Breath by Breath Ch. 07
Sundays were always the busiest at the restaurant. Not only did people come there to eat but also to meet friends and have a laugh. Since the opening hour, they had already sold a multitude of hamburgers, sandwiches, fish and chips, and coffee. And it was only half-past ten in the morning, with the rest of the day ahead of them.
Brandon was at the counter, manning the chip fryer, and occasionally running errands for his parents. He had been morose since he returned from Ben’s house two days ago. Of course, his friend had assured him that Isabel would eventually come around, but it had not helped. Worse than her thinking she was someone to be ashamed of was her thinking that he deserved better.
How much better could it be than her? She was the most beautiful girl that town had ever seen, a brilliant student, more talented and intelligent than he would ever be. She was the first girl he had ever truly loved, who made him happy and reminded him of where he belonged. And yet he had to keep it all under wraps, even if it caused misunderstandings or made her walk away from him.
He wanted to kill Louis. And then shout out from the rooftops that he was in love with the most amazing girl in the whole universe. But in reality, he could not do either.
“When are they coming to shoot the documentary?” Mairead asked him, swinging by with a tray.
So he had bought a car, his first car. And it was a BMW 3 Series. It was second-hand, but nobody else drove a BMW in the town, so it was something special, even if he had blown all his advance money from the first album on it. A production company from Dublin wanted to shoot a short documentary on him, a day in the life of Brandon Steven Fletcher. He was going to take them around town, show them places that meant to him, take them down to the barn, and proudly display his new purchase. As the frontman of the band, he was an inspiration for other country lads. If he could make it big, so could they.
“Not sure.” He shrugged, “They’ll let me know.”
“I’m up to high doh!” His sister beamed, her blue eyes twinkling with delight. “Me little brother is a star.”
He frowned at her. “I’m only two years younger than you, if that helps.” Brandon rolled his eyes. “And I’m not a star. It’s just—”
The phone rang. Brandon answered it since Mairead’s hands were full.
“Brandy?” It was Ben on the other end, voice laced with worry. “Is Izzi there?”
“No…” He still looked around the place just to make sure he had not missed her. “Why?”
“She isn’t there? Oh, no! Dad, she isn’t at Carlton Café!” He shouted out to Thomas. “I’ve called Kyle and Mark, asked around the neighbourhood, but she’s nowhere.”
“What happened?” Brandon’s heart had started to race. “Did she just leave suddenly?”
“She wanted to help Elsa with the cleaning and she sent Izzi to the attic to fetch something, and she got frightened for some reason and left the house when we weren’t looking.”
His heart dropped to the pit of his stomach. “She sent her… where?”
“I know, I know. Elsa wasn’t thinking.”
“Does she have her phone?” Brandon asked.
Ben sighed tiredly. “Does she ever?”
“Christ.” Brandon glanced around in confusion. “I’ll go and look for her.”
“I don’t know. Everywhere.”
“Right. You go towards Cairns Hill and I’ll go towards Ashwood, okay?”
“Okay.” Brandon put down the phone, grabbed his jacket, and headed for the door.
“Brandy?” It was Mairead, looking on horrified. “She’s okay, right?”
“I hope so.” He turned and left the restaurant, first heading for the barn and asking his brother Liam if Isabel had been there by any chance. When that did not work, he took his horse Carlton Flight into the town. Every nook and corner of Carraroe was familiar territory to him, but knowing that Isabel was still disturbed and unstable, it was impossible to fight the panic as he looked around the place. A girl like her running away frightened was never a good sign.
He wandered into the distant end of the town, with barely any people in sight and definitely no trace of Isabel. Brandon had looked in every possible place and asked everybody he knew, with no luck. But he refused to give up. He secretly hoped to find her under a tree somewhere, reading.
She was under the oak tree by the side of the lake, all alone. It was the end of the town. He wondered how she had reached there.
“Someday,” he panted, dismounting his horse. “You’re going to kill someone with life-threatening worry.”
Isabel looked over her shoulder, glancing at his horse and then back at him.
“Still riding Flight?” she asked. “You should be showing off your new car.”
“If I were taking you out, I would.” He walked up to the tree, then sat on the grass beside her. What he thought was a book in her gloved hands turned out to be a bunch of old photographs. “But not when your frantic brother calls me and says that you’re missing. Jesus Christ.”
He wiped a trickle of sweat from his sideburn and reached for his phone. “I’ll inform Ben.”
She did not react as he made the call to assure Ben that he had found her safe and would take her back home.
