"Breathe, Duncan. Breathe. Here, drink this."
He was handed water in a paper cup, and he drank it quickly.
"Is he going to be okay?"
"Looks like. He just had a panic attack. Is he on any sort of medication?"
"I don't know. Duncan? Did you hear her? Duncan? … Not that I know of."
It was dark behind his eyes. His feet had gone to pins and needles. He was sitting in the grass on the lawn of Neptune High.
Through the haze of professionally-encouraged repression, the reality of a new school year, and the simple distance granted by the passage of time, a few things remained.
1) He missed Logan. Here and there came a jagged e-mail, poorly written and borderline manic, but as heartfelt as Logan ever got. Complaints about Trina, about her choice of their accommodations, about the prep school and all the guys supposedly propositioning him. An offhand scathing comment about the media that only hinted at what must have been a seething, growing rage. They had been merciless, digging back into the footage of Logan's bumfighting ring to suggest a family tendency toward extreme violence.
The last e-mail had been very short, a quick commentary on the music of the moment and its inferiority to everything before it. Logan was lonely, and Duncan was unsure how long it would be before they could see each other again. Some bitterness remained, but still. Duncan missed him.
2) He scared himself sometimes. While he looked at Veronica and remembered how it felt to think that they were related, she looked at him and remembered how it felt to think that he'd raped her.
And he loved her. He loved her completely in the simple sort of way that comes after something has been a fact for a very long time. The simplicity of the emotion, in the face of all that scared him to the bone.
3) He'd kill himself before he ever set foot in law school. Maybe he'd be a journalist. Maybe he'd join the Peace Corps. Maybe he wouldn't be anything at all.
4) Every now and then he woke up thinking that Lilly was still alive. Still, she never came to the breakfast table, she never left her room.
They sat on the lawn in front of the school and she said that she doesn't feel like who she was last year, or like who she was the year before, and he said that he could relate.
He said, "I don't feel like who I was yesterday."
"You don't seem so different," she wanted him to know.
"But you do," he said. "You've grown up." He couldn't make the words come out to tell her that he was proud of her. Duncan picked at the grass between his feet.
"You're just trying to get me to give up those Polly Pockets stashed under my bed, and I'll tell you here and now: it ain't going to happen."
"I deny all knowledge of the contents of your bedroom." It was an instinctual rejoinder. There came a brief silence that he filled compulsively. "Although I will say that the telephoto lens doesn't do you justice. Nor do binoculars. Or that spread in Hustler." She finally laughed.
"See, I thought that was a little too airbrushed."
"Oh, yeah. I mean, if I have acne on my back, I have acne on my back and the self-gratifying masses can just deal."
"Didn't we just agree that you'd matured?"
"I agreed to nothing."
"Of course." If he squinted, he could pretend this was a picnic. The shadow of the flag flapping above them swung through the grass and licked at the tips of her sneakers. He stood up. "We should get back to class."
"You," she said, standing also, "Should tell me why you stopped breathing in class."
"I would argue instead that I couldn't breathe. But I'm fine now, and we're missing Euro Lit." He started to walk into the building and she moved to block his way.
"You seriously want to get back to Crime and Punishment? Duncan." The genuine worry in her expression made him want to hurt something. "I'm just-"
"Drop it, Veronica," he said, and he stepped around her.
That night he was ill. More ill than he had ever been. Pain flared behind his eyes when the lights were on, nausea sloshed through his guts in the dark. His father tucked him into bed and recalled aloud a time when Duncan was a baby of less than a year, sick with a fever. So scared, his father said he's been so mortally scared, and in the hospital he hadn't slept a moment.
"But you were a big kid. Tough and willful. To tell the truth, the doctor wasn't worried at all, and neither was your mom. It was just me and my knee-jerk fretting." Duncan's father kissed his brow and patted down the covers.
"I'm fine, Dad," Duncan said, and his father smiled and left him.
