Out of Breath (The Breathing Series, #3)
Author:Rebecca Donovan
Synopsis:

Prologue

    2

    No Do-Overs



    MY HEAD SPLINTERED INTO A THOUSAND pieces as I slowly opened my eyes. I placed my hand against it to keep it steady while I propped myself up on my elbow.

    Where was I?

    The slightest movement intensified the lightning storm inside my skull. Glancing around the musty room, I tried to remember what I’d done and why I was here. There was someone lying next to me. I noted the dark hair on the unmoving form under the blue plaid comforter.

    I tried harder to recall last night, but was only met with flashing images of the party – and a guy. It must have been this guy. I looked under the comforter. I didn’t have any clothes on. My stomach churned as I sank back onto the flat pillow. I looked over at the nightstand and saw a torn package. I was about to be sick. What had I done?!

    I lifted the blanket and examined his lean, naked body beneath it. A winding tattoo along his back finished behind his ear. Who was this guy? I knew he’d told me his name, and I searched through my broken memory to find it. Gev. That was it.

    All I wanted was to leave and never see him again. But I didn’t know where my clothes were. Flinching in agony, I crawled along the bed, trying not to disturb Gev, who was breathing heavily with his mouth open. It didn’t look like anything would wake him.

    I found a T-shirt and shorts on the floor and slipped them on. Moving gingerly, to keep a fit of axes from slicing through my head, I glanced around the small room. The full-size bed took up most of it. The walls were papered with rock posters, and clothes hung out of the half-open drawers of an abused bureau.

    I opened the door leading to a small hallway, peeking out to listen. A hum of voices carried from a television, but otherwise it was quiet. Passing the bathroom, I suddenly stopped – recognizing my purple bra and underwear hanging on the doorknob. Unable to remember removing them, I sighed and shoved them under my arm before continuing down the hall.

    A sprawled figure lay on the couch with the remote in his hand and a bag of chips spilled on the floor next to him as the morning news programme aired on the television screen. I crept past him, flinching as the screen door squeaked and I entered the frigid morning air. The grass was coated with dew, chilling my bare feet as I stepped across the back lawn. My clothes caught my eye, lying next to a hot tub. I pulled my phone out of my jeans pocket before flinging them and the tank top over my arm.

    Hugging my body to quell a shiver, I listened to it ring as I walked towards the sidewalk. Sitting on the edge of the front lawn, as if waiting for me, were my shoes. I blew out an exasperated breath as I hung them from my fingers and kept walking.

    ‘Emma?’ Peyton rasped, still half asleep. ‘I lost you. Where are you?’

    ‘I don’t know,’ I whispered, though my voice still sounded loud in the predawn quiet of the sleeping neighbourhood. I began to notice clear plastic cups strewn along my path. ‘I think I’m near the party. Where are you?’

    ‘On the couch,’ she muttered. She groaned and continued with, ‘Let me find my shoes and I’ll meet you outside.’

    I spotted Peyton’s red dress several houses down and continued to move slowly in her direction.

    ‘Hey,’ I croaked when I finally reached her.

    ‘Hey,’ she uttered in return. She plopped a top hat on my head and slid her tiara in place before wrapping her arm around mine. With her head on my shoulder, we trudged towards her Mustang, which felt about a million miles away.

    I carefully lowered myself onto the passenger seat, trying not to jostle the few brain cells I had left while Peyton positioned herself on the driver’s side. She slid on her oversized sunglasses and sighed in relief – even though it was barely light enough to see without headlights.

    When we arrived home we crept silently up the stairs and closed our bedroom doors behind us. I stripped out of the T-shirt and shorts, not wanting them touching my skin a second longer, and tossed them in the trash before slipping on a pair of boxers and a tank top. I pulled the covers over my head and passed out.

    ‘Emma?’ Peyton beckoned softly. I was jarred slightly when she sat down next to me. ‘Are you alive?’

