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Breathless Page 6

by Lurlene McDaniel

I lock my arm around his waist and hold him upright while he takes hold of his crutch, and although we go up the stairs together, I feel like there's a wedge between us a mile wide.

  I decide to ask Darla if she knows anything about Travis that I don't. I know the two of us will never be best friends, but she's impressed me with her devotion to my brother. I never picked her for the type to stick around, but I'm glad she is.

  “What should I know?” she asks me.

  “Travis and Cooper are acting sneaky. Cooper drops by practically every night. They act like they've got some big secret, and if I walk into the room, they clam up. This has been going on for over a week. They're up to something.”

  Her brow knits, but she shakes her head. “Travis hasn't said anything out of the ordinary to me.”

  I can tell she's clueless, and it irritates me. “What do the two of you talk about?”

  “Boring stuff. I tell him about school, cafeteria gossip, who's dating who—anything to keep his mind off of how bad he hurts.”

  “Well, I'm telling you, something's going on. Something they don't want me to know.”

  She thinks, nods. “Okay, I'll see what I can find out.”

  When she turns, the light hits her face in a way that I see a bruise on her cheek. She's covered it with makeup, but I see it faintly spread under her eye.

  Jolted, I blurt out, “What happened to you?” and reach toward her face.

  Darla pulls away. “Oh nothing. Clumsy me. I walked into a door. Can you believe it?”

  I can't, but I let her keep her story. “Well … be careful. And—and if Travis tells you something you think I should know—”

  “I'll share,” she says brightly.

  I watch her walk away, and it hits me that Darla Gibson may have secrets too.


  I stand on the towering platform, and look down on clear blue water sparkling in eternal sunlight. I already know how it will feel flying downward to meet the water, because I've done this leap hundreds of times. My toes are pointed, balancing my body just on the edge of the concrete, my mind mapping the execution of my perfect dive.

  My dive will have a degree of difficulty that's unmatched. I will be the first in diving history to do it in high school competition. The judges look up at me with military attention. Not the usual panel of judges, but instead Cooper, Darla, Emily, Mom, and Dad. I wonder why they're in the jury seats. No matter. I want to be perfect in their eyes and earn perfect scores from each of them.

  I stretch my arms over my head, picture the moves in my mind: execute a perfect leap, arms outstretched as if in crucifixion; fold into the pike position; then twist and somersault before I stretch vertical toward the water.

  But when I leap something goes wrong. My arms separate from my body, my legs vanish, and I hurtle down toward the concrete-hard water, tumbling out of control, falling, falling….

  I wake in a cold sweat. The dream again. Always the same—my body separating, falling apart while people watch. My room is dark, and the last morphine shot Mom gave me has worn off. Dull fire is spreading through my body.

  I concentrate on my plan to make the hurting stop forever. It's simple. When the weather warms up, Coop will drive me out to the lake very early one morning. Everyone knows how much I love the lake, so they'll think nothing of our going. We'll rent a canoe at the marina. He'll paddle us out to the deep-water platform, a floating wooden pallet where kids like to hang out in the summer, sunbathing and swimming. We'll be alone. I'll send him to get something I left in the car. He'll return to the shore, make certain he's seen by people, and while he's gone I'll slide off the platform into the water. I'll swim out as far as I can. And when I can no longer lift my arms, when my leg can no longer kick, I'll slip beneath the surface and drown.

  That's how I want to end my life, in the water alone, with sky above me, the deep below. And Cooper will be exonerated. An expediter, but a nonparticipant. With only me responsible for the final act. Simple. Just me and the water I love so much. No hospital, no machines, no lingering and waiting for cancer to end my life. My right to die. My life in my control.

  And no one will ever know the truth. Except Cooper.


  Emily's right. Travis is keeping something from me. I know because he's my boyfriend. Because I know every inch of him inside and out, and he can't keep a secret from me even if he thinks he can. I know because there's a kind of peace about him I haven't seen in a long time. He's still in horrible pain, but there's something inside him that's different these days. I haven't said anything to him, and he doesn't know I suspect any change, but I know it's there.

