“A Chance To Breathe” [Rated G]
Clara sat in the bleachers with the other girls. She reached into the book bag below her legs and felt the fabric of the royal blue body suit she had purchased two days before. She considered whether she should go to the girl’s bath room and change clothes right then or just leave. The idea of being out in front of everyone in something so revealing made her so nervous that she could hardly stand it. But maybe it was time … time to change her life … time to fit in … time to be popular. Her Father had said, "Don't do this if it doesn't feel right. You don't have to be someone else to be someone special. You couldn't be more special if you tried." Clara had treated him like he was born on some other planet. She had told him what she felt everyone must already know. She had said, "At Smallville High, a girl is nothing unless she's on the cheerleading squad." Clara decided that today was the day for her to suit up, show what she could do and finally be someone important in her new world -- the world of public high school.
Lana Lang yelled, "Next, please. Denise Forby. Are you here?" A young, dark-haired woman ran from the far corner of the gymnasium, did five somersaults, turned and executed four perfect back flips before stopping in a hand stand and lowering herself slowly to her feet in front of the table where the current senior squad members were seated. Lana clapped and the others joined her. She said, "Very impressive entrance, Denise. Tell us something about yourself."
Denise said, "I was a member of the junior high swim team, gymnastics team, track team and the girls’ basketball team. I plan to be even more active in high school. I enjoy bicycling and would like to climb Mount Everest someday. I'd like to have a boyfriend one of these days but I promised myself I wouldn't get one and tell there was a guy fast enough to catch me. So far there hasn't been … and I haven't found one worth slowing down for yet."
Lana said, "Do you have a routine prepared for us today?"
Denise said, "Just play anything on your boom box and I'll wing it."
Lana turned on the music and Denise began an impromptu dance routine that included many difficult gymnastic moves. Clara wondered if this was a meteor freak or just someone with a drive and determination like she'd never seen before. Somehow the name Denise Forby sounded familiar to Clara, but she didn’t recognize the young woman who was trying out. When the music stopped, Lana asked Denise to recite a number of cheers. Everyone expected Denise to be winded from her work out, but she shouted the cheers loudly and clearly.
Lana said, "No need to discuss this one. You're on the squad. I'm going to have to be careful or I'll be out of a job before the football season is over!"
Denise shouted, "Oh my God!" She started to cry. Seeing the look on Denise’s face, Clara recognized her at once.
Suddenly Clara felt ashamed to think she had any reason to be a cheerleader. It wasn’t what she wanted to do or to be – she just wanted to be liked and accepted. Now she realized that, if they accepted Clara the Cheerleader, it wouldn’t be her that they liked at all – just a phony who was untrue to who she really was. She decided that if anyone was going to like her, it would have to be for who she really was, not someone she was pretending to be. Then it hit her hard. Except for her parents … and sometimes even with them to prevent any possibility of losing their love, Clara pretended about who she really was and how she really felt with every single person she ever met on this planet. How could anyone EVER come to know and like the real her? Even Clara didn’t know who the REAL her was. She knew that she had other things that she was meant to do. But what?! She didn’t even want to think about it because there were no answers at hand and she didn’t like the way her thoughts were making her feel. She looked into her book bag at the blue body suit, the tiny red skirt and the shiny yellow belt and said to herself, "That was a waste of money. I can't imagine I'll ever wear that outfit!" Clara looked up and stared into the face of the newest member of the cheerleading squad and her mind drifted back in time.
Clara pounded on the door of the farmhouse. The door slowly opened and a woman looked out. The woman almost closed the door again before looking down and seeing Clara. The woman said, "Hello little girl. Where did you come from? Where are your folks? It's awfully cold to be out in all this snow without a coat! And I know there's no little girl living anywhere near here … not within 2 miles of the place."
Clara shouted, "Tell him to stop it!"
The woman asked, "Tell who to stop what?"
Clara said, "Tell him to stop hurting her! She couldn’t have done anything bad enough for him to keep hitting her like that!"
The woman said, "There's nothing wrong with what's going on."
