Read Breathless Online

Authors: Jessica Warman

Tags: #ebook, #book

Breathless (4 page)

” After everything we’ve been through with Will, I sure don’t feel like a kid.

“I know. That’s how you’re acting.” He goes back to his reading.

I take a bite of my pear, give it a few good chews, and gather the pulp in my cheek. After Will and the Ghost came in from the roof, my brother spent the rest of the afternoon in his room, headphones on his ears. The only sounds from his room were the tapping of his fingers on his keyboard—probably firing e-mails to his latest group of friends from the latest hospital—and his breath, which I listened to from outside his closed door until I got hungry. I’m amazed my parents let him have a computer in his room at all.

“Believe me,” I say to the Ghost, “the second I turn eighteen, I’m packing everything I own and getting out of here. There’s no way you’ll keep me
until I’m twenty years old.”

The Ghost seems to suppress a smirk. “Imprisoned? Kathryn, you can’t even begin to—” And he stops. “Never mind.”

“What? I can’t even begin to what? To understand?”

He murmurs to my mother, “This is a sick family.” His head is down now, palm over my mother’s hand. “Sick,” he repeats.

I stand there for another few moments, waiting for him to say something else to me. When he doesn’t, I gather my hair in a pile on top of my head and rise toward him on one strong leg, pointing my toe outward, and spit my mouthful of pear onto the pages spread on his lap.

He looks up, stunned, confused by what has just occurred. I am immediately sorry but not really—not sorry enough to stop. His eyes are mine. I am his. I am satisfied, knowing he will feel my anger in his blood.

“I hate you,” I say, keeping his gaze. “You hear me?” I look at my mother, who stares at me, trembling. “You too. I hate both of you.”

The Ghost uses his handkerchief to wipe away the pear and turns the page in the thesis he’s reading.

My mother looks around, notices the pulp in the handkerchief, startled. She does that a lot when she’s drunk—just kind of spaces out for a while. “I just put away laundry in Will’s room. He wasn’t there. His door was open, and I was in his room for a few minutes, putting things in drawers. . . .” A flutter of panic, frantic as a pair of damaged wings, takes hold of her voice. “Katie? Where’s Willie?”

The doorbell rings.

Beth George, our neighbor a few houses down, stands alone on our front porch. She’s in her midforties and has something like six kids already and is visibly pregnant again. Every member of the George family has bright red hair. Beth’s husband has been in and out of jail for DUI so many times that even our teachers at school make open jokes about it, and none of the George kids seem to care.

Beth looks at each of us. When she speaks, her tone is nervous but not panicked. “I think you ought to know,” she says, “your son’s been knockin’ on people’s doors, tellin’ them to come watch him. He’s on the swing set in my backyard. He’s got a knife, and he says he’s gonna kill himself.”

My parents and I start to run. When we get to Beth’s house, we have to climb over a pile of broken cinderblocks at the edge of her yard. Other neighbors are already there. I can hear them trying to talk to him, saying things like, “Come on, Will, your parents are coming any minute, everything’s going to be okay.”

Someone—it sounds like one of the older George girls—yelps. “Mom!” she screams. “He won’t stop, he’s doing it . . . MOM!”

In my rush to reach my brother, I slip on the edge of a cinderblock and fall forward. My hands and knees break my fall, but I can feel pain tearing through my shin as it makes contact with the edge of the block. Nobody moves to help me; they’re all crowded around my brother. Some people have turned to look away. I see Henry Reuben, one of the local fire-fighters, pushing through everyone to reach my brother.

I hear my mom screaming before I see Will. She screams, “Ambulance! Someone call an ambulance, now!”

“They’re coming,” Donny George—Beth’s husband—tells my mother. “Don’t worry. We already called. They’re on their way.” He looks at me for a moment as I try to make my way past him, and says, “You know you’re bleedin’, don’t you, Katie?”

But I don’t anymore. My mother is on top of my brother like a blanket, my father is kneeling at his side. On the ground beside them is the serrated knife that my mom uses to carve turkeys and ham on the holidays, blood all over the blade and the white handle. Even before I reach him, I can tell that the wounds are very deep, that Will was not messing around. He usually isn’t.

