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Breathless Page 2

by Lurlene McDaniel

  I'm shivering and shaking and Darla's scrambled into the boat to help, but she's clueless and keeps begging Cooper to tell her what to do. We've left our cell phones in the car back at the marina, because they wouldn't have worked out here on the lake. Cooper says we can't leave Travis and go for help either. We need to get him into the boat and back to shore.

  Cooper slides his arms beneath Travis's body in the water. He warns, “This is going to hurt.” He tells me to get into the boat and for me and Darla to use our weight to pitch it as far to one side as we can without taking on water. We do, and the small boat dips sideways even with the deadweight motor. With amazing strength Cooper lifts Travis and the board out of the water and over the railing. Travis stifles a scream as the board slides inside and onto the bottom. Cooper shoves the boat farther out, leaps inside, and starts the motor.

  Darla wedges her lap between Travis's head and the hard fiberglass floor of the boat, and while my brother cries with pain, we smash across the water toward the shore.

  I call and tell Mom about the accident, and she says to meet her and Dad at the hospital ER. Cooper gets Travis on the backseat of Cooper's old car, and Darla sits on the floor by Travis's head. I jump into the front. Cooper breaks every speed limit getting Travis to the hospital.

  Having a nurse for a mother is a huge benefit, and Travis moves quickly into triage with Mom and Dad. The rest of us are banished to the waiting room.

  In the aftermath, I feel my knees wobble.

  Cooper takes my arm to steady me. “You all right?”


  He leads me to a chair. The room is cold and our swimsuits are still damp. Fortunately, we had shirts in the car, or Darla would be standing around in her bikini and every eye in the place would be on her big boobs. I hug the shirt—an old one of my brother's—close to my skin, wishing I had something to cover my legs.

  Darla asks, “Would you like a Coke? There's a machine down the hall. I'll go get you one. If you want one.”

  “A Coke's fine.”

  “What do you think happened?” Cooper asks.

  I shake my head.

  “And how long does it take before we know something?”

  “I don't know.” I look up, suddenly conscience-stricken. “We should pray.”


  “We should pray and ask God to heal him.”

  Cooper's black eyes stare hard at me. He says, “Sorry, I don't believe in God.”

  I've never heard anyone say this out loud. When you grow up in the Deep South, belief in God is embedded in your DNA We pray before football games, before school starts, when anything happens that's out of our control. Travis and I have church enrollment cards from nursery school through high school. I still attend youth group and Sunday school, so Cooper's announcement shocks me. “But God's real,” I say.

  “Not for me.”

  Darla's back with my Coke. “What's wrong?”

  “Emily wants to pray for Travis and I don't believe in God.”

  Darla says, “I believe in God.”

  “Well, good,” Cooper says. “Then you two pray.”

  Before I can say a word, Cooper adds, “Wait. Here come your parents.”

  I throw myself into Mom's arms. “How is he?”

  “His leg's broken—his femur—thigh bone, up high near his pelvis.”

  “Can they fix it?” This from Darla.

  “They want to check him in.”

  “Can't they just set it and send him home?” I ask.

  Dad says, “Can't set the bone until the swelling goes down.”

  Cautiously Mom says, “They want to run some tests.”

  “What kind of tests?”

  “We can talk at home. Right now, we want to get him settled upstairs.”

  “What do you want us to do, Miz Morrison?” Cooper speaks up.

  “Go home. Take Emily—”

  “Please let me stay,” I say quickly. “I—I want to see Travis.”

  “You're half naked,” Mom reminds me.

  Dad steps between us. “I'll run her home to change, then we'll come right back.”

  I don't want to leave, but Mom's making the rules.

  “I want to see him too,” Darla says, looking frightened.

  “Tomorrow.” Mom pats Darla's hand.

  “We'll go take care of the boat,” Cooper says.

  For the first time I think about our boat, which we've abandoned on the shore near the marina. Our cooler is back at Chimney Rock too.

  “I'd appreciate that,” Dad says.

