Mac jumped up, panting like an obese dog suffering in a heat wave. His heart drummed out of his chest. Startled from a sound sleep, he didn’t know what was wrong. He leapt out of bed and stumbled toward the bathroom. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. There’s something wrong, he finally thought, I…I need help. He searched frantically for an enemy. There was none. As he stared at the frightened man in the mirror, he considered calling out to his sleeping wife. She has enough to worry about with the kids, he thought, but was already hurrying toward her. “Jen,” he said in a strained whisper.
She stirred but didn’t open her eyes.
The constricted chest, sweaty face and shaking hands made Mac wonder whether he was standing at death’s door, cardiac arrest being his ticket in. I have to do something now, he thought, or I’m a goner. “Jen,” he said louder, shaking her shoulder.
One eye opened. She looked up at him.
“It’s happening again,” he said in a voice that could have belonged to a frightened little boy.
Jen shot up in bed. “What is it?”
“I…I can’t breathe. My heart keeps fluttering and I feel…”
“I’m calling an ambulance,” she said, fumbling for her cell phone.
“No,” he said instinctively, “it’ll scare the kids.”
She looked up at him like he was crazy.
“I’ll go to the emergency room right now!” Grabbing for a pair of pants, he started to slide into them.
Jen sprang out of the bed. “I’ll call my mom and have her come over to watch the kids. In the meantime, Jillian can…”
Mac shook his foggy head, halting her. “No, I’m okay to drive,” he said, trying to breathe normally.
“But babe,” she began to protest, fear glassing over her eyes.
“I’ll text you as soon as I get there,” he promised, “and then call you just as soon as they tell me what the hell’s going on.”
Jen’s eyes filled. “Oh Mac…”
He shot her a smile, at least he tried to, before rushing out of the house and hyperventilating all the way to the hospital.
I’m here, Mac texted Jen before shutting off the ringer on his phone.
The scowling intake nurse brought him right in at the mention of “chest pains.” Within minutes, the E.R. staff went to work like a well-choreographed NASCAR pit crew, simultaneously drawing blood while wiring his torso to a portable EKG machine.
As quickly as the team had responded, they filed out of the curtained room. A young nurse, yanking the sticky discs from Mac’s chest, feigned a smile. “Try to relax, Mr. Anderson. It may take a little bit before the doctor receives all of your test results.”
For what seemed like forever, Mac sat motionless on the hospital gurney, a white curtain drawn around him. I hope it isn’t my heart, he thought, the kids are still so young and they need…
“Who do we have in number four?” a female voice asked just outside of Mac’s alcove.
Mac froze to listen in.
“Some guy who came in complaining of chest pains,” another voice answered at a strained whisper. “Test results show nothing. Just another anxiety attack.”
No way, Mac thought, not knowing whether he should feel insulted or relieved.
“Like we have time to deal with that crap,” the first voice said. “Can you imagine if men had to give birth?”
Both ladies laughed.
No friggin’ way, Mac thought before picturing his wife’s frightened face. She must be worried sick. But I can’t call her without talking to the doctor. She’d…
The curtain snapped open, revealing a young man in a white lab coat with a stethoscope hanging around his neck.
This kid can’t be a doctor, Mac thought, the world suddenly feeling like it had been turned upside down.
“Your heart is fine, Mr. Anderson,” the doctor quickly reported, his eyes on his clipboard. “I’m fairly certain you suffered a panic attack.” He looked up and grinned, but even his smile was rushed. “Sometimes the symptoms can mirror serious physical ailments.”
Mac was confused, almost disappointed. So, what I experienced wasn’t serious? he asked in his head.
The young man scribbled something onto a small square pad, tore off the top sheet and handed it to Mac. “This’ll make you feel better,” he said, prescribing a sedative that promised to render Mac more useless than the alleged attack.
“Ummm…okay,” Mac said, his face burning red.
The doctor nodded. “Stress is the number one cause of these symptoms,” he concluded. “Do you have someone you can talk to?”
Mac returned the nod, thinking, I need to get the hell out of here. Although he appreciated the concern, he was mired in a state of disbelief. I’m a master of the corporate rat race, he thought, unable to accept the medicine man’s spiel. If anyone knows how to survive stress, it’s me.
“That’s great,” the doctor said, vanishing as quickly as he’d appeared.
My problem is physical, Mac confirmed in his head, it has to be. He finished tying his shoes.
Pulling back the curtain, he was met by the stare of several female nurses. He quickly applied his false mask of strength and smiled. A panic attack, he repeated to himself. When put into words, the possibility was chilling.
The nurses smiled back, each one of them wearing the same judgmental smirk.
With his jacket tucked under his arm, Mac started down the hallway. Sure, he thought, I have plenty of people I can talk to. He pulled open the door that led back into the crowded waiting room. That is, if I actually thought it was anxiety.
Mac sat in the parking lot for a few long minutes, attempting to process the strange events of the last several days. Although he felt physically tired, there weren’t any symptoms or residual effects of the awful episodes he’d experienced—not a trace of the paralyzing terror I felt. And they just came out of the blue. He shook his head. How can it not be physical? He thought about the current state of his life. Work is work, it’s always going to come with a level of stress, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. He shook his head again. I just don’t get it. He grabbed his cell phone and called Jen. “Hi, it’s me.”
“Are you okay?” she asked, the worry in her voice making him feel worse.
“I’m fine, babe.”
“Fine?” she said, confused. “What did the doctor say?”
“He said it’s not my heart.”
“Oh, thank God.”
Her reaction—although completely understandable—struck him funny, making him feel like the boy who cried wolf.
“So what is it then?” she asked.
He hesitated, feeling oddly embarrassed to share the unbelievable diagnosis.
“The doctor thinks it was a…a panic attack.”
This time, she paused. “A panic attack?” she repeated, clearly searching for more words. Then, as a born problem solver, she initiated her usual barrage of questions. “Did they give you something for it? Is there any follow up?”
“Yes, and maybe.”
“What does that mean?”
“He gave me pills that I’d rather not take if I don’t need to. And he suggested I go talk to someone.”
“Talk to someone? You mean like a therapist?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s what he meant.”
“Oh,” she said, obviously taken aback. “Then that’s exactly what you should do.”
“I don’t know…”
“Is there something bothering you I don’t know about, Mac,” she asked, “because you can talk to me, too, you know.”
“I know, babe. But there’s nothing bothering me, honest.” He took a deep breath. “For what it’s worth, I don’t buy the anxiety attack diagnosis.”
“Well, whatever you were feeling this morning was real enough, right? I could see it in your face. It wouldn’t hurt anything for you to go talk to someone.” She still sounded scared and he hated it.
“Maybe not,” he replied, appeasing her. In the back of his head, though, he was already contemplating how much he should continue to share with her—or protect her from. “I need to get to work,” he said.
“Why don’t you just take the day off and relax?” she suggested.
Here we go, he thought. “I wish I could, babe,” he said, “but we have way too much going on at the office right now.”
“And maybe that’s part of your problem,” she said.
“I’ll be fine, Jen,” he promised. “We’ll talk when I get home, okay?”
“Love you,” he said.
“And I love you,” she said in a tone intended for him to remember it.
Excerpt from Three Shoeboxes by Steven Manchester. Copyright © 2018 by Steven Manchester. Reproduced with permission from The Story Plant. All rights reserved.