Breath by Breath Ch. 08

Isabel quietly held Brandon’s hand as they approached the Hawks Well Theatre. He looked down at her, and felt her stiffening by his side.

There, in a spare room, the auditions were being held for the music concert. It was an annual concert, a talent platform for the local children. He had performed there in the past, and so had Mark, Ben, and Kyle.

It was the last week of auditions. Isabel had made up her mind just in time.

“Are you okay?” he asked, squeezing her hand. She shook her head. He put an arm around her shoulders.

“We’re there,” Brandon whispered. “Myself and Mark. You aren’t alone.”

“I’ll be alone in that room, though,” she spoke in a small voice.

“We’ll be right outside.” He held her hand again and felt how cold it was despite the gloves. “You can do it.”

He knew he was not being entirely honest even as he said the words. Isabel had not sung in ages. People scared her, being in public gave her anxiety, and all the tragedies in her life had suppressed her voice. Music required emotion. She no longer showed any.

It was only upon their insistence that she had finally agreed to sing.

“I’m afraid.” She looked up at him. The black cardigan made her skin look paler, the breeze blowing her hair all over the place. “I don’t know anybody there.”

“You don’t have to. Just sing. That’s all.” He hugged her tight and stroked her upper arms through the wool. “You’ll do very well.”

He tugged at her hand. “Come on. You’re the first one today.”

Brandon asked some people there when the auditions for the day would begin. They were asked to wait a while. Mark, who had been hanging around with some friends, came up to them. Brandon laughed with him and tried to help Isabel relax, but she remained slumped in the seat, not looking up, not talking to anyone.

When she was called in, Brandon started to feel his own nerves. They hugged her, wished her the best, and saw her till the door. He wanted to be there with her inside the room, but he was not allowed to.

So he and Mark waited outside, watching through the small crack in the door.

Isabel walked in slowly, barely looking anywhere. The room was not unfamiliar to Brandon. He’d hung out there more times than he cared to count, auditioned there for many concerts and musicals. But to her, it was an unfamiliar place. Her body language screamed it aloud.

“So, Miss Standish, what are you singing for us today?” One of the three selectors, whose name Brandon just could not remember at the moment, asked her. Isabel looked up and glanced at the three strange people in turn.

“Amazing Grace,” she replied, her gloved hands in fists by her side. Brandon shoved his own hands inside his pockets, trying to warm them up.

“Okay, are you ready?” The other selector, a woman, asked. She nodded somewhat reluctantly.

“Please begin,” she was given the green signal by the three people in front of her. Isabel shifted uncomfortably on her feet, her body stiff. Her stricken eyes moved around the room, lips quivering, and fingers fidgeting uneasily.

“Please begin, Miss Standish.” She was prodded again by the selectors. Brandon and Mark exchanged glances as they watched Isabel start to tremble. His heart ached at the sight. She looked nothing like the classically trained mezzo-soprano that she was.

“Oh, no. Brandy, she’s a mess,” Mark whispered to him. Brandon pressed his hand to his mouth, overcome with the urge to step inside and bring her out of the room. He’d just taken a step forward when Isabel turned and came running out, with the selectors calling after her.

“Izzi!” They yelled in unison. “Wait! Izzi!”

They ran after her, but she was too fast. She was already out on the road, still running, when they saw her.

“Izzi!” Mark called out. Brandon held his arm.

“I’ll take her home,” he told him. “I’ll handle her.”

“Sure?” Mark chewed his lip, worried. Brandon nodded, beginning to run down the trail Isabel had just taken. He turned a corner and finally caught up with her on the front steps of a house. He stopped to catch his breath, but the sight in front of him only made him more breathless.

Isabel was in the grip of violent shudders, her eyes motionless, mouth open and gasping for air. He fell to his knees and gathered her in his arms, and she jerked and quaked in his embrace, as though possessed and out of control. She tried to push him away, slapping and punching his arms, but he held on, not knowing what to do but desperate to try anyway.

“Shh. It’s okay.” His eyes closed, his voice alien to his own ears. “You’re safe. No one will hurt you. It’s just you and me here.”

When she coughed and heaved against his shoulder, Brandon lifted her in his arms, taking her over to his car and settling her in the seat. Her stricken eyes were not blinking and her hands were turning colder by the second. Without thinking, he yanked off her gloves and entwined fingers with her, pulling her close to his body. Her heartbeats were so rapid that he could hardly feel his own pulse.

“Breathe with me,” he urged. “Please breathe with me, Izzi.”

He cupped her face with both hands and forced her to look at him. Their eyes met but he was not certain if she could see the things around her when her mind was conjuring images from her past.

“It’s going to pass, okay?” He soothed, hoping and praying he could remain strong for her. “It’s just a panic attack. You’re safe. There’s no danger.”

Isabel made a small, hiccuping sound, and as he watched the changing colours of her face, he found her eyes fill with tears. Brandon’s arms came around her again.

“Breathe with me, sweetheart.” He took a deep inhale, paused, and then let it out noisily. “Like that. Focus on my breathing. One breath at a time. Come on, love. Do it with me.”

