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Authors: Louise Gornall

Under Rose-Tainted Skies

BOOK: Under Rose-Tainted Skies
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A MESSAGE FROM CHICKEN HOUSE

J
ust pull yourself together! I mean, it's all in your head
.

Why can't you just get over yourself?

We've all heard this kind of prejudice. Everyone has been affected by mental illness. We've all either suffered ourselves or known someone in torment, and yet preconceptions are so hard to overcome. This brilliant and important novel by Louise Gornall is about being trapped in your head, in your house and in yourself. It's about how there is always hope – and always love. You must read it: it's for all of us.

BARRY CUNNINGHAM

Publisher

Chicken House

Professor
,

I wrote this book for you. Thank you for helping me find my brave, for showing me strength when adversity was overwhelming, and for always reminding me to breathe
.

And Rach
,

I know this was a tough one to get down. I'm so grateful for all your support and encouragement, for all the hugs and late night cups of coffee. You never let me down
.

I
'm going to kill the damn blackbird sitting on my windowsill, chirping and squeaking at the top of its lungs. It's hopping back and forth, wings spread and flapping, but has zero intention of taking off.

The point is it can fly away whenever it wants. And it knows it can. It stops chirping, turns its tiny head, and looks at me. Smiling for sure.

Smug bastard.

I pick up my pillow and lob it at the window. It crashes against the glass then plops on to my window ledge, catching a pile of books as it dies a deflated death on my bedroom floor.

The blackbird is unperturbed, but it pales into insignificance as my eyes home in on my copy of
The Picture of Dorian Gray
. Its corner is now ever so slightly out of line with the five books beneath it.

It's the Reader's Choice Edition. Two hundred and twenty-eight pages exactly. Just like the five books under it. To the left is another pile of six books. They all have two
hundred and seventy-two pages. The book on top of that pile is
Pride and Prejudice
, the Dover Thrift Edition.

‘Norah,' Mom bellows up the stairs. ‘If you don't get your butt down here in the next ten seconds, I'm cancelling the internet service.' I've been testing her patience for the last twenty minutes.

‘I still have stomach ache,' I call back. There's a pause, and I think maybe she's giving up on the idea of making me go outside.

‘I don't care if you have bubonic plague.' Pause. Inhale courage. Exhale guilt. ‘If you're not down these stairs in the next eight seconds, you can kiss your internet connection goodbye.' Her voice cracks, but wow, she's really taking this whole ‘tough love' approach seriously. I don't think she's an enabler, but ever since she watched Doctor Motivator and his know-nothing special on mental health, she's been grappling with her conscience.

I surrender.

To her, at least. I look back at the books, see a crumbling tower, a broken wall. Dr Reeves is in my head, telling me to test myself, telling me to leave the discombobulated book as it is and observe how the world does not collapse around me.

I huff, climb off the bed, pick up my pillow, and place it back where it belongs. It's one of four. They all sit angled, diamond shapes, on top of my military-smooth bed sheets.

Neck hot, fingers tapping thighs, six beats each, I leave the room.

But before I hit the stairs, that tiny corner, no longer in line with the other five books, is consuming me. Like that song you heard but can't quite remember the name of. Or
that actor you've seen in another film but can't for the life of you recall which one. The thought is a fungus, a black mould rotting my brain. I ache. My teeth itch.

I stand at the top of the stairs, close my eyes, and try to make my mind go blank.

Don't go back. Don't go back. You don't need to go back. Clear your mind
.

Here's the thing. The blankness in my mind turns into a piece of white paper, the white paper reminds me of books, and then I'm thinking about
The Picture of Dorian Gray
again.
Fuck
.

I march back to my room, push the book into its rightful position, and then hate myself.

The blackbird catches my eye. It hasn't budged. Bet it knew I would be back. I slam my fist into the window and shout, ‘
Boo!
' It shrieks and takes to the skies. I smile. Throw it a sarcastic five-fingered sayonara wave. It's a small but satisfying victory.

Then I see a boy through my window. He's stopped halfway up the garden path and is looking at me like I've lost my mind. He's carrying a box labelled
Bedroom
. I take note of bulging biceps testing the durability of his shirtsleeves.

New neighbours.

Why has he stopped? Am I supposed to smile? Wave? Throw him a thumbs up? I feel like an idiot.

It's awkward; we're both just staring at each other until a woman in a floaty summer dress sails by. He's distracted, so I slip away.

Like a giant in cast-iron shoes, I make my way down the stairs. Eleven steps, so I have to take the last one twice.
I have this thing about even numbers.

You don't have to take the last one twice, Dr Reeves would say.

But I do, I'd tell her. Then she'd ask me why, and I would say, as I always do, Because that's the way my mind works.

