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The (Almost)s

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Thursday, December 18, 2014
2:02pm

“So…let’s talk about those endings, shall we?”

He’d been tasting adrenaline on the back of his tongue since he’d woken up that morning, so it was no surprise that he jumped out of his skin at the sound of his voice. Before he could respond though, Hill waved his hand dismissively.

“Sorry, sorry—you’ll have to excuse me. I’m afraid it’s been a lifetime since I’ve really knuckled down and discussed a work of fiction with someone else…never been much of a man for book clubs, if you can believe it.” He let out a small, dry laugh, eyes lowered to the papers before him. “I suppose it’s a bit…unconventional to begin at the end, isn’t it? Never mind, never mind. Allow me to just—”

“Wait, I…” He felt the weight of Hill’s eyes and dropped his own, hating the babyish wave of self-doubt raging inside of him. Josh cleared his throat, tried again, and was only slightly less disgusted with the sound of his own voice. “I mean, you brought them up…so you must have some kinda opinion…”

The winter sun that filtered through the window of Hill’s office filled the room with a deep, syrupy golden light that would’ve been comforting had Josh’s heart not been lodged in his throat. He could feel it pounding there, wedged behind his adam’s apple, threatening to choke the air from his lungs. It was a feeling he hadn’t had in a long, long time—the deep, resounding uncertainty that came with waiting for a professor’s feedback on a final project. For all intents and purposes, Josh was twelve again, staring at the back of a test that had been placed facedown on his desk. Would he flip it over and find an A? An F? Would ‘See me after class’ be written in the corner, impressions of the pen so deeply indented that they bled through to the next page?

Hill sat across from him as always, a grim totem looming above the shined mahogany of his desk. One leg was crossed over the other as he flipped through a few pages, mouth pulled low in a shape that belied very little of what he was thinking.

His hands, knotted in his lap, tightened when Hill met his gaze from over the considerable stack of papers. This was where he usually attempted some sort of sly smirk or confident shrug…but it wasn’t happening. His nails were pushing little half-moon divots into the flesh of his hands. God, he hoped Hill couldn’t see that from his vantage point.

“It sounds to me,” Hill began after what felt like a lifetime, voice infuriating in its lightness, “That you have something you’d like to say about them.”

Oh, he was in no mood—no mood!—for his reversal crap. Not today, not when he hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep last night, not when he had to watch him keep flipping through those pages. He needed to know what Hill thought, not ramble on and on about his own stupid opinions, so he gave in. He gave him what he knew he wanted.

“I hate them,” Josh said plainly, keeping his gaze on his hands. “They’re both shit and I hate them.” There. Done. Now Hill had no choice but to—

“Well, we agree on that, at least.”

Josh looked up quickly enough to make himself dizzy. “Wait, you—wait. Why did…wait, you hated them?”

Hill glanced up from the story again, folding his hands atop the stack. There was absolutely zero relief in his doing that. If anything, it made him that much queasier. “Why do you hate them?”

“I asked you first.”

“Yes you did, but you’re the author and I’m the therapist, so…” he flared his fingers as if to say ‘Them’s the breaks’ before neatly folding his hands again. “Why don’t you like the endings you wrote? They did, after all, come from you, so one would imagine—”

“They don’t fit.” Swallowing hard, he found he had to fight himself to keep from dropping his eyes again. The words felt unintentional, like they’d been surprised out of him, and in a way, maybe they had been. From the instant he’d hit send on that email, he’d been a living, breathing ball of electricity crackling at the edges, smoldering when unattended, threatening to combust from the inside out. If he’d ever been in control (and Josh was really, truly coming to wonder about that), he wasn’t now. Hill was drawing it all out of him like water from a well; his expression was giving him nothing, it was completely unreadable, and that was throwing him off his groove. “They’re just wrong. They’re the only endings that make sense, but they’re fucking wrong, and I hate them.”

Across the desk, Hill said nothing. He did nothing. He didn’t nod, his mouth didn’t move, he didn’t so much as bob his foot in the air as he sat there. All he did was watch him. All he did was wait.

There weren’t words enough in all those sheets of paper to express how very deeply Josh was regretting sending him the story.

“Why did you hate them?” This wasn’t how he usually approached their sessions. In a way, it felt like defeat, like all that work he’d put into surrounding himself with safety nets and mortar had been for nothing, a stupid, wasted effort he’d never be able to get back…but writing had scooped something out of him, leaving his insides feeling raw. Sending it? Knowing Hill had read it? That had taken those scooped-out guts and flung them at the nearest wall. There was no hope of putting them back again, even if he grabbed handful after frantic handful.

And that was terrifying.

He wondered if Hill could sense that fear and then immediately felt even stupider for it. Of course he could. Of course he could. That was why he’d always put up such a fight with the spooky old fuck—he had a sense for it. He could sniff out a squishy spot from a mile away and he knew precisely where he had to press down to find the worst of the rot. It suddenly struck him how ridiculous it was that he’d thought he could ever pull one over on him; he wasn’t some cunning psychopath shrouded in shadow, he wasn’t a misunderstood genius tugging at puppet strings, he was just a damaged little rich kid, the sort Hill had cut his teeth on, and now it was his turn to be chewed up and spat out.

Instead of answering right away, Hill tapped his thumbs together. His tongue clucked a couple times before he uncrossed his legs and set his foot back on the ground, leaning more of his weight against the desk. “‘Hate,’ I think, is too strong a word for how I feel about the endings you chose…and yet at the same time, it doesn’t seem to come nearly close enough.” He frowned, not in a manner that struck him as displeased, per se, but thoughtful. “This is precisely why I think I misspoke—we need to begin our discussion somewhere else. For now, suffice it to say that I still agree with you: They don’t fit. Beyond that…I think we need to work our way towards why that is.” Again he paused as though there was something else he wanted to say. And then the moment passed. He looked at him with that same inscrutable expression and asked, “Does that sound reasonable to you?”

He wasn’t sure it did.

He nodded anyway.

“Good! Then let us instead…ah, yes, I suppose most people would begin at the beginning, hmm?” In one fluid movement, he’d grabbed a small section of the story from the stack, pulling away the paperclip that had been holding it together in favor of fanning the pages out. “I really do have to ask, Josh, that you maybe take a breath or two…” Those sharp eyes met his gaze from over the papers. “You look as though you’re expecting me to start pummeling you with old tomatoes.”

Josh hummed out a tense laugh. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get his mouth to feel right; the muscles of his cheeks quivered dangerously when he tried to smile and there was an unfamiliar ache in his chin when he frowned and even pressing his lips together into a line felt strange against his teeth. He made an attempt at his usual cool indifference and it sounded so hollow in his own ears that he cringed. “You really gonna sit there and tell me you’ve never thought about assaulting me with produce, Alan?”

“This will come as a shock to you, but I do not often fantasize about implementing fruit-based therapies upon my clients.” Before Josh could capitalize on his use of the word ‘often,’ Hill set the papers down on his lap, starting in earnest. “Well! What a story! I have to admit, I may not know much about horror or suspense films, so I fear many of your references were…well, utterly lost on me, but I was thoroughly captivated. So many twists and turns…such intrigue.” He smiled and folded his hands atop the papers, watching Josh carefully. “And a cameo appearance, on top of it all!”

Shameful as it was, his voice came out as little more than a dry croak. He’d been worried about the whole almost-Hill ordeal. “Bad taste?”

Chuckling, Hill shook his head and leaned forward against his forearms. “I don’t know about that. Personally, I thought it was an interesting choice—but again, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. I think we’ll be unpacking that in due time.” He smiled again, and Josh wished he could figure out exactly whether or not it was genuine. “Between you and me, though? I thought the…” he waved his hand as though unsatisfied with the word that came to him, “…the putrefaction progressing with time, matching but opposite your own…that was very clever. Disgusting, of course, but I trust disgust is what you were going for.”

Disgust was, in fact, what he’d been going for. Still, he was having trouble deciding what he wanted to say. He just wanted to know what Hill thought.

Until Dawn,” he remarked as he flipped back to the very first page, forehead wrinkling in the unmistakable squint of a man who’d been putting off the inevitability of bifocals. “I must tell you, I do quite like that for the title.”

In response, Josh just made a quiet, doubtful sound in the back of his throat.

“What? Do you not? I think it’s evocative!”

“It’s a placeholder,” he muttered as his fingers fumbled stupidly with the strap of his watch, his eyes drilling holes through the desk. “It’s stupid. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Hill tut-tutted him before going back to the papers. “‘Doesn’t mean anything…’” he repeated, shaking his head. “Everything means something, Josh. In fact…perhaps that’s where it is that we should begin.”

“The title, you mean?”

“No, no,” Hill waved him off with one hand, and though he couldn’t exactly put his finger on why, Josh felt a tiny, tiny piece of his anxiety begin to ebb. It wasn’t nearly enough for him to relax, but he thought he might actually be able to breathe. “I need to be honest with you here—since I finished reading this, I’ve been trying to decide how I want to go about having this discussion. In that vein of honesty, I’ll admit that I’m still not wholly sure I have a good answer to that. Do you have any idea why that might be?”

Oh, he had a few ideas. Most of them began with Hill plopping his copy of the DSM-IV onto the desk and ended with him being thrown into a padded cell for the rest of his natural-born life. More than a few involved him being put onto some sort of watch list. At least one had to do with Hill publishing one of the world’s most morbidly fascinating case studies with a zippy title like ‘The So-Called Prince of Horror: The Psychological Curse of the Creative and Very Sick’ that would be turned into a movie of a decidedly different sort.

“Because…” Josh started after a moment, fingers beginning to prickle with blood loss as he continued to tighten the strap of his watch, “The whole point of this was to like…address my trauma so I’d feel better or whatever, and instead I gave you a shitty torture porn. So now you’re stuck trying to figure out why none of these exercises ever work on me and how the fuck you handle dealing with a lost cause like—”

“Josh. Josh.” Something in his voice made him stop immediately. He didn’t want to deal with the internal shame of lowering his eyes to his shoes again, but neither did he think he was capable of seeing the way Hill was looking at him, so he tried to settle for a safe middle ground, staring just past the frame of the triptych on the wall. “Is that genuinely what you think I’m trying to say to you? Do you honestly believe that after seeing this…gargantuan undertaking you’ve pushed yourself to complete, I would sit you down and lecture you about being a lost cause?”

Yes, he thought to himself. Of course he did. That was how things worked out for him, after all, that was how life was lived in chez Washington. The effort meant nothing. The only thing with any weight, any worth, was the result. Writing the stupid thing had been pointless because it had done nothing. It had resulted in nothing. It was just another example of his squandered potential—his brokenness. He couldn’t fucking write, he couldn’t finish school, he couldn’t be a good son, he couldn’t be a passable friend, he couldn’t save his sisters. It wasn’t that he thought he was a lost cause, he simply was one.

Hill saved him the embarrassment of trying to answer. “If that’s the case, you need to do away with that thought immediately. I don’t know where to begin today because you’ve given me something very few therapists are lucky enough to receive. This story? All of this? Whether you recognize it or not, with one click of a computer mouse, you’ve sent me what amounts to the Rosetta Stone of all the things you’ve been avoiding with such ardor for the past year or so.”

“I…what?” It felt like the millionth time he’d said it since sitting down. “I…how did you get…there’s nothing in there, Alan. There’s fucking nothing.”

“Oh no?”

For one moment, beautiful in its familiarity, the raging storm of emotion in his gut flared up into anger. There was such comfort in that spike of heat, fitting like a well-tailored suit, and he latched onto it with every ounce of his might, letting it sharpen his thoughts. “No,” he snapped, “It’s just bullshit. It’s all bullshit! There’s no fucking substance, it’s just the sort of shit a fourteen-year-old asshole writes in his notebook and leaves out where the teacher can see it because he wants attention. That’s it. That’s it! There’s no fucking psychology in that, it just shows that something in my head is royally screwed right the fuck u—” Before he could say anything else, Hill had lifted a single finger, effectively cutting him off mid-word.

“Creating is an intrinsically selfish act. I’m sure there are many people out there who would disagree with me on that, but I suppose I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to matters like these. You see, Josh…when you sit down and create something—and it could be anything: a movie,” he picked up the sheaf of papers and brandished them at that, “Or a novel, or a painting, or a knitted scarf, or a cake, or anything…you are, to some extent, creating that thing for other people. You want them to view it or wear it or eat it or what have you. You want them to experience it. But that isn’t why we create in the first place. No, we create because yes, creating gives our audience something, but it serves us in some way as well.”

Hill was giving him a look that suggested he wanted him to say something just then, but Josh wasn’t sure he had anything to say to that. Instead, he directed his eyes back to the painting behind Hill’s head, the grand, sprawling triptych that had always riveted him with its scene of suffering and fear. It must’ve been a trick of the light…none of the subjects in the painting seemed to be screaming or writhing in pain today. Instead the scene struck him as indescribably sad, sad in the deep, draining way only adults knew how to be sad.

“When we first did that storytelling exercise, back…oh, when was that—my, time has a funny way of flying by, doesn’t it?—close to a year ago, good heavens…when we first did that, and I suggested you try writing your own story…do you remember why I made that suggestion?”

There was no avoiding it that time around. “Yeah, uh,” Josh wet his lips. “You said if I got everything out of my head, I’d feel better.”

For the very first time since he’d gotten there, Hill’s expression was one he could read: exasperation. It was just a flicker, there for a second but gone in a flash, giving him the momentary air of a man who’d just sat down to one of the longest workdays of his life. “You know, the frequency with which you say that makes me wonder if sometimes I just forget to include important words in my sentences. I said the exercise might help you feel better, Josh. I said it often helps people feel better.” One side of his mouth twitched up into something that could’ve been a smile, and he leaned forward again to close a few inches of the space dividing them. “Before we get any further into this, I suppose it bears asking…how do you feel after writing this? Do you feel it helped?”

He blinked. Once. Twice. Then let go of his watch to slide against the back of his seat, undoing the progress Hill had made with his lean. “No, Alan,” he said incredulously.

“No?” Feigning surprise, Hill blew a breath out. “So you don’t feel any better, then? You don’t think you have a deeper understanding of the things that have been bothering you?”

The clock ticked away second after second somewhere behind him. Josh stared at Hill as though expecting Ashton Kutcher to jump out from behind one of the bookshelves—there had to be a hidden camera around here, right? Probably wedged into some nook or cranny he couldn’t see, stuck there so Hill could tape his slow and steady meltdown into complete lunacy. “No, Alan,” he repeated, words coming out even sharper that second time, “No I don’t feel better. How the hell…you read that whole thing, and there’s even a sliver of a doubt in your mind about how I feel?

He wasn’t sure why he expected Hill to do anything other than sit there and watch him, but he found himself shocked all the same when that was precisely what he did.

“Do I feel better…do I feel better? Of course I don’t fucking feel better! Are you kidding me? If anything, I feel worse after puking that all out! Before? When I just thought I was a fucking psychopath? That was just me going off a gut feeling. Now I have a, a…a goddamn manifesto putting all the awful, twisted bullshit I keep fermenting in my head on full display!”

Yeah, this…this wasn’t how he’d expected this session to go. He’d just wanted to hear what Hill had to say. He wanted to know what he’d done wrong, why the stupid story hadn’t stopped the constant screaming in the back of his head or loosened the metal fist around his heart. Having a meltdown hadn’t been on the itinerary.

And yet. There he fucking was, the trembling back in full force, wracking him from his toes to the tip of his nose, and he felt as though his blood had been replaced with seltzer water someone had shaken up. He’d tried so hard for so long, but now that he’d started the process of pulling the words out of his head and putting them onto paper, he found himself absolutely helpless to stop them from continuing to spill out of his mouth. That didn’t make him feel better either—it wasn’t like coughing up a sour stomach, it was metaphorical dry heaves, each one threatening to turn him inside out without anything to show for it.

“What was the purpose of the exercise, Josh?” Hill tried again, speaking slowly.

Fuck the purpose of the exercise! he wanted to say, Who cares about the goddamn purpose? But he’d already sat himself in the chair and the heavy door had already shut behind him, so until that clock on the wall gave its quiet chime to mark the end of their hour, he was stuck there in the office under the scrutinizing gaze of Hill and the girl in the painting; so he could lash out, sure, and he could knock everything off of the desk and scream, sure, but he’d have to sit there afterwards and stew in it. He’d have to listen to the echoes of his own voice as they bounced up from the hardwood floor.

