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The Legacy: Making Wishes Come True • Please Don't Die
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Always and Forever • The Angels Trilogy
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One Last Wish: Three Novels
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Till Death Do Us Part
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep • To Live Again
Angel of Mercy • Angel of Hope
Starry, Starry Night: Three Holiday Stories
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Don't Die, My Love • Too Young to Die
Goodbye Doesn't Mean Forever
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When Happily Ever After Ends
Baby Alicia Is Dying
From every ending comes a new beginning….
Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull. Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can't say, ‘A woman killed him.’” So his servant ran him through, and he died.
JUDGES 9:52–54 (NIV)
The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.
Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through.”
But his armor-bearer was terrified, and would not do it; so Saul took his sword and fell on it.
1 SAMUEL 31:3–4 (NIV)
This is a book I've wanted to write for a long time, well over ten years. What intrigues me about the subject of euthanasia is the ethical dilemma it poses. I know, however, that a novel is built on characters and plot, and until recently the characters hadn't come together in my head. The plot hadn't jelled in my heart. Finally it did and I wrote Breathless.
What excited me then and still does now is the difference between ethics and morality. Some people explain that ethics are what we say we believe and morality is how we act on what we believe. We might say one thing, but when no one's looking, what do we do? In Breathless, my characters face this quandary and make difficult choices. Ultimately we all make choices in life, both good and bad. These decisions shape our character and create our life paths. Most choices do not involve life and death. The choices in Breathless do.
I hope you will give this novel about euthanasia serious thought. I'm still pondering the topic myself. Maybe you will ask yourself, “What would I do if this happened to me?” Maybe not. I certainly hope you never face such difficulties, but may this novel open your mind and your heart.
Best wishes always,
You don't know me yet,
but please read this
before you begin.
Most people believe they have a clear idea of what's right and wrong. Many say they know how they'll act, or how they'll handle an extreme situation. But to be honest, no one knows. Not really. Even if you say, “I'll never do this or that!” it actually might not be true. Because none of us truly knows what we'll do when the circumstances become so overwhelming and complex that we can't even tell right from wrong. And then there are the totally unforeseen situations, when life deals cards you never expected, or when something that's considered wrong morphs into something right and your mind determines that what once was the rule is not written in stone. Even if this has never happened to you, I'll bet you understand exactly what I'm talking about.
This is what happened to me. I thought I had standards. I believed in my absolutes. I did for most situations. Then I didn't. As time went on, my world turned gray and my absolutes became murky. Right and wrong dissolved into what I knew I had to do.
Please don't judge me until you hear my story.
Travis Morrison became my friend in third grade after two fifth graders beat me up on the school playground. They said I was ugly and weird-looking, took my lunch, and made me cry. Travis shared his lunch with me, and after school when his mom picked him up, he asked me to play at his house. I went home with him every day after that. It's not as if my mom cared where I hung. She was working two shifts at the carpet mill. She said she was glad I was being cared for by a family with a mama who was a professional nurse, since I was prone to trouble.
Travis's family is normal—which mine isn't—and he has a sister, Emily, two years younger than he is. I think she's pretty, and I made the mistake of saying so one time. “Pretty?” Travis made a face. “Is your brain fried?” It took me a while to figure out that he really likes her but just won't show it. I have no sisters, and Travis is the closest thing to a brother I'll ever know.
I've never looked like any of the other kids at school. My dad was some Hawaiian guy who skipped out before I was born. I've seen photos of him. Mom's part Korean, so I admit I'm weird-looking by southern Alabama standards. Cooper Kulani: misfit. That's me.
By the time I was in seventh grade, I was a head taller than every other kid in my class. I could kick the crap out of any of them, and no one has ever shoved me around again. Except Emily. All she has to do is look at me and I turn to mush. No one's ever caught on, though. Not even Travis, who knows me inside and out.
Travis must have been born with the “risk-taking” gene medical science talks about. There isn't anything he won't do, or try to do. I guess that's why he became such a good diver. He has no fear and no equal in competitions. He's on track for athletic scholarships all over the country. I joined the team when he did but never liked it, which is why I never medaled, and one reason I quit the team last year. But for the most part, I do what Travis does, not because I have the risk gene, but because I was born crazy, I live hard, and he's my best friend. There isn't anything I won't do for him.
It isn't easy being the sister of the most popular non-football-playing athlete in the state of Alabama. Don't get me wrong. I'm not jealous of all the attention Travis gets. It's just a fact of life—I get lost in his shadow. I learned early on that girls wanted to be my friend to get to Travis, so I decided not to hang with most of them. Who wants to be used? I love to read, so books are my main friends. They're always available, always friendly, and always interesting, and they never make me choose sides.
