Out of breath, p.12
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       Out of Breath, p.12

         Part #3 of Breathing series by Rebecca Donovan
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Page 12


  ‘Yeah,’ Tom answered hesitantly. ‘The place is right down the street from here. The house isn’t very big, but it’s right on the beach. It’s pretty sweet. ’

  ‘Great,’ I forced, still watching Peyton, who refused to look at me.

  Then I heard, ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. ’ I looked past Tom, and there stood Cole, staring at me in disbelief. Shit.

  I couldn’t speak. My eyes shifted from Cole to Peyton, who still refused to look at me. I downed the last gulp in my cup and announced, ‘I think I need another drink,’ quickly slipping into the house. After navigating my way through gyrating hips and flinging hair, I arrived at a bar on the far side of the cleared-out living room.

  The bartender at this bar wore a blue tropical shirt. His brown hair was full of dreads and pulled back into a low ponytail. He scanned me casually, and his mouth tightened into a subtle smile. I was beginning to wonder if I had something stuck to my face. ‘Can I get you a drink?’ he offered. I requested the same concoction that Brent had prepared; then he asked the question of the night: ‘Who do you know here?’

  ‘Brent,’ I answered automatically.

  ‘Really?’ He handed me the drink.

  ‘Yeah, we’re friends,’ I continued, the side of my mouth quirking up slightly.

  ‘You do look familiar,’ he noted with a deliberating nod. I thought he was playing along, but he really looked like he knew me, which threw me off.

  ‘What’s your name?’

  ‘Ren,’ he told me, continuing to examine me, probably mentally rolling through the list of Brent’s friends, searching for my face.

  ‘You do know me, don’t you?’ I teased, hoping to confuse him more.

  ‘I do actually,’ he said sincerely. Before he could continue, an overly excited group of girls approached the bar, demanding shots. I slipped out of the way, through the crowd and onto the deck.

  I considered avoiding Cole all night, but knew the universe was just too cruel and we were going to keep bumping into each other if I tried to stay away. So I thought if I approached him, he’d leave and I could resume faking my good time. I stood next to him as he leaned against the railing, looking out at the ocean in the distance. He refused to acknowledge me, but he didn’t leave either.

  ‘I haven’t gone skinny-dipping yet,’ I announced, leaning my forearms against the rail next to him.

  ‘You’d better get to it,’ he snapped, still not looking at me. ‘The year’s slipping away. ’ He gripped the cup tightly in his hand, as if he was about to crush it. I considered walking away. And I probably should have. But I didn’t.

  ‘It’s not even April,’ I contradicted. He shrugged. We stood in silence for a moment. I sipped my drink and waited. And then …

  ‘What the hell, Emma! Why are you even talking to me? You obviously don’t give a shit. So why don’t you go torture someone else and make them feel like a jackass. ’

  His angry rush of words startled me, and I swallowed each one whole, letting them sink like rocks in my stomach. I deserved every one of them. So I accepted his ire without blinking.

  ‘Do you want a drink?’ I offered. ‘The bartender by the pool is a friend of mine. He makes a mean vodka soda. ’

  Cole stared at me in disbelief. ‘I don’t understand you. ’ He shook his head, still staring. After a moment of silence he caved. ‘Yeah. I’ll get a drink. God knows I’m going to need one with you around. ’

  ‘I’ll take that as a twisted compliment. ’ I smirked and led the way down the stairs.

  The bar by the pool had a new guy attending it. He had dirty blond hair that was neatly trimmed, combed forward and stylishly pushed up in the front. He was sporting a red Hawaiian shirt, evidently this was the dress code for the guys staying at the house.

  When I approached, his eyes narrowed in recognition. I was beginning to get a little freaked out.

  ‘Hi,’ he said cautiously. ‘You’re Emma, right?’

  ‘Yeah,’ I replied, assuming that Brent had said something to him when he took over the bar. ‘And you are?’

  ‘Nate. ’ He raised his eyebrows in expectation. He was waiting for me to react, but I had no idea what I was supposed to be reacting to. I held up my hands, at a complete loss.

  ‘Wait. Are you guys messing with me?’ I accused, concluding I must be the victim of an inside joke. ‘Did Brent tell you and Ren to give me a hard time or something?’

  ‘No,’ Nate said, appearing confused. ‘You don’t know who I am? But you’re Emma Thomas, right?’ The fact that he knew my last name alarmed me.

  ‘Yeah, I am. Why? Should I know you?’ I asked, studying his face more closely. I glanced over at Cole, who was observing the exchange curiously. Nate didn’t seem to care that there was a line of thirsty people piling up behind me.

  ‘No way!’ A guy with shaggy blond hair approached. Nate gave him a warning glare, but he didn’t pay any attention. He was too focused on me. Now I was beyond freaked out. I didn’t like this game any more. ‘Emma! You really are here!’

  I remained still, glancing from this guy to Nate and back again.

  ‘Come on, TJ,’ Nate implored. ‘Don’t do it, man. Leave it alone. ’

  ‘What’s going on?’ I demanded quietly. I could sense Cole behind me, but he didn’t say a word.

  ‘You’re Emma Thomas? Evan’s Emma?’ TJ laughed in disbelief.