Josh grit his jaw to stop some of the shaking and only succeeded in making his teeth chatter. “So I could ‘abstract’ shit. See the situation from a different point of view. Maybe figure out how I was feeling about stuff, I guess.”

“You guess?”

He shrugged, hoping he didn’t look as petulant as he felt but knowing he did. “Yeah. I guess.”

“And do you think you accomplished that?” The look that accompanied the question was another familiar one. With his head cocked ever so slightly to the side, Hill seemed very much like a parent waiting for a child to explain themselves.

Josh shrugged. He shook his head slowly at first, then more definitively, the corners of his mouth tightening and tucking in as he thought. “No, Alan, I don’t. Not even a little.”

Hill sat back in his seat, eyebrows lifting into almost comical arcs of disbelief. “You don’t?”

“No.” His answer was flat. Hard. Certain. All by design, of course, the hope being that if he sounded sure enough, maybe Hill wouldn’t hear the way his voice caught in his chest. “It didn’t. All it did was make me angry and sad and tired. I just got more caught up in my own head, that’s all that happened. I obsessed over everything more and more and stressed myself out staring at blank documents and rereading the ugly shit that came out of my sick, fucking head. That’s it. That’s all I did. If the point of this stupid exercise was to make me learn something about myself, congrats! I did! Know what I learned? I learned I’m fucking crazy. I’m fucked right the hell up! I get to make something—anything—and I write a goddamn snuff film about my friends.

“No one dies in your story, Josh. Well, that’s not entirely true, is it? I suppose there are plenty of casualties, all considering, but…none of your friends die. Not a single person who makes the trip up to the lodge with you is killed.” He said it so calmly, so coolly, that it only served to ramp up the thrumming indignation flaring up in Josh’s gut.

“Oh, I wrote it. I wrote all of it. All of them! Each and every one—I spent time on it, I came up with weird shit. Heads getting torn off, eyes getting gouged, falling into wood chippers, getting hung up on hooks, guts torn to shreds, set on fire, thrown off cliffs, shot in the head, you name it, I fucking had it! I spent days on that shit! Days and days, just coming up with ways to cut them down and—”

Hill’s voice was flat enough to startle him out of his rant. “Show me.”

“I…what?”

He tapped his pointer finger onto the mountainous stack of papers, his eyes never leaving Josh’s. “Show me where in here that happened. As it turns out, I cannot for the life of me remember reading about anyone falling into a wood chipper or being set on fire, so surely I must’ve missed it. If you’d please, show me where these deaths are.”

Well, he’d give him this much: He’d gotten him to stop shaking like a Chihuahua in a storm. Josh looked from Hill to the papers and back again, his brain feeling a full five seconds behind his ears. “I…”

Not even a blink that time around. “Certainly I’m misremembering key pieces of your story, so if you would just remind me of where these deaths take place, I think we could progress in our discussion.”

“They’re…they’re not in there.”

With an interested hum, Hill sat up a bit straighter. “They’re not? What a relief! Here I was, thinking I’d begun slowly sinking into the quagmire of senility. Ah, guess I can remove that from my list of concerns.”

…what? What?

Josh blinked hard once, trying to…clear his vision? Or clear his head? Really he was just trying to piece together what Hill was trying to do here. “I still wrote them,” he said stiffly. “I thought them all up and I wrote them, and—”

“And yet you didn’t think to include them in the version you gave me. Dear oh dear…”

Okay, the flippant tone was starting to grate on him. Didn’t he get it? How was he not understanding the point here?! All that time and effort, all the fucking adjectives he’d poured into those deaths…it mattered! It all fucking mattered! It meant he was wrong, he was broken, something inside of him was sick and rotted and wrong. “I could’ve,” Josh said curtly, tone bordering on full-out third grade level ‘yeah-huh, nuh-uh’ yelling.

Hill shrugged, resting his chin on one of his palms, his forefinger tapping slowly at the side of his face. “You didn’t.”

“I was going to.”

“But you didn’t.”

The sense of having a playground argument over the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle surged to an all-time high as Hill cut him down. He wasn’t offering him anything to grab hold of, there was nothing he could argue against, he was just…disagreeing. Just saying ‘no’ over and over again.

He could feel himself frowning, but every trace of his earlier tremors had faded away to nothing, lost to the tide of uncertainty. Hill didn’t just do shit like this for the hell of it.

Was he being led into something?

Once the thought took root, he couldn’t get rid of it. “I…” Josh began once more, treading lightly this time around, “I almost did. I thought about killing everyone. Ending it like that.”

“But again…you didn’t.”

What was he supposed to say to that? No, no he hadn’t included them. If he’d put the deaths in there, then he wouldn’t have been any different than his hack fraud of a father, pumping out schlocky horror flick after schlocky horror flick. Keeping all the stupid characters alive? That was subverting expectations! That was flipping the tropes right on their heads! No one ever expected that—people expected you to kill off the Dumb Blonde and the Mean Girl and the Meatheaded Jock. For them to disappear and then show up alive and well? That was a shocker, baby! That was how you did a twist! But questionable taste in spooky art aside, he wasn’t sure Hill would appreciate the intricacies of the horror genre, so he didn’t say any of that.

“It’s just as bad,” is what he actually said.

And that certainly got a reaction out of Hill. His eyebrows crept up his forehead again, wrinkling the skin there. “Beg pardon?”

He gnawed at a corner of his upper lip for a moment before shaking his head. “I still wrote that shit. I did. Who cares if I included it or not? That doesn’t matter. I could’ve done it, I almost did it, and that’s just as bad.”

The clock ticked out the better part of ten seconds by the time Hill seemed to settle on what to say. “Did you know, Josh, that before I decided to go into practice as a psychiatrist I had given heavy thought to becoming a lawyer?”

Yeah, he was absolutely trying to lead him into some kind of trap here. There was…there was no other explanation readily available.

“How would I know that?”

Raising both of his shoulders in a melodramatic shrug, Hill clucked his tongue once and fixed him with a decidedly facetious look. “Well, since you seem to be of the impression that almost doing things is the same as actually carrying through with them, then clearly you should be able to look at me, listen to me speak, and find yourself conflicted as to whether you see me as Alan the psychiatrist…or Alan the lawyer. Or, I suppose, both. So what do you think, Josh?” At that, he sunk as deeply into his seat as Josh had in his own, adjusting his posture accordingly. “Do you find me to be an effective lawyer?”

He jawed at the air. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t see where this path was going. He didn’t like that. “I…don’t know what to say to that batshit statement.”

“Of course you don’t. Why should you? We don’t judge one another by the things we almost do, Josh, that…it’s a preposterous idea. Pointless. Thinking of something is quite different than doing it, and simply writing the graphic deaths of people you know? Well…maybe it’s not an ideal pastime, admittedly, but it’s still an entirely different beast than taking those deaths and incorporating them into the final draft.”

A finger of that exasperated anger shot up in him again, tightening his ribs around his lungs. “It isn’t, though.”

Hill had the audacity—the gall!—to roll his eyes. It was a gesture that looked perfectly alien on his face. “This again? One moment, allow me to prepare my rebuttal.” He paused only long enough to clear his throat and then carefully enunciated a single word: “Incorrect.”

“Look. I get what you’re trying to say here—”

“With each passing second, Josh, I’m truly beginning to doubt that.”

“—but you told me to go home and write a fun little fairytale about princes and princesses and I come back with this awful…just…horrible story about me torturing and hurting my friends—my friends! I ruin their lives just for the hell of it! I scare them and hurt them and torment them and make them dance like stupid fucking puppets just because I can! That’s…that’s fucked up.” He realized he’d been grabbing onto the arms of the chair hard enough to strain the fabric and immediately loosened his grip. “I thought about killing them, Alan. I thought about it! That’s in my head somewhere. It’s inside of me. That shouldn’t exist. That shouldn’t exist! Normal people don’t go around imagining the best way to—”

“‘There’s more to be afraid of than can be dreamt up by the unhinged imagination of a self-indulgent, spoiled little brat.’” His fingers had, unbeknownst to Josh, moved to lift a few of the papers, allowing him to read an underlined section. Lifting his gaze back to him, Hill set his expression into something more neutral. “Is that how you see yourself, Josh? A self-indulgent, spoiled little brat with an unhinged imagination?”

“I am. Didn’t that make it abundantly fucking clear?” He wanted very much to push away from the desk and stalk around the room or maybe just curl up on the floor and melt away or…anything. He wanted to do anything other than untangle this mess of knots being waved in his face.

Nodding in that maddeningly wise way he had, Hill listened. Hill watched. When it was clear Josh had said his piece, he spread his hands out wide as though in supplication. “Let’s say you are, then. Let’s explore that line of thinking. So…you’re a self-indulgent, spoiled little brat with an unhinged imagination, hmm? I would argue that a great many of us on Earth are, but that’s beside the point, I suppose. All right. You’re a spoiled brat who cares only for himself, fine and good—as a spoiled brat, why did you write all of this? Why did you go through the time, and effort, and frustration of finishing it? Because Josh, I don’t know if you’re aware, but…” he paused, picking up the stack of papers to flip dramatically through them. “This is a lot of writing. A lot of very clear, well thought-out, complex writing.”

“It’s shit. It’s fucking torture porn. It’s—”

“Still a considerable amount of work.” It was obvious Hill was having none of his objections. He set the papers down once more, flipping through pages at random. Josh was more than a little shocked to see how many sections he’d underlined or highlighted…or both. “So tell me, young Mr. Spoiled Brat, if you only care about yourself, why did you write all of this?”

His throat felt like sandpaper again, his heart creeping back up towards the back of his throat. There was a dull ache in the small of his back making him wish that he’d chosen to sit on the couch when he’d been ushered into the room. Not that he was a couch-person. Not that he thought he needed to be that close to the box of tissues. “I wanted to hurt them the same way I’d been hurt. I wanted to make them pay for what happened to my sisters. I needed that…I don’t know what you call it—catharsis?” Hill nodded, and it only made his scowl deeper, “That’s it. That’s why. I hurt, so I made them hurt. Simple as that.”

“Ah, well, I guess if that’s the case, then I have to agree with you. That certainly was the impression I had while reading this.”

Josh perked up immediately. That…wasn’t what he’d expected.

Casually, Hill met his eyes before looking down to the papers. “For the first half, anyway…yes, in the first half, that desire to really plunge the knife in and twist is very clear. Particularly the way you focus on your friends and sort of allow the others to fall into the background. Mike, Emily, Jessica, Matt…they never really fall prey to the lumbering menace of the Psycho, now, do they? Most of them never even see him! Such a different tale than what the other three endure. So yes, I believe you. I believe that you absolutely began this story with the intention of simply taking out your aggression on your friends in a particularly gruesome manner.” A dusty sound as he drummed his fingers against the page. “Do you want to know precisely where that line of reasoning drops off?” He looked up to Josh, raising his eyebrows quizzically.

He said nothing.

“Right about…ah yes, here, the part where there’s almost some kind of…I guess you’d say there’s some sort of…calm before the storm, as it were.” He flipped through the story until he landed on one page in particular, and while Josh couldn’t see the specifics, he made note of the large section of text that had been circled several times over. “Here is where you lose me, Josh, because here is where—I feel, at least—you’ve stopped writing this as a glorified power fantasy of yours.” Without any further ado, he spun the stack of papers around and slid them closer to Josh, allowing him to get a look. “Tell me what you think.”

It only took a second or two of scanning before he realized where in the story they were. The shed. He’d just taken a right hook to the face, had a pistol pointed right between his eyes, and was securely tied to a support beam in his grimy coveralls.

“Here is the turning point of the story, is it not? In this scene we close one door and open another. One tale ends and a new one, I think, begins.” Hill tapped the papers one last time, then grabbed one of the top sections for himself, watching Josh carefully as he thumbed towards a bright yellow sticky note. “You’re being terribly quiet all of a sudden…” he drawled, dragging out the vowel sounds in a way that struck him as not quite teasing. “I must warn you…the quieter you are, the more opportunity I have to prattle on, and I think we both know how much I enjoy the sound of my own voice.”

If it was an attempt at making him laugh or loosen up…well, he’d have to try a little harder than that.

Hill shrugged. “Ah. Then I suppose we can do away with the preamble and jump right on into the content, hmm? I have to say, your choice of characters was very interesting! I really feel as though I’ve gotten to know this merry band—except for Matt and Jessica. We don’t see very much of those two, do we?”

The golden light filling the room felt over-bright then, making his eyes ache. There was too much color in too small a space, and it clashed with the deep mahogany of Hill’s furniture in a way that made his sinuses prickle. Josh took a breath in, preparing to say something…and then let it out. He didn’t know what to do with his hands.

“I suppose that was only to be expected though, right? They’re the two you don’t know very well, aren’t they? The ones you always thought of as ‘Mike and Emily’s friends.’ Except now they’ve been promoted to ‘Mike and Emily’s significant others.’”

“Moving on up in the world.”

“It would seem so!” Hill offered him another sly smile from the corner of his mouth before lowering his eyes to the story once more. “The others, however…it’s very clear to me that you’ve written who you do know very, very well. Perhaps even better than you think.”

Now what in the fuck was that supposed to mean? Josh frowned but didn’t ask, still trying to find something other than Hill or the triptych to focus on. It was a task easier said than done.

“As I was saying before—in the first half of your story, we have this group of wildly different people. There’s you, your friends, and then the others…the ones who were friends with your sisters. The band’s back together as it were, eh? In your slow, methodical way, you collect each of the people present the night of your sisters’ disappearance, and you bring them back to the scene of the crime. And all of them do attend, I rather liked that…you get them to the lodge on, of all days, the very anniversary of their mean-spirited prank, and then you do something that I found especially curious. Do you know what that was?”

He didn’t.

“You send them away. Poof! The moment you’re all under the same roof, you send Mike and Jess off to the cabin, and then Matt and Emily quickly follow suit, leaving you and your friends alone to your own devices. And until we reach the basement, until we are presented your grand, dramatic revelation, that’s the end of them! We see hide nor hair of the…oh what was it you called them…the…” he turned a page over and squinted at it, “Ah! Yes, the All Thats. They are simply lost to us throughout the first half of the story. And I really must know, what were they doing during that time?”

Fuck. He could feel Hill’s icy eyes bearing down on him like twin power drills threatening to make short work of his skull. It took every bit of strength in him to keep from meeting that gaze; for whatever reason, he had the impossible notion that if he were to make eye contact with him in that moment, he’d lose, and he wasn’t sure what losing to Hill would mean. He wasn’t sure what he’d be losing.

And that fucking terrified him.

Josh let a sliver of his tongue poke out to wet his lips and he was surprised to find an angry knot welling in the lower one. Without realizing it, it appeared he’d chewed it to hell and back. “I don’t really know. I told you I needed to add subplots and connect those dots, so—”

“What was their part of the prank?”

He could hear the psychological bear trap beginning to creeeak around him. Any second now it would snap shut and he’d be locked in.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the first half of this revolves around you getting back at everyone for the part they played in the prank that hurt your sisters. Now, we see what happens to Chris and Ashley and Sam—we see that in quite a bit of detail, really—but I have to wonder what it is you had planned for the others?”

“I, uh…” Josh rocked back against his seat, gaze going wide and unfocused. What had he planned for the others? Yeah the power was cut at the cabin and he’d fucked up the cable car station real nice, but neither of those were exactly a Psycho-level prank. “I don’t…I didn’t plan anything for them.” The admission filled his mouth with the taste of bile.

How could he have overlooked that? It was a major fucking part of the story, that prank, and what, he just…he just hadn’t written anything for them? He sat there, mentally flipping through every plan, every note, every scribbled snippet he’d ever put together, and nowhere in that pile could he find so much as a scrap of what the Psycho was supposed to do to them.

Whether or not Hill noticed his momentary shutdown, he continued, “You know, I had the strangest idea you’d say something like that. Ah well, we’ll circle back in due time. Now, where you’ve neglected those four, oh…you put…painstaking detail into what happens to the other three, didn’t you? You went to great lengths to tailor-make the night your friends endure, that much is plain to see.

“You make a point in your character sheets—which are lovely, by the bye, I have to admit I was shocked to see your artistic talent! You’ve never shared that in any of our previous sessions—to emphasize exactly what it is each of your friends fears most. I appreciated that touch, to be sure, I very much enjoyed that insight. We have Sam, who is afraid of the paranormal, Ashley, who is afraid of the dark, Chris, who is afraid of failure, and then of course, much as I’m sure you’d like to, we cannot forget you, can we? No, no, of course not. We have you rounding out the group with your fear of being alone.

