Breathe

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Distractions

Three days after the bombing, Mina stood at the shopping mall entrance, again, alone. Dozens of loudspeakers filled the air with a stoic feminine voice proclaiming, “Loyalty. Strength. Devotion”—a slogan which the population had been bombarded with ever since the incident at the gym. Though everyone continued to go about their usual work, the city was bathed in an eerie vibe as if it was holding its breath.

The afternoon when Mina had asked her mother if she could go shopping remained a grim memory. She’d never seen her parents so upset, and it was her father who made the trip to the mall possible for her. “We need to go on with our lives—show them we aren’t afraid,” he’d told her mother, and after a moment’s thought, Mina wondered who her father had meant by them.

Her thoughts switched to Caleb. She hadn’t seen him since the attack and assumed he just wanted to stay at home for a few days like many of the other students. Yet, his silence didn’t worry her—it was the memory of Caleb standing in all the debris of the explosion, blood and tears streaming down his face. She remembered how his dark eyes had gazed into nothingness, how his posture alarmed her, and at the very back of her head, a little voice tried to make her understand that the tears on Caleb’s face had had nothing to do with fear.

She jolted out of her musing when a group of men marched past her, their military boots producing a ponderous, commanding noise on the asphalt. Mina was used to uniformed guards, but she’d never seen these sort of men before, their faces stern, and their dress code an unsettling pitch-black, each of them wearing a white armband with the Party’s familiar black triangle. Above each line of the symbol, Mina tried to read the three indecipherable words— the thunderous voice repeating over the loudspeakers, “Loyalty. Strength. Dedication.”

At first, she’d considered asking Veronica to accompany her to the mall, but decided to go alone. The truth was, she couldn’t be around her sister at the moment—it was as if the shared experience of the attack had caused a strange rift between them. The sole sight of one another seemed to recall the terrible minutes in the gym.

Mina entered the mall and came to an abrupt halt as she took in the sheer number of people hurrying from one store to another. But she went on and mingled with the crowd, hoping her thoughts, too, would disappear into the mass of bodies surrounding her. Again, the roaring voice of the unknown woman accompanied Mina as she stepped into the clothing shop, “Loyalty. Strength. Dedication.”

The store, widespread across the country and popular with young folk, was packed with people running frantically between the aisles with signs saying Second-Hand, Third-Hand or Brand New! Mina was soon overwhelmed by the masses of clothes and choices, afraid that she wouldn’t last for one minute in this place.

So, she did what everyone else was doing and grabbed as many items as possible. However, on her way to the changing cabins, she discovered a table full of entirely newly produced items. The prices were not affordable to the average citizen, yet Mina put aside her pile of second-hand clothes and loaded her arms with a selection of brand-new garments. She connected eyes with the clerk who watched her with a raised eyebrow. Both of them knew that Mina wouldn’t buy a single piece, but the teen ignored the stares and disappeared behind the changing booth curtain.

Her fingers flew over the buttons of her jeans and along the zipper of her hoodie as she pulled off her clothes, then tried on the new ones with slow care. She looked at herself in the cabin mirror, the dim light making her appear more grown-up. Mina tugged at the blouse and skirt, thinking, So this is what it feels like to be rich. The only thing missing is the party pin on my chest. Then she realized what she was wearing. The skirt, its color, and the sequins were precisely the same as the one Jessica Lee had worn that day in the bathroom.

Mina stared in disbelief, and in the next moment, she tore the skirt off and slipped out of the blouse as quickly as possible, throwing the clothes into a corner. She didn’t care if she damaged anything.

Back in her old rags, she left the cabin, passing the clerk who was already making her way to the changing booth. Mina had to get out of this place, out of the mall. Outside the store, she fought her way through the crowd towards the exit when her airways started to constrict. Unable to breathe, she thought she would faint as she stumbled outside, gasping and coughing.

The fresh air felt like a deliverance. Still panting, Mina propped herself up on her knees before slowly walking away from the shopping mall, not daring to look back. Each step that put some distance between her and the building brought relief. What in the world was I thinking?

She heard the echo of the Voice, “Loyalty. Strength. Devotion.”

*

The outdated rust-heap of a tram Mina rode home on stunk of diesel fuel. However, the unpleasant smell was not distracting enough for the many confusing thoughts that accompanied her. Mina’s eyes were glued to the passing landscape, her hands resting in her lap as the city backdrop faded into suburbia. For the very first time, she listened to that little voice in her head, You can’t distract yourself from a bomb with clothes.

Buried in thought, her gaze followed a teenager riding by on a skateboard. Mina sat up with a start, her hands now on the window. Then, only a short time later, she leaned back again. For a second, she thought it was Caleb, but the boy on the skateboard only looked like him at first glance.

“What is wrong with me?” she whispered, hanging her head. Caleb’s birthday party was in two days, and she hadn’t seen or heard anything from her best friend since the explosion. His bloodied face returned, and Mina, on the verge of another panic attack, decided it was time to pay Caleb a visit.



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