By Salena Casha
As a child, I had difficulty breathing. Sulfuric air, which my older brother wore like a suit, burned my lungs, and oxygen, which colored my younger brother’s cheeks, didn’t jive with my alveoli. Somehow, the elements had forgotten about me, the middle boy in a group of well-breathing beings. I didn’t say human because, with the exception of myself, everyone in my family was some sort of semi-immortal rock star. And, I guess, since my grandmother dug in Earth’s gardens with the singular responsibility of keeping the Planet alive, it was easy for me to feel small. Grandma Gaia, we called her. I guessed humans did too.
Still, being without powers was one thing, but I wasn’t just normal. I wasn’t like the healthy, mortal neighbors we lived next to in Greece. My body intended to suffocate me from the inside. Thinking me asthmatic, my parents (bless their Titanic souls) gave me an inhaler, a little grey tube with buttons that clicked and a spout. Two puffs, hold your breath for as long as you can, then exhale. The gritty medication scratched my throat and settled on my vocal chords, and I ended up sounding like my grandfather, an eighty-one-year-old-looking chronic smoker with an affinity for sunbathing. In his speedo. In broad daylight. And because he controlled the sky, clouds never crossed the sun. Unfortunately. I guess there wasn’t much else for a retired God to do, but no one in their right mind wanted to see that.
From what we could tell, and from my family’s experience with having a bloodline of Gods and Demi-Gods and Universe-Creators, power manifested itself one way or another rather quickly. But instead, they got stuck with me, a sickly, weakling who couldn’t walk up a set of stairs without losing his breath (let alone command a chariot or fly). It was lucky that the family decided to settle in a human neighborhood because they all believed, on some level or other, that I wouldn’t have been able to survive in the other dimensions (Olympus or Hades) let alone on Earth.
By my twelfth birthday, my breathing reached quite the shallow low (lower than the sagging flesh of a man who spends his time poolside). They tried to heal me and strengthen my lungs, anything short of killing me. But nothing worked. No amount of lightning or sulfur or air could inflate my body at all. Ultimately, my parents and their parents turned to the beings they had created and to whom they thought I belonged. They confined me to a hospital bed. I wore a mask like a pair of gills which forced oxygen into my lungs every few seconds. I got bronchitis monthly, pneumonia twice a year. I drowned and choked and suffocated countless times a day. Sometimes though, in those moments, I breathed easier. Fluid in your lungs has a funny way of making you feel fulfilled (or rather just full of water). My heart even stopped once or twice, but I only blacked out. Sadly, I never saw that other world where maybe there was a type of air I could breathe.
I spent time playing chess against myself and, when my brothers visited, against them. While they were giants, sometimes their mental prowess failed them. You would think, because of my inability to absorb any air, that I would have turned into a vegetable with fewer brain waves than a lake on a calm day, and therefore that I would be terrible at chess. Why play something you’re awful at? But my logic was sharp, and even though my youngest brother could wield lightning bolts that leveled buildings (thankfully he never demolished my hospital) and my oldest could call your soul to hell in a split second, I still beat them both.
Sometimes, for fun, my brothers would wager the game.
“If I beat you, I take your soul back with me to the Underworld,” my oldest brother said.
From what he’d described of Hades, I didn’t think the Underworld seemed all that attractive. My life was true hell already and hospitalization exposed me to far more death than necessary. Just the other day, I heard the last whimpers of a young girl with leukemia crying out for her mother. My brother visited the room minutes later, all stealth and solemnity. When he returned, wiping his flickering blue fingers on his black coat, I wondered if he sentenced her to another eternity in another hospital bed in a world that smelled like sulfur. I sighed as he settled back in his chair, his pale limbs oozing fire and brimstone.
“If I win, you buy me Rocky Road. Waffle cone. With sprinkles.”
With my youngest brother though, who said, “If I win, I get to use you as target practice,” I nearly lost on purpose. Maybe if I spontaneously combusted in a cloud of smoke, electrified by his lightning bolt, I’d enter life anew with something that wasn’t an inhaler. Maybe with a trident.
And so, like most middle children incapable of living up to their siblings — or even living at all in my case — I was passed off to my grandfather for a day at the pool. I put a pair of Hawaiian swim trunks over my oxygen tank. That way when people saw me the first thing they thought was “That kid must be crazy,” not “That kid is sick.” I’d rather be a nutcase than a diseased other. The doctors decided to try adding a bit of helium to the oxygen so the combination kept me lightheaded, and once in a while I saw a fish hightailing it into the clouds. So maybe I was going crazy.