Clara said, "I heard her crying! I came to stop it. I won't let him keep hitting her!"
The woman said, "Come on in, Dear. I don't know what you think you heard, but my daughter is all right. It's like she's taking some needed medicine. We're only doing what we have to do. You're the one in need of help. We need to find who you belong to a get you home."
Clara said, "I've heard her cry before. I should've stopped this sooner. I'm sorry I didn't. But I'm going to stop it now!"
The woman said, "We'd stop it if we could. You don't understand."
Clara said, "Yes I do! Children are NOT for hitting!"
The woman said, "My daughter is sick. Unless we hit her on the back when she gets congested, she will stop breathing. Her Father hates doing it, but he has to or Denise will die."
Clara said, "No! That can't be true."
The woman said, "I wish to God it wasn't, but it is."
Clara said, "Why don't they fix it?!"
The woman said, "I wish they could … but they can't."
A man came downstairs carrying Denise. He said, "Who’s our little visitor?"
The woman said, "I don't know. What's your name Honey?"
Clara said, "I have a lot of names."
The woman said, "What would you like us to call you?"
Clara said, "Kayla. That name needs some exercise."
The woman said, "I'm Barbara Forby. This is my husband David and my daughter Denise. Do you know your phone number?"
Clara said, "Yes."
Barbara asked, "Can I have it?"
Clara said, "I don't think so. It belongs to my parents and I can't give it away. There's a book and everything that says it's theirs."
As David chuckled, Barbara asked, "Do you want to dial the phone and talk to your Mom and Dad?"
Clara said, "I don't play with the phone. It's not a toy. Besides, I talk to Mom and Dad all the time."
Barbara said, "Don't you want your parents to come and get you?"
Clara said, "No. They're too slow. I'll go home when I'm ready."
Barbara said, "It's too cold for you to go outside again without a coat and some mittens."
Clara said, "Not for me it isn't."
Barbara said, "Would you like to play with Denise for a while?"
Clara said, "Sure! I don't have to hit her do I? If I hit her I might never be allowed to go to public school!"
Barbara said, "No. We only hit her when we have to. But if, while you're playing together, she has trouble breathing, just shout for us and we'll come running to take care of it."
Denise said, "I don't feel good … and I DON’T want to play with her. She can probably do things … and she'll make fun of me because I can’t!"
David said, "Kayla, let me apologize for Denise. She is always a little cranky after she gets her treatment. Denise, why don't you show Kayla the family room and your pet fish while your Mom and I have a talk?"
Clara said, "You have real live fish in the house? That's cool! Our fish have to stay in the pond."
David put Denise down and Clara reached out her hand. As Denise led Clara into another room, she asked, “Do you have any ducks or gooses on your pond? I like to watch them but I know better than to get too close to them!”
When they were gone, David said, "When did she show up?"
Barbara said, "Just now. She said she heard Denise crying. She wasn't crying, was she?"
David said, "Yes, unfortunately, she was. She was having a hard time of it tonight. She said she'd rather die than have me hit her anymore. I hate doing this enough when she is cooperative. I thought that when she got old enough to understand why I had to hit her that things would be different somehow. But it never gets any easier."
Barbara said, "Well, I've got a call the sheriff to see if any little girls are missing."
Clara picked up a hula hoop and made it spin around her waist. She took it off, handed it to Denise and said, "Your turn."
Denise let the hoop drop to the floor. She said, "I can't. I can't breathe if I do anything. I can only watch TV. Do you want to watch some TV?"
Clara said, "No. I get sick if I watch TV! It hurts my head."
Denise said, "If you can't watch TV all day, then what you do?"
Clara said, "I run and plow fields and dance and sing and play catch with myself."
Denise said, "How do you play catch with yourself?"
Clara said, "I throw the ball then I run fast and wait until the ball catches up. Then I catch the ball and throw it to where I'm going to run to next."
Denise said, "If I could run, I would never walk again. I would always run whenever I could. And I would climb to the top of the world and shout real loud at everybody down below that I could do anything … but I can't do … ANYTHING! I don’t even have enough air to do the shouting part if I ever could get to the top of the world anyway."