  Cooper is halfway to the door when Darla bolts after him. “Wait for me!”

  Once they're gone, Mom walks to the elevators.

  “Let's go, honey.” Dad puts his arm around my shoulders.

  A hundred questions are banging around inside my head. I ask none of them. Whatever happened to Travis is more than a broken bone. I've been the child of a nurse too long to not know better.


  “You could have drowned.” Mom tells me that one too many times.

  “But I didn't.” After three days trapped in this hospital bed with nothing but medical tests and daytime TV game shows and soap operas for entertainment, drowning doesn't sound all that bad. “When will they finish with me? I don't want to spend all summer in the hospital.”

  Mom crosses her arms. “Not until Dr. Madison figures it out.”

  “They've taken a gallon of blood. What's with that? Just tell him to set my leg and send me home.”

  “He has the medical degree, not you,” Mom says.

  I've had accidents before—stitches, a concussion, a broken arm once when I was five—and I was never checked into the hospital. “That doesn't mean the guy knows what he's doing.”

  Mom's mouth makes a straight line that tells me to back off. I grumble, “If I'm stuck here, I need some decent food. I'm starving.”

  “I get you double helpings.” She leans down, kisses my cheek. “I've got to go on duty. Your dad and Emily will be here shortly.”

  “Can they bring some ice cream?”

  She doesn't answer. I pick up the TV remote and surf for old Star Trek episodes. Beam me up, Scotty.

  Once we're alone in my room that afternoon, Emily chews me out about my dive. Her hair's pulled back in a ponytail, her face is sunburned. “It was totally stupid!” She looks about twelve, with an angry grown-up expression, but I let her vent.

  “Hey … it's a broken leg. It'll heal.”

  “And you'll jump again.”


  “That's not funny.”

  I take her hand. “Look, sis, we are who we are. You're a thinker, and you figure all the angles before you do something. Not me. I like the adrenaline high, and that's never going to change.”

  She grumbles, “I would have figured out I'd get hurt if I jumped from the top of Chimney Rock.”

  “It never crossed my mind,” I tell her honestly.

  “It should have. You're not Superman.”

  “You've never flown. You don't know how it feels.” I yawn. I'm getting sleepy because of the drugs they're giving me.

  “Should I leave?” she asks. Her anger's gone and she looks worried.

  “Your call. Can't be much fun to hear me snore.”

  “I'll wait.” She settles in a nearby chair and doesn't let go of my hand.

  It's late at night when Cooper comes to my room. “Hey, man.”

  I'm awake but groggy. “Don't let the nurses catch you. It's after visiting hours.”

  He taps his closed fist against mine. “I didn't want to run into the paparazzi.”

  I grunt. “Dad's running interference. Just a few reporters checking in so far.”

  “Yeah, I saw it on the news. Big story, along with Mrs. Ford's dog tearing up the flower beds at City Hall.”

  I grin. Alexander's a small place, and because so many alumni are still around, high school athletics has a big following. Football is king, but my honors in diving
have given me supporters. “Not the way I want to be remembered,” I say. “For a failed dive.”

  “What's that?” Cooper points to a machine by my bed.

  “Happy juice.” I hold up a button linked by a tube to the machine that runs into a vein on my arm. “A morphine drip. I push this, and I'm happy.”

  Cooper nods. “Don't go liking it too much.”

  “Never happen. The stuff makes me loopy. It clogs my brain.”

  Cooper doesn't crack a smile or give a comeback.

  I take a deep breath. “Thanks for saving my butt.”

  “Would have ruined the picnic if you drowned.”

  Better, I think, more like the old Coop. He's always got my back.

  “You get the boat to the house?”

  “Yeah. Hosed it down and cleaned it up.”

  “I freaked all of you out, didn't I?”

  “Did you freak yourself out?”

  “A little,” I admit. “When I couldn't swim, couldn't kick … no control. I hate not having control.”

  “That's why we need the buddy system,” he says. “Don't do that again.”

  I grin up at him. “You sound like Emily.”

