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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Breath Too Late

Rocky Callen

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)




As blackness eats my last sliver of consciousness, I realize I regret.

You aren’t beautiful, free, or romantic like in all of the novels I have read. You are a girl who had no hope left, who realized, too late, she wanted to live. I thought you would save me, Death.

But you are a liar.

Just like everyone else.



You are too quiet. The kind of quiet that isn’t quiet at all. It is the smothering silence that bleeds into everything; the kind of absence that mocks, prods, and stares you down until you are withered to your bones.

I had the worst dream last night, but I can’t quite remember it. I feel groggy. The dream settles into something dim and far away and yet it scratches at me, it curls a finger in my direction and beckons me closer. I ignore it.

The room still looks dark, too dark. My alarm went off, didn’t it?

I rub my eyes and pad my way toward the door. I like to be downstairs before Momma and Father. I blink when I flip the switch in the hallway. Dark. Still dark? Maybe the lights burned out or maybe Momma didn’t pay the electricity bill again. I swear under my breath. I step lightly, leaning my weight on the railing so I don’t make the stairs creak too much. I rub my eyes again. The sleep still must be in them, because nothing looks quite right.

I bump the Alaska snow globe on the side of the vanity next to the base of the stairs and I frantically reach out to catch it, but it sits still in its spot. I blink, confused, and then exhale loudly as I turn the corner and freeze.

Momma and Father are already in the kitchen, sitting in the dark.

I rub my arm with my palm and step inside the kitchen. They don’t look up. They never do. I take the long way around to the cabinets, not going straight from the door to the counters because that would brush me up against Father’s chair. I walk around, squeezing instead behind Momma. Regina. Her name means queen, but you would never know it. She’s a tall thing in a small space, crammed in where she doesn’t quite fit.

I flinch seeing her. Something is wrong, very wrong. She is practically a corpse, quiet, still, black and blue painting her face as if she’s already rotting. She’s not wearing makeup. She never comes downstairs without makeup on to cover up the bruises. Never.

I wish I could hate her, but I can’t.

I brush past her and open the cabinets before sitting. I want to ask why they are sitting in the dark, but I don’t want to be the one to break the silence, shatter it into tiny pieces, because at least the silence can’t hurt you. I keep my mouth shut.

No wonder I like hard-core metal. The band members can scream until their throats are hoarse, while my throat is dry and aching from hardly ever making a sound. Father is sitting at the table, waiting. Watching. Momma’s eyes are cast down.

She whimpers.

I tense. She never, ever makes a sound … not even when I hear the slaps and the pounding through the bedroom walls, not even when the punches slam into her. Never a whimper, never a sound.

I look at her, really look at her. Her eyes are bloodshot. Her skin is red and blotchy, along with the normal blacks and blues and fading yellows. Her eyes are practically swollen shut. I want to reach my hand to hers, but I don’t.

Whatever thing is breaking her, I won’t break too. The thought bites at me even as I feel ashamed. I still watch her from under my eyelashes and see she is clutching something in her hands. I stare at it. It is no larger than the height of her hand. A stuffed teddy bear with an eye hanging on by a thread wearing a tiny T-shirt that says SOMEONE IN BALTIMORE LOVES ME.

She’s been in my room. The bear was on my bed, beside the pillow. I want to reach over and snatch it from her. I almost do, but then she whimpers again, a throaty, gurgling sound following it. She is holding her breath to keep the sob down. She isn’t trying hard enough.

Father looks at her. Rolls back his shoulders in that slow, deliberate way of his and then leans forward across the table. “Oh, Regina.” His voice is smooth, deceitfully soothing. “Stop that crying. It isn’t your fault.” Father stands up and Momma flinches just as she hiccups the tears down. He’s dragging his chair behind him until he pushes it next to Momma. The scratches against the floor grate against my ears. He sits down slowly and says, “Shhhhh, you know I don’t like to hear you cry.”

A warning. A warning cloaked in comfort. He is about to strike. I can feel it. I start to shift away in my chair. About to run. He doesn’t like to hear her cry and when she does, he gives her a reason to cry harder.

She ignores the warning.

The sobs come, fierce and splintering like an earthquake. My eyes widen as I jerk my gaze to her. I stand up and lunge for the doorway. I have to get away, to escape the pull of the crevasse she is creating with her tears. She is going to drag me down. I can feel it. It isn’t normal, the way she cries. It scares me.

Momma clutches the bear to her chest. She knows what’s coming, but she doesn’t stop crying. Father growls and pushes her against the wall, her chair tipping back underneath her, and then puts one massive hand over her throat. His own body is crushing her against the wall. He’s always crushing something. Momma wheezes out her stuttering sobs and she’s shaking.

“Shhhhh, shhhhhh. It’s okay. I got you. You just have to listen to me. Okay? Shhh.”

Mom’s jerkily shaking her head side to side. She’s saying no. She’s saying stop. She’s saying help.

But I don’t.

I run. I run outside. Momma must have pushed or resisted because now I hear her wails again. Father is shouting. Glass is shattering. There is a tornado behind me and I don’t stop running. I gulp in the air, heaving frantically. I must’ve been holding my breath.

There are no bruises, or secrets, or screams out here on the sidewalk. I sigh and pull out my headphones. I turn up the volume all the way, ignoring the warning about hearing loss that pops up on the screen. I keep my finger on the volume button even though it says MAX, just in case I can squeeze out a bit more noise. C’mon, I think. Just a little louder. Just make the world go away.

My shoulders relax as the electric guitars roar, the drums thud ferociously, and the lead singer screams into the mic.

It doesn’t get louder. The world doesn’t go away and within ten minutes, I face my school.

I rub my arms. It is cold for May. It’s overcast. The sky somehow seems bright, but filtered, like an Instagram photo where they offset the image so it has softer, muted colors. I cock my head to the side and try to blink it away, but as I make my way up the school steps, I glance to the right.

He is there.

Copyright © 2020 by Rocky Callen