Third place, prose: 'A Breath of Air'

By Janani Venkat Ramanan
Updated 4/30/2021 3:16 PM

Judge's comment: It's the sounds in this story that captivate the reader, beginning with wailing sirens and ending with a click. And there are sounds throughout the piece from both the past and the present: voices of teachers, friends, parents, a hospital staff. The ending leaves us wanting more conversation. I imagine teachers turning that click of the phone and the conversation that might follow into a writing assignment for their students.

The wailing sirens sound like music.


"I don't know what happened," someone says. "She was just talking with me, and she fell over." It's a voice I recognize, but I can't remember who.

"Don't worry. We'll take care of her," an unfamiliar voice says.

The sirens increase in volume, drowning out the response. Someone drags me onto a flat, hard surface. My fingers graze cool metal.

My vision blurs as they move me. I must be on some kind of stretcher. Dark spots dance in the corners of my vision as they pull my stretcher into an ambulance. Someone slams the doors, and the vehicle starts moving.

"Where -- " I try to sit up, and a stab of pain pierces through my body.

Someone shushes me and pushes me back onto the stretcher. "Relax, sweetheart. You're safe."

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I squint more. There's a nurse sitting next to me. The steady sound of the ambulance moving fills my ears. As I watch, she grabs a tube and brings it toward my arm.

Pain shoots up my arm. I must've made some sound, for she squeezes my hand.

I got vaccine shots when I was younger. My parents holding my hands, I'd wail and sob. They'd shush me and tell me I'd be OK. I'd squeeze my eyes shut.

Relax, honey. It'll be over in a second. Ready? Good! Here's a sticker since you were so brave, the doctor said.

The ambulance stops moving. Someone opens the doors. I strain to hear what they're saying.

The nurse beside me gets up. "She's struggling to breathe. We should take her to the COVID ward."

"Are her lungs filled with fluid?" someone else asks.


"Looks like it."

I open my mouth to say yes, it sure feels like it, too. When I try to talk, I end up coughing instead. Even the smallest movement sparks flames in my chest.

The nurse beside me looks at me with sympathy in her eyes. Or maybe I'm just hallucinating. They all have masks and face shields on, so it's hard to tell.

Then someone moves the stretcher, and I'm no longer in the ambulance.

They roll my stretcher through the hospital. I open my eyes as they turn my stretcher into a room. It's a small one, with only a chair on one side and a table on the other. Someone slides my stretcher into the space between them and starts grabbing wires hanging on the wall.

"You said she's from the university, right? Let's contact her parents," the person behind me says.

My parents. Tears threaten to fill my eyes, but I hold them back.

I danced in a talent show when I was seven. The lights blinded me, and I moved to the light music. I'd twirl and leap across the stage. The audience would applaud, my parents in the front row.

After, they'd say, Amazing performance, Brooke! You looked beautiful up there.

Another middle school memory floats to my mind.

And now, we present the award to Brooke for her outstanding dedication.

The crowd cheered.

I walked up to the podium and accepted the award. My parents were in the front row again.

We're so proud of you, Brooke. You earned it.

Pain in my chest drags me out of the memory.

The room is darkened. No people in sight, and someone had closed the door separating me from the rest of the hospital.

My vision spins. My lungs feel as though they're weighed down.

This wasn't supposed to happen. It shouldn't be this hard to breathe.

My mind jumps to another memory. Sitting in middle and high school gyms and listening to presentations on drugs, vaping, and everything else.

Drugs can ruin your life. Smoking can kill you, they'd say. In fact, something-such percent of people die each year because of it.

I'd cross and uncross my legs, trying to find a good position in the hard plastic chairs. Never worked, though.

My parents dropped me off at college a year ago and wished me goodbye, smiling. Pride filled their eyes.

Make us proud, Brooke.

I don't exactly remember where I was when I first picked up a vape pen. Some party, I think.

Truth or dare. Now it's coming back to me.

No, I can't, I had said.

What are you, afraid? Just one try, Brooke.

I almost want to laugh at the irony of it.

I didn't tell my parents. I don't think they know.

I cough and sputter again. "H-hello? Is anyone there?"

No answer.

I look around. The room seems even darker now. I can't hear a thing.

The darkness presses down on my lungs. I close my eyes again.

A week ago, I shouted, I need to go back. I'm a second year, and I have no idea what that looks like.

I remember my mother's exact words. Brooke, it's not safe. Just wait until this dies down.

My father said, You can still take classes from home. We'll help you. College will still be there when this is all over.

But no, I have to go. I need to live my life, too. I'd be safe, and nothing would happen, I argued.

I kept my thoughts hidden then. Even if something did happen, I'd be fine. I'm only twenty, after all.

My chest burns with each cough. I try to call someone, anyone, for a glass of water.

Still no answer. I'm not even sure words escaped my lips.

I lay back into the soft pillow. Closing my eyes, I let my vision fade into darkness.

When I wake, the light hits my eyelids like a wall of bricks. I groan and then open my eyes.

The sun streams through a window behind the chair on my left. The light hits the chair and fills the room.

Why must there be sun? I'm miserable enough.

I painstakingly turn my head so I can see the door. A nurse walks by. I try to call out.

I sniffle. Not tears, but because there's something in my nose. An oxygen mask. It covers my nose and mouth.

I exhale a little easier, but I'm certain I hear a rattle in my chest.

There's some kind of remote on the table to my right. I reach out for it and wince. The tubes strapped to my skin tug.

I lay back into my cushions and breathe through my nose. Is there any way I can call someone?

I'm truly alone now, aren't I? I want to ask.

Even after all those college parties -- one of which had happened mere days ago -- I am still alone now. No friends are here with me. I don't even think they called.

But they were wrong about all this stuff.

God, I wish someone was here.

Movement to my left catches my eye. I look back at the window.

For a second, I think I'm hallucinating again.

Two people stand on the other side of the window. I can only see their shoulders and faces, but I recognize them immediately.

My mom waves to me, and my dad peers over her shoulder.

I must be hallucinating. I blink and shake my head a few times, almost dislodging the oxygen mask.

But my parents don't disappear. The nurse beside them says something and then leaves. I squint, but I have no idea what she said.

I turn my gaze back to my parents. I can't tell if they're smiling through their masks. Still, I want to be with them. I want to float away from these tubes and wires and simply hug them again.

My mom holds up her phone and mouths something to me. As I watch, she presses a few buttons and holds it to her ear.

I fumble for my phone sitting on the table. Finally grasping the cool surface, I pick it up.

The cheerful tone of my ringtone fills the air.

For a second, I don't know if I should answer or not. What would I even say? That they were right? That I love them? How could I even say that after I didn't listen?

My finger hovers over the keypad.

But then I realize it doesn't matter. I need to hear their voices.

Taking a deep breath, I accept the call.

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