Breathe

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Playing a New Game

*Warning: Even though the scenes are not explicit, the chapter contains violence and acts that are considered terrorism.*

*

Mina entered the gym in the early evening to watch the season’s opening game, and her heart sank. She knew this venue inside out and saw most people almost every day. Still, she felt out of place, believing that all eyes were on her as she searched for a suitable spot to watch the game alone.

The sports hall resembled a beehive with students, teachers and parents busily walking among the stands or talking animatedly to each other. Loud, booming music accompanied the vivid scene, its intense beats almost ear-splitting.

Mina took a left and went up the stairs until she reached the upper ranks of the stand. She skirted a puddle of water coming from the makeshift roof that displayed a colorful variety of different building materials, and she remembered the title of an article her father had written when he was young:

"Schools fail to provide children with an indoor exercise space."

Some parents had gotten wind of the word, and from there on, the report had spread like wildfire throughout the country, resulting in numerous changes: First, the officials had reopened the gyms—after a fashion, yet local sports clubs could resume their work, and schools had their teams back. Second, her father received a job offer at the only available independent news agency in the area. And third, black-uniformed men patrolled the street where Mina’s parents had once lived.

Mina looked up at the leaking roof and wrinkled her nose, setting off to squeeze through the sitting spectators. Disgruntled and never in her life so self-conscious, she walked past a group of students who looked familiar. She almost tripped when she realized who they were—the group of people Susan had been speaking to after music class and before she had given Mina a piece of her mind. What the heck are they doing here?

As Mina walked past the group, her gaze drifted to the rucksack one of the girls was carrying. Attached near the top was a pin she’d never seen before—a black raised fist encircled by barbed wire. Mina sat down diagonally behind them, her eyes still directed at the girl’s bag. The symbol gave her an uneasy feeling, as if something big was about to happen.

The music changed, its rhythm straining Mina’s nerves as she watched the school’s tiger costumed mascot enter the stage, one arm of the artificial fur missing. The sight was grotesque, becoming even more ludicrous as it waved its arms and shook its butt. Then, it was time for the cheerleaders. The applause and shouts gained in volume as the girls started their choreography to hot rhythms with Jessica Lee leading the way, her curls pinned up into a sassy hairstyle.

She is hanging around like a bad smell, Mina thought and followed the performance with raised eyebrows. Suddenly, a melodic voice pulled her out of her brooding, “Hey, little one.”

Mina lifted her head and looked into the face of her older sister, Veronica—a senior, pretty with long blonde hair and the very opposite in style to her younger sister.

“Are you alone?” Veronica asked, her expression friendly, yet a hint of pity flitted across her face. Mina nodded but saw no point in explaining the whole drama she had with Susan. Veronica tossed her hair and gestured to her female friend standing behind her. The two seniors then took a seat next to Mina, and she understood that Veronica was doing her a favor.

The music changed again, and the basketball teams left their lockers to line up in front of the stands. And while the game commentator revealed a few fun facts, Mina’s concentration was distracted by something else entirely. The players had taken off their jackets, and she looked curiously at her best friend with the number nine on his back, a small voice in her head telling her that she was gawking.

Caleb laughed with the others while he shot hoops, his movements marked by a graceful easiness, a dynamism that evoked a strange longing in Mina. The desire to be seen by him turned into a tortured craving, and she almost chanted under her breath, Look up. Look up! Suddenly, and if she had spun a mental yarn between herself and Caleb, he directed his attention to the stands. Mina followed his gaze, and her heartbeat quickened when their eyes met.

A feeling she had known for some time now blossomed in her body. It was a pleasant warmth, a tingling below her navel, a bubbling sensation in her lower stomach. Of course, it had not escaped her attention that their bodies had been changing over the past years, but as she watched Caleb warm-up, Mina wondered, What had happened to the skinny boy from last summer? Her friend had been as thin as a rake, always eating, never gaining a pound. But now, she saw a difference in him. He was still tall and lean, yet he wasn’t the same. Caleb was growing into the man he would become in a few years, and a bitter thought crossed her mind, Was Susan right? Did she like her best friend?

“Caleb looks good,” Veronica shouted into Mina’s ear, trying to outscream the music. But Mina only nodded, unable to say out loud what she was experiencing when the referee blew his whistle to signal the start of the game.

*

The match progressed quickly, and the coaches used halftime to talk with their teams about game strategies and adjustments that needed to be made. The loud music was back on, and spectators left their seats to return with drinks. None of those present seemed to mind the uniformed guards entering the hall and positioning themselves at exits and other spots to overlook the space.

Veronica was engaged in a vivid conversation with her friend when Mina noticed that the group of students from earlier started to stir. They put their heads together and whispered into each other’s ears, then got up and went towards the upper back exit, not occupied by the guards yet. Two uniformed women walked up the stands, slowly but steadily, and the girl with the pin on her backpack said something to the boy in front of her. Mina couldn’t make out what it was, but she recognized the last word by reading her lips.

She had said pigs.

The group picked up speed, and then they were gone before the uniformed women could block the exit.