  He looks away when I mention my sister. “They going to let you out of here anytime soon?”

  “Don't know. I have an MRI tomorrow. A kind of whole-body X-ray,” I explain.

  “I'll see you tomorrow night. You can tell me if they discover a functioning brain.”

  I don't want him to leave. “Until then,” I say, and flick the button on my morphine drip. “Just me and my happy juice.”

  He grins. He's the best guy on earth and majorly underappreciated by most people at school. He acts tough and scary, but because of where he lives, it pays to have creeps afraid of you. I've always kept his secrets, especially about his mom.

  “Thanks, Coop.” The morphine spreads through me, but he's already gone.

  * * *

  Darla comes to visit twice a day before she hits her summer job at the theater concession stand where she works five nights a week. “The money's shabby, but it gets me out of the house,” she told me when she first took the job. “Plus, I have another mouth to feed.”

  “Your car.” Her grandmother left her some money when she died, and Darla's mom helped her buy an old car. She works for gas money.

  “And clothes,” Darla added. “I need new clothes.”

  “What's wrong with wearing your bikini?”

  She makes a face. “Goose bumps.”

  She's my babe. Plus, she's beautiful and smells like flowers and gives me a high that beats morphine by a mile. Most guys see her rack first, which I'll admit is impressive. I see her eyes. Big, blue, full of feeling. They look inside me and make me want to be better than I am.

  “Things all right at home?” I understand about her wanting to be away from her house. Her old man's a real piece of work. I think he hits her; I know he hits her mom.

  Her pretty smile droops a little. “I just stay out of his way.”

  Another reason to be out of this hospital. The two of us should be hanging at the lake or at my house to keep her away from the guy. “Soon as I'm out of here—”

  She kisses me. “Just get better, Prince Charming.”

  I pull her into my hospital bed—strictly forbidden—and we heat up the sheets before a nurse can find us.

  Between CT scans and MRIs and lab-tech bloodlettings, visitors start to hit my room. Coach Davis, my swim coach; guys from the team who aren't away on vacation; adults and kids from church; two pastors; mere acquaintances; friends of my parents; even a few more reporters pop in. Seeing Coach and the guys is the hardest, and it makes me miss my life even more. “The team needs you,” Coach tells me, “so get better.”

  “Diving's my whole life. I'll be back.”

  He squeezes my shoulder. “It takes a bone around six weeks to knit. Plenty of time for you to heal and get back in the gym and rebuild the muscle before school starts.”

  Weight lifting is good conditioning, so Coach requires his team to spend so many hours a week working out. “I'll be ready when school starts,” I say.

  “You're the best we have,” he says seriously. “Probably the best in Alabama. Stay healthy.”

  My head swells with his praise. “I won't let you down, Coach. I swear.”


  “It's osteosarcoma. Bone cancer.”

  Mom's words hit me like stones. I can't say a word.

  “The tumor just starts growing. Boys are more likely to get it than girls because their bones grow so fast. Random error from DNA gone amok.” Her voice cracks. “No way to predict who'll get it. It just happens.”

  We're at home in the family room on a sunny summer morning. Light floods through the windows, and the ceiling fan whaps the air with long blades. The smell of bacon from breakfast hangs in the air. She and Dad are on the sofa and I'm sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of them. A House and Garden picture of a perfect family. “But … but Travis isn't sick.” My feeble protest as the picture begins to shatter.

  “The bone in his leg is sick.”

  “What are they going to do?”

  “Chemo and radiation. And surgery.”

  “To cut out the tumor?”

  “To cut off his leg.”

  I think I'm going to throw up. “But they can't!”

  Dad's eyes are bloodshot and Mom's barely holding herself together. “They must.”

  “Does he know? Have you told him?”

  “We're meeting his doctor at noon and we'll tell him together.”

  “Me too?”

  “No. You're staying here.”


  Mom drills me with a look. In truth, I don't want to be there. I don't want to see the light go out of my brother's eyes.


