It grows like a sickness. A tickle in her throat when she wakes in the morning. A lump she cannot swallow down; a burning pain. Then comes the churning in her belly. It won't get in her way. It is manageable, like everything else, like everybody else. There are things to do. Expectations. Deadlines. Meetings. The fastidiousness, it never mattered to her before, to push herself this hard, but now it is the only thing that doesn't seem like it has leeched in from another world. It is the only semblance of reality, of normalcy. Her fingernails tap against the table. She knows she needs to focus. It's all on her. The last chance to prove herself, to reclaim her mind.
Her eyes are sensitive to the light. They blur. Move in and out of focus. She closes them tight. Blinks a few times. It doesn't go away. It's frustrating, but harmless, she reminds herself. Her eyelids are heavy, wanting to close. The double-shot espresso is a terrible idea in retrospect. But she has felt this way before. In the throes of it. Nothing happened then and nothing will happen this time. It's a pattern of thought she just has to break.
It carries on like this. A smothering sensation in her chest. A weight above her heart. It races. The muscles across her chest are tight and start to pulse. The crisp white edge of her shirt flutters with it. Her eyes move to her hands, she watches a nerve cluster palpitating there too, until she cannot take it any longer. The computer slams shut. She jolts from her chair. The convulsion of muscles isn't foreign to her. Her neck seizes up. Her vision continues to blur. The lump again, right in her throat. The room seems like it's spinning. A cool droplet of sweat slopes down her spine and pools at the hem of her dress shirt. There's no relief to be found. Two more hours. She tells herself she can do this, but the panic wins out.
"I'm going home," she tells the one intern she trusts without explanation or apology and races out of the office. A haphazard email is sent to her boss in haste. The brisk evening air brings her back into her body. It slams her together. Her legs are shaky, her knees feel like buckling, she grips the strap of her handbag tightly, her other hand moves to smooth her hair down onto her head. The churning in her stomach does not ebb. Hailing a cab, she holds her hand to her mouth the entire way home. Her heels taps nervously at every red light. Her body contracts against itself, she huddles herself up as best she can. Danger. Danger. She can feel it in every last inch of her body.
She doesn't make it all the way home. She cries out to the driver to stop and he lets her out. In a flurry, she finds a local bar already open for trading. In the female restroom, she is sick. Her bag is slumped over her back. It's never been this bad before. The bile rises in her throat again. She squirms, her eyes burn as she bends forward again. The back of her hand brushes hard against her wet mouth. She lets herself up again. Feeling weak. Feeling tired. Feeling some relief. She splashes her face with cold water and tries not to focus on her unkempt appearance. Her face looks pale and if she looks close enough, she can see her eye twitching behind the smudged mascara.
Three blocks away from her house. She shoves her hand deep into her handbag and pulls out her headphones, stuffs them quickly into her ears and turns up the volume on her phone. She wants to run, but her legs feel like lead. She's barely moved an inch, but her heart thrums, skips a beat, then another, it reverberates so loudly, forces her backward. Enough. She grits her teeth and starts walking. Skips the first song. Skips the next. Finds one that is louder than her thoughts.
Her feet feel like they don't belong to her, but she knows she is bigger than this. The first minute is agonising, but she pushes through to another. Her heart and mind continue to race. Diverting her attention to the song again. It reaches the chorus, the words she knows, and she starts to hum along, shutting everything else out. She doesn't look where she's going, continuing to hum loudly, she doesn't care who hears or who sees. She needs this. She needs the distraction. Her voice lifts higher, she starts to sing along. The song is loud in her head and she doesn't notice when a streetlamp behind her bursts.
She starts suddenly when she opens her eyes. There are a half dozen men at her back, a group of them following her. Her eyes grow wide but she can't walk any faster. She continues to hum, but she mutes the music so she can hear the men talk. But they're not talking. They're walking. Fast. They're following her. Close behind. Too close. Heat swarms her body, her hands balling into fists. There are ways she knows to defend herself, but they're futile against so many men. All she wants to do is run. She moves quickly but still feels frozen and the men follow after her. They're a stone's throw from her front door and she doesn't know what to do.
Her hand has been fumbling through her handbag, searching for a weapon, but she's found nothing. A thought occurs to her frantic brain as the safety of her house inspires some courage. She stops, turning on them, her nervous humming ceases and the men stop dead in their tracks. "I've already called the cops!" she lies and the men look at her like she's speaking a foreign language. They look at one another, as though they're trying to recognise themselves, as though they're coming out of a trance, as though they can't remember following a young woman home. She says nothing more, dumbfounded when they all begin to shuffle away back toward the main road, muttering to themselves.
She doesn't wait for them to disappear. She runs up the stairs, fumbles with the lock of the front door and slams it shut behind her. When she finally reaches her bedroom, she feels herself relax. Her hands rifle through her closet, find the softest clothes she owns and she carries them with her into the bathroom. In the shower, she turns the water off and on six times. Six. Times. She counts them. Her heart is racing again, she can see coloured speckles floating and falling right in front of her eyes. Her hands grab tightly to the taps, one for hot and one for cold. She pulls at the heat and almost scolds herself, but it reminds her that she's here. That she's alive. She makes it back to her bedroom, curls up with her pillow. A warm, purring weight settles against the small of her back and she feels the tears leak out of her eyes. She is finally safe.
Before she falls asleep, she realises the shirt she is wearing isn't hers.