Panic attacks

Jack T. Tate

 

Jonathan Trevor Tate felt a fever erupting in his gut. Unnatural warmth had broken inside of his stomach and spread, like motor oil spilling down into the shadowed recesses of a car's engine. He was hot to the touch, and felt as though fire were catching just beneath his flesh – broiling him from the inside-out and leaving him a charred husk of a man.

 

 

He spoke to friends about the sensation assailing his body. It was suggested to be a product of nerves, or the result of rotten or undercooked food. Jonathan, or “Jack” as he preferred, thought otherwise. In spite of how he felt, Jack thought it best to persevere through work and play, never electing to stay in bed on a weekday morning or to deny a drink with co-workers once the sun began to set. On one such night, he decided to overindulge – happy to douse his burning insides with alcohol.

 

 

Jack was an advocate of gin, and with each emptied martini glass, he felt the clear liquid seeping further into the glowing embers piled in his abdomen. Alone in the back of a cab that night, the world somersaulting by him at a manic clip; he imagined himself belching purplish flames and smoke, like some sort of white collar dragon. The thought brought a chuckle from his lips, causing the driver to glare at him through the rear-view mirror. One of his bushy eyebrows was cocked in a quizzical way. Jack grinned and turned his gaze towards the window, growing dizzier as the scenery raced past him.

 

 

Before falling into a thin, perturbed slumber, Jack had been ill. His belly empty, he laid face up on the tiled floor of his washroom, head propped against the tub, staring at the neat and colorless line where the walls and ceiling met. Vomiting had left him stranded in the murky and turbulent realm just between sobriety and drunkenness. His head pounded, and sweat stood out on his forehead and cheeks. The wallpaper over the latrine seemed to bulge and shrink and shift as Jack watched – its decorative patterns rearranging themselves like a nest of confused serpents under glass.

 

 

He wasn't sure how much time had passed before the spins tapered off. Hoisting himself shakily to his feet, Jack dared to peer into the toilet bowl at the former contents of his stomach. He steeled himself, half-expecting to see the water clouded with blood, and felt more conscious of the burning in his midsection than he had since arriving at the bar. His newly-reclaimed lucidity was suddenly overwrought by fear and dread.

 

 

The water was almost perfectly clear, save for the partially-digested remains of the green olives he ate after polishing off each martini. Jack stared into the porcelain bowl with an absent glaze over his eyes. The warmth in his belly was more intense than ever – he felt it radiating from his thighs all the way up to his collarbone. His breath grew heavy and labored. Each exhalation produced a cloud of vapor that distorted the air, making the room shimmer and wave like a desert mirage. He shook his head roughly, nearly throwing himself off balance and back on to the cold tiled floor.

 

 

Jack woke the next day in a puddle of sweat and urine. The sheets he had slept on were completely soaked through. His right foot dangled over the side of the bed, wrapped in the blanket that he had kicked away when his fever spiked. His heart thundered in his chest. He heard the sound of it ringing in his ears as his drowsiness gave way to growing panic.

 

 

His breath came out in heavy rasps, visible against the punishing light of morning. Clouds of translucent gas ballooned from his mouth and rose, distorting his surroundings. Jack could see the picture frames on the furthest wall dancing and wriggling – warped as they were through the vaporous prism of his diseased exhalations. Looking up, Jack saw that the ceiling over his bed was heavily discolored and full of watery stains. The plaster there had begun to peel; small, white flakes fluttered idly towards the floor and where Jack lay on his bed.

 

 

He stirred, fearful of making his condition worse but too alarmed and full of adrenaline to remain on his back. Each movement sent waves of intense heat over the length of his body. Lava swam from his core and into each limb, making every surface feel scalding under his fingertips. Jack felt as if he had slept through late afternoon in the Nevada desert, perspiring to an intense degree and feeling a thirst the likes of which he had never known. He stumbled from his bedside to the door before shambling down the hallway. Reaching his kitchen, he fell against the counter and draped himself over it as he pawed desperately for his cell phone. He unplugged it from its charger, dialed '911' with shaking fingers, and rambled incoherently to the dispatcher answering from the other end of the call. Her outpouring of questions only agitated Jack, and he distantly heard himself shouting into the receiver in a desperate bid to make the dumb girl aware of how dire his straits were becoming. The dispatcher patiently attempted to keep Jack on the phone, despite his slurring and panting. She had sent for an ambulance less than one minute after the call had been made.

 

 

Jack was dimly aware that he was on his back again. The stucco ceiling overhead rolled and undulated as otherworldly vapors bellowed from his throat. His consciousness grew thin and teetered. Succumbing to his state, Jack became aware of an unusual brightness filling the room. It swelled and faded, swelled and faded, as if following the ebb and flow of his breath. He let his mouth hang open when nausea swept through him, and the light intensified.

 

 

The heat was overwhelming. No part of him was without the scolding, burning, seething sensation radiating from his gut. His fever-addled brain began to present confusing images to him: a comic book superhero made of living flame, a zeppelin set ablaze and falling from the sky, a man set alight and sitting cross-legged burning to a crisp before collapsing onto his side. Jack began to smell smoke and tasted hot metal. He felt his tongue peeling apart in his mouth. His teeth were fusing together, while his gums bubbled and ran in a stream of bloodied pink from the corners of his mouth.

 

 

Jack began to flail. The fumes issuing from his gullet billowed and clouded together, forming a thick, obscuring haze. At some point he had clambered back to his feet, and lashed at nothing; blind to his surroundings and deaf to the cries of anguish rising from his own throat. Hit wits had been blotted out by hysteria, and he thrashed about his kitchen before straying into the front hall of his apartment. Photographs were swept down from the wall to the floor as he went, the glass in their frames exploding upon impact. His swinging foot struck the leg of a cheap end table in his foyer, toppling it and sending the vase it displayed down to shatter against the linoleum. Through his frenzy, Jack remained conscious of the pulsating light which seemed to follow him wherever he went. It was anchored to him somehow, though he was far beyond attempting to find its source.

