The Breath of Life

by Ashley Cox

            Benedict told me later that it was the curse that made him bad at making friends. But before I even knew that, as a five year old kid I could tell he wasn’t a people person. I wasn’t even sure he wanted friends. He would just sit in the corner of the classroom and sniffle. Pretty soon, all of us kids in Mrs. Person’s class learned to do our work without being distracted by the sound. Day in and day out, Benedict would sit in the corner and cry, cough, and shake. He told me later that the curse was still growing, and that’s why he’d lasted so long in school. I don’t remember seeing anything unusual until one day when Benedict suddenly collapsed to the ground. He kept breathing in but he never breathed out, and no one was sure why.
It was pretty cool, though, when the cops showed up; their bright carnival lights still circling even when they were in the building. Benedict got a Darth Vader mask and was carried out to the carnival lights on a white bed with wheels. We all watched enviously from the window. After that, he became a quiet legend. Sometimes he’d be seen at the grocery store or a park, and those who saw him were revered by their kindergarten counterparts. It wasn’t until first grade that I became part of the legend myself.
First grade had more homework, and since I lived out in the country, closest to Benedict, I was charged with the task of taking his homework to him. For half the school year I never even saw him, and then one day he was outside swinging. I stopped to watch him. He would swing really high and jerk upwards on the chain. It confused me, so I asked him what he was doing. He regarded me with large amber eyes for several seconds before shrugging in reply.
My older brother always tried to push me all the way around the bar,” I said thoughtfully.
 “Did you make it?” he asked.
 “Nah, my mom came out and yelled at us. Never got the chance.”
  Benedict looked up at his brightly painted house. “My mom’s upstairs,” he said. “She won’t be back down for a while.” When his mom did come back down, I had a black eye and Benedict a bloody forehead. I’d tried pushing him first, but had accidently pushed him right out of the swing. He’d then pushed me into the vertical pole as he took a running start to try and get some momentum. For the rest of first grade, Benedict and I would sit on the swings after school and try to figure out how to do a three-sixty without getting caught.

Benedict figured out what was wrong with him in third grade. “They think I have asthma,” Benedict said as he defeated Bowser for the umpteenth time. I glanced at him quickly before looking back at my own screen. He’d been going to a new doctor every two weeks or so since the start of second grade. “I don’t have asthma,” Benedict assured me.
You don’t?” I asked.
Nope,” he said, turning back to the screen to restart the game.
 I waited, but he didn’t continue. “So what do you have?” I asked.
A curse,” he said, “from the Gods, or fairies. I’m not sure yet.”
 I set my controller down and stared at him. “Huh?”
I’ve been cursed. I can’t breathe when I’m around a lot of people.”
How do you know?” I asked.
Think about it. I always hyperventilate around large groups of people. I literally have been cursed with the inability to be around people. You’ve seen it. And besides, all those stupid inhalers they give me, they don’t help. I just can’t get air into my lungs.”
Keep up, Nick. The doctors don’t know what they’re talking about. When it’s the two of us in your treehouse I breathe just fine, but at school, or the library, or parties… I can’t. I can’t take a single breathe until I leave. I think my lungs stop working all together. I’ve been cursed, and we’ve got to figure out how to break the spell.”
            “Do you remember who cursed you?” I asked, feeling the enormity of the task at hand settle over me.
            “Well, no. But we’ll figure it out.”
            The curse followed Benedict very closely after we discovered it. Benedict liked to call it his shadow, and it made things difficult as we got older and wanted to go see movies, buy Pepsi at the grocery store, or even walk down the street. We always had to be careful about what times we went anywhere because Benedict liked breathing. We worked very hard to outsmart the curse, and Benedict hated all of it at first. His parents were thrilled that we were out of the house, but walking out in public bothered him, especially after we ran into his old Catholic Preacher.
            Benedict had decided to stay out of churches since he still hadn’t decided if God had cursed him or not. He hadn’t been to church in weeks, and if his parents tried to make him go, he’d fake an asthma attack. Not coming from an especially religious family myself, it didn’t bother me. But it bothered Father Mettle, or Preacher Meacher, as he was called by all the children. He had a habit of talking swiftly until his words ran together. The mayor had told him to separate his words so as to be a mediating preacher and not a meacher, and the nickname spread like wild fire.
