At first, the vista outside my car window seemed beautiful, incredible even.
It was almost too much for me to take in and drive at the same time on this narrow, winding mountain road toward Emerald Bay.
But then suddenly, I realized couldn’t feel my hands—one minute they were gripping the steering wheel (which I know only because I risked taking my eyes off the road for a microsecond to confirm they were indeed still there before gluing my eyes back to the road in front of me)—and the next thing I knew, there were numb.
My face was numb, too, and the world was starting to go dark around the edges.
It became obvious as I tried to navigate a tight left turn, that suddenly, absofuckinglutely nothing was there to stop my car from careening off the road and down the cliff. What happened to the guardrail? There was no longer anything between my car and the drop off to Hell.
My heart was thundering in my chest, and escalating.
I knew that I was likely going to die.
I was going to die before I even made it to Emerald Bay—the whole point in choosing Lake Tahoe for my long weekend getaway.
In a moment like this, you’d tell someone to breathe, right? All well and good, but I couldn’t breathe.
I could not catch my breath.
I knew if I didn’t pull over soon I’d go over the damn cliff.
Moments ago there had been a guardrail between me, my car, and the sheer drop off the side of the mountain I was driving up—but now there was fucking nothing.
How did that even happen? Did I miss a Guardrails End, Good Luck! sign?
I had to pull over, or turn around, or die.
There was no place to pull over on this steep, narrow mountain road with hairpin turns; there was barely enough room for my car, let alone a car coming down the mountain toward me.
There was no place to turn around, either.
I started to freak out, and I don’t freak out. I’m an attorney for god’s sake. I was made for high-pressure situations. I thrived on them. What the hell was happening to me?
I was going to lose consciousness and go over the cliff. That’s what was happening.
I fought the lightheaded sensations, and the increasing darkness at the edge of my vision. I fought it with everything I had.
Cocky whined. He fucking whined, and I knew right then and there I had to try to make it, if only for him.
My cocker spaniel didn’t deserve to die if my car hurled over the cliff because I lost consciousness during a panic attack. He was an innocent bystander, even if he was a cocky, pain in the ass dog.
Was this a panic attack?
I’d never had a panic attack before—ever—but I knew enough about them to know I was either having one now, or I was having a heart attack. Oh God, what if it was a heart attack?
I was barely twenty-nine with a fit, healthy body, so it probably wasn’t a heart attack, but I found no solace in that fact.
I had seconds to figure something out.
Keep your eyes forward, I desperately willed.
Was that really a turn around in front of me or was I imagining it? Was it a mirage? Or did those only happen in the desert?
It didn’t matter because I knew I was running out of time even though I tried to tell myself not to look at the road that dropped off to oblivion just beyond the right side of my car.
I tried to tell myself not to look, but it didn’t change the facts, or dizziness, or numbness in my body.
I don’t know how I pulled off onto the narrow turnaround that I wasn’t even sure was real, but I must have.
The next thing I knew, a visual of my car careening off the cliff filled my head (I know, weird right? Shouldn’t it have been my life flashing before my eyes?) But I digress.
I pressed the breaks as though it were my last act, and shoved the gear into Park. I managed to push my foot down onto the emergency brake before I started to cry. Fuck cry… I s.o.b.b.e.d.
The more I sobbed, the more I couldn’t breathe.
I didn’t see the car pull up behind me. I didn’t hear the car door close or even notice a man standing beside my window.
I don’t know how long he stood there, knocking on my window before I realized he was there.
My whole body was shaking, I could not catch my breath, and tears and snot formed a river from my eyes and nose, down my chin, to the abyss beyond.
It was Cocky—my Cocker Spaniel that finally brought me back to earth. He wasn’t allowed in the front seat because it wasn’t safe for him or me, but damn it if that pain in the ass cocker didn’t risk my wrath by jumping into the front seat and start licking my face.
He just kept licking and licking my face until I finally pushed him away.
(In retrospect, he might have been one of those dogs who liked the taste of salty tears and snot, but I’d rather to give him the benefit of the doubt.)
Then the urge to vomit hit my stomach. It hit hard and fast.
I didn’t know if my hands would obey my brain by opening the door or not, but if they didn’t, I’d end up throwing up all over my steering wheel and dashboard.
It was that moment when I realized there was a face outside my window. Big topaz-blue eyes filled with concern stared back at me, hands holding a hanger, pushing it between my window and the car door.
My hands were still numb, but they moved when I told them to. I hit the door lock with the back of my wrist and heard the lock click.
The next thing I knew, the car door was opening and strong, warm, masculine arms scooped under my legs and behind my back, pulling me up and out of the seat, against his chest.
“Whoa, whoa, babe. It’s okay, you’re all right. I’ve gotcha. Breathe for me, okay?”
“I—I can’t!” I wailed through desperate gasps. “Throw up—“ I warned.
But he didn’t push me away—he pulled me closer. All I could think of was a baby—when they are crying inconsolably, you swaddle them, and that’s exactly what he did to me while I sobbed into his chest, my entire body shaking, unable to process anything.
He swaddled me in his big, strong arms and pulled me closer.
“You’re all right. Breathe for me, babe,” he just kept whispering over and over again into my ear.
“I’m—going—I’m going—to die,” I finally uttered between shudders, gasping for air.
“You’re not going to die, I’ve got you. Now move your hand to your belly.”
My hands clung to his tear-soaked t-shirt. I didn’t want to move them. I didn’t want to let go.
“Just move one,” he encouraged. “Move it to your belly for me.”
I could barely pry my fingers off, but I let go of his shirt with my right hand and pressed it on my belly.
“Good, good job,” he soothed. “Now with your next breath, I want you to try to take it in deep enough that it makes your belly expand. Can you do that for me?”
I nodded. It took a few tries, but I did it.
“Good, now another one, slow breath into the count of three. Let it out to the count of three.”
“I’m—I’m not having—a—a heart attack?” I heard a voice ask, not connecting the fact that it was mine.
His warm chuckle vibrated in my ear, but it wasn’t unkind.
“I don’t think so, babe, but if you are, you’re in good hands. I’m a doctor. Can you tell me your name?” His voice soothed me like a caress.
“Avery,” I gulped. “Avery King.”
“Beautiful name, babe. Now breathe.”
After a few more breaths my hands started to tingle. My body wasn’t shaking violently anymore—there were just little tremors that spiked every few minutes rather than nonstop.
“I think I’m okay now. You can put me down.” My words were stronger, less staggered.
He held me right where I was.
“Just give it a few more minutes, until the tremors stop. Keep breathing for me, babe.”