Breath by Breath ch. 06
“Going somewhere, Brandy?” Mae called from behind the counter as Brandon made his way towards the door. They had returned home the other night on a ten-day break till the release of the album. Once the album launched, there would be promotions, signings, interviews, and more gigs.
He had not done much since he came home, except sleep. His friends had dropped in earlier in the day and it had been a good laugh. Later, he helped around the restaurant and took care of the horses– easy, everyday things that made him feel normal.
“I’m going to meet Izzi, mam,” he said, waving at her. “Be back in an hour.”
The thought of meeting Isabel unnerved him a little. He had not spoken to her in over a fortnight. His oldest sister Yvonne had seen the interview and called him to ask if it was true. His mother asked him the same after she was brought in to surprise him on a television show a few days ago. Ben’s mother had been with her, and he had half-expected her to have the same query, but she had mercifully spared him. It did not feel nice to have to explain to every person that none of the garbage published in the papers was true— Louis had linked him with Jessica and started the rumour just for sheer publicity, and he definitely was not single, only trying to protect Isabel from unwanted attention.
And then things had blown out of proportion when a whole feature had been done on them a week later, declaring the five of them single, footloose, and available. They had even been asked the type of girls each of them liked and they’d had to make up some nonsense. Poor Mark, he did not even fancy girls. Brandon felt more sorry for his friend than he did for himself.
He had called Isabel to try and explain himself, but Emily had answered the phone and told him that she was down with fever and could not talk.
Damn. All this, just when she finally admitted that she loved him.
Brandon shoved his hands in his pockets and walked past houses, parked cars, and billboards, spotting himself in a poster on a wall. He worried about Isabel. He’d asked Ben about her after they’d come home, and he had said that she was better. But he still wanted to see her. Talk to her. Explain that he did love her and that she should not pay heed to all the rubbish about them in the media.
Two girls walked past him, stopping short when they recognised him. Brandon lifted the hood of his jacket to hide his face and legged the rest of the way to Ben’s house. The last thing he needed on the way to meet his girlfriend was to be mobbed by a group of fans.
He rang the doorbell and waited impatiently, tapping his foot and keeping his head down, in case someone recognised him. At other times, it would have been exciting. But he was not in the mood now. Not when he was dying to see Isabel.
“Hello, Brandy.” Emily opened the door with a smile. “Come in.”
He politely smiled and walked in, looking around for Isabel. She was nowhere to be seen, though. It was early evening. He wondered if she had gone out with her brother.
“Ben just went out with his dad,” Emily said, leading him to the living room. “Would you like some tea?”
“Umm… okay,” he nodded, taking off his jacket and putting it on the coat rack. He quickly glanced at the door of Isabel’s room, which was slightly ajar. “How’s Izzi?” he asked hesitantly.
“Better. Still a little weak, though.” She turned off the TV and headed for the kitchen. “She’s napping. Do you want to spend some time with me till she wakes up?”
Brandon did not see any reason to refuse. He would not leave without meeting Isabel, so he had to wait. With a nod of acquiescence, he followed her into the kitchen.
“Feels great to be back home, doesn’t it?” She smiled as she went about making the tea. Brandon returned the smile, sitting on a barstool at the kitchen island.
“Yes, it can get lonely on the road,” he said, glancing around the kitchen that he must have seen for as long as he’d seen his own house. “It was such a surprise to have you and mam on the TV show with us last week. We had no clue.”
“It was supposed to be a surprise.” Emily gave him a glance, picking up the box of tea from the top shelf. “Think you hugged your mother for ten minutes there.”
He laughed. “We miss home all the time. Not professional popstars yet.” Brandon chewed on his bottom lip, measuring his next words. “How did Izzi fall ill?”
“Not sure.” Emily turned off the stove and dipped in the tea, before coming up to sit on the opposite side of the island. “She got a fever after her exams ended. Part of me thinks she hasn’t been getting enough sleep, part of me feels she’s just stressed about all that’s happening in her life.”
Emily laced her fingers on the countertop. “She also had a panic attack a few days ago. It was bad.”
Brandon’s eyes widened. “I thought she didn’t get them anymore,” he said, slightly troubled. “She’s been better.”