“So it only stands to reason then that for Sam you set up a convoluted ghost story—Hannah and Beth continue to haunt the lodge, speaking only through cryptic notes and Ouija boards. For his part, Chris is thrown into a series of events where he is helpless not to disappoint others—someone is always being hurt because of him, something bad is always happening because of an impossible choice he’s been forced to make. And then obviously the entire story takes place in the dark, so Ashley’s out of luck the moment she steps into the lodge altogether. Just like you.” He paused at that, sucking a breath or two softly through his teeth. “The lodge is nothing if not isolated. It’s located at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest and nothing else. Your fear is just as ever-present as theirs, isn’t it?”

The invisible trap whined a little louder.

“Something else I noticed, if you don’t mind my continued rambling…” Hill chuckled as though it had been a joke of some kind, but if it had been, Josh didn’t get the punch line. “It’s not just the fears you tailor to them, is it? No, the outcome of those fears is also bespoke. You subject your characters—your friends—to their very worst, deepest, most primal fears, and what do they do? They face them! What’s more, you reward them for it.” He slowly (almost coyly) lifted his eyes back to Josh. Whatever he saw there on his face, he couldn’t begin to guess, but there was a glint in that stormy gaze of his that seemed to hint at amusement. “Ah…but did you realize that, I wonder?”

That…wasn’t right. That couldn’t be right.

The fuck was Hill on about? He was the one who wrote the damn thing; if anyone had been ‘rewarded’ for fuck-all, he would’ve known. “Bullshit,” Josh mumbled, though he could already feel his face begin to contort with suspicion.

“No, no, I assure you, you do!” And then, proving he’d been prepared for this all along, Hill flipped through pages until he found whatever proof he’d marked. He began rifling through the manuscript again, clucking his tongue quietly while he did so. “Chris fears disappointing others, so you rob of him his agency at every turn, strong-arm him into choices that have no good outcome, and in the end, after all of that, not only does he find his voice and learn to stand up for himself—which, as a therapist, I must point out is absolutely a reward, in and of itself—but he also gets the girl!

“And while we’re speaking of ‘the girl…’ Ashley fears the dark, so you make sure she spends most, if not all, of this story in it. No light in the lodge, none in the shed, even less in the basements, the tunnels, the mines…but still she survives. She lives and keeps living! She gets the boy, she saves his life, she finds that streak of bravery that she thought herself incapable of!” He looked to Josh again, the corners of his mouth turning up into the beginnings of a smile. “You reward them.”

“I—”

“Ah, but I’ve left Sam out, haven’t I? I have. True, she avoids most of the night you’ve planned for her, so her reward comes much later, but…” He mad a thoughtful noise, eyes bouncing back and forth across the text. “Ah, right—Sam, we said, is afraid of the paranormal. She very literally faces down something that should not exist in reality as we know it, and in return, she is given knowledge.”

“What knowledge?

“Later on—significantly later on, I will admit—she learns the truth of what happened to your sisters.”

“That’s not—no.” His frown was so intense that it actually ached. “That’s not a reward.”

“Is it not?” The tone of Hill’s voice warned him that whatever argument he had stood little to no chance of holding water.

Josh couldn’t help himself. Just like before, he found himself fighting a losing battle against the glut of fury needling its way through his stomach. “What’s rewarding about that?! It’s disgusting! She’s forced to accept Hannah ate Beth! She has to know that Hannah ate her own sister! She has to look at this horrific…thing and know it’s her! Just th-this thoughtless, hungry thing that’s trying to slaughter everyone and everything and—”

“And in learning those horrible facts, she’s given closure.” The evenness of Hill’s voice managed to get a second message across: ‘Gotcha now’. “Is the knowledge you burden her with gruesome? Is it obscene? Yes, of course it is. But it’s knowledge. You’ve removed the uncertainty from her mind and given her a definite answer to the mystery that’s been weighing her—and you—down for so long. Now she doesn’t need to sit up at night, staring at her ceiling, wondering what could’ve happened to your sisters, or where they could be, or how they could’ve died.” He let the sentiment settle in the air as though his office was nothing more than one of Sam’s dad’s weird snowglobes. “She stared the supernatural in the face, and for her efforts, for her suffering, you gave her the closure she needed. You punished her with the obscenity of it, you showed her that not knowing was a grace and a kindness…but with the same hand, Josh, you rewarded her with no longer having to wonder.

“So yes, you reward them. All of them.”

If it was possible, his frown deepened. The muscles of his face twitched in discomfort. “…I didn’t mean to.” Fuck. He sounded so childish. Petulant. “That wasn’t what I meant to do—”

Hill held up a finger and Josh held his thought. “Perhaps you didn’t plan it…but I think you meant it. Consciously?” He shrugged. “We do a great many things without knowing why or how.” Settling the papers down, Hill folded his hands and leaned subtly forward, the warm light from the window glinting off the ring on his pinky. “Regardless of your intentions, or lack thereof, you included these things. Your friends face their fears, and they overcome them. However.” Another emphatic pause. “What happens when you face yours?”

There wasn’t a response he could give. Not one that he could push past his teeth, at least; so Josh said nothing. He sat in the chair and stared openly at Hill.

“You plunge yourself into isolation from the start. You abandon everyone, you abandon your home, your life. And for your efforts, what do you earn?”

He said nothing. He stared at Hill.

And for a time, Hill simply held his gaze. “You don’t need to answer right away. Think on it for now. But as I said before, that is simply the first half of the story. So let us move forward a bit, shall we? For now, we’ll skip the parts about your prank—though I warn you, I will want to revisit the part where Ashley very nearly loses her head and the part where your friends almost figure it all out, so brace yourself for that—but what I’m interested in addressing with you for the rest of our time is…this.”

A huff, a heave, and Hill removed the top half of the stack, setting it down onto the floor beside his chair.

Josh didn’t need to look long at the topmost page on the desk to know where Hill had started them. In his fingers he could still feel the tingle of cruel joy he’d had writing the fucking thing. Besides that one ending, it was probably the section of the story he’d enjoyed writing the most…and that only made him feel worse, because it served as proof positive that he was cracked, something was wrong with him, he was dangerous, he was, in fact, a psychopath.

It was the part where Emily had almost gotten her shit wrecked.

This was where Hill slammed the big secret button under his desk, wasn’t it? The one that would trigger a silent siren to alert the nice young men in their clean white coats to come and take him away, ha-ha, ho-ho, hee-hee. ‘I want to discuss the passion you put into this,’ Hill would say, shaking his head dourly, all of his earlier chuckles and half-smiles gone by the wayside. ‘Why would you write something this grotesque? This cruel?

“This, Josh,” Hill said instead, his tone bursting not with disgust but something softer in the middle, “Is where the story changes. This is where it stops being about your revenge—would that be safe to say? It stops being about you, in any case…in fact, from this point on, you as a character disappear for great swaths of time. You fizzle away into the background, and the story instead becomes about your friends.”

Hill was silent for a moment. He folded his hands together, steepled his fingers, dropped them again, and narrowed his eyes in thought. “From this point on, you become…context. Exposition. You do not move the plot along. No, you’re there, to be sure, but you are no longer a villain, no longer an antagonist…as I said before, it’s been a considerable time since I’ve really sat back to analyze a work of fiction, so please forgive me if I’m mistaken here, but Josh, you’re hardly an ancillary character anymore. You’re…something else. Other—you are Other. When you’re mentioned, those scenes are breaks in reality, breaks in pacing, breaks in…everything. You aren’t part of the same story anymore, you’re outside of it, in your own world, in your own head.

“Here is where the danger changes for your friends…but not for you. The danger they find themselves facing down in the second half of the story is simply an accepted fact to you. It is a reality. A state of being. The danger, Josh, becomes…not even Hannah, truly, but something that once was her, though isn’t any longer. I read this and it struck me that the danger in this story, the true horror is just that: The memory of your sisters. Who they once were. What they were and now what they are not.

“And you? You accept without flinching that this memory, this…ravenous and monstrous presence, is going to get you. When it takes you, you aren’t surprised. You don’t try to fight it. You allow yourself to be taken by it and plunged into the dark. Your friends, though? They don’t go softly into that dark night, do they?”

He was going to throw up. He was going to throw up everywhere, just like he thought he might in the waiting room. Upon further consideration, however, he doubted it would be half as artistic or visually stunning as The Exorcist. It would probably, he had to believe, just be gross. And pathetic. And sad.

He’d been trying so hard not to look at Hill, not wanting to lose (whatever that meant) but now he found he couldn’t look away. He was riveted by his gaze the way small prey animals were riveted by the shadow of a predator, the way deer were riveted by headlights in the dead of night, and he shuddered to think of what his face must’ve been doing in that moment because it felt like it was probably gross. And pathetic. And sad.

This wasn’t how he’d expected this session to go. No, no it was not.

“You told me you felt you hadn’t accomplished anything by writing this, that you hadn’t gained any particular insight into yourself or your anger or your grief, but I am here to tell you Josh, that you and I read very, very different stories, if that is the case. In the story I read, you lure your friends to your family’s blighted home, a place you have told me on multiple occasions you feel to be cursed. It is a place that holds unbearable, unspeakable memories for you all, and still they come to help you. And for that, you turn on them. You hurt them. You use their fears and their weaknesses against them to break them down one by one and at the end of it, what do you have? Why, you have your vengeance, of course! You succeed in scaring them the way your sisters were scared, but in the end, you find that vengeance rings hollow, don’t you?

“You are not satisfied—you are still wanting. You don’t feel as though you’ve won some great victory against them, as you always imagined you might. What do they do then? They excise you from the group like a tumor. They leave you alone, and in so doing, they take advantage of your fear. And in that isolation, the memory of your sisters is able to glom onto you and drag you away from everyone else, farther and farther still until you are literally in two different worlds: theirs in the lodge versus yours and your sisters’ in the mines.

“But you don’t fight to get back to them, no, you allow yourself to be taken in by your sisters’ memory, to rot in the darkness while your friends struggle to survive far, far above you, and yet…and yet…though you remove yourself from the rest of them, I find it interesting, Josh, that you leave your friends in the care of Mike and Emily. Chris and Ashley find themselves stuck with Emily in the tunnels. She’s angry and self-centered, rich and snobbish, a bitch. She’s unpleasant, and that’s being kind. She fights them every step of the way. They don’t feel safe with her and they certainly do not like her, but even after every terrible thing that has happened to them, they try to be civil. Yet what do they get for their trouble? Chris is left to nurse his wounds silently, if only to try and keep up with her. Ashley gets thrown to the monsters. Meanwhile, Sam is left with Mike, who is arrogant but handsome, closed-off but smart as a whip. She just wants him to listen to her, to accept the things she has to say…and he pushes all of that away. He tamps it down so he doesn’t have to acknowledge the horror surrounding them or the part he played in it.

“They are the two people that you have said, in this very office no less, remind you the most of yourself. Now, I’m willing to glaze over the implications of what Mike almost does to Emily in the basement for the time being. I think, honestly, that we would need much more than the hour we have today for me to express how distressing I found that scene in particular. But we will discuss it. At length. Later.

“Through everything, they survive. All of them! Every last attendant of your winter getaway—even the ones most responsible for what happened to your sisters—they prevail! They burn down the lodge, destroying the heart of the beast, and they get to go home. Except, of course, for you. You don’t get to go home, do you?”

The trembling was back, but it wasn’t in his hands. Neither was it in his legs, his arms, his stomach, his heart. It seemed localized to his face.

He thought maybe the trap had already snapped, after all.

“What you’ve given me, Josh,” Hill continued, and none-too-gently at that, “Is a story about a young man who sees himself as nothing more than a minor antagonist in his own life. He is not the star of his story, nor is he a hero in any sense of the word—he is a minor league threat to those around him. He is an annoyance. A bully at worst. A bully who is quickly overshadowed by the monstrous memory of his sisters. He is lost in the chaos and forgotten in favor of more important things. He is tied up in a shed, the door is closed, and he is hardly thought of again until his key is needed. He is replaceable. In fact, the only thing that makes him noteworthy at all is his instability. His Other-ness. The story takes place close enough to a sanatorium to make the reader wonder if somehow that is where this lunatic belongs, if perhaps he simply got lost along the way and ended up in the smoky halls of the ski lodge by mistake. He is insane, so he cannot be a hero, but neither can he be the victim because he is so full of rage, yet neither can he be the villain because he is nothing—nothing!—compared to the fury of his sisters’ ghosts…do you see what I’m getting at with this?”

He wasn’t sure he did.

Hill gave up all pretense of paying attention to the papers on his desk then, leaning in over his desk. In the past few minutes his voice had taken on a deathly serious tone, one that hinted at all manner of things Josh didn’t want to think about (disappointment, sympathy, exhaustion, pity), but it was nothing compared to the heaviness of his stare. “You asked me why I disliked the endings you came up with. This is why. In both, you have reduced yourself to a creature. Something hideous and distorted and frightening. From the very moment your story begins, the part where you ignore just about everyone’s advice and sequester yourself in the lodge to dwell on your wrongs, you go to great pains to illustrate to the audience that you are unwell. You are broken. You are, in your own words, a psycho. Your friends survive their ordeal. They conquer and overcome their fears. What do you do when faced with yours, Josh?”

“I get more.”

It was Hill’s turn to go quiet. His mouth had been open mid-word, but he stopped abruptly, bringing his lips together before steepling his fingers under his chin.

“I get more of it. Isolation.” He tightened the strap of his watch until the skin underneath it felt raw and itchy. “They leave me, in the end. Chris picks Ash. Ash wants me to die. Sam leaves me in the mine. I’m alone.” It only occurred to him as he said the words aloud. Wasn’t that a bitch. A warning prickle came from behind his eyes, setting his sinuses aflame, and the bear trap Hill had laid out for him clamped into his flesh that much tighter. “I’m alone.”

There was silence in the office. Somewhere behind him, somewhere he couldn’t see, the clock continued to mark second after second with hollow ticks. The sound made him think of metronomes and music boxes, footsteps and heartbeats. And just when he thought it was too much, that he was going to shatter like a sheet of ice…just then, and only then, Hill spoke up.

“Are you, though?”

There was a stab of something like terror in the pit of his stomach when he realized the quivering of his chin was only getting worse.

“Is that how the story ends?” Almost casually, Hill turned through the two stacks that made up the endings. “That’s not quite what I remember reading…do you know what I do remember reading, Josh? They come back for you. And I’m not even speaking solely of the endings, though of course, they are a clear example of that. Throughout this entire tale, your friends come back for you. Sam returns to the lodge despite it being the epicenter of one of the worst losses in her life. Ashley runs into the kitchen despite it being the place where you and she once fought so horribly. Chris goes back out to the shed despite swearing he’d never step foot near it again after watching you fake your death.” The light from the window caught the ring on Hill’s ring, sending tiny beads of light bouncing against the far wall. “I wonder…what do you make of that?”

He swallowed once, twice, trying to fight past the sandpaper scratch of his throat. His eyes fell to the tangle of fingers in his lap. Try as he might, his tongue was too dry and his jaw was too tight; Josh shrugged and shook his head, saying nothing.

“What could that mean? Regardless of what path they take, regardless of everything else that has gone on during the course of the night—after you terrify them, mock them, nearly get them killed, break their hearts, laugh at them—there is one choice they continue to make. They come back for you. Even when they see you at your most monstrous, they come back for you.” He angled his head in an attempt to meet Josh’s gaze. “That has to mean something.”

Again he shrugged and again he shook his head. Hill wasn’t getting it. He wasn’t getting any of it. That wasn’t the moral of any of it. That wasn’t the point. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just…how the story goes. It’s how the plot moves forward. That’s it. There’s no deeper meaning, it’s…it’s how the story goes. That’s all.” He didn’t like how weak his voice sounded in the office. He didn’t like how unsteady it felt in his throat.

“Ah, but you seem to be forgetting something very important.” There was a quiet sound as Hill tapped the stack of papers with an index finger. “You wrote it. It came from you, from your mind. Whether you realize it or not, that suggests there is reasoning behind it. Perhaps you don’t consciously know the reason, or can’t put words to it, but consider this…wouldn’t the story have still chugged along if they had left you? At any juncture?” He flipped through page after page until coming across one of the many tabs he’d used to mark significant passages (or what Josh could only assume were significant passages), eyes quickly scanning the lines of text. “Let us say…yes, all right, let us say that when you began to yell from the kitchen, no one came to your aid.”

