Just remember to breathe (Alex)
Just remember to breathe (Alex)
The alarm starting ringing at an ungodly hour. As in, before six in the morning. I hadn’t seen that early in the morning since high school, and I’d been perfectly happy that way.
Kelly, across the room from me, muttered, “Oh my god, what the hell is that?” then started snoring again.
At first, I rolled over and hit the snooze button. I closed my eyes, thinking I should just go back to sleep. My mind drifted, half unconscious, to a semi-dream. I was holding hands with Dylan, and it was summer before my senior year of high school. I could feel the calluses on the tips of fingers from his guitar playing. We’d walked a quarter of the way out on the Golden Gate Bridge, staying close the entire time,and were looking down at the bay. His eyes were wide, dreamy, and we talked about our dreams of the future.
We were struggling, because our dreams were… different. He was going to travel, and write. I was going to college, probably in New York. He was finished with high school, and planned on leaving the country within months. I had another year in San Francisco. We’d turned to each other, there on the bridge, and as the wind blew through our hair he gently kissed me.
My eyes popped open. It was 5:56, and I was going to be late.
I jerked out of bed, stumbled, and fell flat, catching myself at the last second. Heart beating rapidly, I threw open my top drawer and started throwing clothes, trying to find something to wear.
“What are you doing?” Kelly asked, her voice slurred with sleep.
“I’m late. To go running with Dylan.”
“Oh. I must be dreaming. It sounded like you said you’re going running. I’ll talk to you later.”
Her words faded into a mumble, and I finally found some shorts, a sports bra and a halter top. Where the hell were my sneakers? I searched around for them, and finally stumbled over them and nearly hit my head. Oh, God. I was being such a spaz.
At 6:05 I sent Dylan a quick text message:
Running Late. There vry soon.
Then I ran out the door. I hoped he’d get the text. I hoped he’d wait for me. I hoped he wouldn’t hate me. Oh, God, why was I putting myself through this?
It was ten after six when I finally ran across 114th Street, past the Butler Library and onto the field. At this time of the morning, the campus was virtually deserted, though there were a few early risers out there running in the darkness.
I came up short when I saw him, my breath caught in my throat.
Dylan wore grey cotton shorts and a t-shirt with the word ARMY emblazoned on it in large black letters, and he was in the middle of doing pushups when I saw him. His broad shoulders and thick biceps were clearly used to this form of exercise. The muscles in his neck and shoulders were tense, bulging as he worked himself up and down.
“I’ll just be a minute,” he said to me. He was hardly winded.
That’s when I realized I’d just been standing there, staring. For how long? I didn’t know. Quite a while. Was my tongue hanging out?
Stop that, I thought. Bad Alex.
I looked away, because that was the only possible thing I could do, then looked back. Tearing my eyes away from those arms, I could see the damage that had been done to his right leg. Thick, ropy scars covered his entire calf. Another ugly looking red welt, sewn back closed and healed like a dark red zipper, ran from below his leg right up his thigh and under his shorts. More jagged scars covered his entire right thigh. His right leg was noticeably less bulky than his left: the left leg well defined, with powerful calf muscles.
“Got your text,” he said, as he finally stopped doing pushups. He pivoted on his but, pulling one leg in close and stretching out the other. He leaned forward, reaching for and grabbing his left foot. “Sorry I didn’t answer. Limbering up. Last thing I want to do is get out there running and freeze up.”
I’d carry you home if he did. Right up to my room.
Oh, for God’s sake, I thought, get a grip. He’s your ex-boyfriend. The asshole who left you to grieve, not knowing if he was alive or not. The guy who broke your heart, without any warning, without any explanation.
“It’s okay,” I said.
I wasn’t exactly an athlete any more than he had been before the Army, but I did understand the importance of stretching. I sat down across from him and tried to mirror his actions, stretching out as far as I could, taking hold of my left foot, then switching to the right.
“So, um…. I don’t do this often. Or rather, I never do this.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Go running,” I answered.
