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A Hundred Breaths

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Editors Pick
Competition Entry: Solstice
December 22, 2015

Ricky breathes deeply as he walks through the park. The air, sweetened by the scent of pine and cooled by the fallen snow, refreshes his lungs and spirit. It’s barely evening, yet it’s already dark out, the sun having slipped below the horizon. The snow on the ground is new and untrodden. It casts a luminous blanket all around, as if flying above the clouds at night. He and Crystal are all alone in the park which is more than fine with him.

It’s always perfect each year his younger sister visited, even if it was on the shortest day.

He follows her a few steps behind. A smile on his face reveals the contentment he feels watching her skip and run through the snow. She looks back for a moment, flashing her own silent, wispy smile, her eyes wide and shining like slivers of starlight. Then she’s off again, zig-zagging from a tree, to a rock, to a bush, to some leaves, checking everything as if it were some small treasure. Ricky wishes he could remember when everything his eyes fell upon was so wonderful and amazing.

Something suddenly hits him with a light “paff!” He looks down at the belly of his winter coat now glistening with the remnants of a snowball. Grinning, he looks back up at Crystal, covering her mouth with her bare hands, smothering a laugh and hiding her smile of glee… and a hint of pride. It’s her first snowball ever and she hit him dead center.

Ricky grins and laughs out loud for the both of them. He chases after her, flicking impotent clumps of snow her way. His sneakers slip and slide in the snow, yet she’s nimble and light, skimming the ground with her bare feet.

Finally he comes to a stop, panting as he chuckles. Crystal comes over and looks up at him, tugging on his glove.

He nods. He’s fine. Everything is fine.

She offers her small hand to him. Before he takes it, he removes his gloves. Her warmth makes them unnecessary.

He watches as her pink lips round open. As she slowly inhales another breath of air, a rosy blush blossoms on her cheeks.

“How many?” Ricky asks. He always loses count.

Crystal holds up her hands and closes and opens her fingers: “98”.

That many already. Ricky catches a frown and simple nods. Still, she’s become very good at this, nurturing and savouring each breath like a divine gift. This is the longest she’s been with him, yet.

Hand in hand, they stand in the open field and look up towards the sky. Ricky’s sight is filled only with a canopy of stars. He feels like he’s soaring, racing through eternity holding the hand of his sister. They can go anywhere forever and ever.

He closes his eyes to this beautiful image cast above him. A weak sob ebbs up his throat catching him off guard. It’s quickly chased by swells of bitter moisture on the bottom edge of his eyes.

Then he feels a tug on his hand. He looks down and is instantly brought to ease by a gentle face. A healing serenity glows around Crystal. She tugs him again, the tiny sister pulling her big brother down to his knees upon the snow covered ground. She wraps her tender arms around him for a comforting embrace.

Her lips brush close to his ear. She breathes, “Tell mommy and daddy I love them.”

“Every night, Crys,” Ricky replies, softly.

As she kisses his cheek, she gives her final, precious breath to him. Ricky closes his eyes and softly shudders as a cascading warmth fills him.

“Thank you,” he whispers.

For a few seconds longer, his eyes remain shut. He holds onto this feeling for as long as he can.

A gentle but icy wind pushes past his face. He knows. Even before he opens his eyes, he knows.

Crystal is gone.


December 21, 2009

Ricky looks out the hospital window. He wonders why it’s so dark already, like the entire building were covered in a shroud. It’s cold and dry outside, too. He would make a wish for it to snow already, to make it feel like winter, if he didn’t already know that wishes and hope were at a premium tonight.

“Hey, buddy.” From behind, his dad places his hand on his shoulders. He speaks with a heavy, weary voice, “Come on.”

Ricky looks up at him. His dad’s lips manage a tight smile, the edges quivering Ricky takes his hand. For the first time in his young life he feels the weight of his father – the heaviness in his spirit, his expression. The feeling almost smothers him as his father guides him to his mother.

She’s leaning forward in her wheelchair, her eyes as red as her face is pale. As he moves beside her she seems hopelessly beyond Ricky’s reach. Yet as she continues to stare through the glass of the incubator, she takes his hand. He squeezes her fingers tight. She will always be there for him, as will his dad who gathers them in his arms. Ricky doesn’t move, finding comfort in the circle.

Together they reach through the wall of glass. They push away the tubes and bandages attached to the trembling, frail life lying inside. Her every breath is a struggle, and they all know each one she manages is an immeasurable gift.

Ricky’s breaths clouds the glass as he gazes at his sister. Her lids are closed, but he can see her eyes looking back towards him. 

“Please,” a hint of a whisper slips past his lips, “please, just for a few years… or a year… or a month. Even just for a day. Please… ”

He squeezes the hands of his parents and embraces his sister through the glass.

“… just a hundred breaths more.”

Outside, a single snowflake falls down past the window…

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