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barely breathing

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Andrew watched as Neil struggled for air on the ground. The racket in his hands was smaller and lighter than the one he was used to. A grin stretched across his face. There was something funny about this Neil Josten. He couldn’t quite put a finger on it.

“Fuck you,” Neil wheezed, his eyes a fierce glare.

Ah. There was one thing. The unnatural ring around his irises. Contacts. And not just the corrective kind. “Better luck next time kid.”

The door slammed open. “Hey what’s going on in there?” Some old man said as he came into the locker room. Wymack came out of the office as well. Andrew officially lost interest. Wymack said something to him but he was already checked out of the conversation. He waved his hand, absently coughed into the crook of his arm, and wandered away. There had to be something more interesting out in the hallway.

Andrew skipped his morning dose. He has done many illegal things in his life, though nothing worse than jaywalking can be proven after his records were sealed. The one thing he refused to do was drive under any sort of influence whether it be alcohol or his own medication.

Wymack put Aaron to the task of picking up the Josten boy. It’s unfortunate for him that he didn’t remember only two people were allowed in the driver seat of his car. The smart thing to have done would have been to ask Nicky, but that wouldn’t have stopped Andrew either.

The low burning headache that started an hour after missing his scheduled dose pulsed in the back of his mind. He made sure to eat something light in case his stomach got upset so he wouldn’t end up vomiting bile and stomach acid while on the road. The last thing he needed was to pull over in the middle of the interstate.

He saw Neil before Neil saw him. He looked lost in the way he clutched the strap of his duffle bag. A baseball cap was pulled low over his eyes hiding his dull black hair. His eyes kept moving, tracking, trying to see everything in the room. Suspicious. So suspicious.

Despite his best attempts, the nausea still found him. Andrew lit up a cigarette to help take off the edge. They chatted on the car ride back to Wymack’s place. Chatted wasn’t the correct term. It was carefully pointed questions on Andrew’s side, a pop quiz of sorts. Neil talked like he was navigating a minefield. Each sentence delicate, crafted, dull. Pointless in the scheme of things. A waste of Andrew’s time.

Andrew parked the car in the Wymack’s apartment lot. The nausea lingering in the back of his throat turned into an itch. Andrew held off as long as he could before he let the cough escape. The coughs were wet, like phlegm trying to get loose in the throat, but it was a little different than that. His heart thundered once and pinched in a way that felt like it was trying to pump lead through his veins.

Neil was looking at him. He could feel the amusement radiating off of him. “What’s the saying? Only idiots and old people catch colds in the summer?”

“No, I’m just allergic to whatever you are,” Andrew replied and got out of the car, popping the trunk so Neil could get his stuff, and joined the welcoming party.

In Wymack’s apartment while Aaron and Nicky disappeared to give Neil a tour, Kevin held out Andrew’s medicine bottle. “Give me that,” he said. Snatching it from Kevin’s fingers and locked himself in the bathroom. He popped two pills in his mouth and swallowed them dry. They won’t kick in right away, but the thought of future relief eased the pounding of his head.

His throat still itched and he coughed again but this time something came up. Hands gripping the edges of the sink he spat and froze. In the sink was a single petal.

“Oh,” he said, voice barely above a whisper, “This could be a problem.” Andrew turned on the faucet and washed the petal down the drain.

The lights beamed down on the court. Andrew watched from the shadows as Kevin critiqued Neil again on form, aim, strength, and focus. Neil was just as exy obsessed as Kevin. Andrew couldn’t relate. But more than that, Andrew did not understand Neil.

Andrew coughed and his chest ached. Smooth velvet coated his tongue and he forced himself to swallow. The petals were nothing. Neil was nothing. Especially since his every action was a contradiction. There were too many pieces missing. A simple vanity search brought up nothing of importance. No social media and no articles before his senior year of high school. Neil Josten was literally no one.

There was a smack and Andrew refocused on the players in the court. Neil was on the ground, arms splayed out, racket a few feet away. Kevin stood above him with a frown. He watched as Neil tried to get up again to pick up his racket and failed. The pain in Andrew’s chest intensified. Andrew needed answers.

The door to the bathroom opened. Neil tried to sneak to his bedroom but Andrew trailed after him. The new clothes were a vast improvement to his previous ones. Andrew leaned against the doorway and watched the fabric bend and shift along Neil’s body as he shoved his clothes in his bottom dresser drawer. When he turned to glare at Andrew, his eyes weren’t the muddy dirt brown he was used to seeing. Instead they were icy blue.

Neil walked to the doorway and stopped as close as he dared. Andrew didn’t know what was happening until his hands reached out and brought Neil’s head down closer. Saying his eyes were blue was like saying the sky at dawn was only one color. His eyes were made up of shades starting with the lightest of blues where it was one step up from being white to the darkest, midnight blue. Mixed in between were greys and yellows complementing and adding depth. The black hair that framed Neil’s face chilled the ice in his eyes.

Andrew let go before a cough could escape from his mouth.

On the road they stopped to let Andrew out. It was the withdrawal that made him puke but it was more petals than bile. It was dark and the weeds were long so the petals were hidden from view but for good measure, he kicked dirt over them. Wiping his mouth, he got back into the car ignoring the accusing look from Neil.

Andrew watched as the others ran around the house in hopes of finding Neil. It was useless. Neil was gone and so were Andrew’s plans for answers. He told himself it was only a slight hangover that was bubbling in his gut.

He wasn’t surprised to get a call from Wymack after a night out in Columbia. He wasn’t surprised to see Neil made it back to Palmetto in one piece. What did surprise him was the confession in German.