Anyway, as I sat on a lawn chair with an uneven plastic coating and prepared to marinate in the sun, next to my silent, tobacco-scented grandfather, I noticed a wiggling river of water. It seemed to spread outward from the tips my toes and snake to the pool. I stood up, oxygen tank in hand, and followed it. As I stepped, barefoot, on each pool of water, I felt something in me. My lungs expanded, grasping for it, and with each step the world became clearer, less fuzzy in my air-deprived state.
Never follow a trail of water anywhere if you aren’t sure where it will lead, which was, for me, the deep end of the pool. Maybe it was the hallucinations, the strange airy feeling my meds gave me that day, because while my grandfather simmered like an oiled halibut on a pan, I walked straight off the ledge.
I wonder what other people saw: a little boy wheeling an oxygen tank behind him diving straight off into the water. They must have thought it was suicide. I argue it was sheer dumb luck and obliviousness complicated by an unseen mirage.
Side note: I don’t know how to swim. Never tried it. And my grandfather, even with all his poolside sitting, never has either.
The cold water shocked my senses as I plunged to the tiled depths. I struggled, but given that I had no fat (or muscle, for that matter), I sank quickly. My oxygen tank fell faster, straight through the water like an anvil, and hit the bottom with a heavy clunk. I thought I’d black out, thought this would be an apt ending, drowning from the outside rather than from the inside. If I had taken the time to stop and think about the irony of it all, I’m not sure which one I would have thought was better. Instead, I clawed with outstretched fingers. Water streamed past, bubbles erupted from my fingertips as the light above me grew farther and farther away. A jet stream of drowning.
My toes scraped the bottom, the last orbs of air escaping my lips like lazy tobacco circles. I watched them float to the surface where I knew they would explode in a helium-oxygen nightmare. Why did I even want the surface so bad? I couldn’t breathe up there. I wasn’t made for that world. And what would happen, really, if I came to and flopped on the deck like a fish? When I took that sweet breath of oxygen, wouldn’t it choke me anyway?
Vision tunneled and for a second I paused mid-stroke. The oxygen tank was still with me, its suit waving in the pool’s current. I could easily just slip the mask back over my face and breathe that stifling, hallucination-filled air. But I didn’t. Instead, I looked up. Above, no bodies floated like otters on their back or dove down to look at me like a specimen in an aquarium. And the lifeguard hadn’t shown up either.
The last tendrils of air snaked out of my lips even though I tried to seal them for the sake of my aching lungs. But then again, they always hurt. Something like this would never have happened to my eldest brother: Being king of the underworld, he never really had to worry about dying himself. My youngest would blast his way out somehow. I was a sniveling little weakling and images of my flopping body choking up water on the pool deck made me more nauseated than the helium air. I couldn’t live like that.
I decided if the one thing I could control, could claim as my own, was to enter my brother’s world with a smile on my face, smelling of chlorine and saying, “I’m dead now, and finally, I can breathe,” then so be it.
I opened my mouth and whispered.
Water flooded my alveoli, fluid pumping into every aspect of my being. Humans are seventy percent water anyway, so I was just filling myself the rest of the way up. The water burned my nostrils and my throat, streaking like acid. I win, I thought weakly.
But just as the pressure became unbearable, just when I was about to put a hand on my forehead and swoon to the depths with my eternal soliloquy, the pressure disappeared. The water opened up my chest, a rolling wave of freedom.
I thought I died. Instead, I breathed.
I drank in this new air, long deep breaths of lovely fluid. The water filled me and pushed me, and I swore my heart grew three sizes, like the Grinch. I left my oxygen tank, the suit rippling in the jet’s current, on the pool floor. It was that drowned half-person I’d been up until this moment. Up until the day I drowned.
Like my grandfather, I didn’t leave that pool for days. Eventually, the owners called the police to get me out, and it took three marines and a fire truck to extract me from my watery home.
My parents, used to adapting to their child’s needs, set up a kiddy pool in the backyard for me. I didn’t need an inhaler or a mask or a hospital bed. I just needed a different element. Sometimes, I spent hours breathing, enjoying the feeling of being whole. Feeling like a human being, which was the same as feeling like a God.
And now, when I play chess with my brothers and we begin to wager, I don’t ask for ice cream or bet continents and worlds. I say, “If I win, you must breathe the air of my murky depths.”
This wager gives them pause. No one likes being unable to breathe, being robbed of their element.
Needless to say, we don’t play anymore.
Salena Casha’s work has appeared in over 30 publications. Her first picture book, Stacia’s Sticky Situation, was published by MeeGenius Books in July 2013. She has two more titles with MeeGenius published in January 2014. Her goal in life is to rewrite the future and drink an infinite number of soy lattes. Her website is www.salenacasha.com