To Marquita, the air of the Port Authority is a moist toxic mix of sweat and exhaust fumes. Each breath brings her a disgusting wave of dizziness and nausea, which makes her body sways and her hands and knees shake. As more and more passengers enter the terminal Marquita mind becomes increasingly more agitated. The thoughts of thousands of travelers begin to pour into her mind unfiltered, adding to her discomfort. Marquita looks to her side and sees Mechteld standing still, seemingly unbothered by the presence of so many people.
Doubtful thoughts begin to enter Marquita’s mind. Deep down she knows that if she gets on the bus with Mechteld she will be saying good-bye to the only life she’s known. Leaving New York meant Corona and her parents will be gone and if she were now immortal, they would become a distant memory to her. The thought makes her heart ache and eyes water. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t ready to leave her old life and she certainly wasn’t ready to begin a new one with a stranger.
“If you’re going to escape this, now is the time. This is the place. If you get on that bus it will only become harder.” Marquita thinks.
But, she knows that Mechteld won’t willingly let her leave. She had only seen a small fragment of her mind, but the glimpse she had was violent. And she can’t deny the desire to possess what Mechteld has. The power to be in control. The ability to not be powerless against herself.
“If I only had more time. I need more time to think. I still don’t really know who Mechteld is or why this is happening.”
As more people join the lines, her mind becomes more disoriented. She struggles to focus on her own thoughts as she hears the inner dialogues of those around her. The one thought that comes through is how can she stop Mechteld from taking her away? Mechteld didn’t seem like the type of person who was scared of anything. Marquita watches the woman beside, who seems relaxed, but notices that behind her sunglasses she is watching every person and action around her. Marquita looks at the long sleeves of the thin hoodie that hides her disfigured skin.
“Lesson two: never draw attention to yourself. She doesn’t like to be seen. Is that what she fears?” Marquita wonders.
She then asks herself, “Why don’t you scream? Draw attention to yourself. If you scream you can go home.” She tries to force herself to breath deep and find the courage to run, cry out or even look at someone but instead feels powerless. To her, it feels like a dream and she’s trying to run from a monster on paralyzed legs. She begs herself, “Don’t do this. Don’t allow her to take you.”
Finally Marquita sobs out loud to Mechteld, “I can’t do this.”
Mechteld leans in and whispers in a voice both forceful and encouraging, “You can do this, just take a deep breath.”
Marquita tries to breath deep, but is only met with resistance from her own body. Her eyes water more as she feels pain start to spread through her chest. Marquita chokes on her words as she says, “I can’t breath. Please, I’m going to die if I do this.”
Mechteld looks ahead as she keeps her expression neutral. Out of the side of her mouth she assures Marquita,“You won’t die, you don’t even have to breath.”
Marquita holds her breath, desperate to find relief, but the feeling is unnatural to her. As she strains to keep her lungs full she feels her heart give one painful beat after another.
“You don’t understand what this feels like.”
Mechteld nudges her forward and harshly says, “Believe me, I understand.”
As they get closer to the front of the line Mechteld wipes Marquita’s sweaty tearstained face with her sleeve.
“Come on, look normal for a few seconds.”
Marquita can sense Mechteld becoming taut as they approach the front of the line. Her body is still, but her eyes quickly dart from the driver taking tickets, to the bus and then back to Marquita. When they reach the front of the line Mechteld places the large black suitcase to the side by the cargo hole of the bus. She gives the driver a soft smile while keeping her eyes down as she hands him the tickets. The driver holds the tickets as he takes in the two mismatched passengers. Marquita feels a tension in the pause. She begins to shake again, but Mechteld remains calm and still.
Pointing to Marquita, the driver asks, “Is she going to be okay?”
Marquita’s mind screams, “Do it! Do it now! This will be over!”, but her throat seizes and only a small gasps escapes.
Mechteld nods as she looks up at the windows of the bus, never meeting the driver’s eyes. “Yeah, just a nervous traveler.”
The driver’s gaze now lingers on Marquita, whose toffee skin was now gray and jaw tightly clenched. Her face was once again wet from sweat beading on her forehead and lip. As he examines Marquita, Mechteld watches the driver. Marquita tries to focus on him too. She wants to discern his thoughts from the numerous voices now screaming in her head, but she can only read the aura surrounding him. She knows his an honest man and empathetic, but suspicious.
Trying to meet Mechteld’s eyes, he hands the tickets stubs back and says, “Take the seats by the restroom, just in case.”
Mechteld keeps her eyes averted, nods again and says thank you as she pushes Marquita forward. As they step on to the bus Mechteld grabs the back of Marquita’s shirt and quickly tells her, “Keep your head down. Use your eyes and ears.”
