Challenge 7
Genre: Humor, Romance, Drama
Rating: M
Like: Old Gramophones, Taxidermy Shop, Lofts, A Walrus That Smokes Cigars, Lee Harvey Oswald, Bifocals, Clouds And Cloud Expertise.
Hate: Cliche Characters And Things Of That Nature, Vegetables (Especially Onions), Bestiality, Bottled Water.
Words/Quotes: Tangelo, Bougainvillea, "Dee dee dee dee.." (as singing.)

-

For my brother, and his wife.

But mostly, for Tyler.

-

breathe you.

-

It's not real. You're not gone. You can't just leave me and die.

You were here, there, near, far, just moments ago, maybe hours ago, probably days, but it simultaneously feels like forever and no time at all.

My senses are shot to hell. Nothing is as it should be.

I can't sleep. Can't eat. Can't drink or vomit or breathe. I can't breathe.

I try. I inhale.

I try to feel my external intercostal muscles move up and out, my diaphragm move down, try to feel the air come rushing in down the concentration gradient, but I can't feel it.

I can't feel myself being alive. I might as well be controlled by gravity, lying on the floor unblinking, unmoving, a cadaver without a cart.

I close my eyes and remember.

-

"Would you like a tangelo?"

I smile, hold my eyes wide and innocent. He's a cutie, with messy hair and pants that barely fit.

He turns to me and grins and I melt better than butter.

"Tangelo? It looks like a tangerine with a tumor."

"Well doctor, looks like you should operate."

He laughs and takes the fruit from me. Our hands don't touch. Damn.

I try not to watch him rip it open, try not see how skilled his hands are, but I can't stop myself from peeking, judging his person every passing second.

"I'm Alex, by the way," he says. He's so very nonchalant. His name slips so easily from his tongue, dripping down his chin into my head.

"I'm Julie. But you can call me Pom."

"Pom? Why?"

"Dunno. Everyone's always called me that since I went to preschool. Something to do with my hair."

"Oh," is all he says. He smiles.

My heart might as well be in cardiac arrest.

-

The phone is ringing. Or maybe it's just my ears. A dull buzzing noise where you once would have whispered to me sweetheart, or buttercup or bay bee , dripping with desire, distracting me from memorizing.

This is just a joke right?

I think for a moment.

The tears drip down afresh.

-

We're supposed to be studying, but instead we're slumped against the wall, legs touching.

"God, you're such a Russophile. Like Lee Harvey Oswald."

"God, what a crackpot."

"Yeah. But geez, what balls. To shoot the President in broad daylight? I can barely go to the bakery to buy myself a donut."

"Damn Pom, you're such a pansy."

We sit in silence. I reach in my bag for some blueberries, but my fingers close over the movie ticket stubs from hours earlier.

I turn to him and smile.

And he smiles back.

My tummy tingles and our fingers touch.

"You know, my father used to own a taxidermy shop."

His smile widens.

"No kidding? No wonder you're so morbid."

"Maybe. But it just seemed natural, to cut dead things open to see what's inside. It doesn't hurt them. They're dead."

His smile widens even more. How big can it get? His teeth are white and straight and even, and it's like looking at a pure blank sheet of paper, waiting for a story to be written on it.

"Your teeth," I tell him. "They gleam like pearls."

He laughs. "Really?"

"No."

He laughs again. I look away.

"But yeah," I say, thinking once more about the solid, heavy, bodies. "They can't feel anything."

"Hey, I'm not arguing against it. We're in med school you know."

I look at my shoes. Tap them together. Home sweet home.

He notices. He notices everything. That's what will make him such a good doctor one day. He leans in.

"Hey Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore."

I pretend to bristle. I fail.

"I'm not from Kansas, I'm from Nebraska."

His teeth go away, covered by those man lips that eat like a gross, gross boy. But the grin is still there, covered by labial epidermis.

"I know," he says.

He does.

-

He's not at work today.

The hospital smells and there's sick people and he's not here and he's not picking up his phone and I'm panicking and wondering where is he, where is he.

The boss comes to me. He looks sad. Maybe he's going to tell me my patient has passed away. That's sad. I had a lot of hope for Joey. His stats were improving every day and he was going to go home next wee-

"Julie," he says to me, and it's the ugliest sound I've ever heard.

