Between Stillness and Breath
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
The first memory that returned was how it had felt for his heart to stop pumping blood. He’d been a separate entity from his own body, tethered up above his collapsed form like a balloon. It still felt like that, though he knew he was alive now. The bed he was draped across made him well aware, stiff and uncomfortable. He couldn’t figure out whose bed it was. Who he was. Bits of his past were consumed in a dark abyss, and he only had context clues to go off of. Light brown skin, short, curly hair mussed from sleeping on one side of his body all night, and the fact that he’d stopped breathing. But his heart prevailed, pushing blood through his body like it was meant to. The memory of death ebbed away like a bad dream, yet he couldn’t shake the sensation of cold stillness. He’d gone to sleep dead and was brought to life with a brand new heartbeat.
The acoustics of his mind bounced around wordless questions. He didn’t know his name, just that he was a he and he had brown skin. He kept coming back to the melanin, the one connection to solid ground. The haze of unconsciousness faded. He stared at the hair follicles on the back of his hand like they were anchors that would draw back the film of amnesia.
“Jason.” His breath hitched and his body experienced a glacial freeze of fear. He sat up slowly, a squirrel assessing the coyote’s location. The voice sounded familiar, but off, like it had been pitched an octave higher than it should be. He didn’t know who it belonged to. “Get up. You don’t have time for this.”
His eyes slid from wall to wall in the small, pastel green bedroom. The walls were bare, save for two doors that sat side by side across from the bed. The doors avoided his inspection, blending into the background while he frantically searched for the phantom voice.
“You have to make a decision soon.”
The doors came back into focus, slabs of dark oak with matching brass doorknobs. The one on the left caught his eye first, the wood splintered from the center outward. It looked like something blunt and heavy had tried to burst through. A bat, or even a very angry boot.
“Where is that coming from?” He muttered aloud in an attempt to mask his surprise. He noticed the all black attire that sat on his hefty body. Whose funeral was I at? Despite the abyss that sat in place of actual memories, he found himself surprised that the tuxedo fit him perfectly. There was an expectation for it to be too baggy, or too suffocating. The abyss hinted that he’d experienced both when it came to clothes. He scrabbled for more memories but yielded nothing.
Wood smashed. He jerked his head to look as someone worked to kick through the door on the left. It was the only door now. He’d entered another realm. Sunset splashed the room in blood orange. A dresser had appeared in front of the door, and it rocked with each heavy kick. A whimper drew out from the corner next to the bed. A boy curled in on himself, face wet with tears, hands and arms laced with blood.
He returned to where he was. In the bedroom. White curtains covered the only windows on his left, allowing in warm noon light that had vanished in the flashback. He unclenched his jaw.
“Jason,” The voice sounded testy. “Get up.”
He licked his lips, scanning the room several more times. He was acutely aware of the heartbeat in his chest. It felt foreign, scary. If he focused too much on the way each inhale raised his pulse, he teetered on the brink of panic. Right now, everything was teetering on the brink of panic. The dresser was nowhere to be found. “Who are you talking to?”
“Get. Up.” Terrified, he moved himself to his feet. His gut stirred with guilt for not responding sooner, then disgust for feeling guilty. He wasn’t a fucking dog. But he was too embarrassed to climb back onto the bed. The shiny black dress shoes shouldn’t have been on the mattress anyway. “The clock began ticking the moment your body welcomed back its blood flow. You’re running on stolen time.”
He curled inward at the insinuation of theft. He didn’t steal. He didn’t know what he did, if he did anything at all. Who was the boy in the corner? “Where-”
“Can you stop asking such stupid questions?”
The heart palpitations were distracting. He clutched at his chest as if he could remove the anxiety with his shaking hands. “Am I Jason?”
“Is there anyone else in the room?” The voice bit out. “Yes, of course you’re him. Now hurry up and go through one of the doors.”