The house slept. The hum of the refrigerator met the noise of the crickets by the glass sliding doors. Duncan rose from his bed and walked to the door of his sister's room. Its whiteness shone faintly in the dark hall.
He cataloged what was behind it: nothing, an empty bed, drawers full of mothballs and clothes, pictures growing older in their frames, and drawn curtains. An intuitive memory, but from the pit of his stomach to the back of his eyes grew a different image: black walls, a black floor, a ceiling in shadows too high to reach, that shadow that sank and crushed, that closed in slowly. The darkness in the corners of the hallway grew deeper. The door grew enormous in his sight, and the palm of his hand burned to open it. He couldn’t breathe.
In the morning he woke up early, just after dawn, curled up on the floor outside his sister's room. The corners of his eyes hurt when he looked too far to the right or the left, but the fever was gone and his stomach had settled. He pulled himself up and into the shower. The pain behind his eyes worsened throughout the day.
"Where are you going?" Mrs. Kane asked him as he spun car keys around a finger at 7pm on a school night.
"Out with friends," he said.
"You haven't eaten dinner with us for a week, Duncan," she pointed out. Maybe it was true.
"I still get fed," he said in counterpoint, and he didn't afford her another word. Out the garage door and down from the gated homes, down to the water along the endless beach-hugging road, and he just drove. Just thought about things like speed and distance from the median, things like wind though his fingertips and the reach of his headlights. Twenty miles out of town there's a Shell station with a slurpee machine. It was cold and it was good and he wasn't all that hungry anyway. He just thought about things like Havana and the sweaty heat of it. The old-movie cars, the coconuts rolling in the gutters, and the children running everywhere.
He thought maybe it would be better to have someone to drive with, someone to take over the wheel so that he could watch the landscape go by, but he didn't imagine who, and he couldn't fathom how he could get her to come along.
Tonight the radio played a song about a motel in the Dust Bowl. Tonight he picked out the sound of each individual revolution and matched it with the rhythm of the strummed guitar and the pattern of the circles of streetlights along the road. Out of town, in the night, there was really so little he could see. And the rhythm slowed, and it slowed, and the points of light became more and more important.
Slowly, slowly. Slowly one revolution elongated to the sound of asphalt like gravel crackling underfoot. Slowly, slowly in the center of a circle of pink-yellow light he came to a full stop.
His was the only car on the road. The next point of light ahead was miles away, leagues and acres away. All around, the black of night gathered and thickened, blinding. Soon Duncan was alone in a dimly-lit room with curving, black walls; walls that encroached and closed in, that threatened and loomed and bent inward. He choked on the air in his throat. If there was someone else to drive, if he could close his eyes while the car sped away. But he was alone. He could never escape. He would have to wait in that spot until morning. He wouldn’t sleep, he'd keep watch. The light shrunk. The car shivered. He couldn't breathe.
He became aware of the presence of something directly behind him, reaching out. A dark crease in the wall bending toward him; it would reach him and split his body down the middle. It crept, it clawed, it made no sound.
He shut his eyes and Duncan floored the gas pedal. The scream of tires shot backwards and the wind shocked in through the windows, howling. Ten revolutions, twenty, and he could look again, he could breathe. Beyond the borders of the street lights he could see just a little in the dark.
Veronica was never supposed to know, but that line of thinking never panned out when put to the test.
He stayed home from school because of the nausea and because he needed to be outside. He sat with a book by the side of the pool and didn't read. He knew his father must have thought this was morbid, but Duncan couldn’t help finding peace in the slap of the water, the wind in the grass, the pad of his thumb over the pages of the closed book when he fanned through it.
Daylight sparkled everywhere: glinting off the pool, the granite, the leaves on the trees, and the skin on the backs of his feet. It glinted off Veronica's hair when she walked around the corner of the house and across the lawn.
"Hey. Nobody answered the door, so I…" she trailed off, took a seat next to him. "You weren't at school."
"I wasn't feeling well," he said.
