Read an Excerpt of Breathless by Jennifer Niven

From Jennifer Niven, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of All the Bright Places, comes a compulsively readable novel about a young woman determined to write her own story—sex, heartbreak, family dramas, and all. Read an excerpt now....

DAY 5

The next morning, I am up earlier than usual. After my mom leaves for the museum, I do my best to style my hair so it’s more Jean Se-berg than Christmas elf, and I paint my lips red. Outside, the day is blindingly bright, a few puffs of clouds hugging the horizon. I wander the sandy roads, the ruins, and then the beach, but there is no sign of Jeremiah Crew. I spend the day swimming and sunning myself and reading my book, and trying not to be disappointed.

After changing for dinner, I tell my mom how pretty she looks and walk with her to the inn. She glances down at our linked arms and raises an eyebrow, and then she tells me about Blackbeard Point, at the northeast tip of the island, where the notorious pirate Edward Teach— better known as Blackbeard— supposedly buried his treasure. I listen and ask questions, and as we climb the steps to the broad front porch, she says, “Thank you,” and gives my arm a squeeze.

“For what?”

“You know what. Thank you for trying.”

I bend down and pull a cactus spur off my shoe, hating that she feels the need to call attention to it because this is how self- absorbed I’ve been. “You’re welcome,” I mumble to the wood of the porch.

During cocktails, when she gets into a discussion with the Nashville photographer, I excuse myself and wander into the li­brary, where I find an old volume on loggerhead turtles. I sit read­ing till dinner, doing my best to concentrate on the words rather than the memory of Miah’s lips on mine as we stood on the beach two nights ago. This is what I learn:

  • The largest turtles can weigh as much as 375 pounds.
  • Every two to three years, they return to nest on the same beaches where they were born.
  • Just one in four thousand baby turtles will live to adulthood.
  • Turtles are air breathers, although they can stay underwater for hours. But too often they become entangled in fishing nets, and when they struggle to break free, they can quickly use up their oxygen and lose the fight.
  • There is something called a false crawl, when a turtle comes ashore to nest but for whatever reason doesn’t lay her eggs before returning to the sea.
  • A turtle produces numerous offspring, which she leaves alone to fend for themselves—unlike, say, a horse, which has only a single foal and stays around to protect it until it’s grown and ready to be on its own or until she is pregnant again. But it’s turtles—not horses—that have been around since the days of dinosaurs.

So clearly there’s something in having to fend for yourself. Like me, I think. And in some strange way this gives me hope.

After the meal, Mom and I sit on the porch. I lean back in my chair and stare at the moon, my eyes heavy.

“You’ve gone quiet since we’ve been here.” And at first I think she means since we’ve been here on this porch, but no, she means here on this island.

“So have you.”

She leans forward, crossing her legs, one foot swinging. “So I’ll tell you something and you tell me something.”

“You go first.”

“Okay.” She takes a breath. Lets it out. “You know, I didn’t expect there to be much firsthand material from Aunt Claudine, but she actually left a journal and boxes of letters. As far as I can see, she documented everything. It’s her mother who seems to be the enigma.”

“What do you mean?”

“So far I haven’t found a single thing from Tillie Blackwood. No diary, no letters, not even a grocery list. But there’s a lot of other material from other Blackwoods. I mean a lot. And I’m thinking there’s a book here. Claudine. Her mother. All the women who’ve lived and loved and died on this island.”

“Is it a historical novel or nonfiction? Do you know what the story is?”

“Not yet. But I’ll find it. After all, the writing can save you. And I could use some saving right now.” Her voice is bright and strong, the voice of Wonder Mom, but something wavers in her eyes. She’s said this for years—how, when life is upside down, the writing can save you.

“You’ll find it,” I echo, and that’s so much of what I do with her these days—echo things she says because it’s easier than saying how I really feel.

She asks, “How’s your own writing? Are you working on any­thing?”

“Not really.” I’ve written a few things down about Tillie and Clau­dine, but they’re just interesting stories, things I want to remember.