He seems unconscious. There is blood everywhere, coming from his arm, following the beating of his heart, and my mother holds his arm in the air while my father takes off his necktie and knots it so tightly around Will’s bicep that my brother opens his eyes and screams. But when that only slows the blood, my father takes off his shirt and then my mother takes off her shirt, and the two of them are there beside him, my mom wearing only a worn-out white bra, my neighbors standing there murmuring to themselves, but none of them—not one—moving to help. I am amazed the Georges thought to call an ambulance at all.

When the ambulance comes, they get him inside and I try to follow and come along with my parents, and for a minute I think I’ll get away with it, but then the Ghost sees me trying to climb into the back and says, “Kathryn,

Will is conscious, barely, upright on the gurney, his arm held in the air by one of the EMTs.

It’s like a nightmare—the kind where you want to scream, but you can’t make any noise. “Will,” I try to shout, and my voice comes out barely above a hoarse whisper. He doesn’t hear me.

I try it again. “Will.” Nothing. Again, I scream,
and his eyelids flutter, his gaze takes its time focusing on me, and before I say anything, he says, to me and my parents, “I had to do it. You wanted me to. Everyone wanted me to.”

My mom chokes on a sob. One of the EMTs hands her a gown to put over her bra, just as his partner is cutting off my brother’s shirt. The doors are pulled shut, the lights go on, loud and red and spinning down the otherwise empty street, and I stand there with the rest of the crowd watching my family drive away, me and the whole town left to gaze at my brother’s blood all over the George family swing set.

When I was a little girl, until I was eight or nine, I used to crawl into bed with my parents when I got scared at night. After it gets dark tonight, when I still haven’t heard from my parents, I lie on Will’s unmade bed and stare up at his ceiling. The paint is old, cracking in places, and the ceiling is still covered in stick-on, glow-in-the-dark stars that our mom put up in both of our bedrooms when we were kids. It was a careful task for her, with great attention given to detail. There is nothing random in the stars’ arrangements. I stare at the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, at the Hunting Dogs and the Great Bear and the Dragon. In the corner closest to the window, my mom created a detailed profile of my brother’s young face. Even though he’s so much older now, it is still unmistakably Will.

My parents get home a little after eleven. The Ghost stands in my brother’s doorway, watching as my mom comes toward me to give me a hug. As soon as her arms are around me, she begins to sob.

“Is he okay?” I try to ask, but it’s such a dumb question that I start shaking and crying instead.

My mom takes a deep, shaky breath. The Ghost is still in the doorway, a lit cigarette between his fingers, watching us like we’re strangers.

“He’s okay, sweetie,” my mom says. “He’ll be okay.”

“We should all go to sleep,” the Ghost says. “We can talk about things in the morning.”

But I know they won’t talk to me about anything. I know from experience that Will is likely at Forbes Regional Hospital right now, probably sedated and asleep, because that’s what they used to do when this started. It is hard to believe he has been this sick for only a few years; it feels like this has been going on forever. When it started, they used to explain things to me more carefully. I’ve had it explained by guidance counselors, family therapists, and neighbors who don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. It got to the point where the same kind of things kept happening, over and over again, and there wasn’t any point in explaining anymore.

• • •

Once I’m sure my parents are asleep, I creep out of my own bed and go downstairs to find a cigarette. I go back to Will’s room, ease the window open, and slip outside, onto the roof.

The night is still too warm, the air sticky and unpleasant, so thick that each exhale of smoke seems to hover like a cloud for a few seconds, right in front of my face, before I blow it aside with the next breath.

When I’m finished, I turn to go back inside, and there he is: the Ghost is leaning with his head out the window, staring at me.

I expect him to do
—to start yelling, or to slam the window in disgust, or to order me inside—but he just looks at me. It’s the same look of concentration I’ve seen him get when he’s on the golf course, trying to figure out the right angle for a putt. It’s the same look I bet I get when I’m on a starting block, gazing at the water beneath me, waiting for the whistle.