    ‘No,’ I grumbled from under my blankets. ‘I was hoping for death.’ I pulled the blankets tighter around my head. ‘Drinking sucks.’

    Peyton chuckled. ‘The way you drank does. It’s almost noon. Let’s get breakfast. It will make you feel better.’

    ‘I don’t believe you,’ I griped without moving. ‘I think a decapitation is the only thing that will make me feel better.’

    ‘Grease is a hangover miracle cure,’ she promised.

    I peeked out from under the blankets. Peyton’s hair was a tangled mess, and her puffy eyes were smeared with mascara. I could only imagine what I looked like. Glancing in the mirror above my dresser, I ran my fingers over the nest that was once my hair and wiped the black streaks under my bloodshot eyes. My mouth was pasty with the lingering taste of something putrid.

    ‘Let me take a shower first,’ I conceded.

    Peyton stood up and headed towards the door. ‘I need one too. I’ll meet you downstairs when we’re done.’

    I grabbed random clothes from my drawers and faltered blindly towards the bathroom, unable to open my eyes beyond a squint. I turned on the water until it was almost scalding and stood under the cleansing streams. The night was slowly coming back to me as the water pelted my skin, turning it red.

    You’re fucking disgusting. Carol’s hateful voice rang through my head. With my eyes clenched tight, I forced her away and scrubbed harder.

    I tried to scour away the feel of his hands on my body and the taste of his tongue in my mouth. When I turned off the water, I was still repulsed with myself.

    After dressing in jeans and an oversized grey hoodie, I tucked my hair under a baseball hat and found Peyton slumped on the couch. She stood up, and just as we turned towards the door, Meg walked in. She looked tired, but not near death like we did.

    Her eyes flipped from Peyton to me, and then back to Peyton.

    ‘You got her drunk,’ Meg accused.

    ‘She did that all on her own,’ Peyton countered. ‘We’re getting breakfast. Wanna come?’

    I lowered my head in avoidance. I could still feel Meg looking at me when she answered, ‘Sure.’

    ‘Good.’ Peyton held up her keys. ‘Then you can drive.’

    A line awaited us when we pulled into the parking lot of the local breakfast spot. The busy restaurant was occupied by a mosaic of pale faces, trying to piece together their New Year. Thankfully, the line progressed quickly, and we slid into a booth fifteen minutes later.

    Meg studied me from across the booth and shook her head. ‘I can’t believe you drank. I mean, you never drink. What happened?’

    I shrugged and mumbled, ‘Pandora.’ As Meg’s eyes dipped in sympathy, I redirected my attention out the window.

    ‘What does music have to do with getting drunk?’ Peyton questioned, not understanding my reference. ‘Do you mean the musician you hooked up with last night? Were you trying to be cryptic or something?’

    ‘Wait. You slept with someone?!’ Meg’s voice rose, drawing the attention of a couple of guys walking by. I sunk into the booth, pulling my hat over my eyes when I heard them chuckle.

    ‘Meg!’ Peyton said sternly. ‘Why don’t you just announce it to the whole diner?’

    ‘Sorry,’ Meg grimaced. ‘But I –’

    ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ I interrupted firmly. They both opened their mouths, and then closed them again. Our food arrived, thankfully, allowing us something to do other than dwell on my drunken indiscretion.

    ‘Where did you end up, Peyton?’ Meg interrogated.

    ‘On Tom’s couch,’ she stated. ‘Alone. He disappeared around three, and I couldn’t find Emma, so I fell asleep on his couch.’

    Meg filled us in on her night as we ate our bacon and egg sandwiches – it wasn’t nearly as eventful. And, as it turns out, grease really does have miraculous effects. At least my body felt one step closer to rejoining the human race when we left the diner.

    My phone rang as we reached the front steps. I knew what was about to happen, and I wasn’t ready. I took a deep breath and answered the phone anyway. ‘Hi, Sara.’

    ‘Happy New Year!’ she bellowed. I winced and pulled the phone away from my ear.

