Inhale

I know it’s too late for Ash Rivers the minute I throw him to the sand.

Sixteen and drunk at a birthday party, Ash yanked me by the arm and threw me to the couch.

——————–

It’s a Sunday morning, and I’m swimming in Jones Lake for the first time in weeks. I’m getting out of the water when I first see him. I can tell he’s drunk when he emerges from the tree line, as he can barely make it a step without tumbling head-first into the water below. I pray he doesn’t notice me, like every other day.

But he does, and then he’s jogging down to the beach.

I stand there, clutching my towel for dear life, covering as much as I can. Two years and no repercussions for what he did. Two years and no one at that party said a damn thing.

I think I scream at him to go away, that he ruined enough of me already, that he’s ruined all of us, but I’m not sure if the words actually come out before he breathes into my face with hot, cheap whiskey.

“Leave me the fuck alone,” I say, stepping back.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” he says, and I want to vomit.

I picture a thousand looks across hallways, my eyes turning down and skin setting fire, anger bubbling.

“You’re better than this,” I say, obviously a lie.

But he’s not listening. His hands reach for my chest, to rip off my towel, and I try to run, but he’s grabbing my arms now. The towel drops and I manage to climb up to the cliff area he came from, but he’s gabbing my feet now. He’s grabbing everywhere now. I push and shove and yell for help, but no one is out here this morning.

“Come on, you know you want me again,” he keeps saying, words slurred.

At one point, he grabs my wrists and pins me against a tree. My brain goes back to two years prior as his lips slam against mine. The force is so strong that bark digs into the exposed skin on my back and the pain causes whatever is left of my dignity and ambition to emerge from the place they’ve been hiding since the second I saw him.

And finally, I’m able to push the monster hard enough. I suppose I had a moment of superhuman strength as he goes tumbling down the hill and into the water below. I didn’t intend for that, but I’m not sorry.

At first, I hesitate. I see his arms flailing and his head go under and I don’t do anything. I stand there watching like they did to me at the party.

But then I half-run, half-trip down the hill, to the sand, and pad into the water. He’s about 20 feet away, and when I see his head bob up out of the surface, I almost turn around and go home, realizing he’ll be fine, that this isn’t my problem. But something compels me to stay. I stand there, knee deep, and watch as Ash River’s head bobs up and down and in some distant part of my brain, I realize he’s begun to drown.

I wiggle my toes down deep in the sand and watch.

——————–

I’m not sure how long I stand there before I drag him out. I watch Ash until he stops bouncing back above the surface, when he doesn’t come up for 30 seconds, then 60, 100. My feet are still under the sand, and as the ripples lick my knees, as the sun shines off the place he sunk and into my eyes, my rationality comes back like a wave.

My brain flips on, and I realize people will find him when he floats back to the surface, when his body gets carried away by the wind, when, when, when. So maybe I can save him. He doesn’t deserve it, but I don’t deserve to go to jail.

I dive under and there he is, lying on the bottom of the ground, hair spread out and drifting through the water. With a combination of pushing and pulling and grimacing, I get him back to shore and know it’s too late for Ash Rivers the minute I throw him to the sand.

But I still press, then hit, then punch furiously on his chest—no water, not a fountain or a spittle, (or even whiskey) emerges from between his lips. Trust me, it’s the last thing I want to do, but I pinch those lips that suffocated mine and blow until lightheaded. Brain spinning, I stare down at the drowned corpse. I check his pulse, nothing comes. I realize I just watched someone die.

Tears form in my eyes, but make no mistake: no one would cry for Ash Rivers—his rough face full of scars and heaving chest and the always, always constant grab of an inhaler when it’s most obnoxious to do so. His fascination with death, with darkness and gore and blood. He always carried some strange book that looked like it could possibly be written in another language, or maybe it was a manual for a cult.

But it wasn’t all that—we knew weirder people we liked perfectly fine. It was his mean words, constant slurs, almost like he wanted people to despise him. The time he bullied a kid into dropping out, or made fun of the girl with autism in history class for not being able to pronounce a word most couldn’t anyway. His iconic phrase was telling students of color to “go back to their home country.” Most kids called him the devil incarnate. But it was easy to avoid him; it was like he retreated into the shadows. Until the one night I couldn’t avoid him. He made sure of that.

Ash certainly doesn’t deserve any more of my time this morning, but I have to bury him. If I could, I would let the vultures pick him apart piece by piece… yet, if anyone sees him, finds my hair follicles or fingerprints or whatever else he took from me—I would be dead. We all have a motive, but I have a feeling mine may just top the cake.

And so I spend the next 30 minutes digging into the wet ground with a log, then shove the devil to rot with the worms.

——————–

The next day, after tossing and turning for most of the night, I walk into journalism class and sit down next to Ollie Jackson.

“How was your weekend?” he asks.

I suppose news hasn’t hit yet.

“Uneventful, you?”

To be fair, that’s what I say every time someone asks me that question. Whether I buried a guy or never moved from the couch. I’m pretending to be calm… it seems to be working.

“Same,” he replies.

