36 - Jessica
"On air," one of the men behind a large camera right in front of us says, "In five, four," and he continues to mouth the numbers silently, his fingers counting down to one. The bright lights blare in my eyes and my force myself not to squint, their glare blurring out the features of the audience behind them. Just a crowd, an entity of multiple heads, waiting for my demise.
I won't let them see it. So I lift my chin up higher, brush off my pencil shirt where I sit and readjust the smile on my face.
"Welcome back," one of the hosts – Liz, apparently – cheerfully addresses the audience just as the camera starts rolling. As soon as I knew I'd be featured on the show, I'd done as much research as I could – well, as much as possible on a cell phone on a fifteen minute journey to the studio. I couldn't very well appear on a show without knowing anything about their topics or hosts. Apparently, it is a show that focuses on real crimes and mysteries – no wonder I've never watched it before.
"We're continuing our feature on the crime that occurred atop Blackwood Mountain two years ago," Liz continues with that practiced smile on her face, her dirty blonde hair tied back in a clinical, ponytail high on the back of her head. "And we are now joined by one of the victims, Jessica Mallinson. Jessica?" Liz turns her perk head towards me from where she sits opposite, her body prim and proper on a matching steal bar stool to mine.
"Hello," I respond politely, addressing the camera before flicking my gaze back to Liz. "It's lovely to be here." Generic lines. Easy to say. Easilyy unpersonalised.
"I'm sure it is," Liz's co-host chimes in from beside her. Dean. Another unremarkable name. Where do these studios hire these hosts? "Now, Jessica," he tries his best at sounding pleasant. But his gruff voice doesn't do anything for him – no matter how hard his stylists try to trim his dark scruff. "We understand that you were up on the mountain that fateful night that your friend Emily was shot. Is that right?"
I swallow at the sound of her name. Accompanied by friend. We had been that once. It felt like an age ago. Like somebody had ripped that fact from us like a chunk of flesh. The flesh that had sewn us together as best friends. And then shoved us far away from each other.
It even had a name: Mike.
It had been over such trivial things. Over a guy. How many times, in our haze of adolescence, had we declared that a guy would never separate us?
And yet it had.
And she'd died hating me. And – no matter how much I refuse to believe that Emily is still around, haunting me – she still does.
"Yes," I say, nodding my head, my primness failing. Just for a second. Just while I recover from my diverging thoughts. I hadn't planned this. I hadn't planned it to go this way. "I was. But," I take a breath to explain. And to calm my voice. "I wasn't at the scene when she was... killed."
"Oh?" Liz looks surprised, though I'm sure she already knows the facts. At least the 'facts' that the press force fed people. She's done her own research. "That's interesting."
Dean tries his best to look equally as interested as he leans forward just a bit. I fear that his bar stool is going to topple over from his weight. "May I ask where you were then?" I think Dean needs a lesson in politeness; adding May I ask to the beginning of a question doesn't make it any less rude.
"I," I start, my throat closing up. No, Jessica. My instincts want to switch off. They want to repress the memories, push them away. They threaten everything that I have, every single thing I've recovered for myself.
It feels like I've been like this for such a long time. It had started with Mike. The answer had seemingly lied in pushing him away. He had been the epitome of my past. Every time he came to visit me in rehab, I saw his face – my vision smearing dirt and screams across his skin – I relapsed. I had shoved him away when he'd needed me the most. And it hadn't even been anything to do with him in the first place! It was me! It was always me!
I'd pushed myself away as I had done him. Shoved her in a drawer and locked it, throwing away the key. But she still rattles at it from the inside. Battling to come out. Never fully sealed.
For a brief second, I glance towards the audience, my eyes blinking rapidly at the bright lights. Jessica, I counteract my inner instincts. You've been pushing your past for too long. Open that drawer. Face up to it.
"I wasn't in the lodge," my voice shoots out, shocking even me. I blink, readjusting my eyes to the hosts. A stiff smile returns to my lips. Unnatural.
Dean narrows his eyes curiously at me. I can't tell if he's genuine or not anymore. I feel disorientated. Blinded by the lights. My head throbbing. "Where were you then?"
