Rhys took a deep breath and stared at the screen. He tried to muster every flickering ember of imagination he had, tried to whip them into a furnace that might drive his fingers into action. He knew that what he wrote next would be the clincher; it was the decider between success and failure. It had to be just right.
“Yo,” he typed.
With a satisfied nod, he tapped send.
Then something hit him. As he was reeling forward, the back of his head throbbing from the blow, he recognised his attacker. Years of suffering had taught him to recognise the slap of his best friend.
Rubbing his wound, he shot a glance up at Annie.
“What was that for?” he asked, flipping his phone over. He noticed the quick look of disappointment on her face. No snooping today, he thought.
“You were miles away,” Annie answered, taking the seat opposite.
“No, I wasn’t,” Rhys murmured, shooting a guilty glance towards his phone.
Annie followed his eyes. “Messaging someone?” she asked, a wry smile on her lips.
“No,” he answered.
“Ha!” she barked. “You know you can’t lie to me. Who is it? Anyone fit?”
“It’s no one.” Rhys’ eyes shifted around nervously. It was no good. He had never been able to lie to Annie. Well, most of the time at least. Her face suddenly darkened; a malevolent flame flashed in her eyes.
“It’s him, isn’t it?”
Rhys was silent.
She shook her head angrily. “What the Hell?” she exclaimed. “I thought you were looking for someone else! I thought you downloaded apps!”
“I did, but –”
“But what? He’s on them?” She laughed with all the humour of a shotgun. “Let me guess,” she said sourly, “looking for another poor sap to abuse.”
Rhys looked up sharply. “That’s not fair,” he said, his voice low.
She seemed not to notice the new tone. “You told me all about him,” she said. “Everything he put you through. Why would you want to put yourself through that again?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Rhys murmured, snatching up his phone.
“It’s not healthy,” Annie insisted, leaning forward.
This time it was Rhys that laughed. “Pot, kettle much?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Our situations are completely different!” Annie said, her voice nothing more than a hiss. “You’re still hung up on a manipulative arsehole!”
“Doesn’t sound too different to me,” Rhys quipped, smiling.
“Piss off!” Annie snapped. “Lucas is nothing like Josh.”
“Oh, really?” Rhys said, laughing. “How long have you two been screwing around?”
“We are not screwing around!” Annie objected, shooting a glance towards the counter. “Me and Lucas are serious about one another!”
“Really?” Rhys asked, his eyebrows rocketing up. “When you asked him to leave his girlfriend, what did he do?”
Annie’s face reddened. “It’s complicated.”
“He got down on one knee and proposed to her!”
“You don’t get it!”
“He’s stringing you along, and you know it!”
“Do you want another slap?”
He didn’t doubt for a second that she would follow through with her threat. But, today, Rhys was in no mood to back down. “He’s a scumbag, Annie, and everyone in town knows it!” He paused for a moment. “Well, everyone except you and Molly.”
Annie’s face became like a statue. A statue that was ten seconds away from toppling over and crushing anyone nearby. With no warning, she suddenly leapt to her feet. Rhys instinctively winced.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” she announced, shooting him a look that oozed poison.
“I’m only telling you the truth!” he declared, watching her storm away. “If you don’t like it, then stay out of my business!”
But she was gone.
Good, he thought. Slowly, he glanced around the café. He peeked at Annie’s dad behind the counter, and then at a couple by the window. No one was looking. Obviously, they weren’t looking. With one swift movement, he raised his hand and began to pinch the lobe of his ear. He kept squeezing down until his nails bit into the flesh. The pain rose and rose until tears began to spring in his eyes. Christ, it hurt. But it was better than looking at the phone. Better than checking his messages. Better than trying to message –
He released his ear, gasping as he did so. With the other hand he began to rub the burning spot, blinking back the tears. He snatched the phone up and began to scroll through his messages, cursing himself bitterly. Why? Why was he like this?
“What is it?” Rhys exclaimed, gaping as Annie bolted to her feet.
“My mum’s train has pulled in,” she snapped. “She told me she was getting the later one!”
“Tell her I said hi,” Rhys murmured, his eyes drifting back towards his phone. He didn’t hear what she said next. She could have banged a drum beside his ears and he wouldn’t have noticed. He was lost in the land of what-ifs and could-have-beens; that was a world where, if you weren’t careful, to could be almost impossible to escape. But, Rhys thought to himself, it was better than real life.
