Freedom to Breathe

By JULIE WHITEHEAD

FICTION FINALIST

Trey Parker sat in his darkened hotel room staring at the gun he held in his hands. It was a snub-nosed .38 pistol given to him by his daddy when he first moved out on his own. Trey had been around guns his entire life, both growing up and in the military, him and his brother Cal both, and he knew what they were made for—to kill.

Trey stood up, taking in the hotel room he’d been calling home for the past two weeks—not really seeing the dirty clothes tossed in piles on the floor, or the bedspread half off the bed, the product of nights filled with relentless dreams of what he was about to do. He unloaded all but one bullet and put the others on top of the chest of drawers. The gun felt heavy in his hand as he walked back to the bed.

They’re going to have a hell of a time cleaning the blood out of these white sheets, he thought as he sat on the edge of the bed, the gun in his right hand. He didn’t feel right doing this; he had never contemplated the thought until recently and didn’t know if he was rushing things a bit. I know what I’ll do, he thought. I’ll let God decide if it’s time for me to go.

He popped the cylinder out and spun it so he wouldn’t know what chamber the bullet was in. He took a deep breath. “Here goes nothing,” he whispered. Putting the barrel as far as he could into his mouth, Trey cocked the gun, bit down on the cold steel, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger.

He heard nothing but the audible click of the hammer coming down on the empty chamber. He opened his eyes, pulled the gun out of his mouth, and looked at it. “Wonder when my luck’s going to run out,” he muttered, collapsing back onto the bed and staring at the ceiling.

Then he heard the knock on the door. He got up, put the gun in the top drawer of the chest of drawers, and flipped on the overhead light.

When he opened the door, there she stood, still in her red cocktail dress and high heels, a bulky red purse slung over her shoulder. Her blonde hair was bobbed up around her ears, and she gazed at him with bright emerald eyes, a ruby-lipstick smile pasted on her pale, powdered face. She stepped into the room, and Trey closed the door behind her. A rush of August heat seemed to follow her in; Trey could feel his palms start to sweat.

He waved a hand around at the room. “Sorry for the mess.”

The woman shook her head. “And I’m sorry I took so long getting here. The hotel finally let me have a room, and I needed to get everything out of the car before coming over here. So I did,” she said.

“That’s all right,” Trey said.

A long pause passed between them, with the woman staring intently at Trey. Her smile faded the longer she looked at him. He realized he probably looked rough in the bright light, unshaven for three days, in a rumpled blue plaid buttondown shirt and jeans.

The woman finally tilted across the room in her heels and sat down on the edge of the messy bed. “You’re awfully quiet,” she said.

“Some guys like to hear themselves talk,” Trey said. “I’m not that way.”

“So what’s your name again?” she said, crossing her legs at the knee.

“Trey. Trey Parker,” he said.

“So are you really as dangerous as you look tonight?” she said, uncrossing her legs only to cross them back again the other way.

“Only to myself,” he blurted. The words were out before he could stop them.

The woman didn’t even blink. “I’m that way, too,” she admitted.

Trey sat down on the bed beside her, the springs squeaking under him. “So how long are you in town for?” he asked.

She leaned down and adjusted her shoe strap. If he wanted to he could look straight down her loose-fitting dress. But he didn’t. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe until my money runs out. Or maybe just tonight. Does it really matter?” she said lightly.

“I guess not,” Trey said.

The woman kicked her shoes off, revealing slender bare feet with red-hot nail polish to match her dress. She sat still, staring at Trey.

Trey cocked his head at her and looked her up and down, from the bright red toenails to her golden blonde hair and everything in between—the curve of her breast, the shortness of her skirt. “Is your name really Angel?” he asked.

Her gaze fell to the carpeted floor. “It’s really Angela. Angela Wells. I was being silly saying otherwise.”

“No sillier-sounding than a woman your age saying she’s running away from home,” Trey said, stroking a stray hair out of her eyes.

“It’s not silly. It’s the truth.” Angela said, giving him a hurt look, eyes widening and the corners of her mouth drawing down in a pout.

“And you need someone to help you get through the night, you said.” Trey said.

Angela smiled, this time showing off her pretty teeth. “You think you know what I meant,” she said.

Trey draped an arm around her thin shoulders. “By then you were giving off so many signals, I didn’t have the faintest idea what you meant,” he said. “So I came along for the ride and to see where the mood took you next.”

