Breathe Out Slow
A.D. Lawless © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Ryan woke up and his eyelids were heavy, dark. There was light on the other side, but he couldn’t force them open. It was so much work and if he did…if he opened his eyes then it was real. There was nothing he wanted more than for all of this to be some kinda sick nightmare that was caught in a loop, like if he just smacked the side of his life hard enough, it’d stop skipping.
“Ry, honey, I know you’re awake. You need to open your eyes for me, okay? I just…” Her voice cracked, and he knew his mom was crying. She gently brushed his bangs away from his forehead with her fingertips. “I just need to see those green eyes. Please? I need to know you’re okay.”
Ryan’s breath caught painfully in his throat. It hurt so damn bad to hear his mom cry, but it’d hurt worse if he knew it was real. If…if he opened his eyes, then Chris was gone. And Chris was everything. How was Ryan supposed to face that?
Tears leaked from the corners of his closed eyes, and his mom squeezed his hand.
“All right. Okay, sweetheart,” she choked out. “We’ll try again later.”
Not a single sound passed his lips, but inside he was screaming a litany of no, over and over and over.
Flashes of last weekend burst bright behind his eyelids and he wanted to push them away, wanted to ignore them, but he couldn’t. He deserved the pain they brought with them.
The party on Friday night had been loud—bass-heavy music and the sound of drunken laughter permeated the air. The beer in Ryan’s hand was his fourth, and it was mostly gone. He shoved his hair away from his overheated face, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth as he listened to his friend, Josh, talk about the girl he’d had a crush on for most of their senior year. It was funny how Josh could look as good as he did and still be a nervous wreck when it came to interacting with girls.
Ryan thought he was lucky he’d never had to go through that. Chris had always been meant for him, and he’d always been meant for Chris. Even if no one else knew. Chris’s mom was extremely religious, and he’d always been terrified she’d find out. Too scared of losing Chris, Ryan had never made an issue of it. Besides, soon they’d be away at college and they wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.
Not being able to say they were together had its downsides; people often questioned why Chris didn’t date. It was hard not to wonder when half the student population was in love with him at any given time, and it didn’t help that he flirted like he breathed—mostly unconsciously. Ryan tried not to let it bother him. Charismatic and friendly with a wide smile and an infectious laugh, Chris drew people to him in a way Ryan often envied. Getting along with people was so easy for him, the complete opposite of Ryan’s general dislike for other human beings, especially before he’d been sufficiently caffeinated.
Josh and Chris were pretty much the only exceptions to his social apathy, or at least, they put up with his shit the best, and for unknown reasons, they actually liked to be around his cranky ass. Not that they didn’t hang out with other people, but all three of them had been best friends since daycare.
Thick and thin and ups and downs, they’d gone through it all together. Which was why Josh’d known almost instantly when Chris and Ryan’s relationship had shifted into something deeper.
“Hey, by the way, where’d Chris wander off to?” Josh asked suddenly, blue eyes drunk-bright with a slight squint. His head tilted a little curiously as his light brown hair fell over one eye. “Been like fifteen minutes. How long’s it take to hit the can? Think he fell in? His drunk ass totally fell in.”
Josh chuckled loud at himself in order to be heard over the music. Ryan grinned and rolled his eyes. “He probably got sidetracked by Lexie’s cats. You know his cat-person persona only shows up when he’s sloppy drunk. Total dog-person the rest of the time. Who even knew alcohol could change your pet preferences?”
A wide grin flashed across Josh’s lips. “I mean, there’s a lotta things drunk-me would do that sober-me’d say ‘What the fuck man?’ over so I got no room to judge.”
“Drunk-you is just sober-you with even less of a filter,” Ryan said as he scanned the living room for some sign of Chris. Seriously, what the fuck is taking him so long?
“I have a filter?” Josh asked, lifting his brows with great exaggeration. “I should really work harder on saying whatever the fuck’s on my mind.” His eyes narrowed. “Like right fucking now, for instance. You’re not even listening to me, asshole, just go find your—um, best friend.”
Josh looked at him apologetically for his almost slip-up. He was usually so good about it, and Ryan felt a twinge of guilt that Josh needed to keep such a big secret for them.