At the front the aisle Marquita watches the busy riders of the crowded bus. The passengers are mostly older couples going on vacation with a smattering of lone tourists and drifters. Marquita stands frozen as her mind screams, “No. No, No.” She stands until feels a prodding from Mechteld. Slowly she starts to move, holding her arms close to her while dodging elbows and bags. Behind her she can feel Mechteld’s overstuffed rucksack poking her back and moving her forward. Marquita keeps her eyes and the furthest two seats, never looking at the numerous passengers around her.
The close proximity to the others causes a pressure to build in her chest. Each step forward creates stronger compressions that strangles her lungs. The thoughts from those around her swirl into an incomprehensible clamor of, “When...?”, “What…?”, and “Did I…?” which battle her thoughts of, “What are you doing? Just turn around!”
Halfway down the aisle she begins to hyperventilate, taking in loud shallow breath. A few fellow passengers turn to look at the wheezing girl.
Keeping her head down Mechteld hisses through gritted teeth, “Remember lesson two? Don’t attract attention to yourself.”
Panting, she answers, “I told you I don’t like crowds. There are too many people on this bus. They’re all shouting inside my mind.”
Mechteld pushes Marquita past peering eyes. “Travel makes people anxious. They’re all thinking about the long journey.”
In a small exasperated shout Marquita retorts, “Yeah, I know. I hear them all!”
“Keep your voice down!”
Finally the two women reach the back of the bus. Marquita turns to Mechteld with tears streaming down her face and pleads, “Don’t make me do this. I can’t take two days and a half days of this.”
Mechteld lightly guides Marquita to the window seat and softly assures her, “It’ll calm soon.”
Marquita clasps her hands in front of her, knowing this is her last chance. With wide frantic eyes she begs, “Please, I want to go. Take me somewhere else. I’ll go to Baltimore.”
Mechteld sits next to Marquita. She stares back into the girl’s scared eyes and tells her, “Breath deep. Don’t resist it, accept it.”
Unsure if Mechteld is referring to her impending panic attack or her thoughts of escape she asks in a painful gulp, “What?”
Mechteld leans into Marquita and in a low voice commands, “Listen to me. This is part of your training. Stop resisting. The more you resist the worse it will get.”
Marquita shakes her head as she grows paler and paler. She keeps her lips tightly sealed, trying again to hold her breath. More forcefully Mechteld orders, “Stop trying to run away. Breath deep. Let this come to you.”
Marquita lets go of her breath and looks to Mechteld. “It’s already here.”
Mechteld keeps her eyes connected with Marquita’s. “Tell me what you feel.”
“I feel like someone is squeezing my heart. I can’t focus my vision. I think I’m going to be sick.”
Marquita bends forward, putting her head in her lap. She wraps her trembling hands around her head trying to find relief. Tightly she closes her eyes as her muscles tense and contort her body.
“Breath deep. You’ll going to feel bad, but it will pass. Don’t resist. Accept. Accepting it is the first step to controlling it.” Mechteld leans forward and whispers, “This will end Marquita.”
Softly Mechteld reaches out her scarred hands and places them on Marquita’s wrist. Suddenly Marquita’s vision is filled with bright light and her erratic gasping ceases. The feel of hot humid air envelops Marquita and her vision is filled with a vibrant green. A thick jungle of trees, vines and moss now surrounds her. Above her is a canopy of branches and leaves that only allows the brightest rays of light to shine through. Her ears are filled with the songs of birds unfamiliar to her along with hoots, clicks and calls of hidden animals. A white-faced monkey catches her attention as it walks along a low hanging limb. Around her she can hear the sound of ocean waves and taste the salt in the air. Marquita can feel an emotion coursing through her; a feeling of intense happiness that, to her, could only be described as euphoria.
She watches the monkey leap from it branch and land near a ripe fig. As it grasps the fruit with its tiny fingers its long black tail coils around the branch for support. To her side she could hear someone calling, “Mechteld, look at this.”
Before she can turn to the voice, the trees, humidity and euphoria fade until only the beat of the ocean remains. Softly, over the din of the bus Mechteld whispers, “Listen to the sound. Count the waves.”
One by one she counts the tides splashing as a hypnotizing concentration overcomes her. Gradually, the sound of her fellow travelers dissipates until finally the ocean is the only thing she can hear. As the beat continues, the grip on Marquita’s heart loosens and her breaths become deep and regular as a sedate sensation overtakes her.
Mechteld removes her hands and Marquita opens her eyes. The voices return and Marquita finds herself sitting up on a now moving bus, merging into traffic. She feels a warm trickle from under her nose, but before she can raise her hand Mechteld givess her a tissue while saying, “Here. Your nose is bleeding.”
As Marquita presses the tissue to her nose she asks, “How did you know it would pass?”
She shrugs and impassively answers, “It always does.”