“That’s what we thought as well,” Emily nodded. “But that night we woke up to find her cold and sweaty in her room, trembling all over.”
“Did she have a nightmare?”
“Possibly. She couldn’t say anything, she was too shaken.” Emily shook her head. “Panic attacks can be a nightmare in itself, you know. It’s sudden and often without reason, and can feel similar to having a heart attack or even dying.”
Brandon swallowed. “And… what do you do to help?”
“Be there. It passes on its own, but the person needs to be comforted and reminded that what they are feeling is only transient, that there is no real danger. Helping them breathe steadily and focus on something other than the panic seems to work.”
Emily rose to pour the tea and returned with two mugs and biscuits on a tray. “It’s good that you came,” she said. “I wanted to talk to you.”
His stomach flipped. “About what?” He sipped on the tea, the delicious warm beverage doing nothing to alleviate his nervousness.
“About you and Izzi.” She picked up her teacup, going into therapist mode. Emily was different from other mothers. She read everyone like an open book. Sometimes she played it cool, sometimes she sat them down and talked like a friend. She studied reactions and emotions, helped people deal with their own feelings and know their own minds.
“I want you to be honest with me, okay?” She said with a gentle smile. “I’m not a parent right now. I’m a friend. Talk to me openly. Right?”
“Is anything wrong, Mrs B?” His hands trembled a little even as he asked that. When a parent sat you down and gave you a talk, it definitely meant something was wrong.
“No.” Sipping her tea, Emily looked at him over the rim of the mug. “Do you think there is?”
Brandon opened his mouth, but then closed it and shook his head. He did not want to think anything was wrong.
“Alright. So a simple question.” She paused to study his face. “Where does Izzi figure in your life?”
Brandon gaped at her. It was because of all the rubbish in the press. She was already doubting him.
“I love her,” he began quietly, realising instantly it was going to be far from a simple answer. “I know why you’re asking and I want you to know that I care about her. I know she is young and vulnerable and I’m–”
“Brandy…” She shook her head again. “I’m not saying this only because Izzi is young and vulnerable.”
Sighing, she sipped her tea again. “I know you care about her. You always have, since you first met her. And really, bringing her to Sligo doesn’t seem such a bad idea anymore because you and your family have become such a large part of her recovery.”
She paused, putting her tea on the counter. “But after everything that happened to her, it’s just natural that we worry,” Emily added. “I may not have given birth to her but she’s my daughter all the same, and I don’t want her to have her heart broken. You know what I mean, right?”
He could only offer a dumb nod in response.
“Good.” Emily let out a deep exhale. “The thing is, a relationship is about responsibility and commitment. It’s about trust. Given Izzi’s history, it isn’t surprising that her sense of trust is fragile right now. You understand that, don’t you?”
His gaze turned downcast. “I do.”
“Do you also understand that it may be this way for the foreseeable future?”
His eyes lifted. “She’ll get better,” he said hopefully. “I’ll help her, no matter how long it takes.”
“What if your life does not allow you the chance to do so?”
When he stared blankly at her, she proceeded to explain. “You barely get to see your parents these days. If you don’t find the time for your family, how can you afford the time and patience Izzi needs?”
“I can find the time for her,” he answered too quickly, then sighed and stared into his teacup. “I know our lives are changing, and she is going to be part of that change.”
“Is she capable of handling it?”
“Not right now, maybe. But I know she will heal, because she’s far braver than I can ever hope to be.”
Her smile was knowing. “You think about this way more than you let on, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” Every waking minute, every night in unfamiliar hotel rooms, every hour in alien cities, the thought of Isabel overrode the high from his dream career. The joy of having her in his life, the excitement of seeing her when he came home, the fear of making a wrong move and losing it all. “I really care about her, Mrs B, and I want to make her happy.”
“I know, and the fact that you can see her innate goodness and love her for who she is proves your depth of personality. Your parents did an incredible job raising you.”
Her gaze was tender when she looked at him again. “But I’m asking you to think long-term here, okay? You’re getting famous and successful, your world is changing, you won’t remain small-town lads in a very short time. Will you still want to hold Izzi’s hand then, when you’re a popstar with a public life? Or will it seem far easier to find someone less complicated?”
