Reason to Breathe(The Breathing Series Volume 1)

By: Rebecca Donovan

\1. Nonexistent

Breathe. My eyes swelled as I swallowed against the lump in my throat. Frustrated with my weakness, I swiftly brushed the tears that had forced their way down my cheeks with the back of my hand. I couldn’t think about it anymore - I would explode.


I looked around the room that was mine, but had no true connection to me - a hand-me-down desk with a mismatched chair against the wall across from me with a three tiered bookcase that had seen too many homes in too many years next to it. There were no pictures on the walls. No reminder of who I was before I came here. It was just a space where I could hide – hide from the pain, the glares and the cutting words.

Why was I here? I knew the answer. It wasn’t a choice to be here; it was a necessity. I had nowhere else to go, and they couldn’t turn their backs on me. They were the only family I had, and for that I couldn’t be grateful.

I lay on my bed, attempting to divert my attention to my homework. I winced as I reached for my Trigonometry book. I couldn’t believe it was sore already. Great! It looked like I’d be wearing long sleeves again this week.

The aching pain in my shoulder caused the images of the horrific exchange to flash through my head. I felt the anger rising, making me clench my jaw and grit my teeth. I took a deep breath and allowed the dull wash of nothingness to envelop me. I needed to push it out of my head, so I forced myself to concentrate on my homework.

I was awoken by a soft tap at my door. I propped myself up on my elbows and tried to focus in my dark room. I must have been asleep for about an hour, but didn’t remember dozing off.

“Yeah,” I answered, my voice caught in my throat.

“Emma?” the small cautious voice called out as my door slowly opened.

“You can come in Jack.” I tried to sound welcoming despite my crushed disposition.

His hand gripped the doorknob, as his head - not much taller than the knob - peaked in.

Jack’s enlarged brown eyes scanned the room until they connected with mine - I could tell he was nervous about what he might find - and smiled at me in relief. He knew way too much for his six years.

“Dinner’s ready,” he said, looking down. I realized it wasn’t the message he wanted to be responsible to give me.

“Okay, I’ll be right there.” I tried to smile back to assure him it was okay. He walked toward the voices in the other room. The clatter of platters and bowls being set on the table along with Leyla’s excited voice awaited me down the hall. If anyone were to observe this routine, they would think this was the picture perfect American family sitting down to enjoy dinner together.

The picture changed when I crept out of my room. The air became thick with discord with the crushing reminder that I existed, a blemish to their portrait. I took another deep breath and tried to convince myself I could get through this. It’s just another night, right? But that was the problem.

I walked slowly down the hall and into the light of the dining room. My stomach turned as I crossed the threshold. I kept my gaze down at my hands that I twisted in anticipation. To my relief, I wasn’t noticed when I entered the room.

“Emma!” Leyla exclaimed, running to me. I bent down, allowing her to jump into my arms. She gave me a tight embrace around my neck. I released a breathy grunt when the pain shot up my arm.

“Did you see my picture?” she asked, so proud and excited of her swirls of pink and yellow. I felt the glare on my back, knowing that if it were a knife, I’d be incapacitated instantly.

“Mom, did you see my drawing of Tyrannosaurs Rex?” I heard Jack ask, attempting to distract the attention away from my disruption.

“That’s wonderful, honey,” she praised, redirecting her attention to her son.

“It’s beautiful,” I said softly to Leyla, looking into her dancing brown eyes. “Why don’t you go ahead and sit for dinner, okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed, having no idea that her affectionate gesture had caused tension at the dinner table. How could she? She was four, and to her I was the older cousin she idolized, while she was my sun in this dark house. I could never blame her for the added grief her fondness for me caused. The conversation picked up and I thankfully became invisible once again.

After waiting until everyone was served, I helped myself to the chicken, peas and potatoes. I could sense that my every move was being scrutinized, so I kept my focus on my plate while I ate. I knew that what I’d taken wasn’t enough to satisfy my hunger, but I didn’t dare take more.