“Okay.” She shifts a little. “What else can I tell you?” She thinks this over. “The photographer asked me to join him for a drink.”

“The one you were talking to?”

“That one.”

Asshole. “What did you say?”

“Thank you, but no thank you. It’s way too soon. I’m not ready. I may never be ready. But it was lovely to be asked.”

There are moments, and this is one of them, when I can actu­ally see her heartache. She carries it not just in her heart but in her arms and on her shoulders and in her face. I think about Tillie’s husband burying her in the front yard and cutting off a lock of her hair and wonder if my parents ever loved each other like that or thought they did. Why do some love stories have a shelf life and others last forever? And suddenly I feel bad for being just an echo and talking to my mom from behind the wall in my chest.

She says, “Now you. Tell me something I don’t know.”

I try to push away the image of my mom with the photogra­pher, this strange younger man who is not my dad. I want to ask if she and my dad are talking. If they’re trying to work on their mar­riage or if this is it, the way it will be from now on.

But instead I say, “I’m not sure Saz and I will be friends forever. I always thought we would be, but we’re moving away from each other. I can feel it. It’s not just me coming here. She’s moving on too.”

“You’re having a season,” Mom says. “Moving on can suck, but it’s normal. Growing pains. When you get through this, you’ll find each other again, stronger than ever. And if you’re worried about it, let her know you miss her.”

I can feel what she’s not saying: Like I miss you.

At some point I feel a bump on my arm and Jared is standing over me. He hands me a note. My first thought is, Why is Jared writing me a note? But then he gives me the biggest grin and a wink so obvious you can see it from Mars.

“Thanks,” I tell him.

“Oh, you’re welcome.” He goes grinning away. I turn the note over in my hand.

“Who’s that from?” Mom says, her voice sleepy from the food and the day.

“I don’t know.” But I do know. I hope I know.

Meet me outside your house at 10:30 p.m.

“Is there a boy?”

Yes, I think.

“Maybe,” I say.

DAY 5

(PART TWO)

The truck bumps down the lane and around past the inn, and once we’re under the sprawling oaks, he switches off the headlights and keeps driving.

I reach for my seat belt.

“When you get in the truck and don’t go for your seat belt, Captain, that’s when you know you’re an islander.”

“Maybe I don’t want to be an islander.” But I let the seat belt go. “You could turn the lights back on so we don’t go crashing to our deaths.”

“The first summer I was here, Shirley wouldn’t let me have a flashlight. She told me I could see in the dark. I just had to have patience and let my eyes adjust. Think you can do that, Captain? Have patience?” He glances at me, giving me this half smile that tells me he’s not just talking about seeing in the dark.

My stomach flips. The butterflies stir. I half smile back at him. “Maybe.”

The air sparks around us. Like that, we vanish into the island. Anyone watching us would think we were ghosts. Now we’re here; now we’re gone. At first I can barely make out the white of the road. It appears in front of us a foot at a time. The trees are walls of black on either side, and I want to tell him to turn on the lights before we run over something or someone. I think, I don’t care what Shirley says. My eyes will never adjust.

But gradually the road grows a little whiter, the trees a little more three-dimensional. Pinpricks of light flash across the path and in the forest.

“Lightning bugs,” he says.

And suddenly our way is lit by them. They are in the trees and on the path and in the canopy. Little blinking stars brightening the way for us. I catch my breath. I know in my bones that this is one of those deathbed moments, one I will always remember. I look down at his hand, broad and tanned, over the steering wheel, at his bare foot on the gas pedal.

It’s a wild ride through the darkness, the fireflies twinkling like fairy lanterns. I try to hold on to the moment because I don’t want it to end. I want to spend forever driving through the night with Jeremiah Crew.

I don’t have any idea if we’re heading north or south, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to know. I close my eyes and feel the warm breeze on my face and arms. I want to throw my arms up into the air like I’m on a roller coaster because this is how free I feel. Instead I hang an arm out the window, as if I can catch the night, which is humming and twinkling and whooshing by, and we are part of it.

