When I woke up, the smell of flowers mixed with cleaning product swept through my nose and lingered on my tongue. My eyes blinked open, expecting light to pierce through my pupils, but I was instead met with the cool light of early afternoon.
The sun was bleeding through shutters that I knew would greet me as soon as I smelled the familiar air.
Ms. Hartley stood, the motion drawing attention to her form that my bleary eyes had slid right over in the chair across from the couch I was curled up on.
“Hey there,” she said, bending down and pressing the back of her hand to my forehead. In my dazed state, my chest arched as I pressed my face into the contact. She snatched her hand away and her face twitched. I softly fell back onto the cushion.
“I’m going to go tell your mom that you woke up, okay? Stay put, I’ll be right back.” Something rippled through me as I heard her bare feet pad away. I pushed myself up to sit, bracing myself with one arm and pressing the other to my temple, fighting the spots that swam in front of my eyes. My mother was here, and I had to be up to meet her.
I heard two steps of footsteps approach just in time for my vision to stabilize. I hoped I wouldn’t have to rise to greet her. I knew the ground wouldn’t feel stable beneath me. Suddenly, I saw Mrs. Hartley standing with my mother. They both swept to my side.
Ms. Hartley’s hands landed on my shoulders, urging me to lay down again. My waving her away combined with my mother’s frenzy shut her out, and I saw my mother’s chin tilt up in approval at my perseverance.
“Look at you, sitting up already,” she smirked as if we shared a secret. “So tough.” She cupped my cheeks in her hands and kissed my forehead. The auburn hair she had passed down to me tickled my nose.
Ms. Hartley pulled my mother aside. Their words filtered into my head as my hand clutched the back of the couch with a white-knuckled grasp, fighting to keep myself upright against the vicious pull of gravity and the film behind my eyes.
“I’m so glad we could keep him here,” said Ms. Hartley. “I watched him the whole time, and nothing else happened. He slept through the night.” I balked. That was more than I had slept at once in months.
“Thank you again, Stephanie.” I guessed they were on a first-name basis now. My mother’s furious fight for friendship must have paid off. “If he didn’t need to go to a hospital, I’m glad he didn’t have to be at home alone.”
“You were at the office?” My voice was thick. Ms. Hartley mumbled that she was going to get me some water, and left the two Blakes alone.
“Yes,” she said, at least having decency enough to look ashamed. “It was a make-or-break kind of thing. I told Stephanie- Lily’s mom to text me if anything else happened and I would be there come Hell or high water. But if it was a one-off sort of deal, I trusted her enough to be with you. I didn’t want to jeopardize my position.” I nodded. An all-nighter wasn’t a surprise, and neither was my mother’s dedication to her work. I didn’t know why something in my chest felt like it was sitting wrong.
Ms. Hartley came back in and passed me a cup of water. The condensation chilled my hands as I gulped down the entire thing.
“Lucy, sit down,” she said. My mother sat at the other end of the couch, and and I pulled my knees towards me to make room, sending another bought of dizziness through me. Ms. Hartley sat back in the chair overlooking us.
“I called my neurologist friend who owed me a favor or three, and it sounds like you had a seizure. But that doesn’t mean epilepsy,” she added quickly, as if she knew what I was thinking. She might have, my face had the signature chill of paleness. That may have been because of my struggle to remain upright, though.
“Ashton, do you have a history of mental illness? Anxiety, depression, anything along those lines?” I felt my mother shoot me a steely warning glance, but I ignored it and felt them glance off my heart.
“Yes,” I said. “Nothing diagnosed,” I fought a glance towards my mother, “but my doctor thinks I have something.”
“Anything provoking panic attacks?”The couch shifted as my mother leaned forward, fighting to meet my gaze. I wonder if she looked concerned to Ms. Hartley. I knew better.
The wood frame groaned as my mother leaned back, somehow impossibly tense.
“Well,” Ms. Hartley said, “it’s very possible that you were experiencing a panic attack, which prompted a pseudoseizure.” She explained what she meant, only half of which I actually retained. Psychological conditions could spark seizures similar to epilepsy, but they were mental rather than biological. She asked me something, and it took a moment before I could string her sounds into words.
“Was there anything last night that could have prompted a panic attack? Or any sort of psychological aggravation?” I thought back to Lily, proud and composed. I nodded.
“Well, then my friend and I are fairly certain that you were experiencing a pseudoseizure. Whether or not you have epilepsy, we can’t know for sure unless you go to a hospital and get observed. Ashton, are you eighteen?” I nodded. “Then it’s entirely your decision.”
My stomach knotted. My birthday was recent and largely unrecognized. I wasn’t prepared for decisions like this.
The word epilepsy rattled in my head. I needed to know. But then I made the mistake of glancing to my right.
My mother’s eyes were brown fire, looking me up and down with contempt. The epilepsy rattling got faster, more agitated, into a frantic vibration. My mother’s eyes met mine, and everything went still. I couldn’t be diagnosed. I couldn’t let that happen.
“No thank you.”
Ms. Hartley started. “Are you sure? If you have epilepsy, it could get serious. You may need medication, or even advice on how to lessen a pseudoseizure-”
“I’m sure,” I said. She couldn’t make me go in. I could choose. “It’s probably the pseudo-one. I can handle it.” Her mouth drew into a line, and she worried her bottom lip.