I didn’t listen to the words coming from her mouth as she went on and on about her trying day at work. Her voice raked through me, making my stomach turn. George responded with a comforting remark, attempting to re-assure her as he always did. The only acknowledgement I received was when I asked to be excused. George looked across the table with his ambivalent eyes and dryly granted my request.

I gathered my plate, along with Jack and Leyla’s, since they’d already left to watch TV in the living room. I began my nightly routine of scraping plates and placing them in the dishwasher, along with scrubbing the pots and pans George used to prepare the dinner.

I waited for the voices to move into the living room before I returned to the table to finish clearing. After washing the dishes, taking out the trash and sweeping the floor, I headed back to my room. I passed by the living room with the sounds of the TV and the kids laugher in the background. I slipped by unnoticed, as usual.

I lay on my bed, plugging in the ear buds to my iPod, and turned up the volume so my mind was too preoccupied with the music to think. Tomorrow I would have a game after school that would keep me late, missing our wonderful family dinner. I breathed deep and closed my eyes. Tomorrow was another day – one day closer to leaving this all behind.

I rolled on my side, forgetting about my shoulder for a moment, until painfully reminded of what I was leaving behind. I shut off my light and let the music drone me to sleep.

~~~~~

I grabbed a granola bar on my way through the kitchen with my duffle bag in hand and backpack slung on my shoulder. Leyla’s eyes widened with delight when she saw me. I went over and kissed the top of her head, making a conscious effort to ignore the penetrating glare I was receiving from across the room. Jack was sitting next to Leyla at the island eating cereal - he slipped me a piece of paper without looking up.

“Good Luck!” was written in purple crayon with an adorable attempt at a soccer ball drawn in black. He glanced at me quickly to catch my expression, and I flashed a half smile, so she wouldn’t pick up on our interaction. “Bye guys,” I said, turning toward the door.

Before I could reach it, her cold hand gripped my wrist. “Leave it.”

I turned towards her. Her back was shielding the kids from witnessing her venomous glare. “You didn’t ask for it on your list. So I didn’t buy it for you. Leave it.” She held out her hand.

I set the granola bar in her palm and was instantly freed from her crushing grasp. “Sorry,” I murmured and rushed out of the house before there was more to be sorry for.

“So… what happened when you got home?” Sara demanded in anticipation, lowering the volume of the fast beat punk song when I entered her red convertible coupe.

“Huh?” I responded, still rubbing my wrist.

“Last night, when you go home,” Sara prompted impatiently.

“Not much really - just the usual yelling.” I replied, downplaying the drama that awaited me when I got home from practice yesterday. I decided not to divulge more as I casually rubbed my bruised arm. As much as I loved Sara and knew she would do anything for me, there were some things I thought best to save her from.

“So, just yelling, huh?” I knew she wasn’t completely buying it. I wasn’t the best liar, but I was convincing enough.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, clasping my hands together, still shaking from her touch. I kept my eyes focused to the side, watching the trees fly by, broken up by the oversized homes with their landscaped lawns, feeling the crisp late September air whip against my flushed face.

“Lucky for you, I guess.” I could feel her looking at me, waiting for me to confess.

Sara turned up the music, recognizing I wasn’t going to give her more, and started yelling while thrusting her head to a British punk band.

We pulled into the school parking lot, receiving the usual turning of heads from the students and the shaking of the heads from the faculty. Sara was oblivious, or at least acted like she could care less. I ignored it, because I really could care less.

I slung my backpack over my left shoulder and walked across the parking lot with Sara. Her face beamed with an infectious smile as people waved to her from across the parking lot. I was barely noticed, but I wasn’t bothered by the lack of recognition. It was easy to be overshadowed by Sara’s charismatic presence with her mane of gorgeous fiery hair that flowed in layers to the middle of her back.

Sara was every high school boy’s fantasy, and I’m sure some of the male teachers’ as well. She was startlingly attractive and had the body of a swimsuit model, filled out in just the right places. But what I loved about Sara was that she was real. She may have been the most desired girl in school, but it didn’t go to her head.