Jason. The two syllables thawed some of his fear and added color to the blank canvas of what he knew. First name Jason, last name still shrouded in obscurity. Jason had a bedroom like this one. The heavy quilt that lay draped over the queen-sized bed had farm animals stitched into it. Familiar shapes. He’d grown up with it. He returned his attention to the doors. “Any door?”
“Hurry up!” He flinched. He was terrified of being disobedient, and he hated it, but fear overpowered anything else. The toe of his shoe tripped him up as he crossed thick beige carpeting. He always knew how to embarrass himself. Jason grasped the left doorknob and jiggled it, the door stubbornly jammed. No wonder whoever had been on the other side had resorted to kicking it in. It gave in after an insistent tug.
Jason’s eyelids opened easier than the first time around, though he was more confused than before. He noticed a dusty ceiling fan that he wasn’t sure had been there before. Its missing light bulbs made him think of a skull’s hollow eye sockets.
The door shuddered, dragging him into another flashback. The room was bathed in that same sunset lighting, rhythmically interrupted by pulsating blue and red lights. A man’s angry voice screamed for the door to be unlocked. The boy still huddled in the corner. Jason opened his mouth to speak, and the boy did the same.
Midday sunlight returned him to the present, and the scared kid in the corner vanished once more. “What?” He breathed. He sat up, first propped on his elbow, then fully so he could slide his legs off the bed. The heart palpitations continued, like butterflies battering his ribcage and tickling his lungs. He had a compulsion to itch away the sensation.
He tried to find the source of the voice, a camera in the corner or a speaker embedded in the ceiling. Or maybe he was just hoping to reap an approving phrase. He wanted to feel like he was supposed to move forward and reach for the doorknob again, that he wasn’t a trespasser. He was met with nothing. Just get up.
He reached out for the door on the left again, hand heavy on the brass knob as he replayed what had just happened. The skin on his knuckles had been scraped off, though a thin scab had begun to form. He recalled punching a wall. He couldn’t pinpoint when, just that it had happened.
“Make a decision.” The voice returned, low and audibly running out of already meager patience.
Jason twisted the knob and pulled back faster, dislodging the door from its frame with little struggle.
He opened his eyes a third time. “What in the-?” He trailed off, unable to decide between hell or something more crass.
“You know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome. You should probably look into that.”
“What’s your problem?” Jason snapped at the ceiling. Suppressed anger rolled up like a wave and dissipated in the same instant. He froze. Silence was his response.
He threw himself off the bed and stalked toward the doors. He wrenched at the door on the right. The well-oiled hinges swung open, throwing him off balance. Jason stumbled. He cursed himself for his constant clumsiness, sounding as angry at himself as the disembodied voice.
Outside the bedroom lay a dark hallway, with mahogany flooring and a small table. The lamp that sat on it was missing its bulb.
In a wave of recollection, he heard his parents arguing loudly in the bedroom down the hall. There was always a fear that something would go wrong, even if it never did. He didn’t ever know what to expect. Walking on eggshells couldn’t begin to explain the day-to-day terror of his life.
“You need to hurry up.” The voice broke through his flashback. Jason was doubled over, hands on his knees as a panic attack seized him.
He bit down on his tongue, grinding into his taste buds as he struggled to contain his emotions. He sucked in air as slowly as he could in an attempt to counteract the panic. His hands. The brown and the hair and the way it pulled him back ashore. He anchored himself. “And do what?” Jason asked, winded. There wasn’t a good balance between hyperventilating and flatlining. Between stillness and breath. He loitered in the hallway, waiting on a response. “Okay, fine. Ignore me.” He whispered. The other end of the hallway spilled out into a kitchen and living room. A gray, stained recliner held an open book, its pages ripped out. Papers and notebooks were strewn about, making it impossible to move without stepping on them. The kitchen’s cupboards were thrown open, jars emptied of their contents, glass and ceramic dishes smashed. There had been a particularly bad argument. And the papers...