Angela turned her head and gave Trey a kiss, right on the lips. He let her, feeling her hot mouth on his, not moving a muscle.

Angela pulled back and batted her eyelashes at him. “Did you like that?”

“Did you?” Trey answered back.

“I’m not sure. I can’t remember the last time I kissed a man like that,” she said, her green eyes flashing at him.

She started to put her arm on his other shoulder, but Trey blocked her with his open hand. “All right. I’m not going to sit here and pretend you picked me up from of a bar just for that. What are you after, Angela?” he said.

“Didn’t I just show you? Or was that a mixed signal, too?” she said, the corners of her mouth downturned as she stared at him.

Trey started feeling angry—-angry at himself for inviting her over and angry at Angela for her mysterious words and actions. “Oh, no. You’re not getting off that easy tonight. Maybe with someone else, but not with me. Tell me the truth, or you’re out of here in ten seconds.”

“What, are you gay?” she said, pulling away from him.

“No,” Trey said in exasperation. “I’ve just got more sense than you’re giving me credit for. Tell me, Angela. What’s really going on?”

She wrenched her purse off her shoulder, reached inside, and pulled out a .44 Magnum, pointing the gun away from Trey and holding it in her lap.

Trey sat very still, staring down at the gun, which was out of proportion with her hand. That kind of gun could blow a hole clean through you and another hole through the wall behind you, he thought.

“I keep this in the house for self-protection.” she said. “My husband Jared taught me how to shoot it. At first I was just going to shoot myself when I got up here. Then I decided I’d rather get drunk first so maybe it wouldn’t hurt so bad. Then I saw you at the bar and decided I wanted to get laid. Now we’re here, but you’re proving awfully hard to convince.”

Her eyes started to brim over with tears. “Don’t make me go to another bar. Please?”

He shook his head in disbelief. “Do you pull this on all the guys you pick up in bars?”

“No,” she said. “And I never pick up guys in bars. If I want to drink, I lock the bedroom door and drink Crown Royal at home. But it’s not a life worth living anymore. So I packed my bags and ran away. Please, Trey? I don’t want to do this tonight.”

He leaned into her and kissed her temple. He felt her whole body relax into him as she lay her head on his shoulder. “Thank you so much, Trey. You have no idea how much I need this,” she whispered.

Trey chose his next words carefully. “I want you to do me a favor.”

“Anything. Name it,” Angela replied.

He took a deep breath. “I want you to give me your gun so I can go out and put it in the glove compartment of your car for you,” he said.

Angela shot him a puzzled look. “What’s the use in that? All I have to do is get it out once I leave,” she said.

“You asked me what I wanted you to do, and I’ve told you,” Trey said. “I guess you thought I meant something else, but this is what I want you to do.”

Angela sighed. “Okay. Here you go.” She pulled her keys out of her purse. “Here’s the key to the door, here’s the button to open it up,” she said, showing him her keychain.

She handed over her gun, delicately holding it by the barrel. Trey took the keys and the gun, checked to make sure the safety was on, and stood up. “Don’t go anywhere,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

As he started for the door, he heard a zipper being pulled. He quickly turned back and saw that Angela was moving his suitcase off the bed. She looked at him. “I’m just getting this off the bed. You go on. I’m not going anywhere,” she said.

Trey stepped out into the darkened parking lot and spotted the red Chevy Blazer that he’d seen her leave the bar in. It was parked directly across from his room. He unlocked the door and climbed in. The scent of her cinnamon perfume filled the interior. He shoved the gun inside the glove compartment. There, he thought. That’s over and done with.

When he got back to the door, he heard Angela’s bare feet padding across the floor. He heard her slide open the peephole, then start to unlock the door, fumbling with the handle. When she opened it, he saw that she had scrubbed all her makeup off, which made her look younger and even more appealing to him.
“Come on in,” she said.

She led him in and this time sat on the armchair at the end of the bed. He sat on the edge of the bed and watched her. She pulled up her knees and rested her chin on her hands, which were folded over her kneecaps. She stared dully at the floor, her bangs hiding her face.

“I guess you’re thinking I’m pretty stupid,” she said suddenly, her words hanging in the air between them like cigarette smoke.

“That’s not what I was thinking at all,” Trey answered.

