Ashley fell in love like it was nothing. She liked boys with crooked smiles and long, greasy hair. But she wasn’t picky; often, a quick look was all it took to capture her heart. I was a grade above Ashley, but we rode the same bus. Her voice carried all the way to the back where my friends and I sat. Even with the motor roaring under us, we heard all about her loves: Aaron and Andrew, brothers; a tenth grader who wore thin glasses and once brought a knife to school; and the new kid, Chris.

I sat next to Chris in eight-grade honors algebra. I was the only freshman in the class, too dumb for advanced math, too smart for non-honors. Chris was a winter transfer student, and Ashley loved him from the start. On the bus home after his first day, Ashley’s round face flushed as she swooned about him. “He’s so cute,” she sighed.

One of the other weird girls nodded, uninterested. “Well, he’s definitely your type.”

I knew enough about Ashley’s crushes to know this was true. Chris was tall, at least a foot taller than the rest of the boys in his grade, and even most of our male teachers. He was skinny, too, all legs and no grace; he tripped over his own feet when he walked. But I think it was his deep voice, his crooked fingers, the black clothes he wore that hooked Ashley. Halfway through the fall semester, Ashley decided she was goth, wearing thick eyeliner and slinking chains through her belt loops. On the bus, she often slid her sleeves to her elbows to proudly show us her cut marks, pink and scabbed. Surface wounds.

“No wonder she wants Chris,” my friend Leah whispered. “They’re both posers.”

I laughed. The insult was so mean because it was true. Ashley pretended to like loud, screaming music, pretended the pentagrams she doodled in her notebooks had sinister meaning, pretended, for a brief period, that she was a vampire. But Ashley was soft. She often rode the bus with her Walkman pressed to her chest, eyes half-shut, crooning softly to herself. Not softly enough. We all heard. And we all looked at her, in her ratty Black Sabbath T-shirt and oversized tripp pants, then at each other, mouthing, “Mariah Carey?”

Soon after he arrived, Ashley claimed Chris as her own, and in a few weeks they were dating. Real dating. Not the tame side-hugging, chaste hand-holding kind of relationships most of my friends had. Ashley and Chris made out in the second-floor hallway almost daily, with Ashley sitting on the windowsill, her legs hooked around his tiny waist. Chris hunched to reach to her height and kissed Ashley’s wide-open mouth, her tongue slipping against his closed lips. Once, as I walked to math, lunchbox swinging, the two were so tangled up in each other it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Then the bell rang, and Ashley pulled away, staring up at Chris with a smile so sincere, so lovesick, I felt a stab of—something.

I didn’t like Ashley. No one I knew did. She’d balance in the aisle of the bus and pretend to surf, screaming when we clipped a curb. She snorted when she laughed. She didn’t know who she was so she tried out different versions of herself: a prep in pale pink sweaters and stiff denim skirts before the all-black wardrobe. A year earlier, when the snow first began to melt, she wore fairy wings to school, her eyelids sparkling with blue glitter.

Ashley was odd and annoying. She was loud and sensitive. She was thirteen.

And I watched her with Chris, how she beamed when they walked hand in hand, and I knew with certainty that Chris never loved her back. He had a peculiar strangeness to him. Something dark. He typed death metal lyrics on his calculator during algebra, his head flattened to the desk, eyes focused on his lap. He cracked crude, sexual jokes to make me and Nadia, the eighth grader who sat in front of us, uncomfortable. He religiously read about the Columbine massacre.

When I was bored in math—I was always bored in math—I tried to coax gossip from him. “Sooo,” I’d say, “how’s Ashley?”

This made Chris blush. He was kind of a freak, but he cared enough about his image to know that Ashley brought his down. Mean girls called her fat and jabbed the flesh at her waist with their sharp acrylic nails. They made fun of her freckles and limp, dark hair. Boys pretended to like her—sometimes kissed her—then ignored her in the hallway. Even my own friends feigned niceness with Ashley. That purse is super cute, Ash; text me whenever and we can hang! Then we laughed at how they fooled her as she happily hopped off the bus, waving back at us.

Chris’s discomfort was palpable, eyes averted, shoulders braced. He tried to be diplomatic: “I don’t think it’s fair that she likes me so much more than I like her.”

Nadia twisted in her seat, her wild curls bouncing, her eyebrows raised. “She doesn’t just like you, you know.”

“Yeah.” Chris rubbed his eyes. “I know.”

As I boarded the bus that afternoon, the scarf around my neck loose, Ashley wept, her knees curled to her chest, her face in her hands. Mascara ran down her cheeks in thin black streaks. A few girls tried to console her, but Ashley could barely breathe. Her face twisted up, pink from grief and the bitter winter cold.

I sat a few rows behind Ashley, trying to ignore her sobs, but her heartbreak was too raw. She cried like she’d been wounded. And I felt sorry for her. There was a tiny part of me that wanted to pat Ashley on the shoulder, the gesture a little stilted, and say, “Hey, forget about him. He’s kind of freaky, anyway.”

Instead, I sat with my head against the window and played Tetris on my flip phone, half-listening to the senior behind me whisper, “She’s crushed.”