C
oat on, keys in hand, my mom has a grin plastered across her face and I know my internet connection lives to fight another day. Losing that would be like pulling the plug on my life support system, shutting me inside a chest and dumping me in the ocean. But as serious as she is about testing the current limits of my comfort zone, I'm not sure her guts are steely enough to follow through with the threat. Not that I'm a brat who would make her life a misery if she did. What I mean is, she feels sorry for me. She knows I would be completely isolated without the internet. The clunky plastic box with flashing blue lights is my friend. Sad, but true. It helps me keep a toe in real life.

Still, my stupid brain and its never-ending wave of paranoia won't allow me to push her empathy any further. So I'm here.

And we're going out.

Kill me.

‘Got everything?' Mom asks, her voice all sing-songy.
We're acting normal. A short-lived facade when I open my bag and Operation Check Contents begins.

1.
Phone to call for help if we have a car crash/get mugged/drive into the path of a tornado

2.
Headphones to drown out the sound of people if we get caught in a crowd

3.
Bottle of water for if we break down and get stranded in the middle of nowhere

4.
Another bottle of water in case that other bottle leaks or evaporates

5.
Tissues for nosebleeds, sneezing, crying, and/or drooling

6.
Sanitizer to kill the germs you can catch from touching anything

7.
Paper bag to breathe into or throw up in

8.
Band-Aids and alcohol wipes in case open wounds should occur

9.
Inhaler (I grew out of asthma when I was twelve, but you can't be too careful when it comes to breathing)

10.
A piece of string that serves no purpose but it's been here since for ever and I'm afraid the world will implode if I don't have it

11.
A pair of nail scissors for any one of a trillion reasons, most of which conclude with me being kidnapped

12.
And, finally, chewing gum to take away the sour taste I always get when the panic hits

Normal takes a nosedive into my bag, sinks beneath the copious amount of clutter, and dies a slow, painful death.

I nod; my mouth won't move. My lips are numb. It's already started and she hasn't even opened the door.

‘Ready?' Mom asks. Her voice is warped.
Ready
, a word that should only have two syllables, suddenly has fifty. I
nod. Not too hard, because I'm sure any second now my head is going to fall off.

A crease as deep as space tears across Mom's forehead. This is as painful for her as it is for me, and I can't help thinking it would be so much easier if we just didn't bother. But I'm not allowed to think that. Instead, I'm supposed to remind myself that we bother because if I don't learn how to control my fears, I'm going to die cold and alone. Hidden in my room while strangers post messages of condolence on my social media and rabid cats eat my decomposing corpse.

Reassurance resides in Mom's emerald-green eyes and the slight nod of her head. She claps her hand into mine and starts chanting the words that never help.

‘Just breathe; in through your nose, out through your mouth. Just keep breathing.'

When the panic sets in, the ground transforms into wet cement. My feet feel like they're sinking into it as we tread our way to the car.

I keep my eyes fixed on my boots because seeing the vast space outside will finish me off.

I'm drowning.

‘Mom.' I snatch her arm, hold it tight to my chest like it's a buoy.

‘You're okay, honey. We're almost there.'

Insects are crawling under my skin. My bottom lip has fallen off. I don't remember swallowing a golf ball, but it's there, stuck in my throat, trying to choke me. I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other as the September sun spews red-hot rays all over me. My steps are slowing; my knees are folding.

I'm fucked. At this rate I won't make it to the car.

‘Keep breathing. Just keep breathing.' Mom wraps her other arm around my shoulders, squeezing. She's almost carrying me, which is good, because my muscles have liquefied and melted clean away.

What feels like a lifetime later, Mom pulls open the car door and hauls my ass into the front seat.

I deflate. Shrivel up in my chair like a lump of dehydrated fruit. Exhaustion hits like a Mack truck. And then, just because this panic attack hasn't quite finished screwing me six ways from Sunday, the spasms start.

Dr Reeves calls them tics. Arms jump, legs twitch. A tortured heaving sound escapes my lips and makes my skeleton jerk. I can't stop it. I have no control. My body does what it wants when the freak-outs take over.

At least I don't pass out this time. Passing out is the worst, especially if there's no one around to catch you.

Luckily, having no one around to catch me has only happened once. It was my very first panic attack and I was at school. Of course, back then I didn't know what a panic attack was and just assumed I was dying.

It was the weirdest thing. Mrs Dawson asked me a question in chem class, something about the periodic table, and my mind went blank. Everyone's eyes were on me, I could feel fire around my neck, and my vision started to wobble. Like when the heat rises off the desert floor and smudges the landscape, everything was out of focus.

The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the ER, a train track of staples running down my forehead. Six staples. Things got really bad from there.

I spend the next twenty-five minutes of our journey
wrinkled up in my seat, too scared to look out of the window. Angry-girl music blasts through my headphones, but it does nothing to quiet the voices listing potential disasters in my head.

