You switch to your right side. You can't tell if the beats have slowed or not because you can't hear anything. And you prefer it that way. There's this habit that you've always hated of ending up on your left side while tossing and turning, begging your overactive mind for relief in the form of slumber. That always results in heartbeat awareness as the muffling of the pillow amplifies the inner workings of your organs. Your legs are moist and cold, but your face feels like it's severely sunburned. This isn't a tanning bed, though, this is your bed. And now, at 3:21 AM, it has become an unforgiving lair of torture.
You should be used to this routine. Nearly every night for the past several years, the evil has crept into this room to make the witching hours a living hell. But you're not used to it, and never will be. You've heard everything and tried everything. You've heard that sleeping on the left side causes the entire weight of your body to press against your heart. Makes sense.
The tick of the clock forever reminds you that the one in your chest is ticking too. Like some being wound it up sixty-five years ago. You know it's inevitable that the ticking will stop, and when it does, there will be no rewinding. So you've spent your whole adult life trying everything possible to avoid that sound. And so far, it has worked. It has kept your sanity safe.
Wispy gasps vent from your lungs as you sit on the edge of the bed with its tangled, ghostly sheet still clinging to your left shoulder. The focused glare from the antique night light on the wall near the floor only serves as a reminder of the deep purple covering your withering ankles in blotches. You began to notice them in your late thirties, and you were scared. Scared of making mountains out of mole hills.
After all, anxiety has always been your problem. When you were eighteen, the tunnel vision caused by anxiety had you convinced it was glaucoma. When you were thirty-two, you thought the tiny knot just below your chin was throat cancer. When you were forty-something, you swore the bout with sleep paralysis at night was aneurysms.
You've heard that exercise helps with circulation, so you begin pacing. The world immediately beyond these dusty walls is sound asleep at the moment, and all is a vacuum-like quiet. Except for you. The thumps and ticks contrast with the quiet, like daytime and night. Each tick of the two clocks means you're alive. Each thump of your slippers against the ancient wood floor means you're alive. For now.
There are so many regrets, so many things you wish you had done differently. You wish you hadn't waited clear until a month ago to seek therapy. Forty years ago, it was just panic. Now you're not sure.
You fight with combative hands to target the button that brings the phone to life. But, should you? What if it is panic? In that case, you'll be fine again tomorrow like always...At least your body will, but what about your ego? Will they laugh at your irrational fears? Will they label you as insane?
The ticks are getting faster and louder. Each and every one of them hurts. They each feel like someone inside your chest is chiseling away at your nerve endings. Your gut tells you something is different this time. You set the phone back down on the nightstand.
People have always said that you worry too much. "Loosen up, man!" you repeat as best you can in thought. It's a mantra that never works, but right now you're willing to try anything to get those wrathful nerves back in line. Protect the sanity that has held you together at all costs.
You've always heard to breathe. Breathe. Breathe. It's supposed to be a natural, involuntary bodily function that requires no thought, but all your adult life you've struggled with it despite tip-top lungs. And as you work the inner muscles, air doesn't seem to exist anymore. A sharp ringing sound tears at the deepest recesses of your racing brain. The silence down below and all around your person amplifies an aching sense of suffocation. You reach for the phone again, and this time, it seems harder to reach.
Right now, without even realizing, you're wishing. Your mind doesn't comprehend it, but your body does. You're wishing you had just let all the trivial things go. Arguing with your old man, to the point of shunning each other for the last twenty years of his life. Political differences, faith differences, music differences, on and on. Differences that ultimately led him to label you, in his rage and vindictiveness: Insane. Your body knows and remembers all of it; your brain wants to forget.
His condition was genetic. It was bound to happen sooner or later. But you were lucky. Tests always came back negative. Your heart, according to doctors, was a physical power machine of athletic potential. They were always more concerned with the anxiety and its potential. You wish you'd done something with both.
But you were always dying. You just knew it. You wish you had been able to convince yourself otherwise. You avoided going anywhere. Doing anything. All because of that ticking sound. It's been a monotonous life, but at least no one has called you "insane" in years.
And now the sound has merged with everything else, into a humming blur of light, darkness, ringing, metallic bitterness, and the sizzling stings of anger, apprehension, and guilt, all converging on a battered soul like a pack of wolverines. A brown noise, of everything fusing together to form confusion.
The phone is ringing, but you're unaware. It has become part of the noise. Your entirety is frozen solid. Locked up. Outside, beyond the walls, the first chirps of morning try to welcome you to a new day, but you don't hear them. A thin shaft of dawn targets your chest as if trying to heal, but you don't feel it. The scent of a brewing pot of coffee streaming invisibly through the window attempts to tease your paled nostrils, but you can't notice.
You sense that your stone-textured frame, the one that held you upright so you could go through the motions of this bittersweet existence for six and a half decades while keeping your sanity, is plunging. Skin and cheekbone meet varnish with an awful Slap. And as a veil of midnight descends over your emptying shell, you hear something. It's coming from above. A voice, distant and garbled. You muster one last fit of energy to rise to meet the voice. Instead, your clammy hands flatten, your wrists go limp, and a brief stream of smoke is all that remains of the fleeting ember that was you.
"9-1-1. What's your emergency?" the voice repeats louder. But much like with the "tree falling in the woods" analogy: There's no one around to hear it.