            Preacher Meacher had come to talk to Benedict’s family about his recent inactivity. It bothered him a lot that Benedict wasn’t going to church. When we accidentally walked into him as he walked out of the old folks home, Benedict and I cringed. “Boys,” He called us over. “Boys, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of you in church.” I gave a half apologetic shrug and hoped the subject would change.
            “I’m sick.” Benedict said, preparing himself to walk around Preacher Meacher, but the preacher grabbed his arm and looked him in the face.
            “You’ve got to be careful, Benedict. You don’t want to get caught breaking the Sabbath, you know. Every week you must cleanse your soul, or you’ll suffer the same damming fate as the sinners in Hell. You don’t want that, do you?” We both looked at him in awe. Preacher Meacher was the only man I knew who could swear freely in public.
            Benedict was less impressed, however, and squared his shoulders. “What if God has already dammed me, sir? What if he’s cursed me and it’s not worth my time to give Him a second thought?”
            A look of panic appeared on Preacher Meacher’s face. “Blasphemy, Benedict Johanson! Your words are pure blasphemy. How dare you suggest that God isn’t worth your time?” Preacher Meacher’s black shirt swelled with hot air and I groaned inwardly. I didn’t want to stand here for hours listening to him, even if he was going to swear. “How could a young boy know the mind of God?” He started. “If God did curse you, it would be because you pay Him no mind. You must repent and come back to the fold of God, or I can promise you no mercy.” Benedict stared up at him, completely frozen by the words.
            I tried to roll my eyes as quietly as I could, but Preacher Meacher turned on me anyway. “Or perhaps, Benedict, your mind has been corrupted because you associate with the unsaved and the unclean?” He cast me a scathing glance.
            “I shower once a week.” I protested. I looked at Benedict to back me up, and it was then that I noticed Benedict was choking. He’d turned very pale and made a gasping noise, and stumbled back and off the curb, moving rapidly away.
            Preacher Meacher frowned and reached a hand towards him. “What on earth?” He started, but I pushed his hand out of the way as I grabbed Benedict and began to quickly walk away.
            “Asthma attack.” I apologized. “Terribly sorry, we’ll talk later.” We waited until we were out of sight and then booked it to the woods. It took Benedict a full thirty minutes to be able to breathe normally again. It scared both of us because it normally didn’t take so long for him to calm down.
            “You don’t think he’s right, do you?” Benedict asked finally. “What if I got it wrong and I’ve offended the Gods and now because of this stupid curse I’m condemned to Hell? I’m in trouble, Nick. There are too many people in Hell. I’d never make it. I’d suffocate, and then what? Can you die again? Am I going to spend all eternity dying and reliving to suffocate again because of this curse?”
I only had more questions for him. “Why couldn’t you breathe when it was just the three of us back there? Normally the curse kicks in around a lot more people.”
            Benedict could only shake his head. “Maybe it’s getting stronger.”

            We tried to break the curse ourselves after that. We both wondered if it would go away, if he could gradually adjust to a larger number of people. We tried the small candy shop on Main Street, the old library two blocks down, and even the old drive-in theater that couples only went to as an excuse to make out. Our results were always the same. At first he did all right, but then there would be about five people and the curse would get him, and he’d have to leave. We tried for almost a year, but after “the incident,” as Benedict called it, we gave up.
            We’d been buying ice cream from old Mr. Grover, who liked to sell his wife’s homemade recipe. He always sold his ice cream for 35 cents cheaper than the drug store, so every kid in town was a faithful follower of his. We thought we’d finally caught him early in the morning before everyone else when seven or eight girls got us from behind. They surrounded us, chattering about Kim’s new shoes and how ugly they were. Amanda Lockhart was there, with her small nose and freckles. Benedict stared at her, his mouth open. It had been a long time since the three of us were in Kindergarten together.
            “Hi.” She said to him as she stepped forward to hand her money to Mr. Grover. “It’s Benedict, right?” Benedict blinked and closed his mouth. Everyone turned to look at him, waiting to see if this was the famous and elusive Benedict Johanson.
            Benedict made a choking noise.