Josh kept his eyes low. When he’d hit the send button on the email, he hadn’t known what to expect, and God knew he hadn’t figured it out by the time he’d pulled into the parking lot of the office, but whatever reaction he’d been anticipating, it hadn’t been this.

“Sam can’t hear you, and neither Ashley nor Chris are moved by your pleas for help, so no one comes! Would the story stop? Would the plot grind to a screeching halt right then and there, before even the first steps of your dastardly plan could be enacted?” Hill paused for effect. If Josh had been able to lift his eyes from his shoes, he would’ve noticed the smile, genuine if not sad. “Because it certainly seems to me that you could’ve—and likely would’ve—gone after them instead. You were already disguised, after all, so you could’ve taken them entirely unawares. At best, the story would’ve continued exactly as it did here—” the page made a dry, wobbly sound as he shook it, “—and at worst, you would’ve had to chase them down for a minute or two before progressing.” He seemed to realize Josh wasn’t about to look up, but continued to glance his way all the same, wetting the tip of his finger with his tongue before rifling through the pages again.

Hill found the next passage he was looking for and continued. “Still, what about once you’re restrained in the shed, hmm? Now everyone knows about your treachery, your cruel joke. They have every reason in the world to hate you, detest you, to wish you harm. So once…” he paused, squinting his eyes as he craned his head back, trying to read the type, “Ah, yes, here, in the part where there’s, hmm…almost a reunion of sorts, just after your mysterious flamethrower-toting stranger appears, it would stand to reason that no one thinks of you. They know you’re still out there alone, of course, but you’ve hurt them. Betrayed them. They feel that you’ll get what’s coming to you. Does the story stop there? I don’t believe it does—it’s hardly as though Chris and ‘Crazy old Jack’ are able to rescue you once they arrive. In fact, the story might progress more smoothly if they don’t go in search of you! The others would have a very useful ally in their corner, someone who would be able to aid them in their time of need. And let’s go further, even…let’s say that’s too easy for them or takes away too much of the drama. Their new friend could take his knowledge and weaponry and go searching for Matt and Jessica, could he not? It would be a convenient excuse for you, the author, to give when explaining how the two of them managed to survive their ordeal relatively unscathed.”

He closed his eyes, hanging his head, listening to Hill go point-for-point. Every muscle in his body felt at war, tugging him this way and that until he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to puke or scream or melt into the floor.

It wasn’t that deep. None of it was that deep. Hill was just looking for things to say. All he’d done was written the bloody scenes as they’d occurred to him, that was it. So why couldn’t he see that?

“Which brings us to the mines…the first time, at least. The part of the story where your daring characters leave the lod…well, I suppose they almost leave the lodge for good.” He shook his head with a faint sigh in much the same way he had been every time his endings came into play. “Would the story have been ruined if Sam hadn’t followed after Mike? She’d heard the stories the others were telling about how dangerous the trek would be, and I can’t imagine you were her favorite person after chasing her through the lodge all night. She and the others could’ve stayed safely tucked away in their basement bunker. Mike still could’ve found you, taken the key to the cable car, and escaped on his own…he certainly proved himself capable of doing as much. Now, the story becomes a tense race to the cable car between your friends and the horrible things hiding in the snow. Still a riveting tale, I’m sure.

“And of course this leads us back to your endings. The ones we both dislike. The ones that do not fit. Why do you think, knowing full well that they can only suffer—Ashley concussed, Chris traumatized, Sam knowing the unfathomable truth about the fate of the twins—they try to save you? Because that’s what they’re doing, you know, trying to save you. Despite it all.”

And because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, he repeated himself. “It’s just how the story goes.”

“‘Just how the story goes’…then why doesn’t the story ‘just go’ in a way where all of you go home at the end, safe and sound?”

“That isn’t how horror stories end. That’s not how any of them ever end. There needs to be ambiguity and unresolved bullshit, you need to set up a sequel, hype it up so that everyone wants more, and—”

“I don’t want more! Do you?” Hill’s eyebrows were in distinct danger of literally flying off of his face. “Neither of these endings make me want to see what happens next, Josh. There’s no chance of redemption, there’s no hope. Wherever the story goes from there, we know it cannot be good.”

“It’s one of the first big rules of horror—”

Fuck the rules.” When he met his shocked gaze, Hill just raised his shoulders. “Fuck the rules, Josh. Who cares about the rules? You said it best yourself: This isn’t a horror story. Truthfully, I’m not sure it ever really was. It has the trappings of a horror story, yes, and frightening things occur, but when you take it all in, experience it as a gestalt…” He patted the papers gently, reverently. “At its heart, this is a tragedy.”

The clock ticked the hour away behind him.

“Here’s the question as I see it.” Hill leaned forward again, the desk creaking under his weight. He tapped his thumbs together in a show of arrhythmic contemplation, mouth tightening into a familiar pucker. “Without any worry about how a story should or should not go…what ending do you want this to have, Josh? What ending do you need? The ending where your friends almost escape unscathed? The one where you allow yourself to become a monster, apologizing to them only after the damage has been done and there’s no going back?” He pulled another section of the story out and placed it in front of him, the first one he’d written but the second one he’d sent, the one that had felt so good when he’d gotten the words down initially and then so bad when he’d edited it that he’d nearly deleted it on the spot. “The ending where you all but starve, where your friends become monsters just like you, joining in your agony down in the dark? Or do you create another ending entirely?”

He stared down at the two endings laid in front of him, the endings he had hemmed and hawed over, the two endings he had written and rewritten a hundred times, if not more. Obviously he really was bad at this whole ‘abstraction’ thing, if it took Hill explicitly saying it for him to recognize shit.

He did become a monster in both, didn’t he? Regardless of whether Chris and Ash and Sam followed him down, he ate that flesh, he joined his sisters in the icy pits of the mines.

“I can’t change it,” he said, his voice very small. He thought he sounded like a child just then, and he didn’t much like it. “Really early on, I eat—”

Hill hummed in that way he had that suggested he was listening, but didn’t agree with what was being said. “That’s the grand thing about being a creator, Josh—the only person who decides what can or cannot be done is you. Think about it: How blessedly simple would it be for you to open up this document on your computer and just…” He made a cheery pop with his lips, followed by a flicking of his fingers, “Erase something? Trim away the things that make a better ending too hard to obtain? How very easy, to delete an awful mistake in Chapter 1, and act as though it never occurred?” His smile was back, carrying the slightest hint of something new. Josh thought it was sympathy. “We cannot change the past, that much is true. It’s always just beyond our reach, isn’t it? But this? None of this is set in stone. Quite the opposite, really…why, I’m not terribly adept at computers, myself, but even I know it only takes…what, two or three keystrokes to delete everything? Start fresh?”

Something in his insides gave an uncomfortable lurch at the sheer mention of starting over. It must’ve shown on his face (he was beginning to grapple with the uncomfortable idea that his poker face wasn’t half as good as he’d let himself believe), because Hill let out a quiet chuckle and waved his hands.

“I’m not saying start from scratch—no, no, I’d never suggest that! I’m only saying that you could. You don’t need to be a slave to anything you’ve written so far. You can cut away the pieces that no longer serve you, or soften the language in places where you feel you’ve written yourself into a corner. That’s all I meant, of course. It’s your story, Josh, meaning it can be whatever you want it to be. It can end however you want it to end, need it to end. If, in fact, you need it to end at all.”

And oh, that was where he should’ve stopped. That right there. Maybe he could’ve survived the rest of the hour if Hill had stopped there. But he didn’t.

“You know, while we’re on the topic, I couldn’t help but notice that throughout this entire story, from the very beginning to the very end, you aren’t the only monster, are you? Hannah is also—”

Fuck.

Fuck.

He wasn’t sure when it had started.

There had been so little warning.

But there he was, sitting across from Hill, hands in his lap, tears dribbling down his face. He hated it—he couldn’t help but think back on how many times he’d poked fun at Chris and Ashley for being crybabies, for welling up at just about anything—but there was no stopping it. A single fat drop pattered onto one of the papers, causing ink to run in a nearly perfect circle; Josh scrubbed the heels of his hands against his cheeks furiously, trying to staunch the flow. “I hate her so much, Alan.” The admission came when Hill remained silent, when it was obvious that an answer was expected of him. Its earnestness surprised him, even though the words had been his own. “I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t, because she’s my little sister and she’s dead, but fuck me, I hate her so goddamn much.” He tightened his mouth against the quivering of his lip. “I don’t want to hate her, but I do. I—we…”

And then it was gone: every ounce of self-preservation, of deep-rooted denial, all the safe little seeds he’d planted to form a wall of ivy around the soft bits inside of him. Writing had scooped him out, sending the story had flung those scooped guts against the far wall, and hearing Hill slowly sifting through the blood and gore for something meaningful, something good, that set fire to the wreckage left between his bones, razing the remnants to soot.

“We were all so fucking stupid that night, y’know? So fucking stupid, and we all did the shittiest, worst things we could’ve possibly done, but out of all of us—every last fucking one of us—she’s the only one—the only one—whose fucking idiotic bullshit choice rippled! Do you get that? Do you get it? It rippled, Alan, it rippled! Her being a, a fucking idiot and running out into the snow? Running out into the snow! That shit just…keeps fucking going.” He tried to scowl and found his face was too weak to hold it for long. “She could’ve gone upstairs—she could’ve gone fucking anywhere else in the whole goddamn lodge, but no! No. She runs out into a fucking snowstorm in the middle of the fucking night.

“So she gets herself killed for no good reason, she gets Beth killed for no good reason because of course Beth was gonna go after her! Of course she was! She makes one stupid fucking decision and now they’re both dead, I’m out two fucking sisters, Sam’s out two fucking friends, I turn into a raging psychopath and now I’m losing mine too, and it all just keeps going and going and going and going because she got laughed at and she couldn’t fucking handle it, and yeah, okay?! Yeah, spare the self-forgiveness bullshit, because you know what? I am a monster—I am! My little sister’s fucking dead and I don’t just blame her for dying, I fucking hate her for how it’s fucked up my life, and that’s sick. That’s sick and that’s wrong.” When he finished he was panting, his breath coming in uneven gasps, his eyes stinging hot and wet. “I’m sick,” Josh said after another moment, “I’m wrong.”

Hill seemed to take that in and consider it carefully. Somewhere else in the office, the clock continued to tick. He nodded, mostly to himself, before gingerly easing out of his chair. Slowly, he walked to his usual spot in front of the window, his body obstructing much of the warm afternoon light to cast his back into harsh shadow.

Whether he’d moved for his benefit or not, Josh was quietly grateful. He rolled his eyes at his own behavior when he was able to get a grip on himself, reaching up to swipe at his face with his sleeves.

The silence that overtook the room was somehow worse than the outburst, as it always was—silence was not Josh’s friend and never had been, especially not just then, when it drew so much attention to his wet sniffling.

“I want to miss her. I want to miss her so fucking much. I miss Beth,” he said when finally he felt his voice would be strong enough. “Like…I want to. And I know I should. But I can’t. When she did that, when she ran out of the lodge, she…she didn’t just hurt herself, y’know? She left me alone with our parents. And she left Sam alone with me, which isn’t fair to her, let’s be real. She ran off, and I got mad at Ash because of the stupid fucking prank, and me being mad at Ash made Chris mad at me, and him getting mad at me just made me fucking madder…” He stared down into his hands open palms-up on his lap, posture hunched. “And I should just…miss her. I should be sad, but I can’t be, because I’m not sad, I’m just fucking pissed. I thought I was getting better. After the hospital back in October? Yeah, I thought I was getting better, and I was so excited to have that stupid party with all of our friends. And then she just…” Josh shrugged, paused, shrugged again as he realized he didn’t know how to finish that sentence. “I don’t want to be angry…and I don’t want to be alone…but goddamn it, I don’t…I don’t want anyone to know that I’m this fucking…thing, either. So maybe…maybe it’s better if they leave too, y’know? If they hate me? Then they don’t…they don’t have to…see me.”

When Hill returned from the window, it was with the box of tissues from the table next to the couch. Without acknowledging the gesture in the slightest, he set it down on the desk, not in front of Josh, per se, but off to the side. Still easily accessible. He didn’t sit. Instead, he stayed standing beside his chair, turning to admire the triptych as the deep afternoon light played across its scene, his hands clasped behind his back.

That pretty much did away with whatever doubt Josh had had about why he’d gotten up in the first place. By then he was too drained to be proud—he grabbed a wad of tissues and mopped at his face. Something about it felt futile, like trying to catch the water from a burst dam in a drinking glass, but he did it.

“The goal of the exercise was to let you look in on your own feelings from a safe distance. I think a lot of us take for granted how hard it can be to stare those emotions down sometimes. Things like guilt and…expectations…those muddle things. We try not to feel certain ways because we tell ourselves it’s wrong or because we’re supposed to be stronger than that. A different point of view can help us wipe away some of that fog obscuring our view.” He didn’t turn to him as he spoke, keeping his gaze on the painting. “Just before your endings, there was a part of your story where I almost had to stop reading. Your friends have made it safely to the ranger station only to realize they’re not safe at all. They read a very disturbing entry in Jack’s journal that tells them in no uncertain terms that they cannot trust anyone but themselves. It’s how both of your endings come to pass, isn’t it? They have no one who can help them find you…except for themselves. And that scene stopped me, Josh, but probably not for the reason you’d think.”

He was done trying to talk. He had a feeling Hill knew that. He sat there in the chair across the desk, wiping his nose before crumbling his tissues into a ball.

“If I may…” Hill did turn then, pushing papers this way and that before pulling one out. He held it up to his own face to read it, and through the sheet itself, Josh could see the dark ink of his fountain pen where it had bled through. “‘I don’t blame her,’” he read, and it was so strange to hear the words that had only ever lived in his head being spoken aloud by another voice, “‘Neither should you, whoever you are. If you need someone to blame, lay it at my feet, I suppose. Or at the feet of the parents who left those children alone in the woods. She only did what she could to survive.’” He set the paper down and sat in his usual spot. “That’s when I realized there was a third story: The one that began after everyone accepted the monstrous reality of what Hannah had done. It’s a much sadder story than the first two, in my opinion. In this third story, a group of bright, promising, young people are failed, time and time again, and left to fend for themselves. Jack doesn’t blame you for what happened to your sisters, nor does he blame your friends. He doesn’t even blame Hannah for what happened to Beth. His blame lies, at its core, with Blackwood. He blames himself to an extent, and he blames your parents. No one else. I found that heartbreaking, Josh. Heartbreaking. 

He shrugged. He couldn’t think of anything else to do.

“In my experience,” Hill began slowly—carefully, “People tend to picture grief as a wound. I don’t think that’s wrong in and of itself. I think the mistake many of those people make is imagining a cut, or a scrape, something simple. Something shallow.

“Grief is a wound. It’s ugly and it’s gangrenous. It’s a gaping, bloody chasm left behind in the wake of a loss. You have been opened up, something has been taken from you, and it leaves you to wait and pray that your flesh will knit and one day you will be whole again and it will be as though nothing ever happened to you. So you sit. You wait. Perhaps you pray. You poke at the mess that your loss has left. And each day that you wake up to find yourself still wounded and aching, you grow that much more disappointed in yourself. ‘Why am I still hurting after all this time?’ you ask. ‘Why am I not better? Why am I not healed? Why am I not whole again?’ And I have an answer to those questions, Josh, one single answer, but I know it’s not the one you want to hear!

“The truth—the unsatisfyingly imperfect truth—is this: Grief is a wound that never fully heals. Never. No matter how hard you try, there will always be a part of you that you cannot regrow. Now, that isn’t to say that it won’t get better! It will. It will, in due time, as with all things. One day your flesh will close and the bleeding will stop, but before that can happen, you need to scrape away the infection. That isn’t a pleasant experience, it’s downright agonizing at times, but if you don’t clear out the dead flesh and slough away the bits that have begun to fester, you’ll never heal—you’ll just go septic. No one is excited to settle into that process, no one wants that pain, we’re scared of it so we avoid it at all costs…until one day, we find we can’t ignore it anymore.