With more than a little difficulty, he looked away from the screen. The café was empty, which came as no surprise. It usually was whenever Mr Mangle was working. It wasn’t that he was bad, nor was he an unlikeable person, Rhys actually liked him quite a lot, which surprised both himself and Annie. No, what drove people away was just how out of his depth the man was. Even a simple request for an espresso sent a spasm of terror flitting across his face. No one liked seeing how far a man could fall, and so easily, especially not before they’d had their morning coffee.
Hoping the pity wasn’t entirely visible on his face, Rhys stepped up to the counter. Steven was glaring at the coffee machine, as if hoping a determined expression would make it easier to manage.
Rhys cleared his throat.
Mr Mangle span round, a manic grin on his face. “Rhys! How are you? We just can’t seem to get rid of you!”
“I’m good thanks,” Rhys replied, shifting awkwardly.
“Good to hear,” Steven said. “Annie was telling me you’d been having some trouble recently?”
Rhys felt his face suddenly burst into flames, a blend of shame and fury. “She – she told you that, did she?”
The older man matched Rhys’ complexion, his cheeks flaring especially. He blustered apologies and excuses, all of which fell on deaf ears. In spite of his fondness for Mr Mangle, Rhys also felt uncomfortable being around him. Was that what the future held for him? Annie had spoken at great length about her father’s apparent mid-life crisis, brought about by the shock of his wife kicking him out for, apparently, no reason. His daughter was adamant that Mr Mangle should move on, but Rhys knew that was impossible. Just as it was impossible for Rhys when Annie gave him the same advice. No matter how often, or how loudly she told him, love didn’t let you walk away. Love breaks your legs and laughs as you try to crawl.
Look on the bright side, Rhys said to himself. You have at least another twenty years before your midlife crisis. An icicle of dread plummeted down his throat. Would he be like this for twenty more years? Being consumed daily by the guilt?
After a few more minutes of awkward chit-chat, punctuated once by the appearance of Marian, a woman feared by all, Rhys was rescued from the moment by both the appearance of a customer, and by the buzzing of his phone. With his stomach twisting and his heartbeat thundering, Rhys unlocked his phone to view the message. The tension burst like a child’s balloon. Just another random dick pic. He took a moment, then decided against it and blocked the sender. Well, now he was here, he might as well have another peek.
Rhys felt his body sag as he realised the message hadn’t even been seen. It wasn’t too late, he thought. If he blocked him as well, it would get him out of the mess and he could actually try Annie’s advice.
“Rhys!” Mr Mangle exclaimed, dragging him back into the real world. “I thought you were heading to rehearsals?”
He spluttered and stammered, as if caught in the middle of some heinous act. In a way, he thought, that’s not wrong. “I was – I am,” he answered. “I just forgot my coffee.” He quickly made to grab the coffee and run, but Annie’s dad was too quick.
“I’d like you to meet Annie’s uncle,” Steven said, cheerfully, “Mr Daniel Fayne.” Rhys waved nervously whilst Mr Mangle finished the introductions. The arctic atmosphere was enough to confirm the man was the maternal uncle, and entirely on the side of his sister.
“Daniel’s miserable like this all the time,” Steven explained with a chuckle.
“Around you anyway,” Annie’s uncle murmured, staring at his mobile and making Rhys pang with longing. “You got my sister pregnant, strong-arming her into marrying you.” There was nothing worse than being stuck in the middle of family awkwardness – except for standing in the middle of in-law awkwardness during a divorce. As Mr Fayne continued to throw barb after barb, and Steven continued to grow more flustered and unconvincingly cheerful, Rhys went on fearing for his future.
“Things will turn out all right in the end,” Steven said weakly.
“You think you’re going to win her back?” Mr Fayne asked with a cruel snigger.
Rhys stared with eyes of horror at Mr Mangle; his face had taken a waxen sheen, the look of a man up to his neck in delusion, and with no sign of getting himself out. Worst of all, it was the same face Rhys saw every time he looked in a mirror.
“It’s not a case of winning her back,” Steven argued. “I just need to remind her of what she’s throwing away!”