Mom pulls into a space outside Bridge Lea Medical Center, kills the car engine, and turns to look at me.

‘Are you going to come inside?'

‘I can't do it,' I tell her, my voice weak and squeaky like a mouse's. I'm not being awkward. I'm done. Seriously. Beyond exhausted and numb from the neck down. I don't think my muscles could take my weight.

Mom submits in record time. Doctor Motivator and his know-nothing mental-health special can take a hike. Forcing your crumbling kid to move is near impossible for any parent with a soul.

Mom takes ten strides across the parking lot and goes to get Dr Reeves from her office.

Today's therapy session will have to take place in the car.

Mom steps out of the door accompanied by the good doctor. Mom's hands are lively, jumping about in front of her, reinforcing the apology that I know she's spouting. As per usual, Dr Reeves sets a hand down on my mom's shoulder, assuring her that there's no need to apologize.

Dr Reeves is shorter than my mom. She's closer to five feet and built like a twig. A strong breeze, and the woman would blow away. She's smiling, drunk on life. She smiles a lot. A cynical streak expands under my skin. No one should be this happy at 9.00 a.m. on a Monday morning. No one.

Mom takes a turn to her right and heads over to the
diner across the road. Dr Reeves fixes a narrow stare on me and climbs into the driver's seat. She straightens her pantsuit and places her hands, one on top of the other, in her lap.

‘What happened?' she asks, her voice calm and soothing, like ocean waves on a relaxation tape.

‘Couldn't do it.' I can't look her in the eye. ‘I'm sorry, I just couldn't.' She exhales a sigh. She doesn't like it when I apologize.

‘Let's talk about why.' She pushes her glasses back on top of her head.

‘It's stupid.'

‘It's not stupid if it makes you feel afraid. Tell me what you were thinking about when it was time to leave the car.'

Deep breath.

‘I started thinking about your stairs.' There are twenty-eight steps to Dr Reeves's office. They wind, like a staircase in a fairy tale. Up and up and up into the lofty heights of heaven. They're bordered by two solid white walls and traced by a black cast-iron handrail.

She nods. She knows where this is going. We talk a lot about ascending. I have this thing about stairs.

‘What about the stairs?'

‘I don't want to say it.'

‘Norah, this is just you and me talking.' She relaxes, leans back in the seat like this is the school cafeteria and we're about to start discussing the star quarterback's abs. ‘You can tell me.'

Her voice is low, kind of hypnotic, teasing the answer from my throat.

‘I was hanging around on The Hub, that social media site I was telling you about.' She nods, and I bite down hard on my bottom lip. ‘And all these people started pinning notes to their profiles about this tragedy in Seto.' She knows I'm talking about the earthquake in Japan. I can tell because for a split second, grief clouds her eyes. She's seen the reports, read the first-hand accounts, mourned over the thousands of pictures that have been published.

‘So I started reading . . .'

Her mouth turns down into a frown. ‘I thought we talked about not doing that.'

‘We did. And I was working on it.'

I was. Truly. Weeks ago we talked about staying away from things I couldn't handle until I learnt how to process better. The news is easy to avoid – just keep the TV off and don't pick up any newspapers. But then I see words on my social media like
death
and
destruction
, and I have to know. I can't help looking. Like how a moth still craves a light bulb, even though it burns. It's a compulsion.

‘There was this story about this woman, Yui, who worked on the ground floor of this office. She said that everyone on the first and second floors managed to get out, but everyone on floors three to five was trapped when the stairs collapsed and the elevators stopped working.' I'm twisting my fingers into white knots, sweating as I try to imagine what would have been going through the heads of those poor people.

‘Okay.' Dr Reeves puts her hand on top of mine. ‘Just relax. We're not up any stairs right now.'

‘I know it's irrational,' I tell her, because I do know
that. I know that you can't live your life waiting for disaster to strike. I know this. Hell, if we all lived like that, we'd stay stock-still our entire lives or be forced to roll around the streets in those giant plastic bubbles. But it's like my mind and my brain are two separate things, working against each other. I can't get them to cooperate.

The doc reminds me that fear and rational thought are enemies. Then we talk about neural pathways and breaking thought cycles, medical jargon that amounts to
Next session, we're going to climb a flight of stairs
. Fun times.

With that, she makes a follow-up appointment.

I suggest Monday, same time next week.

She insists on Tuesday, in the afternoon.

She likes to mix up our psych dates a little, says she wants to keep a pinch of spontaneity in our meetings; this way, my brain doesn't start relying on a routine. The doc climbs out of the car.

I'm already trying to invent a sickness that will prevent me from leaving the house next week.

BOOK: Under Rose-Tainted Skies
9.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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