Chapter Seven: Familiarity

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“Can I please introduce Ash Everson and his manager, Derek Flack.”

Ash was extremely self conscious about the bandage wound around the middle of his face. No doubt it would create a fantastic story for the press the next day, either of his inspiring bravery to go back to work looking like a Hollywood mummy or trying to milk the tragedy of his crash. Regardless, he wouldn’t win.

The scar was just outright refusing to heal. It was still sticky and raw and Ash had gone through maybe dozens and dozens of bandages since returning home.

Derek was first to go on, despite being second one announced, and sent a cheerful wave and dazzling smile to receive moderate applause in return. No hanging around. Ash stepped out, fighting every urge not to touch his face. Click click click. Flashes all around him as the cameras all jumped to life simultaneously. The urge suddenly increased tenfold and the voice cooed in possibly sympathy. He really needed a name to call her by.

“Good afternoon, everyone. I’d like to thank you all for attending today. We’ve been anxious to talk to you all, and Ash has prepared a statement for you all today before we take any questions.”

The voice didn’t sound very happy, she had been very vocal in his head, bouncing around in there. Anytime Derek spoke she sounded upset or agitated. He swallowed and pulled out a rumpled piece of paper. He cleared his throat, anything to buy a few more microseconds.

“Today, today I am announcing my return to stunt driving.” He swallowed again. “I had a setback with my recent crash but I’ve come back fighting even stronger than I was before.” The statement was filled with the usual clichés and drivel that sounded good in interviews but were just empty statements that meant nothing. The voice made a noise akin to lowing, as if in agreement.

“Ash has progressed incredibly well with his recovery,” Derek interjected, as always with impeccable timing. “All of the team are really proud of him and he is just itching to get back in the arena again.” Derek flashed his signature smile at the room of reporters, who all responded as anticipated: murmurs of agreement rippling through the crowd. More clicks and flashes of the cameras.

“Ash,” a voice piped up from somewhere near the back. “Some of us are wondering about the big face bandage. You can confirm you’re fully recovered?”

“I, uh, will be by the time of the new season in January.” Ash rubbed the back of his head.

Another voice, this time from the middle of the throng spoke. “Kal Davenport has gone from strength to strength during this winter, and he mentioned in a recent interview he was hoping you’d return so he’d have some actual competition.” Chuckles erupted around the room. “Do you feel apprehensive at all given your past?”

Ash winced. Past was a ridiculous word for just happening to be at a similar skill level for two seasons. It was all panto to feed the hungry gossip pages. Two young guys in apparent competition, everyone wanted one of them to emerge as the top dog.

“Uhh, no I don’t feel apprehensive.” He shrugged as his words dried up. There was a pregnant pause as everyone expected him to iterate. Derek picked up where he left off.

“It would be wrong for Ash to say he wasn’t apprehensive. He’s been off for almost three months and we’ve been recovering and training really hard in order to return quicker. We couldn’t be more ready for Ash to get back in the saddle. And Kal, well, he should watch his back.”

More questions rose and and swallowed each other into a thrum of chattering as Derek placated them with his hands up. Ash buttoned his lip, mouth twisted into the best grin he could manage. The voice moaned softly, hopefully in encouragement.

*****

This was Ash’s first Christmas at his mom’s house for maybe five years. It had been three months since the accident, and he was completely recovered. He had been fine since his return from the hospital: if anything he was stronger than before his crash. Almost every night he’d been up to the roof of his apartment complex, bettering his record he set the previous night nearly every time.

At this point he was convinced it was her, whatever influence she was having on his body. Should he be concerned? Derek had him in the gym during most days too in preparation for the new season, and his agent was confident he’d be back on the scene by the end of January.

Ash flicked through the winter issue of Xtreme, and right in the centerfold Kal’s boyish little grin shone out. Ash winced at him, at his perfectly styled hair, dazzling grin and confidence just oozing out of his very being. He was such a natural at the PM side of the business, the internet had been stuffed in all the appropriate message boards and comment sections of how handsome and charismatic Kal was and how he would supersede Ash’s prior dominance of the scene.

Ash had been accused in the past of looking completely lost during interviews, or mocked for needing a lot of prep before press conferences. Ash hated speaking, and nearly always deferred to Derek to talk for him. Even that had come under scrutiny, especially last week when he and Derek had held the first press conference since his accident. An utter trainwreck from start to finish, salvaged only by Derek’s silver tongue. One particularly rabid reporter was adamant Ash take off his face bandage, it seemed just about everyone and their dog wanted to see the scar, it had swamped his return to the scene. It was the last surviving remnant of the accident and oddly, it was stubbornly refusing to heal.

“So nice to have you around for Christmas, dear,” said his mom, bending down to kiss the top of his head and pulling him from his daydream. She had gone all out on the decorations and lights and it was erring way more on the grotesque rather than grotto, but it least the tree smelled good.

Since his dad had died five years ago, just as Ash’s career had taken off, Ash couldn’t help but have a pang of regret every time he thought about how he had left his mom. She had practically ordered him out of the door that day and into the arms of Derek, who hadn’t changed a bit.

Maybe that was why the house was so overly decorated.

Ash scoffed at his own thoughts and drank deep from the mulled wine. He was no psychologist and certainly didn’t have the time of day for them. The voice and occasional figure currently housed in his head - whom he had dubbed Maddie due to his constantly talking to the mirror and feeling a bit nuts because of it - had been moderately sedate the past few weeks, always hitting his right ear at his thumbs up in the mirror.

The best form of communication he had found was by sketching, which she had responded to really well, at the cost of the back of his ears. He too had found a forgotten joy with a pencil and paper, and each picture he drew, the better he got as he remembered more and more from his college days.

Derek had been sending messages. This close to Christmas and Derek couldn’t stop himself from working and switch off for the holidays. Voracious damage mitigation from that press conference, no doubt. The latest message was confirmation of a show on January. Kal would also be attending, and no doubt appropriate parts of the internet would be exploding with the news as soon as it was made available.

“Dinner’s on the table, hon,” his mom called from the kitchen.

Soon this sedate existence would come to an end.

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