Out of breath, p.57
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       Out of Breath, p.57

         Part #3 of Breathing series by Rebecca Donovan
 
Page 58

 

  Needing fresh air, I grabbed a throw from the end of the bed and went out to the patio. I pulled the blanket tightly around me, but it did little to ward off the shivers. I focused on the overcast sky, wondering where Jonathan was now and if their screams still haunted his dreams. There was an anxious part of me that couldn’t let him go. A part of me that still needed to find him, even though I had no idea where to start.

  My ears picked up a squeaking sound. I listened intently and heard the squeak again. Pushing the gate open, I walked quietly around to the main deck. Evan was lying in the hammock, slowly rocking back and forth.

  ‘Hi,’ I said, startling him. He jumped up and practically tipped the hammock over. I cringed. ‘Sorry. ’

  ‘It’s okay,’ he assured me, trying to shake it off. ‘Now I know how you feel when it happens to you. ’

  ‘Funny,’ I commented, making a face. ‘Can’t sleep?’

  ‘No. Thinking,’ I explained. ‘And you?’

  ‘Same,’ she answered, moving closer, a light green blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

  ‘Want to talk about what happened tonight?’ I proposed as she came into full view, standing next to the hammock.

  Her darkened eyes flickered in contemplation. ‘I’m not sure I can. ’

  ‘You can sit at the other end if you want. ’ I scooted further up on one side of the hammock.

  Emma eased herself over the edge, manoeuvring towards the middle so she wouldn’t tip us. She leaned back and bent her knees, her feet by my side.

  ‘Will you tell me something I’ve always wanted to know?’ I asked, having thought about it so many times over the years.

  ‘What’s that?’ Her voice was careful and quiet. I could feel her tensing. She drew the blanket in tighter as if to protect herself.

  ‘What were your nightmares about?’ I asked, reflecting on the nights I’d been by her side when she’d awoken in a sweat, screaming. Her torment had always haunted me. I couldn’t protect her from what waited for her in her sleep.

  Emma released a smooth breath, blowing it out through slightly pursed lips.

  It had been over a year since I’d had a nightmare. Their disappearance coincided with the increase of the emptiness. I couldn’t be tormented with images of my death when I was no longer afraid of dying.

  ‘They were about dying,’ I explained, trying to keep my voice calm. ‘About being killed in some way over and over again, and I’d wake just before my last breath. But it felt so real, the fear and helplessness, not being able to get away from her. ’

  ‘Her?’ Evan repeated, with a bite in his tone. ‘They were about Carol?’

  I shivered, her name slicing through me like a smooth blade. ‘Usually. ’

  ‘I hate that woman,’ he said with an edge in his voice. ‘I can’t tell you how close I came to hurting her that night. ’

  I propped myself on my elbows, jostling us slightly.

  ‘George knew. He saw it in my eyes and stood between us, afraid I wouldn’t be able to control myself. I made myself concentrate on you to keep calm.

  ‘But if you hadn’t breathed. If you had –’ He swallowed. I could feel his entire body stiffen against the hammock.

  ‘Hey. ’ I redirected his attention. ‘But I’m here. ’ I set my hand on his leg.

  ‘Why did she hate you so much? What made her want to hurt you?’

  I filled my lungs with the cool, damp air. ‘I don’t know. ’

  ‘Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to understand what made her such a psychotic bitch?’ Evan’s words were weighted with pent-up anger.

  ‘No,’ I answered, my voice low. ‘There isn’t an excuse or explanation in the world that would make it right, that would help me understand why she hurt me. I don’t need to forgive her. I need to figure out how to keep living – otherwise she should have killed me. ’

  I raised my head. ‘What? Why would you say that? You don’t think you deserved to die? Do you, Emma?‘ I asked, my chest pounding.

  ‘I wouldn’t say it like that exactly,’ she replied, her voice monotone and distant, like she was speaking about someone else. ‘I’m not sure what I deserve. But I know I’m not doing a very good job living. ’

  I was disturbed by her defeatist tone, but before I could say anything, she added, ‘I have a tattoo to remind me. I drew it when I was still suffering from the nightmares. It’s supposed to keep me from getting lost. To help me hold on. ’

  ‘Can I see it?’

  Emma sat up, and I straddled the hammock, pressing my feet on the deck to keep us steady. She scooted between my legs with her left side facing me, pulling up her T-shirt to expose the ink inscribed under her ribs. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to provide enough light to see the intricate details of the waning moon with a sleeping male profile. The entire outline was the same words repeated over again: ‘It’s only a dream. ’ The script was fine and ran together in a cyclical chant, until the lowest point. A set of words disrupted the perfection. ‘Open your eyes and live. ’

  I reached out with my finger and traced the swing hanging off those words, small and delicate. Her skin erupted into a chill of goosebumps at my touch.

  ‘Maybe I should get one that says, “She’s still breathing”,’ I murmured as she lowered her shirt. She turned towards me in a sudden motion.

  ‘When you said that you have nightmares that I was gone, you meant that I died?’