Angela looked up at him through her bangs. “Does this kind of thing happen to you all the time?” she asked.

“No,” Trey said.

“So you want to know what’s really going on?” Angela said.

“Only if it’ll make you feel better to tell me,” Trey said.

They sat like that for a while, not talking. She wore a look of both determination and sadness, like she wanted to cry but was willing herself not to. Finally she said, “I don’t know. I’m reviewing it all in my head, and it all seems so catastrophic, but I’m scared it’ll just sound stupid when it all comes out.” Her eyes were wide with fear. “Promise you won’t laugh?”

He nodded slowly. “I promise.”

Angela got up from the chair and sat beside him on the bed. She stared at her feet for a long moment, then started crying like a child, not making any attempt to wipe away the tears.

Trey put both his hands on her shoulders. “Angela, it’s going to be okay. Please don’t cry.”

“I can’t help it,” she mumbled between sobs. “I can’t even talk about it. Oh, God, you’re going to think I’m really an idiot. I’m sorry, Trey.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” he told her. “It’s going to be okay. Whatever it is, you can tell me. It’s going to be all right.”

Angela twisted her hands in her lap. Trey moved and slid an arm around her and stroked her hair out of her eyes. She leaned in to kiss him again, and he willed himself to look into her eyes, not at her neck or any other patch of real estate her dress might slip to offer him.

At the last second she pulled back and put her hands over her face. “Oh, God. I can’t do it. I’m sorry. But I guess I’m not as brave or as desperate as I thought I was,” she said.”Why do you have to be so sweet to me? Why couldn’t you just sleep with me and then both of us go home?”

“I don’t have a home to go to,” Trey said.

Angela looked at him, tears streaking her face. “Why not?”

“I’ve been here ever since my wife kicked me out.”

“I knew you had to be married. Oh, God, how much more stupid can I get?” she cried.

“We’re not talking about my problems right now,” Trey said. “Go ahead and cry if that’s what you want to do.”

“I don’t want to be alive anymore, Trey. I can’t be a wife and mama like I’m supposed to. I just want to shoot myself and go on to be with—” She dissolved into tears.

“With who, Angela?” Trey asked.

She could hardly utter the words. “With Avery,” she whispered.

“Who’s Avery?” Trey asked, rubbing his hand up and down her arm.

Angela reached into her purse and pulled out a small picture frame. She handed it to Trey. The photo showed a young girl, barely toddler age. She had Angela’s blond hair and was laughing out loud, wearing a pink smocked dress covered with flowers.

“Avery is my little girl,” Angela said. “My sweet little girl. She died in the hospital from an infection. The doctors tried everything. Tomorrow she’ll have been gone two years. I can’t stand life without her anymore.” She gazed at the photo. “She was blond-haired and beautiful. She loved to dance and sing.”

Her words pierced him like stickpins. My God, he thought. No wonder she wants to die. “Do you have any other children?”

“One,” Angela said, her voice still full of hurt. “Nicholas. He’s thirteen months old. We thought if we had another one that it would help. But he looks so much like his sister did when she was a baby, and I’m scared to death that something’s going to happen to him, too.”

She sat up a little straighter and started wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “He’s with my husband Jared. We separated two months ago because Jared got disgusted trying to help me when I didn’t want to be helped. Nicholas is so young that he wouldn’t even remember me if I killed myself. Better now than later when he would.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Trey said.

“Don’t tell me I can’t feel the way I do,” Angela said. “No one would miss me if I were gone.”

“It’s not the answer you’re looking for,” Trey said.

“How do you know?” Angela said, her eyes still flashing fire.

“Because tonight I realized I was trying to kill myself with alcohol, so why didn’t I go ahead and get it over with?” Trey answered. “I decided to let God have the final say. I put one bullet in the gun and fired it three times and nothing happened. So don’t tell me I don’t know how you feel.”

Angela stared at him. “You’re not serious.”

“I’ve never been more serious in my life,” he replied.

Angela shook her head and started to cry again. “Oh, we’re a pair, aren’t we? I’m sorry, Trey. I’m so sorry.” She rocked back and forth, wagging her head, holding her face in her hands.

Trey pulled her close and tried to console her. “Shh, Angela. Shhh. Shhh.”