“Once you address the infection, your options are endless. You can get stitches or staples, a butterfly bandage or glue, you can take medications to aid with the pain, you can apply ointment to speed the healing…but that healing never stops. No matter what you do, the fact remains you have been cut open. You’ll have a scar, to be sure, but scars can shrink with time, and they can fade. One day you may even wake up to find you’ve forgotten it’s there. Perhaps you see it if someone else points it out, and it’s possible it may ache on quiet, rainy days, but it will never be as bad as it once was.”

Yeah, drying his face had been a pointless effort.

“I think, whether you recognized it or not before our meeting here today, you’re prepared to start scraping out that wound. I do. I think you’re tired, and I think you’re hurting, and I think you’re scared of having to deal with things like how you really feel about what Hannah did…but grief and anger…and fear…and sadness…” he shook his head, “These are the things that make us human. You can’t continue to torture yourself for being human, and you certainly can’t keep thinking of yourself as a monster because of it, either. Guilt is a monster. It’s the hungriest monster of all, and believe me when I tell you it will devour you whole if you let it. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

He swallowed hard through the tears and snot and terror and was alarmed to find something else hiding underneath it. Something that felt suspiciously like relief. That set him off again like some kind of kid, and he reached for the box of tissues for the second time, grabbing another handful to add to the soggy wad in his other hand…

And then something strange happened. Something very, very strange indeed. For the first time in all the months they’d been carrying out their sessions, Hill reached across the desk. He set one of his hands over his, and it was warmer and softer than he would’ve expected. “I know you don’t believe me right now, Josh…but you’re going to be okay. You are.”

Something about Alan’s hand on his completed a hidden circuit; Josh felt himself slump in the chair, his muscles too tired, too drained to support his weight, his throat working furiously against a tired sob, everything inside of him going lax and raw and weak and numb. “I really fucked up,” he managed to get out after a moment, a watery laugh punctuating the fear. “I think…they really might be done with me this time…I’ve been such a fucking idiot, Alan.”

Hill patted his hand twice and then sighed. “You won’t believe me when I tell you this either, but you and your friends are young. You are still so young. Part of being young is, unfortunately, being a fucking idiot. It’s quite inescapable, really…”

That surprised a laugh out of him—a real laugh, too, not the nervous excuse of a breath he’d let slip out earlier.

“I won’t pretend that I know your friends as well you do, Josh, but if what I’ve heard you tell me about them is true…if even half of what you wrote about them is true, I think you might just find that they haven’t given up on you yet. If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, your first step towards making things right between the four of you might be to show them that you haven’t given up on them.”

Josh nodded. When Alan pulled his hand away, he scrubbed his face dry once more, sniffling loudly as he cleaned himself up.

“Now, with the few minutes we have left, tell me truthfully…is my accent really as strange as you repeatedly describe it to be?”

It felt so strange, but he laughed again. And he smiled. And Alan smiled back. 

***

3:22pm

It had taken him a hot second to feel okay enough to pull out of the parking lot, that much was for sure. After what had happened in the office, he felt full of a particular breed of exhaustion, his muscles too loose and too tight at once, his sinuses and throat and chest throbbing in time with his pulse. That was absolutely not driving-shape. So he’d sat there in his car, breath fogging up the windows, fingers trembling so badly that his phone screen shook as he stared down at it.

What ending do you want this to have? Alan’s voice had still been loud in the back of his head, gnawing at him like a bad case of lice. In the parking lot there had been at least three doors between them, countless walls, a stretch of concrete, a windshield, and even then he could hear him speaking in that calm, droning voice of his.

What ending do you want?

He’d stared down at his phone as it shook and he’d tried to read the old messages through the tears that had threatened to spill over again. Letters had wobbled from side to side, emojis had blurred—it had all been very melodramatic in his mind’s eye. He didn’t know what ending he wanted, that was the problem. He didn’t know and he couldn’t know. Outside of the twins miraculously coming home, there was nothing he had let himself want in so long. What did he want? What did he want?

What ending do you need?

Eventually, he found it in himself to rev the engine and crank the heat. Took him longer than he wanted to admit, sure, but he got there and that was what mattered, right? Right. Sure. He tossed his phone into the passenger seat and began the drive home, all the while trying to compose a message in his head.

None of it felt right, or like…enough. None of it felt enough.

‘Hey, can we talk?’ was an oldie but definitely not a goodie—the sight of that chestnut would no doubt send both Chris and Ashley into a full-out tailspin of anxiety, and that wasn’t any place to start. ‘Can we talk?’ was even worse, so he threw that right out the window. There was something indisputably hollow about just straight-up opening with ‘I’m sorry,’ especially when he’d have to be considerably more specific about what he was apologizing for after the past couple weeks…

He could grovel, he guessed, but groveling wasn’t something he was especially good at. Neither, for that matter, was apologizing, but…ugh. Ugh.

Alan had pretty much popped the top of his head open and given his brain a good scramble back there, and while the argument could be made that he’d needed that (and had needed it for, mmm, a while), the whole experience had left him feeling fuzzy and uncertain. There were too many thoughts buzzing around in his head, distracting him with loose ends and question marks and ‘shoulda-coulda-woulda’s.

That, he had to figure, was the only reason he didn’t notice the car in the driveway until he’d already parked and stepped out into the snow. …well, it was more like he didn’t notice it until he’d very nearly run smack-dab into its side mirror when getting out of his own car.

Josh quickly glanced from one side of the street to the other, again seized with the feeling of being Punk’d. There was snow on the car, but not nearly enough to disguise it—he’d know Chris’s ugly-ass Soccer Mom-Mobile anywhere, and that was just…that was…

It was something.

Oh, it was something, all right.

He stared at the car. He turned to the house. He looked back at the car again. He realized the faint sound he was hearing was the shaking of his hand making his keys jingle against each other.

So much for getting a chance to come up with something intelligent to say, huh? So much for like, planning. Each step he took brought him closer to the front door, closer to whatever the fuck was going to happen inside, but though he waited for it to hit, the spiral of existential dread he’d had when following Alan back into his office didn’t make a reappearance.

Whatever this was, it was happening now, and there was no putting it off. Maybe that was for the best. Josh took a deep breath (the kind Alan was always talking about) and opened the front door.

He felt them before he saw them, if that made any sort of sense, the air of the house heavy with anticipation and the smell of pine needles. He left his shoes on the mat, just to the side of Ashley’s soggy snow boots, and had time enough to wonder how long they must’ve been waiting for him before he made his way into the living room.

And then there they were. All four of them. In the same room, the same space, Sam sitting on the arm of the sofa while Ashley had curled herself up on the loveseat, Chris standing none too far from him, everyone quiet, everyone uncertain, the low hum of the heater keeping the silence from being painful.

His throat burned as though he’d chugged a bottle of hot sauce on the drive back, but that didn’t stop him. Silence, after all, had never been his friend. “Uh, hi,” Josh said, praying his tone was jovial enough to pass their combined smell test. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?” Before any of them could get too good a look at his face, he turned to one of the console tables, pretending he was doing something that took effort instead of simply setting down the few papers he’d gotten at the office. Already he regretted saying that—he felt like a douche, sounded like a douche, and that wasn’t exactly helping his case, so…

“Thought we’d drop by and see how you were doing.” It wasn’t a surprise that Sam had been the first one of them to speak; the lack of anger in her voice was. “None of us had heard from you in a bit.”

“Yeah, uh…you know how it goes. Holiday season…busy, busy, busy…” He cringed and rolled his eyes at himself. Great. Good. He was handling this perfectly. Ten out of ten, honestly. “So is this, uh…some kinda intervention then, or…?”

“Man, I hope not, I didn’t write a heartfelt letter or anything. Just kinda brought like…sugar cookies.” Not exactly Chris’s A-game. Then again, he wasn’t really sure Chris had an A-game. “Intervention potlucks definitely sound like something we could pitch on Shark Tank, though…”

He breathed out a low, joyless laugh, setting his hands on the table when it became obvious he couldn’t keep pretending to sort through the three forms Alan had given him. Maybe he could’ve made some kind of witty crack, maybe he could’ve acted like things were normal, maybe he could’ve done a lot of things, but this wasn’t normal and he knew it and they knew it, and there were only two ways he could see this going down. Either way, it would be final, it would just happen.

It can end however you want it to end, need it to end, Alan had said to him, but he’d said something else too: If, in fact, you need it to end at all.

Was this going to be an ending? Was this where his endings—the ones that fit like soaking wet sweaters, heavy and alien and wrong—were thrown into the shredder and replaced by something the three of them had drafted together without his say? Was this where they proved Alan wrong? Where it became clear that they had given up and left him to rot in the deep darkness under the floorboards of his family’s cursed legacy?

He was realizing too late that he agreed with Alan. He agreed ten, fifty, a hundredfold. Fuck the rules. Fuck the rules! This didn’t have to be a horror story, but it didn’t have to be a tragedy either—he didn’t want it to be either of those things, and more than anything else, oh God, he didn’t want it to be an end.

He didn’t want it to be the end.

“Why are you guys actually here?” he asked, his voice catching in his throat. It had gotten stuck on his heart, no doubt, because that’s where it was, lodged in his throat, choking the air out of him as it raced. The heat was up too high in the house, his eyes were burning, the smell of the real-ass tree Bob had insisted on was giving him a headache, and he couldn’t stop his hands from fucking shaking as he held onto the edge of the table.

There was a beat where they must’ve looked at each other from across the room, searching each other’s faces while safely behind him and out of view, each trying to decide whether they wanted to be the first to start yelling.

A part of him seized up when he heard it was Ashley. She didn’t yell, though, and after that thesis of a text she’d sent him after the party, that was perhaps the biggest shock of all. “Are you okay?” she asked, voice wrought with a quiet kind of concern he wasn’t sure he’d heard from her since that night a year ago when the four of them had all crammed themselves into his bed after he’d woken up screaming from some horrible nightmare.

He’d denied it that night, said he was fine, that everything was hunky-dory, and he’d rolled over before any of them could see his face. It would’ve been easy enough to do that again. It would’ve been so fucking easy.

His heart swelled in his throat until he could barely pull in a breath. It was too hard to get words out at first, so he just shook his head, slowly at first, then almost frantically, the exertion of the day, the month, the year collapsing on him with its full weight now that Alan had knocked down the last of his defenses. He swallowed hard once, twice, and finally managed to get something out. “No,” he said in a voice that sounded nothing like his own. He kept shaking his head. He didn’t know what to do with his hands and he chewed at the air and this was somehow so much worse, so much harder, than breaking down in front of Alan had been. “No,” Josh said again, “I’m not. I’m absolutely fucking not.”

He wasn’t crying yet, but he was close, and he couldn’t decide whether that was a kindness or a curse because everything was just too much. Scrounging up every iota of courage he had, he forced himself to turn away from the table and towards the three of them, feeling very much like a scared little kid as he shrugged his shoulders. “But I wanna be,” he forced out, nodding and shrugging and breathing and trying to decide what to do with his stupid fucking hands. “I really, really wanna be.”

He didn’t even see Chris moving—he was by the couch one second, and then solid against him the next, and then Josh was crying, hugging him back like they were kids on the playground again, skinned knees and all. Even so, he might’ve been able to pull himself back together had the girls not been close behind. Just as he knew the sound of his family’s footsteps on the stairs at night, he knew the feeling of Sam’s head on his shoulder and the deceptive strength of Ashley’s touch against his side.

Then he was gone. Gone, baby, gone. And never in his life had he been so terrified, but fuck, neither had he ever been so light.

***

Wednesday, December 31, 2014
7:41pm

“Give it.”

“What? No way!”

“Give it over, Sam!”

“Fat chance.”

“You chickened out, so now…” Triumphantly, Chris laughed, grabbing Sam’s phone from Ashley once she’d managed to wrestle it out of her grip. “Aha!

Sam laughed as she batted Ashley’s other hand away, nudging Josh hard with her shoulder to try and get him to stop providing color commentary of the scene under his breath. It didn’t work. Not even a little. There would be no stopping him. “Know what? Fine! Whatever! I don’t care.” She threw her hands in the air. “Of all you dweebs, you’re the one who always comes up with the lamest punishments anyway, so…”

From the center of the table, a screen lit up with a text notification.

They all went silent when they recognized the text tone.

It was Josh’s phone.

Before Sam had enough time to react, Josh grabbed his phone from the pile (having to push Charlie out of the way in the process), quickly turning around in his chair so she wouldn’t be able to steal it away from him with her grabby little hands. When he saw what Chris had done, he let out a caw of laughter and hopped to his feet, putting even more space between him and Sam as he fired off a rapid succession of texts.

“Augh! What did you do?! What did you do?!

“Nothing—nothing!” Chris snickered, “I just sent Josh a text, that’s it! Like you said, I’m the wooorst at punishments, so I don’t even know why you’re worried—”

There was a screech as she pushed her chair away from the table and Josh could hear her coming up behind him, but it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. The deed was done.

He beamed innocently down at her as she grabbed for his phone. “Sammy. Please. We both know this isn’t how the game is played…” He held his phone well up over his head, giving her zero chance of taking it away. “It’s called Social Suicide for a reason, and that reason is now you have to just wait and see what horrible, terrible, unspeakable thing happens to you due to your own cowardice and—oof!” He folded as she jammed one of her fingers into his oh-so-vulnerable side, and while he didn’t let go of his phone, she did, unfortunately, manage to get a good look at his screen.

“Why did…wait…I…” she whirled around to Chris, her voice more confused than anything else. “Did you send him my dad’s phone number? Why would you even do that?

Chris barely looked up from the table, scratching Charlie under the chin as he sat guardian of the other phones. “I don’t know, Sam,” he said, feigning innocence, “Why would I do something like that? Hmm…hmm, hmm, hmm…I guess it’s a mystery for now.”

Well that didn’t exactly seem to thrill her. Sam turned back to Josh just as he managed to straighten back up, and she pressed her lips together into a hard line. “Don’t text my dad.”

“Oh, I’m texting your dad.”

Josh!

“Me and Scott are having all kinds of important conversations right now, you have no idea.”

“Oh my God.”

“We have something special, Sam, I don’t know what to tell you. Your dad and I are just on another level.”

“I hate this stupid game. I hate this stupid game so much.”

“Uh huh, well, you can hate it all you want, but it’s your turn, so…”

Sam folded her arms across her chest and narrowed her eyes, a spark of something like mischief alighting there for only a moment…and then the doorbell rang, startling all four of them into jumping. She glanced out of the kitchen and towards the front door before jabbing a threatening finger into his chest. “Don’t think you’re off the hook.”

“Sammy. Samantha. I would never.”

Her eyes narrowed another fraction of an inch before she laughed, waving over her shoulder. “C’mon Ash, you wanna be on meet-and-greet duty with me?”

“Better us than these menaces to society,” she joked, hopping off her stool.

“Wow, cold,” Chris said as she skirted around him to join Sam. “For your information, we’re very charming when we want to be! I-I-I’d say downright personable!” When the girls’ only response was to laugh, he pulled a face. “No accounting for taste.”

“You can say that again, Cochise.”

Now, the plan (if there had ever really been one) was to have a Christmas party. Christmas. What with the tree and the bad music and chintzy antler headbands with sweaters to match.

But that hadn’t ended up panning out. A few things had popped up to fill those yuletide days—things involving Alan, mostly, surprise surprise—and between those extra ‘book club meetings’ and all his fun little brain chemicals adjusting to another new prescription (Alan had been fairly sure he hallucinations had been some unfortunate combo of his grief and dropping the old meds cold turkey, but he wanted to be doubly sure of that), New Year’s Eve had ended up making more sense. And that was fine, because who was to say they couldn’t find some sort of compromise? Christmas music, check. Bad sweaters, Check. Candy canes everywhere, check. And mistletoe? Ooh, that mistletoe was staying up! He would fight anyone who commented on it, and yes, as a matter of fact, that did include his friends.

And fuck, it felt good to say that and not have to wonder. His friends.

Josh watched the girls disappear out of the kitchen and towards the foyer knowing full well that he wasn’t anywhere near prepared to deal with guests just yet. He would (it was the Washington way), but man oh man, he’d really thought they would’ve had enough to time to at least finish their lame version of pre-gaming before the chumps started wandering in. Ah well.

Once Sam and Ash were out of sight and out of mind, he turned back to Chris in time to see him grimace into his plastic cup. “For real, man?”

“Look.”

