Read Breathless Online

Authors: Jessica Warman

Tags: #ebook, #book

Breathless (3 page)

“You
do.

“Okay.” He snuffs out his cigarette, spreads his empty fingers like a magician. “See? I quit.”

His eyes twinkle, pupils wide in the dimness, erasing his irises. I know how it feels to look at them, but I have no idea what color eyes the Ghost has.

I’m not sure what he would tell you about us. Probably he’d say that it was me who changed, that as little girls grow into young women, it is natural for them to pull away from their fathers. But I remember it differently. I remember a day when he looked at me and I felt, in his gaze, an impossible pressure to be something different. I was twelve years old; it was the first time he caught me smoking a cigarette. It was a look I would grow familiar with over the next few years, not just from the Ghost but from almost everyone around me.

What could I do? How was I supposed to be? I had no idea. The only thing I knew how to do, with any certainty, was swim.

chapter 2

I feel more drawn to the water than ever this summer. I blame the temperature and my boredom, but still I force myself to really move beneath the surface, to keep my pace so swift that I sometimes feel like my heart might explode. I’ve always done well in school—I get all As—but the only thing I really love is swimming. Sometimes I feel like I don’t really exist outside the water.

Once in a while, my mother takes a break from painting to chase me around with a bottle of sunblock. She’s lucky if she manages to do much more than swipe a few gobs onto my back. My suntan is uneven because of her, finger trails of her attempts to protect me left in stark white marks surrounded by bronze flesh. Each time she comes and goes, my brother and I follow her appearance with a slew of backhanded comments as she walks away. It isn’t even noon yet, but her upper lip is already stained a deep crimson. Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet—they’re like grape juice in our house.

“She probably doesn’t remember our names by now,” Will says.

I jump in the water again before the sunblock has a chance to absorb. “After twelve,” I say, putting a dramatic hand to my forehead, mimicking her breathy voice, “time for a little catnap.”

Will dangles his feet from the diving board into the water, watching me with half interest and squinting into the sun, smoking cigarettes that he flicks onto the cement deck. He doesn’t care that he’s making a mess. The last thing I see before my head disappears underwater is his grin.

I am a swimmer by birth. I’ve been on some kind of team since age three, and I’ve always been the fastest. I swim every day, and every day I can feel myself getting a little better. After every twenty laps today, I get out of the pool. Will and I pretend to take a great interest in the ants mobbing the rhododendron bushes in the garden, keeping watch for each other while we take quick drags from a joint, giggling, feeling the sun bake the moisture from our skin, and it feels so good to be bad that I can hardly stand it.

“Hey,” I say, “should you be doing this? Is it okay?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know—is it going to hurt you? Because of your medicine?”

His head comes forward, and he gives me a long, shaky look. His eyeballs look radioactive. I detect a small, almost imperceptible tremor from within the muscle fibers. “Don’t worry about me, Katie. You’re being dumb.” He rubs his eyes with tight fists. The whites have turned the color of underripe watermelon. “You’re just a kid.”

After a few hours, the sun begins to creep down toward the horizon, and my vision starts to blur from keeping my eyes open underwater for so long. Will has fallen into a trance on the diving board, splayed on his back with a lit cigarette burning downward, its ashes breaking and falling into the water. I paddle over to him and swipe at his arm, his skin dry as a dead bat baking on the pavement.

“Hey.”

When he doesn’t answer, for a minute I think he might be asleep. But then he murmurs, “Hmmmm?”

“Let’s go up to the roof again.”

He sits up, squinting at me. “Are you sure? Mom’s home.”

I lick my lips in contemplation. I can be tough; I’ll show him. “I don’t care. What’s she gonna do about it?”

“Huh.”

“Huh.”

He shrugs. His squint breaks into a grin. “Okay. Let’s go.”

We’re dancing around on the roof—me in my bathing suit, him in an old pair of sweatpants cut off at the knees, shirtless, doing the robot to a Beastie Boys CD and shifting our feet on the hot roof to keep our soles from burning, when, from out of nowhere, the cat we saw earlier falls from the pine tree and lands right between us—
smack
—and the music skips, slows down, as though it’s keeping up with the mood.

