The Summer of Austin

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Chapter Nine

34 days of suffering.

34 days ago was when Lara first heard the valedictorian results.

Lara had dealt with 34 days of anxiety, panic attacks, and sleepless nights, all which gradually got worse as the days went on.

And all of it was coming to an end now. But before she could finally forget about all of this stress, she needed to get through the worst part.

Actually presenting her speech.

She didn’t think it was possible for her stress and anxiety to get worse, but the second she woke up, she realized she severely underestimated the power her nerves had over her.

She immediately ran to her bathroom and heaved over the toilet, feeling bile rise up her throat.

She flushed the toilet and leaned her head against the cool porcelain base, her need to cool her skin down outweighing any logical thought telling her how disgusting using a toilet as a crutch was.

Breathe in, breathe out, Lara kept reminding herself. But even the most basic human function felt like a chore.

Trying to focus on breathing seemed to make it even more impossible to do so. It made Lara more aware of the lack of oxygen she was getting. Her breathing kept getting quicker and quicker as she tried to suck up air. She felt like she wasn’t getting enough into her lungs, so her breathing kept speeding up, until she had ended up as a hyperventilating mess on the floor. Not even the makeshift crutch of the toilet could keep her up.

She kept gasping for air, just trying to get a good enough intake to satisfy her screaming lungs.

Lara felt strong hands pull her up. Through her tear-filled vision, she could make out her father’s concerned face looking back at her own.

“It’s okay Lara.” Her dad’s voice sounded far away and heavily filtered, but she could still make out his words. “Focus on me.”

She vaguely felt a hand caressing the top of her head, which she guessed belonged to her mother. Her mother’s other hand rested on her stomach, lightly pressing down on it to guide it to an evenly-tempoed rhythm.

Finally, finally, all her parents’ coaxing and coaching started to work.

Lara’s breathing was still shaky, but she was no longer hyperventilating. Her skin felt tight and scaly from the tears that stained her cheeks.

She refocused her eyes to look at her parents, who were looking back at her, concern and worry plastered all over their faces.

“Mommy, Daddy,” she whimpered.

Her parents pulled her into a hug. “I’m so scared,” she said, her voice trembling.

When her dad pulled back, he stared back at her with a heartbroken look on his face.

Oh crap. Now I’ve really screwed up, Lara thought to herself.

She couldn’t believe it. After everything her parents had done for her, she basically just went and spit in their faces. All the time her dad had spent working overtime to try and keep her grandfather’s legacy afloat, so that Lara could live a life that people could only ever dream of. Lara had just proved it was all for nothing. Just because she was scared of making some dumb speech.

As she looked at her dad, she felt so ashamed. It pained her to see how upset he looked, and she knew it was because of her stupid fear. The worst thing she could do was back out now. After everything they had done for her, it was the least she could do for them.

She tried to ignore the knot in her stomach as she used the back of her hands to wipe the stray tears off her cheek.

“Lara?” Her dad asked with a confused look on his face at his daughter’s sudden shift in attitude.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” she said, mostly trying to convince herself. She helped herself up from the ground, shaking her head as her parents lurched forward to try to help her.

“I’m okay,” she said a final time. “I just woke up with nerves. Don’t worry, I was just being overdramatic. I promise,” she confirmed as she glanced at her parents, who were still wearing confused faces.

“Are you sure, Lar-Bar?” Her mother asked, using an old nickname for her daughter.

The old nickname brought even more guilt to Lara, as memories of late nights spent with just her mom while she tried to stay up waiting for her dad to come back from work rushed back to her.

All that for me.

She knew she was making the right decision.

She had to make her parents proud.

“I’m sure.”

The rush of determination Lara got quickly disappeared as her parents pulled into a parking spot at Riverview. Even though they had arrived much earlier than they needed to, the parking lot was still the most full Lara had ever seen it.

She nervously fiddled with the cue cards that held the words of her speech.

After her panic in the bathroom, she showered and attempted to do her hair and makeup to try and hide the remnants of the previous panic.

As she sat by her vanity she was able to get her hair styled into her sleek bob that used to be her signature style before all this stress bombarded her and forced her hair into its new frizzy state. She actually started to feel confident in that moment. It felt like a sign that the fact that her hair was able to be back to normal, maybe everything else was going back to normal too.

She had almost convinced herself that she was just going back to Riverview for a normal day of school.

But as they pulled into the parking lot, all of her delusions disappeared.

There was an excited buzz in the air that had never been present at school. Even the first day didn’t compare to this.

As Lara looked down at the cream and black plaid kilt of her uniform, she realized that this would be the last time she wore it.

All of the lasts started to bombard her.

The last time she would ever step foot on the campus. The last time she would see any of the kids in her grade, with the exception of a select few.

