It felt ironic to have panic attacks when you were studying to be a therapist.
Ashley knew the symptoms by heart, knew the causes, had learned to recognize the early premises, and yet, she had no clue how to stop the wave of fear, pain, and tears. She had tried grounding herself – hands tightened around fistfuls of fabric, counting blue objects in a blurry, watery world, focusing all too much on the taste of salt and sometimes blood when she bit down on her lips too hard –, had tried escaping to her "happy place" – that definitely didn't help because the only place her mind could picture in those moments were that god-forsaken mountain, and she ended up surrounded by snow and darkness every single damn time –, had tried talking it out and maybe it could have done her some good if she had stopped sobbing long enough to string together two damn words.
She was lucky that Chris was patient enough with her when she got lost in the memories.
They were spending one week out of two in his parents' home and the other at hers, because their family wanted to have them close and it felt like they could only live together these days. The bed was warmer when they were two people under the blankets.
She couldn't fathom being alone in times like these.
Maybe that was why she was now closer to most of her classmates than ever. She was still shy, but it felt better, safer, to not be alone. She had been alone one single time on the mountain, arm stretched out to open the trap door where Jess's voice was coming from, and suddenly she had gotten the feeling she was seconds away from death. She had fled, reunited with Chris, and since then she had never been on her own again.
Sometimes, she couldn't help but wonder if her classmates were only drawn to her by morbid curiosity and a subconscious desire to study a trauma-survivor up close. Even if that was the case, she couldn't really blame them though, because right now Josh was five feet away from her and she was over-analyzing her own emotions and his even-so-slight movements.
From time to time, she looked up at Chris's face, sitting beside her on the bed, and was each time amazed to find him seemingly happy and relaxed. She, on the other hand, still felt very uneasy around Josh. She agreed to see him when she was at Chris' place because she didn't want him to choose between his girlfriend and his best friend – not again –, but she always found an excuse to get out of ever allowing him to visit her own house. Chris apparently got the hint though, because after a few times he stopped talking about him when he was in her room.
"Love, it's your turn to play."
"Of course, you're the kind to give each other pet names…"
Ashley tried to block out the boys' bickering as she gazed at the game board, her brows slightly furrowed. Damn, once again, she could only understand one thing: she was definitely losing. If Chris usually sucked at cards, he could only admit one opponent when playing Settlers of Catan: Josh. Sometimes she wondered why she still tried.
"Oh, go to hell, I give up for this round. I'm heading to the kitchen, want something?"
"If you get water, bring me a glass please Ash."
She squeezed Chris's hand before letting it go regretfully and scurried out of the room.
As she was watching the water filter drip slowly, her fingers were tapping nervously on the counter. She glanced at her phone – no new messages since Chris was busy –, stared at her wallpaper for a few seconds and slipped it back in her back pocket with a sigh. She still couldn't really wrap her head around how Chris had forgiven their friend – former friend? – that easily. The Ouija board, the scary basement, the fake ghost, that she could half-heartedly understand. But the grinding of the circular saw and Josh's screams were drilled into her skull and sometimes she felt like she could still hear them, as well as the gunshot, the deafening silence aftermath, when she was too afraid to open her eyes and discover who had died – her or him. She had never feared for her life before, and it made her realize how fragile and meaningless it was – and that was terrifying.
When she came back to Chris' room, it was to found him… wrestling with Josh? For a split second, she had a flashback of their struggle against the psycho, but it was obvious they were playing around.
"Get off me, you pervert!"
Josh finally gave up and sat back on the floor, still grinning ear to ear. It distorted his facial scar in a way that made Ashley cringe internally.
"You started it, buddy," he said to a very flustered Chris.
She decided it was a good time to chip in:
"What happened there?"
"Apparently, your serial-texter of a boyfriend thought that he couldn't live without you for five min- ow!"
"What that weirdo is trying to say," explained Chris, eyes glued to his glasses as he conscientiously wiped them, "is that I tried to send you a text, mixed up the phone number and ended sending it to him."
"And what he isn't saying," Josh head-butted again, "is that it was a 'dirty text'."
Yes, he included air-quotes. Ash felt her cheeks turning red and shook her head:
"I don't want to hear any more about this."
"I'm disappointed though, I came very close to fulfilling my dream of kissing everyone in our little group…"
"Pervert," Chris repeated – or rather, hissed.