 

 

Jack collided with a hard, flat surface and rebounded, gurgling and reaching out sightlessly. Choked sobs bled through the volcanic ruin above his jawline. His knuckles rapped against drywall and continued searching for something distinguishable. His fingertips ran across a divot, followed by a smooth ridge, followed by another stretch of blank canvasing. His sense of smell had been obliterated, but with each muffled shout, an outpouring of stiflingly hot gas rose from inside of him and clawed at his flesh. He felt it light on his scalp, where most of his hair had already fallen away. He was an unwitting, unwilling host to poisons the likes of which humanity had never seen, and yet he carried on with his futile attempts to escape and find aid.

 

 

Coldness licked at his palm. In his frantic state, Jack was unable to take hold of it. The growing light was all that was still visible to him through the murky darkness beneath his eyelids.

 

He pawed and raked and felt along, searching like a wild beast for scraps in the underbrush. His fingertips brushed against something smooth and cool to the touch; a protrusion stuck out from whatever wall he had pinned himself against. It slipped easily into his grasp and he clutched at it, momentarily lost as to what it was, before realization dawned. A doorknob.

 

 

Unbeknownst to Jonathan Trevor Tate, an additional half-dozen phone calls had been made to the police in tandem with his own call to 911. Outside of his first floor apartment and at the end of the concrete path leading from his front door to the sidewalk, there sat a squad of police officers lying in wait alongside a team of emergency medical personnel. Behind them, a small fleet of police cruisers sat idling, forming a sloppy perimeter around the waiting ambulance. The clamor made by Jack's struggle indoors had alarmed his neighbors, and the sudden frequency of complaints coupled with his frantic, garbled conversation with the 911 dispatcher lead the authorities to fear the worst. They were prepared to quell a domestic disturbance, or a robbery, or an assault. The medics on-scene were tense and poised to rush forward, sure as they were that there would be blood to contain and wounds to bind and clean. There was no conversation amongst them as they waited; only the occasional static of a handheld radio.

 

 

The knob turned. A sharp click preceded the door sliding open, inch by inch. It swung on its hinges and swept across the stoop, brushing away loose leaves and twigs. They scuttled across the raised concrete, bursting into flames before their ashes were cast off by the wind.

 

The police tensed themselves and readied their equipment. The handful of men at the front line widened their stances, ready to rush in at first sign of trouble. They stood just off the lip of the curb, and were the first to see an intense glow pouring out from inside.

 

 

Jack emerged and stood on his front porch; obscured by a shroud of blinding golden light. The men waiting for him outside turned and shielded their eyes. Glancing over spread palms and raised forearms, they were unable to discern the light's source, and could not look upon it for long without tears forming in their eyes. It was as if the sun itself had tumbled from the sky and crash landed in the doorway of this small, suburban dwelling.

 

 

Underneath the quivering plume of light stood poor Jack T. Tate. Fissures had opened on his skin, and from them flames belched and flickered in the morning air. His mouth and jawline had been burnt away, leaving a gaping hole from which smoke and flaming gases poured and danced. The ruin of his nose and eyes could not be seen under the brightness emanating from his insides. He was no longer conscious, yet his body continued struggling forward in a desperate bid for survival. The light bore through his flesh at multiple points, allowing it to escape in greater and greater volume, until the shape of Jack's ruined body was no longer even partially visible beneath his luminescence. The squad assembled in front of his home was in an uproar: while some fled and retreated to their vehicles, others attempted to approach Jack, despite the hellish temperature he was creating. Orders were barked over the commotion, but few actions were taken as the men watched Jack fighting to reach them. They had no idea what was happening to this man, nor did they know how to help him.

 

 

Jack collapsed in front of them almost soundlessly. His crumpled form writhed and twitched, before becoming still. The light began to recede. As it did, the police and medical personnel were able to see the remains of Jack's torso and limbs. He had been reduced to a toppled ashen sculpture, left face down on the ground to break apart and decay. The concrete beneath him was lathered with deep scorch marks. Flames continued to rise from the blackened recesses of his corpse, before disappearing in heavy puffs of smoke. The wind raked at his back and carried off with piles of burnt and disintegrated flesh.

 

 

There was silence amongst the authorities gathered. They stared at the pile of dry dust that made up Jack's corpse, fixated and unable to step forward. The light was gone; its host no longer viable. A few men turned to the gutter and vomited. After minutes of hesitation, one man stepped forward. He crouched and tensed his arms, creeping tentatively towards where the body lay for fear that it would reignite. Standing at the corpse's side, the man sunk to his haunches and peered into the vacant pits where Jack's eyes had once been. Thin streams of acrid smoke continued to rise from the sockets. He could barely tolerate the stench permeating the remains, and rose to his feet before cupping his mouth with his hand.

 

 

Turning away, the man gave an order to his squad in a shaken voice. He walked towards the street as EMTs scurried past him, refusing to glance over his shoulder at the body one last time, despite feeling an urge to do so. He tried to maintain an air of detachment, but soon found himself puking his guts into the storm drain near his cruiser. Wiping his mouth, he reached into the driver-side window and took hold of his two-way radio without waiting for a diagnosis.

 

He announced the cause of death as a house fire.

 

 

 

Author's Notes/Comments: 

Been a while since I've posted on here. I've (hopefully temporarily) lost my passion for poetry (having gone back to read old works and realizing that many of them were just... Just awful). Maybe I can keep up with these short stories for a while.

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