“You deserve a punishment for this,” he joked, smiling at her. Isabel looked up again.
“Sure,” she said flatly. “You want to beat me up? Hit me with a golf club? Or maybe throw me against the wall until my skull breaks in half? Like these people did?”
Brandon physically recoiled at those words, his stomach churning when she held up a photograph in front of his face. He vaguely recognised the people in it as her parents.
“I was only codding ya,” he amended, then sighed. “I’m sorry I said that.”
“Don’t be.” She slowly and precisely proceeded to tear the photograph into several pieces, focusing on the task with single-minded attention. Her eyes looked darker than they were, with a forbidding streak in them that he had previously never seen. He watched her throw the shredded photograph into the water, and as it got carried away, she reached for another.
“How did you get here?” he asked, leaning against the shady tree.
“Everyone’s worried, you know. You shouldn’t have just disappeared like that.”
“I needed to get away.”
“From the house?”
“From my demons.” Her nostrils flared and jaw stiffened as she carefully sliced another picture into shreds. There was something cold and creepy about her calculated, repetitive action that alarmed him slightly. “They were staring at me in the dark. I need to get rid of them.”
Brandon resisted probing. “You could have gone somewhere closer home. Why walk forty-five minutes to the lake?”
“Because you kissed me here for the first time.”
He smiled. Not too long ago, he had brought her there on a cloudy autumn day, and had suddenly claimed her lips while recounting his childhood picnics by the lake. When she had asked him what he was doing, he had said that he was making memories.
“That’s why you came here?” he asked.
“Yeah. A good memory to replace some dark ones.”
Without an answer, she threw the torn paper into the water and stared as the pristine blue lake slowly swallowed the pieces. He shifted closer and moved the tendril of hair that kept falling into her eyes. She flinched at his touch, almost trying to draw back from the contact.
“You really want to leave me?” he whispered to her. “After everything we’ve been through together?”
“I was never holding on to you,” she replied, her eyes returning to the last photograph. He had seen that one before, where Isabel was a baby in a white christening dress. It still nauseated him to think that an innocent child like her would later go on to endure unspeakable abuse from people who were supposed to love and protect her.
“But I was. And I intend to, for the rest of my life.”
“Life is too long. And at the rate it is changing for you right now, I doubt you’ll be having these feelings after a while.”
“You don’t trust me?” he asked. Isabel shrugged.
“My trust has been rewarded quite gruesomely in the past.”
“You…” Brandon steeled himself before speaking the next words. “You’re never afraid of me, are you? Because I would rather die than have you think that I can ever hurt you.”
“It’s not you, it’s me.” When the last photograph was gone, she stared up at him. “I’m screwed up, Brandy. My mind is a mess.”
“Do you love me?”
Isabel did not reply. She wordlessly picked at the ground until she had a clump of grass in her hand. Brandon held her chin, lifted her face, and looked into her eyes.
“Do you?” he repeated. Isabel nodded quietly.
“I never said I didn’t.” She held his gaze. “If you meant nothing to me, I wouldn’t worry about losing you after I did this…”
Looking down, she held up her left hand. “I didn’t really care about what anyone else thought. But I didn’t want you to also think that I was a freak and a weirdo.”
“You’re not a freak.” His voice rose involuntarily. “And not weird either. If anything, then you’re my hero.”
Her big, stunned eyes snapped to his face. Brandon smiled. “I never told you but every time I call you from some part of the world and you’re there to hear me ramble and vent no matter how late it is, it makes me feel sane again on this rollercoaster ride. When everyone is raving over us, you keep me grounded with your normalness and lack of pretentions. When the big, blinding world in front of us leaves me reeling, you remind me of what’s really important in life. You make sense of this madness, you understand the nitty-gritty of showbusiness often better than I do, a touch of your hand is all it takes to lift me up when I’m confused and exhausted.”
He moved closer to her. “You’re the biggest proof that it is possible to survive any horror without losing your grace and poise.” His throat painfully tightened and he willed his eyes to not water. “You’re the most incredible person I will ever meet and it’s god’s honest truth.”
Isabel gave him a slow blink. “How long did it take you to come up with that?”
Brandon laughed. “See, that’s what I mean,” he said. “You’re natural and unaffected. And that is one of the many things I love about you.”
“Have you listened to our songs?” he asked. “The songs from our new album?”
She shook her head. “Ben keeps singing them all the time. But I don’t listen to music anymore.”
“It makes me sad.”
“How are you going to perform at the concert then?”
Isabel gaped at him. “I’m not.”
“You are. Ben told me.”
