Out of breath, p.2
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       Out of Breath, p.2

         Part #3 of Breathing series by Rebecca Donovan
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Page 2

 

  A rush of painful emotion coursed through me, forcing me to feel more than I had in the past year and a half. I couldn’t utter a sound. It was as if I were being flayed, every nerve exposed.

  Before Meg could slide the cover back over my past, Peyton removed a jewellery box.

  You can’t have it. Please, I’ll pay you. But you can’t take that from me.

  Desperation echoed through me, and the memory of cold hard eyes triggered a flash of panic, releasing me from my silent torture.

  I sprang from the seat and grabbed the blue box from Peyton’s hand. My sudden movement forced her to take a step back. I threw it in the box and slammed the cover back on. My heart was beating so fast my hands were shaking. I gripped the edge of the cover, waiting for the pain to subside. But it was too late. The simple act of opening that box had unleashed the wrath of guilt and despair I’d hidden within my darkest depths, and now it wasn’t going to be confined by a lid.

  ‘Sorry, Em,’ Peyton whispered. I didn’t turn around. I slid the box under my bed and took a deep breath. My heart singed around the edges like a burning piece of paper, the flames slowly creeping towards the centre. I closed my eyes and tried to extinguish it, but couldn’t.

  ‘I’m going for a run,’ I murmured, barely audible.

  ‘Okay,’ Meg responded cautiously. Afraid of what she might see in my eyes, I didn’t dare look at her as she ushered Peyton out of the room. ‘I’ll see you when you get back. ’

  I threw on running gear and was out the front door within minutes. With my iPod blaring music in my ears, I began to run. Picking up the pace until my thighs burned, I cut down side streets until I reached the park. I stumbled to a stop, unable to fight back the onslaught of emotion. I clenched my trembling hands into tight fists and released a guttural cry, until I feared I’d collapse.

  Without looking around to see whose attention I’d drawn, I took off into a sprint again.

  By the time I returned home, my face was dripping with a mixture of tears and sweat. The exhaustion from the run had helped ease most of the fire, but I couldn’t extinguish it all, as much as I tried. My insides still burned. I considered what I could do to push the torment back into the dark and return to my numb state. I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed help. I was desperate.

  ‘Peyton!’ I called out from the bottom of the stairs. She turned down the music in her room and poked her head out.

  ‘Hey, Em. What’s up?’

  ‘I’ll go with you. ’ I heaved, still trying to catch my breath.

  ‘What?’ she asked, unsure that she’d heard me correctly.

  ‘I’ll go to the party with you,’ I repeated more clearly, my breath beginning to even out.

  ‘Yes!’ she exclaimed. ‘I have the perfect tank top for you to wear too!’

  ‘Great,’ I grumbled, heading towards the kitchen to get a drink of water.

  ‘You have no idea how happy I am that you changed your mind,’ Peyton chirped when we stepped out of her red Mustang at the end of the car-lined street. Even from here, the music carried down the block.

  ‘No problem,’ I replied absently. I needed to be distracted from the voices that were suddenly whipping around in my thoughts. I needed to find my way back to being numb.

  ‘You cannot wear that sweatshirt,’ Peyton scolded before I could shut the car door.

  ‘But it’s cold out,’ I argued.

  ‘Not where we’re going. It’s only a short walk to the house. Come on, Em. Suck it up. ’

  I reluctantly removed the sweatshirt to reveal the glittery silver tank top beneath and shivered as I tossed it into the car.

  ‘Much better,’ Peyton admired with a vibrant smile, joining me on the sidewalk and sliding her arm through mine. ‘Let’s go party!’

  Peyton strode alongside me in her strapless red dress, her golden blonde hair lying in a glossy sheet down her back. Her greenish-blue eyes were lit with excitement as she escorted me towards the music that grew louder with each passing house. I was surprised the police hadn’t shown up yet. But when I looked around, I realized it was surrounded by college housing. Most of the residents were probably away for winter break or at the party.

  We approached the side of a beige house with a large white tent in the back yard. A couple of guys were handing out tiaras and top hats as we passed through the entrance. Peyton slid a tiara on her head and I took a top hat. A guy ladled red liquid out of a trash can and set the cup on a table in front of us.

  Peyton’s eyes widened when I took the cup. ‘You know that has alcohol in it, right?’

  ‘Yes, I do,’ I replied casually, taking a sip. It was … sweet. It reminded me of an overly sugared fruit punch. This wasn’t going to be as difficult as I thought. Why had my mother opted for the dreadful taste of straight vodka when this was an option?

  ‘But you don’t drink,’ Peyton countered in obvious shock.

  ‘New year, trying new things,’ I explained dismissively, holding up my cup.

  She grinned and tapped it. ‘To trying new things!’ As Peyton took a sip, I opted to drain the contents of my cup, needing the effects to kick in sooner rather than later. After all, it was the reason I was here.

  ‘Em!’ Peyton scolded. ‘I know it doesn’t taste like it, but there’s a lot of alcohol in there. You may want to pace yourself. ’

  I shrugged and grabbed another before we entered the tent crammed with bodies. We made our way to the stage where a band was performing, drowning out any possibility of a conversation – which was fine by me.

