22 - Chris

Is this some kind of sick form of subliminal messaging?

I hadn't felt at all at ease stepping into this deluxe hospital that rich people just throw money at. Dollars splatter against the chrome walls like eggs, smeared and dripping with white shell and sloppy yolk. It's the equivalent of reaching Level 99 in the video game of life.

Inside those compressing walls, I feel like a puzzle piece that someone was shoving into the last available space – but I just won't fit. The cramming crushes my edges, suppressing and suffocating me. But I don't belong to that jigsaw. I don't even belong in that box.

I don't know if I even belong anywhere.

Ash squeezes my hand beside me. No. I'm wrong. I have Ashley. She's where I belong. She's my home.

The skin at the back of my neck prickles. I'm staring down at the decrepit newspaper clipping in my all too clumsy fingers, bewilderment and fear sizzling up my back like a burn. Eyes watch us through the walls – no, there are no walls. Not anymore. There is never anything that promises us privacy. Our lives are public property.

This hospital is incredibly skilled at making me uncomfortable.

"When did you get this, Jess?" I ask, glancing to her quickly, trying to swallow my panic. This was no coincidence that we were both led to this infamous Dr. Alan Hill. The person that had coerced Ashley away, had taken her on a bread crumb trail to this damn appointment card was leading Jessica to him too.

What the hell did a psychiatrist have to do with anything?

The gears are working in Ashley's head; I can see them twisting and churning behind her eyes. She's thinking, she's working this out – she was always much better at that than me. "Who gave this to you?" She asks, her determination pushing her forward

Jessica looks like she's in the worst place possible right now. Her eyes keep flickering behind us, to the glimmering, green exit sign. If Ashley had ever been invited inside my brain, she'd definitely be piping up right about now, proclaiming that those signs are just like Oz's Emerald City – a place that indicates perfection, but ultimately lies. I'd just compare it to the charging sign on my cellphone when I plug it in to the socket.

Jessica's jaw tightens and I can see the debate in her eyes. Ashley looks like she wants to reach over and comfort her – or shake it violently out of her.

"Matt," Jessica breathes, her gaze flickering away, landing anywhere but on us. She bites her lip uncomfortably – I'm sure if it was her birthday, she'd be using her candle wish on us; precisely that we didn't exist.

I hadn't exactly had the most positive reunion with her in the prison visitor room. It didn't bode well for me.

"Matt?" I stare in disbelief, scratching the back of my neck. Was he the one behind all this? I find myself matching Ashley's steps forward, instinctively standing beside her again – like a magnet.

Jessica lets out an exasperated sigh, and I can tell that she's panicking. She feels like she's cornered too – and not just here. All the time.

She's just like me.

"He's here," Jessica spits out, her voice breaking. Her knees look like they're about to buckle underneath her, sending her tumbling to the cold, probably-marble floor. But, of course, she'd always do it elegantly.

Ashley tenses beside me. Her I know instantly; Matt hates her. He must, after what had happened in that room with Emily... and after Mike practically announced to the whole world that it was all Ashley's fault. My hand wants to twist into a fist at the reminder, but instead I focus those feelings into reaching out for and squeezing Ashley's hand reassuringly.

She doesn't need to know that I hate for her, so she that has room to breathe.


But before Jess can even consider refusing to answer, a doctor approaches her wearing a cliché, long white coat – though his one is probably made out of silk.

"Madam," he says curtly, though there is a knowing glint in his eyes. It isn't entirely settling. I wouldn't be paying for him as a doctor, no matter how expensive his uniform was. "You can see him now."

She clenches her jaw and there's a brief moment where we share a look; I can't believe he called me 'Madam'. And then she rearranges a polite, practiced smile on her face. "Thank you."

Five minutes to go. Five minutes until this souvenir of an appointment. I still don't know what the hell we're doing here. I don't know why I was coerced into agreeing to follow whatever the heck this 'clue' was.

But Ashley being Ashley can't just walk away from something like this. I half expect her to pull out a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat and shove a bowler hat on my head and declare that I'm John Watson. I should have come prepared and brought a pipe.

"I'm nervous," Ashley breathes, restless beside me on the maroon waiting room. This area of the hospital feels entirely different to the pristine, chlorine smelling halls we had been hovering in before. Someone has obviously attempted to design this waiting room to look as homely as possible, with Victorian doppelgänger wallpaper clinging to the walls, a clothes stand beside the door and there's even a plant in the corner. Of course. There's always a plant.

The woman behind the reception clicks her pen against the side of her mouth over and over as her eyes scan the same piece of paper endlessly. I just want to reach forward and snap it from her fingers, ripping it to shreds. That would be one less problem for her.

"Me too," I admit, glancing to Ashley who's biting into the flesh of her bottom lip. In the span of seconds, I've prayed that nothing to follow this moment will be taxing on her mental state. She's determined that she can handle it – that just because I'm the guy doesn't mean I'm better than her. But I'm scared that, one of these days, something will break her.

Above the reception, someone has pinned up a wide mirror. I can see our reflections in it, our dishevelled, thrifted clothes and our forehead creased with trepidation. We look so different, so out of place. So... empty.

I hate looking at my reflection.

The phone at reception turns out to be our ally in this situation – bursting to life just at the right time before I go insane from that pen clicking. The receptionist drops the pen, clattering it against her desk, before she plucks the phone from it's nest.

"Yes," she hums, seeming to also be relieved to get away from that piece of paper. "Yes... Yes, they're here." Here eyes flicker over to us and I tense. Ashley straightens her back, swallowing. It isn't hard to find her hand and take it in mine. It seems to be something I do a lot lately – maybe it's more for my comfort than hers.

"Okay, thank you... goodbye."

The phone goes down with a click and then she's raising her eyes to us. "You can go through now," she smiles all too politely, indicating the door to her right with her hand.

We have to peel ourselves from the seats, completely convinced that we don't, under any circumstances, want to step inside that room.

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