  Emily called crying and told me the news. Once we hung up, I went out on the cement pad in back of our trailer and began wailing on my punching bag. Sweat is pouring into my eyes. My arms are heavy and my knuckles sore inside the gloves. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters. The doctors are going to cut off Travis's leg.

  A neighbor's dog is barking, and someone yells, “Shut up!” The dog yelps in pain and I slump to the ground and hang my head. I can't help the dog. I can't help Travis. I can't help Emily. I'm good for nothing.

  I get up, turn on the hose, and take a long drink. I douse my head and neck to cool off. I go inside the trailer, where it's dark and the AC wall unit and two tabletop fans are barely keeping the place cool. The air stinks. Dishes are piled in the sink and the garbage can is overflowing. I should clean it up. If I don't, no one else will.

  I'm hungry, and I glance at the clock. It's after two and I haven't had anything to eat since last night. My summer job at the burger joint starts tomorrow. Until then, I'm on my own. I hear Ma snoring in the back above the racket from the AC. I walk to the bedroom and crack open the door. She's lying half on, half off the rumpled bed. I go inside, scoop up her feet, and position her better on the bed. She grunts but doesn't wake. On the nightstand I see a half-empty vodka bottle. She hasn't worked in weeks, but she still manages to buy her booze.

  “Get a job, Ma,” I say quietly. My paycheck won't stretch far enough to cover rent and electricity, food, gas for my car, and her booze.

  I wonder what other guys talk about with their mothers. Wouldn't they tell them about their best friend having cancer? Mine probably doesn't remember that I have a best friend.

  I pull an old soiled comforter over her, see her purse on the floor and pick it up. Inside I find a twenty-dollar bill. I know how she came by it.

  I should go to the hospital. I can't. Not today. Travis needs time to think this out for himself.

  I leave the bedroom, grab the keys to my old Pontiac off a wall hook, and head out to buy food.


  “Liars.” That's what I say when the doctors tell me. Mom is teary eyed and Dad's face is stone. Dr. Madison has come with another do
ctor, an oncologist, Dr. Wolfsen.

  “I know this is a shock—”

  “You're wrong,” I say. “I can't have cancer. I feel fine.”

  “Your leg isn't fine,” Dr. Madison says. “There's a tumor in the bone. That's why it broke.”

  Mom reaches out to touch me, but I jerk away.

  “We'll start treatment at once,” Wolfsen says.

  “I don't want you to cut off my leg.” I feel like I'm going to puke. If I do, I want it to get all over him.

  “Chemo first,” Wolfsen says, as if I haven't spoken. “Then the surgery. Then more chemo. Radiation probably. We'll run more tests. Sometimes, if the cancer is localized, we can do a bone graft and save the limb. I don't expect that to be the case for you, though. I'm being honest with you, Travis. I'm always honest with my patients. I won't give you false hope.”

  “You can't cut off my leg!” I say it louder to make sure he hears me this time.

  “And we don't want you to lose your leg, but if we don't amputate, and if the cancer spreads—”

  “And it will spread unless we amputate,” Dr. Madison says.

  Wolfsen keeps looking at me. “—you will die.”

  Blunt. To the point. A leg for my life. They consider it a good trade-off. I'm not sure I do.

  “There are prosthetics—” Mom starts.

  I squash her words with a look. Fake legs. I've seen video clips of wounded soldiers with artificial limbs valiantly jogging while a reporter shoves a microphone in their faces and applauds their courage. I've watched the Wheelchair Olympics on TV. That's not who I want to be. No diver ever won medals with a missing body part.

  “Go away,” I say.

  Before Mom can protest, Dad takes her arm. “Give him space.”

  All the space in the world won't make me feel better about what they want to do to me. Wolfsen says, “I'm starting a chemo infusion immediately. The first protocol will be short and intense. You'll be an outpatient. You'll have physical therapy and a physiologist who'll help you learn to use your prosthesis when the time comes. And you'll see a psychologist too. You'll get through this, Travis. You're young and strong, and if the cancer hasn't spread beyond the tumor, survival rates are sixty to eighty percent.”


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