Read Breath Online

Authors: Jackie Morse Kessler

Tags: #Contemporary, #Suspense, #Action Adventure

Breath (8 page)

BOOK: Breath
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Just as well, she decided. Famine didn’t go hand in hand with happily ever afters.

Nothing is forever,
Death whispered in her mind.
Especially happiness.

She turned to argue the point, but he was already gone.

Even though she wasn’t cold, she couldn’t stop herself from shivering.

Xander

Xander glanced at the thermostat as he headed toward the apartment’s front door. The needle was set at seventy degrees, which did nothing to explain his sudden chill. Whatever—he was probably coming down with something. The weather had been nuts lately; instead of the balmy temperatures that had been predicted, it had been unseasonably cold, almost frigid. Between the freaky weather and his adventures in broken sleep, he was a candidate for the flu of the week.

Or maybe he was absolutely fine and the thermostat was on the blink.

He opened the door just as the bell chimed—actually, beeped; that was weird—a second time. Ted stood in the doorway, grinning his trademark grin, the one that made parents frown and teachers reach for their detention slips. He waved and said, “Hey.”

“Hey,” Xander said. “Tip for you: Ringing the bell a lot doesn’t make me get to the door any faster.”

For a moment, Ted didn’t reply. Something lit behind his eyes, something that Xander couldn’t read, and then Ted’s grin softened into a tired smile. “Tips are for
mohels.
And it works for elevators.”

Xander stepped aside, and Ted walked into the apartment, sipping from a Styrofoam cup.

“Uh-huh,” Xander said. “You probably press the Walk button when you want to cross the street.”

“Nah. I just jaywalk.”

“Such a rebel.”

“Got to get my jollies where I can. You ready to go? We’ve got to make a pit stop at the package store before we get to Izzy’s.”

Xander winced. “Say it a little louder. My parents might not have heard you.”

“Please, they’re over forty. As if they hear anything if we don’t shout.”

“It’s selective hearing. It’s like a superpower.” Xander frowned at his friend. The grin on Ted’s face couldn’t disguise how exhausted he looked: skin too pale, circles under his eyes dark enough to be bruises, hair that would have given a brush a case of the nerves. “You okay? You look like you met the business end of a baseball bat.”

Ted slid him a look, as if he was weighing Xander’s words. Finally, he said, “Just tired. Nothing a little coffee won’t cure.” He took another sip as if to prove the point.

“Late night?”

Now Ted was staring at him. “Dude. Marcie’s. Last night.” He paused. “Remember?”

“Right.” Of course Xander remembered. Well, sort of. His memory was spotty, like he couldn’t quite focus on any one thing from the party. He grinned to cover his embarrassment. “Late night.”

Ted was looking at him oddly. “How much did you drink, anyway?”

“Dunno,” he admitted. “It’s sort of a blur. Head’s a little weird today.”

Ted saluted him with his cup. “That’s why God invented coffee. And aspirin. Are we going, or what?”

“Wallet’s in my room, give me a second.”

He raced to his bedroom and snagged his wallet, keys, and phone, pausing for a moment to glance at the framed Escher print hanging over his dresser. It showed a figure eight that had been twisted into a Möbius strip, flipping the figure 180 degrees, with ants crawling along both sides. Because of the extra twist, the ants would never meet, and they would crawl along the perpetual surface of the figure eight for all eternity.

Xander frowned. He was definitely having a moment, because for the life of him, he couldn’t remember when he’d gotten the poster, let alone framed it and put it on his bedroom wall.

Whatever. It was yet another side effect of having a baby brother double as an alarm clock.

Tucking his phone into his shirt pocket, Xander ducked into the nursery to tell his mom that he was headed out. He thought maybe she was changing Lex’s diaper, but no, she was sitting in the rocker—nursing the baby.

Xander blushed and turned his head so he couldn’t see anything he shouldn’t be seeing. “Mom! Hang a sign up or something!”

“I’ve got a nursing cloth covering me,” she said reasonably. “Nothing’s exposed, I promise. Besides, breast feeding is perfectly natural.”

Maybe so, but the thought of accidentally seeing his mother’s naked boob was enough to give him the heebie-jeebies. Bad enough that his parents obviously had had sex. Still not looking at her, he said, “I’m going with Ted to Izzy’s house to watch the game.”