Mina, unsure of what she just saw, tried desperately to shift her concentration back to the basketball team. Caleb ran a towel over his face and took a sip from his water bottle. Never in her life had Mina felt so much chaos in her head. However, a soft smile slipped onto her face as she watched him get down on one knee and tighten the laces of his sneakers.

“Veronica, when did you have your first kiss?” Mina hadn’t planned on asking such a question, and she blushed at the thought of her sister’s friend listening in. There was a sudden silence beside her, Veronica certainly surprised by the intimate question.

“Is there someone special?” A manicured hand covered Mina's.

Mina looked at Veronica, not missing her sister squinting at the basketball court, probably trying to figure out which of the sweaty boys was the chosen one. “Just curious,” she shrugged. Mina didn’t know why now, of all times, she would ask this, but when her eyes landed on Caleb, she wondered what it would be like to be kissed properly—not those truth-or-dare pecks, but the whole package. Is kissing really as good as it looked?

“I was fourteen,” Veronica suddenly replied as if it was the most common thing in the world. Mina’s eyes widened. Her sister had never let on, and looking at Veronica’s relaxed composure, she asked herself for a split second whether her sister had already done more than kissing.

“It was in December, at a party I wasn’t allowed to go to, but I managed anyway.” Veronica’s face started to beam at the tender thoughts of her early teenage days. “I think his name was Johnny Clarkson—he doesn’t live in town, so I haven’t seen him again.” She chuckled, “He was three years older than me, and I felt so grown-up because I had smooched an older guy.”

Mina laughed a little as she recalled an evening when Veronica ran screaming and red-faced through the house and after her parents, calling them unfair and conservatives. Mina didn’t even dare ask her mother for permission to go to a party. Unnotified gatherings of large groups were illegal, so she had never bothered to go to one of those legendary parties. Instead, she enjoyed nights out at the cinema with Caleb.

The whistle blew again, and everyone turned their attention back to the court while Mina chose the solitude of her thoughts for another moment. What’s wrong with me? I am almost sixteen, and I’ve never been kissed.

On the court, Caleb ran free, caught the ball and scored with a clean shot from the three-point line. The cheers in the hall were loud and boisterous. Mina clapped, too, as he ran across the court, getting hugs and high-fives from his teammates. Jessica Lee and the other cheerleaders kicked their legs high in the air. But Mina’s clapping ceased when Jessica turned to Caleb, pompoms in hand, and rewarded his success with a blowing kiss. Caleb, in return, answered the cheerleader with nothing less...

...than a wink.

“Now look at your friend,” she heard Veronica muse. “Even the most popular senior is smitten with him.”

Mina, shocked to the core, tried to comprehend what she’d just seen, acutely aware that her teeth had clenched shut and were starting to grind against each other, her jaw pushing back and forth.

Somewhere across the gym, a uniformed man ordered a fan of the opposite team to calm down and return to his seat. Instead, the boy raised his fist in the air and shouted something, but Mina paid no attention.

“The nerve of him,” she murmured, and the tingling sensation in her lower stomach morphed into a suffocating pressure in her chest. She swallowed hard—once, twice, a third time as her eyes followed her friend on the basketball court. She was so engaged in the flirtatious exchange between Caleb and Jessica that she didn’t notice Veronica commenting on the commotion in the stands with the words, “Oh my God.”

The detonation of the bomb swept everyone and everything to the ground. It happened so suddenly that the immense force of the blast was imperceptible.

Mina’s ears were filled with a continuous, muffled whistle when she blinked open her eyes. At first, the room was enveloped in an unreal mist. Small, indefinable particles hovered in the air and trickled quickly or slowly to the floor depending on their size. She was lying on the floor, her hands above her head for protection, and one of Veronica’s arms on the back of her neck. Her sister’s beautiful blonde hair was gray like the rest of their surroundings. She is alive, Mina cried silently as she looked into her sister’s dusted, shocked face.

Slowly, her limbs shaking uncontrollably, Mina stood, holding a hand to the side of her head. At first, everything was eerily quiet, then the first gloomy screams could be heard. They turned loud and shrill, and after a short time of realization, embodied chaos broke out.

Mina tried to get her bearings and heard Veronica screaming that they needed to get out of here, “right now!” Still dazed by the explosion, she saw that instead of the boy with the raised fist, there was now a charred crater of rubble, wood and...

Mina averted her eyes.

Veronica started to drag Mina behind her through the jumble of people lying on the floor, trying to get back up. Legs, bodies, shouting... Mina let herself be yanked across the partly intact stands, her arms limp, yet her eyes alert, switching to the basketball court, which was paved with debris from the gym.

Then she saw him.

He stood in the middle of the court, blood rushing from a gash on his forehead onto his face, both of his hands on his hips.

He stared into nothingness.

Caleb’s alive! Mina screamed inside, and although the distance was too great, she was sure that tears were running down his cheeks.

He’s alive, she repeated over and over in her mind, before her body was dragged outside, into the open by a crowd of panicked people, cold fresh air invading her lungs with a brutal force.

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