His mother was studying for her master’s. The fact blinked in his mind as he lifted up the book to look at its cover. Microbiology. As he set it back down, the tuxedo sleeve rubbed against his arm, making it itch like crazy. Whose funeral was I at? He slipped his hand in the sleeve and cried out. His fingernails had dug into open cuts. Jason shucked off the tuxedo jacket and rolled up the white sleeve of his dress shirt. Short, parallel red lines decorated his forearm. Droplets of blood formed in the cuts, growing until they spilled out in ragged streaks. He dabbed at the blood with this other sleeve, but dots of red continued to replace themselves.
“As I said, you’re running on stolen time.” Jason ignored the voice, yanking his sleeve back down. Blood stained the white, red creeping over the fabric and turning brown. The skin on his knuckles was raw, scabs gone. Blood dotted itself across his hands. He was reminded of the boy in the corner, bloodied and crying as someone kicked in his door. He heard the angry man on the other side, borderline hysteric. He heard his father. “Go to the bedroom.”
“Why?” Jason asked, sounding hoarse all of a sudden. It was painful to swallow. “Mine?” He squeaked. He touched his throat and winced when his fingers brushed against bruises.
The kitchen had windows that were practically walls, with too much sunlight soaking through. The overexposure blinded him. The living room was darker, the curtains gapless. There was a time when he had been in the living room, watching television. His father stormed down the hallway, heavy footsteps shaking the house’s foundation. Jason switched the television off automatically. An instinctual terror of being caught enjoying himself that he would carry forever.
He returned to the hallway, sweeping past the wide-open door of his bedroom and moving to the final door at the end of the hall. Another brass doorknob awaited him, this one familiar. He stood in front of the door, waiting. Warmth trickled over his palms. Jason’s breathing was quick and shallow. He was slipping into a well-worn pattern. The walk down the hallway, floorboards whining underneath his feet, waiting to knock on the door, bracing himself for his father’s voice. The same one on the other side of his bedroom door.
His parents’ room had baby blue walls and the same beige carpeting in his own. It was missing all of its furniture except for the bed. The covers were rumpled and unmade, and pillows had fallen to the floor. The heavy stench of a rotting carcass made him nauseous. A splatter of blood and brains stained the headboard, the body of his father leaning against it. Stolen time. Jason averted his eyes to the floor. Blood dribbled from his hands onto the shoes, ruining the perfect black shine. Whose funeral was I at?
The memory of his stopped heart returned, fading in from the background. Jason touched his cracked lips. He couldn’t speak, barely able to force himself to breathe. His body was shutting down again, and he wasn’t a balloon watching it happen anymore.
“Make your decision.” The voice chimed in, combining with his subconscious as he fully returned to himself. Not a person through overhead speakers, but his derealized self.
Jason moved to exit, only to find the same two doors from his bedroom, closing him off from the rest of the house. The one on the left, with its shards of wood sticking out, breaking apart. The one on the right, free of blemishes.
Jason’s legs stopped working. His knees buckled and he found himself on his hands and knees, dizzy and lightheaded. He didn’t have enough energy to swear at himself. Just keep going. His palms tingled, fingertips numb. He crawled forward. Two feet away from either door and he couldn’t feel his tongue. Black tinged the edges of his vision, slowly creeping inward to claim his sight. Unconsciousness promised something that breathing couldn’t provide. Whose funeral will it be?
He heaved himself forward and grabbed at the brass doorknob, hands slippery with his own blood.
Jason opened the door on the right. Blood orange painted the world once more, accompanied with stripes of shadows. The dark edges around his vision receded. His hand fell to the floor, and he didn’t take his eyes off of it. His own flesh, still full of life. His anchor.
Shadows crossed Jason’s feeble body. People flooded the room. A woman spoke to him in a soft voice, caressing his face. Jason couldn’t comprehend the words as he desperately held onto his changed future. His father wouldn’t kick the door down, the boy in the corner gone. He remembered how it had felt for his heart to stop moving blood, and now what it was like for it to begin again.