Short Story: Narrow Pathways

Short Story: Narrow Pathways

Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out. In. In. Out. In. Out. Out. In… I can’t. I forgot. How do we breathe? The pulse gains pace as if the heart is knocking on the door to check if everything is okay with the neighbouring lungs. It’s not. The lungs got locked in with no air. They are shrinking.

There is a girl, age seven, running with terror in her eyes and dark circles starting to form under her lower eyelids – in fact, her whole face is going pale lilac as though her life is being drawn out of her. Me. That girl is me.

I was sitting at the very back of the school. I liked it because not many people would pass, yet you got to hear all the voices of the other kids playing. It gave the sense of being in a group, although none of them actually wanted to be there with you. I was tucked up in a corner, accompanied only by my notebook, decorated with cartoons, and a pencil with pink feathers I bought behind my mom’s back. She wouldn’t let me get one because they collect dust. I was re-writing my play, in the hopes of improving it so that people would want to join my drama club, without knowing the fate of that play, and how many times more I would have to revise it before that fate.

It was spring, I remember how at kindergarten, they wouldn’t allow me to play with my friends on the playground during these months. I wanted to play and pick up flowers and feel the sun slowly warming my skin. What a difficult season to hate.

The sunlight shining on my page was replaced by shadows, accompanied by the sounds of grass smashed under a pair of shoes. More than one pair. I raised my head to see a smirk and a number of other smirks behind that one. At that moment, I knew I was going to find myself in that particular conversation I was sick of and I just hoped it would remain a conversation, but who was I fooling?

“I thought dust made you ill.”

“It does.”

“You are sitting in the dust.”

“It’s not so dusty here.”

“You’re lying.”

“Why would I lie?”

“You just want attention.”

I exhaled and rolled my eyes.

“You’re also allergic to those trees, aren’t you?”

The guy pointed at a tree covered with golden pollen. I called it the ‘golden balls tree’ back then. Later on, I learned it was called a Sallee, a kind of eucalyptus.

I shook my head from side to side and replied with a shaky voice, “N-n-no.”

I was a terrible liar. The next thing I knew more people were coming, carrying a branch. I couldn’t count how many golden powder puffs were on it because no matter how much was on that branch, I saw twice as much.

“Well then, let’s try, shall we?”

If I stayed, I would get sick. If I ran, I would get sick. But it’s a human impulse, to run when in danger. To run until you can’t anymore. To run until the sweat flowing down your body reminds you of a waterfall. To run until you can’t breathe. That wasn’t a long distance for me. The moment I began running, I felt something knotting in my throat, and then the feeling of an elephant sitting on my tiny chest. I was inhaling through my nose and exhaling through my mouth, just as the doctor taught me, just as my dad was telling me to do the night before when I had to stand in the cold to get some fresh air. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. I couldn’t control it. The chilly air was passing through my trachea. I felt it, but it was turning back without entering my lungs as if there was a roadblock. No, as if someone had faked a roadblock so that no one would help the poor victim being slain.

Panic ran through me, heat rushing through every inch of my body. I felt tears filling my eyes and I tried to push them back because my breathing could not bear crying at that moment. I dug my nails more into my sweaty palm as I recalled all the ‘can’ts.’

I stopped abruptly. I couldn’t move anymore. Every time I breathed out, a whistling sound came from deep in my throat, even deeper than that. It only took seconds for that dry, intermittent cough to stab another knife to my lungs. The very cough that makes every single muscle in my mother’s body tense, even after a decade. An itch starting from my chest spread to my whole body but when I tried to scratch it, I couldn’t reach it. I felt like digging my nails into my chest and scratching it from inside.

I grabbed the neatly ironed collar of my uniform, pulled it, wrinkled it inside my fist. Drops of water moistened my cheeks. You know what’s the worst thing? I was less worried about choking on my tears than giving them that feeling of victory. They would smile even more broadly the moment they saw me cry and still, they wouldn’t believe me.

I was seated on a metal chair, nearly impossible to lie back on but I did anyway. I was so weary and yet, I couldn’t relax, my whole body was still alarmed. My chair was always placed right in front of the classroom door, so I would get fresh air and my teacher could still look after me. Honestly, I was looking more at her than she looked at me. The teacher was introducing a new topic to the class, a full class, no one would notice that one empty seat. One or two girls looked at me, once in a while. If I didn’t know better I would say they were concerned but I knew they were not. I knew that they could hardly keep themselves from dancing around the class.

As my sight grew hazy, I turned my eyes from the class to the end of the corridor. When I coughed, I felt the whole class looking at me but I couldn’t look back. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I was so tired, I just wanted to rest. But that cough was like ripping out my lungs, it didn’t let me just lie back with the metal pricking my waist. After a while, I wanted to rip my lungs out of my chest with my bare hands. What use were they to me, anyway?

I had no energy left, just wanted to close my eyes. It was cold. It was so cold. I didn’t want to stand in the wind. The whistling of the wind, against the whistling of my lungs, reminded me of a song my mum used to sing to me. I started singing it. Not aloud, I couldn’t even get a word out. But in my head, it was growing louder and louder after starting as a tiny voice.

I finally started to hear something other than the song in my head, the whistling and almost buzzing-like sound of the class, something thin hitting powerfully on the floor, continuously. I felt a little bit of trembling. I knew this sound, I knew the sound of those black stilettos. A woman appeared wearing a black pencil skirt and a white shirt, the ones she wore every day.

Before I knew it, a green cylinder was placed between my lips. One. Two. Three. Puff. One. Two. Three. Puff. A cold spot on my tongue, and an invisible cloud touching my lungs; it pushed its way through the narrow pathways.

My sight was smokey. But it wasn’t my body’s doing. It was this steam rising up from the mask covering my nose and mouth as I breathed, like the one that comes out of our mouths in the winter but a more intense one blocking my sight. It was generated by this yellow and orange machine that looked like a fat candy corn with a smiley face on it. They think it makes it look cute for the kids, but trust me, it’s not. A weird smiling face seated next to me on the sofa making terrible sounds and pumping gas to my face when I’m trying to distract myself by watching some cartoons is not at all cute and I didn’t care that it was saving me, I still hated it.

I looked at my mum, who was still petrified. She couldn’t comfort herself but she tried not to show it as she nervously laughed at me for complaining about the smoke preventing me from watching my favourite cartoon. She was probably thinking about how easy it is for kids to immediately forget about big things and start talking about smaller things. But perhaps, I was just keeping myself from thinking, will I be as lucky tomorrow as I was today? Or will tomorrow be the day I draw my last breath?

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