The thought of a particular "seven seconds in Heaven" game made Ashley blush even more. She tried to force a smile on her lips.
"Try your luck with Matt or Mike before setting your hands on my boyfriend, please and thank you very much."
"Already done, sorry honey."
"I'm going to ignore what you just called my girlfriend," Chris said, "and yes, I remember I dared you to kiss Matt just to piss off Emily at my birthday. But Mike…?"
"He said he hadn't kissed anyone from the same sex, so sorry honey…" Ash paused, letting him enjoy a taste of his own medicine. "… but you are a liar."
"Well… that was almost a month ago…"
Josh's voice quieted down as he spoke, and he was now almost shyly avoiding their two dumbfounded gazes fixated on him.
"Had there been a game night where we weren't invited?" his friend tried after a second of silence.
"Not that I'm aware of," he answered, his smirk returning.
"What. But I thought… like, now, I knew… with Sam…"
Who Chris had been picturing in a relationship with Sam was left unclear as his mouth stayed opened without any more words coming out of it.
"How can you call yourself my best friend when you didn't inform me of that?" he finally uttered with righteous indignation. "I demand to know more. Now."
"And I don't," Ashley quickly added. "I need to call my mom, bye!"
She closed the door with maybe a little too much strength, then leaned against it. Why was she feeling uneasy all of a sudden? She closed her eyes, listened to her breathing, tried to have a clearer view of her internal turmoil. What would therapist-Ash ask a patient in her position?
God, she really needed to stop doing that, one day she was going to end up actually dissociating between the two personas.
In the meantime, she was still way too close to the boys, she could hear their voices through the thin barrage of wood. She decided that downstairs would be a much more fitted space for her "phone-call." Actually, calling her mother might be a good idea… But first, she would like to put a word on what she was feeling right now.
She had a bad feeling about this since the last couple times someone decided to play with others' hearts it went very, very wrong? Um, maybe a bit… but that didn't explain it all.
Or… she still didn't trust Josh and was kinda worried that he was… involved in something with one of her friends? Yet she hadn't ever been very close to Mike, sure he was in her friend group but honestly the only time they had ever really talked was when they had worked together in high school because she was struggling with a school project. Him being with Em didn't help either, the two girls didn't get along too well; one took too much space and the other too little.
If anything, Ashley was a bit relieved to know that Sam was far away from both guys.
Third option: she hated surprises, now more than ever.
She stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of Chris's parents living room, then felt a weak smile blossomed on her lips. Okay, that was that. And also, Chris acting all normal, that made her almost upset. Sometimes, when she looked at Josh, his distorted "psycho" voice still ringed in her ears. She hated that.
Ashley shook her head, ran a hand through her auburn hair. Okay, enough overthinking for today, now was the time to make her excuse believable. Her hands were slightly shaking when she dialed her mother's phone number.
She was still on the phone when Josh decided to head home. She waved goodbye without looking at him, secretly relieved that he didn't stay for the evening. As she half-listened to her mother's rambling – the dear woman was chatty for two –, she wondered if she should bring up to Chris once she again how she felt about his visits, then she pictured his sad look and she bit down her lower lip.
Remember, you swear to yourself he will never have to choose between you two again.
Partly because she was afraid of what his decision would be.
She still hadn't made up her mind about that matter when she hung up, but she had just tucked her phone away that Chris was at her sides, blue eyes oh-so-familiar behind his glasses. She felt her heart skip – but in a pleasant way.
"You okay, sweetheart?"
She nodded; her dilemma forgotten.
"I'm happy you're here."
The words escaped her lips and he smiled in return, taking her hand in his.
"Me too," he said fondly. "But I'd be even more if you allowed me to skip Chrisley gets best, or whatever this show is called, tonight."
For a second, the "but" had her tensing up, so the silliness of his demand made her laugh.
"It's Chrisley knows best, and it sounds like a mix-up of both our names, so it's definitely a sign of fate."
"Ugh. I hate fate then."
"Come on! It will be fun!"
And she, for one, was looking forward to an evening with her favorite stupid show, tucked under the blankets against him, close enough that his laughter echoed in her own chest. It was this kind of moment that made her regret not admitting her feelings sooner – because love felt wonderful.