Breathe

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Rain and Pills

*Ten years earlier*

The sun’s rays fought their way through the dark heavy cloud cover and contoured the boy’s silhouette for a brief moment.

“Hey,” Caleb greeted Mina with a broad grin, his pearly white teeth contrasting sharply with his tanned, olive skin. With his hands in his pockets, the teenager leaned against the battered fence of the front yard her father had wanted to replace for years.

Mina regarded her friend with a smile as she approached him. His raven hair was tousled and the black jeans torn at the knees. He wore Converse sneakers of the same color and had a skateboard tucked under his arm. On his T-shirt was a print of a band whose records Caleb had found in the ruins down at the docks. It said, Nirvana.

“Oh my!” he exclaimed, startling Mina. “You got new shoes.” He nodded at the pair of yellow Adidas she was wearing. They had belonged to a person Mina had never met, worn out and exemplifying the chaotic style from the previous century when bands and kids were constantly at the edge of despair in the nineteen-nineties.

“Yes, fresh from the fashion designer called Flea Market.”

“Is that so?” Caleb replied in mock approval, and his gaze lingered on her footwear for another moment. He shook his head and grinned. Behind him, the dark sky loomed over them, and the usual sounds of outdoor life transformed into eerie tranquility, replaced by a soft wind and a distant rumble. The air felt weird—static somehow, affecting the tiny hairs on Mina’s arms.

Then, she saw Caleb’s college jacket with faded white sleeves and a red torso. It was part of the high school’s basketball uniform, the team Caleb had joined last winter.

The boy didn’t miss her observing look and sighed. “Everyone wears them,” he said and put his skateboard on the cracked pavement.

“Yeah, sure.” Mina forced a smile and started to walk. Caleb skated slowly beside her, his hands swinging leisurely every time he pushed forward off the ground. Neither of them spoke a word as a bolt of bright lightning flashed above the treetops, followed by a cracking and deafening thunder. For a moment, Mina stared at the increasing number of electric arcs, unaware of her tense body. But when a hand touched her gently on the elbow, she turned and looked into Caleb’s dark eyes.

“Did you bring your protective coat?”

Mina shook her head, not missing her friend’s scowl. The sky had looked like rain all morning, but she hated the heavy cloak and had hoped to avoid the downpour somehow. Another thunderbolt and the first raindrops started to fall lazily on the warm concrete.

“Come on, let’s shelter,” Caleb said, and with her bag over her head, Mina followed him under a nearby old carport, the debris of a destroyed house next to it. Shortly afterwards, it was pelting with acid rain. A weather forecast that had become all too common these days.

The teenagers watched the natural spectacle in safety, knowing that these heavy showers never lasted long. Mina listened to the rhythmic pattering of raindrops on the corrugated roof, mesmerized by the amount of water that ran in rivulets along the time-worn pillars of the carport.

“You know, not all the guys on the team are bad,” Caleb said after a moment of silence. “You can’t take them seriously anyway. They’re just joking.”

Mina nodded. But too often, she had seen team members marching through the school corridors like pompous thugs, shouting and laughing, pushing people out of the way. They were students whose families had influence, led by none other than Eric Mayer—captain of the basketball team.

Mina was glad Caleb had never participated in such nonsense, but she feared it would only be a matter of time. The pressure to conform, to become one with the group, had to weigh heavily on him. But then, why had he joined them in the first place? Caleb was always full of surprises, and Mina knew that. He was a boy who preferred to do things a little differently—find his own way, in his own time. So why become part of the popular gang he had despised so much in his earlier school days?

“Are you coming to the game?”

Mina did not answer.

“It would mean a lot to me.”

And she felt Caleb’s elbow gently nudging her in the side as he teased in one of his many put-on voices. “I’m just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to support him.”

“You stole that line from a film,” Mina countered. She took a deep breath and realized that lately, she had been finding it hard to refuse Caleb a wish. So, she said yes, even though these events always meant a packed, smelly gym, a lot of yelling, but worst of all, to see and to be seen.