“You might find you enjoy it. I used to run with the boxing team in our battalion sometimes… they’d go out for fifteen, twenty miles every morning.”
I gaped. Then noticed the pack of cigarettes rolled up in his left shirt sleeve.
“You did that and smoked?”
“Yeah, well, everybody gets some vice, I guess.”
I didn’t know how to answer that. I put both my feet directly in front of me, facing him, and stretched forward as far as I could.
I literally heard him stop breathing, and I sat up quickly. He averted his eyes, and then I realized, holy shit, Dylan was looking down my shirt!
I felt the heat rise on my face, so I averted my eyes and stood up.
“I’m all stretched out, I think,” I said.
He chuckled, then said, “Um… I’m sorry. That was … totally uncalled for. And … unintentional. And … I better shut up while I’m ahead.”
“You’re an ass, Dylan.”
He nodded, frankly. “It’s true.”
Okay, he thought it was funny. He really was an ass. I frowned, said, “It’s not funny. I’m going home.”
His face instantly fell from the joking expression. “Wait… please don’t go.” He looked so wounded, I stopped in place, and he said, “I’m sorry. Sometimes I forget, that’s all. I know about the rules and all that, but you’re still the ….”
He trailed off, and turned away. “Sorry. This was a bad idea.”
I wanted to know what he was going to say before he trailed off. But somehow I had the feeling that the answer would be breaking one of my rules, and damn it, that made me want to start crying. And hadn’t I done just about enough of that lately?
I closed my eyes, then said, “Dylan. You’re right. I’m too sensitive. And, to be fair… maybe I was checking you out, too. Let’s go.”
He turned back at me, took a deep breath, and nodded, carefully avoiding what I’d said.
He started out really slowly, so I was able to keep up. But I won’t lie. My legs aren’t used to running, and I can’t even imagine on what planet he came from that he came to enjoy running 15 or 20 miles on a regular basis. The Army put him on drugs, I’m sure of it now.
“So, um, how far are we going?” I asked.
“Not far,” he replied. “I haven’t been running since … well, before. I don’t want to push it too far.”
“Do you always go this early?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s … long standing habit really. Plus, it’s not really muggy yet. You wouldn’t want to be running anywhere in noon heat, know what I mean?”
He had a point.
And, after a few minutes, I realized something else. Even though I was breathing heavily, and my legs were starting to hurt, I was enjoying myself. Maybe too much.
I could tell Dylan was really working at it now. He was loping along, every time his right foot came into contact with the sidewalk he lurched just slightly to the right. His lips were set in a grim line, face staring straight ahead.
“You okay?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yeah. Just got to remember to breathe. Two more blocks, and I think we walk back?”
“Okay,” I said, really winded now.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, just not used to this.”
“We can slow down,” he said.
“No, keep going.”
We ran two more very painfully long blocks, then slowed to a walk.
“You want to keep walking at a pretty decent pace,” he said. “Don’t come to a sudden stop. Helps your heart rate come back down to normal.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling a little inadequate that I was having difficulty keeping up with someone who nearly lost his right leg just a few months ago. And, looking at his chest and arms, tight inside that t-shirt, I thought it would take a lot more than a short walk to bring my heart rate down.
“You look kind of flushed,” he said, eyeing me closely.
Jesus. I felt more heat run to my already overheated cheeks. Then it suddenly hit me. Dylan Paris was flirting with me. I snapped back immediately. “Yeah, well, chasing after guys does that to me.”
His eyes widened a little bit, and then he smirked.
I blushed a little more, as if that were possible.
A few seconds later, he pointed. We were approaching Tom’s Restaurant, a diner just off campus.
“Stop for breakfast?” he said. “It’s on me. Least I can do for you keeping me company.”
Did I really want to let Dylan buy me breakfast? Where was this leading? Normally, all my caution signals would be up and blaring, but for some reason I just gave in without an argument. “Sure, thanks.”
