After

By IEatBooksForTea

Mystery / Romance

44 - Jessica

I've been hovering outside this door for what feels like hours. The shadowy breeze whistles eerily through the hollow stairwell, like the cry of a creature, an echo of a screech. I shiver. Yet I just can't seem to conjure up the courage to knock on the door – to go in. Despite everything, despite their words of forgiveness, I'm still terrified I'll be rejected – something surely well deserved for every time I've rejected them. As soon as there is a single flicker of hope, it is immediately dragged down by inky black claws.

Okay, Jess. I talk myself into it, closing my eyes and taking a breath. And I take one step forward, a positive step. But then fear strikes me again and I'm freezing on the spot, quickly retracting it. Helpless. Frightened. My hands can't help but cling to each other, clammy palms and fingers caught in between.

"Need help?"

My heart almost snaps out of my chest, a puff of air kicking out of me. I'm spinning my eyes around to catch the direction of the gruff voice, meeting with the figure of Tag standing beside me with his hands stuffed in his pockets and a bittersweet glint in his eyes. I didn't even hear his footsteps or feel him appear.

"Tag," I splutter, catching my breath. My heart is pounding from the shock and I have to physically rest my palm to my chest to be able to breathe. Tag is strangely silent beside me, the feeling of his gaze like a burning laser on my body. It studies me, looking through the the thin layers of my skin. Searching. Like he understands me but, at the same time, never has. I recoil. The silence unsettles me, making me want to just slap so that he'll say something.

And then Chris' words stab my mind - "He had no sons" (how had I even forgotten about that?) - and I'm swivelling my whole body around to face Tag, hands hooked at my hips. "Who even are you?"

Tag drops his gaze like he's lost all energy. And he looks weak, hazy, not fully there. "You have to understand, Jessi-"

"Understand what?"

He lifts his heavy eyes to look at me. "Why I did what I did."

Before I can even ask what he's referring to, he lets out a sigh and runs empty fingers through his dark hair. "I needed- the world needed to know about..." He shakes his head, his voice bitter around the next words. "The wendigos." It doesn't look like it tastes good in his mouth.

"So?" My voice is tight in my throat, thumping and throbbing. I can't even tell where this is going. And I can't tell if I'm even scared of him. I feel more curious than anything. Like my eyes are searching for something buried deep underneath his skin.

"I couldn't do it myself," he shrugs, his gaze not meeting mine. "So I had to do it some other way."

My eyes are questions, narrowing at him and waiting for him to continue. For some reason, his skin looks darker here. Maybe it's the low light. But it's more shadowy, more misty. Like all his edges have been blurred, rubbed out by an eraser. "I coaxed Sam into going for that video. It was the easiest way for the world to see the truth. And," he pauses to scratch the side of his face and for a second, it's like the skin has disappeared. And there's nothing there. Like he's just pulled away a part of himself. I blink, squeezing my eyes shut. Open. It's normal. "I knew she'd search for it if she knew it would help Mike in his trial."

Tag lets out a gruff, humourless laugh.

"And then Dr. Hill's stunt was interfering," Tag rolls his eyes, his head shaking to the beating of my heart. It almost audibly echoes in the hollow stairwell, bouncing against the cemented walls. "I'd used it as a way to transfer messages to Sam but I think she and the others freaked out a bit too much. So I figured you all deserved to know the truth. Plus, you were all beginning to think that I was the stalker." I almost scoff. Like Tag had never done that before. He definitely looked like the type.

Tag sighs. "I tried Matt first. But he was too drunk to figure anything out. So I sent you to find that newspaper clipping and figure it out for yourself. But seriously," he rolls his eyes, finally lifting them up to look me down. "What took you so long?" Which is why I roped Ashley and Chris in. That hit the jackpot."

"Who are you?" My voice acts on it's own accord, shocking me. I can feel my words shiver in my throat. I don't think I want to know the answer to that question.

His eyes meet mine. And we're both silent for a while. And for the first time, I notice the wrinkles lined underneath his eyes and at the corner of his lips. It's like he's been ageing more and more every time I've seen him. Like he's been using up energy, ever so slightly shrivelling up.

"Jack," he says quietly, gruffly.

My heart stops. "Like... Jack Hunt?"

Not-Tag nods sharply.

"But, he's dead?" My voice breaks. My forehead creases with the weight of my confusion. Then I mutter, "And a whole lot older."

Tag-turned-Jack shrugs. "Apparently, I lucked out as a ghost," he looks down at his hands, like he's studying them. "I manifested in my younger self. Pretty handsome, right?" Half of his mouth quirks up as a grin.

I almost shove him, rolling my eyes. "Get over yourself," I joke. But my voice falls flat. Tag... is a ghost?! How had I never seen it before? He'd seemed to enjoy popping up whenever he pleased, and then disappear in the same way. I guess, no matter how many wendigos I can believe in, ghosts will never be my thing.

Tag-turned-Jack flickers for a second, like an old television screen losing connection. "My time's almost up," he says low under his breath. He's fading. And I can almost see through to the wall behind him.

His eyes lift up to meet mine. My breath catches. I don't know how I missed the long scar running across his neck. Or maybe it had never been there before.

"Goodbye, Jessica," he says with the last of his strength and he looks less and less visible with every second. And for a brief moment, I'm convinced he looks like glass. And then he fizzles out completely.

And he's gone.

"Bye, Tag." I don't even care if that's not his name. To me, it is. It's how I knew him. And no matter how much of a dick he was at times, I don't think I'll ever forget him.

Gathering up the strength that he lost, I push myself forward and knock on the door of Chris and Ashley's apartment.

The door opens to blast me with a chorus of noise. The distance hums of joyful music and cheers meet my ears, the sound of clinking glasses and laughter. And the doorway filling figure of Mike.

