Chapter 1

 

 

LEVI REED paced his bedroom, frantically shaking his hands. Like a caged animal yearning for escape, he wore the same tread repeatedly across the blue shag rug. Waves of fear lashed out, tearing into his fragile mind. He paused his pacing, then jumped up and down, as if the action were enough to shake off the icy grip of panic. No such luck. His life had always been about the fear, and after nineteen years that hadn’t changed.

He resumed pacing. Terror threatened to drown him beneath relentless, suffocating waves. Since morning, the menace had been growing from a deep crevice within his mind. At first, there had only been a small grain, barely detectable. By midday, that small grain had coalesced into the burgeoning, familiar companion that had accompanied him for his entire life, always there, rarely resting.

“Think.” The sound of his own voice did little to settle his nerves. The time for tricks of distraction and deception had passed. He was well into the throes of the nightmare. Fear, greater than any human should ever know, threatened his sanity. He cursed his ingrained weakness, which only proved the names, “sissy” or “queer”—less than a man—that had been used to describe him over the years. But he dared any man to deal with the ruthless panic, fear, and dread he had managed to survive without crumbling.

“You’re safe.” He repeated the mantra several times, but the words were a hollow attempt at self-reassurance. “Come on, Levi. Cut this shit out.”

Rubbing his icy hands together, he fought to bring his focus back so he could formulate a plan. Yes, a plan, he thought, but the adrenaline pumping through his veins forced his thoughts to whirl about too quickly. Closing his eyes, he bent at the waist until his ears were level with his knees. The action accentuated the racing beats of his heart clamped beneath the ever-tightening muscles of his chest. The tighter they squeezed, the faster and harder his heart pumped. Any minute, he imagined his heart would shatter his ribs into a million sharp, bony pieces.

Willpower was the only weapon he had against the enemy—sheer determination to keep up his defenses. Achingly, his mind continued to battle the ever-surging breakwaters threatening to overcome their dam, the psychological wall he’d learned to construct years ago. The fear, if allowed to overpower him, would shred his sanity into tiny reflective bits that would only echo who he once was. His psyche had yet to smash but bore jagged cracks that had weakened its structure. Just a matter of time.

Not now. Not this time! His mind screamed at the unseen adversary.

“Focus. Breathe.”

Steadying himself, Levi gripped his thighs, digging his nails into his skin through his gray sweatpants, the pain a faint and distant echo. He forced a deep breath into his lungs. “One… two…” He struggled to keep the air from escaping prematurely. “Three.” With strained control, he steadily allowed the air to escape. Quickly, he drew in another breath and repeated the pattern several times. His attention focused solely on that one last life-saving act, but a noise interrupted his plan.

A closing door. Footsteps in the hallway. His thin, hollow core door was the only barrier. Levi bolted upright. A surge of dizziness threatened to topple him as the walls of the room slanted and tipped. Footsteps stopping at his door brought reality crashing down. Everyone should have been asleep. The distraction was the pause his internal enemy needed.

With unnerving ferocity, the fear breached the dam, forcing through fractures within the blockade constructed to restrain his foe. Panic pushed the release of adrenaline. His heart seemed to freeze momentarily as the hormone invaded. Levi gasped and slapped his palm against his sternum.

“No!”

The absence of the familiar thudding pushed his panic past the edge of reason. Just when he was sure his heart wouldn’t start again, the muscle exploded into beats faster than he could count. Numbness crept into his right arm and leg. Blood roared in his ears.

Levi spun around as the door to his room opened slowly.

“Please, no.”

The man entered casually, kicking at something on the floor that blocked the door. A blue NY Giants ball cap shielded his eyes from the overhead light.

“Saw you were still up. Knocked but you didn’t—” The last word caught in the man’s throat as he raised his head. “Levi?” Alarm replaced the relaxed smile on his face. Quickly, quietly, he closed the door behind him, his eyes never wavering from Levi. “It’s bad this time?” Part question but mostly a statement.