“How are you going to do that? I know you’ve tried calling her. I know you’ve sent her messages on Facebook, sent her emails, you even joined Twitter to try and talk to her!”
Each accusation punched Rhys in the gut, even though not a single one was aimed in his direction. But the guilt was his, oh yes.
“There’s always the charity gig tonight,” Rhys said not even realising he had spoken up.
Daniel shot him an acidic look. “Oh, yes, and how’s that going to help?” he asked. “You going to sing a romantic hit from the eighties and hope they slow-dance their way back into love?”
“I was just saying . . .” Rhys murmured, beginning to wilt under his glare. But he’d said enough. A wild flare appeared in Mangle’s eyes as inspiration struck. Rhys had never seen it for himself, but he was sure he had looked the same in recent days, especially moments before sending that message. Then this wretched feeling of his, that look of disdain on Daniel’s face, was that how other people felt and looked at him? He was the same as Steven, except, unlike Rhys, Annie’s father was innocent of any wrong doing.
Concocting a plan ripped straight from a dodgy teenage rom-com, Mr Mangle hopped out of the café and towards the staff area. Both Rhys and Annie’s uncle watched him go with pity.
“Poor bastard,” Daniel murmured.
“You don’t like him?” Rhys asked, watching the man’s face carefully. He wasn’t that bad looking, actually. Rhys didn’t go for older men, as a rule, but if he was going to try and move on . . .
“I wouldn’t say that,” the man said. “My sister’s been with worse. He’s just annoying, that’s all.” He then rounded on Rhys. He had a look that seemed to spear right through, and it made Rhys’ whole body burst into goose-bumps. “So, you’re Annie’s friend, are you?”
He nodded, as if under the gaze of the inquisition. “Yeah,” he murmured. “We – erm – play in a band together.”
The question fired out of nowhere, and for a moment Rhys lost the ability to lie. “No,” he admitted.
“I see,” Daniel said with a nod. “Glad I’m not watching your show then.”
Rhys frowned at this. “Really? Then why come all the way out here?” he asked. “People usually leave Chaffley; they don’t come back unless they really have to.”
“I really had to,” was the reluctant answer. “I have . . . unfinished business.” Rhys decided to leave it at that. For a moment Daniel’ impassive mask had slipped, and beneath Rhys had seen an anguish he knew all too well. This man was finding the crawl especially painful.
The pair were suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Marian; she glared furiously at Rhys. “What have I told you about being behind my counter?!” she barked.
“I work here!”
“Not today, it’s your day off!”
“But there’s no-one else here!” Rhys argued. “Your shift has ended, and Steven has . . . I don’t know where he’s gone.”
“I said he could go early,” Marian said. “He’s looking forward to watching you play tonight, for reasons that are beyond me.”
“Because it’s his daughter playing?” Rhys suggested.
“Yeah, and you! So, shouldn’t you be at rehearsals? Getting good?” she snapped. “You’d better be decent,” she added, “I’ll be watching.”
“You?!” A veil of fear swept over his face.
“Yeah,” she said. She looked around, took in Daniel, her sole customer, then nodded. “We’re closed,” she decided. With that, and her patented look of venom, she hurried the pair out and locked the front door after them.
With little other choice, Rhys went to rehearsals.
He was early. That was strange.
He checked his watch. He wasn’t early, he was just the only one here, and that was even stranger. Baz was always at least ten minutes early. Unsure of what to do with himself, standing in the large, depressingly empty hall, Rhys just stood. He knew what he shouldn’t do. All he could think about was what he shouldn’t do. But, somehow, he needed that sharp jab of pain.
The phone was in his hand before the thought had even formed. His thumb paused above the usual app. Not for the first time he asked himself just what he thought he was doing. And, not for the last time, he was stumped for an answer.
I can’t leave things like I did, he told himself.
Shouldn’t have gotten them in that state then, should you?
Was he really going to be like Steven? Clinging to the impossible dream of reconciliation?
Did he really want to go back to the lies? The manipulation? The jealousy? No. This assurance wasn’t even buried deep down. It sat on the surface like an iceberg, as plain as day. Then why the ceaseless pull back? That, again, was clear to see. It was because –
Baz burst into the hall, breathless and sweaty. With the guitar on his back, and his coat buttoned up to his chin, he looked like an oddly shaped turtle. He glanced around, fearfully.