  I preferred not to reflect upon the many nights when I’d arrived too late, finding her limp and pale. ‘Not always,’ I admitted reluctantly. ‘Sometimes I can’t find you at all, no matter where I search. I usually wake up in a panic. The others … when I’m not there in time … feels like someone’s tearing my heart out. ’

  I couldn’t get in a breath as his eyes sifted through those nights of despair. I could only imagine what it was like to be forced awake by a nightmare, only to find that it was true. I ran my hand along his cheek, and his eyes focused on mine, surprised by my touch.

  ‘I don’t want you to hate me. I want you to forgive me,’ I gasped. ‘I want you to love me again. ’ His eyes shone. ‘But I don’t know how to let you if I can’t forgive myself. ’ I paused, my lip trembling. ‘It always comes back to forgiving, doesn’t it?’

  ‘It does,’ he sighed, cupping my hand and holding it against his warm skin. ‘I never stopped loving you, Emma. I just don’t know how to love you enough. ’

  A tear spilled over my cheek. ‘Why would you say that?’

  ‘If I did, you’d trust me with all of you. ’

  I bowed my head, pulling my hand away. ‘I’m afraid. So afraid that if you see who I truly am, you’ll hate me. And I can’t let that happen. I only exist because of you, Evan. You’ve saved me more times than you know. I’m so afraid I’m not worth the breath you gave me. I want to be so much better than this girl in front of you. I want to deserve you, to let you love me. I just don’t know how. ’

  ‘You don’t have to let me, Emma. I already do. You just have to love me back. With everything you have. And that’s all I need. I need you. All of you. ’

  The raw intensity of our unfiltered words was consuming. I was terrified and exhilarated all at once. She was finally opening up, exposing herself to me, and I couldn’t have asked her to be any more honest. But at the same time, I was disturbed by what she was saying. And I was fearful about where this was heading.

  There was a heartbreaking sadness in her eyes. Emma slid away from me and off the hammock. I watched her walk towards the stairs, where she turned and waited for me. I followed her down to the beach, accompanied by the sound of the volatile waves crashing to shore. We walked for some time, our eyes on our feet.

  ‘I need to be honest with you. ’ My voice finally broke through the silence. ‘If we’re going to have a chance of moving forward, then I have to tell you everything that happened after you left. It’s not going to be easy to hear, but I need you to listen
to all of it. ’

  ‘Okay,’ she said quietly, her voice nearly swept away in the ocean breeze.

  I sat on the sand, and she lowered herself next to me. Feeling the pressure of her body huddled tight against my arm, I stared out at the coursing waves.

  ‘When you left me like that, in that house. That awful house. I was so angry. I couldn’t understand how you could disappear from my life without a word. That anger overpowered any other feelings I had for you. I wanted to let you go. I was convinced you’d chosen him. ’

  ‘Jonathan?’

  ‘Yeah,’ I replied, trying to relax my shoulders. ‘I didn’t know what to think. But after what he said that night, about how you confided in him, with secrets you could never tell me … I just assumed. ’

  ‘It wasn’t like that,’ she insisted.

  ‘Then what was it like, Emma? What happened between you two?’ I begged. ‘Did you love him?’

  ‘No, I didn’t love him. ’ Her eyes glistened as they flickered in the dark.

  ‘But he loved you,’ I said in a whisper.

  ‘He thought he did. ’ She looked away. ‘And I do care about him. ’

  ‘Still?’ I asked. She didn’t answer. My fists clenched against my knees, the text flashing through my head.

  ‘Why does he get to forgive you, when you didn’t want that from me?’ I asked, the edge in my voice rising to the surface. Emma turned towards me, her eyes flashing with shock. I wanted her to tell me. I needed her to. ‘Are you going to tell me what happened?’

  Emma’s eyes pooled with tears. She shook her head slightly and looked back out at the water.

  I closed my eyes to collect myself and asked another question that had been plaguing me. ‘What did that letter say, Emma?’

  Anger still lingered in Evan’s voice.

  ‘You know about the letter?’ My stomach hollowed. Evan knew way more than he was supposed to … about everything.

  ‘I found the envelope, and I tore my mother’s office apart looking for the rest of it. We never talked about it, and she never told me. Not until last week, when she admitted that it existed. That letter changed my life. I think I deserve to know what it said. ’

  I pressed my forehead against my bent knees. ‘It doesn’t matter any more. ’

  ‘I don’t want to be angry, Em. I want to forgive you. But first we need to be honest … about everything. I still don’t understand how you thought that leaving wouldn’t destroy me. Because it did. You couldn’t have hurt me any worse. ’

  I stifled a sob and clutched my knees harder.

  ‘I know this is hard. But I need you to keep listening, okay?’

  ‘I’m listening,’ I murmured, barely audible.

  ‘After you left, the school made up some lie that you chose to leave for Stanford early, and wouldn’t be at graduation. But everyone knew. They were all at the party where we never showed. They saw my face when I came back from Cornell a few days later. My cuts were barely healed by graduation. No one knew the details, but they figured that whatever happened to me had something to do with why you left. And then … I had to give that fucking speech, the valedictorian speech you were supposed to make. ’