The first panic attack Marissa ever suffered had happened the morning of her first day of second grade, just before the school bell rang. It had consumed her so quickly, so completely, it felt as though she had been possessed by evil itself, the intensity of it seemingly turning her inside out.
She had been too scared to cry, too weak to move, too terrified to speak. Frozen, with no control over her own body, she had messed her new dress. A lifelong victim of panic attacks herself, Marissa’s mother had quickly driven her home, calmed her down, cleaned her up, and returned her to school in time for first recess. The trick, Kitty said, was to give the panic no more power than a fleeting case of the hiccups. Pause for a moment, if you need to catch your breath, but never let it stop you from living life.
The advice had sounded plausible to a seven year-old, but it was so contrived not even Kitty herself could follow it. As the years passed and Marissa’s panic waxed and waned like the moon, she witnessed her mother succumb to her own spells of uncontrollable fear and anxiety. With each attack, Kitty had surrounded herself in a fresh hoard of treasures to reinforce her pretense of security, and Marissa’s faith in her own future sanity wavered.
As a teenager, the excess of hormones coursing through her blossoming body had nourished the panic, intensified its strength. Usually, it would strike her at night, paralyzing her as she drifted to sleep, terrorizing her half-dream state until she prayed for the sweet release of death. Occasionally, she would feel the fear creep up on her in the middle of the day, in public places, when others could witness her weakness. She’d learned to keep to herself, skirt along the peripheral of life, only stepping inside with Jimmy by her side.
She’d scared the shit out of that poor boy the first time he’d witnessed one of her fits of panic, a sudden powerful attack on a brilliant summer day spent fishing and wading in the river, fooling around on blankets they’d laid out on the grassy banks. He’d recovered faster than she could, and he had taught her the power of primal screaming.
Of course, that only worked in the rare instance she was alone in an abandoned field, with no unsuspecting soul within a country mile. It wasn’t practical when perched on a chair in the boss’s office, sitting close enough to shatter her with the first caterwaul.
Marissa smoothed her skirt, tucked her hair behind her ear, straightened her back and opened her airways. Still, her pulse throbbed in her neck, each beat sharp, as constrictive as Tyler’s hand had been the night he had pinned her to the ground.
“Relax, dear,” said Marg Sloan, her smile bright, encouraging as she reached across her desk to lightly pat Marissa’s clasped hands. “This is just a performance review, not an inquisition.”
“Right.” Marissa’s voice carried as a whisper through a nervous laugh. Consciously, she drew in a deep breath, closing her eyes to center her soul and calm the hiccupping of her heart. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
With a gentle exhale, she expelled the rising panic, and returned her haunted memories to the back of her mind, where she’d successfully kept every pain, every vision, every memory of her own tortured cries, buried for the past ten years.
Bloodied and bruised, more exhausted than she’d ever felt in her life, she’d still considered herself the victor of that fight. Spiritually. Emotionally. Never once had she allowed herself to feel a victim or a fool.
Obviously, she’d only been fooling herself, if only the casual mention of his name held the power to revive that night in a vivid rush of terror and rage.
Marissa drew in another cleansing breath, forced her vision to focus on the paper Marg had placed in front of her, to listen to the words the woman spoke.
“…is simply wonderful. Your efficiency and accuracy ratings are well above what we would expect from a team member who has been with us for…”
Her speech became garbled. The typed words on the paper swirled. Marg handed Marissa a pen. She signed where Marg pointed. The paper disappeared into a manila folder. Marg produced another.
And then she sighed.
“Now, about your attendance.”
Start on a high note, gentle roll to the low.
Marissa did her best to look contrite about her missed days and long lunches. Marg worked her way back to another high, Marissa’s impeccable phone etiquette, signaling the end of the performance review.
She walked away with a three-point-two percent pay raise. Better than the zero percent she’d expected, but not even close to what she had made during her brief stint working for Jimmy at Rogan-Handley Construction. Not that she wanted to suffer that humiliation again.
Still, she needed something better than Allman Falls Savings and Loan.
At the end of the day, Marissa logged off her computer, slipped on her coat, and picked up the only decoration she had in her cubicle, a snake plant in a square green pot.