Mom's a nurse, and she likes working the night shift best, which means she's home in the mornings when Travis and I get ready for school. She fixes breakfast, gets us all out the door, catches some sleep after we leave, is gone to work by four in the afternoon when we get home from school. Dad's an accountant and takes over dinner duty. He's our chauffeur, cheerleader, homework guru, and sometimes room mother. He's a much better cook than Mom anyway.
I like school. I make good grades; I like rules. No guessing what to do or how to act. God has rules. My parents have rules. Schools and governments and society and Inte
rnet sites, they all have rules.
My brother, of course, has never met a rule he could obey. He makes life up as he goes along, and if I ask him why he does something, he smiles and says, “Why not?”
Travis is a champion diver. Dad calls him “focused.” I think he's a fanatic about his sport. He spends a ton of time practicing and competing, and didn't even have a serious girlfriend until last year, when he hooked up with Darla Gibson. She's one of the highest-profile girls at Robert E. Lee High, though not necessarily in a good way. She doesn't have the best reputation, but that doesn't bother Travis. To me she seems fluffy, like a jar of marshmallow creme or a wad of cotton candy. Pretty to look at, not very deep, will make you sick if you get too much of her. I can't figure why Travis likes her—except for the obvious—but he really likes her.
Then there's Cooper, Travis's lifelong friend. He has an after-school job nowadays, but he used to hang at our house all the time. He has straight black hair, eyes so dark they look black, and a snake tattoo wound around his upper right arm. I've never heard him talk about his family and can't remember ever meeting them. There must be a reason, but I can't figure it out, so I let it go. Haven't seen or heard anything in school either, but Cooper keeps to himself. I guess everyone has secrets. Even me! True confession: He makes my insides go hot and squiggly when he comes around, but I'll never let him or Travis know.
Cooper, Travis, and Darla will be juniors in the fall, and I'll be a freshman, which means that they'll graduate in another year and I'll be left alone, the kid sister who stands outside the spotlight that shines on her brother.
When we went to the lake on the first day of summer vacation, I thought everything was great. It never occurred to me that real life has no set rules.
“Tits for brains.” That's how my father talks to me. It's how he puts me down. And h is words hurt sometimes as bad as his fist. Sure, I didn't get a ton of gray matter at birth—he's a member of that Mensa society and thinks he's too smart for the real world. And maybe I didn't get showered with his “smart” DNA, but I don't see why he has to throw that in my face all the time. His mean mouth made my sister Celia leave home the minute she graduated. I'll be out of here soon as I graduate too. He's not so mean to Kayla. She's ten and already showing some of Dad's brilliance, which makes her more acceptable. Celia and I never were smart enough.
As if he's made something of himself. Mom's got the job and brings home the paycheck. Dad sits in his home office and writes books that don't sell—which of course is the fault of “stupid editors who can't recognize real talent.”
I want to be an actress—Darla Gibson, star. Sure, lots of girls say that. They want the fame and fortune, want to see themselves on the big screen with people falling down worshiping them. Nice perks, but I want more than that. I want my work respected. The acting bug bit me in first grade when my teacher cast me as a tomato in a little play she wrote about healthy eating. Mom came to watch me, but Dad couldn't be bothered. He said, “A tomato? It's because you're fat.” I cried about that one.
I've learned to tune him out. Mostly. Lately he says I've gotten “lippy” and that gets me slapped more often, but better that he hits me than Mom. He wails on her sometimes.
In middle school, I went kind of wild and got a reputation that followed me to high school, where I met Travis. Miraculously, he's the first guy who likes me for me and not because of my body. A girl knows when a guy's using her. I've had enough experience with that kind of boy. But Travis isn't that way. We talk about everything. Sometimes all we do is sit and hold hands and talk. I love Travis with all my heart.
He tells me I'll be a great actress too. I tell him he'll medal in the Olympics someday. We believe in each other. Our lives are perfect when we're together. I had no clue our lives would change until the day at the lake.
I should have been born a fish. For me, H2O is the perfect compound. When I was little I might have been the only kid on the planet who liked to take baths! But it's underwater where I feel most at home. The world is quiet in the deep, cool water; a little mysterious. Aquaman is my favorite superhero because he can breathe underwater. I used to think, Wow. If I had gills, I'd never come up.