“I…” She sank back against the tree. “It was only a passing mention. Not that I was serious.”
“So let’s make it serious. Let’s hear you sing again.”
He put a finger over her lips, shaking his head. Then he started to croon.
“I want you to know…
If you ever thought that I was letting go
Of the only joy that I have ever known…
Just know it’s not true.“
He pulled her closer, until she could feel his breath on her face.
“The world is wide
And if everyone else finds it easy to
Just give it up and let it all go
I’ll never give up on you…”
The tears spilled over. He stared into Isabel’s beautiful dark orbs, falling a little more, a little deeper in love.
“So you should know some things in life,
Will never be denied,
I’m glad we’re on this one-way street just you and I…
Just you and I…”
Their lips met. Brandon quickly wiped off his tears and cupped her small face, feeling her soft, full mouth kissing him back with a warmth that equalled his. Her cheeks were flushed when they broke apart, and it made his heart flip.
“I forgot something.” He reached into the pocket of his jacket. “I got you this from London but didn’t have the chance to give it to you.”
He had planned to give it to her the evening he visited her two days ago. But things went downhill and the gift remained inside his jacket.
“I don’t know if you’ll like it,” he said, fishing out a small pouch that held a dainty gold necklace. “But I got it custom engraved.” He turned the tiny heart tag around to reveal an Irish inscription on the back.
“What does it say?” He teased her. She stared for a while and it made Brandon laugh inside his head. Not for the first time, she was possibly wondering why the verb had to come first.
“Love overcomes all,” she murmured. He nodded.
“You are improving.” He secured the chain around her neck and moved her hair aside to stare at how pretty and delicate it looked on her.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “It’s beautiful.”
“Just like you,” he smiled, dropping a kiss onto her hair. She heaved a small sigh and crept into his arms, snuggling like a cat. He enfolded her, closing his eyes.
“I don’t know what I can ever give you,” she rued. “I have nothing.”
“You have your life,” he reminded her. “And I want you to take care of it. That’s all I ever ask for.”
She did not respond to that. Instead, she turned her head to burrow her face in his chest.
“Emily said you had a panic attack a few days ago,” he said, stretching his legs, letting her snuggle in further. “Was it because of me?”
“No.” She looked up. “Why would you think that?”
“Just saying. Did you have a nightmare then?”
“Yes, that same one. Ben’s parents helped me. Emily slept with me that night, to keep me safe.” She exhaled deeply. “Nobody has ever done that for me.”
“You know when the time comes, I’ll do that for you.” He stroked her hair. “Let you sleep in my arms, keep you safe from all nightmares.”
“I would love to not have nightmares anymore.” She closed her eyes. “I’m always so tired.”
“Do you still take the sleeping pills?”
“I try not to.” Opening her eyes, she looked up at him again. “I’m sorry about the other day. I only wanted to make it easy for you.”
Brandon’s eyebrows arched. “So you don’t want to let me go?”
“If you’re willing to stay.” She swallowed hard. “I never think that you will hurt me. You made me believe that not everybody who touched me was going to beat me up.”
“I’ll never let you get hurt.” He kissed her temple. “That’s a promise.”
“Can I tell you something?” she whispered, her voice so soft that the breeze carried it away. When Brandon nodded with a low hum, she swallowed again. “You kiss me a lot.”
“Oh. Should I stop?”
“I’m not complaining.” She met his eyes for only a moment before lowering her head again. “I was never used to affection. But every time you kiss me, it makes my heart flutter and makes my hands a little shaky. And even if for a moment, I feel like an actual person.”
“You are an actual person.”
“Not everyone thought that.”
“No, really,” she added. “Every time we are like this, I can’t stop wondering what makes me appealing to the sweetest, handsomest man in all of Ireland.”
Brandon looked down at her face, at the apples of her cheek that were turning shades of red he had never seen. “The handsomest man, eh?”
“I’m sure you hear that a lot.”
“Well, I always knew I was the handsomest in all of Sligo,” he joked. “But all of Ireland… That’s quite a compliment.”
Their attention was drawn to the horse when it impatiently stomped its legs. “Perhaps Flight doesn’t like the grass here,” Isabel noted. “Do you think I can jump hurdles one of these days?”
“Hurdles?” He gaped at her. “You can’t be on horseback until your ribs heal.”
“I’m fine. It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“We’ll see.” He rose to his feet and helped her to her feet.
“What do you want to sing for the concert?” he asked. She shrugged her shoulders.
“I know just the song.” He looked down at her face, smiling. “Come, let’s go home now.”