“Annie not here?” he asked.
Rhys shook his head.
“Thank Christ,” Baz murmured. “I mean, why is she always late?!” he added in a louder tone.
“Why were you late?” Rhys asked.
“I was doing some work for my dad,” Baz said, slinging the guitar off his back. “I lost track of time.” He glanced around the empty hall, then back at Rhys. “Have you been here on your own?”
“Yeah, who else would I be with?”
“No one, I guess,” he admitted. He shifted awkwardly. Baz and Rhys were rarely alone for long, and whenever they were it usually went this way. They were the sort of pair that needed a third wheel to get them out of the rut that was social awkwardness. “How are you then?” Baz asked eventually, starting to set up the equipment.
“Fine,” Rhys said, climbing onto the stage.
Another silence descended over them. Oh God, Rhys suddenly thought. He’s going to bring it up, isn’t he? That’s what’s coming, I know it.
And then, right on cue: “I heard about what happened with you and whatshisname.”
“Yeah, right,” Baz said. “I never liked him, if I’m honest.”
Rhys felt the usual tang of bile at the back of his throat, and his chest began to tighten. Why can’t people just shut up? Why can’t they mind their own business? Out loud, however, he simply said: “Thanks.”
“If . . . if you ever want to talk,” Baz said, awkwardly clearing his throat, “you can always . . . I mean, I know we’re not close, but . . . well, you know . . .”
“I’m fine, Baz, honest.”
“Actually, there is something I wanted to talk to you about.” The tone in his voice made Rhys look up. This was Business Baz; there was no room for awkwardness around Business Baz.
“Are . . . do you still enjoy doing this?” He waved at the instruments and the stage in general. “The band, I mean. Do you . . . like it?”
This made Rhys pause. To be frank, he didn’t enjoy much of anything anymore. He hadn’t given the music much thought. He wasn’t sure he felt either way about it. It was something to do. Something to keep him busy, and keep his mind off . . .
“No,” he eventually said. “Why? Don’t you?”
Baz shook his head. “I’ve been thinking of giving it up.”
“But you’re the one who keeps pestering us about rehearsals!”
“Just because I don’t enjoy it, doesn’t mean I don’t want it done properly!” Baz objected. “I’m worried about Annie though.”
Rhys wondered about that. How many rehearsals had she missed out on? It seemed all her energy was spent on Lucas. “I think she feels the same,” Rhys said. That was that, he thought. If Baz wasn’t enjoying it, and Annie was too distracted, and Rhys was . . . himself, what was the point in going on?
“When should we tell her?” Baz asked. For all the bravado he showed in front of Annie, it was obvious that he, like every sane-minded person, was a little afraid of her.
“As soon as possible, I reckon.”
That plan quickly evaporated as, when Annie eventually showed up, she had her mother in tow. Silently, Baz and Rhys agreed to wait to deliver their news. Judging by the look on her face, Annie was in a bad enough mood already. Instead, for the last time, they rehearsed.
And then it was over. For one of their rehearsals, it wasn’t actually terrible. Mrs Mangle even looked as if she enjoyed one of the songs. Once they were done, Annie wasted no time in making her escape. It was down to Rhys and Baz to tidy away the equipment.
Rhys had wanted to speak with Annie, continue their conversation from earlier, but she had other plans. Seeing Lucas, he thought bitterly. Rhys didn’t hate many people, but Lucas was definitely one of those few. He hated Lucas for the same reason he pitied Mr Mangle.
He had wanted to take another stab at getting her to see sense. No, he thought again. If he tried that, then she’d try the exact same with him. Except, she didn’t know what she was talking about. And whose fault is that? The burning embers of shame once again flushed his cheeks. She’d asked what happened. Hadn’t given up asking, in fact. For weeks she pestered after the reason his relationship fell apart.
You didn’t have to tell her.
She wouldn’t stop, though.
You didn’t have to tell her that.
In the end he had cracked and told her everything – everything that he could come up with. He had managed to paint the most vicious picture of Josh; it was no surprise everyone turned on him. That was one of the reasons Rhys was so glad he had moved away. Maybe he should do the same, he thought. It would be just the kick he needed to move on, actually make a start on his life. It would also lower the risk of running into Josh. Every time Rhys spotted a guy with a similar hairstyle, or the same lanky build, it sent a thrill of terror through him. But, also, a jab of longing. He knew seeing Josh again would hurt, but would it be any worse than the pain he felt now? There would be pain and shame, but there were things he needed to say, and face-to-face was best. The anonymous messages were only because he knew, if Josh saw it was him, he would never respond. And Rhys needed a response.
