Before You Break

Between Breaths - 2


Christina Lee

To Evan. You are the moon. The stars. The entire universe.

Chapter One


“Daddy, please. I . . . I need to see Christopher,” I sobbed. “I need to be with him.”

My father gripped the door handle and stood firm and resolute, despite the stream of tears tumbling down his cheeks.

“Nie, C . . . Corka.” His voice cracked, so his Polish sounded jumbled. Strained. Mangled. Just like my heart. “You don’t want to see him like this. Please . . . go back downstairs.”

I fell to my knees on the carpet and buried my face in my hands. I could hear my mother’s guttural wailing from the kitchen below, and it was a noise I wouldn’t soon forget.

The sound of the siren sliced though my family’s sorrow and then imprinted its glaring lights on our once peaceful home.

And that’s when the realization struck me so hard that the air was forced straight from my lungs. I gripped my stomach and wept so mercilessly that no sound fell from my lips.

My brother was truly gone.

* * *

I lined everything up perfectly on the small brown desktop. My coffee cup, my notes, and the psychology textbook I’d been studying from this semester. My fingers straightened the black picture frame behind my laptop before they traced over Christopher’s soulful eyes, his quiet smile.

I’d been working at this hotline the past few weeks as part of my field hours at the university. So far it’d been a good experience, if not a bit sad and overwhelming. But if I wanted to become a psychologist, I needed to experience this side of it. My supervisor called it the underbelly. Those broken members of society reaching out for help.

I’d been told that I was a natural. Insightful beyond my years. That I had a knack for getting people to open up to me. Still, the notebook on my desk reminded me what I needed to focus on during my conversations. Like providing available community resources and figuring out if the caller had an actual plan to kill themselves.

Desperate people called the hotline, sure. But there were the regulars, too, who just needed someone to listen. Maybe they were attention seekers. Or maybe they needed a stranger to unload on.

One man’s pebble in the road of life was another man’s boulder, my grief counselor said after Christopher died. You just never knew.

It was my job to figure out whether the caller felt the weight of that boulder and then decide how to proceed from there. Did they need medical attention or a willing ear? The simple act of listening was a powerful thing.

I checked the clock on the wall. No sooner had I placed the headphones over my ears than the red button lit up like a road hazard. I inhaled sharply, never sure what would be thrown at me.

“Suicide prevention line. This is Gabriella.”

I used my full name at work for formality’s sake, but my family and friends called me Ella.

I heard a clearing of the throat, and then a distinctly male breath filled my eardrums through the phone line.

This might have been his first time calling. I could have only guessed how scary this experience was. My job was to assess his needs, so hopefully I could get him talking.

“I can hear you breathing. And it’s okay.” I tapped my pen on the desktop. “Talk whenever you’re ready.”

Another intake of breath.

“Must be tough for you to speak to a stranger.” I adjusted myself in my seat. “But there’s a reason you called, and I’m here to listen.”

Finally he spoke, in a low and defenseless voice that sent a chill straight through me. Maybe it was because he sounded young and vulnerable. Like my brother who died when I was in high school. “I . . . I don’t know why I called. It was a mistake. I’m not . . .”

“It’s never a mistake,” I said, my voice strong and confident. “Even if you just called to hear someone’s voice other than your own.”

Would Christopher have stood a chance if he had called a hotline?

“I . . . um . . . okay.” I could almost picture him exhaling and squeezing his eyes shut, like he was uncomfortable.

“Can you tell me your first name and what prompted you to call?”

“Okay.” His voice was a quiet rumble. “It’s . . . it’s . . . Daniel.”

“Hi, Daniel,” I said almost breathlessly. Relieved he’d relaxed enough to give me his name.

I could practically hear how difficult it had been for him to call. “Hi, um . . . Gab . . . Was your name Gabriella?”

I tried to find my confident voice again. “Yes.”

“I have an aunt named Gabriella,” he said, his voice sounding a little lighter at the memory. “Everyone calls her Gabby.”

“I’m cool with Gabby, too.” He could call me whatever the hell he wanted to. I didn’t want to screw up this phone call. My stomach was in full-on clench mode.