"Jess?"

"Mike," my voice catches in my throat. I haven't seen him since he was released. In all honesty, I'd been avoiding it. Any words of apology have been mangled, unsaveable. They never seem to be enough. Always just words.

Mike looks at me for a long moment – a moment far too long – before his lips are tugged into the slightest hint of a smile. "Good to see you."

"You too," I breathe, worried my words don't sound genuine. Then he's stepping back, inviting me in. Cautiously, I step through the doorway, my heels clicking on the wooden floorboards. There were just some parts of my old life I couldn't leave behind.

"Who is it?" I hear Chris' slurred voice call out from the living room, followed by indistinct laughter.

"It's Jess!" Mike calls back, clicking the door closed. He turns to me, offering out his hands. "Want me to take your jacket?"

For a minute, I want to refuse. Use it as an excuse for me to leave soon, to escape easily. But I mentally scold myself and slowly peel my arms from my jacket, handing it over to Mike.

"Thanks," I mutter, trying to offer him a smile.

"It's all good," he shrugs, taking it to the nearby coat rack and hanging it up with the others. I can immediately recognise Sam 's jacket – and Matt's. "Keeps me busy."

"You're not getting involved?" I nudge my head in the direction of the living room and the laughter.

"Nah," Mike sighs, shaking his head, his thick shoulders shrugging. "Trying to keep my distance from Matt. He's not so... keen on me at the moment."

"I wouldn't be either," I joke, feeling a flicker of the relationship we once had fizzle between us. His eyes meet with mine and I can see the appreciation of my humour in his. For a moment, I regret giving him up. He was good to me, constantly making sure I was alright. Making sure I knew he was there for me. He'd saved my life. More times than once.

But it feels good. Just this moment. It feels promising, like we can restore something of the mutual understanding between us. And I'm not pining after him. I feel no aching in my heart to want him back.

I feel like that space has already been filled by someone else.

A lump of a body thumps into the living room door frame and both sets of our eyes snap towards it. "What are you guys doing?" Chris' brow creases before he's grinning. "Come on, there's gonna be a speech!"

And then he stumbles back into the room. Mike and I pass glances before we're being pulled in by cheers from agreeing Sam and Ashley.

"Okay, okay," Chris takes the stage in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. I find myself attracted to the room, stepping in further as Mike hangs back beside the hallway door frame. Sam glances up from a nearby sofa, smiling happily at me and reaches out to hand me a freshly poured champagne glass. I find myself smiling back, taking the cool glass in my hand. For the first time, I'm sure that her smile is genuine.

"Who's doing the speech?" Chris slurs, then breaks it with a wide, cheesy smile. "Oh, it's me!" A groan spreads across the room, unappreciative of Chris' drunken jokes. I think he's had too much champagne.

"Oh, boo!" Chris jeers jokingly, pulling Ashley up from her seat and hooking his arm around her waist. She lets out a gasp before it evolves into a giggle. And Sam perks up a chant of, "Speech speech speech speech!" which is generously joined with Mike behind me. And even Matt in the armchair to the corner of the room.

And then me. My voice works on it's own accord, hearing it join in with the cheers. And I'm smiling. It's been so long since I felt like I belonged somewhere – like I belonged here. And these people, my friends have managed to make me feel that effortlessly.

"Fine fine," Chris pretends to give in, before raising his champagne glass and proclaims, "To my beautiful wife- whoops!" He grins, pretending to slip up as Ashley glares at him. But I can see the humour, love and pure adoration in her eyes. It's like she can't stop gazing at him. "My soon-to-be wife! To everyone here. We couldn't have done it without you." He clinks his glass with Ashley

My eyes skim the room. Appreciating the realness of the people here. The acceptance. The diversity. Sam has never once been the anti-hero. Despite my twisted up fears, I know she'd never turn anyone down. She'd never abandon anyone.

Mike – he'd broken every rule I'd created. But he'd never once given up. He'd always been fighting for something. Once, fighting to save me. Then, fighting to free himself. And now, fighting for a life. One I hope he'll eventually let me be a part of – or I'll be able let myself be a part of.

And Chris. He was more supportive than he probably knows. Each smile, each reassuring word had pulled me back. He had been there when I most needed him. And Ashley had been that to him. I'm sure he wouldn't be the man he is today without her.

And I wouldn't be the woman I am now without Matt. He'd been shoved at me, a drunken mess. And then had pulled me into a whirlwind of lost memories and frustrated tears. And we'd clung to each other. We'd been so close.

Across the room, my eyes meet his. It's like a sizzling of electricity. An understanding. He smiles. My lips tug in the same direction. It's like we're touching hands across the room. Nothing can break the connection between us, like a thick, intertwined cord.

"And to Josh," Sam chimes, a nostalgic smile on her face.

"To Josh," Chris agrees, his lips settling into a more wistful, real smile. For a moment, it's second of realisation, of remembering. And then it's morphing into one of humour again. "Who'll probably wind up back in prison as soon as he gets out!"

Another round of glasses clinking against each other.

Then silence covers us.

"And to Emily," my voice breaks as it cuts through the silence. All eyes turn to me. Shock, surprise and then acceptance dawns on the faces of all those watching me. "It isn't the same without her."

"To Emily," the words ripple across the room. There's a moment of remembering. A meaningful forgiveness. A time that matters.

And as the voices begin to swim around the room again, slowly bustling with conversations and swinging of alcohol, my eyes lift up to the ceiling. I never thought I'd be thinking this but, wherever she is, I hope she's looking down on us and smiling.

Or, at the very least, complaining that she didn't get to taste the champagne.

I lift my glass up and smirk. It's not very good champagne anyway.


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