I realize our conversation can probably continue, but I make it over by leaning into my backpack and grabbing my school-issued 5-years-past-obsolete laptop. I pull open the article I have been working on, and type nonsense with such purpose you won’t believe just so no one will talk to me. This is my typical Monday mood; no one will question it.

In the middle of the class, I begin to actually work on my article and try to make some board meeting I didn’t attend sound interesting—which is hard, since I even fell asleep during the live stream. While typing, hands flashing across the keyboard, they suddenly stop. My fingers cramp, knuckles pinned bent, fingernails pointing down, page stuck on half a word.

Almost like a Ouija board, my fingers slowly move across the tops of the keys until I type something that has nothing to do with what Barbara so-and-so said at the meeting. Those six letters on the Word document is when I know something is fucked. And that it is quite possibly, me.

INHALE

I don’t get terrified very often, but as I regain movement of my fingers, testing them and then squeezing them into a fist, nails digging in palms, a huge lump forms in my throat and my whole skin sets fire.

When the bell rings, I didn’t finish my piece, let alone even delete the word on the page. I just stared at it, burning a hole into my brain so that throughout the rest of the morning it stays there, black on a white screen.

News breaks during lunch. His mom dead, his dad a drunk, no one cared whether Ash Rivers came home this weekend. Evidently, one of the teachers decided to look into where the most hated kid in school was, as he never missed a day—maybe to escape home, maybe to spend as much time tormenting all of us as he possibly could—and when the teacher called home, Ash’s dad answered with a slur and a yell. It probably took a while, but I think during the call it must have gotten into the alcoholic’s head that someone very important was missing from his house. Maybe, just maybe, the only other person who lived there.

“Did you hear about Ash going missing?”

Emma Connors is sitting next to me eating a soggy piece of pizza and she asks the question like she cares more about the grease sliding down her throat than my answer.

“Yeah,” is all I can muster, as the guilt finally penetrates, the word “INHALE” still soldered into my brain.

A few moments later, the infamous cell phone AMBER alert thunders throughout the halls, the classrooms, the bathrooms, under the bleachers—wherever kids are on their phones. Emma slaps her phone with pizza fingers and shuts it off, while I just stare at the words on the screen, suddenly frozen again. My fingers can move, but this time I feel like I can’t breathe, no matter how much my brain has told me to inhale in the past hour. It’s like my lungs have collapsed in on themselves.

“You feeling alright?” Emma asks, finally finished with her slice.

But I can’t respond. I begin to wheeze and am not sure what to do except run to the nurse’s office in a blind panic.

I barge in, grabbing my chest like I’m dying. I point furiously to my throat with my other hand, panting, gasping, coughing. I think at first the nurse thinks I’m choking. I can’t get a word out, but after she sees my face is turning blue, she hands me an inhaler while explaining that I’m having an asthma attack. Funny thing is: I don’t have asthma. Which I then proceed to mumble out to her in a daze after I can breathe again.

I walk back down the hallway gripping the inhaler so tightly in my hand you could have sworn I’m trying to crush it. I’ve never bothered to learn what type of medication is in one of those things, but I don’t care. I just want to breathe.

I don’t try to talk to anyone until lunch is over. I just sit in the bathroom shaking, regaining breath, trying to hold back the panic.

When the bell does finally ring, I emerge from the stall and lock eyes with myself in the mirror. My face sunken-in and pale, my features begin to morph into Ash’s the longer I stare. My lips into his wet, peeling ones. My hair, tangled and frayed. And then my forehead… bleeding?

When I rub my eyes, everything of his disappears. My features are my own again—pointed nose, green eyes, pink lips, alive. But one thing has stayed the same. I have real, thick blood coming out of my head. Touching fingers to it, I let the panic come and take me away. I fall to my knees and start to sob. I’m being haunted by the fucking devil.

Red drips onto the tile and as I hold my head in my hands, my fingers cramp and that single word appears on top of my reflection in the floor. But I can’t follow it, my lungs have closed again.

——————–

I sprint out of the bathroom, out of the school, out of town. I reach Jones Lake. Blood and tears cover my face as I run to the shore and start digging.

Hands in earth, brown under nails, I claw at the ground. Tear at it. Tear at the ground where I laid the devil to rest.

Once I begin to see a muddy face emerging, I say his name out loud over and over until it becomes a twisted mantra.

I hear the sirens and a part of me somewhere off in the abyss realizes how horrendous this looks. A girl already covered in blood digging like a dog on the bank of a lake.

The sirens get louder and as I expose his whole body from under the dirt, I grab a piece of driftwood from next to me.

“Fuck you,” I scream while I wrap both hands around the wood and thrust it deep into his chest. Murky water seeps out of his lungs, bloody coagulated fluid flicks out as I repeatedly stab him and howl.

The tightness releases, the word disappears, the blood stops. I continue to stab until I’m too tired to move anymore. Until his chest isn’t a chest anymore.

The sirens approach and all I feel is peace. I run my hands over Ash’s eyelids, so that even if his body is mutilated, no one has to stare into the eyes of the devil ever again.

A car door slams and someone yells at me to put my hands up, but everything is just covered in blood and I can’t possibly be on this shore with this happening right now. I’m still swimming through the murk Sunday morning, arm up, arm diving under.