“I’m tired,” Neil said to finish his story.

Andrew stepped in close. Neil was back to wearing brown contacts, the fire doused with defeat.

“Let me stay. I’m not ready to give this up yet.”

Andrew could feel the roots in his chest stir, cutting his breath short. Neil’s words triggered memories best forgotten of when it was only him he had protect and no one else. And how everything crashed and burned around him. Who was he to burn Neil when the cruel hands of fate would do it for him given time.

Andrew stepped back. A cough firmly lodged in his throat. “Keep it if you can. You and I both know it won’t last long.”

Andrew would not be in the middle of it when this exploded in Neil’s face. But he will be close enough to watch. And to make sure that Neil was the only one destroyed.

The sun set to the west, behind Andrew’s spot on the roof. The air held in the heat of the day refusing to leave room for the coolness of night. A storm was coming. A key sat in his pocket and a smile crept up Andrew’s face unwillingly. Neil Josten. So suspicious, but so interesting. He had a death wish with the way he spoke with Riko and maybe Andrew did too with every petal coughed up and dropped off the side of the roof. Andrew couldn’t remember the last time he had been so entertained.

Andrew and Neil sat outside on the porch. The others were scattered around the driveway after hearing the news of Seth’s death. Neil stole his cigarette.

Andrew calculated. Adding Neil, subtracting Seth, keeping Kevin to the left, and dividing the team between himself and Renee. His agenda shifted as he arrived to an answer.

“I don’t feel for anyone or anything. Don’t forget that.” The words were directed at both Neil and himself, but the more he repeated it in his head, the worse the ache in his chest became and the more the petals spilled from his mouth.

“You aren’t going anywhere,” Andrew said, a key burning in his hand like the ashes of a cigarette. “You’re staying here.”

He couldn’t call it spontaneous because the key was made days ago. But the final decision to hand it over was new. He exchanged the key for his stolen cigarette, pressing the key into the center of Neil’s palm as a final and firm order to stay.

Andrew turned and walked into the house sparing himself from Neil’s reaction. He went straight out the back door. He couldn’t hold it back any longer. He coughed once, tried to hold his breath to stop the second one, coughed again, then doubled over and vomited. This time it was a mess of soft white petals and in the middle the head of a single daisy.

Neil was looking at Andrew. Really seeing him instead of the drugs and his past. Him. Not an exy player. Not a protector. Not a prison. Not a monster. And wasn’t that scary. Neil wasn’t paid like Betsy. He wasn’t pulled twenty different ways like Wymack. He didn’t have a son named Drake like Cass. He was just a lost person looking straight at him and it was unsettling.

‘When the medication is gone, who will you really hurt?’ Neil had asked. The only acceptable answer was himself. He would make sure of that.

“Bee has a thing for lost causes." Andrew said with the exy rackets surrounding them. But it wasn’t only Betsy. An unexpected letter, a soft knock on Wymack’s door, a hand clutching a duffel bag. There was a trend in Andrew’s life and he didn’t like it.

"I am not a lost cause."

Andrew put his hand over Neil's mouth to make him quiet and said, "Liar. But that's what makes you interesting. Tell me Neil, do you believe in fate? Don’t answer. I already know. Here’s my take. If fate were tangible, I would destroy it."

Andrew could feel it burning in his chest. The flowers growing, taking root in his lungs, spreading, tangling around his bronchus. Neil stared back at him, his blue eyes deep with a hot retort. They were too close.

"I'll find Kevin. He's too slow." Andrew said and walked away.

Andrew’s hands slid under Neil’s shirt, guided by Neil’s own hands. He felt the raised smooth ridges of scarred skin. Neil was asking for trust. Andrew didn’t even trust himself. He was so tired. His lungs were collapsing in on him. “Okay,” he said to Easthaven, to the trust, to the promise. He needed to leave; he needed space. From Neil, from everything.

He left the house with Betsy in tow. “Excuse me Bee.” He walked over to the flower bed and puked up his breakfast and a handful of petals. A stem peeked out of his mouth and he pulled, shredding his throat with its thorns. He was up and walking back to the car before Betsy could check on him. Andrew ignored the iron taste of blood in his mouth.

They said that the first two weeks of drug withdrawal were the worst. Whoever said that was correct, but they never specified exactly why it was the worst. He was too exhausted, too awake, and too nauseous all at once, all the time. It was a good day if he kept water down, even better if he got out of bed for more than fifteen minutes.

Withdrawal was bad but what came after was almost worse. Dr. Proust was his name and Andrew will remember it but only for when his name pops up in the obituaries.

“Petals, hm? Interesting.”

Andrew gagged again over the bucket at the mere sound of his voice.

“Hanahaki disease. Very uncommon, but poetic don’t you think? This is the first time I’ve come across a case this… advanced. It’s a wonder you can still have emotions like this after everything you’ve been through.” Proust made a note on his notepad. “You know what? I’m going to do you a favor.” He leaned down and if Andrew had more strength, he would have thrown the garbage can at him. “Don’t worry. You won’t feel a thing.”

The hallway out of Easthaven was unending. Every step felt like the distance between his point and the door doubled. He closed his eyes slowly and when he opened them, he was at the door. He stopped there and stared at the handle. His therapist leading him out stopped as well. The bag of his belongings dragged down on his shoulder. They were waiting for him in the lobby. His skin itched under his turtleneck.

“Are you ready?” his therapist asked.

Andrew didn’t answer and opened the door.

Everyone in the room looked up at the sound. Nicky, Kevin, Aaron, and…

Andrew’s eyes connected with the beat up boy in the lobby and apathy washed over him.