Hold Your Breath

DJ Cockburn


Perhaps it was the glare of sunlight on broken concrete. Perhaps I’d had a pint too many in the pub last night. Either way, I’d been nursing my headache rather than paying attention to the kids.

‘Rick, we’re missing one,’ said Jojo.

She hadn’t come to the pub, so one of us was paying attention.

I counted dishevelled heads. Jojo was right. We had eleven when there should have been twelve.

‘Um, yeah,’ I said.

I couldn’t look at her. Walking the kids through the derelict holiday village was a bad time to let my mind wander. The crumbling chalets, so called to add an air of continental exoticism to cheap prefabs, would fascinate a seven-year-old. Not that I’d ever found a wandering kid in any of them.

‘It’s Timmy. He’s gone.’ Jojo’s careful enunciation showed the effort it cost her not to shout in front of the kids. ‘What the hell were… I thought you were watching them.’

‘I was. I swear I didn’t… oh, never mind. I’ll get him.’

‘How are you going to do that? There must be fifty chalets in this place. He could be anywhere.’

Every camp counsellor dreads losing a kid. We have nightmares about telling parents why our backs were turned when a lurking paedophile or a stray dog made off with their only child.

Jojo wasn’t to know this was the last place she needed to worry about ‘stranger danger’, as we were supposed to call it. Nobody ever came here. I’d once seen a tourist trying to drag a whining dog between the rusted gateposts. The dog strained its lead until the tourist conceded the battle of wills and took the long way round.

Sensible dog. 

The summer camp manager had checked there was a safe path through the place and never been back. If she’d come here a couple more times, she’d redirect the day hike around the place rather than telling us to stop moaning about it.

‘I’ll find him,’ I said. ‘Five minutes.’

Jojo rolled her eyes. She was new. We hadn’t told her because she’d feel it soon enough.

‘Keep an eye on the rest of them.’ I was on my way to the ballroom before she could argue.

They all go to the ballroom.

In the 1950s, two weeks of regimented fun had been the English family’s highlight of the year. That ballroom had been the place of dreams until Majorca replaced the Isle of Wight as the holiday island of choice. Before the holiday village went bankrupt, tens of thousands of people must have sung, danced and laughed in that ballroom without feeling a single one of the icy shards sinking into the nape of my neck.

I forced one foot in front of the other because kids felt it differently. It must have been an adult who tried to burn down the ballroom. Whoever it was, I wished they’d done a better job of it.

The fire had done enough damage to bring down a wall and part of the roof, so I picked my way through the rubble.

Timmy sat cross-legged on the dance floor, surrounded by fallen tiles. Sunlight slashed his face with the shadow of a charred beam. His mouth clamped shut and his eyes bulged.

‘Hello Timmy,’ I said. ‘What are you doing?’

No seven-year-old should be able to convey as much authority as the hand Timmy held up. I waited until his mouth burst open and set him panting for breath.

When he could speak, I asked him again. ‘What are you doing, buddy?’ 

‘I’m playing a game with the nice lady,’ he said when he could speak. ‘We’re playing hold your breath for longest.’

I knew we were alone in there, but I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder. Timmy was looking at empty air.

‘There’s no lady, Timmy,’ I said.

He grinned. I was a camp counsellor. He expected me to joke around.

‘That lady. There.’ He pointed. ‘She’s flying!’

‘Oh yes, her. How come I didn’t notice? Silly me. Well, I guess she won. Let’s go before Jojo gets cross with us.’

Timmy stood up and clambered through the vines, the flying lady forgotten. I envied him. When you’re seven, what you see is what there is. You don’t worry whether what you see is what should be.

Every time I retrieved a child from the ballroom, I vowed not to look up. Every time I broke my vow. It might not have been a rope that rubbed a scar into the varnish of the crossbeam. There must be dozens of other explanations.

If only I could think of them. ∎

DJ Cockburn is a writer currently based in London, after having spent most of the last twenty years meandering around the world teaching or doing science of one sort or another. His stories have previously appeared in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction of 2014, Qualia Nous, Apex, and Interzone.

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