Book Excerpt - Just Remember to Breathe by Charles Sheehan-Miles
Nothing significant at all (Alex)
"I was late when I got to the Arts and Sciences building, and ran up the six flights of step to the third floor, knowing the elevator would take forever. I checked my phone … it was three o’clock. I needed to get there right now.
I counted down the room numbers, finally reaching a dark hall. The light was out at the end of the hall, casting the area in not quite darkness. There it was, room 301. Next to the door, a student sat, his head resting on his fist, face turned away from me. He was reading a book.
I took a breath. His hair reminded me of Dylan’s, but shorter, of course. That, and his arms were… well, very muscular, and he was tanned. This guy looked like someone out of a catalog. Not that I went fainting over guys with big biceps, but seriously, a girl can look, right?
As I approached though, I felt my heart begin to thump in my chest. Because the closer I got, the more he looked like Dylan. But what would he be doing here? Dylan, who had broken my heart, then disappeared as if he’d never existed, his email deleted, Facebook page closed, Skype account gone. Dylan, who had erased himself from my life, all because of a stupid conversation that shouldn’t have happened.
I slowed down. It couldn’t be. It just… couldn’t be.
He took a breath and shifted position slightly, and I gasped. Because sitting in front of me was the boy who broke my heart. Quietly, I said, “Oh, my God.”
He jumped to his feet. Or rather tried to. He got about halfway up, and a look of excruciating pain swept across his face and he fell down, hard. I almost cried out, as he tried to force his way back up. I started forward to help, and he said his first words to me in six months: “Don’t touch me.”
Typical. I had to stuff down the hurt that threatened to burst to the surface.
He looked… different. Indefinably different. We hadn’t seen each other face to face in almost two years, not since the summer before my senior year in high school. He’d filled out, of course. In all the right places. His arms, which I vividly remembered being held in, had doubled in size. The sleeves of his tee shirt looked like they were going to burst. I guess the Army does that for you. His eyes were still the same piercing blue. For a second I met them, then looked away. I didn’t want to get trapped in those eyes. And damn it, he still smelled the same. A hint of smoke and fresh ground coffee. Sometimes when I walked into a coffee shop in New York, I’d get an overwhelming sensation of him being there, just from the smell. Sometimes memory sucks.
“Dylan,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m waiting for an appointment.”
“Here?” I asked. That was crazy.
He shrugged. “Work study assignment.”
“Wait a minute… are you saying you’re in school here?”
“What happened to the Army?” I asked.
He shrugged, looked away, then gestured toward the cane.
“So of all the schools you could have chosen, you came here? To the same place as me?”
Anger swept over his face. “I didn’t come here for you, Alex. I came here because it was the best school I could get in to. I came here for me.”
“What, did you think you could just show up and sweep me back into your arms after ignoring me for the last six months? After erasing me from your life?”
He narrowed his eyes, looked at me directly. In a cold voice, he said, “Actually, I was hoping I just wouldn’t run into you.”
I stifled a sob. I was not going to let him get to me. I spat back, “Well, looks like we both had some bad luck. Because I’m here for my work-study assignment, too.”
His eyes widened. “You’re going to be working for Forrester?”
“Is he the so-called author in residence?”
“Oh, God,” I said. “I’m going to be sick.”
“Thanks. It’s great to see you too, Alex.”
I almost shouted at him, but a jovial voice down the hall called to us. “Hello! You two must be my new research assistants!”
A ridiculous looking man, trying way too hard to look like an author with a capital A, walked toward us. He wore a tweed jacket, with leather patches on the elbows, and corduroy pants. He couldn’t have been much older than thirty-five, but he wore reading glasses perched halfway up his nose.
“Well, hello,” he said. “I’m Max Forrester.”
“Alex Thompson,” I said. I glanced at Dylan. He was glaring at me.
“Dylan Paris,” he said.
“Come in, Alex and Dylan. My apologies for being late. Sometimes I get lost in the throes of creation and forget the time.”
Forrester’s back was already to me as he unlocked his door. I rolled my eyes. Lost in the throes of creation, indeed. You could smell the whiskey on his breath from fifteen feet away. Smelled like he’d gotten lost in the nearest watering hole.
Dylan waved me ahead of him. He was leaning heavily on the cane. What happened to him? I walked in behind Forrester, and Dylan followed me, limping.
“Sit down, you two, sit down. Can I get you some tea? Water? Or something with a little more, um… life?”
“No thanks,” Dylan said, grimacing as he eased himself into his seat. Once seated, he leaned his cane against the wall. His expression was unreadable.
“I’ll take some water,” I said, just to contradict him.
Forrester filled up a small glass with water at a tiny sink in the back of the office and brought it to me. My eyes narrowed a little when I got a look at the glass. It was filthy. Eww. And there was something oily floating on top of the water.
I pretended to take a sip, then set it on the edge of the desk.
“Well, let’s get down to business,” Forrester said. “Do you two know each other?”
“No,” I said, forcefully, just as Dylan said, “Yes.”
Forrester liked that. A smile lit up on his face, then said, “I bet there’s a story there.”
“You’d be wrong,” I replied. I glanced at Dylan, and said, “Nothing significant at all.”
Dylan blinked, and he darted his eyes away from me.
Good. Part of me wanted to hurt him just as badly as he had hurt me.
Unfortunately, Forrester picked up on it. He said, very slowly, “I trust there won’t be a problem.”
“No, no problem,” I said.
“No, sir,” Dylan responded, his voice cool.
“Well then,” Forrester said. “That’s good. So, let me tell you what you’ll be doing. I’m here for a year, and I’m working on a novel. Historical fiction, centered around the draft riots here in New York during the civil war. Are you familiar with them?”
I shook my head, but Dylan said, “Yes. Sad story… some of it turned to lynch mobs.”
Forrester nodded, enthusiastically. “That’s right. Miss Thomas… the story is this. In July 1863, there was a series of riots here in the city. It was mostly poor and working class Irish, protesting because the rich could buy exemption from the draft. The protests turned ugly, then violent. A lot of people were killed.”
“They burned down the orphanage,” Dylan said. What a brown-noser.
“That’s right, Dylan! The colored orphanage burned to the ground. A dozen or more black men were lynched during the riots.”
“So…” I said. “What exactly will we be doing to help?”
“Well, you see, Columbia has a mass of historical material about the riots. Much of it primary sources. As I work on my outline and the actual manuscript, your job will be to help me with the details. The historical context, the source material, all of the information I’ll need to get the story just right.”
“That’s… incredible,” Dylan said. “No offense, Doctor Forrester, but this is way better than I expected as a work study assignment.”
Oh, God. This was going to be one long year."