Ryan smirked, and Josh’s shoulders relaxed. “Fine, but if he fell in, he’s your best friend for the rest of the night.”
Laughing, Josh waved Ryan’s comment off. “Whatever, Nash. Like you wouldn’t walk his ass home.”
Slight dizziness made Ryan’s head swim when he pushed off from where he was leaned against the wall and he realized maybe he was a little tipsier than he thought. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fucking prince charming.”
Josh’s laughter followed him as Ryan wandered across the room, dropping his beer can off on a table he passed, weaving his way through bodies packed tight in the small space. Jesus, is everyone we graduated with here?
The staircase was barely better, but at least he didn’t have to touch anyone as he walked up the steps. His skin was crawling with too many people around him, and anxiety ate through a bit of his buzz.
At the top of the stairs, people dotted the hallway, and the bathroom door was shut. Just in case, Ryan turned the handle and opened the door to check inside.
Wrapped all around Chris, her hands tangled up in the back of his hair and her lips on his, was Allie from their English class. Shock and confusion stabbed into Ryan’s chest at breakneck speed and his stomach turned revoltingly. He blinked hard because he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Chris wouldn’t—why would he…?
They broke apart, and Ryan realized he must’ve made some kind of startled noise, because Allie was grinning smugly at him and Chris looked guilty, upset.
Abruptly, Chris pushed Allie back a few steps and walked toward Ryan with his arms outstretched, palms facing out as if he was approaching a spooked animal. He was almost within touching distance when Ryan finally focused enough through his shock to notice Chris was saying something.
Ryan shook his head, eyes wide and wet as he backed away. His pulse pounded in his ears, and he just couldn’t. Betrayal and anguish tangled up hotly in his chest as he kept backing away, his throat aching, thoughts racing.
With no memory of having turned around and leaving, Ryan found himself outside, cool summer night air against his burning face, and all he could think was why. Why would Chris do that? What did I do to deserve that?
His heart was tearing agonizingly apart and all he could do was put one clumsy foot in front of the other. He didn’t want to break down right then. He just—he needed to get home. He needed to think, and his mind was too fuzzy with alcohol to make sense of this.
The person he trusted most in the whole world—the person he loved with every single part of him—had cheated on him. It wasn’t fair, and it hurt, and Ryan’s chest constricted as he struggled to breathe properly. His mind wouldn’t stop replaying the way Allie’d been all over Chris.
No one…no one except Ryan had kissed Chris before. Or he’d thought he was the only one. That Chris would’ve mentioned anyone else. Maybe Ryan didn’t know him as intimately as he’d thought. Not if…if he was making out with Allie at a fucking party where his boyfriend was just downstairs. Who the hell knew what else Chris had lied about. Did he even love him? Did he even care about him? Bile burned the back of Ryan’s throat and he choked down a sob. If he started crying now, he wouldn’t stop, and he hated that he felt so weak because of it.
And the part that sucked the most was that Ryan still loved Chris. Furious and utterly gutted and he still ached for those strong arms to wrap around him and tell him everything was okay. That was—so, so, fucked up, wasn’t it? God, what was wrong with him?
A hand wrapped around his bicep and spun him backward. Face to face with Chris, his brown eyes shadowed in the dark and so achingly sad.
Yanking his arm out of Chris’s grasp, all that betrayal and anger and hurt that’d been simmering in Ryan’s gut boiled over, “Don’t! Don’t touch me.”
Surprise and anguish flickered across Chris’s features, and irrationally, Ryan had the impulse to make it better, because that hurt too. But he couldn’t, wouldn’t let himself. There was no excuse for what Chris did and no matter what he wanted to say, Ryan wouldn’t listen to empty words and apologies.
“Ry, I’m so sorry you saw that. It’s not what you—”
Ryan shook his head again and voice thick with pain, cut him off. “I need to go home. I—Chris I can’t right now.”
Chris nodded frantically, eyes desperate. “Okay, I’ll come with you. We can talk at your place, okay?”
“I’m going alone. I don’t think I can—I need to be alone,” Ryan whispered roughly, defeated.
