Breathe

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Realization

On the day before Caleb’s birthday, Mina left the house early. She felt driven away from her parents, who wouldn’t miss an opportunity to ask how she was doing. Feeling restless, she started to walk, the exercise helping her not to fall into a sort of limbo. Strolling through the neighborhood with an old Walkman, Mina reached a park with a small pond. The air was wet from the night’s rain, conjuring small clouds of mist as she sat down on a park bench. An elderly lady threw bread crumbs into the pond to feed the ducks.

This woman must be old enough to remember the old days, the teen thought as Caleb’s expression at the bombing invaded her inner eye, as it did so often lately. Anger was all she could think of for the last twenty-four hours.

Mina leaned forward and propped her arms on her legs while she let the cables of the headphones slip through her fingers, over and over again.

Anger.

She almost told her father what she’d seen in Caleb at the bombing, how she felt about it, how fear crept into her body inch for inch with every passing minute. But she didn’t—couldn’t—her feelings threatening to be too overwhelming, suffocating.

Mina got up, looked at the woman for another moment and then left for Caleb’s home.

*

The Philips’ house was already magnificently decorated…if it were a party for eight-year-olds. When Caleb opened the door, he was surprised to see Mina. But after a short moment of processing, he greeted her with a quick hug. She could tell he was in a bad mood.

“I told them to take that nonsense off. Told them there is no need for damn Happy Birthday-garlands hanging everywhere. Look at this junk!” With an accusing finger, he pointed to a pink decorative cardboard stand-up, screaming the word Celebration! Mina pulled a face but suppressed a giggle as a streamer brushed his shoulder. Caleb swatted it away. His parents probably meant well, yet she could understand Caleb’s frustration. He was turning sixteen tomorrow and kids from school would be hanging out in a house that looked like a children’s playground.

“How are you doing?” Mina asked, and Caleb’s face relaxed a little when his mother’s voice boomed from somewhere inside, “Caleb Philips, come here!”

He gave a short snort, “Kiss my ass.” Then, he took Mina’s hand for the very first time. She knew she was blushing, savoring every single fiber of his skin. On their way to the stairs, Caleb ripped off every balloon, garland or other childish decoration he could grab. On the back of his T-shirt was the logo of a quirky New York hip-hop band that had once demanded that one needs to fight for the right to party. She grinned as they fled from his mother to the first floor and into his room.

She giggled as they entered. “What’s the matter?” she asked but stopped short. Mina knew Caleb’s room inside out, but this time it felt different. Her heart pounded, knowing deep down neither of their parents would probably allow it if they had any idea what was going on within her mind. Only then Mina realized something utterly untypical for Caleb. His room was tidy. The old skateboard magazines, usually scattered all over the place, were neatly stacked in one corner. His CD and record collection stood organized on one of the shelves. And his desk, a minefield of spare skateboard parts on any ordinary day, had been cleared, leaving behind an old computer that hadn’t been working for decades—one of Caleb’s so-called treasures.

However, Mina’s interest was piqued by a pile of flyers beside the computer. Afraid Caleb would catch her snooping around, she averted her gaze from his desk. She wondered if Caleb’s mother had cleaned up for him, but remembered her saying once that he would have to sort out this mess himself in future and that she feared for her life if she ever had to enter this hell again.

So was the birthday party the reason for this sudden tidiness? Or worse, a certain person?

Mina put her bag on the floor and considered sitting down for a moment, but decided against it. Being in Caleb’s room made her antsy, so she waited for him to speak first, trying to read his face as he made himself comfortable on the bed. It was too quiet for her liking. Mina thought about asking him to put on some music, but decided against it as well, as the stashed records evoked a strange feeling—as if Caleb had abandoned them.

“Are you okay?” she managed to ask.

Caleb didn’t look at her. Instead, he leaned crossed-legged against the wall and played with a keychain with a basketball on it.

“Sorry if this is a bad time. I can come back later and—”

“I called the party off.”

Mina went quiet. She glanced at the bedroom door, expecting Caleb’s mother to rush in at any moment. “Why?”