Only one other person had called me Gabby. My brother Christopher. It was our little joke. He’d call me Gabby and I’d call him Chrissy. But then once, my twin brothers heard me and started calling him Chrissy the Sissy. He was pissed at me for days.

I shook the memory away and cleared my throat. “So, Daniel, why’d you call?”

“I . . . I can’t stop feeling guilty about something terrible I’ve done.” I heard him take a swig of something. Maybe a beer. Liquid courage. “I don’t know if I can live with myself anymore.”

Crap! What could he have done that was so terrible?

Normally, phone calls came from people suffering from symptoms of depression. They felt empty and helpless and useless. They were usually teary or could barely drag themselves out of bed to face life. But this guy didn’t sound typical. He sounded tortured about something he’d done.

I took a breath and made sure I had my professional hat back on. “Let’s talk it through.”

“I . . . I can’t.” His breath was harsh. “This is stupid.”

“No it’s not, Daniel.” I could feel it—he was going to hang up. “Please talk to me, tell me something. Anything.”

“I . . . I’m sorry.” And then the line went dead.

I sat there paralyzed, playing the conversation over in my head. What could I have said differently to keep him on the phone? What was he doing now? Hopefully not drinking himself into oblivion. Or worse . . .

The call line lit up again and my heart was in my throat. Maybe he’d decided to call back. “Suicide prevention line. Gabriella speaking.”

“H . . . hi. Um, my name is Susan.” Disappointment and regret waged a war in my chest. I looked through the open doorway to the two offices across the hall. There were three of us on tonight in separate rooms. We were to keep doors open in case we had questions or needed support. I now wondered if he’d called back and was on the line with either of the other two.

“Hi, Susan. How are you feeling tonight?”

“Lonely . . .”

Three hours later, I grabbed my purse out of the bottom drawer and trudged out to my car. I’d spoken to a cutter, a jumper, and a crier, but never again to Daniel, if that was in fact his real name.

I wasn’t sure why I was even still thinking about him. It was something about the tone of his voice, I decided. Something desperate, broken, hollow. Maybe that was how Christopher would have sounded the night he’d taken his own life. If anyone had been home to listen.

Daniel had wanted to tell someone what he’d done. Someone who might’ve helped. I didn’t think he wanted to die. Not yet. And I hoped he found someone to talk to soon.

Just like I’d wished all those nights that Christopher had talked to someone. We were so close. Why couldn’t he have confided in me? Asked me to come home? And why hadn’t I read the signs?

As I was pulling up to my apartment building, I got a text from my boyfriend, Joel.

Playing cards tonight. Can’t get away. Come here instead.

My stomach tightened immediately. Can’t get away, my ass.

Joel used to always want to be alone with me. He’d complain about being at the frat house so much. But lately, he didn’t seem to mind at all. He was partying harder, getting more involved in campus life, and I definitely felt our relationship fraying at the edges. Hell, we barely even made out anymore.

I looked up at the brick building. The first floor lights were off, which meant my roommate, Avery, wasn’t home. She was probably already up at her boyfriend’s place on the fifth floor. She and Bennett had gotten together in the fall and had been inseparable ever since. Which didn’t bug me—until I realized that what they had was so much deeper than what I had with Joel.

So why the hell was I hanging in there with him?

Joel was my first adult relationship. The first guy to notice me—really notice me—next to my beauty-queen friends, Avery and Rachel. I liked having a boyfriend and a steady relationship. I’d dated the same guy on and off in high school for two years. But we’d drifted apart after Christopher died. I was a wreck and he didn’t know how to handle it.

By that time Avery was always sleeping over, trying to get away from her own crazy life, and I took comfort in that. There was something to be said for loyalty.

But I was probably loyal to Joel to a fault. Plus, my parents liked him. Joel was from the next town over and his family belonged to the same church. My father coached him in community soccer.

But there was also another connection.

Joel had known Christopher. Had mentored him in soccer as a junior coach. He knew a different side to Christopher—the competitive side. How much he loved the game and the travel team. And he didn’t mind talking about him. Whenever I wanted to. Just knowing he’d been linked to Christopher in some small way brought me relief. Reminded me of happier times.