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a hard day for breathing (again)

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She was nine the first time she ever encountered death; a body on the side of the road, and she’d wondered, foolishly, if the lifelines on the man’s palms were now cut short, then chastised herself for thinking something so un-Christian: dishonoring the dead and momentarily believing in what her father called satanical pagan bullshit.

The only thing you can tell from a man’s hands is how hard he’s been working, he told her once, after she’d asked about the fortune teller at the harvest fair.

It settled nicely in her chest, the knowledge that there was nothing to dictate the shape and length of her life, and she’d lived peacefully with that until a particularly boring indoor recess saw her whole group palm up and tracing each other’s cracks.

“You’re going to die young,” her on-and-off best friend promised her. Quinn snatched her hands back with a snarl, sitting on them until everyone looked away.

It was only in the emptiness of the school bathroom that she dared chance a look at her palms and fully absorbed their half-hearted cracks, ending abruptly where she was sure the nails went in when Jesus was on the cross.

She’d had her hand against the car window when they passed the body that Saturday morning, curled in a fist, nails cutting into her palm where the lifeline would be if it was as long as everyone else’s. And it was the sting of her nails that brought up the thought of the dead man’s hands, the image of his lifelines disappearing almost as haunting as the angle of his body – and her mother told her to look away, but she’d already been stained.

Part of her, a good, quiet part, wanted to ask for forgiveness, but she wasn’t so sure God wanted to listen; and she knew, almost instinctually at that point, that she’d never be the type of girl to escape an eternity in hell. Not in this skin.

Still she let her mother bathe her that night with a distinct air of holiness and sadness and they almost talked about the side of the road but neither of them were those types of people.

“I feel squeaky clean,” she whispered to her mother in a towel-clad hug, both bravely and weakly.

“You are,” her mother whispered back, kissing her head. “You’re so clean you sparkle.”

And that was as close as she got to asking about death, shivering and blue-lipped in the upstairs bathroom, dripping on her mother’s pretty white blouse.

 


 

At thirteen the grandfather who never quite took to her keeled over at the dining room table and left her and her sister an adequate sum of money, planting the idea that there might be more to death than absence and decay. It wasn’t money she could touch, anyway, just something put right into her savings account for higher education, but it was still enough of a footprint for her to wonder if people might just be worth what they leave behind.

As it was her worldly possessions only amounted to the white leather bible her mother gave her for her twelfth birthday, the real gold cross from her father, a porcelain tea set, and a plethora of thoughts that could very likely send her straight to hell if she ever spoke them out loud.

Still, she might have been worth something to somebody and she wore that possibility like a secret crown around her head. Of roses or thorns she could not tell, but a crown all the same.

She looked pretty at the funeral, she knew, because four separate relatives told her so, all pinching her cheeks, and her mother stood proudly at her side and continuously smoothed out the black velvet of her dress as if it were less a mourning and more an offering of the eligibility of her lesser daughter.

“Frances is such a beauty,” people kept telling her mother, as if it needed to be said more then with Frannie preparing for college, already tied down to a dark-eyed boy with an attractive emptiness to him.

“He’s catholic,” her mother said to anyone who inquired, “but he’s so good looking we’ll have to put up with it. Can’t help your upbringing.”

Frannie just held her tongue and smiled sweetly like the angel she was, already cultivating her own essential emptiness. Quinn wanted to pin her to cork and slap her until the colour returned to her pretty, waning face but she already knew too much about the women they were supposed to be; elegant and complacent and sad enough to never have expectations.

In that sense, Frannie was already like their mother, and Quinn didn’t know if she was angry or envious.

“Soon it’ll be you,” Frannie said to her by the cloak room, holding her hands like a lit fuse.

“I think I’d rather skip that part,” Quinn said in reply, and Frannie just laughed and laughed that quiet little laugh of hers, too somber for Quinn to fully digest.

Neither of them cried when the casket was lowered into the ground, and as Quinn watched her mother dab at dry eyes, she thought maybe no one really expected them to.

 


 

The first time she ever wished her father dead, really wished it, she was nearly fifteen and old enough to understand the severity of this desire, however warranted or unwarranted it may have been.

It was something she muttered hotly under her breath with the sting of his belt still burning her backside and the sting of her new friend, a pretty, sarcastic cheerleader, having watched just about the whole thing still heating her face. He didn’t hear her, but she saw the shift in his expression as she dared to catch his eye and it almost felt like respect.

Her friend, on the other hand, refused to even look in her direction, choosing instead to tear tiny pieces of leaf off a nearby houseplant, until her father was just footsteps in his study and a distant sound of ice in a glass.

“I wish he was dead,” Quinn said again, slightly louder that time.

It was enough to garner Santana’s attention and she could only echo the sentiment with the kind of guilt Quinn had come to associate with Catholics.

They didn’t say much about it after that, but Santana did fix her with a quiet sort of steady gaze whenever she thought Quinn wasn’t paying attention, and it both stung and soothed in ways Quinn refused to let herself think about. Like the belt, she knew it would bruise. (If anyone ever saw her skin, they’d run.)

Santana didn’t act differently at school the next day, nor did she mention anything to their cheerleading team, which would have been the smart thing to do given how they were both fighting for the same position, but with each passing day of silence on Santana’s end Quinn eventually forgot to worry and their friendship stayed the same brittle facade it had always been.

If anything Quinn grew harsher, but Santana took it.

