to come,’ I say into the phone.
Becs manages to extract herself from Mount Denny and drops to the floor. ‘If that’s Seth, tell him to get his arse over here.’
Having only just made the decision to ring Seth, not even sure what else I want, or need, to say to him, I’m completely overwhelmed. ‘I…um…’
‘He can pick you up. See you down there.’
Denny scoops up his helmet, gloves and jacket and follows Becs through the front door.
‘What was that?’ Seth said.
‘Can you pick me up?’ I ask, somewhat breathlessly. Just being in the same room as Denny wears me out.
‘Sure. They’re going to the Harvest, right?’
‘I guess so.’
‘See you soon.’
* * *
The Harvest Hotel is pumping in usual Saturday afternoon style. When not working with his glazier brother, Seth works the bar here, has done since before we met, so he can’t move more than a few metres before someone recognises him and wants to chat. Gripping me firmly by a hand, he drags me through the crowds, head snapping left and right, dispensing ‘Hi’s as he goes. Denny’s bald head stands out like a beacon above the sea of faces at the back of the beer garden. Incredibly he’s managed to score an empty table. As we navigate the final clump of bodies, Denny thumps a jug of beer in front of Becs and drops into the seat across from her.
‘About time you two got it together,’ Becs says, with an exaggerated wink aimed at me.
‘Didn’t find the contact then,’ I say, noting Becs’s matching green irises.
Becs scowls. ‘No. Must’ve gone down the plug-hole when I was having a shower.’
‘The usual?’ Seth asks me, his hand sliding over my jean-clad bum. A pleasurable shiver races up my spine.
‘Make it a large one.’ I watch Seth weave towards the overcrowded bar. My heart surges with love. Pulling out a chair, I sit. ‘Don’t you go making a big deal of it,’ I warn Becs.
She arches a sculpted brow and says nothing.
Denny lights a cigarette, takes a drag and passes it to Becs under the table. As the smoke issues from his mouth, he glances about, feigning innocence.
I can’t help but grin. ‘You’ll be caught. It’s all non-smoking now, you know.’
Hunched over, looking anything but inconspicuous, Becs takes a quick drag and hands the smoke back to Denny.
Denny shrugs. ‘What’ll they do? Tell me to put it out? Look at this place. Staff’s flat out. They haven’t got time to scratch themselves let alone worry about me having a fag.’ He draws on the cigarette once more, sucking with such force that a spark drops onto the black tuft sprouting from his chin. Tipping his head back, he directs the smoke skyward.
‘So, what’d Seth say?’ Becs asks. Casually, she dips her fingers in her beer and extinguishes Denny’s smouldering goatee with a pinch. Denny studies the clouds scudding overhead, oblivious.
I scan the crowd at the bar and spot the tousled top of Seth’s dark head. A barmaid wearing a too-small pink T-shirt with, IT’S HARVEST TIME! emblazoned across her boobs leans across the bar, her lips close to his ear. The pretty blonde then eases back and flashes him a smile that had to have cost her half a year’s wages. An uncharacteristic pang of jealousy twists my insides.
Becs pokes my arm. ‘Well?’
‘What? Oh, nothing much,’ I say. ‘Just that I’m sorry for being a pain in the arse and that was about it.’
‘You’re lucky he’s so laid back. Denny wouldn’t put up with that sort of crap, would you, darl?’
‘Blowing all hot and cold. You wouldn’t put up with it, hey?’
‘Nah.’ Denny flicks his cigarette butt into a potted palm, barely missing a girl’s leg.
Seth is shouldering his way through the crowd, a beer in one hand, fish bowl-sized glass of red wine in the other. ‘Let’s talk about something else. What’s happening with you, Den?’
Denny tops up his beer, slurps foam from the brim. ‘Not a lot. Heading out west next weekend. Meet up with some mates an’ see the tent fights. Get rat-arsed. All good.’
‘Fights? In a tent?’ I say.
‘Yeah. It’s a travelling show y’know—does the rodeos, outback towns. Eight boxers, anyone who wants can go a round, or two, if they last that long.’
‘That’s barbaric.’ I look at Becs. ‘You’re not going, are you?’
‘As if. It’s a boys’ bash.’
‘Chicks ‘ave a go too, y’know.’ Denny takes a long pull of his beer, wipes his mouth.
I shake my head. ‘That can’t be legal.’
Denny tips me a wink. ‘Didn’t say it was.’
Seth places my drink on the table, pulls out a chair.
