I can feel the words at the tip of my tongue. They are ready to burst if initiated. Their greeting tickles my throat, and I try to cough them out, but they seem stuck. Not now, please. Not now.
I try to calm my breathing (when did I start to hyperventilate? I cannot remember). I feel my heart slow down as I count one, two, in. three, four, out. one, two, in. three, four, out. The mantra feels familiarly comforting, and I stop breathing as if I were in a marathon. Maybe I was.
I go over the words in my head one last time and give myself a reassuring nod. The words are finally ready to crawl out.
But then I see their eyes. They bear deep, deep, deeper into my skin, and from the tip, the words travel down, down, down until they uncertainly settle in my stomach. They twist and turn, worm and wriggle. They punch, poke, and scrape away at what is left of my confidence. I think I’m going to puke. It’s all because these words just won’t stay still. The never stay still, but they never seem to leave my mouth when I need them to either.
“What’s wrong?” I hear. I whip my head around to the girl sitting to the right of where I’m standing. I do not see her mouth move, but I can hear it so clearly in my head:
“Cat got your tongue?”
The words stir again, they do—those words that just can not seem to stay still. They crawl up my throat and their gaze seem to grow hands as I can feel it suffocating me.
I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I. Cannot. Breathe.
I can only feel my panic and fear as my feet give way and I stumble backward. I think I hear someone laugh. Another asks if I am okay. No, I am not, I try to say, but my mouth is glued shut. I’m sorry.
I start to hear a low murmur in the classroom as the students start talking among themselves. I feel almost jealous by the way their words paint those pretty colors. Almost. They paint those colors to taunt me. To hurt me. To see me in pain. I hate them. I hate them so much.
It was then that I heard the whispers. They’re at it again. I do not understand what they are saying, but I am sure they are about me. The words have crawled up into my head. Their long, black thread wraps around my thoughts, covering all that was left of my sanity. I see their eyes (why does it have to be their eyes?), they are laughing at me. Their laughing—no screeching—and the humiliation, the anger, the frustration, it all weighs down on me, drowning me in the ocean of my insecurities.
I cannot take it anymore. I just want to disappear.
The words echo in my head, running into one fluid thought that slowly fills up my empty head, like a glass being filled with water, only the glass is broken, and the water seems to be spraying everywhere.
I thought I was better. I tried so hard to be better, but I am the seven-year-old who hid inside the kitchen cupboards yet again. She was always so good at hide and seek…
“Go on, hide! Don’t come out until I find you, okay?” she hears mommy whisper urgently as the front door opens with a bang that makes her cringe, but she scuttled to her hiding place nonetheless.
The yelling starts again, like a recording. It always starts the same way.
“Get over here you ungrateful—”
“—please Henry, not today!”
She starts to cover her ears as the yelling gets too loud. It scares her when it gets too loud. It means mommy is trying to save daddy by fighting the monster inside him. But even though mommy says that she’s stronger than the monster, it doesn’t make it any less scary for her.
All of a sudden, the house thundered when the monster called out her name.
“Please, no! Don’t drag her into this too!”
She could hear the thump, thump, thumping of her heart in her ears as she heard the footsteps grow closer to her hiding spot.
She hears a dial tone. It is answered.
“Did you just call the cops you—"
“Henry! Stop it! Please!”
From her hiding spot, she heard the sound of breaking glass followed by a thud.
She closes her eyes as the cupboard doors open with a flash of blinding light. She feels strong arms pull her out from underneath the sink. She hopes its mommy’s.
IT’s rancid breath hits her face as IT whispers, “You’re gonna end up like her too, you ungrateful—”
She heard nothing more as her eyes opened up to the sight of mommy on the ground, a halo of red around her head, almost like an angel. But there was something wrong, she would feel it. It didn’t seem right. Mommy’s neck shouldn’t be able to turn like that. She wanted to call out to mommy, but IT was taking her away from mommy.
IT was touching her differently now. IT laid her down on the sofa. IT was whispering bad things in her ear. She hated the things IT was doing to her. She just wanted mommy.
Mommy! She tried yelling, but those words, why won’t they leave her mouth? She tried calling out to mommy, but the words seemed to be stuck.
IT’s eyes were running all over her now. She tries to keep them off her, but IT is too strong. Those eyes. Those ocean eyes like hers. She hates it. She hates them so much. Stop looking at me! But those words. Just. Wont. Leave.
Out in the distance she hears the faint sound of sirens. She hopes they are coming to save her.
Someone, help me, she says. But only in her thoughts.
As I wake up from my phantasm, I find myself sitting in a chair, hyperventilating. I unclench my fist, feeling a sharp stinging in my palms from where my nails cut through the skin.
I look up and around the now empty classroom. A faint hum of students talking outside and the soft patter of footsteps outside the classroom tells me they left. I’m a failure.
I was doing so well. I was so much better. I had finally overcome it. The words were working. They had worked for so long. But today, today they decided to crawl around inside, refusing to leave my mouth. Why couldn’t they just work one more time? Why?
I look back at the empty classroom and feel a sense of betrayal as the words—which failed me so many times before when I actually needed them—decided to finally tumble out.
My voice trembles as it echoes through the empty room as the words finally whisper,
“Good morning class. I’m your substitute teacher for today.”