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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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