A good mouthful of wine is missing, sloshed, no doubt, down someone’s back during the trek from the bar. I pick up the glass, take a sip: tart and dry.
‘Good to see ya, mate,’ Denny tells Seth.
‘You too.’ Seth swigs beer.
Denny says something else and Seth replies, but I can’t make out their words. Something weird is happening. A strange high-pitched whine drills from one ear to the other and I have the strange sensation of standing outside this scene looking in. The murmur of the crowd around me drops in volume as though someone’s hit the mute button, and apart from the constant weeeeeeeeeiiiiii sound in my ears, my head is filled with a vast muffled silence. I’m here and I’m not here. I’m here and I’m not here. As mad as it sounds this thought makes perfect sense. What the hell is going on? I look around the garden, at the flashes of movement and colour, at the faces of my friends, and while I know who they are and where I am, on another parallel level, none of it makes sense. I am here, yet not here; the scene before me is both real and not real.
‘Jewel? Hey, you alright?’
Someone is shaking my arm. I blink several times and then gasp. It feels like the first breath I’ve taken in a very long while, which freaks me out because if I stopped breathing without realising, then what else might have happened? Becs has me by the wrist, fingers boring to the bone. I pull my arm free and look around. Did I pass out? No, I must stay calm. It’s okay. I’m still sitting in the beer garden, a frowning Seth on one side, Becs on the other, Denny across the table, sucking on another sneaky smoke. If I passed out I’d surely be on the floor. All I have to do is act normal and everything will be normal.
‘Um, sorry, I kinda zoned out. What did I miss?’
Becs stares as though I’ve done something wrong, her perfect bowed lips pushed into a pout as though she’s offering a kiss. I can’t hold her gaze. I pick up my wine and down it in two hefty gulps. The alcohol snatches my breath, brings tears to my eyes. Fearing I’m on the cusp of another panic attack, I say: ‘I’ve got to go.’ Getting to my feet, I sway slightly as the wine punches up through my chest and into my head. The panic is close. I feel it bubbling, lava-like, beneath the wine. I lurch away from my friends—from Seth—into the cloying crowd, desperate to be anywhere but here.
Seth catches up with me outside the pub. Taking me by the arm, he pulls me gently to the side of the path. This gentleness when so many other men would be hurt, maybe even angry, makes me want to cry. A warm gust lifts my hair. Something brushes my sandaled foot and all my muscles twitch as though I’ve been zapped. Glancing down I see it’s only a burger wrapper. I kick it away. It leaves a smear of blood-red sauce on my toes. The sight causes my heart to stutter and then cramp as though it’s being squeezed in a vice. My stomach muscles spasm with dread and I’m struck with an urge to bolt. Seth must sense this for he takes me firmly by the shoulders and turns me till our eyes meet.
‘What is it?’
‘Where? I don’t…’
I shudder. I can’t think about this. I can’t. ‘Forget it. It’s nothing.’
‘How can I forget it? You look like you’re about to throw up. Please, talk to me. I can’t go through this again—your silence, the way you keep pulling away.’ Seth’s face fills my vision, his beautiful, stubble-jawed face, and the knot inside my chest loosens. The building panic rolling through me, the urge to Run! Run! Run! Slowly begins to subside until finally I am able to breathe again.
I touch his hair; the loopy curls just shy of his shoulders are as soft as duck down. They ripple through my fingers. I know women who would kill for hair like this. ‘I – I’m so—’ No, I won’t say sorry to him again. Over the months I’ve used that word so often it now has little meaning. I swallow. ‘I’m going through something that’s hard to explain. I think it’s to do with Mum’s death. But I want you to know, it’s okay. I’ll deal with it.’
Seth considers this. The waning sun catches him in its light and his hazel eyes spark gold. He nods. ‘Yeah, I get that. But what I don’t get is why you keep pushing me away? I can help. I want to help. The least I can do is give you emotional support. But you’ve got to talk to me.’
Tears are close. My eyes and throat burn. I don’t deserve this understanding. I don’t deserve him. ‘I know, and I love you for that, I really do. I’m going over to Dad’s tomorrow to sort out Mum’s stuff. I’ll be more normal after that’s dealt with. I promise. Then you can support me all you want. Okay?’ I force my numb lips into a smile.
Seth puts his arms around me, pulls me close. I breathe him in. It feels so good to be held. I must make an effort to stop shutting this wonderful man out or I’ll lose him. And, I realise now as never before, I absolutely can’t let that happen.