Denise looked so sad that Clara’s heart was breaking. Clara said, "Someone will fix you. Then you could do anything you want to. If you got a wish, what would you want most in the whole world?"
Denise said, "I want … I want … I want my Father to stop hitting me. Does your Father ever hit you?"
Clara said, "No, NEVER! I'm a GOOD girl!" Denise hung her head and began to cry. Clara walked over to her and took Denise in her arms. She said, "I'm sorry. You're Mom told me. Your Dad doesn't hit you because you're bad. I bet you're a real good girl! Don't cry. It'll be all better. I'll make it better. I promise. I'll pray and hope and wish and everything will be all okay."
Barbara and David came running into the room and saw Clara holding and comforting Denise. Barbara said, "Oh how cute!"
David said, "It's too bad Denise can't go to school and have friends like that. She could really use a friend like Kayla. My God, it's hot in here! What's the thermostat set at? The heating David this month will be outrageous!"
Barbara walked to the wall to look at the thermostat. She said, "It's set at 68° but the room temperature needle is off the scale."
David said, "I might have to open a window!"
Barbara said, "Kayla, Honey. Sheriff Ethan will be here soon to see if he can find your parents."
Clara kept her tight grip on Denise, but she turned to face Barbara and said, "That's silly. My parents aren't lost. And Ethan knows exactly where they live. But Mom is calling me for dinner now, so I have to go home as soon as Denise is feeling better."
Barbara said, "Denise will be fine. I'm sure the sheriff will drive you home."
Clara said, "I don't get into cars. I'll run home. It only takes 10 seconds if I dawdle around -- and I don't dawdle around when supper is on the table. I think Denise is better now … but she swallowed a bunch of snot."
Denise said, “I feel UGH!”
David said, "Are you able to breathe okay, Denise.”
Denise said, “I can breathe good but my stomach is all funny.”
David said, “If you have any trouble breathing let me know.”
Clara said, "Don't hit her anymore!"
David said, "I thought my wife explained that to you. We don't want to hit Denise. We don't like to do it. We have to do it."
Clara said, "Well, you don't have to do it any more. You don't have an excuse now. So if you hit her again I will come back again."
David said, "You're welcome to come back any time that your parents say it’s okay."
Clara said, "I'm sorry I made a mistake. I didn't think you liked hurting her because you were crying too … just like my Daddy does if I cry. I just wanted it to stop! Now it can stop because I prayed on it and everything is better now. I've got to go. My supper is getting cold. Goodbye David. Goodbye Barbara. Goodbye Denise. Maybe you can come over and see my fish someday … but you have to get under the water to see my fish because I don’t have a glass box around my pond!”
Everyone turned when there was a knock on the front door. David went to the door and opened it. He was surprised to feel a breeze from inside the house rushing outwards. Barbara and Denise came and stood at the door. Sheriff Ethan leaned down and smiled at Denise. He said, "Is this the pretty little girl you called me about? I think I know where this little girl lives. I can take her home."
David said, "No, that's my daughter Denise. Say hi to Sheriff Ethan, Denise.”
Denise came up and leaned forward. She made a slight gurgling sound and green vomit shot out of her mouth and covered Sheriff Ethan's pant leg.
Barbara said, "OH MY!" Denise turned and ran up the stairs taking two steps at the time. Marsh said, "Whoa! I've NEVER seen her move that fast before! I'm sorry Sheriff. Let me go find Kayla for you. Kayla! The sheriff is here!" Barbara wandered through her house looking for Clara, but Clara was home eating her evening meal.
Clara walked up to the reception desk at the hospital. She asked, "Who would I talk to about volunteering?"
The receptionist asked, "What kind of volunteering?"
Clara said, "I want to be a doctor. I'd like to help out however I can in the children's ward or with terminally ill patients."
The receptionist said, "We always need help, but that work is very emotionally draining. It takes someone special to be able handle it.”
Clara said, "Well, I'm different from most people. My Father tells me that I'm special."