    ‘Not so loud,’ I begged.

    ‘Uh, okay,’ she replied in confusion. ‘Wait. Did you go out last night?’

    ‘Yeah,’ I answered softly. ‘But I’m not talking about it.’

    Sara was quiet for a moment. ‘Does Meg know?’

    I sat down on the couch and rested the back of my head against the cushion. ‘Yes.’

    ‘Can I ask her about it?’ she requested cautiously.

    I paused and swallowed hard. ‘As long as you promise we’ll never have to talk about it.’

    I could hear her thinking on the other end of the phone. ‘I promise.’ She hung up on me, and within thirty seconds Meg’s phone rang. She shot a glance at me from the other end of the couch.

    ‘Sara wants to know what happened to me last night, and I told her I wasn’t talking about it.’

    ‘But I can tell her, right?’ she confirmed.

    ‘Not in front of me.’

    Meg stood and began to climb the stairs as she answered her phone. ‘Hi, Sara.’

    ‘I’m coming with you,’ Peyton called after her, taking two steps at a time. She was obviously feeling better.

    I chased two aspirin with a Vitaminwater and remained on the couch, watching movies all afternoon.

    I slunk away to my room in the early evening, leaving the girls with some horror movie that I really had no interest in. Sleep and I had taken way too long to finally find each other, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that with a movie.

    Someone knocked lightly on my door. ‘Come in,’ I answered.

    Meg poked her head in. ‘Hey.’ She sat at the end of my bed. ‘Still feel like shit?’

    ‘Tell me it goes away,’ I begged, my eyes closed.

    ‘You’ll be better tomorrow,’ she assured me. ‘Peyton told me how much you had to drink, or what she saw you drink anyway.’

    I remained silent. Then she finally said it. ‘I know you don’t want to talk about it, and we won’t. I promise to never bring it up again. But before you drown in shame, know that everyone makes mistakes. And as far as I’m concerned, Ev–’

    ‘Don’t,’ I shot out before she could finish his name.

    ‘Sorry,’ she said, biting her lip. ‘I meant that it didn’t count. It was a mistake, and it doesn’t count.’

    I’d never told Meg about my life in Weslyn. I didn’t explain why I almost never went out or why I refused to drink – or had, before last night. But I let Sara tell her when she came to visit after I’d moved into the house this past summer. She never mentioned what Sara had told her, but it helped her understand why I kept everyone at a distance. I trusted Meg.

    I’d met her on the first day of soccer conditioning during our freshman year. She’d flown in from Pennsylvania, so we were both transplants. Meg accepted my withdrawn demeanour, and instinctively felt the urge to look out for me. This reminded me of Sara, and we bonded instantly.

    Over the season, we found Peyton gravitating towards us. Truth be told, Peyton gravitated towards everyone. She was in your face and refused to be ignored. People either hated her or loved her, and she couldn’t care less either way. I think her brazen attitude is what made me like having her around.

    And then there was Serena. She was from California, as was Peyton, and she was currently spending winter break with her family. But when she was with us, she completed our mismatched quad perfectly. Serena was genuinely the kindest person I’d ever met, but it was laced with a straightforward attitude that would tell a priest where to go if he crossed her. I responded to her cutting-edge Goth lifestyle with equal measures of intrigue and respect.

    As much as I was grateful for Peyton’s and Serena’s patience with me and acceptance of who I was (although Peyton did have moments of being a little too … well, Peyton), it was Meg who I trusted with the truth about a past that we’d never actually talked about. Meg became my voice of reason, vying to keep me sane. When I was tiptoeing along the edge, Meg was there to make sure I didn’t fall over.

    So when she told me that my one-night stand could be erased, I wanted to accept her assurance and swallow it whole, letting it salve the guilt like an antacid. But I knew there was no use in trying – everything had begun to crumble the moment she opened that box. My shameful encounter was just one more destructive choice I’d made that couldn’t be undone.