However, it seemed Josh was just as uninclined to respond to a faceless profile. Feeling the knot in his stomach twist ever tighter, Rhys slipped the phone back into his pocket. Then again, he thought with a small smile, Josh always was shit at answering messages. A dozen memories flashed through his mind. He’d played them all so many times, he was surprised they hadn’t worn through like an old film reel. Sometimes they made him laugh, sometimes they made him bitter. But they always made him sore, sick even. Was that love? Or was it guilt?
Rhys flinched as the door swung open. It wasn’t the fear of discovery that made him react, it was the fact he had already been hit in the back of the head by that door three times now. Lucas had advertised the space as a dressing room where they could relax before the show started. In reality Rhys was sure it was nothing more than a disused cleaning cupboard. He shifted slightly, making enough space for Baz to squeeze inside.
In his hand were two coffees; he handed one to Rhys, then extracted from his pocket a couple of canapes wrapped in a napkin. “Nicked these as they were setting up,” he explained, chomping down a salmon-filled pastry.
Taking the proffered canape, Rhys gave it a tentative nibble. Not too bad.
“I’ve been thinking . . .” Baz said, squirming in a way that was quite new to Rhys. “I – I don’t suppose you’d ever . . . I don’t know . . . want to go for a drink?”
Rhys froze. No, it couldn’t be that. “Sure,” Rhys answered cautiously.
For a moment there was a spark of surprise in Baz’s eyes; it was quickly extinguished as a broad smile erupted on his features. “Great,” he said, laughing slightly. “Great – erm, how about – I mean, why not tonight? After we’ve performed?”
There was a familiar sense of pain in his chest; he couldn’t mean that, could he? Rhys felt sweat begin to prickle along the back of his neck. “Yeah,” he murmured. “We could, but do you think Annie will want to? I mean, she might not want to after we tell her we’re leaving the band.” Also, he added to himself, she probably plans on seeing Lucas, no doubt. There was another flare in Baz’s eyes, this time it was the unmistakable look of disappointment. “Annie . . .” he said, “yeah, of course. You’re right. Maybe another time then.” He coughed awkwardly, then looked away. Business Baz tried to take the reins again.
“So, when do you think we should tell her?” he asked.
“As soon as, I think,” Rhys said, his cheeks beginning to flare with embarrassment. Baz? He’d had no idea! Didn’t he go out with Ellie Fontaine in sixth form? Then again, that meant nothing. Still . . . he took another, disbelieving look at Baz. He was anxiously looping his tie around his neck, and distinctly avoiding Rhys’ gaze.
Rhys opened his mouth to say something, but was cut off as the door swung open and yet again knocked the back of his skull.
“Everything ready?” Annie asked, eagerly bounding into the room. Her eyes darted from Rhys to Baz. She could tell something was wrong. Rhys was relieved when she promptly ignored it.
“You’re late,” Baz murmured.
“Didn’t have a car,” Annie said with a shrug.
“What happened to it?” Rhys asked. Perhaps she’d finally totalled it. Given her skills behind the wheel, he was surprised it had taken this long.
“Long story,” Annie said. She glanced again at the pair, this time the tension was too dense to ignore. “What’s going on?” she asked.
No point delaying it, Rhys thought. He cleared his throat. “Baz . . . erm” he started, anxiously. Annie had turned her drill bit-like eyes onto him. “. . . I mean we – think we need to talk.”
“Well?” she said, her temper flaring up in anticipation. “Spit it out!”
“We’re breaking the band up,” Baz announced, not meeting Annie’s eye. “We don’t want to do it anymore.”
Annie’s expression turned wooden. It was impossible for Rhys to work out what she was thinking. Though it certainly wasn’t bound to be good.
“It was fun,” He said quickly. “It was, back when we were eighteen. But – well, I just don’t think we have time anymore.”
“That’s right,” Baz said with a nod. “You’ve got to admit that’s true, what with how much you’re at work! Besides, dad’s offered me a position at his firm.”
