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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Breath Too Late

Rocky Callen; read by Imani Jade Powers; author's note read by the author

Macmillan Young Listeners

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


Death,

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.


2


Life,

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.

I don’t pause or even let my eyes linger. I just catch him looking up and staring, searching the sidewalk. I grit my teeth for a minute as I charge up the stairs.

Of course, he is searching for someone. Someone else. Someone without bruises under her T-shirt or death-metal music companions to drown out the world. He is of this world—wholly. Some strange mix of geek and rocker, intelligent and artistic, cool, but not so cool as to be an ass about it. August Matthews.

I kind of like the fact that his name is a month of the year, a month of sunlight, humid air, lightning bugs, last parties, beach trips, and my birthday.

I chance one last glance at him as I open the door. He is still there, expectant, waiting. Just not for me.

I walk inside and don’t look back. It seems like yesterday that it was me he was waiting for on the sidewalk.

That strange, uncollected feeling hits me again.

A loss of time, of a sequence of events. Was it really yesterday? I feel like I am midstep and losing my balance, unsteady. I try to remember clearly, but the memory feels hazy. No, of course not. That was years ago. But even as I accept that teetering thought, it feels uncertain.

Students are already filing into their first period. The first alarm blares. I frown. How am I late?

I make my way to English Lit, the only bearable class in high school—partly because I want to be a writer when I leave this hellhole and partly because I like the teacher, Ms. Hooper. When she recites a passage from a book, her eyes sparkle as if somehow the words make her more real, like they’re her talisman and she just needs to read them to be set on fire. I wonder if she can feel it. The twinkle of life, I mean. I wonder if it’s something that bubbles up inside her. I wonder what that must feel like.

I want to be Ms. Hooper.

Eyeing August’s empty place just a couple of seats away, I sit down. Sometimes I think I feel him watching me, but that’s stupid. He wouldn’t watch me. Not like before, especially with Ms. Hooper twinkling with so much life and me rotting in my chair.

I sit down, surprised Britney doesn’t make her oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-believe-I-am-sitting-next-to-this-freak eyes at me. She just giggles with Sarah and Terry and then they squeeze into their respective seats, ignoring me entirely. Which is fine by me. I am perfectly happy being ignored.

I stretch and look up at the ceiling. There are thirty-six cracks up there. I know. I’ve counted them all.

The door creaks open and I shift my gaze to the doorway. August is there, breathless. He looks confused and flustered, which doesn’t suit him. He makes his way to his seat and then knocks his knuckles on my desk while chancing a glance at the door again.

I blink at the spot where his knuckles had been. What was that about?

I stiffen in my chair and look back. August’s eyes are on the door as he twirls a pencil with his fingers. He always has one in his hand or tucked behind his ear. Always ready to draw something in his sketch pad. He needs to be ready for when the muse hits. I used to tease him about it when we were younger.

I pivot forward, feeling woozy all of a sudden. Ms. Hooper is leaning against her desk, hands clasped in front of her. She is young and beautiful, but she isn’t glittering with her usual splendor. Her jaw is too tight, her eyes not sparkly at all. I can see how she swallows over and over again as if she has something to say and is struggling to get the words out.

Does anyone else notice? I glance around. There is not a single face looking up at Ms. Hooper. They are ducked down staring at phone screens or leaning across desks to mouth something to their friends. August is tapping his leg against his desk, still watching the door. Who is he waiting for?

Ms. Hooper finally clears her throat, just barely grabbing the students’ attention. She looks at me. I perk up. Yes, I’m listening. I am here.

Beautiful and twinkling people have this way about them. A way that makes you feel like if they just watched you, just connected, you would somehow be a bit more twinkly too. She doesn’t twinkle at me though, so I can’t twinkle back. She stares through me, eyes glassy, and I am convinced that somehow the black void of emptiness inside me must’ve robbed her of that beautiful dazzle and sent it off into the ether where so many things are lost, including, but not exclusively, my smile.

Ms. Hooper finally speaks. “Class, quiet.” There is an edge to her voice I have never heard before. I stiffen, wondering who might’ve cheated on our last test on Friday. I scan the room. Becca or Ty? I stare at the couple in the front corner. Eyes red, goofy grins, and gazes far-off and distant. Stoned? Really? At 7:45 a.m.? I roll my eyes. I am surrounded by idiots.

Ms. Hooper clears her throat again. “I—I have a very sad announcement today. One of your classmates”—her voice breaks—“died yesterday.”

Her face turns red and splotchy and I sit up straighter. Died? Someone died? I scroll through my own mental roster of students and try to remember who I saw in the hallways.

The classroom is silent.

Ms. Hooper continues, “Ellie Walker”—her voice cracks again—“died by suicide in her home yesterday.”

There is silence. Too much of it.

My heart is knocking against my rib cage, breaking it.

No.


Copyright © 2020 by Rocky Callen