For the next few days, everything is quiet. The Ghost goes to work as usual. My mom spends long hours painting in her studio, and I stay outside by the pool, all by myself, swimming so much each day that my muscles ache into the night and keep me awake, staring at the plastic stars, bright and motionless above my bed. Things are too calm. Even my mother and the Ghost don’t seem to be talking much. I can tell something’s coming. The longer the quiet stretches, the more worried I get.

And then it happens. Three weeks before I’m supposed to start my sophomore year of high school, I wake up on a Saturday morning to find my parents sitting on either side of me in bed. They’re both already dressed in nice clothes. My mom is sipping coffee from a plastic mug the size of her head. She’s wearing a pantsuit and a full face of makeup and a delicate string of pearls around her neck, none of which I have
seen her wear before. A glance at the Ghost’s watch tells me it’s not even seven in the morning.

“Katie,” my mom pronounces, brushing my hair from my forehead.

“Go away,” I murmur. I close my eyes again, trying to pretend they’re not there.

“Kathryn,” the Ghost says. “Get up.” When I don’t move, he claps his hands. “Get up!”

I sit up, throw the covers off of me, and glare at both of them. “What. Is. It?”

“We’re going on a little trip,” my mother says.

It doesn’t even occur to me that I might be going to see Will; they haven’t let me visit him in a hospital in over a year.

“We’ve found a place where we think you might do a little better.” Before I can ask her what kind of place it is, she hurries to explain. “It’s not to punish you or anything like that, sweetie, it’s to help you because we want to see you reach your full potential. You and your brother are so gifted, and we want you to have every opportunity to maximize those gifts—”

“It’s okay,” the Ghost interrupts. I’m still half-asleep. He hands me a thick booklet. “She can read.”

The front of the booklet says, “Woodsdale Academy: Preparing Students for Excellence since 1814.” Beneath the heading, in smaller letters, it reads, “A Coeducational College Preparatory School for Boarding Students in Grades 9–12.” And beneath that, right there on the cover, is a picture of three girls and two boys, each of them wearing swimsuits and caps, beaming at me with perfect white teeth. They’re seated on the edge of a glistening, Olympic-sized indoor pool. Their arms are around each other, matching maroon towels slung over their shoulders, and they all look so happy to see me. Behind them there’s a banner:


I flip through the booklet, looking at all the pictures. There are students strolling arm-in-arm through a lush autumn landscape, each of them wearing neat uniforms and carrying full backpacks. A more candid shot shows two girls in what appears to be a dorm room. They’re both wearing Woodsdale Academy T-shirts, their hair set in pink curlers, heads tilted together as they grin at the camera like they’ve never had more fun in their lives. In another shot, a teacher leans helpfully over a student’s shoulder as he peers into a microscope.

“Where is it?” I ask.

“Close,” my mother says. “Really close. We can visit you all the time.”

“Four hours away,” the Ghost clarifies. “It’s in West Virginia.”

I close the brochure and stare at the cover again, at the glistening swimmers who have never met me and won’t know a thing about me except that I can swim faster than any of them.

“The last set of admissions tests for the year is this afternoon,” the Ghost says. “You need to get dressed.”

I glance at both of them, back and forth. My mother’s eyes are dewy. Her eyelids flutter nervously as she takes long, loud sips of coffee.

Finally, I look at the Ghost. I feel like, if I stare at him long enough, maybe he’ll break down and show some warmth, hug me or cry or
but the longer I stare at him, the steadier his gaze seems to get.

“Do I have a choice?” I ask.

He doesn’t even blink. “No.”

I want to fight with him for the sake of fighting. Because, I mean, who wants to get sent to
boarding school
? And then I think about the last few weeks, about what school will be like when I go back and everybody wants to know about Will and I won’t have anything to tell them, and depending on what they’ve heard I might have to fake a headache and spend the afternoon on a cot in the nurse’s office, waiting for the day to be over. And then I’ll come home to what? My mom. The pool in our yard. In a month or so, it will be too cold and they’ll have to cover it for the fall and winter, and all I’ll have is Rec swimming four days a week, two hours a day.

Who wants to get sent away to boarding school? I do.

I shrug. “Okay. I’ll get dressed.”

part two

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