But I'm not a competitive swimmer. I'm a diver. People don't understand that swimmers and divers are different kinds of people. Swimmers like the surface of water. Divers like going deep.
The springboard used to be my specialty. In high school meets, athletes can only compete on the springboard. In club and college competition, it's different. The first time I climbed onto the ten-meter platform, I knew I'd found my place in the sport. And I'm good at it. College coaches are calling me from Florida, California, and even the Ivy League schools. They all want to talk to the boy who “leaps fearlessly while executing dazzling tucks, twists, pikes, and somersaults before his ripped entry,” according to a local reporter. I have to admit, the guy got it right. (Humility is overrated.) I practice for hours to be the best.
So on the first day of summer vacation, me; my friend Cooper; my girl, Darla; and my kid sister, Emily, head out to Alabama's Lake Martin, where we can cruise around the small islands in Dad's boat with its bad-ass oversized outboard motor.
I cut the motor as we near Chimney Rock, the tallest and most awesome of the natural island cliffs. The water is a hundred and fifty feet deep at its base. I aim the nose of the boat at the pebble beach nearest the rock.
“What are you doing?” Emily asks. “I thought we were going to ski and have a picnic.”
“And we are. What's wrong with eating here?”
She looks up at Chimney Rock. Darla and Cooper follow her line of sight.
“Tell me you're not going up there to jump,” Coop says.
“I'm not jumping.” I leap into waist-high water and drag the boat by its anchor rope toward the empty beach.
Emily says, “Travis …,” in her “I'm warning you” voice.
“I'm going to dive.”
“You are not,” Emily shouts. “Kids have died jumping off that rock!” She looks at Cooper. “Stop him.”
“When have I ever been able to stop your brother from doing anything?”
“Dad will kill you!” Emily says. Her face is all panic-stricken.
“If the fall doesn't,” Coop adds.
“Who'll tell him?” I ask.
Darla scrambles over the side and grabs my arm. “Are you sure, Travis? It's a long way down.”
“That's why I'm leaving you three here on the beach with the food while I make the climb.” I look at Emily. “You can close your eyes.”
Emily crosses her arms and shoots daggers at me with her eyes.
“Divers do this all the time off the cliffs in Mexico. Even higher,” I remind her. “And besides, I've done it before.”
“Last summer. Just me and Coop.”
Cooper throws up his hands. “I just watched.”
“You two are so stupid!” Emily shouts. I laugh, but her words cut Cooper. I think he likes my sister. The doofus.
By now, our boat is beached and the others are scrambling onto the shore. Cooper swings the cooler onto dry land. Darla looks worried, but she trusts me. I kiss her. “It'll be all right. The hard part is the climb. The trip down is over in a flash. Just save me some food.”
I take off toward the back side of the cliff, knowing I've got a steep climb. But I'm pumped. I'm sweating by the time I get to the top, and my right leg hurts. It's hurt a lot lately, but I ignore it like I always do. Coach Davis doesn't like hearing his athletes piss and moan.
I limp to the edge, where I wave to my watchers below. They look pretty small from so high up. On top of the great rock, I stare toward the horizon where the lake meets the sky, and I watch boats buzzing around looking like windup toys.
The day is perfect, hot and clear. All sun and sky and blue water. My heart is racing, and something like an electrical current is r
ushing through me. I plan my strategy for the dive, decide not to get fancy. I'll execute the pike position once, hit the water vertical and clean.
I jump, and I hear my leg bone crack before I feel the pain that follows me all the way down into the deep, dark water.
We hear Travis scream the minute he bobs up in the lake. He thrashes and I think he's drowning. Cooper hits the water at a dead run, swims like a torpedo out to where Travis is floundering, and grabs him under the arms. My brain kicks in and I run after him. Darla and I meet them halfway to the beach, but Cooper shoos us away. “Let me get him on shore.”
“No,” Travis says through clenched teeth. “My leg. I can't stand. It hurts. Oh man, it hurts.”
“Get the boat,” Cooper says, and Darla and I scramble backward, grab the hull, and push it away from the island toward the deeper water.
Cooper gets a kickboard under Travis's leg for support and uses rope that he cuts from the anchor line to secure it. We keep Travis afloat while he works.
Darla can't stop crying. I'm crying too, and when I find my voice, I ask, “What happened? Did you hit something? A rock?”
“Don't know.” Travis's words are moans. “Happened when I jumped. My thigh.”
I can see a hump under his skin near his hip, where the skin is turning dark purple, and I feel queasy. “Looks broken. There's some aspirin—”
“Not a fix, little sister.” He's pale as milk.
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