She stood. “Then I guess we’re done. Let me know if you change your mind.” She smiled, fighting to go from the stern nurse to the friendly mother. “Your friends are here. I kept them out to let you rest. Want them to come in?”
“Sure,” I said, but then remembered the searing emotion of my mother. “As soon as my mom leaves.”
Ms. Hartley nodded and graciously gave us the room alone. I smiled as I imagined her fighting the others off, but that expression quickly melted when I looked at my mother’s face.
It was a beaming smile, proud and loving.
“Way to be tough.” She stood and bent to kiss my forehead again. “You can deal with these just fine.” I looked up at her and somehow felt defeated. “Do you want to stay with your friends? I want to talk to your dad about this, and you may want to have a fun afternoon to take your mind off of things.” I hummed an assent, and she nodded in approval. “Good. Text me when you’re on the way home, I’ll let you know if I’m in the office. Your dad’s leaving for work soon, he’ll be home at the normal time.” I hummed again. “Good kid.” She spun, hair fanning and catching the light, and went to the dining room where Ms. Hartley had gone. I heard my mother start to say her name, but it was drowned out by thunderous voices and feet drumming on the floor. The five of my friends burst into the room, trampling like an army coming back from battle.
Lily knelt in front of me, Payton swooping around her to sit squarely into the middle of the seat, pressing against me. My weak torso began tipping from the force of their shoulder before Addison perched on the arm of the couch, the two of them forming bookends to prop up my hollow body. Jace and Connie held back, keeping their distance from us and each other. Connie chewed on her thumb and Jace picked at a leather band tied around his wrist. The band was worn. I realized seconds too late that Lily was saying things to me, and I tore my eyes away from Jace’s wrists. I hadn’t looked up at his face.
“I hope I didn’t upset you,” Lily said. “My mom told me you had a panic attack. I feel horrible.” The idea of Ms. Hartley being so certain of a pseudoseizure to the point of saying it to her daughter soothed the nerves churning under my skin. I stared at my friend’s concerned certainty and tried to replace the brown of my mother’s eyes in my head with that of Lily’s. Not going to the hospital was my own idea. My mother’s urging had nothing to do with it. There was nothing wrong with going to a hospital. If this happened again, I would go gladly, with or without my mother’s blessing. But this was just a mental quirk. Ms. Hartley knew so, and there was nothing that a doctor could do for my own mind that I could not.
I jumped as a hand landed on my shoulder. Addison was looking at me now, softer than my mother but harsher than Lily.
“You good?” she asked. I realized that I had been staring at Lily.
I cleared my throat. “Fine, sorry. Just…” I scrambled for an excuse, “thirsty.”
“On it,” Lily said, leaving her words behind as she zipped to the kitchen. I heard a faucet turn on, and in front of me appeared a half-complete carved wooden quilt, folding in the contour of a stream underneath waxen fans of fungi clinging onto a hollowed log. Balanced on top of the stack was a frayed leather pouch. My tools.
“Went and grabbed these for you,” Payton said, a smirk cutting into their cheek. “Met your folks. Your mom seems nice. She and your old man were worried, if you were wondering. If I hadn’t left when I did, I think they would’ve waterboarded me about what happened.” I felt something swell in my throat at the idea of my father worried. It fell back dejectedly as soon as my hands fell on my things.
“Thanks, Payton.” I slid down onto the carpet, muscles slowly regaining their power, and selected a clay-spattered pencil. I didn’t feel steady enough to carve, but I was desperate enough for a distraction to sketch the patterns I had decided on into my fall quilt sculpture. Autumn was over now, but when I saw the rise and fall of the landscape covered by the quilt I had carved, its familiar chill fell over me and the equinox resonated in my bones. With my blade, time fell to my will, if even for a moment. I smiled.
Jace settled in front of me, materializing a book from somewhere in his clothing, and sat close enough for his shoe to rest against mine. He didn’t look at me or any of the others, but his request for a normal afternoon hung unspoken in the air. My pencil scraped softly against wood, harmonizing the soft question of Jace’s page-turning in a more frantic plea. Less easily than Jace, the others joined us on the floor. Payton sketched rather than painted in the absence of our tarp that became more stained every day in a silent and rare gesture of respect. The world fell out of focus, but it snapped quickly back into place when Jace’s shoe bumped against mine. After the recoil, he swung back in, starting a persistent tapping that I began reciprocating.
Swinging our shoes into each other turned into pushing our soles together, back and forth, Jace still not looking at me. His book-turned face broke into a smile, until an erratic shove from him threw me off balance and my pencil gouged a heavy line through my soft sketches.
I cried out and reprimanded him, making a show of trying to erase my line. I would be carving away this spot, but there was some kind of delight I found in softly kicking Jace’s ankle and seeing his eyes sparkle as I shifted his leg across the carpet until he pulled it back. Payton joined me in teasing Jace about the sacred nature of art that he had spoiled. It was nothing serious, but joking words that resonated in my ribs all the same. Connie, Addison, and Lily joked too, slowly bringing our topic away from Jace and my game. One by one, we put what we had been working on to the side, and my cotton-filled head had a break from the vice of sculpture and instead fell into the easy clarity of falling into place.