My throat is dry. I can't look him in the eyes anymore. My neck is sticky with sweat. My face heating up. Dizzy.
"I-" The words are struggling to crawl out of my dry throat. I forget my stature as I swipe the back of my hand against my forehead, sweat clammy against my skin. "I was in the mines."
This stopped feeling like an interview a long time ago. This feels like an interrogation. Someone chiselling into my skull, cracking a big enough hole to see inside. To see my innermost being. The vulnerable, shattered Jessica, broken and lying in the mines. Ribs cracking as she breathes, her bones chattering as she moves. Lost. Looking. Broken.
"The mines?" Liz asks, sceptical. "Why were you there?"
The truth, Jessica.
"I was dragged there."
I can hear the whole audience collectively hitch their breaths. "Dragged?" Liz asks. She looks surprised. But I can't focus my eyes on her. They are wandering everywhere but her face, like my erratic heart. My skin is raw and hot. I can't concentrate.
"By Mike?" Dean leans forward even more, speaking on impulse. He quickly retreats back, his hand lifting to an earpiece as he mutters a short, quiet sorry.
"No," I snap out, my eyes adjusting to the two hosts. My voice is surprisingly strong. I feel an overwhelming need to defend Mike. Whatever he did to Emily, he doesn't deserve this.
He saved my life.
"Not Mike!" I say confidently, my eyes wild. I can even see the doubt in both Liz and Dean's eyes even through my unfocused eyes.
"Who then?" Dean asks cautiously.
I can't answer. I flicker my gaze to the audience. The crew. They'd think I was crazy. They'd all think I was crazy.
"Not one of those... "wendigos"," Liz scoffs, shaking her head and leaning back in her chair. She swivels towards the audience and commentates, "If you haven't seen the news reports – though, I'm sure you have – the defendant Mike has been declaring that some mythical creature was the reason he killed the victim."
The audience ripples in laughter.
I burn. My stomach sizzles, dread and anger twisting it. My fists itch to clench. But I force them not to. I can't.
I straighten my back.
Composure is everything.
"And," Liz pulls out a plastic file from beside her. She's come prepared for this. She wanted this topic to come up. She had been itching for it. "I believe your friend Samantha – who was also another victim – has set up her own blog declaring that these things are real. She seems quite determined." Dean glances at Liz. He didn't know anything about this either. With a smug smile, Liz slips a piece of paper out of the file and adjusts it in her hands. "Let me read an excerpt."
Another laugh from the audience.
They're making fun of them. Declaring them as idiots to the world.
"Stop," I breathe.
Liz glances up. She doesn't look surprised.
"Excuse me?" Liz asks, her head cocked. She sounds pleasant but I can see something unsettling in her eyes.
"Liz," Dean whispers beside her, nudging her in the side. "Stop."
She responds by sending her co-host a glare.
"I said stop," I raise myself up in my seat. I can feel the beady eyes of the audience on me. Sceptical. Comical. Excited for some drama. But I block that out. I've become quite skilled at blocking things out. "They're... my friends."
I haven't said that word in so long. It finally feels like I can breathe. Like that word has been blocking my throat like a plug.
They are my friends. And all I did was shove them away. Shove them in that drawer with myself. Tears sting my eyes. I fiercely swipe them away.
"And," I say sharply. "They're not lying."
I turn quickly to the audience, the bright lights almost blinding me. But I don't stop. I force my gaze to go past them. To those indistinct faces. "Those things. They are real. And I don't care if you don't believe me."
Then I adjust my gaze back to Liz and Dean. They look frozen in their seats. Dean looks terrified. Like he's thinking 'I didn't sign up for this'. Liz just looks shocked. All her words have scattered from her mouth. Just like the papers that had been in her hands – and now had fallen onto the floor.
"I'd care for you to treat my friends with respect," I say, my eyes hardening. I can use my shell for good. "They've been through a lot."
And then I swivel on my chair, hop off it and stride off the stage; branded a fool to the whole nation.