“Let me guess,” Annie said. “An accountancy firm?”
Baz frowned. “No,” he said. “He’s a locksmith.”
“I – I – I don’t – I don’t get it!” Annie suddenly exclaimed. “Where has this come from?”
“It simply makes sense,” Rhys said with a careless shrug.
“Don’t worry,” Baz said trying to force on a smile, “we’re still going ahead with tonight.” He stood up, strengthening his grin. “We can just treat it like a farewell tour!” He gave a weak sigh, as if the worst was behind him. “To be honest,” he said, “I thought you were going to pack it in months ago!”
With that, and another glance towards Rhys, Baz hurried out.
Annie just stood there. She’s going to say something. She has to say something. Why isn’t she saying anything? Annie always had something to say, usually rude, sarcastic, or demoralising. But never . . . silence.
“I’m . . . I’m just going to the . . .” He didn’t finish the thought. The sight of a hushed Annie was too foreign for him. He lurched out of the room, breathing a sigh of relief as the door closed behind him. She had never looked like that before, and Rhys hoped he’d never see her like it again. Had the band really meant that much to her? Perhaps, he mused, it only meant so much to her when she realised that she was losing it. Funny how that happened. His hand instinctively went to his pocket.
The phone wasn’t there. A dagger of fear plunged into his chest. No, he thought, pulling himself together. I know where it is. There’s nothing wrong. Hoping his heart would stop racing, Rhys turned back and returned the dressing room.
He slipped into the room, nervously certain that Annie would have recovered from her shock and barrelled straight into indignant rage. He was surprised to see her hunched over in the corner.
“Hey, have you seen –?” The words died on his lips, however, when he saw what she held in her hands. She spun around, a guilty look flashing across her face. Even from here he could see the app she had opened. His heart didn’t beat quickly, it didn’t beat at all. Everything seemed to have frozen, both around and inside him. His eyes didn’t leave the mobile. Through his mind rocketed all the many possible, terrible things that it could mean.
“That’s – that’s my phone?” he murmured. His mouth had gone dry, but his back was beginning to drip with sweat. “Annie, what are you doing?”
She gave him a haughty, disdainful glare. Shit, he thought, panicking. She knows the truth, she knows everything.
“I’m doing you a favour,” she announced, stunning him. She slapped the phone into his hand, he barely felt it. “What you’re doing, it’s not healthy.”
Her words were muffled, as if she was speaking from far away. He was too focussed on reading what she had written. Josh had finally responded and, because the Universe liked a laugh, Annie had been the first to see it. Did she do it in retaliation for them leaving the band? No, of course not. She was a lot of things, but not that petty.
You idiot, he thought bitterly. This is because you told her all those things, and she believed you! She was doing what she thought was best; she was trying to protect you. He looked up, his eyes burning and a lump in his throat that threatened to choke him. What had she done?
But Annie was gone.
He looked back down at the phone, glaring at the words as if that alone would change them. What the fuck was he going to do? Everything he had planned, everything he had wanted to say, it was all ruined!
The only, dimly flickering ember of hope, was the fact the message hadn’t been seen yet. So, what do I do now? Block him? That’ll certainly make sure he never sees the message. But then he’d be lost. It had taken Rhys weeks to find Josh on the app. Was he really prepared to go through all that again? There’s no time for this, he thought bitterly. His thumb hovered over the button, all he needed to do was press it. After all, maybe this was for the best? Annie had been right; it wasn’t healthy doing this.
The door swung open, quickly followed by Baz. “Lucas wants us on,” he said, breathlessly. “Now!”
Whipped up by the panicked look on Baz’s face, Rhys stuffed his phone in his pocket and the pair raced down the corridor. They lurched to a halt by the doors leading to the stage. From within they could hear the growing babble as the guests began to arrive. Baz looked around, his face pale. “Where’s Annie?” he exclaimed.
She approached the pair, an expression on her face neither had seen before. In spite of this, Rhys knew what it meant. Their relationship as it had been was gone. He wasn’t sure what had triggered it; maybe it was what he had been doing with Josh, maybe it was what she was doing with Lucas, or maybe it was something else entirely. Really, it didn’t matter if he knew. It wouldn’t change anything. Their friendship had changed, but to what . . . well, he’d have to find out.
