7 - Chris
I squeeze her hand, my palm clammy with nerves. "We got this," I assure her though my own skin is riddled with anxiousness. She can see it in my eyes - like she always does. We can always tell when the other is on the brink.
"We just need to go in there and..." I breathe. "Tell the truth."
We are the witnesses of Emily's death. They need us to verify Mike's words. Mike needs us to defend him.
"They'll believe us," Ashley insists, though I can see her eyes shivering with worry, anxiety. "They have to!"
She's tried her best to comb her hair back into a high ponytail, her body clad in the neatest clothes she wears to work at the school. I've tried to match her efforts with dark jeans, a button up shirt with an inconspicuous pattern that I hope the court won't notice, and a dark grey, suit jacket - that I borrowed from a colleague at work - that is too big on my shoulders; the trousers didn't fit.
It's all we can afford. But we try.
Wordlessly, I manoeuvre our hands so that I can entwine my fingers with hers. I hope that I get called first. I hope that they don't hound into her with their brutal questioning. I hope that they believe us.
Despite what Sam says.
Sam was called first.
We wait with unsteady knees and sweaty palms, our breathing erratic as our ears are trained to listen for the distinct sound of the door opening, someone coming to call us for our questioning.
"Ash," I whisper quietly, the huge hallway of the courthouse far too big and imposing with its tall ceilings and ornate panels, to speak openly. My voice echoes anyway.
I swivel on my seat to face her. She's buried her face in her palms, breathing regularly like we'd been consulted to at the psychiatrist's. I reach forward and capture one of her hands, peeling it away from her face, her visible eye rolling to look at me. "Whatever happens in there," I clasp her hand in both of mine. "I- I love you."
She narrows her eyes, a weak, playful scoff escaping her lips. "It's not like we're going to die in there," she rolls her visible eye but I can still see the underlying nervousness bubbling under her skin. Her imagination is too vivid to force out theories and predictions of death and monsters and-
"Just-" I start.
The heavy door creaks open and I straighten in my seat immediately, keeping Ashley's hand in one of mine. She drops her other from her face, her eyes trained on the direction of the door, just beyond the corner of the hallway.
Sam appears around the corner, a solemn expression fixed on her face.
I stand up immediately, Ashley following suit, panic stricken across her features.
"What's happening?" I ask suddenly, taking a step towards our friend who has just emerged out of the courtroom.
"He's pleading self-defence," she explains when she reaches us.
"Are they taking him seriously?" I ask just as Ashley steps forward, demanding, "What's he saying? Did he say anything about me?"
I glance at her in bewilderment, shocked at her sudden outburst.
But before any of us can answer, the door heaves again, steady footsteps heading in our direction. "Christopher Sutherton?" The man asks, clasping his suit clad arms behind his back, his dark skin glistening underneath the bright light.
"That's me," I awkwardly lift my arm as if I'm back in high school. His cool, hard gaze does feel particularly oppressive.
"You have fifteen minutes," he informs, before turning on his heel, his shiny black shoes squeaking against the marble floor.
Yet all I feel I have time for is pressing a kiss to Ashley's forehead, sharing a good luck glance with Sam and following my escort into the courtroom, awaiting my time to be called.
Sam finds her seat next to me as my throat tightens, watching the witness box where Ashley sits. I barely have time to cast a 'thanks' glance to Sam for staying with Ashley before she was called, when the defence steps down from questioning my girlfriend.
Mike sits in the defendant space where his lawyer returns to his seat. He shares an assuring gaze with Mike who seems to be finding it hard to breathe despite his calm expression.
Matt, on the other side of the courtroom, is the opposite. I saw him when I took my place on the stand, his eyes hard and dark – an expression in them I'd never seen before. He's different than when he was up on that mountain with us. There is no happiness left in his eyes, his dark skin marred with scars and an E shaped tattoo twisting up his neck.
The lawyers were surprisingly feeble with me, the defence only asking me about the 'apparent' wendigos, and the prosecution confirming that I was a witness to Mike shooting Emily. The prosecution didn't even spend much time trying to disprove the contention of the wendigos – evidently, Sam was right. They saw no point in trying to address that issue, evidently finding it unbelievable already.
"Apparently," Sam leans in to whisper in my ear. "The defence presented Emily's bite mark as evidence."
I glance towards the girl beside me, swallowing hard, hope building in my stomach. Maybe that will be enough to prove to the jury that it wasn't some normal creature who attacked her.
"They-" Sam starts but the voice of the prosecution cuts her off.
My eyes fly to Ashley who looks like she's in a puddle of tears. Her fingers are gripping the barrier in front of where she sits, her nails digging into the wood as her hands shake.
I desperately want to run up there and hug her, wrap her in my arms and shield her from their verbal bullets.
"So this diary," the prosecution paces in front of her stall, a smug look on his face, his eyes hard with determination. "You say that it had information on the, so called, wendigos in it."
"Yes," Ashley insists, her voice breaking, and she looks like she's about to jump out of her seat.
"Hmmm," the prosecution hums, tapping his chin with his index finger. "Was there anything in this diary that informed you about the bites from these... creatures."
Ashley's face drains with mine.
"Uh-uh," Ashley is stuttering and my throat is running dry, my legs itching to stand up, to protest.
The prosecution leaps forward, slamming his hands on the railing she's holding, her hands flying back in shock. "I can't hear you," he cocks his head, leaning his ear in her direction.
I can see Ashley swallow and my jaw is tight, my fists clenched beside me, knuckles whitening. Sam rests her hand on my shoulder, her action pushing me back down in my seat.
"Yes," Ashley says finally, lifting her chin to ensue confidence, but I can see the tear dribbling down her cheek, my body filling with rage and hurt and desperation.
"And what did it say in this diary?" The prosecution smirks. "About this bite the victim had?"
"That-" She starts, her eyes darting away and I can tell she wants to escape. Mike is shuffling uncomfortably in his seat, his lawyer giving him an assuring glance. Then Ashley's eyes meet me and I reach out to her with mine. I have no words but I need her to know that I'm here for her. And she knows that; I see the reminder in her eyes, her gaze settling. She doesn't adjust her gaze from me, taking my eyes as the only confidence she has to say this. "That the bite wasn't infectious."
The prosecution slaps the barrier with his palm victoriously, stepping back and turning to the judge, "Thank you, Your Honour," before returning to his seat.
Ashley looks relieved to be out of the prosecutions shadow despite how jittery she is. She avoids Mike's eyes as she is shakily guided out of the stall and out of the courtroom.
"Ten minutes recess," the judge announces just as she bangs her gavel against her wooden desk. As soon as the words are said, I snap to my feet and hurry out of the room to find Ashley.