And then we are slowing a little and I open my eyes. Miah pulls to a stop and we get out, doors banging shut one after the other, a sound that seems to carry for miles. As he rummages for some­thing in the truck bed, I wait, completely here on this road, the trees behind me, the beach in front of me. Whatever happens, I’m here right now. There is a glow in the sky behind the dunes that must be the moon.

Miah comes around to where I’m standing, with a backpack and a blanket, as if he’s planning to be gone a long time. I try not to concentrate on the blanket and the image I have of Miah laying me down on it. Then I look at him more closely and he’s wearing these super-short shorts, the kind my mom and dad wore in gym class back in the 1980s.

“What in the world?”

He shines his flashlight on them and now I can see they’re a dark camouflage green. “Official shorts of the US Army Rangers. Military grade. Basically, only badasses wear them.”

“And you.” I smile.

“Including me.” He smiles. “My work shorts. Better to climb trees with. Better to clear trails with, especially in this heat. Easier to pull off when skinny-dipping.” And then he drops his eyes and lets them linger on my mouth, which causes my heart to do an extra thump-thump. His eyes meet mine again. “Let’s go.”

Yes, let’s go. Let’s go right now. Let’s go back inside this truck so you can kiss me all over my body or let’s go to the beach and lay that blanket down on the sand. . . . But now he’s walking, and what do you know, the shorts are starting to grow on me.

We pick our way across the dunes in darkness. When we come to a pool of water that floods our path, reaching up into the long grass on either side, Miah says, “Just a little water left over from the storm. Jump on.” He turns around.

“What?”

“Come on, Captain. Jump on.”

“I’ll break your back.”

“No you won’t.”

So I hitch up my dress to mid-thigh and climb on. We almost tip over because one of my legs is flailing around and the other is hanging on to him, and I’m practically strangling him with my left arm while the right one is grabbing at the air. I send up a

silent prayer: Please don’t let me break his back. Please don’t let him wonder what the hell I’ve been eating to make me weigh this much.

I’m finally secure, and he’s got his arms hooked under my legs. And he’s wading right through the water, which barely brushes my toes. I lean into him. Too soon we come out onto a great, wide expanse of beach.

He throws down the bundle he’s been carrying and I pull off my shoes. He does a handstand while he waits. Hangs out for a couple of seconds, legs in the air. And then he’s right side up again and we start walking.

I wait for him to take my hand. To kiss me. To try to get it on with me right here under this moon on the blanket he brought.

Instead he says, “Want to walk?”

“Yes.”

So we do. The waves catch us sometimes and the water is warm. There is no one awake but us, and we are the only ones in all the world. Jeremiah Crew and Claude Henry. Just the two of us. We bump into each other, arms brushing, close together, but we don’t hold hands.

After a while he says, “We don’t have to talk about your par­ents, but if you need to, this is a good place to do it. I’ve had a lot of conversations with myself at night on this beach.”

And, like that, I can feel it all wanting to flood out—the same things I’ve already told him and more. But I also want to preserve this night, protect it from anything sad or painful, which is why I tell him about my parents Before, how they never fought, how they always got along. How it was always the three of us, all of my life, which is why I never noticed the plumes of smoke or the earth tremors.

He says, “People can be really good at only showing us what they want us to see.”

“I think I’m learning that the hard way.”

Then he tells me about his mom, who has to go to bed for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, and about the way he’s had to take care of her for the past five years and raise his four sisters. When he talks about his mother, I can hear the heaviness in his voice—burden, love, responsibility, resentment, protectiveness. All these things weighing it down. And then he tells me about his sisters, one by one, and his voice goes light as a balloon floating up into the sky. I learn that Kenzie and Lila love to read. That Kenzie is already winning awards for her photography, and Lila has seen Harry Styles in concert three times. I learn that, at twelve, Ally already has a serious boyfriend, and Channy, the youngest, is the star of her soccer team. I ask him about his brother, and he tells me he served two tours in Afghanistan.

“That’s enough about me,” he says. “You know, for now. There’s, of course, so much more you’ll want to know, but I prom­ise it’s worth the wait.”