Baz, oblivious to this shift in the tide, gave them each an awkward grin. “Are we ready?” he asked.
It was a good performance, as far as their track record went. The audience seemed to enjoy it, and once they’d all had a few complimentary glasses of prosecco, they seemed to love it. Annie sang as if she’d been practicing, Baz didn’t continuously count the beats under his breath, and Rhys almost forgot about Josh. Almost.
Eventually they were free to go. The guests had long since stopped listening. Lucas had been darting around, filling every glass he could see, until not one person in the hall wasn’t stumbling, slurring their words, or wearing their ties around their head. Amid a smattering of applause from those still sober enough to recognise they were there, the trio shuffled off the stage.
“Well, that went well,” Baz declared, wiping some sweat from his face.
“Uh-huh,” Annie said, noncommittally.
Rhys just nodded, his fingers twitching, and the phone feeling like a cinderblock in his pocket. Baz turned an awkward smile towards Annie. “I . . . I don’t suppose you know when Lucas might . . . pay us?” he asked.
Annie glared at him, but the acidic remark was nowhere to be heard. “I’ll talk to him,” she said quietly.
Without another word, she left them. Baz shifted anxiously. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said, before hurrying after Annie. Instantly the phone was in Rhys’ hand. Then the world vanished. It slipped away from beneath his feet like the edge of an eroded cliff. He stumbled back against the wall, leaning on it for support as he tried to catch a breath that wouldn’t come.
Where he should have been seeing Josh’s name, he saw nothing. It was gone. He tore through the last few hours. He hadn’t blocked him; he was sure of that. He was going to, yes. But then Baz, fucking Baz, had walked in saying they had to go on stage.
His teeth began to chatter, and he felt every inch of his body starting to tremble. What now? What now? What now?
“You were right about Annie,” Baz declared, approaching with an obliviousness towards Rhys’ state. “She’s not coming. Seemed more interested in Lucas. I wonder if something is going on between them? Anyway, I thought that . . . well, you and I could still . . . if you wanted?”
This time Baz must have noticed because, as Rhys rounded on him, he took an instinctive step backwards. An alarmed look flashed in his eyes.
“I don’t want to go for a drink with you!” Rhys snarled. “The only person I want is Josh! Don’t you get that?”
“Josh? But – but –” Baz flapped his lips like a banked fish, and it only made Rhys angrier. “After everything he did?”
He was no longer trembling, now his whole body was on fire. “And who told you what he did? Hmm? Annie! That’s who! And who told her? Me. But I didn’t tell her the truth.”
“What . . .?”
“I lied, Baz! I fucking lied, about everything!” There was a burning at the back of Rhys’ eyes, an itch he had been fighting off for months, and he was damned if he was going to give into it now. “He didn’t cheat on me, he didn’t lie, he didn’t do anything! It was me; it was all me. I lied to him, manipulated him, got jealous over nothing, I made his life Hell and for what? Every fucking day I ask myself, what did I do it for? And I haven’t got an answer!”
Leaving Baz standing silent, Rhys escaped the room, his head pounding and his heart tight. He stumbled down the hall, almost slipping in someone’s spilt drink. The acrid stench of cheap vodka made him retch and crumble against the wall.
Just what had it all been for? All that time spent pining after him, and when Josh finally felt the same way, what did Rhys do? How many times had he replayed those days in his mind. Keeping himself up at night wondering how he could have pushed himself, and Rhys, so far. Was it self-sabotage? Did he do it all because, deep down, he didn’t think he deserved someone like Josh? “No,” he growled. He wasn’t the victim here. He couldn’t play the proverbial violin for himself and pretend he was some misunderstood hero.
But if he knew all that, then why did he keep getting drawn back? Did he honestly, truly believe that, if he said sorry, it would all go back to the way it was? As if an apology could pull him out of this nightmare.
Rhys felt himself slow to a halt, then leant against the wall, his breathing finally beginning to return to normal. He had to stop. He looked down at his phone, the app still open, as if waiting for his next move. Annie had been right. They had all been right. His fingers trembling, Rhys deleted the app.
He had to let go of that searing lump of guilt. Nothing could change what he had done. He continued to stare at the screen. He had to move on.
But that was the problem, wasn’t it?
It’s hard to move with broken legs.