That’s the last real thing I remember about Ashley: how she cried when a boy broke her heart. A week or so later, our math teacher moved Chris to the back row because he chatted so incessantly. Nadia took his vacant spot beside me. The two of us played tic-tac-toe during class and copied each other’s homework. By the end of the year, Chris had transferred again. Rumors spread that he’d been caught masturbating in class. I never knew if this was true. I think it’s more likely that this was the lore of bored teenagers.

Ashley, I assume, fell in love again. I assume I still rolled my eyes when she sang to herself, struggling with the higher octaves, and that I laughed when my friends mocked her. She subtly moved to the periphery of my life. Ashley was such a non-factor that I was well into my junior year before I learned she’d transferred to a school in the suburbs the prior spring. I don’t know how I justified her absence on our bus, in the hallway, but the news startled me—how, just like that, she was there one day, gone the next.

 

Five years after I graduated high school, I began dreaming of Ashley. I’d wake uneasy each morning. I had no reason to think of her. We must’ve been Facebook friends at one time, but I’d weeded my friends list after I graduated, deleting hundreds, even most of the girls who rode the same bus as Ashley and me. Girls I once considered my best friends.

Most of my dreams occurred in our cafeteria, the sticky tables defaced with Sharpie marker dicks and bomb threats. There, I heard her loud laugh at the table beside mine. I spotted her wide brown eyes rounding as we waited in line for pizza, burnt cheese bubbling under the heat lamps.

I messaged a few friends: Whatever happened to Ashley Cole?

No one knew.

When I searched her on Facebook I learned she had moved to Florida within the last two or three years. In her profile pictures, she held two young kids close to her, a boy and girl. Kindergarten-aged. Ashley beamed in the photos.

I sent another text: Did Ashley transfer because she was pregnant?

They replied: Who cares?

A man appeared in a few of Ashley’s photos. Noticeably older, and huge like an offensive tackle. He had a scraggly beard, wild blond bedhead, and a unibrow. In most of the pictures of the two of them together, they were kissing, mouths open. Just like how she kissed Chris. I found even more evidence of the Ashley I remembered—mirror selfies of her wearing a sparkling fairy costume and neon-pink eyeshadow; candid photos of her laughing, her head thrown back.

Good for her, I thought. She seems happy.

Then I closed the page and forgot about Ashley once again.

 

Six or so months later, a winter storm blew through West Virginia and left me stranded in my apartment for days. I’d just adopted my cat Pearl, and she and I were growing irritated with each other: she climbed my curtains; I squeezed her too hard to my chest. I’d watched too many movies, taken too many naps, eaten too many snacks. I was hopelessly bored.

With the wind whipping snow against my window, Pearl’s eyes wide at the sight, I opened my phone to dozens of Facebook notifications from my closest friends from high school. Amanda had shared an article with the rest of us: “Florida Woman Helped Kill Boy While Playing Video Games.”

I squinted, confused. We don’t know anyone in Florida. But when I opened the page, the mugshot attached to the article made me sit up so fast my head rushed. Ashley looked no different than when I’d last seen her almost ten years earlier. Her skin was pale as ever, and she had a stripe of acne along her jawline; her hair was little longer than I remembered, still parted severely in the middle. Her face registered no emotion.

The article detailed the charge against Ashley: principal to aggravated manslaughter. Legal jargon. It means Ashley didn’t intend to kill her boyfriend’s son, and yet she did. The article described the death in vivid detail. On Christmas Eve a month earlier, Ashley and her boyfriend James—a man older than her by a decade, a man who hired her at first to nanny his children—had been playing Minecraft. James’s kids, a son, Jimmy, and a daughter the press never named, were too excited to keep quiet, too riled up to sleep. As punishment, the two had been forced to stand with their noses against the wall. But Jimmy fought back. (Playfully? Defiantly?) Ashley summoned him to the couch, shoved his face against the cushions, and sat on his back, the game controller still in her hands.

In her police interview, Ashley called it the “squishing” punishment, an escalation of their standard nose-to-the-wall punishment. As the son struggled, clawing at her, James pushed Ashley aside and sat on Jimmy’s torso. Ashley shifted down the couch to sit on Jimmy’s legs. The combined weight of the two of them was almost five hundred pounds. Jimmy protested, screaming I can’t breathe four times. His sister counted.

Then, when the boy went still and silent, Ashley and James strolled into the attached garage and each smoked a cigarette.

I can picture her with startling clarity, rubbing her arms to keep warm on the chilly December night, the smoke rising from her cigarette in a wisp. Ashley told the police that she and James were gone just 10 minutes. That when they returned Jimmy’s lips had turned blue. James called 911 and started performing CPR. Ashley ran back to the garage, the smell of her cigarette lingering, and prayed. That’s the detail that returns to me in quick, breathtaking bursts: I’m pumping gas, and there it is; I’m submerging my hands in suds to wash my dishes, and again. What a sad, stunning desperation, to be 22 and somehow still believe she could pray the boy back to life.

