“First Breath” is the first of several Colorado-based short stories written by local authors we’ll be publishing on the Denver Horror Collective website and in The Epitaph newsletter, as a lead-up to the fall release of Terror at 5280′, our local horror fiction anthology.
by Nicole J. LeBoeuf
[Author’s note: The setting of ‘First Breath’ is loosely based on the cafe and bar Loaded Joes in Avon, a favorite place to write (and sing karaoke) when I’m in the neighborhood.]
It was time I went in search of myself. Everyone has to do it once in their lives. Each of my parents had, years before, and now I felt the pull that said it was my turn. Time to make my own pilgrimage.
They saw me off, standing in front of the house and watching me drift down the road. “Remember what we taught you,” my mother said. “One foot in front of the other. You’ll do fine.”
“Hurry home as soon as you can,” said my father, a wry smile hiding the sadness of parting. “You’ll want to be here when the baby arrives.”
I could only nod, looking first from face to face then down at the place where my unborn sibling waited to be breathed into life. I wanted to take their hands. I wanted to hold them and never let go.
But I couldn’t touch them. I could not even speak. Not yet.
I’ve stopped counting the Jello shots and I’m starting to lose the spaces between the seconds, if you know what I mean, when the girl shows up right in front of me. The strange one. I’ve been noticing her on and off throughout the evening, the only person in the bar I’ve never seen before. My guess is, she’s just some dumb rich kid up from the flats on a cheap time-share week, finding out the hard way what all us locals know: there’s nothing to do in mud season. Ski resorts are closed. Everyone’s bored out of our skulls and broke.
When I first spotted her, I grabbed Mack and pointed. “Who’s the chick in the gray hoodie? You know her?”
Mack just went, “Who?” like he couldn’t see her. And he probably couldn’t. I actually did count his Jello shots before I started on mine. He likes the orange ones. Robbie makes them with 190-proof Everclear.
He makes the red ones, my favorites, with pepper vodka, and I guess I’ve downed at least ten, because I have to squint to focus even though the girl’s right here. First things I see are her legs, bare right up to mid-thigh where the hoodie ends. I can’t make out much more of her than that, just the tip of her nose and her mouth. She’s smiling this weird sort of amazed smile, probably tripping on acid or E or something. Which is why I’m annoyed but not really surprised when she grabs my hand and starts playing with my fingers.
Naturally I try to yank my hand away. But she hangs on, so I end up pulling her off balance and into my lap. Now she’s got both her hands on me, feeling her way up my arm like she’s never seen an arm before. I roll my eyes and put up with it until she grabs my left boob, and then I’ve had enough. I slap her hand away.
“What the hell are you doing?”
She sits there in my lap, examining her wrist from every angle like she’s trying to see if I left a mark. If I weren’t so drunk I’d have dumped her on the floor by now; as it is I can’t seem to get up the momentum. She touches her own face, then mine, then–“What the hell,” she says. And kisses me.
For just an instant I’m thinking, Oh, God, another idiot who thinks she’s bi when she’s stoned. Then the thought dissolves away until there’s nothing left but, Oh God.
It’s like something inside me, something I never knew existed but I can’t survive without, rises up and goes spinning out of me and into her. When she pulls away, I can’t stop myself. I grab hold of her, pull her back down, make her kiss me again just to try to get that piece of myself back.
It doesn’t work. I’m even more lost than before. It takes every shred of concentration just to ask her, “Who are you?” as she runs her fingers through my hair, against my scalp.
Something’s weird about that. I can feel my head resting against the back of the couch. There’s no room between my head and the orange velvet upholstery for her hand to be there, stroking from my hairline to the nape of my neck and making my arms explode in goosebumps. I try again. “What’s your name?”
She leans in close, lays her cheek alongside mine. “What’s your name?” Right in my ear. Licking it.
The smell of her hair is sweet and slightly bitter, like someplace far away I’ll never see. I answer her on automatic, “Jen,” and then, “God!” leaps out of my mouth as her teeth pierce my earlobe.
The pain clears my head for a moment. I’m conscious of the warm, wet blossom of blood that drips like melted wax onto my shoulder, and of the absurd and slightly scary fact that I’m pinned under the body of a stranger and she’s hurt me. I push at her, whatever I can reach, but I’m too drunk to have much effect. In fact, I’m so drunk that her knee, what little I can see of it around her hair in my face, seems to be passing right through the couch cushion.
She licks up the blood in two slow swipes, and the sudden clarity is just as suddenly gone. I can’t think. She kisses me again with my blood on her teeth. More of me vanishes into her; I open my mouth wider so she can take whatever she wants.
“Jen, you OK?” Mack’s voice. “Jen? Christ, Robbie, how many shots you give her?”
