Read Breath Online

Authors: Jackie Morse Kessler

Tags: #Contemporary, #Suspense, #Action Adventure

Breath (6 page)

BOOK: Breath
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He stared at those paintings, captivated by faces he couldn’t see, until he was jostled out of the moment and back into the party when someone opened the door and slurred something about trying to find a bathroom. He pointed her in the right direction and went back to his friends.

Over the next hour, every time he passed by the home office, he went inside and looked at the framed prints. They made him think of ghosts: devoid of detail, nothing but swirls of emotion. The women in those paintings were long dead—ghosts in truth as well as art.

Dead and gone, their memories forever encased in canvas and gilded frames.

Frozen in a moment, in the confines of that moment, forever.

Smirking, Xander shook his head. He should stop drinking, he told himself, because clearly, the alcohol was making him feel melancholy—especially as he looked at Picasso’s grieving blue nude.

Instead, he had another beer and walked out to the back deck to get some air.

It was a beautiful night, crisp without being cold, the sky full of stars and promise. The wind had died, leaving the trees to stand quietly with their leaves unbothered. Xander found a spot that wasn’t too crowded. He leaned against the rail, quietly taking it all in as he nursed his beer. Around him, people laughed and smoked and drank, some faking it, some reveling in it, all putting on a show for him, here with this glamorous house as a backdrop. Some of the teens were quieter in their roles than others, keeping mostly to themselves as they smiled and tried to fit in; others, like Ted, were bombastic and screamed for the spotlight, chugging to chants and proclaiming their lines to the back row. And there were those in the middle, not quite one or the other, content to be slightly social in the play that was Marcie’s party—social-lites instead of socialites. Those were the Suzies, the Izzys, the Debs and Marcies.

And then there was him, Xander Atwood, standing outside of time in some in-between state, watching the performance while he himself remained aloof, apart. Disconnected.

He was like the blue nudes, he realized—frozen in a moment.

He took another sip.

He had to break free. He had to stop waiting for the right time, had to go to Riley right now and say what he’d done—

A beep, like a fire alarm on the fritz.

Xander frowned at his empty beer bottle. How long had he been outside, staring off into space? That’s it, he was cutting himself off.

After one more beer.

He threaded his way back inside, waving at Suzie as he headed to the kitchen. It was packed sardine-tight with partiers, everyone hovering around the booze like they were ready to body slam anyone who dared to take the last one. Xander managed to snag a can of the cheap stuff—the only kind left—and then retreated to the small room again, finding himself in front of the Picasso.

Maybe she wasn’t just sad, Xander thought. Maybe she was aching, suffering from a pain that was far beyond physical. Maybe she’d lost someone.

Maybe she’d learned something that had broken her.

The more he looked at her, the more he thought that was accurate: Picasso’s blue nude had learned a devastating truth, and all she could do was hug herself and hide her agony from the world.

A sound, like the screech of tires.

Xander whirled, startled, and saw two people stagger into the room, close enough to get drunk off each other’s breath.

“Zan!” Ted announced. “Here you are! Been looking for you!”

Riley grinned, swaying a little, saying nothing.

“Couldn’t hear myself think,” Xander said, shrugging.

“Who comes to a party to think! Come on, join us!” Ted grabbed one arm and Riley took the other, pulling him out of the room, away from the blue nudes.

For the rest of the party, Xander grinned and laughed and pantomimed having fun, like the others acting in the play of Marcie’s party.

And he absolutely didn’t think about what he thought he’d seen when he was in the small room.

There had been a moment, just a moment, when out of the corner of his eye he thought he’d seen someone come into the room, someone not quite real—the shape of a man, but without the details. A ghost, like the blue nudes.

A dead man, made of shadow.

No question about it: He’d had too much to drink.

Well, he’d go home—eventually—and sleep it off. And tomorrow, he’d finally tell Riley what he’d been keeping secret for weeks. Part of him wanted to do it now, in front of Ted and Suzie and the others, too, but the rest of him insisted that it be just him and Riley first. The
what
behind what he’d done was less important than the
why,
and he wanted that
why
to be shared in private.