 

I think about Ashley in the first-person plural. We were unkind to her. We mocked her. We rolled our eyes when she spoke, we kicked snow onto her black combat boots, we, we, we

There is more to my story with Ashley.

Like the fact that my friend, Katie, liked Chris, too. Katie didn’t just like him; she yearned for him with a lust I didn’t yet understand. “See him?” she whispered, and nodded toward where Chris stood at his locker, fumbling with the combination. “Who is that?”

“Him? His name’s Chris. Ms. Kumar just moved him next to me.”

Katie quickly turned to me, her blue eyes bright. “He’s in math with you?”

For weeks, Katie escorted me to math. She’d make me linger in the hallway, her fingers gripping my wrist so hard I bruised, until we spotted Chris. He waved, sometimes, but only to me. Then one day he stopped beside us—I can’t remember why, or what we said, or if we really said anything at all. I stood aside as the two of them flirted: Katie’s voice baby-high, and Chris laughing, raking his fingers through his hair.

Later, on the bus, Katie grabbed my elbow and whispered, “Do you think he likes me?”

Lots of boys liked her. She was tiny and blonde, with big eyes and lips shaped in a bow; she wore lots of pink and stuck Hello Kitty pins to her backpack. I nodded. “I’m sure he does.”

Days later, Chris started dating Ashley. The news devastated Katie. Rattled our entire friend group. Hold on, her? Chris is dating her? Anyone who chooses her over you doesn’t deserve you, anyway. Our language was coded. It meant: Ashley was not nearly as pretty or thin as Katie, and those two things mattered most. We didn’t devolve into straight name-calling; we teetered at the edge of it.

There’s that we again.

The snide comments my friends made about Ashley’s body easily could’ve been made about mine. But I didn’t stop them. I laughed, too. I laughed even though I wore low-rise jeans that fell below my hips and rubbed thin in the thighs. Even though I tugged at the hem of my cotton T-shirts, petrified the fabric had lifted and revealed the dark red stretch marks on my sides. Even though I bargained with myself: You can have a boyfriend when you lose ten, fifteen, thirty pounds.

There’s also the fact that Chris confused me more than I ever admitted. My crushes before him were fleeting and insignificant, but Chris triggered a deep curiosity in me. He had long fingers I imagined on me, in me. I’d watch his lap to see if he got hard during class. (He did, often.) I didn’t want to date Chris; I wanted him to want me. Want me more deeply than any other girl. More than Katie. More than Ashley.

I pitted these figures against each other, needling them, weaseling gossip by pretending to be a kind, supportive friend. I used this information for my own gain. Katie’s jealous of you, you know. Ashley’s so obsessed with you. I heard Chris say he thinks you’re pretty.    

And there’s the fact that Ashley and I both rode the bus to the end of the line. Once all my friends were gone, I’d move next to Ashley and listen to her prattle about Chris, about Twilight, about songs she liked. After I got my first phone for my fifteenth birthday, she flipped open her own and shoved it toward me. “Add your number,” she said. “We can text!”

“Ah, shoot. I don’t really remember the digits yet,” I lied.

“That’s okay! Tomorrow?”

I laughed a little too loudly. Ashley blinked hard, and I quickly added, “Sorry, yeah, I’d actually like that a lot.”

“Cool!”

“And maybe we can hang out sometime.” My voice pitched higher.

Ashley’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“Of course,” I said. But I knew we never would.

The next day, I got off the bus at an earlier stop that meant a longer walk home but a shorter bus ride. My friends pressed their middle fingers against the glass and stuck out their tongues at me, slamming the window, shouting. And from her seat up front, Ashley waved, smiling. I looked at my feet and pretended not to see her.

In the original news articles about the crime, angry commenters called Ashley evil. Prayed to God that she’d rot in hell. I wanted to leave a comment of my own: No, no, you have it wrong. That wasn’t Ashley.

 

The Ashley I remember wanted to be liked but didn’t know how. She had more heartbreaks in a year than I’ve had in my life. She was a sad, lonely girl who wanted, just once, to love a boy who loved her back. She was sweet and irritating and not very smart and trying her best, and maybe the reason I didn’t like her was because I worried she reflected more of myself than I ever wanted to admit.

All these years, I’ve assured myself that I was never mean to Ashley. Not outright. The truth is that I treated her with the passive cruelty of teenage girls. I sometimes wonder if that was worse.

In August 2016, Ashley was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. The assistant state attorney pointed an angry finger at her in the courtroom and reiterated her role in Jimmy’s death: “She’s the one who calls him over, she’s the one who sits on him initially. She hears ‘I can’t breathe.’ He’s pinching, he’s scratching, he’s fighting for his life, and the defendant is doing nothing other than adding to his mental anguish.” Ashley sobbed as he spoke, her head bowed, her hair hanging in her face.

Before the judge’s sentencing, she was allowed to make a statement. She slowly rose and stared at the paper in her shaking hands. “I don’t know how to put into words how remorseful I am,” Ashley sobbed. “I just want to do better.”

I believe her. I have to.

 

© Meredith Jeffers
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Meredith’s interview]