After

16 - Chris

My hands are clamped around the steering wheel of my rusting, clanging, skeleton of a car. They feel clammy and sweaty against the melting, black leather - that fact alone not entirely helping out my situation.

I flex my fingers anxiously, leaning forward and resting my forehead against the back of my hands, knocking my glasses in the process. "Ow," I whimper, but the sharp pain dulls almost immediately, diluted by what is waiting for me inside the building I'm parked outside.

Sam called me. At first I'd seen her name flash on the screen of my cell phone and I'd panicked. My immediate thought had shot to the stalker - she'd been captured, held captive and the man holding her hostage was ringing me so that she could say her last words before he slit her throat.

And I thought Ash was the one with the overactive imagination.

I had picked up the cellphone slowly, my voice filled with trepidation as I'd croaked out a, "Hello?"

Man, was I relieved to hear Sam's voice on the other line; a Sam that didn't sound like she had a knife pressed against her jugular.

Turns out she was panicking for another reason altogether.

"Come on, Chris," I slap my hand against the steering wheel over and over. "Get it together."

Ashley refused to come. She'd insisted on demanding where I was going, who I was seeing; I couldn't lie to her. Not when her face was torn up with worry like that. She'd already had a rough enough day. I couldn't chip away at her anymore.

And when she'd found out about Josh, she'd shaken her head over and over, her feet fixed firmly on the dusty floorboards of our hallway. It wasn't hard to guess that Ashley held a grudge against Josh after all he had put us through. I'm sure she still has nightmares of seeing him torn to shreds beside her, of her face sprayed with his blood, of my hand shaking as I'm reaching for that gun and pressing it against the sticky, cold underside of my chin. And, in her dreams, there aren't any blanks.

We share the same nightmares.

She'd kept shaking her head, her stern, broken eyes brimming with tears, her voice begging me not to go. But I had to go.

He's my best friend. I've hurt him enough already.

With a deep, unsteady breath, I peel my forehead back from the steering wheel, dropping my hands and slowly opening the car door into the cool, night air.

And I step out into the liquid light from a nearby lamp post, climbing up the steps that lead to Sam's apartment building.


"You called Chris," is the first, blatant phrase I hear from Josh as I push the door open.

"Yes, Josh," is Sam's response from the other end of the hall.

Normally, I'm the kind of guy to knock, not break through windows. Apparently, Josh is the opposite. The spray of glass glistens in the dim, narrow hallway, a few shards crunching underneath my feet. Maybe if I'd realised that fact about him earlier, we would never be having this problem - or any problem stemming from that horrific mountain.

"Hey, bro," I creak the living room door open, glancing to see Josh sprawled back against the sofa, pressed against the wall to the right. I'm always constantly amazed that Sam managed to fit a sofa in this tiny room, never mind all the other stuff she's stuffed in.

Sam looks relieved to see me, standing in the middle of the room, across from the doorway. I can't tell if she's keeping her distance from her resident escaped criminal or because she just can't sit still.

"Cochise," Josh drawls, sounding tired. The orange jumpsuit looks baggy on his now scrawny figure. I don't know if he's glad to see me, or if he feels betrayed by Sam because she called someone. He should be glad it wasn't the police.

"I tried to get him to turn himself back in," Sam whispers when I move in closer to her. Just in case, I close the door behind me. "But he keeps saying that it's cold outside." Sam looks like she's on the brink, her eyes shivering with tears. They are trapped in her lower lashes, threatening to escape down the sides of her cheeks.

"Was there any-"

"No," she shakes her head, a tear whipped loose. "I checked on the website. No photos. Thank goodness."

I sigh with relief. If any pictures of Josh breaking into Sam's apartment had been leaked on the Internet, Mike wouldn't be the only one being charged as a criminal.

Before Sam had called me, I'd been working on my little, crude laptop, attempting to trace the website back to its original owner. I hadn't been there long enough to uncover the results, but it hadn't been looking very successful.

"Go. Make yourself some tea or... something," I awkwardly attempt to encourage her, shuffling my shoulders and assuring her that I can deal with Josh. Though I'm not so sure I can.

Sam nods reluctantly. She looks shaken as she slips out of the room, closing the door behind her.

I take a breath, taking off my glasses to rub my eyes, before replacing them and turning to face Josh.

"Hey, man-"

"He doesn't like me," Josh announces, pointing in front of him. There, hunched low, is Wolfie. There is a low grumbling growl coming from the back of his throat. Obviously, he didn't trust me, as much as Sam did, to deal with Josh.

"No?" I make an attempt at conversation, my lips tight in an unsure smile. The last time I had spoken to Josh, he was sat behind glass. Now there was no barrier separating us - though Josh evidently had no respect for glass in the first place, given the state of Sam's bathroom window. "He doesn't like me either."

"Hey," Josh unclips his stare from Wolfie and looks up at me. His eyes look so innocent and hopeful, looking for some kind of approval. "Did I get it right?"

His words hit me in the gut. The court. He means Ashley - if Mike had blamed Ashley like Josh had predicted, had been so sure of. My face crumbles.

"Yeah, bro," my voice is quiet, my features falling, "You got it right." I bend down to clap him on the shoulder which earns a flinch from Josh at the sudden contact.

I have never felt so far away from him as I do now.


I hammer the final nail into the wooden, window frame, stepping back to see my crude attempt at boarding it up. I'd collected the boards we had stored in our flat - from plans of redecoration before our money was only any good for food and bills - that Sam had asked for on the phone from the backseat of my car. I wasn't the most skilled handyman but I was impressed at my ability to be able to actually cover up the whole window.

"Thanks, Chris," Sam says from behind me, leaning against the doorframe.

"Least I could do," I nod, feeling irrationally responsible for Josh escaping prison and harassing Sam. Though she'd never see it as harassment. "Maybe..." I step forward, resting the hammer on the lid of the toilet. "You should let him sleep here tonight. And call the authorities tomorrow..."

"Yeah..." Sam says reluctantly, running her fingers through her hair - my hair is already a mess from doing that all evening - and glancing at the closed, living room door where Josh sits behind. At least Wolfie is there to keep him in order.

I stuff my hand into my jean pocket and pull out my cellphone. I lift it up to show Sam before squeezing past her into the hallway. "I'm gonna phone Ash. Let her know everything's okay."

"Yeah. You do that," Sam agrees before she slips back into the living room. Probably to make sure Josh doesn't attempt to break through the window in that room too - though Wolfie's probably doing a great job of that already.

I hover in the hallway, listening to the constant ringing in my cellphone as I call our home number. One, two, three rings. Four rings. I can feel myself holding my breath, the condensation sticking to the plastic of the phone. Five.

Click.

"Yo!" I hear my voice recorded on our voicemail machine. "You've reached the Chris and," Ashley's voice pipes in with her name before my voice is continuing, "Residence. We're probably off having a romantic getaway someplace in the Himalayas or in the bedroom." This is followed by Ashley's distant giggle. I remember recording this message with her. I'd been trying to hold in my laughter then, battling Ashley's poking fingers away from me so I didn't break my stream of words, grinning from ear to ear. "Leave a message and we'll call back when we're finished with our massages." Ashley had cringed then at the terrible pun. "Peace!"

The phone beeps and I drop my hand in fear. Ashley hasn't picked up.

She always picks up.


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