Read Breath Online

Authors: Jackie Morse Kessler

Tags: #Contemporary, #Suspense, #Action Adventure

Breath (2 page)

BOOK: Breath
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He squeezed the penny in his pocket and told himself to stop worrying. Today was his lucky day.

He walked into Dawson’s and waved to a handful of guys clumped around tables, but the group he was looking for was off in the corner by the window, basking in the morning spotlight. There was Ted, darkly casual, all lean good looks and radiating mischief, smiling wickedly as he tried to steal a homefry. Across from him, petite Suzie slapped his hand away and stuck out her tongue. Next to her, Izzy laughed and shook her head, her sloppy ponytail swinging across her shoulders.

Xander grinned. The table changed daily, but the group was always the same: the four of them, kicking off the school day at the pizzeria. Life was good. He bought a large coffee and a breakfast special, then headed over to join them.

“Hey,” he said as he slid onto the bench next to Ted.

“Hey,” said Ted and Izzy.

“Morning, Zan,” Suzie said around a yawn.

“Boring you already?”

“Sorry. Up all night studying. Got a constitutional law test, and then debate team after school.”

Xander grinned. “I’m sure you’re gonna do great when you fall asleep in the middle of proving your point. Ow.” That last was after Suzie kicked him.

“That’s why I don’t study,” said Izzy. “I need my rest.”

“You girls and your beauty sleep,” Ted said, grinning big enough to blind.

Izzy smiled sweetly. “Don’t make me kick your ass before breakfast.”

“You soccer girls are all so scary.”

“I wanna be scary,” Suzie said with a pout.

“Your GPA terrifies me,” said Xander, sipping coffee. “Hey!”

Ted flashed him that blinding grin, then took a bite from half of Xander’s breakfast-special sandwich.

“He’s practicing to be a starving actor,” Suzie said, glaring at Ted.

“Not so starving.” Xander took a bite of his remaining sandwich. “I licked the bagel on that side, by the way.”

“Knew it tasted off this morning,” Ted said around a mouthful of special. “Here I thought it was because they don’t use real eggs in the egg sandwiches.”

Izzy snorted. “That’s what you get for ordering eggs in a pizzeria.”

“Someone should tell management they need to do pizza for breakfast.”

“Egg pizza?”

Suzie made a face. “Ew. Hey, nice shirt, Zan. Makes your eyes real blue.”

“Thanks,” Xander said happily.

“Okay,” Ted said. “You look like you’re about to burst into song. What’s up?”

Xander grinned hugely. “Today’s the day,” he said, feeling like he could fly. “I’m gonna ask Riley out.”

Ted, Izzy, and Suzie exchanged a look, then the three of them cracked up.

“What?” Xander said, perturbed. “I am. Really.”

“Even if I believed you, which, for the record, I don’t,” said Suzie, “your timing is terrible.”

“Why?”

Izzy laughed. “You really don’t know? Riley’s got mono.”

Xander’s heart sank to his toes. “Aw, man.”

“You’re such a bad stalker,” Izzy said, wagging a finger at him. “It was all over Facebook this morning.”

“That explains why he didn’t know,” said Suzie. “Love you, Zan, but you’re social-networkly inept.”

Ted was still chuckling. “Kissing disease. Good thing you haven’t asked Riley out yet, or you’d be down for the count too. Oh, wait, no you wouldn’t—you’d never kiss the Amazingly Perfect Riley Jones.”

“He’d be too busy worshiping the very ground the Amazingly Perfect Riley Jones walks on,” Suzie agreed.

“Too amazingly perfect for him to ever ask out,” said Ted.

“Ah, it’s just the universe’s way of telling me to wait,” said Xander, sighing.

Ted snorted. “Spoken like the deluded lovestruck fool that you are!”

“The universe doesn’t need to tell you anything,” said Suzie, nibbling a homefry. “You’ve waited for . . . how many years now? Two? Three? You’ve got the waiting thing down pat.”

“Seriously,” said Izzy. “Just ask Riley out already. You know, once the whole mono thing is history.”

Ted nodded. “What they said.”

“I will.” Xander took the penny out of his pocket and flipped it. It came up heads. “I swear it on my lucky penny.”

Ted declared, “All hail the lucky penny!”

They all said, “All hail!”