            “You all right, kid?” Mr. Grover asked.
Benedict pounded a fist against his chest, trying to activate his lungs. He dropped his cone of half melted ice cream, and it splattered all over Amanda’s pants. She jumped back and squealed in protest. I watched him run down the street towards the woods as I tried to push my way out of the crowd without dipping my ice cream in hair. I found him at home curled up with Harry Potter.
            “Sorry.” I said.
            He shrugged. “Nah, I wouldn’t want to be around a single one of them anyway.” I could tell he wanted to believe it.
            “We could go back for ice cream tomorrow.” I suggested.
            Benedict rolled his eyes. “Right, so the curse can find me a prettier girl to cover in ice cream? You know how I am. If the curse doesn’t kill me through suffocation, I’ll die from embarrassment.” I nodded and let the subject drop. If I’d dropped ice cream on Amanda Lockhart, I wouldn’t have gone back out in public either.
            Benedict spent a lot of time in my treehouse after that. The curse seemed to follow him even more deeply. We were both certain we could see a shadow of it in his reflection. He was mostly alone when I was in school, and some days, even after he’d been alone all day, I was one too many people. We learned sign language to help in those situations. He grew pale and listless. He read every fantasy, religious text, and mythology book he could get his hands on. I helped when I could, but we found little to help. His parents had to start taking him into the doctors once a week to do breathing exercises, because he started having attacks when he was alone.
            It wasn’t until the last quarter of seventh grade that Benedict found peace with the curse. It was after I’d had the unfortunate honor of being picked as the class representative to speak in an assembly for the Mayor himself. I was supposed to talk about how good leaders need to have good people skills, and use an example from history to prove it. When my mother found out, she insisted that I go to the museum in hopes that I might learn actual “useful” knowledge. I argued that someday my life might depend on how well I could beat the Boss on Zelda and she rolled her eyes. “Nick, one of these days you’ll look up from your video games and notice that there’s a whole other world out there.”
            I rubbed my fingers together as I thought about the way some of the girls had nearly jumped back into me when Benedict spilled his ice cream on Amanda. I stole a quick glance at my mother. “There’s nothing out there, Mom.”
            “What about your friend Amanda?”
I jerked up a little too quickly for my liking.
            “What about her?”
            “She and her little friends were over here the other day selling girl scout cookies. She asked if you’d like to come to church with her sometime.”
            “When?” My voice chose that unfortunate moment to squeak and my mother grinned.
            “I guess you’ll have to ask her that. I seem to have forgotten.”
            I gave her a deep glare of loathing and turned back to my video game, my heart racing. Amanda had asked about me. Maybe Preacher Meacher wasn’t such a horrible guy after all. I mean, if Amanda could sit through church, I certainly could. I moved the controller blankly as my mind raced to catch up with what it’d just heard.
            My mother sighed. “Honestly, Nickolas, put down the games and get out of the house. And take Benedict with you to the museum, or at least the library. He at least will know what a book looks like.” She sent me from the house to do homework and Benedict, and I, unaware of the danger, walked to the museum of Ancient Life. We wandered, bored, passed the statue of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as we tried to find anyone of interest to give a report on.
            Benedict had just mockingly suggested I do it on Martin Van Buren after he noted the president was called “Blue Whiskey Van” –because he drank so much--when we heard the pattering of dropped items and voices coming around the corner. Benedict frowned heavily before he realized the sound was a large group of people near us. The second he realized, he grasped his chest and began to spin looking for an exit. I could see the curse taking affect as the shadows in the room seemed to grow and sharpen. A bright tour guide brought the group right to us. “Good afternoon, gentlemen, would you like to join this tour?” Her bright red lipstick seemed to have a voice of its own.
            There was a choking gasp as Benedict reached for my shirt. I looked around and saw that the room held at least forty people. I could see the panic in Benedict’s eyes as I realized he might never have been around so many people before. Anxiously I turned, trying to push past the high kids,ut the room was too small and people couldn’t get out of the way. “Move!” I yelped in frustration. “My friend is sick, move!”
            “Sick?” An adult suddenly asked. She was bossy, so she must have been a mother from the school group. She grabbed Benedict’s arm. “What’s wrong, honey?”