Pleading, Chris stepped closer to him and tried again, “I just—Ryan if you just listen, I can explain—”
Ryan’s eyes widened and then narrowed down into angry slits of emotion. “Yeah, sure! I’m sure you know exactly how to rationalize it. Probably thought up all kinds of reasons. I can’t believe you’d do this to me.” Misery and disbelief leaked into his voice, thick like molasses.
He should’ve stopped there. He should’ve just listened to what Chris had to say or told him to go home—anything but what came out next. He couldn’t though; righteous indignation burned way too hotly in his stomach and words he didn’t really mean came out instead, “Just…go back to the party, Chris. Get drunk and make out with whoever the hell you want. I don’t fucking care what you do. I’m done. Just—God, just leave me the fuck alone!”
Chris recoiled like he’d been slapped and then anger replaced the grief on his face. “Fine, you know what? Fuck this. You wanna leave? Then go.”
Tears stung at the corners of Ryan’s eyes and he scrubbed a hand beneath his eyes to wipe them away as his lips trembled. Chris blinked and the outrage on his face melted away as he stepped closer again, but Ryan moved back.
“No, don’t.” His world was breaking apart bit by bit. Crumbling into a messy, bloody heap around his feet. His chest was hollow and heavy, and he had to go. Despair made his voice weak as he walked away and said, “I need space. Just go back to the party.”
Somehow, Ryan made it home that night. The twenty-minute walk took twice as long, thanks to the fact he’d been staggering drunkenly under the crushing weight of Chris’s unfaithfulness. He’d known Chris was bi, known how much easier his life would be if he’d fallen in love with a girl instead of him, and oh, look—he fucking might’ve.
No, that wasn’t fair, Ryan couldn’t believe it. Chris wasn’t that kind of person. Under his covers, curled up on his side in his bed, he could hardly believe what he’d seen with his own eyes, let alone that it was more than that. Whatever had happened with Allie it wasn’t that. It can’t be, right? He wouldn’t do that to me. Would he?
All he wanted was for his thoughts to shut the hell up. He wanted to stop thinking about it. He didn’t have any extra insight, and asking himself repeatedly wasn’t going to produce magical answers. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t turn his mind off. His thoughts churned and his throat scratched as tears he’d held back finally spilled over his cheeks in salty, humiliating streams.
And he’d thought…that night he’d thought it was the worst thing he’d ever felt. Nothing could’ve hurt worse than that.
He’d been wrong.
A repetitive vibration had woken him from his restless exhausted sleep and sirens that couldn’t be all that far away were wailing noisily. It would forever be burned into his memory—3:24 a.m. He saw it on his eyelids whenever he closed them after that. Because 3:24 a.m. was the exact time his life ended.
The details of the phone call were stuck in his brain too—Chris’s mom’s voice, shocked and furious, but he tried not to think about it. Little snippets crept through anyway; Chris had gotten even drunker. He’d left the party. Told people he needed to talk to Ryan. Gotten in his car, stupid, why the fuck did he do something so fucking stupid? Crashed it into a telephone pole just a few blocks from Ryan’s. And then her voice broke and she told him—she said… Chris died on the scene. It was all Ryan’s fault.
And she was right. She was right, it was.
After that, it took three days for Ryan to get out of bed. He just couldn’t make himself care. Couldn’t stop replaying his last words to Chris. Their last moments. He’d never get to accept Chris’ apology, or work it out, or know for sure if they would’ve broken up. He’d never know why. The only thing he wanted was Chris alive, and he made desperate pleas in his head. Promised to do anything, forgive anything, die himself, but no one was listening, or if they were they didn’t care because Ryan was still there and Chris was gone. Nothing made sense anymore. Mattered anymore.
In the end, Josh was the one who pulled him out of it. He’d been there for hours each day since the accident, sitting by Ryan’s bed. Sometimes, he held his hand or talked, but Ryan didn’t react. He was locked up in his own thoughts, and he wanted to die too. It felt like he was, anyway, so why not make it official?