The finality of the situation hit her. It wasn’t often that you knew that it was the last time something was occurring. Most of the time you don’t realize that you took the last moments for granted until you think back and remember that you never saw that friend ever again.

She couldn’t decide if knowing that this was the ending of a chapter was comforting or not. On the one hand, she knew that she had to say goodbye, and she could make those moments count.

On the other hand, knowing that the end was approaching made the pressure of the day heightened.

And, of course, there were still the nerves from the speech. Mixed with the harsh truth of the inevitable ending, it wasn’t helping Lara’s mental state whatsoever.

The last words of her grade, her class’ legacy, was going to fall on Lara as well. The magnitude of her speech had seemingly tripled in the couple of minutes she had been parked in the lot. She didn’t think it was possible with how much she had already stressed over it, but much like that morning, she underestimated the power of her nerves.

Her mother turned back to look at her from the front seat. “You okay, Lara?”

Lara snapped out of her trance to look back at her mom. “Yep, just going over everything,” she said, plastering a fake smile on.

“You know you can tell us if you are not okay, right?” Her dad chimed in, also turning to look at his daughter.

Sure, Lara thought sarcastically to herself.

That was probably true to an extent, but Lara figured that her parents would not be too thrilled at learning that she was wanting to back out of what was probably the only high accomplishment she would ever receive in her life. Lara knew without a doubt that her parents would be beyond disappointed with her.

“I know that. Don’t worry, I just have some jitters. Elle always gets them before her shows, but she says once she gets on stage, she’s fine. It’ll be the same for me.”

Lara’s dad reached out to squeeze her knee while her mom blew her a kiss as Lara moved to exit the car.

She took another deep breath before making her way across the well-manicured lawn to the front entrance of the swanky private school.

For the last time, she reminded herself.

She tried shaking off that thought as she lugged open the heavy glass door that led her into the front hall of her school.

Not even two steps in, she was bombarded by Freya and Elle. “We’ve been waiting for you!” Elle cried out, wrapping her hands around Lara.

“Calm down, Elle, let her breathe!” Freya laughed as she pulled her petite friend off of Lara. “You okay?”

“Why the hell does everyone keep asking me that?” Lara couldn’t help but burst out. She was fed up with everyone questioning her well-being. The fact that everyone kept asking made it clear to Lara that she probably wasn’t looking all that good either, considering they felt the need to ask.

Freya took a step back, caught off guard by her friend’s sudden tantrum. “I just wanted to check on you,” Freya cautiously said.

Instantly, Lara felt terrible. She knew lashing out on her friends wasn’t going to help anything. Plus, they had meant well by checking up on her.

“I’m sorry guys,” she said, trying to show through her voice how much she meant the apology. She told them about her morning. The guilt she felt seeing her dad’s disappointment when she said how scared she was. The constant asking if she was doing okay when she was just trying to keep it together.

Even though her behaviour was out of line, her friends still forgave her, inviting her into their open arms for an impromptu group hug.

“It’s going to be over before you know it,” Elle reminded her as they began walking from the front hallway towards the auditorium.

Freya gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “And when you get scared,” she added, “just look for us.”

Lara took a deep breath as they opened the door that brought them to the backstage area of the auditorium.

Lara and her friends were swiftly separated as Principal Runes pulled her aside, while Freya and Elle were ushered to the centre of the room to grab their graduation gowns.

Lara absent-mindedly answered all of Principal Runes’ questions. She couldn’t focus on the conversation, despite how hard she was trying.

It felt like the world was sped up. Everyone was zooming around her. The lights were too bright, the sounds were too loud, and everything was too quick.

Before she knew it, she had somehow managed to parade with the rest of her class into the auditorium, and she was seated at the front of the stage with Principal Runes in her special seat of honour, wearing her graduation gown, adorned with a special golden hood, depicting her status as valedictorian.

The rest of her class was seated in the first couple of rows of the audience section. She looked into the crowd to find her two best friends, but she had no luck, as the spots from the stage lights blinded her vision.

Instead, her eyes landed on Austin.

While her first reaction was to turn away, she realized Austin was already staring back at her. The second she met his eye, he gave her a reassuring smile and a thumbs up.

Lara felt herself blush, but she smiled back.

She looked towards Principal Runes as he stepped up to the podium to introduce the graduating class, but her eyes kept shifting towards Austin, despite how hard she willed them not to.

Each time, Austin was looking back at her.

She had spent so much time playing eye-contact tag with Austin, that she didn’t realize that Principal Runes’ speech was done, and he was calling her up to the podium.

Her palms started profusely sweating, and a thick knot was tied in her stomach.

She looked towards the crowd in a panic, and her eyes met Austin’s again.

“You can do it,” his lips read.

She let out a deep breath as she stood up and wiped her palms on her graduation gown.

I can do it, she thought to herself.

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