Two minutes later we were sitting at a table in the garish, fifties styled diner. With bright red chairs, stainless steel equipment, and black and white checks everywhere, it was frightful to the eye. But also kind of comfortable. Not the diner. What was comfortable was being there with Dylan.
A tired waitress who looked as if she’d been working all night came over and took our order. Me: a single scrambled egg, wheat toast with tomato slices and a glass of orange juice. Dylan ordered a ham and cheese omelet, pancakes, bacon, biscuits with gravy, coffee and hashbrowns. I don’t know where on the table they were even going to fit all that food.
I couldn’t help it. “Eat much?” I asked.
He chuckled. “You get an appetite in the Army. I can put away some food these days.”
While we waited for the wagon train to pull up with his breakfast, I asked him, “So, um… I know this is weird, but other than Doctor Forrester’s work, I don’t really know much about what you’re doing these days.”
He leaned back and looked me in the eyes, an odd smile on his face. “That’s a pretty open-ended question,” he replied.
Oh, wow. That was exactly what I’d said to him on an airplane a lifetime ago. “You remember that?”
“I’d answer that, but I don’t want to break the rules.”
“Very funny,” I said, wrinkling my nose at him.
He grinned, and said, “All right, fair enough. You go first.”
“I won’t say if I remember it or not. But you get to ask the first question.”
I laughed and shook my head. “All right. I guess I let myself in for that one. Why exactly did you pick Columbia University of all places?”
He shrugged. “Believe it or not, Columbia has really active outreach to vets. One of the recruitment guys found me in a hospital room at Walter Reed back in March. The rest is history.”
At this point he was leaning back in his chair, one arm resting on the empty seat next to him. I leaned back in mine as well, stretching my feet across underneath the table and letting them sit on the empty chair.
“Your turn,” I said.
He looked at me, and I blushed a little, looked down at the table.
“So, last winter you were trying to decide what to write for your final paper. What did you end up settling on?”
I took a deep breath, and looked up at him. “I can’t believe you remember that. I mean… you were in the middle of a war, and getting shot at and blown up and hospitalized, and you remember me agonizing over my paper?”
A sideways smile, and he replied, “I’m the one asking the question right now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay. I ended up doing a paper on the legal defenses for rape in the nineteenth century in the United States.”
“Wow,” he said. “That’s fantastic. I’d love to read it sometime. I probably wouldn’t understand word one of the legal stuff, but I’m interested anyway.”
“Don’t knock yourself, Dylan. You may come from a different background than me, but you’re a smart guy.”
“Not anymore,” he said, grimacing and tapping on his forehead.
I grimaced, thinking with regret that I wished he’d stop beating up on himself, and said, “My turn?”
I thought. There was so much I wanted to know. And most of it skirted too close to the topics we avoided, too much of it broke the rules, too much of it simply led to heartache. Finally, I said, “What was the best thing you saw in Afghanistan? I know there was horror, and war. But were there moments of … I don’t know… grace?”
He swallowed, and nodded once. I was astonished to see his eyes start to water.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to —“
He held up a hand, saying stop. “It’s okay.” He took a deep breath, then said, “Okay. So, we’re out there in the boonies. And I mean… way out there. Little village in the middle of nowhere called Dega Payan. It’s way up in the mountains, and until a couple years ago, there wasn’t even much of a road to connect them to anything. It was like a five hour drive to get anywhere.”
“So, one day we’re there. Helping distribute food, there’s UN workers, and we’re trying to make a nice impression and all that. And there’s this little girl, standing there watching us. I guess she was … about twelve maybe? I could picture her in middle school, if they allowed her to go to school, which they probably don’t. Anyway, she was smiling, and joking around. Kowalski… he was from Nevada. Also from the middle of nowhere, go figure. Kowalski gives her a candy bar, and she hugs him. And then he turns to come back to us, and we hear a clink sound. Everybody panics, and I look down, and see the grenade. Someone threw it from the crowd, and it landed right at the little girl’s feet.”
Oh, my God. All I could think was, this was his moment of grace? His good thing that happened?