  I couldn’t speak. I flipped my eyes towards Nate, who grimaced in apology.

  ‘He was just here over his break,’ TJ chuckled, not understanding what was happening in front of him. ‘Seriously, he left last weekend. That is so crazy. ’

  These were his friends. His California friends he went to school with when he lived in San Francisco. The friends he went on trips with during breaks.

  I ran my eyes over Nate’s face, allowing it to all click into place. And this was Nate. His best friend. And this was the place where he’d planned to take me when he wanted to leave together our junior year. My knees felt like they were going to buckle. I grabbed the edge of the bar for support.

  ‘Can I have a shot?’ I choked. TJ started helping the other patrons, who were becoming irritated. I was in the way of their good time.

  ‘Sure,’ Nate replied, watching me carefully, like I might combust in front of his eyes. ‘What do you want?’

  ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I answered, having difficulty breathing. I tried to hold it together so Nate wouldn’t see what was erupting on the inside. ‘And can you fill this up again – vodka and soda?’

  ‘Okay,’ he agreed, nodding slowly. He searched the bottles in front of him. ‘Uh, looks like I’m out of soda. ’

  ‘Just vodka works,’ I muttered, trying to swallow. He handed me a plastic shot glass filled with a clear liquor and placed a lime on a napkin. The smell of it made my mouth salivate. ‘What’s this?’

  ‘Tequila,’ he answered slowly, like he was surprised I didn’t know.

  I swallowed the liquor and bit into the lime, with a shudder.

  ‘Thanks. ’ I took the cup and walked away, my knees quaking beneath me. I knew Cole and Nate were watching me. I started hyperventilating now that my back was to them. But no matter how quickly I drew in air, I was suffocating. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to gain control over the burning pain, and I couldn’t lose it here. I needed to calm the fuck down. Fast.

  I pushed my way up the stairs and into the house, bumping into people dancing, annoying everyone in my path until I arrived at the second bar.

  ‘Hi, Brent,’ I greeted.

  He produced a dazzling smile. ‘Emma, my friend! How are you doing?’

  ‘Great,’ I answered. ‘Can I have a shot? Actually, would you like to do one with me?’

  ‘Sure,’ he accepted emphatically. ‘What did you have in mind?’

  ‘Your call. ’ I tried to maintain a smile. Wanting to keep up my casual appearance, I took a sip of my drink, but was unable to
hide the tremor that sloshed the vodka around as I raised the cup to my mouth.

  Brent selected tequila as Nate had done, and poured us each a shot.

  He raised the plastic shot glass and toasted, ‘To friendship. ’ I swallowed it down without hesitation, sinking my teeth into the lime immediately afterwards to contain the cringing.

  ‘How about one more?’

  He raised his eyebrows at my request, then shrugged. ‘Sure. Why not?’

  This time, I raised my cup and toasted, ‘To yesterday. ’ His eyes flickered in confusion, but he didn’t ask. I wouldn’t have explained if he had. I tried to suppress the shudder as the tequila passed down my throat.

  ‘Thanks, Brent. I’ll talk to you later. ’

  ‘Wait,’ he called after me. But I kept walking like I didn’t hear him.

  Cole was standing on the deck with a drink in each hand. He offered one of the cups to me without saying anything. We stood on the deck, watching the people below for a few songs.

  ‘Are you going to be all right?’ he finally asked.

  I shook my head. He continued to stand by me in silence, glancing at me every so often without a word. I concentrated on breathing, dumping the contents of the cup he’d given to me into the one I already had. I took slow sips and waited.

  And then my head began to swirl, and the numbness settled in over the winding fire. I closed my eyes, inviting the induced calm.

  ‘Emma!’ Peyton called to me, making me spin around, which was not such a good idea. I steadied myself with a hand on the railing.

  She eyed Cole next to me and grinned widely, probably figuring we were talking again. Which technically wasn’t true.

  ‘Peyton!’ I hollered in return and grappled her into a hug.

  ‘Are you drunk?’ Peyton accused in shock.

  ‘I hope so,’ I responded, breathing deep through my nose, savouring the hum of nothingness.

  ‘Did you do this?’ Peyton asked Cole.

  ‘Nope. ’ He shook his head, holding up his hands in defence.

  ‘Well, don’t do anything stupid,’ Peyton advised. ‘We’re getting another drink. Come find me. ’ And just like that, she disappeared.

  ‘Where are you going?’ Cole called after her, but she was already lost in the crowd.

  ‘You don’t need to babysit me. ’ I looked up at him. ‘I think I need another drink anyway. ’ I looked down at my cup, which was still half full.

  ‘Really,’ Cole challenged.

  ‘Yup. ’ I put the cup to my lips and drained the rest. ‘See?’ I tipped it towards him. Cole took a step to follow me as I started towards the inside bar. I turned to tell him not to come with me, but my ankle faltered slightly. I still wasn’t used to heels, even if they were wedges. ‘Stupid shoes. ’

  I bent down to try to unstrap them, but stumbled.

  ‘Need help?’ he offered.

  Before I could answer, he squatted in front of me and unbuckled the sandals. I stepped out of them, relieved to have my feet flat on the ground. He stood up with the sandals swinging from his fingers. He looked so tall, all of a sudden.

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