After that night with Grace, I spent five full days trying to convince myself that I was going to be okay, but the anxiety only grew. Different than before but undeniable. It curled around my insides like the roots of a dark tree. I could keep up the facade for only so long before Mama became aware. She always knows.
She's a contradiction, my Mama—seemingly indifferent to me most of the time yet always watching. Nothing slips past her. So when she found me in the bathroom one morning, struggling to get my breathing under control, it was back to Denver for an "emergency" checkup four days before school started.
Sitting in Dr. Stevens's office again is, ironically, the most familiar sensation I've felt in a while. The walls gleam whiter than white. Muted Mozart hums from a hidden speaker in the wall. Two tasteful paintings of the Rocky Mountains hang in perfect symmetry on either side of the wall. It smells like gauze and the slightest hint of lemon. Even Mama, flipping through a six-month-old People magazine on a chair beside me, completes the ambiance.
In the corner, the neural restructuring capsule sits, like a leftover set piece from the Borg commune in the Star Trek movies. It actually looks like an MRI machine. I've gotten into the capsule so many times before, I know what to expect. It doesn't hurt. Yet every time I lie down inside of it my pulse races.
A short, plump nurse in Winnie-the-Pooh scrubs breezes into the room. Aunt Winonna.
"Well, well. Look who's back," she says brightly.
Winonna is Mama's first cousin and the only one in the entire extended family to leave Orchardview for Denver. She still feels like Orchardview to me, though, with her big country bangs, pink lipstick, and the tattoo of her boyfriend's name around her ring finger.
"Good to see you again," Mama says, reaching out to give her a one-armed hug. "Didn't think it'd be so soon, but Shelby's...well, you know how she is."
I stare at my mother. So she's going to play the "Shelby is a drama queen" card instead of owning up to the fact that she pushed for me to come here? A flash of anger heats my throat.
"We want you to feel secure with your results," Aunt Winonna says, tactfully maneuvering around the comment. She pulls out her stethoscope. "But I'll leave that to Dr. Stevens. Let's take your vitals."
"Sounds good," I say, sitting up straighter as she sets the cool metal against my back. I'm relieved she doesn't make eye contact with me.
Winonna listens to my heart and lungs and scribbles some notes on her clipboard chart. She then sweeps out wordlessly.
Mama sighs and picks up her People magazine again.
My jaw sets. "Thanks for throwing me under the bus."
Mama's eyes flash. If there's one thing she doesn't tolerate, it's sarcasm. She calls it the gateway to liberalism.
"Don't you take that tone with me."
It takes all of my energy not to scoff. "I only came back because you made me."
"Well, if you had stayed relaxed, you wouldn't have needed to come back."
There are so many things wrong with what she's saying I don't even know where to begin. And I don't know if I feel more angry or hurt.
"Don't you think I'd stay relaxed if I could?"
Mama flips through her magazine, unfazed. "Look, I don't see what you're making such a fuss about. The treatments work. They worked for Blake. They work for you. We just can't take any chances on you remembering."
"Don't you mean we can't take any chances of the panic attacks coming back?"
Her hand stops for a beat in the middle of turning a page, and her gaze snaps up. Before she can respond, the exam room door swings open. Dr. Stevens breezes in with an economical smile.
"Good morning, ladies."
Mama sits up, setting her magazine on the side table. "Hello, Dr. Stevens."
I think my mother feels a little insecure around him. Dr. Stevens has gravitas and poise, with silvering temples and a calm voice. He looks, talks, and moves like money and education. Everything Mama isn't.
"Shelby," he says. "Nice to see you again. Though I understand you aren't feeling well?"
"I'm okay." The response is knee jerk. Dr. Stevens raises an eyebrow. Mama's eyes burn into me. I look down into my lap. "I mean...I feel fine now, but the panic attacks...they've started up again."
Dr. Stevens scribbles a few notes on the chart. "I see."
"It was a low-grade anxiety at first. But I can't shake it."
"And the memories of the accident?" Dr. Stevens asks. "Are they coming back as well?"
"No. That's all blank."
"Good," he says, nodding. "That's good."