  We're together every day, alone after his mother leaves and before Emily and his dad come home. I hold him against me when the pain comes. It soothes him to be in my arms. I kiss him, distract him. I love him with all my heart. I hate cancer and his doctors and sometimes even his mother. She's always searching for new treatments that end up building, then dashing, hope.

  One afternoon I slip Emily a note to meet me in the school parking lot after the last bell. She's waiting beside my car when I get there. “What's up?” she asks.

  “I agree that Travis is holding something back. And I'm sure Cooper's in on it.”

  “Any ideas?”

  “Not yet.”

  Emily looks disappointed. “Did you ask him?”

  “That's not the way it works, Em. I can't pry information out of him. He's got to want to give it up.”

  She looks baffled, and I realize she's got zero experience when it comes to guys. “Listen, I'll work on Travis and you work on Cooper. He knows what's going on too.”

  Her face reddens, and she glances in two directions as if we might be overheard. “Cooper! I hardly ever speak to him. Why would he tell me anything?”

  “You honestly don't know that he likes you?” This surprises me.

  She stutters out, “No way,” and blushes bright red. Now I get it. She likes him too but can't admit it.

  “He has a soft spot for you, Emily. I thought you knew.”

  She shakes her head. Denial.

  “Trust me. I know these things.” I put my hand on her shoulder, look her in the eye. “You're going to have to get him to talk to you. Get him to open up and maybe tell you something that will help us figure out what's going on.”

  “H-how do I do that?”

  “Start by spending time with him.”

  “Even when he comes over, he hardly talks to me.”

  “Then talk to him. Ask him to take you to the store or run an errand. It isn't hard to get a guy who's interested in you to spend time with you.”

  She looks flustered. “I—I don't know. I study most afternoons in the library.”

  “How do you get home?”

  “Dad, usually.”

  “Well, duh. Ask Cooper to bring you home. I'm betting he'll jump at the chance.”

  “What if he won't?”

  I pat her arm. “He will.”

  “Is—is that how you got Travis?”

  Her chin's tilted, and I see that she's suspicious of me. I realize how calculating I must have sounded to her. “Travis got me,” I say. “He got me by caring. That's why I love him. Because he cares and isn't afraid to show it. Isn't that what girls want? Someone who makes us feel special and loved and wanted?”

  She doesn't answer me, so I smile and get into my car. “Travis is my one true love,” I say out the window. “I'll do anything to make him happy. Got to run. Don't want Travis alone too long.”

  I drive off, watching Emily trudge toward the school library, and hope she's clever enough to take on Cooper Kulani.


  Ever since Travis asked me to help him end his life, it's all I think about. I'm on edge, and my temper's out of control. I get into trouble at school. Punched a guy in gym for mouthing off to me. An automatic suspension, but no one rats me out. Smart, because all I want is an excuse to pound on somebody.

  I argue with Travis. I tell
him I don't want to go through with his plan even though I get his logic. He's shown me stuff from the Internet about death-with-dignity and right-to-die groups like the Final Exit Network and Compassion & Choices. He's shown me the aid-in-dying law that's part of Oregon's state legislation, and examples of euthanasia programs in Holland, Switzerland, and Belgium. “It's civilized,” Travis says. “It gives a person a choice over their exit from planet Earth. What's wrong with that?”

  “It doesn't feel civilized,” I tell him. But he won't stop pushing me to help him. For him it's a head game, a competition, like going after medals in a diving meet: This is what I want. This is how I'm going to get it. “You're playing God,” I tell him. I know he believes in that religion stuff.

  “You don't believe in God,” he tells me.

  “Well, Emily does. Would she approve?”

  “But Emily isn't going to know, is she? It's just between you and me, bro. My family will never know how it goes down. It'll be an accident. Got that?”