I can't say yes sir, because the air has left my body, and I know, oh God, it's not Joey, it's not Joey, it's not-

"Alex..." he wavers and my knees buckle.

The floor is cold and dirty.

"They found Alex in his loft this morning. He wasn't breathing."

He swallows. "We couldn't revive him. I'm sorry. It looks like an overdose, but we'll have to perform an autopsy."

I think I'm making some noises that sound like I can't breathe, because I can't. The oxygen is gone, my hands are moving aimlessly in the air.

"Oh God." I say. It's the only thing that comes. "Oh God, oh God, oh God."

"I'm sorry," boss is saying.

"Oh no, oh no, oh no, ohnoohnoohnoohnoohnoohno."

The boss comes behind me, tries to pick me up from the floor, but I'm screaming and crying and dying inside.

"I'm sorry," says the boss.

I'm sorry.

-

The toilet bowl smelled like urine, but now it smells like bile.

There's traces of blood and I know this is bad, I should go drink some water, but I brush my teeth, try to rinse my mouth of the taste of grief.

I chance a glance at the mirror. Big mistake.

My eyes are bloodshot, nose swollen, lips red and cracked. I look like an addict.

Baby, I almost look a little like you.

-

My feet hurt and I'm cranky but I hold my tongue because he thinks girls that don't complain are sexy.

And we're on a quest for some fucking absurdities- (a walrus that smokes cigars? Really? Fucking really? We're better off looking for old pink gramophones to spin records on and play DJ with) that I know we're never gonna find but he keeps on smiling saying,

"Come on, we'll find it! This is fun." With that stupid grin of his that turns my jelly legs into utter mush so I keep on following him, a miserable lame moth to the light.

I'm hungry and I want to say it, but I keep my mouth shut, hold my wants still, but

"Wanna get something to eat?" he asks, like he's known all along that my tummy is tumultuously turning, acid active and writhing.

And the hunger goes away.

I smile and he smiles and he takes my hand once more and we go and grab cupcakes from some dingy, dirty bakery and when we come out, I feel it in my gut, we're gonna find that goddamn walrus.

-

The walrus smokes on my shelf. I'm sure he has cancer now. His gleaming white tusks indicate high levels of calcium. But his obesity. Surely that little guy is hypertensive?

A diet. He needs a diet. That damn walrus needs to lay off the smokes and the sugar and the sodium an-

Alex is dead. They're doing his autopsy. Drug overdose they say. He didn't do drugs. He didn't even smoke cigars like this fucking walrus.

Right?

-

I open the door to his loft and he's not himself. He's lying on his futon singing to himself.

"Dee dee dee dee..." His voice is low, a tenor.

"You set me on," he sings, but it sounds like gibberish.

I come in closer.

"You set me on," he sings, more clearly, slightly louder.

"Alex?"

"You set me on fire."

I brush the hair from his eyes.

"Alex," I say. "Are you high?"

He laughs slowly. Each laugh is its own, the result of a punch.

"Hey Pom," he says. He draws the two syllables out, looks at me with eyes unfocused.

I look at his table for the evidence. There are little white sprinkles, and a rolled up wad of paper, but I don't want to believe them.

"Hey Pom," he says again. His voice is louder. "Let's fuck."

He grabs my arm hard, pulls me down to the futon, on top of him.

It's not the first time.

-

I get up. Feel my jelly legs resist, but I keep going, putting more pressure on them. I walk to the walrus. Feel the smooth porcelain against my finger.

The tears come again. They just won't stop. Maybe this is why the walrus is hypertensive, sucking up the salt from when I cry.

I breathe out and it's a shuddering whimper that barely sounds human.

I push, just a little nudge, and down the walrus comes.

It crashes. My feet feel the burn.

-

"You know, I like plants."

"Really? I thought you hated vegetables. Especially onions."

"Well, that's different. I don't like eating plants. Doesn't mean I can't like them when they're alive, thriving, showing off their colors. Just like I don't have to like eating humans to appreciate the merits of the human race."

"You mean, like our pride, our gluttony, sloth, envy, avarice and wrath?"