“You’ll be home before six, right?”

He sighed. “I promise for the zillionth time I’ll be home to babysit.”

“My son the saint,” she said happily.

Not so saintly; he was hoping to build up enough good karma that his parents would reward him with a car. Xander was a believer in the power of positive thinking. Besides, he was going to ask Riley to come by tonight. He didn’t mention that part to his mom, who had definite ideas on when it was appropriate to leave two horny teenagers alone—also known as “never.”

Next he ducked into the kitchen, where his dad was playing yet another round of online poker. “Off to Izzy’s for the game,” Xander announced.

His dad didn’t look away from the screen. “You guys could watch here.”

“Izzy’s got surround sound.” And beer, but Xander didn’t mention that part.

“Damn it, should’ve held! Would’ve had four of a kind!” His dad let out a frustrated snort. “Guess no one sees something like that coming.”

(the Pale Rider is coming)

For no reason he could name, Xander thought of his fragmented dream, the one that had led him to sketch four horses breaking the world. Suddenly uneasy, he forced a grin onto his face. Dreams were stupid and meant to be forgotten.

“Heading out. And yes,” he said before his dad could mention it, “I’ll be back by six.”

His dad grunted, “Good man.” Then he cursed at the virtual players at the online poker table.

Xander said, “At least it’s not for real money. Which is good, because I’m guessing we’d be bankrupt by this point.”

“I swear,” his father muttered, “I don’t know why I bother. It always ends the same way, with me wanting to win even more.”

“So stop playing.”

His dad glanced at him, an odd twinkle in his eye. “But playing’s so much fun. Go, enjoy the game. Home by six.”

Xander agreed, collected Ted, and left the apartment. An elevator ride later, they were outside the building and walking to Ted’s car, which was parked across the street. It was a gorgeous day, with the sky so blue that the white of the clouds looked almost sharp. A cawing sound heralded a slice of black that suddenly cut through the blue—a flock of birds, taking flight.

No, not just birds, but crows. A murder of crows, marring the summer sky.

On impulse, Xander took out his cell phone and snapped a picture of the crows. Their cries hung in the air, echoing after the flock passed on to another patch of sky.

Soon,
the birds warned.
Soon, soon.

“Come on,” Ted said, unlocking his door. “Places to be, beer to drink.”

“Yeah, okay,” Xander replied absently, staring at the place where the crows had been. The last of the caws faded, leaving only an impression of doom.

He shook his head and finally got into the passenger seat of Ted’s secondhand beast of an automobile, which Xander thought of as the Death Car. The shocks were nonexistent; the brakes were questionable; the seat belts were an afterthought. How the thing always passed inspection was anyone’s guess. Ted had gotten it for his seventeenth birthday last year, and he swore he’d drive it until it fell apart. Which, based on the odometer, could be any second now.

Once Xander shut the door, Ted gunned it out of the parking spot. The Death Car lurched down the street, belching exhaust. Ten seconds later, Xander was clinging to the grip over his door.

“I think you missed a pothole back there,” he said through gritted teeth.

Ted grinned at him. “Nope. Got ’em all. I’m talented like that.”

Maybe it was because he was behind the wheel of his beloved evil car, but Ted looked worlds better than he had at Xander’s house: the paleness of his skin softened from sickly to merely sun-starved, and the shadows under his eyes gave him an air of mystery, even danger. He could have been on his way to a casting call for beautiful vampires, except vampires didn’t sip from old Styrofoam cups and grimace every time they swallowed.

Xander asked, “Want to grab some fresh coffee before we hit the package store?”

“Zan, the man with the plan.”

“You know you said that with your out-loud voice, right?”

“I blame the bad coffee.”

Ted pulled into a fast-food drive-through, although the word “fast” was a horrible tease, considering the line of vehicles ahead of them. Once the Death Car stopped moving, the air became oppressive—the car didn’t have luxuries like air conditioning—so Xander and Ted both opened their windows.

“Love the smell of garbage and hot oil in the morning,” Xander said, breathing deeply.

“That’s because you’re disturbed. Damn it!” Ted swatted at a mosquito, which avoided his hand either by luck or insectile agility. “Stupid bugs. What’s the point of mosquitos?”

“Food for fish.”

“Can’t they just eat a pizza?”

“Maybe if they had teeth.”

“They bite, don’t they?”