 


 

It was a white stick and a pharmacy bathroom, and she never thought suicide would call her name so sweetly.

The cashier gave her the kind of look she wanted to give herself, disgust and disappointment and aren’t you still a kid? And she knew, realistically, that she couldn’t possibly be the only one to make this purchase in this fluorescent shithole, but she just knew that she was the only one to stand at the counter with an open box and stare at the lines of her palms like they were some sort of prophecy.

There were razor blades on display just next to the register, and it was only the thought that her mother wouldn’t want to clean that mess that stopped her from buying them too.

Maybe she would have actually gone through with something if her sister hadn’t called from Arizona, the perfect, terrible grace of a woman with an empty womb, just wanting to confirm that their parents hadn’t yet murdered each other. But they’re about to murder me, Quinn almost let slip, saying instead that they seemed to be doing better.

“They’re masters of disguise, Quinn,” her sister reminded her, sounding all too tired and apologetic and relieved. “Keep me informed, okay? And you know we have the spare bedroom down here. In case things, you know.”

“I can handle it,” Quinn replied, their mantra of the past decade.

Frannie let out what sounded like a sigh and a grimace and said, “Better than I ever could. But that’s not news,” followed by an apology, followed by the sound of that empty husband of hers in the background that never failed to make Quinn tense.

She halfheartedly considered the bottle of her mother’s pills long after hanging up the phone, finally tucking them away in a dresser drawer along with pants that would soon not fit over her swelling stomach and a slew of regrets she’d come to know as the bricks of her foundation.

 


 

Death was a baby blanket that came home empty, and she couldn’t fit herself back into that skin.

No one asked, but the bruises on her stomach weren’t from clumsiness, and the scratches on her thighs not from a neighbor’s cat, and everything she prepared wasn’t required because the only eyes that sought out the proof were her own. And even then, they found nothing.

She finally understood the composition of decay, and all it took was the silence that greeted her ruins.

 


 

They pulled Karofsky down from the rafters and she hated him for it.

They said his father cried himself raw, couldn’t pick himself up from the floor, and when she heard that father and son both survived she wanted to pull the word tragedy from everyone’s mouths.

Selfish, she tried to say, but again it came out silent, and the only people who came anywhere near her only wanted her prayers.

She pictured him hanging like that for hours and hours and wondered if he ever once thought to look at his palms, to see if that was truly the color of death. Wondered if he could name all his regrets and if they could be wiped clean with the air returning to his lungs. Wondered why it got to be him, and why they all fell to their knees when they never would for her.

Selfish, she tried to say again, but the mirror had no reply.

The truth of it all, she told no one but herself, was that Karofsky was an earthquake, and she was merely rubble. He didn’t die because he could only kill, and she was already dead and just holding the bodies.

The truth of it all was that he lived and they were grateful. She couldn’t bring herself to ask why.

 


 

Her first thought was that it must be karma. Her second thought was that it was about time, and then the needle-sharp static convinced her it was penance for all her sins.

That was all she was given before cloaked with absence and the absolute hollowness was more than she could have ever hoped for.

 


 

She asked about her car, first. (Totaled.) Then the wedding. (Postponed.) Then the extent of her injuries, to which they cleared their throats and shifted their gazes and she wondered if this too was a form of death.

It hadn’t felt like her body in a long time anyway, so it didn’t really feel like mourning.

Shedding, maybe. As a child she’d poured over book after book on the monarch butterfly, enamored by the fact that it took two to three generations of butterflies to complete the migratory journey. She thought maybe it would take several Quinns to get to the endpoint, more than willing to leave her skins behind. Or maybe she’d be one of the generations to die off mid-journey, amidst the frost, not meant for anything more than another creature’s consumption.

Her mother cried in the chair by her hospital bed, but Quinn couldn’t feel anything at all.

Through all the wires it seemed like a chrysalis.

 


 

All she knew was the Quinn who entered the school in a white sundress all those years ago wasn’t the one wearing these graduation robes, and like that the ceremony felt more like a wake for all the times she’d passed away.

Santana must have felt it as well, exaggerating her smile to the point of grimacing at the enormity of it all.

“We did it,” she murmured at Quinn’s ear, and Quinn chose to think she was talking about herself and all the Quinns they’d laid to rest. She did. And her hands felt clean.

It occurred to her then that Santana had also slipped out of several of her selves over the years, cast aside for pride and truth and forgiveness, no more missed than the bruises of childhood knees. And Rachel too, she realized, glancing across the stage, chest tightening with the noise of the auditorium.

And beautiful, cheering Brittany, waving her fan at the both of them.

And Puck.

And Finn.

And her mother.

And her sister.

“Look at us,” she barely managed to choke out to Santana, who seemed to be just as overwhelmed by it all. “God, look at us. Look at how much we’ve done.”

Look at all we’ve lost, she could have said. Look at all they’d gained. But that wasn’t enough to fully explain it, not when they were standing in this room with their eyes shining and roads stretching longer ahead of them each time they dared to look. Just look at what it is.

Santana took her hand in an unguarded attempt to steady herself and Quinn could feel the lifeline lengthening hers, warmer and more solid than Quinn had ever felt before.

She thought of her mother and she thought of her sister and she thought of her daughter, her biggest wound that would never heal, that she didn’t even know if it should heal, and wanted to tell them all that she was walking through the flames.

She had lost all her skin, but she hadn’t yet lost.