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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2022 - Vol. 19, Issue 4

"Unheard Melodies"

written by

Greer Davis

I don’t remember my exact age, but based on other vague recollections, I was roughly four years old. There was a needle inside me, on the underside of my right elbow where you extend the arm. I looked away, focusing on the colorful painting of ballerinas opposite me rather than watching my blood drain through a tube like an ominous water hose. You tend to find tricks to prevent yourself from growing sick to your stomach after having blood drawn so many times.

The ballerinas are very beautiful, I thought to myself. Dancing in their pink tutus, arms elegantly held above their heads, they danced to unheard melodies. I wished I could listen to that music. Instead, I could clearly hear the draining blood shooting into vials the nurse continually attached to the translucent tube, now a dark, controlled river of crimson. When a gritty bandage was wrapped tightly around my elbow, I knew I could look away from my dainty friends. The nurse, dressed in light purple scrubs spoke of how brave I was. It wasn’t that big of a deal, though. Why would it be when all you had to do was focus on something else for the sick feeling to go away?

I could never understand why other kids my age were afraid of needles.

. . .

For some reason, parents and teachers made a big deal out of graduating from elementary school. My class of around two hundred sat in rows of chairs on a stage. They were all dressed up and proper, and a teacher called forth the names of the exceptionals. I was nothing of the sort.

My chair had yet to be unoccupied, as so many others walked forth to get awards. In such a prestigious school, I was pretty much a nobody. I wasn’t athletic, wasn’t an all A student, and I definitely wasn’t popular or pretty. All I ever wanted was to go by unnoticed. Well, that or to fit in. Shrinking into a little bug was much more realistic than that fantasy, though.

And the Sunny Award goes to . . .

Internally, I rolled my eyes and thought of a girl in my school I just knew the honor would go to. She was gorgeous, always smiling (even at me), and was the kindest person I’d ever met.

Over the loud silence, I heard my name called out loud and clear.

My brain paused. I didn’t stand up, not even when every head in the entire auditorium looked in my direction. Toward the girl that just wanted to slip into the shadows.

After a few anticlimactic moments, I stood to all the clapping. I tried my best to ignore the looks other kids gave me, but my brain was hyper aware of it all. Of everything. It was ironic. I’d won the award for always smiling and brightening others’ day, but at that moment, I was not smiling. A hard set frown had settled on my face, and an eyebrow rose high on my forehead.

But my parents.

I scanned the crowd of unfamiliar faces until I found ones I recognized, ones that were smiling at me. I wanted to make them proud, so I gave the large mass of people in front of me the most plastic smile I’d ever worn as I walked up to get my award. However, when I sat back down, the glass sun cool in my palm, I began to remember all those times my mother had told me I was special. As a kid, I’d simply thought she’d been feeding me lies to comfort my young and naive heart, but when I traced the pad of my thumb across the glass sun’s smile, I started to wonder if she was right.

Maybe I am special.

.   .   .

It was a normal day at cross country practice. The hot summer rays beat down upon me while I ran, but I wouldn’t let myself stop. Salty sweat dripped down my forehead and stung my eyes.

Just a few more meters to go.

Every muscle in my body begged me to stop, to rest for a few moments, but I ignored it. Just like I ignored the cohesive restriction in my throat. The restriction which was hindering my ability to breathe, but I wouldn’t let it. My chest heaved, rising and falling in irregular patterns, as I wheezed for air.

Don’t stop. You can’t quit.

I urged my legs to move faster, arms pumping beside me to aid in my run up the hill.

Finally reaching the peak elevation, I could see the bright yellow pedestrian sign in the distance, the one that signaled the end of the run.

Just a few more seconds.

I bolted past my teammate who jogged alongside the road, and, finally, I saw the slap sign which signaled the end of the run. I leapt into the air and slapped the metal as hard as I could.


I came to a jog before stopping all together and bent over to catch my breath, hands gripping my knees for support. The loud sound of my hand against the metal still rang loudly in my ears for a few seconds before my hearing cleared up. I realized my coach was calling out my name from the doors of the school. I looked up to see her smiling, a rare thing, but what was even rarer were the words that came out of her mouth.

“My daughter could learn a thing or two from you” she’d said.

I was out of breath from the run, so I just nodded and walked into the school without a word, the vibrating metal still ringing dully in my ears. Without the sound of chaotic chatter and traffic to drown it out, the noise was loud and persistent as I walked through the empty halls of my school. However, my coach’s words rang loud and clear in my mind. I had thought I understood what she’d meant.

I hadn’t.

. . .

