Peter looks in the mirror; a stranger stares back at him. He reaches toward the face he’s never seen before and opens the medicine cabinet. Two should do it. He takes his medicine and goes back to bed, hoping to wake up in a familiar place.
Anxiety lies on his chest like a giant cat, crushing the breath from his lungs . He has to sit up, gasping for air. His hand shakes as it goes to his throat, half expecting to feel hands here choking his life away, but touches only the smooth bare skin of his own neck.
He counts breaths until he can lie down again and feign sleep for another six hours, until it’s time to get up for the day.
Letty hears Peter stir in his bathroom; she grips her pillow even more tightly, hoping against hope that he gets some rest tonight. She spent too many hours today reassuring him that the stove was off, the doors locked, and they had no appointments.
A phrase catches her mind, distracting her from thoughts of caretaking: secret emergencies. It tastes faintly of long-forgotten familiarity; perhaps something she learned in school. A poem, maybe? But it fits Peter so well, describing him to a T with only two words. Secret emergencies.
His anxiety wasn’t improving with the new medication. Letty remembers a day when they were children, playing together in the backyard that seemed to stretch for miles in every direction. As they ran through a patch of clover, Peter disturbed a bee, and it stung him on the tip of his finger. He clutched it, and they ran home together. Letty found their father, who doctored Peter’s finger.
And that was all. No panic, no days of hiding in his room. They were out playing again that same after noon. What happened to that Peter? Letty wonders, drowsing. He must have had a secret emergency that he never told me about.
In his room, Peter’s breathing slows, and soft snores escape his open mouth, free to wander the still house.
Thanks to poet William Stafford and today’s Listserve submission from Michael Brigham.