The morning of her first day at her new job, Kitty had taken the clippers to her jungle of houseplants and selected a hardy cutting. She’d poked it into fresh soil, drawn a cheery face on the side of the pot, attached googly eyes, scattered a few stones for good luck, and then packed Marissa a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Marissa had tossed the sandwich but kept the plant. She’d named it Glenn and had given him the place of honor on her desk, beside her monitor.
Glenn had been in her care for eighty-four days now. She hadn’t killed him, but he didn’t look exceptionally happy, either. She poked her finger into the soil. Bone dry.
“Sorry, buddy,” she whispered, and tucked him into her oversize purse. “I promise, I’ll do better at our next place, wherever we end up.”
Marissa walked out of the office without a backward glance and braced against the wicked winter wind as she hurried across the icy parking lot to her car. The driver’s door was frozen shut, the handle an unyielding block of ice from the afternoon’s freezing rain. As she hurried around to the passenger side of her car, a frigid blast of arctic air whipped across the downtown square and stole the breath clean out of her lungs. Gasping, she popped the handle. The door opened with a wrenching groan.
With all the grace of hippopotamus in snow boots, she clambered across a collected mess of CD’s and fast food trash heaped in the passenger side, over the center console, into the driver’s seat. Panting through a sudden hot flash from the exertion, she struggled to loosen her scarf, unbutton her coat, and stabbed her key into the ignition.
Her poor car shuddered, died, and then choked to a semblance of life. She waited a moment longer, for the high-pitched squeal of her alternator to quiet down to a pitch less painful, then flipped on her one working headlight and rolled out of the parking lot.
She only had to drive a few blocks to the house she’d shared with Kitty for almost all her life, but she didn’t feel like going home. She wasn’t in the mood to hang out at Captain Jack’s, either, though she could probably pick up a shift if she’d wanted to. Her bank account needed her to. Maybe over the weekend, when the tips would be better, and she’d have time to sleep off a hangover.
She rolled through the drive-thru and counted out enough loose change from her center console to grab a meal of grease and salt then headed out of town. She started down the spur toward the highway, then turned onto a familiar country road. It had been a long time since Marissa had felt the need to drive this direction, to clear her mind, to breathe the air.
Her brain felt scattered, her thoughts hyper and incomplete. The car’s heater cooked her feet, but the knob was broken. She couldn’t control the temperature. Instead, she cracked the window, turned on the radio, and started flipping stations, desperate to find something that matched her mood.
“…make the entire process easy for you…”
♪ I’d take it all back, take it all back, take it all back, just to have you… ♪
“…regain control over your healthcare costs…”
♪ Are you going to kiss me, or not… ♪
The night was black, the sky a thick, heavy blanket of clouds, allowing no illumination from the moon or stars. Patches of snow shone silver from the beam of her headlight.
♪ All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall… ♪
“…your official country station…”
♪ I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral… ♪
“…across the state with snow and ice, making the roads treacherous for travel…”
“…He had, at the end, a plan for salvation…”
Frustrated, she turned down the volume and drove the next two miles in relative silence. Her tires kicked up frozen gravel. Individual rocks dinged along the undercarriage of her car. Wind whistled through the cracked window. Her single headlight flickered when she hit a rough patch of washboard road. She slowed for an intersection, though there was no one she had to yield to.
She was alone, on the road, in the world. It was how she’d preferred to live her life. Except for Jimmy, there was no one she had ever loved, no one who had ever loved her. She’d never been the kind of girl who needed friends. Other than her mother, she had no family. Not since her brother was killed, since her baby had died.
Halfway to the next intersection, she slowed, then stopped, put her car into park. She turned off her headlight but she did not get out.
A lifetime had passed since she’d last walked into the valley and sat beneath the burr oak tree where she and Jimmy had tucked the memory of their accident. Part of the reason was the land had sold and was now used to run cattle. The beasts had soiled the ground, muddied the creek, stripped the life from the earth, and trampled the roots of her tree.
What innocence she’d buried had long been destroyed. Not only by the cattle, by also by the beast of man.