"And still not going to expand on that. Okay." She took a breath that seemed to take some effort, and stood again. "I should get to work anyway. It's busy season for paranoid housewives again and Mrs. Venturi's husband isn't going to spy on himself."
She was halfway gone before he called to her. When she turned around, light flew from her hair and shoulders, scattering in the air.
"You've been working a lot lately," he said. She's not sure if it's pause-worthy, but she lingers anyway.
"Yeah, well, we can't all afford to go to college twenty times over." She crossed her arms.
"I didn’t…you know if you ever need-"
"I won't. I mean," she took a conciliatory step back in his direction, hung in mid-stride for a second, then made the rest of the trip back to the poolside, "things are just a little tight right now. When my… We lost some money. It's not going to kill us; I just won't be getting that snazzy, pink iPod of my dreams anytime soon."
"Mm. I was on some medication," he said. "I went off it a few days ago. It's been…rough." She nodded, but didn't speak. "It wasn't for the thing that you knew about, the seizures. I'm still taking something for that. This thing I stopped taking was unnecessary. But when Lilly," his eyes went to a certain spot beside the pool, "you know. My parents decided I should take something to help me cope. Keep me quiet, and calm. Which it did."
Quietly, she asks, "What was it?" And he was sure she'd had a list of possibilities in mind for some time.
"Amitriptyline," he said.
"Oh my God." She reacted quickly. "Duncan, that's one heavy-duty prescription. That's an extreme measure kind of medication. I mean, it's, it's," he saw the moment when a new perspective clicked into place, "it's practically personality-altering."
He nodded, "Yeah."
"Your parents forced you to take it?" She was looking for a fight already– something he still wasn't used to from her.
"Not really. I'm the one who swallowed it every morning."
"But not anymore."
"I'm thee days clean."
"And it's been making you sick. Headaches, right? Upset stomach."
"Is there a subject you aren't well-read on?"
"The Spanish-American War. So what about the sudden attack of not breathing?" she asked. So he told her.
Eventually, they moved inside. They went to Lilly's room because he wanted to see it in the golden afternoon light. Veronica seemed unwilling to touch the furniture, and instead opted to sit on the floor with her back against the wall. Duncan settled next to her.
"They all say she's in a better place," he said.
"I…I think she is, actually. That's probably not what you were hoping to hear. Where do you think she is?"
"I don't believe in God."
"I didn't say I did, but if there's a big limo party in the sky, I'm sure she's found it. And that wasn't my question." Carefully, she knocked his shoulder with her own. "Well?"
"Well." The silence stretched. "Promise not to tell my therapist."
"I don't know who your therapist is."
"Sure you don't," he said without spite.
"No comment, move on." In a glib gesture, she flipped a hand to make and elegant angle with her wrist. It formed a shadow puppet on the wall: a crane. He leaned in to whisper.
"I think she's gone," he told her. Her eyes darted back and forth.
"Gone where?" she whispered in kind.
"Just gone." He leaned back against the wall and shrugged anticlimactically. "The way we all go. She's done, and now she's gone." Veronica took a deep breath, maybe uncomfortable, but he went on. "I still think about her every day, still miss her and wonder what she'd say, how things would be different. It still makes me… I know that's not what this," a hand raised to his temple and kneaded the skin there, "is about anymore." He let his hand drop. "But I've been terrified of this room."
"I hear it's normal to fixate on something. I haven't set foot in the Starbucks on Morello Drive. Tried to a couple of times, but I just can't do it. I drive all the way across town for my skim caramel triple cappuccino." Ridiculously, he laughed, and so did she.
"She'd think we were so pathetic," he said.
"Yeah. And she'd tell us to get the hell over it. She always made everything sound so damn easy."
"I think it was, for her." The silence was lengthy and companionable. "Shouldn't you be checking up on Mr. Ventura?" he asked.
"Venturi. I can do it tomorrow." She slouched until their shoulders met, and stayed that way. When the room began to get dark, she reached above her head and flipped on the light.