“She’ll always be the one for me, if she still wants to be with me.” He ran his hand through his hair, feeling crushed by the truth that she had more faith in his professional success than in his ability to be there for Isabel. “I know she comes from a big city and I’m only a farmer’s son. She can find someone way better than me. She has more talents than I do, she speaks three languages—”
“The people who did this to her also spoke three languages,” Emily cut in. “One of them was violence.”
Her words stung more than they should have. “I’ll never hurt Izzi,” he said with quiet emphasis. “I can’t imagine hurting anyone.”
“That’s not the point. The point is, you’re innately a good person, regardless of where you come from and how many languages you speak. Even when Izzi’s shutting out all of us, she’s comfortable letting you in, because you have a way with her.”
Reaching over, she touched his hand. “But you’ve been thrust into the limelight out of nowhere and it will affect everything you do from now on. Showbiz is hard and you’re very young. Can you handle it?”
“You… you mean the things in the press about us the last few weeks, don’t you?” He finally blurted. “About me being single, dating somebody else…?”
Emily’s smile was sad. “Look, we know most of the things in the press aren’t true, whether it’s about you or about anybody else. We know Louis. We know how manipulative he can be. He’ll go all out to promote the five of you.”
She wrapped her hands around the mug. “The problem is, Izzi doesn’t see that. She isn’t at a stage where she’ll be able to sieve the truth from the false. It makes her think that the little she can hold onto amid her turmoil is a lie.”
It was Isabel. Emily motioned for him to come with her. He did.
“Come on,” she smiled, taking his arm. Isabel was sitting up in bed, rubbing her eyes.
“Izzi?” Emily entered her room. “How you feeling, honey?” Sitting beside her, she gave her a gentle squeeze. Isabel yawned like a kitten, nodding. Brandon felt his heart break at the sight. He had hurt her. Played with her trust. Who knew, maybe she had had the panic attack because of him.
“Would you like some tea?” Emily asked her. She shook her head, her eyes still half-closed. “Some crisps, then?”
She shook her head again, moving hair out of her face. “Is Ben home?” she asked, her voice throaty.
“No, but he’ll be back in a while. Brandy is here to meet you, by the way.” Emily pointed at the doorway. Brandon forced a smile and raised a hand in greeting when Isabel gave him a glance. Kissing her forehead, Emily rose from the bed, proceeding to leave the room.
“I’ll leave you kids to talk,” she smiled at him, giving him a pat on the back. Brandon hesitated before entering the room. Isabel was not looking at him. She was seated in the middle of her bed, clad in a pair of pyjama pants and a long sleeve t-shirt. Her gloves were by the side of the pillow, but she had not reached for them yet. He entered the room, the door closing behind him.
“How are you now?” he asked hesitantly, stepping closer to the bed. She nodded wordlessly and scratched her hair.
“You?” she asked quietly. Brandon found that encouraging. He gathered the courage to sit beside her.
“Grand.” He bit his lip, thinking of a way to continue the conversation that did not seem forced. “Your exams are over, right?”
“Yes. Irish was tough. Why does the verb have to come before the subject?” She yawned again. “The rest was easy.”
She looked at him, pressing her lips together. “I’m sorry. You aren’t interested in this.”
He smiled, resisting the urge to reach over and pull her into an embrace. Instead, he wondered what else he could say. Isabel clearly was not in the mood to talk. He was, though. As difficult as it was, they still needed to have that conversation.
“Izzi,” he began cautiously. “I want you to know that not everything in the press about us is true.” He gulped, summoning all the strength he had. “We’ve been asked by Louis to lie about our relationships. It’s only publicity.”
Brandon’s eyebrows rose. “You… you know?”
She nodded. “I’m not good for your image. I know.”
He involuntarily shook his head. “You’re not good for my image?” he repeated to make sure he had heard it right.
“Yes. You’re handsome and talented and popular. You’ll be big in life. It isn’t healthy for you to be associated with someone like me.” She shrugged. “I’m mental. Scarred. I understand.”