  His parents won't even consent to a DNR, something that makes sense to me. It's something I'd want if I were in his place. “What about Darla? You going to tell her?”

  His face clouds. “Probably not. She works pretty hard to keep me happy.” He shakes his head. “But I hate keeping it from her too.”

  “Don't you think Darla and Emily will figure it out once it's over?”

  “Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. You'd never tell them.”

  “And don't you think it will wreck them both?”

  “I can't think about that.” He's pushed back in his dad's recliner; he's just skin and bones, a far cry from the champion athlete I once knew. “I know what I'm asking puts you in a tough place, Coop, but if you just leave me on the platform in the lake, if you take the boat back to shore, if you just play dumb, no one will blame you.”

  I think, I'll blame me. Does he get how final death is? No turning back. My mouth is sour, and I chase away the taste with a swallow of beer. “You have a time line?”

  “Depends on if Darla gets the lead in that play If she does—well, I wouldn't want to spoil her big moment. I should see her perform.”

  “Thoughtful of you.”

  He gives me a cold look. “I know you don't approve, but with or without you, I'm doing this. I'd rather have you with me.”

  I've had a headache for two weeks, and it's pounding now. “I don't know.”

  He coughs, finds his breath, and says, “You've got until May. Right before finals week.”


  He grins. “So will you help me?”

  Emily asks if I can take her home from the library, which surprises me because she pretty much ignores my existence. She's all nervous and jumpy when she asks. I tell her I don't mind, and that's the truth. I don't know why that girl gets to me, but she does and always has. She's nothing like the kind of girl I usually go with.

  She doesn't say much when I pick her up in front of the library, but I know something's on her mind. When we get to her house, I ask, “You want a ride tomorrow?”

  “Sure. If—if you don't mind.”

  “I don't mind.”

  “You still working nights?”

  “Six nights a week.”

  “When do you sleep?”

  “First through third periods.”

  Her smile is pretty. “Don't your teachers notice?”

  “Trust me, they'd rather have me asleep.”

  “Are you going to graduate?”

  “Sure. They don't want me hanging around for another year.”

  “So no college?”

  I laugh out loud. “No way. I'm through with school.”

  “Travis is going to graduate too. More of an honorary degree, Mom says. I wish…” Her voice trails off.

  “Pick you up tomorrow,” I say, not wanting to get into anything else with her, not wanting to make her sadder than she already is.

  I drive her home for a week. We don't talk much, but I like her company. I like watching her. She plays with the ends of her hair when she's deep in thought, and she purses her lips when she's thinking over how she wants to say something that's important to her. I drive slowly, wanting our togetherness to last. “I don't mind taking you to church if you want,” I tell her. “I'll wait in my car while you do your thing with God.”

  “No,” she says, twirling her hair around a finger. “I don't do that anymore.”

  Red flag. I hesitate before I ask, “Why?”

  “I've done all the begging and praying I can do. God's totally aware of what I want. I've told him hundreds of times.”

  “But you're not giving up, are you?”

  “I think Travis has.”

  Big red flag. “What do you mean?”

  “I think he wants to die.”

  My heart thuds. Don't go there. “He's in a lot of pain. It can wear a person down.”

  “I know.”

  I shift in the driver's seat, search for a way to change the subject. “Look, would you like some dinner? Mo's Pizza Shack is near. I'm thinking a pepperoni, large.”

  She looks over at me, hesitates. “Let me call Dad and tell him I won't be home for supper.”

  I can't help myself. I grin like a fool.


  Mo's smells heavenly, all yeasty-rich with baking crust and cheese and tomato sauce. Cooper and I sit in a booth at the back, and he orders colas and a large pizza. Good as it smells, I'm not sure I can eat a bite. There's a candle on our table, and it throws flickering shadows across his face. I think he's gorgeous with his exotic black eyes and brown skin. His hands are huge and rough, but when he shakes hot pepper flakes on the pizza, his hands look gentle. “You mind?” he asks.