“You’re the one who made the joke, okay? You should know better by now. You joke about shit in this house, it comes to fruition.”

“I did not joke about wassail,” Chris pointed out, “Saying I ‘joked’ about it is a bridge too far. I mentioned the concept of it.”

Josh shrugged. “Same diff. So what’s the prognosis?”

Chris wrinkled his nose and set his cup down on the table, pushing it far enough away from Charlie that he wouldn’t be tempted to sniff at it. “Just between you and me? Hate it.”

“Okay, you do realize it’s literally just apple cider, right?”

“Ooh nonono, no it is not. Cider is delicious. That shit?” He took a second to point at the bowl of wassail in a manner Josh could only call ‘accusatory.’ “Foul. Absolutely terrible. There’s literally no way that’s just apples in there. No way. I’ll eat my own sock.”

Rolling his eyes to the ceiling, he reached over to finish what was left in his cup. “You are literally out of your goddamn mind, Cochise.”

You drink it, then!”

“Whaddya think I’m doing right now? Christ alive.”

You drink it and you look me in my eyes and you tell me that’s just apple cider!”

He opened his mouth to shoot something back at that but realized there was no use arguing with a maniac. Boy, he’d learned that one the hard way, huh? So he took a long, drawn-out gulp from the cup, downing what was left of it, going out of his way to maintain eye contact with Chris the whole time. Unblinking. Eye. Contact.

“…and?!

Josh swished it around in his mouth before swallowing. He narrowed his eyes and smacked his lips together like a sommelier testing the vintage of a particularly fine wine. He tapped a finger against the cup, letting his gaze go distant, thoughtful. “…it’s fucking apple cider.”

Chris threw his arms up into the air as dramatically as he could without disturbing the pug on the table in front of him. “Oh come on! Fuck you, dude!”

“Don’t know what to tell you, bro.”

“It’s terrible!

“You’re a crazy person. Absolutely certifiable. It’s hot juice and you, my man, have a problem.” He scooted his chair closer to his now that there wasn’t anyone else to get between them, and with all the grace of a shyster preparing to take some poor mark to town in a game of poker, he leaned in with his weight on his elbows. “Well, now that it’s just you and me again, I think I’d like to revisit our earlier conversation—”

“I think I would like to leave our earlier conversation right where we left it, actually—”

Josh leaned in that much closer, looking up at him as though over the rims of his own nonexistent glasses. “Well that, my dear sir, is, uh…too fucking bad.”

When the idea of a Christmas party had first been floated, his parents had been quick to remind him they had a family thing they would be doing in Florida around that time. Had he paid a whole lot of attention when they’d said that? No. He had not. Shockingly enough, he’d had some other things on his mind. As it turned out, though, they hadn’t exactly pushed for him to go along with them like he dreaded they might. Nah, Bob and Linda seemed happy enough to take the trip on their own, meaning he had the house all to his lonesome.

Or would’ve, had Chris not insisted on packing a bag and making himself at home like this was one of the good ol’ days where they’d stay up until four in the morning and play shitty video games and eat way too much food.

Which, to be fair, they had done quite a bit of during the past week or so. There’d also been movies, obviously. And some talking. And a horrendous new (though not necessarily improved) version of the Twilight photo that may or may not have involved Sam’s face being Photoshopped onto that spooky robot baby. And some talking. And an inordinate number of pizzas and hot wings ordered. And, surprise, even more talking.

It wouldn’t have been right to say that things were…normal. That probably would’ve been pressing the issue. Things weren’t normal, but they were getting awfully close to whatever had constituted ‘normal’ with them before, and that was something he was still sort of getting used to. In a good way! He’d almost forgotten that conversations could just be conversations and not veiled arguments. Jokes could just be jokes and not jabs. It was easier that way, he was remembering, and more fun to boot. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it all.

“You slept with her,” he said flatly, only to immediately ruin the illusion by grinning a wide, wolfish grin when Chris went seven different shades of red.

“I—don’t—Jesus Christ, dude, don’t fucking say it like th—”

He held up a finger, ticking his points off one by one. “You were in a bed. She was in the same bed. You fell asleep in said bed. She fell asleep in said bed. Bingo, bango, bongo, my dude, you slept with her.”

Whether it was part of a bit or not, Chris reached over and cupped both of his hands over Charlie’s ears to protect his innocence. “Would you cut it out?! They could walk back in here at any second, and—”

“Why was I not the first person made aware of this momentous occasion?”

“Oh shut up, it’s not like it was the first time we—”

Josh raised his eyebrows.

Realizing he’d incriminated himself, Chris groaned and sat back, releasing Charlie so he could instead cover his face with his hands. “You weren’t exactly taking phone calls at the time.”

He opened his mouth to say something…and then nodded. Fair. That was…that was fair. “Yeah,” he admitted with a wistful cluck of his tongue, “Got me there. But okay, inquiring minds need know—”

“Inquiring minds can eat a bag of dicks.” Some things really never changed.

Something occurred to him then, something horrible and awful and unmistakably shitty. He grinned even wider. “Well, y’know, Cochise, here’s what I think you should consider here, okay?” Leaning in even closer, Josh made a grand, sweeping gesture with one hand. “Wanna know the best part of the holiday season? Especially tonight, of all nights? The end of the year? The start of new beginnings?”

There was no answer from Chris. There was only a long-suffering, distrustful look as he frantically held what was left of Sam’s soda to his face, probably hoping the chilled can would take down some of his blushing before the guests decided to pop their heads in.

“Nights like these are just…dripping with erotic possibilities.”

Chris reacted immediately to that, gagging out loud and setting the soda down. “Don’t ever use those two words together, holy Mary Mother of—”

“Think about it—”

“I’m not going to!”

“No parents—”

“I am not listening to you.” He covered Charlie’s ears again for good measure.

“I just think—”

“Well I think you’re a—”

It was of course at that very moment that Sam decided she needed to bring the first arrivals through the kitchen, pausing with a couple familiar faces behind her as she caught sight of their little tête-à-tête. Almost like he was tracking someone playing a game of tennis, Josh watched Sam’s eyes bounce from him to Chris to the pug being manhandled on the table before he saw something like exhausted acceptance come over her face. “Know what?” she said to the others, shaking her head and ushering them towards the snack table in the dining room instead, “It’s probably way better for all of us if we just…don’t ask.”

The two of them exchanged a guilty glance before breaking into laughter. “Guess we still got it, huh?” Chris asked, knocking his knuckles against his after setting Charlie down on the floor to wander the house.

“As if there was ever any question.” Josh took his phone from the table and slid it into his pocket, sighing the low, resigned sigh of someone preparing to dive into the deep-end of prolonged social interaction. “Whaddya think—ready to make the last night of 2014 a weird one?”

“Dude, as long as you never repeat the rank shit you said a second ago—”

“The thing about erotic possibilities, you mean?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that one.”

“The…the thing about those possibilities just…dripping from—”

Chris pushed his way past him with a feigned grimace of panic, pretending to push him away when Josh grabbed him by the back of his sweater. “This is bullying, and I will not stand for it! I swear to God, man, I’ll tell Sam.”

“That’s low, man. So fucking low.”

***

10:20pm

They were already halfway up the stairs when she stopped and turned to him, expression too suspicious for words. “You seriously want to do this now?

“Yeah Ash,” Josh said as patiently as he could, “I kinda do.”

“In the middle of the party. Your party.”

The desire to roll his eyes was, in a word, immense. “Yeah, my party. You probably don’t get this because you’ve never hosted a social gathering in your life—”

“Ugh.”

“—but when you’re the ringleader and people are eating your food, you get the privilege of doing…oh, right, whatever the fuck you want. So. Yes. Now.” When she still didn’t move, he waved her on. “Like…aaany time now.”

With a last lingering look, she turned back around and headed up the rest of the stairs, pushing open the door to his bedroom and walking in.

He did roll his eyes then. “Make yourself at home…” Josh took maybe a second too long to shut the door behind them once they were in his room together. He inhaled, held it for a moment, then turned around wearing the most convincingly casual half-smile he could muster.

Judging by the look on Ashley’s face, it, uh, wasn’t actually all that casual.

“So.” He sat on his bed and patted the spot beside him. He wasn’t surprised when she didn’t join him. “Oookay…”

“What’s this about, Josh?” she asked, the very picture of impatience, what with her arms folded and one hip jutting to the side.

Yeah. So much for doing this the easy way. Should’ve known. He had pulled her away from what had seemed to be a scintillating conversation about World War II ghost ships with Brad, so sure, maybe some of the blame fell on his shoulders, but like…still.

“You know what it’s about, Ash.” For a beat, tenuous and tense, they remained there, unmoving and unblinking, holding each other’s gazes across the room. It felt like it might go on forever…and then Josh exhaled. “…did you read it?”

Ashley drummed her fingers against her arm. “It’s like, several hundred thousand words. And you sent it to me three days ago.”

“…so did you read it?”

She narrowed her eyes. Then she joined him on the bed. “Of course I frigging read it—who do you think I am?” Shaking her head, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and began scrolling through her notes app. “I’m only halfway through my second pass, though, so I’m sure I’ll have more to say later, but…”

All pretense of nonchalance gone, he leaned in to get a look at her phone. “…buuut…?

Ah, and now here was the moment of truth, big enough to huff, puff, and blow his house down, because…shit. He’d done his best to trim the fat from the story, cutting out scenes that felt too personal and replacing them with the bare-bones subplots he’d needed to connect the other characters to the main storyline, getting rid of as many of the specific in-jokes as he could remember putting in, chopping and screwing everything that felt even vaguely like an identifying mark…and he’d even lost a whole fucking day to fixing the names.

God. Now there was a fucking story.

As it turned out, ‘Replace All’ had worked just fine the first time around, but he’d quickly realized he’d made a hell of an oopsie-daisy by shortening everyone’s names. Changing ‘Mike’ back to ‘Alpha Male’ hadn’t proven to be too much of a problem, but uh…well, the same couldn’t be said for replacing all instances of oh, say, ‘Ash’ and ‘Matt’ and ‘Chris’ and even ‘Sam.’ That had led to…a lot of royally fucked up words. And phrases. And scenes. And just…pages in general. All errors he could’ve avoided, had he used their full fucking names instead.

‘She crScaredy Cated into the wall,’ didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Neither did ‘It didn’t Meathead Jocker in the long run,’ or ‘Jesus fucking Hapless Dweebt.’

Oh, name-changing day had been A Day, to be sure. A long, frustrating day. But he’d done it. He’d fucking done it, just like he’d done his best to remove any and all other outward signs of it being based on the four of them. He’d tried so goddamn hard…and even still, he knew giving it to Ashley was risky. The characterization was still there, the relationships were still there, so he was really just left to pray that Encyclopedia Brown, the world’s best (and tiniest) girl detective, somehow wouldn’t notice.

Then again, this was the same person who hadn’t picked up on Chris being head-over-heels in love with her for the past decade or so, so he had to figure he at least had a fighting chance of it passing under her radar.

“Okay, so first thing’s first, I know you think you’re slick or whatever, but you’re super not. I absolutely caught what you did in here.”

…fuuuuuuuuuuck.

“Oh yeah?” Josh asked, trying to keep his heart from shooting right out of the space between his ribs. “What did I do this time?”

Her eyebrows disappeared under the fringe of her hair. “Um, okay, so…first of all, your haunted mansion is connected to an insane asylum. One where the patients were infected with something mysterious and started eating people. Starting with one patient and one nurse. Then you have your Alpha Male character just casually drop later on that he finds a mummy man holed up in some back room of the asylum with a note saying it was all his fault. A mummy man, Josh. A mummy man.”

“…yeah…?”

Ashley groaned, “This is that stupid ghost story you always tell when we have bonfires! The one about the Blackwood Sanatorium! Did you like, think I wasn’t gonna catch that? You and Chris have been tag-teaming that dumb story since we were kids.”

His smile tightened into something anxious. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck. If she’d caught onto that… “What can I say? It’s an oldie but a goodie.”

“It’s neither of those things.” She went back to scrolling through her notes for a second, eyes scanning what she’d written, and then she asked it: the one question that actually managed to make him feel a little better. “Was this whole thing supposed to be about Blackwood?”

Oh thank God. If she had to ask that, if she wasn’t just presenting it as ‘Aha! I’ve caught you!’ like she usually did, then she hadn’t noticed anything too fishy about the characters. He let himself relax a fraction of an inch, and then surprised even himself by telling her the truth. “Yeah, I mean…kinda. A little. You told me I should write what I know, so…”

“Well, I did say that…but I like how you literally included everything else I told you not to.”

“Wait, excuse me? And just what did I include that ruffled your feathers so gratuitously?”

Ashley shot him a look at that, one that didn’t have nearly as much fire behind it as he might’ve expected, and then she began rattling off her points. “Pages and pages of exposition explaining things the readers don’t really need to know.”

“They needed to know all of that!”

“The inclusion of an asylum, and therefore mental illness, as a source of horror.”

“Uh, sorry? Did you just accuse my make-believe monsters of being mentally ill? Just because they were being held in the asylum doesn’t mean—”

She held her free hand up in his face to block him out. “Oh, thanks, since you brought it up—taking the mythology of a culture that’s absolutely not your own and turning it into a source of horror.”

…well, okay, she sort of had him on that one. “I did my research.”

“Oh yeah?”

He puffed himself up at her tone, reaching up and knocking her hand out of his face. “Yeah! I did! I read a book and everything. Spent a night on Wikipedia. What else do you want from me?”

“I can’t even count the number of times you used perversion of innocence as a trope in this…”

“It’s not a tr…can’t you just call it like, a motif, maybe? It’s an important part of the narrative, Ash, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean—”

“And finally, just FYI, it’s not really considered an ‘homage’ if you’re referencing or full-on quoting another horror movie every three sentences.”

…she sort of had him on that one too, but like hell was he about to give her the satisfaction of saying that out loud. Instead he flapped his hand in a ‘blah blah blah’ motion, pretending to mouth along with her criticisms before the both of them devolved into a juvenile shoving match. “Well thank you for your many, many editorial suggestions—”

Suggestions?” Ashley pulled back with a haughty look, “Oh no, oh nonono. Those weren’t my suggestions. We haven’t even gotten to my suggestions…”

“I thank you for your many, many editorial suggestions,” he said, raising his voice as he repeated himself, “And now that we’ve moved past those many, many suggestions…” He took a deep breath and braced himself as best he could. “…final verdict?”

The irritation left her expression at the same moment she averted her eyes. None of that filled him with, uh, an abundance of confidence. After a moment, though, a familiar veil of feigned ignorance came over her, and she went so far as to pooch her lower lip out in thought as she looked around his bedroom. “Verdict, huh? What’s the crime, exactly—abuse of antiquated horror clichés? Guilty. Totally guilty. Beyond a reasonable doubt.”

That was a bit of a relief…but he knew damn well that he wouldn’t be able to actually relax until he went and really dove into it. “Oh come on. I know you get your sick kicks playing hard to get, but you’re killing me over here…I keep expecting you to slide me a piece of paper with ‘See me after class’ written on the top.”

“I’d never keep you after class.” She turned towards him only long enough for him to catch the curve of her smile, “I know juuust enough about your internet search history to know better than that, thanks.”

“Lotsa ways to serve a detention, Ash.”

“Mhm.”

He snickered in the way he knew she’d be expecting, but even in his head it didn’t sound particularly convincing. “For real, though…what, uh…whatcha think?”

In reality, it probably only took her half a second to start talking again; to Josh, five fucking years could’ve passed. It was more than enough time for him to rehash each and every fear he’d been nursing since he’d sent her that late-night email. Had he somehow missed replacing a name after all? Could he had left in a mention of some suspicious detail, some questionable word—Social Suicide, Blackwood, the Almosts—that would’ve tipped her off? He had, after all, gone totally hack-and-slash when it came to editing the thing…

Or worse, had Alan simply been lying to him to make him feel better, leaving him to send this piece of his heart, his pain, to the girl who’d been ranting about going to grad school for creative writing since the mini milk carton days?

“It’s…gross,” Ashley said, shaking him out of his worry. “Like, really, really gross. In all the old ways and a bunch of new and exciting ones too. And it’s sad, and it’s heavy, and it’s wayyy too freaking long…but…” She paused, and both of them found themselves watching her thumb as it absently ran up and down the screen of her phone. “I kinda love it.”

He couldn’t help it—he laughed right out loud. “Wait, what? For real?”