“I’m sorry I can’t stop crying,” she said through heaving sobs. “Seems like all I’ve done for the past two years is drink and cry. I can’t stop either one.”

“You will eventually,” Trey said. “You will.”

She didn’t answer, only continued crying on his shoulder. Finally she started calming down, and Trey ran his fingers through her soft hair. When she looked up at him, her eyes were puffy, and her nose was red and swollen.

“Are you ready for me to leave?” she asked, hiccupping her words.

“No, I don’t want to you to go just yet.”

“Why not?”

“What I think I want to do is sit here and hold you a little while longer. How does that sound?” he said.

“Okay,” she said. “But I might fall asleep. I’ve been up since early this morning and I’m tired.” She yawned. “What time is it?”

Trey looked down at his watch, still set to military time the way he liked it. “Close to midnight.”

“Oh, wow. I haven’t stayed up this late in I don’t know how long,” she said. She yawned again and rested her head on his shoulder. Her body was close to his, and he shut his eyes and relished the soft, warm feel of her next to him.

Suddenly Angela pulled away “What’s made you want to kill yourself, Trey?” she asked timidly.

Trey’s throat closed up, and he couldn’t undo it no matter how hard he swallowed. He saw Cal’s unfocused eyes looking at him over the barrel of the gun, and he sighed.

“Trey?” Angela said. “What?”

“Ten years ago me and my brother Cal signed up for the army together,” Trey said. “I dropped out when my first hitch was over. I’d been in Iraq and saw enough war to do me for the rest of my life. He stayed in. He pulled out after his second tour and came home, but he wasn’t Cal anymore.”

Trey felt his own eyes starting to water. “He was using drugs and beating his wife and leaving for days at a time without any warning. I tried talking to him. Told him I knew what was killing him, but he wouldn’t listen.”

He swallowed again, trying to unclog his throat so the words would come out. “A few months ago, he got out of prison for dealing dope. We hoped he’d been able to get treatment or something while he’d been there, but if he did, it didn’t take. We were over at our mama’s house to see him, and he got nasty with his wife and clapped her in the head with his hand.”

Trey realized his hands had started shaking, and he willed them to stop. “I had to pull one of my daddy’s guns on him to make him stop,” he said hoarsely.

He started biting at his lip at the scared look Angela was giving him. “I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had to pull the trigger. He went out the door, and no one’s seen him since—not Mama, not his wife, not anyone.”

Trey leaned over with his elbows on his knees and held his head in his hands. “I had the gun pointed straight at him—straight at my little brother—and he looked at me and said, ‘You’ve been where I’ve been. Don’t you understand?’ Now he’s gone and no one to help him deal with what’s happened. I should have been able to help him more, but I couldn’t.”

He looked up and stared off like a cat, unable to meet Angela’s eyes. “Last week my wife finally got fed up with me going out drinking almost every night. She told me to move out until I was willing to get some helpd. I haven’t seen my son since then. Tonight was his last ballgame of the season, and I discovered I’d rather drink than go see him play. I’ve already hit rock bottom, Angela. There’s nowhere to go from here other than up.”

He felt Angela take his hands in hers. “I’m sorry. I know I keep saying that, but I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know what else to do,” she said.

Trey felt like ice was thawing and breaking around his heart. He took Angela’s chin and turned her face toward him. “Here’s what I think you should do.”

She was nervous and pretty, eyes still swollen, face still wet with tears.

“I think you should go to sleep here tonight and when you wake up in the morning, go back home to Nicholas and tell your husband what happened,” Trey said. “Tell him you’re ready to stop hurting and need his help.”

For the first time, he saw bitterness creep into her eyes. “You really think he’ll listen? After the past two years?”

“If I were him, I would,” Trey said.

Angela looked at her feet and said nothing. Her shoulders were tense under the weight of his arm. He moved his hands and started massaging her muscles, trying to loosen them up.

Angela sighed deeply.

“Just think about it. Okay?” Trey suggested, still rubbing her shoulders.

“Okay,” Angela said, loading the word with more defeat and sadness than Trey thought one word could hold.

“Now no more talk. Don’t think about me or anything else. Just rest,” Trey said, moving his hands down her back.

“How can I not—“ Her question ended in a yawn.

“That’s how to do it,” Trey said.

