Survivor’s Diaries: Chapter 17
I awoke with a gasp.
Consciousness hit me like a battering ram.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe.
All I could do was gag, because every time I tried to inhale my lungs were forcing me to exhale.
My chest was on fire. It felt as if I was being doused with accelerant then set ablaze over and over again, a conflagration onto a seemingly endless, continually replenishing supply of flesh to be scorched and re-scorched.
PUT OUT THE FIRE, SOMEBODY PUT OUT THE FIRE! I shrieked from the depths of my subconscious.
And I was gagging dirt at the same time.
Dirt, not smoke. . .
FUCK, WHAT’S TAKING SO LONG?! CAN’T ANYONE SEE THAT I’M ON FIRE?!
I waited for relief.
For a big splash of cold water.
But it never came.
My chest was burning, burning. . .
Then, as the seconds passed, new sensations began to take hold. I began to notice the softness of the pillow behind my head, the coolness of the sheets around my body, the cotton of the sweatshirt over my torso. . .
Sentience began to eclipse
I wasn’t on fire.
I wasn’t burning.
It was my heart — it was coursing with adrenaline.
And I wasn’t gagging dirt.
I was gagging air.
I was awake.
Fuck, I realized.
Don’t wake him up.
Instinctively, I rolled over onto my pillow face down, as I had done a hundred times before when I was sleeping next to a guy and smothered myself with it, pulling the sides up and around my head so that no noise could possibly come out.
Don’t you fucking wake him up. Don’t you dare fucking wake him up. You probably already did, damn you.
I pressed my face as hard as I could into the pillow, until I was sure I could not make a sound, until it hurt, until the blood rose to my head from lack of oxygen.
The memories were raw in my head. Flush with sound and alight with color. I hated them.
I wanted to take a bucket of bleach and fry my brain to incinerate them.
I waited for the adrenaline to run its course.
It burned. It burned.
That much stress hormone at that intensity was excruciating. Sometimes I woke up thinking it really would kill me, so acute was the sensation of inferno. It felt like my veins were surging with lye or sulfuric acid rather than cortisol or epinephrine.
I waited, endured the fire as I did so many nights before, so much so that I had lost count. The tally had to be in the thousands now.
Thirty seconds passed.
You’re okay. You’re okay. The year is 2020, you are 24 years old, you are living in San Francisco, California, you’re 2,000 miles away from that place and five years away from that day and right now you are lying in Jesse’s bed.
These reminders were a jet of cold water on my wounds and extinguished the flames within seconds.
My breathing normalized. I took one big deep breath after another.
Do you have yourself under control?
I think so.
Are you sure?
ARE YOU FUCKING SURE?
I slowly released my ironclad grasp on the pillow. Then I rolled back over and looked at Jesse.
He was perfectly asleep. Deep, heavy breaths in and out.
I sighed a breath of relief. Thank God.
For all the times this happened to me — rousing from a nightmare in an audible panic — I was always amazed at the amount of disturbance men could sleep through. I woke up gagging most nights but through all the years I had been sleeping over at guys’ houses I only ever woke up two. The rest were completely oblivious. Wouldn’t so much as toss or turn. I was pleased to see Jesse fall into the latter category.
I still worried though, every time it happened, that the dude I was sleeping with would be that one outlier and wake up horrified. I mean, how could he not? If a girl he was sleeping with wakes up choking and crying next to him.
Some things you just can’t blame on a bad dream.
For the longest time it made me afraid to fall asleep next to a man. I was so petrified of waking him up with one of my choking episodes that I would always come up with excuses to leave right after we’d had sex, and whoever it was would always misinterpret it.
Almost all of these guys would text me the next day asking if I was okay, if they’d offended me or maybe went too rough during sex, or what have you.
To this, I was always extremely reassuring, promising that none of those were the case, falling back on my typical well-worn excuses, like I had somewhere to be early that morning or didn’t want my roommates worried about me overnight.
Over time though I became so skilled at stifling these gagging fits — by taking a pillow and suffocating myself with it — that absconding no longer became necessary. It wasn’t healthy but at least it worked.
I grabbed my phone and checked the time.
Two and a half hours in. As always.
I rubbed my eyes. I was so tired. But the hard part was over. Usually the nightmares only struck on the first sleep attempt.
The next one should be peaceful.
I closed my eyes and fell back onto the pillow.
Everything went black.