Caleb put his arm around Mina and pulled her close to him. “You’re the best,” he told her while the rain died down and the clouds cleared, allowing the sun to return. Mina was about to step out from under the carport when she was held back.

“Not yet,” Caleb said, pointing his finger to the horizon. A fine veil of rain glittered in the play of light, and Mina wondered how a world could be so beautiful, yet unnervingly dangerous.

*

When they reached the car park of Sunpalm High, they were both chuckling and giggling. Caleb had a deep, hearty laugh—a laugh that made one turn around. It was infectious, and Mina snickered every time, no matter how stupid the joke or silly the talk.

Students rushed into school while others stood in groups outside the entrance with their textbooks in hand. After the storm, the building’s front facade was brightly lit by the morning sun, whereas the destroyed part withered away in the shadows like a skeleton of the past.

A ghostly, hollowed-out tank stood where once colorful flower beds had graced the grounds. Nature had reclaimed its habitat as green tendrils entwined the rusty outer shell of the cremated war vehicle. On the side of the tank, scarlet letters of the inscription Never again shone through the overgrowth of unnaturally white blooming flowers while students walked past, utterly unfazed by the reminder of a long-gone time.

The two teens strolled up the stairs that led inside and into the infamous school corridors, later remembered as the ‘involuntary catwalk’. They stopped at a security checkpoint. Roller conveyors had been installed, on top of them and further down the tracks, big black metal boxes with an opening on both sides. The conveyors made a rhythmic sound as students stashed their protective raincoats in gray trays and placed them on the rolls. After that, everyone had to stand in line for their treatment.

“Your coats?” barked a lady in a dark suit, her black hair tied back in a tight bun.

“We took shelter,” Caleb replied, earning a stern look from the woman.

Mina listened to the continuous, aggressive spraying of the disinfection nozzles installed in the black boxes of the surrounding checkpoints as one gray tray after another disappeared into the openings. A few seconds later, glistening coats emerged on the other side.

Mina turned to the lady and showed her her wrist. Upon seeing three small tattooed dots, the woman nodded and handed her a paper cup with dark liquid and a pill. Mina took the pill in her mouth and put the cup to her lips. She swallowed in one quick movement and grimaced at the bitter metallic aftertaste.

“Next!” the woman screamed and, with one hand, pushed Mina aside when a booming voice resounded next to them.

“No medicine!” A security man with arms folded behind his back stood legs-apart in front of a table, shielding the prepared pills with his massive body. In front of him was a young girl, her eyes large and her hands clasped over each other, outstretched to the man.

“I said, no medicine for you.”

Seeping sores spread over the girl’s face as she begged for a pill. Mina didn’t have to search for the tattoo because she knew the girl didn’t have one. The kid had the sickness.

“Get out of my way!” the man screamed, and the girl lowered her hands and walked on without any further protest. The students formed a corridor, whispering as the girl walked past them with an expressionless face and eventually disappeared into the depths of the school.

“Did you know that after the war, most contaminated people died within weeks?” Caleb stood next to Mina and stared at the beehive of students. She remembered something their biology teacher had once told them—something about the survival of the fittest, about the extraordinary wonders of the human body to adapt to a hostile environment so fast. The teacher had called it a masterpiece of evolution. And still, one had to receive medication in order to live a long life.

“I once heard about states that took care of their people. They did not abandon them because money was missing for treatment,” Caleb continued.

Instinctively, Mina’s fingers went to her tattooed wrist. The three dots were proof of an income statement her parents had to show every time her mother had given birth. There was no memory of this early branding, but Mina knew that it was her ticket to health in the form of a daily dose of tablets. According to science, she would never suffer from the sickness as long as she took the pill.

“See you in English then.” Caleb hugged her after finishing one of his detailed interpretations of a welfare state, and Mina, returning the gesture lost in thought, couldn’t help but wonder if the parents of the sick girl were still alive.

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