His eyes were really red now, and his face twisted a little as he said, “So, anyway, Kowalski… he threw himself on the grenade. He hugged it, with his back to the little girl. And it went off, and … he was just … shredded. Killed instantly. And you know… that little girl… she didn’t get touched. Not even a drop of blood. He saw that little girl, and just … threw his life away to save her.”
I shook my head, and even though he couldn’t cry, I started to. I couldn’t help myself. Because when he was telling that story, it was like I could see into his soul, and oh, God, did that hurt.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry I asked. I’m so sorry that happened.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t be. Don’t you get it? Can you imagine the … the heroism? That’s what grace is all about. He didn’t even think for one second about himself. All he thought about was that little girl, and saving her life.”
I sniffled. “Okay, new rule. If I’m about to ask you something that will make me start crying when I hear the answer, um, can you veto the question?”
He smiled, gently, and said, “If you want.”
“Your turn then.”
The waitress showed up then, and brought us our food. And … let me tell you. I had actually underestimated how much he ordered. She had to bring two trays. Seriously. He tried to reorganize the plates a little, and ended up taking three quarters of the table. Pulling the pancakes toward him, he poured about ten thousand calories worth of syrup and butter on them, then started eating.
After swallowing he said, “Okay. What’s your favorite thing to do now that you’re in New York?”
I took a small bite of toast while I thought. Then I frowned. What was my favorite thing? I had things I liked to do, for sure. Kelly and I going out together. Going to the Butler Library. Picnicking in Riverside Park. What else? It’s not that I hadn’t enjoyed my freshman year in college, I really did. It’s just that… nothing stuck out that I could tag as a favorite thing. Except one. And that was … sitting in Doctor Forrester’s office. With Dylan.
I frowned, then said, “I can’t answer that one.”
He widened his eyes and grinned. “You’re kidding me. That’s not in the rules.”
“Screw the rules,” I said. “The only answer I can give is a lie.”
“Pick some other question, soldier boy.”
“I’ll get an answer one way or another. You can’t tell me you’ve been in New York for a year and you still haven’t come up with anything you love doing.”
“I can tell you anything I want.”
“You set the rules of this game, Alex. Not allowed to lie.”
“Nothing says I have to answer, though.”
He shook his head, then laughed. “I’m going to be obsessed with this.”
“Because in all the time I’ve known you, I have never seen you change the rules of anything mid-game. This is just… mind-blowing.”
I wanted to growl at him. Instead I ate a bite of my eggs, then said, “If I answer, you have to promise to just forget I said it.”
He was thoroughly enjoying this. God. “All right,” he said. “My short term memory sucks anyway.”
I stifled a laugh, then said, “Okay. Then the truth is, the time we’ve been working together in Doctor Forrester’s … that’s the answer.”
He blinked, the smile slipping for a fraction. I couldn’t figure out what his expression meant, because if I’d seen a picture of it, I would have guessed abject terror. But that only lasted a moment, and then he said, “I don’t remember any question or answer, so I get another one, right?”
“Dylan! That’s not fair!”
Now he was really grinning.
“Fine,” I said, trying not to break out laughing. He looked so happy.
“Okay,” he said. “Now I’m finally getting somewhere.”
I chuckled. I couldn’t help it.
“Let’s see…. Kelly’s still your roommate here, I’m thinking. Tell me all about the last time you two went out. I want to know about your life here. What did you guys do?”
Jesus. He had a knack for asking heavy questions, didn’t he? But, I found myself telling him the story. Of our night out, and how Randy had grabbed my arm, and she pepper sprayed him. I left out all discussion of Dylan, of course. I also left out the background between me and Randy, including the fact that I’d known him since middle school, and especially the fact that he’d tried to rape me.
“Okay, wait a minute, I don’t understand. I get it that the guy was coming on too strong, but why did she pepper spray him?”
Suddenly I was blinking back tears again.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “I’m sorry. Whatever it is, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
I bit my lower lip, then whispered, “He tried to rape me last spring.”