“No, really. Imagine when people find out that you’re with a girl like me, while Nathan is with the prime minister’s daughter….” She looked into his eyes, her face blank. “Can you imagine the comparisons that will be made?”
“That’s not true!” He raised his hands up in defense. “I need to say I’m single because I want to protect you. In a couple of years—”
“You’ll be with me for that long?” Isabel frowned. “I don’t even know what tomorrow will be like, and you’re thinking two years ahead?”
“Because I want to be with you forever. All that rubbish about myself and Jessica Forman has been made up by Louis.” He sighed, finally taking her hand. “I swear, I’m not with anybody else.”
“I don’t care. You have the luxury of dating and flirting and having fun. I don’t.”
She scrambled down from bed, picked up a bottle of water from the table and took a few long gulps, before wiping her mouth with the back of her palm. “My life isn’t fun. I don’t have anything. I don’t have a family, home, or the promise of a secure future. I cannot afford to waste my time or energy on you. I need to build my life. Get out of here. Be able to ensure my own safety without having to depend on others.”
She put the bottle down on the table with a thud. “I appreciate what you do for me,” she sighed. “But you aren’t obligated to me. You can find someone better.”
“You’re wasting your time and energy on me?” Brandon’s eyes welled up as the words registered. “I thought you loved me.”
“Love is a luxury.” Isabel crossed her arms and leaned against the night table. “I have to think of Leaving Cert now, not love.”
Shaking her head, she stared at her feet. “You’re famous. You’ll go places, meet different people. And you’ll realise there are far better girls than me in the world, and you’ll miss out if you remain with me. I don’t want you to miss out. I want you to live.”
“You don’t love me?”
“How does it matter? I thought you liked blondes with great legs who wear short skirts and high heels. So why me? Because Ben trusts you and wants you to keep me safe? Because you feel sorry that no one else will ever want me?”
“Because I’m in love with you.” He rose from the bed and moved closer to her. “I have never taken pity on you, Isabel. I’ve only loved you, cared about you. Please try to understand. If I make our relationship public, it will become difficult for you to live in peace. They’ll be after you, everyone will want a piece of you.”
“It’s not about me. I’m not thinking of myself here.” She brushed her fingers through her hair, trying to untangle the tresses. “I’m thinking of you. Your life, your future. I’m a broken, shattered, socially-awkward girl with a terrible past. I can never make you happy.”
“You do make me happy. Izzi…” He cupped her face. “I cannot live without you.”
“You’re not thinking. What if you don’t feel this way in six months? I’m not your responsibility. You have an image to maintain now. You need someone who can dress up and go to parties with you, get drunk with you. I completely understand if you date others. You are free to. It’s your life.”
“You’re breaking up with me?” His voice seemed to catch in his throat. Isabel was flat and cold. There was no telling if it was anger, hurt, or just her insecurities speaking. She cocked her head to the side and breathed out, as if explaining something to a five-year-old.
“You deserve better,” she said. “Someone who’s normal. Who doesn’t make you regret all this in the future.”
“I won’t—” he began, but then stopped short. There did not seem to be much point in trying to make her understand. If she was anything, it was stubborn. It was hard to break down her walls and get to her.
“Okay.” He turned around, fisting his hands by his sides. “But I cannot love anyone else. You’re the only girl I want.”
From the corner of his eyes, he could see Isabel unmoved. He shook his head, then walked out as fast as he could.
“Brandon? Are you okay?” Emily saw him from the kitchen. He picked up his jacket and nodded.
“I’m going home,” he said to her. “Thanks for the tea, Mrs B.”
He opened the door and stepped outside to find Ben and his dad approaching. They had groceries in their hands and were laughing and talking.
“Hi, Brandy.” Ben smiled at him, but it faded when he saw his sad countenance. Brandon quickly waved at him and Thomas and tried to walk past, but Ben called out again. He did not stop.
“Brandy, wait!” He ran after him and blocked his way, a deep frown on his brow.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Why do you look upset?”
Brandon looked up at him, unshed tears glistening in his eyes. “I think Izzi just broke up with me,” he said.
“What?” Ben’s mouth dropped open. Brandon walked past him, his feet picking up speed, and then he ran the rest of the way home.