Breathe

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Losing

On the day of the basketball game, Mina had been restless. It was a mixture of a sense of having lost something and a nervous-waiting that made her unfocused beyond control. After school, she waited outside the music room for Susan, who always did some extra guitar practicing after class. Mina tugged at the sleeve of her hoodie and, in doing so, couldn’t stop her mind from drifting to Jessica Lee. The boys must be crazy about her. But was it really Mina’s desire to draw the attention of her male fellow students? She shook her head, lost in thought, yet she pondered the idea of asking her mother for money to buy new clothes.

The music room door opened, and students with instruments under their arms or over their shoulders came out, Susan among them. She made eye contact, and Mina thought she recognized something in Susan’s expression for a moment. The blonde girl didn’t immediately greet Mina or make any move to approach her. Instead, she turned to a group of noticeably dressed people. They all wore black woolen caps, some of them had painted fingernails, others grotesque prints of old bands on their T-shirts. These were the students who were constantly called into the headmaster’s office or admonished by the teachers because of their appearance. The punishments for their persistent rule-breaking were often severe.

Susan exchanged a few words with them, laughed, then said goodbye before heading towards Mina. She didn’t smile. “What’s up,” she greeted, a coldness in her voice.

Mina wanted to reply but was at a loss for words, the familiar lightness between her and Susan suddenly gone. Have I done something wrong?

Susan then looked away and sighed. “I’m going to get a snack—are you coming?”

Mina followed her, hardly daring to walk beside her friend, for the tension in the air. The silence on the way to the vending machine was unusual, since Susan was known for being a chatterbox. Mina tried to start a conversation several times but decided against it each time she cast a sideways glance at Susan’s rigid face. At the snack machine, when it refused to dispense the cereal bar Susan had selected, she kicked it with all her might until the snack finally spat out. “Is there something you need from me?” Susan said, giving the machine a last kick with a grunt before turning to Mina. “Because you look like you want to say something.”

Mina opened and closed her mouth, completely taken aback by the sudden anger with which Susan met her. The feeling of having lost something she had had all day long manifested itself even more. “I wanted to ask if we were going to the basketball game together. I promised Caleb I’d be there.” She hadn’t even finished saying the words and already knew what the answer would be.

Susan laughed briefly, but her eyes remained hostile.

“What?” Mina asked.

“Are you serious? You want me to go to the basketball game with you?”

“Yes, like so many times before.”

Susan laughed again and started to walk, biting off the cereal bar while Mina hastily followed behind her.

“If you don’t feel like going, that’s okay—I was just asking.”

“That’s not the point.” Susan stopped in her tracks, and to Mina’s shock, threw the snack to the side. “It’s about the people who will be present. I won’t support a team full of players who are part of the problem.”

Mina’s head began to spin. What was Susan talking about? What bothered her?

“Mina, you must realize that we can’t go on living like this. These people, this system—it’s all wrong.”

“Are you talking about Eric Mayer and his friends?”

“Of course, I’m talking about Eric Mayer and his friends and the rest who submit to a state apparatus that only exploits and causes suffering.” Susan panted. “The worst is that Caleb is now part of it, and you support him—no matter what—Caleb flicks his fingers, and you follow.”

Mina took a step back. She needed space, needed to distance herself from Susan and her words. She and Caleb had been best friends all their lives—to hear Susan’s accusations felt like a slap in the face. Caleb had never taken advantage of their friendship, and she was certainly not a puppet who blindly followed his orders. “What has gotten into you lately?” Mina refused to give free rein to Susan’s rage. She no longer knew where she belonged—after Caleb’s joining the basketball team and Susan’s decision to hang out with another group of iffy people, Mina’s world seemed to be out of joint. “Caleb would never harm people. He likes to play basketball, that’s all.”

“Oh, come on, Mina.” Susan threw her hands in the air. “Do you really think I haven’t noticed?”

Mina stared at her.

“Do you really think I’ve missed the way you look at him every time he touches you or when he says something nice to you? You don’t like Eric Mayer yourself, and yet you tolerate Caleb being on the team just because you have the hots for him.”

Mina walked away. Something did indeed get lost, and that was her and Susan’s friendship at the very moment when her so-called friend could no longer stifle the snarky comments.

“You know what happened to that Timothy Bishop, don’t you?” Susan called after her.

Mina had heard of it and slowed down. “Everyone knows,” she answered, not willing to look at Susan. Timothy was a student at Sunpalm High who had been beaten up in the street and had now been on sick leave for a fortnight.

“Yeah, but do you know who was after him?” Susan waited for an answer, but there was none. “I thought so. Then let me enlighten you—it was Eric and his goon squad.”

“And you’re telling me this because...?” Mina risked eye contact, startled by what she saw.

A dark shadow flickered across Susan’s face as she took a step forward, her posture signaling rage and frustration, her fists clenched. “Because, you stupid cow,” she spat, “neither the authorities nor school has done anything. No sanctions for the bullies or any legal actions. The perpetrators are still running around as if they own the place, knowing very well that they have the support of the Party.”

Mina walked on again because she couldn’t take it anymore. There was no way Caleb would be part of that in any way.

“My, my! How wonderful it must be to live the life of Mina Anderson! Ladies and gentlemen, come and see! Close your eyes and ears to the world, and all your problems will miraculously disappear! I really envy you, Mina!” she heard Susan’s distant scream as she pushed forward with tears in her eyes, repeating over and over again in her mind, That’s not who Caleb is.

That’s not who Caleb is.

That’s not who Caleb is.

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