The twist of fear and panic on Levi’s face must have been a dead giveaway. The sight of his older brother rushing around the bed toward him, the determination of his stride, the familiar mask of worry on his face took any fight left within Levi. Surrender was his only option now. Clawing at his throat, Levi managed to whisper, “I… can’t… breathe!”

The tightening in his chest rose to envelop his windpipe. Air everywhere but none of the oxygen reached his screaming lungs. I’m dying, he rationalized, or worse.

Logan gripped him firmly by his shoulders. Levi could barely feel the pressure.

Floating… I feel like I’m floating.

Blackness pushed into the edges of his vision. Beneath him, his legs threatened to buckle and send him crashing to the floor.

“Levi?” The voice wafted away on an undetectable breeze. When he didn’t answer, Logan gently shook his shoulders and put more authority behind his name. “Levi. Look at me.”

Levi’s chin rested on his chest, and he stared off into nothingness. His head was so heavy. Fingers touched his chin. Levi looked up and forced his eyes to work together. He focused on his brother’s face. Rigid, hard lines and narrowed eyes, masked slightly by the shadow of his ball cap, spoke to the seriousness of his demand.

“I… I… c-can’t. The dam broke.” Levi’s voice was barely audible as torrents beat ceaselessly against him. He was losing the fight, the will to continue.

Logan nodded. “Listen. You’re breathing as if you just ran five miles. Slow it down. It’s just a panic attack.” Logan pulled Levi’s hands away from his throat where he’d been digging into his skin. Logan then placed Levi’s palm against the center of his own chest. “Focus on my breathing.” Logan exaggerated the movement of his chest. “In… out… slow it down… in… and… out. There’s nothing to be afraid of, right? Nothing’s going to hurt you.”

Despite Logan’s coaching, Levi had lost control of his body, which was now the domain of his primordial fear. Shortly, his mind would evict him, throwing him into the ether.

“Levi, you need to help me here.” Logan’s tone held an edge of annoyance. Logan raised his hand and lightly slapped Levi’s left cheek. The contact echoed into Levi’s skull and cleared enough of the fog smothering his brain to direct his attention. Levi’s gaze lifted to Logan’s face with confusion. “This isn’t working. I think I’d better wake up Dad.”

“No!” That thought brought a new wave of fear, one from an actual source. “Don’t… tell… Dad.”

“Okay, okay. Sit.” Logan guided Levi back and had him sit on the bed. Logan placed his palm on the back of Levi’s neck. “Put your head between your knees.”

The action took some of the rush from Levi’s head, and the roar in his ears faded slightly.

“You’re okay,” Logan crooned slowly and softly as if Levi were a child. “Nothing can hurt you while I’m here. Just listen to the sound of my voice.” Logan’s soothing tones entered his mind, searching for the panic as if it were an antidote. “You’re strong. You can fight this. Focus on my voice.” Logan rubbed Levi’s upper back. “Focus on my touch. We’ve done this before. You’re the one in control. You’re the one who built the dam. You’re the one who can put the fear back where it belongs.”

Levi’s shallow, rapid breaths slowed. Logan’s voice filled his head, but Levi doubted his strength to corral the wild beast that still threatened him. Levi couldn’t remember the last time the fear had fully escaped its enclosure. How had he put the menace back behind the dam last time? He shook his head to tell his brother he couldn’t do what he asked.

“Yes, you can, Levi. Fight it, now!”

Obeying, Levi took in several deep breaths, held them in, and then blew them out. The muscles in his chest started to relax. The feeling of suffocation receded slightly. A surge of hope came with that small victory—a rise of strength.

Logan placed his hand on Levi’s knee. Levi rested his cheek against the warm skin, soaking in Logan’s reality.

Sure as the panic had come, it began to wane, its retreat like dark smoke being sucked slowly from a room. The withdrawal was not without effort on Levi’s part, using a reserve of energy from deep within, with just enough coercion to hasten the momentary defeat of the enemy.

“That’s it. You’re winning.” Logan had whispered, then sighed loudly, continuing to rub Levi’s back.

