Respire

Curtis Monroe was a fat man and had no illusions about it, his roundness coming to a wide saucer right at his middle, like a top. All his life he had maneuvered his size, sideways into cars, carefully beneath diner booths, tailored into suits that would stretch out in the middle further than the shoulders.

He tried to be a friendly man, and as he got older it required more energy, physically, since he was out of breath after climbing stairs, achy after a day in the office chair, sweaty and clammy at his back and under his arms at the middle of the afternoon – winter, spring, summer, or fall. Still, he’d learned since he was little, making his way through kickball games and lunch table cliques, people liked him better when he smiled, and after a couple decades, he’d come to agree with it, his broad jowly smile, or it’d come to agree with him.

Now Curtis Monroe could not smile, because he was bloodied over the eye, where the soldier had hit him, and stood with his arms uncomfortably clasped in front of him, the way they’d all been ordered. His pant legs were ripped from the march, his shirt untucked and dirtied from all the huddling, left in areas with nowhere to sit but jagged rocks and muddy ground, guarded over by the guns.

His wife Sarah was on the other side of the road now, where the women had been separated, lorded over by a different set of soldiers with guns, as they all stood together single-file in lines before the old middle school. He had been trying not to catch her eye, to look around, to deliberately not see her or let her see him. But after a while he decided to give her a smile.

That was when he saw she’d been gesturing secretly for him for a while, trying to get his attention without getting the soldiers’. Her palms were moving swiftly, her eyes terrified, the terrified only a mother’s eyes can be. Some dirt and sweat kept a strand of her soft red hair on her forehead and baby-wide cheeks. Her hands were making a motion, quickly, rapid-fire, like a thumb pushing down on a joystick trigger. She was pleading with him. Trigger-trigger-trigger. And that was when he remembered.

And that was when Curtis Monroe ran forward and two soldiers yelled simultaneously and raised their rifles and a third ran in front of him, on the steps of the old school, and stretched a hand out to stop his waddling run, shouting into his face.

“My son!” Curtis Monroe yelled at the soldier, whose eyes were dark but whose face except the eyes were all covered by balaclava and helmet and worn, used goggles strapped up on the top like sunglasses when they aren’t being used. “My son- and he – I used-“

Curtis Monroe was having a hard time talking because he was out of breath, and the soldier was shouting at him furiously, commanding, and there was a din, from all around, from the people in the lines, from the soldiers with their guns, from the sun and the school and the grinding squeak of his own head’s ache.

And he could have stopped, if he had chosen, to word it all out, explain. It’s important, that he could have, if he wanted to. Whether the soldier would have cared or not, Curtis could have. Instead, this is what Curtis Monroe did: sweat pouring down filthily through his hair, face all red, Curtis Monroe reared back and kicked the soldier directly in his nuts, a kick like to crack through splintered doors, where the soldier’s armor did not reach. And the soldier fell down.

In the old school’s foyer, Caleb Monroe was sitting Indian-style with the two dozen or so other kids kept there alone. The older ones, teenagers, were standing, trying to look brave and unconcerned for the younger kids’ sake, or for their own. He was staring at his shoes, wondering if it would be worth it to go down the hall to the bathroom like he had to, wondering what would happen to him if he did, when the big windowless front doors burst open.

He looked up and saw his father, broken and made, holding himself up in the middle of the doorway by the big doors’ handles, scream his name. “Caleb!” he screamed. Then his father let go of one door handle, reached into his jacket pocket, and threw Caleb his inhaler. Then soldiers crashed down on Caleb’s father and the doors slammed shut again.

The inhaler slid across the hallway and landed about halfway down, halfway to where he and all the other kids were sitting. Before knowing what it was, a dozen or so children scrabbled and ran and threw themselves down on what had been thrown in, just like when the soldiers had thrown in a bundle of food or water bottles. Or like when, once, the soldiers had thrown a few pieces of candy, after which they’d stood there and watched and laughed.

None of those times had Caleb been in that group, the ones that ran and climbed and fought for what was tossed them. He’d sat and stared at his shoe and waited, hoping someone would let him have something, at least a little.

Now Francis D. MacAfee, who’d introduced himself as Francis D. MacAfee, a tall and lanky teenager in a neat leather jacket and hair across his eyes, stamped his foot down over all the scrabbling kids. He let it slide softly on top of the inhaler. The kids all moved away. “Caleb?” he asked tentatively.

Caleb raised his head.

“It belongs to him,” said Francis D. MacAfee, and kicked it over gently. “His dad said it was for him.”

Caleb kept his head down and quickly slipped it in his pocket. He didn’t need it right that minute. “You take care of that,” Francis D. MacAfee told him, materializing above. “It might be the last thing your father ever gave you.”

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