Fast forward several years, I am fifteen years old. As I stared down at my hands, covered in the very thing that was supposed to keep me alive yet was very much so killing me at the same time, I wondered the same thing over and over again.

What is wrong with me?

That was a question no one could answer. Doctors couldn’t, my parents couldn’t, I couldn’t. I was untreatable, unfixable. No one even knew where to begin. Was there even a beginning? Would there ever be an end? I could no longer ignore the demons in my life, even when they’d looked me straight in the eyes, I’d brought my hands in front of my face like a child cowering from the scary scene in a film.

Today, however, they’d gone and ripped my hands away.

Phlegm clung tightly to the loose wisps of my hair, to my green uniform top, to my leggings that were supposed to protect me from the cold. It was everywhere, covering me, especially on my arms and hands which had received the worst of my violent gags and coughs.

My chest heaved, feeling as if it were about to collapse in on itself, and when I tried to take a step forward, an invisible knife stabbed into my right hip flexor.

What is wrong with me? I thought on loop. There is something seriously wrong with me.

Against what most doctors had said in the past year, it was not asthma, not GERD, not allergies, not a cold. This wasn’t something normal, wasn’t something that would go away with a pill. That I’d grown painfully aware of.

I grew much more aware of it as I limped my way around the finish area, having no sense of direction any longer. My vision was blurred, but I was vaguely aware of several people rushing up to me, asking if I was alright. Probably because I was gasping for air. It wasn’t working. My lungs. I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. Everything was blurry. I just wanted air.

Tears welled in my eyes, forming a watery wall between my teammates and I. Even when I cut the tears off and put a pretend smile on my mucous covered face, the wall remained.

Congratulations on a new personal record!

I thanked them. Then I smiled, watching as my teammate was showered in hugs and comfort as she cried over her bad performance. She’d bruised her knee in PE. Very unideal for running.

You’ll do better next time, they’d said.

Envy rose in my chest, only adding to that drowning feeling that was quickly building up in my lungs. I knew she’d do better next time because a bruised knee heals. It had been a year for me and my “breathing problems” as I called it. There was no term to label it by, so I’d made it simple. No need to describe what I couldn’t.

Having wiped off all the slimy mucus, I gave my crying teammate a hug. I didn’t mention my pains. I didn’t cry. No one would understand if I did, so I found it best to just close everything  off and forget about it. Just like I’d soon do with that dirty green cross country uniform.

Funny how even as my life crumbled around me, I tried to ignore the demons that swarmed like flies over a pile of rot and useless diagnoses. But that was impossible. They were here to stay.

. . .

I was lost. For three years of my life, I’d poured my heart and soul into my dream of becoming a professional athlete. Everything I’d done and everything I hadn’t had been solely for that goal.

Now I stood in my bathroom which was about three feet wide and had a door which hit the tub whenever it was opened too forcefully. I looked down into my toothpaste and phlegm stained sink, eyes lingering lazily on the blood I’d just coughed up.

Yay, I can add another shade to my color wheel, I thought before looking up into the mirror.

The medicine cabinet was slightly cracked open, leaving my reflection askew and bent to the left. I pushed it back gently to straighten it, but it wouldn’t shut all the way. The girl in the mirror remained tilted.

So far, I'd coughed up a translucent color, white, yellow, green, orange, brown, black, and, most recently, red. Google said to head to a doctor immediately if a few of these were coughed up, but I remained calm. What more could a doctor do when I’d already been to fourteen different doctor offices in the past three years? I’d been to these offices countless times, leaving the amount of doctor visits (for my respiratory issues alone) at a number I couldn’t even fathom.

Through my dusty old mirror, I looked at the crooked girl who stared back at me, but as I gazed deeply into those kaleidoscope eyes which burst with intricate yellows, greens, and browns, I didn’t recognize her.

Who am I? I didn’t know. All my brain contained were questions, so many questions that I could never answer. However, the one question I was long past was why. I didn’t care for it anymore.

Things happened because they happened and that was that.

Forcing my eyes off the unfamiliar face, I sighed and walked out of my bathroom, leaving the light on, yet somehow, I was still in the dark.

Who am I? I wondered as I walked through the dark room.

No one. I wasn’t special. I was no one.

. . .

They never figured out what was wrong with me. I will never get better. I will never be special. So instead, I just distract myself with those unheard melodies which the ballerinas so naively sway to. And I’ll dance.

First published in Réapparition Journal, issue five

Greer is Currently in her senior year of high school and hopes to one day become a published author. She wants to pursue both nonfiction and fiction in her future, and though her disability makes it hard, she’s willing to work even harder to achieve her goals.

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