“You should talk, Mack. You aren’t driving home, are you?”
“Nah, walking. So’s she, thank God.” Someone–Mack–gives my shoulder a rough shake. “Jen, you OK? Can you hear me?”
“A little busy now,” I mumble around the lips that are slowly killing me.
He doesn’t seem to hear me. “Jen, sweetie, maybe you should go home. Can you walk OK?”
The girl climbs off me and holds out her hand. Her smile is beatific.
“Yeah,” I say to Mack, unable to take my eyes from the girl’s lips. “Yeah. Going home.” I let her lead me out of the bar and into the parking lot.
The fifteen minutes it would take to get to my place seems an unbearably long time to wait. On the far side of the parking lot, I try to step up onto the grass and somehow I miss the curb. The girl catches me as I stumble. She nearly falls herself. We sway together against the back of Robbie’s camper-top pickup truck, and now there’s no question of walking to my place or anywhere else.
She’s at me again like you’d attack your first meal after the rescue copters get you out of the avalanche, and your hunger is a prayer of thanks. She’s pulling my tank top over my head, ripping at my bra. It’s cold, an early October snow just picking up speed, but I don’t stop her. I reach to help her out of that hoodie of hers only to find it’s gone already, just disappeared. Bare skin under my hands. I open my eyes and look into her face at last.
Her face. It’s my face.
She stares back at me with my own eyes, her cheek marred by that same patchy birthmark I’ve hated all my life, her ear still wearing a clotted bead of my blood. That smile–I only found it so weird on her because it was so familiar. I stare at the living mirror before me and my hands fall limp at my sides to rest helpless on the truck’s tailgate. Only they don’t. They pass right through.
A chill sweeps my body like I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It turns my stomach and stops my breath. I sag and start to fall, and the back of Robbie’s truck doesn’t stop me. I move through its plastic and metal like a ghost.
So does she. She dives forward to catch me, pulls me out into the clear, kneels with me in the snow. I cling to her solidity and she rocks me in her arms. And then I try to scream because now she’s fading, I can’t touch her anymore, and I can’t touch the air, either, so no sound comes out of my mouth after all.
No one had told me how much it would hurt. “Remember,” they’d said, “don’t get distracted. It’s hard not to. Experiencing physical sensations for the first time, it can be dangerously fascinating.” Fascinating? Earth underfoot, it was more than fascinating.
Jen’s skin on mine was meat and drink to me, it was Mothersong and burnt offerings at dusk. I wanted it never to end. But it did, it had to, I knew that it had to. My parents had told me what to expect. Jen faded in my arms, becoming insubstantial as mist. A spasm seized my throat, making me gasp, and I breathed her in. She was gone.
“Fascinating.” “Distracted.” Oh yes. But no one had warned me that I would love her. When my parents had recounted their own pilgrimages, years gone by, they’d never told me that their first tangible breath had been to weep.
I don’t know how long I knelt there, alone in the snow surrounded by Jen’s abandoned clothes. Her socks seemed particularly forlorn, half in and half out of her shoes. Her name stuttered uncontrollably off my lips. Her lips. My name now, to remember her by. Her name was mine, and her voice to speak it with. Her clothes were now mine; I remembered I was supposed to put them on. “Leave nothing behind.” Besides, it was cold out. I could feel the cold sinking its teeth into Jen’s body, my body, inch by inch.
I could feel. I could pick up a handful of snow. I could wear real clothes of solid fabric, never again need the gray imaginings that habit of thought had dressed me in for years. I could touch. I could breathe.
My sobs stilled simply because they made me aware of the miracle that I could cry. Maybe that’s why no one mentions the grief; it’s gone so soon, replaced by joy.
“Jen,” I said again, and then spoke the first words I could call my own. “Thank you.”
I couldn’t quite manage the shoes. The knowledge of them had come into my head with everything else, but I had little experience thus far using fingers. The cold made them clumsier still, putting the puzzle of hooks and eyelets and laces out of my reach. I carried the shoes instead, and the pain of snow on stocking feet was the most precious thing to me during that long walk to Jen’s apartment.
Walking, at least, I’d practiced. One foot in front of the other. Gravity had become a surprisingly rough playmate, and the alcohol in Jen’s system didn’t help, but I made a good start. It got easier step by slow, careful step.
“You’ll probably find your way back without trouble,” they’d said. “Usually it’s a matter of hours. It might take longer, but that’s rare.”
Longer? How much longer?
“But don’t worry about that. Just live her life for however long it takes, until the way home opens for you.”
Days, months of Jen’s life stretched out in my imagined future, each dyed in the colors of boredom, slowly sinking under the weight of years, trapped in the same two miles of tourists and ski slopes and the same people doing the same thing through the unrelenting sameness of endless seasons.