“Oh my God, don’t sound so shocked. Geez oh Pete, obviously it’s good, Josh. Like, clearly.” Quietly, she laughed along with him, making a point to keep looking at her phone as she added, “Definitely better than the dreck your dad puts out.”

That stopped his laughter. It was like she’d hit the pause button on some universal remote wired to his brain, simply cutting his breath off. His chest, his throat, everything between his stomach and his mouth had gone tight and almost uncomfortably warm. It had only been one stupid sentence, one stupid, unfinished afterthought, and still…he wondered if she knew that was the most meaningful thing anyone could’ve said to him about the story.

Since it was Ash, though, he suspected that she did.

“Hey, you watch your mouth,” he joked, clearing his throat to hide the unexpected waver his voice had taken on. “Blood Monastery is a work of genius.”

“Oooh yeah. Genius. Okay, we’ll go with that.”

The room didn’t exactly go quiet, considering the voices and music floating up from downstairs, but it was quiet enough. Ash scrolled up and down in her notes app, Josh watched over her shoulder, and for a beat that was it. That was all.

Until, of course, Alan’s voice popped up in the back of his head (as it had been doing with an increasing frequency since they’d doubled up on weekly appointments); not the sneering, barbed tone of fake Hill, almost-Hill, but actually Alan. Somewhere deep down, he had to laugh—who needed Jiminy Cricket on their shoulder when they could have a pasty old Swede instead?

So, much as he wanted to avoid the topic at any cost, he buckled down and went for it, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t blow up in his face. “Hey, uh, thanks.”

“Yeah, no prob! You know me, always happy to read a—”

“No, no, I meant…uh…” His breath escaped him in a single whoosh of resignation. “I meant thanks, Ash.” He looked up from her phone to find her watching him with a peculiar sort of expression—not one he would call wary, but not exactly receptive, either. “There haven’t really been a whole lotta people willing to take it upon themselves to call out the worst of my bullshit lately, so…”

Her eyes dropped to his bedspread. All at once she seemed very preoccupied with her hair, the hand not holding her phone flipping it this way and that, first over one shoulder, then the other.

“Now that I’m sorta on the other side of…some stuff…I can kinda look back and recognize that yeah, I needed a wakeup call, and, um…” His shoulders wobbled in what could’ve been seen as another shrug, “Turns out you’re pretty good at those. I’m sure that, like…wasn’t easy. I just wanted to say thanks.”

Another pause stretched between them, going on for what might’ve been an hour, what might’ve been a handful of seconds. Eventually she gave up messing with her hair. “Yeah, well…I know what it’s like to need one too, so. I shouldn’t have waited for stuff to get so bad before saying something. All of us should’ve, really.”

“Are, uh…” He cleared his throat again. “I’ll get it if you are, so don’t feel like you have to, I dunno, use kid-gloves or anything, but…are you still mad at me?”

Ashley finally looked up from the bed, meeting his gaze. For a long moment it seemed like she wasn’t sure what to do or what to say. Then, slowly, she nodded. “Yeah,” she said softly, “Yeah, a little bit.”

He’d expected it so it didn’t sting as badly as it could’ve, but that didn’t mean it felt great. “I figured.”

Her lower lip disappeared into her mouth for a second and he could see her bite at it a time or two. He had the strangest impression that if someone had stuck a megaphone up to her ear, he would’ve heard her internal monologue harmonize with his. “You still mad at me?”

“Kinda.” There was no use in denying it, just like there was no use trying to pick it apart. Even with a gun to his head, he wasn’t sure he could remember why or when or how the friction between them had started—he just knew that it was there, an unwelcome guest in his chest. “Sort of.”

She nodded in much the same way he had, and that could’ve been it, it could’ve just ended there.

“But,” Josh said instead, “Mine’s the kind of mad that I’ll get over.” In the years they’d known each other, he wasn’t sure there had ever before been a time where he’d been the first to avert his eyes. That wasn’t really how the Josh-Ashley dynamic went down, typically speaking, but…it was what happened then. He could still feel the weight of her gaze as he did it, could hear the cogs whirring in her head as she formulated whatever she was about to say, and the tension he felt as he waited for that decision was such that he thought he might fracture into a million itty bitty pieces and fall to the floor.

“I think mine is too.”

His eyes flicked back to her.

Ashley pursed her lips to one side as she thought, her shoulders rising in a mimicry of his own earlier shrugs, uncertain and unsteady. “I hope it is, anyway.”

“…yeah?”

She nodded, that time more decisively. “Yeah.”

He wasn’t sure it was his best idea, but he’d been doing a pretty shitty job in the ‘good idea’ department recently, so he figured what the hell—he hugged her. Just leaned over and wrapped his arms around her and hugged her…and was startled (but so, so relieved) when he felt her hug him back.

It was hard to say how long it went on like that, but by his count it was somehow way too long and not nearly long enough. Already he felt his throat starting to tighten again, and fuck man, he had a party he had to be the charming host of, so getting all misty-eyed just was not in the cards. When he thought he was capable of it, he pulled away from her, sniffing once before putting on some thin approximation of his usual smirk. “All right…with that bullshit out of the way…” he sighed, “You said you had suggestions?

And Ashley, God bless her, let him get away with it. “Well, I have a few—like I said, I’m only—”

“Halfway through your second read, yeah, I know this’ll shock you, but I was listening. Should I be taking notes?”

She rolled her eyes as she woke her phone up, finding the spot where she’d left off. “Nah, don’t worry about that. I’ll send you a marked up document once I’m done.”

“Oh. Great. Sure, yeah. Fantastic. Just go nuts.” Something occurred to him and he grimaced for a moment. “Hey, uh, real quick? If you haven’t already mentioned it, any chance I could persuade you to not tell Sam you’ve read this monster?”

She looked up at him through her eyelashes, her expression abruptly swinging back into wary territory. “Uh?”

“I just…kinda promised her a while back that she’d be the first person I’d show it to…”

“Uh huh…”

“But…I wanted to make sure it was, y’know…presentable before I actually…presented…it…”

Ashley watched him for a second. Then she looked to her notes, shaking her head. “You are the only person on Earth who thinks it’s acceptable to try wooing a girl with a gory monster movie, I swear to God.”

“Okay, statistically, there’s no way that’s true.”

The shape of her mouth told him that she’d heard him, though she pretended very much that she hadn’t. “Okay, so like, number one, what’s with the letter?

“What letter?”

“Um…right when all the friends get to the—”

Josh held his breath, ready to hear that he’d missed an instance of ‘ski lodge.’ It would take a hell of a lot of quick thinking (and an even quicker tongue) but…

“—mansion—”

Oh thank Christ.

“—the girl, the Dumb Blonde, she has a letter for…Alpha Male I think? Scaredy Cat helps her write it and then later Hapless Dweeb makes fun of her for it, but then like…we never see it again. No one mentions it or anything…or did I miss something?”

It took him a second to place what she was talking about. “Ugh. Nine hundred rewrites, two hundred editing passes, and I still forget to take that fucking thing out.”

One corner of her mouth ticked into a cautious smile. “Happens to the best of us.”

“And the worst of us, apparently.”

“Oh shut up. You’re so dramatic.”

“Comes with the territory.”

“Number two, I’d just make sure,” she started again, this time lifting her shoulders as if to seem smaller or less threatening than she really was. Considering everything about her, there wasn’t really a whole lot of room to appear less menacing, but he appreciated the sentiment. “If you’re, like, super set on this whole Wendigo thing…”

“And I am…”

“Then maybe do more than like, a cursory Wikipedia search about the lore surroundi—”

“Oh my God. I told you I read a book too.”

She huffed, clearly caught somewhere between embarrassment and frustration. The ol’ standby. “Ooh, one whole book! I’m being so serious, you have to be respectful, and—”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Give it some consideration, that’s all I’m saying. Geez…and like…the pictures of them that you sent?” Her expression morphed into something slightly more familiar, at least for one of their horror talks—it was wide-eyed and flat-lipped and living comfortably somewhere disgust and disbelief. “The like, scans of the stranger’s journal you did? Can I just say ew? Where did you ever get the idea to design them like that, that’s so gross?”

Though it wasn’t his usual way of handling things, their little chat had been nothing if not a foray into honesty hour, so he shrugged. “My shrink has this like…awful painting up in his office. It’s just a bad time all around, trust me on this one. There’s this girl right in the middle of it, and she just looks…horrible. Deeply, deeply upsetting.” He didn’t shudder as he said it, but it was a close thing. “But also, uh…I don’t know…I was…spending some time up in Blackwood, just trying to get away—”

Phone momentarily forgotten, Ash waved both of her hands to stop him. “Waitwaitwait…you went up the mountain alone?!

“Yeah Mom, chill it’s fine. I survived.”

“Josh, oh my God.”

Anyway. I spent some time up there and like…you don’t realize how creepy the woods really are until you’re totally alone, y’know? When it’s quiet and dark, and…well, you hear a lot of weird noises. Lots of animals screaming. You see weird shit too, eyes in the dark, weird footprints, bones…I guess I just sort of figured if it was going to be about this terrifying forest spirit, I might as well…put the forest in there.” He took a breath and frowned, realizing how very lame that sounded now that he said it. “If that makes sense.”

“No, it does,” Ashley said, “I’m just like. Still caught on the whole going-to-the-Pines-alone thing. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me, Josh? You could’ve gotten hurt, you could’ve—”

He reached over and pressed his index finger to her lips, effectively shutting her up. “Again, thanks Mom. I’m not planning on going again anytime soon, okay? Pinky promise.”

She rolled her eyes before batting his hand away. “Better not.” She glanced down to her phone, flicking the screen to scroll a bit further down, “Uh, the wolverine in the bathroom cabinet…”

“Yeah-huh?”

“Who put it there?”

“…uh. Hmm. Well. Hmm.”

“Figures.”

“Who am I to impose reason and motive upon one of God’s creatures, Ash?”

“If they’re all locked out of the mansion at first and they have to find a way to sneak inside, why is there a light on in the storage room when Hapless Dweeb falls through the window? Like, the whole idea is that everyone’s just arriving there, right? No one else has been in the mansion? You say that so many times, ‘No one’s been here since last year…’ But when he gets into the storage room, there’s a light bulb—that’s on—that explodes and Comic Relief has to give him a lighter. So like. Why does no one react to that light being on?”

Oh, sending this to Ashley was absolutely a bigger mistake than sending it to Alan had been. “…shit.”

“And everyone’s just cool about going back to the mansion on the anniversary of that big accident the year before? Uh, really? What kind of person just agrees to that and doesn’t go ‘Hmm this feels sketchy’?”

“Stupid teenagers. Stupid teenagers would do that.”

“Mmm…would they?”

“They would!”

“Oookay…if you say so…but while we’re on the topic of stupid…” She fixed him with an intense stare. “‘Bone zone,’ Josh? Bone zone?

“Yeah? What of it?”

“Bone zone.”

“Keep saying it all you want, kid, it’s staying in.”

“You are literally the worst…”

And then, because there was no avoiding it any longer, she asked The Question.

“So. Any idea how you’re gonna end it?”

Though not unexpected, having to come up with an answer to that brought him back from his thoughts of Blackwood Pines with all the efficiency of a slap across the face. Of all the changes he’d made to the story before sending it her way, this was the biggest—he simply hadn’t sent her an ending. The characters escaped by the skin of their teeth, they got to the ranger station, they read the stranger’s journal, they received some truly fucked up text messages. That was it. That’s all he wrote. And that’s all she read. “Yeah, well…that’s the question, isn’t it?”

Her smile was sympathetic. “Ending stuff’s the worst, huh? Well, I mean, not as bad as beginnings, obviously…and like…okay, the connecty bits in the middle suck pretty bad too, but…” She heaved a sigh, “Crappy hobby.”

“Theee crappiest.” He exhaled a sharp breath through his nose and hoped it sounded enough like a laugh for her not to notice. “But I really don’t know.”

“You have to have an idea…”

“I don’t.”

“Well…they’re gonna save him, right?” She asked it with such a sense of earnestness that for a terrible moment, Josh felt himself wobbling over the precipice he just kept falling into—the emotional one, the one that involved scream-crying like a middle schooler who’d just been rejected at their first big dance.

Looking down into that chasm didn’t hold the same sort of dread it used to, true, and that was…well, that was something interesting, now, wasn’t it? He realized with no small amount of wonder that, had it just been them, just been their little group, maybe he could’ve let himself go like that…but this wasn’t an Almosts-exclusive event, there were in fact other people downstairs, so at least for the time being, he tried to dance around the worst of it. “Who?” he asked, not quite letting himself hope.

Squinching her face up, Ashley fixed him with a disbelieving look. “Um? Comic Relief guy, duh? Who else is there to save? Creepy flamethrower man got his head cut off, so like, I’m pretty sure he’s a little beyond rescue…”

“Hey, bring enough super glue and anything’s possible.”

“Gross.” When she laughed, he foolishly let himself think that would be the end of it. It wasn’t, though, because of course it wasn’t; Ash went and dug her heels in even deeper. “They are gonna save him, aren’t they? Everyone else gets to survive, it kinda seems unfair if they just like…decide to bail on him.”

Josh lifted and dropped his shoulders. “Haven’t really decided yet.”

“Oh come on.”

“I haven’t!”

“You have to!”

“Oh, I have to, do I? Do I have to, Ash?” He futzed with a corner of his comforter between his fingers, mulling over his next words carefully. “Dunno if you missed this part of the story, but the dude’s kind of a total dick.”

She rolled her eyes, the action punctuated by a perfectly adolescent clicking of her tongue against her teeth. “So what, that means he deserves to die? Get over yourself, edgelord. That gritty crap is sooo 2012. Get with the times—we’re all about redemption arcs now.”

He snorted another quiet laugh in response, continuing to rub the fabric of his blanket between his fingers. It made an unimportant rustling noise against his skin. “So does that mean you think the others would go back for him? Or should I have the cops triangulate his phone signal or something?”

She seemed to consider the question—really consider it—for the better part of a minute. The buzz of voices from the party below was loud but made somehow comforting by the undercurrent of Christmas music playing over the speakers. “They’d go back, I think. His friends.”

“Oh yeah? Even after all that shit he did?”

“Well…yeah. I mean…” It was her turn to shrug, then. “I don’t think they should be, y’know, stoked about it, like you said, he messed up a lot…but they can’t just leave him out there to die. Whether or not they actually get him back or forgive him, I mean, that’s up to you, but like…they have to try.” She favored him with another look, one side of her mouth twisted up into what could’ve been thought, what could’ve been a smile. “I like to think it’s what I would do, anyway. Wouldn’t you?”

***

11:59pm

There was no way he was actually seeing what he thought he was seeing. Literally no way.

See, if Josh was seeing what he thought he was seeing, then what he was seeing was nothing short of an actual-factual capital-C, capital-M, Christmas Miracle, and Christmas was well in the rearview mirror as the big countdown began.

Did he want to go sit down again? Yes, yes he did very much—he’d just gotten the couch cushion to conform to his ass the way he liked, and his plate of snacks was sitting unattended on the coffee table where anyone could put their grubby mitts all over it—of course he wanted to sit back down.

Was he going to go sit down again? Absolutely not. No. The risk of ruining…whatever he was looking at…would’ve been just way too high. So he continued to stand there like some kind of dunce, halfway in and halfway out of the dining room, one of the few stragglers not gathered around the plasma screen as those last few seconds ticked down.

A discordant “TEN!” rang out through the house, and though Josh felt her hand on his arm, he raised his own to stop her before she could say anything. He lifted a finger to tell her to wait. Then he pointed, not tearing his own eyes away to check whether she was looking or not.

“No way,” he heard Sam say, voice almost reverent between the numbers being chanted. Her hand went still on his arm, but he could feel her leaning forward (just like he was, probably), neither one of them moving or breathing or doing much of anything that might break the Bizarro World vision in front of them.

On the tv, the ball dropped, the countdown reached zero, Auld Lang Syne started playing in Times Square. In chez Washington, the mismatched collection of partygoers cheered, party poppers were popped, someone threw an inappropriately large handful of contraband confetti.

And on the couch, God help them all, Chris and Ash leaned in with the all the awkward uncertainty he’d come to expect from them, and they. Fucking. Kissed. It was nervous and tentative and, quite frankly, miserable to watch, but it was a fucking kiss!

“Well wouldya look at that!”