            Benedict collapsed to the floor, his fingers ripping at his chest as his mouth opened and closed.He couldn’t gasp because he was out of air. He began to speak to me in sign language. “The curse.” He said. “The curse is trying to kill me!”
            “Call 911!” Someone yelled in my ear. I jerked and looked around, trying to orient the doors. The bossy mother grabbed Benedict’s arms and forced him to hold still. Benedict looked up at me, his eyes desperate. His fingers moved, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
            “Move!” I yelled at the mother, trying to pull Benedict away. “It’s just asthma, he needs to get outside.”
            She unhooked my hand and glared at me. “Young man, you are not a doctor. I have been certified in CPR, and I can clearly see your friend does not have asthma. But don’t worry, he’ll be just fine.” She began to pump his chest with her hands and Benedict paused, sincerely puzzled by her actions.
            “Are you sure that’s how it’s done?” The tour guide questioned. There was a crowd gathering around us. Great, just what Benedict needed, an audience.
            “Of course.” The bossy mother sniffed. “And now I shall save his life.”
            We laughed about it later; the mouth to mouth thing she did. Benedict said it would have been such a good idea if she’d been pretty,ut she was old and ugly, so he said he didn’t enjoy the experience. Benedict said though it would have been more disturbing to see her give him mouth to mouth, but I disagreed and said that having to receive mouth to mouth from herwould have only been preferable to breaking every bone in your body.Twice.
            I stared for a good four seconds as she forced air into his lungs before she pulled back and wiped her mouth. Benedict lay stock still watching her. His eyes were wide, and she patted his shoulder. “Trust me, I can save you.” She informed him.
            “That’s not how CPR goes.” Someone protested. “Leave the kid alone. He’s not even unconscious.” People began to agree, and the volume of the room escalated. If I didn’t move quickly the curse was going to take my best friend.
            I blinked only once before pointing into the crowd and screaming at the top of my lungs, “Fire!” The crowd turned with one breath, and I shoved the bossy adult into them, dragging Benedict to his feet. He was limp, face blue. My arms burned as I dragged him to the boy’s bathroom with a couple adults hot on my heels. People peeled around them to get out of the building as I slammed the bathroom door and locked it. Curled up in the back stall, Benedict heaved for air, his eyes shut tightly. I stood back, giving him his space.
            We could hear someone yelling at us, but I’d locked the door so she couldn’t get in. I watched Benedicts face, waiting. I’d never seen the curse leave his face and I wanted to catch it this time. But in the ten minutes it took for the mechanic to unlock the door and the doctor to arrive, I didn’t see anything of interest. Benedict was on his feet, pale, but I certainly hadn’t seen the curse leave. We both denied that anything had happened, saying it was an asthma attack and providing an inhaler as evidence. We left them muttering about incompetent adults trying to be doctors and left the building through the back door, accidentally setting off the fire alarms. Of course, the fire trucks were already there, so it wasn’t a big deal.
            As we walked home the long way to avoid the city, I stole glances at Benedict. He hadn’t said a word since leaving the museum. I could hear him breathing normally. It was comforting, but finally I couldn’t stand the silence anymore. “Do you ever want to go back? I asked, nodding towards the city.
            “Nope.” He said immediately, his voice stronger. “Think about all those germs and idiots who wander all over. They ought to require permits to protect the public.”
            I let that sink in before hesitantly asking, “But what about going to school? Don’t you want to move to college or be on a sports team, or anything? You can’t. Not after that. The curse will kill you the second you try. Don’t you feel angry or anything?”            He shrugged. “No. No, I’d rather be alone anyway. Besides, how do you breathe around all those people, Nick? What could possibly be life-giving about all those people and crowds and ideas attacking you all at once?”
            I shrugged. “I don’t know, I just do. I’ve never thought about it.”
            “But if you’ve never thought about it, how do you know you’re really breathing then?”
            It was my turn to laugh. “Benedict, part of breathing is forgetting you’re breathing. How do you know you’re breathing if you’re so aware of it?”

            He shrugged as we came to the crossroads behind his house. “I guess I never caught my breath to begin with.” Then he paused a long moment. “Nick, is it really a curse to be by yourself and enjoy your own company