"You forgot lust."

"Oh yeah. I love that one."

He grins.

"Yeah. Me too."

We walk past tiger lilies roaring bright orange and yellow. Their petals are glossy, so much that they look fake. I bend down.

"Nice ass."

He pats it, and I find myself wondering where my pride has went, why I don't turn around and smack him, demanding my rights, and instead I'm jumping two feet to the left and squealing like banshee.

I look back at him, at those bangs that don't belong on a boy and the eyelashes that get caught in them, and shake my head.

He grins that stupid grin and pushes me towards a pretty plant, with beautifully pink flowers the color of the prom dress I wanted my senior year.

Bougainvillea, the title plaque reads.

He pulls me close and kisses my cheek.

Thrives on tough love, the subscript says.

I turn around and kiss him back.

-

There's a pit in my stomach that feels like a black hole. It's wide awake and eating all the air around me but still I am weak and hungry.

My eyes are dry. Water trickles down, straight down, not around, and my retinas are wailing for moisture.

Toes are cold. Fingers are cold. Hair burns ashen and brittle with a touch.

I didn't know my wall was gray until now.

They call on the home line. I hear the message.

"Julie, we need to do the autopsy. We think it would give you some closure if you were there."

They told me to cut you open. They fucking told me to cut you open.

Like it's not a big deal. Like you're another dead body, solid and heavy and unfeeling.

I said it didn't matter, ripping apart cadavers with scalpels. But I guess it does. Because now that body is you Alex, it's you.

People die. People get sick.

We're doctors. We fix them.

But I've failed Alex. I couldn't fix you.

-

He shows me a picture of his grandmother. She has a wrinkly neck and a loving smile and she's holding a three year old version of him.

Their eyes are the same, but hers are covered by a large pair of bifocals. The rims are golden and magnify the big brown orbs that her grandson inherited.

"She always wore those glasses," he says, "as long as I remember."

"Astigmatic?" I ask.

"Legally blind," he responds. "It was a pain. Once, I hid her bifocals. Thought it would be funny. But she couldn't see anything and she ran into a wall and hit her arm, hard, and I got a spanking."

"You bad boy," I say. I should be horrified, but instead I bite back laughter.

He smirks, and the effect is terrible. It sends my tummy turning and the butterflies rushing up my esophagus, pushing out a breathless giggle.

He grins and takes my hand.

"You know, we really should study," he says.

So I reach into my bag for my flashcards.

I flip through, and the terms grow familiar. Catecholamines, Klinefelter's syndrome, genioglossus, microcheilia.

"Don't you want to test your limits sometimes?" he says.

"What?" I almost laugh.

"You know, see how far you can go before you break."

"Well, maybe, but what if you break?"

"Well then I know I've found my limit."

"You can't just find it through Calculus? The limit of Alex as he approaches 25." I giggle, wanting to lighten the air. It's grown heavy.

He doesn't laugh. His mouth tilts slightly upwards at the corner, but he is somber.

I touch his arm.

"I don't think you can break."

He looks at me. His hair shifts with the sudden movement of his head.

"We're only human," he responds.

-

I feel untouched and alone.

I remember heat and trembling, sweat and panting, feelings you'd sparked in me that'd keep my eyes open at night.

You made me feel like I wasn't approaching a problem, preparing for a diagnosis. I didn't know you were already halfway broken, not looking for a pretty doc to stitch you up.

Maybe a cold shower to wake me up, but I know I can't defy God. You won't be here when I come out.

All that is left is your body and these memories.

-

Disclaimer: I do not own the lyrics "You set me on, you set me on, you set me on fire." They belong to Ladyhawke, and were taken from her song "Back of the Van."

Author's Note: This is without doubt the most depressing thing I have written. I understand the parameters of the challenge were meant to give the response a definite quality of quirkiness, but unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, I've recently become fascinated with med school, dead bodies, and the song "Breathe Me" by Sia, from which the title of this story is derived.

I hope the transitions between first person and second person give the desired effect of the narrator, Pom, remembering various events from her time with Alex, and that they're fairly obvious.

Additionally, I hope you enjoyed this. It took a lot out of me.