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My lungs have decided that the world is too dangerous to make a move, utter a sound, do anything. I’m frozen, the pulse inside me growing stronger as time ticks away. My own shut-down system is the barrier to oxygen. The disconnect between what my body needs and what my tattered psyche can handle is causing my overload to leak out in a really obvious way.
“Fiona?” Josh says, shaking me gently, Michelle looking to him for certainty.
And then suddenly, Josh is out of my sight, replaced by two clear, calm, green eyes, light brown hair, and hands that feel like anchors.
“Feisty? Feis–Fiona?” Fletch corrects. The sudden pivot to using my proper name is jarring, given the fact that every atom in the world is buzzing inside my ears and nothing anyone does will help me to breathe.
I make a strange sound. I know it’s strange because his eyebrows turn down in the middle, his facial muscles pushing them low enough to show concern.
Concern for me.
“Breathe,” he says slowly as he puts one hand on my diaphragm, fingers warm and firm.
I make a sound to indicate that I am confused and the speech centers in my brain have shut down. Empathy floods me as I realize this is exactly what my student with severe apraxia, little Myles, must feel like when he loses his words under extreme stress. For years, I’ve said “use your words” to four-year-olds having anxiety fits.
“Breathe, Fiona,” he murmurs, taking a deep breath to demonstrate, his belly expanding in a comical way, though I know his technique is strong. Hypnotic and commanding, his voice and body tell me what to do, guide me back from being lost in the woods to a cleared trail where I can find my footing, take a rest, and possibly feel safe again, knowing I can find my way home.
I inhale, the insides of my nostrils cold, the air hitting my nasal passages a welcome assault, diaphragm spasming and sputtering back to life.
“That’s my girl,” he whispers against the curl of my ear, his breath like coffee, his hard forearm muscles all I can see, the ripped cord of his strong lines drawing my gaze. “You just breathe. It’s over now. You did it. You saved them. It’s okay to breathe.” He inhales, then slowly exhales. “Let’s do this together now.”