I roll my eyes.

He laughs. “So tell me about your friends back home.”

I tell him about Saz and Yvonne and our nightmare phone call. When I’m finished, he says, “It sounds like Saz is on her own is­land right now. You just have to give her time.”

This is so similar to what my mom said that it catches me off guard.

“What?” he says.

“Nothing. That just sounded pretty wise.”

“Because I am.” He runs a hand through his hair and I stare at the anchor on his wrist.

“What’s up with the tattoos?”

“This one”— he holds up the anchor— “ is to remind me where I come from. The compass on my shoulder reminds me that I’ll always find my way. And this one here . . .” He turns his other wrist over. Joy. “Because it’s what I’m looking for.”

Not a girl after all.

I say, “My mom is joyful. She makes things brighter just by being her. My dad hasn’t always gotten that. He can be funny and fun, but also moody.”

“Some people just aren’t built that way. My mom, for one. Or maybe they are but something gets in the way. Like depression or loss. I work hard for joy, if that makes sense. Because I’m built for it but not built for it.” He rubs at the tattoo.

“With my dad it’s more than that. It’s like sometimes he, I don’t know, almost doesn’t want to let himself be happy. It’s hard to explain.”

And even though I’ve always known that my mom and I are a lot alike, this is something I can see more and more, the farther I get from Ohio— Claudine and Lauren, Lauren and Claudine, the Llewelyn women. My dad, more like a guest star, making an appearance now and then.

Miah goes, “I don’t know the guy, but I kind of feel sorry for him.”

“You shouldn’t. It’s his choice, right? Not just ending their marriage but kind of, I don’t know, removing himself when we were still there.”

“Yeah, but he’s missing out. He’s missing out on you.”

“I don’t think he feels that way.”

We walk, not talking, his arm brushing mine again, my arm brushing his, and my heart flutters under the moon. Suddenly I’m sorry I said anything about my dad. I don’t want him on this beach with us.

I change the subject. “Where do you think you’ll end up?”

“In the world?”

“Yeah.”

“Like, ultimately?”

“Sure.”

“Well, the odds say prison or rehab. But I don’t know. For now, here’s where I’m supposed to be. Shirley says the island has this way of giving you what you need.”

“All it’s given me is a bad haircut and bug bites that look like leprosy.” And this night, and maybe you.

“Maybe that’s exactly what you need.” He bumps my arm with his and I bump his back.

“What about the end of summer? Where are you going in four weeks?”

“To join the CIA.” He grins down at me. “What about you?”

“Ever since I was little, I always knew I wanted to go to California. It was so big and so far away and seemed full of, well, promise. Saz and I planned to go there together and be writers. But I decided to go to Columbia and she’s going to Northwestern.”

“Doesn’t mean it can’t happen someday. And it doesn’t mean you can’t go there on your own. I don’t see the future as this road that’s all laid out neat and organized: school, work, relationship. I think the future’s kind of like the ocean— more, I don’t know, fluid.”

“Wow. That’s pretty deep.”

“Is it making you want me?”

“Not really.”

“Just wait. I tend to have a delayed effect on women. It’s part of my charm.” We turn around and start walking back the way we came, every single inch of me focused on this beach, the water washing over my feet, the night air, the moon, this boy.

Next to me Miah pulls off his shirt. “This spot right here. This is the one.” And then he’s pulling off the army shorts, and his clothes are lying on the beach, and he’s fully naked. He walks away from me, straight into the ocean.

I stand there realizing I have a choice. I can sit down here on the sand and wait. Or I can take off my dress and go in. It feels like a pivotal moment in my life. Stop thinking so much, Claudine.

I wait till his head disappears under the water and pull off my dress. I drop it on top of his clothes, and now I’m in panties, no bra. I leave my bottoms on, cover up my chest with my hands, and half skip, half walk to the water before I can change my mind. I wade in until I’m up to my waist and then crouch down so that the ocean covers me.

