After

By IEatBooksForTea

Mystery / Romance

13 - Chris

I keep hoping that I'll hear her voice with every minute that passes by. Every so often, I hold my breath just in case the sound of it is louder than her fragile words. My left knee bounces nervously up and down, the heel of my barely-smart shoe scuffing against the leg of the wooden bench I sit on.

"Can you not do that?" Sam's cautiously impatient voice whispers beside me.

"Sorry," I reply, forcing my leg to stay still. Hunched over myself, I pull my glasses down my nose and rub my thumb and forefinger into the corners of my eyes. "You should go. Seriously, you don't need to stay-"

"I'm not leaving," Sam says matter-of-factly, leaning back so her spine is pressed against the back of the bench. She crosses her arms, her gaze scanning the hallway of the courthouse, eyes narrowing as if she were sending a clear message to a hidden watcher. "I'm not letting you be alone with this freak following us."

A chuckle rumbles low in my chest, but it is lifeless, drained of energy. "Last time I checked, cameras can't shoot bullets. I think I'm good."

Sam hums poignantly beside me. "You'd be surprised." She thumbs her cellphone, flicking down the website, constantly refreshing it. I don't think there's been a new photograph for half an hour - maybe our mysterious paparazzi got the hint when Sam almost raged off at them.

"Don't look at that," I warn her, my arms slung over my knees. "It's a one way trip to paranoia-"

"Chris?"

Her voice snaps my head up and I'm on my feet, running towards her, not even caring if ignoring the 'Caution: Wet Floor' sign will be my downfall. I skid to a stop, pulling Ashley into my arms, afraid to look at her face in case they've done something to her, in case the fear and hurt is scarred as wrinkles on her pale skin.

"Are you okay?" I breathe out, Ashley mumbling an agreement into my chest, her head moving in a nod.

"Yeah," she promises as she lifts her head and I pull away just enough so that I can cup her face with my hands. "They're... not going to press charges."

My throat lets out a ragged sigh of relief, pulling her back in for another hug - and another, and another. Apparently, time is too short to refrain from hugging.

I'd never tell her but I had been dreading to hear the news that she was going to be prosecuted shortly after Mike - and not just because it was going to drive me insane to see her crumble away like ashes on that witness stand, but because I knew we'd never be able to afford a lawyer. If Ashley had been taken to court, it would have instantly doomed her to a life in prison.

And I'd never get to ask her...

My right hand slips down from her shoulders to her back, subconsciously reaching for her left hand. And ever so slightly rubbing the base of her ring finger before intertwining my fingers with hers.

I barely hear a faint sound of laughter vibrating against my chest, the first sound of even brief happiness I've heard from Ashley - from either of us - in weeks, before I lift her head from my chest and press a longing, well-deserved kiss on her lips.

"Let's go home," I breathe, leaning my forehead against hers. Her smile is small but her eyes are big as they glisten with the tiniest prick of hope.

"Yeah..."


The sun is rejoicing with us as the the humid, summer breeze, churning with the smell of exhaust fumes, greets us outside the courthouse. It's bittersweet but at least it's something.

I hold onto Ash's hand every step of the way, refusing to let go just in case the stalker - or Mike - latches onto her with their greasy, tentacles. My chest feels hollow, my eyes squinting at the bright sun hovering above the pikes and spirals of the towering buildings surrounding us. It's as if I've lost something, or lost sight of something I had been grabbing and stretching for before. Or maybe I don't want to reach it anymore.

This morning, I had been yearning to defend Mike, determined to get his charges dropped so he could walk free. We were one body; all seven of us, the survivors of that horrific night, and we were supposed to work together. But now Matt, the hand, is trying to cut himself off from everyone else, chopping Mike - the arm - off in the process. And Jess, the ear, refuses to listen anymore. She feels so far away.

And the guts are spilling out with no Emily to hold them in place.

Ashley is holding on with the last shreds of her left. But she's still there, the brain, still churning and working, even if she seems diluted.

And Josh. He's my eyes. He sees things I can't. My chest contracts at the thought of him - surely he'd know exactly what was going on with this stalker. He's probably had experience in the field.

At least Sam's still here. At least the heart is still beating for everyone else.

Then there's me. I don't know what I am, not anymore. Before, I was the ribcage, protective and assured. Now... maybe my bones are broken.

When I'd asked Ashley before what she thought I was, she'd giggled with that cheeky look on her face and plainly said, "The funny bone."

"Hey!" I'd retorted, a grin forming on my face. "That's not a good thing! The funny bone doesn't make you laugh, it just makes you swear in pain when you hit it- Hey! Was that an insult?!"

And I'd proceeded to chase her around the room like we were little kids, the walls vibrating from the laughter, before I tackled her to the ground.

"Say that again," I'd warned with my eyebrows raised, a smirk on my lips, my nose inches from hers. She had never looked so beautiful until that moment; her red hair in a tangled mess, her eyes glistening with tears of laughter, a truly joyful smile tugging at her lips.

She'd bit her lip in a grin right then, no fear alive in her eyes, and daringly said, "Funny. Bone."

And I'd attacked her with tickling and kisses.

I wish we could go back to those times, the lull between recovery and anxiety. We were happy then, even if it was just pretend.

"Samantha," a voice pulls my head up, my thoughts snapping back into reality.

There, across the road, is an elderly woman being dragged across a zebra crossing by a seemingly aggravated Wolfie. Although the dog leash looks like it's in worse shape than the woman, canine teeth marks gnawed into the leather, an evident sign that the wolf was not in favour of being leased up.

"Hey, bro," I crouch down as the couple nears, attempting my least-awkward clap of my knees. The least I owed him was a friendly hello.

I'm quickly greeted by a low growl and I snap my hands up in surrender, slowly stretching to my feet. "Ooookaaaayyy," I drag the word out, glancing sheepishly at Ashley who seems quite amused. Well, I certainly know where this animal's loyalties lie. You can take the wolf away from the owner but you can't take the owner away from the wolf.

"Sorry, Samantha," the elderly woman apologises, huffing as if she's just finished a marathon, and finally manages to get Wolfie to sit - though I suspect it's because he's in front of Sam now. Sam responds by dropping to her feet and giving Wolfie a welcome scratch behind the ears. "He kept wining at the door and trying to scratch his way out. If I kept him inside, all my wooden furniture would be left with his claw marks!"

"Could use it as branding," I joke underneath my breath. However, for being over seventy years old, she's got great hearing, her eyes snapping warningly at me. "Oops," I shine her a sheepish smile, feeling Ashley squeeze my hand beside me. I'll probably get told off by her when we get home.

"Thanks, Mrs Henderson," Sam chimes as she takes the leash from the woman's wrinkled hand. In relief, the elderly woman turns on her heel and seemingly skips out of sight, probably dislocating a hip in the process.

"Alright, buddy," Sam pats Wolfie's thick coat before promising, "I'll take the leash off you once we get home. You've got to grin and bear it till then."

And he does.


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