“Good morning, Sara” could be heard from just about everyone we passed as she walked with a bounce of energy through the junior halls. She’d return these welcomes with a smile and a similar greeting.

There were some greetings thrown my way as well, to which I would respond with a quick glance and a nod of my head. I knew the only reason they even acknowledged me was because of Sara. I actually wished I wasn’t noticed at all as I slunk through the halls in Sara’s shadow.

“I think Jason’s finally coming around to realizing I exist,” Sara declared while we gathered what we needed for our first class from our adjacent lockers. By some miracle, we were in the same homeroom together, making us practically inseparable. Well, that was until our first class when I headed to Advanced Placement English and she was off to Algebra II.

“Everyone knows you exist, Sara,” I responded with a wry smile. Some too well, I thought, holding my smile.

“Well, it’s different with him. He barely looks at me, even when I sit right next to him. It’s so frustrating.” She collapsed back against her locker. “You realize guys notice you too,” she added picking up on my emphasis, “but you can’t look up from your books long enough to notice them.”

My face turned red and I looked at her with a questioning scowl. “What are you talking about? They only notice me because I’m with you.”

Sara laughed, her perfect white teeth gleaming. “You have no idea,” she scoffed, still smiling in amusement.

“Enough. It doesn’t matter anyway,” I replied dismissively, my face still hot. “What are you going to do about Jason?”

Sara sighed, holding her books to her chest while running her blue eyes along the ceiling as she looked distant, lost in thought.

“I’m not sure yet,” she said from that far off place that kept the corners of her mouth curled up. It was evident she was picturing him and his swept back blond hair, intense blue eyes, and drop-dead smile. Jason was the captain and quarterback of the football team. Could it get any more cliché?

“What do you mean? You always have a plan.”

“This one’s different. He doesn’t even look at me. I have to be more careful.”

“I thought you said he finally noticed you?” I asked, confused.

Sara turned her head to look at me, her eyes still sparkling from that place she was slowly returning from, but the smile was lost.

“I don’t get it really. I made sure to sit next to him in business class yesterday, and he said ‘hi’, but that was it. So he knows I exist. Period.” I could hear the exasperation in her voice.

“I’m sure you’ll think of something. Or maybe he’s gay.” I smirked.

“Emma!” Sara exclaimed with wide eyes, punching my right arm. I forced a smile while gritting my teeth, hoping she hadn’t noticed my shoulders tense with the impact of her harmless blow. “Don’t say that. That would be devastating - for me at least.”

“Not for Kevin Bartlett.” I laughed, causing her to scowl.

To see Sara so distracted by this guy was amusing and disarming at the same time. She had a way with people - the results almost always ended in her favor, especially with guys. It didn’t matter who she was trying to persuade, she would put an endearing spin on what she wanted so that the person was actually eager to accommodate her.

Sara was obviously flustered by Jason Stark. It was a side of her I almost never saw. I knew this was new territory for her, and I was interested to see what she was going to do next.

The only other people who have given her a greater challenge have been my aunt and uncle. I kept assuring her that it had nothing to do with her, but it only made her more determined to win them over. In doing so, she hoped to make my personal hell a little more livable. Who was I to stand in her way? Even though I knew it was a lost cause.

We parted after homeroom. I entered A.P. English and sat in the back of the room as usual. Ms. Abbott greeted us and began the class by handing back our most recent papers.

She approached my desk and greeted me with a warm smile. “Very insightful, Emma,” she praised as she handed me my paper.

My eyes met hers with a quick, yet awkward, smile. “Thank you.”

The paper was marked in red pen with an “A” at the top. There were additional positive comments written in the margins throughout the paper. It was what I anticipated and what my peers expected of me. Most of the other students were leaning over to see what the person sitting next to them received in comparison to their own marks. No one looked at my paper. I tucked it into the back of my binder.

I wasn’t embarrassed by my grades or what other students thought of my high marks. I knew I earned them. And I also knew that they were going to save me someday. What no one understood, besides Sara, was that all I really cared about were the days I counted down until I moved out of my aunt and uncle’s house to go to college. So if I had to put up with the whispers behind my back as I received the highest marks in the class, then so be it. They weren’t going to be there to save me if I did anything but succeed, so I didn’t need to get involved in the gossip and typical teenage tripe.