“Oh my God,” I say, trying not to laugh in spite of the cat. “We’re in the Bible. It’s raining
creatures.

We kneel down to get a better look. It’s a sorry sight. Since we last saw it, just a few hours ago, the cat looks like it has been in a fight—its tail is bent at a painful angle, its breathing is too quick, and its tabby fur is matted and sad. Will picks it up and cradles it in his arms. He walks to the edge of the roof, looking around kind of panicked like somebody might see him and think he’s done something wrong. I have never known him to be anything but gentle with animals.

“I’m going to drop it. Onto the ground,” he says, licking his dry lips, nervous. His gaze flickers to our neighbors’ windows, to the surrounding houses. Even though it hasn’t happened yet, I feel the kaleidoscope turning, the whole summer and then some ready to spill and sour.

“Will, don’t. You’ll kill it.”

He sounds certain. “No, I won’t. Cats can fall long distances. They always land on their feet.”

I lean over the edge and take a good look at the drop. Even I don’t think the fall will be too far—it can’t be more than ten, maybe fifteen feet. I almost give up trying to stop him then—he’s older, after all, and I usually do what he says. But I can’t help myself from trying, just this time.

“Why not get some help?” I ask. “Why not take it downstairs and give it some milk and food? We could call a veterinarian.”

“No,” Will says, “we shouldn’t get involved. We should just drop the thing. Trust me, Katie, it’ll be fine.”

I watch him drop the kitty. He does it carefully, releasing his hands from around the torso, and I expect it to fall softly onto the mulch below.

For a moment, I believe everything is going to be all right. It seems to fall in slow motion, its legs limp beneath it, a wide bed of soft mulch ready to break its fall, and then it will jump to its feet again and be on its way.

We underestimated. Maybe we couldn’t really tell how far it was—we were so large up there. Everything else looked so small and close and meaningless.

The cat hits a big, flat rock in the mulch with a dull thud and goes instantly still, its big empty eyes looking up at us with nothing behind them, and there’s no movement anywhere, not even from us. It feels like the stillness begins from the cat on the ground and moves outward, holding on to us tightly, keeping us from breathing. It feels awful.

Somebody might have loved it. Somebody might be looking for it, and my brother has just killed it.

After what feels like a long stretch of time, Will puts a shaky arm around me. I feel his fingernails on my sunburn, a tingle that goes down my arm and spreads to my whole body, like I’m going to shiver until I throw up.

“Katie.” His voice is scratchy. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“What should we do?”

I don’t know why, but I giggle. “There’s nothing we can do now. Bury it?”

And he’s giggling, too. “Maybe Mom will want to paint it first.”

Flick. Swoosh.
Out of nowhere, the Ghost appears behind the window. He has obviously been looking for us, has appeared with perfect, omnipotent parental timing. For a second I think maybe that’s why I am cold—you can sense him sometimes like that. We turn around, hands behind our backs, shoulder to shoulder while the Ghost opens the window and clumsily climbs out. He wears tinted bifocals with lenses that turn black in the sun. A cigarette is held between his teeth, smoke billowing around his features, sunlight obstructing our view of his face.

Will snorts at him, nudging me. “You look like the devil, Dad.”

The Ghost is not amused. “What are you two doing out here?”

I stare at my feet, biting the inside of my mouth. I can still feel the silent pull of what’s on the ground beneath us, and I can feel tears forming at the corners of my dry eyes.

“We aren’t doing anything, man. We’re just hanging out.” Will takes a defiant drag from his cigarette.

“Kathryn? What’s going on? I thought I told you kids not to come out here anymore.” Our father is more concerned about the neighbors seeing us than he is about our personal safety. Even though everybody in the whole town knows otherwise, my father likes people to believe that our family is doing just fine.

I shake my head. “I just wanted to get some sun.”

“Go to your room.” He’s rough, grabbing my arm and shoving me toward the window, but he’s really interested in Will, you can tell—Will thinks our dad is out to get him. Sometimes I think he’s right.

The Ghost snaps his fingers at Will, who is trying to follow me inside. “Not you, William. Stay there.”

“Aw, man, it’s hot out here.”

“Shut up.”

“Ha.”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing.”