Miah is a dark shadow in the distance, diving in and out of the waves like a dolphin. I crouch- walk a little farther and then remember Danny and the rip current and the fact that this is apparently a breeding ground for sharks. I stop and wait, heart pounding louder than the surf. A minute or two later Miah swims toward me. I crouch lower, trying to gather the water over me and around me. He comes up for air two feet away. In the light of the moon, he is glowing.

“See?” He grins. “Delayed effect.”

We tread water, eyes locked. For some reason, it feels momentous.

He says, “Jesus, you’re beautiful.” And kisses me.

And then he’s under the water again, and I swim after him until my feet can barely touch the bottom. The water is warm and gentle. The surface of it catches and holds the moon.

I think about the future being fluid like this ocean, and then I imagine myself part dolphin, part mermaid. I swim to Miah and wrap my legs around him, and even though I’m not naked, he is, and somehow this feels like the closest I’ve ever been to a boy. His arms are around me and we bob and float like this, my cheek to his, my chest to his, my heart to his, for a long time.

He walks naked all the way back to the pile we’ve left in the sand, and I can’t help but sneak peeks at him, lean and gold, wet skin glimmering in the moonlight. When we reach our things, I pull my dress back on, and it sticks to me like seaweed. He grabs a towel and offers it to me, and then grabs one for himself. And that’s when I let myself really look at him—all of him. And it’s very, very clear that our time together in the water has affected him.

So now I’m trying to look everywhere but at him.

“What’s going on, Captain?”

“Nothing. The moon is just so beautiful.”

He laughs and finally he pulls on his shorts. We sit down on the blanket he’s brought and drink the sodas he’s brought, and I don’t want the night to end. I think, I could stay here. I could live right here. And then for some reason I’m thinking about the Claude I was before this summer, the girl who didn’t know that people go away and love can change its mind. This is how I feel in this mo­ment on this beach under the moon with this boy—like me again.

We sit side by side, arms touching, and we don’t say a word. We watch the water and wait. The waves are rolling in and out, and in the dark, in the black of the night, they sound ominous, like thunder. I shiver, and without a word he hands me his shirt. I pull it on, even though the night is so warm that my skin is damp from the air, not just the water, and my hair is sticking to my forehead.

We sit there for maybe an hour or longer. I lose track of time, and I like the fact that it could be midnight or it could be two a.m. Time doesn’t really matter here, no matter what my mom says.

We sit like this, both of us staring out at the ocean. My arms wrapped around my knees, his propping him up as he leans back, long legs stretched out in front of him. I’m filled with this feeling of apart but together. We are the only two people in the world sitting here in this spot on this island waiting for the turtles to emerge from the sea.

At some point, I think I see one down along the beach. I lean forward, and I know he sees it too because he sits up. Together we hold our collective breath, but it turns out to be some other sort of creature, a raccoon, maybe, something low to the ground that scuttles along out of sight. Miah settles in and we wait and watch some more. I’m aware of everything, my body on alert, my skin at attention. The night air, the soft but scratchy feel of his shirt on my skin, the way the shirt envelops me and smells like him. The sand under my legs, the sand surrounding my feet as I bury them in the beach. The smell of salt water and the sound of the waves reaching for us, pulling back, reaching for us, pulling back. The bright of the moon and the stars and the fact that there are more of them here than I’ve ever seen, even in Ohio farm country. I am memorizing all of it, taking it into me, where I will keep it forever and be able to bring it out again someday, long from now, when I am far, far away from this island. That summer boy, what was his name? I might not remember, but I won’t ever forget waiting with him on the sand for the turtles to come.

Suddenly, he stands and extends a hand. And I don’t want to go, but I let him pull me up because it had to happen sometime. I follow him around the dunes and down the path, away from the beach. I want to go back and sit there till dawn, not talking, not touching, but together.

At the tree line, he turns and looks at me, traces the line of my jaw and chin with a single finger. It happens swiftly. His mouth is on mine, and he’s pulling me in or maybe I’m pulling him in. Whichever way it happens, we kiss and kiss. When we finally break apart, he says, “Wow.” Just like before, only not like before.

“Wow,” I repeat.

“Wow,” he says again.

 

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