"Breathe" - Abby Burns

It was a curious thing to her. Power. She would think about it late at night while she was lying in bed, her thoughts seizing control, keeping her captive for a few hours before she finally fell asleep. It only made sense to her when she thought about it like breathing. In, out.

Until that first moment when you start to think about that steady rise and fall, that slight flare of the nostrils, that final puff of air, you’re completely safe. You’ll never stop breathing. The impulse to fill the lungs will never cease. After all, it’s in your nature to keep going. But the second you acknowledge the unconscious action, your brain goes into overdrive to the point where you truly believe that if you stop ordering your body to take in more air, to let it out, you will cease to breathe altogether. In that moment, you clutch so tightly to the control of your own system that you forget that your body has repeated the action for ages without your conscious consent. That you maintain the best control when you’re not trying to force it.

Slowly, you begin to fall into this never-ending void as you attempt to kick-start your lungs into performing without supervision again, only to find that you can’t stop thinking about the in and the out. Maybe you try to direct your mind elsewhere, but then it always shifts back. Maybe you make your mind go completely blank, but then you find you’ve stopped breathing altogether. Now, you’re really screwed because not only are you thinking about breathing, you’re also thinking about thinking. You’re spiraling out of control and every attempt you make to get yourself back on your feet just pulls you further down. In your panic and disbelief that something so simple has you so distraught, you wonder if you’re going to spend the rest of your life thinking about trying not to think about breathing.

You picture it.

Waking up in the morning and adding a layer of “in, out” to everything you do. Making pancakes? Splat. In. Flip. Out. Press. In. Take. Out. Driving the car? Swerve. In. Turn. Out. Honk. In. Speed. Out. Listening to your husband? In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. The idea of it doesn’t appeal to you. But slowly you begin to calm down and at some point you realize that somewhere along the line in your thoughts about thinking about breathing, you’ve stopped actually thinking about breathing. Quickly, you try to focus on something completely random because you know that that realization alone can yank you back into the world of strained control. A few minutes later, you fall asleep.

In the morning, you make pancakes while thinking about all the papers you haven’t graded yet; you drive your car while thinking about the bills you still have to pay; you don’t listen to your husband while thinking about why your relationship has hit such a rough spot. Meanwhile, your body keeps you alive without a hint of gratitude from you at how much easier your life is that you can breathe without thinking about breathing.

Power is the same way. You’re only in complete control of it when you’re not thinking about the fact that you possess it. Standing at the front of the classroom and looking around at the endless array of disinterested sixteen-year-olds whose lack of passion and drive for anything other than video games and sex makes their faces and names blend together after five years, ten years, twenty years, you find yourself constantly clawing at your power as their teacher. Trying to mold it into how you always pictured teaching would be. Simple, inspiring, fulfilling.

But it never works like that. Each year is the same as the last. Filled with chicken-scratch papers about how the Scarlet Letter is a symbol for, I don’t know, misogyny? You try valiantly to make them see the beauty of literature—the way it can open up worlds that nothing else in this universe can hope to reach. The way it can immerse you in the life of an eighteenth century slave or a twenty-third century tech-head. The way it can show you that no matter whose mind you’re in, whose life you’re living, all of our stories have a beginning and a middle and an end. We all have an end.

But if anyone can resist an authority figure’s struggle to maintain power, it’s a teenager. With every poor grade you give, every increasingly strict rule you implement, every pop-quiz you add to the syllabus, they sell a bit more of their own enthusiasm to the point where the bell rings and you find yourself looking out at a set of corpses until the end of the day when its final ringing brings them back to life. Zombies leaving for a night of not reading Moby Dick.

Power flees from you until you stop chasing it. When you finally let go, it turns around and subtly takes up residence with you again. Unlike breathing though, power’s an impossible thing to let go of. Even the idea of it makes you shake with the vulnerability of being helpless to control your own life. So you grip tighter. Chase faster. Think more. Until the search for it completely dominates your life and you lose your job, your car, your husband. Now when you eat cold, generic cereal, you mope in constant regret; when you take the bus, you obsess over every choice you could’ve made differently; when you sit alone in your shitty apartment, you yearn for the comfort of unquestioned companionship.

You’re alone, stewing in your own bitterness when your power finally returns only now there’s only one thing you can do with it.

She breathes in. The fumes of ammonia and bleach filling the air. And she starts to think about the act of breathing. Her final thought isn’t profound. It isn’t passionate or memorable or inspiring. It simply is…


Abby Burns has been writing since she received her first notebook for Christmas at age six. Over the years, she has collected and filled hundreds of notebooks, all of which currently reside in her mom's basement as she plots the best way to use them as blackmail against Abby. She has no idea how long she has before she dies of embarrassment as her mother pulls out the notorious middle school stories, therefore she finds herself in a position where she must live as though she will die tomorrow, cursing a life ended too soon and praising god that she will never have to pay back her student loans.