The mosquito whined by Xander’s arm. He waited until it touched down, just below his elbow, and then he smashed it to a smear. Bug guts and Ted’s blood combined in a deathly streak that marred Xander’s skin.

“Zan the skeeter killer,” Ted said.

“Still using your out-loud voice.”

“Look at that. That’s my blood on you. Freaking bugs. Hate them. Wish they’d all just disappear.”

“Seriously?” Xander said. “You’d waste a wish on mosquito genocide?”

“Hell yes.”

“You’re crazy. If I had one wish, I wouldn’t use it to kill bugs.”

Xander’s phone vibrated, and he checked it quickly to read the new text. He’d expected it to be from Riley, but instead it was a message from Suzie.

 

U OK?

 

He chuckled.

“What’s up?” Ted asked.

“Suzie’s being all mother hen. Wants to know if I’m okay. I must have really drank a lot last night, huh?”

Ted shrugged, said nothing as he inched the Death Car forward.

Xander texted back that he was fine, that he and Ted were on the way to Izzy’s to watch the game. He asked if she’d be there, even though he already knew the answer: Suzie did many things, but watching televised sports wasn’t one of them. Thirty seconds after he hit Send, he got a new text.

 

?????????

 

“Huh.”

“What?”

“Nothing, Suzie’s just being weird.” He put his phone away.

“That’s our Suzie,” Ted said, moving the car forward again.

“Yeah.” For a second, he thought he remembered Suzie yelling at him—no, yelling something at him, trying to tell him something, something important, but he couldn’t make out the words.

He thought he heard the screeching of tires, but it was just the Death Car coming to a jerking halt.

A chill whispered over Xander, leaving goosebumps on his flesh like secret kisses. He glanced out the window. Even though the crows he’d seen before were long gone, he thought he could hear their warning lingering in the air.

Soon.

Pestilence

The volunteer patiently taught a group of village women about the importance of using mosquito netting in their homes. The bed nets were treated with a chemical that would help prevent malaria. A child died from the disease every thirty seconds, the volunteer said somberly, then she went on to explain that malaria was spread by mosquitos, which bit people mostly at night. Sleeping under the treated nets would help keep their families safe in two ways: It would act as a barrier, and the chemicals on the nets would kill the mosquitos.

But the women were afraid. They would suffocate, one declared. The chemicals would harm their children, another insisted. A third proclaimed that white was the color of death, and all the village women nodded knowingly.

Unnoticed by the women, Pestilence snorted. White, the color of death? Ridiculous. Death didn’t wear white.

Actually, Death wore whatever the hell he wanted to wear, and no one said boo about it.

Pestilence, the White Rider of the Apocalypse, stood beneath a large acacia tree, his snowy uniform a stark contrast to the sunbaked browns and greens around him. Creepers of dust clung to the edges of his coat sleeves, marring the pristine whiteness with hints of decay. A silver band rested on his forehead, winking beneath thick strands of white-streaked hair. His face was clear of acne and blackheads—a slight vanity, but he figured he was allowed the occasional perk. Next to him, a thin white horse nibbled contentedly on the parched grass. It didn’t need to eat, but it found the action comforting; Pestilence knew this, because there was a connection between a steed and its Rider, one that surpassed the need for words. Besides, who didn’t like a little comfort food?

Well. Other than Famine, who didn’t like a little comfort food?

Absently patting the horse’s back, Pestilence focused on his work. While the volunteer attempted to fight superstition with fact, Pestilence battled disease. Coaxed, really; there was no need for him to fight it. He controlled disease. If he wished, he could eradicate the malaria with a thought, banish it like smallpox, rather than slowly absorb parts of it into his system and leave the rest to feast upon mosquitos and plague humanity. But Pestilence had learned the hard way that completely eliminating a disease only made things worse—another sickness would take its place, one that was far crueler. Far more deadly.

Pestilence frowned as he continued to rein in the parasites that spread malaria. Was it he who had learned what happened when sickness was thrown out of balance? Or had it been a previous White Rider? He didn’t know. Lately, it was becoming more difficult to separate his thoughts from those of his predecessors. If he didn’t know better, he’d be worried. Figments whispering to you, telling you things you otherwise didn’t know? That could be a sign of anything from fatigue to schizophrenia.

BOOK: Breath
2.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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