Xander grinned and took another bite of breakfast. “So today’s not the day,” he said, tucking the penny into his pocket. “That’s okay. I’ve got time.”

Death

“But I need more time! There’s so much I still have to do!”

Like he’d never heard that one before. “Sorry, Perry,” he said. “This is what you get. But hey, you’ve done a lot with your life in the time that you’ve had.”

Perry—or, more accurately, the essence that most recently had been Perry Thomas—stared at him for a moment, then shook his head and sighed. “I guess. If you say so.”

“I do,” he said cheerfully.

“Aw, man.” Perry looked down at his body, which was sprawled on the ground just outside the bookshop where he worked. “At least it happened before the store opened. The customers would’ve totally freaked, what with me having a heart attack right there in front of them. That’s what it was, right? My heart?”

“In the end,” he said, “it always comes down to heart failure, one way or another.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Man, Kevin is gonna lose it.” Perry sighed again. “He’ll find me dead on the ground, and he’ll absolutely lose it.”

“Kevin is a strong guy. He’ll be fine.”

Perry darted a look at him. “You know him?”

“I know everyone.”

“Oh.” Perry looked back at his corpse. “Wish I could’ve done more with my life.”

“There’s much for you to be proud of. Your life impacted many others. The stories you’ve told to your customers, and sold to your customers, left impressions that became inspirations. And the homemade herbal teas you sold to them have comforted many.”

Perry’s nose twitched. “I didn’t get a chance to mix the tea.”

He sensed the regret, so he waited.

“Kevin was finally gonna teach me how to make some of his teas, you know? The special ones that’ve been in his family forever. For the longest time, I just couldn’t mix the herbs the right way, so he’d mix everything and put ’em into their sachets and tell me to add water. And that was fine. I mean, I’d been working here in the store for two years, and I was cool about not being able to make the homemade teas. We all have things we can’t do, right?”

He nodded.

“But then last week, I woke up and I said to myself, I’m done with not knowing how to make the tea. I’m gonna learn how to mix those herbs, and Kevin is gonna be proud.” Perry laughed quietly and shook his head. “I don’t know why learning to do it suddenly became so important. It’s just tea. But it’s like I had a new goal. And Kevin
was
proud that I wanted to learn how to do it right. He was. He’s real picky about those teas.”

“All artists are picky about their work.”

“It sounds silly, hearing me say it out loud, but I was looking forward to him showing me how to do it.”

“That doesn’t sound silly at all.”

“It’s just tea.”

“But it mattered to you.”

Perry sighed. “Yeah. It really did.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a coin. He squeezed it for a moment, then looked up at him. “I’ve got this to give to you. But could I make you a cup of tea first? Just to see if I could have done it?”

He smiled, delighted. “Homemade tea would hit the spot.”

And so, in the early hours of the morning, the police milled around a body found outside a bookshop while Death and a dead man sat inside the store and shared a pot of tea. They were both pleased to discover that it was not at all bitter.

***

Lynn Tyler was bitter. “But I’m only twenty-six! This can’t be it!”

“Define ‘it,’” he said.

“It. Over. Finished. Done. The end.” She kicked her body, or would have, had her foot not ghosted through the flesh. “Dead!”

“I’m afraid that this is it, then. You’re dead.”

She stared at her corpse, at the splayed limbs by the foot of the stairs. “All because I didn’t want to wait for that stupid elevator. I was running late, so I ran down the stairs.”

“Exercise is healthy,” he said. “Well. Usually.”

“It was that loose heel again, wasn’t it? I thought I heard it snap, right before I fell. I was going to fix it. I was,” she insisted, turning to face him. “Let me fix it, and I promise I’ll be more careful! I’ll slow down!”

“You wouldn’t have fixed it,” he said patiently. “And you never would have slowed down. Between work and school and socializing, you barely had time for sleep. You squeezed more into each day than many do in a month.”

“Yeah, and for what? I didn’t even get to take the bar.” She kicked through the corpse again. “All that work, and all I got out of it was bills and exhaustion. I’m pathetic.”

“Of course you’re not. You lived your life. You pursued a dream. You wanted to be a prosecutor, someone who helped make those who hurt others pay for their crimes. It was a noble calling.”

“But I didn’t get the chance to do it!” She looked at him again, pleading. “A second chance. You can do that, can’t you?”

“I could,” he agreed.

“Please.
Please.
I’ll do anything.” She fell to her knees. “Anything you want. Just give me more time.”