Caleb sighed. “After everything that has happened, it just felt wrong to celebrate, so I called it off. My parents said that a party would be nice, that many would welcome the distraction.” He threw the keychain into a bin in a corner. “Mom is still angry at me because she had bought all the drinks...and that joke of decorations I never asked for.”

Mina stood rooted to the spot, surprised and a bit annoyed because Caleb hadn’t told her about his change of plans. For the first time in their friendship, she wondered if he’d kept secrets from her—if he didn’t trust her or her loyalty. She tried to ignore the pinching sensation in her chest.

“Mina, I know you’re not a fan of some of the players on the basketball team, and I know I pushed you aside when I invited Eric to my party.”

Mina turned and walked slowly to the desk. She wasn’t in the mood for some Eric-chit-chat, so she picked up a flyer with a black fist raised in the air. At the bottom, simple lettering said, ‘It’s about time’.

“Caleb, what is all this?” Mina heard movement on the bed, and Caleb stood next to her a moment later.

“I never intended to be Eric’s new best friend, but I really liked basketball.” He stared at the piece of paper. “I also enjoyed playing on a team, being accepted by everyone. So, I invited them to my party.” He took the flyer from Mina and put it back on the table.

“Well, you won’t have to think about that problem anymore, right?”

Caleb didn’t respond and started to push the pile of flyers aside. “Coach called us in for a meeting two days ago. He wanted to talk to us about what to do next, but I think, in his own way, he just wanted to see how we were doing. I sneaked away to the locker room at the bombed gym to get some of my stuff when I bumped into some team players drinking beer.” Caleb pulled something out from under the flyers. It was a red pamphlet.

“Let me guess—Eric and his gang?”

Caleb nodded. “Eric and his gang, yes. They were having the time of their life. Laughing and joking about people who got killed, but mostly about the kid who set the bomb off.” He sighed again and opened the pamphlet. “Susan was right—about everything. I knew things about Eric, how he and his friends treated other people, and still, I tried to excuse his behavior simply because it wasn’t happening to me.”

Mina observed Caleb’s face as he told her about his encounter with the team captain. She could read shame on his features but was stunned when the same expression she’d seen on the night of the bombing crept into his face.

Anger.

“Caleb, what happened in the locker room?”

“They talked about how the Party wouldn’t mind these things happening. That it would be a natural sorting of people society doesn’t need anyway. Eric said his father called it a ’healthy purge.’” He handed the pamphlet to Mina. “They survived the bomb only by chance and yet don’t hesitate to spit on those lost.” The pamphlet read Unite.

Mina gawked at the letters. She read the word over and over again, forcing her brain to push away an awareness of what was in front of her. It was forbidden and would result in severe punishment for Caleb and his family if anyone knew and reported it. But her hands only began to shake as she understood that Caleb was putting it here on display—maybe even on purpose?

“And what happened then?” Her question came out with a ragged breath.

“I left without saying a word. Then I decided to cancel the party.” Caleb nodded to the pamphlet. “Susan gave it to me,” he said, his voice low, unattached.

Mina’s head whirled around when she heard footsteps in the corridor. She was at the door in the blink of an eye and blocked it with her body. “Get rid of this stuff, your mother is coming,” she hissed and leaned against the door when it tried to be opened. Caleb hastily opened a drawer and wiped all the flyers inside with his arm. Mina ensured everything was gone and let go of the door, hiding the pamphlet behind her back as Caleb’s mother rumbled into the room. Mina had never seen her so cross before.

“What the heck is going on in here?” Cynthia glared at her son when she realized Mina was standing next to her. “Mina, did you block the door?”

“I—” there was no color left in her cheeks. “I was just about to leave and...opened the door the wrong way.”

Cynthia stepped into the room and looked around, her eyes lingering for a moment on the bed. “You better go now,” and as she was about to leave, she glanced one more time back into the room. “From now on, the door stays open, you hear me, Caleb?” Cynthia gave the two of them another unfavorable look and pointed to the broken computer. “I don’t want this in my house. Get rid of it. You’re grounded.”

“For what?” Caleb protested.

“For being a pain in the neck,” were Cynthia’s last words as she stormed out, leaving the door wide open.

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