She followed his guide for a few moments, and before he knew it, she was sobbing in his arms, her body still shaking like a hapless leaf caught in a storm. He stroked her hair, murmured loving words of comfort that kept getting choked up in the tightness of his throat. He wondered if he had ever seen her break down and cry. While he cradled her in his arms, he repeatedly told himself that he was not going to give in to the barrage of threatening tears.

He did not know how long they remained inside his car. Eventually, he drove them to his house and carried her in through the back door. In his room, he sat her down on his bed and wrapped her in a blanket, then held her hands again. Isabel’s face was drenched, lips still quivering, and she slumped into him, her eyes sliding close. Brandon laid her down and slipped off her shoes, and she had dozed off even before he finished tugging up the blanket. 

Isabel slept for an hour. When she awoke, her eyes were red and puffy, her cheeks stained, her hair a tangled mess. Brandon had not left her side. As she sat up, he gave her some water and sat next to her.

“There was a concert… in school,” she spoke quietly, faltering at every word as she tried to get back her breath. “And I asked for £40, the participation fee.”

Her eyes were wide when she tugged the sleeves of her cardigan to reveal a deep, reddish-black scar on her right arm. Brandon flinched.

“I got this… that night,” she added, lifting her arm to stare at the wound. Brandon crushed her to his chest, his eyes welling up. He had heard from the doctors that too little of her back and her arms were unscathed. They had also suggested procedures to remove the scars, so she could be more confident to show skin. But Brandon did not need to see her body to be able to feel the horror she had endured or the love he found with her. 

“Don’t…” He kissed the top of her head, his voice catching. “Don’t remember those times, please.”

“They don’t leave me.” She clutched his arms, her lips trembling helplessly. “I can see their faces, feel the pain… the wounds… The…”

She faltered again, and looked down at the scar on her arm. “I can tell you the story behind each of these,” she mumbled. “Write a whole book.”

Brandon shook his head. “Please don’t do this to yourself.”

“They did this to me!” She cried out, pushing him away. “My parents. They did this to me. What was my fault? That I wasn’t like them?”

“Izzi—” He reached for her, but she pulled back.

“I don’t want to live, can’t you see?” She screeched, rising from the bed. “I have nothing to live for. I have no one. Nobody likes me. Everyone looks at me like I’m some living piece of crap. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.”

Brandon rose from the bed and pulled her close again. She crumbled when he held her, sobbing and whimpering.

“I’m not happy,” she croaked against his shoulder. “I don’t want to live.”

“Shh. Don’t say that.”

“They asked me for descriptions,” she continued. “What did they want me to describe? How I’d be seized by the hair and wrenched up in the air, kicked in the stomach, and thrown against the wall? How I’d curl up in a ball under the bed trying to protect myself, crying and begging to be left alone? How I had difficulty keeping clothes on because the wounds hurt everywhere? How the door of my room was wrecked from the assault? Or—”

“Isabel, please.”

“That one time I tried telling people,” she carried on regardless. “They threw me in the attic and made sure to gag and lock me so I wouldn’t be clever enough to make noise or escape. I wished they would just kill me instead… It would be less painful than the never-ending nightmare.”

“Stop.” Brandon put a hand over her mouth, unable to hear anymore. Her scars spoke loud enough. He did not need the back story. Did not want her to keep reliving her past.

Isabel removed his hand. “It was all my fault, wasn’t it?” she asked. “That’s what I thought when I was being beaten into a pulp, when they left me to rot in the attic, when I picked up the knife to end it all.”

She sucked in a wet, shuddering breath. “I wanted an escape from the hell I called home, but it never came. And I started to believe that I deserved it.”

Brandon wrapped his arms around her again and felt her lips quivering against his shoulder, her rasping breaths against his neck. He closed his eyes.

“Never say that again.” He could not believe how fragile he sounded. “It wasn’t your fault. No one deserves to be hurt.”

“I was so afraid,” she cried. “All the time, every day. It was like…like living in a minefield, never knowing when it would go off. Dreading the next blow, the next wound…”

He took her back to bed and held her until the trembles had begun to recede, letting her go only when his phone rang. It was Mark.

Brandon told him that he had brought her to his house and that she was alright. Isabel moved slightly away from him and wiped her nose with the sleeve of her cardigan, before coughing. After another sip of water, she remained still and silent. He stayed beside her, holding her hand, giving her space.

“I want to go home,” she announced. “I’ve wasted enough of your time.”

“You never waste my time.” Kneeling on the floor, he picked up each of her shoes and held them up as she slipped her feet in. “But I’ll take you home.”

He took her out the same way he had brought her in and drove her to the Barrett residence. Elsa opened the door, but Isabel walked past her and disappeared inside the house, her head low, arms wrapped around her body.

“What happened?” Elsa wondered aloud. “How was the audition?”

Brandon sighed and then squeezed out a smile.

“She needs rest.” Getting inside his convertible, he waved at her. “See ya, Elsa.”

He stepped on the gas, and as the car started to roll, his eyes overflowed with tears he had so long held back.