Angela leaned her head back on his shoulder. Trey rubbed her arms and back. He heard her take a deep breath, then her glowing green eyes turned back to him. “Trey, I really didn’t mean to lead you on,” she said. “If you want—”

“Don’t talk,” Trey whispered. “Don’t talk yourself into or out of anything. Just relax.”

Angela dropped her head and started weeping again, quietly this tie. Trey heard her mutter something, and he leaned down a little closer to listen.

But she wasn’t talking to him. “I love you, Avery,” he heard her whisper. “And Nicholas. I love you. Mama’s not going to leave you alone for long. I’ll be home soon. I promise. God, help me keep my promise.”

Trey leaned his head against hers and let her cry.

Finally she seemed to stop; at least he couldn’t hear her anymore. Trey looked down at her face, and her puffy eyes were closed and her lips relaxed.

Trey eased her onto her back in the bed and shifted away from her, watching her face all the while. He stood up and looked around the room. He checked the gun in the dresser drawer,pulled out the cylinder and saw the bullet left in the next chamber. He shuddered, then put the gun and all the bullets back into the drawer.

Suddenly Angela rolled over and propped her head on her arm. “Trey? You okay?” she asked.

“I’m okay.”

“Trey, I’m sorry about your brother,” she said.

He walked to the bed. “I’m sorry about Avery,” he said.

She held his gaze, her eyes serene, her mouth set in a line.

“Are you going to be okay?”

“Are you?” she asked back.

“I don’t really know,” he said.

“Well, I think I will be,” Angela said. “For some reason, I finally feel like I can breathe free again.”
She sat up in the bed and held her arms out to him. He went to her and hugged her tightly, feeling the heat of her bare skin and the feathery tickle of her hair against his face.

When she pulled back, she asked, “Can you do something?”

“Depends,” Trey answered, suddenly wary.

“I want you to go out to my car and get my gun and keep it with you,” she said.

“Okay, Angela,” he said. “That won’t be any trouble. You just pop the button on your key ring when I open the door, and I’ll get it. Then you go back to sleep. I’ll be right back in.”

“I will. Good night, Trey,” she said.

“Good night, Angela,” he replied.

He moved for the door, stopping only to pick up his keycard. When he opened it, he saw the lights on the Blazer flash as Angela unlocked the doors for him. He took the gun out of her glove compartment and transferred it to his Toyota 4-Runner. When he returned to the room, Angela was sprawled out on the bed on her stomach, barefoot, with her skirt twisted up just below her hips. He caught a glimpse of her lacy black panties and started breathing hard, like he’d been running for his life and was only now stopping to catch his breath.

He sat down in the armchair close to the bed and stared at her for a while, still taking deep breaths. Then he got up and got his cell phone from the bedside table. He sat back down in the chair and stared at the touchscreen for a few minutes. Finally he made the call, putting the phone up to his ear as it rang.

It rang for a long time before a sleepy female voice came on the line. “Hello?”

“Mona?” he said.

“Yes?”

“This is Trey,” he said.

“What are you doing calling here this time of night? Where are you?” she said sharply.

“Don’t hang up,” Trey said. “I’m not asking you to come pick me up. I’m at the hotel, and I’m okay. I just wanted to ask Bobby how the ballgame went.”

“He’s been in the bed for hours,” Mona said.

“I know it’s late. I just wanted to hear his voice—and yours. Please, Mona,” he said.

“You don’t sound drunk, at least,” Mona said. “That’s a blessing. Call in the morning and I’ll let you talk to him.”

“Okay. I’ll wait until tomorrow,” Trey said. “After I talk to Bobby, I want to talk to you, too.”

“Will I be interested in what you have to say?” she said.

“I think so,” Trey said.

A short pause. “All right. Good night, Trey.”

“Good night, Mona.”

Trey clicked the phone off and wput it back on the table next to his wallet. He stood there for a moment, looking down at Angela, her blond hair spread across the pillow.

He sat in the armchair and unlaced his shoes. He slipped them off and climbed into the bed and lay down beside Angela, cuddling her back, slipping his arms around her. She shifted a bit, then sighed and fell back asleep. Trey fell into a sleep as deep as it was dreamless, holding Angela in his arms.

Julie Whitehead is a student in the Mississippi University for Women’s new Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She lives in Brandon with her husband, Bob, and her three children, Terrie, Amber, and Rachel. Her work has appeared in POMPA and China Grove Press.


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