Sara was the closest I was going to get to any semblance of the high school experience, and she definitely kept it entertaining. She was admired by most, envied by many, and could discretely seduce a guy with a grin. What mattered most to me was that I trusted her with my life - which was saying a lot, considering the unpredictability that awaited me at home each night.“How’s it going?” Sara asked when we met at our lockers before lunch.

“Nothing new and exciting here. Any progress in Business class with Jason?” This was Sara’s class right before lunch, so it usually gave her enough to talk about until we reached Journalism after.

“I wish!” she exclaimed in annoyance. “Nothing – it’s so frustrating! I’m not being overly aggressive, but I am definitely putting the obvious signals out there that I’m interested.”

“You don’t have what it takes to make him interested,” I teased with a grin.

“Shut up, Em!” Sara looked at me with stern eyes. “I think I’m going to have to be more direct. The worst he can say is -”

“I’m gay,” I interrupted and laughed.

“Laugh all you want, but I am going to get Jason Stark to go out with me.”

“I know you will,” I assured her, still smiling.

I purchased lunch with my weekly stipend from the money I earned during the summer – money that was strictly regulated without allowing me direct access. Just another irrational rule I had to live with for the next six hundred and seventy-three days.

We decided to have lunch outside at the picnic tables to take advantage of the Indian summer day. Fall in New England was very unpredictable. It could be frosty and cold one day, and the next would be warm enough to pull out the tank tops. But once winter hit, it stuck around for longer than it was welcome.

As most of the other students were shedding clothes to take advantage of the warmth, I could only push up the sleeves of my shirt. In contrast, my wardrobe revolved around the colors of the healing bruises on my arms, and had nothing to do with the temperature.

“What did you do to your hair today? It looks good. It looks straighter. Very chic.”

I looked at Sara sideways as we headed outside, knowing the only reason my hair was in the ponytail was because I ran out of my allowed five minutes in the shower this morning, and didn’t get to rinse the conditioner out of my hair before the water was turned off. “What are you talking about?” I asked incredulously.

“Forget it. You can never take a compliment.” Changing the subject, she asked, “So will you be able to go to the football game tomorrow night?”

I just looked over at her with my eyebrows raised, taking a bite out of an apple.

Realizing I wasn’t going to answer the obvious, Sara picked up her soda, stopping with the can raised to her lips.

“Why is he torturing me?!” Sara whispered, slowly lowering the can with her eyes fixated on something behind me.

I turned to see what had captured her attention. Jason Stark and another well-built senior had their shirts off, tucked into the backs of their pants, and were throwing a football back and forth. The attention he captured was painstakingly obvious. I watched him for a minute as Sara moaned behind me. Oddly, he seemed oblivious to all of the girls drooling over him – interesting.

“Sara, maybe he doesn’t realize he’s as wanted as he is,” I observed objectively. “Have you ever thought of that?”

“How could he not know?” she questioned in disbelief.

“He’s a guy,” I said with a resigned sigh. “Have you ever seen him out with anyone other than the two years he was dating Holly Martin? Just because we think he’s a god, it doesn’t mean he puts himself on the same pedestal.”

We looked over at the tall figure with the defined muscles and playful smile. Even I couldn’t help but get lost in the details of his tanned body. Just because I was focused on school, it didn’t mean I was dead. I still noticed - well, sometimes.

“Maybe,” she considered with a devious smirk.

“You guys would make an amazingly beautiful couple,” I sighed.

“Em, you have to go to the game with me tomorrow!” she pleaded with an edge of desperation.

I shrugged. It wasn’t like it was my choice. I had no control over my social life; hence, I had no social life. I was holding out for college. It’s not like I wasn’t participating in the high school experience. I just had my own version - three varsity sports, editor of the school paper, along with participating in the yearbook, art and French clubs. It was enough to keep me after school every day, and sometimes into the evenings when I had games or deadlines with the paper. I needed to create the ideal transcript for a scholarship admission. It was the only thing I felt like I had control over, and it was honestly more of a survival plan than an escape plan.

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