by Terek Hopkins
She was in the fourth grade when she had her first panic attack. There was a storm outside, thunder clapping at the windows, lightning dancing panic above the earth. She thought, This is what it must be like to die.
The attack started in her mind, but quickly made its way down her throat and into her chest. It grabbed a hold of her lungs and it squeezed until her breath was something that she could only catch through a singular, concentrated effort.
Her mom didn’t know what to do, so she picked her daughter up under the armpits and she placed her on her lap, the girl’s chest rising and falling quicker than the rain that drilled against the roof. She whispered things in her daughter’s ear, Remember to breathe, she said, her calloused fingers drawing straight lines through her daughter’s hair as lightning cut across the kitchen window. Remember your breath.
The girl’s little brother, he didn’t know what to do either; didn’t know what to do with his sister and didn’t know what to do with himself. So he tried to help in the small ways that he could. He offered his toys to her, one by one, until he realized that even those, even his favorite ones, couldn’t help. So he gave up, resigned himself to a chair on the other side of the room and watched them both, wondered how much quicker his sister’s chest could possibly rise and fall before she’d suck in so much air that she’d expand like a balloon, climb up towards the ceiling, get caught somewhere up in the rafters.
If you asked her mom, she’d say that her daughter was born worried. She’d tell you about that first time she took them down to the coast, how her daughter stopped the second she saw the ocean, how she grabbed her brother’s scrawny little arm and pointed out past the waves, be careful, little brother, she said, we could die out here.
Yeah, if you asked her mom, she’d tell you that her daughter was born worried, sure, but nothing like what happened in the fourth grade. That panic attack was different. If you asked her, she’d tell you how it was the thunderstorm that evening that pushed her daughter over the edge. The rest of it, she’d guess, was just working up to that.
But it wasn’t the storm that had caused her daughter’s panic. It was something else.
It was the science project she’d been assigned in class earlier that day, each student given a number from one to nine, each number representing a planet in the solar system. She had been assigned number three, Earth, which most kids thought was an unfair advantage. But in her eyes it was just the opposite. Earth was an impossible task. Earth had over seven billion people living on it. Earth had hundreds of countries, four oceans, millions of species of animals (some of which no one even knew about yet), countless weather patterns, cultures, foods, histories, myths, lies, and, not to mention, her entire life. Earth had everything she had ever known and feared and loved. But it wasn’t the science project that caused her panic either, just like it wasn’t the storm. The panic came from somewhere else.
It came from a book she had read during recess that day. A book about dogs she’d found in the library. A book that told her, on one of its many pages, to never let a dog give birth while it’s stressed, or worried, or in danger, or it might eat its pups—might gobble each one of them up whole; might decide that the world is too dangerous a place for its young; that it is better, if not more kind, to kill them rather than let the world hurt them. And then the girl slammed the book shut and sat there, tucked away in the corner of the library, verging on tears, thinking about her own mom.
And that night, when the storm came, the air felt heavier than lead.
And her mom, she was telling the girl’s little brother to go get a bath started for his sister, A cool one, she said. And then, his tiny voice a whisper from down the narrow hallway, asking, What’s wrong with her?
It’s just the storm, sweetie. We can’t all fear the same things.
But it wasn’t the storm that scared the girl. In fact, the lightning and the thunder were some of the only things that the girl didn’t fear, at least not in the ways they thought. What she was scared of was how quickly the weather had changed, not of what it had changed into. She wasn’t scared of what it had become, but that one thing could so suddenly become something else. She was scared of the rain outside, but not of the actual rain, not of the droplets of water or of getting wet. She was scared it would never stop. She was scared that the third planet from the sun, along with all its creatures, would drown. And that all the mothers would have to stop what they were doing and they would have to find their children and they would have to sit them down on their laps, one by one, and then they would have to tear their children apart, limb by limb, each arm and leg a meal of love and fear, each mother crying at what the world had forced them to do.
And the storm would never stop. And the girl would have to explain to everyone, speaking from inside her mother’s stomach, having already been eaten, that she had told them so. That she had told them it would be this way, that it would be too much and that they would all drown. But they’d just look at her, dumbfounded, their fat grownup fingers pointing at her like she was a strange creature from some other planet whose rules they did not understand, saying, Look at her. Look at how afraid she is. Look at what the storm does to her. And even when she’d tell them, No, I love storms, I just don’t like what storms are. And even when she’d remind them, See? It’s too much. This is what I was afraid of—they’d just roll their eyes at her, searching for a pocket of air to breathe from, and then they’d give each other that look that grownups often give each other when they are only pretending to understand something, and they’d say, Aren’t we lucky, dear, that our daughter is nothing like her?
And when her brother would ask later that night who it was all too much for, she’d tell him that it was too much for everyone. It’s too much for them and it’s too much for us, she’d say. And tonight, when you fall asleep, be sure to do so on your left side, little brother. If you fall asleep on your right side, your organs might be too much for your heart, and they might crush you.
And he would stare at her in silence, the space between their beds as black as tar, and he’d ask, What was the first thing you were afraid of? How did you end up like this? Will you always be this way?
And she would tell him, heavy drops of rain diving down from the bloated purple sky, banging on their thin roof, each threatening to end them, to drown them, she’d say, Your right side, little brother, never your left. If you sleep on your left side your organs will crush you, and it will keep raining, and if it keeps raining the world will never be safe and mother, she will have to eat us.
Terek Hopkins grew up in California. He studied literary fiction at the University of Oregon and then moved to Spain, where he taught English. He’s now back in California, writing about the things that happen in his life and about the things that don’t.