He dug into his pocket for his lucky penny, and he tossed it high, calling heads. He missed it on the way down—the five beers had messed with his timing—and the coin bounced on the carpet and landed next to his foot.

Heads.

“All hail the lucky penny!” Ted hooted, and they all lifted their bottles in salute.

Grinning, Xander scooped up his penny and managed to get it back into his pocket without dropping it. Tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow would be the big day. He could feel it in his bones.

Tomorrow.

Death

Tomorrow would never come.

He knew that now. He understood it, accepted it as truth: The only future that mattered, the only possibility that had kept him content eon after eon, would never become actuality.

When he had returned to the Slate, he had felt the weight of probabilities pressing down, crushing him in various degrees of potential as he’d searched again and again for the one future that held his salvation.

For that’s what it had been, he realized now as he rode atop his steed and wandered along the dying world: That possibility had been his deliverance, his very purpose.

And now that purpose was gone.

That particular tomorrow, always slight, would never come to pass. The still, small voice would be silent forevermore.

He had not made a mistake before; something had changed, something irrevocable. He could search through the yesterdays to determine what it had been, but why bother? Understanding why his
maybe
had ceased to exist wouldn’t change anything.

If he had no hope of salvation, did that leave him damned?

Humans fretted over such things, he knew—hell, the Chinvat Bridge, Gehenna, Tartarus. So many names for punishment, but none of them touched the truth. Damnation wasn’t eternal fire, wasn’t a world of devils sent to torment and tease. It wasn’t a lack of heaven or nirvana.

Damnation was being abandoned and forgotten.

Aimless, he drifted.

There was a polite nicker from the steed, and then it commented, “You’re blighting the ground.”

He did not reply.

“Maybe you’re doing it on purpose,” the steed said diplomatically. “Nothing like a good blight every now and then to remind the earth of its place. But in the event that you’re just distracted, which, by the way, you have been ever since you returned from the place you go when you go away, I wanted to let you know that you’re leaving a trail of scorched soil.”

A long pause before he replied: “So?”

The horse’s ears quivered, and the steed said nothing more.

In silence, a man who was not a man and a horse that was not a horse walked the patch of land, leaving a desert in their wake.

***

Eventually, he spoke. “The time has come.”

The steed, already uneasy, hazarded a question. “Will you let the others know?” When Death did not reply, the pale steed continued, “None of them have seen your cycle come to completion. Well. Not directly. The Riders have, of course, but not these Riders. If you take my meaning. They might not understand.”

A stretch of time in which there was silence. And then, finally, he murmured, “You’re right. I will visit them.”

The horse blew out a satisfied breath, thinking—incorrectly—that the Pale Rider meant he would explain to the others what was to happen, now that the cyclical change was upon him.

And Death, still without purpose, was momentarily at peace. There would be a tomorrow after all, a tomorrow that mattered. A tomorrow for farewells.

Tomorrow would be the day the world ended.

Part Two
THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come and see!”

—Revelation 6:1

Death

The day that Death decided to destroy the world began almost like any other day. People woke up or were woken up or didn’t wake up at all; they got ready for school or for work or for nothing of any importance; they were ambitious and they were aimless; they prepared for celebration and they prepared for mourning.

They lived.

But there was one difference: All the babies cried. In every dwelling in every corner of the world, all of the babies woke screaming. They didn’t cry because they were hungry or soiled or in pain. They cried because words eluded them.

They knew what was coming.

So the babies cried, and their parents tended to them with false promises and temporary comfort as Death prepared for the end of everything.

Xander

Lex was crying again.

Xander pried open one eyelid and stared at the digital clock on his nightstand, then he burrowed under the blanket and tried to go back to sleep. No good; Lex wouldn’t shut up. The kid had quite a set of lungs.

With a sigh, Xander yanked the blanket back down. He heard his mom go through the calm-the-baby motions—the soft, off-key singing about rainbows; the creak of the old rocker-glider, back and forth, back and forth; the rustle of plastic as a diaper was checked for deposits. He heard it all, just as he had every morning since his little brother had taken his first breath three months ago. He loved the baby, really he did, but right now at oh-my-god o’clock in the morning, he would have happily sold Lex to the first bidder on eBay. Had there really been a time when he’d been woken by an alarm clock instead of his brother’s piercing screams?

