Sample Chapter from Just Remember to Breathe
Coming here was a bad idea.
If I could go back up the chain of “if-only’s” back to the source, I suppose the reason I was starting as a student at Columbia University is because one day when I was twelve Billy Naughton gave me a beer. Billy was a year older than me, and might have been a bad influence if my parents hadn’t been somewhat worse. As it was, the effects of alcohol held little mystery for me, at least as viewed from the outside.
Viewed from the inside, though… that was another thing.
One thing led to another, and one drink led to another, and on my sixteenth birthday I dropped out of high school. Of course, by that time, Dad had left, and Mom had cleaned up her act. She laid down the law. If I wasn’t going to school, I could just get out. She wasn’t going to have her child turn out like her husband.
I went couch surfing. I slept in the park a couple times. I got a job, lost it, got another one, lost that one, too. And the damnedest thing was, Mom was right. I went back and registered for school. Then I showed up on her doorstep, showed her my registration and schedule, and she wept and let me back in the apartment.
A lot of other things happened since, of course, including me getting blown up by some hajis in Afghanistan. But I don’t talk about that stuff so much. If you want to know, just read the papers.
Screw that. The papers never covered it right anyway. If you really want to know what it was like, walk into your kitchen right now. Grab a handful of sand. Close your eyes, stick your hand in the garbage disposal, and turn it on. That should give you a pretty good idea of what Afghanistan is like.
Anyway, long story short, Columbia apparently has a soft spot for reformed dropouts and combat veterans. So here I was, and it was the first day of classes, and I was pent up, tense as all hell, because the one person in the world I didn’t want to see, the one person I wanted to see the most, all at the same time, well, she was here.
Thankfully, University Housing got me in with a couple of graduate engineering students. I don’t think I could have stood living in the dorms with a bunch of eighteen-year-old freshmen right out of high school. I was only two years older, but two years was a world of difference. Especially when I’d seen my best friend killed right before my eyes. Especially when it was my fault.
When I got in town, I met my new roommates: Aiden, a bookish twenty-four-year-old mechanical engineering PhD candidate, and Ron, who introduced himself as “Ron White. Chemical engineering,” then disappeared back into his room.
So here I was, limping across the street like an old man, my cane helping me stay upright. Some asshole yuppie bumped into me, in a hurry to get to his business meeting or his mistress or whatever the fuck it was he was after. Whatever it was, it precluded any common courtesy.
“Watch where the fuck you’re going, asshole!” I shouted after him.
I was barely halfway across the street when the light changed. Jesus. Talk about humiliating. Most of the cars waited patiently, but a cabbie who looked like the cousin of the guy who blew away Roberts kept honking his horn at me. I gave him the finger and kept going.
Finally. Somewhere on the third floor of this building was my destination.
I was early, but that was for the best. For one thing, I’d gotten lost several times already today, and was late to my first two classes. This, however, I could not be late for. Not if I wanted to be able to pay for college. Of course, the VA was footing most of the bill, but even with the GI Bill a college like Columbia cost a hell of a lot. It still didn’t even seem real that I was here. Like I really even belonged in college, much less in an Ivy. But every time I heard my Dad’s cheerful voice in my head saying I was a little shit who would never amount to anything, I pushed forward.
The elevator, made sometime in the nineteenth century, finally made its way to the ground floor and I boarded. Most of the other students in the building were using the stairs, but I had to take this route if I wanted to get there before sunset.
I patiently waited. First floor. Second floor. It seemed like the elevator took five minutes for each short trip. It finally stopped on the third floor, and I pushed my way between the other people crowded in the elevator.
Out in the hall, it was crowded. Jesus. It was going to take a lot of getting used to being here. I looked around, trying to spot room numbers. 324. 326. Oriented, I turned in the opposite direction, looking for room 301.
I finally found it, tucked into a dark corner at the opposite side of the building. The hall down here was dark, one of the fluorescents burnt out. I reached for the door.
Locked. I checked my phone. I was fifteen minutes early. I could live with that. Better than fifteen minutes late. Slowly, I slid my book bag to the floor, and tried to figure out how to get myself down there without ending up sideways or upside down or something. I inched my way down, leaving my gimp leg slack and in front of me. Halfway down, I felt a sharp pain and muttered a curse. I put my hands to my sides, palms flat, and let myself drop.
Seated. Now the only trick would be getting back up. Carefully, I kneaded the muscles above my right knee. The doctors at Walter Reed said it might be years before I regained full function. If ever. In the meantime, I went to physical therapy three times a week, took lots of painkillers, and kept going.
I sighed. It had been a long, stressful day. I kept wondering if I should have stayed home, waited another year before trying to venture out. Doctor Kyne had urged me to go.
You’ll never recover if you stay locked in at home. He wasn’t talking about the leg. Doctor Kyne was my psychiatrist at the VA in Atlanta.
I suppose he knew what he was talking about. In the meantime, just take it a day at a time, an hour at a time, one minute at a time. This moment. Just get through now. Then the next now. I took out a book, a beat-up, nearly shredded paperback Roberts loaned me before he got blown away. The Stand by Stephen King.
It’s the best fucking book ever, Roberts had said.
I’m not so sure it was all that, but I had to agree it was pretty good. I was buried in the midst of reading about the outbreak of the super-flu when I heard footsteps coming up the hall. They were clicking. A girl, wearing heels or wedges or something. I forced myself not to look up. I didn’t want to talk to anyone anyway. I wasn’t feeling very friendly. And besides, my instinct was to watch everyone, to keep my eyes on pockets and loose clothes and mounds of trash beside the road and anything else that might represent danger. The challenge was to not look. The challenge was to live my life just like everyone else. And everyone else didn’t look at approaching girls as a source of danger.
What can I say? I was wrong.
“Oh, my God,” I heard a murmur. Something inside me recognized the tone and timbre of that voice, and I looked up, my face suddenly flushing as I felt my pulse in my forehead.
Forgetting about the gimp leg, I tried to jump to my feet. Instead, I ended getting halfway up, then the leg gave out. As if it was cut off, not there. I fell down, hard on my right side, and let out a shout when the sharp, tearing pain shot up my right leg, straight up my spine.
“Son of a bitch!” I muttered.
I pushed myself more or less upright, then put a hand to the wall and the other hand on my cane and tried to lift myself.
The girl of my nightmares darted forward and tried to help me get up.
“Don’t touch me,” I said.
She jerked back as if I’d slapped her.
Finally, I was in a standing position. The pain didn’t go down, and I was sweating, hard. I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t.
“Dylan,” she said, her voice quavering.
I grunted something. Not sure what, but it wasn’t terribly civilized.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
I finally looked up. Oh shit, that was a mistake. Her green eyes, which had always caught me like a fucking whirlpool, were huge, like pools. The faintest scent of strawberry drifted from her, making me lightheaded, and her body still arrested attention: petite, curved hips and breasts; as always, she was like a fantasy.
“I’m waiting for an appointment,” I said.
“Here?” she asked.
I nodded. “Work-study assignment,” I said.
She started to laugh, a bitter, sad laugh. I’d heard that laugh before. “You have got to be kidding me,” she said.
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