“She was the most beautiful, complicated thing I’d ever seen. A tangled mess of silky string. And all I wanted of life, was to sit down cross-legged and untie her knots.”
“Easy,” Mia warned, helping me out of my hospital bed. Today, I was finally being released, and I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I wanted a comfy bed I could spread out in, and I wanted a nice, home-cooked meal. I also wanted to move around more than the nurses and doctors let me. My limbs were too stiff from being nearly immobile for close to three weeks.
“I have the car waiting for us downstairs,” Will said. He offered his arm for me, and I gratefully took it. I didn’t want anyone to know I felt slightly unstable.
Slowly, we went downstairs to the car, armed guards standing all around it. Will opened the door and helped me in. Mia sat next to me, and Will got in after her, sitting on my other side. I planned on staying awake for the ride to the palace, sick of sleeping and lying down all the time, but apparently, having a heart attack and recovering from a coma and a few gunshot wounds seriously took it out of you. I ended up falling asleep for the twenty-minute ride, using Will’s shoulder as a pillow. He didn’t seem to mind.
Arriving at Windsor Palace, Will helped Mia and me out of the vehicle. Taking my hand in his, he lead me to the living room, where the rest of my friends and family stood under a banner reading: WELCOME HOME ANNALISE!
“This is the only reason we didn’t come with these two to pick you up,” Mark said, hugging me gently. “It’s so good to have you back.”
“It’s good to be back,” I replied. One by one, the rest of the group hugged me, all whispering ‘thank goodness you’re alive’ and ‘we’re so glad you’re back,’ until I reached the final person.
“Your Majesty!” I exclaimed, going down into an unsteady curtsy and nearly toppling over. Will caught me in a flash, righting me back up. Sheepishly thanking him, I said, “Sorry. My legs are a little wobbly from not moving around much.”
“Don’t you worry about it,” Queen Lillian told me with an understanding smile. She opened her arms, and I stepped into the motherly embrace. “Whatever you need from us, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you, ma’am, for everything. Especially for taking care of my sister while I couldn’t.”
“We know she means the world to you. Now, what do you say we enjoy the snacks? I’m sure you’re exhausted of hospital food.”
I laughed. “You have no idea.”
For the next two hours, our group piled our plates with little appetizers, sat on the couches and chairs, and caught me up on everything I missed. Thankfully, it wasn’t much, but I was happy they updated on the little things. Mark landed a cushy job at a medical device company as a sales rep. It meant he wouldn’t be around as much as he’d like to be, and he’d be traveling every week, but Mark could work from home when he needed to. I could see how proud Everly was of him, and she wasn’t the only one.
Will stepped out a few times whenever his phone rang. Each time, he’d jump up to answer it. A little voice told me he had a girl in his life because this was how he acted when Lorraine entered the picture. Another voice told me I was being paranoid and that it was probably updates from the law enforcement agencies. Will would always return, sit next to me, and put his arm on the back of the couch behind my head.
As entertaining and engaging as I found the conversation with my friends and family, more than once, I found myself dozing off. I forced myself back awake every time, trying to stay up, until, finally, my sleepiness won over.
Annie fell asleep two hours into her party, and everyone took it as a sign to leave. I didn’t want to move and risk waking her up, so Mark brought my laptop to me at my request. He and I became strangely close through the whole ordeal, much to Everly’s dismay. She still didn’t want to talk to me unless absolutely necessary.
I worked well until nine ’o’clock at night, and it was only then Annalise slumped her head to the other side and freed me. I needed to pee like a Russian racehorse, the only reason I was glad about the reprieve. Having Annalise’s head on my shoulder gave me hope she was beginning to trust me again, and the idea did wonders for my morale.
I swear I was gone for less than three minutes.
When I returned, I found Annalise sitting up, pale and trembling, and struggling to breathe. Tears streamed down her face. Terrified for her health, I rushed over and knelt in front of her. Annie! Hey, hey, what’s going on? What’s happening?”
“I-I don’t know,” she gasped. “I can’t- I can’t… breathe. Nightmare… the g-gun and the-the pain. I feel like- like I’m… dying.”
Annalise shook her head, squeezing her eyes tight and rocking back and forth, whispering to herself, “Get out of my head! Get out of my head!”
An epiphany struck me.
“Annie, look at me. Look at me, okay?” I ordered gently. She listened, but I could see her struggling to focus. “Very good. You’re doing great! You’re not dying, I promise, but you are having a panic attack. They can often mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. Do you understand?”
Annalise nodded. “H-how do I stop-stop it?”
“Focus on me and take deep breaths. Think of other things than what triggered this.” I took her hands in mine and kissed the back of them as I racked my brain for funny memories of the two of us. “Do you remember the time I got tangled up in the Christmas lights? And how the tree fell on me? You had to rescue me because I’m a klutz who can’t be trusted around fake trees.”
Annie let out a small chuckle, but her tears remained streaming down her face, so I continued recounting funny memories to distract her from the panic attack. “What about the time I called you on my trip to Japan looking for my tie, and I was already wearing it? Then there was the time I tripped over Queen Elizabeth’s corgis and fell into a mud puddle after I’d just showered. I’m glad she thought it was funny.”
“Y-you were covered head to toe in mud,” Annalise added. “I tried really hard not to laugh.”
“But you failed miserably,” I said, grinning. “At least you asked if I was okay. What about when we snuck into the kitchen at midnight and finished off my birthday cake and a whole bottle of wine?”
“I think that’s the first time-” Annie hiccupped- “I ever got tipsy.”
“You were even sassier than normal, and it was hysterical. I don’t think I’d ever laughed so hard in my life!”
Annalise wiped a tear away and sniffled before laughing quietly. “God, we were so sick the next morning from all that cake. I don’t think we ate until dinner.”
“And even then, it was only a PB and J sandwich.” I kissed the back of her hand and asked, “Are you feeling better?”
“Yeah,” she said, almost shocked. “How did you do that?”
“I started having anxiety and panic attacks after you left. I managed to hide them from everyone, even my mom and Lorraine. They got even worse after my dad died,” I admitted. “I figured out what they were and taught myself how to handle them.”
“I’m so sorry…”
“It’s okay. They don’t happen that often anymore. It helps for me to stay busy and to work myself to the point of exhaustion. It’s hard to have a panic attack when you’re too sleepy to function or in a deep sleep, as I figured out,” I joked lightly, not wanting Annalise to start thinking about hers.
She frowned. “That’s not healthy, though. Is that why you’ve been staying up late?”
“Part of the reason. I also have a shit ton of work to get done, and I have fewer distractions and people bothering me at night, so I tend to get more done.”
“Thank you for helping me through that, Will. I’m sorry if I scared you,” Annie said.
“I’m always going to be here for you,” I promised, brushing a stray piece of hair out of her face. I could tell she still verged on slipping back into thinking about her nightmare, and I need to find a way to distract her even more.
I had the perfect idea.