Esther Kao

One breath is all it takes.

She pinches her nose, stares across at the other side—breathes. Staring some more, she takes another breath, slowly.

“Don’t go,” a voice whispers from behind her. “Stay with me.”

But she only shudders, continues looking forward. She knows that voice. She doesn’t dare turn around, to look back. She doesn’t want to. And she looks out into the horizon.

“Don’t go,” says the voice again, a hint of desperation creeping in. “Don’t leave me.”

But she only walks forward, to the edge where the water reaches, listening to the ocean sing its soft lullaby. She closes her eyes and opens them again.

“Don’t go,” the voice repeats, once more.

But she only pauses to look to her side. Don’t look back is written in the sand. She will not look back. She must not look back.

She inhales deeply, and then, mouth closed, dives into the sea.


* * *


“She tried to run away one day,” says the woman quietly. She bites her lip, and immediately she jerks her gaze to the nurse, then drops it again just as quickly.

The nurse scowls. Everyone knows what this woman did, why she’s here. Her daughter lies bruised on the bed next to her mother, eyes closed, face pale. And now that the town has turned on her, she pretends to be sad, sorrowful, watching by her daughter’s bedside. What a fake.

The nurse looks at the girl in the bed. Tubes protrude from her nose, and the nurse takes the girl’s arm gently, wincing slightly when she sees the blue and black marks running in disarray along the delicate skin. She gazes at the face, sweet and untroubled now.

The girl has been here in Room 403 for a week already, and her mother has been coming in every day, seemingly whiter and paler each time. Sometimes the nurse watches the woman cry. But the girl’s life was not one to be envied by anyone, and the nurse cannot forget that as she looks at those manicured hands.

“Ma’am, I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave your daughter alone for now,” the nurse says finally. She cannot watch this woman act any longer.

The woman straightens. The nurse looks at the glassy eyes that stare back and sighs. “She’s fine,” she says at last. “The machine will keep her alive.”

The woman looks at her daughter, at the tube protruding from her arm. She kneels down beside her, places a manicured hand on her arm.

“Don’t go,” she whispers. “Stay with me.”

The nurse cannot feel any sympathy, only sympathy for the girl. If she will only take a breath on her own, then there will be hope.

One breath is all it will take.

“Don’t go,” the woman breathes again. “Don’t leave me.”

And that is when the nurse shakes her head in disbelief. As if this woman has any right to see her daughter live, as if she has the right to pretend to be sad, when she knows full well that it is her own manicured hands that caused her daughter’s fall—

She turns to leave, disgust filling her mind.

But the woman with the manicured hands turns to face the nurse. A tear trickles down her pale white cheek.

“Don’t go,” she says.


* * *


She scoops the sea in her palms, only to throw it behind her. Things that are given are so easily discarded. She thinks of the voice behind her.

            One breath is all it takes.

Don’t look back. Don’t look back.

So she looks ahead instead. To the door planted in the ground on the other side. To the pale yellow sand that awaits her numb feet.

A small frown creases her brow as she studies the door. There are three golden numbers on the door—403. She thinks it is supposed to mean something, but she is not sure what. But it doesn’t matter.

Her feet soar to heights and fall down again on the water. She wonders what will happen if she keeps her feet up, if gravity is thwarted. Will she sink? A thrill runs through her as she thinks of taking a breath.

Don’t look back.

She will enter this doorway, then; she will enter the world again. She watches it come closer, closer. Her mouth is closed, and she wants to open it, to take a breath of delight. But one breath is all it takes. And she doesn’t want that.

And then a figure steps out from the doorway. The manicured hands are spread wide, and a smile is aimed at her.

She gasps and closes her eyes.

She is two, she is seeing the hands fly to her throat. She is five, she is watching the red nails curve three lines into her arms. She is ten, and she is jumping into the water, to freedom, only to be pulled out again by manicured hands.

Her own hands touch her throat unconsciously. And they tremble when they come across bumpy scars that have never healed.

The girl stops where she is. The feet return to the sea, but do not dare to fly up again. The hands stop scooping and rise up to her face. It cannot be possible.

Don’t look back. Don’t look ba—

She twists her head around, looks at the world she left behind. The bearer of the voice is gone from that place. Her mother stands in front of her, on her new world.

She stops, looks, shakes her head in despair. Her arms still hurt, her feet are still numb. She doesn’t want to go any further, but she doesn’t want to go back either.

So she breathes in. Water fills her lungs.

One breath is all it takes.


* * *


Somewhere in a hospital room, a mother with broken nails listens to her daughter’s breath stop.