The Ghost starts pacing back and forth on the roof in full business dress, looking around for some evidence that we’ve been up to no good. God, he must be burning up in those clothes, but I don’t remember ever seeing him in anything different, not since we moved to Hillsburg. He looks ridiculous in the light: weathered, faded, in need of a haircut and a good night’s sleep. I can’t see him from the window when he makes it over to the edge where Will dropped the cat, but I can tell he’s seen it by the way Will’s shoulders droop and the sweat that has gathered on his brow seems to heat up and seep down his face.

I hear the Ghost say, “Did you do this?”

Will doesn’t answer him. He’ll let him think what he wants before begging him to believe the truth.

“He didn’t do anythi—”

“Katie, shut up!” Will shouts to me. “Listen to Dad. Go to your room.”

I sit in the hallway instead, just to the left of the window, on the same landing above the stairs where Will and I used to wait in our pj’s on Christmas morning for our parents to make coffee and set up the video camera. Through the open window I can still hear their conversation.

“What the hell are you doing up here? Almost twenty-one years old and you’re on the roof of our home with your little sister doing God knows what. People are going to think you’re—”

“That I’m what? Crazy?”

“Your sister is busy. She should be with friends her own age.”

The truth is, I’m not allowed to do much of anything outside swim team and school activities, because the Ghost is convinced I’ll be corrupted by Bad Influences. For someone with so many degrees hanging on his office walls, he’s dumb as can be about how it feels to be a teenager.

“I haven’t seen her in how many months? I just want to spend some
time
with her . . .” I imagine Will looking anywhere but at the Ghost.

“And this is your idea of fun? Animal torture? I suppose next you’ll be teaching her how to forge prescriptions.”

“God, Dad.” Will’s voice is shaking. He’s trying to be strong, but I know he’s terrified of the Ghost. “You don’t know anything. Whatever you think of me, you can’t believe
Katie
would ever—”

“Do whatever you tell her to do? I don’t know? How am I supposed to know? The two of you shut me out of your lives—Kathryn,
I said go to your room.

I don’t know how he even saw me. He pokes his head through the window, leaving Will on the roof alone. “Now.”

“It was an accident. Dad—Daddy—we thought it would land on its feet.”

For a minute, I almost think he believes me. “Okay. All right, Katie. Now go.”

I have no choice except to listen to him—otherwise, I’ll be grounded for like a month. But something like this, I know, is no good. Will would have been upset enough by the cat alone, without the Ghost getting involved and making assumptions. It seems like our dad wants to think only the worst of him. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if our parents could just understand that none of this is my brother’s fault.

Five o’clock p.m., ninety-two degrees outside: my mother tells me the temperature accusingly, as though I’ve turned up a universal thermostat just to make her uncomfortable. She blows hair out of her eyes while she bends forward on her knees to cover the dead cat in a shallow grave of dirt and mulch underneath a rhododendron bush. I sit cross-legged on the ground, coaxing an earthworm around my ring finger, imagining a wedding in the backyard someday.

I hold up my hand. “What do you think, Mom?”

She laughs, says “Nice, brat,” and musses my hair with a dirty hand. We kind of look at each other for a second, and then she says, “I love you, Katie. You know that, don’t you?” She’s drunk.

Six o’clock p.m., living room, freezing cold in the air-conditioning: my mother leans her head on my father’s shoulder, wrinkling her nose at his cigarette smoke while he thumbs through pages of statistical analysis, the doctoral thesis of one of his interns. I stand across from them in a sweatshirt and my bikini bottoms, a Japanese pear held between my teeth, which are perfectly, naturally straight.

The Ghost looks me up and down for a minute. “Why don’t you put some clothes on? You’re not a baby anymore. You look like you’re in your underwear.” He averts his gaze. “It’s embarrassing.”

“Why aren’t you nicer to him?”

He looks back down, pretends not to have heard.

“Why, Dad? He didn’t do anything wrong. I told you it was an accident, and you’ve got him stuck up in his room like he’s on house arrest, and he didn’t even
do
anything.” And I repeat what I’ve heard Will say countless times: “You want him to be just like you, and you can’t accept that he’ll never be that way. You want him to be—”

“Kathryn, there is a time for foolish loyalty. Now is not the time.” As though there’s any need to remind me again, he adds, “You’re a kid.”

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