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Don’t Breathe

Most people have heard the old superstition about holding your breath as you go by a cemetery. Few people are as serious about it as my grandmother was, though. Don’t take a breath or you may breathe in an unbound spirit!

Every time we got in a car she would remind us, on the off chance that we happened to pass cemetery during the trip. My family always did as she said, no matter how ridiculous it may have seemed. I did it out of respect (and secret fear that she was right) as a child, but as I grew older I was able to see how serious she was when she told us. I never did ask why it was so important to her…

Eventually, after so many years of being reminded, it became a habit. I continued to do it even after she had passed away, usually without even realizing I was doing it until I my lungs started telling me that I needed oxygen. It was a frequent topic of teasing by my friends. But I never really believed in the reasoning behind it. At least, not until a couple months ago.

My girlfriend, Shayla, and I were on our way to my house from town, taking the back roads. We had spent most of the day at the mall- it was really the only interesting place to hang out in the area. We did a little shopping but mostly we people watched, spinning stories about stranger’s lives to pass the time. Her parents were out of town for the weekend on some business trip, (not that they were there very much anyway) so she was spending a couple nights with me. Not that that was unusual, either- we spent most weekends together anyway. With her parents usually gone and my parents being open minded as well as fairly hands-off, we rarely were apart for more than a day or two. It was also almost the end of the school year, of our senior year, and we would be parting ways for college soon so we wanted to spend as much time together as possible.

Anyway, off to the side of the road was the local graveyard. Old, but still occasionally used for members of the original families in the area. Like I said, holding my breath was a habit to me, so as soon as we rounded the curve before the driveway to the cemetery, I took a deep breath in.

“Oh, come on, Carlee. You don’t need to do that,” she teased, poking me in the side. “I promise no ghosts are going to get you. Watch.” She winked at me, rolled down the window, and inhaled deeply. And immediately started coughing. I managed to hold in my laughter until we were past.

“Shayla? Are you in there?” I asked, acting scared. “Oh spirit, please let her go!” She punched me lightly on the shoulder while taking a long drink from her water bottle.

“Ugh. I think I swallowed a bug. That was gross.” I laughed again and she joined in. The rest of the drive passed pleasantly and uneventfully. We spent the rest of the night watching movies and went  to bed around midnight. I fell asleep quickly, but she woke me up a few times with her restlessness. Around four I woke up again, this time because of the realization that I was alone in the bed. I knew that she’d had problems with sleepwalking before, so I got up to make sure she was alright.

I found her standing in front of the kitchen sink, looking out the window, with one of my father’s cigarettes in her hand.

“Shay!” I hissed. “What the hell are you doing?”

“What?” She turned, looking startled. She stared at the cigarette smoking between her fingers. “I don’t… I don’t know. I just…needed it.” She seemed bewildered, like she didn’t understand herself what she was doing. I took the cigarette from her and ran it under water from the faucet then tossed it in the trash.

“Come on,” I said, taking her hand. “Let’s go back to bed.

She woke up early the next morning and asked me to take her home. She said she wasn’t feeling well. I tried to convince her that if she was getting sick, it would be better if she stayed there with me instead of being home alone. I also offered to stay at her house with her, but she said no, that she wanted to be alone.

That was the last real conversation we had. I texted her throughout the day and evening to check in but only got single word replies. At school, where we were usually inseparable between classes, I was barely able to catch sight of her before she disappeared into the crowded hallways. After a couple days, I managed to catch up with her, intending to demand to know what was going on. But the look in her eyes… A mix of disdain and unfamiliarity, like she didn’t know who I was and didn’t want to. It threw me off so much that I lost what I wanted to say to her.

Not like it would have mattered anyway. That wasn’t Shayla anymore. Her eyes had always been bright blue, like the sky on a clear day in the middle of summer. But now…they were any icy gray. Cold. Her bouncy, playful personality was gone. Even her hair was different, dyed a dark brown instead of the beautiful auburn I loved. The way she walked wasn’t the same anymore, either.

I heard through the grapevine that she started hanging out with the kids known around the school as the druggie crowd. I got asked countless times by friends and other students who knew that we were together what was going on with her, but I couldn’t give them answers. I watched as she grew more pale every day. She lost enough weight that it was noticeable even from the quick glimpses I saw of her in the hallways. She stopped coming to school three weeks before graduation. I know her parents filled a missing child report but since she was 18, there wasn’t a lot that they could do. I don’t know if she is still alive.

Then again, I don’t know if the Shayla I knew and loved had been alive since the day we passed that cemetery. I truly believe that exactly what my grandma had always warned me about is what happened to her.

It’s not just a habit when I hold my breath anymore.


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