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“Bathroom.” To the parking lot and as far as possible from the ballroom.
Ethan points back toward the long hallway. “The girls’ bathroom is that direction.”
I lean into my brother. My eyes widen and I wonder if I look crazy, because I feel a little crazy. “Mom wants me to give a speech. A speech! I can’t give a speech. I can’t! Do you remember the last time Mom put me on display? Two years ago when she threw us that horrid ‘surprise’ fabulous fifteenth birthday party. I vomited. Everywhere.”
“Yeah, I was there. It even grossed me out.” His face twists in mock disgust. Ethan is laughing at me and I cannot be laughed at—at least not now.
I grab hold of his white button-down dress shirt and shake him. Or try to. The boy doesn’t budge. “It took me months to find the nerve to talk at school again. Everyone there has long memories, Ethan, and they’ve just now forgotten. I would like to be kissed before I graduate from high school. Boys will not kiss girls who keep vomiting.”
“Have you ever noticed you talk a lot when you’re on the verge of a panic attack?” Ethan’s kidding, but my panic is real. I’m close to an attack—very close. And if I don’t get out of here soon, he’ll discover my secret.
“Besides,” he continues, “that was two years ago. So you hate public speaking. You’ll sweat a lot, stutter a little and move on.”
I swallow. If only that was my worst fear.
Ethan’s my opposite. He resembles Dad with black hair and dark eyes, he’s a good foot taller than me and he’s brave. His eyes narrow and he tilts his head as the last word of my outburst registers. “You said vomit. Which means an actual panic attack. I thought you were over that.”
My fingers curl tighter into the material of his shirt. I messed up. How could I make such a careless mistake? For two years I’ve kept this secret from my family: that I still suffer from panic attacks. That when I’m the center of attention or too anxious or stressed, I become paralyzed and lose the ability to breathe. Nausea will coil in my stomach, bile will rise in my throat and the pressure will continually build until I throw up.
Life has been hard on my parents and two oldest brothers. I made the decision after the horrendous birthday party that they would never have to worry about me—the child who won’t die from her illness.
“I am over it,” I say. “But I don’t want to make a fool of myself. I...I...” Can’t think of anything good enough to get myself out of this. “I forgot my speech and I left my notes at home and I’m going to sound like an idiot.” Wow—fantastic save. “Look, I’m calling twin amnesty on this.”
His eyes search my face, I’m sure assessing my level of near-crazy. Years ago, we agreed to cover each other ten times in a year, regardless of repercussions. Ethan burned through his amnesty cards weeks ago and knows I usually use mine for midnight drives so I can push the speedometer on my Mustang.
“You’ve got one amnesty card left this year,” he says as a blatant reminder that in a few days, when the new year rushes in to greet us, we’ll be starting with a clean slate and I’ll be covering for him again.
“Are you sure this is the hand you want to play the card on?” he continues. “Do the speech and then I’ll cover your ass when you sneak out to drive the Mustang later. Driving always makes you feel better, and this ride should be relatively guilt-free. It’ll be your first legal midnight run.”
My brother enjoys reminding me that my infatuation with driving late at night was illegal on my intermediate license. Ethan’s right—I love to drive and I have a full license now. The only way I’ll get caught for breaking curfew is if Ethan blows my cover or if I leave before the speech. Either one of those options will mean a grounding for life.
All of this should be taken into consideration, and I should be thinking it through logically, but I abandoned logic back in the ballroom. My pulse begins to throb in my ears. “Yes.” Definitely. “Yes, I’m playing the card now.”
He lets go of my arm and glances down to where my fingers are still clutching his shirt. “I didn’t see you. Do you understand? You slipped out the entrance and we never talked. I’m not taking heat from Gavin for this, twin amnesty or not.”
“Not taking heat for what?” Gavin’s deep voice calls from down the hallway. My hope disintegrates and falls to the floor. Crap. I’m never getting out of here.
I force myself to release Ethan and fake the smile on my face even though my heart thuds against my rib cage. My brothers are used to my disposition, what Ethan annoyingly refers to as sunshine and rainbows. I’m so going to be sunshine and rainbows if it kills me. “Hi, Gavin. I saw you dancing with Jeannie Riley. She’s nice.”
Gavin’s the oldest of my parents’ brood of five children. We’re a close family, even though a huge age gap extends between the siblings. Gavin was eight and Jack was seven when Ethan and I were born. Jack stands beside Gavin and they both fold their arms over their chests when they see me and Ethan. Guess this time I didn’t feign sunshine and rainbows well enough.
“Mom’s looking for you,” says Jack. “It’s time for your speech.” Jack’s quiet and that may be his longest monologue for the night. Which makes it rough for me to say no to him.
“Come on, Rach,” Gavin says. “You’re the one that approached Mom and Dad about speaking at this event. Not the other way around. You need to get over this fear of being in the spotlight. It’s in your head. It was one thing when you were seven, but it’s gotten old. You’re a junior in high school, for God’s sake.”