“This life is done, Lynn.”

“But you could give it back!” she screamed, tearing her hair. “You said you could!”

“I can. But I won’t. Rules,” he said, shrugging.

“There has to be a loophole. There are
always
loopholes!”

He didn’t bother replying. There were loopholes, of course; he was the one who had put the rules in place. But either people knew the loopholes or they didn’t. He wasn’t about to teach them. So he shrugged again, and gave her another minute—roughly speaking; time was relative for him—to rage over the unfairness of it all. And when her anger finally played itself out, he said gently, “Come, Lynn. It’s time.”

Lynn was crying now, her sobs filling the narrow stairwell. “It’s so unfair.”

“If you say so.”

Sniffling, she took one more look at herself—the splayed limbs, the snapped neck. Her corporate-chic skirt had bunched up when she’d landed, and she tried to nudge the hem back into place. Her hands passed through the clothing, through her body, and she sobbed harder.

He reached over and tugged the hem until the skirt protected her modesty.

She tried to say “Thank you,” but the words stuck in her throat. Even so, he knew her intent—he always knew their intent—and he said, “You’re welcome.”

With a trembling hand, she offered him a coin. He accepted it somberly and tucked it into a pocket. “Ready for what’s next?”

Sniffling, she nodded.

He took her hand, and then Lynn Tyler moved on.

***

He inhaled souls; he exhaled lives.

He breathed, and the world turned.

Another breath; another death. Every ending was personal; every encounter, unique. He knew them all, better than they knew themselves.

And they all knew him.

Ruben Morris (76, third and final heart attack) was devastated that he was going to miss his grandson’s wedding in three months’ time. With a sigh, he kissed his wife—who was so busy shrieking at the paramedics to keep trying to resuscitate him that she didn’t feel the chill upon her cheek—and then fished a coin out of his pocket. “It is what it is,” he said to his wife, who couldn’t hear him, and then he offered the coin to Death, the Pale Rider.

Mohammed Hassan (68, kidney failure) was surrounded by family and friends as he whispered, “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah,” and after he died he gave thanks for a gentle death, even as he gave Death a coin.

Huang Mei (102, old age) was pleased to have died a five-blossoms death—she had been married, had a son, was respected in her community, had a loving grandson, and died in her sleep after a long life. She dropped to her knees and bowed, knocking her head to the floor nine times before she presented him with a coin.

Ramesh Ravi (56, lung cancer), with his wife and two sons by his side, died with the mantra
Aum Namah Shivaya
in his ear and the taste of milk on his lips. His heart full, he touched Death’s feet and gave him a coin.

Frances Caprio (66, Alzheimer’s) was worried that she had died before giving her last confession, but he assured her that last rites had been performed. Grateful, she smiled as she presented him with a coin.

José Martinez (82, influenza) had a last request:
“Como yo te amo”
had just come on the radio, and he asked if they could wait until the song was over. Less than three minutes later, he smiled as he presented his coin and thanked him profusely.

***

“You’re such a sap,” the pale steed said after José moved on.

“I’m patient,” Death corrected.

“You say tomato . . .”

He smiled. “It is what it is.”

***

Not all of them moved on right away. Not all of them were ready.

Some were angry. Shelley Silber (23) wanted to haunt the drunk driver who had slammed into her car; Lincoln Archer (18) wanted to wreak havoc after learning he’d been cut down by a stray bullet. He tended to let the angry ones work out their issues before they moved on—and not because he was a sap, no matter what his steed said. Human essences remembered pain, clung to it as they moved on. It made things messy in the long run. Dying was messy enough; why bring that baggage with them?

Many were scared. Franco Coppola (82, liver failure) had been a thief for most of his life, and now he didn’t know if that was going to make him burn for eternity. Golda Siegel (63, stroke) had poisoned her philandering husband years ago, and now she was certain he was waiting for her. Timmy Jones (8, leukemia) didn’t want to move on without his parents to keep him safe. Li Feng (one month, sudden infant death syndrome) was terrified of being alone forever.

Some were tired. The ones who’d lived their lives and had made their peace with dying were usually pleasant, even friendly. The ones who’d died after a debilitating illness tended to welcome him. There were the ones who had been used and abused by the world, and he sympathized with them even as he accepted their coins.

BOOK: Breath
3.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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