  ‘Hey!’ Peyton hollered, recognizing a tall guy with wavy brown hair dressed in typical college plaid.

  ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ Plaid Guy replied.

  ‘I told you I was coming,’ she returned playfully. She turned towards me and said, ‘Tom, this is Emma, the room-mate you haven’t met yet. ’

  ‘Wow,’ Tom said. ‘I can’t believe you’re actually here. ’

  I feigned a smile, wondering what Peyton had told him about me. I could only guess.

  ‘And this is Cole,’ Tom said, directing my attention to a blond guy with broad shoulders standing next to him.

  ‘Hi,’ Cole responded with a nod and slight smile. Peyton elbowed me. I ignored her and barely nodded in return, taking a sip out of my cup instead.

  Insistent, Peyton grabbed Tom’s arm and said, ‘I need another drink. ’ Tom eyed her full cup in confusion, but let Peyton drag him away. I glared at her as she smirked back at me.

  ‘Having a good time?’ Cole yelled over the screeching coming from the stage. He didn’t appear concerned about the forced pairing. I cupped my ear to indicate I couldn’t hear him. Instead of repeating the question, he bent down and said, ‘I was beginning to wonder if you were real. I kept hearing about you, but I’ve never actually seen you out. ’ I leaned back, not wanting to encourage him to get so close, and began scanning the crowd around us. ‘Don’t say much, huh?’

  I shook my head and took another large gulp of my drink to drown the inferno still burning beneath the surface. Why had I thought coming to this party was a good idea?

  You’re amazing.

  What did I do?

  Just you, everything about you – you’re amazing,

  My back straightened, the clarity of the voices invading my head. Images of the last New Year’s party I’d attended threatened to surface, and I swallowed them down with another sip.

  ‘Are you going to say anything at all?’ Cole asked, pulling me out of the painful remembrance of being wrapped in Evan’s arms while watching fireworks explode overhead.

  ‘Huh?’ I finally looked up at him. ‘What would you like me to say?’ I challenged.

  ‘Well, that was a start,’ he taunted, not fazed by my rudeness. ‘You go to Stanford?’

  I nodded my head, then caught myself when he accusingly widened his eyes. ‘Yes,’ I stressed. ‘And you?’

  ‘Yeah, I’m a ju
nior,’ he answered.

  ‘Sophomore,’ I responded, pointing to myself. I pre-empted the next predictable question: ‘Pre-medical. ’

  He appeared impressed. ‘Business. ’ I nodded in return. ‘Do you play soccer with Peyton?’

  I sighed, and took another gulp, not loving the mundane exchange. ‘Yup. Are you on a team?’

  ‘No. I played lacrosse in high school, but nothing here. ’

  I didn’t come to the party for small talk or to get to know someone new. I needed to get away from this guy. And I really didn’t care what he thought of me. I swallowed the last mouthful of the drink.

  ‘I need another,’ I announced. ‘I’ll see you around. ’ I turned and walked away before he could respond, dodging through the crowd in search of the drink table. The band stopped to take a break, and a DJ started, igniting a movement of dancing energy towards the small stage.

  I was still feeling too much. I’d never drunk more than a couple of sips before, so I didn’t know how long it would be before it took effect. I also had no idea how it would feel when it finally did. My mother turned to alcohol to numb her pain, and even though I swore that I’d never drink, there was only so much a person could endure before breaking that promise. And I didn’t want to be in pain any more.

  I squeezed through the crowd towards the far side of the tent, where a table was lined with filled cups.

  ‘Need a drink?’ a voice asked close to my ear.

  I turned to find a guy with a thin, muscular frame, a mop of black hair, and a dark line of facial hair down the centre of his chin. From the tattoo behind his ear that crept down his neck and the few guys with similar attire of T-shirts and ripped jeans, I deduced that he was with the band.

  ‘Are you talking to me?’

  ‘Yeah,’ he replied with a cocky grin. ‘I’m Gev. I noticed your empty cup and thought I could help you out. ’

  ‘Well, you don’t have a cup at all, so maybe I should be helping you out. ’

  He laughed, but I left him and kept walking towards the table. When I turned back I had two cups in my hands. He stopped short and smiled when I offered him one.

  ‘I like your name. It’s different. ’

  ‘I’m attached to it,’ he said with a quick raise of his brows, making me roll my eyes with a low laugh.

  ‘Are you going up again?’ I asked, nodding towards the stage, deciding I might as well talk to someone, and he seemed interesting enough. At least he wasn’t predictable.

  ‘Nope. We’re done for the night. And now I have some catching up to do. ’ He downed the cup with several large gulps. I looked on, amused, and handed him another, which he accepted with a flashy smile.

  ‘What’s your name?’ he asked, moving away from the crowd forming in front of the table.

  ‘Emma. ’

  ‘How are you feeling?’

  A minute ago I would have answered, On fire. But now I realized the fire was gone. In its place was a dull hum. A swirling calm ran through me, casting a veil of numbness over my senses.

 
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