Stellan pulled me farther away and drew me close, his head to mine like we were obnoxious tourists who didn’t know that a border crossing was a time to lay off the PDA. “Are you having a hard time breathing?” he murmured.
I nodded against his forehead.
“I think you’re having a panic attack.”
“This isn’t in my head,” I snapped. “I literally can’t breathe.” It felt like a fist was tightening around my sternum. It was getting a lot worse, and fast. I felt my vision starting to swim. I was going to die in the middle of the desert on the hot asphalt. “I’m sorry. I’m going to leave you to deal with all this alone. I’m sorry—”
Stellan took my face in his hands. “Kuklachka, listen to me.”
I’d told him not to call me that. And unlike in the hospital, having his face so close to mine wasn’t helping this time. I pictured it all again—kissing him. An explosion. Screams. Blood. I took gasped breath after gasping breath, but I didn’t push him away. His hands were suddenly the only thing keeping me upright.
“It’s not just in your head. It’s real. But I do think it’s a panic attack.”
I shook my head.
“It’s a terrible feeling, but it’s not going to hurt you. You’re probably not breathing out all the way, so then you can’t breathe in.”
I could only hear some of the words. Breathe. Panic. My entire world narrowed to my chest, and to the air I couldn’t get into my lungs.
“Look at me.” He shook me a little. “Avery. We need to get you looking calm before the border official comes back.”
I blinked a few times and his face swam into focus.
Stellan held my face tighter. “Purse your lips like you’re whistling,” he ordered in a whisper. “Now blow out. Push out all the air you can. More.” He pressed a hand into my stomach. There wasn’t any more air. But I contracted my stomach as hard as I could, and pushed out another breath. “More. Good. Now pause.”
I did, trying to trust him, even though it hurt. My chest hurt. My lungs hurt. A tear slipped down my face. “Now breathe in slowly, through your nose, into your stomach,” he said. “Try to push my hand out.”
I can’t, I wanted to say, that’s the problem, but I concentrated on his fingers through the thin fabric of my T-shirt, concentrated on my stomach expanding under them. It was at least ninety degrees out, and I was so cold.
“Good. Now out through the pursed lips again. Slowly. As much air out as you can. More. And in again. Push my hand.”
It was the third breath before I realized that I was very definitely breathing. It still wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t getting worse. A few more breaths, and I could breathe almost normally again. I blinked up at Stellan, and his eyes searched mine, far more concerned than I had realized.
“How did you know?” I whispered.
He rested his chin on the top of my head with a heavy sigh. I leaned my forehead against his beachy tank. His heart was going a mile a minute. His fingers tightened on my stomach and he pulled back, his eyes on the horizon behind me.
“Are you okay?” I said.
He pulled away. “Get yourself together,” he said roughly. “At least until we get across the border. Keep up those breaths and it shouldn’t get worse.”
The door to the guard shack banged open and I jumped. Inside, the red screen was still up on the computer. My chest started to tighten again and I breathed, out out out in. I shot a glance at Elodie, and she gave the barest shrug and frantically pushed buttons on her phone.
“When did you say you came into the country?” the official said. The question sounded innocuous enough, but the three more guards with machine guns behind him made it look less so.
“Only just yesterday,” Elodie said in her fake, heavy British accent. Breathe into my stomach, then out. Elodie glanced at her phone again, and her face relaxed. “Try one more time?” she asked. “I’d feel so bad about holding up the bus when I’m sure we’re in there. Please?” The rest of the line behind us shifted impatiently.
The official’s eyes narrowed. “Step out of line,” he said, but he left someone else to deal with the rest of the group while he took our passports back into the booth one more time. This time, mercifully, the screen popped up green.
We all let out a heavy breath at once.
Elodie turned to me as we were making our way back to the bus. “Are you all right?”
I glanced up at Stellan. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m—sorry. Let’s get on the bus before they change their minds.”
I woke up just as the bus pulled into the station in Alexandria. The kink in my neck suggested I hadn’t moved for too long. I was shocked I’d fallen asleep at all, but the panic attack at the border had left me more exhausted than I already was. Jack and Elodie were blinking awake across the aisle, and Stellan was hunched against the window next to me, his bloodshot eyes suggesting he hadn’t slept at all. We were all still bleary when we climbed off the bus, and Stellan immediately took Jack’s phone to call his sister again.
“Coffee,” groaned Elodie. “What time is it?”
We wandered out of the bus station and into a grassy plaza filled with palm trees. Across the street was a semicircular bay, and a dock filled with bobbing blue and yellow boats. A lone fisherman in stained robes and a white turban came strolling up the dock, followed by half a dozen hungry-eyed and dirty-faced cats. As he reached the shore, the fisherman stopped and pulled an entire fish out of his bag, tossing it down on the rocks. The cats descended like little furry vultures.
Elodie flopped onto the grass. “Can we just get a hotel for the night?” she said dully.
“We don’t know how much time we have until this catches up to us. Our pictures might be everywhere on the Internet already.” Right before we’d tried to steal Napoleon’s bracelet from the Cannes Film Festival, the Saxons had wanted to capture me, so they’d named me a person of interest in an assassination. “Our pictures might be on the news already. Have you seen anything?”