For that ground was where she had been raped.
She turned away from the valley, dug through the CD’s piled on her passenger seat.
Just the mention of his name…
She found Sturgill Simpson. Slipped him into the stereo. She kept the volume low and closed her eyes.
For everything Marissa Vasek had been in high school, Tyler Tomek had been the opposite. She was the child of a single mother, of poverty and panic. He was a child of wealth, of healthy abundance. She’d always been slow to learn, struggled to read, hated school. He’d been elected class president, valedictorian, voted most likely to succeed.
She’d smoked pot, talked back, got suspended. He’d kissed ass, played the teachers, mastered the game.
He’d dated cheerleaders. She’d dated Jimmy.
Secretly, she’d watched him, crushed on him. He’d never once looked her way. Until, the night before their high school graduation, he had.
Three weeks earlier, a semi had crossed the center line of the highway. Jimmy had swerved, overcorrected, and her entire world had flipped upside down.
She’d healed physically from the car accident, from her miscarriage, from the surgery. But she had yet to heal emotionally.
She’d hated herself. She’d hated Jimmy. She’d hated the way the whole town talked about her, about him, about what they’d done. She was branded a whore, Jimmy even worse. Together, they were outcast.
She was high, all the time.
The night Tyler noticed her, she was so stoned she could barely walk, could hardly keep her eyes open. But when he’d beckoned, she’d felt the first glimmer of joy hit her heart since the night of the crash, and she’d followed.
She’d climbed into his car, directed him out into the country, and led him to the burr oak tree. She’d wanted to show him where she’d buried her soul. But all he’d wanted to see, to kiss and to touch, was her body, naked beneath his in the grass.
She’d said no. She’d screamed, No!
But Tyler always got what he wanted. Even if he had to steal it.
Until that night, despite rumors to the contrary, Jimmy was the only boy Marissa had ever let see her body, kiss her skin, lie naked alongside her and touch her intimately. Together, they had learned how to please another, how to love another, how to respect another. He’d been gentle with her, playful with her, rougher when she’d wanted it. He’d stopped immediately if she ever felt uncomfortable.
He’d learned what she liked, and he’d perfected his stroke. For her.
Jimmy was how she imagined every man would be. She had never been more wrong, more naïve, about anything in life.
That night in the valley, Tyler had done what he wanted, how he’d wanted, when he’d wanted. He’d gotten hard over her struggles for him to stop. He’d slapped her, pinched her. He had bit her breast so hard she’d thought the bruise would never heal.
He’d wrapped his hands around her neck, shoved her face down into the muddy earth, and he had taken her from behind. And then he’d left her beaten and bloody, her clothing torn, her body exposed, and returned to town without her.
She’d curled up under the tree, knees to her chest, and forced her eyes to dry. As she’d felt her body passing out, she’d prayed for God to finally let her die in her sleep.
Hours later, she’d woken up to a cold rain, her face tender and swollen to the touch, pissed off to still be alive, and determined to never feel weak or helpless again.
Years passed. She’d taken control of her body, of her panic, of pleasure and sex. She’d learned how to defend herself, how to resist the desire to love, to be loved.
She’d never mentioned that night to anyone, not even to Jimmy. And she had never allowed Tyler a second thought. Until now.
Now, her stomach roiled from the memories. Her chest tightened, as though compressed by a heavy weight. The rising panic suffocated her, causing her to draw in rapid breaths that left her feeling lightheaded and confused.
Her vision clouded and she clawed at her door, frantic to find the window control. A blast of winter air rushed into the confined space and she gasped, inhaling deep in preparation of that first guttural scream that would shatter the bondage of terror constricting her very life force.
And then, she heard it. Faint at first, nothing more than a whispered plea carried on the north wind. Not the bellow of the cattle surrounding her, but a quiet cry of pain, of sorrow. An infant’s cry of loneliness.
The second cry brought her mind to center. It was the lonesome call of an animal, injured or trapped. Marissa picked up her cellphone, turned on the flashlight and trained its beam across the night-darkened field.
Hidden in the shadows, beneath the brush beyond the burr oak, a pair of eyes shined back.