Breathing came easier for Levi. Senses previously muted by the onslaught heightened. Replacing the terror was an overwhelming fatigue that rushed through every muscle of his body. Nerve endings in his arms, hands, legs, and feet screamed their discomfort, assaulted with tiny electric shocks from the influx of oxygen. No matter how hard Levi struggled, the muscles of his hands were too weak to form a fist, lacking vigor and strength.

Waiting patiently, Logan was silent. Replacing Levi’s dread from the unknown fear was the discomfort of now having to face Logan—not that his brother hadn’t helped him with his panic attacks in the past. Logan had never questioned Levi’s irrational fears or their origin, had never made Levi think he was as crazy as he believed himself to be, had never let him down. But a nineteen-year-old man shouldn’t be scared to death of nothing. A nineteen-year-old gay man should be more afraid of stepping out of the closet. Unfortunately, Levi’s panic had kept him in a very different closet altogether, one where he often hid from his irrational, pointless fears. If he ever broke free of that small dark room, he’d be stepping into an entirely new version of that closet where he’d finally have to deal with being gay.

No one but his best friend Gia knew about his preference for men. Although, throughout high school, there had been those taunts of “queer” and one guy who actually had called him “fag” a few times. Levi wondered if they’d known he preferred men, like some crappy bully gaydar-type nonsense. Gia always said it was because Levi was too pretty to be a guy. Gotta love being male and being called “pretty.”

“Hey,” Logan said, finally breaking the silence. “Over?”

Unable to stall any longer, Levi nodded. Wisps of dizziness still spun in his brain. The heaviness of the upper half of his body almost knocked him over. He rested his elbows on his knees and nestled his head in his hands. His legs shook under the weight.

When Logan gently touched Levi’s shoulder, shock waves reverberated into the core of his chest. Damned overdeveloped startle response.

“Levi.” A noiseless pause. “Say something.”

A simple request, but Levi’s mouth felt as though it had been welded shut. Prying his tongue from the roof of his mouth, Levi managed a dry, hoarse, “’M okay,” and then unenthusiastically turned up the corners of his mouth.

A relieved smile replaced the harsh lines that had bracketed Logan’s mouth minutes earlier. A spark lightened his blue eyes beneath the shadow of the lid of his favorite ball cap. Curls of dark blond hair—a bit darker than Levi’s—peaked from under the back of the cap. A scar, from an accident a few years ago, ran from the crown of his brother’s head and ended just beneath his left eye. Still pronounced, the scar always made Levi shudder whenever he focused on the deep, red, jagged line, and he’d have to steady himself.

Fatigue quickly turned into exhaustion, overtaking Levi’s mind with a ferocity that equaled the fear. Sleep would be his refuge but not yet.

“I’m sorry, Logan.”

“For what?” There was a hint of surprise in Logan’s question.

For being scared of nothing and needing you to rescue me, again.

“I’m not the one who just battled the demon.” Logan punctuated this sentence with a light punch on Levi’s arm but failed to lighten the mood.

Logan had helped Levi confront the monster more than once in his life, sitting with him and talking through the panic and mind-altering fear. Logan had always been Levi’s safety net and connection to the real world, where Levi had felt he’d never belonged. It was as if an invisible barrier prevented him from truly living life as others knew it, always an arm’s length away. He dwelled in that realm, which had been built on anxiety, dread, feelings of unreality, and invisible threats from a faceless enemy. Dulled emotions, the need to feel something—anything—had dominated most of his life. He was different from his family and friends and had always known that fact to be true.

Levi nodded, ignoring the imminent shutdown of his weary brain. “Yeah. It was bad this time.”

“Why didn’t you come and get me earlier? And why was this one so bad? The last time you had a full-blown panic attack was last November, right?” Logan’s questions rolled out one after another until he uttered the one question Levi had been dreading. “Did you forget to take your meds or something?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Levi glanced at the small black zippered bag on his nightstand. Even when he’d been at school earlier, the contents of that bag had reached out, calling to Levi with promises of relief.

Logan’s eyes searched Levi’s face for an answer that he didn’t want to give. Levi had quit taking his anxiety and depression meds over a week ago.