The shopping was a pleasant change. It was good to get out of the house for a little while. The only trouble was that I felt like I was on my own for most of the time. Ashton was constantly distracted and checking everything out discreetly, so it was almost as if I was talking to myself half the time.
“Maybe you should have told Dean where we were going and then you could have actually relaxed and paid attention to what we’re talking about,” I snapped as we sat in the café, refuelling before we planned to shop some more. I glared at him as he watched a group of teenagers walk past near me, rather than answering the question I’d just directed at him.
“I told him, he’s back there,” he replied, motioning over his shoulder with his head.
A quick glance in that direction and I spotted Dean in plain clothes, lingering three stores away. I sighed and frowned, hating being followed around.
Just as I was finishing up my coffee, two familiar figures caught my eye through the window.
Oh God, it can’t be! Jack!
My eyes widened at the sight of his blond, unruly hair and straight nose as he sauntered across the mall in his loose fit jeans and GAP T-shirt. I jerked in my seat, confused. My heart stopped and then took off in a sprint.
But as one side of his mouth pulled up into a smile, my happiness and hope that maybe the last three years had been a dream faded, and I came back to reality with a huge, painful bump. My heart broke with loss all over again as I realised that it wasn’t my Jack after all, it was his younger brother, Michael.
Accompanying Michael was his mother, Pam… and now that they’d seen me, it appeared that they were heading straight for me. Pam smiled warmly, but my eyes just flicked back to Michael again. My whole body seemed to go cold. I hadn’t seen him for over a year, and I had forgotten how much he looked like his brother. He wasn’t built the same as Jack and was maybe an inch taller, but facially they could have been twins. And he was the age now that Jack had been when he’d died.
My hands started to shake uncontrollably, making my cup rattle against the little plate that it sat on. A little whimper left my lips because usually I had time to prepare for seeing them, usually it was on my terms and I had some warning. I’d never just run into them like this and I wasn’t sure I could deal with it.
Ashton stood quickly, gripping my upper arm and hoisting me out of my seat, pushing me against the wall that was behind me. His body tensed as he span on the spot, pressing his back against my chest and shielding me with his body, like he had that first night he came into my room when I was screaming.
“What is it?” he asked fiercely, reaching into his jacket pocket, probably holding his gun or his knife.
I whimpered and pressed my face into his shoulder, closing my eyes. I couldn’t speak. I could barely even breathe properly. Grief was overwhelming me, seeming to all come back at once so that I was drowning in it. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream and shout and wail, but nothing was coming out. There was no escape for my sadness as it just built inside me, crushing me, filling me up.
I was dimly aware of Ashton’s cell phone ringing and him answering it in short, terse sentences. When he turned back to me and cupped my face in his hands, I looked up into his green eyes and felt my chin tremble. I couldn’t cope with it. The grief was fresh and raw again, like it had only just happened, like I’d only just lost Jack and watched him die.
“Breathe,” Ashton whispered. “Anna, just breathe for me. Everything is going to be fine. I know you’re panicking, but listen to my voice. Nothing will hurt you.” My breathing continued to come out in small pants as I dug my fingers into his sides, completely lost in grief and guilt. “Can you hear your heart beating?” he asked as he brushed my hair over my shoulder. “If you can hear your heart, then count the beats and just try to breathe so you can calm down. I won’t let anything hurt you.”
My eyes flicked to Pam and Michael, who were standing there watching me with wide, horrified eyes. Pam was crying, covering her mouth with her hand. Michael frowned and shook his head, turning to his mother and saying something I couldn’t hear.