Breathe: A story by Gemma Roche

Fighting Words 2019: Gemma Roche is 15 and a student at Donabate Community College, Donabate, Co Dublin

All eyes are on me, boring a hole in my back. I hate it. I hate the attention. Photograph: iStock

All eyes are on me, boring a hole in my back. I hate it. I hate the attention. Photograph: iStock

 

In. Out.

In. Out.

Breathe.

I leave their shouts and laughter behind me as I run away. I follow a route I know like the back of my hand. At the back of the school, I reach the wooden door, with its peeling paint and comforting familiarity. The rusted sign on the front says “Keep Out” in bold, blood-red letters.

In. Out.

In. Out.

Breathe.

I ignore the sign, as always, and I enter. The pungent stench shoots up my nostrils as soon as I open the door. Cleaning supplies and years-old disinfectant that have been long forgotten. I know the smell. I’ve spent six years hiding in this dingy little storage room. It’s like my home.

In. Out.

In. Out.

Breathe.

I know where I stash my penknife. I scramble over crates and bags and reach up to the back of the top shelf. As I pull my hand down I see it’s covered in dark grey dust. I don’t bother to brush it off. In my clenched fist the penknife sits. Waiting.

In. Out.

In. Out.

Breathe.

I relish the sound as I flick the knife out.

In. Out.

I press it against my wrist. The pressure is so familiar.

In. Out.

I drag it across my arm. As blood oozes out I wince. But I’m used to the pain. Alongside the fresh cut, there are scars. Scars from yesterday, last week, last month. The fresh cut sits there, like a gaping mouth. The pain feels good.

Breathe.

* * *

When I walk back into class my sleeves are pulled over my wrists, my hair is hanging over my face. All eyes are on me, boring a hole in my back. I hate it. I hate the attention.

I take my seat and pull in my chair. The sound of steel legs dragging on the hard floor seems deafening. My breathing is laboured but my heart is racing. I don’t look up. I know the teacher is giving me that look. The one with knowing eyes and a mouth turned down at the corners. That look of pity. The silence halts abruptly when someone clears their throat. It’s that kind of “moving on” cough I know too well.

I’m not sure what class this is, and I don’t care. I remember I used to care. I remember I used to come home with that big brown envelope. Dad would get the knife out of the drawer and slit it open carefully. I’d be sitting on the leather sofa, clinging onto Mum’s hand and bouncing with excitement. She’d squeeze my hand and I’d squeeze her’s back, and she’d look at me as if I was the only thing that mattered.

I remember when the paper would be taken out of the envelope. Fresh and new and full of As, stamped neatly in a box beside each subject. Mum would smile, showing all her teeth, and Dad would pick me up and twirl me around. I felt like I was flying.

I remember that. I remember my parents.

But each day the memory fades a little.

I’m brought back to my senses when something hits my foot. It’s a ball of paper, scrunched up small. I hear the sniggers from the back of the class. I pick up the paper, but I don’t unfold it. Instead, I put it in my bag. I don’t look behind me.

* * *

Later that day, I’m sitting on my bed. My sheets are stained and crumpled. I should change them, but I don’t feel like it. I find the ball of paper and unfold it. “You’re even uglier today.” I read it another time, before I flatten it out fully. I pin it to the corkboard over my bed, alongside other crumpled pieces of paper just like it. It’s a reminder to myself, just in case I forget. Not that I’ve ever forgotten.

I trudge downstairs, my feet cold against the marble floor of the kitchen. I don’t think this house has been warm since Mum and Dad were here.

The cabinets are empty, apart from a can of baked beans. They’re out of date but I don’t care. I throw them into a saucepan and turn on the gas. My hand lingers a bit too close to the flame and I feel my finger burn. I don’t know if I do it on purpose or not. I don’t know anything anymore.

* * *

It’s late and I’m tired. I lie on my bed and close my eyes. It seems like seconds later when I wake up with a scream. My bed is drenched in sweat and there are flashing images in my mind. Red lights, broken glass, the world revolving in slow motion. I can hear things too: a car horn, Dad yelling, the windscreen smashing into little pieces.

I shake my head and stand up. I won’t remember it. I won’t remember the accident.

I can’t sleep now, so I start packing a bag. I don’t know what I’m doing, but it feels right. I grab a few clothes and my passport. I leave the pieces of paper on the corkboard. I look online. There are some cheap flights to Manchester. I’ve always wanted to go to Manchester. Dad was born there.

I’m at the door when I realise what I’m doing. My breathing becomes rushed and I start to feel faint. The world is spinning.

In. Out.

In. Out.

Breathe.

My parents left me money. I’m an only child, so most of their stuff is mine now. They worked hard, and they had the cash to show for it. I know the bank details and credit card details off by heart. I think, somehow, I always knew this day would come.

In. Out.

In. Out.

Breathe.

It’s not as late as I thought, it’s only 2 o’clock. I’m able to find a taxi. The bright light of the taxi sign stuns me for a moment and I stumble as I climb in the back, dragging my bag behind me.

“Alright, love?” the driver asks.

She shrugs when I don’t respond.

“Airport.” I manage to say.

I’m surprised at how dry my throat is.

In. Out.

In. Out.

Breathe.

We get there quicker than I expected, and as I leave the taxi I catch the driver’s eye. She looks concerned, but she says nothing.

The airport is quieter than I’m expecting. I walk calmly to check in, and then to security. I’m 18, but I still get weird glances from the staff.

The panic doesn’t hit me until I get to the gate. Gate 39.

Mum was 39.

In. Out.

In. Out.

Breathe.

My head is pounding, alongside my heart, and it feels like someone is sitting on my chest.

In. Out.

Flight E3478 is called. I look at my boarding pass. That’s my flight.

I put one foot in front of the other until I find my seat. I can start a new life. I saw an old apartment online, close to the city centre.

In. Out.

I want my penknife. I want to hear the flick. I want to feel the pressure.

But you can’t bring a penknife on an aeroplane.

Breathe.

This story took shape at one of the workshops run by Fighting Words, which was founded by Roddy Doyle and Seán Love in 2009 to nurture young writers around Ireland. It is now in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Mayo, Wicklow, Galway, Donegal, Kerry, Wexford and Kildare