Today was different.

I should've known this moment would come. I really should've. Right now, as I sit in the smallest corner of my room, between the shelf of books I never remember to dust and the famous patch of wall where I crayoned my rendition of American Gothic using my parents as subjects when I was three, I wonder how I could've missed the signs.

How I could've missed the gentle pressure in my chest that slowly became excruciating instead of gentle.

How I could've missed the tiny claws that scrabbled onto each inch of my skin and slowly, inexorably dragged me down.

As I sit in the smallest corner of my room, counting the wet spots my tears leave on the carpet, I wonder how I possibly could've missed the feeling of isolation that did not remain static within me, but grew and thrived the way bathroom fungi never should.

And I realize: I didn't miss the signs. I ignored them.

It's kind of silly, now that I stop to think about it. I've always been strong, unyielding as a boulder on stormy plains. Sure, the occasional gust catches me off guard and scratches my normally impenetrable surface, but when the wind dies, I'm still there, looking as if nothing had upset my peace in the first place. It's only upon close scrutiny that anyone would ever notice the scars.

Crying isn't one of my reactions, hasn't been since Grandpa passed away four years ago. It's not a luxury I allow myself. I hate myself for crying.

But I can't stop it.

Last week, I missed the bus to school. I know that pegs me as irresponsible, but my little brother had a bloody nose for some dratted reason, and since I was the only one still home, I forwent my daily morning ritual of toast with strawberry jam to help him, calm him down, lecture him not to tilt his head back lest he swallow the blood and get an upset stomach. So, I came late and hungry to first period and got a detention. But no worries. My little brother was fine and waiting for his own bus, so why should I complain?

Julie was sobbing at lunch three days ago because her boyfriend broke up with her. I let her dampen my shoulder as I patted her back, stroked her hair, argued against her echoed claims that she was ugly and stupid and that no one would ever want to date her. Figuring it was an inappropriate time to bring up my own woes, I decided not to remind her that I was the one who spent a month mustering up the courage to ask Brent to the Sadie Hawkins dance, only to be told to my face, "Haha! Go with the pimply geek from Math Club? Someone better will ask me."

I've never seen bags as long and dark as the ones below my mom's eyes when she returned from work yesterday. She asked me to vacuum the floor, dust the staircase, clean the downstairs bathroom, and prepare everything in the guest bedroom for my uncle, who is once again staying in our home while he searches for a job, the fifth time this year. I didn't refuse and mention that this is my last weekend to work on my history project, which is frustrating me because one of our group members still hasn't done his part—and we all know for a fact that he went to the beach the past two weeks when he should've been meeting with us—so I've picked up his work instead. No, I promised my mom that I would, because life has been tough for her ever since she found out Dad was cheating on her and divorced him two years ago. Money is tight right now, and if I can relieve even a slice of her stress, that's good enough for me. I'll consider it an honor if I develop bags of my own.

These sorts of scenarios happen all the time and I'm used to it. When life turns bad, people come to me because I'm strong. I've got the tenacity of a city besieged too many times to count. I don't always know what to say or do, but I'll always offer a listening ear because I can't bear to know others are suffering and feeling alone. Sometimes, when the issue has cooled and everyone's happy again, they'll say to me, "I don't know how you stay so calm, Maddie. And you're so understanding. Thank you."

And it makes me so proud of myself for not crumbling when so many already have. Sure, at times I'll feel frighteningly ill for no apparent reason, but I'll just attribute them to tiredness and convince myself I'll recover with a good night's rest. And by morning, they've usually retreated to a manageable level.

But today was different.

Today I came home and found Scrappy dead in a corner of his cage. That hamster was the last Christmas gift I ever got from my dad, and when his furry golden body didn't respond to my gentle poking or my proffered sunflower seeds, I realized with a small amount of shock that my pet was gone.

The spark triggered an explosion.

I cried.

I don't get it. I've prevailed against worst than a dead hamster in my (short) lifetime, but when Scrappy didn't waddle over to my hand and investigate it like he'd done every day for the past two years, a proverbial dam in my heart split wide open, flooding my body with the most terrible feeling I've ever had the misfortune of experiencing. It was like my mind was commanding my body to die but my body wasn't obeying—an internal struggle that left me short of breath, dizzy, and wondering if I'd still be sane when the moment had passed, much less alive. I dug my fingers into my arms, trying to summon pain into my consciousness, and subsequently some rational thought.

Sit down! my brain yelled. Lie down!

Somehow, I managed to pull myself into a corner and stayed there, trembling.

I'm still here, frightened by this unfamiliar weakness that won't stop invading my every sense of being. I feel so vulnerable. I feel so helpless. I feel so… wet (stupid tears). What happened to strong, calm Maddie? Maddie the Boulder? It's like a soft breeze cut me in two with minimal effort after I've managed to withstand much worse assaults for so long. It shouldn't be possible. It's ridiculous.

No, it isn't, otherwise I wouldn't be feeling this way.

Tomorrow will be better. I think I'll go to sleep now.

One thing I've always found to be true so far is that if I sleep while in pain, when I wake up the next morning, the agony is mostly gone and I can function like a normal, healthy human being again. So I think I'll go to sleep now.

I hope tomorrow isn't different, too.

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A/N: Inspired by and written while listening to Vienna Teng's The Tower. Not really supposed to mean anything, just a narration about what happens when stress becomes too much.

3/03/07: Now edited with suggestions from the spiffy Lyharii. Thank you!