Everything about Dylan’s demeanor changed in an instant. He went from relaxed, enjoying himself, then concerned, but after the word “rape” came out of my mouth, he was sitting up straight in his chair, alert. His face had gone cold, rage in his eyes like I’d never seen before. He was shaking.
“What did you say his name was?” he asked, his voice very low.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“Yes. It does.”
“Because if I ever see him, I’m going to put him in a fucking hospital. For a long time.”
He was serious. Really serious. I had no doubt that if Randy Brewer was in front of us right now, Randy would end up in the hospital. And Dylan… would end up in jail.
“You really have changed a lot,” I whispered.
“What?” he asked.
“I’ve known you … in a lot of different ways. But the one thing I’ve never thought about you was that you might be dangerous. Except to me.”
He blinked. “Alex. Listen… whatever our history is, doesn’t change the way I feel about you. The way I’ve always felt about you. I’d do anything to …”
He stopped. Was he struggling over a word again? Or holding back? Or was there a difference? And he didn’t even say a word about me telling him he was dangerous for me. Because really, he knew that, didn’t he? That we were dangerous to each other. Where was the big surprise in me saying that? I turned back to his stall.
“You’d do anything to what?”
He almost growled in frustration. “To … go back… go back and prevent that from happening to you. To protect you.”
Was he about to say, to go back and change things? To go back and not hang up on me that night? To not disappear like he did?
“Listen to me, Dylan. This is important.”
He was still staring at me, his eyes crazy intense. He nodded. “Okay.”
“Forget about it. It’s past. Okay? We don’t need that. We don’t need… this. Eat your breakfast. All right? Time for a change of subject.”
He looked at me, calm, his gaze cool. Concentrating. I felt a bead of sweat in my hair, and took a deep breath.
“All right,” he said. His voice had fallen back into that low growl that used to drive me insane. “It’s your turn.”
“My turn for what?”
I closed my eyes. This was a playful game four years ago. Now it was … frightening. Time to turn to something more cheerful.
“I’m not sure I want to play any more.”
He practically collapsed in his seat, no longer intense, no longer staring. He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, and said, “I’m sorry. Christ, I’m sorry. Alex, I’ve got some… let’s just say, anger issues.”
“I can see that,” I said, desperately trying to regain the light tone we’d had before.
“So ask me a question,” he said. “But try to pick something not so intense, and I’ll do the same.”
I shook my head, then said, “All right. Your favorite memory, ever.”
He smiled bitterly. “I can’t answer that. It’s against the rules.”
“Oh, screw the rules. Tell me.”
He took a deep, shuddering breath. “My favorite memory, was sleeping with you in my arms in the Tel Aviv hostel the night before we left. It was … bittersweet, but wonderful. I didn’t actually sleep that night. I just watched you. All that night, and then again, all the way home on the plane. We only had a few hours left, and I didn’t want to lose a second of it sleeping. I was up about forty eight hours I think, finally crashed hard on the plane back to Atlanta from New York.”
I gave him a small, tentative smile. “Mine is the night we first kissed.”
“Near the Dead Sea,” he replied.
“It was dark, and the wind was blowing,” I said, “and it was cool, and we were alone.”
“You said, ‘This could get complicated.’”
I suddenly laughed out loud, trying to hold back tears at the same time. I remembered saying that. I’d never been more right in my life. “It sure did.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It did.”
“Where did we go wrong?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s because we couldn’t let go, or because we let go too much.”
I shook my head. “I don’t either.”
He looked at the table, and didn’t reply.
Finally, I said in a near whisper, “Dylan… do you ever think…” I couldn’t finish the question.
He kept looking at the table, and then replied, so quietly I almost couldn’t hear him. “Always,” he said.
I swallowed. “We should go.”
“Yeah,” he replied.
This is first draft material from a story I’m working on during a two week hiatus before I start editing Insurgent. It’s a departure for me, because it falls under the “new adult” genre.You can find the beginning of the story, discussion of what NA books are, and contents of the story, here.