Josh took a moment to form an ecstatic (but likely incorrect) sign of the cross in front of himself a couple times, ending the gesture with an appreciative finger-gun towards the ceiling in thanks to whatever deity finally deigned to take pity upon his very soul, shaking his head in disbelief. “Quick, get me my car keys, we gotta go out and buy a lotto ticket immediately.”

There was a sudden heaviness on his shoulder, and he turned to see Sam cheekily trying (and boy was that the operative word: trying) to use him as an armrest, her elbow on his shoulder, most of her weight resting against him as she balanced on the balls of her feet. She gave him a brief sidelong glance before nodding back towards Chris and Ashley, “Mayyybe we don’t push our luck.”

Josh huffed a laugh through his nose but most of the sound was swallowed up by shouts of ‘Happy New Year!’ and a few drunken voices attempting to sing along with Auld Lang Syne. He leaned in closer to be heard over the celebration, muttering a low but cheery, “You know what this means, right?” He met her eyes again only for a second before tunelessly droning, “I can see what’s happening, and they don’t have a clue…they’ll fall in love and here’s the bottom line…our trio’s down to two…”

Sam’s face squinched up into a playful expression. “Trio? Since when is this a trio situation?”

“God help me, Sammy, if that reference went over your head…” He skimmed his hand through the air about an inch above her head to illustrate, barely rustling the loose bun her hair was tied back in, and he could only just hear her cluck her tongue at him. She flicked his ear though, and he felt that, all right. “They’re gonna be—say it with me now—in-suffer-a-ble. You get that, right?”

“Josh.”

“You mark my words, Giddings, cuz I’m about to go straight-up crystal ball with this…” He held both hands up, thumbs and forefingers forming a frame around the other two across the room. “In five months they’ll have their own place. In six months they’ll be engaged. Now, now, I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, there’s no rush on finding a dress because they won’t actually get married until Ash finishes grad school, but I think we both know she’ll do that in about half the time it takes most people, so…”

She gave up watching Chris and Ashley then, instead turning to better fix him with a tired, disbelieving (and amused, he thought, veiled though it might have been) look. “Okay, Nostradumbass,” she teased.

“Hey, we’ll see who’s laughing in a few months. Trust me on this one, I’ve got a feeling.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do.”

“Think it’s bad taste to take credit for this?”

She snorted a laugh, “Credit?”

“Hey, you know what they say…sometimes all it takes is a traumatic event to push people into each other’s arms.”

Sam rolled her eyes and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like ‘Oh my God.’ Then she turned her attention back to him, folding her arms across her chest. “You are…unbelievable. Did you just refer to yourself as a traumatic event, you freak?”

“Baby, I’m all trauma and all drama, twenty-four-sev.” He dropped her a lascivious wink and clicked his tongue twice for good measure. “It’s cool, don’t worry, I’ve come to terms with it. If nothing else, it’ll make for a real awkward speech at their wedding—awkward for them, I mean, obviously, because you know me, I’ve got no shame in that game.” Abruptly, he changed his stance, miming raising a wine glass into the air. “Now I’m sure you’re all wondering how these two crazy kids ended up together, right, dearly beloved? I’m here to give you the dirt on that one—so it all began when yours truly began a long, and, not to brag, impressive, downward spiral into—”

Placing her hand on his wrist, Sam very effectively stopped his little spiel; she pushed down on him, gently of course, so gently, and slowly he lowered his imaginary wine glass. “Happy New Year, Josh,” she said, changing the subject just as gently.

“Happy New Year, Sam.” Aw fuck, and because the night had been nothing if not a shift in dynamic, he found himself dealing with a dilemma more suited to the nerds on the couch than him.

Kissing on New Year’s was a thing, like a legit, established, traditional thing, but…did he try to kiss her? He could, it was definitely something he could do, something he had done before, but…would she want him to? Maybe that one was something best figured out when his house wasn’t full of people. And when the overall balance of the universe wasn’t already in flux, what with the powers that be clearly busying themselves with Chris and Ashley giggling on the couch.

As though she was reading his mind, Sam gave his sleeve a tug, gesturing with her chin towards the front door when he turned to her. “Loud in here,” she said, but she didn’t need to—there was too much movement in the room, it was too hot, so he would’ve taken any excuse for a quick break away from it all.

He held the door open for her once they reached it, giving a gentlemanly bow before slipping out onto the relative quiet of the porch. Shutting the door behind them had the effect of diving into a pool: One second there was noise and movement and heat, and the next the world went muffled and chilly.

“Quite a guest list,” Sam joked, her breath fogging the air. “I have to say, there are some, um…I’ll go with inspired choices in there.”

“You think so?” Josh rubbed his arms for a moment before leaning them against the porch’s banister, glancing around at the bright windows lining the neighborhood. Neither of them had grabbed a coat before walking outside, but the cold was bracing in a pleasant sort of way. Woke him up, made him feel a little less like his entertainer persona and more like himself. “Thought I’d go off-book for this one. Mix it up a little.”

“That’s what you’re calling it? Mixing it up?” Sam joined him at the railing, leaning herself over it in much the same way.

“Oho, someone has opinions, sounds like…”

“All I’m saying—”

“Uh huh, uh huh.”

“—all I’m saying is that, considering you’ve never actually met either of them before tonight, I think inviting mine and Ash’s roommates was, admittedly, a strange play to make.”

He turned to her with a quirked eyebrow and what he hoped was a fetching grin. “Ah, that. Yeah, well, here’s the thing. A little birdy told me that those two lovely ladies have been getting a little—”

Sam groaned before he could finish his sentence, covering her ears and grimacing with the sort of passion he might’ve expected from a stab victim. “Yeah, yeah, they are, please don’t make me relive it.”

“The collegiate experience is a dangerous one, Sammy. It’s why I dropped out.”

“Har-dee-har-har…”

“Well anyway, after that birdy tweetle-deeted in my ear, I thought to myself, hey, know what I could do? I could…invite them to a swanky party, provide the hors d’oeuvres, get them a little tipsy, maybe play some romantic tunes…”

Head lolling back onto her shoulders, Sam’s breath formed a cloud between them. “I hate this. I don’t even know where you’re going with it and I know I hate it.”

He nudged her with his shoulder. “You got no idea where I’m going with this?”

“No.” She blinked up at him, amusement playing openly across her face. “But I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

“I just thought—”

“Hoo boy, here it comes…”

“—if we help them get a closer emotionally, then maybe, juuust maybe, you and Ash swoop in right when they’re feeling their ooey-est and gooey-est, and you convince them to swap rooms so you two can be roomies. That way I have one convenient location I can send unwanted strip-o-grams to instead of having to pay double.”

He was helpless, absolutely helpless, to keep from grinning when she burst into laughter. “Do you even listen to yourself when you say stuff like that?”

“Personally I think it’s an excellent idea. I mean, picture it, if you play your cards right, it’ll be you and Ash in that fancy honors dorm. Don’t you want a private bathroom suite, Sammy? Don’t you want a roommate you don’t have to worry about walking in on while getting…well wait, hang on. You might still have that problem. Shit. Okay, I guess now it all boils down to who you’re more willing to accidentally walk in on: the two of them or Ash and Cochi—”

“Stop. Stop! Do not put that image in my head.”

“Oh, I think it’s already there.”

She reached over and gave him a solid shove, but he didn’t buy it for a second. Oh no, she was smiling too widely for him to buy any of what she was selling. “Always an ulterior motive.”

“You know me,” he chuckled, “I’m a schemer.”

There on the porch, icicles dripping brightly where fairy lights had once hung, muffled voices and singing coming from inside the house instead of the back yard, wintry cold where there was once muggy summer balm, it occurred to him again that he could kiss her. That, really, he wanted to, and shit, if Chris could do it, then so could he, but…but the past couple weeks (hell, the past year) had been messy, so fucking messy, and wasn’t mess the whole reason they were only sorta-kinda-almost a thing anyway?

“…others.”

Aw fuck. Josh blinked a couple times to jog himself from his own thoughts, turning to Sam instead. “Hmm?”

“I said I kinda thought you would’ve invited…y’know, the others.”

At first, it had surprised him too. Inviting the other four had become something of a habit over the past few years; Hannah always wanted to invite Mike, and where Mike went Emily went, and where Emily went Jess went, and where Jess went Matt went, yadda yadda, lather, rinse, repeat. And to be fair, he’d come awfully close to inviting them to the shindig—he really had!

But something about his stupid story kept him from doing that. There were only so many times he could read about the chaos surrounding the quote-unquote Blackwood gang before something took root.

“Ah. That.” He drummed his fingers against the railing as he thought about how to best phrase it. “I…thought about it,” he admitted, “Believe it or not, I, uh…there was a stretch where I was trying to talk to them. In like, a friendly manner.”

Sam hummed a thoughtful noise. She set her head on her shoulder while leaning on the railing, a peculiar look overcoming her as she searched his face. “Oh yeah? How’d that go?”

He rolled his eyes towards her and raised his eyebrows as high as they’d go. “How do you think it went, Samantha?” Her only response was a soft laugh, so he shrugged and laid his cards on the table. Well…some of the cards. Though he prided himself on being an idiot, he wasn’t stupid, so he thought he’d keep the finer points of his conversations and character studies close to his vest. “I dunno. After that whole laser tag night, I just got it into my head that the girls liked them, and you liked them, so maybe I needed to give them a shot or something. So I tried, but…” Josh shrugged. “It just kinda became clear right off that they weren’t all that jazzed to give me a shot, know what I mean? And I get it—I probably remind them of the girls and the mountain…”

She didn’t say anything to that, but a corner of her mouth tightened. He felt the railing vibrate as she tapped her boot against the base.

“And to be fair, they sorta did that for me too, so I figured maybe I should keep tonight to likeminded weirdoes.”

“Weirdoes like us.”

“Mhm, weirdoes just like us. That way we don’t have to be uncomfortable when they bring their particular brand of drama and they don’t have to suffer the hit to their social standing by being seen rubbing elbows with us.”

“Who needs Friday Night Lights when you’ve got Ferris Bueller’s Day Off anyway, right?”

Josh pressed one of his hands to his chest and pretended to swoon. “Sammy. First Cochise and Ash, now an unprompted—and situationally appropriate—movie reference? Lord Almighty, take me now.”

“Ha ha ha…”

“I am extremely serio—whoop, hold on a sec.” The vibrating, as it turned out, hadn’t been Sam’s foot after all. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, puzzled when he saw a contact name he wasn’t familiar with, and then… “Oh holy shit.”

The tone of his voice caused Sam to stand up straighter. “…what?”

“…oh. Holy. Shit.”

What?

Josh fired off a quick reply to the text, using way more exclamation marks than was perhaps recommended when texting someone middle-aged. “Tonight just keeps getting better, I swear…do me a favor when you go home tomorrow, okay? I already told him, but I really, really need you to convince Scott of my undying love for him.”

It took her a good five or six seconds to make any kind of sense of what he’d said.

And then she exploded.

“Oh my G—are you still texting my dad?!

“That is—Sammy? Sam? Samantha? Darling? Honey bunches of oats?—that is one humdinger of a middle name you have yourself.”

Her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates. “He did not—” Moving faster than someone that tiny had any right to be, she managed to snatch his phone out of his hand, letting out a strangled groan of defeat when she saw the text chain on screen. “That…that traitor!

“I never would’ve guessed that,” he said, smirking even as she lashed out and landed a couple ineffective smacks on the back of his arm. “Not in a million years. I owe your father a blood debt after this. Him and me? We’re bonded for life now.”

“Okay, know what? No. I’m not taking this lying down. You just reminded me…” With a flourish, she angled herself towards one side, keeping his phone out of his grasp. “We never finished our game earlier.”

“Um excuse me? Are you…are you declaring a lightning round…on me?

“As a matter of fact, I am.” He had to give it to her, that was a remarkably quick recovery considering her deep, dark secret had just been unveiled. It only made him grin that much wider. “So I have a question for you.”

“If the question is ‘Do you promise you’ll stop texting my dad?’ I’m afraid to say I’m gonna have to take the L on that one.”

Though there was no missing the exasperation on her face, Sam continued her habit of taking the higher road, meaning, of course, she ignored him completely. “Is there a reason,” she began, the tension in her voice suggesting she had been rehearsing the spiel in her head, “That other than making fun of Chris and Ash, and I guess to a lesser extent our roommates, there has been literally zero talk, joking or otherwise, about the whole ‘kissing holiday’ thing?”

…yeah, okay, she was going to have to cut it out with the mind reading, because now it was starting to get legitimately spooky.

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone refer to New Year’s as a ‘kissing holiday,’ Sam.”

“That’s not an answer.”

He held his hands up in surrender. “All right, all right…I can see I’ve created a monster. I’ve taught you how to play this game too well, looks like…” The only silver lining to this, he thought, was that there was unquestionably a vein of anxiety in her voice; that meant he wasn’t the only one currently housing about a million butterflies in his gut. “There is a reason, yes.”

“And that would be…?”

Follow-up question, he thought to himself. It was the perfect out. He could just skirt around it, crack a joke, leave it for another day.

“I’ve been kind of an ass,” is what he actually said, “More than kind of. I mean, obviously. Not exactly, uh, the poster child for maturity, we’ll say. So I’ll understand completely—no questions asked, no judgment—if you’ve decided you’re having second or third or fourth thoughts about even considering me as a potential…” He gestured vaguely into the air for a moment, “…anything. Because let’s be real, I, uh, haven’t been behaving like a phenomenal friend lately, much less boyfriend, and at the end of the day I think we can both agree that it wouldn’t be fair to you to be expected to put up with my—”

“Josh.”

Her tone was firm enough to make him wince. But when he glanced her way again, she’d crooked a finger to usher him in closer.

The kiss was soft but deliberate, over almost before it had started, but that was fine. That was just fine by him. It was more than he had let himself hope for, definitely more than he’d even let himself imagine, so it was fine. More than fine, in fact. Perfect.

“Happy New Year,” Sam said again, still sharing his air, her breath warm at his chin.

He swallowed hard around the lump in his throat, the look on her face telling him his grin was at least five times doofier than it felt. “Happy New Year,” he breathed.

And then, because he never knew when to leave well enough alone, he snatched his phone back from her.

“I—hey!”

“Ah ah ah…see, that’s the joy of lightning rounds, Sammy. They move—” he snapped his fingers a couple times, “—like that! So for my turn, hmm…for my turn…” True, this wasn’t how he usually played the game. That much he could admit. However. After that, he was feeling…something. ‘Sentimental’ didn’t quite feel like the right word, but it didn’t feel like the wrong one either. Josh took a deep breath and blew it out in a deflated raspberry, fixing her with an appraising look. “A challenge for you, Miss Giddings. If I tell you an itsy bitsy secret, think you can find it in your heart to not laugh at me?”

Sam seemed to think it over for a second, bobbling her head side-to-side with a soft hum. “I think I could manage that. But am I allowed to laugh about it later, though? Like, on my own time?”

Josh couldn’t help but grin. “Sammy, what you do in the privacy of your own home is no business of mine. As long as you’re not pointing and laughing in my face, I’ll say it counts.”

“Ah, I gotcha. Then yeah, sure, hit me.”

He’d been chuckling as they talked, but then it began to taper, if only slightly. How to say it, how to say it…he wasn’t usually someone who couldn’t put his words together, there just wasn’t a way to say this particular thing without sounding childish or naïve…only…only maybe that wasn’t true at all! Maybe that was only another hanger-on, a remnant of everything he’d been letting gnaw at him for the past year and some change, the mean little part of him that already missed the comforting ache of anger and resentment.

Well this was 2015, bitch, new year, new him, so that shit could go fuck right off.

He took a breath and let it out decisively. “I just have a good feeling about this year. A really, really good feeling.”

A beat of silence followed it, and while silence had never really been his friend, he thought he’d be happy to stand there with her like that forever, neither one of them saying another word. But then he felt her tuck herself up against his side, one of her hands sliding up to rest between his shoulder blades, warm and reassuring through the fabric of his shirt. Sam watched him for a second, her eyes searching his face for something he couldn’t place. “Oh yeah?” she asked, setting her head against his shoulder.

Josh took the opportunity to rest his chin on the top of her head, to not-so-subtly wrap his arm around her waist. He took another long breath. “Yeah,” he said finally, exhaling a plume of glittering fog into the air. “I really do.”

 

 

(The End)