39 - Jessica
Their eyes shun me from the studio. It makes me walk faster, the exhilaration from the action on the stage burning up quickly, giving just enough energy to rush past my ex-dressing room and then escape the building completely. It feels like I've lost something – a thing that I might regret soon. But I don't think I ever had wanted it in the first place. For the first time, something feels right. I feel free. And I just need the wind to kick up underneath my wings so I can sweep myself up into the sky.
But as soon as my body hits the cool breeze outside, I realise I'm too heavy to do that. It's not enough for me to declare to the world that I regret abandoning my friends without saying that to their faces. Without plucking up the courage to apologise. And, in most ways, that's harder than announcing it to millions of people across the world. Because those people don't know the inner most intimacy's about me. They've seen a surface image, a glossy painting constructed with paper-thin skin and make up. Matt, Sam, Chris, Ashley. Mike. Damn, even Josh. They've all seen what's under there. And it's not pretty.
You need to do it, Jessica.
No matter how much I want to cringe away from it. As much as I want to pat myself on the back for standing up in front of a nation and then call it a day, I know I can't.
My hand hesitates before it slips inside my pocket and pulls out my cellphone. I flick open my contacts, taking a breath and swallowing it right back down. Maybe, subconsciously, I knew this was going to happen. Because I've kept all their contacts. They've all just been sitting there, waiting to be called. Just in case.
I can't call Matt. He doesn't even know I need to apologise to him.
And Mike is out of the question. For one, he's locked in prison. Secondly, I doubt he'd ever want to hear from me again. Not after what I did to him.
My thumb scrolls down my contacts, hovering over Sam's name. For a second, I envisage her understanding self letting a smile settle on her face. And then my mind twists it into a grimace. A glare that doesn't fit right in Sam's face.
My thumb scrambles up my contacts and stab Chris' name before I can rethink it. It's okay, Jess. Chris will listen. Memories of his face at the prison, when I'd traipsed past him, hover inside my head, reassuring me. He had looked so open, like he'd wanted me to speak. To talk to him. And in the hospital too. With Ashley. There had been no hatred in his eyes. No grudge.
With a heavy hand, I lift the cellphone to my ear just as I hear a click and Chris' voice mutter, "Hello?" on the other end.
Jess. For a second, I'm frozen. Say something.
"Chris?" I say before my instincts can force my body to hang up.
"Jess?" Chris asks dubiously. Like he'd never expected me of all people to phone.
A day ago, I'd have never expected me to phone.
"Yes," I breathe, trying to steady myself. My legs are rattling underneath me. The burning hot exhilaration has fizzled out. Now I'm just freezing in the cold wind, huddling within myself. I glance back at the studio. It's so tempting to just go back inside, to warm back up in it's comfort. But I can't. I can't go back to that life anymore. "It's me."
Chris sounds almost flustered. But then he coughs to clear his throat, sounds of clinking glasses and bustling sounds of life behind him, and says, "'Sup?"
The rusting, car door creaks with a horrendous, oil-deprived squeak as Chris opens it from the inside. I try my best to twist my cringe into a smile. But I'm sure it just ends up looking like a highly unattractive grimace.
A day ago – no, an hour ago – I'd never be seen dead inside a car like that. It looks just like Chris has picked it from the scrap yard and haphazardly painted it a maroon red. But it's surprisingly a lot more appealing than trapping myself alone within a taxi.
"You getting in?" Chris raises his eyebrows, gesturing to the seat beside him. I offer him a somewhat pleasant smile and remind myself I'm supposed to be making amends before I nod and make my way down the steps to his car. He leans back as I reach it and, hesitating briefly, climb into it, closing the door behind me.
"So, where you going, Ma'am?" He sets a grin on his face. I forgot how irritating his humour was. But at that moment, I'm surprisingly grateful for it. It immediately breaks the tension. I sink back into my seat, clipping on my seatbelt.
"Don't expect me to pay you for this," I mutter, the slightest of smiles tugging at the side of my lips.
Chris chuckles, his taxi facade dropped. For a moment, I think I see it drop too far, where he's flexing his hands on the steering wheel, his adam's apple bobbing. Something has happened. I can't tell what.
But then he twists the key in the ignition, adjusts the gear stick and splutters the car into life.
"Just," Chris shifts his jaw side to side, unsure of whether to say his next words, "So you know. Matt's at the cafe too."
"Matt?" I thought I left him in the apartment. I let out a frustrated sigh, shaking my head. But then I remembered leaving the keys for him – saying it was just in case he needed to escape. Because of a robber. Or, you know, a fire. But maybe it was because I didn't want to trap him like I was trapping myself. It was probably some ridiculous metaphor of letting him be free. Or something.
"Yeah," Chris hums, the car chugging along the road. I almost think I can smell the smoke coming out of the exhaust. "There's... something really off with him." He glances at me for a brief second before adjusting his gaze to the road. Safety first. "Do you know what's happened?"
A sigh escapes my mouth. Of course they noticed. Even if Matt wasn't spitting out about Emily, it was still pretty obvious that there had been a drastic change. "Yes," I swallow. "It's a long story." I lean my head against my palm, my elbow hooked in the side of the door. "He's... forgotten all about Emily dying... or something."
Chris is silent beside me. I can almost envision his eyes widening, almost falling off from the road. 'Unbelievable'. Yeah. I know.
"Some... guy," I breathe out, putting to hell with all my reservations. "Turned up at my doorstop. Asked me to look out for Matt. Said his name was Tag, that he was the son of someone who died on the same night that Emily did."
Chris has stiffened beside me. "Are you sure he said his name was Tag?" his voice is small. I glance at him in surprise. Worry is stricken across Chris' face. Has he met Tag too?
"Yes?" I say slowly, dragging the word out, worry finding itself in my voice too.
Chris slips the end of his tongue out of his mouth, his lips dry, before he swallows. His eyes are locked on the road. "Jessica," he says slowly. "I've looked into the guy on the mountain. The guy who came to speak to us. Some stranger." He breathes heavily, the car slowing at a red traffic light. He pulls on the handbrake and finally looks at me.
My heart is beating unrationally in my chest. I want to just bark, "What is it, Chris?!" just to get him to spit it out. Apparently, I don't like suspense.
"News reports. They said his name was Jack Hunt," Chris mouths the words slowly, his eyebrows folding over themselves. "And that he didn't have any close family. He didn't have any sons."