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His breath came hard. Forced, wavering. It had the pitch of reluctant air being sucked through a tiny crack in the wall, whistling, wheezing until just enough made it into his lungs. Then he stopped, shoulders and chest falling in submission, but tense, in anticipation of the next.

            His name was Jaspar and he thought he was twelve years old. He also thought he was deep underground, but his memory of the time before had faded into dreams and he wasn’t quite certain what it meant to be underground. Where he was, was simply where he was.

            His older brother Dekus was sitting with him, eyes glowing blue in the darkness, head slightly hunched in the confined space of the grotto where they slept and kept the few things they called their own. Dekus’ hands were on his shoulders, bracing them, waiting with him for the attack to pass, gifting him strength.

            It was time for the next breath. He knew it, his body knew it, but it seemed his chest and lungs and throat had forgotten what happened next. He forced his lungs to begin expanding, to draw in the musty darkness, to keep going.

            His hands were clenched hard, but trembled nonetheless. His gaze was locked on his brother’s and he struggled not to think of consequences, of what might happen if his lungs didn’t respond, if the next breath didn’t come. It felt like it might be easier to tunnel through rock than to stop a thought. The best Jaspar could do was to delay it. Concentrate on the moment, on a detail of the stone ceiling, or stare at the whorls and etchings of the pictures he had carved into the stone walls.

            When the next breath did come, recalcitrant, resentful, burning, he mentally added another day to his own scoreboard.

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