Finally, Josh snapped, maybe out of desperation or fear of losing both of his best friends, Ryan didn’t really know, but whatever it was, Josh lost it on him.
“Jesus fuck, Ryan. Get your fucking shit together! I know this sucks—I know,” Josh shouted thickly, sounding like he was choking on his words. “Chris was my best friend too. But so are you, and I can’t lose both of you. Ryan, I can’t. I know it’s probably fucking selfish, but I don’t care.”
Josh sucked in a sharp breath. “Snap the fuck out of this, because I need you. Your mom and dad and your sister—they need you too. And I know, I fucking know Chris would never want this. He’d want you to get the fuck out of this goddamn bed, take a mother fucking shower, and keep going.”
Either the impassioned tone of Josh’s voice or the fact that he was right pierced through Ryan’s fractured thoughts and caught his attention. Chris wouldn’t want this.
“You’re right,” he whispered, voice scraping its way out of his throat. The idea he was disappointing Chris burned through him like acid in his veins, forcing his eyes open and Josh’s relief was palpable, but the ripped out hollow in Ryan’s chest felt like a sucking void that was sapping all his energy.
He got good at hiding it.
Or thought he did.
For a few weeks, he forced himself into a routine: sleep until noon, eat breakfast, shower, watch movies until one of his friends came to drag him out of the house. He went along with it, but he wasn’t really there.
Ryan answered when they spoke to him, smiled and laughed at the appropriate places, but it felt like a mask he wore. By the time he got home, he was exhausted. He’d eat dinner with his family and make himself react in all the right ways when they engaged him, but he was numb all the way to his core.
At night, he stood in his bedroom and looked out his window at the park across the street. He remembered playing there with Chris. His memories hurt to recall. He looked, anyway, because he deserved to hurt. Until his eyes blurred with tears and his lips were pressed tightly together on bitten down sobs, he kept looking.
Finally, there were only two more days and he was leaving for college. Even though it was only a couple hours away, his mom’d tried to talk him out of going. She was worried about him. She thought it might be better if he stayed home instead of moving into his dorm room, but he couldn’t. He wished she understood.
Constantly being surrounded by his past with Chris was suffocating him. How was he supposed to breathe when his bedroom was full of the ghosts of them? Everything around him just reminded him of Chris, and he needed to get away.
He might not’ve deserved it, but something had to give. He couldn’t keep up this balancing act between pretending everything was fine during the day and falling apart at night.
God, he just missed Chris so much, he had no idea how to live without him. He never thought he’d need to, and hell, he wasn’t even sure he could, but the one thing Ryan knew for sure, was if he stayed there…
He just—he couldn’t.
The day they dropped him off and helped him haul in the few possessions he’d brought with him, Ryan put on a hell of a show. He smiled and acted like he was excited, introduced himself to his new neighbors, and hugged his parents and his sister, Emma, when they left.
That afternoon, he went to Josh’s room a few floors down and he spent the rest of the day with him. They played video games and ate the snacks Josh’s mom had thoughtfully packed.
From the outside, Ryan was sure it looked like any other move-in day, but inside he didn’t feel a thing. He wasn’t excited; he wasn’t scared. He was just…empty.
A few of his friends were going to the same university he was, and Ryan knew when they showed up at his door over the next few weeks, his mom’d asked them to look out for him.
They popped by his dorm regularly to check on him, coaxing him out for some social time, and he went because he didn’t want to worry his mom or Josh. It wasn’t their fault he was broken. They shouldn’t have to suffer.
Despite Ryan’s best efforts, he could tell Josh wasn’t buying it in the least. Plain as day, Josh was worried, and Ryan couldn’t understand why he even cared.
Everyone else thought he was moving on, that he was okay, only none of it was real.
Monday to Friday, Ryan looked like every other freshman on paper: he went to class, did his homework, had lunch with his friends, and he did everything he was supposed to.
Come Saturday though, he and a bottle of whiskey didn’t leave his room unless it was to take a piss. It was surprising how easy it was to bribe someone to buy your liquor for you when you had a nice face and a charming smile.
Weekends were when Ryan could stop pretending he was moving on. Weekends were when he let himself remember until he drank enough to forget.