But my pilgrimage ended as ordinarily as I could have hoped. I got to Jen’s apartment within the hour, fumbled it open with the key from her jeans pocket, and, simply as a dream, found myself walking into my parents’ house.
They were in the bedroom, my parents, Daya upon the bed and hard into advanced labor. Avell knelt beside her, both his hands enclosing hers. It was dim in there, for Daya’s comfort, but I could clearly see the sweat glistening in sheets upon her bark-brown face. The breath whistled thinly in and out of her, a terrifying sound.
Yet her gaze rose to meet mine. Alerted by her smile, Avell turned. Moments later I was in his arms.
At first he simply held me, and I felt the uneven rise and fall of his chest that told me he was crying. I was crying, too. Finally, he held me out at arm’s length and looked me over with grave, careful attention, as though seeing me for the first time. I suppose he was. What had I looked like to him, to either of them, all these years? A gray ghost, seen but never heard, communicating by blurred hand-signs they must have strained their eyes to read. No more. I could speak now.
But Avell gave me a stern look, and I remembered what my first words upon homecoming needed to be. “Avell my mother,” I said, “behold your song made flesh.”
He smiled. “It is a beautiful song,” he said. Then he brought me to the bedside and addressed the woman laboring there. “Daya, father of our child, see the breath you breathed into me.”
“It is a beautiful breath we breathed together.” She said it strong despite her travail. “What name has our breath brought home?”
“Jen,” I told them. Names are important. They’re how we remember. “Her name was Jen.”
“Is,” Daya corrected me. “Her name is Jen. And it is a good name.” Then she gasped, her smile sliding sharply out of sight. “Bone and blood! Oh, see indeed. ‘The breath you breathed into me–‘”
Avell caressed her brow. “Now, love, did I complain so when I lay there laboring with our Jen?”
“You did. You complained more.”
“Then it’s a good thing we didn’t conceive twins, isn’t it?” Avell chuckled. “Imagine Jen coming home to that scene. Both of us lying there, complaining and cursing–”
“Earth forfend I deliver this child on a curse!” But it was only mock-horror. Daya had found strength to laugh again.
I was too dazed to join in the joke. Avell had used my name so easily, so naturally. I sank to my knees beside him, the things in my heart too big for my newfound words. I laid my hands upon Daya’s belly where the unborn child moved like an extra breath between Daya’s breaths.
Avell’s hand closed upon my shoulder. “Jen,” he said, carefully and clearly. “Tell me what troubles you.”
Finally it burst out of me, and the words, when they came, were so simple. “I loved her. It hurt so much–”
“Oh, Jen,” murmured Daya. She placed her hand over mine.
“But why didn’t you warn me?” I found myself shouting, anger burning through my tears. “You both made it sound so–technical. So practical. Do this, don’t do that. Rules. Why didn’t you tell me it would break my heart?”
The sadness in Avell’s eyes shamed me then. “What could I have said? What would you have done, had you known? Hardened your heart against her, become a predator devouring prey? Staged it as a tragedy in which you played the starring role?
“No.” He squeezed my shoulder. “You both deserved love, and there’s no preparing you for that. We could only have ruined it by trying.”
“But what good is love, when it killed her?”
“No.” Daya’s voice, strained as it was, allowed no argument. “She is with you. In you. Always.” She punctuated that with a fierce grip on my hand. “She will live in your children, and their children.”
Avell touched my face, tracing the curve of my cheek. “I can see him so clearly in you,” he said. In my imagination he doubled, stood face to face with himself, that other man who had held a life safe and waiting for him to claim. “How much I loved him–it makes me love you that much more.”
A cry from the bed, sharp and surprised. Daya flung her head back against the pillows and drew a breath. And kept drawing it, on and on. It seemed she would never stop, not until she’d inhaled every bit of the Earth’s atmosphere and become herself a planet with her own weather patterns, her own seas. Avell’s hands and mine rose with the profound expansion of her belly. Then, at the crest of the wave, she held that great breath, creating a moment of stillness in which I held mine also. In silence she smiled at us, the smile of a Goddess telling Her people, be not afraid. I gripped Avell’s hand tightly and watched Daya’s lips.
She opened her mouth and breathed that great breath out, and my sister, insubstantial as a mist, was born.
Originally from New Orleans, Nicole J. LeBoeuf lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and the ghosts of two cats. She writes weird fiction, knits thigh-high socks, and skates roller derby under the name “Fleur de Beast.” Find her online at www.nicolejleboeuf.com.
“First Breath” was originally published in Blood and Other Cravings, edited by Ellen Datlow and published by Tor Books in 2011.