Speaking of which, the baby was still crying.

Xander groaned, peered at the clock once more, then groaned again. There really should be a law about getting up before sunrise on a weekend.

Recognizing a lost cause, he stumbled out of bed and headed toward the nursery. Lex was still wailing loud enough to wake the neighbors—just not loud enough to wake their father. Nothing short of a nuclear annihilation would be enough to wake Dad. And really, who wouldn’t want to sleep through the end of the world?

(today)

Xander blinked as the thought triggered a memory—no, a dream from last night. It was little more than a vague feeling of dread, an impression of pending doom: shadows swirling through the nighttime sky, staining the midnight blue with tendrils of ink.

Something was going to happen today. Something bad.

Uh-huh. It was probably just another nightmare about running late for a math test. Naked. Xander shuddered. Doom, indeed.

He opened the nursery door and stuck his head inside. His mom, looking more wrecked than Xander felt, was standing over the changing table on the dresser, trying to coax a pacifier into the baby’s mouth. No luck; Lex just spat it out and screamed louder.

“Want me to try?” Xander asked sleepily.

His mom’s head hung low and her shoulders slumped. “God, yes. Please.”

Xander walked into Lex’s shoebox of a room and squeezed between the crib and the rocker-glider, careful not to bang his elbow against the dresser. Lex would need a real bedroom next year, but by then Xander would be living in a college dorm, so Lex would get his room. When Xander would come visit, he’d stay at Ted’s house. A room for the baby; no broken sleep for Xander. Win-win.

His mom stepped aside. “Nothing’s working,” she said dully. “He’s not hungry, doesn’t care about a new diaper, won’t take the binky.”

Probably because the baby had too much class to call a pacifier a binky. “Tried duct tape yet?”

His mother half smiled, half grimaced. “Don’t tempt me.”

Lex shrieked.

“It was a joke, kid. A joke. Get a sense of humor.” Xander bundled his brother into a baby blanket and scooped him up. Lex squirmed and fussed, so Xander brushed his fingertips across the baby’s cheek to quiet him, just a soft touch to let him know that his big brother was there and all was right with the world.

The moment his fingers skimmed his brother’s face—

(the Pale Rider comes)

—a dark window creaked open: Xander remembered shadows gathering into a shape filled with wonders and horrors, remembered it stretching and standing tall as death spread across the land like butterflies with wings of poison.

“The Pale Rider comes,” he murmured.

His mom said, “What? I didn’t catch what you said.”

In his mind, the window slammed closed.

Xander blinked at his now silent baby brother, then shrugged. “Had this weird dream. Just remembered part of it.”

“Anything good?”

He frowned, trying to make the images return, but he was met with static. “Don’t remember. That’s crazy, I just had it a second ago.”

“Dreams are like that,” his mom said. She reached over to stroke Lex’s hair, but she pulled her hand back with a jerk before her fingers made contact.
“He must be in a big brother sort of mood.”

“Lucky me.”

“Lucky
me.
You mind if I crawl back to bed?” She punctuated her question with a haunted, hopeful look.

“Go ahead,” Xander said, sighing. “I’ve got this.”

She squeezed his shoulder in thanks. “You’re a saint, Son. A saint.”

He smiled faintly. “A saint who could use a new car . . .”

“Couldn’t we all.” With a yawn, his mom staggered out of the nursery and aimed for her bedroom.

Xander closed the door behind her and rocked Lex in his arms. Illuminated by the small night-light in the wall, his brother took on an almost ethereal glow.

“Now you listen to me, kid,” he said. “The game’s on at one. You have to have this crying thing all sorted out by then, because Ted’s picking me up and we’re off to Izzy’s to watch, and you’ll be alone with Mom. Dad, too, but let’s face it: He’s useless until you’re more than furniture with an appetite.”

BOOK: Breath
9.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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