28 - Chris
"Let me explain," Dr. Hill adds curtly, a sanitary smile adopted on his features.
My blood is hot – boiling over the heat burning from my twisted stomach – my muscles twitching underneath my taut skin. I try and logically talk myself out of any sudden act of anger. It would only result in me getting arrested for assault. Hear him out, I insist.
Ashley looks the opposite. Her back is pressed up against the spine of her chair, as if she were trying to melt into it; and disappear. Her eyes are wide and terrified, her body instinctively putting as much distance between her and our stalker as possible. If I hadn't been holding onto her hand, I'm sure she would have leapt to her feet and sprinted across the room by now.
"I never intended for you to find out about the photographs," Dr. Hill looks regretful, glancing down at his calm, clasped hands. It looks like he's been preparing for this for a long time – like he's done this before. "It was unfortunate how you found out." He nods in our direction and I scowl back at him, tasting bitter venom in my mouth. It's like onions, stinging my eyes.
"Right," I reply, bitter, through my words shake and I'm unsure in my seat.
"But," he eyes me daringly, adjusting himself in his seat, leaning against the desk with his forearms. "You have to understand why I-"
"Get to the point," Ashley mutters under her breath. I glance at her in surprise. Her voice is strong, but it quavers and I can see anxiety shivering behind her eyes. Her whole body is quaking. She wants to get out of here as soon as possible.
Dr. Hill nods appreciatively in her direction. I want to smack him across the face – but, instead, I grip my fingers around the cushioned arm of my chair to stop myself. In fear of my hand sinking into his waxy skin. In fear of him crumbling apart at my touch, revealing a skeleton held together by cobwebs and spiders. Because that's exactly what he looks like right now. Death. "Why, yes," he smiles politely, his skin stretching unnaturally across his cheeks. "Of course."
And then the leather of his chair creaks as he pushes himself up from it.
"As I'm sure you know," he begins as he proceeds to pace the room, from the wall to the window and back, his hands clasped behind him. "Your friend Josh was my patient."
I stare at him, my eyes widening in disbelief. So this was who Josh's psychiatrist was? He never liked to talk about it, always avoiding the subject. We generally resorted to alcohol anyway. I didn't like to get involved – not with anything that would make either of us uncomfortable. Sometimes, I wish I had. Maybe that could have stopped all this...
Ashley grips my hand beside me, as if she knows, as if she can see where my mind is regressing to. I snap out of it, my jaw tightening.
If this was who was treating him...
No wonder Josh went insane.
"Such a shame what happened to him," Dr. Hill mutters nonchalantly.
I almost want to growl at him. But more so, I want to growl at myself. Guilt stabs at my stomach, twisting and wrenching it apart. My chest feels compressed, like I can't breathe, like I'm gasping for air. The more I look at Dr. Hill, more I see of myself – of what I didn't do for Josh. Of pulling the lever towards him, of watching him cry out in desperation, spitting out that he thought we were friends. Of seeing agony rip him apart.
Even if it hadn't been real, it was real in my head. Even if pulling the lever didn't really kill him, I still pulled it. I still didn't help him. I still didn't stop this from ever happening.
You couldn't have known. Ashley's words ring in my head, calming, relaxing. She used to say them over and over, when I'd finally spilled out these thoughts to her. You saved my life, Chris. That's something. My joints and muscles begin to uncoil and I collapse back against the chair, finally able to breathe. Whatever was pressing against my chest is lifted. Just a little.
Dr. Hill steadies his feet where he stands and smiles at us as if he knows exactly what I'm thinking. Of what Ashley's thinking. I glance over at her. Her eyes are glassy, frozen, and she's scattered the photographs across the floor. She couldn't bare to touch them anymore.
But I can see anxiety and – even more so – anger harbouring under the surface of her skin. She looks like a volcano, ready to erupt.
"His parents noticed," Dr. Hill says knowingly, turning his attention to me. I twist my neck to look at him, a mixture of hatred, panic and confusion narrowing my eyes. It is only her words in my head keeping me calm. Keeping me within my seat, "That the treatment wasn't working. Josh wasn't... taking his medication. So they threatened me." He shrugs his shoulders as if what he was saying the most natural thing in the world. "Said they'd out me to the world, make me lose my job and my reputation. So," he steps towards me again, placing his palms flat against the desk. "I had to come up with a back up."
"What back up?" I rumble, my throat closed and wheezing. Panic is very slowly settling into my skin, building and building. Each of this man's words lays another layer.
"Research," he explains in one word, as if it were obvious, using his hands to indicate the pictures. He seems quite amused that half of them have been flung across the floor. "I knew what Josh had planned and so I devised a plan."
"You couldn't stop him?" Ashley asks incredulously under her breath, the volcano bubbling and frothing over.
Dr. Hill shakes his head with another one of those infuriating, polite smiles on his waxy skin. "Not legally, unfortunately."
"When were you ever all for legality?" I mutter, picking up the file on my knees, photos in hand, and throwing them across the floor to joining Ashley's. A feeling of satisfaction runs through me. I suddenly just want to lug everything on his desk across the floor just to see his reaction. In the corner of my eye, I see a hint of a smile tugs at Ashley's lips. Pride. Relief. Teamwork.
"You'd be surprised," Dr. Hill smirks before adjusting himself back to pacing the room. "You see, Christopher. Ashley. I knew everything that Josh had planned. And where it would be. And when. So I merely... organised for you to be monitored from the moment you stepped off that mountain. Of course I had never imagined you'd face far more traumatic events than a mere prank."
I shake my head in disbelief. If only he knew.
"Oh, I do know, Chris."
I blink, freezing in my spot. How the hell could he tell?
"After all, I have been watching you. Your tales of creatures is very entertaining."
Ashley snaps up in her seat, her hand slipping away from mine in the sharp movement. "You know nothing!" She shouts, her voice breaking, her eyebrows creasing, her mouth set in pain.
Dr. Hill smiles gently towards her – but even that looks sick. "I am sorry for what you have experienced, Ashley," he nods and she shrinks back and I just want to reach out and shake whatever the hell he's going to say out of him. "But I saw an opportunity that I couldn't resist. To research the reactions and coping mechanisms of victims of such tragic events in a natural environment. I'm sure that when it is published, it will sell millions. What with your fame rising with the court case and-"
"So, we're just your lab rats?" Ashley cries, her words breaking and crackling as she practically quakes where she sits. I can't tell anymore if it's with anger or fear.
"Such a harsh term, Miss Ashley," his lips twist upwards. "I'd call it... volunteers."
And then he lifts up the contracts that we signed, his finger pointing to one line; I am aware that Dr. Hill will be in need of my agreement to concede details of my private life to allow him to do his work.
"I believe you have already agreed to this."