  “No. I like peppers.”

  He devours two slices and I nibble on one, wondering how I'm going to get him to talk about Travis, feeling devious when all I want is to feel like a girl on her first date. My heart is hammering hard before I get my courage up and ask, “Do you know what's going on with my brother?”

  Cooper stops chewing, drops his half-finished third piece onto his plate. “Why do you ask?”

  I'm committed now. “He—he's keeping secrets from me.”

  “Why shouldn't he have secrets? Any law about not having them?”

  “Of course not, but I just have the gut feeling that something serious is going on.”

  “Talk to him.”

  “Don't you think I've asked him? He won't tell me. He won't be honest with me.”

  “And so you thought you'd work on me. Dig it out of me.”

  The truth hurts, and I squirm. Where is Darla? She should be here. She'd know what to say. “No! I—I mean, I want to know, but that's not why I came here with you. I like being with you.” My words are true, but even to my ears they sound insincere.

  “Sure you do.”

  “Please, Cooper …”

  He studies my face, his dark, dark eyes unreadable. My heart beats in triple time, and I want … I want…

  “I can't help you.” He stands, tosses money on the table for the pizza, and says, “Come on. I'll take you home.”

  He's almost out the door before I can grab my jacket and catch up with him. At his car, he jerks open the passenger door for me. “Get in.”

  I hurl myself at him, stand on tiptoe until I'm inches from his body. “You've got to listen to me. This isn't about me or you. I'm going crazy. He's my brother! He's been there all my life.” I begin to tremble. “We're a part of each other. If you know something, tell me what it is.”

  Cooper's face is hard as stone. Did he even hear me? “If you want information about Travis, ask him, not me.”

  I know what a tough spot I've put him in—tell a secret, betray a friend. It isn't fair, but I had to try. And now, more than ever, I'm frightened for my brother, more scared than in any bad dream I've ever had.

  Cooper drives slowly. Night has fallen, and street-lamps make puddles of light on the street and sidewalk. Alexander is a small city, wit
h only a few streets along our downtown. The street he takes is off the main drag. The silence between us is a cold wall. I don't know what to say to make things better. I want information, that's true, but I like being with Cooper, and I don't want him to hate me. In my heart, I like him despite my mother's warnings. If Darla's right about his liking me, I've ruined it.

  All of a sudden, Cooper veers the car to the curb and jumps out. “Wait here!”

  Alarmed, I shout, “What's wrong?”

  He doesn't answer. I watch him run across the street toward two men and a woman. The woman is being shoved between the men, and just before Cooper gets to them, one of the men strikes the woman hard across the face. Then Cooper is in the middle of them, pushing the men aside and yelling, fists flying. He punches and kicks them in a fury until they flee. The woman slumps. Cooper scoops her up in his arms and carries her to the car.

  “Get the door, Emily.”

  I scramble to open it.

  He settles her across the backseat and comes around and gets in the car. He's breathing hard and he's bleeding over his eye. The woman in the back whimpers.

  “Who is she?”

  He turns the key. “My mother.”

  I can hardly get my mind around what's just happened. I've never met his mother, and now to meet her like this—

  “I have to take her home.”

  “Sure. Yes. Should she see a doctor?”

  “She doesn't need a doctor. She's a drunk, Emily.”

  “And those two men?”


  I know what the word means.

  He glances over at me. “You're not going to feel sorry for me, are you?”

  In a flash, I understand things about Cooper I never have before, and how Travis has protected him because that's what friends do. I know Cooper's pride is at stake. I regroup quickly. “Of course not. Those men were horrible! Hitting a woman like that. Good thing you came along.”

  “No biggie.”

  He pulls into a trailer park and up to a small trailer. I can see its outline in the dark. “Wait here,” he says. He takes the woman, his mother, out of the car. With his help, she can stand.


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